The ‘Yearning’ for Torah learning goes to TV


Do you want to be happier?

Do you want to have greater love and intimacy in life?

Do you want greater self-awareness?

And did you know that you could find all these things in the wisdom of Judaism?

That’s the premise of “The Hidden Wisdom of Our Yearnings with Irwin Kula,” a two-hour PBS show airing Dec. 10 on KCET. Based on Rabbi Kula’s new book, “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” (Hyperion, 2006, with Linda Lowenthal), the program is one of the first that PBS has given to a rabbi or Jewish leader teaching to the masses.

Kula, who is the president of CLAL: The National Center for Jewish Leadership, also hosted public television’s 13-part series, “Simple Wisdom With Irwin Kula.” He is one of a number of Jewish leaders trying to bring Jewish teaching to the mainstream, including Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, Rabbi Harold Kushner and conservative talk show host Dennis Prager.

“Can we take Jewish wisdom public?” Kula said in a telephone interview with The Journal.

In the past, the Torah has been used to make Jews become better Jews, but “this is really seeing Torah as a technology to become more human.”

In the program, Kula, wears a knitted kippah on his longish silver hair and an open blue sports jacket; he walks on a stage in front of a live studio audience and discusses the “messiness” in life: life’s disappointments, conflicts, dissatisfactions — what he calls yearning.

“If we don’t have something to yearn for, some dents in our life to fix, some messiness, some crucial quality of our life is missing,” Kula tells the audience. “Yearning can be a path to blessing.”

Like other mass-market purveyors of “wisdom,” Kula has a number of catchphrases, such as “The more we allow ourselves to unfold, the less we will unravel,” and “We can want it all and always be finding enough,” but his message is one that particularly fits these new uncertain times — in which he believes much wisdom does not address.

“There’s a lot of bad messages being given,” he said, such as the conventional religious message that your behavior can improve your life, or the New Age wisdom that problems are illusions and life is actually perfect.

But Judaism knows life shouldn’t be perfect, he says, using the story of Eve eating the apple in the Garden of Eden.

“I love Eve, because she understood that Paradise is not all it’s cracked up to be!” Eve teaches us, he continued, “never to fear the messiness. The messy spaces in our lives are our greatest teachers.”

Rabbi Irwin Kula will appear on KCET on Dec. 10 5-7 p.m. He will also appear on the “Today” show on Dec. 12 and Dec. 25.

Two neighborhoods reveal Orthodox community’s fault lines


When Tali Rosenthal moved to Los Angeles eight years ago, she landed in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the Westside. It was near her office, and besides, it was where many of Los Angeles’ Orthodox singles live.

But after five years there, Rosenthal, decided to move to Hancock Park, commonly known as “The Other Side of Town.”

“I was more comfortable in the more serious religious atmosphere,” she said of Hancock Park, where she’s now lived for three years. “I feel like it’s a more dedicated day-to-day Torah life, in the general atmosphere. It’s just a general hashkafa, outlook.”

Ayala Naor, on the other hand, lived in the Hancock Park area for about 25 years. But when she and her husband relocated the family jewelry business from downtown to Pico-Robertson 10 years ago, they, too, decided to move to what they call “The Other Side of Town” — Pico-Roberston. “We felt like the people [in Pico-Robertson] were more along our hashkafa. The other side of town [Hancock Park] seemed to get more and more Charedi, more black hat, and we felt like we wanted to be amongst our own people, with the more Modern Orthodox Zionist outlook,” she said. “I feel more comfortable here.”

The Other Side of Town. It’s a term that implies that there are only two options, and for most Orthodox Jews that’s the case. Despite numerous additional religious communities in other neighborhoods — near the beach or in the Valley — for most Orthodox there really are only two sides of town: the one you live in and the one you don’t.

Hancock Park and Pico-Robertson are only about four miles apart — a 15-minute drive, an hour walk on Shabbat — and yet, increasingly, they are coming to seem worlds apart.

Pico-Robertson is not an official neighborhood; it got its name from the two main boulevards that crisscrosses it. It is a low-key commercial district replete with kosher restaurants, bakeries, synagogues and schools. Bordered by residential neighborhoods like Beverly Hills to the north and Beverlywood to the south, Pico Boulevard has blossomed over the last two decades, becoming the center for Modern Orthodoxy.

Hancock Park, on the other hand, is an officially designated historic neighborhood replete with Spanish-style mansions and leafy, shaded streets. But when religious Jews talk about Hancock Park, they’re actually referring to a somewhat broader geographic area — one that stretches to the west beyond La Brea Avenue and north to Beverly Drive. But no matter what one calls it — “Fairfax, Beverly, La Brea, mid-Wilshire” — this “eastern” side of the town sports full-time kollels (post high-school yeshivas) and dozens of shteibels (small, intense shuls), where men in black hats and women in wigs roam with more children than the norm of the modern American family. This is the more “yeshiva-ish” side of town.

Over the last two to three decades, each neighborhood has become increasingly homogeneous — some would say isolated — according to its own outlook or philosophy. Each one’s distinct character encompasses all walks of life, from how people dress to what and where they will eat to where they daven (pray), work, study, educate their children and how they choose to live their lives.

“The Charedi, or the fervently Orthodox, argue that the best way to preserve Judaism is to reject as many aspects of modernity as possible and to cut oneself off as much as possible from those that are not one’s persuasion,” said professor Jonathan Sarna, American Jewish history professor at Brandeis University and author of “American Judaism: A History” (Yale University Press, 2005). By contrast, he says, “the Modern Orthodox have argued that the religion is largely compatible with modernity and one does not need to cut oneself off from contemporary culture in order to be a thoroughly Orthodox Jew.”

Pico people watch television, go to the movies, use the Internet, attend secular colleges, and interact with other denominations of Judaism.

The Hancock Park community shies away from much of that, and in the cases of th
ings like the Internet, will limit usage to protect its Torah culture.

This separation between the ultra-Orthodox and the Modern Orthodox communities is reflective of a kind of self-imposed segregation taking place in communities all over the United States, as two factions of Orthodox Jewry discover they cannot exactly co-exist, and are often in conflict with one another on major issues.

But what is the price of this separation?

Many leaders in the two communities will say publicly that the two are separate but equal — different but not in a bad way.

“The fact of the matter is, it’s become more distinct in its philosophical approaches,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, which, on Pico Boulevard, is one of the main Modern Orthodox shuls. “It’s a fact of life. It’s not to be judged.”

Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob Congregation, also in the Pico-Robertson area, agrees. “There’s no friction, not from where I sit.”

Beth Jacob is the largest Modern Orthodox synagogue in the West, and one of the oldest here in Los Angeles.

But the people who live in the neighborhoods tell a different story. Not one of friction, but of intolerance or discomfort.

Michelle Harlow moved to Hancock Park with her family in 1964. She describes herself as Modern Orthodox, and says that over the years, she watched “more and more black hatters” moving in from the East Coast.

“You go down Beverly and La Brea, and you don’t know what country you’re in — there’s every kind of streimel and peyos,” she said referring to Chasidic dress and garb. “It’s hard for me to go out on Saturday in normal clothes. I feel that I’m being disrespectful to who knows whom. I feel out of place.”

Even though her children and some of her friends have gone to Pico-Robertson, Harlow’s not going to move. Her mother is there, and she wouldn’t be able to get as nice a house in Pico, a neighborhood with a high real estate cost but smaller houses.

College Students Find High Holidays’ Place in Higher Learning


The High Holidays are here. With them comes a new school year, whereupon many recent graduates of Jewish high schools will face the challenges for the first time that can accompany being an observant Jew in an academic environment that runs on the Christian calendar.

Gone are the days when observant Jewish students suffered for their absences from class or exams on the High Holidays or Passover. The California Education Code fully protects students’ rights to observe religious holidays free of academic penalty.

But the fact remains that academic life at nonsectarian universities may not have become much easier for young Jews who want to observe, because there are still indirect effects of such absences.

At top schools, such as USC and UCLA, observant Jewish students are finding that the penalty to be paid is all in the details.

Some students say that although professors are understanding about Yom Kippur, and despite the fact that Rosh Hashanah falls on the weekend this year, time they spend in shul could set them back because of assignments that are due the day after the holidays or even on Yom Kippur itself.

“I am worried because I am an architecture major, and there are deadlines, and it’s fast paced so I just have to be ahead of game constantly,” said Yoav Weiss, who just entered his freshman year at USC.

Although most universities have support staff available to aid students dealing with religious issues — at Hillel, the Office of Religious Life or University Chaplain’s office — most can only help deal with the major scheduling conflicts, like those that involve rescheduling an exam that falls on a holiday.
Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of the Office of Religious Life at USC, admitted that she couldn’t come to the aid of students over the myriad little conflicts that affect them.

For example, some professors offer four midterms and throw out each student’s lowest exam score in the calculation of the students’ final grades — but if they inadvertently choose to give an exam on a Jewish holiday, thereby making that exam the student’s lowest, the student likely has no recourse. In circumstances like this, the Office of Religious Life can do little to help, according to Laemmle.

“Sometimes Jews have to work a little harder, and that’s OK,” said Laemmle, who said she tries not to show Jewish students any favor in her role at the school.
Observing Shabbat weekly may be the greatest challenge of all, however, at universities where honors programs or intensive, fast-track programs demand extra time on Fridays and weekends. Some students said they have encountered professors who cannot comprehend why they cannot stay late on a Friday night, or e-mail them on Saturday.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director at UCLA Hillel, was skeptical of the notion that there is a “problem” for young Jews who want to observe Shabbat or holidays at universities. He thinks students should look at the positive aspects of the modern university, which allows them to miss class so that they can affirm their Judaism.

“You’re dealing with a system that attempts to create the best possible climate for someone who wants to be Jewish and who wants to observe,” he said. “So, I’m trying to understand why someone would want to make out of that an issue. On the contrary, one would want to enterprise. Look at the opportunity you have.”
Seidler-Feller emphasized that the university is the place where students learn to prioritize their commitments with confidence.

“You go out into the world, and you know that you’re in a law job, and it’s tough … and then they say they want you to work on such and such a day, and you have to have the inner strength and self-confidence and integrity,” he added. “So when do you start learning this? At a university, where the downside is minimal.”

Not surprisingly, observant Jewish students who have already experienced the fork in the road that a nonsectarian education can present tend to be more relaxed about dealing with it in college.

David Goldenberg, a recent graduate of La Jolla High School, just began school at UCLA. He’s already made up his mind about when he’ll miss class and when he won’t and put on a relaxed front.

“It’s only a few days a year,” he said. “It’s not a big deal.”

Power of Vows


I have twins who are almost 5 years old. One of the things that my wife and I are trying to teach them is the power of words, both for the positive and the negative.

They are learning that words can inspire, motivate and excite a situation, as they discover new and innovative ways to talk to each other, to us as parents and to the people with whom they interact. They are also learning the harder lesson that words can just as easily hurt, insult and change a situation for the worse in just a matter of moments. It is a lesson that we all learn; yet, how we carry forth these critical childhood moments of language education and speech management can determine the kinds of lives we lead, and the kinds of interactions we have with one another.

Parshat Matot opens with a lesson in the power of words. God commands Moshe to speak to the leaders of the tribes, saying, “If a person makes a vow to Adonai or takes an oath imposing an obligation on him/herself, he/she shall not break that pledge; he/she must carry out all that has crossed his/her lips” (Numbers 30:3). I am leaving aside the sexist language of this parsha, where women cannot make vows, and am operating with the knowledge that we have moved past the ancient subjugation of women. Having said that, the power of the word is what matters here.

Our ancestors understood that when we make a vow, promising to give something to God, or take an oath regarding our own actions, this was the highest and most serious endeavor, as the power of speech is what separates us most critically from the animal world. “Baruch She’amar V’hayah Ha’olam, God spoke and the world came into being.”

In the first of his two important comments on this section of Torah, the Chatam Sofer, 19th century sage and scholar, teaches that “the entire Torah is dependent on this matter of vows, for it is the foundation of foundations, for if we don’t keep our word through the vows we make, then there is no foundation for our receiving Torah in the first place” (Iturei Torah).

How many of us say things that we don’t mean? How many of us use words or phrases like, “I swear…”or “I promise…”or “You have my word…” in a colloquial or trivial fashion? I catch myself doing that all the time. Our society has lost the power of our word and that is a detriment to our ethical composure. With all of the scandals that have rocked us, from Enron on down, we know that our capitalist nature has in some ways affected our ability to be honest; making the most money at any cost drives people to make false promises or lie about the situation. That is why Torah is so important and the cycle of our religious life is so necessary in today’s world; we must all work hard to ensure that we are all leading lives founded in truth, dedication to keeping our word and thinking before we speak.

In noticing that the Torah calls on Moshe to speak to the “heads of the tribes,” the Chatam Sofer says, “People in high public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep. Their behavior could lessen the respect others have for the spoken word.”

Our public figures, to a large extent, operate on saying things in order to keep power. While this is not true for all leaders, too many have been found guilty of lying, misrepresenting the facts, making empty promises and not keeping their word. Of all the terrible things happening in the world today, two stand out in this regard.

First, the war in Iraq — which has taken 2,500 American lives and tens thousands of Iraqi lives, and cost us our reputation in the world through Abu Ghraib — was based on false premises and lies. How can we trust a leader who lies in regard to the highest level of commitment, war and peace? The amount of misconception in this war, and in the whole “war on terror,” speaks volumes to what the Chatam Sofer was warning leaders against.

Second, the response to Hurricane Katrina. After failing to adequately respond to the crisis while it was happening, the federal government made promise after promise to the recovery and rebuilding of the devastated Gulfport region, only to renege or abandon most of those promises. Nearly a year after the hurricane, whole parts of the area still look like a war zone. There is no better illustration of false promises than what has not happened in New Orleans. Thankfully, religious groups, including our own Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and local synagogues have been partnering with other religious institutions to do our small part. But promises not kept are failing thousands of innocent and needy people.

As I try and teach my children to speak kindly and wisely, I am thankful for the words of the Torah and the comments of the Chatam Sofer, who guide me in offering a legacy of honesty and commitment to the value of integrity. May we all find ways to keep our word, imitating God, by whose word our entire existence was created.

Psalm-Thing to Sing About in New Album


Have you ever thought about what makes a good song? The Virginia-born Miri Hunter Haruach, who lives in Los Angeles, is a folk singer, playwright, student of Judaism and proud purveyor of a doctorate in women’s studies, and she believes that to make a good song, you need a little some of this and a little Psalm of that.

Haruach has always used her art to discuss the strengths and plights of women, but this time, with the release of her second album, “The Ways of Love,” she takes the strong and ethical messages of the Book of Psalms and sets them to music for a new audience to discover.

Haruach sings with a modesty and softness that enhances the simple and good-natured spiritual messages of her songs. That, in itself, is an unusual trait, because audiences have come to expect artists who make spiritual/new age, religious music to have overproduced studio performances.

Haruach doesn’t make herself the main attraction of the album. The verses are intertwined with laid-back melodies and sparse, single-riff drumbeats that add an interesting feeling of emptiness and sorrow to the otherwise uplifting words of wisdom.

In the title track, “Teach Me the Ways of Love,” Haruach chants, “Open your eyes, let your ears hear the cry, unchain your mind from the bondage of shame, deliver your spirit, and set your soul free.”

The nuances of her delivery are accompanied by a rhythmic rap in Hebrew by an Israeli poet, known only as Ofer, who translated the meaning of the song into an interesting lyrical loop.

“The album is actually based on the Book of Psalms. I have been reading the Psalms since I was a child. The ideas and themes stick with you. They cover all of the aspects of life, including joy, sorrow, ecstasy, repentance, confusion, acceptance, marriage and separation,” she says.

The song, “It Would Be Enough,” is the only one based on the Song of Songs, and Haruach was given it to read as a punishment in the 11th grade, she says. In the process, she “fell in love with it.”

Haruach did take the liberty of interpreting the Psalms, not singing them verbatim, but updating them in hopes of reaching more people. Many of the songs are not gender specific, so she could be as inclusive as possible with the audience. None of that sentiment of inclusion is really surprising when you learn that Haruach is not only a converted Jew but also a mix of African American, European and Native American cultures.

“I was born a Southern Baptist, and I was really into going to church, because I liked to participate in the music aspect of the religious experience,” she says. “Then I had 12 years of Catholic school and moved around a lot, writing plays, getting degrees and teaching Israeli folk dancing at Berkeley Hillel.”

In fact, it wasn’t until 1994 that Haruach became interested in Judaism, a move provoked by reading a book on kabbalah.

“I was drawn to Judaism because I felt that it was a religion of life rather than death,” she says. “Through the music, dance and teachings of the Mizrachi Jews, I found a roadmap for living in this world.”

And although Haruach refers to herself as a convert, she has not yet taken the big plunge of being bat mitzvahed.

“But that’s coming eventually,” she notes. “I did a Conservative conversion, although now I consider myself a Reconstructionist. I am considering cantorial studies, too.”

In addition to her interest in music — psalms or otherwise — Haruach has also devoted much of her life to writing plays. The strong and determined women in her performances range from her own slave ancestors to the mysteries surrounding the enigmatic figure of the Queen of Sheba. “As much as we’re engaged in the media, we don’t see a lot of strong women. It’s important for us as women to portray ourselves as strong so that the strife of our ancestors won’t have been in vain.”

It would be an interesting twist, if someday Haruach’s descendants were writing plays about her.

Miri Hunter Haruach will perform on July 19 at 8 p.m. at the Derby, 4500 Los Feliz Blvd., Silverlake. Tickets are $10. For information call (323) 663-8979.

 

Jesus’ Man Has a Plan


Are there any Jewish Rick Warrens?

That’s not a fair question.

There are few people of any faith like Warren.

As I sat listening to him speak at Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live Shabbat services last week, I thought of the only other person I’d met with Warren’s eloquence, charisma, and passion — but Bill Clinton carries a certain amount of baggage that Warren doesn’t.

Warren spoke at Sinai as part of the Synagogue 3000 program, which aims to revitalize Jewish worship.




Rick Warren’s speech at Sinai Temple. Audio added 8/14/2008



The program’s leader, Rabbi Ron Wolfson, met Warren a decade ago and was influenced by the pastor’s first book, “The Purpose-Driven Church” (Zondervan, 1995). And to demonstrate what such a church looked like in action, Wolfson brought two busloads of synagogue leaders to Warren’s Saddleback Church in South Orange County to experience firsthand the pastor’s success. The church has 87,000 members. Its Sunday service draws 22,000 worshippers to a 145-acre campus in the midst of affluent, unaffiliated exurbia. Clearly, Warren has reached the kind of demographic synagogues had all but given up on.

