Fun Purim books for children arrive for the holiday

Purim, which begins this year on the evening of March 11, usually isn’t a holiday that inspires many new children’s books, but this year we have three that directly relate to the holiday and two others, both humorous, that reflect a bit of Purim spirit.

“Talia and the Haman-tushies” by Linda Elovitz Marshall. Illustrated by Francesco Assirelli (Kar-Ben Publishing).

Young Talia, along with her perennial food malapropisms, returns for the Purim holiday after her previous forays into “rude vegetable soup” for Rosh Hashanah and “yum” Kippur breakfast. When she’s certain she hears that Grandma wants to bake “Haman-tushies,” she emphatically decides she will never eat one. As they bake together, Grandma tells her the story of Queen Esther. The large illustrations and simplified Purim story are perfect for the toddler set.

“Purim Chicken” by Margery Cuyler. Illustrated by Puy Pintillos (Albert Whitman & Co.).

Farmyard animals with names such as Cluck, Quack, Moo and Neigh put on a yearly Purim play, with Quack always starring as Queen Esther. But this year, a hungry fox is preparing Quack to be the star of his dinner instead. Cluck, who covets the Queen Esther role, manages to save the day. Not much information about the holiday, but silly and fun nevertheless.

“Is It Purim Yet?” by Chris Barash. Illustrated by Alessandra Psacharopulo (Albert Whitman & Co.).

This sweet introduction to Purim is part of a series that introduces very young children to some of the Jewish holiday traditions. (Previous titles covered Chanukah and Sukkot.) The lyrical text opens with spring waking up from “deep winter sleep” and continues with chronicling the activities of children as they make hamantashen, pack up gift baskets, wave noisemakers and dress up for a joyful Megillah reading at synagogue.

“Maddie the Mitzvah Clown” by Karen Rostoker-Gruber. Illustrated by Christine Grove (Apples & Honey Press).

Clowns and Purim often go together, but becoming a “mitzvah clown” is a new thing. Some national Jewish youth-oriented organizations are encouraging teens to clown around (in costume) at adult senior homes and children’s hospitals instead of engaging in typical mitzvah-themed activities such as visiting soup kitchens. They say that entertaining others in this way also helps shy teens become more comfortable in social situations in general. This picture book expands on that idea through the story of Maddie, a shy mouse who loses
her inhibitions after learning the art of clowning when she performs the mitzvah
of bikur cholim (visiting the sick) at a senior convalescent home.

“The Silly World of Chelm: Everyone’s Favorite Tales of the Wise Men of Chelm” by Shepsel (Howard Spielman) and Avraham (Arnold Fine) (Two Lights Publishing).

More than 150 funny and logic-challenged folktales regarding the town of Chelm have been gathered together in an appealing compendium that the publisher called the “World’s First Definitive Encyclopedia of Chelm Stories.” The editor has collected the stories from those originally published weekly over decades in The Jewish Press newspaper. The original line-drawn comic-style illustrations also have been included. Each story is two or three pages in length and certain to provide much amusement for any family. The book is a delightful gift for kids who can’t get enough of those unforgettable and noodle-head residents of the mixed-up village of Chelm.

LISA SILVERMAN is the director of the Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.

Is Judaism kids’ stuff?

I exited the library last week with a tall pile of books, many of them classics I had read as a child.

As my own children become seasoned readers I want to encourage them to read the writings that had touched me; that I read over and over again.

This led to me myself revisiting these beloved worlds.

And I marveled at all of the new dimensions that jumped out at me; perhaps because it's been so long…I think it might be more because we ourselves change over the years.

Chanting the repetitive words of Good Night Moon now with my three-year-old, I see the appeal of the repetition- pleasurable, predictable, comforting.

Looking at the familiar pictures in The King's Stilts now in my 30’s, I notice the skill in the nuanced drawings.

Reading about Fantine's plight in Les Miserables now as a mother makes me understand more the pain in the depths of her soul.

The nostalgia…and the newness of these old books got me thinking about all the different aspects of our childhoods- places, people, friends, foods, music, scents, anecdotes…spirituality…that we might experience years later in a whole different way.

For a lot of Jews, being Jewish growing up meant enjoying the rich cultural aspects of the holiday seasons- sizzling latkes and menorahs on Chanukah, family Seders with crispy matzah and horseradish on Passover, crunchy apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah, creamy cheesecake and synagogue on Shavuot.

If reading a children’s book as an adult can give an increased appreciation, let’s surely make a commitment to re-examine Judaism, a deep, spiritual way of life that has worked in sustaining our people for 2,000 years.

There is paramount importance of studying the know-how's of the traditions, because for any mitzvah/value to be sustained, it must be bound to an action:

How do we testify and stay present in G-d's protection of the Jewish people? We build a sukkah on Sukkot.

How do we bring spiritual and physical light to the world? We light Shabbat candles.

How do we remember what our mission is for ourselves, our family, and the wider world? We read the Ten Commandments, which encompasses all of the mitzvot, on Shavuot.

The actions feed the soul, and then the deeper dimensions satisfy the mind; we want and need to explore the why's, too:

Why is a sukkah relevant today?

Why was the mitzvah of lighting candles given to the women?

Why eat the Kabbalistic, mystical hand-made matzah and not the machine-made?

Are we capable of the fiery faith the women projected in Egypt 2,000 years ago?

What does freedom mean to a Jewish woman in today's world?

Is the traditional Torah still relevant in contemporary times?

For many of us, our Jewish education ended at bar/bat mitzvah and we were not exposed to these deeper messages and ideas behind the practices, behind the very holidays themselves.

Messages and ideas that are directly relevant to the way we think and feel and act…to day-to-day life.

Without the inner meanings as an adult, we might perceive much of Judaism as “kids' stuff” or solely as a way to stay connected to our families and our past.

Especially today- we know a sophisticated amount about nutrition, psychology and exercise- why should Judaism be any different?

In the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s words, “Being that we live in a more sophisticated world,” we need a more “sophisticated Judaism.”

A Judaism that draws on Chassidic and Kabbalistic, mystical traditional texts that are deeply satisfying and comforting and a powerful, unchanging prism through which to see our ever-changing world.

I invite you to revisit the holidays and traditions- with the wisdom of our sages, and the wisdom of our personal experiences and years behind us- and take a deeper look at the Judaism that has held billions of Jews in times of happiness and sorrow.

Perhaps through the wealth of learning sites online, or better yet a Torah class with a live teacher.

So we revisit and learn more…then comes the often challenging part: Acting more.

This is why when G-d offered His Torah to the Jewish people, the mystical commentaries tell us that each Jew was gifted with two crowns, for their proclamations in unison: One crown for “We will do,” and another for “We will hear [learn].”

“We will do,” they said first, to establish their commitment to do Judaism; keep its mitzvot even when it’s hard, even when it hurts; and on that firm foundation of action, then, “We will learn,” we will spend a lifetime learning, going deeper and deeper into the teachings and mitzvot, which ripen in the mind with age and further understanding.

(I remember learning this as a child, comprehending it on a purely factual level. As I get older, I increasingly see the importance of this idea of committing to doing before completely understanding. We accept that planes get us safely to our destination without knowing exactly how their huge engines work, and we eat blueberries without verifying under a microscope that they are laden with antioxidants.

Because if we did, we’d spend more time trying to understand than traveling or eating blueberries. And Judaism is no different- if we wait until all of Judaism makes perfect sense and all of our questions are answered, we will delay the urgency of action. Of making Judaism- a proven system- a reality in our lives and in the lives of our children).

So Judaism is ultimately adult stuff.

But it’s kids’ stuff too!

In fact, when G-d asked the Jewish people to find guarantors that the Torah will be kept, they immediately offered Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but G-d rejected this idea.

The Jews’ second choice was the prophets…G-d nixed that.

Finally they offered the children, and G-d was satisfied.

As with so many stories of the Torah, this one reflects the story of today.

Our children are still our guarantors.

Untainted and unjaded from decades of challenges and struggles, the sparkle in their eyes as they kiss a mezuzah, and the unbridled enthusiasm as they sing the Shema reflect their wide-open hearts and promise a vibrant future as they embrace the Judaism of their parents and grandparents, enhanced by their individual personality and flavor.

So if you have children, bring them with you to shul on Shavuot for the time-honored tradition of reading the story of how we gathered at Mt. Sinai to hear the Ten Commandments– so that they- and we- can affirm how we can have a relationship with our Creator through His Torah; how we can feel close to one another.

And who knows what new revelation and understanding might jump out at you?

In a favorite song from my childhood, “The Place Where I Belong,” by Abie Rotenberg, a Torah that was discovered in a Poland basement after the Holocaust “sings” of its haunting and beautiful memories, bearing witness to centuries of love and dedication. The Torah talks of its feelings on now being displayed in a sterile case of glass in a museum, and beseeches us to bring it back to its true home, to a shul, where it is actually cherished and read and lived by.

To never let it go.

In its final lyrics:

“No matter if you're very young or even very old
Live by the words you'll find inside my scroll.”

Feast or Famine: Sukkot

According to the rabbis, the holiday of Sukkot commemorates the 40 years of wandering in the Sinai Desert, and we eat and sleep in a sukkah — that temporary structure made with a roof of dried vegetation, such as palm fronds — because the Israelites slept in sukkot (the plural of sukkah) on their journeys. 

But this contradicts the Torah. The Israelites lived in tents in the Sinai. The prophet Balaam does not praise Israel against the wishes of his patron, Balak, by exclaiming, “How lovely are thy huts … O Israel” (Numbers 24:5).

I first learned about the real origins of the sukkah on a trip to an Israeli Arab village. I was 20, taking a year off from UCLA and working as a counselor for underprivileged Israeli youth at the Ben Shemen Youth Village (a stone’s throw from Lod Airport). I no longer remember the details, but as part of a cultural exchange, we boarded a bus and went to spend an afternoon with families from the village. To my surprise, when we arrived, we sped past the village and headed out to the surrounding fields.

The village grew strawberries, and it was picking season. Smack in the middle of a rolling field, we entered what I would describe as an enhanced beach hut, complete with stucco walls and roof, a propane stove, and a generator for the lights and TV. During the harvest, the family lived in the fields.

The ancient Israelites were predominantly a farming people, and ancient Judaism was indigenous, meaning, it arose in close relation to the specific challenges of living in the Mediterranean hill country of Canaan. 

Like today, the breadbasket of ancient Israel was the coastal plain, but initially our ancestors could not displace the Canaanites. They settled beyond the reach of their chariots in the steep, previously uninhabited hills between Schem, Jerusalem and Hebron. When archaeologists dig down through the layers of inhabitation most anywhere in the hill country, they find Israelite civilization at the bottom.

How did the Israelites make a living on the steep terrain? For one thing, they raised goats, especially on the dry, Jordan River/Dead Sea side of the hills. But if you have been to Jerusalem, you have seen the great innovation that allowed our ancestors to thrive on the better-watered Mediterranean side: terrace farming. They cut flat shelves out of the hills, sculpting the landscape into great, meandering staircases. Later, the Israelite kingdom expanded west to the Mediterranean and claimed the fertile plains.

Ancient Judaism addressed the needs of an agrarian economy. Farmers sacrificed the first fruits of their crops, and the three pilgrimage holidays were harvest festivals attuned to the local produce: Pesach for barley, Shavuot for wheat and Sukkot for fruit. Unlike their neighbors in Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Israelites had no great river to irrigate their crops. If the rains failed, starvation followed. With the Temple ritual, the people thanked God for the previous crop and asked God for timely rains in the coming year. Nothing was more important.

In the Torah, only one holiday — Pesach — marked a historical event, but rabbinic midrash, in its creative, playful fashion, filled in the gaps. Shavuot marks the revelation at Mount Sinai and Sukkot the 40-year sojourn in the desert. As the centuries passed, the Diaspora grew and urbanization advanced, distancing most Jews from the agricultural cycles of the land of Israel. The historical dimensions of the holidays became more relevant.

The early Zionists, particularly the kibbutz movement, brought back the agricultural side of holidays. We are reminded that God’s action in the agricultural cycles of the land was a critical focus for ancient Judaism. 

The main symbols of Sukkot clearly demonstrate our agricultural heritage. Like the village I visited, farming families in biblical times lived in temporary dwellings in the fields during the harvest — that is, in their sukkot. They gave thanks to God in the very place where they reaped God’s bounty: their orchards and fields. The shape of the lulav and etrog, and the way we hold them, testify that they were likely fertility symbols designed to draw God’s blessing.

Today, when climate change threatens our way of life and, as the Jewish Journal has documented, access to fresh produce for every L.A. resident is not a given, we city-dwellers would do well to remember the agricultural origins of the sukkah. The roof of a kosher sukkah is porous enough to allow one to see the stars above, reminding us of God-in-the-heavens and the moral demands that the divine source of ethics places upon us. In the coming year, may we also feel God-in-the-earth through our feet, and listen to the needs of God’s creation, both human and more-than-human, in responding to God’s call.

To support food justice in Los Angeles, check out Netiya ( This column is based on Theodore Hiebert’s “The Yahwist Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel” (Oxford University Press, 1996). 

Rabbi Mike Comins teaches the Making Prayer Real course ( and directs the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality ( He is author of “Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do About It” and “A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways Into Judaism” (Jewish Lights Publishing). 

Torah Portion: Pagan inspiration

“Beware of being lured into their ways … Do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did those nations worship their gods? I too will follow the same practices!’” (Deuteronomy 12:30).

I am struck by this verse from our parasha, because I have benefited greatly from other people’s religious practices. My ability to do teshuvah has been transformed by a style of meditation that I learned from Buddhists, and tai chi has taught me how to bring my body into davening.

My experience is far from unique. Judaism has a rich tradition of “borrowing” from non-Jews.

What is more quintessentially Jewish than the Pesach seder? Yet learning while drinking multiple cups of wine directly mimics of the Greek symposium, which predates the seder by several hundred years. The Hebrew word afikomen is based on epikomen, Greek for “that which comes after.”

Another example: The great Jewish philosophic work, Maimonides’ “The Guide for the Perplexed,” is an explicit attempt to integrate the neo-Greek philosophy and science of his time into Judaism. Living in Egypt, Maimonides wrote in Arabic, and he specifically refers to the Muslim philosophers he debated.

But even if tapping other traditions to inform one’s Jewish practice is legitimate, it’s not always advisable. Simply taking a Buddhist prayer and praying it in Hebrew, for instance, or adopting a Buddhist idea like “the interconnectedness of all life” without critically asking if it’s really compatible with Jewish monotheism, threatens the cultural and theological coherence of Judaism.

