We Must Heal Divide Over Life Views


The first half of the 20th century saw Americans locked in a fierce ideological debate surrounding economic class and the distribution of wealth.

In the second half of the century, the cultural wars addressed issues of race and gender.

As we stand at the dawn of the 21st century, a perhaps even more fundamental issue divides the American body politic. From stem cells, abortion and human cloning to the Schiavo case and physician-assisted suicides, the question of life has become this generation’s great ideological battle ground.

Jewish tradition certainly sees life as a primary value. Rosh Hashanah is so significant in the Jewish calendar precisely because it celebrates the birth of the world. Life is God’s first gift to humanity.

The liturgy of the High Holidays constantly celebrates life, and as Rabbi Irving Greenberg has suggested, in the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, God tells Abraham that Divine service does not mean sacrificing human life for the Divine but rather living a life devoted to bringing the Divine into the world.

However, Judaism’s emphasis on life is matched by its emphasis on choice. Human freedom to choose is incorporated within Maimonides’ 13 primary theological principles. Maimonides in his Mishnah Torah (Laws of Repentance 2:1) suggests that the essence of repentance is rooted in choice.

“What is complete repentance?” he asks. “It is the case of someone who has the opportunity to commit a sin he or she has committed, and has the ability to commit it [again], and yet separates from it and does not commit it, because of having done repentance, not because of fear or because of lack of power … such a man is a master of complete repentance.”

Such a conception of law highlights the unique choice-centered nature of Jewish law and repentance.

But in today’s American society, the complementary qualities of life and choice have come to represent opposing worldviews. Both sides have taken absolute positions, demanding that human beings live either by the credo “the sanctity of life” or the motto “life without choice is not worth living.” So blinded are those who express such ideologies that in their talk radio extremes, they refer to the other position as the equivalent of communism or Nazism.

Both these noisy sides ignore the silent majority who stand in the very gray, murky and complex terrain called living. Those who stand in the world of the living realize each of us chooses life: “ubacharta b’achaim.”

Living means recognizing that though dogmatic, absolutist and all-encompassing worldviews might make for good media headlines, tenure at a university or electablity at the voting booth, they fail to make any sense in the real world. In the real world, people are not rational computers who make every decision based on a priori theoretical doctrines.

In some cases, we are more open to the pain and suffering of the present. In other cases, we feel more the weight of history and text.

Jewish tradition recognizes that each decision involving human life is a world unto itself. To be sure, the Jewish tradition is not unprincipled. It states unambiguously that never one, but a number of competing factors exist in every bioethical decision. It stands in opposition to both extremes of the debate and offers a sober worldview that gives dignity to the often conflicting rhythms of life.

While the tradition worries about partial-birth or late-term abortions, there are times that even under such circumstances the most stringent of rabbis would allow for terminating a pregnancy. Likewise, almost all rabbinic authorities acknowledge the importance of stem cell research, and while the vast majority of the tradition opposes physician-assisted suicide, much debate and legal room exists around the status of those who are brain dead.

These rulings might seem contradictory, but on closer examination, they give testimony to a theology not of life or choice per se, but rather a theology of the living. The word repentance, teshuvah, so commonly heard over the High Holidays, has many meanings. Among them is reconciliation.

As we sit and watch the political and religious absolutism infecting the American body politic threaten to irreversibly rend our national soul, we as Americans and Jews must become baalei teshuvah, masters of reconciliation. We need to help in healing and reconciling this divided country and remind our fellow citizens there is more to living than life or choice.

Rabbi Eliyahu Stern is scholar-in-residence at Park East Synagogue and is finishing a Ph.D. in Jewish studies at UC Berkeley.

 

Iran to L.A. — Hope, Hardship Mark Path


 

Jahangir Javaheri lived a full life in Iran as a pharmaceutical retailer, complete with a nice car, large house and the esteem and satisfaction that came with being a leader within the nation’s small but cohesive Jewish community. Yet he wanted something more for his family, especially his children, so he left behind nearly everything for the dream of going to America.

His family’s odyssey took him to Vienna for seven months and finally to Los Angeles, where he, his wife, Mahvash, and their two teenage sons have adjusted to a small, two-bedroom apartment in the Pico-Robertson area. The 56-year-old immigrant and his wife are taking English lessons. And, for the first time, he’s had to rely on the kindness of friends, relations and support organizations to get by.

“It’s not been easy. People like us who have just immigrated to this country must start over with almost nothing,” said Javaheri, speaking in Persian. “We left Iran, because our entire family had left Iran, and we decided there were more opportunities for our sons here.”

For centuries, Iran was home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish populations. However, the downfall of the shah of Iran in 1979 sparked a mass exodus over the next decade. The pace has since declined, and entering the United States has become more difficult due to post-Sept. 11 immigration restrictions.

But Jews such as the Javaheri family continue to flee Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist regime, seeking religious freedom and better economic opportunities. More than 15,000 Jews still live in Iran, compared to an estimated 30,000 Iranian Jews residing in Southern California. About half of these are post-Revolution immigrants.

