The Next Big Question…


The seder is all about questions. The evening starts with the famous four, asked by the youngest present, but if the seder is what it should be, it doesn’t stop there. Everyone around the table — from the youngest all the way to the oldest — is encouraged to dissect, debate and shamelessly pontificate over each bit of the haggadah and over any part of Jewish tradition, ideally well into the night.

Of course, asking a question good enough to ignite meaningful conversation is no easy task.

Just look at the haggadah’s four sons. The Wicked Child asks the question wrong, with his impertinent “What’s it to you?” The Simple Child doesn’t really excite anyone with his timid “whassup with all this?”

And the sorriest of them all is the kid who can’t get a word edgewise into the eternal conversation — the one who doesn’t even know how to ask a question.

And there, the haggadah instructs, help him out — get him started.

To help our readers bring substantive and invigorating conversation to the seder this Passover, The Jewish Journal asked some professional questioners — a lawyer, radio and television talk show hosts, newspaper columnists, journalists, a rabbi — about the best ways to move a discussion forward.

“If I’m interviewing somebody, I really want to know what they have to say, and I want them to say it in the most articulate and compelling way. My role is not to sound tough, but to invite that,” said Krista Tippett, who produces and hosts “Speaking of Faith,” an American Public Media weekly radio show that airs in Los Angeles on Sunday afternoons on 89.3 FM KPCC.

“So much of what passes for conversation or questioning in our public life actually shuts down what people might have to say. It puts them on the defensive and limits discussion,” she said.

Tippett engages in long conversations with her guests, following their lead as the discussion progresses.

“It’s a discipline, but a very rewarding discipline, to let yourself be guided by what answers come out. And it’s also a little scary, because you lose control,” Tippett said. “But that can be the amazing thing about conversation. There are things you can put into words in the presence of other people or in response to a question that you didn’t know you thought before.”

Getting people to talk about issues of faith and belief requires a specific kind of entry point, she said. She cites a story she heard years ago from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of 15 books. Kushner asked some high school students if they believed in God. No hands went up. Then he asked whether anyone had ever experienced God. Hands shot up — “when my mother lights Shabbat candles,” “when my grandmother died,” the students told him.

“It’s more vivid and more human to talk about experience than if someone asks you ‘What do you believe?’ That’s such a daunting question, and most of us are not going to be able to do it justice,” Tippett said.

Tippett, who is not Jewish, has attended seders, and she appreciates the way the conversation is grounded in text and experience.

“One of the things that begins even before the questioning is you have to have a quiet, inviting, trustworthy space, where not only can the questions be posed, but where people can feel safe enough to really hear those questions and internalize them,” Tippett said.

Of course, quiet and safe isn’t what you find at many family seders, where raucous ritual is more common than moments of contemplation.

In fact, the usual style of seder conversation, with family and friends raising their voices and interrupting one another — mostly in friendly good humor — could easily be compared to what happens on NBC’s “The View,” with all of the four or five co-hosts, plus guests, vying to be heard.

So here’s some practical advice from the show’s Joy Behar: “You basically have to jump in, because if you wait for people to take a breath, you’ll never get a word in.”

Behar isn’t Jewish, but she attended seders when she was married to her ex-husband, a Sephardic Jew. The main difference between conversations on “The View” and at a seder, she said, is that TV limits how much time you have to talk, while seder conversations can go on and on.

But there are keys to carrying on an interesting back and forth, she said.

“The main thing in a conversation is curiosity and follow up. You have to have curiosity about the person you are talking to. Nobody likes anything more than talking about themselves. People love that, and they’re interested to say what they think. If you are interested to hear what they have to say, you’re already on second base. And the follow up requires listening — listening, listening, listening is probably the most important part.”

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz usually has about 75 guests at his seder, including many professors and students. And all of them have to be ready to fight back, he said.

“I cross-examine people who think they have the perfect answer,” Dershowitz said. “I don’t let them get away with the first answer — I demand a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth.”

Questions fly around the Dershowitz seder.

How can you blame Pharaoh for continuing to enslave the Israelites when God hardened his heart? Do Jews really believe there is an evil child? What kind of God would kill the eldest born? What is the score of the Red Sox game? (That last question usually needs to be cleverly smuggled in through some Jewish-sounding ruse.)

“The other thing we do is we go around the table and invite anyone, particularly non-Jews, to ask the hardest question they want to ask, which gives us a perspective from people who have never been to a seder before,” Dershowitz said.

One year his seder put Pharaoh on trial, with Dershowitz defending Pharaoh, and everyone else on the prosecution. When God didn’t comply with Dershowitz’s subpoena, Pharaoh got off.

Every week, Deborah Solomon writes a Q&A column for The New York Times Magazine. Her tactics are a little more subtle, but still directed, as she grills her interviewees in the weekly “Questions For …” column — 620 words of pithy and sharp exchanges whose timely subjects have ranged from retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to film director David Lynch. The conversations appear deceptively casual, as her quirky questions lead to unexpected insights into her subject’s personalities.

“There are things I want to know,” Solomon said. “I don’t see interviewing as a game. Some people see it as a post-modern game, in which one person is seeking and the other person is withholding. I really want information — I’m curious. I love knowledge and information,” Solomon said.

“I try to get people to talk about subjects that are not part of their natural public discourse, to speak candidly about issues and other people in their lives. I want them to be interesting,” she said.

Solomon — who is so enamored of questions and answers that her cell’s ring tone is the “Jeopardy” tune — doesn’t believe in open-ended questions or questions for their own sake.

“A lot of people say ‘questions are more interesting than answers.’ That’s a shibboleth. There is a certain aura surrounding questions, but I like answers. I think there are answers to questions,” she said. 

She admits that at her own chaotic family seder, most of the questioning is done by the kids.

“We’re more likely to argue over which of the girls dented the fender on my father’s car in 1973 than debate contemporary interpretations of freedom and slavery,” she said, though she loves hearing her two teenage sons use the Hebrew they learned at Jewish day school.

“It’s a nice tradition, children asking questions of adults, because it insists on harmony between the generations,” she said. “There is not enough question-asking in everyday life, where people are more likely to retreat into silence than pose a question.”

Keeping curiosity alive is a key part of interpersonal connections, our questioners said.

“One of the best parts of my job as president of the university is meeting new people and getting to hear their stories. I always learn something from people’s stories,” said Robert Wexler, president of American Jewish University.

He has honed his interviewing skills over the past few years in AJU’s Public Lecture Series, where he’s talked with the likes of President Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Karl Rove in front of thousands of people.

At Wexler’s seder, everyone comes with commentaries on the haggadah that might open conversations on ethical issues. Personalizing those texts can transform the evening.

“Everybody has to see themselves in the discussion. If the discussion is just abstract, I don’t think it is as meaningful,” Wexler said.

That is a principal Larry Mantle uses when he interviews guests on his daily morning show “AirTalk” on the public radio station, 89.3 FM KPCC. He regularly covers topics from politics to film, popular arts issues and new books.

“One of the things that I try to do is to bring my own questions about the world to the conversation I have with a guest. I’m inquisitive about any topic you can imagine, so what I hope, when I’m conducting an interview with the guest, is that they sense my real interest in who they are and what they have to share,” Mantle said.

Mantle’s colleague, Patt Morrison, a longtime Los Angeles Times columnist who has her own eponymous afternoon show on KPCC, adds that interviewers must do their homework to know their subject well enough — and listen attentively enough — to be able to ask incisive follow up questions.

“An interview is really a conversation with a purpose — the destination may remain the same throughout the interview, but the interviewer has to be flexible and willing to take a different path, or several different paths, to arrive there,” she said. “It’s also the obligation of the interviewer to challenge the boilerplate, pat answers to get behind them — follow-up questions like ‘What does that mean, exactly?’ make the interviewee give more thought to answers that might have been automatically proffered.”

Which, it seems, is what the Wise Child does in the haggadah. The first answer to the Four Questions — “Because we were slaves in Egypt” — isn’t enough for the Wise Child. She wants to know what each and every law and ritual and obscure statement means. And to her, the haggadah says, “teach.”

“I’m not aware of any other religious celebration or any other tradition where the mitzvah of the day is discussion,” AJU’s Wexler said. “That is why Passover is my favorite holiday — because it’s an invitation to have an intellectual discussion. We do all kinds of rituals at the seder, but the main theme of the day is ve’higadetah le’vinchah, to tell this story to your children, and that means discussion. The discussion is the worship.”


The Fifth Question

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer

Passover’s Four Questions have long been the launching point for an evening of conversation on a range of subjects, from ones as detailed as precisely how many plagues God dumped on the Egyptians, to lofty and abstract topics like the meaning of freedom.

The Jewish Journal challenged a group of professional questioners — lawyers, journalists, rabbis — to contribute one or more questions to the conversation, a Fifth Question to help spur discussion at this year’s seder tables:

Alan Dershowitz,Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University:

Why, after so many thousands of years, can’t the world finally accept a Jewish nation living in peace on its own land?

“I think that is a conversation that needs to happen. Another way of framing the same question is, ‘Why does the world expect so much more of Jews and the Jewish nation than they do of anyone else and any other nation?’ Or, a third way of putting it is, ‘Why has anti-Semitism persisted for so many centuries?’”

Deborah Solomon,Columnist for The New York Times Magazine:

Is the greatest Diaspora of Jewish history taking place right now on the Upper West Side of Manhattan?

“As I see my neighbor, Phillip Roth, buy his groceries every day, and as I see him traipsing up Columbus Avenue murmuring to himself, no doubt about the paragraph he just finished writing, I often wonder, ‘Is this the greatest Jewish Diaspora? Has there ever been a moment like this scene in New York, which is so full of literary promise and intellectual accomplishment? What other moment in history can compare to this one?”

Robert Wexler,President of American Jewish University:

How do we define our net worth?

“I started to hate that term in the last couple months. I had never focused on it before, never realized what a horrible term it is. I would like to talk about how net worth is not about how much you possess.”

Larry Mantle, Host of “AirTalk,” weekdays 10 a.m.-noonon 89.3 FM KPCC:

What in your life touches you most? To what are you most emotionally open, and why? To what are you most closed?

“I think the answers to these questions say a great deal about a person…. I think one of the problems we have is an increasing unwillingness by many people to listen to people where they have a disagreement. It’s really important for all of us to analyze where we are closed. What are the things we won’t bother with, or are threatened by hearing? Life is so much more interesting, so much more dynamic when we expose ourselves to things outside of our bubbles.”

Krista Tippett, Producer and Host of American Public Media’s “Speaking of Faith,” airing Sundays 3-4 p.m. on 89.3 FM KPCC:

Who will we be for each other?

“That is the question that’s been on my mind, and been given voice by a number of people as we’ve been talking about the economic crisis and how we are going to live through it and beyond it. Religious traditions, and certainly Judaism, are keepers of those kinds of questions and have minded them and refined them and lived through different permutations of them. It has a new kind of resonance as the fundamental certainties and securities of our reality are so shaky.”

Joy Behar, Co-host of NBC’s “The View”:

Do you think that there is any meaning to being here, to life, or is it the existentialist position of the meaninglessness of it all, and if so, how do we deal with that meaninglessness?

“It’s not an up question, it’s not a fun question, but it is a question that Sartre and a lot of existentialists confronted. I think it is appropriate at a religious ceremony to question if there is any reason why we are here or not. If there is no reason, what are we going to do with that? And if there is a reason, what is the reason? There is a place at the table for an existentialist, I think.”

 

BONUS

Deborah Solomon suggests one topic that very likely everyone will be discussing this year, with all its underlying questions:

“The most popular seder questions of 2009 will be: Did Ruth Madoff know? Did the sons know? Does the money still exist? Where is all the Madoff money?”

— JGF

 

 

Books: The bible and history — facts or truth?


“From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible,” by Eric H. Cline (National Geographic, $26).

Consider with me the following curious intellectual position: Religions make spiritual claims, such as “God cares for me,” and insist, quite rightly, that science cannot pronounce on that claim. But they also make historical claims, such as “Jericho was destroyed by Joshua” or “600,000 men, plus women and children, crossed the desert from Egypt to Canaan,” and insist that historians and archeologists cannot evaluate those claims either. To make a historical claim, however, is to invite the scrutiny of history.

The position becomes more curious. When a historical discovery is made that validates a biblical claim, traditionalists are rightly jubilant. Yet when a discovery is made that contradicts the Bible, the reaction is too often angry or dismissive. This is inconsistent with a tradition that teaches “God’s seal is truth,” and we ought not be caught espousing such intellectual inconsistency that can too easily shade into intellectual dishonesty.

Across the world there are serious scholars who work on ancient biblical history. Serious means they read the cognate languages, are familiar with archeological finds and publications, read and comment on each other’s work. Eric H. Cline is among their number and he has written a book, “From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible,” which brings the interested reader up to date on the state of the field in some of the Bible’s most intriguing mysteries.

Cline’s book considers the location of the Garden of Eden; whether Noah’s Ark exists; the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah; the truth of the Exodus story; whether Joshua indeed fought at Jericho; the location of the Ark of the Covenant; and the fate of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

Cline lays out the biblical account and the history of each issue. For example, since 600,000 men would mean some 2.5 million people in total, forming a line 150 miles long if they marched 10 across, could that really have been the state of the Israelites for forty years? If not, could the word alef — usually translated as “thousand” — mean “family” or “clan,” thereby making the numbers more manageable? And if so, can the other difficulties with the Exodus story — the absence of evidence in the desert and the absence of settlement evidence in Israel itself — be explained?

For each of these areas there is a tantalizing hint, but no certainty. Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia? Cline makes it quite clear that this is a fantasy — an appealing one, but still a fantasy. Has anyone come close to discovering Noah’s Ark? Once again, Cline sifts through the evidence, and proves that the pseudoscience, the DVD mavens and the credulous seekers are simply ignoring the contrary evidence. For those looking for answers, Cline does provide some, for example the fate of the 10 lost tribes. He contends, convincingly, that they were never really lost.

In reading such a book the primary question is what the reader makes of the Bible. There are roughly three possible positions. One assumes that everything in the Bible is literally true and therefore such a book serves no purpose. It does not matter what the evidence says or suggests; unless it reinforces the biblical account, it is of no interest. The second position is the other extreme, which sees the Bible as special pleading, unlikely to be true; this is the position of the minimalists, who concoct outlandish theories about the Bible having been written in the Persian period and suggesting that David and Solomon never existed. No scholar in Israel, and I am tempted to say no scholar, takes such claims seriously.

The third position is that the Bible contains a great deal of history but is not intended to be history the way we conceive of it. So the Exodus, for example, has a real historical memory behind it, but the telling of it was not constrained by literal adherence to the facts. For the intent of the Bible is a spiritual history, not a factual recounting. Thus the Bible is not factual; instead, it is true.

This third position, as some readers may know, was the position I sketched out in a sermon several years ago about the Exodus. It is the position I still hold and one that seems to me, as the years go by, more and more self-evidently true. That God speaks through the Bible, I do not doubt; but that it is a human story and therefore filled with rhetoric, imagery, exaggeration, hope, hyperbole and the imperfections of memory, I also do not doubt. Increasingly Jews are learning about this approach, which is both modern and traditional.

Cline’s book is a dispassionate recounting of the central issues that preoccupy scholars and pseudoscholars of the biblical text.

Closing the book, one understands that some things can be proved or disproved and many must simply be taken on faith. There are, of course, questions that no historical investigation can ever prove. Archeology may one day tell us how Solomon’s Temple was constructed and when Jericho was destroyed. What happened at Mount Sinai, however, is the summit of spiritual history. Here the investigation stops. Here we stand as Jews to declare that God is One and that we seek to do God’s will in this beautiful but benighted world.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books appears monthly in The Journal.

TV: Shoah makes searing mark in Ken Burns WWII documentary


Ken Burns knew from the start that he didn’t want his seven-episode, 14 1/2-hour documentary on World War II to be associated with any notion of “The Good War.” And yet in its final episode, as now elderly ex-GIs recount the lessons learned from liberating German concentration camps, it illustrates exactly why wars sometimes can be noble causes.

But Burns wanted to get to that point without cloaking his documentary in the feel-good heritage of “The Good War” — a term originating with Studs Terkel’s 1984 oral history — or Tom Brokaw’s 1998 “The Greatest Generation,” about the GIs who fought in that war.