There are two aspects to Warren’s success, and both were on display Friday night. First, he is an organizational genius. His mentor was management guru Peter Drucker.

“I spoke with him constantly,” Warren said, right up until Drucker died last year at age 95.

It is Drucker’s theory of “management by objectives” that Warren replicates in every endeavor — translating long-term objectives into more immediate goals. Here let’s pause to consider that Jews are learning to reorganize thier faith from a Christian who was mentored by a Jew.

In his church, Warren serves as pastor to five subordinate pastors, who in turn serve 300 full-time staff, who administer to 9,000 lay volunteers, who pastor 82,000 members spread out among 83 Southern California cities.

“It’s the individual cells that make the body,” he told the Sinai crowd. All his church’s endeavors — from working to cure diseases in African villages to reinventing houses of worship — work according to a model that parcels larger goals into smaller ones, empowering believers to take action along the way.

The other secret to his success is his passion for God and Jesus. Warren managed to speak for the entire evening without once mentioning Jesus — a testament to his savvy message-tailoring. But make no mistake, the driving purpose of an evangelical church is to evangelize, and it is Warren’s devotion to spreading the words of the Christian Bible that drive his ministry.

Good for him and his flock — and not so bad for us either. His teachings apply to 95 percent of all people, regardless of religious belief. As he put it to a group of rabbis at a conference last year — using a metaphor that might be described as a Paulian slip: “Eat the fish and throw away the bones.”

Warren told Wolfson his interest is in helping all houses of worship, not in converting Jews. He said there are more than enough Christian souls to deal with for starters.

The success of Warren’s second book, “The Purpose-Driven Life” (Zondervan, 2002), demonstrates his ability to turn a particular gospel into a universal one. As Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe told the capacity audience of some 1,500, “The Purpose-Driven Life”turned the self-help model on its head by asserting that the answer to personal fulfillment does not reside with the self.

“Looking within yourself for your purpose doesn’t work,” the book begins. “If it did, we’d know it by now. As with any complex invention, to figure out your purpose, you need to talk to the inventor and read the owner’s manual — in this case, God and the Bible.” “The Purpose-Driven Life” has sold 25 million copies in 57 languages.

As Warren pointed out — with an odd ability to be humble and matter of fact about it — it is reportedly the biggest-selling nonfiction book in American history. It brought him fame and fortune. Warren spent much of his sermon describing how he dealt with his new-found money and influence, turning his personal solutions into lessons on confronting the spiritual emptiness and materialism that all comfortable Americans face.

The pastor said he practices an inverse tithe — giving away 90 percent and keeping 10 percent of his income. He takes no salary from the church and returned the 20 years of income he received from it.

I haven’t checked his portfolio to verify this, but the message is an impressive and important one.

“We do not go into this line of work to get rich,” he said. “If you give it to God, he will bring you to life.”

Similarly, Warren has leveraged his fame to bring attention to AIDS in Africa and other global problems. He said he’d just come from a photo shoot at Sony Studios with Brad Pitt and was about to meet overseas with the leaders of 11 countries in 37 days. While he was at Sinai Temple, his wife, Kay, was at the White House.

“The purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have none,” he said.

Warren wore a kippah made by the Abuyudaya tribe of Uganda and gifted to him by the country’s president. Before his sermon, he sang enthusiastically with musician Craig Taubman, who performed along with Saddleback Church music director Richard Muchow.

“This is my kind of service!” he said when he took the stage to deliver his remarks.

Afterward, as one Friday Night Live contingent repaired to a ballroom to carry on the hard work of scoping out other singles, another filled Barad Hall to get more time with Warren in a Q-and-A.

Along the way, he described in detail how he organized a national Purpose Driven Church campaign to get some 30,000 houses of worship across the world to define and implement their mission. He also punctuated his anecdotes with simple statements about God’s role in our lives: “God created you to love you,” he said, “and to love him back.”

I have no doubt the people who turned to Warren to help them reinvent synagogues for the 21st century can and will learn a lot from the man’s organizational skills. But the deeper message he conveys, his unstintingly devoted and enthusiastic faith — how in the world can we Jews learn that?

We Must Treat Others With Kindness


I often give young people advice on dating, occasionally without their asking. I tell young women not to judge a man by his car, since you will not end up living with the car but with the man who drives it. I advise men, when they take a woman to a restaurant, to sit facing the wall, so their attention will be fixed upon the woman, not everyone who walks into the room.

But my most common bit of advice to men and women alike is this: Don’t pay attention to how your date treats you alone — see how he treats the waiter, how she acts toward the busboy, the valet who brings you car. That is the test of character: How do you act toward the one who is not connected to you. How do you treat those whom you do not have to treat well?

Rabbi Reuven Kimmelman told me a wonderful story about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Apparently, the Rebbe once had a meeting with Sen. [Daniel] Moynihan. After the senator asked him for his support, the Rebbe said, “Now I have something to ask you.”

Moynihan, used to the requests of constituents, smiled and asked the Rebbe what he could do for him.

“Well” he said, “there is a population of people in New York who are good people, law abiding, good families, who do not really understand the system. I think they are not being treated as well as they should be. I want you, senator,” concluded the Rebbe, “to make sure you take care of the Chinese.”

That story illustrates a central part of the Exodus lesson — that when someone is oppressed, there is a Jewish responsibility to care. This is true in society and in our own lives.

The Haggadah tells us “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Here is the interesting thing — because we were strangers, we are supposed to learn not how the Israelites should have acted, but — how the Egyptians should have acted. We are supposed to learn how not to oppress others. Don’t treat others the way we were treated.

The term stranger is mentioned some 36 times in the Torah. It is a central category. The Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen beautifully wrote that in the idea of the stranger, Judaism was born. We are to care for those who are in our power. When you have power over another, you also have responsibility toward them.

Rabbi Israel Salanter saw a serving maid carrying two pails of water on her shoulders to provide water for the ritual washing before dinner. When dinner was ready, he performed ritual washing with a tiny sprinkling of water. When asked why he was so sparse, Rabbi Salanter explained: “One must not be generous with a mitzvah on another person’s shoulders.”

We know what it is to be a stranger: the insecurity, the fear. The stranger is on a tightrope and does not control the wind. So there is a question about Passover that we must, as Jews, ask ourselves:

What if you were an Egyptian? How would you have treated the Israelites? Would you have been cruel because you could be? Or would you have been kind, even though you did not need to?

For at the seder, many of us were the Egyptians.

Of course, we did not enslave someone else. But most of us were served. We had “help.”

Were we kind? How many of us kept housekeepers, maids, others up very late at our seders with no consideration for them, their children, their schedule?

How many of us paid them extra for that work? How many pay less than minimum wage because the person we are employing is an illegal and therefore has no choice? How many of us, in fact, performed the mitzvah on somebody else’s shoulders?

After all, we can do what we like; if we are angry, we can yell. If we are annoyed, we can be snappish, abusive, angry.

When a housekeeper has a sick child, do we encourage her to go take care of her child or is taking care of my child more important than taking care of her own? The Talmud teaches that Israel is “rachamim b’nei rachamim” — merciful people, and the children of merciful people. So at the seder, at our dinner tables, are we Israelites or are we Egyptians?

In the past month, I have asked around, spoken with nannies, housekeepers and people who run placement agencies. I have heard of terrible doings in our community, of Jews — Jews! — who have taken workers’ passports so they cannot leave the country, of those who have hit their employees, screamed at them mercilessly, refused to give them vacations — in other words, acted like Egyptians.

Remember, we have been strangers. We know the fear, the anguish, the impotence. We know what it is to be subject to other people’s emotions, customs, moods. The callous person exploits that fear; the Israelite calms it.

We know that being rich doesn’t make you good. Being rich just makes you rich. In some ways it is harder — because wealth gives one latitude to be unkind. A rich person can speak to employees in ways one would never otherwise speak to another. But to do so stains our souls and dishonors God. And to do so in our home is that much worse.

In 1966, an 11-year-old black boy moved with his family to a white neighborhood in Washington. Sitting with his two brothers and sisters on the front step of his house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not greeted. All the fearful stories this boy had heard about whites hating blacks seemed to be coming true.

He thought, “I knew we would not be welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here.”

As he was thinking those thoughts, a white woman coming home from work passed by on the other side of the road. She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, “Welcome!” Disappearing into the house, she emerged minutes later with a tray laden with drinks and cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, which she brought over to the children, making them feel at home. That moment — the young man wrote later — changed his life. It made him realize that some Americans could be blind to racial and class differences.

The young man was Stephen Carter, now a law professor at Yale, and he recounts this story in his book, “Civility.” The tale is retold in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ new book, “To Heal a Fractured World.” The woman was named Sara Kestenbaum, and she was a religious Jew.

What Sara Kestenbaum did was what our tradition calls a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name. The opposite is a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

The children of the people who work in our homes and in our streets will be the professors, the doctors, the teachers, the mayors. What will they learn about the Jewish community? What will they remember of how we treated their mothers and fathers at a vulnerable time? Will they remember our conduct as a Kiddush Hashem? Will they understand that the Jewish community remembers what it is to be a stranger?

Kiddush Hashem is when we act in such a way as to reflect credit on the Jewish community among non-Jews. It is a Hillul Hashem to be unkind to someone in your power.

We were strangers in a strange land — not once, not twice, but hundreds, thousands of times. Often we met with cruelty — but sometimes we met with kindness. We remember those who were kind.

Others will remember if we were kind to them. It is not enough to observe the ritual of Passover and not embody the spirit. It is not enough to have a Shabbat table laden with the work of others. When we open the door, we should open the heart to those who are already in our community and in our homes. Let us demonstrate that we indeed are merciful people, the children of merciful people.

The Talmud insists that one who is not merciful does not deserve the name of Israel. In our homes and in our lives, let us deserve the name of Israel and the blessings of God.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. This article is adapted from a sermon delivered on the first day of Passover, April 13, 2006. You may hear this sermon, as well as Rabbi Wolpe’s other sermons, online at sinaitemple.org. For a story on the 100th anniversary of Sinai Temple, please click here.

 

A Life Interrupted, a Dream Fulfilled


Joan “Pessie” Hammer recently bustled through the crowd of hipsters and Chasidim at the first gallery exhibition featuring art by her late son, Moshe.

Clutching a siddur, the Lubavich mother animatedly chatted with patrons who admired his ethereal religious drawings: pages of a siddur and other texts he had fancifully calligraphied and illustrated. The tears came only when she stood alone before his work — which had been his sole and secret obsession before a truck struck and killed him two years ago at age 26.

Sixteen pages from his handwritten sefarim (religious books) are on display at the Jewish Artist Network gallery in Los Angeles, part of a show that also features four other artists.

Moshe Hammer’s pieces look like quirkier, black-ink versions of medieval illuminated manuscripts. The Hebrew letters dance and morph into images based on his intensive studies of commentaries on the sefarim.

A bedtime blessing depicts a gods-eye view of archangels guarding sleeping children; diverse, disembodied eyes decorate morning thanks to the Creator for opening one’s eyes, literally and metaphorically. A tempest-tossed ship, secured by its anchor, adorns the traveler’s prayer.

At the gallery opening, a middle age Orthodox woman held a magnifying glass to that piece, to see the meticulous detail.

“He had so much potential,” she murmured of the artist.

A young man wearing chains and black leather gazed at Hammer’s “God’s Deliverance Quick as a Gazelle,” noting how the letters leap in sync with the animal.

“Moshe’s work is both religiously and graphically compelling,” said Aaron Berger (a.k.a. Aaron No One), the exhibition’s curator.

Apparently, Hammer was feverishly working on such drawings when he took one of his late-night walks to clear artist’s block in July 2004. He had trekked miles from his Fairfax area apartment when the truck hit him at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue, killing him instantly, according to a coroner’s report.

At the time, Pessie Hammer did not know that her intensely private son had dedicated his life to studying Chasidism and illustrating religious texts.

“He was very protective of his work and he refused to speak of it or to show it to anyone,” recalls Hammer, 55, at her Beverly-Fairfax home after the opening.

Her son had often been elusive about his art. She didn’t learn that Moshe, as a 9-year-old, had sold his handmade comics at yeshiva until one of his old classmate told her after the funeral.

While Hammer had excelled at school, his family, in keeping with traditional Chasidic views, was concerned that he was showing too much interest in popular culture: “He wanted to know about anything and everything — to be part of it all,” his mother recalled.

In grammar and middle school, he had scribbled superheroes as students gathered to watch, sometimes delaying teachers from starting class.

“We felt he could not properly distinguish between the secular and religious worlds, so we wanted him to focus on Judaism in order to be able to make good decisions in life,” she said.

After consulting the family rabbi, the difficult decision was made to send Moshe away to East Coast yeshivas at age 14; four years later, he returned home thoughtful, quiet and studious. Yet he still pursued his artwork, both secular and religious, striving to find his creative niche. Over the next eight years, he took computer animation courses and studied creative writing at Santa Monica City College. He penned poems and taught himself to write comic screenplays, which he registered at the Writers Guild of America. He would also draw cartoon characters as well as a portrait of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

All the while, he supported himself, with help from his parents, by working odd jobs that allowed him time to pursue creative endeavors. In the last years of his life, he drove hearses and guarded the dead for the Jewish Burial Society, which ultimately laid his own body to rest.

The Schneerson portrait hangs above the mantle in Hammer’s living room, which is adorned with a photo collage depicting Moshe, the third of Hammer’s five children, at various ages. Nearby, on an antique buffet, are professionally bound scrapbooks filled with his art: his mother’s effort to turn his drawings into completed sefarim.

She had not seen the vast majority of these pieces when she didn’t hear from her son for two days in the summer of 2004. Pessie Hammer and her husband, Yosef, a postal worker, frantically searched the neighborhood for information on his whereabouts. The bad news came when a rabbi, a rebbetzin and a police investigator knocked on the Hammer’s door the night of July 15, 2004.

“I saw their dark, contorted faces, and I told my children, ‘Go to your rooms,’ because I knew what they were going to say,” she recalls.

Once they had run upstairs, the rabbi said her son was gone. He had identified Hammer’s body in a morgue photograph.

“I wanted to see Moshe, but everyone said he was so mangled that they did not recommend it,” Pessie Hammer says. “I felt I didn’t get to say goodbye to my son.”

She received some closure as she helped clear out his single apartment on Formosa Avenue two weeks later. After numbly packing up his antique bottle collection and Judaica, she opened the bottom drawer of his pine desk and discovered more than 300 pages of drawings.

“I was shocked, because I had never imagined he had created this much work,” she says.

She spent the next week sorting the pages around the clock — and figuring out what they actually were. Turns out her son had written and illustrated a Passover haggadah, a Book of Esther and a “Song of Songs,” as well as a siddur.

Terrified that the pages might fade, she spent the following two weeks quizzing experts about how to best preserve the drawings and to duplicate the originals. She insisted that copy shop employees redo any page that cut off even a millimeter of his intricate work.

Her goal was to carry out what she believes was her son’s last wish: In his apartment, she had found a list of his aspirations, which included a gallery show. She saw her chance when the Jewish Artist Network opened in her neighborhood and its 31-year-old founder, Aaron No One, responded to Moshe’s portfolio.

“I consider his work to be a kind of spiritual graffiti art,” the curator, wearing a hose clamp and a ski cap, said while standing in the back doorway at the recent opening, framed by secular graffiti outside. “His drawings bring the intangible into the physical realm, for all viewers to see.”

Pessie Hammer, standing nearby, nodded and said she felt her exceptionally private son had intended one day to praise God in a most public way.

He hadn’t been quite ready to do so in life, so his indefatigable mother made sure he was able to after his death.

The exhibition will be on display through May 25 at 661 N. Spaulding in Los Angeles. For information and gallery hours (sometimes it is necessary to make an appointment), call (562) 547-9078 or visit www.thejangallery.com or www.exitnoone.com.

 

Dr. Freud at 150


“Why,” Sigmund Freud once asked rhetorically, “did it [psychoanalysis] have to wait for an absolutely irreligious Jew?”

Why indeed?

Freud was born in Freiberg, in the Austrian empire, on May 6, 1856, 150 years ago this weekend. Three years after his birth, his family moved to Vienna. There, the reaction of Freud’s personality to the mix of cultural, political and scientific forces was such that — we may state in hindsight — psychoanalysis could not have been created by anyone else in any other time or place.

Already for 1,000 years, in the Islamic and Christian worlds, medicine had been a Jewish profession par excellence. In late 19th century Vienna, as well, a vastly disproportionate number of doctors were Jews, and they were contributing mightily to the explosive development of modern medical science.

But the Austrian political climate was souring. A few decades of liberalism (in the European sense of individual freedom) were followed by a reactionary wave of Austro-Germanic nationalism and anti-Jewish politicking.

In the new age of medical specializations, the prejudiced academic powers that be were channeling Jewish medical students away from the prestigious mainstream fields, like internal medicine and surgery, into marginalized specialities: dermatology, ophthalmology — and psychiatry.

Yet if some Jewish doctors were being pushed into psychiatry, many others were voluntarily drawn to it. For the Jews of late 19th century Vienna were facing mental pressures different from any in past Jewish history.

For centuries, Diaspora Jewish physicians and philosophers, such as Maimonides, had written on the means of attaining spiritual well-being, often in a sea of hostile humanity. Their compass was the age-old Jewish religious and cultural values.

Now, however, Jews were being set adrift in an era of modernity that they themselves were doing so much to create. Nowhere more so than in Vienna, as the 20th century approached — where Josef Popper-Lynkeus and Ludwig Wittgenstein were developing their radical philosophies of science and technology, and Arnold Schoenberg would soon experiment with daringly atonal music.

Little wonder that the pioneering psychiatrist-anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, author of “Man of Genius,” attributed the apparently high rates of insanity among his fellow Jews to “intellectual overactivity.”

Such was the atmosphere in which Freud found himself. No longer a Jew in the religious sense but of the rationalist tradition of Judaism (“free from many prejudices which restrict others in the use of their intellect,” as he put it), Freud first made important, if unrevolutionary, contributions to our understanding of aphasia (major speech impairment due to physical trauma or stroke).

By the 1890s, however, Freud became intrigued by more cryptic language disturbances as signs of neurotic conflicts caused by hypothesized unconscious forces: slips of the tongue in wakefulness, and the largely imagistic and apparently nonsensical — but in fact symbol-laden — “language” of dreams at night.

