Theater as addiction therapy in ‘Bliss Point’


The healing power of theater underlies the collaboration between the Cornerstone Theater Company and rehabilitation centers around the city, which resulted in the company’s production of “Bliss Point,” a play about addiction and recovery, through June 22 at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles.

Playwright Shishir Kurup’s research included conducting interviews with residents of various recovery facilities, including Beit T’Shuvah (“House of Return”). 

Tricia Nykin, who had organized several acting workshops while a resident at Beit T’Shuvah, was heavily involved in the play’s development process, working with the playwright and Cornerstone, and she ultimately arranged for a reading for the Beit T’Shuvah residents.

“I wanted to get feedback as to the legitimacy of the script,” Nykin said.

The play focuses on two divergent scenarios that merge unexpectedly at the end. One concerns an addict whose friends come to get high with him in celebration of his birthday. Eventually, a particularly devastating event causes him to crash. The other scenario follows an East Indian journalist who is caring for his sick mother and also interviewing addicts at a treatment center for an article in a major magazine. 

One of the addicts telling her story to the journalist is played by Nykin, who is one of five cast members from Beit T’Shuvah, most of them with little acting experience. In fact, Nykin, who has been a professional actor since childhood and has a bachelor’s degree in theater, is one of only a few professionals in the 15-character play. 

She is also a heroin addict who came to Beit T’Shuvah almost a year ago as a “court commit.”  

“I eventually started selling heroin, and I got caught a lot,” Nykin said. “I got raided three times, and I went to jail, in and out, in and out, about seven times over the course of a year and a half. And then, on March 11, 2013, I went to jail for the last time.  

“The court and my probation [officer] decided they were not going to let me out. So, I was stuck, and I was really forced to look at myself, and it was miserable, it was difficult. And thank God for that, because it gave me the gift of desperation and enabled me to see that I felt freer in those four tiny walls in a cell than I did in the real world. That’s what made me want to change.”

Her grandmother read about Beit T’Shuvah, and her mother eventually got her alternatively sentenced to the center. She was immediately cast in a play the facility produces periodically, and she slowly began establishing a theater program.  

Now sober, Nykin moved out of the treatment residence about five weeks ago into a house where many Beit T’Shuvah staff members reside. She is employed as the managing director of the facility’s theater department.

Jared Ross, another resident who is part of the “Bliss Point” cast, said his own recovery, as well as the play itself, has helped him find a passion for learning and growing again. He said that, as an artist himself who draws, paints and sculpts, he particularly relates to the character he plays, whose artwork is exhibited in the Whitney Museum.

“But, also, [there’s] the dark side of this character — he’s been an IV drug user, which is something that I’ve battled since I was 16. 

“But he does come to a place of revelation, of wanting to survive, to really get his name out there and make it as an artist. And, just like with myself, for that to even have a shot at happening, I have to put the drugs down.”

In order to “put the drugs down,” Beit T’Shuvah residents are required to go to therapy and meet with their counselor every week, as well as a spiritual adviser every week, and go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every night.  In addition, both Jewish and non-Jewish residents must attend Torah study every morning and services every Friday night and Saturday morning.

There are also adjunct, voluntary programs, such as music, yoga, mindfulness meditation, creative writing, surf therapy and, of course, theater, which the center’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, believes is therapeutic in that it allows addicts to tell their story and the stories of other people.

“They can see themselves in other characters,” he said, “so it helps them get out of their own self-obsession. It helps them have empathy with other characters, other people. It also creates a community within the community. They know that their success, and the success of the project, is dependent upon everyone working together, so it gets them to be part of something instead of separate from everyone. Plus, they have a great deal of fun and camaraderie.”

The rabbi would like audiences who see “Bliss Point” to come away with an appreciation for the power of recovery and of redemption, “and to see themselves in the cast members,” he said, “so they start to realize that it’s not ‘those people,’ but it’s us.”

 

“Bliss Point” is at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, June 5-22. Performances are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2. For group tickets, email aescalante@cornerstonetheater.org. Pay-what-you-can: Suggested donation is $20.

Last of Boston Marathon bombing victims released from hospital


The last person hospitalized with injuries from the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings was discharged on Monday, still facing a long recovery from the loss of her left leg and severe injuries to her right leg.

Three people were killed and 264 injured, many losing legs, when two homemade pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the race.

Erika Brannock, 29, a preschool teacher from Baltimore, had traveled to the city with her sister and brother-in-law to support her mother, who was running her first marathon. They were standing near the finish line when the first bomb exploded.

Brannock, who spoke to reporters outside Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said she remembered her sister gently pushing her forward toward the front of the crowd before “everything went silent and I saw flashes of orange and yellow, and I fell backward slowly and then finally came to and could hear the screaming and the crying and the sirens.”

Shortly after the blast, a stranger who identified herself only as Joan from California called out and grabbed her hand, saying, “I'm not going to let you go,” Brannock said.

“She stayed with me through the whole experience of people taking care of me and everyone attending to my wounds until I got on the stretcher and was taken off to an ambulance,” she said, holding back tears.

“Wherever you are, you saved my life,” Brannock wrote in a separate statement.

Brannock sustained a traumatic amputation of her left leg above the knee and severe injuries to other leg, said Dr. Edward Rodriguez, an orthopedic surgeon. Doctors worked to save her right leg and performed multiple procedures to reconstruct bone and soft tissue.

“She will have a long course ahead” and may require further surgeries, the doctor said. “This is certainly not over.”

Brannock's sister, Nicole Gross, 31, also sustained severe leg injuries and was treated at another hospital for 33 days. Her brother-in-law, Michael Gross, suffered cuts, burns and bruises.

Their mother, Carol Downing, 57, of Monkton, Maryland, was less than a half mile from the finish line when the bombs exploded and was not injured. She said she plans to run the marathon again next year.

Though Brannock was the last of the bombing patients admitted on April 15 to be discharged from Boston area hospitals, one patient treated that day and discharged was recently readmitted, a Beth Israel spokesman said.

Brannock said she will be fitted with a prosthetic and expects to walk again. She plans to focus on rehabilitation and getting back to teaching, she said.

“I've had some very dark moments, but … I've had world-class care here with incredible compassion,” she said.

A suspect in the bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was captured in a dramatic police manhunt days after the bombing. His brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, also identified as a suspect, was killed in a gunfight with police. Investigators suspect they had Islamic militant sympathies.

Editing by Daniel Trotta and Steve Orlofsky

Rescuers search Oklahoma tornado town ruins as recovery starts


Rescue workers with sniffer dogs picked through the ruins of an Oklahoma town on Wednesday to ensure no survivors remained buried after a deadly tornado left thousands homeless and trying to salvage what was left of their belongings.

“Yesterday I was numb. Today I cried a lot. Now I'm on the victory side of it,” said Beth Vrooman, who hid in a shelter in her garage during Monday's storm in Moore, Oklahoma.

When the winds died down, she realized a car was blocking her exit.

“It took some muscle, but I got out,” Vrooman said, as she sifted through piles of clothing, broken knickknacks and nail-studded boards that had once been her home.

The tornado on Monday afternoon flattened entire blocks of the town, including schools, a hospital and other buildings.

At least 24 people were killed and 240 others injured, but authorities were increasingly confident that everyone caught in the disaster had been accounted for, despite initial fears that the twister had claimed the lives of more than 90 people.

Jerry Lojka, spokesman for Oklahoma Emergency Management, said search-and-rescue dog teams would search for anybody trapped under the rubble, but that attention would also be focused on a huge cleanup job.

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“They will continue the searches of areas to be sure nothing is overlooked,” he said. “There's going to be more of a transition to recovery.”

More than 1,000 people had already registered for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which sent hundreds of workers to Oklahoma to help with the recovery.

After a long day of searching through shattered homes that was slowed by rainy weather on Tuesday, Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan said it seemed no one was missing.

“As far as I know, of the list of people that we have had that they are all accounted for in one way or another,” he said.

TEN CHILDREN AMONG DEAD

The state medical examiner on Wednesday released details on the people who died in the storm, and reported 10 children, including a four-month-old baby, were among the victims, more than the nine previously reported.

The other children ranged in age from 4 years to 9 years old. The storm's oldest victim, of those whose ages were released, was 63. Most of the victims died of blunt force injuries that were probably caused by flying debris and five of the children died from suffocation.

Most of the children were at Plaza Towers Elementary School, which took a direct hit by the deadliest tornado to strike the United States in two years.

Emergency workers pulled more than 100 survivors from the debris after the tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City region with winds exceeding 200 miles per hour (320 kph), leaving a trail of destruction 17 miles (23 km) long and 1.3 miles (2 km) wide.

The National Weather Service said the tornado was ranked a rare EF5, the most powerful on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

STORM SAFE SHELTERS

The last time a giant twister tore through the area, on May 3, 1999, it killed more than 40 people and destroyed thousands of homes. That tornado also topped the scale.

Oklahoma Emergency Management's Lojka said 2,400 homes were damaged or obliterated and an estimated 10,000 people affected.

The death toll was lower than might have been expected given the extent of the devastation in Moore, home to 55,000 people.

Some ascribed the relatively few deaths to many people having small “storm safe” shelters, basically a concrete hole in the garage floor with a sliding roof that locks.

Billy McElrath, 50, of Oklahoma City, said his wife hid in a storm safe in their garage when the tornado hit.

She emerged unhurt even though the storm destroyed the 1968 Corvette convertible she had bought him as a birthday present, and crushed a motorcycle.

“Everything else is just trashed,” he said as he loaded a pickup with salvaged goods.

Kraig Boozier, 47, took to his own small shelter in the Westmoor subdivision of Oklahoma City and watched in shock as a fan in the wall was ripped out.

“I looked up and saw the tornado above me,” he said.

Officials said another factor behind the surprisingly low death toll was the early warning, with meteorologists saying days in advance that a storm system was coming.

Once a tornado was forming, people had 15 to 20 minutes of warning, which meant they could take shelter or flee the projected path. The weather service also has new, sterner warnings about deadly tornadoes.

Many of those who do not have a basic storm shelter at home, which can cost $2,500 to $5,000, have learned from warnings over the year to seek hiding places at home during a tornado.

Jackie Raper, 73, and her daughter, for instance, sought shelter in the bathtub in her house in Oklahoma City.

“The house fell on top of her,” said Caylin Burgett, 16, who says Raper is like a grandmother to her. Raper broke her arm and femur, and bruised her lungs, Burgett said.

Additional reporting by Alice Mannette, Lindsay Morris, Nick Carey, Brendan O'Brien, Greg McCune, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Jane Sutton; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool

Giffords attends vigil marking attack anniversary


Rep. Gabrielle Giffords led the Pledge of Allegiance at a vigil marking the one-year anniversary of an attack on the congresswoman and her constituents at a political event.

Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, attended the candlelight vigil Sunday night at the University of Arizona to mark the attack. Bells at churches and private homes rang out throughout Tucson at 10:11 a.m. Sunday morning, the time that the attack took place one year ago.

The commemoration also included an interfaith prayer service at a local church, during which a shofar was blown by a rabbi.

During the day, Giffords and Kelly also walked a short way on a trail in nearby Davidson Canyon named for one of the victims, Gabe Zimmerman, a former aide to Giffords.

Six people were killed and a dozen injured in the attack in Tucson by alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner.

Giffords, the first Jewish woman elected to the Congress from Arizona, was shot in the head and continues to undergo intensive therapy. The three-term Democrat is planning to run again if her health permits it, according to reports.

Loughner has pleaded not guilty to 49 charges connected with the shooting. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but was found fit to stand trial.

Gilad Shalit faces recovery issues


Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was freed from five years of captivity in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday to a joyous reception, but may need time to recover from his time kept in sun-deprived isolation and other injuries, his father said.

Noam Shalit said they were reunited in Israel and that his noticeably gaunt and pale 25-year-old son would require care for improperly healed shrapnel wounds. He said his captors had also treated him “roughly” at times.

“He will undergo a process of rehabilitation. We hope the process will be as quick as possible,” Noam Shalit told well-wishers who feted his son’s return to his Israeli hometown.

“We hope he can resume normal life,” he added.

Being deprived of sunlight while also being locked in isolation with nobody to communicate with save for his captors were other issues that may weigh on his son’s ability to pick up where he left off, Shalit said.

The soldier himself seemed utterly overwhelmed as he was seated for what Israeli pundits saw as a forced interview with Egyptian television, conducted before he even had a chance to telephone his family waiting in Israel.

“I don’t feel so good from this whole event … to see so many people after such a long time … after not having seen people for such a long time. I am on edge,” Shalit said in Hebrew to questions fired at him in English and Arabic.

Later Israeli media said the soldier felt unwell and faint while on a helicopter that ferried him from the Egyptian border to a military base to meet his family. He was nearly hospitalised, reports said.

TRAUMA

Shalit was abducted in June 2006 by militants who tunnelled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and grabbed him from his tank, holding him incommunicado ever since.

They used him as a bargaining card to negotiate the freedom of 1,027 Palestinians held in Israeli jails for carrying out attacks against Israelis.

Shalit said his son had suffered minor shrapnel injuries that had not properly healed due to improper care, though it was unclear whether this stemmed from the 2006 Gaza border attack in which two other soldiers were killed.

Other traumas may also weigh on Shalit’s recovery.

His father said the soldier had so far given him scant details about his time in Gaza.