Since I study with non-Jewish teachers of spirituality, I face this problem often. I remember standing in a meadow with a Native American teacher as he demonstrated a Four Winds ceremony, urging us to throw tobacco and pray in the four directions. “I can’t do this,” I thought. “This is pagan.”

Adapting other people’s ways to Judaism is fairly easy when form trumps substance, such as the rabbis “Judaicizing” of the Greek symposium. Whereas the Greeks used the symposium to debate philosophy, Jews rehearsed their history. Whereas the afikomen signaled the beginning of an extended desert course for the Greeks, it means the “last bite of the meal” for Jews.

It is much harder when it comes to integrating spiritual truths and philosophical ideas into Judaism. Maimonides critically engaged Greek thought, and the result is a rich, philosophical work. He agrees and disagrees with Aristotle and creatively moves Judaism forward. Many of his innovative ideas, controversial at the time, were rejected by Ashkenazi rabbis. Yet, today he is venerated by all, and no one doubts the Jewish authenticity of his thought.

So, how does one decide when it’s “kosher” to learn from others?

I don’t have room here to make the full argument, but I will share my conclusion. Judaism is a comprehensive set of rituals, values and theological/cultural norms that developed in communal/covenantal context over time. All are essential components of a flourishing Jewish people and healthy Jewish identity. The test of importing a new idea or practice into Judaism is whether or not it integrates into the Jewish narrative as it unfolds over time.

To say shalom instead of om at the end of a yoga routine is nice. But when that’s the extent of your Jewish practice, it’s shallow. Authentic, spiritual practice is rooted, roots us, makes ethical demands, challenges us as well as makes us feel good, and pervades every aspect of our lives. That a non-Jewish practice avoids conflict with Jewish norms is not enough, even if one does it at the local Jewish community center.

But when yoga deepens one’s relationship with God and enriches one’s observance of mitzvot by creating experiences and teaching skills that enhance one’s Jewish practice, it is a welcome supplement.

As I stood in that meadow, feeling an instinctive “this isn’t Jewish” feeling, I suddenly remembered Sukkot. I’d been praying in the four directions — with formerly pagan fertility symbols in my hands, no less — all my life. Once I was open to it, I found the Native American ritual to be spiritually productive, connecting me to God’s creation in new and fruitful ways.

But could I pray like a Native American with Jewish integrity?

After study and thought, here is what I did. I “Judaicized” the prayers with language I learned from the Jewish mystical tradition, careful to avoid praying to anything other than the Holy One. Even though there is ample precedent in the ancient Temple rites for ritually offering tobacco, it conflicts with the Jewish norms and narrative of our time. So I dropped it. My offering is words of prayer.

Now the Sukkot ritual has deeper meaning for me. And by praying in the four directions, I engage God through connection with the Earth all year round, which, in this time of global warming, brings the ethical demands of protecting the planet higher into my consciousness.

Our parasha ends with the call to worship at the Temple. As long as we always come home to Jerusalem, with practical wisdom and critical thinking, the encounter with other spiritual paths will often prove fruitful.

Rabbi Mike Comins is the founder of the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality ( and the author of “Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do About It” (Jewish Lights Publishing, and “A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways Into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways Into Judaism”(Jewish Lights Publishing).

Families reading together: Two summer novels for children

When was the last time your fifth grader read a book written in free verse? How about a children’s version of life in Stalinist Russia?  These two very unusual novels for young people from two Los Angeles children’s authors make excellent summer reads and particularly good discussion starters for families to read together.

Looking For Me… in This Great Big Family

by Betsy R. Rosenthal (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, NY. $15.99)  Grades 4 – 7.

It’s not so easy to get children to read a book of poems. But there is a particular genre of children’s literature called free-verse novels that has been very successful in doing exactly that. These books offer up a succession of individual poems that tell an entire story. They contain fine characterization, tense plots, gripping conclusions, and very few words per page. They are considered perfect for reluctant readers, but also for literature lovers who like to linger on a good turn of phrase. Often these free verse novels have won the highest awards of children’s literature (see Karen Hesse’s, “Out of the Dust” or Margarita Engle’s “Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba”). Now Betsey Rosenthal, A Los Angeles author of delightful picture books, has hit the mark with her first novel, which she based on anecdotes from her mother’s poignant childhood in depression-era Baltimore.

The book is short, and each page is graced with a poem, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not—more often not. Each poem is titled and captures the distinct voice of 11-year-old Edith Paul, Rosenthal’s mother and the fourth of 12 siblings. “In my overcrowded family/ I’m just another face./ I’m just plain Edith/of no special place.”  As the young girl searches for her individual identity within her large and boisterous Jewish family, she also wonders about the type of person she can become. Rosenthal relies on extensive interviews with her mother, along with the many stories she was told as a child to recreate what life was like in the tumultuous depression years of 1936-37. This young girl sees herself only as she imagines others see her: as a “good little mother ” to her younger siblings, or a child worker in her gruff and distant father’s diner. When a caring teacher finds that spark within her that lights her way to imagining herself as the first of her family to go to college, she is able to break out of her musings about her invisibility and see into the future, knowing she is on her way “to being so much more/than just plain Edith/who’s number four.”

The Judaism practiced by Edith’s family will intrigue today’s children. Edith sincerely describes her struggles to fit in. She is pleased her family changed its name from Polansky to Paul and astonished to discover that a “dumb neighbor” thinks Jews have horns. She is also embarrassed at having to refuse a ham sandwich at a friend’s house, but then eats crab cakes with her sisters on a paper plate at home (“sometimes we cheat”). At Rosh Hashanah services, she wonders whether God is listening to her prayers (“Even though I don’t understand a word of it,/I like hearing the sounds—it’s like a visit with an old friend.”), and empathetically recounts the difficult choices made by her immigrant grandmother on the day she had to leave Russia for America.

Readers will particularly appreciate Rosenthal’s inclusion of an author’s note at the end of the book, including a black-and-white photo of young Edith Paul, along with a glossary of the Yiddish terms she has seamlessly woven within the text.

This beautifully written short poetic novel is a great choice for a young person to share with parents. Each poem is a little gem and readers will admire the author’s ability to be able to create entire characters out of just over 100 individual poems. Pair this one with Sydney Taylor’s classic, “All of a Kind Family,” for a take on what it was like to grow up in a Jewish family in the first half of the 20th century.

“Breaking Stalin’s Nose”

by Eugene Yelchin (Henry Holt and Co. 2011. $15.99) Grades 5 – 8

Artist Eugene Yelchin never imagined his first novel would win a Newbery honor medal, the highest award in children’s literature in the United States. Previously known as a fine artist before emigrating from the Soviet Union, Yelchin began illustrating for the Boston Globe and other magazines, and then moved on to picture book illustration. He illustrates his intriguing Kafkaesque novel for kids with engaging black-and-white graphite drawings that add immeasurably to the book’s disturbing atmosphere of Soviet life in the Stalinist era.

The story revolves around ten-year-old Sasha, who idolizes his father, a staunch communist, until events occur that make young Sasha question his own beliefs in the goodness of his perfect society. In fact, Yelchin dedicates the book to his own father, “who survived the Great Terror”.

In literature, a “dystopia” is defined as “an imaginary place in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.”  In fact, children’s literature is so full of novels describing horrific dystopian future societies, (see: “The Hunger Games” and practically every other popular YA novel) that it is astonishing that up until now, no one has yet tried to tackle this subject for children: a real life dystopic society that actually existed not so long ago. Yelchin’s short novel remarkably achieves that goal while at the same time it is deceiving in its simplicity. It begins: “My dad is a hero and a Communist and, more than anything, I want to be like him. I can never be like Comrade Stalin, of course. He’s our great Leader and Teacher.”

It must be hard for an American child who has never heard of the Soviet Union to understand just what happened there. Did children really inform on their parents? Did millions of people really revere their leader like a god? Did this beloved leader really kill his people ruthlessly while they blindly declared allegiance to him? It seems that it shouldn’t be a topic for a children’s book, but the way the author tackles the subject is appropriate and compelling and will leave young readers asking the right kind of questions about the past.

Yelchin’s narrative takes place over a two day period during the 1930’s; a period that condenses the entire Stalinist regime of terror into the experience of a young boy. The “large, happy family” life of young Sasha who lives together with 48 “hardworking, honest Soviet citizens” (who share a single communal kitchen and toilet) is shattered the day his father is arrested. He has been reported on by a neighbor who covets the extra space that will be gained when father and boy are removed. Sasha’s father’s final words to him as he is dragged away by guards are, “It’s more important to join the Pioneers than to have a father.”  The creepiness factor begins as the illustrations appear more ominous and Sasha now becomes a ward of the state. The boy must fend for himself in a place where informing on your friends and neighbors seems to be society’s highest objective. With a nod to the great Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, Yelchin narrates the various antics that ensue when Sasha accidentally knocks the nose off a plaster statue of Stalin while proudly swinging the patriotic banner of his beloved Pioneer movement.

By the end of the novel, Sasha’s eyes have been opened to reality and he begins to rethink his place not only within the Pioneer movement, but within the only world he knows.

The anti-Semitism Yelchin experienced as a child is relived through the experiences of Sasha’s young friend, “Four-Eyes Finkelstein”  who justifiably disobeys a teacher but is sent to the principal after a “democratic” vote by his classmates. The author explains in his afterword that “fear was passed on from generation to generation. It has been passed on to me, as well. This book is my attempt to expose and confront that fear. My family shared a communal apartment. My father was a devoted Communist. And like my main character, I, too, had to make a choice. My choice was about whether to leave the country of my birth.”

This serious book is so gripping that it will not leave your mind for quite a while. Children with no knowledge of the Stalinist regime will wonder about it (and maybe check online to find out more) while others will simply see it for the cautionary tale that it is. Either way, Yelchin’s award winner will serve as a “1984” for the grade school set and will be an important conversation starter that teaches the nature of innocence in a time of great evil.

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library and former children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine.

A family, accomplished but without much gain

Joshua Henkin, author of “The World Without You” (Pantheon Books, $25.95), has frequently said in interviews that he first fell head over heels in love with reading and then convinced himself he could become a writer because he intuitively sensed what was missing in other people’s fiction.  His antenna has failed him here.  This is a sprawling novel about a large secular Jewish wealthy family gathered to memorialize the loss of their brother Leo, who was killed more than a year before, while working as a journalist in Iraq.  The Frankel family is an accomplished bunch, yet there seems to be a mean streak that infuses the most minor of interactions.  They don’t talk to one another, but seem to compete in an endless round robin of verbal volleyball that drains the reader’s patience.  Perhaps worst of all, there is a bitterness in how they confront one other that lacks both empathy and insight.  We sense that this is a family whose members long ago left each other’s daily orbit, and now time and distance have only deepened the corroded black holes that were present before the tragedy of their brother’s death.

The parents, Marilyn and David, have been married for more than 40 years and seem to exist in parallel universes of their own invention.  They swipe at one another over trivialities, and the intimacy of their early years has clearly been replaced by the ritualized routines of upper middle class professional life.  Marilyn is a doctor, and David used to teach high school English at a private school in Manhattan.  The adult children are a diverse lot.  The eldest, Clarissa, is 39 and struggling with infertility.  Lily is a hot-tempered lawyer based in Washington, D.C., who seems to have channeled her mother’s intensity and perfectionism.  Noelle had the most difficulty growing up with this clan, which might be why she now lives in Israel, where she and her husband are raising four children and have become Orthodox.  Her transition to religious life makes the entire family uncomfortable.  There is also Leo’s widow, Thisbe, and their toddler son, who have flown in from California.  Henkin begins the story in July of 2005 as the family gathers at the Frankel’s beloved summer home in the Berkshires. 

If I were a publisher, or even a movie producer, and had received the proposal for this project, I would have green-lighted it immediately.  Perhaps Joshua Henkin was going to treat us to a gut-wrenching meditation on family and sibling rivalry.  Possibly he wanted to explore how most of us foolishly glorify our childhood and need to be forced to come to some sort of adult reckoning about what we really had and what we didn’t.  Maybe this talented author wanted to shed some needed light on the unsettling mixture of love and bitterness that still confuses many of us whenever we go home again.  Or perhaps Henkin was planning to veer off in an unexpected direction and shine his authorial gaze upon the loneliness of adult life, or the spellbinding allure of adult power.  None of this happens.

Instead, Henkin chooses to inundate us with melancholy pseudo-dialogues and meaningless clips of conversation.  No one seems to be actually talking.  His characters feel like they are playing darts with one another.  There is a repeated pattern of competitive jabs interspersed with embarrassed silences.  Occasionally, one family member approaches another with an overly dramatic, “How are you?” which is usually followed with something like “Fine,” or perhaps “I’m always fine, aren’t I?”  There is simply no penetration into anyone else’s consciousness, and the reader starts to dislike this bloodless group. Sadly, in Henkin’s dysfunctional familial universe, no one can help anyone else, let alone listen to them.

Yet, there is one scene that remains embedded in my memory, where Henkin seems to have finally given himself permission to linger.  The Orthodox daughter, Noelle, goes upstairs to visit her father, who is lying placidly in his bed, reading a book about the Civil War.  She approaches him uncomfortably with pecan ice cream, which she delicately sets down beside him.  He asks her about her life in Israel and seems genuinely curious about her transition to religious life.  She tells him about some of what she has mastered in order to become Orthodox and questions him about his own past.  He reminisces with her about his love of teaching and how much he misses it.  He tells her how important his students were to him and how competent he felt with them.  She tells him how worried she is about him, and the silence that ensues makes sense, for once.  But soon enough the ice cream she has brought him begins to melt, and Henkin takes us somewhere else.

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications.

‘Freedom School’ keeps reading alive through summer

Pausing in the middle of reading “Grandpa, Is Everything Black Bad?” at a moment when the protagonist of the children’s book, Montsho, has been called the black sheep of his family, Tanya Graham asks 10 elementary school students grouped around her: “Have you ever felt different from your family?”

“This book makes me think about my family,” one student says. “I’m the oldest and have to take care of my sister and my brother.”

Later in the story, when Montsho learns about his African heritage from his grandfather, Graham stops reading again to ask, “Does anyone know what heritage is?”

Several hands shoot up, and one girl with a long ponytail immediately answers, “It’s like a history.”

Graham approves. “Who wants to write for me?” she asks. Half the hands in the room shoot up as the students volunteer to write the word “heritage” on a piece of paper to post on the word wall.

As they continue to read and discuss the story, a girl in a pink shawl says, “This is better than school.”

“It’s Freedom School,” Graham replies.

Graham’s students are among the more than 50 students from Stanley Mosk Elementary School in Winnetka who are attending Freedom School at Stephen S. Wise Temple this summer.