Freud famously called dreams “the royal road to knowledge of the unconscious.” And his own dreams and their analysis revealed to him a whirl of conflicts around his Jewish identity.

Thus to cite just one of many examples, Freud dreamt that he sat almost in tears beside a fountain at the Porta Romana in Italy. The children had to be moved to safety, and a boy who was but wasn’t Freud’s son said to him in farewell the nonsensical “auf ungeseres,” instead of the usual “auf wiedersehen.”

Among a labyrinth of free-associations the next morning, Freud recalled his actual viewing of the Porta Romana (the gateway to Rome and, by implication, the Roman Catholic Church) during a recent visit to Siena, where the Jewish director of a mental hospital had been forced to resign. Returning to Vienna, Freud had attended a play on the Jewish question called, “The New Ghetto.”

Freud linked the dream fountain to the refrain, “By the waters of Babylon … yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.” The seemingly nonsensical farewell, “auf ungeseres,” derived from the German word for unleavened bread and a Hebrew word for imposed suffering. Clearly, the life as a Jew in fin-de-si?cle Vienna was one of exile, with professional barriers and social burdens imposed on him and his children.

Such encumbrances could be relieved in a day with a splash of baptismal water and assimilation into Austria’s Roman Catholic majority. But Freud would have none of that.

“I considered myself German intellectually, until I noticed the growth of anti-Semitism. Since that time, I prefer to call myself a Jew,” he defiantly declared. “A Jew ought not to get himself baptized — it is essentially dishonest.”

If Freud’s view of dreams had been limited to analyzing them for various personal and cultural conflicts — some of which are lurking below the level of consciousness — it would have been a significant but unrevolutionary contribution to psychology.

But to repeat Lombroso’s term, the “intellectual overactivity” characteristic of so many modern Jews was part and parcel of Freud’s genius. Thus he went on to develop his psychoanalytic model with its Oedipus and Electra sexual complexes, supposedly laid down in early childhood, and continuing to dominate the unconscious id of the adult mind.

The libido, Freud theorized, ultimately supplies the driving force behind all dreams. A task of civilization was to channel such forces to higher goals. This, too, was part of the millennia of Jewish tradition.

“In his inner being, the Jew, the true Jew, feels only one eternal guide, one lawgiver, one law,” Freud proudly declared. “That is morality.”

Such radical theories faced a long uphill battle against the conservative medical establishment. But, as Freud told his B’nai B’rith lodge brothers, “As a Jew, I was prepared to join the opposition and to do without agreement with the ‘compact majority.'”

The psychoanalytic theory ultimately did gain much acceptance. It was Freud’s international reputation that allowed him to flee Vienna after the genocidal Nazis took control of Austria in 1938.

When Freud died in London two years later, he was more of an exile than even he would ever have dreamt when first developing his model of the mind. But disciples of his were in the Land of Zion — pursuing a Jewish dream that would become reality.

Dr. Frank Heynick’s most recent book is “Jews and Medicine: An Epic Saga” (KTAV, 2002), in which Sigmund Freud plays a prominent role.

 

Hineni


I expected to be dealing with an empty nest when my daughter started college. I projected my availability to friends who had yielded my attention during my childrearing years. I dragged writing projects onto my computer’s desktop to await the plane ride from NYU to the rest of my life. Instead, the levees broke in my hometown. I spent the next three months as a relief worker with the Red Cross and the New Orleans Jewish agencies in service to those displaced and/or traumatized by Katrina.

I expected to be dealing with the aftermath of Katrina when I returned to Los Angeles. I imagined myself as an advocate for the restoration of New Orleans, recounting the environmental deterioration, government malfunction, and dire future the hurricane signaled. Instead I was diagnosed with cancer. I now spend Mondays in a lounge chair, with an IV flooding my body with toxic, life-giving chemicals and much of the rest of the time in my bedroom reacting to their impact.

Despite the broken lives and landscapes and the mountains of debris, my time in the South brought personal healing. I am a writer and a psychotherapist. I spent the last 30 years mapping the territory of grief and redemption, a journey begun with wounds obtained in New Orleans. It felt that my personal and professional curricula had been a training program anticipating just this disaster. Indeed, I found that each day, despite tears and fatigue, my experience graced me with the ability to say, ” Hineni” (I am here) to the tasks to which I was called.

In Mississippi, I counseled shelter residents, dished out food, filled out relief forms and orchestrated art therapy for child evacuees. In New Orleans, I led Rosh Hashanah services for a congregation ranging from the barely affiliated to members of Chabad. In Baton Rouge, I led Shabbat services and taught religious school and adult education for those impacted by the disaster. I assisted Jewish Family Service with clinical and administrative work, hosted luncheons for displaced elders and helped with grant-writing and other projects.

Shortly after Katrina, I awaited what was called “deployment” to the place where I would do my Red Cross duty. I chuckled because in the last years “deployment” has had, for this rabbinic student, a spiritual meaning. Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, says that we are deployed at birth, sent forth like arrows, to walk in God’s ways and make the world holy. There seemed a connection between my deployments, both in the Red Cross and the mystical sense. In both cases, personal will was superseded by a greater will. I wanted to go to Gulfport, but I needed to await my assignment, determined by the greater need and not my own desire. This is also the spiritual task: to quash the desires that keep us from “walking in God’s ways,” aligning ourselves with God’s will. In both cases, spiritually and professionally, I am challenged to choose paths not determined by the needs of my ego, but by the needs of the place — hamakom. In this case, the place was the Gulf South, but HaMakom is also a name of God. In connecting deployments and HaMakoms, I made my commitment to hineni.

Was I prepared to say hineni, the word that Abraham and Moses said when they answered God’s call? Hineni’s literal meaning is an unequivocal acceptance of what is asked. It also implies a faith that I came to understand more deeply in the Red Cross shelters in Mississippi, where I met people who had waited out the storm and its 30-foot waves on their rooftops and in trees. Their homes reduced to straw, they were living in a room with a 150 others. But there were two phrases I heard from person after person: “This is God’s will” and “I am blessed.” Liberal Jews don’t speak this way. I had to translate.

At first I thought that by saying, “This is God’s will,” they were saying “God did this to me,” implying a God that doles out punishment and reward with a direct hand. This doesn’t work for me. I have seen too many bad things happen to good people.

After tragedy, people want desperately to make sense of what happened. It can be unbearable to live with the discomfort that the workings of the universe are a mystery. But we learn to make peace with the fact that we will never have answers for life’s biggest questions and we accustom ourselves to an ambiguous universe, embracing what lies ahead, without being tormented by the past.

“It’s God’s will,” doesn’t mean “God singled me out and did this to me.” It means, “What will I do with what I have?” Saying “It’s God’s will,” we accept and move on. To say “I am blessed” in the midst of catastrophe implies a commitment to go forward without the torture of second-guessing and self-blame. We choose hope instead of despair. We say ” hineni.”

And now, as I sit, not on the bimahs of congregations to whom I had hoped to bring messages of Katrina, but on the chemo-couch, I am again challenged to say ” hineni.” If I could say it in Mississippi, I have to say it here.

Anne Brener, author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourners’ Path through Grief to Healing” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2002), is an L.A. psychotherapist and spiritual director. She is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and on the faculty of The Academy for Jewish Religion.

 

Think Green Tips


Ten ways to begin greening your synagogue from Barbara Lerman-Golomb, associate executive director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life:

  • Switch to cost-effective and energy-efficient compact fluorescent lightbulbs.
  • Buy recycled paper products. Use both sides of the paper, then recycle it again.
  • Precycle. Buy products that are in recycled packaging or that can be recycled, such as cans, glass, plastic, paper and cardboard.
  • Minimize use of disposable plates, cups, paper towels, napkins, plastic and silverware for synagogue functions. Avoid using Styrofoam products.
  • Turn thermostat down a few degrees in the winter and up a few degrees in the summer.
  • Encourage congregants to carpool to religious school and to turn off engines while waiting to pick up children.
  • Buy Energy Star (energy-efficient) appliances. Turn off lights and office equipment, such as copy machines, when not in use.
  • Buy flow restrictors for sinks and water-saving toilet tank dams.
  • Use nontoxic cleansers.
  • Don’t use pesticide on the lawn and use a nontoxic integrated pest management system.

 

So Much to Learn, So Little Time


Gina Gross would like to attend Jewish adult-education classes, but at the moment, she has a hard time even talking about how much she’d like it. The Beverly Hills licensing consultant briefly puts down the phone and turns lovingly to her 7-year-old daughter: “Dani, buzz off!”

Dani runs off to play with her 5-year-old sister, Sydney, which gives Gross a few minutes to discuss adult education, but not nearly enough leeway to pursue it.

“My kids are too little,” said Gross, who adds that her Reform congregation, Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park, “does a really good job of marketing adult education during the High Holidays. And every year I hope I’m gonna do it. And I never do it. Kids. Work. Everything else.”

There are thousands of adults in similar straits throughout Southern California.

“We are blessed in Los Angeles with a plethora of adult learning opportunities,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “Synagogues offer literally hundreds of courses for adults as do many other fine institutions.”

“Having said that,” the Conservative rabbi added, “I wouldn’t even hazard a guess to how few Jewish adults are actually involved in ongoing Jewish learning. I fear the number is relatively small. People need to avail themselves of these programs.”

There are no comprehensive statistics on how many adults attend classes related to Judaism, or even whether these classes are attracting increasing or shrinking numbers. But synagogues and local universities continue to list impressive offerings, relying on their own learned staffers and rabbis, talented community members and a broader Jewish community rich with resources and scholars.

At Westwood’s Conservative Sinai Temple, Rabbi David Wolpe’s Torah study classes attract an average of 100 people every Thursday morning at 8:15 a.m.

“That’s huge,” said Sinai program coordinator Rachel Martin.

Lunch-and-learn events at Sinai regularly attract about 80 people.

“Anything on mysticism is really popular,” Martin said. “It’s more of the touchy-feely stuff that’s really popular.”

Over the years, said Reform Rabbi Steve Jacobs of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, congregants have shown tremendous interest in “learning about lifecycles, and in adult [b’nai] mitzvah classes.”

Courses on Israel peaked in the 1970s and ’80s, Jacobs said, but now interfaith courses and classes on Jewish cooking are on the upswing.

But who has the time? Attorney Josh Wayser and his life partner have three young children in Beverlywood and are members of both Temple Isaiah and the gay/lesbian Reform synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim, in Pico-Robertson.

“If you have young children, it’s almost impossible to do adult education,” said Wayser, a national board member with the Union of Reform Judaism.

“The problem is you’re choosing between spending time with children or enriching yourself,” he said. “They don’t want to hear that you’re going off to adult education at night or on the weekend. I have to spend time way from home because of work, and I volunteer in the Jewish community. Everything personal comes last.”

Not that he hasn’t tried: “It was very enjoyable, but it was on a Saturday. On Saturday there are birthday parties and all these things that you have to do.”

Orthodox Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein said that deepening one’s knowledge of Judaism should not be considered an option, nor buried near the bottom of the to-do list.

“I hate to be blunt about it, but the Orthodox have an advantage that the heterodox movements do not, and that’s the concept of mitzvah — mitzvah in the real sense of commandment rather than in good deeds,” said Adlerstein, who does extensive teaching and directs Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “The mandate to study Torah is one of the most important of all of the 613 commandments in the Torah.”

For Orthodox Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, “the barometer of success can’t be how many people come. It’s how good the program is,” he said.

Muskin has mixed traditional Torah study with offerings such as scholar-in-residence programs. “Our approach is what the Talmud says,” he said. “If you only learn Torah from one person, you haven’t learned Torah.”

And, he added, there’s no seasonal slowdown: “We don’t only run a series that lasts for six weeks or five weeks. There are regular classes, day in, day out.”

One new option is the Internet and sites such as www.aish.com or www.askmoses.com, which are Orthodox in orientation.

Diamon of the Board of Rabbis said these sites will never replace people-to-people encounters.

“Internet learning is great,” he said. “But nothing replaces sitting down with another individual or a group of individuals and studying together face-to-face and in person. That’s classic Jewish learning.”

For Kol Tikvah’s Jacobs, Jewish learning also is about more than history, scholarship, religious tradition and ritual. It’s about a cleaned-up Santa Monica Bay, too, and fair rental housing rates for migrant farm workers in Oxnard onion fields.

“Learning Torah for the sake of Torah does not complete the act of what it is to be a Jew,” he said. “It’s a combination of action and learning. It’s what you do in terms of tikkun olam and tikkun hanefesh, the repair of the soul’ You must act, and you must do, and you must learn.”

Christian Right is Wrong — and Dangerous


In 1994, we sounded an alarm. In our book, “The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America,” we said that “an exclusionist religious movement in this country has attempted to restore what it perceives as the ruins of a Christian nation by more closely seeking to unite its version of Christianity with state power.”

Alas, our call was not well heeded, and we are beginning to see some of the consequences of what we identified.

As a result, today we face a better financed, more sophisticated, coordinated, unified, energized and organized coalition of groups in opposition to our policy positions on church-state separation than ever before. Their goal is to implement their Christian worldview. To Christianize America. To save us!

Who are the major players? They include Focus on the Family, Alliance Defense Fund, The American Family Association and the Family Research Council. They and other groups have established new organizations and church-based networks, and built infrastructures throughout the country designed not just to promote traditional “Christian values,” but to actively pursue that restoration of a Christian nation.

To quote D. James Kennedy, one of the most important and influential of today’s evangelical leaders: “Our job is to reclaim America for Christ, whatever the cost. We are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government, our literature and arts, our sports arenas, our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors — in short, over every aspect and institution of human society.”

Make no mistake: We are facing an emerging Christian Right leadership that intends to “Christianize” all aspects of American life, from the halls of government to the libraries, to the movies, to recording studios, to the playing fields and locker rooms of professional, collegiate and amateur sports, from the military to “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

In 2002, leaders from 10 conservative Christian organizations formed the Arlington Group, an alliance of more than 50 of the most prominent conservative Christian leaders and organizations. Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation described it this way: “For the first time, virtually all of the social issues groups are singing off the same sheet of music … when we are working together, we are a mighty force that can’t be ignored.”

Just take a look at their Web sites, where they document in considerable detail an agenda on a wide range of issues: judicial nominations, same-sex marriage, and faith-based issues — and an agenda that, let us be clear, goes well beyond legitimate engagement in controversial social and political issues to a fundamental usurpation of all that America represents:

  • “Most importantly, the court victories are vital steps to keep doors open for the spread of the gospel and reclaim the legal system for Jesus Christ.” — The Alliance Defense Fund
  • The American Family Association, “believes that God has communicated absolute truth to man through the Bible, and that all men everywhere at all times are subject to the authority of God’s word. Therefore, culture based on biblical truth best serves the well-being of our country.”
  • “Christians can be loyal to liberal democracy as long as rights are carefully controlled by a dominant culture that directs them to the true hierarchy of ends.” — Family Research Council.
  • “The enemies of morality will not stop and will not back off. The Left cannot and will not change … no matter how many God-fearing and God-honoring women and men are elected and appointed to public office, until the hearts of the people change, we will not turn around this culture and restore our biblical foundations.” — James Dobson’s Focus on the Family.

As offensive as these comments are, we need to understand that the Jewish community is not the prime target of this movement. Indeed, Jews are often singled out for engagement and support based on their interpretation of biblical revelation and prophecy. Yet, if this “Dominionism,” as its proponents call it, is successful, we may become its major victim.

Let me also be very clear about what we are not talking about.

First, I do not believe that this is a malignant assault; it is not motivated by animus, and certainly not by anti-Semitism. Our opponents’ beliefs are sincerely held. Yes, some Southern Baptists want to convert us while we are alive, and Mormons want to convert us when we are dead. We may find that strange, even discomforting, but that is their right of belief.

My evangelical friends remind me that what we are dealing with is a principle of faith. And they are right. To bear witness, to share, to proselytize, is not a choice for evangelical Christians. It is a fundamental principle of their belief. So when you challenge it, you do it carefully, delicately, respectfully.

But we cannot tolerate an attempt to subvert that right of belief and practice by those who say that their job is “to reclaim America for Christ.”

The stakes for the Jewish community could not be higher, but our community is not united on this issue. Indeed, we are a lot less united than we were 15 years ago.

On one hand, there is an extreme element in the community that believes it is unsafe to confront Christianity. We heard it, read it, saw it in the Mel Gibson debate. There are also those who say that because evangelicals are friends of Israel: “Don’t fight them”; “don’t make them angry”; “don’t upset them.”

There are those who argue, “What’s wrong with faith-based government funding? It can bring money to our community, to our religious institutions and it can provide safety and security for synagogues; it can provide funds for Jewish education.”

Some Jewish agencies call us and say, “Lower your tone, because there is an opportunity to obtain funds for Jewish family services in ways that weren’t available before.”

These are serious considerations for our constituency and we need to engage them.

As we watched the election of 2004, and we are now getting glimpses into elections of 2006 and 2008, we are beginning to see the candidates – some declared, some not declared — beginning to move on these issues in a direction that is not in our direction.

Abraham H. Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. This commentary was excerpted from his recent remarks to the organization’s National Commission Meeting.

 

Call Him Henry Roth


“Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth” by Steven Kellman (Norton).

Until now, there has been no full-scale biography of Henry Roth, whose 1934 novel, “Call It Sleep,” is considered a masterpiece of American literature. That book, a portrait in grim realism of a Jewish immigrant child’s life, written in spare and remarkable language, went out of print quickly after it was first published. In the 1960s, it was rediscovered and reissued, reviewed with great enthusiasm on Page One of The New York Times Book Review by Irving Howe and went on to sell millions of copies. Roth did not have the same literary resilience. It was 60 years after the first publication until he published another novel, the first volume in his four-part novel, “Mercy of a Rude Stream.”

Perhaps there have been no previous biographies because he died only recently, at the age of 89 in 1995, or because until he reached his 80s his career was seen as an enigmatic one-book phenomenon. Another reason is that much of his fiction is autobiographical, and it is particularly challenging for biographers to peel apart layers of fiction and truth. And, he has had a life full of colossal mysteries, literary, personal and spiritual.

Steven Kellman’s well-written “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth” links together the various chapters of his life — his birth in Galicia, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire; his childhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and then in Harlem; his connection to his mentors; his marriage to Muriel Parker and their move to New England where he worked as a woodsman, mental health attendant, schoolteacher and duck farmer; his interest in communism; his becoming “famous for being unknown” in 1964; his renewed interest in Jewish identity, and his literary comeback, as an aging, severely arthritic man in Albuquerque, painfully working at his computer.