“At first there were difficult conditions and he was treated roughly but that afterwards mainly in recent years the treatment improved,” he said, but gave no further details.

The Islamist group Hamas has said it treated Shalit well during his captivity.

Former Israeli captives from previous conflicts said coping with liberty again could also pose tough challenges.

Mickey Zeifa, an army reserve colonel who was held as a prisoner of war by Egypt in the 1973 Middle East war, said Shalit would require careful management to enable him to settle back to the life he knew before his capture.

“It takes a very long time for a person to get back on course … you mustn’t crowd him,” he told Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

“In my case … the celebrations around me, which at first were flattering and moving, brought me down. Sometimes the return is a trauma in and of itself, no less difficult than captivity,” he added.

Psychologist Rivka Tuval-Mashiach told Israel’s Channel 2 television that Shalit would need time to absorb the fact he has become such a huge public figure during his prolonged absence.

“He will need to be given time even to the physiological changes of light and darkness, not to be afraid to speak. We don’t know if he suffered violence or was tortured, but even in the first instances after he was back in Israel we saw that his frozen state thawed a little, with a first smile,” she said.

Still, Noam Shalit seemed optimistic, saying he felt he had “experienced the rebirth of his son” and that generally “Gilad feels well” and was very glad now to be home.

Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Sophie Hares

Hyler begins to heal


Talent Manager and producer Joan Hyler is on the slow road to recovery. After a devastating accident that nearly killed her last Friday Aug. 15, Hyler has undergone multiple surgeries to assess and repair damage to her organs, arms and legs. After being struck by a car on the Pacific Coast Highway, Hyler sustained severe injuries, which reportedly included a collapsed lung, internal bleeding and broken legs. There was initial concern that Hyler might not survive the weekend.

But doctors became optimistic on Tuesday, after a CAT scan revealed that brain swelling was minimal. When Hyler responded positively to a reduction in her sedation level, it was determined she could undergo surgeries to repair her legs.

Following a successful surgery last Friday morning, doctors are increasingly optimistic that Hyler is responding well to treatment.

Yesterday morning, Hyler underwent a six-hour surgery during which doctors attempted to repair a badly broken right leg by inserting a pin in her tibia bone. During that same surgery, they also inserted a screw in her left ankle. Doctors had planned to repair damage to her right upper-arm, but decided to delay further procedures and allow Hyler to rest. Hyler has since been taken off of sedation, but continues to receive a morphine drip for pain.

Her progress will be closely monitored throughout the weekend.

Hyler is a prominent player in both Hollywood and the Jewish community. A former vice president of William Morris Agency, she once represented clients Bob Dylan, Madonna and Andy Warhol. Today, Hyler is a prominent talent manager and producer, representing A-list actors, including Oscar-winner Diane Lane.

Hyler has also exhibited a steadfast commitment to the Jewish community and its causes. As president of Women in Film, Hyler created the Morning Star Commission, an organization founded by Hadassah to promote more diverse portrayals of women in media and entertainment. She also co-created the Jewish Image Awards, which celebrates outstanding portrayals of Jewish heritage in film and television.

After it was reported that Hyler went through 40 units of blood last weekend following her accident, friends and colleagues in both the Entertainment and Jewish communities began organizing blood drives on her behalf. Endeavor Talent Agency held an in-house blood drive last Wednesday, where 82 people contributed 61 units of blood. IKAR, a spiritual community in which Hyler is involved, is also encouraging people to donate blood tomorrow, Aug. 24 (see details below).

The latest report on UCLA’s carepages:

Last Friday night was the lowest of all low points. Since that point we have measured time in 12 hour and 24 hour increments. This is going to be a long difficult struggle. Still, at this point, one week later, we have made only progress, with no emergencies and no setbacks.

Joan rested comfortably during the night. She tolerated the surgery well. The swelling in her face has greatly decreased. At various times she has appeared to recognize familiar voices and has started to fleetingly open her eyes in response. They had suspended feeding her [intravenously] while she was waiting for the surgery; that feeding is now resumed.

The third part of yesterday’s surgery—the part that was not completed—the insertion of a plate and screws to repair the humerus—is now scheduled for this coming Friday.

The action for today is for Joan to undergo an MRI and a C-T scan. The ICU is prepping her for these even as this is being written. Joan had been in a support collar from the beginning and they are now thinking of removing it, hence the MRI, to see if they can proceed. Relative to the C-T scan, Joan had suffered a substantial impact to the head, and while there was no fracture, there had been an internal bleed. The C-T scan will give us an up to date picture of where we are on this front.

 

IKAR blood drive:

Sunday August 24

9 a.m.-Noon

Children’s Hospital

4650 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles

Donate anytime:

UCLA Medical Center

757 Westwood Plaza, Los Angeles

(310) 825-9111

A Mensh on the radiowaves to recovery


One afternoon in 1989, Ricky Leigh Mensh hid out in his car in a parking garage in Bethesda, Md., paranoid after a five-day cocaine and booze spree.

“I had experienced so many consequences as a result of my addictions,” Mensh, now 48 — and 19 years sober — said as he prepared to debut his syndicated “Recovery Radio Live” program on KLSX 97.1 Free FM this week. “I had been in and out of jail, broken bones while drunk, broken my nose several times in bar fights — even had developed gout. I had become so paranoid after 13 years of using that I would lock myself in my townhouse and not come out for days.”

Mensh had not slept for five days on that afternoon in 1989 when he realized he was “a cadaver waiting to happen” and phoned his grandmother from a pay phone for help. Forty-eight hours after that “moment of clarity,” he said, he checked into a rehabilitation center and has been sober since.

He went on to become a prominent music industry executive and a voting member of the Grammy Awards — and now he is hoping to offer addicts moments of clarity similar to his own with his “Recovery” program, which premiered locally this week and will continue to air Saturdays from 11 p.m. to midnight on KLSX.

“The show is designed to feel like a 12-step recovery meeting on the air,” Mensh said from his home base in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “Our primary goal is to reach out to those who are still [using], as well as to people in recovery, their friends, families and co-workers.”

Mensh acts as the show’s brash, charismatic host and says he studied past and present recovery shows while developing his unique format. His polished but personable program includes interviews with medical experts, such as Dr. Drew Pinsky (“Celebrity Rehab”); celebrity recovering addicts like bassist Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue; drug-related comedy bits; music inspired by addiction and treatment (think Aerosmith’s “What It Takes”); conference-calling listeners to share stories; and scholarship giveaways to the C.A.R.E. 30-day treatment program in North Palm Beach, Fla. (the regular price tag: $22,000).

Pinsky has lauded the show as “the embodiment of recovery” and as a powerful example of the way the media can be used to transmit the message of recovery.

On the air, Mensh often shares parts of his own story, which began as he grew up in and around Washington, D.C., attending his maternal grandparents’ Orthodox synagogue.

“But unfortunately, my mother married not one but two violent men,” he said of his father and former stepfather; beatings and severe emotional abuse were de rigueur. Two days after Mensh graduated high school, he found his suitcase packed in the living room along with a note that read, “Get the f— out.”

He fled to the efficiency apartment he had already rented for the summer and was showering the next morning when a roommate offered him a lit bong through the shower curtain.

“I took my first hit, and it filled the black hole inside of me that all addicts feel,” he recalled. “It set me free from all my anger, and made me feel more comfortable in my own skin.”

Over the next 13 years, Mensh snorted cocaine (sometimes off the turntables at his disc jockey gigs), added acid and Quaaludes to the mix, and imbibed to the point that he blacked out, only to awaken in a ditch or a stranger’s car or bed. Although he managed to hold down radio jobs and even to found several profitable businesses during those years, his disease eventually spiraled out of control. In 1989, Mensh’s therapist, who had also treated John Belushi, told him that the only difference between Mensh and the late comedian was that Belushi “was dead, and you aren’t yet.”

His first day of sobriety was March 25, 1989.

Cut to August 2007, when Mensh — who by then had been voted one of the 30 most influential people in music by Source magazine — was mortified by a tabloid TV show about celebrity addicts such as Britney Spears.

“The shows were ridiculing these people, whom I see as sick, as fodder for their revenue,” he recalled. He also perceived that stars like Spears were using (or encouraged to use) “recovery” as a way to gain publicity for their latest albums or films.

“The tabloid media was bastardizing our beloved 12-step programs, and I wanted to do something to portray them in a positive light,” he said.

The result was “Recovery Radio,” which got its start on a Palm Beach station and is now in multiple markets. The show is expanding to include other kinds of addictions (on Super Bowl Sunday, the topic was gambling, for example). And plans are in the works to do live shows from Los Angeles — such as broadcasting from a 12-step meeting in a federal prison — and in other cities.

“As a Jew, it’s important to me to reach out to other Jews,” Mensh said. He cites the perception within the Jewish community that Jews don’t tend to be addicts, which “made me feel like even more of a schmuck while I was in rehab. There’s also the idea that Jews are too smart to abuse drugs and alcohol, which is part of the B.S. I told myself to keep me in denial while I was using.”

“We want to reach out to people who are still sick and suffering, whomever they may be,” he added.

Richard Lewis, comedian from heaven


The husband from hell. The uncle from hell. The comedian from hell. Richard Lewis is fully aware he has problems. And by the end of his set, his stand-up audiences know he has problems.

Known as comedy’s “Prince of Pain,” he is a comedian who feeds off his own neuroses and is doing his best to keep stable. A recovering alcoholic, Lewis has been sober for 14 years — an experience he wrote about in his 2000 memoir, “The Other Great Depression” (Public Affairs Books, $14.95), which has been reissued with a new afterword that reflects his progress as he continues to struggle with addiction.

Much has changed since the book’s original release seven years ago. The 60-year-old comic has gotten married, and he’s a regular on the HBO comedy series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” With younger audiences coming to see his stand-up, Lewis decided it was time to update the book for a generation that follows blog posts about Amy Winehouse’s travails while blithely singing along to her hit “Rehab.”

“My career in stand-up has mushroomed greatly, thanks to ‘Curb,’ and there are a million younger people who are now college age and drinking,” Lewis said. “Being sober, I’m able to literally help other people save their lives.”

Lewis’s alcoholism surfaced in his 20s and 30s, driven by feelings of self-loathing. After completing several well-received TV comedy specials and landing a role opposite actress Jamie Lee Curtis on the sitcom “Anything But Love” in 1988, he was convinced he had his drinking and drug use under control.

“The more successful I got, the more convinced I felt that I could become even more successful if I had a few more drinks before I performed,” he wrote.

The highs and lows that fed his comedy began to blur, and Lewis walked away from stand-up and acting for almost three years as he continued drinking.

“My career was in suspended animation. Nothing worthwhile was going on, and I was too depressed and too addicted to booze by this point to make things happen on my own,” he wrote.

In 1994, he entered a hospital emergency room, hallucinating from a cocaine overdose. After interventions and rehab, Lewis sobered up and reached a turning point when he was able to stand in front of a roomful of addicts and admit, “I’m Richard, and I’m an alcoholic.”

“I needed a higher power in my life to help me in sobriety, which led me to become more and more spiritual. I can’t be the captain of my own ship,” Lewis said in a phone interview.

In the book’s new afterword, Lewis revealed that while he feels better about himself on a physical, emotional and spiritual level, his sobriety is still a day-to-day challenge. “The cold hard truth is that if I take for granted the progress I have made, I’m a goner,” he wrote.

Born the same year as the infamous “UFO crash” in Roswell, N.M., Lewis insinuates that his psychological and emotional problems could have resulted from the fact that he’s “not from this earth.” But his sense of disconnect could just as easily be attributed to his Jewish upbringing in New Jersey.

Lewis’ father worked as a kosher caterer, and the comedian said in an interview that the family’s refrigerator was regularly stocked with leftover melon balls rather than cold cuts. His mother, an actress, played most of Neil Simon’s Jewish mothers in the local community theater.

Lewis was the star of the youth basketball team at the local Jewish community center, and at sports camp in 1963, 12-year-old Lewis met a tall, gangly kid: Larry David.

The two became fast friends a decade later, after they recognized each other as struggling young comics at New York’s famed Improv club.

Lewis says he became a comedian to fill the void left by his father’s death in 1971. The more he talked about his neurotic family onstage, the more popular he became.

While he can’t exorcize the memories of a childhood filled with emotional abuse and arguing parents, Lewis said he has learned he shouldn’t dwell on things he cannot change.

“Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies,” he said.

To complement the book’s reissue, a DVD documentary follows Lewis during his original tour for “The Other Great Depression” in 2001. “Richard Lewis Naked” (Peaceful Chaos Productions Ltd., $19.95) offers a behind-the-scenes look at the stress and pressure of traveling from city to city for readings, signings and television interviews. Lewis said it was the hardest three or four months of his life.

“We were working on a bunch of stuff, almost unbearable, and she captured it,” he said of longtime friend and publicist, Michelle Marx, who shot the footage.

And much like Lewis’s stand-up routines, the documentary captures the humor that springs from the comedian’s stress as he prepares for on-camera interviews with “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart and “Today” co-host Matt Lauer.

In addition to the documentary and the reissue of his biography, Lewis is also proud of another achievement. In October 2006, “The Yale Book of Quotations” recognized Lewis for creating the phrase, “the ______ from hell.”