The six-week literacy and enrichment program for low-income, at-risk students aims to prevent the loss in reading skills experienced by many students over the summer. Attending the Freedom School, which began on June 25, is free, and each week students get to take home and keep one book.

Senior Rabbi Eli Herscher neatly summed up the Freedom School philosophy on opening day, when he had the assembled students read the words “Freedom School” on a banner. “If you really want to be free, you need to learn,” he said.

The first Freedom Schools started in the 1960s in Mississippi to educate and empower disenfranchised minority communities. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), a nonprofit that advocates for children affected by poverty and disabilities, began its own freedom school movement in 1992. There are approximately 10 other CDF Freedom Schools currently operating in Southern California.

Providing facilities, staff and funding, Stephen S. Wise Temple is the first Jewish site on the West Coast to implement the CDF Freedom School. Its curriculum includes a full morning of reading-related activities and discussion, afternoon activities such as science experiments and gardening and a weekly field trip, along with motivational songs and chants.

The Freedom School students are taught by Servant Leader Interns (SLI), often college students like Graham who attended CDF training seminars.

“Freedom Schools are important because they give children a chance to enjoy reading. Once they love to read, everything else comes easy,” said Tiffany Davis, who worked as an SLI for two years and is now Stephen S. Wise Temple’s assistant site coordinator for Freedom School.

A 1983 study of 600 New York City schools found that about 80 percent of the achievement difference between socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged schools could be accounted for by summer learning loss of the disadvantaged students between grades two and six. And a 2010 study by the Center for Adolescent Literacies at the University of North Carolina Charlotte found that nearly 90 percent of Freedom School students grew or maintained in their ability to read.

Mosk principal Barbara Friedrich said 88 percent of her students qualify for free lunch, and added that without the Freedom School the students would probably be at home doing nothing over the summer. “A lot of them are homeless or living in garages,” she said.

Friedrich says Stanley Mosk Elementary is facing additional challenges from the recent funding cuts to education and related social programs. She can no longer afford a full-time intervention specialist to work with her struggling readers. The 421-student campus has 129 English-language learners.

Stephen S. Wise’s Rabbi Ron Stern, who first learned about Freedom Schools from an article in Reform Judaism magazine, knew his synagogue would be a perfect partner for the program. Although most facilities demand a year of preparation and fundraising, the synagogue opened its Freedom School five months later.

Project director Andrea Sonnenberg and Jennifer Smith, Stephen S. Wise’s social justice coordinator, trained with CDF in Tennessee.

“Before every meal, they would ask people to say grace,” Sonnenberg said. “So we said the ha-Motzi on the microphone, and the people went wild. They were so touched and impressed, and thrilled to learn about another religion, and that Jewish people were interested in helping underprivileged kids.”

Stephen S. Wise Temple has even provided some of its own high school students to assist in the Freedom School classrooms, as junior SLIs. The temple hopes to expand its Freedom School in the coming years and to inspire other synagogues in Los Angeles to start their own.

The Freedom School has even provided temple clergy an opportunity to teach the Mosk students about Judaism.

On a recent Friday, Rabbi Lydia Medwin came to morning assembly to read a book to the students and speak to them briefly as a role model.

“Does anyone know what a rabbi is?” Medwin asked.

One student guessed that it had to do with the Lorax, the book in Medwin’s hands.

Another said, “It’s a leader?”

Pointing to the rabbi’s kippah, another student said, “What is that?”

“A kippah is a symbol we wear on our heads, to remind us that we are not the end-all-be-all in this world,” Medwin told the children. “I wear it when I learn and teach, because learning is a very holy thing.”

Bookmark These for Summer Reading

Summer is here, and the time is right for touring authors. Here are the highlights of the season for poolside and airplane reading, including some local appearances by the authors themselves.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at and can be reached at

Shavuot – Torah for everyone

My daughter, Dina, accepted a summer job here in Los Angeles last year. Before being hired, she explained that she was an observant Jew who would have to take off two days in early June to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot. The manager, respecting Dina’s religious commitment, said it would be no problem.

A few days before the holiday, Dina sent an e-mail to the receptionist explaining that she would be absent for two days in honor of Shavuot. After receiving the e-mail, the receptionist asked, “So what’s this holiday, Shavuot, all about anyway? I Googled it, but it was complicated, so I decided to ask you.”

As Dina began explaining what Shavuot commemorates, another worker in the office overheard their conversation and asked what they were discussing.

“I’m Jewish and I never heard of such a holiday,” the worker said.

“That isn’t surprising,” the receptionist added. “According to Wikipedia, Shavuot is one of the lesser-known holidays among secular Jews outside of Israel.”

In response to their curiosity, Dina patiently explained that Shavuot commemorates the revelation and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Shocked that she had never heard of the holiday, her Jewish colleague said, “Now that’s a big deal! Funny thing I never knew about it before.”

Indeed Shavuot is the “big deal,” for there is nothing in Jewish life that defines us more than the Torah. This fact led the rabbis of the Talmud in the second century C.E. to make the following observation about Torah study. The Talmud, in Tractate Berakhot 63b, records that Rabbi Yossi bar Hanina explained a verse in Jeremiah 50:36 as the source for how we are to study Torah. The verse states, “A sword is upon the boasters and they shall become fools.” Noting the sound of the Hebrew word for “boasters” — bad — Rabbi Hanina suggests that this word is an allusion to the Hebrew word that means “alone.” Rabbi Hanina concludes that those who only study Torah for themselves but don’t share it with others are enemies of Torah. Torah must be learned in a community and not just by individuals.

This talmudic passage, however, bothered the late talmudist Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Rabbi Soloveitchik could not understand how Rabbi Hanina would deduce such a lesson from this verse when Jeremiah wasn’t talking about Torah, but rather was prophesying about the downfall of Babylon. How could Rabbi Hanina suggest that this verse teaches us how we must study Torah?

Rabbi Soloveitchik answered that the Babylonian non-Jewish scholars were brilliant men who mastered great amounts of knowledge. However, most people are not even aware of these scholars’ total brilliance, mastery of natural law and knowledge because the Babylonians did not share their wisdom. They kept their knowledge to themselves. It was this experience in Babylon that motivated Rabbi Hanina to quote Jeremiah. He wanted Jews to avoid a similar path at all cost.

Torah is not a limited treasure for an elite group and off limits to the masses. Rather, Torah must be shared with all Jews. As Isadore Twersky, the late professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard University, once wrote, “Our goal should be to make it possible for every Jewish person, child or adult, to be exposed to the mystery and romance of Jewish history, to the enthralling insights and special sensitivities of Jewish thought, to the sanctity and symbolism of Jewish existence, and to the power and profundity of Jewish faith. … Education, in its broadest sense, will enable young people to confront the secret of Jewish tenacity and existence, the quality of Torah teaching which fascinates and attracts irresistibly. They will then be able, even eager, to find their place in a creative and constructive Jewish community.”

Indeed, we have our work cut out for us as long as there is a Jew who can say, “I’m Jewish and I never heard of Shavuot.”

Rabbi Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Five steps to studying and learning from the Torah

Observing my kids playing, I notice how the same toy, no matter how many times they play with it, can reveal the most remarkable things. My daughter, with the vocabulary befitting a 1 1/2-year-old, will bring her ball over to me and point to a mark on it with a delighted grunt.

“How remarkable!” I will say with (feigned) enthusiasm. But to her it is remarkable; she had never noticed it before.

When I hear the phrase from Pirkei Avot (the Teachings of our Fathers), “Turn it around and around, for everything is in it” (5:21), the image of a toy jumps to my mind.

The rabbis of the Mishnah, however, were writing at the beginning of the Common Era in the Land of Israel and not in 21st century playrooms of North America, so I’m not sure they share the same association. Surely they were referring to the Torah and the revered text’s limitless insights and wisdom.

There is, however, something playful about the phrase. If we studied the Torah the way a child plays with a toy—repeatedly and open to the possibility of discovering something remarkable—then perhaps we would discover something remarkable.

Why should we make this ancient scroll our own? For starters, the Torah tells us we should.

In recounting the story when the Torah was revealed to Moses, the text begins by describing the journey of the Israelites to Mount Sinai.

“In the third month after the children of Israel went out of the land of Egypt, the same day [‘bayom hazeh’] they came into the wilderness of Sinai,” it says in Exodus 19:1. If the Torah were retelling something that already took place, it should say “on that day” not on “this day.” Rashi, the 12th century French commentator, says we should look to the Torah as if it is being given on this day. The Torah is being given, and revelation has the potential to happen anew each day.

Nice words, but how might we really experience this? While Shavuot offers us a moment to focus our attention on Torah study—all-night learning tikkun style awaits at many area synagogues and JCCs—the esoteric musings of a Talmud scholar at 3 a.m. may not be the kind of revelation we seek.

Try this activity (which I learned from dear friends Rabbi David Ingber and Ariel Rosen.) It’s called “Find your (Uni) Verse.” Here’s what you do:

Step 1: Open the Torah (the scroll, book or even an online version).

Step 2: Randomly point to a verse (this may be easier with a book version).

Step 3: Read the verse a couple of times. The first time is to understand the plain meaning. The second and third times are to play with different interpretations of what the verse might be saying. Consult commentary on the verse if you like.

Step 4: Consider the lesson that you might learn from this verse. What wisdom might it impart?

Step 5: Try to apply the lesson to your life in the coming weeks.

Some Torah verses may have immediate relevance to you than others. “Honor your father and mother” and “Love your Neighbor as Yourself” may be clear at face value and easy to apply. Other verses from Leviticus, like ones that speak about people stricken with tzara’at, may take a bit more parsing. (Luckily, commentators understood tzara’at as “motzi shem ra,” one who does not speak truthfully about another person, an aspect of gossip to which we may relate more readily.)

Even (or especially) if you don’t think the verse relates to you on face value, sit with it for a while. I promise, you will find some meaning.

My husband and I did this activity last year with our community. We just had a disagreement about some household matter and were a little tense going into the holiday. The verse he selected was “Together with your households, you shall feast there before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 12:7).

The lesson was clear: Don’t let the everyday stresses of your life cloud the experience of these precious holidays. Safeguard them, honor them. You can get back to your stress when the holiday is over, but for now, let it go and rejoice!

How a verse selected at random can be personally relevant speaks to the power of the Torah and the potential for its wisdom to be revealed to us.

“Your Testimonies are my delight/play thing, they are my counselors,” it says in Psalms 119:24. On Shavuot, turn your selected phrases of the Torah around and around in your mind. The words will become for you a beloved toy.

Holiness in Humility

Look up the term “unintended consequences” and you’ll find an entire school of thought on the subject. According to one source, consequences of this sort can be classified as positive, negative or, oddly denoted, perverse. How wonderful are those moments when a new discovery emerges from a serendipitous mistake, like the discovery of penicillin in healing the sick, or the discovery of aspirin to help prevent heart attacks. So many lives have been saved from blunders and mishaps; there is a holiness in this type of discovery.

And then there are those actions that are unintentional and innocent yet cause far greater harm than one could have possibly imagined — irrigating a land plot and causing irreparable erosion or the proliferation of cattle-raising for food and the impact it has on the depletion of the ozone layer. The perverse nature of such consequences is even seen in our social sphere where, for example, there was a dramatic rise in “hit-and-run” accidents as a direct result of tougher laws prohibiting drinking and driving. Can there be a dimension of holiness in these situations, too?

This possibility is the focus of the troubling episode in this week’s Torah portion on Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. The entire affair is brief — a total of three verses (with a couple more explaining how the community deals with the bodies in the aftermath). Two of Aaron’s sons come forward before God in the mishkan and offer fire, “which He had not enjoined upon them.” Nadav and Avihu are consumed by fire themselves, and God then pronounces, “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy/ And gain glory before all the people” (Leviticus 10:1-3). Are we to find in the tragic demise of these two souls a sobering adjuration against improper offerings? Shall we read this as some sort of perversion of holy behavior?

We can’t assume that Nadav and Avihu anticipated or expected that God would engulf them in flames as a consequence for their negligence. Even if their motivations for bringing the offerings were suspicious, as many rabbinic commentaries suggest, there is no precedent or forewarning that their behavior was worthy of a death sentence, a gruesome and harrowing one at that. The mechanics of sacred offerings have been made clear and explicit. Nadav and Avihu must have known them. Yet, it appeared that their actions caused fatally unintended consequences.

Entering into God’s presence should never be unintentional. We may posit that Nadav and Avihu were lacking a certain humility by not adhering to God’s warnings for proper entrance into the tent. The rabbis of the Talmud go further, suggesting that Nadav and Avihu’s punishment was a spiritual death. The fire that was intended to consume their offerings consumed their souls instead, leaving their bodies intact (Sanhedrin 52a). They might have physically walked away from the experience but their souls were scorched in the process.

The path toward holy living is filled with twists and turns that we can never fully anticipate. Still, kedushah is the unmitigated, completely dedicated encounter with Divine Truth. To desire God’s presence is to recognize that our encounter must be completely deliberate. We can strive toward this complete presence in our relationships with loved ones, our professional associations and on our personal quests for meaning. God’s lesson is, “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy/And gain glory before all the people.” Only the God of Israel shows holiness and glory before all the people. If we are humble and dedicated servants of this holy truth, God’s presence will be revealed to us. And that relationship is absolutely intentional.

Rabbi Joshua Hoffman joined the Valley Beth Shalom ( rabbinic staff after his 2003 ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. He teaches in the greater Los Angeles Jewish community, including as a lecturer in courses on liturgy and essential Jewish texts at American Jewish University, as a teacher in the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Conejo and West Valleys, and as a guest lecturer at Los Angeles Hebrew High School.

For the kids, beyond the questions

“A Sweet Passover” by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by David Slonim (Abrams: $16.95).

It turns out that little Miriam is not so different from the rest of us. By the final day of Passover, she gets sick of eating matzah and refuses to eat it ever again. Newman, a well-respected and prolific author of children’s books, created this heartwarming story about family traditions and Jewish cooking that would make a wonderful read-aloud for the 4- to 8-year-old set. When Grandpa prepares his famous matzah brei, which he also calls “Passover French toast,” Miriam finds it just a bit too hard to resist. “Essen in gezunt, shayneh maideleh” (eat in good health, pretty girl), he says. And she does. The humorous illustrations are a bit reminiscent of Charles Shultz and will amuse adults and children alike. A great matzah brei recipe is included, along with a useful glossary of Passover terms.

“What Am I? Passover” by Anne Margaret Lewis, illustrated by Tom Mills (Albert Whitman: $9.99).