As a biographer, Kellman is respectful of his subject, revealing details that will be new to many readers, and unafraid of exposing the unappealing aspects of his subject’s life.

“I had the common notion of the legend of Henry Roth as the Rip van Winkle of American literature,” Kellman said. “I realized that there’s much more to him: He was a very tormented man, difficult to live with, but he also managed to inspire quite a few people with absolute devotion and love.”

“I approach Henry Roth not as a puzzle to be solved but as a mystery to be pondered,” he writes in his introduction.

“Redemption” was the title that Roth practically chose for himself, Kellman explained. Roth once told an interviewer that if there were a theme to his life, it would be redemption, as that was the motivation in his final years for sitting day after day at his computer, turning out 5,000 manuscript pages.

“He wanted to redeem himself from a sense of worthlessness he had all his life.” Kellman said, and he wanted to be rid of the tremendous burden of guilt.

A major source of Roth’s guilt is rooted in his childhood, when, as Roth revealed in the second volume of the novel “Mercy of a Rude Stream” and verified in a videotaped interview, he began a long, incestuous relationship with his sister Rose. This was, as Roth wrote, “a canker in the soul.” Kellman and others link Roth’s long silence to the “loathsome secret he did not dare share for almost 70 years.”

Kellman writes that Roth’s parents, much like the parents of David Schearl, the boy in “Call It Sleep,” had a loveless marriage. They were brought together in Europe by families who sought a solution for problem children: Chaim, later Herman, needed to marry in order to escape military service; Leah had fallen in love with a non-Jew. They moved to America with their young son, but theirs was not an immigrant success story. Herman failed in one job after another and lived in regret; as Kellman writes, his “mind often assumed the shape of the subjunctive.”

Roth wrote “Call It Sleep” under the tutelage and patronage of Eda Lou Walton, a poet, critic and academic who was at the center of a literary circle including Hart Crane, Louise Bogan and Margaret Mead. He moved in with Walton, who was 12 years his senior, when he was 22. As Kellman explains, she reinvented him as an urbane intellectual, and gave him, during the Depression years, the “luxury of stringing words into resonant sentences.” “Call It Sleep” is dedicated to Walton. But her generosity was filled with gratitude as well as shame.

Roth left Walton when he met his future wife, the composer Muriel Parker, at Yaddo, the artists’ colony. Parker came from a family that traced its lineage back to the Mayflower; her parents were not pleased by their daughter’s choice of husband but hosted a wedding, to which he didn’t invite his parents.

As Roth told several interviewers, leaving the Lower East Side as an 8-year-old, when his family moved to Harlem, was the most traumatic event of his life. He went from a place where he felt he belonged — “a virtual Jewish mini-state” — to a neighborhood where he was the outsider, always unwanted, forced to protect himself. He would also say that he might have become a rabbi had he stayed on the Lower East Side. Instead, he promptly lost interest in being Jewish; his Jewishness and his family were burdens. He would ultimately raise his two sons with no religion.

The Six-Day War in 1967 was a watershed. He identified with the Israelis, broke with communism and embraced Zionism, seriously considered making aliyah and began to take his Jewish identity more seriously. Sometimes when people would ask why he didn’t continue writing after “Call It Sleep,” he would say that he had lost his connection to his roots. Indeed, by the time he was writing again, he was again immersed in those roots.

Kellman sees if not a religious, then a mystical side of Roth, throughout his life. “He was never erudite theologically. I think there is a kind of primal religious quest at work there — in the most basic sense, to find order and meaning in a chaotic existence,” he said.

For Kellman, who teaches English at the University of Texas at San Antonio, this is a first attempt at biography. Having taught Roth in different contexts and in different countries, he says he is “always impressed by how people from different backgrounds respond to ‘Call It Sleep.’ I found that among Mexican Americans in Texas and with students in Bulgaria and Georgia, in the former Soviet Union.”

Kellman notes that he was surprised to learn how “unliterary Roth was for much of his life.” Although he traveled in the most sophisticated literary circles in the 1920s and 30s, he barely had a book in his home in Maine in the 40s and 50s. In later years, he’d be asked his opinion of various writers and he’d admit that he hadn’t read them.

Although Kellman had a high degree of access, this was not an authorized biography. He culled through eight cartons of Roth’s journals, letters and manuscripts — housed in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society — and interviewed family members and many others who knew him. Roth had burned many papers, but Kellman did uncover correspondence between Roth and editors of The New Yorker from the 1930s to 1950s. Contrary to the myth that Roth stopped writing altogether, he continued to send stories and revised them as the editors suggested, not always successfully enough to be accepted for publication.

Robert Weil, Roth’s editor for the “Mercy of a Rude Stream” series — not a sequel to “Call It Sleep” but it picks up with another character, Ira Sigman, when the earlier novel left off — and also a devoted friend, had initially suggested Kellman as Roth’s biographer although he did not commission the book. But some years later, after some publishing shuffles, he took on the project. He’s also a player in the book, as he first met Roth in 1993, published the first volume in 1994, and then urged him to apprise his sister of the contents of volume two.

“There’s no way that he could have written those books and not discussed the intense psychic demons that tortured him for 60 years,” Weil said.

Rose Broder was in touch with this reporter when the book was about to come out, saying that it was all untrue, that she couldn’t understand how her brother, to whom she had been so devoted, would spread these terrible lies. She said that she was the one who typed the manuscript of “Call It Sleep,” and she had helped to get the book recognized again after it went out of print. Kellman reports that after their father’s death, Herman Broder left his son $1 and the rest of his estate to Rose; she then split what she received with him.

She pleaded with her brother not to publish that material, but he did, later stating that the incest in real life didn’t occur as much as in the novel, and paying his sister a settlement of $10,000. Weil has no doubts about the question of incest, but for this writer, it’s hard to forget Rose’s voice.

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for The Jewish Week.

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.

 

A Smile Can Be Key to Temple Security


Will you feel safe going to synagogue this New Year?

The High Holidays bring a special dilemma to American congregations. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur attract more Jews to synagogue — and more attention to American Jews in general — than at any other time of year.

The very prominence of this intensive Jewish season raises significant security concerns for clergy and lay leaders responsible for the safety of their members and guests. Yet the New Year is the single best opportunity to engage and welcome both new and returning members of the congregation.

Can synagogues protect and serve?

For 10 years, Synagogue 2000, a transdenominational project to envision the synagogue of the 21st century, worked with some 100 synagogues across America to re-imagine congregations as sacred, welcoming communities. Beginning this year, Synagogue 3000, its successor, is making that vision of an open tent available to every Jewish spiritual community in the country.

But at a time when virtually all the synagogues in North America have had to install some level of security screening at their front doors, is this welcoming vision realistic, let alone responsible?

We believe that the creation of a welcoming ambience is not only responsible; it is the surest way to keep our communities safe. Remember the origin of the handshake: mutual prevention of violence. Two hands grasping one another cannot wield a sword or a rock.

The reality is that a truly inviting community can be a truly secure community. The question is: how to balance the imperative for hachnasat orchim, the welcoming of guests, with the imperative to protect against strangers who threaten to disrupt these Days of Awe?

These concerns are real. Here in Los Angeles, for example, recent threats against Jewish institutions have made synagogues into high-profile potential targets. The Anti-Defamation League’s September briefing for congregational leaders was at once sobering and reassuring. While we live in an uncertain environment, attendees were told, nevertheless we have the resources and the support to keep our communities as safe as possible.

Still, synagogue leaders were told, “Harden the target.”

So, we have erected guard houses, installed scanners and hired uniformed personnel to check our IDs, search our tallit bags and take our tickets. Running the gauntlet of security is not exactly the kind of “welcome” anyone has in mind.

The very barriers that guard our gates can discourage those taking new and tentative steps toward affiliated synagogue life. What good is praying for the gates of heaven to open, when the gates of the shul are shut?

Consider the steps that many police departments recommend to reduce institutional vulnerability: get involved in your surrounding community, get to know your neighbor and get to know your members. Would that most synagogues knew all of their members.

Let’s be honest. On the High Holidays, we see not only new faces, but also those of the many members who rarely come around during the rest of the year. Nevertheless, a synagogue that installs greeters just outside the security perimeter who offer a smile and a warm “Gut yontif” or “Happy New Year” can create an initial impression of welcome. A follow-up qualifying question to a newcomer can express genuine interest, such as, “Who recommended us to you?” or “What’s your favorite part of the New Year service?”

In Southern California, three of the five most recent hate crimes and terrorist incidents against Jews involved individuals with weapons searching for targets of opportunity. We learn from prison interviews with convicted perpetrators that a synagogue with people greeting one another at the front gate, on the front steps and at the front door is not a target of opportunity. A synagogue whose members care enough to greet one another is a synagogue whose members are its first and most important line of defense against the unusual, the people or vehicles that don’t look quite right, the potential threat.

Savvy synagogue leaders have turned this obstacle into an opportunity. The best congregations have trained their security personnel in the art of greeting. You don’t have to be fluent in Hebrew or even be Jewish to say, “Shanah tovah.” Others deploy volunteers to mitigate delays and other inconveniences caused by security checks.

On Rosh Hashanah 2001, just days after Sept. 11, the Synagogue 2000 team at Temple Israel of Hollywood knew that their congregants would be forced to wait on a sidewalk for up to 15 minutes to go through security screening. They organized a crew of volunteers to “work the line,” offering trays laden with apples and honey to welcome the people to their congregation. Other volunteers brought guitars to pass the time with song.

Ultimately, all members of a sacred community have the responsibility of creating a culture of welcome and safety. Whom does a visitor or a congregant meet when entering a synagogue? A parking attendant, a security person, the custodian, the gift shop volunteer, the front office receptionist, the staff secretaries, the kitchen crew, the caterer, the school office assistant, the religious school teachers, the executive director, the cantor, the rabbi — every one of these people represents the congregation. Every one has the potential to make each interaction with members and guests a positive experience — or not. Everyone must greet and guard.

Perhaps the best way to harden the target is to soften our hearts. All it takes is a smile and a handshake.

Ron Wolfson is president and Shawn Landres is director of research at Synagogue 3000 (

‘Apostle of the Ugly’ Outlasts Nazis, Gets His Due


For 40 years, painter Max Liebermann was the premier artist of Berlin, a cultural icon and pioneer in his native land, and the pride of the Jewish community in Germany.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Liebermann became officially a nonperson — and when he died two years later at the age of 87, the controlled Nazi press ignored his death and accomplishments.

The Skirball Cultural Center, in the most ambitious artistic project in its nine-year history, will present the first American survey of the painter’s life and works in “Max Liebermann: From Realism to Impressionism.”

The exhibit opens Sept. 15 and continues through Jan. 29, 2006, after which it will travel to the Jewish Museum in New York.

Born into a wealthy German Jewish family in 1847, Liebermann spent a lengthy apprenticeship in German art academies and travels to Holland, and scored his initial success with his realist paintings of Dutch peasants and workers, particularly his “Women Plucking Geese” in 1872.

His depictions of life among the poor won praise for their skillful technique, but were denounced by hidebound critics who dubbed him “the apostle of the ugly.”

He followed the next year with “Self-portrait With Kitchen Still Life,” the only one of his many self-portraits in which Liebermann, posing as a kitchen chef, ventured a half-smile.

Keen viewers will spot a kosher seal attached to the chicken on the kitchen table.

In the 1880s, Liebermann started his large collection of French impressionist paintings by Manet, Degas, Renoir and Pissarro. He himself began to experiment with a looser, spontaneous impressionist style, a move denounced as “anti-German” by some critics.

He perfected this style over the next decades, especially in lovely paintings of beach scenes with tennis players, bathers and a pensive portrait of his wife Martha (who committed suicide in Berlin in 1943, after receiving her deportation orders for Theresienstadt).

Liebermann rarely used Jewish themes in his paintings, perhaps discouraged by the reception of his 1879 drawing, “The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple,” debating a group of rabbis. The young Jesus was originally portrayed as a scruffy, unkempt boy with gesticulating hands and a distinctively Semitic nose. The painting elicited howls of outrage that a painter, and a Jew at that, would depict Jesus in such an unflattering manner. As a result of the attacks, Liebermann cleaned up his act by changing the painting to show the young Jesus in a clean white robe and with an “Aryanized” nose.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Liebermann emerged as the leader of the German avant garde as president of the Berlin Secession, which promoted modernist German art rejected by most official museums and galleries, and works by French impressionist and post-impressionist artists. Around this time, he painted “Parrotman at the Amsterdam Zoo,” considered by many as his greatest impressionist work.

With the outbreak of World War I, Liebermann joined in his countrymen’s patriotic fervor, even suggesting in a letter that “war seems to be necessary to curb the excessive materialism of peacetime.”

He contributed for two years to the “Wartime Art Pages,” which featured heroic portraits of the kaiser and advancing German soldiers, but he also sketched the Kishinev pogrom, inscribed, “To my dear Jews.”

With the end of the war, Liebermann again explored new avenues. He became a highly regarded and well-paid portrait artist, whose sitters included Albert Einstein, Richard Strauss and German President Paul von Hindenburg.

At the same time, as the Weimar Republic brought a brief interlude of liberalism to Germany, Liebermann reached the apogee of his influence.

Wrote one historian, “During the Weimar Republic, Liebermann embodied the artistic and intellectual establishment like no other person in Germany.”

However, with advancing age, Liebermann retreated increasingly to his spacious villa in the Berlin suburb of Wansee, growing and painting flower and vegetable beds, and, toward the end of his life, concentrating on intimate family scenes. A 1932 photo shows Liebermann, aged and leaning on a cane, leaving a polling station, with a Hitler poster in the background.

Liebermann hardly fit the image of the bohemian, hard-drinking and loving artist. He was a devoted family man, and, even when painting at a beach, always wore a well-cut suit, tie and hat.

“In my daily habits,” he said, “I am completely bourgeois. I eat, drink, sleep and go for walks with the regularity of a church clock.”

His sober habits yielded some 1,500 paintings, studies and drawings during his long life, of which about one-third disappeared during the Nazi regime and World War II.

In addition, he was a prolific and conscientious correspondent, writing thousands of letters. In one, he characterized himself as “an inveterate Jew, who otherwise feels like a German,” and most of his life he was able to combine and balance the two loyalties.

As late as 1931, he wrote to Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff, “Art knows neither political nor religious boundaries … although I have felt as a German throughout my whole life, my kinship to the Jewish people is no less alive in me.”

But three years later, responding to an appeal for support of a Zionist youth group, Liebermann observed:

“We have only awakened now from the beautiful dream of assimilation…. I am too old to emigrate, but for the Jewish youth there is no salvation but to leave for Palestine, where they can live as a free people.”

Liebermann was “squarely in the tradition of Jews shaped by German culture and language,” who have made enormous contributions to the arts and knowledge, noted Dr. Uri Herscher, president and CEO of the Skirball Center.

Included, he said, are such names as Martin Buber, Einstein, Lion Feuchtwanger, Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka, Otto Klemperer, Gustav Mahler, Jacques Offenbach, Leon Panofsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Kurt Weill.

Senior Curator Barbara Gilbert spent eight years in preparation for the exhibit, researching Liebermann’s life, tracking his works across Europe, and persuading museums and private collectors to lend some 70 paintings and drawings for the Skirball exhibit.

“We are trying to introduce the American public to the art of Max Liebermann, as well as to illustrate the politics of art,” Gilbert said. “Art became quite politicized during Liebermann’s lifetime and he used his position to speak out for the equality and broad inclusiveness of art.”

Underlining the point, museum director Lori Starr observed, “This unprecedented exhibition rediscovers Liebermann and illuminates how he leveraged his artistic talent and position in the Berlin art world to promote social change and campaign tirelessly against censorship, intolerance and injustice at a time when Nazism presented grave dangers.”

Accompanying the exhibit will be a series of concerts, lectures, workshops, family programs, German silent film screenings, courses in drawing and painting, an introductory video and a 220-page catalogue with 150 color images.

For information, call (310) 440-4500, or visit www.skirball.org.

 

Losing Faith


The disengagement plan from Gaza and the northern Shomron communities has not yet begun, and yet, Israelis witness daily TV scenes of right-wing teenagers, mothers with children and yeshiva boys donning orange hats and T-shirts and struggling with young soldiers and policemen as they show common cause with the settlers in Gush Katif — and attempt to break through to stand side-by-side with them.

If all goes as scheduled, this solidarity will not deter the government. The displaced settlers will have to move to new homes that could take at least a year to build. Many will have to start from scratch re-establishing thriving agricultural and economic enterprises. In the meantime, their former homes and gardens will be reduced to rubble, a sight that will be broadcast to them and to the world. There are legitimate concerns over how and how well these settlers will adjust.

But there’s more at stake than the fate of the settlers. Disengagement has become a trauma for the entire religious-Zionist community. Tens of thousands of young people, identifying with the messianic ideals of the settlers, have been drafted to protest the disengagement. They’ve marched against soldiers whom they see as the messengers of an evil government.

“We will overwhelm the soldiers by our numbers,” said Eli, an otherwise gentle engineering student, who perceives as “other” his fellow Israelis, once comrades-in-arms, who have been ordered to stop the penetration of provocateurs into Gaza. “What kind of Jewish army is it that shoots at Jews,” he declared.

The government, of course, insists that it has no plans to shoot at anybody, even if recalcitrant settlers and outside demonstrators have to be removed one by one. But from the standpoint of religious Zionists, how can there be anything but alienation toward a government and army that an entire sector sees as having betrayed it.

What then will be the ideological fallout among religious Zionists?

Influenced by the writings of the late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, and the lightning capture of Gaza, the West Bank and the Sinai peninsula in 1967, many Orthodox Jews interpreted this era as hathalta d’geula, the harbinger of redemption.

A subterranean messianism undoubtedly already had existed in modern Zionism. But the emphasis was primarily on the miracle of statehood, the return of Jewish sovereignty after 2,000 years of the Diaspora. After the Six-Day War, however, many religious Zionists, perceiving themselves as the new pioneers, envisioned messianism almost entirely in terms of settlement of a greater Land of Israel.

“The religious-Zionist movement identified settlement with Zionism, forgetting that the primary definition of Zionism is creating a Jewish home in the Land of Israel,” said Ha’aretz journalist, Yair Sheleg. “It invested all its prestige in the settlements, and the connection to the Land of Israel. Destruction of the settlements is, for many religious Zionists, tantamount to the destruction of the State of Israel.”