Lewis claims to have created the line in the 1970s, fitting it into his stand-up act as he complained about the many people in his life who have caused him grief and annoyance — the waiter from hell, the doctor from hell, the landlord from hell.

However, “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” rejected Lewis’ claim, which inspired his character’s quest for immortality in Bartlett’s in the third season “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode “The Nanny From Hell.”

According to a 2002 Entertainment Weekly (EW) article after the episode aired, Bartlett’s first began hearing from Lewis’ camp about “the ______ from hell” quote in the early 1990s.

“He had his lawyer get in touch with me, and they sent a couple of tapes,” Bartlett’s general editor Justin Kaplan said. But “I spoke to people who had been at Yale before the time of his first taped broadcast, who said [the line] was a common idiom.”

Mia Goldman’s film is an ‘Open Window’ into trauma and recovery


One night in 1989, Mia Goldman awakened to find a menacing stranger sitting on top of her, ordering her to keep her mouth shut or he would “shoot [her] brains out” with a gun he had placed on a nightstand.

At the time, Goldman, a film editor, was living in a two-story condominium in rural Virginia, on location with the film, “Crazy People.” Her assailant revealed that he knew she was working on the movie, that he had been stalking her and that he had entered the condo through a downstairs window she had left open a crack for air.

Over the next five hours, he brutally raped, tortured and beat Goldman, covering her body with bruises and injuring her neck. In the aftermath, she developed a heart murmur, endured cervical surgeries, experienced flashbacks and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome and lost her boyfriend, who had tried to be kind but ultimately could not deal with his own feelings of trauma and violation.

Goldman says it took her six years to work through her depression and to heal, which she did with the help of her psychoanalyst, her family and her growing spiritual connection to Judaism. She drew on her experience to write and direct her debut feature, “Open Window,” which premieres on Showtime July 16 at 8 p.m.

The intense, intimate drama revolves around Izzy (Robin Tunney), a struggling photographer, Izzy’s fiancé, Peter (Joel Edgerton), and how their relationship unravels after she is raped by a man who enters her studio through an open window.

Both Izzy and Peter are devastated by the rape: “I wanted to show how the act violates not only the woman, but also the man — and how it creates circles of pain that may extend to the entire family,” Goldman says.

But the 52-year-old filmmaker does not intend the movie to be a “rape film,” per se. “The specificity is rape, but I wanted the drama to be about how an individual may be able to survive any kind of trauma,” she says. “After my experience, I learned that I could go through something horrible, and that it didn’t have to destroy me. I felt that I was right on the line — that I could have been ruined but I didn’t want to give the rapist that. So I muddled through, I made a lot of mistakes, and I found that if I persevered I could become stronger, I could be brave. And that is what I wanted to convey.”

Jewish texts informed her film, Goldman adds during a conversation at her home, where a hall is lined with expressive portraits of rabbis and landscapes of Jerusalem.

In her bedroom, volumes by authors such as Adin Steinsaltz and Joseph Soloveitchik line a bookshelf. “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by the Auschwitz survivor and psychoanalyst Victor Frankl, deals with life after the Holocaust and directly inspired how Goldman’s film depicts loss and the possibility for healing, she says. The movie — which won best picture at the 2007 Reel Women International Film Festival — was an official selection at the Sundance and Jerusalem film festivals and has screened at a Los Angeles high school and the UCLA School of Medicine, among other venues.

“Audience members have come up to me and said, ‘I have cancer’ or ‘I lost my husband in a car accident, and this is my story,'” the filmmaker says.

Struggle and transformation is a theme that has run not only through Goldman’s life, but the life of her remarkable family. Her grandfather, Julian Goldman, grew up in an impoverished family that had escaped Russian pogroms; he became the owner of a chain of department stores and an adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — but never spoke to FDR again after the president declined to bomb the railroad tracks to Auschwitz.

Mia Goldman’s father, the screenwriter Bo Goldman (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), scraped along financially for years before achieving fiscal and artistic success. (His family disapproved when he married an Episcopalian, Mia’s mother.)

“I was the oldest of six children, and we lived this haphazard existence, always on the edge, borrowing other people’s summer houses and running around barefoot,” Goldman recalls of her childhood. “My parents were loving but exhausted and overwhelmed. When I was 10, I was hired out to work as a baby sitter. By the time I was in the 12th grade, we had moved 20 times.”

Goldman paid for her first year at Vassar with a scholarship and by working as an apprentice film editor in New York. At 19, she left school for a time after she lapsed into a suicidal depression, prompted by an identity crisis; she began seeing the renowned analyst, Dr. Abraham Gottesman, in Westwood.

Gottesman encouraged Goldman — who had been raised Episcopalian — to explore her budding interest in Judaism, if only in order to dismiss it. Eventually she started attending services at Sinai Temple and converted to Judaism under the auspices of the Conservative movement.

Temple Sinai’s Rabbi David Wolpe officiated at her marriage to a Jewish physician in 1997. Along the way, she edited films such as “Choose Me” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Goldman believes her work with Gottesman — which lasted until his death in 2005 — gave her insight into the psyche that helped save her life back in 1989.

“I intuited that my rapist had suffered terribly; that the rape was an expression of his anger, and I kept trying to make a human connection with him,” she says, quietly. “I noticed that he smelled like Irish Spring; the fact that he had washed for me made me feel like, in a perverse way, he saw this as a date — and that just maybe I could get through to him.”

At one point, Goldman refused to engage in a particular act because “I don’t love you,” she told the intruder, causing him to take pause (Izzy makes the same declaration in “Open Window”). As Goldman’s ordeal drew to an end, however, she realized the man still intended to kill her, and she spent more than two hours negotiating for her life. “In a strange way I felt grateful to him when he let me go, because I had seen all those rape movies, like ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ where victims are severely maimed or murdered.”

Rabbi Carron brightens prisoners’ darkest days


Daniel, a blue-eyed 24-year-old who was a few credits shy of finishing his undergraduate degree at UCLA last spring, is now an inmate in unit 131 at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles.

When Rabbi Yossi Carron arrives for his meeting with Daniel — not his real name — an unseen guard in a concrete and black glass bunker releases the latch on the sliding steel door that connects the youth’s dorm pod to the unit’s deserted common area.

On the far side of a thick glass wall, other inmates sleep in their bunks or drift aimlessly beneath the harsh white lights overhead.

Daniel looks awkward in his pale green prison outfit. He has gained 20 pounds since he was convicted three months ago on a charge of dealing methamphetamine, and he’s clearly uncomfortable in his skin.

Carron wraps Daniel in a quick but firm embrace.

“How’s it going?” Carron asks with one hand on Daniel’s slumped shoulder and another on his cheek.

The pair settle into plastic chairs at the corner of a table decorated with a stenciled checker board. From his pants pocket Daniel pulls a small ziplock bag that holds a pencil stub and two sheets of paper covered front and back with Daniel’s dense, neat handwriting. With guidance from Carron, Daniel is working through the recovery movement’s Fourth Step: making a “fearless and searching” inventory of his life.

As Carron scans the sheets of paper, Daniel hunches forward, his elbows on his knees.

“I’ve really had to look at my relationships — friendships and sexual relationships — in this step,” Daniel says. “It’s kind of shocking to see how much I’ve needed other people to feel complete.”

Carron lays the sheets of paper on the table and gives Daniel his full attention.

“It’s still hard, though,” Daniel says, turning his gaze up to meet Carron’s. “I mean, none of my friends have come to see me.”

Carron leans toward Daniel.

“You’re an extraordinary guy, all by yourself,” he says. “I don’t show up for any other reason than I want to.”

Daniel blushes but doesn’t look away.

“Chances are a lot of these people are connected to the parts of your life you want to change,” Carron says. “Am I right?”

Daniel looks down at his hands and nods slowly.

Sitting up, Carron drums a finger on the pages to draw Daniel’s attention to his inventory.

“This is going to be the greatest Rosh Hashanah of your life,” Carron says, “because you’re sober and you’re not lying to yourself or anyone else.”
Daniel sits up and looks squarely at Carron. He takes a deep breath and says, “You make me feel very special.”

With any luck, Daniel will be spending Rosh Hashanah on the outside. It’s likely he’ll soon be making the transition from jail to the recovery program at Beit T’Shuva, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth.

For the members of Carron’s patchwork prison shul who are still behind bars come next week, however, there will be a holiday Shabbat at Men’s Central Jail, across the street from Twin Towers. Most of the Jewish inmates who participate will be bussed in from one of the five additional jails Carron serves in Los Angeles County. Some of the 70-odd men in Carron’s shul will have to stay away, however, in lock-down or solitary. Others are considered too high-risk to move.
“We’ll have between 20 and 40, including volunteers,” Carron says. “All things considered, that’s a pretty good turnout.”

Carron, a former bandleader at the Beverly Hilton, might seem an unlikely host for such a party.

A decade ago, Yossi Carron was called Jeff. He was a successful 40-something musician with a daughter in grade school, plenty of money in the bank and a nagging sense that something was missing in his life.

“It was all good, but I just wasn’t having fun anymore,” Carron says over braised tofu at a Chinatown restaurant the day before his meeting with Daniel.

The lightbulb over Carron’s head began to flicker when he was asked to serve as the first cantor at the then newly formed Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood. The job was a good fit for Carron, who has an impressive voice to match his musicianship. Still, he’d never paid much attention to the flow of services before. But as he threw himself into his new role he began to realize he was feeling deeply fulfilled by the experience.

“I was sticking Post-Its in my siddur,” he says. “Pretty soon I needed to know more, so I started taking classes at Hebrew Union [College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR)].”

As he continued to follow the thread of his curiosity, Carron’s enthusiasm began to blossom into a calling.

One day Rabbi Denise Egger at Kol Ami told Carron, “You should be on the bimah.”
In May 2003, Yossi received his ordination from HUC-JIR.

“I thought I’d have a normal shul,” Carron says. “You know — with ladies organizing bake sales and that sort of thing.”

But not long after his ordination, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California offered Carron a part-time job as a chaplain in the Los Angeles County prison system. The task seemed thankless — the job’s responsibility covered three jails and two hospitals, but there was only enough money to pay for a chaplain’s services one day a week.

“It was frustrating for the person who had the job before me, and I could tell it was going to frustrate me,” Carron says. “But for some reason I wanted it, and I’m the kind of person who pushes to get what he wants. So finally the board came up with the funding for a second day, and then the job seemed do-able to me.”

Carron’s daughter was in high school by that time, and he didn’t want to have to uproot her to take a job somewhere else. So Carron said yes.

After the Flood


Before Shelly Collen lost almost everything, her life had just fallen into place.

Two months earlier, she and her husband had moved from Chicago to Gulfport, Miss., to be closer to their son, who was living in New Orleans. They had rented a charming cottage with hardwood floors, a big backyard and a front porch.

Collen, 55, had found a well-paying job teaching kindergarten. On the weekends, she would sit on the beach, reading and soaking her feet in the water, while baby manta rays nibbled at her toes.

“I finally felt I was at peace in life,” she said.

Then, suddenly, last Aug. 29, the devastation came. Hurricane Katrina struck, flooding New Orleans and other cities along the Gulf Coast, forcing hundreds of thousands to evacuate their homes.

Collen made her way to Alabama, then to Tennessee, Illinois and Las Vegas, and finally, three weeks after the storm, she arrived in Los Angeles, where a cousin was living. Collen came alone, without her husband. He went back to Chicago.

“I can’t tell you how much this has disrupted my life,” Collen said.

Now, at the one-year anniversary of the hurricane, Collen is one of about 4,700 evacuees living in Los Angeles County. While some survivors of the hurricane have had an easier time here than others, many are still trying to make Los Angeles home, struggling to make ends meet in a sprawling city where gas and housing prices soar through the roof.

Collen, for one, has never felt more anxious. “I’m so insecure,” she said.

Jewish Vocational Service helped Collen find a job giving science presentations at schools. But earning $12 an hour, she is hardly getting by. She has no health insurance and is deep in debt. Her cousin bought her a car and pays the rent on her one-bedroom home in West Los Angeles. But Collen knows that she cannot — or will not — depend on family assistance forever.

Shana Leonard, another evacuee, has also been living in Los Angeles since the hurricane.

Leonard, 34, fled New Orleans, where she had lived for less than five months. She came to Los Angeles with her husband and her daughter, India, who has cerebral palsy and microcephaly, a condition that caused India’s brain to stop growing. India, 11, can neither walk nor talk.

Leonard also came with her father, Herman Leonard, 83, a renowned photographer famous for his portraits of jazz musicians such as Billy Holiday and Dexter Gordon.

Like Collen, Shana Leonard had just moved south to be near family. She had left Los Angeles, where she had lived for 12 years, to be closer to her father, who had been living in New Orleans for a decade and a half.

As Katrina approached, Leonard grabbed some family photographs, jewelry and her daughter’s medical records. She helped her father store his valuable negatives in a museum vault. After a stop in Houston, the family found its way to Los Angeles, which was, at least, a familiar place.

But Leonard had no home, little money and not much left of India’s medical equipment.

“She doesn’t talk, but she laughs a lot,” Leonard said of her daughter. After the hurricane, “she was silent.”

In many ways, the Leonards were lucky. Shana Leonard knew the city and had friends who let them stay in their home for a few weeks, before she found a three-bedroom house to rent in Studio City. Friends and family started a fundraising drive to raise money for India’s special needs. Celebrity acquaintances of Herman Leonard, like Quincy Jones and Tony Bennett, offered their help.