Last year, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) helped 225 Iranian Jews to resettle in the United States. Of those, 163 reside in Los Angeles.

The path for many led through Vienna, said Leonard Glickman, president of HIAS. His group has helped Iranian Jews obtain transit visas to Austria and complete U.S. immigration applications. The organization also provides educational and social services to Jews while they wait in Vienna for permission to enter the United States. Austria is one of the only countries that currently allows lengthy stopovers by Iranian Jews seeking ultimate haven in America.

“We feel we have been very successful in keeping the Vienna pipeline open for Jews and other Iranian religious minorities through a very challenging period for the U.S. refugee program,” Glickman said.

Still, for many on the journey, Austria proves a difficult layover.

“We were lucky enough to live with friends in Vienna and live off our savings,” said Javaheri’s wife, Mahvash. “Most Iranian Jewish families are living with four to five people in one-bedroom apartments, with little money to live off. Their children can’t go to school, and they can’t work, because of Austrian laws while they’re waiting for their visas.”

Once families reach the United States, various organizations are waiting to help, including the Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), Jewish Family Service and other agencies affiliated with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. JVS has aided about 250 immigrants locate suitable work over the last four years, said Elham Yaghoubian, one of the agency’s four Persian language-speaking counselors.

“We refer them to appropriate English as a second language classes and vocational training,” Yaghoubian said. “We also train our clients in job-search techniques and provide job referrals.”

One of his success stories involves two middle-aged women who didn’t speak English. It didn’t help that their husbands did not want them to work. After developing the women’s skills and evolving the husbands’ attitudes, one woman became the manager of a retail store, while the other started a certified nurse assistant training program and works at a Jewish seniors facility.

Local Iranian Jewish groups also have helped out, including the Torat Hayim Center, the Eretz-SIAMAK Center and the Hope Foundation. These groups have collaborated to create the Caring Committee, which will temporarily help with rent, groceries, medical and legal bills, transportation and school tuition.

Sometimes, immigrants also need counseling to get through depression, said Manizheh Yomtoubian, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK Center in Tarzana. One immigrant in her 20s “was so depressed, because she didn’t have anyone here, that she wanted to return back to Iran,” Yomtoubian said.

Adults older than 35 sometimes become overly dependent on their children to communicate, Yomtoubian said, adding that the Caring Committee needs additional help finding housing and work for new arrivals.

“More than money, we need people who can give these new immigrants good-paying jobs or rent a guest house or room to them during a short period,” Yomtoubian said.

Javaheri remains optimistic about the future.

“My hope is that my children will be able to get a proper college education and have better lives here,” said Javaheri, who frequently took on the role of organizing Jewish youth gatherings in Iran. “I know that I’ll be able to find work soon, but my wish is to be able to take part in volunteer community work here, just as I’d done back in Iran.

 

Thanksgiving’s Sukkot Roots


Did you know that Thanksgiving is really a Jewish holiday? Although Thanksgiving is not on the Jewish calendar, historians believe that Sukkot may have inspired America’s favorite farewell to fall, often nicknamed "Turkey Day."

"The pilgrims based their customs on the Bible," said Gloria Kaufer Greene, author of the "New Jewish Holiday Cookbook" (Times Books, 1999). "They knew that Sukkot was an autumn harvest festival, and there is evidence that they fashioned the first Thanksgiving after the Jewish custom of celebrating the success of the year’s crops."

Linda Burghardt, author of "Jewish Holiday Traditions" (Citadel Press, 2001), said, "Sukkot is considered a model for Thanksgiving. Both holidays revolve around showing gratitude for a bountiful harvest."

Today Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, but President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t propose this timing until 1939.

It was Abraham Lincoln who made Thanksgiving a national holiday. Roosevelt actually changed Lincoln’s decree that Thanksgiving be observed on the last Thursday in November, which may fall on the fifth Thursday of the month.

The pilgrims’ invited local Indians to the first Thanksgiving during the fall of 1621. Historians speculate that this celebration occurred somewhere between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9, but most likely in early October, around the time of Sukkot.

"Originally, Sukkot entailed a pilgrimage to Jerusalem," said Greene, who believes the two holidays share much in common.

The Puritan Christians who landed on American shores seeking religious freedom were called pilgrims, in deference to their journey from England. Their dream of finding a place where they’d be free to worship as they pleased is a recurrent theme in Jewish history.

After their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the ancient Israelites lived for a week in temporary huts while giving thanks for a plentiful harvest. Likewise, during their first winter in Massachusetts, the pilgrims dwelled in makeshift huts, wigwams that the Indians helped them build.

While Sukkot remains a seven-day observance, the first Thanksgiving celebration continued for three days, a time frame more similar to the Jewish harvest festival than today’s Thanksgiving dinner, which often begins in late afternoon and ends several hours later.

With its pumpkin pies and cranberry garlands, Thanksgiving mirrors many of Sukkot’s customs and culinary themes.