For these Zionists, the Gaza withdrawal is, in a fundamental way, closing the door on the Messiah.

“We have heard the flutter of redemption but we have not rushed to receive it,” said Rabbi Yigal Ariel of the Golan Heights enclave of Moshav Nov in an interview in Eretz Aheret, a general-interest magazine that devoted an issue to religious Zionism.

The expressions of despair and disappointment with the State of Israel echo, in some respects, the disillusionment after false messiah Sabbatai Zevi converted to Islam in the 17th century. Zevi’s betrayal brought anguish in its wake, with many Jews giving up on their dreams. Some turned away from Judaism to Islam, or transitioned to an underground messianism. Today, in the wake of a pullout from Gaza, the question is whether religious Zionists will be left with a diminished faith or whether they will abandon Zionism, or whether a latter-day underground messianism will foment among them.

Kook, the intellectual pioneer of religious Zionists, put emphasis on love of all the Jewish people, insisting on tolerance and acceptance of nonreligious pioneers, for he saw them building the physical framework, preparing the way for messianic times. But it is difficult for religious Zionists to perceive today’s post-Zionist, secular left-leaning Israelis, seemingly triumphant in getting the government to evacuate settlers, as harbingers of messianic times. There is fear that today’s religious Zionists, the heirs of Kook’s message of love, are becoming increasingly alienated from mainstream Israeli society.

Knesset member Yossi Beilin of Yahad-Meretz has expressed disappointment at this possible development.

“This is too important a community to lose,” Beilin said.

Signs of this alienation abound.

In Jerusalem’s Kiryat Moshe, a neighborhood stronghold of Rav Kook adherents, there were “fewer Israeli flags flying this Independence Day. Instead, orange banners protesting disengagement from Gush Katif had replaced them,” reported Rina Rosenberg, a psychologist who lives near Kiryat Moshe.

“There is disappointment with the state, and the way the Zionism has developed,” Rosenberg said.

Some religious Zionist rabbis declared that the recital of the Hallel prayer should be suspended. In the past, Hallel symbolized the sanctification of Independence Day, the attribution of religious significance to the establishment of the State of Israel after 2,000 years of dispersion. There are also rabbis who have called upon soldiers to refuse to carry out orders to evacuate settlers. But this is a red line that most religious Zionists will not cross.

The sense of disenfranchisement also derives from a sense of the inadequate Jewishness of the Jewish state.

“It’s about disengagement from all the Land of Israel, from Jerusalem, and from Zionism and all Jewish history,” said Rabbi Yair Kaminetzky.

Kaminetzky, who has lived in Gush Katif for 25 years, sees Israelis today as having lost their Zionist ideals. But more than that, he questions the very Jewishness of the State of Israel, pointing to the imitation of western lifestyle and music associated with the modern city of Tel Aviv, as un-Jewish.

There is much speculation that after disengagement, many religious Zionists will move toward ultra-Orthodoxy. In the early decades of the State of Israel, religious Zionists looked over their right shoulder to the ultra-Orthodox as the “truly religious,” while they looked over their left shoulder to the Labor Zionist pioneers as the “truly Zionist.” With disengagement, and the sense that secular Zionism has lost its ideals, a sector of the religious Zionist movement feels that it might as well give up on Zionism, and return to the old religion that the secular Zionists rebelled against.

This process has already begun. A group of Kook adherents have already turned away from secular study and other expressions of modernity. In the spirit of the ultra-Orthodox community, they are acceding to greater separation between the sexes.

In the coverage by the Israeli magazine Eretz Aheret, journalist Yair Sheleg noted that religious Zionism has lived with many tensions, trying to balance the values of halacha, Zionism and modernism. The movement to haredi sectarianism would deprive Israeli society of an important bridge to its traditional sources. Secular Israelis would lose a partner that shares the common language of modernity.

In the same issue of the magazine, Rabbi Yigal Ariel blamed the religious Zionist movement for bringing about the growing sectarianism.

“We were unable to settle in the hearts of the people, talk the language of Israeli society, and attract Israelis to our approach,” he wrote. “We lived in areas disconnected from the rest of the Jewish people, and talked only to ourselves. The issue of settlement should have been in the interest of all Jews, but it became a sectarian issue.”

There are those, on the other hand, who believe that the religious Zionist community will not give up on the State of Israel or the army. Its identity is far too enmeshed with the nation and its survival.

Former Knesset member Alex Lubotzky, a Hebrew University math professor, believes in disengagement, but bridles at the undemocratic way he feels it was carried out. He says that the liberal elite betrayed the religious Zionists by adopting a triumphal tone rather than one characterized by dialogue and mutual understanding. Yet he doesn’t think religious Zionists will give up on the State of Israel and the army. They will simply become more critical of government, and the elite groups that are running the country: “They will make finer distinctions, not seeing everything the army and government do as holy.”

“Young religious Israelis don’t only define themselves in terms of the territories,” said Hananel Rosenberg, a youth worker. “In contrast to the ultra-Orthodox they see Torah fulfillment as involvement with all of life and society. And there are many, many new expressions of religious life in Israel today. There are the ‘children of the hills’ who have been characterized as extreme, but are often simply anti-bourgeois. There are Hasidic yeshivot, New Age groups. There are those involved in religious dialogue.”

One of the important outlets for idealistic energies is the movement for social justice, the need to bring tikkun olam. The organization Bemaagalay Tzedek, “circles of justice,” took wing a few years ago. Thousands of religious Zionist youth, both from the right and left sectors of the religious community, for example, gathered on the 17th of Tammuz Fast Day to study Jewish sources and hear lectures about the Torah’s vision of social justice, including how people should treat employees, and help the poor and disabled.

Circles of Justice is a lobby fighting the widening economic gap, and society’s failure to prevent the spread of drugs, prostitution and child labor. Alongside kashrut certificates, it has created “social insignias” indicating that a business adheres to minimum wage and fair employment practices, and has access for the disabled. This certification has only begun, but Circles of Justice represents great hope for new directions in Religious Zionism — a reaching out to other Israelis, and reconnecting with them.

Rochelle Furstenberg writes on literary and cultural issues for the Jerusalem Report in Israel and for Hadassah Magazine.

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Add Inclusiveness to Your Seder Table


 

Imagine going to celebrate a hypothetical holiday with Martian relatives on their planet. You don’t know the language, you don’t know the customs, you don’t know the purpose of the holiday. You might cope by seeing yourself as an anthropologist, witnessing the strange rites of the other. Still, even if you care deeply about your Martian family, the experience isn’t going to feel familiar or personally meaningful. Yet if this is your own family, you might want to become more involved.

For non-Jewish partners, even with the best good will, the seder experience can be strange and unfamiliar. Jewish family members prioritize coming together at this time of year. Festive preparations have been made: There’s a feast that includes ritual foods such as matzah and special items on a seder plate. There may be lots of Hebrew reading accompanying the meal. Or perhaps the family gathers but with no apparent religious themes. Each family’s Passover is unique, yet there are some ways to orient and integrate non-Jewish guests and family members.

For one thing, some universal themes are celebrated at the seder. The greens and hard-boiled egg on the seder plate celebrate the renewal and rebirth of spring. The story of the exodus of the Hebrew slaves can be seen as a celebration of freedom and has become a paradigm of liberation for many peoples, including African American slaves and Tibetan Buddhists. Bringing alive these elements of the story can be an invitation to all people to be part of the celebration.

At some seders, people move beyond the traditional Passover text to have conversations applying the seder themes to their own lives. They see themselves as moving through bondage, liberation, wandering in the desert, and seeking the “promised land” in very personal ways and discuss how each guest feels enslaved or stuck in his or her life. They may say, metaphorically, as you cross the Red Sea, what do you want to leave behind? What do you want to take with you? In what ways can you identify with the Jewish people who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years — where are you confused or questioning? What is the “promised land” for you? A new job? More time for yourself? Less clutter in the house?

If we make the Passover story our own we receive the gift of living within a myth that is larger than our individual selves. All people throughout history have experienced the tight, stuck places of Mitzrayim (Egypt). All people want liberation either from addictions, financial stress, health problems or some other issue. The bigger story that we are part of helps normalize our own trials and tribulations. It gives meaning to the grand journey of life. And the big story is much more accessible to non-Jewish beloveds than the very specific rituals of the seder.

If you don’t think all the members of your Passover gathering would want to focus on spiritual insights and sharing, maybe you and your spouse would want to prepare for Passover together by having these conversations. As the years go by, non-Jewish family members may learn to chant the four questions in Hebrew, spill drops of wine for each of the 10 Plagues and hide the middle matzah for the kids. But nothing will supersede the value of being invited to step into the mythic story of Passover as an insider and full participant.

This article is reprinted with permission of juliegberg@yahoo.com.

 

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.

 

Ner Tamid Opens Link to Jewish Past


 

At Congregation Ner Tamid, most members can trace their ancestors back to Eastern Europe and the late 1800s.

Few are aware that 1654 was one of the most significant years in Jewish history — the year that 23 Jews fled the Portuguese Inquisition when they boarded the St. Charles bound for North America. This tiny group stepped onto the shores of New Amsterdam (New York) with the dream that the budding democracy in the new land would end their history of expulsion from countries around the globe.

Rabbi Jerry Danzig of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay (CNT) had a vision of a museum inside the synagogue that would trace the history of Jews in America from 1654 to the present. He, along with his dedicated committee, made that vision a reality in January, when the museum officially opened with a dinner and celebration attended by more than 100 people. From timelines, maps and posters to antique tools, cigar molds and famous original signatures, the exhibit is fascinating, enlightening and inspiring. The displays cover an array of topics that include early immigration, intolerance, trades, humanity and famous Jews in politics, the military, entertainment and sports.

The overriding theme is that Jews had a significant impact on the formation of our young country. Danzig said that it is no accident that Emma Lazarus, a Hebrew scholar and translator, wrote the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, nor that the words embossed on the Liberty Bell come from the Torah. For Danzig, the most important parts of the exhibit are those that demonstrate how Jewish individuals, such as Lazarus; Samuel Gompers, the father of America’s labor unions, and Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine who refused to profit from it or allow it to be patented, changed the character of America.

“Our museum is a panorama of 350 years of Jewish life in America,” Danzig said. “Since the Exodus from Egypt, Jewish life thrives in freedom and the beneficiaries have been the countries in which they resided. We are proud to display the contributions Jews have made over 350 years to the evolution of the American civilization, its politics, literature, science, music, art, education, philosophy. This museum has given our students, as well as many non-Jewish individuals and groups, a new appreciation of our history, contributions and achievements.”

The volunteers who worked with Danzig caught his enthusiasm for the project. They raised nearly $10,000 in donations and gathered many of the pictures, artifacts and visuals from CNT members.

“It was the most unique experience,” said Ellen November, curator of the exhibit. “Creating the displays and studying all the material and artifacts expanded my depth of knowledge of modern-day Jews and about the history of Jewish immigration. It made me even more aware of how much Jews embody the American spirit.”

Danzig has organized numerous events to mark “Celebrate 350.” These events encourage participation by the religious school students, the congregation and the community at large. Since the museum opened, docents have led students, church groups and libraries through the exhibit.

On Sunday, Feb. 20, at 7:30 p.m., CNT will host a program on “What Do We Owe Peter Stuyvesant? 350 Years of Jewish Life in America.” Professor Mark Dollinger, director of the Jewish studies department at San Francisco State University, will address the issues of Jews and federal politics, social welfare reform and Jewish education and identity.

The public is welcome to take a self-guided tour Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Guided tours can be arranged by calling the synagogu. at (310) 377-6986. The address is 5721 Crestridge Road, Rancho Palos Verdes.

 

Foreign Oscar Hope High in Nom Run-up


 

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its Oscar finalists on Jan. 25, millions of Americans will be tuning in to learn who has been nominated for best actor, actress, director and picture.

But in 49 countries around the globe, from Afghanistan to Venezuela, local film buffs will wait anxiously to find out whether their country’s entry has made the cut by placing among the five finalists.

For most foreign movies, an Oscar nominations offers the best chance of attracting an American distributor for screenings in commercial U.S. theaters.

This year, four entries touch closely on the Jewish experience. They are Germany’s “Downfall,” Argentina’s “Lost Embrace,” the Palestinian Authority’s “The Olive Harvest” and Israel’s “Campfire.”

In face-to-face interviews, three directors and one actor commented on the making of the films.

‘Downfall’

“Downfall” recreates the last 10 days of Adolf Hitler and, for an instant, when Swiss actor Bruno Ganz makes his entrance, it feels as if the Führer himself has been reincarnated, such is the resemblance between the two men.

But this is not the ranting, strutting Hitler of 1,000 newsreels and photos. This is a cornered man, holed up in his elaborate Berlin bunker, with sunken eyes and cheeks, trying to hide his uncontrollably shaking hand behind his back.

In the streets above the bunker, Soviet troops, fighting the last die-hard Nazis and Hitler Youth, are reducing the capital city to rubble, block by block.

It is April 20, 1945, Hitler’s 56th birthday, and in a ghastly imitation of a jolly party, his still-loyal followers lift their champagne glasses in a toast.

The mood in the bunker wavers between frenetic fantasy and desperate reality. One moment, Hitler orders his generals to move nonexistent divisions to counterattack the Russian enemy. An hour later, he calmly discusses with his doctor the surest way to blow out his brains.

There are wild drunken parties among the bodyguards, with Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, jitterbugging on a table, counterpoised to a somber Hitler staring at the portrait of his idol, Frederick the Great of Prussia.

Leaders of the short-lived “Thousand Year Reich” drop by to pay their respects or farewells. Dreaded SS chief Heinrich Himmler swears undying fealty to the Führer and then consults an aide whether on meeting Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower for imaginary negotiations he should greet the American general with a Nazi salute or a handshake.

None is more fanatical than Magda Goebbels, wife of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. She brings her six children to the bunker and, declaring that life is not worth living without National Socialism, methodically poisons them one by one.

In appreciation, Hitler confers his own swastika lapel pin on her and she declares herself the happiest woman in all of Germany.

Hitler’s paranoid anti-Semitism is unshaken to the end, and he takes pride that “I have cleansed Germany of the Jewish poison.”

He dictates his political testament to his secretary, concluding that “We owe all our problems to international Jewry.”

While Hitler hates and fears the Jews, he now has nothing but contempt for his Aryan master race. “I won’t shed a tear for the German people,” he declares, “They are to blame [for the defeat].”

Yet, the Hitler of the film is not a lunatic. He knows the fate in store for him if he is caught by the Russians, and he can carry on a fairly normal conversation with Albert Speer, his favorite architect.

“Hitler would not have achieved such power if within his crazy concept there hadn’t been a rational person,” said Ganz, Hitler’s film persona.

Interspersed in “Downfall’s” Wagnerian Twilight of the Gods are small homey touches. In gratitude to the loyal Eva Braun, he marries her in a brief, bureaucratic ceremony, in which both affirm their pure Aryan descent.

Just before the couple retires to commit suicide, Hitler formally thanks the cook for their last, delicious, lunch. And to his young secretary, Traudl Junge, on whose recollection of the last days much of the film is based, he remains mainly a kindly father figure.

Such “normal” touches in a man who laid Europe waste have aroused fears and criticism that the film “humanizes” Hitler, especially among the post-war generations.

Ganz said he had no such concern when he accepted the role.

“The film clearly explains that Hitler was responsible for the deaths of 50 million people, including 6 million Jews, and even young people know of his murderous deeds.”

But Ganz wrestled with himself on whether to play Hitler for other reasons.

“I’ve been given more to playing thoughtful, even melancholy, characters, such as Hamlet and Faust,” the 63-year-old actor said.

“My son and friends advised me not to accept the role. They worried that it would affect me as a human being and that thereafter I would be known just as the man who played Hitler.”

After considerable reading and thinking, Ganz concluded that playing the part was just too big a challenge to pass up, despite the risks.

“Besides everything else, Hitler was an actor who fed off his audience and knew how to play a crowd,” Ganz said. “As an actor myself, I finally told myself, ‘I know how to get into that man.'”

‘Lost Embrace’

If the Nazi era has been endlessly researched and reported, little is known, outside of South America, of Jewish life in Argentina, except when terrorists or vandals strike at the community.

Yet Argentina has the has the seventh-largest Jewish community in the world, predominantly living in Buenos Aires, and it is a welcome sign that the Argentine film industry chose “Lost Embrace” (“El Abrazo Partido”) as the country’s entry in the Oscar stakes.

Written and directed by Daniel Burman, the grandson of Polish Jewish immigrants, the film is set in the Once neighborhood of downtown Buenos Aires.

At one time an all-Jewish enclave, Once, like similar semi-ghettos in New York and Los Angeles some decades ago, is gradually changing with the influx of other minorities and newer immigrants.

Burman, still only 31, grew up in Once and among the dozen films he has directed or produced, has twice before visited the old neighborhood in “Seven Days in Once” and “Waiting for the Messiah.”

“Lost Embrace” is set in a rundown shopping mall, where young Ariel (Daniel Hendler) helps his mother Sonia (Adriana Aizenberg) in her lingerie shop, when he isn’t indulging in some quick sex with the blonde at the Internet hangout or observing the noisy Italian and quiet Korean storekeepers and their families.

Absent is the father, who disappeared one day in 1973 to fight in Israel’s Yom Kippur War, for reasons Ariel’s mother and grandmother refuse to discuss.

In quick-changing segments, we get other glimpses of Jewish life. Mother Sonia dances in an amateur show at the local Teatro Hebraica; the grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, unexpectedly sings an old Yiddish tune; and the neighborhood rabbi announces that he is leaving for Miami.

Life in Once has a certain multiethnic warmth, but what the rather aimless Ariel wants is to get away. Like many other young men in changing and uncertain Argentina, he looks for his ancestral roots and wants to move to Europe.

In the end, when his father returns, Ariel finally gets the answers he’s been seeking and the paternal embrace he has been yearning for.

The problem of “constructing an identity” has long obsessed Burman and he says that “Lost Embrace” embodies that search in Ariel’s seemingly casual daily experiences.

Yet Burman, both of whose parents are lawyers, apparently doesn’t share Ariel’s problem. Sounding like many of his contemporaries in the United States, he says, “I have no hang-ups about my Jewish identity, but it is part of my background.”