So, the family has managed. Art and candid photographs from before mingle with garage-sale finds and donated furniture in their new home. Herman Leonard’s negatives arrived in June, and he is beginning to get back to work. India is laughing again.

But the sadness brought on by the hurricane lingers.

“I think about it at least once a day,” Shana Leonard said. “I think, ‘I shouldn’t have left the cats.’ Or, ‘I should’ve packed this.'”

She misses the boisterous people of New Orleans, the oak trees, the peacefulness, she said.

In addition to receiving help from family, both Leonard and Collen accepted aid from Jewish agencies, such as Bet Tzedek, which provides legal services, and other organizations, such as American Red Cross. Jewish Family Service (JFS), a nonprofit social services agency, was particularly helpful, they said.

Using money from various sources, including more than $168,000 from The Jewish Federation, JFS helped relocate 160 individuals or families, about 35 of whom, including Leonard and Collen, are Jewish. The agency helped evacuees with rent and furniture, and it hosted a support group, which both Leonard and Collen attended.

JFS bought a back brace for India. And it arranged for a counselor to meet with Collen.

“She saved my life,” Collen said of the counselor.

In general, the plight of evacuees has improved with time, said Kristee Benedetto, who led the JFS program.

“Fear, chaos, desperation is really what the sense was last year,” Benedetto said. “This year, I get more hope.”

There are, for instance, success stories like Adam Koffman, 39. Koffman grew up in Los Angeles and had been living in New Orleans for five years, teaching yoga at his own studio. After the hurricane, he returned to Los Angeles, where relatives offered their support. JFS helped, too, with rent, a counselor and finding a job.

Now, Koffman works as a budget analyst for UCLA.

“It’s a blessing,” he said of his job.

Koffman lives in a West Hollywood apartment with a private garden and a pond filled with fish and frogs. He does yoga in his backyard. Another blessing, he said.

“Faith in God really carried me through all of this,” Koffman said. “You have to have faith that there’s a reason for … certain destructive acts…. If you have faith, then the blessings come.”

Still, one year after the storm, few are counting their blessings. “Sadness is very typical,” Benedetto said. “It’s a loss of the life that you knew.”

As for Collen, the loss has shaken her to the core. Her husband remains 1,750 miles away, and she’s not sure whether her marriage will last.

“I get afraid all the time,” she said. “I have no money to fall back on. I’m 55 years old. I don’t have a home…. And I feel very alone.”

Still, Collen tries not to think about it. “I’m really trying to live for the moment,” she said, “because I do get terrified of the future — terrified.”

Rebuilding New Orleans — With A Little Help From Each Other


One year after “the storm,” as New Orleanians refer to Hurricane Katrina, Jewish communal leaders describe the health of the community with certain expected terms — loss, trauma, devastation and challenge.

Unexpected is the word “blessed,” used repeatedly in reference to the outpouring from the American Jewish community of financial support, volunteerism and donations of everything from teddy bears to challah covers.

Funds from the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella of the North American federation system, and the national religious movements have kept New Orleans’ Jewish agencies and synagogues afloat this past year and are expected to do so through 2007.

To date, the UJC has contributed more than $17 million to the rebuilding efforts; the Reform movement has contributed some $800,000 to local Reform congregations, with another $800,000 available for recovery efforts not covered by insurance. Other movements have sent funds as well, although exact figures were not available.

What will happen in 2008 and beyond is the worry that both drives many planning meetings during the day and keeps communal leaders up at night.

“Fortunately, the Jewish community has not had to depend on the help of government, given its failure at all levels,” said Allan Bissinger, president of the New Orleans federation. “UJC has taken the place of what the government should normally have done.”

Roselle Ungar, interim executive director of the federation, said, “What UJC and the many generous contributions from individuals across the country have given us is the opportunity to take a deep breath, step back and take the time to make the hard decisions that will be necessary, so that in 2008 we can stand on our own two feet again.”

A community-wide task force is in the beginning stages of implementing a recovery plan. The plan focuses on such issues as how to retain current residents while encouraging new ones to resettle in New Orleans. It also is determining how the organized Jewish community can work smarter to make the best use of limited dollars.

One of the positive outgrowths of the storm has been the burgeoning spirit of cooperation among all the New Orleans Jewish institutions. Beth Israel Congregation, the Orthodox synagogue that took on 10 feet of water, is now holding a Shabbat minyan at the Reform Gates of Prayer Congregation.

The Anti-Defamation League is sharing federation office space. Interagency programs are on the upswing, and a Hebrew free-loan program is in the works. The JCC is getting needed revenue by renting out its facilities to community groups.

Tackling the population issue will not be as easy. Current estimates are that the Jewish community will stabilize at about 65 percent its pre-storm strength of about 10,000 individuals.

Although there are no hard and fast data about the population exodus, the increasing number of “For sale” signs attests to residents’ continued impatience with the slow pace of recovery, frustration with the government and concern about the rising crime rate. And it would be difficult to exaggerate the impact another hurricane would have on people’s decisions to move.

Although all age groups have joined this exodus, one particular cohort — those in their 60s and 70s with grown children in other communities — has been leaving in large numbers.

Communal officials count the loss of these individuals particularly troublesome because these are the big machers — those with the money and the time to make significant contributions. Every institution has lost some of its biggest donors and officers.

At the same time, each of the five synagogues surveyed has reported new members, mostly young people drawn by the pioneer spirit of rebuilding and the opportunity to make a difference.

Indeed, despite the loss of members, synagogue attendance seems to have remained stable. As Rabbi Andrew Busch of the Reform congregation, Touro Synagogue, put it, “In their new lives after the storm, people have a greater need to come together in the synagogue.”

Rabbi Ted Lichtenfeld of Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation agreed.
“Though I have not had people battering down my door for pastoral counseling, in a sense, the storm underlines everything,” he said. “Fortunately, very few of my congregants lost family members to the storm, but most are rebuilding their homes and almost everyone’s job was affected in one way or the other. That is taking up so much of their energy. They come to synagogue to be in community.”

Undaunted by the storm, Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana has committed to build a new student center at Tulane University; the cornerstone ceremony is scheduled to be held Aug. 27, two days before the storm’s anniversary.

The New Orleans Jewish Day School, a community school supported by the federation, has been hit hard by the population exodus. From a pre-storm enrollment of nearly 90 children in kindergarten through eighth grade, it will begin the coming school year with 23 children in just two classes: a combined kindergarten-first grade and a second-third grade class. This precipitous decrease comes despite a halving of tuition, made possible by outside contributions.

Because the local Jewish Family Service (JFS) helps individuals cope with the challenges in their lives by providing counseling and financial support, it has been a lead agency in the post-storm year.

And it has transformed its way of doing business.

Although it had always provided small grants of $500 to $1,000 to individuals in need, that activity increased exponentially over the past year, when it distributed $900,000 in UJC funds directly to individuals affected by the storm, according to agency officials.

By requiring individuals to come to the JFS office to pick up their checks, JFS staff had the opportunity to see how recipients were doing, to hear their concerns and to offer help that went beyond the financial.

Anne Freedman, associate director of JFS, said of its clients: “All that some people needed was the chance to cry and tell their story to the staff, people who really understood them because they had gone through the same thing.”

“Many people were so used to giving to others that they were embarrassed about accepting aid,” she said. “I would tell them that the sooner they were made whole, the sooner they could be back to their traditional role of helping others.”

The traditional counseling role of JFS has changed as well. With many families now living with several generations while their homes are being repaired, more clients are coming in for family counseling. In Baton Rouge, which received many older evacuees, JFS plans social events that bring isolated older adults together; the JCC in New Orleans puts on similar activities.

The agency’s suicide prevention and education program, Teen Life Counts, is needed more than ever. One volunteer reported that pre-Katrina, when she would ask high-schoolers what they thought of teens who committed suicide, they would characterize them as selfish and foolish. This past year, the responses were much more sympathetic. She heard students say, for example, that peers who committed suicide “must be real sad because their parents were crying all the time.”

Yet, even against the backdrop of government incompetence and uncertain levees, many residents are buoyed by optimism.

On a recent Sunday, community members gathered in the afternoon for a chanukat habayit, a home dedication ceremony in which a mezuzah is hung, for Georgette Somjen, a physician moving to town. Later, a brit milah was celebrated for the son of Gary and Susan Lazarus, who are committed to remaining in New Orleans.

Dan Alexander, a fourth-generation New Orleanian, and his wife, Lazelle, also a native, attended both celebrations.

Katrina destroyed their home and surrounding neighborhood, where they had lived for 43 years. The house was bulldozed a few weeks ago.

An 81-year-old retired public schoolteacher, Dan Alexander, said, “When you lose your home, it is like losing a relative.”

Buying and moving into a new house was “the farthest thing from my mind,” he said. “But what’s the alternative? You have to move on and establish a whole new type of existence.”

Declaring that he and his wife are satisfied in their new home, he added: “I couldn’t have made these changes without the support of Lazelle and my family and the community. We just have to be strong and work together as a team.”

War Takes Environmental Toll


As the people of northern Israel finally return to their homes, they’re going back to more than empty streets, freshly dug gravesites and a beefed-up military presence.

They’re also coming home to a radically altered physical landscape.
Devastated by fires sparked by Katyusha rockets, northern Israel has seen its forests obliterated, its grazing lands laid waste and its wildlife annihilated over the past four weeks.

The country may never look the same, experts say.

“We have very serious damage,” said Moshon Gabay, spokesman for the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority. “In previous wars we did not suffer damage like this. Every Katyusha that falls starts a fire.”

The green hills of the Galilee have turned orange and black, smoldering with the remains of forest fires. The sky, usually bright blue this time of year, is shrouded in thick gray smoke. The large animals and many birds that live in the area have taken flight, and countless numbers of smaller and slower animals have been killed in raging fires that have turned verdant hills to ash.

So far, officials say, more than 7,000 acres of undeveloped land have been destroyed, including about 2,500 acres of woodlands encompassing roughly 700,000 trees. Some of those trees were as old as the State of Israel.

“It’s an ecological catastrophe. Animals are dying. Trees are getting burned,” said Orit Hadad, an official with the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in Israel, where it is known as Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael. “Even if every tree is replanted, to bring these forests back to the state they were in will take 50 to 60 years.”
That means that most of the survivors of this war will not live to see the landscape return to its prewar state.

Among the hardest-hit areas have been the Naftali forest range near Kiryat Shmona, where more than three-quarters of the forest was obliterated, and the Birya Forest in the Western Galilee, near Safed, where more than 600 acres have burned.

Less is known about how the animals that live in this largely rural area have fared. Firefighters have found the remains of many slow-moving animals, such as snakes and turtles, in burned areas. Larger animals that managed to escape likely will suffer from loss of food sources and a sharp reduction in available grazing lands, experts said.

“We’re very aware of this problem of disruption of the food chain, even if there is not much we can do,” said Michael Weinberger, a JNF forest supervisor in the Central Galilee and Golan Heights.

Tourists who return to this area after the war may be startled to find Israel’s most popular hiking spots, where waterfalls pour over lush ridges, virtually unrecognizable.

On Aug. 8, the fires from Katyushas reached Mount Meron, already scorched, and nearby Nahal Amud, a strikingly beautiful canyon that runs from the Upper Galilee to the Kinneret Lake and is replete with waterfalls, blooming plant life and animals ranging from gazelles to wild boars.

There is little that Israel’s Nature Protection Authority, which maintains the area, can do for these lands at risk. Even after the war ends the authority will not replant, since the areas are protected reserves or natural areas where the rule of thumb is to let nature take its course.

Even if officials tried, there would be no way to restore the variety of plant life, wildlife and woodlands native to the area.

“It all depends on the rain that will fall,” Gabay said. “We let these areas repopulate naturally.”

The JNF says it will try to replant as many trees as possible after the fighting is over. Each acre will cost an estimated $5,500 for the first two years to resoil, replant and treat, officials said.

For now, the focus is on putting out the fires.

Because most firefighters in northern Israel are busy trying to extinguish blazes sparked by the Katyusha rockets in urban areas where human lives are at stake, the fight against forest fires has been conducted mostly from the air.

Israel’s Interior Ministry has run out of money to pay for the planes, so the JNF is picking up the tab with an emergency fund, for which it has raised nearly $4 million. The money has gone and is going to send kids to summer camps away from rocket attacks, build security roads on the Gaza border and purchase firefighting equipment, including fire trucks, helmets, vests, goggles and a fire retardant the planes are using to douse the fires.

“We are all working 12- to 16-hour days — crews on fire trucks and on the ground,” said Paul Ginsburg, JNF’s head forester for Israel’s northern region. “Forests that have taken 50 years to grow, that saw two generations of foresters, are burning. Everything we do is under the threat of Katyusha attacks. The work is stressful and heartbreaking.”

Many more environmental threats loom, experts say. In Haifa, petrochemical plants and refineries vulnerable to Katyusha rockets pose a serious danger to area residents. If such a site is hit in the future, it could send toxic chemicals that would contaminate the entire city.

“The concern is very problematic from an ecological point of view,” said Ronit Fischer, director of the Haifa branch of the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel. “If something falls there, it will be a very complicated disaster.”