The good folks from the “My Look and See Holiday Book Series” (previous topics: Christmas, Easter and Halloween) have now made the leap to Jewish holidays with this Passover book for very young children. Following the same format as the others, the bright and appealing thick cardboard pages contain a series of very simple holiday-related riddles. The flap can be easily lifted by children, who will enjoy guessing the answers that appear there in conjunction with brief explanations of Jewish terms. For example, “I am a mixture of apples, nuts and a little wine. I am tasty and sweet. What am I? What could I be? I am charoset on the Seder plate, that’s me!” The big, bright illustrations make this a must for an interactive Jewish preschool story hour and a sure hit with preschoolers everywhere. Kudos to the illustrator for depicting all the boys and men wearing kippot — a sight rarely seen in secular Jewish picture books.

“Izzy the Whiz and Passover McClean,” by Yael Mermelstein, illustrated by Carrie Hartman (Kar-Ben: $7.95).

Forget the candle and the feather — here is a charming book for children that tackles the topic of chametz cleaning through a feat of magical engineering. It’s a funny, rhymed tale of a whiz kid, named Izzy, who wants to give his harried mother a break from Passover cleaning. He invents a robot-like Passover cleaning machine that he names “Passover McClean” and then tells her to go rest while the machine does its work. (She complains she has a bit of a “bread-ache.”) With somewhat of a nod to Sylvester McMonkey McBean, Dr. Seuss’ “Fix-It-Up-Chappie” who invents a “star-off” machine, the author imagines young Izzy as the same sort of mechanical genius. At first his machine performs admirably, but by the time he lets it loose on the living room, Izzy finds it necessary to locate the emergency hatch and press the red button to set things right for Passover McClean. It’s an entertaining story with clever rhythm and wordplay, and appealing cartoonish illustrations. A simple author’s note at the end explains the concept of searching for chametz before Passover.

“The Elijah Door: A Passover Tale” by Linda Leopold Strauss, illustrated by Alexi Natchev (Holiday House: $16.95).

Feuding families live in “side-by-side houses in a small village that was sometimes Poland and sometimes Russia” in this original folktale that may be destined to become a Passover classic. Shortly after the Galinskys swap two fat geese for six of the Lippas’ laying hens, the geese die, and thus a feud is born. Were they sick before the swap or was it an accident? Who knows? Now the families refuse to speak to one another, although they had shared the Passover seder for many years. Young friends Rachel Galinksy and David Lippa, whose future betrothal has been thwarted by this turn of events, defy their families — Romeo and Juliet style — and enlist the town’s clever rabbi in a sophisticated ruse to bring the families back together at Passover. An artist’s note explains that the elaborate hand-painted woodcuts were inspired by traditional Eastern European folk prints from the 18th and 19th centuries. A couple of full-page spreads at the end of the book are particularly impressive: One serves as a joyous glimpse into the bygone era of village life at Passover time, and the other radiates the simple pleasures of “all the town’s Jews gathered with the Galinskys and the Lippas in one great celebration of love and freedom and family.” This beautifully illustrated book presents a wisely told tale with a new spin on what opening the door for Elijah can really mean.

“Let My People Go!” adapted by Alison Greengard, illustrated by Carol Racklin-Siegel (EKS: $10.95).

The original biblical story of Moses, slavery, Pharoah and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt is suitably translated for children in this beautiful paperback adaptation. The English translation is placed below the large-type Hebrew text, and the colorful accompanying artwork is outstanding. All the titles in this series of Bible stories for children, including stories such as “In the Beginning,” “The Tower of Babel,” “Rebecca,” “Noah’s Ark,” “Lech Lecha,” “Jacob’s Travels,” “Joseph the Dreamer” and “The Brave Women Who Saved Moses,” feature full-color reproductions of beautiful silk paintings that enhance the text. The imaginative depiction of the Ten Plagues is especially noteworthy. At the back of the book, each title includes a literal translation of the biblical Hebrew and a useful glossary in both English and Hebrew.

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library and former children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine.

Blot out the memory

Purim is every child’s dream holiday; the story is like a fairy tale. Little girls dress up like Esther; little boys like Mordechai. In synagogues around the world we chant the story from the Scroll of Esther and boo every time the evil Haman’s name appears. It is a wonderful children’s holiday.

But it is so much more.

As adults, we appreciate the delicious ironies of the story. First, that a king who has to issue an edict that all husbands must be obeyed ends up taking orders from his wife. Second, that the plans of Haman have the opposite effect: He is destroyed and the Jews are saved. It is the story of reversals — the vulnerable becoming the strong.

As adults, we recognize that this is a story about power, and about how people without direct power learn to make the system work for them. We read between the lines and discover a story about living in the Diaspora and how we sometimes have to dance around those who might hurt us. We notice how much we long for a story where the powerless become powerful.

As adults, we cringe at the image of a young girl in the king’s harem. It reminds us that sexual slavery continues into this day, in all the countries where we live.

And as adults, we notice how bloody the story is. The Jews defend themselves against the people who tried to slaughter them, and they end up slaughtering their enemies. In the end, the Jews are saved. Purim has a happy ending, but as adults, we remember all the other times when there was a different ending.

The Sabbath before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembering. We read:  “Remember what Amalek did to you on the road as you came out of Egypt—how he attacked all the stragglers in the rear, those who were famished and weary. … Therefore when the Lord gives you security from your enemies in the land that God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.”

We read about Amalek on the Shabbat before Purim because Haman is a descendant of the tribe of Amalek. Jewish tradition suggests that Amalek will always have spiritual descendants:

“Remember … and blot out the memory. …  Do not forget.”

Remember and blot out—this is a strategy for healing from abuse. We learn from psychologists that victims of abuse need to first recover their memories of victimization, but at some point in the healing process, they need to blot out the power those memories have to control their lives. 

The command was never to blot out Amalek — just his memory. The command is to take rage and turn it to healing. The command is to blot out the memory of Amalek and, therefore, to blot out of ourselves the tendency to do to others what others have done to us.

Purim isn’t a children’s holiday. No, quite the contrary; it is the most grown-up of all of our holidays because it forces us to look at our dark side — the side that has been hurt, the side that is afraid, the side that wants to take revenge against those who have hurt us. Purim tells us that it is OK to have those feelings, to tell the story, even to celebrate the fantasy. But it reminds us not to act on the feelings of revenge.

Remember, and remember as well that the commandment is to blot out the memory of Amalek, not to blot out Amalek. There really are people in the world who will hurt other people. The mitzvah is to blot out the power they have to threaten the world. The mitzvah is not to take revenge, not to kill innocent people. The mitzvah is to do what we can to blot out the power of those who can do evil without letting the memory of our hurt lead us into easy answers.

At the end of the public reading of the story of Esther, we say a blessing: “Blessed are you, God, who takes up our grievance, judges our claim and avenges the wrongs against us. You bring retribution on our enemies and vengeance on our foes.”
This blessing reminds us, in very clear and direct terms, that vengeance should never be in our hands, but only in the hands of God.

Yes, we need to remember, but we also need to blot out the memory. We need to free ourselves from despair and darkness, and we need to find a way to bring light and joy and gladness and honor to everyone in the world.

Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (

Is the bookstore dead?

On Dec. 31, when the Barnes & Noble at the corner of Pico and Westwood boulevards closes its doors for the last time, the “people of the book” and everyone else who lives on the Westside of Los Angeles will move one step closer to becoming the “people without a bookstore.”

“Are you serious?” asked Danielle Villapando, who was at the store with her family one evening last month. Villapando used to shop at the three Borders bookstores that had been located nearby — that chain went bankrupt last July. Villapando, who was in Barnes & Noble to pick up the newest “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book for her 7-year-old son, knew what this store’s closure meant: No more trips to bookstores.

“There’s the one in Marina del Rey near Costco, but I’m not driving all the way there,” Villapando said. “Plus, it’s not nearly this big.” One also remains in Santa Monica.

But on Jan. 1, for the first time in recent memory, no major corporate bookseller will exist in the swath of Los Angeles between the coastal cities and The Grove.

“With no more bookstores in West Los Angeles, we are going to be relegated to a literature-less existence,” said Lee Shapiro, who was at Barnes & Noble on a recent evening. He had come with his wife, Miki, to look at books about landscape design.

The truth is, “literature-less” is something of an overstatement. For bookish folks in the area — including many Jewish residents who, on the whole, buy as many, if not more, books than the average consumer — four independent bookshops stand at the ready to help all comers, including two general-interest bookshops (Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood and Diesel in Brentwood), a children’s bookstore (Children’s Book World on Pico Boulevard) and the UCLA campus bookstore.

Still, it’s a major shift in just a few months. So how did this come to be?

For Howard Davidowitz, who has been following the book retailing business for 30 years, the question is a no-brainer with a one-word answer: Amazon.

Davidowitz is chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a retail consulting and investment-banking firm headquartered in New York. Amazon, he said, began to take bigger and bigger chunks of the book market at precisely the moment when people started cutting down on the number of books they were reading overall. Of those still reading books, Davidowitz said, an ever-growing number have moved to e-books — most of them bought from Amazon for its e-reader, the Kindle. And many of the folks who do buy books in print are buying them online — if not from Amazon, then from some other Web-based retailer.

Amazon was, in short, a triple whammy for traditional bookstores. Borders, Davidowitz said, didn’t dedicate major resources to Web-based retailing and digital reading, and went bust as a result.

“Barnes & Noble is still alive because they did the Nook,” Davidowitz said, referring to the electronic reader developed by the last remaining national chain of brick-and-mortar booksellers.

The Barnes & Noble bookstore at Pico and Westwood boulevards, scheduled to close on Dec. 31.

Davidowitz’s account of the slow demise of the book business is convincing, particularly when it comes to the rise of digital reading. In May of this year, Amazon announced that it had sold more e-books for its Kindle e-reader than printed books — and that was before the company released the newest generation of the device, the Kindle Fire, in November. Today, Barnes & Noble stores are filled with advertisements for the company’s own e-reader-turned-tablet computer, the Nook Tablet.

But even if digital reading is the future, it’s not clear how much of these companies’ current revenues come from the sales of e-books and readers. Amazon, which didn’t provide sales data with its announcement earlier this year, prices some of its e-books as low as 99 cents and, according to a recent report, is selling the Kindle Fire at a small loss in an effort to lure customers into buying it.

Barnes & Noble’s Web-based retailing and digital reading businesses are growing, but according to Peter Wahlstrom, a consumer analyst who covers the bookseller for investment research firm Morningstar, that side of the company “isn’t profitable at this point.”

“The bread and butter, where they still make a lot of their money, is on the individual books that are not bestsellers,” Wahlstrom said, adding that the typical customer often comes in without a specific title in mind. 

Which may help explain why Mitchell Klipper, the CEO of Barnes & Noble stores, said that the reason his company is shuttering the Pico-Westwood store — which has operated, apparently successfully, in that location for more than 15 years — can be boiled down to a single word: Rent.

“We don’t like closing stores,” Klipper said of the 28,000-square-foot retail space, which includes a cafe with a killer view straight up Westwood Boulevard. “If the rent was lower, we wouldn’t be leaving.”

Those who know the book business know that at one time, major booksellers might have been able to count on a big break in rent from a mall owner.

Doug Dutton, the owner of the former Dutton’s bookstore in Brentwood, remembers how it worked, perhaps to his disadvantage. His store was a home for book lovers from the time it opened, in 1984, until it closed — to the great dismay of many Angelenos — in 2008. “I can’t say that in my negotiations I necessarily got a better deal,” Dutton said. But in the 1990s, “when Barnes & Noble and Borders were sort of duking it out with one another, I understood that there were some very lovely sweetheart deals being offered to both in order to get them into a retail area.”

Rachel Rosenberg, executive vice president at RKF, a commercial real-estate broker specializing in retail sales and leasing, confirmed what Dutton had heard.

“Absolutely,” she said. “These tenants were major draws.” This was, Rosenberg explained, in part because unlike the department stores that also occupy very large spaces in shopping centers, Borders and Barnes & Noble weren’t selling clothes.

“It’s just like putting a grocer to anchor a project, or a gym,” Rosenberg said, mentioning the businesses that today have begun occupying large retail spaces at shopping centers, bringing people in on a weekly, or even daily, basis. “Bookstores were once that. It was a go-to.”

So, did the Westside Pavilion just stop offering a “sweetheart deal” to its longtime tenant? It’s hard to say, because all that Barnes & Noble’s Klipper would offer was that he imagines the new tenant — a furniture store, called Urban Home, which is scheduled to open in summer 2012 — “paid probably double what we paid.”

Since nobody involved in the deal will disclose exact numbers, it’s equally possible that large bookstores like Barnes & Noble — despite their high traffic — have just become less- or unprofitable. “What I can tell you,” said Ryan Hursh, senior property manager at the Westside Pavilion, “is our real estate department worked with Barnes & Noble’s real estate department and tried to come to an agreement. But, in the end, it was Barnes & Noble’s decision to leave the property.”

Sifriyat Pijama B’America brings Hebrew-language reading to Israeli-American preschoolers

When Myra Clark-Siegel, wife of Israeli Consulate General David Siegel, packed their things for their Los Angeles mission, she sacrificed a few items. But she couldn’t leave behind her children’s favorite books, no matter that they weighed down the suitcases.

“We love reading, and we value reading and books enormously,” Clark-Siegel said in a phone interview from their new home in Los Angeles.

The native Texan made aliyah at age 25, and the couple’s children are bilingual. “It’s a joke where I keep telling my husband to stop buying books.”

But for the past year in Israel, the Siegel clan had one fewer book to buy per month. Free classic Israeli children’s books were delivered every month straight to the Israeli preschool of their youngest child, Ben, 4, as part of Sifriyat Pijama, an Israeli offshoot of the PJ Library program.

Conceived by Massachusetts entrepreneur and philanthropist Harold Grinspoon, PJ Library was launched in 2005 and funded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and strategic partners to instill Jewish values within American Jewish families through reading. All families had to do was sign up to receive free monthly mailings of Jewish-themed books. Today, more than 70,000 families are participating in the American program.

In 2009, PJ Library launched its sister program in Israel, Sifriyat Pijama, providing Hebrew-language children’s books to the country’s neediest public preschools. The program has grown dramatically with government support. In its first year, Sifriyat Pijama served 3,500 Israeli preschoolers; today it serves 120,000.

Clark-Siegel recalls how excited Ben and his classmates got when their Sifriyat Pijama tote arrived.

“He’d wait to read these books with David. It was a special thing they had together.”

When Encino-based philanthropists Adam and Gila Milstein, whose foundation supports causes that promote Jewish unity and continuity, learned about PJ Library from Grinspoon, they thought: Why not create an Israeli-American counterpart for PJ Library?