“It was being smothered in this bloodless myth called ‘The Good War,’ when in fact it was the bloodiest of all wars,” Burns said by telephone, en route to an advance screening in Minnesota. He said the war cost 60 million lives — a fact too easily forgotten by history buffs coldly studying the various armies involved and their military campaigns.

“The War,” as his resultant documentary is simply titled, will begin airing on PBS stations on Sept. 23. It will be on for four nights the first week and three nights the second. Burns’ previous PBS films about the American experience include “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “Jazz.”

“We used the words ‘bearing witness’ for what we wanted to do,” he said of his initial proposal for the documentary. “We wanted to use four [American] towns as examples to get to know people — those who fought and those who stayed at home — and to get to their experiences as it happened.”

The result is Burns and co-director Lynn Novick seeing the war as it was unfolding through the eyes of soldiers from Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento; Waterbury, Conn., and Luverne, Minn., to show, in so many ways, the ongoing hellishness of even a necessary war.

Since World War II unfolds the way American soldiers — and friends and family at home — experienced it, the Holocaust is only cursorily brought up before the final episode, “A World Without War,” when the soldiers enter the camps. But it then becomes the center — “the beating heart,” in Burns’ words — of that episode.

That episode covers immense ground, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, the battle for Okinawa, the final collapse of Germany, the atomic bomb, Japan’s surrender and the end of the war. But its solemn, powerful concentration camp scenes, which involve his soldiers bearing witness against Nazi atrocities, are the ones with deepest impact.

Three of the hometown soldiers recall entering different concentration camps during the fall of Germany in 1945. And, as they still vividly remember, they saw something worse than war: the Holocaust.

In fact, they came to realize war could be good, if it could stop or punish those willing to commit such evil, organized mass murder. The episode pairs their recollections with often horrifyingly graphic footage from the actual camps they entered.

Also during this passage in the episode, war historian Paul Fussell, who fought in World War II when he was just 19, begins to quiver and cry when explaining how discovering those camps made it clear to the American soldiers the war “was conducted in defense of some noble idea.”

Burns called that a “searing, incredible emotional comment. I assumed Fussell would be an avuncular commentator. But the questions put him back in the moment.”

The episode begins with a black-and-white photo of a German SS soldier about to execute a Polish Jew at the edge of an open mass grave in Ukraine in 1942. Then one of the “The War’s” ongoing witnesses, former Marine pilot Sam Hynes, makes a comment that indirectly addresses the meaning of religion in a world where the Holocaust can happen.

If there were no evil, he says, people wouldn’t need to “construct” religions.

“No evil, no God,” he says. “Of course, no evil, no war. But there will always be evil. Human beings are aggressive animals.”

Burnett Miller from Sacramento recalls how starving survivors at Mauthausen in Austria, in their hunger for the GIs’ concentrated food, died from “overwhelming their systems.” He also describes, and accompanying footage shows, bodies in rigor mortis awaiting cremation in the furnaces. Miller’s comments also touch upon a key Holocaust theme — the complicity of nearby civilians and the church.

“They could smell the camp in town,” he says. “The villagers said they knew nothing about the camp; the priest said he knew nothing about the camp. I knew that was a lie.”

In another scene, Dwain Luce of Mobile, Ala., recalls forcing the presumably complicit German townspeople of Ludwigslust, near a liberated camp, to collect the bodies and give them proper Christian and Jewish burials in the park. “So they would never forget,” he says.

He also has this to say to Holocaust deniers: “These people in this country who say it didn’t happen, it did happen; I saw it.”

The third of the hometown soldiers who helped liberate the camps is Jewish, Ray Leopold of Waterbury, Conn. He was at Hadamar in Germany, where he found not only camp victims but also survivors of Nazi medical experiments inside an insane asylum.

“No apology will ever atone for what I saw,” he says.

“At the end of the day, nothing is more powerful in our film than Ray fixing the camera with a 92-year-old’s fury when he says that,” Burns said.

A narrator in the film provides voice-over context, as images of the bones and skulls of victims are shown, of the Holocaust’s scope. Some two-thirds of Europe’s 9 million Jews were murdered, along with 4 million Soviet prisoners of war, 2 million Poles and hundreds of thousands of homosexuals, Gypsies, political opponents, handicapped persons, slave laborers and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In this final episode, with death and destruction unfolding on a global scale virtually every minute, there is the question of how much time the Holocaust can command. After all, when the Americans enter the camps in 1945, there is still a long, difficult battle ahead in the Pacific.

In the end, it doesn’t get that much time — about 10 minutes. But it makes a long-lasting impact. “It sought its own length,” Burns said. “I always say the greatest speech ever made was the Gettysburg Address. That was two minutes long.”

Scandals and war fallout cast doubt on Olmert’s leadership


Following the sudden but not unexpected resignation of the Israeli army’s chief of staff, pundits are asking how much longer Ehud Olmert, the country’s beleaguered prime minister, can survive in office.

Under investigation for corruption and with his approval ratings at an all-time low, Olmert is facing increasing public pressure to quit.

Things could get even worse for him if the Winograd Commission, which is investigating last summer’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, is critical of his role when it presents preliminary findings at the end of the month.

But Olmert is a tough customer unlikely to resign of his own accord. And the way the Israeli system works, it could be difficult to force him out.

The fact that Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz chose to resign clearly marks last summer’s war in Lebanon as a failure. And the fact that he has already gone puts the Winograd spotlight on those up the line — Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Olmert himself.

The Winograd mandate includes asking the big questions: Why did the prime minister decide to go to war so hastily, just hours after the ostensible casus belli, the abduction of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah along the border with Lebanon? Why didn’t Olmert pressure the army to launch a major ground strike much earlier in the campaign to stop rocket fire on Israeli civilians? And why didn’t the government do more to move civilians out of the line of fire?

According to Yoel Marcus, the doyen of Israeli political analysts, the perceived failure in the war, the corruption clouds and the absence of clear leadership on peacemaking with the Palestinians or the Syrians has spawned a dark public mood that the Olmert administration will not survive.

“In this grim atmosphere, the public is not going to sit back and allow the chief of staff to take all the blame for the second Lebanon War while the political leaders who initiated and planned it are let off the hook,” Marcus wrote in Ha’aretz. “Maybe there won’t be a Yom Kippur War-style earthquake. But Labor MK Avishai Braverman is right in predicting that the pair of duds known as Olmert and Peretz are living on borrowed time. Sooner or later they will be toppled from government by the Domino effect.”

Although nothing has been proven against Olmert, the accumulation of corruption scandals involving him or close members of his administration has eroded public confidence in the prime minister. Olmert is being investigated on suspicion of rigging a tender for the sale of Bank Leumi, Israel’s second largest bank, when he was finance minister in 2005-06.

Olmert says the changes he made were to maximize state profits from the sale. The prosecution has ordered the police to investigate whether the changes were meant to help his billionaire friends, American S. Daniel Abraham and Australian Frank Lowy — although in the end they did not make a bid.

Olmert also is suspected of giving preference at the Investment Center to clients of a former law partner and of making dozens of political appointments in the Small Business Center when he was minister of industry and trade in 2003-05.

He also has been tainted by suspicions of corruption by association: His close friend, Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson, is suspected of involvement in a sick-fund scam, and his longtime secretary, Shula Zaken, is suspected of helping to appoint cronies to the National Tax Authority in return for tax reductions for pals.

Even if Olmert is innocent, critics say he won’t be able to govern because he’ll be too busy trying to clear his name.

Olmert also is under fire for a perceived lack of political leadership. He says he doesn’t have the political power to make major diplomatic moves, but critics say he doesn’t seem to have an agenda for peacemaking with the Palestinians or the Syrians, or any unilateral alternative either.

The resulting loss of public confidence in the prime minister is reflected in recent public opinion polls. A mid-January survey in Ha’aretz gave Olmert an approval rating nationwide of just 14 percent. A few days later the news for the prime minister was even worse: A poll aired on Israel’s Channel 10 TV claimed that 69 percent of Israelis actually wanted Olmert to resign.

Ironically, although Olmert is probably the most unpopular prime minister in Israeli history, he has one of the strongest coalitions based on the support of 78 of the 120 Knesset members.

So how could he be forced out of office? One way would be for a majority of 61 Knesset members to vote for early elections. But since many of them are unlikely to be re-elected, pundits reckon the chances of that happening any time soon are remote.

A more likely move is a vote of “constructive no-confidence” in which 61 Knesset members coalesce around an alternative candidate for prime minister, thereby installing a new national leader without holding new national elections.

Here pundits see two possibilities — a split in Olmert’s Kadima Party in which half the Kadima legislators return to their Likud origins or at least make a pact with Likud, bringing its leader Benjamin Netanyahu to power.

The second constructive no-confidence scenario involves Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and a coup in Kadima in which she replaces Olmert as leader. Polls show Livni with a 51 percent approval rating to Olmert’s 14 percent, and see her as three times more likely than Olmert to win a new election.

Another scenario that could bring down Olmert would be Labor leaving the coalition, but that’s unlikely to happen before Labor elects a new leader in May. If Labor does pull out then, it would leave the Likud in a position to decide whether to join Olmert in Labor’s place or to force new elections.

Most pundits agree that the countdown on Olmert’s government has begun, but they differ on how long it will take before it falls. And despite his obvious weakness, most pundits think Olmert will be able to stumble on for some time yet.

But where Olmert’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon, was able to ride out a rebellion in the Likud and a string of corruption scandals, most pundits believe that even if he gets by the Winograd Commission, Olmert does not have the political clout in the longer term to emulate his illustrious predecessor.

Islam in the Hood


Is Islam a religion of war or of peace? Is it both? How did it start? What are its connections to Judaism?

These and other questions lit upmy house the other night as part of an unusual Torah salon that has been gracing the Pico-Robertson neighborhood for the past 10 years.

It was started by writer and film producer David Brandes and has been informally called the Avi Chai group, after the Avi Chai Foundation (which until recently supplied the funding).

What’s unusual is that this is a group of 20-25 mostly unobservant Jews, many of them writers and filmmakers, who like to go very deeply into Jewish texts. For many years, the class was led by a scholarly Orthodox rabbi and author, Rabbi Levi Meir, whose approach was to dissect the many layers of an original Torah text by delving into Rashi and other classic commentators.

In other words, it was your basic hard-core yeshiva class for Hollywood hipsters.

I participated in several of these salons over the years, and I can tell you it is a sight to behold bright, hip Jews who haven’t spent a minute in a yeshiva take on a Torah scholar on the microscopic difference between two interpretations of a text. Put a black hat on the men and make the whole thing in Yiddish and you wouldn’t be too far from Mea Shearim.

What I also find remarkable is that many of the same people have been coming back, month after month, year after year. I find this remarkable because their deep attachment to Judaism has little to do with their level of observance. They have not chosen a religious lifestyle, which would obligate them to learn regularly. They are learning about their religion, rather than learning how to become more religious.

And as you’ll see, they are very adventurous in their learning.

Lately, under the tutelage of Rabbi Abner Weiss, the class has expressed a greater interest in history and theology, including how Judaism compares to other religions. The class the other night was the first in a three-part series on Islam.

After it was over, there was a strange silence among many of the participants. It wasn’t just that they didn’t want to wake up my kids, or that my mother’s desserts had sucked up their attention.

There was a sense that we’ve all been cheated. Not by the class — which was electrifying — but by the lack of serious reporting in the general news media about history and theology.

People were wondering: Why do we rarely hear about the history of Islam, about the role that wars and coercion played in its conception, about how the prophet Muhammad felt slighted by the Jews of Arabia, and about the many similarities between Islam and Judaism?

In an hour and a half, we gained more knowledge on Islam than in 1,000 reports of any major newspaper or news broadcast.

Did you know that according to the late professor Louis Ginzberg, the eminent authority on Talmud, Arabian Jews at one point actually prayed five times a day, and that the five daily prayers of Islam “were undoubtedly ordained by Muhammad as a result of this early Jewish practice”?

We also learned through the scholarship of professor Abraham Katsh (“Judaism and the Koran”) that the Islamic concepts of “ethical monotheism, the unity of God; prayer; consideration for the underprivileged; reverence for parents; fasting; penitence; the belief in angels; the stories about Abraham, the Patriarchs, Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon; the injunction of a pilgrimage to Mecca; waging war against the enemy; the status of women; and the position of prophets, all have their antecedents in Jewish tradition.”

Of course, we also learned that Islam refashioned many of the original teachings and stories of the Jewish Bible, that military conquest and coercion played a huge role in the birth of Islam and that many Arabs and pagans in pre-Islam Arabia (particularly in what is now Yemen) had a real admiration for Jews and even converted to Judaism.

In short, our minds were provoked and our curiosity aroused. Many of us have tracked down the books quoted by Rabbi Weiss to learn more, and there is a great sense of anticipation for the next class.

Why is all this historical and theological learning so important?Because it gives us a context by which to understand current events. The information we routinely get from the media on a complicated and delicate subject like the religion of Islam seems so limited to the newsy, the violent and the politically correct that it is limiting a much needed debate.

One reason attempts at Jewish and Muslim dialogue fail is they’re too schmaltzy, like some innocuous therapy session that is overly focused on process, at the expense of knowledge.

What we need is less bridge-building and more knowledge-building; fewer dialogue sessions and more learning salons.

I’d love to see Jewish and Muslim groups engage in civilized debate on some of the hard, divisive questions of theology and history that are too often suppressed, or left to be debated in the obscure halls of academia. It may be unpleasant for both sides, but in the long run, the relationship stands a better chance.

Maybe the bridge builders can come to our next Torah salon on Islam, right here in the hood. If the subject becomes too painful, at least there’ll be my mother’s Moroccan cookies.

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

Palestinian remarks generate cheer and gloom


Cheerful news reached us last week from Damascus. Hamas’ political chief, Khaled Meshal, told Reuters in an interview on Jan. 10 that Israel is a “matter of fact,” and that Hamas
might consider recognizing Israel once a Palestinian state is established.

Don’t misjudge me. I am not particularly thrilled with the content of Meshal’s statement, especially after learning that one hour later a Hamas spokesman denied any change in Hamas’ refusal to ever recognize Israel. What I do find refreshing, though, is that Reuters asked the question, dozens of linguists and analysts were busy interpreting the answer and news channels from China to Africa were eager to report the results.

What made me cheerful was seeing that the fundamental question of whether the Palestinians would ever recognize Israel, the key to any peace settlement in the region, is back on the table and can be discussed in good company without fear of dismissal or ridicule.

Let me explain. Five years ago, if you were to ask this question among Middle East analysts, you were sure to be scolded by an army of well-meaning conflict-resolution experts for being a spoiler of peace or ignorant of the latest polls from the West Bank.

“It does not matter what the Palestinians think about recognition or legitimacy,” was the standard answer, “what matters are conditions on the ground.”

“The road to peace is incremental,” repeated all the headlines.

Remember Peter Jennings, the legendary ABC News anchor? When he interviewed Hanan Ashrawi on his show and asked her about Israel’s right to exist, she hushed him with: “Chairman Arafat has recognized Israel in 1988,” and this kept poor Peter meek and timid for the rest of the interview.

When the Syrian Ambassador spoke at UCLA in 2005, and I asked him whether he personally recognizes Israel’s right to exist, my learned colleagues were quick to rebuke my question as impertinent — “What further proof would Israelis want to convince themselves of Arabs’ intentions?” they asked.

In other words, the question of Arab intentions, the mother of all questions and the key to all solutions, has been locked in the closet for 10 good years, and it is only Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian election, together with financial sanctions by Israel and Western governments, that have brought it back to the spotlight it deserves. Moreover, now that Hamas is recognized as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, Hamas’ official stance toward Israel has given Western observers a crisp and reliable thermometer to gauge the Palestinian vision of peace, many times more reliable than the ambiguous polls and speeches we have been reading about in the past.

The emergence of such a reliable thermometer now provides valuable new insights into Middle East affairs, especially for those who believe that honesty and clarity are prerequisites to peace. True, we owe this progress to Hamas, but we have never denied credit where credit is due.

However, before we gloat, I should note that my friends in Israel have been consistently skeptical of all polls and speeches since the outbreak of the second intifada, and they have paid no attention at all to those who debate whether Hamas truly represents the heart and mind of Palestinian society.