Similar to many descendants of Lower East Side residents in New York, or the Fairfax district in Los Angeles, Burman has moved away from Once, has married a non-Jewish woman, but still draws on the Jewish experiences of his youth for creative sustenance.

‘The Olive Harvest’

Last year, there were raised eyebrows and scattered protests, when, under the Academy’s liberal rules, the country of “Palestine” entered the movie “Divine Intervention” for foreign-language film Oscar honors.

No such objection has been raised to “The Olive Harvest,” the current Palestinian candidate and an unorthodox production in many ways.

For one, director-writer Hanna Latif Elias, an Israeli Arab and graduate of the Hebrew University and UCLA, shot the film, in the midst of the intifada, with an all-Arab cast and an all-Jewish Israeli crew.

For another, the picture’s core is a love triangle, and although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looms threateningly in the background, more tension is produced by generational and sibling rivalries among the inhabitants of a rural Arab village in the West Bank.

The villagers earn their livelihood by harvesting olive trees planted in terraces along the gently rolling hills, among them family patriarch Muhamad, his wife Samiah, and their daughter, the beautiful Raeda.

As the film opens, Raeda is scattering rose petals to welcome the return of her childhood friend, Mazen. He has just been released after 15 years in an Israeli prison for setting fire to a new settlement encroaching on the olive groves.

During Mazen’s absence, his younger brother, Taher, has been courting Raeda, but their engagement remains a secret in deference to the tradition that a younger brother cannot marry before the older one.

Given the slow, indirect and nonphysical courting procedures in the village, it takes some time before the rivalry between the brothers breaks out into the open.

The brothers also differ in their political outlook. The impetuous, hot-headed Taher works for the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, tasked with warning of any new Israeli settlement activity.

In contrast to Taher’s militancy, the more sensitive and poetic older brother urges an end to the cycle of violence between Jews and Arabs.

Raeda’s dying father, exercising his absolute paternal authority on the ambivalent Raeda, chooses for her husband the brother most likely to remain in the village and care for the land.

As the wedding party assembles, the enraged losing brother torches a massive, 2,000-year-old tree, which symbolizes the villagers’ connectedness to the land.

“Olive Harvest” is in many ways, a beautiful film, both in the vistas of the biblical landscape and in the sensitive depiction of relationships between husband and wife, parents and daughter, sister and sister, and between the young lovers.

The excellent cast includes veteran actor Muhamad Bacri as the father; Raeda Adon, a Palestinian Julia Roberts, as his daughter; Mazen Saade as the older brother; and Taher Najeeb as the younger one.

Director Elias drew on his own childhood, growing up in an Arab village in the Galilee, for the atmosphere and social norms of the film’s farmers.

“My parents still live in my birthplace and the social life, the relationship between men and women, is the same as it has been for generations,” he said.

The movie has been screened before Jewish audiences in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and Arab audiences in Ramallah, Cairo and Dubai. Reactions have been generally favorable, but with one notable difference.

“The Jewish audiences questioned why the only Israelis shown were rude soldiers at checkpoints, while the Arab viewers complained that there wasn’t enough about Palestinian suffering,” Elias said.

One angry patron in Cairo confronted Elias about using an Israeli crew for the film, to which Elias responded that the highly professional Israelis made him look good.

Yet, the realities of Israeli-Palestinian hostility were never completely absent from Elias’ mind.

“When we were shooting in Ramallah, we needed guards to protect the Israeli crew, and when we filmed at a checkpoint, we had to protect the Arab actors,” he said. A projected scene of a confrontation between settlers and villagers was scuttled for fear of physical violence.

However, Elias sees it as a promising omen that during the filming a romance ignited between an Israeli makeup woman and a Palestinian actor.

“She supported settlements, he didn’t accept Israel’s existence, but once they got to know each other, they realized that the ‘other’ was also a human being,” Elias said.

Financing for the $1 million film came from producer Kamran Elahian, a Silicon Valley-based Iranian American venture capitalist, who said that he has invested some $10 million in Israel’s high-tech industry.

“I liked the idea of a film that portrayed Palestinians as normal persons, instead of suicide bombers,” Elahian said.

‘Campfire’

In “Campfire,” American-born Israeli director Joseph Cedar continues his unblinking exploration into the mindset of the religious Zionists who form the backbone of the settlers’ movement in the West Bank and Gaza.

Cedar, himself an Orthodox Jew who grew up in the same environment as the film’s protagonists, earlier looked at the religious right in the acclaimed “Time of Favor.”

In “Campfire,” which dominated the Israel Oscar awards, the central character is Rachel (Michaela Eshet), an attractive 42-year-old widow with two teenage daughters.

A year after her husband’s death, Rachel is desperate for a communal support network and wants to join the founding group of a future religious settlement in the Samaria region of the West Bank.

Ideologically in tune with the movement, Rachel is taken aback when settler leader Motke doubts that as a single woman she will be acceptable, unless she remarries.

Toward that end, Motke’s wife casts about for suitable candidates. One is a cantor-singer (veteran musical star Yehoram Gaon), the other a friendly 50-year-old bus driver (Moshe Ivgy), who can’t seem to hook up in a lasting relationship with a woman.

Meanwhile, Tami, Rachel’s 15-year-old daughter, hangs out with her friends at B’nai Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement. Amidst the singing and dancing, Tami is sexually molested by some of her nastier comrades at a Lag B’Omer bon fire and then publicly slandered.

What has made “Campfire” such a popular and critical success in Israel is that Cedar, as screenwriter and director, has made his characters no mere ideological mouthpieces, but fallible and struggling human beings.

After “Time of Favor” and “Campfire,” many of Cedar’s former friends from the settlements and B’nai Akiva are now among his more vocal critics, but he denies that his movies are anti-religious.

“All the characters in ‘Campfire’ are religious, some are ‘good’ and some are ‘bad.’ But the critics just see the ‘bad’ ones,” he said.

The Oscars will air live on Feb. 27, at 5 p.m. on ABC. For more information, visit www.oscars.com.

 

Familial Forgiveness


 

The syllabus for my USC general education class includes both Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and Chapters 37-50 of Genesis — the Joseph story or “novella.” These two narratives share themes that commend themselves: forgiveness and reconciliation. Both Prospero and Joseph were set upon by their own brothers and narrowly escaped death. Both protagonists contributed to their victim role — Prospero through neglecting governance and Joseph by insensitive boasting. In the end, though, both forgive those who abused them — enabling their family circle to be repaired and the next generation blessed. Just as Prospero realizes that “the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance,” so, too, does the instinct for reconciliation surge through Joseph.

Just barely, however. And it is in this week’s parsha where Joseph turns the corner. That turn allows him to be a brother and son while also being himself. In effect, that turn enabled us to become the Jewish people who went out of Egypt and returned to Israel. Such turning is not easy, then or now, within a family or within a people.

The stellar moment of Parshat Vayigash comes when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers: “I am Joseph. Does my father yet live?” (Genesis 45:3).

For me, Joseph’s trumpeting of his individual identity within a complex social situation echoes across the millennia: “It is I, Hamlet the Dane.” “Call me Ishmael.” “I am an invisible man.” We know from literature and our own lives how difficult it can be, not only to forgive those who wrong us, but to be both our parents’ child and our own self. American society keeps struggling to strike the right balance between self and other, healthy individualism and civic cohesion. We could do worse than Joseph as a model, precisely because such balancing does not come easy to him.

Upon reflection, it’s clear that being able to forgive requires the stretching of personal borders and the capacity to take a broad view. Ironically, only a secure person or people can manage such a stretch; only a firm hold on one’s own life thread permits that thread’s being woven into a larger tapestry. Through suffering, Joseph has sloughed off his egotism and gained a clear sense of God’s providence. So matured, he reassures his brothers with great sensitivity: “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” He does this while still realistically urging them to “not be quarrelsome on the way” back to their father, Jacob (Genesis 45:4 and 24).

I will not assume that others have as much trouble as I being like the Joseph of Parshat Vayigash. For me, it has not been easy to get beyond familial and other breaches. The struggle continues to transcend resentment for past ills and discern the outlines of a divine plan. On the Jewish level, it can be hard to meet inner needs and participate in community. It is also hard to hold together ahavat Yisrael — the special bond among Jews — with acknowledgment of where we have done wrong, forgiveness of the wrongs that have been done to us and effort to repair the damage and move toward the wholeness that is peace.

All the levels of our lives are linked and require constant tuning. As individuals who belong to families, as American citizens who are members of both the Jewish people and the world order, we have to be able to forgive in order to go forward. From beginning to end, our sacred scripture, the Tanach, records disruption and repair in irregular sequence. Until the Messiah comes, the best we can do is strive toward the enlightenment and clear-sighted resolve displayed by our patriarch Jacob at the end of Chapter 45: “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.”

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Jan. 5, 2001.

Rabbi Susan Laemmle is dean of religious life at USC.

 

Aspirations and Anxiety in America


“The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000” by Hasia Diner (University of California, $29.95)

In the late 1970s, a time when Jews in the United States had arguably achieved more status and social acceptance than in any previous era of their long Diaspora, American Jewish groups began work on a project that culminated in 1993 with the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Mall, of course, is the heart of monumental Washington. It pays tribute to the nation’s most revered icons and heroes. The new museum was a powerful symbol of how thoroughly integrated Jews had become in the fabric of American life and culture. The museum itself was dedicated to the memory of Jewish victims of Nazi fascism. At the very moment that Jews had become an accepted part of the majority culture, they were memorializing their history as a persecuted minority.

The dueling combination of aspiration and anxiety has always characterized the American Jewish experience. But paradoxically, over the past several decades, as Jews have risen to admirable prominence in U.S. society, victimization has become ever more central to American Jewish identity. Even as the last vestiges of anti-Semitic barriers were removed and the vast majority of Jews achieved comfortable, upper-middle-class lives, the Holocaust was elevated to iconic status. The struggle against oppression and discrimination remained at the core of the American Jewish narrative.

But unlike in Europe, where they had long been the quintessential “other,” Jews were never the paradigmatic outsiders in America. While they were at times stigmatized for not being Christian, Jews were nonetheless white people in a nation whose social hierarchy was based on race, not religion. Although some may have questioned Jews’ claim to whiteness, no movement in the United States ever sought to strip them of their citizenship, nor deny them the political rights — voting, holding office and serving on juries — to which white men were entitled. In other words, the discrimination that Jews did face was never comparable to that experienced at various times by blacks, Chinese and other nonwhite groups. Indeed, since the Colonial era, the religious and ethnic tolerance of America has been a relief to the many Jews who’ve arrived on these shores.

In her book, “The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000,” Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish History at New York University, seeks to recast history in light of that fundamental fact. Without ignoring the significant anti-Semitic episodes that did occur nor disavowing the real sense of vulnerability that Jews have often felt, she nonetheless attempts to balance the realities of prejudice and progress. She chronicles Jewish life in America since the first Sephardic refugees arrived in New York City from Brazil in 1654. She explains how both the fluid nature of American identity and the pragmatism at the core of American culture worked to the benefit of Jews. In the 17th century, the relative tolerance Jews enjoyed stemmed from their usefulness to the colonial enterprise. As Diner writes, “trade made the colonies, and Jews made trade.”

Under European colonial rule, Jews did not enjoy full political rights, but from their earliest days of settlement in America Jews sought relief from the highest seats of power. Indeed, their refusal to accept America as it was is what distinguishes the Jewish experience from so many others.

When Peter Stuyvesant sought to exclude the first Jewish refugees from the colony for fear they would destroy its Christian character, the settlers appealed to the Jews of old Amsterdam to intercede on their behalf to the Dutch West India Company. By the time of American Independence, a handful of Jewish merchants had amassed huge fortunes and become pillars of society. Some, like Haym Salomon, who has been called the “financier of the American Revolution,” utilized their trade connections on behalf the colonies’ struggle for independence. The Constitution, which framed America as a society built on individual entitlement rather than on corporate identity, created a “Jewish comfort zone.”

From 1820 to 1920, millions of Jews, primarily from Russian and Eastern Europe, migrated to America. Their growing numbers brought greater confidence and communal diversity. They also drew greater resistance from society at large. By the 1880s, a racialized view of Jews had emerged and some rights were compromised. Jews were refused entry into luxury hotels and denied access to jobs at some elite universities and law firms. At the same time, however, their political rights remained unchallenged. Indeed, their political influence only grew. As anti-Semitic rhetoric rose, greater numbers of Jews entered the political arena. Indeed, political participation, along with philanthropy and programs for self-improvement, were part of a broader effort at Jewish self-defense. As Diner writes, Jews “believed that if they met with the right officials, showed their deep patriotism as Americans and behaved respectably, they could prevail.”

And they did. Even at the peak of American anti-Semitism from the 1920s to the 1940s, Jews progressed. Elite colleges imposed quotas on Jewish students, and affluent neighborhoods sometimes imposed restrictive covenants to prevent Jews from buying homes. But there is nonetheless little indication that these restrictions hampered Jewish mobility. Furthermore, they were also an indication of Jewish ascendance in American society. By the mid-1940s, the majority of Jews were white-collar workers. In terms of education and income, they “far outpaced” the children and grandchildren of other European immigrants. In the postwar years, Jews could afford to suburbanize more than most other Americans. As of 1953, one-sixth of American Jews had graduated from college, compared to one-20th of the population at large.

Even as they moved out of their ethnic urban enclaves, Jews tended to cluster in suburbs that had a strong Jewish presence. Their choice to live with other Jews was driven by preference rather than anti-Semitism. Unmoored from the neighborhood bakeries, bookstores and delicatessens that once defined Jewish life in the city, suburbanites had to redefine what it meant to be Jewish. Suddenly, American Jews, who had been observing fewer and fewer aspects of Jewish ritual, returned to synagogues as the locus of their religious and ethnic identities. The postwar years saw a remarkable explosion in synagogue construction. Between 1945 and 1950, American Jews spent upwards of $500 million erecting new religious buildings. More Jews were affiliated with synagogues than at any other time since mass migration began in the early 19th century.

By the last quarter of the 20th century, no fields of endeavor denied access to Jews. That Jews were prominent in nearly every sector of American life was no longer a subject of much discussion. Indeed, this very diffusion of Jews into all aspects of American society challenged Jewish identity. For many, Jewishness no longer determined “with whom they socialized, whom they married, where they resided, or how they spent their leisure time.” To be Jewish increasingly became a matter of choice. As a result, many of the organizations that had been founded to defend Jews began to spend more energy on preserving Jewish culture and identity in America.

Diner pays particular attention to the ebbs and flows of Jewish identity throughout American history. Just as Jews never felt obliged to accept America as they found it, neither were they afraid to reinterpret Jewish identity to fit the times. “The Jews of the United States” is both balanced and comprehensive. For that reason, however, it is not Diner’s finest work. The sweeping format prohibits her from injecting the texture of the Jewish experience into her interpretation.

While solid and authoritative, “The Jews of the United States” lacks the intimacy and detail that characterized two of Diner’s previous books, “In the Almost Promised Land” and “Hungering for America.”

Still, Diner’s willingness to take on some of the shibboleths of the popular American Jewish narrative is welcome. Indeed, it is what keeps this book from being just another history textbook.

Gregory Rodriguez is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Heeb Teens Get Zine of Their Own


 

For years, young Jews have voted with their feet after their bar or bat mitzvahs, with about half of those in non-Orthodox synagogues’ religious schools leaving before the 12th-grade confirmation.

Some synagogue schools are starting new, nontraditional programs to bring teenagers back to tradition, but one media company thinks all they need is a good magazine.

Despite declining Jewish ties among young Jews and the financial risks of magazine startups, Jewish Family & Life Media, a nonprofit organization based in Newton, Mass., is launching a print version of its Web site JVibe, which is aimed at Jewish teenagers between 13 and 16 years old.

“JVibe is supposed to help kids maintain a Jewish connection with the community, post-bar mitzvah, through pop culture, by weaving in Jewish values and morals,” said Stewart Bromberg, the group’s director of development.

Slightly more than a year ago, Jewish Family got a $125,000 grant from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund of San Francisco to do market research on these teenagers to figure out what they thought about JVibe. The same fund gave $75,000 to help bankroll JVibe in the heady dot-com days of 1998.

At a time when teens hardly are considered People of the Book, a series of focus groups conducted over the past year revealed a surprise.

“What came out is that they wanted a magazine, something portable so they could share it with friends, read it on the bus or in bed at night,” Bromberg said.

That comes as other publications backed with private money or public funding have struggled to find an audience.

In the late 1990s, the San Francisco-based magazine, Davka, which featured Jews with tattoos, provocative articles and beat poetry, folded after a few issues — though it did give birth to the term “Generation J” to describe young, alienated Jews.

A more recent survivor is Heeb, a magazine aimed at hipster Jews in their 20s and 30s — though its circulation has been less impressive than the media coverage it received.

Now a group of young Jewish philanthropists in Los Angeles, the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund, has awarded Jewish Family $125,000 to redesign JVibe’s Web site and launch a print version as a pilot program. The Web site currently attracts 20,000 to 25,000 visitors a month, but Bromberg said the new online version will be linked thematically to the magazine. The magazine will include advertising and features such as a CD-ordering club.

In the eyes of Jewish teens, the ads “legitimize” the publication, he said.

The 32-page JVibe magazine hopes to reach 20,000 teens in its initial print run, with several hundred free subscriptions to youths in the Los Angeles area, Bromberg said.

The plan is to publish six times per year, with updates and added features going online, he said.

Planned content includes a celebrity column about Jewish pop guitarist Evan Taubenfeld, who plays with Canadian pop star Avril Lavigne; what movies to watch after a break-up; and a teen philanthropy page sponsored by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.

JVibe “seeks to create relevant and entertaining content that inspires a connection between Jewish teens and the Jewish community,” Bromberg said.

Shabbat in Jerusalem


Friday in Israel is not really a work day, but a semi-holiday. Friday is not a holy day, but it has a special flavor because it is when we finalize our Shabbat preparations.

I used to live on a gorgeous street in Jerusalem, Rehov Caspi. The street boasts a view of the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, the Jordan Valley and the hills of Jordan, a mere 30 miles away. The street is perched above a hillside park called The Promenade, which also faces the Old City. A short two-block walk away is Derech Beit Lechem, a street full of small shops. This neighborhood is abuzz on Fridays.

I was privileged to be one of only two women who were welcome at "The Parliament," a group of 10 or so men who meet every Friday morning at 7 a.m. in Yonotan’s lighting store. The men are both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and are mostly in their 60s and 70s. The elder parliamentarians are mostly from Eastern Europe and are old enough to be considered heroes of the War of Independence. One of the exciting aspects of living in contemporary Israel is that the founders of the country are still walking around.