“I put two and two together,” Milstein said, speaking from the Encino office of Hager Pacific Properties, where he serves as managing partner. “You have books in Hebrew. We have about 700,000 to 800,000 Israelis in the United States that nobody can reach.”

Through Sifriyat Pijama B’America, which is co-sponsored by the Milstein Family Foundation, the Israeli Leadership Council and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, Israeli-American families receive free monthly mailings of Hebrew-language books geared for children 3 to 5 years old. Within months of viral advertising, more than 2,000 families registered, far exceeding the Milsteins’ initial goal of 1,000. Next year, their goal is to reach 4,000 new families, and the waiting list continues to grow. He proudly scrolled down the list of sign-ups on his computer. “It’s hard to believe you have Israelis in Utah, Colorado and Minnesota.”

The program is a particular draw for “hybrid” couples with both American and Israeli roots.

“Language is a very important part of the culture and the tradition,” said Jasmin Epstein, sitting on the sofa of her Encino home with her husband, Danny Allouche, while their two oldest boys played nearby and their newborn napped. “We’re not just raising them Jewish kids, but Jewish Israeli kids that definitely have a connection to Israel.”

Born in Chicago but raised partly in Israel, Epstein married Allouche, a sabra from Omer, nine years ago. A former pro basketball player in Israel, Allouche, a financial adviser, moved to the United States after his Israel Defense Forces service to compete in American college basketball.

Children’s books, along with DVDs of Israeli television programs, give their children a cultural connection to their homeland and a sense of belonging when they visit their Israeli cousins.

Allouche remembers reading as a child the first Sifryiat Pijama book to arrive in early September: “The Bad Boy” by celebrated Israeli poet Lea Goldberg.

In the book, a normally well-mannered boy catches himself in outbreaks of bad behavior, from calling his aunt “stupid” to pushing his friend.

“It’s kind of true,“ Epstein said. “They’re not really bad kids. They have moments when their emotions take over, and I think that’s what the book gets at and tries to tell them.”

Asked what the book is about, their middle son, Guy, 4, recalled a scene when the boy calls his grandmother chamor (donkey), although at first he confused the word with shikora (drunkard).

“You wouldn’t have a book like this in English,” Allouche said, adding how the direct Israeli mentality is often reflected in children’s literature.

He noticed that in contrast to American children’s books, Israeli books tend to be more didactic. “If you scan the Israeli books and you look at Israel television shows for kids, there’s much more messaging and musak heskel (moral of the story).”

“The Bad Boy” is a favorite in the Siegel home.

“Every kid, especially young kids, have that side of them,” Clark-Siegel said. “They’re little kids. Ben is like most kids—we like to call him shovav, mischievous. It was a great book because it allowed him to understand that he’s not a bad kid, but if he does something mischievous or wasn’t behaving perfectly well, we had a mechanism for talking about it.”

Epstein and Allouche’s eldest, Evan, 6, prefers Hebrew books, hands down. “I like more books in Hebrew than in English,” he said. “And I like my Hebrew books because they’re cool, and that’s it.”

For more information about Sifriyat Pijama B’America, visit

From trouble child to favorite

What would it take for you to disown your child? I know that for most everyone this is a hypothetical question, but please indulge me: What dastardly behavior would your son or daughter have to stoop to in order for you to “sit shiva”? A generation or two ago, when a child married out of the faith, this was deemed reason enough to disown him or her and rend one’s garments in mourning. Today, it’s not so clear; we know that there are so many things in today’s world that are pulling our children away from Judaism and spirituality, so that even if they were to marry out of the faith we might wish to practice forbearance in the hope that one day they might return to their heritage.

But if not that, what would cross the line?

This is a very personal question and there’s no one correct answer; many factors go into deciding when to close the door on your child and when to keep it open despite his or her poor decisions. It’s especially difficult in religious homes on the Sabbath and holy days, when the “prodigal child” has no interest in rituals and disrupts the religious atmosphere of the home. But even then, many wise parents have figured out how to maintain an open door amid challenging and awkward situations.

So while I can’t answer this question for you, I can tell you that God has a policy of deciding when one of His children is no longer His child. We read a beautiful, frightening and cryptic song in parashat Ha’azinu that is subject to much interpretation. One such passage is: “How corrupted; they are not His children but rather it is their own blemish, this crooked and twisted generation!” (Deuteronomy 32:5). One commentary suggests that this verse indicates when God decides we’re no longer His children, which is when we become “crooked and twisted.” God is very tolerant and accepting, but even He has a limit. When Jews behave in a corrupt way to their fellow human beings, when they steal and cheat (“crooked”) and then rationalize and defend their behavior (“twisted”), that’s when God says, “You are not my children anymore.”

Many parents suffer in silent anguish if their child is hauled off to prison. It’s not so much the humiliation in front of friends and neighbors peeping through their curtains; what’s more painful is the thought that our children are reflections of their parents. They are supposed to mirror the manners, ethics and morals they were taught through their parents’ example. These parents feel like abysmal failures in the monumental task they were assigned as parents. I truly grieve for parents who have poured so much effort into modeling ethics and morals for their children, only to have them violently reject that virtuous path by choosing a path of corruption and crime.

To those parents: Take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone; God himself has lamented many a generation of his children who took a wrong turn despite all the tutelage, love and painstaking education poured out by His prophets and rabbis to the people. If God can turn out rotten kids, then you shouldn’t blame yourself. God’s not a failure, and neither are you.

But what the rest of us need to remember is that we’ll always be God’s children, as long as we’re still trying to be honest and ethical. Religiosity is important, no doubt. But whether you’re Shabbat observant or not, you’ll always be God’s favorite child as long as you emulate God’s example of righteous and ethical behavior — being honest in the way you do business, feeding the poor, greeting the stranger, caring for the less privileged in our communities and society.

If we wish to merit a goodly judgment from God these High Holy Days, it would be good to remember this teaching from the Torah reading of Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat immediately before Yom Kippur. May you have a g’mar hatimah tovah, a wonderfully blessed inscription in the Book of Life.

Spring Calendar

Trailer for the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, May 8


Sun., March 9
Barrage in “High Strung.” The young, hip cast of Barrage, a contemporary string ensemble, will dish out high-energy virtuosity in their newest show. The international cast features six violinists/vocalists, a drummer, a bass player and a guitarist who will present an amalgam of music, song and dance with a diverse fusion of cultures and musical styles. Join in on the spine-tingling fiddle-fest. 2 p.m. $35 (adults), $20 (17 and under), $10 (Pepperdine students). Pepperdine University Smothers Theatre, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. (310) 506-4522.

Tue., March 11
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The renowned dance company, founded by a giant of American dance, comes to Orange County for a program that incorporates gospel, jazz and popular music, modern dance and ballet. Highlights will include Ailey’s masterpiece “Revelations,” which has been performed on hundreds of stages around the world and has been received with awe and delight since its debut in 1960. As an added bonus, ticket holders are invited to a free performance preview with a member of the Ailey company, one hour before the show. 7:30 p.m. Through March 16. $25-$85. Orange County Performing Arts Center, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. (714) 556-2787.

“Lessons From Bernard Rudofsky.” In a day and age where body image is the craze, an exhibition of the work of late Austrian-born Bernard Rudofsky will display innovative concepts of the body and fashion in an exhibit presented by the Getty Center Research Institute. Rudofsky, an architect, designer and critic, believed that people in Western society lost their spontaneity to design liberating, not restricting, clothing. Devoting his life to exposing the West to foreign architecture paradigms and unfamiliar customs, this breakthrough artist wrote nine books and more than 100 articles on the subject. View Rudofsky’s work accompanied by a 296-page catalogue with contributions from several talented artists. Tue.-Sun. Through June 8. $8 (parking). The Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-7300.

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” It’s difficult to separate the dashing Johnny Depp from Sweeney Todd’s character, after having seen the recent film. Although Depp won’t be on stage at this show, you can still have an up-close-and-personal look at the eerie character in an exciting theatrical performance based on the 19th-century legend of a London barber driven to madness after a judge takes his wife and child away. Sweeney Todd, played by David Hess, plots his revenge with Mrs. Lovett, played by Judy Kaye, who conjures up surprisingly tasty meat pies infused with a secret ingredient. Adapted from a book by Hugh Wheeler, the production’s music and lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim with musical orchestrations by Sarah Travis. 8 p.m. Through April 6. $30-$90. Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets and additional show times, call (213) 628-2772.

Fri., March 14
“Beaufort.” The Israeli war film “Beaufort” stirred up scads of excitement this year with its Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination. Although the film didn’t win, it won many people’s hearts. Based on a novel by Ron Leshem, “Beaufort” was directed by Joseph Cedar and recreates the events prior to the Israeli troop withdrawal from the Beaufort military base in Southern Lebanon. Led by 22-year-old commander Liraz Liberti, played by Oshri Cohen, the small Israeli cohort of troops become weary of their mission when fellow soldiers are killed and injured. The film takes an in-depth look at the fear and drudgery of soldiers’ daily routines and examines the country’s ambivalence toward the 18-year presence in Lebanon. Playing in two locations: Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; and Laemmle’s Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For tickets and show times, call (310) 274-6869 or (818) 981-9811.

Tori Spelling at Barnes and Noble. Admit it, you have a tinge of curiosity about how Aaron Spelling’s daughter is prolonging her 15 minutes of fame. Since playing Donna Martin on “Beverly Hills, 90210,” the high-school soap-drama that started it all, Spelling has appeared on various reality TV series, wed and borne children and endured a public tussle with her mother over her alleged exclusion from her late father’s estate. Now, Tori Spelling is telling the story like it is with her new memoir, “sTORI Telling,” and today she’ll appear to sign books you can place alongside old “90210” posters. Just don’t expect her to talk about her “poor little rich girl” reputation. 7:30 p.m. Book purchase required for signing. Barnes and Noble at The Grove, 189 Grove Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 525-0366.

“Strauss Meets Frankenstein” at the Long Beach Opera. In a dramatic and different double-bill, actor Michael York will perform Tennyson’s epic poem “Enoch Arden,” about the love and loss that ensues when three friends find themselves romantically entwined. The heartbreak of destiny is deepened by Richard Strauss’ rich, evocative score. The performance changes tone when the audience enters the wild, macabre underworld of Frankenstein where rodents, vampires, werewolves, John Wayne and Superman coalesce in a real monster of a musical. 8 p.m. Also March 15 and 16. $45-$95. Long Beach Performing Arts Center, Center Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Boulevard, Long Beach. (562) 432-5934.

Pasadena ArtWeekend. During a fun-filled weekend featuring more than 20 exhibitions, performances and cultural activities, Pasadena will host a comprehensive celebration of fine arts, visual arts, poetry, spoken word, music, storytelling and theater. Several cultural institutions will open their doors for “ArtNight,” offering a free peek at their collections. “ArtTalk” features a variety of performances, and the weekend is rounded off with “ArtMarket,” a design open market focusing on the work of students, faculty and alumni from Art Center College of Design and Pasadena City College, which will be available for sale. Sponsored by the City of Pasadena Cultural Affairs with the Arts & Culture Commission. ArtWeekend will take place at various venues and times over the course of three days, and all events are free and open to the public. For more information, call (800) 307-7977 or visit

Gypsy Kings at Cerritos Center. Starting on the shores of the French Cote d’Azur, the Gypsy Kings fused South American rumba with fiery Spanish flamenco and their colorful blend of rhythms, leading to international success and recognition on the World Music scene. Tonight they “cast their spell” for a Southern California audience. 8 p.m. $45-$100. (562) 467-8818.

Broad, Tugend, Goldberg, Hillel

The ‘Other’ Broad Museum

There are days when you’re stuck in freeway traffic and wonder why you ever came to Los Angeles. And then there are the moments when you know that there is no other place in the world to live. Such a moment came on Feb. 10, after receiving a handsome invitation from Eli Broad to visit his other little place, right next to the beach in the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica.

It’s the Broad Art Foundation (BAF), not to be confused with the Broad Art Center (BAC) at UCLA or the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

The five-story BAF building, once a telephone switching station, stands a few minutes’ walk from the Bernard Beach and children’s playground. BAF bills itself as a “lending library of contemporary art drawn from the collections of Eli and Edythe Broad.” Although it opened in 1988, it is one of the lesser-known jewels of Los Angeles.

That’s because access is by request or invitation only and generally limited to art or museum officials and “other qualified individuals.”

But if you’re lucky enough to land on an invitation list, be ready for an experience generally only granted vicariously through classic films — as in the scene in which the hero and his beautiful date pull up and park in an always-empty parking space smack in front of the most popular club in town, and are then solicitously plied with drinks and delicacies.

Which is to say that the Broads know how to put on a party, or, in this case, a brunch reception for some 200 of the Broads’ buddies.

Forget about circling a crowded buffet table, trying to spear a soggy French toast or hardening bagel. At BAF, the brunch comes to you in small but never-ending portions of crepes filled with caviar or marmalades, and other items unknown to the plebeian palate — but smelling and tasting real good — all borne by lithe young waiters and waitresses.

The best place to start is on the rooftop sculpture garden, which features a breathtaking view of the sun-flecked Pacific as well as arrays of various coffee, cake and cookie permutations.

While contemporary art is not one of our fortes, we could appreciate Andreas Gursky’s giant photo composites of football games or cattle ranches, the acrylic oil paintings of Albert Oehlen and the impressionistic works of Neo Rauch.

Whether you get in or not, the ritzy neighborhood and the lovely beach are alone worth a visit.

Check out

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Humor, Hope Marks Goldberg Mideast Talk

Despite a stale room and a tough crowd, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg prodded his audience with sarcasm as he considered the clash of cultures in the Middle East. Discussing his book, “Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide” at Sinai Temple on Feb.7, Goldberg recounted his extraordinary story of how a Jew gained unprecedented access to the Palestinian people and their ideology.

Jeffrey GoldbergRaised on Long Island, Goldberg joined the Israeli army and was stationed as a prison guard at Ketziot military prison camp, which holds 6,000 Palestinian “rock-throwers, knifemen, bomb-makers and propagandists.” It was there that he befriended an imprisoned rising leader in the PLO, which illuminated his own thinking about the Palestinian struggle for nationhood.

While Goldberg warned several-hundred mostly middle-aged Jews that the topic would be “depressing,” his humor and insight infused even the most harrowing subjects with hope. Goldberg recalled his fear of getting kidnapped when “four guys with beards, not in Chabad” were trailing him through Gaza on his way to meet with a high-ranking terrorist leader. And when Fatah gunmen armed with AK-47s protected the Jewish journalist as he toured a Gazan city, he described them as “cramping [his] style.”