Most Israelis today have become resigned to some version of the “salami theory,” according to which the vast majority of Palestinians, Fatah and Hamas alike, will never accept Israel as a legitimate neighbor and no matter what agreement is signed, will continue their struggle to “liberate Palestine” in incremental stages (“shlavim” in Hebrew.)

The current fighting between Fatah and Hamas is viewed by most Israelis as a confrontation between two tactics aiming for the same goal, one calling for dismantling Israel in stages, using diplomacy, international isolation, demography, deceit and occasional terror and attacks, the other calling for open warfare.

This gloomy view, depressing as it is, rests on some hard evidence, which even moderate Palestinians have not been able to dispel. Aside from Arab’s century-long rejection of Jewish sovereignty on any part of Palestine, well funded Palestinian organizations have recently intensified their anti-Israel campaign in Europe and on U.S campuses, aiming not at ending the occupation but at undermining the legitimacy of Israel as the historical homeland of the Jewish people.

Another indicator viewed with alarm by Israelis is that the subject of “comprehensive peace,” including hopes, images and responsibilities of state ownership, is not being discussed in the Palestinian street. While Palestinians do lay conditions for peace, they refrain from discussing its parameters, even behind closed doors.

Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, is the only leader who dared remind his countrymen that compromises on the refugees “right of return” must be made if peace is to be given any chance at all. But all discussions of such compromises are considered taboo by the rest of Palestinian society, for whom “peace” has always meant a return to Jaffa, Haifa and Ramlah.

Finally, Palestinian intellectuals have been a great disappointment to Israeli peace activists. In an unprecedented candid exchange between two of the Middle East’s most respected journalists, Salameh Nematt, an Arab, and Akiva Eldar, an Israeli, Eldar writes (Ha’aretz, December 2006): “The Jewish minority, which calls for the expulsion of Palestinians from their land and steals their olives, is my enemy. I will do everything legally possible in order to protect my Arab neighbors from the obnoxious attacks of this racist minority.

“But Israelis need to know that Arabs who call for the expulsion of Jews from their [Jewish] land and deliberately murder their children are enemies of yours, and that there are many among you willing to defend my family against those who deny my right to a secure existence in my own country.”

Those familiar with Eldar’s record as a peace activist and a champion of Palestinians’ rights and statehood would appreciate his readers’ disappointment — after 30 years of intense outreach efforts, Eldar is still begging his Palestinian friends to acknowledge his “right to a secure existence in my own country.”

Films: The trials and tribulations of fathers and sons


For so many Jewish men, it always comes back to fathers and sons, despite what Philip Roth might think.
Look at the films of Daniel Burman, the rising young star of the New Argentine Cinema. “Waiting for the Messiah,” “Lost Embrace” and his latest, “Family Law,” which all revolve around a slightly feckless but well-meaning young man, played in all three by Daniel Hendler, and his relationship with an absent or soon-to-be-absent father.

Burman, 33, is a slender, good-looking brunette with long, arching, graceful fingers that he uses to adjust a cup of coffee on its saucer as he sits in the bar/lounge of a hip downtown New York hotel, answering questions for a parade of journalists. He smiles easily, if somewhat shyly, but carries himself with an earnestness that belies the wittiness of his films.

“We’re kind of shy in my family,” he explains through an interpreter when asked about his father’s reaction to the new film, which centers even more than its predecessors on the father-son relationship. “We react with understatement to everything. But when my father saw the film at the Berlin festival, he seemed pleased.”

Burman comes from a family full of lawyers, including his father. Like the father-and-son lawyers who are at the heart of “Family Law,” he worked in his father’s office, and he did go to law school briefly, but abandoned that career after less than a year.

“My family was very supportive of my career choice,” he says. “After all, I was already earning a living from film.”

One way he paid back his family’s support is in the affectionate portrait of Perelman, Sr. (Arturo Goetz) in “Family Law,” which he readily acknowledges was based largely on his father.

Does that mean that Hendler has been Burman’s alter ego through the unofficial trilogy of films on which they have collaborated?

“It’s hard to say,” he says with a slight wince. “There are some things we have in common. But we don’t share the same ego.”

His next project, a comedy about an older married couple who are struggling with the “empty nest” syndrome, will take him away from the trilogy, but he readily acknowledges that he will probably come back to Hendler and to his own growth in a few years, “maybe five, maybe 10.”

It’s an actor-character-director relationship that echoes the odd triangulation of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Leaud and the fictional Antoine Doinel, the Truffaut-like protagonist of “The 400 Blows,” “Stolen Kisses” and “Bed and Board” among others.

That comparison tickles Burman immensely.

“I like Truffaut very much,” he says, beaming.

He is less sanguine about the frequent comparisons between his work and that of Woody Allen.
“It certainly doesn’t offend me,” he says. “A dream of mine is to present Woody Allen with DVDs of my films. But it’s not a fair comparison. We’re very different filmmakers.”

Certainly Burman’s characters are much less conflicted about their Jewish identity. They wear it with a casualness that is, quite frankly, alien to Jewish-American film.

“I think my parents taught me to enjoy being Jewish,” he says. “It’s not just about following rules or singing songs. It’s not as easy as just not eating ham. In the United States people seem to take a defensive attitude about being Jewish. For me it’s so intimate that I don’t need to express it all the time. It’s not damaged by the banality of daily life.”

Indeed, one might say that by its very nature, Jewish observance is defined by — and defines — daily life. Appropriately, that focus on daily life in all its ordinariness is a large part of Burman’s films, and that points up another place where he parts company with Americans.

“It seems contradictory, but the banality of daily life makes the dramatic incidents invisible,” he opines. “Life is not like it is in most American films, where something dramatic happens every few minutes. [In real life] the big existential themes express themselves in the everyday.”

Burman says that his writing is an outgrowth of that condition.

“When I write I don’t think about those things. It’s reflected in the mirror of the characters.”
“Family Law” opens Friday, Dec. 22 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 and Laemmle Town Center 5.

Alys Willman-Navarro assisted in this article by translating during the interview.

Israeli-Palestinian Confederation; CAIR; Borat; Elections; More JewQ questions


Confederation

Josef Avesar says of the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs that “each side demands that the other relinquish crucial aspects of its identity,” and that therefore, some form of confederation would be a “pragmatic” solution to their problems (“Mideast Solution: A Confederation,” Nov. 3). Both Avesar’s diagnosis and prescription are wrong.

Palestinians aim to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state, not merely to change some aspects of its identity. Israelis only demand that Palestinian Arabs relinquish this aim, not their identity.

Avesar envisages Israel and the Palestinian Authority in time relinquishing their power to what “will become the de facto authority to establish rules to settle issues, solve problems.” There is a simple term for this — binationalism, something which would see Israel gradually dismantled and Jews turned into a minority in a greater Palestinian state.

Avesar’s confederation scheme is therefore simply a program for foisting a creeping binational scheme on Israel.

Morton A. Klein
National President
Zionist Organization of America

CAIR

It is curious how Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), defines the terms “extremist” and anti-Semitic (Letters, Nov. 10).
He claims his organization merely “denounce[s] human rights violations committed by Israel.” But in fact, Ayloush himself is known to use the term “Zionazi” to refer to Israelis and compare Zionism to Nazism, once writing in an e-mail, “Indeed, the Zionazis are a bunch of nice people; just like their Nazi brethren! It is just that the world keeps making up lies about them! It is so unfair.”Ayloush cavalierly accuses me of engaging in “guilt by association” but avoids comment on CAIR’s involvement in the promotion of anti-Semitism.

He does not dispute the virulently anti-Semitic language used by Wagdy Ghoneim at a CAIR-sponsored event, in which he led the audience in a song with the lyrics, “No to the Jews, descendants of the apes.”

Additionally, CAIR has invited neo-Nazi William Baker to speak at various conferences, whose presence at such events Ayloush has defended. How dare people infer anti-Semitism and extremism from such incidents.

As for Ayloush’s claim that CAIR “defend(s) the civil rights of unpopular individuals,” such defenses typically involve attacking any terrorism investigation or asset forfeiture as, for example, an “‘anti-Muslim witchhunt’ promoted by the pro-Israel lobby in America.” (One should note that the individuals involved in that company have been convicted of providing material support to Hamas and violating sanctions imposed on state sponsors of terrorism, receiving sentences up to seven years in prison).

Of course, Ayloush himself responds to any criticism of his organization in the typical fashion employed by all CAIR officials: smearing anyone who reports on uncomfortable and disquieting facts by labeling them an “Islamophobe” or “anti-Muslim.” Ayloush’s own record of engaging in and tolerating anti-Semitic viewpoints speaks for itself.

Steven Emerson
Executive Director
Investigative Project on Terrorism

Ed. Note: Hussam Ayloush’s previous response is online at www.jewishjournal.com/forum, where the two men are invited to continue their exchange.

Orthodox Split

I believe that your article on the Modern Orthodox/Charedi split underplays the differences on the ground between the two communities (“Two Neighborhoods Reveal Orthodox Community’s Fault Lines,” Nov. 10). By interviewing only moderate rabbis (Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the local Charedi apologist, far to the left of his colleagues) and few congregants, one gets an overly rosy picture. I believe more animosity and derision of the other exists.

Modern institutions will find more like-minded teachers and clergy will not respond to Charedi book-bannings, and Charedim will have to look elsewhere to fund their causes.

Name withheld by request
Los Angeles

Borat
Steven Rosen’s review of “Borat” was right on target in regard to the satirical elements of the anti-Semitism depicted in the movie. However, Rosen failed to comment on the fact that when Borat spoke to his cohort/producer, Bagatov, he did so in Hebrew. My husband and I thought this added to the satire in that a “flagrant anti-Semite” would never even know lashon Hakodesh. Kudos to Sacha Baron Cohen!

Nancy Cooper Federman
Westlake Village

Size Matters

A better approach than making a car that gets 100 miles per gallon is to develop one that rarely uses gasoline (“Size Matters,” Nov. 10). A plug-in hybrid would do most driving based on battery power from being plugged into an outlet and switch to gasoline when the batteries are depleted.

I’ve read about alternate approaches for storing energy in a car. These include using flywheels or compressed air. The “Tel Aviv Project” that you propose does not have to limit itself to improving gas mileage or batteries.

David Wincelberg
Beverly Hills

Loss of Interest

Rob Eshman’s editorial caused me to stop and think. He poses the question: Why is the attendance at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities so low (“Size Matters,” Nov. 10). Why only 3,000? Why not 25,000? After all, Los Angeles has the second-largest Jewish population in the United States.

I can offer an explanation for the apparent lack of interest among our Jewish community. Certainly I speak only for myself, but I believe what I say would apply to many others like me.

Until several years ago, I was very interested in the Jewish community, but then I experienced the workings of The Jewish Federation, with its abandonment of the Jewish Community Centers and self-aggrandizement, and the workings of the Greater L.A. [Federation] administration. Then I realized that our leaders are more inclined to cushion their own portfolios, rather than the good of the Jewish community, and too many leaders suffer from exaggerated egos.

So today, instead of donating to the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, I have found more worthy causes, where more of my contribution goes to the charity and not to the leaders. Very likely, my perception has rubbed off on others with whom I relate. And perhaps many other have the same opinion.

George Epstein
Los Angeles

P.S. I enjoyed reading about Theodore Von Karman (“Jewry’s Role in Human Advancement,” advertisement). What few people know about him is that he played a key role in the development of the armor systems helping to save lives in Iraq and elsewhere. In 1956, as the program manager at Aerojet General Corp. for an Army program to develop advanced personnel armor concepts, I was fortunate to have Dr. Von Karman as a consultant for my program.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie on pedophile priest puts a face on evil


In October 2004, journalist Amy Berg cold-called a defrocked priest she has nicknamed the “Hannibal Lecter of pedophiles.” While serving Central California parishes in the 1970s and ’80s, the Rev. Oliver O’Grady allegedly molested dozens of children — boys and girls, infants and adolescents — according to Berg’s new documentary film, “Deliver Us From Evil.”

He did so with the knowledge of church officials — including Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony — who moved him from parish to parish when parents complained, O’Grady alleges.
 
After months of phone conversations, Berg persuaded the priest to appear in a documentary that “has heightened interest among law enforcement officials … in considering a criminal case against [Mahony],” The New York Times reported on Oct. 8.
 
In a Journal interview on Oct. 9, Tod M. Tamberg, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, called the movie “very heavily biased.”
 
“This film was heavily edited and weighed in favor of Amy Berg making the cardinal the culprit and completely ignoring … that O’Grady is a skilled liar and a master manipulator,” Tamberg added.
 
“Evil” — which won the nonfiction prize at the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival in July — presents for perhaps the first time a convicted pedophile speaking graphically about his actions on camera. O’Grady’s words provide “the backbone of a deeply disturbing documentary about the Roman Catholic clergy abuse crisis,” the Associated Press said.
 
When O’Grady first answered Berg’s call with a cheerful “Hello and good evening,” to her surprise he didn’t curtly dismiss her as had other pedophiles she had telephoned to be in her film. Berg believes he ultimately agreed to talk, in part, because he was angry with church officials.
 
“I should have been removed and attended to,” he says in the film.
 
O’Grady, who arrived in California in the early 1970s, remained a parish priest until he was convicted on four molestation counts in 1993. After seven years in prison, he was deported to his native Ireland.
 
In the movie, O’Grady describes having been molested by an older brother as a boy, and how he, in turn, abused a younger sister. As a priest, he says he sometimes started fondling children while sleeping over at their homes: He would often begin by hugging a child, then let his hand stray if they did not protest.
 
He recollects his crimes in a detached or avuncular tone that contrasts with anguished testimony from his victims. In the film, one father cries and screams as he blames himself for allowing O’Grady to abuse his daughter: “At 5 years old — for God’s sake, how could that happen?” the father says.
 
The film also includes never-before-seen taped depositions in which Mahony says he was unaware of the abuse and did not know O’Grady well when he served as bishop of Stockton from 1980 to 1985. But in the movie, excerpts from court documents, superimposed over Mahony’s testimony, suggest otherwise.
 
In response, Tamberg said Mahony’s testimony was heavily edited and facts omitted to make Berg’s points. Tamberg said Mahony did not know O’Grady had committed abuse until the former priest was arrested in 1993 and that “Evil” largely presents the opinions of plaintiffs’ attorneys, who stand to gain financially by suing the church.
 
Tamberg said he believes the documentary poignantly depicts the victims’ anguish, which is “its greatest strength but also its greatest failing. Because then we are asked to put all of O’Grady’s lying and manipulation aside and believe him…. [But] he lied to his bishop, he lied to the families, he lied to victims and I believe he even manipulated the filmmakers.”
 
Berg indignantly denied that she was ever manipulated, and that her documentary takes undue potshots at the church.
 
“If this is the best they can come up with, then let them respond to the allegations in the film, for once,” she said.
 
She wants church officials to answer questions such as “‘Why didn’t you take O’Grady Out?’ ‘What are you hiding?’ ‘[And] how many are still out there?'”Despite her bravado, Berg admitted she previously declined to tell reporters she is a Jewish, divorced single mother (she lives with her young son, Spencer, in an apartment in Santa Monica). She worried that the information might make her appear biased against the church and that the diocese might somehow interfere with the release of her film, since it successfully delayed the airing of some of her CNN pieces.
 
Tamberg said Berg’s news pieces were delayed because “we asked for fairness, and CNN management agreed.”
 
The 36-year-old filmmaker was raised Reform in Valley Glen; she attended Jewish Camp Swig in Saratoga and became a bat mitzvah at Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village. But when public high school proved too large and overwhelming for young Amy, her parents enrolled her in a Catholic school because it was affordable and many other Jewish students were enrolled there, as well. All students were required to attend religion class, but Berg said she used to ditch because she did not believe some of the teachings after having been raised Jewish. “Children were saying ‘Hail Marys’ to be forgiven for chewing gum or not brushing their hair,” she recalled of her school.
 
Years later, while producing for CBS and CNN, Berg was drawn to covering the church’s pedophilia crisis because victims exuded “this unbelievably raw, lonely, ‘Where do I turn?’ mentality.”
 
She convinced O’Grady to allow her to film him only after speaking to him every Sunday for five months. In December 2004, she flew to Dublin to meet with him in the city center (he would not tell her where he lived.) The eight-day shoot in April, 2005, was “brutal,” both physically and emotionally, she says. For example, O’Grady nonchalantly spoke of his attraction for children as kids were playing in a nearby park; in the film he even peers over the fence to look at them.
 