During the meeting, Yonotan served small glasses of his special tea (black tea with sugar and fresh herbs), along with cheese borekas, olives and cucumbers. It’s a guy’s yackfest and I always felt like the proverbial fly on the wall. The conversations were lively, good-natured, where traditional morality prevailed while spanning the religious and political spectrums.

By 8:30 a.m. we’d all disperse for leisurely Shabbat shopping. Israelis, many of whom have survived the Holocaust or the siege of Jerusalem, will stock up on Friday as if the stores may not open for a week or more.

Hospitality is the rule and guests are considered a blessing. I never lacked invitations for Shabbat dinners and lunches as a single person, but I also loved hosting.

The small specialized stores of Derech Bet Lechem made shopping slower, but more fun and personal. The butchers subtly gave their approval when you purchased expensive cuts. Likewise, the baker let you know your good luck and good taste when buying the last box of date nut cookies and a sesame challah. The vegetable seller, a swarthy Sephardi, maintains a high testosterone environment and lots of photographs of ancient rabbis. Until you’ve tasted Israeli tomatoes and cucumbers, you simply do not know what the flavor should be.

Sundries and dairy products are purchased in the makolet, a small neighborhood market. This proprietor, Moshe, I saw more often than most of my friends. I cried with him when his mother died, and he cried with me when I had to move back to the United States. He gave me a bizarre blessing once, "Shabbat Achla!" The second word is "good" in Arabic.

Once the shopping was finished, I’d probably run into a neighbor and stop at a sidewalk cafe for a coffee. It’s not that I needed to drink anything after all the tea at Yonotan’s, but it was an excuse to sit and talk more.

Finally, I’d head home, shlepping my bags of whatever, and start chopping vegetable for salad, whipping up unbelievably rich tehina dip and boiling some soup. On Fridays, even the rock music stations help get you in the mood for Shabbat by switching their programming to shirim yafim, the beautiful songs from the early days of the state. The songs are sentimental and patriotic, and help you to slow down and appreciate Israel; that Israel actually exists.

In between preparing food, I’d set the table with a cloth only used on Shabbat and my strange but beautiful mismatched set of meat dishes. Each plate and bowl has a different Japanese pattern; but all being blue and white, they work together. I’d do any last-minute cleaning and straightening.

Once in a while, if I was very organized, I’d have the time for a tub bath, a real luxury because of water shortages, and an indulgence I permitted myself only for Shabbat. I have a special perfume, which I only use on Shabbats and holidays: Joy from France. Also, I have a special nightgown that I only wear on Shabbat, so that when I wake up, I know without a doubt what day it is.

When the guests would arrive, I’d have them leave their street shoes near the door and give them house shoes. It’s a custom I learned in Russia and Asia, which not only keeps the street filth out but puts most people at ease and makes them feel more at home.

What with the various blessings, many courses of the meal, the songs, and the Torah discussion, the Shabbat dinner usually runs at least two hours. Finally the well-fed guests waddle off and I put my feet up and began the long Shabbat rest.

What a glorious life. If you haven’t celebrated a Shabbat, give it a try. You may find, as I have, that it becomes the axis of your week.

Shabbat shalom!

Laurel Sternberg is a muralist who lives in Dana Point.

Pro-Life, Pro Choice, Pro-Healing


I was a teenage pro-choice fanatic.

My car’s license plate read CHOICE 8. Apparently, I shared my enthusiasm with at least seven other people in Illinois. But life’s wisdom comes slowly. Once, when a neighbor three times my age told me she agreed that abortion should be legal, I didn’t miss a beat: "I can’t believe those pro-lifers. It’s not even a baby! It’s a blob of tissue that is totally dependent on the woman’s body."

I will never forget the pain in her eyes when she responded quietly, "Lamelle, I was pregnant once and I had a miscarriage. And let me tell you, it was a baby."

I knew immediately that I had made a dreadful mistake, but it took me 10 years to figure out what it was: I had confused being pro-choice with being hostile toward pregnancy. The kind of woman that I was busy fighting for did not want to be pregnant. I wanted to protect her right to make decisions about her body. I hadn’t yet realized that caring about women in this way and caring about unborn babies were not mutually exclusive.

My understanding began to evolve in college, when I chose abortion as the topic for my senior thesis. As I compared the ways in which pro-choice and pro-life advocates approach the issue, I was troubled. Pro-life "crisis pregnancy centers" appeal to women facing unplanned pregnancies, offering help and support (often masking their pro-life stance). But clinics offering abortion services as part of a gamut of reproductive health care fail to market their help and support as aggressively as their pro-life counterparts. Why? I began to realize that the political climate had backed pro-choicers against a wall: They were so busy defending the right to choose, protecting clinics besieged by protesters and the occasional murderous pro-lifer, that little space was left on the agenda for responding to the trauma of unplanned pregnancy.

I began to feel alienated from the mainstream pro-choice movement, as much as I endorsed its political goals. I began to wonder whether I needed a new framework for understanding the issue.

That framework came a few years later, after I experienced my own early pregnancy loss.

At six weeks, the embryo that left my body was a tiny "blob of tissue," the phrase I had once used when debating pro-lifers. But this little one was so much more — I had talked to it, imagined it growing, developing, moving, being born. I had loved it as someone separate from and yet a part of me. Its untimely exit flooded me with shock, disbelief, bitterness and anger. I was angry with my body, angry with God and had never felt so alone. I’d barely had time to revel in being pregnant. How could it be over? Was this all a bad dream?

Slowly, the numbness receded. I immersed myself in the outpouring of love I received from my husband and close friends. A few friends created a healing circle; we sat in candlelight one evening as I shared my pain and received their blessings and prayers for healing. The anger I had directed at my body melted away, and I was left with gratitude — my body had been taking care of me, after all; the embryo I had briefly hosted would never have developed into a healthy baby. The anger I had directed at God gave way to an understanding that God shared my grief.

The bitter edge softened each day. My mother-in-law cried with me on the phone. Precious friends left flowers and a comforting note, while others brought food. I went to the mikvah. I noticed that talking about the miscarriage was therapeutic. As I talked with more women, a theme emerged: Many, many women have early miscarriages, but very few choose to talk about it. When it happens, we feel alone and afraid, despite the fact that early miscarriage is often a totally normal part of reproduction.

I realized that my own initial reluctance to talk about my experience stemmed from my discomfort with the words I was choosing to describe it. I found myself reclaiming words that I had previously labeled as part of the pro-life lexicon. Was the "life" that had been growing inside me a "baby?" Could I have really become so attached so quickly? Now in her 70s, my aunt was one who shared her own miscarriage story with me. At the end of our phone call, her parting words were, "I’m so sorry about the baby."

Those simple words resonated, and I felt my heart beginning to mend. Of course, there are still moments of pain — I’m told that getting pregnant again is the only remedy for that, and I hope to find out.

Perhaps the pro-choice movement is reluctant to break the language barrier and use pro-life words out of fear that the opposition will turn their words against them. Perhaps they struggle with simplifying a complex issue into soundbites and slogans. But I am tired of slogans, and I am tired of ceding the language of life to those who want to outlaw abortion. Pro-life slogans fall flat in the face of a 20-year-old California woman who recently bled to death from a botched abortion because she was too ashamed to ask for help. Pro-choice slogans feel hollow at the bedside of babies in the neonatal intensive care unit where I volunteer. Many of the babies are but a few days older than fetuses that are routinely aborted. Moving beyond slogans, I am searching for alternative ways to think about abortion that encompass both my experiences as an activist and as a mom-to-be.

Where do we turn in order to make sense of this miserably complex issue? For me, any moral question — and abortion surely is a moral question — is by its very nature a religious question. So I have turned to Judaism for an answer.

When delving into the abortion issue in a Jewish context, many of us first examine traditional halachic (legal) sources. We may note that within the framework of Jewish law, abortion to save the life of a woman is not only permissible, but required. While anything but monolithic (this is Judaism, after all!), modern rabbinic decisions emphasize the psychological as well as the physical aspects of the decision.

But there is more to the abortion question than whether it is legal according to Jewish law or the laws of the United States. The abortion issue rests at the fulcrum of the balance between life and death, situated deep within the sacred space of the womb. Looking at abortion through a Jewish lens requires that we probe our tradition’s fundamental orientation toward matters of life and death. As we probe, our guiding principle is compassion, rachamim, linguistically linked to the word for womb, rechem.

In the broadest sense, it is clear that Judaism is a life-loving religion. We are virtually obsessed with affirming the sanctity of life. Our sages were passionate about saving lives: The Talmud says in tractate Sanhedrin that saving one life is the equivalent of saving the entire world. Our holiday calendar celebrates the life’s renewal, from the opportunity for repentance and rebirth during the Days of Awe to the lights of Chanukah in the dark of winter to the redemptive narrative of Pesach. Our historical narrative, from the Exodus from Egypt to the Shoah to the challenges faced by the State of Israel today, is a story of our love for life and our grief and outrage at the destruction of the innocent.

As Jews, then, we have cause for ambivalence when it comes to elective abortion. We who celebrate pregnancy and the beginning of life with so much joy cannot hold that it is trivial to end a pregnancy. In a 1995 article in the New Republic, Naomi Wolf (who is both Jewish and pro-choice) wrote that we often fail to acknowledge "the death of the fetus" during an abortion. Many women who choose abortion are not given support to grieve. It is assumed that there is no loss to mourn. Wolf says: "Abortion should be legal; it is sometimes even necessary. Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die. But it is never right or necessary to minimize the value of the lives involved or the sacrifice incurred in letting them go."

In other words, by steering clear of the meaning of the act itself and focusing exclusively on concepts like the "freedom to choose," the mainstream pro-choice movement falls short of the Jewish ideal. Our life-loving religious tradition understands that the cycle of life is punctuated by joys and sorrows, by exhilaration and grief. We care as much about comforting the mourner as we do about celebrating with the bride and groom. Judaism recognizes the wholeness of life and gives us the tools to embrace it while accepting its challenging moments. To envision abortion in a Jewish context is to understand abortion as a heartbreaking choice.

Our next step is to figure out how to respond to heartbreak with rachamim. No one wants to experience an unwanted pregnancy. No one delights in ending fetal life. Acknowledging that many women (though perhaps not all) experience abortion as a heartbreaking choice spurs us to validate the complexity of a woman’s experience and implores us to aid in her healing. Most important, Judaism offers a loving God, HaRachaman, to console her.

A number of resources have emerged for women and men who want to explore Jewish perspectives on fetal death, including abortion and miscarriage. "Seeds of Sorrow, Tears of Hope" by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin is an invaluable resource for anyone struggling with miscarriage and infertility. Many of its suggested new rituals for healing can be adapted for abortion, as well. Fortunately, "Talking to God" by Rabbi Naomi Levy provides a model of a tender prayer to be said following an abortion.

Perhaps the most powerful (and underutilized) source of healing for Jewish women is the mikvah. Those of us who visit the mikvah on a monthly basis can attest to its healing nature. The laws of niddah require abstinence from sexual relations during one’s period and for seven days after, followed by immersion in the mikvah. Observant feminists have long theorized that the origin of this mitzvah may be connected with the loss of potential life that occurs with each menstrual cycle. If so, this practice, in which we are commanded to ritually enact rebirth and renewal, may be Judaism’s most overt commentary on pregnancy loss or termination. For those who have chosen abortion — as well as for those who have experienced childbirth, miscarriage or, simply, the loss of the chance to create a new life this month — the living waters of the mikvah, symbolizing the womb of God, are ready and waiting.

Dr. Rachel Remen writes that each person’s healing process is as different as a fingerprint. An embryo that has been in a womb for three weeks can be the bearer of infinite promise and possibility or it can be just another heavy period. One woman’s mind-numbing loss is the answer to another woman’s prayers. Because the realm of reproductive health is so intensely personal and case specific, we must protect the legality of abortion while striving to prevent unwanted pregnancies. (Judaism’s emphasis on sexual relations in the context of marriage provides some guidance on the latter point!)

The future of access to safe and legal abortion in the United States is far from certain. Who wants to return to the bad old days when abortion was a crime and women died from back-alley and self-induced abortions? On April 25, thousands will converge on Washington, D.C., for the March for Women’s Lives. They will call for protecting the legality of abortion here in the United States and decry U.S. policies that inhibit women’s access to basic reproductive care (including prenatal care) in countries receiving U.S. foreign aid. Hopefully, the March will raise awareness of the direness of the current political climate surrounding women’s reproductive rights.

As Jews, many of us find ourselves straddling the line: We believe that abortion should be legal, but we also know it to be a complex moral issue that belies simple answers. But all of us — even those Jews who may self-define as emphatically pro-choice or pro-life — should strive to accept the ambiguity and the uncertainty inherent in the abortion issue. Most important, as we raise our voices about the legality of abortion, we must reach out to those who make this heartbreaking choice, offering our rachamim and prayers for healing.


Lamelle Ryman is completing post-baccalaureate studies in science with the goal of one day becoming an ob/gyn-midwife.

Your Letters


Schindler vs. Mel

It was extremely gratifying to read the editorials on the movie “Schindler’s List” in this week’s issue (“Schindler’s Impact” and “Celebrating 10 Years of ‘Schindler’s List,'” March 12). I was especially impressed by Tom Teicholz’s experiences in the Ukraine, and the tearful reactions of some who had just seen the movie. Considering the degree of anti-Semitism in that part of Europe, it was especially encouraging.

Now we have Mel Gibson and his “The Passion of the Christ.” I wonder what people will be saying about it 10 years from now. I especially wonder if much of the understanding and positive effects of “Schindler” will be undone by the “Passion.” What will be the effect on young people who saw the latter film?

It was Gibson’s right to make his movie as he saw fit. It was also his responsibility to think to what consequences may have resulted from his work. Steven Spielberg’s message was one of understanding. Gibson’s message could well be interpreted as one of hate. Only time will tell which message is the stronger. If history proves to be the example, we already know the answer.

Elliott M. Brumer, North Hills

‘The Passion’

I am Jewish and I went to see Mel Gibson’s movie that has made some Jews (who have not seen it) nervous, “The Passion of the Christ.” If Gibson were Jewish, some people would be describing this movie as a “pro-Jewish propaganda.” This movie is definitely not anti-Semitic. This movie is good for Jewish-Christian relations. Jews should be its biggest supporters.

The movie shows the Roman governor Pontius Pilate as the person who made the decision as to what should be done with Jesus, and that his decision was made based on his assessment as to which would be most likely to result in a rebellion, antagonizing Jesus’ Jewish supporters or antagonizing Jesus’ Jewish enemies.

The movie shows a great deal of pain and torture inflicted on Jesus, but by a group of sadistic Roman soldiers under the command of Pontius Pilate.

If enough people see this movie, the claim of group responsibility of Jews will be a historic oddity. Jews who stay away will be maximizing the effects of past anti-Semitism and wasting the potential for a new, positive era in Jewish-Christian relations to arise from this film.

Dan Persoff, Reseda

Culture War

Excellent editorial (“My Culture War,” March 12). Although I am not a Howard Stern fan, and I am a Mel Gibson/”The Passion of the Christ” fan, you do make great points about free speech. Let the audience have selective choice.

However, how does society present a way to allow audiences to make choices/selections of what kind of media entertainment they want to hear or watch without exposing children and teens or others to negative, violent or pornographic material? I ask you and your readers to think about this. Think about inventing ways to control free selection of media choice. Whoever invents this will either be labeled as “Big Brother” or will be even richer than 50 Cent or Howard Stern. My patent application is already in the mail.

Bill Hodges, Santa Clara

The Hague

Reading Rabbi Avi Weiss’ account of the demonstrations at The Hague regarding the wall Israel is building should give all of us concern (“Bearing Witness at The Hague,” March 5). Again, as it is often the case these days, we are on the defensive.

We are on the defensive because we are distorting the facts. The Arab complaint against us is not that we are building a wall! The complaint in front of the court is that we are taking about 17 percent (estimates vary) of West Bank territory as we build such a wall.

Why can’t we build the wall along the Green Line? [Benjamin] Netanyahu and others claim that it’s not defensible. But the Green Line was defensible from 1948 until 1967! Are we weaker militarily then we were in 1948?

Irwin Grossman, Los Angeles

John Kerry

I noticed your article several weeks ago that the support for John Kerry was getting soft and your article about Bush with the Jewish Republican Coalition (“Local Kerry Support Shows Softness,” Feb. 27). I have only one question: When will you have an article about the Jewish Democratic Coalition and Jewish people who are supporting Kerry? It is very important that The Journal attempts to be viewed as balanced and fair. I’m looking forward to it. Thanks!

Marcia Albert, Los Angeles

JCC Shutdown

Thank you for the enlightening articles about the impending closures of the Valley Cities and Silverlake JCCs (“Valley Cities JCC Slated to Shut Down,” March 12).

For many years my family participated in activities at the Westside JCC; we felt we were part of the Jewish community. No more.

Two years ago, I was at a meeting at the Westside JCC when The Jewish Federation assured us that it would continue to support the Westside JCC if the members could raise a certain amount of money by a certain date. They did. But, even so, The Jewish Federation abandoned the Westside JCC.

As a result, my grandchildren identify less and less with the Jewish community. And my family and many friends no longer respond to The Jewish Federation when it appeals for our contributions. Instead, we donate to more worthy charities, such as the Irene Epstein Memorial Scholarship fund that helps financially needy, academically deserving seniors at Fairfax High School go to college.

George Epstein, Los Angeles

Interfaith Couples

In her article “Keeping Jews in the Flock,” (March 5), Loolwa Khazzom argues that interfaith relationships bring Jews closer to the Jewish tradition and therefore one should embrace those couples. She supports her argument claiming that her friend Rebecca, a secular Jew, after marrying Jamal, a devoted Muslim man, began celebrating Shabbat, attending Orthodox services and is moving toward keeping kosher.

Many communities in Los Angeles accept interfaith married couples into their midst. Nevertheless, one cannot impose on communities who wish not to do so without what they see as proper conversion, to surrender their principles in favor of certain individuals. Do communities have to shape their ideologies to those who choose to practice Judaism in a way different from theirs? I think not. Societies or religious communities thrive because they adhere to their principles rather than cater to the individual. It is not a matter of Jewish communities not wanting to accept those who have managed to find love, respect and laughter outside Judaism. But just as interfaith couples wish that their feelings and sensitivities should be respected, they, too, must learn to respect those communities who do not agree with their way of life.