The damage to Israel’s environment has not been limited to the North.
In the area around the Gaza Strip, along Israel’s southern coast, more than 15,000 trees have been destroyed as a result of Palestinian Kassam rocket attacks, according to the JNF. Additionally, the Israeli army has had to alter the natural landscape in many places to accommodate new military bases, lookouts or patrol roads.

The heaviest damage from the war was where Hezbollah missile crews were aiming their rockets: the Galilee, a mountainous area covered by fir and pine trees, abundant grazing lands and bountiful wildlife. Some Katyushas fell in the Golan Heights, but the damage there is small by comparison, and experts say the burned grasslands there should be able to recover by next year.

Shalom Blayer, CEO of the Golan Heights Winery, said the vineyards of northern Israel have been spared so far, although some vineyards abutting the Lebanon border have been declared no-go zones by the military.

Underscoring the vulnerable state of agriculture-based businesses in northern Israel, he said, “This is what I know for now; I can’t tell you what will be five minutes from now.”

Orthodox Alcohol, Drug Abuse Rising


Peter Gould had his last drink on Purim night seven years ago — or, more accurately, his last drinks.

“I drank more alcohol in a day than a human body can handle,” he said, relaxing on a puffy couch in Baltimore in jeans, sneakers and a black knit kipah.

At the time, Gould — not his real name — had been a functioning alcoholic for years, and his body could tolerate a lot of booze. He listed the staggering litany of alcoholic beverages he consumed that Purim, a holiday some Jews mark by drinking to excess: Three bottles of amaretto, two bottles of wine, one bottle of champagne, a fifth of Scotch and a fifth of bourbon.

“And then I drove home with my kids in the car,” he recalled.

He made it home fine — after all, he was used to driving drunk.

Gould may be an extreme example, but he isn’t unique. Alcohol and drug addiction exist in every sector of American Jewry, but addiction and recovery specialists say Gould is part of a growing problem in the Orthodox community — a problem that, because of the pressures and particularities of an observant Jewish lifestyle, has hit the Orthodox in different and sometimes more troubling ways than other segments of the Jewish community.

“The Orthodox community really does have a need,” said Adrienne Bannon, executive director of Baltimore’s Jewish Recovery Houses, two centers in suburban Baltimore for recovering Jewish drug addicts and alcoholics. Some residents require kosher food and are placed with local families for Shabbat meals. “I thought most of the addicts and alcoholics filling this house would be long-estranged from religion, but it isn’t true,” she said.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that, for years, people couldn’t and wouldn’t believe that drugs had found their way into Orthodox groups. But they had. They say the emphasis in some ultra religious Orthodox communities on finding marriage matches for young people, coupled with the community’s traditional reluctance to air its dirty laundry, leads families and schools to cover up addictions. They call this “the shanda factor”: Who wants to marry a drug addict or even a drug addict’s sibling?

As a result, addicts often don’t receive treatment until their addictions have reached crisis proportions. Those involved in treating these addicts say that until recently, members of the Orthodox community received treatment on average two years later than addicts in society at large — two years during which their dependencies have time to grow, worsen and become harder to beat.

Solid numbers on addiction in the Orthodox community are hard to come by. In the past five to 10 years, the community has begun to more aggressively and publicly address the issue, but it still elicits silence and shame. Anecdotal evidence suggests the problem is getting worse, experts say.

Some describe a chicken-and-egg question: Is the number of Orthodox addicts growing or — because community efforts have made treatment easier, more available or more acceptable — are a greater number of addicts seeking help?

Experts say both might be true.

“What has opened people’s eyes is that, first of all, there’s been much more talk about the problem,” said Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, founder and medical director emeritus of Gateway Rehabilitation Center, a nonprofit drug and alcohol treatment system in western Pennsylvania. “Unfortunately, there have been several young deaths from overdoses, and these were not covered up and they raised the alert of the community.”

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, an expert in chemical addiction in the Jewish community and author of “Twelve Jewish Steps to Recovery: A Personal Guide to Turning From Alcoholism and Other Addictions” (Jewish Lights, 1991), noted that the Orthodox aren’t the only members of the Jewish community with addiction issues.

“Alcohol and drug abuse is about an issue of individuals feeling an emptiness inside of themselves, and they’re self-medicating, trying to fill that hole and get rid of the pain they feel,” said Olitzky, who also is executive director of the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute. “Alcohol and drug abuse, for similar reasons, impact upon members of the Jewish community from one side of the spectrum to the other.”

Recovery communities for Jews like those in Baltimore are few and far between, but many communities are making efforts to fight abuse by forming support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous societies, treatment centers and clearing houses for referral services. The religious streams also have made efforts to address the issue and inform their constituents about it.

The number of Jewish addicts is proportionally similar to the rest of America, Olitzky said, but Jews are overrepresented in Gamblers Anonymous, and many suffer from eating disorders.

Insiders say the Orthodox lifestyle offers another gateway into and cover for addiction: the frequent availability and consumption of alcohol at religious life-cycle events. Habits developed at these celebrations can eventually lead to alcoholism, observers say, and statistics show that individuals who abuse alcohol are more likely to use drugs.

A person can drink a l’chaim at a morning bris, or ritual circumcision ceremony, followed by another at an engagement party that evening. Later in the week, there may be a wedding, followed by a sheva brachot ceremony followed on Shabbat by a bar mitzvah — and alcohol often is available at each event.

Then there is the increasing popularity of so-called synagogue Kiddush clubs, which offer shulgoers schnapps, whiskey and other types of alcohol during and after services.

“Substance abuse is masked by religious practice,” said Rabbi Joel Dinnerstein, founder and director of Ohr Ki Tov: Center for Growth and Transformation, which runs Florida’s Jewish Alcoholism and Addiction Counseling Services. “See who goes for the herring and who goes for the schnapps — you don’t have to be an expert to see right in front of you.”

Gould went for the schnapps. And the whiskey. And the beer. And the champagne.

He spent his bar mitzvah party vomiting in a bathroom after drinking too much alcohol-spiked punch. By the time he was 31, Gould’s doctor told him that his liver “was reaching irreversible damage levels.”

The physician suggested that the test results may have been skewed by consumption of alcohol shortly before the test. He suggested that Gould not drink for two weeks and then return for another test. So he stopped drinking for a few days — until his brother-in-law got engaged and they headed out for a l’chaim; the cycle began again.

Veronica Rose, whose parents are affiliated with a Chabad synagogue, said that an abusive boyfriend drove her to drug abuse.

Rose, a pseudonym, started using cocaine five years ago in what she said was an effort to self-medicate her clinical depression. What started as recreational use soon became a full-blown addiction.

“I spent all of my bubbe’s inheritance on drugs,” said Rose, whose brother is an alcoholic.

When she took up with an abusive man, she turned even more frequently to drugs — cocaine to dull the pain, followed by marijuana or Ativan to come down from the high.

She began to think about cleaning up. Today she’s a resident at Tovah House, the women’s recovery home in Baltimore. She has been clean since Dec. 12.

Observers say it has become increasingly easy for youngsters to obtain drugs, even Orthodox ones.

“The problem in the yeshivas is the same problem as in the public schools,” said Daniel Vitow, headmaster of the North Shore Hebrew Academy High School on New York’s Long Island. “Our kids live in the same society and the same culture as everyone else.”

Where the problem is more acute, some schools have instituted drug testing for students. Some yeshivas eventually expel problem students, who are sent from school to school, their problems left untreated, chalked up simply to hanging out with the wrong group of friends.

“I think that the Jewish community has grown a great deal in its sophistication with regard to its acknowledgment of Jews and alcoholism and Jews as drug addicts, and there are some institutions that have been built,” Olitzky said.

But, he noted, “We still have a long way to go before we are fully prepared to wrestle with the challenges.”


Local Treatment Centers


David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

The Jewish community has two addiction treatment centers in Southern California

Beit T’Shuvah
8831 Venice Blvd.
Los Angeles
(310) 204-5200

Beit T’Shuvah is unique among addiction treatment centers nationally, because it requires its residents to use Jewish spirituality and teachings as part of their recovery. The coed, 120-bed facility usually is filled with residents on short-term recovery or long-term treatment programs lasting beyond 30 days.

Chabad Residential Treatment Center
5675 W. Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles
(323) 965-1365

The 44-bed, male-only Chabad Residential Treatment Center close to the Pico-Robertson district uses general Torah teachings and principles to anchor its 12-step approach to addiction treatment, but the approach is broad enough for the facility’s Jewish and non-Jewish residents. A separate, second-phase “sober-living” building adjacent to the main center has room for another 25 patients.

Botox Treatments Aid Stroke Survivors


Until recently, significant recovery from the physical and mental losses inflicted by a stroke was thought to be limited to a matter of months following injury to the brain, using conventional physical and occupational therapy. Now patients supplementing this with novel treatments, including an innovative use of Botox and a variation on old-fashioned plaster casts, are demonstrating that aggressive long-term therapy can increase the likelihood of complete recovery after a stroke.

One such patient is art curator Meg Perlman, who not too long ago spontaneously applauded at a jazz concert, clapping her hands together for the first time in 19 months. This was another small triumph in her major recovery from a stroke that had initially paralyzed her left side.

Caused by a clot or a ruptured blood vessel in the brain, stroke is the leading cause of severe disability today. In the United States alone there are now some 5.4 million stroke survivors, with nearly one in three suffering from permanent disabilities.

“When I went to medical school, the prevailing view was that you lose nerve cells and that’s it, you’re not going to get better. We know now that’s not true. The brain is plastic. It can remodel itself,” said Dr. Steven Flanagan, associate professor of rehabilitation medicine at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and the neurophysiatrist treating Perlman.

One recent study showed that therapy could benefit patients who had suffered a stroke more than a decade earlier.

“It’s not something magical that happens in the brain and everyone will recover,” he warns, “but the brain has a greater capacity to recoup from injury than we thought in the past.”

Dr. Steven R. Levine, professor of neurology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, admits that medicine “still doesn’t know the underlying mechanisms in different phases of stroke recovery.”

Such understanding would make it possible to individualize treatments for most effective results. On the horizon, experiments in mice and some early human trials show promise for enhancing stroke rehab with stem cells, growth hormone, amphetamines, even Viagra.

“Not everyone will improve,” Levine said, “but you never say never and you never take away hope from people.”

Anatomy of a Recovery

Stricken at the young age of 53, physically fit and intellectually active, Perlman has been a prime candidate for total recovery. She’s come a long way since her stroke in August 2003 while vacationing in the south of France. When she awoke on what should have been another day in paradise, she was semiparalyzed and confused. Her husband, author Doug Garr, immediately understood what had happened.

“Her left side was immobile. The left side of her face was frozen,” he recalled. “I recognized it as a stroke because I had seen my father have a stroke two weeks before he died.”

Perlman spent two weeks in intensive care at one of France’s leading teaching hospitals, then was transferred to Mount Sinai’s brain injury rehabilitation unit for another six weeks. There, days filled with physical and occupational therapy helped her reprogram her nervous system to regain control over posture and movement on her left side, and to relearn vital everyday tasks.

Better known for cosmetic enhancement, Botox injections immobilize key muscles in stricken arms or legs, allowing physical therapy and exercise to extend range of motion and flexibility. Effects wear off, so the Botox is reinjected every three months for a year or more. In Perlman’s case, it was the second dose that allowed her left hand to flex out enough to applaud at a concert, after successful attempts during therapy sessions at home.

With research in rehabilitative medicine generally underfunded, doctors don’t have data from large clinical trials to properly assess new treatments. Often patients proceed by trial-and-error, sampling therapies from the exotic to the high-tech; Perlman has had mixed results with acupuncture and with an electrical muscle stimulation device called a NeuroMove.

Then again, low-tech plaster of Paris has proven extremely effective. Called “serial casting,” a monthslong treatment involves stretching affected muscles with a series of plaster casts on an arm or leg for weeks at a time, followed by physical therapy to secure gains in flexibility. Perlman’s latest leg cast had just come off when she was able to stretch the toes on her left foot out and wear a shoe.

By all her therapists’ accounts, Perlman has shown exceptional resolve in fighting the fatigue, discomfort and frustration that are part of stroke recovery.

She has also had to battle the severe depression that a stroke leaves in its wake.

Flanagan observes that depression should be treated early and aggressively in stroke patients.

“We know that happy patients do better in rehab than sad patients,” he says. “We have to help them get the most out of their time in therapy.”

Fuller recovery from stroke takes a loyal, experienced team of therapists. With them, Perlman still keeps up a rigorous schedule of five physical therapy and two occupational therapy sessions a week at home.

“I expect to be 100 percent back,” she said. “I won’t stop until I am.”

She’s thankful for her “wonderful personal team,” including the friends and clients who rallied to her side after she was stricken.

Also appreciated: an occasional boost from strangers.

“I was walking to a restaurant with my cane. A short, Russian-looking man came up to me and said: ‘Did you have a stroke?’ I said ‘yes.’ He jumped up in the air and said: ‘So did I and look at me!'”

Steve Ditlea writes for the New York Daily News.

Post-Katrina, Jews Raised Funds Fast


Major Jewish organizations have raised more than $30 million to house, feed, educate and relocate thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The biggest chunk of money has come from the United Jewish Communities (UJC), which represents 155 Jewish federations and 400 independent communities across North America. As of Dec. 13, UJC said it had collected $25.5 million in Katrina disaster relief, of which $7.9 million already has been allocated to Jewish and non-Jewish hurricane victims.