To keep herself calm during the process, Berg turned at the end of each day to meditation, including exercises from Melinda Ribner’s “Everyday Kabbalah: A Practical Guide to Jewish Meditation, Healing and Personal Growth.” After a week of listening to O’Grady describe his molestations of children, she said, “I was completely overwhelmed and exhausted.”

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


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

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

Let’s confront, I mean, let’s talk


Men will do anything — and I mean anything, from changing their phones, emails and even primary residences, to joining the army during wartime — rather than
confront a woman. By “confront,” I mean, “talk directly to.” They just don’t like it.  

Are You Listening?


“What’s the most important word in the prayer book?” the rabbi asked the congregation.

The congregants responded with a list of important words:
“shalom — peace,” “bracha — blessing,” “Torah — God’s truth,” “Hashem — God’s name.”

“All very important words,” the rabbi replied. “But there is one more important. The prayer book’s most important word is, “al-ken — therefore.”

“Therefore” connects all our fine sentiments and deep wisdom with the reality of the world. “Therefore” binds us to bring our values out of the vague realm of our subjectivity and into the hard objective world of work, family, politics and power. “Therefore” tests all our spiritual aspirations and visions against the limits of our courage, imagination and resolve. “Therefore” makes religion real.
Every day, someone confesses, “Rabbi, I’m a deeply spiritual person.”

Good, I reply. Where’s the “therefore”? What difference does it make? How does your spirituality shape the way you spend your money, speak to your housekeeper, raise your children? Do you vote spiritually? Drive spiritually? Watch TV spiritually? I am little impressed by those who profess to believe in God. I am moved by those whose faith is behaved. That’s my “therefore” test.

This week we read the stirring declaration of Jewish monotheism, Shema Yisrael. The most sacred words in our tradition, the Shema is the first affirmation a Jewish child is taught, and the last words on a dying Jew’s lips. Even the Shema must be subjected to the test of “therefore.” To do so, I suggest we read the Shema backward. And read it, not as a declaration, but as a set of questions.
“Write them upon the doorposts of your house….” Read your house! What values are written on the walls of your home? If someone visited your home, what would they learn of you from the art on your walls, the books on your shelves, the notices tacked to your refrigerator?

“Tie them as a sign on your arm and between your eyes.” Read your work! To what purposes and ends do you invest your bodily and mental energies? What do you spend your time and strength doing? What energizes you? What exhausts you? What renews you?

“Speak of them, at home and away, morning and night….” Read your words! What do you talk about? What concerns dominate your conversations and dialogues? With what tone of voice do you address the world? With what voice do you speak to those who share your home, your work, your neighborhood?

“Teach them to your children.” Read your kids! What have you taught your children? What have you taught them about success, about the purpose and meaning of life? What have you shown them matters most to you — the pursuit of prosperity or the practice of compassion? The acquisition of precious things or the sanctification of precious moments?

“These words … take them to heart.” Read your heart! What preoccupies your thoughts? What do you worry about? What do you dream about? What do you hope for?

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and your might.” The theologian Paul Tillich observed that every person, believer or nonbeliever, has a “god.” Our God, he taught, is the “object of our ultimate concern.” So the Shema asks us: What do you love most in life? What is your god? The answer is no mystery. Just look back at the answers to all the other questions. The values and concerns that decorate your home, drive your work, color your words, shape your children and animate your thoughts, those values constitute your ultimate concerns. So what do you worship? What is your god? What sacrifices does your god demand?

“Hear O Israel….” Are you listening? Are you paying attention to your own choices? Are you conscious of the patterns of your life?

“Hear O Israel….” Are you listening to the voice of your soul, your deepest ideals and principles? Can you open your ears to hear a voice calling you to a life lived differently?

For those of deep faith, the Shema is an affirmation and declaration of loyalty to God. For those of us who struggle with the “Therefore” – with the task of bringing faith into life, it is an unrelenting challenge. Shema for us is God’s most powerful question.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.

Spectator – The Woman Who Fought the Tigers


Helene Klodawsky remembers how her survivor mother and girlfriends stayed up all night, laughing and crying as they recounted their Holocaust experiences over cigarettes and coffee.

“I became consumed with questions about women and war,” the 50-year-old Canadian filmmaker said.

Her new documentary, “No More Tears Sister” — about the struggle of Sri Lankan human rights activist Rajani Thiranagama — reflects that lifelong obsession.

The film describes how the late Thiranagama, a physician, joined a militant group she believed would help her people amid brutal civil war in the 1980s. She eventually left that group, the Tamil Tigers, when she learned their murders and bombings tormented civilians, especially women. She founded the University Teachers for Human Rights to document and disseminate reports about atrocities perpetuated by Tigers and other factions.

Thiranagama wrote of women’s dead bodies — bloated, beaten, shot, raped and left to rot on the roadside. She helped expose how the Tigers convinced sexually assaulted teenagers, considered tainted by society, to become suicide bombers.

“One day a bullet will silence me,” Thiranagama said of her work. Her premonition came true on Sept. 21, 1989 when a Tamil gunman assassinated her in her rural hometown of Jaffna. She was only 35.

“Sister” spotlights the legacy Thiranagama left Sri Lanka: “The idea that militarism does not benefit women, who are often caught in the crossfire between groups of armed men,” Klodawsky said.

The fear of such gunmen challenged “Sister’s” production in 2003 and 2004. Although Thiranagama’s relatives agreed to speak on camera, many potential subjects declined to be interviewed, even in shadow, and even when they lived as far away as Canada. Those who participated did so only when the director agreed to film them far from their homes. Because Kladowsky could not shoot in Thiranagama’s Tamil-controlled hometown, she decided to tell the story largely through staged recreations — a technique often frowned upon by cineastes.

“These flagrantly fictional images push the already elastic limits of documentary almost to the breaking point,” The New York Times said of “Sister” in a mixed review.

Other critics praised the film as powerful.

Kodlawsky said her goal was to tell Thiranagama’s story vividly; in a way, it reminded her of those late-night discussions over cigarettes and coffee. Her mother’s friends often spoke of how Kodlawsky’s mother risked death to smuggle food to others at Bergen-Belsen.

“Her courage came in very private, localized ways, not to say it was a lesser courage,” Kodlawsky said.

“No More Tears Sister” airs July 11, 10 p.m. on KCET.

 

Jewish World Watch Eyes National Stage


Janice Kamenir-Reznik wasn’t sure where Darfur was on the map when she heard a Rosh Hashanah sermon at Valley Beth Shalom some 18 months ago.

During his sermon, Rabbi Harold Schulweis told the congregation that “Never Again” applies not only to the Holocaust but requires Jews to speak out and act against genocides anywhere, especially in Darfur, and urged formation of a new organization, Jewish World Watch.

Characteristically, Schulweis immediately followed preaching with action and asked Kamenir-Reznik to serve in a volunteer capacity as co-founder, president and CEO of the nascent organization.

The 54-year-old Encino lawyer, mother of three and veteran problem solver, has since learned much about Darfur, and she has shared her knowledge to help mobilize a vital segment of the Jewish community, especially young students, to transform awareness into tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

As of now, the 3-year-old Darfur genocide is no longer unknown, but its horrors continue. Currently spreading from the Sudan to neighboring Chad, it has claimed 400,000 civilian dead and 4 million refugees, accompanied by mass rapes of women and starvation among children.

The problems are staggering, but adopting the biblical injunction, “Do Not Stand Idly By,” Jewish World Watch has mobilized synagogues and schools, launched an effective divestment from Sudan campaign, and is now starting to ship solar cookers to a refugee camp.

The solar cooker concept is an elegantly simple response to a terrifying fact of life facing 20,000 people, almost all women and young girls, in the Iridimi refugee camp in eastern Chad.

While foraging for scarce firewood for basic cooking and water purification, the women and girls are at constant risk of gang rapes by roving bands of Arab militiamen. However, these dangerous excursions and the resultant atrocities can be circumvented through the use of simple, inexpensive sun-powered cookers made of cardboard and aluminum foil — donated by Jewish World Watch — that can be easily assembled by the refugees.

The cookers have proven their worth in other African countries, and Jewish World Watch, spearheading the Coalition to End Gang Rape in Darfur, aims to send 6,000 of the devices to families in the Iridimi camp.

Another front in Jewish World Watch’s three-pronged campaign of education, advocacy and financial support is to persuade public institutions to divest themselves of holdings in recalcitrant companies doing business with the Sudanese government.

Kamenir-Resnik, addressing the University of California regents before they approved such a divestment, said that in general the Jewish community opposed such a tactic, because of its misuse against Israel.

But in order to counter the Darfur genocide, she said, “The divestment tool is not only morally appropriate, but is, indeed, a moral imperative.”

Among the most persuasive advocates of this cause was a four-person delegation of 12-year olds from the Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School, who testified last week before the Los Angeles City Council.

Their appearance was the culmination of a year-long project, inspired by Jewish World Watch, in which 16 sixth-graders studied the issues and raised nearly $900 through bake sales, washing cars and sale of green Jewish World Watch wristbands at a Purim carnival, said Orley Denman, their teacher.

Natan Reches, one of the four student reps, described his participation as “a life-changing experience,” and the L.A. City Council followed through by voting unanimously to divest funds held by the state employee and teacher retirement systems.

By now, 43 Los Angeles-area synagogues, ranging from Reconstructionist to Orthodox, and with a combined membership of nearly 200,000, are members of Jewish World Watch, with Temple Israel’s Rachel Andres as a main sparkplug. They have raised $500,000, mostly in small denominations, of which the bulk has gone toward the building of two medical clinics and construction of water wells.

Recently the local American Jewish Committee chapter, ignoring organizational turf, collected $7,500 at a luncheon for the Jewish World Watch effort.

Education was the first emphasis of the Jewish World Watch founders and remains a top priority. Some 50 volunteer speakers have fanned out to high schools, summer camps and synagogues, with impressive results.

For instance, at Calabasas High School, the Armenian Club raised more than $2,000 by selling self-designed T-shirts, and senior Samantha Finkelstein has spread the word by talking to large assemblies at 10 other high schools.

Although now focusing on Darfur, Jewish World Watch holds to its original mission statement: “To combat genocide and other egregious violations of human rights around the world.”

Jewish World Watch is now hiring its first executive director and is evaluating future directions: Whether to expand from its Los Angeles base and go nationwide, and whether to address itself to other genocides and human rights violations, without neglecting its Darfur mission.

Amid considerable acclaim for Jewish World Watch’s work, there have been some critical questions. Some come from “insular Jews,” as Kamenir-Reznik calls them, who ask why they should give to non-Jewish causes, and, in any case, “nobody helped us during the Holocaust.”

Since the main perpetrators in Darfur are Arab Muslims killing black African Muslims, some skeptics wonder whether there might be a political, pro-Israel subtext to Jewish World Watch’s concern, and whether the black survivors will be subsequently “grateful” for Jewish help.

Perhaps the best answer is given by Schulweis, who told a recent press conference about Jewish World Watch’s work: “I’ve been a rabbi for 50 years and have never seen such a response, especially among young students,” he said. “Some people say about the Darfur genocide that it’s an internal matter, that reports have been exaggerated. These are the same excuses we heard during the Holocaust.

“There is always an alternative to passive complicity. If we now turn aside, that would be our deepest humiliation,” he said.

For more information, call (818) 501-1836, e-mail info@jewishworldwatch.org, or visit www.jewishworldwatch.org.

 

‘Because Judaism Feels Right’


Do not urge me to leave you, or to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and be buried.

— The Book of Ruth

When 50-year-old Hector Ventura was a young boy growing up in El Salvador four decades ago, his mother would always talk about Jewish customs. Which was strange, because the Venturas were not Jewish. Like most of their neighbors, they were Catholic — not particularly devout but Catholics just the same.

It was only years later that Ventura thought to ask: “Why do you always talk about Jews?”

“Your father’s grandfather came from Spain,” his mother replied.

Last year, before she died, Ventura asked her where the family name came from. His mother said the name became Ventura when the family fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. Originally, she said, it was “Ben Torah.” (In Hebrew that literally translates as the son of Torah, but figuratively refers to someone who is a follower and student of Torah and religious law.)

Finding that out was the beginning of Ventura’s spiritual journey, which culminated in March, when he converted to Judaism, with his wife and three children. The Venturas were part of a group of 10 — a minyan of sorts — mostly Latino, who converted at Los Angeles’ pluralistic Beth Din (see story on page 16) under the tutelage of Rabbi Len Muroff of Temple Beth Zion-Sinai, a Conservative synagogue in Lakewood.

With intermarriage on the rise and the Jewish denominations increasingly reaching out to non-Jewish spouses, conversion has probably never been more popular.

Muroff’s group represents a new breed of converts.

“There’s usually a reason, like love or marriage for converting,” Muroff said.

By contrast, these are spiritual converts, people who feel attracted to the religion because of a connection, a sense of belonging, even a return to their roots.

They are not unlike Judaism’s most famous convert, Ruth, whose book is read in synagogues this weekend on the Shavuot holiday. Also known as Pentecost, the holiday celebrates Jews receiving the Torah, and has evolved to honor the tradition of converts.

“Ruth teaches us that a Jew is not a Jew by virtue of genes, chromosomes or blood type. We embrace those who come to us with heart, mind and soul,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis said. The senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom was a pioneer in reaching out to converts, first in a speech to his community 10 years ago and then in a 2003 presentation to the Rabbinical Assembly about converts and accepting intermarried spouses.

Over the years, Schulweis said he has seen an increase in the number of spiritual converts or what he calls “seekers.”

“These are not people who are coming just to stand under the chuppah,” he said, meaning people who convert only for marriage. “You have people who have made a choice consciously and heroically,” he said, because these people must face opposition from their family and often from the Jewish community itself.

No convert has it easy, relinquishing a familiar faith or secular customs, but spiritual converts may feel less that they are giving something up and more like they are gaining. Spiritual converts have much to teach Jews born into the faith, Muroff said.

“What struck me most about my converts and the whole experience of teaching them was the intensity of their interest in being seriously engaged in a spiritual quest and their willingness to make many significant changes in their lives,” Muroff said. “They helped my congregation and me to look at our own spiritual lives in deeper and more innovative ways,” he said.

He learned from them how to see prayer as something deeply personal and spiritual, rather than something rote that had to be done at set times.

Of course, people who convert “for marriage” can be just as spiritual in their embrace of Judaism as anyone else, said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, director of the Lewis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism program under the Ziegler School of Rabbinics at the University of Judaism.

“These are [often] people who have thought about Judaism for some time, and then they choose someone. I think we insult ourselves when we say people are only converting for marriage, because that’s not the only reason,” he said. “There are a lot of different stories behind the choosing of Judaism.”

No matter the path toward Judaism, Jews-by-Choice are “blessings” to the community, Schulweis said.

“They are literally the most active people in the congregation in terms of reading from the Torah, in terms of working on committees, in terms of doing the haftorah, in terms of attendance, in terms of Jewish commitment,” he said. “They elevate the congregation.”

Luis Perez, a Latino convert who served as an unofficial adviser to the Venturas, began his journey to Judaism at age 13, when he began to question his own Catholic faith in religious school: “I was shunned and pushed away and told not to ask so many questions,” he said.

His father was more forthcoming, telling him about his Jewish ancestry, that he was raised a Converso — Catholic on the outside and Jewish in the home — in Leon, Mexico.

“I wanted to find out more about my faith and background,” said Perez, now 22, “and my father said, ‘Well, if you’re not happy with Catholicism, try Judaism.'”

Perez did, eventually converting (first through the Conservative movement and then through the Orthodox process). He is going to graduate from the University of Judaism in December and hopes to attend the Rabbinical School of the Institute of Traditional Judaism (Metivta) in Teaneck, N.J. “I always knew I was different [than] my friends and the rest of my family,” he said. “After I discovered Judaism, I felt that was the missing link.”

Many spiritual converts talk about a “special feeling” for Judaism.

Ventura, who at his conversion took on the name “Shmaryahu” — meaning God watched over him — said it ultimately wasn’t just his lineage that prompted him to convert.

“When I came to synagogue the first time, I felt a connection between me and God,” he said.