After interviewing terrorists in Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, al Qaeda and the Taliban, Goldberg said America’s policy of trying to solve terrorism is fundamentally flawed.

“You cannot solve your terrorism problem by killing all terrorists,” he said.

“There are still people [in the Muslim world] that believe life is more meaningful than death and that suicide is not the answer to their temporal problems,” he added.

On the topic of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Goldberg admits “right now, the idea of peace talks is almost farcical — it’s ‘Alice and Wonderland’ stuff these days.”

Until Islam undergoes a civilizational struggle and reforms itself, Goldberg does not believe peace is possible. While he isn’t worried about Jews, he thinks that the Diaspora community “should focus more on the opportunities Israel provides and not just it problems.”

Invest in Israeli companies, he urged. Support Israel by supporting their innovations and ideas.

Expressing an odd, slightly facetious kind of hope, Goldberg said, “The American Jewish community has outmoded ideas of what Israel is — the Israel of today is not the scrappy country it once was.”

Avram Salkin, Michelle Lyon, Stacey Klein, Dorothy Salkin
The Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA feted Avram and Dorothy Salkin for their community activism and philanthropy during a gala event on Jan. 31. Students Stacey Klein and Michelle Lyon were also honored at the Beverly Hilton as young community leaders on the rise. (From left) Avram Salkin, Michelle Lyon, Stacey Klein and Dorothy Salkin. Photo by Franklin Berger

The Arrowsmith program gets results with ‘physical therapy for the brain’

Third-grader Yaakov Sobel is a talented painter and sculptor. And he can deliver a spot-on imitation of his teacher discussing Midrash. But when it comes to reading, things don’t come so easily.

“He can sound out words, but doesn’t have the visual memory to recognize groupings of letters as words,” said Yaakov’s father, Scott.

Yaakov’s day school provided a number of resources to help, including speech therapy, reading assistance and occupational therapy for his handwriting.

“Altogether, it was seven to eight hours a week of pull-out sessions,” said his mother, Julianne, a neuropsychologist. “He was improving, but not enough.”

Although they liked the idea of integrating their son into regular classes, the Sobels concluded that Yaakov needed a special-education program. They wanted to keep him in a Jewish environment, but only found programs that included children with emotional and behavioral problems.

Last May, the Sobels learned that Maimonides Academy, an Orthodox preschool through eighth-grade day school in West Hollywood, would become the second school in the United States to pilot an innovative approach to learning disabilities. The Arrowsmith Program uses cognitive exercises designed to strengthen the underlying brain functions responsible for learning disabilities. While new to the United States, the program has been offered in private schools in Canada for 30 years, among others by the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

“We’re taking somebody who has certain areas of the brain that don’t function up to speed … and building the cognitive capacity of those weak areas,” said program instructor Josh Horwatt, who completed a three-week training in Canada. “By rebuilding their cognitive base, it allows them to grasp concepts more quickly.”

The Arrowsmith approach targets brain neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain can be rewired as a result of training. The program has identified 19 specific learning dysfunctions — including symbol recognition, memory for information and spatial reasoning — and designed specific written, auditory and computer exercises to stimulate those cognitive areas.

Children who may benefit from the program include those with difficulties in reading, writing, math, memory and understanding, as well as dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder. It is recommended for children of average or above-average intelligence who do not have behavioral issues. Students typically remain in the program for three to four years. The goal is to reintegrate them into a regular academic program, with minimal need for special education assistance.

At Maimonides Academy, the 10 Arrowsmith students (the maximum capacity per instructor) range from third- to eighth-graders. All attend a minimum of four 40-minute daily sessions in the Arrowsmith Lab and spend the remainder of their day in regular classes. They also complete an hour and 10 minutes of Arrowsmith homework daily. Exercises, formulated to retrain the brain, are repetitive by design.

One involves tracing a full page of what looks like hieroglyphics to build fine- motor skills and symbol recognition. Another involves reading a succession of analog clock faces, in which all the clocks’ hands are of equal length. Students strengthen their mathematical and logical reasoning abilities by deciphering the time through the positions of the hands.

“They can be fun, but they can get really annoying,” Yaakov said of the repetitive drills.

The Sobels are willing to have their son invest the time, believing he can catch up on academics relatively quickly if his underlying skills are enhanced.

In addition to time, the program requires a substantial monetary commitment, with participants paying $4,500 over regular tuition. Dr. Anne Arensen Winter, director of special services for Maimonides Academy and coordinator and supervisor of the Arrowsmith Lab, notes that the children might otherwise need three to four hours a week of private therapy, which can cost $100 to $125 per hour.

The school absorbs about 50 percent of the program’s cost. Maimonides principal Rabbi Karmi Gross learned about Arrowsmith from Rabbi Heshy Glass at Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, N.Y., the first U.S. school to adopt the program. (Glass is now principal of YULA Boys High School.)

Gross feels the program’s potential is worth the investment. “We’ve seen a tremendous amount of resources being put in [to special education], but year in and year out, almost nothing changed [for the students],” he said. “We’re taking a program that could significantly change the way learning disabilities are dealt with…. If it means us going a little out on a limb here, that’s where we should be.”

Research from Canada points to the program’s effectiveness. In 2005, Dr. William J. Lancee, head of research in the Department of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, completed a three-year study of 70 Arrowsmith students. He found “all deficit areas identified by the Arrowsmith Program improved as a result of the application of Arrowsmith Program cognitive exercises.”

With the program in effect for only four months at Maimonides, it cannot yet be evaluated. However, instructor Josh Horwatt said that all 10 children have made progress according to program benchmarks. And parents have noticed changes.

“One mother told me she caught her child reading in bed,” Horwat said. “Her child’s not a reader and never would have done that before.”

Yaakov Sobel’s family has also seen improvement. They report that he reads faster, remembers words better and has neater handwriting.

Still, progress is slow. “We wanted an overnight miracle…. I’m still waiting,” Julianne said.

Yaakov’s father, Scott, has his own perspective. When he was a child, “reading was impossible,” Scott said. “I’d forget the beginning of the sentence by the time I got to the end.”

He attended remedial reading classes through his sophomore year in high school and has unpleasant memories of time spent in math detention. Although he graduated from Hastings College of the Law and is a practicing litigation attorney, Scott says that even today his reading remains slow.

So when he attended an Arrowsmith parent orientation, it was a revelation. “Everything that they talked about, I related to,” he said. “I hope the program is successful, and I hope my kid benefits from what I didn’t get.”

For more information, visit or

This being Los Angeles . . .

Last Thursday night at LACMA, I was treated to a reading of my own works by the very talented and beautiful actress Bahar Soumekh, and by UC Irvine professor
Nasrin Rahimieh. Outside the Bing Theater, rain poured in sheets, and traffic on Wilshire was at a standstill because all the lights had been blown out by the wind and — this being Los Angeles where even the mildest winter storm is dealt with like Armageddon — I was rather astonished that anyone had shown up at all.

This being Los Angeles, I was also glad to see that the audience was not a segregated one: There were nearly equal numbers of Iranians and Americans, of Jews, Muslims and Christians. This should not be unusual in a multiethnic city like Los Angeles, but as my friend Chris Abani says, Los Angeles is, in some ways, a third-world country; we have people of different religions and ethnicities, but they don’t mix — not really — and where different segments do live in close quarters, like in East Los Angeles, civil war breaks out.

Things are more civilized on the Westside, of course, but that doesn’t mean we’re as integrated as one might hope. For a while there, we had, if not a civil war, perhaps a cold war of sorts on the Westside as well, what with all the talk of how the Iranians have taken over Beverly Hills and Brentwood like it was their fatherland they had come back to reclaim; driving up real estate prices and building houses with too many Roman columns in front. I have a feeling the worst of that’s behind us — that the Iranians are going to stop building Persian Palaces in Beverly Hills and the Americans have realized that, 30 years and two generations later, Iranian immigrants and their children have given as much to this country as they have taken. They are loyal, dedicated citizens who want to make this country proud, and most of them — not me, mind you, or my family — are actually hard-core Republicans who voted for G.W. Bush in 2004 and will probably vote for Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008.

At LACMA, many questions from the audience had to do with the issue of identity: how we, Iranian Jews who have lived in this country for three decades, view ourselves, and how the rest of the world views us. Are we Iranians first? Jews first? Americans first and everything else second? Do we feel integrated enough in the larger community? Do we interact much with our American neighbors and with Iranian Muslims?

I don’t know how I, or any other Iranian of my generation, can decide what we are. I think we’re a lot of everything — Jewish, American, Iranian — and that we’re used to this state of affairs, are rather comfortable with our mixed identities. But I do know that we don’t interact nearly enough with either American Jews or Iranian Muslims, or with pretty much anyone from any other ethnic or religious background, and that this — our isolationism — has as much to do with how we view ourselves, as it has to do with how the world views us.

Perhaps we are this way because of our history of living as a minority in a Muslim country that was not always tolerant of Jews; or because we now live in a city where not every American we run into is thrilled to have us here, and they resist accepting us in 1,000 subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. Perhaps it’s because we’re afraid of integrating and losing our identity altogether, or because, as I speculated the other night, we just have too many relatives and are too busy befriending and socializing with them to reach out or be open to others. Whatever the cause, it’s true that, as our community has grown in size, it has also remained rather self-contained; that we socialize with and befriend mostly each other; that some of our American neighbors haven’t exactly thrown their doors and their hearts open; and that some Iranian Jews have been too busy socializing with other Iranian Jews to notice.

“So what?” you say. What’s the difference who your friend is or whom you marry as long as everyone’s happy and thriving? And you’re right. The system may be broken in East Los Angeles, but it’s working well enough on the Westside. Still, there’s something delightful and liberating about making an intellectual or an emotional connection with the unfamiliar and the out of the ordinary. Something very enriching happens when people of different backgrounds discover points of common interest; when the odd and the bizarre become unusual and, therefore, fascinating. It would be a loss to all of us if we continue to waste the opportunity to expand our horizons and learn from each other.

Toward the end of the evening at LACMA, a middle-aged American woman came to the microphone and said: “Until tonight, I used to think that only my mother and other Ashkenazi mothers behaved in strange ways with their children. I feel much better now, because I just realized that mothers are strange in the Middle East, as well.”

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Jewish Journal.

Do artists intuit scientific truths?

Jonah Lehrer’s book, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” is based on a misunderstanding. Nonetheless, it is engaging, informed, wide ranging and altogether worth reading. At times it has the whip-smart feel of the best term paper you’ve ever read; if only one could adjust the thesis a bit, it would settle in to what is its real nature — a provocative meditation, not a genuine discovery.

Lehrer’s claim is that certain select artists effectively discovered modern truths of neuroscience simultaneous with, or even before, scientists did themselves. He makes his case through chapters on each of eight artists: Marcel Proust, George Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Paul Cézanne, Auguste Escoffier, Igor Stravinsky, Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf. The astonishing act of intuitive/artistic legerdemain illustrated by Proust is his discovery, neurasthenically ensconced in his famous cork-lined room, that memories are not solid recollections, but shift and change with time. Our memory is always the memory of the moment, never the recollection of eternity; each time we recall, we change the recollection.

Virginia Woolf’s discovery is that “the mind is not a place; it is a process.” Lehrer quotes from Woolf’s short, swirling masterpiece “To the Lighthouse” to illustrate the thesis: “Such was the complexity of things … to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel, was one; that’s what I feel, was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now.” Lehrer proceeds to compare this to discoveries in neuroscience about the different functions of different parts of the mind.

Does the reader begin to see the trouble? I may as well assert that Judaism, with its theories of yetzer hatov (good inclinations) and yetzer hara (bad inclinations), anticipated neuroscience because the sages, too, understood the mind as a battleground of conflict. Samuel Johnson, long before Woolf (and as different in temperament as might be imagined), said that two things about the human heart may be contradictory, but both are true. Woolf’s exposition is more delicate, in service of Lehrer’s larger project (about which more in a minute) but all these examples are less anticipation than artistic statements of the prevailing intellectual ethos.

Although you pick your artists, you get your sensibility. Though Lehrer barely mentions them, you may as well mix Henry James, James Joyce and Henri Bergson all together to get the delicate stream of consciousness that is more true to what we know of the mind’s workings than, say, Anthony Trollope. The key is to choose a frame and then find an artist that fits. If you were doing sociology, Trollope’s stolid, knowing class-conscious characters work beautifully. For the brain, we go to those whose subject was not the workings of society as much as the workings of the introspective self (though Proust, comprehensive artist that he was, did both). Lehrer’s choices — Whitman, Stein, Woolf — paid attention to what went on within their own minds. And to suggest this is no more charged than to say that Sophocles anticipated Freud. Writers will, as sensitive and intelligent people, anticipate some of the discoveries of other fields — sociology, psychology and hard science. But did ancient Greek philosopher Democritus, who spoke of atoms, really anticipate modern physics, or did he imaginatively give voice to a possibility of the world that, in a way he could not have imagined, was proved true? Equally, when Lehrer writes that George Eliot celebrated freedom, the infinite possibilities of the individual to change, he might equally well have chosen Shakespeare or Bocaccio or the Bible.

What to my mind does not work so well as a definite thesis, works beautifully as an intriguing, elegant meditation. Lehrer is a young man (26 years old) of wide experience and remarkably broad, assured learning. He is lavishly gifted with associative abilities; one fact, one observation or apercu suggests another, and he is off and running. He noticed similarities and suggests affinities. The book is a short, readable feast.

Nevertheless, Lehrer’s larger project is the development not of a union of science and religion, though he makes the obligatory nod to C.P. Snow and E.O. Wilson in developing a culture that embraces both. His larger project is the development of a sensibility. There are science writers whose work shows an exquisite artistic sense, such as Loren Eisley and Lewis Thomas. There are writers who are intimately acquainted with the sciences, such as Richard Powers and Andrea Barrett. Lehrer offers us an image of these two great fields of human endeavor in concert. Images enrich one another, and each aids in understanding the other.

There are three principle joys in reading this book, none inferior to the other: What we learn about science, what we learn about art, and what we anticipate will come next from the pen of this gifted and sensitive observer of life and art.

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

Excerpt: ‘Proust Was a Neuroscientist’

Walt Whitman

The Substance of Feeling

The poet writes the history of his own body.

— Henry David Thoreau

For Walt Whitman, the Civil War was about the body. The crime of the Confederacy, Whitman believed, was treating blacks as nothing but flesh, selling them and buying them like pieces of meat. Whitman’s revelation, which he had for the first time at a New Orleans slave auction, was that body and mind are inseparable. To whip a man’s body was to whip a man’s soul.