Danny Bental , Tarzana

Health Care

State Sen. Sheila Kuehl is to be commended for trying to lead us to the promised land of universal health-care coverage (“Bill Seeks to Cure Health-Care Plague,” March 12). But just as God and Moses found that the Israelites were too accustomed to Egypt (they complained about being set free to starve in the wilderness), we will have to wait for a new generation for a different system to work. As a medical director of a health plan, I’m sure I represent Pharaoh in this story but the enslaving administrative costs that the senator condemns are necessary to prevent unlimited use of the expensive medications, procedures and hospitalizations.

Just as God waited 40 years for a new generation ready to enter the Promised Land, it may take a new generation of providers willing to adhere to practices that have been shown to be effective and of patients willing to improve their health habits. Even if her estimates of 25 percent to 27 percent of administrative costs are true, it is eclipsed by the 50 percent of estimated health-care costs attributable to lifestyle choices of overeating, smoking, excessive drinking and sedentary activity. Even 40 years of wandering in the desert won’t produce the attitude changes required for Kuehl’s proposal to work.

Dr. Gil Solomon, West Hills

Viva Vashti

I am not a writer or a philosopher, I am a Jew who has read Jane Ulman’s article, “Viva Vashti” (March 5). Was this article a Purim shtick? I hope so. Ulman deliberately missed out the central part of Purim and that is of Esther and Mordechai. The Megillah is called Megilat Esther, because it was through her, through her self-sacrifice and her determination that the Jews were saved.

When I celebrate this most joyous of all holidays with my children, I explain to them the difference between the Jews and the other nations, how Mordechai respected Esther, how he cared for her every move, and in contrast, how Ahasheverosh and Haman and their entourage respected their women (Haman was willing to risk his job to advise Ahashevrosh to kill Vashti).

Ulman has left out the most important part of the Megilah: When Esther speaks up, and how she tells Mordechai that she will risk her life to go to the king uninvited, to defend her people. The Megillah then tells us many times how Esther actually goes to the king and speaks up for her nation.

After reading Ulman’s article, I have concluded two scenarios. One, she is a self-hating Jew that cannot tolerate to see other Jews celebrating their victories, their miracles that God sent onto them. The other scenario is that she fulfills one mitzvah of Purim, and that is to drink until she does not know any difference. I am afraid that both are true.

Zalman Solomon, Los Angeles

Cherish and Respect

In reference to “Cherish and Respect” (Feb. 13) Rabbi Haim Ovadia says that Shabbat is a gift to us from God. Humans need lots of attention and companionship, especially young children. After school our children are shlepped to music or karate or whatever. In the evening the older kids lock themselves in their rooms with the phone to call friends and do homework. As for the younger children, either we’re too busy or too tired for them.

Then there is Shabbat. I don’t cook or shop or talk on the phone. I don’t use the computer and I don’t drive anywhere or watch TV. So, what’s left to do? Happily and importantly I give my children and my grandchildren undivided attention. We play games, take walks or just sit and look at each other and talk. Children have a lot to say and they have many questions.

As simple as that may seem, it is the most precious gift you can give your children. The positive repercussions this causes will effect your children and family for the rest of their lives. Not to mention the happy moments you will derive, which will add up to many unforgettable memories.

Miriam Fiber, Director Maohr Hatorah Preschool Santa Monica

In Search of My Sephardic Ancestors


“Last Century of a Sephardic Community: The Jews of Monastir, 1839-1943,” by Mark Cohen (Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, $34.95).

Some months ago, I saw a Jewish homeless man near my New York apartment. He was wearing a yarmulke and muttering Hebrew words, and I think I saw a tattered prayer book in his shopping cart. Perhaps, I thought, the Upper West Side has officially become a Jewish town.

I have always been drawn to study Jewish towns and communities, a fascination that spurred me, professionally, toward the Yiddish culture of my paternal family. To my thinking, a real Jewish town — like prewar Vilna or Warsaw or even the turn-of-the-century Lower East Side — was one in which everyone was Jewish: not just the doctors and the lawyers, but the grocers, the firemen, even the prostitutes and homeless.

It seemed to me that in those truly Jewish towns in Eastern Europe — unlike the Diaspora neighborhoods of today, most of which are held together by strict religious observance — you could be whatever kind of person you wanted to be, with whatever beliefs, either political or religious, and still feel like a Jew, like you were part of a community. I longed for such a place, a place with streets that smell like challah on Friday afternoon, while children swim in local pools on Saturday — a home base on which to keep one toe while I explored the world with the rest of my body.

Over the last few years, my attention turned to Monastir, the Ottoman Empire town of my Sephardic maternal grandparents, in what is now Macedonia. Before my parents and I became more observant and joined the Orthodox Ashkenazic synagogue near our house, we regularly attended a Sephardic synagogue co-founded by Monastirlis who, like my grandparents, had immigrated to America in the early 1900s.

Though all its Jews had long since emigrated or been killed in the Holocaust, perhaps Monastir had once been this Jewish town of my dreams; if so, maybe I could salvage its legacy. I could find other Monastirli descendants, and we could revive the traditions and sing the songs. I could even learn Ladino.

Aside from one dated, rather shallow history, I found very little published about the town. There were no tomes with extensive footnotes, no museum exhibits, no university chairs endowed for the study of Ottoman Jewry. Most importantly, at least to me, there was no Irving Howe of Balkan Sephardim, no one thinker so dedicated to — and supported in — his studies that he could place the disintegration of this culture in context, help me understand the loss I felt for a village I had never seen.

I toyed with the idea of writing a book on Monastir myself, but the task seemed daunting: Given the political chaos that has defined the region for the last century, providing the reader with a clear historical context would be a formidable challenge for a journalist; government records were sure to be near inscrutable, and what individual testimony one could garner would likely come from disparate, far-flung sources.

I was deterred, but, thankfully, Mark Cohen, a journalist from California with the same idea, was not. His newly released “Last Century of a Sephardic Community: The Jews of Monastir, 1839-1943,” published by the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, is an important addition to the study of Sephardic Jews and an essential building block in what I hope is the burgeoning field of Balkan Jewish studies.

The book is focused on the period between 1839 and 1943, the last years of a Jewish community ensconced in the Ottoman village since the Spanish Inquisition. Cohen is at his most evocative in his depiction of Jewish life, and it is in these details that the frequent stiffness of his prose fades away.

We learn how the 3,000 Monastirlis in the mid-1800s chose to live in a walled, self-contained residential district called a mahalle, which circled a great courtyard. Since virtually no one had indoor kitchens, the courtyard, which featured communal ovens in which the women would cook, served as “a house extension and host to domestic life.”

Yet this closeness came at a price. “With everyone exposed to the eyes and judgments of their neighbors, people were sure to conform to social norms,” including regular synagogue attendance and holiday observance. The Jewish quarter even had berurei averot, wardens who patrolled the area to suppress religious transgressions.

“Sephardic culture was intertwined with and inseparable from Jewish religious practice,” Cohen writes. In fact, children were named according to the different roles they played in supporting these twin heritages — girls were given Spanish names like Allegra, Palomba or Vida, while boys received biblical names like Abraham, Isaac and David. In line with this, boys were offered formal religious education through a Talmud Torah school, while girls were taught to master a wide range of Sephardic folklore genres; through folklore, mothers instructed their daughters in Jewish values, faith in God, even love and sex.

Cohen has gathered many of the unique Monastirli folklore and ballads in a separate index and has extensively detailed various rites of passage rituals — even down to the final one. When a Monastirli turned 60, a death shroud was made for him by the community; after a complex process, which included rinsing it in Monastir’s Dragor River, a ceremony was held in his honor. Cohen writes:

“It is here, in confrontation with death, that the power of traditional life shows itself. Tradition supported people during life’s most anxious and terrifying moments. It brought the community to the aid of an individual, orchestrating the enactment of ideals when a person was weak; celebrating with a 15-year-old girl who had just become a mother; feasting with a person preparing for death.”

A series of fires changed the course of the community’s history. In 1863, in less than two hours, 190 homes in the Jewish quarter — more than 90 percent of the total — burned down, leaving nearly 3,000 people homeless. All six synagogues, every house of study and the Talmud Torah school were ruined. The tragedy set the stage for one of the most intriguing twists in the town’s history.

The chief rabbi of Monastir appealed to Sir Moses Montefiore of London (portrayed in the book as a sort of Ron Lauder for 19th century Ottomans). As Cohen notes, the rabbi had excellent timing. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, led by Montefiore, had recently been lambasted by London’s Jewish Chronicle for ignoring the appeals of poor Jewish communities in Sana, Yemen and the Greek Ionian islands. Montefiore, sensing an opportunity to redeem himself, took it upon himself to help the small town.

Yet, there was a catch: Montefiore insisted the money be spent on humanitarian relief; believing that Ottoman Jewry needed to “modernize,” he and the other London Jews refused to help the devastated community rebuild its synagogues or its religious school.

With the authority of the rabbis thus undermined, Jews began to move to other areas in Monastir and, more importantly, their entire educational system was revolutionized. Beginning in 1863, a French-language alliance-style school was established — formally severing the Monastirlis’ ties with traditional religious life and its institutions. Some Jewish children even joined Christian missionary schools. The period from 1880 to 1903 was a time of incredible growth for the Jewish community, which reached its historical population peak of 11,000.

Yet as a backdrop to this assimilation and growth was the ethnic fighting that would plague the region for a century, with Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and even Romania all laying claim to the region at one point or another. Monastir would change hands repeatedly, as four centuries under Ottoman rule came to an end.

During the first decade of the 20th century, the Monastir region suffered ethnic conflict, a cholera epidemic and a decline in food production. It was at this time that massive emigration began, and the Monastirlis “experienced the greatest dislocation since Spanish expulsion.” Many left for South America, particularly Chile, as well as North America, where they founded communities in New York City, Rochester, N.Y., and Indianapolis.

Those who stayed endured one world war after another, as they say. A Zionist youth movement emerged between the two wars, inspiring a good number of Monastirlis to immigrate to Israel.

But the story of the unlucky ones is, unfortunately, all too familiar to us from the well-documented stories of their Ashkenazic brethren: On April 9, 1941, Monastir came under Nazi control; Jewish shops were looted; a ghetto was created (in the area of the old Jewish quarter) and yellow stars were pinned to lapels. In March 1943, the Jews of Monastir were shipped to Skopje and then to Treblinka. “None of the Monastirlis who were sent to Treblinka survived,” Cohen writes.

Cohen has done an impressive job, and no library — certainly no center of Jewish studies — would be complete without this book. But as I finished it, I felt disappointed. I found myself wishing for a fuller epilogue, a chapter in which this seemingly kindred spirit would point the way forward from the sad tale unearthed by his research.

Instead, bits and pieces of Balkan history began to fall in my lap. I found out about a Web site chronicling the genealogy of all the Monastirli families run by Elie Cassorla of Austin, Texas (www.cassorla.net), and Stephen Schwartz wrote in about the efforts of Muhamed Nezirovic, a Bosnian Muslim and leading expert on his country’s Sephardim.

And I was sent a CD of music by Sarah Aroeste, a Ladino singer. Aroeste — whose relatives founded the only Monastirli synagogue to survive World War II, the Kal de los Monastirlis in Salonika — has picked up on the romanceros, or ballads, of her Sephardic culture and is bringing them to the world music stage.

All of these people are writing their own stories about the Balkans, struggling to deal with a piece of history, and they need more knowledgeable voices — academic, communal, perhaps even rabbinic — for support, and the opportunity to understand their own lost world, just as the descendants of the thriving Ashkenazic culture of Eastern Europe have come to understand theirs.

As it turned out, Monastir was never the Jewish town of my dreams. Mothers passing on folklore to their daughters is quaint, but less so when it is in place of formal education for girls, and those religious police are not for me. But perhaps Vilna and Warsaw weren’t as I imagine them either; perhaps no community, not even the Upper West Side, could fulfill my needs. Maybe those needs are antithetical to communal life.

Regardless, Monastir is no longer a Jewish town — of any kind. There are no Jewish homeless anymore; in fact, as of 2002, there was only one Jew, 68-year-old Mois Benjakoz, who escaped the deportation to Treblinka because his mother had married a Turk. It seems to me oddly important that Cohen wrote this book when he did, before Benjakoz died, extinguishing the last ember of a nearly forgotten Jewish community.

His example should open the door, quickly, to more research into the Jewish communities of the Balkans, because, as Cohen notes poignantly, “being dead [is] not nearly so bad as being dead and forgotten.”

In honor of Women’s History Month, Cohen will discuss
women in Sephardic folktales on Tuesday, March 23 at 7 p.m. at the Jewish
Community Library of Los Angeles. Admission is free, but reservations are
required. To R.S.V.P. or for more information, call (323) 761-8644 or send
e-mail to info@jclla.org .

Reprinted with permission of the Forward

Alana Newhouse is the arts and letters editor at The Forward.

A Dramatist’s Own Private Afghanistan


"Homebody/Kabul," which opens at the Mark Taper Forum Oct. 2, is "a very dark, unhappy play in many ways," author Tony Kushner said. The Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "Angels in America" began creating the piece in 1997, when his own obsession with Afghanistan conjoined with his interest in creating a monologue for a British friend. Over the years, the Dr. Seussian tour de force — at turns witty and endearing — accumulated two additional acts and 11 more characters, among other changes. But since the tragedies of Sept. 11, and as events change daily in our present military campaign, "Homebody/Kabul" often feels less like fiction and more like a dramatic interpretation of the day’s news. Rather than weakening the production, this unintended intermingling of fact and fiction heightens the show’s impact; when we leave the theater we have no choice but to carry it home. "I didn’t expect the outside world to be helping us out so much," Kushner said wryly, "providing a context of tragedy to this little tragedy we are making on the stage."

"Homebody/Kabul" is very much about people trying to erase their pasts through encounters with those who are different from them. Whether British or Afghan, Christian or Muslim, all the characters have a history created by colonialism that informs their present struggles. The British characters on stage are "overwhelmed and succumbing to luxury," masking their middle-class ennui with antidepressants, heroin and self-hate, while their Afghan foils suffer physical and emotional abuse created by extreme poverty and violence. The drama is fueled by the dynamic of oppression that still defines relationships between their two worlds: The guilty seek redemption from those they afflict, who in turn seek salvation from the very ones responsible for their suffering.

"Homebody/Kabul" opens in a sparse living room with the homebody of the title, played by Linda Emond, addressing us from a chair. It becomes clear through her act-long monologue that few expect much from her and that she has retreated into antidepressants, a predilection for little-known words and, of central importance to her life and this show, an armchair romance with Afghanistan. She is so enamored with the Afghanistan of old, and so pathetically wed to her chair, that she shares with the audience her passionate, desperate fantasy about getting swept away by a local Afghani hat merchant.

In the second and third acts, middle-class England is replaced by the broken-bricked ruins of Kabul, where we are told the homebody, who is never given any other name, has escaped her life of oppressive luxury. Is she alive? Is she dead? Those questions are left to her cowardly husband, Milton (Dylan Baker), and vitriolic daughter, Priscilla (Kelly Hutchinson), who become an unlikely pair of detectives, investigating hospitals and holy sites, biblical myths and family secrets, to discover what has torn their family apart. Along the way, they encounter a heady mix of characters, including a Tajik poet who works in Esperanto, a Taliban doctor whose English consists primarily of medical terms and a British aid worker addicted to local heroin. The more Milton and Priscilla learn, the less they actually know, as additional facts only call their earlier discoveries into question. In the end, "Homebody/Kabul" is less concerned about what actually occurred than with the condition of unknowing we are forced to confront when dialectical forces meet face to face.

This element of mystery and uncertainty, Kushner told the Forward during a 2001 interview, grew out of his initial inquiries into Afghanistan.

"The more I talked with people, the more deeply confused I became," he said.

Even research into how many Afghans were killed during President Bill Clinton’s bombing of Afghanistan in 1998 turned up wildly divergent answers, leading Kushner eventually to believe that some things are simply impossible to know. In addition, he said, his plays attempt to "probe areas of confusion and bewilderment," to engage the audience in a collective process of looking deeper into "a place of not knowing, of doubt."

All of the characters come from a background far different from the playwright’s Jewish American gay identity.

"I checked my identities at the door," he said, "but I knew that a Jew writing about Islam would be interesting, complicated."

Kushner had no trouble drawing on his background as a Jew to depict the Taliban, using Orthodox Jews as his model.

"I think there is absolutely no difference between deeply religious people of one faith and deeply religious people of another faith," he said, pausing a moment. He then cited the common heritage of an Abrahamic tradition and argued that "among extremely religious Jews, God is in everything and everything is about one’s relationship to God."

And yet there are differences, he said upon reflection. While the concept of becoming a martyr in the Jewish world is seen as tragic, he said, in the Christian and Muslim world suffering is seen as "being a good in and of itself, of having some sort of spiritual valence." And in Christianity, of course, martyrdom is viewed as "transformative, transfigurative. It’s the resurrection."

Kushner said he developed the play’s British family as Jews during the early stages. However, "British Jews are too complicated," he soon decided, and after a brief stint as Catholics they once again returned to the Church of England.

In the end, he was glad he made the homebody the way he did because she "has a sense of engagement with the world that it is completely Christian; it’s about suffering. It’s the idea of expressing your agency in the world by taking on the suffering of the world."

Kushner once wrote, "I am in the habit of hoping," and in "Homebody/ Kabul," hope emerges through the metaphor of language.

Among the many quirky details that fill this play, one of the oddest is its use of Esperanto, the international language developed by the Polish Jewish philologist Ludwik Zamenhof in 1887 to ease communication between speakers of different tongues. The word "esperanto" itself means "hopeful." The play also concerns itself with binary code, the language uniting all computers, and the Dewey Decimal System, which gives books a clear place in the universe of knowledge. These global languages represent the hopeful side of our interconnected world. Globalization corrupts all it touches and none can escape its reach, the show tells us, but it also brings people together and creates order out of chaos. The tragedy of the Taliban is that they represent what happens when order is realized at the cost of freedom and justice, but "Homebody/Kabul" holds out hope that all three are possible. Most important, the show is less interested in offering a solution than in taking its audience on a journey to explore how fascist ideologies come into fashion in the first place, whether in Nazi Germany, Afghanistan or here in America.

"Homebody/Kabul" plays Oct. 2-Nov. 9, at the Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (213) 628-2772.