He told his wife, Rosie — renamed Esther at her conversion — and she started attending synagogue with him and loved it, too. Their children came along, as well, and they all started taking classes with Muroff about six months ago.

His children, Veronica, 23; Hector Jr., 20, and David, 14, told him, “If you go, we’ll go” — echoing the original pledge of Ruth to Naomi.

Susanne Shier, another of Muroff’s group, didn’t know exactly what attracted her to Judaism. Raised Episcopalian in Orange County, the single mother joined a Jewish chat room and had compelling conversations with Jewish women there, so she decided to take some classes about the religion. During one, class members sang “Hatikvah” — Israel’s national anthem.

“I started crying, and then I said to myself, ‘Now wait a minute — I’m not Jewish. Why am I crying?’ And then I thought maybe I am Jewish and I don’t know it.”

She began to explore these feelings and eventually joined Muroff’s class with her 13-year-old son, Justin.

“I read that there are Jewish souls who were there at Sinai,” she said, referring to a kabbalistic teaching: When the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, at that moment, sparks of holiness touched the Jewish people and also flew out into the world, creating other “Jewish souls” — and those are the people who convert. They are less converting than coming home.

“I’ve been thought to be rational; things have to make sense to me,” Shier said. “But some things don’t make sense to my rational mind. There’s something in my heart that tells me something different.”

She and her son decided to convert. “It wasn’t really a difficult decision for us,” she told The Journal on the day of her immersion in the mikvah or ritual bath (see article on page 14). The Venturas had joined her there to show support (they’d immersed the week before.)

Shier’s son did not have to undergo a physical hurdle of conversion for men: circumcision. Justin had been circumcised at birth, so he only had to undergo the ritual symbolically, with a pinprick similar to a blood test. The Ventura men submitted to the full operation.

“When you need that surgery, that’s when you decide if you really want to convert,” said 14-year-old David. He had joined his father from the beginning in learning about Judaism.

“I never liked church,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I belonged there,” he said. When he went to synagogue, “I really liked it. It was a new experience,”

Sometimes it’s a double whammy — being Latino and now being Jewish, especially in school and in the neighborhood.

“People already look down on you,” he said. But for the most part — except for the painful circumcision, which took several weeks to recuperate from — he has enjoyed being Jewish: “I feel higher. I feel proud as one with the Jewish community.”

 

Rabbi Gafni Ousted for Misconduct


Mordechai Gafni, 46, a rabbi whose charisma and brilliance dazzled students and large audiences in spiritual renewal communities in Israel and America, even as he dodged rumors and accusations about improper sexual behavior for more than 25 years, has been dismissed by the leadership of Bayit Chadash in Israel, a Tel Aviv-based prayer and study group he co-founded and where he served as teacher and religious guide.

Gafni also has had a large following in Los Angeles, where he frequently preached and served as a scholar-in-residence at the Stephen S. Wise Temple. During one such stay, 1,000 people came to hear him even on the second day of Rosh Hashanah — traditionally a low-attendance day at Reform congregations — and hundreds more came to evening lectures during the week.

Gafni’s dismissal came last week after four women, including students of his and a staff member, filed complaints of sexual misconduct against Gafni with the police in Israel.

“We feel we were deceived,” Jacob Ner-David, a co-founder of Bayit Chadash, told The Jewish Week, which first reported on allegations against the rabbi in September 2004.

“He should not be called a rav [rabbi], his was not the behavior of a rav and he should not be in a teaching or counseling position,” said Ner-David, who noted that the incident “is my worst nightmare come to life.”

He added that Gafni is “a sick man, and has harmed so many.”

A statement issued by Ner-David and his Bayit Chadash co-founder Avraham Leader said “there is no place for relations like this between a rabbi and his students or between an employer and his employees, whether consensual or not. It would seem that this is the opinion of Mordechai, since he swore all the women involved to eternal and absolute silence.”

Gafni achieved much attention here and in Israel as a leader of the New Age Jewish movement. He taught classes, led retreats, wrote several books and appeared in a PBS documentary about the quest for spirituality.

In a statement this week to his followers, he took blame for his actions and said he was “infinitely saddened and profoundly sorry” for the pain he had caused. He acknowledged that he was “sick,” and said he planned to enter a treatment center and leave his “rabbinic teaching capacities.”

Gafni, who was divorced from his third wife about a year and a half ago, said in 2004 that he had “made mistakes in my life” and had “a sense of exaggeration” and was “too ambitious.” But he insisted he had done teshuvah (repentance) and was the victim of a longstanding “witch hunt” from a small cadre of women accusers and Orthodox rabbis jealous of his success.

“I am moral and ethical,” he said during a series of conversations with this reporter in 2004, during which he asserted that he was sharing his “deepest truth.”

Ner-David said that one of the women involved with Gafni over the last 18 months came forward to Leader, and that soon after, another woman spoke out about her relationship with the rabbi.

“And then we discovered there were two more,” he said.

Leader and Ner-David asked the women to give sworn statements to an attorney, which they did. At this point the police have not acted on the complaints, which address the boundaries of relationships between teacher-student and employer-employee.

“We have no doubt that they [the women] speak the truth, and willingly risk our personal credibility and integrity in support of their testimony,” Leader and Ner-David said in their signed statement.

“For us it was a complete surprise,” Ner-David said, noting that as recently as a month ago he had a conversation with Gafni affirming that immoral behavior could never be tolerated within Bayit Chadash.

Ner-David, who first met Gafni when he was a 13-year-old at summer camp in the United States and the rabbi was his counselor, said he had long known of the allegations about the man born Marc Winiarz in the Midwest. Winiarz moved to Israel in 1991 and took the Israeli name Gafni after a series of controversies about sexual improprieties dogged him when he was a youth leader and later a rabbi in several U.S. communities.

He was ordained by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founder of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City and now chief rabbi of Efrat, in the West Bank. Riskin revoked his ordination in 1994 after his former student, in a lengthy interview in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, called for restoring a balance between the erotic and the spiritual in Judaism.

Gafni’s response was that he had other ordinations and had moved beyond Orthodoxy.

Ner-David said he was guilty of having relied on information from others in seeking answers to questions about Gafni’s past. Several prominent Israeli educators hired the rabbi as a teacher despite complaints from some women and rabbis who asserted he was unfit to work with students. Those who hired Gafni said he was a gifted teacher, that he acknowledged past wrongdoings (though he was vague about them) and that they could find no current cases of women with complaints against him.

Some of the charges went back more than two decades.

Ner-David said he realizes now that Gafni was “a master manipulator,” but in the past he had felt justified in working with him because no one had come forward with recent complaints about the rabbi’s behavior.

Rabbi Saul Berman, the founder and director of Edah in New York, has been an outspoken defender of Gafni. In a letter taking this reporter to task for writing about the controversy in 2004, Berman, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone and ethicist and author Joseph Telushkin said they had looked into past allegations and found them “totally unconvincing.” They described the article as “unfair” and “scandalous.”

This month, Berman said he is “deeply regretful” of his prior support for Gafni, and worried that his past defense may have prolonged the rabbi’s “predatory behavior against women.”

“I was clearly wrong in stating that Rabbi Gafni’s continued role as a teacher within the Jewish community constitutes no risk to Jewish women,” he wrote in a statement.

Berman said he had felt the earlier accusations “were not justifiable foundations for public disgrace and exclusion,” and noted that he will “continue to struggle with the ideal line between presumption of innocence and protection of potential innocent victims.”

He said the Gafni case underscores the ongoing need for a mechanism to investigate allegations against rabbis “in a way that the community has confidence in, so that when it’s over, it’s over.”

He said that rabbis are “not capable of enough objectivity to handle such matters themselves,” and called for a collaborative effort of rabbis, lay leaders and professionals in the health care field who deal with abuse.

Other institutions and individuals who had supported Gafni in the past also spoke out this month. Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia said he felt “sad, angry and betrayed” by Gafni’s behavior, noting that it “raises questions once again about how to walk that thin line between spiritual ecstasy and the domineering frenzy that is not only damaging in itself but sometimes even leads to sexual abuse.”

One of the criticisms of the spiritual renewal movement is that its emphasis on charismatic teachers and the search for religious bliss lends its members to being emotionally manipulated.

Ner-David, acknowledging that he will be asking himself “for a long time what lessons can be learned” from the Gafni episode, said that Bayit Chadash “must make sure not to allow anyone to become a guru.”

He said the members of the group, which includes hundreds of Israelis who pray and study together, are determined to go on with their work even though Gafni, their spiritual leader, has been removed.

As for whether Gafni truly understands the pain he has caused and can be rehabilitated and return, Ner-David said it was too early to say.

“It is hard to tell if he really means it or not,” he said.

This article appears courtesy The Jewish Week.

Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The Jewish Week.

 

Kids Learn Burial Rites From Barney


Their bagels sliced, toasted and slathered with cream cheese, the parents and students of the fourth- and fifth-grade classes at Santa Monica’s Sha’arei Am turn toward Rabbi Jeff Marx as he welcomes them to Family Education Day.

His introduction is interrupted by Lori Daitch, the director of education. The suddenly somber rabbi informs the group that he has just learned that Barney, a congregant, whose real name is Bernard Dinotzuris, has just collapsed in the sanctuary.

With much giggling, and a touch of consternation, the group enters the sanctuary where the purple plush 3-foot-tall Dinotzuris is sprawled near the pulpit.

“What should I do?” the rabbi asks, appropriately concerned.

A call to 911 leads to the swift arrival of a “paramedic,” in vest and plastic firefighter’s hat. He takes a good look at the patient, does a bit of CPR and announces that Bernard is most certainly and irretrievably dead.

This is, in fact, the fourth time Bernard has passed away. For the past four years, Marx has conducted this discussion on the Jewish rites and rituals surrounding death. The participating parents have all been informed of the contents of the session in advance. For the students, depending on the efficacy of the sibling grapevine, it is more or less a surprise.

“What do we now? ” the rabbi asks.

The kids boisterously offer solutions, ranging from a toss in the Dumpster to cremation.

“Well,” Marx says. “As it happens, Bernard had written me a letter saying he wants to be buried.”

When someone dies, the rabbi explains, mortuaries take care of the body. Jason Schwartz, a teacher, who was just the paramedic, now returns as the “Man From the Mortuary.” Carefully lifting Bernard onto a book cart transformed into a gurney, he efficiently wheels him away.

The giggling has stopped; kids who had been jostling and fidgeting have found seats near their parents.

It’s an impressive transformation.

With Bernard on his way to the mortuary, the rabbi fields questions on Jewish burial rituals and beliefs on tattoos, cremation, embalming, organ donation and much more.

Everyone knows that a speedy burial is important, and the discussion ends as the students and parents, accompanied by teachers Schwartz and Jennifer Flam, head for the Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary.

“I’ve wanted to do a program on death for a long time,” Marx says on the way to the cemetery. “It’s good for the kids, but lots of parents haven’t had much experience dealing with questions of death and dying either. My congregation is the sandwich generation, caring for both their children and their parents. This is education about the real world,” he said.

The real world, but in fuzzy purple and green.

“Our first problem was to figure out what we would do for a body,” he says. “We hit on Barney as the perfect solution — he was no longer an object of attachment for fourth and fifth graders, but they were completely familiar with him.”

Michael and Elaine Sachs attended the first burial of Barney in 2003 with their older daughter Rebecca. Six months later, Elaine Sachs, 41, suffered an aortic aneurysm while on a Girl Scout camping trip with Rebecca, and could not be resuscitated.

Michael Sachs remembers that he had initially thought that a program on death wasn’t really important for people in their 40s.

“But, in fact,” he now says, “I learned things I assumed I wouldn’t need to think about for many years. I thought the program dealt with potentially distressing material in a nonthreatening, matter-of-fact fashion,” he said.

“Even under the shock and duress, the fact that we’d gone through that program, made the process somewhat more manageable and less difficult,” he says. “As a part of Jewish education and life experience, I now feel that it’s almost essential.”

Even when the experience does not become as immediately and painfully relevant as it did for the Sachs family, programs such as these help children understand that death and dying is an open topic for discussion.

“It’s always helpful to children to give them experiences of seeing death as a normal part of life,” said Natalie Levine, program director of Family Service of Santa Monica, a division of Vista del Mar Child and Family.

“Children in the fourth and fifth grade don’t yet think abstractly, so this emphasis on the concrete steps taken when someone dies helps them manage their emotions,” she added.

When the cars full of kids from the Santa Monica Synagogue pull up at Hillside’s Chapel, Jill Glasband, the mortuary’s director of community outreach is waiting.

She gives a tour of the premises, including the casket selection room, as well as displays of shrouds and caskets and urns for cremation.

In the chapel, with Bernard Dinotzuris settled into a simple pine casket, the rabbi delivers a eulogy. Students, enlisted as pallbearers, carry the casket to the hearse. They proceed to the far end of the cemetery, where the rabbi leads a brief graveside service.

This year, Hillside has prepared a marker for the grave, so with a quick flash forward, the group moves a few feet and a year into the future for an unveiling of Bernard Dinotzuris’ gravestone.

All services concluded, the group disperses. As they look at gravestones, noting the life spans of grandparents as well as young children, everyone seems engrossed in quiet conversations — ones that will no doubt continue.

 

Rabbi’s Focus on Family a Little Fuzzy


The first episode of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s “Shalom in the House,” which aired April 10 on the TLC network, was a fast-paced account of five days the rabbi spent with a family in Philadelphia. Beatrice Romero, a single mother raising three teenage daughters and a 7-year-old son, sent the rabbi a tape asking for his help in bringing some peace to her home.

We see segments of the family’s prior life, with the children beating each other up and the mother absent from the picture or ineffective in making them stop. We are told that Luis, the father, had an 18-month affair, and the couple’s 17-year marriage ended about two years ago. Luis admitted to the affair when confronted by his 16-year-old daughter.

To complicate matters, one of the other daughters has begun a secret sexual relationship with her boyfriend, despite being forbidden by her mother to date until she is 18.

Boteach enters the picture on a mission, although we are not sure from the outset what it is. He introduces himself as having counseled thousands of families and being the author of a best-selling book on family life. As he drives to Philadelphia, he tells us that his own parents divorced when he was 8. “I was devastated, and at that early age, vowed I will make a difference.”

He might have chosen to become a family therapist or a child-focused therapist. Instead, he is a rabbi with a deep desire to fix problems. He reminds us that he practices what he preaches, since he has eight children of his own.

If he were a therapist, he would begin his work with this family by taking a thorough account of their history. He would want to know about the mother’s own experiences as a child, her parenting style, the kind of discipline she uses, how effective it is, what kind of relationship she has with each of the children, what is special and unique about each child and what kind of marriage she had prior to her divorce, as well as the current custody arrangements and the current relationships between the children and their father.

Boteach does not ask these questions. He makes his diagnosis immediately. He decides that the main reason the children are assaulting each other is because of their parents’ divorce.

“Without dad, Luis, the Romero family is losing its way,” he says. His solution is equally straightforward: “Divorce is a tragedy, and if we can save them from going through this torture, we must,” he tells the parents.

His mission is now clear: Boteach is going to get the parents back together and help them work as a team to parent their children. No, not as in the traditional help a therapist might offer divorced parents, such as assistance in understanding that they need to find a way to communicate with each other, because their children still need them to be effective parents. Instead, he focuses on actually getting the two back together as husband and wife, so that they can both be there to parent their children.

How does Boteach try to achieve his goal?

He does not rely on the therapeutic process, in which the person in therapy comes to understand his or her own feelings, obstacles and baggage, thereby finding renewed energy and motivation to change behavior. Boteach’s approach consists of using persuasion, gentle pressure, guilt, rabbinic wisdom and his ability to coach a basketball game.

Rabbinic wisdom is dispensed freely. When Beatrice expresses her frustration at not knowing how to stop the children from arguing and fighting, Boteach tells her that her daughters, who should be giving off softness and nurturing energy, are instead behaving like boys in the locker room — something he claims they learned from her, because she has been distant and withdrawn from Luis.

When Luis expresses disappointment that his daughter is having sex with her boyfriend, Boteach comes down hard on him: “A girl at 16 needs a man to tell her she is special. Your daughter needs a father now, not a boyfriend. You need to be a father to her and a husband and protect your daughter. You need to tell her she is special.”

Apparently, Luis also needs to know that it’s not Beatrice’s job to lay down the law in the home.