The single largest beneficiary of UJC’s generosity has been the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, which received $4 million for programs ranging from emergency assistance for individual Jews to general funding for social services.

UJC funds also have gone to the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, as well as groups such as MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, to aid 13 food banks and other groups along the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast.

Smaller amounts have been allocated to groups such as the Dallas Mayor’s Housing Initiative, to provide housing assistance to evacuees ($250,000); the Jewish Federation of Northern Louisiana to provide Wal-Mart gift cards to evacuees in shelters ($153,900); and the Jewish community of Jackson, Miss., for emergency aid to evacuees ($50,000).

The American Jewish Committee also has been active. In mid-December, the group’s executive director, David Harris, visited New Orleans to present a total of $575,000 in hurricane relief funds to four institutions.

Dillard University, a predominantly black college, got $200,000 to help rebuild its Information Technology Center, while $125,000 each went to Clement of Rome, a Catholic church, and two synagogues — Congregation Gates of Prayer, a Reform synagogue next to St. Clement, and Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox shul in suburban Lakeview that was severely damaged by Katrina.

“Each of us is potentially vulnerable to the fury of Mother Nature, irrespective of where we live, the religion we practice, or the lifestyle we lead,” Harris said. “Responding to the needs of our fellow Americans in New Orleans was a moral imperative, and we are glad to be able to contribute significantly to the long-term rebuilding and recovery efforts.”

In addition, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), which represents more than 900 Reform congregations, has raised $3.4 million in general hurricane relief.

Rabbi Deborah Hirsch, director of regions at URJ, said about half of that is going to general assistance for both Jews and non-Jews, and the other half to Reform congregations throughout the Southeast that suffered damage this fall from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

“Whenever there’s a disaster of this kind, there are often high uninsured losses. Obviously, the fund won’t be able to cover all those losses,” Hirsch said. “Between these three hurricanes, the losses are going to exceed whatever is in the fund.”

The URJ also has raised $225,000 for SOS New Orleans, a new fundraising campaign to help four New Orleans-area Reform congregations maintain their operations, programs and services: Gates of Prayer in Metairie; Temple Sinai and Touro Synagogue in New Orleans; and the Northshore Jewish Congregation of Mandeville.

According to a URJ press release, some 500 to 600 of the more than 2,000 families that belonged to these four synagogues before Katrina might not return. This puts an added burden on the synagogues’ fundraising efforts at a time when they need money more desperately than ever.

“Never in our modern Jewish history have we witnessed such a dramatic displacement of a Jewish community in North America: so many people displaced, for who knows how long a time,” said Robert Heller, chairman of URJ’s board of trustees. “Those who want to return need to know their congregations will be there for them. The buildings can and will be repaired, but souls and spirits do not mend so easily.”

Eric Stillman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, said that besides the institutional grants, his federation has received over $100,000 in private, individual donations from outside the New Orleans area since the hurricane.

“We’re tremendously grateful to the American Jewish community for the way they’ve stepped forward and provided financial support,” Stillman said. “I don’t know where we’d be otherwise.”

 

Austria Makes Reparations for Nazi Past


The expulsion and extermination of 182,000 Austrian Jews during the Nazi era is a wound that will never heal completely, but two important decisions during recent weeks at least point to a symbolic closure for the dwindling number of survivors and the Austrian government.

In a high-profile case, Maria Altmann won her seven-year battle to recover from Austria five famous paintings looted by the Nazis and now valued at $200 million. The art works were seized in Vienna in 1938 from Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish sugar magnate and Altmann’s uncle.

After an even longer period of legal and diplomatic wrangling, a court decision has cleared the final hurdle for payment of restitution money to survivors or the heirs of victims.

The drawn-out Altmann case finally reached its end when the Austrian government accepted the decision of an arbitration court in Vienna that the five paintings by Gustav Klimt rightfully belonged to Altmann and four relatives.

The decisive ruling in favor of Altmann and her attorney, E. Randol Schoenberg, is “the most important victory in the entire history of litigation on Holocaust restitution,” said professor Michael J. Bazyler of Whittier Law School, whose latest book, “Holocaust Restitution: Perspectives on the Litigation and Its Legacy,” has just been published by New York University Press.

Altmann, a tall and animated Cheviot Hills resident, who will celebrate her 90th birthday next month, greeted the decision as “Fabulous…. It is wonderful that justice has finally been done, that was my whole goal.”

Born Maria Victoria in Vienna in 1916, she was raised the pampered daughter of the fabulously wealthy Bloch-Bauer family. Her uncle Ferdinand owned Austria’s largest sugar-refining factory, numerous mansions and a major art collection.

The Bloch-Bauers were Jewish, but in the selective manner typical of central Europe’s Jewish upper class.

“We went to a temple once a year on Yom Kippur, where I remember seeing the Rothschilds, the men in top hats and cutaway coats,” Altmann recalled. “But otherwise, we celebrated Christmas and Easter. That’s sometimes hard to explain to American Jews.”

In December 1937, in the last grand Jewish wedding in Vienna, Maria Block-Bauer married Fritz Altmann, an aspiring opera singer. The newlyweds left for an extended honeymoon. Shortly after their return, Hitler’s troops marched into Vienna, amid the unrestrained jubilation of the Austrian people, Maria Altmann remembers well. In one of their first acts, the Nazis seized the art collection of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, including the Klimt paintings.

The most famous of the paintings is a gold-flecked portrait of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, currently a centerpiece of the Austrian National Gallery and one of the most reproduced pictures of all time.

Following the ruling, there remain some loose ends to be tied up, especially whether Austria will try to buy the Adele portrait, considered a national treasure, from Altmann.

The portrait itself is valued at about $100 million, and the government has said it cannot afford the sum, which is equal to the annual budget for all Austrian museums.

It is Austria’s hope that a generous private donor might step up and pick up the tab.

The other Klimt works are a second portrait of Bloch-Bauer and three landscapes.

Schoenberg predicts that his client’s victory will encourage other governments and museums, especially in France and Spain, to arrive at settlements on other cases of Nazi looted art taken from Jews during the Hitler era.

A bizarre touch was added last week, when Schoenberg received an anonymous e-mail, whose sender threatened to destroy the Klimt paintings in order for “hungry people to get bread.” Austrian authorities temporarily removed the paintings from the National Gallery, and then arrested a 50-year-old man, tracked down through his Internet provider.

The unidentified man claimed that he was drunk when he sent the e-mail.

Until two years ago, Altmann, mother of four and grandmother of six, supported herself by running a fashionable dress shop for women over 40.

Her fortunes have changed in recent months. In addition to the money she is expected to receive under the settlement with Austria or the sale of some of the Klimt paintings, Altman and 13 co-heirs got $21.8 million last year in recompense for the sugar factory and other properties seized by the Nazis.

Although the Bloch-Bauers had the foresight to set up a trust account for the factory’s stock in a Swiss bank to shield it from seizure, the bank turned around and sold everything to a well-connected German businessman at a fraction of its value.

Altmann said she plans no changes in her lifestyle.

“I’ll stay in the same home where I’ve lived for 30 years and keep driving my ’92 Ford,” she said. “And I don’t need any new clothing.”

However, she plans “to do something” for the Jewish communities in Austria and the United States and for Israel.

Once the money is in hand, she also hopes to realize her long-held dream of sponsoring a performance by the Los Angeles Opera, starring her idol, tenor Placido Domingo. The event would be dedicated to her late husband, whose operatic career was cut short when he had to flee Austria.

Altmann said she had urged Austria seven years ago to arbitrate the dispute, “but I never got a response back.”

Schoenberg savored the end of the lengthy confrontation, noting that “at the beginning, we didn’t think we had any chance at all.”

A decisive break in the legal proceedings came in June 2004, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Austria could be sued in a U.S. court, despite the opposition of the Austrian and American governments.

The Supreme Court decision helped Austria “to finally see the light” and agree to arbitration, Schoenberg said.

Austria Accepts Responsibility

While the Altmann case has made headlines, it is only part of the larger question of Austria’s responsibility toward Nazi victims in the postwar decades. Austria, whose native son Adolf Hitler incorporated it into the Third Reich during the 1938 Anschluss, played the role of “first victim” of the Nazis, guiltless of the Holocaust and other atrocities.

This attitude changed in the mid-1990s, when the Austrian president admitted for the first time that his country bore its share of blame for Nazi crimes against Jews, as well as against the Roma and Sinti (gypsies), homosexuals and the disabled.

In 1995, the Austrian parliament established the National Fund for Victims of National Socialism, which over the past 10 years has appropriated some $770 million under various programs compensating for loss of property, education, pensions, tenancy rights, and for slave labor and hardship cases.

But Austria has held back a good chunk of the allotted money, some $210 million, until the government was guaranteed that no subsequent class-action suits against Austrian businesses would be filed by survivors.

Last month, a U.S. District court in New York dismissed all such class-action suits, a decision welcomed by the Claims Conference, which negotiated with Austria on behalf of survivors.

The first payments to some 19,000 claimants in 69 countries are to start next December and should be completed one year later, said Hannah M. Lessing, secretary general of the Austrian National Fund. Lessing was in Los Angeles last week to meet with survivors and, accompanied by Austrian Consul General Martin Weiss, met with The Journal over cappuccino at a Brentwood restaurant.

Lessing was born in Vienna in 1963, the daughter of a Jewish photographer who had fled from Vienna to Palestine in 1939, but returned to his native city after the war. He had left behind his mother and grandmother, who both perished in Auschwitz.

Lessing’s non-Jewish mother, with Hannah and her siblings, formally converted to Judaism in 1973. Her later resumé includes a stay in Israel, where she worked as a hotel receptionist and businesswoman.

The raven-haired Lessing wore a prominent Star of David around her neck, which led to a question about the widely reported wave of anti-Semitism again rising in Europe.

She said that the reports were greatly exaggerated, although remnants of classical anti-Semitism remain and in France, especially, threats from young Muslim immigrants.

“I wear my Star of David in Vienna without any comments or incidents,” Lessing said. “But when I’m in Paris, my friends think I’m crazy to do so, and in New York I am often advised that I might be better off leaving it at home.”

On a subtler level, she acknowledged that most non-Jewish Austrians would categorize her first as a Jew and secondly as an Austrian, just as in past decades most non-Jewish Americans considered Jewish citizens as not “real Americans.”

Her answer drew a pained rebuttal from Consul General Weiss.

“I am a Catholic, and I consider Hannah as much an Austrian as I am,” he protested.

When Lessing switched from her career as a banker five years ago to accept her present position, she insisted on a pro-active policy of seeking out survivors, open access by claimants to her offices and a minimum of red tape. Nevertheless, she acknowledged criticism that the whole process is still too slow and complex, especially given the advanced age of the remaining survivors.

“There are only some 12,500 Austrian survivors still alive, and every time one dies, we lose,” she said.

Lessing also wishes that she could raise the payment rate for Jewish property lost during the Nazi era, which now stands at only 10 to 15 percent of current valuation.

“No amount of money can ever make up for the suffering of the Holocaust,” she said. “Whatever we do is meant as a gesture of reconciliation toward our former citizens.”

 

Kabbalah and the Modern Shrink


“Connecting to God, Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology” by Rabbi Abner Weiss (Bell Tower Books, $24).

It was Rabbi Abner Weiss, in psychologist mode, who “Jerry” went to see after his wife, “Sandy,” found him in bed with another woman. Although Jerry and Sandy seemed like the perfect couple, they lacked intimacy, and Jerry had developed a nasty habit of risky promiscuity. Sandy wanted a divorce.

Weiss’ diagnosis?

“Jerry suffered from grossly distorted chesed/gevurah [lovingkindness/power] balance…. Like his gevurah, his chesed had also been transformed by the … kelipot of the nefesh [evil shards of the animal soul].”

Although it is an atypical psychological assessment, Weiss insists that it is a curative one.

Since the early 1990s, Weiss, former rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation and current rabbi at the Westwood Village Synagogue, has been using kabbalistic tools in his psychology practice. Recently, he published “Connecting to God, Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology,” a book that asserts the congruity of the two disciplines.

“The American Psychological Association started publishing serious books on the spiritual experience in the early 1990s, and part of this trend was to look at the mystical experience that psychologists called ‘transpersonal,'” Weiss said. “But all the new transpersonal psychologists used Buddhist or Hindu systems. I began to wonder why nobody had looked at Kabbalah. In Kabbalah, I found this full-fledged, psychological system, fully developed, but buried in Aramaic texts.”

Weiss found that by using the 10 Kabbalistic Sefirot (divine filters/vessels for divine energy) as behavioral tools, he was able to help many patients have breakthroughs, and find their way out of paralyzing and dysfunctional behaviors.

These sefirot are arranged in four groups in what is known as the etz ha chayim (tree of life), and they form a paradigm that encompasses not only the divine but human behavior and experience. Above all, there is keter (crown), which is the repository of Divine will, and below all, as a foundation, there is malchut, sovereignty or the Divine presence. Then comes chochmah (wisdom), binah (understanding) and data (knowledge) — the cognitive component of sefirot. The next three — chesed, gevurah, and tiferet (splendor), are the emotive sefirot. Netzach (victory), hod (empathy) and yesod (foundation) are the interpersonal sefirot.