Burghardt said she is amazed at how many of the same foods are connected to both holidays.

Piping hot casseroles brimming with vegetables and fruit grace the American and Jewish harvest tables, as do pastries that are filled with apples, nuts, pumpkins and squash. Stuffing one food inside another as a metaphor for abundance is the hallmark of Sukkot cuisine.

Yet there’s nothing more opulent than the elaborate bread stuffings found inside Thanksgiving turkeys.

Greene enjoys transforming traditional Thanksgiving recipes into kosher cuisine.

"I like mixing new and old world themes," she said.

One of her favorite recipes is glazed turkey with fruit-nut stuffing. Bursting with so much produce, it’s a one-dish harvest festival. Because the pilgrims and Indians shared roasted corn during the first Thanksgiving, Greene’s double-corn bread is a fitting choice. It is soft and moist, almost like a kugel.

Harvest-time cranberry relish is always a big hit at Greene’s house.

"Several years ago, I invited a family of Russian Jewish immigrants to celebrate their first Thanksgiving. While they adored traditional American foods, they were especially fascinated with the taste and bright color of cranberries."

But since the two holidays are so close in time, is there any reason for American Jews who celebrate Sukkot to pay homage to a second harvest festival six weeks later?

"Participating in Thanksgiving is how we feel American," said Greene, a former food columnist for the Baltimore Jewish Times, who used to submit a Thanksgiving story every year.

She agrees with Burghardt that Thanksgiving is a lovely experience. It’s an easy holiday to include friends and neighbors of other faiths.

"While Thanksgiving is not technically a Jewish holiday, it’s not a Christian one either," Burghardt said. "It’s a great equalizer with a multicultural theme."

Although Burghardt believes that Thanksgiving, with its chocolate turkeys and pilgrims, lacks Sukkot’s depth, Greene feels there’s something spiritual about the whole country partaking in a communal meal, even though menus and customs vary from home to home. At her table, she asks guest to share one thing for which they’re grateful.

"Like Sukkot, at Thanksgiving you’re supposed to invite people to share abundance with your family," Burghardt said. "You can’t serve too much food. Could there be anything more Jewish than that?"

Glazed Turkey With Fruit-Nut Stuffing

Fruit-Nut Stuffing:

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 celery stalks, diced

1/2 cup orange juice

1/4 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups cranberries

12 pitted prunes, coarsely chopped

6 dried apricots, coarsely chopped

1 cup raisins

3 medium apples, cored and diced

1 1/2 cups chopped nuts

1/2 cup finely chopped parsley

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon ground ginger

Salt and pepper to taste

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1. In a medium-sized saucepan sauté the onion and celery in oil over medium-high heat, stirring until tender but not browned. Transfer to a large bowl. Set aside.

2. In the same (unwashed) pan, combine orange juice and sugar, bringing mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir in cranberries and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer cranberries, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes, or until berry skins pop.

3. Mix in prunes, apricots and raisins. Remove from heat. Transfer mixture to bowl containing onion and celery. Cool to room temperature. Add remaining stuffing ingredients and mix well.

Turkey:

1 12-14 pound turkey, completely defrosted in refrigerator

Canola oil

1. Clean turkey well and discard giblets. Rub skin with canola oil.

2. Fill the body and neck cavities of the turkey with stuffing, allowing room for expansion. Tuck the legs under the band of skin or tie legs together with heavy cord. Skewer or sew neck skin closed against the body. Place turkey, breast up, on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Roast in a preheated 325 F oven for about three hours.

Yield: 10 servings

Double Corn Bread

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 cup all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

1/3 cup canola oil

1 (about 15-ounce) can cream-style corn, including liquid.

(Note: Because cream-style corn does not contain dairy products, it is pareve.)

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Coat an 8-inch square baking pan with no-stick spray.

2. In a medium bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Make a well in the center, and add eggs, oil and canned corn. Beat wet ingredients with a fork to combine them, then incorporate dry ingredients. Stir only until all ingredients are completely moistened and combined.

3. Spoon mixture into prepared pan. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Cut into 16 squares and serve directly from the pan.

Harvest-Time Cranberry Relish

1 medium-sized navel orange

1 12-ounce package fresh cranberries, sorted, rinsed and drained

1 medium-sized apple, cored and cut into eighths

1 medium-sized pear, cored and cut into eighths

1/4 cup walnut pieces

1/4 cup dark raisins

1/2 cup dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 tablespoons lemon juice

1. Use a sharp knife to remove the colored part of the orange rind. Set aside. Remove and discard the white pith. Cut orange pulp into chunks.

2. Put orange rind and pulp into food processor fitted with the steel blade with the remaining relish ingredients. Pulse the mixture until ingredients are finely chopped but not smoothly pureed.

3. Chill relish covered for several hours, stirring occasionally until the sugar completely dissolves and flavors blend.

Yield: about 3 1/2 cups

From "The New Jewish Holiday Cookbook," by Gloria Kaufer Greene.