“Luis,” he says, “it is your job to lay down the law. Don’t be weak. Do the right thing.”

Later, Boteach addresses the audience, telling us that most men who have affairs are not thinking.

“If Luis can be a man, a dedicated, monogamous, loving husband, maybe I can bring this family back together.” he says.

To bring everyone together, Boteach says he needs to do something really different. He does this by bringing the family onto a basketball court, and as a “good coach” — as he refers to himself — he makes the mother and father play on one team and the children on the other. His goal, he says in an aside to viewers, is to make the parents work together in hopes that they will stop bickering and begin enjoying each other’s company.

He tries the same tactic again later, upping the ante. The family is going to engage in another activity — cleaning out the basement. This time, the rabbi informs us, “divorce is only a necessity if you can’t fix the situation.”

Before the family meets, he has a t?te-?-t?te with Beatrice. In the conversation, he uses guilt to make her give him another chance, telling her Luis still loves her. He has a similar conversation with Luis, in which he tells him, “The secret to life is that you can do whatever you want. If you want her back, and are sincere, you can make it happen.”

Then, as the family cleans out the basement, with Luis intentionally made the leader of the project, “even though he does not live there,” Boteach pipes in suggestions through a remote walkie-talkie, suggesting to Luis to get a drink for his wife and telling Beatrice to thank him for it. The family activity is topped off with Boteach telling everyone how much they need to respect Luis for doing something so selfless.

Based on the shots of the family taken two months after the episode, everyone seems to be doing better.

So, what exactly happened?

I am not sure, but it seems that the rabbi’s conservative, traditional values were well received and echoed by the values of the family. We are not told what the family’s religious affiliation is, but the girls appeared to be dressed in parochial school uniforms. Capitalizing on their religious values, Boteach was able to sermonize to them about right and wrong, to hold up traditional roles for men and women as an ideal and to make the family members believe that they had made a mistake that could be corrected.

In the second episode, airing Monday, April 17, Boteach relies on the same rabbinical wisdom, pop psychology and common sense to fix the problem of the Maxwell family, who requested help disciplining their 3-year-old only son, Zackary. We see Zack running down the street toward the curb, throwing temper tantrums. We see the child refusing to listen to his mother, brush his teeth or sleep in his own bed.

The parents, Greg and LynnSue have not slept alone together for most of the year, and Greg has a hobby of videotaping Zack’s every move and then posting the clips on a Web page, which gets hundreds of hits a day.

Boteach summarizes Zack’s problems as “a simple problem of discipline. Zack simply has too much control, and the parents need to sleep together in the same bed, without Zack there.”

So far, Boteach’s thoughts, though simplistic, and formed without much more information than what viewers have been given, seem to be on the right track.

To remedy the situation, he tells the parents that it is their job to set the rules, that 3-year-olds do not understand the concept of boundaries in an intelligent way and that children need their parents to set down the law. Having witnessed the parents struggling with Zack during bedtime, we can accept the notion that Zack feels he is the boss and needs some clear guidelines, with consistency and follow-through, all of which seems to be missing at the Maxwell home.

What becomes excruciatingly painful to watch are the couple’s attempt to keep Zack sleeping in his bed, having been told that it will only take two or three attempts over a couple of nights before Zack will comply.

I became furious watching Greg and LynnSue change Zack’s routines cold turkey, leaving him feeling helpless, lost and angry.

Boteach focuses only on fixing the problem, without regard to the complicated issues that come up for parents in setting limits, withstanding their children’s cries and being firm but gentle. He ignores the important process of helping parents set realistic expectations. When their new routine fails, he is taken aback by their displeasure with him.

The last telling and painful segment revolves around a video Greg shot of Zack having a temper tantrum. Zack was throwing around his trains and was given a warning to stop or lose the privilege of playing with them. Zack continues to throw the trains, and the parents gather up the whole set and put it away.

Greg takes out the camera to record Zack’s reaction. Zack becomes enraged, partly about losing his trains but also about being filmed, and he tells his father to stop. Greg ignores him.

When Boteach discusses this clip, he focuses on the problem of letting Zack express this much rage, which he believes needs to be “reigned in.” As a good Chasidic rabbi, he is following the dictum of “having anger is likened to serving idols.” By telling the parents that they simply need to find a way to control the temper tantrum, he not only loses their attention, but he also offers nothing to help the next time.

The rabbi shrugs off their disconnect, blaming the father for being insecure, fearful of being ordinary and resistant to his message. His parting words to the father are to forget about the camera and Web site, to focus on the family and the precious moments one has with them and not go after big bucks and fame. The father’s look has a mixture of frustration and thoughtfulness. Boteach is happy.

I was not.

As a religious Jew, Boteach’s sermons have a somewhat familiar, comfortable tinge. But, as a therapist, his mission and his methods grate on my professional ethics, my psyche and my nerves.

It is almost excruciatingly painful to see him in the first episode impose his own agenda on a family and through guilt, coerce them into making promises to him; telling them that he has the cure for all their ills, and finally committing one of the cardinal sins of working with children of divorce: asking the children in a suggestive way if they would like to have their parents back together.

It is equally enraging in the second episode to see Boteach “play therapist,” assuring the family he knows what he is doing and then watching them feel inadequate, let down and humiliated at their failure.

But, the most insightful piece for me, as a therapist, was to see how Boteach’s deep-seated painful feelings surrounding his own parents’ divorce remain with him — unprocessed and unconscious — and his deep-seated wish to have had someone walk into his home and do what every child of divorce dreams of: bring the parents back together, continue to live on in the present and be the driving force for one’s life work.

I also now can sleep better, knowing that therapists really do offer people something very different than clergy, co-workers, relatives, friends and colleagues.

Irine Schweitzer, a licensed clinical social worker, has a private practice in Sherman Oaks.

Misguided Passion About Gibson’s Film


The great 20th century philosopher, Martin Buber, had an uncanny ability to speak to ecumenical gatherings. He would often begin his lectures highlighting the many theological tenets shared by Jews and Christians.

“Jews,” he said, “believe the Messiah has yet to come.” To which he added, “Christians believe the messiah has come, and they are waiting for his — Jesus’ — return.”

Concluding his introduction he quipped, “Let us pray and work together for the Messiah’s arrival, and when he gets here, we’ll ask if he’s been here before!”

In anticipation of Easter, a slightly modified version of “The Passion of the Christ,” the film by actor and director Mel Gibson, and screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald, has been re-released. The second coming if you will. This re-cut version is widely available in a DVD gift format.

In light of the film’s reappearance, it is worth recalling what happened before the movie’s initial debut back on Good Friday of 2004. At the time, much of the Jewish community was in shock — panic struck — worried the film would stir-up anti-Semitic feelings. The Anti-Defamation League, under the direction of Abe Foxman, led the charge.

Newspapers and magazines were filled with articles largely condemning the work. Opinions were cast like stones, often expressed by those who had not even seen the movie. From Jerusalem, Rome, New York and Los Angeles, and all points in between and beyond, comments flew every which way. Even ailing Pope John Paul II at the time allegedly uttered an opinion on the film that sounded more like a papal edict. “It is as it was.”

After people started seeing the film in huge numbers, another shock was in store for many Jews, who continue to hold a medieval understanding of Jewish-Christian relations: Anti-Semitism did not re-surface or intensify as a result of the film’s release.

In fairness to those who continue to hold anachronistic points of view, such fears about Christianity were not always unjustified. Throughout history, mainly European history, the passion plays’ depiction of deicide generated horrific hatred against Jews. Such performances were banned in Rome in 1539, because they led to murderous rampages on the Jewish ghetto. Much later, in 1934, Hitler himself referred to the plays as: “precious tools.”

Now, with a perspective on Gibson’s film that comes with experience, hardly a sound can be heard from Jewish leaders: no outcries; no expressed, projected worries of accelerated anti-Semitism. But there also have been no apologetic retractions of the earlier aspersions. Given all the negative reactions and expressed fear prior to the film’s original release, an open re-evaluation by Jews is in order.

All along, “The Passion of the Christ” ought to have been seen as a t?te-?-t?te opportunity, a chance to inaugurate a dialogue to elucidate and clarify the similarities and differences of these two great, monotheistic religions. The movie understandably targets a largely Christian viewing audience, but its platform is derived from Judaism. Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and, yes, died a Jew. Over time, like Judaism, Christianity evolved. For any number of reasons, it parted with conventional Jewish thought and theology.

Consider the following three examples from “The Passion of the Christ” and the theology it embodies.

1 — Original Sin.

Derived from the Bible’s Garden of Eden narrative, most Christian interpretation holds human beings inherently sinful because of Adam’s (and Eve’s) initial disobedience of God. Unlike Christianity, Judaism holds the human soul is born pure and unadulterated. The Jewish perspective grows out of the ideal that holds individuals accountable for their actions — not their ancestors, biblical or otherwise.

2 — Faith vs. Law.

The apostle Paul — also a Jew by birth — had an all-or-nothing perception of Jewish law: If you have not fulfilled all of the Bible’s laws perfectly, then you are a sinner. But think about it: It would be a virtual indictment of God to suggest that God would create less-than-perfect human beings and then condemn them for being imperfect.

3 — The Messiah.

This subject is, of course, the thematic crux of the blockbuster film. The substantive difference between Jew and Christian on this issue revolves around the divinity of Jesus. “The Passion” has generated so much passion because it tells not merely of the death of Jesus the man, or even Jesus the messiah. Far more significant for Jews is the indictment in the film — drawn from the New Testament — that some Jews collaborated in the death of God. Call it what it was: an unadulterated deicide.

As a Jew, what is baffling to me is how anyone thinks you can actually kill God. Ignore God — yes; disbelieve in God — of course that happens. But if there is one area where Jews and Christians ought to agree, it is this: God is infinite, omnipotent and transcendent. Further, all human beings are created by God and in God’s image — no matter one’s faith.

These are just three important points of discussion the film raises. Their consideration can and should lead to honest, inspiring, open, soul-searching questions. Maybe that is why so many Jews feel threatened by the devout Christians who championed this movie, as well as by the film’s several incarnations. Some Jews remain suspicious of Christian friendship; they suspect that Christians’ love for Israel and the Jewish people is for another motive: to convert unknowing Jews away from their faith.

But Jews have no one to blame but themselves if they are so increasingly unaware of and despondent regarding their great, age-old religious tradition that they cannot even debate and discuss these theological divides. In the meantime, movies like “The Passion” will continue to generate wonderful opportunities for Jews and Christians who are eager to engage in an ongoing spiritual dialogue. Perhaps this exchange will bring the Messiah sooner to the world if, for nothing else, to set us straight on whether he’s been here before.

Michael Gotlieb is rabbi of Kehillat Ma’arav Synagogue in Santa Monica.

 

What Do Gen-Y Jews Want? Everything


Brandeis University just released a new study of Jewish college students. It found that they’re proud to be Jewish, largely unaffiliated, attracted to Jewish culture more than religion, like diversity and don’t feel strong ties to Israel or Jewish federations.

Reboot, a nonprofit that promotes creative Jewish initiatives, just did a study of the same age group, and found that they’re proud to be Jewish, avoid institutional affiliation, are interested in Jewish culture and have diverse allegiances.

Sociologist Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York did a similar study, as did Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and they both found … guess what? Young Jews are proud, unaffiliated, pro-culture, pro-diversity and anti-tribal.

The last few months have seen a flood of studies of Gen-Y Jews — all trying to map their sense of Jewish identity, affiliation patterns, needs, hopes, beliefs and behaviors.

Why is everyone looking at the same population?

First, there are the numbers: almost half a million Jewish college students, the future of this country’s Jewish community. The very few studies on record, particularly the 1990 and 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Surveys (NJPS), indicate that large numbers of young Jews aren’t going to synagogue, joining Jewish organizations, marrying other Jews or giving money to Israel or Jewish charities.

They’re opting out, which has led to great hand-wringing and head-shaking on the part of American Jewish officials.

Yet the new studies show an up-and-coming generation that is proud of its Jewish identity and culturally creative, is coming up with new methods of religious expression and feels part of a global community linked by Jewish Web sites and blogs.

Researchers say it’s cause for cautious celebration.

“There has been a general angst about the Jewish future for the past two decades, a continuity crisis,” says Roger Bennett, senior vice president at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which sponsored the March 2006 Reboot study, “Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam: Jewish Identity and Community in a Time of Unlimited Choices.”

Describing his study’s findings as “very positive,” Bennett says, “I hope this study assuages almost all the fear. There’s plenty to be optimistic about.”

The question for Jewish funders and organizations is what they’re going to do with the information, Bennett says.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, says that while Jewish leaders in the late 1960s and early ’70s were “very unhappy about developments in the youth culture, and took a long time to reconcile themselves to it,” today’s Jewish leadership “is inquisitive, wants to know more.

Even while the older generation “may be shocked at things like Heeb,” an irreverent youth magazine, it “sees that something is going on and is paying attention,” Sarna says.

But if all these new studies are yielding pretty much the same information, are they useful?

Yes, researchers insist. First, each study asks slightly different questions, reflecting the needs of the sponsoring organization.

For example, Hillel’s study was prompted largely by one figure from the 2000-2001 NJPS, which showed that two-thirds of Jewish college students don’t attend Hillel activities, says Julian Sandler, chair of the group’s strategic planning committee. Hillel will release its long-awaited study of Jewish college students in late May.

The statistic “troubled us immensely,” Sandler says. Hillel engaged in two years of research “to try to understand what it is that today’s Jewish students are interested in.”

Hillel already has put some of that information to work. One of the central findings of its study is that young Jews have “a strong desire to find out more about their Jewishness, especially from an ethnic perspective,” which can “be manifested in multiple ways.”

One popular way is through tzedek, or social justice work. To that end, Hillel last month sent hundreds of students on a spring-break trip to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild communities hit by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“Tzedek will be a major emphasis [of Hillel programming in the future],” Sandler says.

Amy Sales, co-author of “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus,” a new study by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis, says her data, collected in 2003, helps the people funding Jewish campus activities to use their dollars more effectively.

Her study found, among other things, that Jewish college students are interested in Jewish studies, want events that have a Jewish “flavor” but are open to non-Jews and need help in finding meaningful, compelling ways to engage in Jewish life.

She and co-author Leonard Saxe used that information to propose that Hillel customize its programs for each campus and develop better relationships with university administrations, other campus groups and local Jewish communities, creating “Jewish-friendly campuses” rather than focusing on simply reaching as many Jewish students as possible.

In fact, Hillel is doing just that, incoming President Wayne Firestone says. The group is convening a Washington summit May 21-23 to bring together funders, university administrators and Jewish organizational heads to talk about how to improve working relationships on campus, the first time such a targeted meeting has been held.

Researchers from all the studies agree that today’s young Jews can be a willing and energetic audience if the organized Jewish community steps up to the plate in time, and with a message that is relevant.

“They are looking for a positive Jewish experience, and every Jewish institution that answers that and puts its faith in young people will have a rosy future,” Bennett says. “Any funder that wishes to innovate is going to prosper.”

 

PASSOVER: Try to Avoid Asking the Fifth Question


While there are only four questions posed in the haggadah, most seders struggle with the unasked fifth question, “When are we going to eat?” It is asked, not only by hungry children, but also by adults who feel disconnected to the rituals of their ancestors. As if reenacting the hurried way in which the Israelites left Egypt with Pharaoh’s army bearing down upon them, families today rush through the seder. While they are supposed to be reenacting the Exodus through the rituals of the haggadah, instead, unbeknownst to them, they emphasize the hurried nature of the experience. Whether due to hunger or boredom, Jewish families are fast-forwarding to the food and neglecting the command to “see themselves as if they left Egypt.”

I remember my own childhood seders, when eating prior to the motzee (blessing) over the matzah was strictly forbidden. How could a 7-year-old sit for an hour or more in a seder that was largely done by rote and in Hebrew? I was able to remain focused only because I was mesmerized by my zayde (and slightly terrified by the glare he would give if any of his grandchildren got out of order). If I would dare reach for a carrot or any other food item on the table, an adult hand, like one of the Divine plagues unleashed against the Egyptians, would quickly respond with a light slap on my hand. My family did not know about the rabbinic rule stipulating that after reciting the blessing over the karpas (parsley or any green) at the beginning of the seder that any food grown from the ground may be eaten. With great wisdom the ancient rabbis created this rule in order to avoid the fifth question. Therefore, at our seders today we put carrots and celery on the table for people to eat after the parsley.