In his professional practice, Weiss “started with the thesis that you are born with your energy system in balance, but your influences growing up throw them out of balance,” he said. “I would use kabbalistic meditations, self forgiveness and forgiveness of others [to help people] become unstuck. It is only when you become unblocked, and when you can let go and reclaim your authenticity, that you can begin to grow personally and spiritually.”

In “Connecting to God,” Weiss delineates his interest in Kabbalah, explaining its evolution, and some central tenets of kabbalistic belief, such as the makeup of the soul, and how Kabbalah understands God as “being.” In his exegesis, he does not name or credit the Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles, but he does give de-facto kudos to those who have helped to popularize Kabbalah.

In his elucidation of the sefirot, he explains how different energy imbalances can produce destructive behavioral patterns. As exemplars, he uses real-life examples of the patients he has treated and their [kabbalistic] diagnoses and corrective therapies. He also clarifies how, once a person’s issues are resolved, Judaism and its mitzvot can be a tool for spiritual growth. The book is peppered with lengthy guided meditations. And for added assistance, an accompanying CD is available.

In several ways, the book is a personal one. Not only does Weiss give an account of the development of his interest in the subject, he also explains how these Kabbalistic tools helped him through a personal crisis — the discovery of long-buried family secrets about his father’s chicanery.

“As a prominent spiritual leader … [I] was terrified of being unmasked as an insecure, self-doubting individual, from a less than perfect family,” he writes.

In his own therapy, Weiss wrote a letter to his father, detailing his terrible failures as a parent. Since he did not know where his father was buried (he had disappeared before Weiss was born), Weiss read the letter to a picture he had of his father.

“The experience was cathartic. I wept as I read,” he writes. Weiss also “reparented his inner child,” by cuddling a pillow that he imagined was himself as a little boy.

“My tears began to flow as I acknowledged the boy’s pain, loneliness, and fears, and reassured him that I loved him,” he writes.

“It’s the idea of the wounded healer,” Weiss said. “I use my own recovery as a model for other people’s recovery.”

While the book is an exposition of ancient Jewish concepts, Weiss is careful to use current scientific literature and studies to bolster what he presents. The book does not shy from controversial ideas. In several places, Weiss promotes past-life regressions — that is, going under hypnosis to discover who you were in a previous life, as a tool for self-understanding.

On Oct. 9, at 5:45 p.m., Rabbi Abner Weiss will be speaking at the Academy for Jewish Religion/California, 11827 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 398-0820.

Underclass Surfaces From Floodwaters


The gut-wrenching scenes of human suffering witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are not only the result of the levee failures at Lake Pontchartrain, but also the failure of a nation numbed to the growing division between “haves” and “have-nots.”

What is appearing on television sets across America is the inevitable impact of decades of ignoring a stark difference in economic realities. While wealthy, predominantly white Gulf residents — and most Jews — were able to leave the region or escape to higher ground, it was poorer, largely black, elderly and sick Americans who were left behind to fend for themselves.

In the case of New Orleans, high poverty rates already existed before the storm: More than 30 percent of the population lived below the federal poverty line. These are, in most cases, the victims whose bodies we saw floating in the Mississippi River and dying for lack of basic necessities at the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome.

If you couldn’t recognize the half-submerged landmarks in the French Quarter, you would swear footage from New Orleans and beyond came right from Haiti or some other Third World country.

Just last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released staggering new poverty data. The numbers show that 1.1 million more Americans slipped below the poverty line in 2004, bringing the total to 37 million. Hunger rates in this country closely track the poverty index, and both numbers have seen steady increases for four years running. The Census Bureau also reported that income inequality is at an all-time high, with 50 percent of income going to the top 20 percent of households.

So when natural disaster strikes, it is all too easy to predict who will bear the brunt of the devastation. It won’t be the high-flying corporate raiders and image-obsessed celebrities who typically occupy the front pages of newspapers and magazines. It will be the person who fixes your car, or who serves you lunch, or who takes care of your friend’s mother at the local old age home. These will be the people we read about, our new “celebrities of tragedy” — fellow citizens who hold down multiple minimum-wage jobs and still struggle to make ends meet.

As these divisions become more evident from the images we have been waking up to, growing numbers of Americans are asking hard questions. They are moved, I hope, by the realization that we are witnessing the coming out of a national underclass, one that has long existed and can no longer be confined to the margins.

The recovery is already under way, although efforts to rebuild will take years and years. As we repair the cracks in the levees and begin the difficult work of restoring people’s lives, we will be remiss if we do not seize this moment to heal the fractures running deep through our society.

Through the act of rebuilding — and by that I mean rebuilding policies and values as well as levees — we have a chance to fashion a society that addresses inequality and cherishes the contributions of every individual. We ignore that opportunity at our own peril.

H. Eric Schockman is president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which is among the organizations aiding hurricane relief efforts.

 

Spiritual Help Can Benefit Hopelessly Ill


 

When my friend, Debra, learned that a young man she knew had been in a tragic accident and was comatose, she went to the hospital to visit him every day for three months. No one knew if the man would emerge from his deep, distant sleep, but Debra believed that he would.

During her daily visits, she recited Tehillim (psalms) aloud to him. She believed, as nearly all religious Jews do, in the spiritual and healing power inherent in these psalms, compiled by King David more than 2,000 years ago.

Eventually, Debra’s prayers were answered, and the man awoke from his coma. When he first saw Debra, he told her that he had heard every one of the Tehillim she had recited, and that it had helped him recover.

This man had been beyond the reach of medical technology, but he had not been beyond the reach of a spiritual connection made by a loving friend. She knew that even a person who is severely ill, perhaps irreversibly, has a nefesh, a living soul. Who can judge what meaning and fulfillment that soul receives from hearing the voice, feeling the touch or receiving the heartfelt prayers of those around them?

Most people believe that while there’s life, there’s hope. But in a frightening trend, lawmakers and “intellectuals” in the United States and Europe have decided to eliminate both possibilities for the dramatically ill or infirm. Three years ago, the Dutch Parliament officially legalized euthanasia for adults who requested it, and it is legal in the state of Oregon.

But Groningen University Hospital in The Netherlands has taken the horrifying step in recent months of allowing its doctors to euthanize children under the age of 12 if doctors believe their suffering is “intolerable” or if they have an incurable illness. Legal investigations have determined the medical decisions were appropriate. While this had already been common practice for many years in The Netherlands, giving it legal sanction is chilling.

When a society condones killing patients whose medical cases are deemed hopeless, it discounts the value and the purpose of the soul, and negates the guiding hand of Hashem in our lives. It expresses a belief that people are valued only in utilitarian terms: Once they become too much of a drag on resources or create hardship for family members, it’s time to give them a lethal injection.

This idea is not unique to Europe. Peter Singer, head of Princeton University’s ironically named Center for Human Values, has long advocated the disposability of disabled or unwanted babies. People like Singer and the bureaucrats from Groningen University Hospital see no transcendent spark, nothing of the divine, in the human being. They see no reason to put up with the mess, expense and emotional havoc wrought by an inconveniently ill relative.

Judaism teaches that every second of a person’s life is precious, filled with potential, even for the severely ill. Each time Debra recited psalms for that comatose man, his spirit revived, and eventually his body followed suit.

Even when a person’s medical situation is hopeless, the energy, love and prayers given to that person by family, friends and caregivers has enormous spiritual value. Three years ago, I watched in agony as my mother lay dying from cancer. Barring an open miracle, her situation was irreversible.

But when she could do nothing for herself any longer, she still revealed a spiritual awareness, even calling out to my father to tell him she was coming to him soon. He had died years earlier.

And what about the value of my sitting at her bedside, tending to her needs with the bottomless love and tenderness that I felt for her? At that point, with my mother’s pain palliated, the most intense pain belonged to my sister and me — the people who loved her most in this world. I believe there was enormous value in the circle of giving that took place in my mother’s dying days, and I believe that at some level her spirit benefited from our ministrations.

Many people in similar circumstances have found that the expressions of love, forgiveness, compassion, acceptance and faith that are shared during these painful times often become some of the most meaningful and defining moments of a lifetime.

As a result of the Gronigen protocols, countless Dutch citizens will no longer have the opportunity for these transcendent moments. The seriously ill or infirm will not have the chance to benefit from a potential medical breakthrough, a miracle or even the love of those closest to them.

Isn’t it obvious that, sooner or later, others who are a little too disabled or imperfect will also be deemed disposable? In this awful, cruel and brave new world, only the fittest will survive. For the sake of our humanity, we must fight to protect the sanctity of the living.

Judy Gruen is the award-winning author of two humor books. Her columns can be found at www.judygruen.com.

 

A Fishy Miracle


 

The fish was the ugliest I had ever seen. I actually recoiled as my son proudly pointed him out in the aquarium. He loves fish.

Most boys want a dog or a cat. Fish, it seems, capture my son’s imagination.

“Fish,” he told me, “don’t bark or jump on guests.”

“You can’t pet them or teach them tricks,” I replied.

They look at me sometimes, he claimed, and that was enough.

He brought the ugly fish home on a cold, dark December day. Jet black, just like the winter night, the fish’s eyes were perched on the ends of hideous balls protruding from his unfortunate body. The rest of him looked like a regular black goldfish, but the awful eyes made me cringe. He was quite out of place in the aquarium.

After a few visits to the tank, I began to admire the fish’s moxie. We bonded and I started to call him Bugsy. He glided past the more elegant fish, ones with tiger stripes and brilliant dots of color, with his big baseball eyes held high. He found his way and found his place in the underwater world.

A few days before Chanukah began, my son came to me, expressing concern for Bugsy. It appeared that the black scales around the horribly shaped eyes were coming off. We looked at Bugsy and felt a terrible sadness. We turned away.

My son felt the fish was looking to him for help. He didn’t know what to do. Although I appreciated his concern, I knew that his beloved pet was a $2 fish and could be easily disposed of. He rejected that idea immediately and said he would call the fish supply store for advice.

He got busy with school and work and didn’t consult the store. When the other fish began to nip at Bugsy, he removed the fish from the tank and put in him in a big jar of water.

Bugsy was on deathwatch. We could not know for certain if he suffered, but, nonetheless, we felt his pain.

Darkness descended.

The next day, after his geography final, my son planned to release Bugsy into a fountain in a park to let him die with dignity, but first he promised he would stop at the fish store to see if anything could be done. I said goodbye to Bugsy as my son walked out to his truck, gently cradling the big glass jar in his arms with the fish swimming blissfully in tiny circles.

Less than 30 minutes later, my son returned, holding the big glass jar aloft. Bugsy, it seems, had contracted a virus.

All he had to do was put some pills in the fish tank for a period of time and Bugsy would recover quite nicely.

He showed me the pills, eight in all, in a tiny plastic packet. Eight pills, eight days.

Chanukah! Bugsy was our Chanukah miracle — his recovery lit the night.

A tiny fish that could have been tossed out was given a second chance by a compassionate young man. Bugsy is holding his own and we are quite optimistic.

We hope he will survive the odds and light our winter nights, as the lamp lit the dark nights of the Jewish people centuries ago. We light the Chanukah candles to keep away the winder darkness and find our miracles where we may.

 

Who Should Own Nazi-Looted Art?


In a significant move by the U.S. government, FBI agents have seized a Picasso painting claimed as Nazi-looted art by a descendant of the original German Jewish owners.

Agents from the Los Angeles bureau confiscated the painting, valued at $10 million, at the Chicago home of the present owner, although allowing it to remain at the residence for the time being.

“This represents a strong signal by the government to dealers and collectors that Nazi-looted art must be returned, no matter how many hands it has passed through,” said Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg.

In another development in this complex and contentious legacy of the Hitler regime, California courts are also dealing with a demand that actress Elizabeth Taylor return a prized van Gogh painting.

In contention in the Picasso case is his “Femme en Blanc” (“Woman in White”), showing a contemplative woman in a white gown, stemming from the painter’s “classic” period after World War I.

It was originally purchased in 1925 by a Berlin couple, Robert and Carlota Landsberg. As the persecution of German Jews by the Nazis escalated, the Landsbergs sent the painting for safekeeping to a Paris art dealer in 1938.

When the German army took Paris in 1940, the art dealer fled and the Nazis looted his collection, including the Picasso painting.

After passing through various hands, the painting was purchased in 1975 from a private gallery by a Chicago art collector, Marilyn Alsdorf, for $357,000.

Alsdorf put the Picasso up for sale in 2001 through a Los Angeles art gallery, at which point London’s Art Loss Registry made public the painting’s tainted provenance. The registry notified both Alsdorf, the present owner, and Thomas Bennigson, the grandson and sole heir of original owner Carlota Landsberg.

Bennigson, an Oakland law student, filed suit to recover the painting, but on the day of the initial hearing in the case in December 2000, Alsdorf transported the Picasso back to Chicago.

This action was unlawful, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, which charged that Alsdorf had transported the painting across state lines “with knowledge that it was stolen, converted or taken by fraud.”

Attorney Schoenberg, representing Bennigson, applauded the government charge and subsequent FBI seizure of the painting, saying that, “A person who finally after 60 years tracks down a Nazi-looted painting shouldn’t have to chase it from state to state.”

In Chicago, Alsdorf and her lawyer are contesting Bennigson’s claim, and suits and counter-suits are now pending in both Illinois and California courts to determine which state has jurisdiction in the matter.

Once that is settled, a court will determine the actual ownership of the wandering “Woman in White.”