This is Whitman’s central poetic idea. We do not have a body, we are a body. Although our feelings feel immaterial, they actually begin in the flesh. Whitman introduces his only book of poems, Leaves of Grass, by imbuing his skin with his spirit, “the aroma of my armpits finer than prayer”:

Serenity now — inside and out


Yes, take a breath.

“One, long deliberate breath that you feel from the very beginning of it until the end of it. Try it, really. You can do it with your eyes open. You can do it while reading these instructions. Do you notice that you can feel your body, and especially your chest expanding and relaxing to accommodate the air flowing in and out, without stopping reading?”

This is the advice of Sylvia Boorstein in her new book, “Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life” (Ballantine Books). It’s the latest contribution to the ever-popular and growing happiness library — books by religious leaders, self-help gurus, psychologists and doctors — on how to live a more fulfilling life.

Every book seems to have its own prescription for the ways to lead a happier life, and for Boorstein — a practicing psychotherapist, the co-founding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre and author of the previous “Pay Attention for Goodness Sake,” “It’s Easier than You Think,” and “Don’t Just Do Something: Sit There!” — it’s Buddhism.

“Inside Job,” like most happiness guides, advises practicing meditation, expressing gratitude and mindfulness as ways to happier life, but for Boorstein, it’s the central tenet. Her book focuses on three Buddhist teachings to focus the mind and lead readers away from confusion, anger and anxiety into calmness and clarity:

* Wise Effort — when you intentionally choose to rid your mind of painful thoughts so that you can focus on positive thoughts which generates positive feelings;

* Wise Mindfulness — when you watch your mind’s reactions to the events around it, thereby restoring balance, and

* Wise Concentration — when you focus on one thing (like breathing) to establish composure.

Unlike many of the recent offerings on happiness, which advise avoiding unpleasant situations or people so as not to bring yourself down, Boorstein’s main focus, through telling stories that happened to her and at her seminars, is compassion and connectedness. Indifference, pity, envy and jealousy are all “near-enemies” of this, but if you are compassionate to yourself and to the world around you, you can deal with any problems that come your way. In any case, she said, “You never really know what the next minute is going to bring, so living fully in this moment is the only constantly reappearing option for happiness.”

Dr. Sylvia Boorstein will be speaking on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 7 and 8, at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills and on Friday, Dec. 14, at Kehilat Israel in the Palisades.

Variety of books pave way for understanding kabbalah

Historically, rabbis have proclaimed that in order to study kabbalah, one has to be a learned Jewish man older than of 40. So imagine how surprised those rabbis would be today if they could peruse a modern bookstore: There are now a plethora of tomes on the subject, making kabbalah available to the layperson — male, female, Jew and non-Jew — the dummy and idiot alike (which is it better to be?).

The orange “Complete Idiot’s Guide,” the yellow “For Dummies” and the white “Everything” series all have come out with guides to Kabbalah, contributing to the pop phenomenon of making the topic as ubiquitous as the Ten Commandments.

Four new books (certainly more are on the way) all promote the idea that Kabbalah is now ready for mass consumption, and the old prohibition against the layman’s studying is past its prime. The books, each with their own graphic elements — illustrations, pull quotes, diagrams, glossaries, cartoons, etc. — attempt to explain kabbalah to the novice:

  • “More and more people are reaching out in search of something on the spiritual and emotional level that will make real and permanent difference in their lives,” writes Gabriella Samuel in “The Kabbalah Handbook: A Concise Encyclopedia of Terms and Concepts in Jewish Mysticism” (Penguin, 2007). The handbook, a more than 400-page tome, defines kabbalistic terms to serve as a reference book for those studying and practicing kabbalah.

    The alphabetized encyclopedia provides English, Hebrew and transliterated terms, from “Aaronic priesthood” (one priestly family line) through “The Zohar,” (a holy radiance and the title of the principle text of Kabbalah, circulated in the 13th century by Rabbi Moshe de Leon, who claimed it was an ancient manuscript. Author Samuel is a teacher, artist, musician, clinical psychologist and the founder of the Asheville School of Kabbalah in South Carolina; she has studied kabbalah for more than four decades with her Chabad rabbi.

    While it is intended as a supplemental text, maybe, like the new “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read,” this encyclopedia can serve as crib notes for those hot kabbalah parties you’ve never attended. Or, conversely, it can help you with actual study of kabbalah.

  • “All of this concern about who should study Kabbalah and who should not arose because people feared that mystical studies could pose a danger to a person, emotionally, psychologically and even physically,” says Mark Elber’s “The Everything Kabbalah Book: Explore This Mystical Tradition — From Ancient Rituals to Modern-Day Practices,” which also includes a technical review by Rabbi Max Weiman. “Since the study of Talmud is a rigorous mental activity, the restrictions mentioned here were essentially ways of ensuring that those engaged in kabbalah studies came to them with a lot of stability in their lives (and being married and 40 years of age might ensure a certain emotional groundedness in the student).”
    This book has 20 chapters, covering topics including the history of early Jewish mysticism, as well as reincarnation (“[Rabbi Issac] Luria [a famous kabbalist from the 16th century known as the “Ari”] believed … a soul would keep reincarnating until it has fulfilled this mission for which it had been brought into the physical realm in the first place”) to (“the sublime holiness doesn’t rest on a person if he’s too attached to the physical”) to Kabbalah in the 21st century. And has graphic elements such as facts (important sound bytes of information), essentials (quick handy tips), alerts (urgent warnings) and questions (solutions to common problems).

    One of the best parts is at the beginning, the “Top Ten Kabbalistic Insights,” such as, “There is no place where God is not. God fills and transcends all universes (No. 1)” to “Where your consciousness is, there you are. Your consciousness (kavana) makes all the difference (No. 5).” These are kabbalah’s equivalent of the Ten Commandments, though we probably won’t find them posted on the wall of any courtroom any time soon — no matter how popular kabbalah becomes.

  • It’s not often you hear someone defending Madonna, especially not for her front-and-center Kabbalah Centre advocacy (and there are many who would link her career’s downfall to her religious transformation as Esther), but Rabbi Arthur Kurzweil includes a boxed-off paragraph near the end of “Kabbalah for Dummies,” one of the best of the introductory books. “She certainly isn’t one of the greatest kabbalists in history, but Madonna, the enormously gifted singer, actress and show business personality, has probably done more than anyone in the world in recent times to make the word ‘Kabbalah’ a familiar one,” he writes. “Madonna doesn’t represent herself as a master of Kabbalah — she’s never claimed that. What she has claimed, however, and what I respect her for, is that she’s interested in Kabbalah.”
    Kurzweil, a kabbalah teacher and author, is a descendant of three revered kabbalah teachers: Rabbi Chaim Yoseft Gottlieb (1790-1867), Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555-1630) and Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530-1572).The “Dummies” book is divided into five basic parts: kabbalah basics, the core of kabbalah (the world is in need of repair and the human soul is eternal), the practice of kabbalah, essential skills (study and prayer) and important figures, historical moments and myths in kabbalah. (It’s quite smart to put these factoids at the end, instead of weighing down the opening of the book with all the factual information.) This book has a sense of humor: Each section is prefaced with a humorous cartoon (“Who barbeques in a succah?” a woman yells at her husband near the charred remains).

  • The goal of kabbalah is “to help you make, and sustain, direct contact with the Creator,” writes Rabbi Michael Laitman in “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Kabbalah,” co-authored with Collin Canright, (Alpha, 2007). “Kabbalah states very simply that when you know how to connect to the Creator directly, without any go-betweens, you will find the inner compass, a guiding light that shines no matter where you are,” he writes. When you do master it, “you will need no further guidance.”
    The “Idiot’s Guide” is divided into four parts: the history, the principles, your personal life and Kabbalah in today’s world. It highlights factoids using “definitions,” “words of heart” and quotes: “You have not a blade of grass below that has not a sign above, which strikes it and tells it, ‘grow,’ Midrash Raba.” “On Track” provides practical tips: “Don’t bother with your next spiritual degree, the Creator has prepared it for you. Work on completing your work at your present degree and the Creator will take you to the next level.”
    There’s also fun “Kab-trivia”: One of the most famous groups of kabbalists, the Kotz group of Poland, led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel, once tried switching the days to see how it feels. They “moved” the Sabbath (Saturday) to Tuesday and behaved accordingly. They decided that it made no difference, as long as they all did it together.
    “Red Alert” cautions: “The teacher’s role in kabbalah is very subtle. The teacher must direct the student away from him and toward the Creator. There is no way a person can avoid the attention and admiration students shower on a teacher, unless the teacher has already transcended the ego and entered the Upper World.”

Most of the intro books take pains to debunk many of the myths about kabbalah, such as the use of “holy water,” buying an expensive Zohar set for good luck, the need to wear a red string — practices popularized by the Kabbalah Centre, the Los Angeles institute that is largely responsible for taking kabbalah mainstream.

But here’s the thing about kabbalah for the layman. Even if Kabbalah is packaged for “Dummies,” “Idiots” or “Everyone,” even if these books use cute comics and graphics and sidebars and subheads and catchy chapter heads, they all are trying to explain a very difficult subject. What kabbalists call senior — the 10 essential essences, the soul, the world to come, our relationship to the Creator, the Creator’s relationship to the world — all are heady subjects, challenging to comprehend, no matter how pretty the package.

Raising pint-sized ‘People of the Book’

To harried modern parents, few things sound more luxurious than a quiet weekend away — no cell phones, no televisions — with a pile of unread books. To the vast majority of their children, few things sound more torturous. It’s not that modern-day kids don’t enjoy reading. Most do. It’s just that an abyss of high-tech alternatives and jam-packed daily schedules have left them unlikely to discover that reading offers a world of excitement that could put their Xbox 360 to shame.

Nevertheless, as academic demands become increasingly grueling and college admission requirements increasingly stringent, strong reading skills might be more important to kids today than ever before. Studies consistently show better readers get better grades. Reading is, after all, the very heart of education. Reading enriches the imagination, builds vocabulary, teaches grammar and makes students better spellers and writers. If our kids are going to thrive and succeed in our fast-paced, achievement-oriented society, they need to be proficient readers.

So what’s a 21st-century parent to do? Pile on the after-school tutoring? Threaten that the kids will lose their instant messaging privileges if they don’t finish their reading assignments?

Perhaps the philosopher Epictetus put it best: “If you wish to be a good reader, read.”

There never was and never will be any other way.

In celebration of Jewish Book Month, here are some suggestions for fostering critical literacy skills and igniting a lifelong love of reading in your child:

Give Reading a Prime-time Slot

Regardless of how much kids like to read, they won’t read if they haven’t any time to do so. By setting aside twenty minutes or so every day (right before bedtime usually works well), we provide our kids ample reading opportunity while sending the message that it’s an activity worthy of their precious time.

Check the Reading Level

When children take on books beyond their proficiency level, they can become rapidly disheartened. To determine whether a book is too hard for your child, have her read the first page aloud to you.0 If she stumbles over more than five words, put it back on the shelf and help her make another selection.

Enlist Hollywood

Seeing a story on the big screen (or a small one) can provide just the spark kids need to pick up the book version. Flicks like “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” “Harry Potter,” “Harriet the Spy” and “Stuart Little” are sure to have your little stars hitting the library in no time.

Entice Them With Glossy Pages

Kids needn’t peruse classics to reap the benefits of reading. Magazines that zero -in on children’s passions — from skateboarding to fashion- – can inspire even the most reluctant readers to start flipping pages. Techno-savvy kids can pull up favorite magazines online at sites like Sports Illustrated Kids and Time for Kids.

Create a Library on Wheels

Propensity toward carsickness aside, keeping a supply of books in the car will turn all those idle hours in traffic into valuable reading time.

Turn Them on to Books on Tape

Listening to a book on tape while following along in the real thing gives struggling readers (or those who simply want to tackle a book that’s beyond their reading level) an opportunity to enjoy the story without getting bogged down by difficult words.

Money Talks

In addition to your child’s regular allowance, provide a small allotment exclusively for reading material. Even if all your kid can afford is a paperback book or magazine, you’ve helped your cause.

Start a Parent/Child Book Club

This hot new trend in book clubs offers benefits galore, ranging from heightened reading skills to multigenerational bonding.

It’s in the Bag

Stash some books in a tote bag and pull them out whenever you and your kids get caught in a holding pattern. Whether waiting at the doctor’s office or a restaurant, your children will be thankful to have books to bust their boredom.

Add ‘Book Night’ to Your Chanukah Traditions

Reserve one night of your Festival of Lights this year for family members to exchange hot reads. Spend the rest of the evening enjoying your new books together. Make your gift last all year long by tapping Family Reading Night as a weekly tradition.

Read to Your Kids

For kids who are learning to read — and even those who are old pros! — it’s always a treat to listen to a book. Use expression and intonation as you read to encourage your kids to do so on their own.

For more information, visit
Sports Illustrated Kids: ” target=”_blank”>
Find out everything you need to know about organizing your own parent/child book group at:

Get ready to bug out

With few exceptions, I sincerely hate bugs … a lot. I hate the way they look. I can't stand it when they bite. And most of all, I feel violated each time I catch one crawling up my leg. Yeeech!

While my hatred of bugs may seem a tad extreme (but definitely warranted), it may be that we're intruding on their lives rather than the other way around. That's the way Joshua Abarbanel and Jeff Swimmer see it, and their new book, “A Field Guide to Household Bugs: It's a Jungle in Here” (Plume, $12), explains that our well-protected homes may be more of a feeding ground for bugs than we think.

Turning “the idea of home as a sanctuary on its head,” Abarbanel and Swimmer say, their book — which has the potential to bring out the Jewish neurosis in anyone — offers a comedic yet factual look at the bugs currently living around, on or even in you.

They enter your home by hitching a ride on family pets or simply taking advantage of open doors, pet doors, open windows, tears in window screens, vents, pipes and cracks. After reading the field guide, I inspected my shared apartment and bathed … and then bathed again.

There's much more to the book than the mere gross-out feature. Abarbanel and Swimmer say their book works because “the characters are so compelling and bizarre; their behaviors are so weird and unusual.”

In the chapter Demodex Folliculorum, Abarbanel and Swimmer delve into the bugs more commonly known as eyelash mites. The guide explains that at any given time, you could have 20 to 30 of these critters wrapped around the base of your well-groomed lashes.

The two agree that the most Jewish-sounding name for a bug would probably be the silverfish (Lepisma saccharina), and that the earwigs (Forficula auricularia) get mad Jewish props for their love of books.