Once the question of hunger has been resolved, then the issue of boredom can be addressed. Abbreviating the haggadah is fine, if relevance is found in other ways. Ask your own questions, like “Why is it important to remember the Exodus?” and “When do we feel enslaved in our own lives?” as a means of making the seder relevant. Why are questions so important? Because they reflect interest and concern. We ask questions when we care about things. To make the seder relevant, we must ask our own questions and let the answers (there should be no singular answer) give us new meaning.

Reducing the need for the dreaded fifth question beforehand makes us more relaxed until it’s time for the bountiful food, family inside jokes and the rest of a warm and celebratory evening. The seder guests become sated, coffee is served, conversation is plentiful until the announcement, “It is time for the second half of the seder.” During my childhood seders, we never had to make the announcement, because at some point after the meal my uncle would walk a couple of steps over to the couch and take a nap. Some time later (I have no idea whether it was 15 minutes or an hour) when he would wake up, we all knew it was time for the second half of the seder.

Through classes and discussion groups I have discovered that many families do not complete the seder. “Is there really a second half to the seder?” I am asked. But how is this possible? Without the second half, there are only two cups of wine, no afikomen and no opening of the door for Elijah. Without the second half of the seder, there is no completion — there is no hope. So how can families fulfill these second-half rituals? Don’t serve dessert until the very end.

I want to preface this suggestion with an acknowledgement that it is contrary to the traditional Jewish law to eat dessert after partaking of the afikomen. But for families who do not usually complete the rituals of the seder, I would rather they embrace my suggestion. It has become clear to me that most seders fall apart over coffee and cake. Just as the national anthem indicates for many people the beginning of a ball game, dessert means that it is time to go home. With the coffee cup empty and only crumbs remaining on the dessert plate, people begin to think about the next day.

Excuses begin to be offered: “The children need to wake up for school tomorrow” (I would love for children to tell their parents that Passover should be a day off from school), “I have a busy day tomorrow.” Before the haggadot can be brought out again, coats are on, lips are puckered and another Exodus begins. Therefore, finish the meal, clean up some of the plates and then just as they are expecting dessert, bring out the haggadot again. Be gentle with them the first time — perhaps only 15 minutes. But you can do enough in 15 minutes; eat the afikomen, open the door and welcome Elijah, drink two more cups of wine and even sing a couple of songs at the end of the seder. Finally, bring out the coffee and dessert and enjoy the end of an evening that is no longer rushed. Who knows, perhaps they will enjoy the second half so much that, within a couple of years, dessert can be put back in its proper place.

One of my favorite rituals actually occurs during the second half of the seder. Unbeknownst to many Jews, the Cup of Elijah is supposed to remain empty until the fourth cup of wine (see your haggadah). Rather than just pouring wine from the bottle for the Cup of Elijah, it is our custom to pass the Cup of Elijah around the table and each participant pours some wine from their cup into Elijah’s. We open the door each year at Passover with the hope the Elijah will come to announce the coming of a messianic era, a time when wars will cease, hunger will be nonexistent and peace will reign. But we are partners with God in creating this perfect world. So this year, pass around the Cup of Elijah, ask each person to pour a little bit from their cup and as they do, to think about how they will help to bring about the messianic era. What acts of kindness will they perform, how will they save the environment and in what ways will they contribute to the betterment of humanity? How do we acknowledge and thank God for the blessings of life? By engaging in tikkun olam — the perfecting of His world. The full Cup of Elijah represents the Divine-human partnership and serves as a reminder of what ultimately the Exodus should mean to us.

What should be the goal of your Passover seder this year? Make it more meaningful than last year. Ask more questions to show that you care. Challenge more people to reflect on the lessons of the Exodus. Help expedite the coming of Elijah. When your seder is more than just a rushed meal you can truly feel as if you were redeemed from Egypt.

Rabbi Stewart L. Vogel is spiritual leader of Temple Aliyah.

 

Relationships 101


Why is finding and sustaining a successful romantic relationship so difficult? I blame the American education system. It teaches us a world of information we most likely will never need unless we’re either settling a bar bet, appearing on “Jeopardy” or helping our children with their obscure, fact-laden homework. By the time I graduated from college, I knew an impressive amount about ancient Greek history, subtext in Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and a frog’s intestines. Don’t ask me when I last used any of it.

As for creating and sustaining a romantic relationship, though — I pretty much knew, and still know, squat. Why do we spend so much time and energy teaching our children so much Trivial Pursuit-like “stuff,” while disregarding vital life skills they so desperately need? All that’s going to change when I become czar of education. You can bet that changing a tire, balancing a checkbook and cooking a meal will be part of my curriculum. And there’ll especially be a wide variety of courses available dealing with romantic relationships, including the following, taken directly from my proposed Relationships 101 syllabus:

Geography of Romance: A course dealing with the best places to meet your romantic partner. Certain locales lend themselves to greater relationship success — churches and temples, the homes of friends and relatives, bookstores, supermarkets, restaurants, parks and beaches. Other places tend to be riskier — prison, tattoo parlors, methamphetamine labs, mosh pits, wife-swapping parties, Chuck E. Cheese restaurants, gatherings of arms dealers. You can’t find the “wow” unless you know the “where.” But enough quoting Aristotle.

Interrogatory Land Mines: These refer to specific questions your romantic partner will be asking you. The most important thing to remember is that any response you give, no matter how carefully considered, how sensitive or how loving — will anger your partner and put your relationship at risk. Such questions include, “Do you think our waitress is pretty?” “If I died tonight, which of my girlfriends would you most want to date?” and, of course, the ever-popular, “Does this dress make me look fat?” Learn invaluable techniques for changing the subject, distracting with compliments and faking a seizure.

Handling Rejection I: Why you still have value as a human being despite being turned down as a romantic partner. Why a woman who turns you down may not necessarily be a lesbian. Why a man who turns you down may not necessarily have a fear of commitment — he just may not want to commit to you. Why when your romantic partner says “I’m not in the mood,” it does not mean you have a license to leave the house angrily and find someone who is in the mood. (Trust me.) Why your only true friend being your dog may not necessarily be a bad thing — for the dog, that is.

Handling Rejection II — Inappropriate Responses to Being Dumped:

Guest lecturers who have actually either made or received these inappropriate responses will discuss: Keying his car, posting embarrassing nude photos of her on the Internet, committing ritual Japanese suicide (appearing via video made shortly before his demise), weeping loudly and completely out of context for months, burning down his house, kidnapping his children, reporting her to the Department of Homeland Security and losing interest in everything in life except the reality show, “Dancing With the Stars.” Bitter students with an axe to grind are more than welcome.

Things to Make Sure Your Romantic Partner Doesn’t See the First Time She Visits Your House: For men only. The first part of the course will identify those things that most men are unaware tick women off, including: dirty dishes in the sink, dirty underwear on the floor, dirty dishes on the floor, dirty underwear in the sink, other women in the bed, other men in the bed. The second part of the course will deal with methods you can use to salvage the relationship once she is completely grossed out by your disgusting habitat. In addition, each student receives a complimentary subscription to Martha Stewart Living, a clothes hamper and a huge, scent-concealing empty box into which you can dump all your dirty clothing and dishes until you have the time and energy to deal with them.

Now, you gotta admit — all that is education you can use.

Mark Miller, a comedy writer and performer, can be reached at markmiller2000@comcast.net.

AF Academy’s New Religion Rules Hit


The U.S. Air Force last week introduced revised guidelines on religious tolerance and practices at its training academy, and they are widely regarded as a step backward.

A number of Jewish leaders say their efforts to change the Air Force Academy’s position on Christian proselytizing were overmatched by the evangelical community, which fought any move to restrict religious discussion on campus. Critics have accused the academy of imposing a Christian environment on campus and allowing proselytizing by senior officers and cadets.

Some see the new guidelines as more permissive of religious discussion than were the interim guidelines issued last August. Air Force officials acknowledge that the guidelines were revised following an angry response from Christian groups and from 72 members of Congress who sent a letter to President Bush last month.

“We didn’t like what came out in August, but this is a public retreat from where they were before,” said Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate who is suing the school for allegedly violating the constitutional separation of church and state.

Jewish leaders said more efforts are needed to counterbalance the evangelical Christian community.

“We have not galvanized Congress, but we will have to,” said Abraham Foxman, Anti-Defamation League national director

Others, however, say the new guidelines contribute toward ridding the military of religious intolerance.

The academy has been under scrutiny since reports surfaced of an overtly Christian environment that permitted Christian prayer and proselytizing by senior officers and did not accommodate minority religious practices. The new rules allow for public prayer, stating only that it “should not imply government endorsement of religion and should not usually be part of routine official business.”

The previous guidelines outlawed public prayer in official settings but allowed for a “brief nonsectarian prayer” at special ceremonies or events.

The new guidelines also focus on reaffirming senior officers’ rights to free exercise of religion, while warning that superiors need to be “sensitive to the potential that personal expressions may appear to be official or have undue influence on their subordinates.”

“There is enough leeway in these guidelines to permit proselytizing,” Foxman said.

August’s guidelines went further toward highlighting the need for sensitivity from senior officers.

“The more senior the individual, the more likely that personal expressions may be perceived to be official statements,” the former guidelines read.

Maj. Gen. Charles Baldwin, the Air Force’s chief of chaplains, told the Washington Post that the new guidelines came about as a result of criticism from evangelicals. Several organizations flooded administration officials with complaints, calling the August report a violation of freedoms of speech and religion.

A spokeswoman for the Air Force said the guidelines had been augmented after feedback, especially where the “original language had been misunderstood.”

“After a reasonable amount of time, the secretary will likely deem this set of guidance as the final version, but the Air Force will need experience with how the guidelines work in practice before deciding on the finalization date,” Jennifer Stephens wrote in a written response to questions.

The Jewish community’s view on the new guidelines is not unanimous. The American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism issued a joint press release Feb. 9 commending the Air Force’s effort to address problems of religious accommodation.

 

Sondheim Knows How to Book ‘Em


Some people begin collecting because they’ve coveted certain objects for as long as they can remember. Others collect as an investment. And, of course, there are poseurs who hire prestige dealers to buy them trendy art because they want to be viewed as taste mavens.

Harry Sondheim, a retired criminal prosecutor for the L.A. County D.A.’s office, started to collect Judaica for none of those reasons. He was traveling in Holland when he simply noticed an artifact that appealed to him: “They had a museum, Der Weg, which means the Weighing House. They had an artist named Bicart. I bought some postcards with depictions of Jewish ceremonies on them. You can’t buy those postcards any longer.”

Reflecting his legal training, Sondheim answers questions methodically. Even his decision to focus on rare books, as opposed to art, shows a judicious attitude.

“It’s pretty hard to falsify a book,” he said, adding, “they’re not as likely to be stolen. If you have a thief in the house, they’re more likely to steal a silver menorah.”

Maybe it matters, too, that Sondheim attended the University of Chicago in the era when that institution still featured the Great Books courses.

Sondheim will be speaking at the 39th California International Antiquarian Book Fair’s “Collecting Your Roots” panel on Sunday, Feb. 19.

He especially likes rare manuscripts that include illustrations or, as he says, “depictions” of Jewish ceremonies and customs.

Sondheim has never taken a vacation specifically to collect books, but has purchased manuscripts at synagogues, museums and bookstores around the world, including Germany, where he can trace his genealogy back to around 1760. His family fled Germany in 1938, several months before Kristallnacht. The tomes he favors are typically printed in German, their existence all the more remarkable because of the Nazis’ program of burning Jewish books.

The best deal he ever got was a work by Arthur Szyk, a Polish Jewish artist from the first half of the 20th century who specialized in political caricatures and miniature painting. Given Sondheim’s background in the law, it is not surprising that he bought the “Statut of Kalisz.” The book is Szyk’s interpretation of a 13th-century manuscript that has been called the “Jewish Magna Carta,” a decree by which a Polish king gave Jews civil rights. Szyk illustrated the manuscript while also relating the statute to some other events in Jewish history.

“One page shows different occupations a Jew might have had, weaving, baking, a cobbler,” Sondheim said. “I acquired that at a reasonable price, around $17,000. Someone else’s copy was recently auctioned off for $64,000.”

Sondheim does not use eBay though he’ll search through an auction house’s Web site, which he calls “the equivalent of having their catalog.”

Collecting, he says, is “a sort of continuum. There are pictures of chuppahs from hundreds of years ago, and you have chuppahs today. You live the present through the past.”

The 39th California International Antiquarian Book Fair will be held at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel, 2025 Avenue of the Stars, from Friday, Feb. 17 through Sunday, Feb. 19. Harry Sondheim will speak at the “Collecting Your Roots” panel, a free seminar, on Sunday at 2 p.m. For information, call (800) 454-6401.

 

Elliott Gould Thrives as Work in Progress


Elliott Gould appeared for our interview at the Chabad House near UCLA, his venue of choice, wearing a baseball cap over his unruly salt-and-pepper locks, an open-necked shirt and glasses.

That’s quite a change from the three-piece, pin-striped suit and neatly combed hair he sports as Rufus Van Aldin, the fabulously wealthy American oil magnate in Agatha Christie’s thriller, “The Mystery of the Blue Train.”

The episode, one in the British television series on the adventures of that canny Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (David Suchet), will air Sunday, Feb. 12, on the Biography Channel at 9 p.m. and again at 1 a.m.

The 67-year-old actor obviously enjoyed the role and the locations in Nice and London.

“The British have always been very supportive of me,” he said, a feeling that goes back to 1963, when he starred in the London production of the musical, “On the Town.”

For the West End stage run, Gould brought along his new bride, the rising young singer Barbra Streisand, and he later spoke frankly of their relationship, which has since filled reams of tabloid columns.

Elliott Goldstein grew up in a two-and-a-half room apartment in a section of Brooklyn populated by Jews, Syrians and Italians, the only child of a garment industry production manager and his wife. Both parents were born in the United States, but his grandparents emigrated from Russia, the Ukraine and Poland.

Gould has total recall of his childhood, a mixed blessing, at best.

“My parents didn’t know how to love each other, and that devastated me,” he reminisced. “I’ve been in shock and denial of this most of my life, and as a boy, I was repressed, inhibited and very withdrawn.”

On Passovers, the Goldstein family visited Uncle Louie, and young Elliott got to ask the Four Questions. The future actor found it “stressful to get it right. I was very sensitive and insecure.”

In 1944, when Elliott was 6, his father was drafted into the Army, became a sharpshooter but broke his ankle just before he was to be shipped overseas. It was a lucky break, since most of his unit was wiped out in the Battle of the Bulge later that year.

Encouraged by his doting mother, Elliott auditioned for a “country-style” TV show, got a part and was told by the producer, “‘From now on your name is Gould,’ and I just accepted it.”

His stage career accelerated at age 12, when he made his debut as a tap dancer at the Palace, and at the same time, he started studying for his bar mitzvah at a Hebrew school. “On my first test, I cheated and got a 100,” he recalled.

At 18, he made it onto the Broadway stage in the chorus line of “Irma La Douce” and supplemented his meager earnings by selling vacuum cleaners, running a hotel elevator and working as a plumber’s helper.

His first breakthrough came as the lead in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” the same musical that first brought Streisand to public attention. The two young Jewish actors struck up a romance and married within the year.

The marriage proved difficult almost from the beginning. As his wife rocketed to superstardom, Gould, despite his promising performance in “Wholesale,” had trouble advancing his career.

Snide columnists took delight in referring to Gould as “Mr. Streisand” and in chronicling his real and alleged frustrations, depressions, therapy sessions and nervous breakdowns. Even the birth of their son, Jason Gould, in 1966, couldn’t reverse the downward trajectory of the couple’s marriage, and they were divorced in 1971. Gould also has two children with Jennifer Bogart, whom he married twice, divorced once and from whom he is now separated.

It became obvious during our long interview that Gould’s feelings about his marriage to Streisand are still acute and mixed. Again and again, he interrupted our conversation on other topics to break in with comments, such as:

“It is not true that I was traumatized because Barbra’s career went up and mine didn’t.”

“Barbra and I will always be connected through our son, Jason, but we only communicate when necessary.”

“Life is a challenging and painful journey. Barbra was part of it, and our love has not been destroyed.”