In the Elizabeth Taylor case, at stake is van Gogh’s “View of the Asylum and Chapel at Saint-Remy,” which the actress bought 41 years ago for $257,000 at Sotheby’s.

In a flurry of contending lawsuits pending in federal court in Los Angeles, it is charged that the painting had belonged to another Jewish art collector in Berlin, Margarete Mauthner.

Mauthner’s great-grandson, Canadian attorney Andrew Orkin, claims that Taylor should have known that the painting “had likely been confiscated from a victim of Nazi persecution.”

Taylor, who reportedly tried to sell the van Gogh for $10 million in 1990, responded that Mauthner had sold the painting in the 1930s to finance her family’s immigration to South Africa and that there was “not a shred of evidence that the painting ever fell into Nazi hands.”

Given the thorny legal and moral issues spawned by Nazi-looted art cases, the Beverly Hills Bar Association’s Committee for the Arts will present a panel discussion on “Law, Justice and the Recovery of Holocaust Art” on Nov. 16 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Panelists will be attorneys Schoenberg, Thad Stauber, Steven E. Thomas and Simon Frankel, and Christine Steiner will moderate.

Both lawyers and laypersons are invited to the event, said Irena Raskin, chair of the arts committee, who noted that, “I cannot think of any aspect of art law more important than the recovery of Holocaust art, involving precedent-setting cases.”

The panel discussion will be held Nov. 16, 4-7 p.m., at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Leo Bing Theater. Tickets are $20 in advance and $30 at the door. There are additional fees for attorneys wishing to receive professional credit. For information and registration, call (310) 553-6644, or visit www.bhba.org.

Lawyer Takes on Looted Art, Austria


In one of the most complex legal battles in the annals of Holocaust restitution, centering on the return of art looted by the Nazis to their rightful owners, E. Randol Schoenberg is stationed on the front lines.

The stakes are enormous. In the biggest collective art theft of all time, Hitler’s minions seized up to 600,000 important works between 1933 and 1945, according to a recent report in The New York Times.

If one includes all art objects, books, Judaica, silver pieces and other valuables, the Nazis stole 10.7 million items in all of Europe, worth more than $37 billion today, the same article estimates.

A current case, which has drawn wide attention, pits Schoenberg against the government of Austria. There is some historic irony in the confrontation, since the 36-year old Brentwood lawyer is the grandson of the pathbreaking Austrian Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, often dubbed "the father of modern music."

Schoenberg, the lawyer, represents Maria V. Altman, an 87-year-old resident of Cheviot Hills, who is seeking to recover six paintings by the early 20th century Viennese painter Gustav Klimt. The paintings, valued at $150 million, include a stunning portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

The Austrian government, which holds the paintings, is contesting the claim. Last year, Schoenberg scored a major victory when an appeals court in San Francisco ruled that a foreign government could be held to answer in the United States for a Holocaust-based claim.

But the two-and-a-half year old case is far from over. The Austrian government is appealing the decision and, to Schoenberg’s dismay, the U.S. administration is backing the Austrians on the grounds that a sovereign foreign state is immune to lawsuits in American courts. The case might end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last December, Schoenberg opened up another front by seeking to recover a $10 million Picasso oil painting for the Berkeley-based grandson of a Berlin woman who owned it before World War II.

The 1922 painting, "Femme en Blanc" ("Woman in White"), was "confiscated" by the Nazis in 1940. After the war, by a circuitous route via French and American art dealers, the Picasso eventually became the property of a Chicago art patron, who is fighting the grandson’s claim.

Besides these headline cases, Schoenberg has advised hundreds of Jewish families from Austria on their restitution rights, usually as a free service, but he earns his bread and butter through more mundane business litigation.

"It is enormously time-consuming to pursue the art recovery cases — I received my first call from Maria Altman in the Klimt case in 1998 — and enormously expensive, running into millions," said Schoenberg, sitting in his high-rise office on Wilshire Boulevard. "So you can only initiate an action if the paintings are immensely valuable. You’re not going to sue over a looted $50 mezuzah."

"Randy" Schoenberg has the rare distinction of being the grandson of two eminent 20th century composers, both of whom fled the Nazis and settled in Los Angeles.

On his mother’s side, his grandfather was Eric Zeisl, best known for his "Requiem Ebraico," composed in 1945 when he learned that his father had perished in a concentration camp. Zeisl also wrote music for a number of Hollywood movies.

But because Randy’s last name is Schoenberg, the young lawyer is most closely identified with his other grandfather, fervently admired, and sometimes damned, for his development of atonal music and the 12-tone technique.

Arnold Schoenberg, who spent the last 17 years of his life in Los Angeles and taught at UCLA and USC, was largely ignored by the classical music world in the 1930s and ’40s. But since his death in 1951, there has been a major rediscovery and appreciation of his works.

"I run into people who are ecstatic to meet Arnold’s grandson and who worship and love him," said the lawyer, who was born well after his grandfather’s death. "There are others who hate his music, but I doubt if they know all his works. He wrote so much, 15 hours worth if you play it all, there’s something a music lover is bound to like.

"It’s funny, people who would hesitate to give an opinion on paintings or literature will instantly pronounce judgment on a piece of music."

Arnold Schoenberg had a stormy relationship with his ancestral faith. As a young man, he converted to Lutheranism and then reconverted to Judaism in 1933, when Hitler came to power.

He predicted the Holocaust with prophetic clarity and eventually became a utopian Zionist, whose opera, "Moses und Aron," expressed his faith in his people’s destiny.

Randy Schoenberg himself grew up in a nonobservant environment, but since his marriage to Pamela, and the birth of their two young kids who attend Sinai Temple preschool, the family has established a kosher home.

"Being Jewish has played such a major part in the history of my family," mused Schoenberg, an ardent genealogy researcher. "I am deeply involved in our culture, history and philosophy and I try to incorporate them in my personal and professional lives."

Planning Ahead Can Save on Health Care


Eva, 74 and a widow, was a healthy and independent woman until she went shopping one day last December and was mugged. She was attacked with a screwdriver and thrown to ground, breaking her shoulder in four places.

"I ended up on the sidewalk, totally helpless," said Eva, who lives in Westwood and prefers to not give her last name. "I went from being very active to being disabled. My recovery was very painful, and I am still not done."

Eva was hospitalized for a month, and when she came home, she found that she needed nursing care and help doing basic tasks around the house, such as bathing and getting dressed.

"A nursing home just didn’t appeal to me," Eva said, and so she found home care. The cost of such care was between $17 and $20 an hour, and Eva needed it at least 16 hours a day for six months.

The cost of her care could have totaled in excess of $55,000 for those six months. However, Eva was able to avoid the expenditure because she had a long-term-care insurance policy that she bought the year before. The premium cost $2,273.

Because elder care can be an enormous drain on an individual’s resources, with nursing homes costing in excess of $100 a day and home care costing even more, planning ahead and buying long-term-care insurance is one way of preventing the costs from being too overwhelming.

For some in the Jewish community, long-term-care insurance — and particularly the home-care policies — can also have a religious significance. They see it as a facet of the mitzvah of Kibud Av V’em (honoring one’s parents), because it allows children to have peace of mind about their aging parents living out their last years with dignity.

In a 1998 article written by Joel Schwartz in the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists Newsletter, Schwartz argued that according to Torah, home care is preferable to nursing-home care, because institutionalized living brings with it a certain loss of honor. While some nursing homes are cheery and bright, others may be drab, unfriendly and, in some cases, even detrimental to the health of those who need care.

Government regulations require nursing homes to provide 3.2 hours of care per patient per 24 hours. In some cases, a nursing home might cut corners because it does not hire enough staff to meet the requirement.

In such a scenario, which some experts in the field say is not uncommon, patients who are severely incapacitated will suffer. They said bed-ridden patients might develop bedsores, because they are not turned often enough, and incontinent patients might be diapered to save labor costs.

Few people want their parents to suffer such problems, but many with aging parents have their own families to provide for and do not have the time or resources to take proper care of their parents themselves.

For many people, long-term-care insurance provides the answer to the problem. Although the premiums might appear high — and even seem useless if the person paying them is healthy — they can end up saving people tens of thousand of dollars if the need for long-term care should arise.

Karen Shoff, a Santa Monica gerontologist, insurance agent and author of "There’s No Place Like a Nursing Home: Four Powerful Steps That Will Change Your Life" (Invisible Ink, 2002), believes that planning for one’s physical retirement is as important as planning for one’s financial retirement. Shoff advises people to start planning for their twilight years in their 50s and 60s, so that they will be able to avoid both nursing homes and the costs involved with home care.

Shoff’s plan involves buying a long-term-care policy, appointing a geriatric-care manager who can assist with legal and medical issues and find services, making a living will that spells out how a person wants to be cared for in the event of an illness and finding an ally who will help carry out the plans.

"You can’t wait until the fire’s there, and people are tearing their hair out," she said. "You need to plan ahead logically."

However, there are some who shy away from long-term-care insurance because they see it as unnecessary to pay premiums above and beyond health insurance and Medicare, which they believe will cover most emergencies. Furthermore, many people argue that, depending on the circumstances, nursing homes can provide better service and offer a wider variety of resources than a home care, in addition to having a social setting that might not be available at home.

"There is an understanding in halacha [Jewish law] that sometimes a parent needs to be put in an institution — for example, if the parent has dementia, and the children can’t handle the burden" said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City. "You need to weigh up the circumstances."

Still, others credit their long-term-care insurance and the home care it bought them with peace of mind. "When I took out the policy, my children kept telling me that I was throwing money out the window," Eva said. "But after I was mugged, they were relieved that I had this help, that I was OK and that I was not going to be dependent on them."

Reality-Based Schooling


One of the most engrossing reality-based television shows is the thrice-weekly KLCS public broadcasting program, “Conversation with Roy Romer.” Unlike “Survivor” and “Temptation Island,” where contestants wearing cruise and safari garb compete against each other and the weather, “Conversation” features little more than a white-haired man in a black suit talking to off-camera live callers wearing who knows what. Nevertheless, the sharks are out. Romer is superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and what is at stake on the show is the education of some 700,000 Los Angeles children.

Romer is cool. Monday night, the former governor of Colorado handled questions about completing the mid-city Belmont High School, the newly passed 15 percent pay increase for teachers and where the money will come from, the problems of new teacher accreditation, and whether giving teachers PalmPilots would help automate classroom grading. These, of course, are the high-visibility problems that preoccupy the district, along with an (unmentioned that night) embarrassing accounts payable meltdown, which renders LAUSD unable to buy desks from Office Depot because of unpaid bills. Romer took it all in stride, referring obliquely to the efforts of an unnamed Valley newspaper to exploit LAUSD problems to build a city-secession movement.

Moments before the show ended, however, Romer’s passion showed when he spontaneously unfurled what he saw as the top priorities of the district, ones that supersede even the important problems that callers were raising. Incredibly, the top three of four were aimed at improving teaching.

“We need to improve reading and to give teachers skills to teach math,” he said. “We need to improve our teachers’ professional development.” It was a rare reality-based moment in which what happened in the classroom, to children, was made of paramount importance.

As it happened, I’d spent much of the past week considering this very issue, the politics of education and what is happening to our students. My friend Marlene Canter is running for the LAUSD school board in the Westside/Valley district. She’s got an uphill battle against incumbent Valerie Fields, who has the support of Jewish machers and the teachers union. Real estate developer Matthew S. Rodman is endorsed by Mayor Richard Riordan (who deserted Fields at the last minute). Rodman’s claim to this support is that, presumably, he can help the crowded school district pick new construction sites. New school development was the fourth and last of Roy Romer’s agenda items on KLCS.

Nevertheless, Canter, a Jewish community activist (on such boards as the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College) deserves your attention for the same reason that Roy Romer had a fix on mine: she alone in this race is focused on educating children and improving teacher skills. Moreover, she alone is an educator with business skills and a parent, and she is beholden to no one. With eight years as a classroom special-education teacher, she became CEO of an educational training company built with her former husband that specialized in classroom conduct problems (at which she employed her mom and dad). The company was recently sold to Sylvan Learning Systems.

“We’ve got archaic teacher training,” she told me over tuna salad last Thursday. “We’re going down the wrong track. Just look at all the students who are now being tested for ‘special education,’ as if they can’t learn. We’re creating a stigma that is unnecessary, and we’re creating an incentive for schools to create costly new programs that drain the budget.

“The truth is we could teach almost all these students if teachers were taught about students’ differing learning styles.”

The system does parents and children no favors when it imposes exit testing on students whose education was doomed to begin with. A better option, as Canter said, would be to test for reading and math skills at third grade, the age when they can quickly and easily catch up.

The lunch with Canter was entirely reality based. Her own two children are recent high school graduates, like my daughter, and we know the practical and philosophical limitations of a two-tiered educational system that breaks the heart. We know the pressures on students for prestigious colleges and to go an academic route for lack of respected alternatives, about the biases in our own upward-striving Jewish community toward “gifted” programs because the rest of the system is so inadequate. We talked tachlis, the way parents all over this community are doing.

Canter discussed LAUSD successes, including the charter-school movement. “We’re riding on a wave of hope and opportunity,” she said. “The problems are fixable. I believe that we should set our sights on proving what excellence can do.”

The LAUSD 4th district, in which Canter is running, has 100,000 students. The problems of our educating our children are nothing but real.