As we celebrate Sukkot, Abarbanel and Swimmer have some good news for you. The two say your sukkah is likely less infested with bugs than your home, which should make the mitzvah of sleeping in our biblical huts a little easier to carry out.

Joshua Abarbanel and Jeff Swimmer will sign “A Field Guide to Household Bugs” on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2 p.m. at Dutton's Brentwood Books, 11975 San Vicente Blvd. Los Angeles.

For more information, visit

10 books about happiness

1. “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment” by Tal Ben-Shahar (McGraw-Hill, 2007).

2. “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment” by Martin Seligman (Free Press, 2004).

3. “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Steps Toward Enhancing the Quality of Life)” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Harper Perennial, 1999).

4. “The Psychology of Happiness” by Michael Argyle (Routeledge, 2001; first edition, 1987)

5. “The Pursuit of Happiness: Discovering Pathways to Fulfillment, Well-Being, and Enduring Personal Joy” by David G Myers (Quill, 1992)

6. “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert (Vintage Books, 2005)

7. “The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong,” by Jennifer Michael (Hecht Harper, 2007).

8. “Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual” by Dennis Prager (Harper Paperbacks, 1999).

9. “Living a Joyous Life: The True Spirit of Joyous Practice” by Rabbi David Aaron (Trumpeter Books, 2007).

10. “Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Becoming the Best You Can Be” by Dr. Abraham J. Twerski (Jewish Lights, 2007).

Agnon puts ‘awe’ in services with inspiring anthology

“Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days” by S.Y. Agnon, (Schocken Books, 1995).

Is literature penned by a Nobel Prize-winning author appropriate reading material during High Holy Days services?

I am not sure how your rabbi would react if you sat in the pews reading T.S. Eliot or William Faulkner, but if you were found poring over the pages of 1966 Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon’s “Days of Awe,” originally published in Hebrew as “Yamim Noraim,” I trust most rabbis would happily approve. So would Agnon. In his introduction, Agnon states that he created this book so that one may read it “between prayers,” as a way of intensifying one’s spiritual experience during the High Holy Days.

Agnon’s “Days of Awe” is a rich anthology of biblical, talmudic, rabbinic, mystical, poetic and philosophical texts — all on the subject of the High Holy Days. The bibliography to “Days of Awe” lists more than 500 volumes from which Agnon culled this material, and Agnon tells us that he actually consulted “one thousand books and more” in preparing what amounts to a multi-generational conversation of sorts on the High Holy Days. I call it a “conversation,” because it differs from other encyclopedic anthologies in that the sources do not stand isolated from one another, rather they poetically flow one into the other. “Days of Awe” is an anthology compiled by a master novelist and storyteller, so it is not surprising that it can evoke an almost narrative-like aura and conjure up images in the reader’s mind that the average anthology simply cannot.

For example, in the section about the shofar, Agnon presents Avudraham’s list of Saadia Gaon’s 10 reasons why the shofar is blown, most of which are historical and nation oriented (e.g. binding of Isaac, revelation at Mt. Sinai, Destruction of the Temple). This is immediately followed by Maimonides’ more personal teaching that the shofar harkens the individual to “awake from your slumber, search your deeds, and turn in repentance towards God.”

This, in turn, is followed by a homily from the teachings of the Chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, comparing the physical and spiritual aspects of “sound travel” as a lens through which one may understand the deeper meaning of the notes of the shofar. These three sources come from different geographical regions and historical eras (14th century Spain, 12th century North Africa and 18th century Eastern Europe, respectively), yet Agnon creatively juxtaposes them in a manner that gives the reader the feeling that Avudraham, Maimonides and Rav Nachman are in the same room having a conversation about the shofar.

Many have questioned why a writer whose creative genius lies in the domain of novels and short stories would spend, as Agnon himself stated, “Sixteen hours a day for two and a half years,” in composing an anthology of texts. The simple answer is that he was asked to create this book by his lifelong patron and publisher, Zalman S. Schocken, who wished to present to German Jewry a book through which they could understand the significance and meaning of the High Holy Days. But beyond this pragmatic answer lies a much deeper theological issue that serves as a window into the world of Agnon’s fiction.

Literary critic Malka Shaked devoted a lengthy article to the theme of Yom Kippur in Agnon’s writing, remarking that Agnon’s “deeply personal spiritual connection” to this subject is expressed through Yom Kippur serving as the setting or background to many of Agnon’s plots.

“In compiling ‘Days of Awe,’ Agnon virtually forgoes his own personal creative voice,” Shaked writes, “yet [the act of creating this volume] demonstrates Agnon’s deep interest in this theme.”

Is Agnon’s personal voice completely absent in “Days of Awe”?

Agnon admittedly massaged some of the texts, adding his own introductions and transitions to create the poetic flow to which I alluded earlier. Agnon compares his editorial activity here to “an artist who is handed fine silk from which to weave a garment, his only personal addition being the strings he uses in weaving.”

While this beautiful analogy does paint an accurate picture of Agnon’s role as editor, it is somewhat incomplete. In typical “Agnonic” fashion, Agnon masks his own voice, here in the guise of a peculiar bibliographic listing to which there is no description, author, place of origin or publication date, simply reading “Kol Dodi (in manuscript, in possession of the author).” In the section on “The Parent’s Blessing,” given on the eve of Yom Kippur, Agnon “quotes” from Kol Dodi that “when a man comes to bless his children, he ought to shut his eyes, so as not to see their flaws.”

What is this “Kol Dodi manuscript”?

In her personal memoir, Agnon’s daughter Emuna Yaron reveals that “Kol Dodi” (which means “My Beloved”) is actually a fictitious title used by her father when inserting his own ideas into this volume.

The High Holy Days are a time for deep thought and personal reflection. This brilliant volume is a direct interface with the struggles, traumas, hopes and aspirations that form the core of the High Holy Days experience. Bring it to synagogue, and, in addition to finding Agnon’s voice, you might find your own voice deeply embedded within the voices of our tradition’s greatest thinkers.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Kids slip into reading and cozy up with PJ Library

The High Holy Days can be a confusing time for children. It’s not easy for them to understand the sense behind the story of a father who almost sacrifices his son or how a chicken can help take away sins.

Luckily, the answers to these mysteries and many more can be found in a book — and thanks to the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s PJ Library (as in pajamas), parents around the country are getting those books for free.

The book program, aimed at youngsters from 6 months to 6 years, is meant to encourage a child’s love of reading, and to help children and their parents bond as well as to teach families with young children about Judaism.

“I think reading is absolutely crucial in a child’s life,” said Natalie Blitt, program director for the PJ Library and chair of the book selection committee. “I think the bond that is formed when parent and kids read is unparalleled. It’s how memories are made.”

The program, which by the end of 2007 will reach 10,000 Jewish children in 40 cities, sends out a Jewish-themed, age-appropriate book or CD every month to each child in the program. In December, the program will extend to 7-year-olds.

The foundation is working on bringing the PJ Library — which costs $60 per child, per year (subsidized by the Grinspoon Foundation with the help of philanthropic partners) — to Los Angeles soon.

“We look for books that are going to be great stories,” said Blitt, whose at-home focus group — her own two sons, ages 4 and 2 — also help with book selection. “Our first goal is that these are high-quality books. No child should ever be forced to read a Jewish book.

“The High Holy Day books we chose personify that,” she added, such as “Night Lights: A Sukkot Story,” by Barbara Diamond Goldin, which takes the story of a child who is afraid of the dark and puts a Jewish angle on it with a child sleeping outside in the sukkah for the first time.

Another book, “When the Chickens Went on Strike: A Rosh Hashanah Tale Adapted From a Story by Sholom Aleichem,” by Erica Silverman, puts the kaporos tradition into context for children who might find the custom strange.

Other titles include:

“Apples and Honey: A Rosh Hashanah Lift-The-Flap Book,” which is made for “little hands”; “Gershon’s Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year,” puts tashlich in a suspenseful story for 6-year-olds; and “It’s Shofar Time,” is a preschooler’s guide to the ram’s horn.

Each book includes a reading guide.

A Grinspoon Foundation survey found that before joining the PJ Library, the families in the program owned five or fewer Jewish children’s books, and only 23 percent of the parents said they were very likely to buy Jewish books or CDs.

However, 75 percent of the participants say they now read the PJ Library books to their children once a week or more. Most gave the program top rankings and said the books spark Jewish conversations among family members. In most of these homes, only one parent is Jewish, or one is a Jew-by-choice. In many cases, both parents grew up with little Jewish culture.

The program sends out holiday-themed books three times a year — at the High Holy Days, at Chanukah and at Passover. The rest of the year participants receive books on other holidays, Shabbat stories, folktales, contemporary stories and stories about Israel.

The PJ Library was created by Harold Grinspoon, a philanthropist from Springfield, Mass., who based the program on Dolly Parton’s Dolly’s Imagination Library, which distributes books to inner-city children.

“Then it occurred to me — this is the ideal project to adapt to the Jewish community,” Grinspoon said. “We need to get Yiddishkeit into the homes of unengaged Jewish families in a positive way.”

In the winter of 2005, he decided to create a way to turn the special moments right before bed, when parents and children snuggle up with a book, into “Jewish moments.”

“We hear from parents that the program is making a huge difference,” Blitt said. “In the way parents talk to their kids, and in the way kids talk to each other and the way they see the Jewish community. We even see PJ Sundays where the entire family gets together to meet other families.”

For additional information and a list of books, CD-roms and readers guides, visit the PJ Library Web site at

New books chronicle new exodus — Ethiopians’ journey and its aftermath

“Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes,” by Howard M. Lenhoff (Gefen; $24.95).

“The Ethiopian Jews of Israel,” by Len Lyons (Jewish Lights; $34.99).

Roughly 20 years ago, Sudan, whose western Darfur region has been engulfed in genocide for four years, watched another other tragedy unfold — the deaths of thousands of Ethiopian Jews trying to escape to Israel via Operation Moses.

Nearly one-fifth of the fleeing Falashas perished on their journey due to murder, famine, drought and various illnesses. But tens of thousands reached the Holy Land; and the ancient Jewish community (known to themselves as Beta Yisrael), which had an almost invisible presence in Israel until the late 1970s, now numbers more than 100,000 people.

Two new books explore the Ethiopian Jews, one from the perspective of an advocate who helped forge a consensus behind the mass aliyah in the 1970s and 1980s, and the other from an admittedly apolitical jazz aficionado who has dedicated two and a half years of his life to interviewing an array of Ethiopian Jews some 20 years after the exodus.

Former activist Howard Lenhoff, author of “Black Jews, Jews, and Other Heroes,” might not consider himself one of his book’s eponymous heroes. He never traveled to Ethiopia, never risked his life, never engaged in the kind of swashbuckling derring-do of some of his colleagues.

Yet he played a critical role as president of the American Association of Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) in negotiating with and, in some cases, applying pressure to the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency to change policy on Ethiopian Jews.

Typical of the response of the Jewish establishment in the 1970s was this remark by one American Jewish woman: “These blacks are not Jews.” Nor were the Israelis immune to demeaning characterizations of the Beta Yisrael.

Lenhoff quotes a letter from professor Aryeh Tartakower, another leading activist at the time, that spells out the one-time Israeli attitude toward the Ethiopian Jews: “They were to be considered as ‘Aliens’ like other people of this category, to be admitted as tourists only for a short period of time….

Things went so far, that certain overzealous Israeli officials threatened to deport those Falashas who would be tempted to come over illegally.”

As much as this letter may remind us of the present debate over illegal immigration in the United States, the Israelis ultimately did rescue tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews. Not only that, they provided them with food, shelter and education at absorption centers throughout the country.

How much of that was due to the advocacy of groups like Lenhoff’s is hard to know, but Lenhoff and other AAEJ officials met on many occasions with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, obtained more than 50,000 signatures on behalf of the Ethiopians, mobilized protests, distributed literature, got the Jewish press to report on the plight of the Falashas and even commanded a few rescues themselves.

Lenhoff first became conscious of race as a young boy growing up in North Adams, Mass. Most of the blacks in his hometown worked as “janitors and garbage people. It sort of bothered me,” he said from his home in Oxford, Miss. “Naturally, I became friends with them.”

He later served on the faculty at Howard University and participated in the civil rights marches in the 1960s, but his interest in the Falashas did not blossom until he visited Israel just after the Yom Kippur War in late 1973 and early 1974. It was then that he read a Jerusalem Post article by famed newsman Louis Rapoport about the Ethiopian Jews who were being denied the right to the Law of Return. Shortly thereafter, Lenhoff, through Rapoport, got in contact with some members of the Beta Yisrael and even provided one, Rahamim, with $1,000, which enabled him to bring his older brother to Israel.

Over the phone, Lenhoff, a former UC Irvine biology professor, said he was concerned about the rescue missions, thinking at the time, “We’re amateurs. What if somebody gets killed. I’ll be responsible.”

He has also been responsible for his daughter, who suffers from the rare genetic disorder known as Williams-Beuren syndrome. Last fall, he came out with “The Strangest Song,” a book about his daughter, who displays rare musical gifts despite her condition.

The same compassion he shows for his daughter comes through in “Black Jews.” He speaks glowingly of some of the Ethiopian men he has met, like Hezi, the first one he encountered, a drill sergeant in the Israeli army, whom he describes as “a towering figure, over 6 feet tall, with a trademark long, black handlebar mustache.”

The book could do without its many subheads, like “Meeting Rahamim — The Professor Hooked.” Likewise, it could do without definitions of such obvious terms as the Mossad and kibbutzim. Any reader will know that the former is the Israeli equivalent of the CIA and the latter the plural form of kibbutz.

Despite these stylistic flaws, the book offers a primer on grass-roots activism and documents a modern-day Exodus, a story that makes for compelling reading on Passover.

Len Lyons, who has previously written books about jazz and computers, first came into contact with the Beta Yisrael through the Boston-Haifa sister city exchange program, when he and his wife hosted two Ethiopians at their home.

Although he said over the phone from Boston that he did not grow up in a politically active home, he could always “relate to the idea of not fitting in completely with my own world.”

In his new book, “The Ethiopian Jews of Israel,” he interviewed the top stratum of Ethiopian Israeli society. Almost no one is unemployed. Not one interviewee seems to live in a broken home, even though there is a high prevalence of divorce among Ethiopian Jews. No one suffers from any of the other pathologies of the community — spousal abuse, depression and alcoholism.

Lyons admits at the outset that he has not presented a random sample or a true cross-section of Beta Yisrael. He tried to interview some inmates in a prison, but they, like other “people on the margins … failing to engage constructively in society, don’t really want to talk about themselves” because of the stigma and shame of being imprisoned, homeless or even unemployed.