“Barbra will always love me.”

As his marriage gradually unraveled, Gould’s professional fortunes took a sudden turn upward. The breakthrough came in his role as Ted in the 1969 movie, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” about two sexually liberated but confused couples, which the ’60s generation adopted as the iconic reflection of itself.

Gould, who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his performance, was at the time described by The New York Times as “Tall, curly-haired, more homely than handsome, laid back, unconventional, sensitive and unabashedly Jewish.”

Over the following four years, Gould seemed to be everywhere on movie and television screens, and his photo graced the cover of Time magazine as “the star for an uptight age.” He was especially popular among young adults, who identified closely with the often-neurotic anti-hero he depicted.

He scored again as Trapper John in Robert Altman’s black comedy, “M*A*S*H,” and as private eye Philip Marlowe in “The Long Goodbye.”

Then, in the mid-70s, what had been the hottest property in Hollywood went cold. Gould continued to act in movies and television but mostly in forgettable productions and roles.

In the 1990s, he began to regain his reputation as a character actor through frequent appearances on the phenomenally successful TV series, “Friends,” and in the past few years he has been lauded for his movie roles in “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve.”

He remains as unabashedly Jewish as ever, though in his own way.

“I feel connected by the branches of the Jewish family tree,” he observed. “I belong every place where there is one of us…. Not only do I not deny my Judaism, but I am aware how unorthodox and unconventional I have been.”

Although “conditioned to question everything, the concept of faith seems right to me, and I have found my faith,” he added.

At 67, Gould considers himself “still a work in progress,” but he seems to have found a measure of equilibrium in a life during which “I never had problems with drugs, but I’ve had problems with reality.”

He lives in an apartment with a picture of Sigmund Freud on the wall and is re-reading the works of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud.

“I have nothing more to prove,” he said in concluding our interview. “I now look on myself as a happy and healthy grandfather.”

 

Boutique Teaches Brides Love Lessons


Where there’s a bride to be, there’s a bachelorette party. And for many Los Angeles women, that party means just one thing: The Love Boutique. For 25 years, the shop has entertained and educated parties of women about sexuality and sensuality. The Love Boutique parties are like Tupperware parties, but instead of selling kitchenware and sharing recipes, the consultants are selling romance gear and exchanging advice on how to heat things up in the bedroom.

“We provide women with an honest, authentic sexual education,” Love Boutique founder Judy Levy said. “We teach women everything their mothers didn’t and discuss everything that women are afraid to talk about.”

Levy, who describes herself as a nice Jewish mother, wasn’t always in the sexuality business. A graduate of Palisades High, this former B’nai B’rith Girls chapter president spent 15 years as a schoolteacher. While teaching in Europe, she was inspired by stores that sold sexual goods in a traditional retail environment. In January 1981, she brought her version of that liberal European attitude to the Los Angeles area, opening The Love Boutique in Tarzana and hosting home parties. Levy, who celebrated the shop’s 25th anniversary with a charity gala on Feb. 2, has since opened a second shop in Santa Monica and now hosts more than 100 parties each month.

The Love Boutique sells everything from massage oils to lingerie and romantic board games to self-help books. In keeping with the store’s philosophy, these items are merely tools to help women feel elegant, sexy and self-confident.

“The nighties are just the wrapping paper, you are the gift inside,” said Love Boutique party consultant Sophia Silver, who attends Stephen S. Wise. “We want to help women feel good about themselves and their relationships.”

But Levy’s Love Boutique parties aren’t promoting promiscuity or suggesting that women play the field.

“When women understand and respect their bodies, they will find partners who honor, appreciate and respect them,” Levy said. “Only men who understand this will get to be with us.”

Love Boutique consultants teach that sexuality is normal, healthy and fun. They explain that women will feel more powerful, creative and happy when they are comfortable with their sexuality, and that this sexual knowledge will lead to more successful relationships.

While Love Boutique’s parties and shops will have its detractors, Levy believes this education is important for all women, but especially young brides.

“Girls tend to focus on their wedding and forget about their wedding night and the nights after that,” said Levy, who was a virgin bride at 21. “It’s important that women think about how they’ll keep up that connection in their relationship.”

That’s where the Love Boutique’s bachelorette parties come in. The parties teach women to open up lines of communication and be proactive in their requests for what they want emotionally and physically. And attendees say they’re just plain fun. Hostesses invite 25 to 30 friends (over the age of 18) for lots of giggly, girly bonding and what else — shopping.

A love consultant arrives at the hostess’ home with a tablecloth, products and goodies. The party opens with a sexuality quiz. From there, the consultant opens up the conversation, allowing women to share stories and ask questions in a comfortable environment. The consultant leads the guests in games and discussions that help women learn about their own romantic needs. Then she walks the guests through the products available at Love Boutique.

The goods range from aphrodisiac candles to edible body frosting and some items that made this reporter blush to witness, let alone write about. Party consultants are aware that hostesses’ comfort levels may vary, and they will work with the hostess before the party to find a tone that works for her and her guests. At the end of the party, the consultant discretely meets with each guest individually to take orders to ensure that each remains private. The bachelorette receives a free hostess gift and a gift certificate valued at 10 percent of the party’s total sales.

Levy, who participates with ORT and Hadassah, believes her business meshes well with her Jewish beliefs. Many of her party consultants and hostesses are Jewish, and she says her work helps Jewish couples fulfill a Shabbat mitzvah.

“Every Friday night, my husband and I light Shabbat candles and stay home together,” said Levy, who belongs to Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana.

For Levy, who recently spent two weeks in Israel, tikkun olam (healing the world) is personal passion. The Love Boutique’s recent 25th anniversary party at the Jewish-owned Erotic Museum in Hollywood doubled as a benefit for Children of the Night, which rescues children from prostitution. During the month of February, 2 percent of all party, online and Love Boutique sales will go to the nonprofit.

Levy is thrilled to be helping the community at large and Jewish couples in particular through her business.

“We’re helping couples connect emotionally and physically, and it’s that connection that sustains a marriage,” she said.

To book a Love Boutique bachelorette party, call (310) 586-0902 or visit

My Jewish Intermarriage


What did you and your spouse discuss after it was clear that you would have a chuppah and ketubah in your future? Probably something that turned out not to matter like, “How many kids do you want?” or “What is your dream vacation?” or “If we have twins, do you think we should dress them the same?”

If you were anything like my husband, Jeff and me, you probably completely overlooked the real marital make-it-or-break-it questions like: “During the Passover seder, do you think the adults should hide the afikoman and have the kids look for it, or the reverse?” Or “Even though neither or us keeps kosher, is bacon OK?” “Is there an exception if I’m following Atkins?” “What is your position on latkes? Scratch or box?”

Let’s face it. Every marriage between two Jews is an intermarriage. I’m not talking about the obvious ones, like a marriage between an Orthodox Jew and a Jew-by-birth who is not at all religious. Clearly if one spouse davens three times a day and the other spouse uses Mapquest to find her way to synagogue on Yom Kippur, a silver anniversary is not in their future. I’m talking about the rest of us.

Because so much of our Jewishness comes from how we were raised — and we were all raised differently — spouses never seem to be identical in the way they live their Judaism. My husband and I are a perfect example of this. Although we both grew up in families that were members of Reform Valley synagogues, our Jewish childhoods were day and night. When my husband was young, his family celebrated Chanukah, and dabbled in Christmas. In contrast, Christmas at the Jaffe home only meant that Bullock’s was closed, dinner was Chinese and that our station wagon would be headed to the nearest movie theater.

My husband’s family showed up at temple twice a year for the Big Two: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And although my mother-in-law became a temple regular after her children were grown, my husband did not chalk up a lot of synagogue time when he was a child. My brother, sisters and I, on the other hand, spent a huge chunk of our childhood at our synagogue, Temple Judea. We first started Hebrew school when we were still in diapers (or so it seemed) and continued through confirmation. We didn’t miss a holiday (OK, I don’t have any specific memories of Tisha B’Av), and much of my family’s social life revolved around our havurah and temple events. If sports camps existed when we were kids, we didn’t know about them; it was a given that we would go to Jewish overnight camps.

(I have no doubt that when my husband reads this, he will point out that the reason my siblings and I did not attend sports or rustic sleep-away camps had less to do with Jewish zeal, and more to do with my family’s complete lack of coordination and irrational fear of camping. And I admit that there is some anecdotal evidence to support that position.)

While many years of celebrating holidays together has put my husband and me mostly on the same Jewish page, our different upbringings occasionally seep through. I feel it every Passover when his family breaks into a song with an unfamiliar melody, when he chooses a salty noodle kugel like his mother used to make rather than the sweet ones that I grew up with, and when we have Shabbat dinner on Friday nights.

I know Jeff and I are not alone in trying to merge the religious habits of two different childhoods. Several friends who had very traditional upbringings are married to Jewish atheists, who could take — but mostly leave — services. These friends have become the synagogue version of the football widow, and frequently attend temple events without their spouses.

By the time you read this, my husband and I will be approaching a dozen years of marriage. So why am I dissecting our relatively minor Jewish differences now? Two reasons.

First, I have written a book about the main causes of divorce. The book is predicated on interviews with 100 divorce lawyers from all over the country. I asked each lawyer for their opinion on why people are getting divorced in droves. While not a single one of them mentioned disagreements over whether the prayer over the wine is spoken or sung, let’s just say I am hypersensitive to anything and everything that might cause marital friction.

The other reason that this is on my mind is that in a few months, summer camp will be in session. This year is the year that we intend to force our children to go to sleep-away camp purportedly for their own good, but really so that we can go on some great adult vacation. No doubt I will vote for a Jewish overnight camp, and my husband will lobby for River Way Ranch Camp. Each of our preferences will be based on what is familiar from our childhoods.

So if you know anyone trolling JDate for a husband, tell them to stop wasting their time on trivial discussions of common goals and values, and get straight to the important questions like: “If we were married, and attending High Holiday services, would you prefer to sit in front near the choir or in the back by the door?”

Wendy Jaffe is a freelance writer living in Bell Canyon. She is also the author of “The Divorce Lawyers’ Guide to Staying Married,” which will be released later this month from Volt Press. She can be reached at wjaffewrite@aol.com.

Finders Keepers?


It’s definitely tsuris time at the pristine white acropolis complex of the Getty, which overlooks the San Diego Freeway, and at its wonderful, freshly renovated, fake Pompeian villa up the Pacific Coast Highway. Barry Munitz, the Getty Trust’s president and CEO since 1998, has been battered with press reports about apparently uncontrolled and self-indulgent personal expense-account spending of the kind that we have learned to associate with corporate malfeasance. The Getty’s vast assets may result from spectacular corporate earnings, but a trust is responsible to the public — to us! — not to stockholders. Insider staff dissatisfaction became most evident last fall, with the sudden resignation of Getty Museum Director Deborah Gribben.

Last week’s overdue resignation of Getty trustee and major antiquities donor Barbara Fleischman appears to be an attempt to resolve conflict-of-interest charges, which earlier forced the resignation of Marion True, the Getty’s prominent curator for antiquities. True is currently being tried by Italian authorities, who claim that she was involved in the Getty’s acquisition of allegedly stolen archaeological material. (Her defenders argue that True was actually responsible for the museum’s adopting stricter policies to determine the legality of its acquisition of ancient art.) Meanwhile, the Getty trustees have been attacked for inadequate fiduciary oversight, while simultaneously creating an investigative committee to see whether anything wrong has happened in either the Trust’s or the museum’s actions.

Problems like the Getty’s grab headlines because the countries from which the antiquities came — Italy, Greece, Turkey and Mexico among them — are no longer shy in their very public demands for restitution. In response, our own sense of righteous indignation moves in one of two directions: outrage that a museum is holding objects that are alleged to have been stolen and/or outrage that a museum — society’s safe-haven for precious things — is being asked to return objects to people who didn’t know how to take care of them properly. (Hey, otherwise how would they have gotten out in the first place?) This problem of objects claimed by previous owners or countries of origin faces all museums with historical holdings like a looming epidemic, a sort of Asian bird flu of the arts: There are a few isolated cases so far, but the fear of contagion could spread panic.

The Getty’s initial opaque response to such external pressures seems to be typical of many of our most valued public institutions, although it’s just possible that the Getty’s stunning arrogance is exceptional, even in the uppity world of museums. The Getty’s very spot, at the top of mountains in Pacific Palisades and in Brentwood, is symbolic of the institution. Is there, in these locations, an innate sense of not belonging to all those freeway backups down below that is emblematic of the distance between the Getty and the necessary demands of the real world? And is this what we see in many of our museums — that is, while providing one kind of access (educational programs, audio guides, etc.), they are nevertheless making sure that there is a wall keeping the public from knowing anything about how the place is run, the role of the trustees, and whether there are questions surrounding how the collections got there?

In light of this, I’ve been remembering my own professional museum experiences, and how I functioned in my role as a public servant — for that’s what museum workers are. On an organization chart, I reported directly to the trustees, but I always knew that my real bosses were the museum visitors, or even the potential visitors I had yet to lure in. Guiding midsized museums, such as the Baltimore Museum of Art and later the new Jewish Museum in Berlin, placed me in highly visible positions, but it never occurred to me that I needed an unlisted telephone number or other means to keep the public from my door. Even while working at the Smithsonian as assistant secretary for museums, with oversight responsibility for 15 of our national museums, I felt that anyone ought to have access to me, whether in my office or at home and, frankly, it never was a problem. Despite its size and wealth, the Getty management’s secrecy and absence of candor is not acceptable for an institution that is meant to serve as a public trust.

The criticism, nevertheless, is worth reviewing as well. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) was quoted expressing his concern “that the Getty board has been spending more time watching old episodes of ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ than doing its job of protecting Getty’s assets for charitable purposes.” But then, the Senate is not exactly our first stop when seeking probity these days. And even though the Council on Foundations recently placed the Getty Trust on probation, that doesn’t give us license to rush to judgment.

Here are some Jewish ethical questions we might ask prior to a Getty visit:

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Franklin Sentencing Seen As Ominous


It was surprising enough that the judge quadrupled the prosecution’s recommended sentence for Lawrence Franklin, from three years to more than 12.

But the true bombshell at the sentencing on Jan. 20 of the former Pentagon analyst, who is at the center of the case involving pro-Israel lobbyists and classified information, came as lawyers were shutting their briefcases.

That’s when U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III told the courtroom in Alexandria, Va., that he believed civilians are just as liable as government employees under laws governing the dissemination of classified information.

“Persons who have unauthorized possession, who come into unauthorized possession of classified information, must abide by the law,” Ellis said. “That applies to academics, lawyers, journalists, professors, whatever.”

It was difficult to assess whether Ellis was thinking out loud or was pronouncing his judicial philosophy. The judge earned a reputation as a voluble off-the-cuff philosopher when he adjudicated the case of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban.”

But if those are Ellis’ jury instructions in April, when two former staffers of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) go on trial, the implications could have major consequences — not just for Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, but for how Americans consider national security questions.

Franklin, a mid-level Iran analyst at the Pentagon, admitted to leaking information to Rosen and Weissman in 2003 because he wanted his concerns about the Iranian threat to reach the White House.

His Pentagon colleagues were focused on Iraq, and Franklin believed AIPAC could get his theories a hearing at the White House’s National Security Council. He also leaked information to Naor Gilon, the former chief political officer at the Israeli Embassy.

By the summer of 2004, government agents co-opted Franklin into setting up Rosen and Weissman. He allegedly leaked classified information to Weissman about purported Iranian plans to kill Israeli and American agents in northern Iraq.

Weissman and Rosen allegedly relayed that information to AIPAC colleagues, the media and Gilon. AIPAC fired the two men in March 2005.

Defense lawyers for Rosen and Weissman have joined a free speech watchdog in casting the case as a major First Amendment battle.

“The implications of this prosecution to news gatherers and others who work in First Amendment cases cannot be overstated,” lawyers for the former AIPAC staffers wrote in a brief earlier this month supporting an application from the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press to file an amicus brief.

The case is believed to be the first in U.S. history to apply a World War I-era statute that criminalizes the dissemination of classified information by U.S. civilians.

Franklin pleaded guilty to a similar statute barring government employees from leaking classified information. That statute rarely has been prosecuted; before Franklin, the last successful prosecution experts can recall was in the 1980s.