Israeli military chief rabbi-designate under fire over remarks on rape


Israel's military has nominated a new chief rabbi who seemed to imply in a past religious commentary that its soldiers are allowed to rape non-Jewish women in wartime.

Rabbi Colonel Eyal Karim's remarks 14 years ago stirred controversy at the time and remain on an Israeli religious website today, along with a link to a clarification he published on the same site in 2012 in which he said his words had been taken out of context and rape is forbidden “in any situation”.

Karim's appointment, which still has to be approved by the defense minister, drew criticism on Tuesday from women's groups and a prominent female politician. They pointed to a reply Karim gave in 2002 to a question about the Bible's attitude toward rape during war, in the “Ask the Rabbi” section of kipa.co.il.

He responded that in the interests of maintaining warriors' morale and fighting fitness during armed conflict, it was permitted to “satisfy the evil inclination by lying with attractive Gentile women against their will”.

His nomination on Monday as the military's head rabbi by its chief of staff revived public debate over Karim.

Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's best-selling newspaper, weighed in with a front-page headline that read: “New chief military rabbi: rape is permissible in a war”.

Issuing a statement on Tuesday on Karim's behalf, the military spokesman's office said he wanted to clarify that his writings in 2002 came in answer to a theoretical question and did not relate to “practical Jewish law”.

“Rabbi Karim has never written, said or even thought that an Israeli soldier is permitted to sexually assault a woman in war, and anyone who interprets his words otherwise is completely mistaken,” the statement said.

Zahava Galon, leader of the left-wing Meretz party, called on Facebook for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene in the appointment. She described Karim, 59, as morally unsuitable for the post of chief rabbi in a military in which thousands of women serve.

Karim has, according to Israeli media reports, come out in the past against combat roles for women, who like men are drafted into Israel's military at the age of 18.

The mixing of sexes in Israel's armed forces is a sensitive issue for Orthodox Jews. Religious men and women can request an exemption from compulsory service

Everything is easier than doing good


Some thoughts for Rosh Hashanah:

If we took a vote on what trait we human beings most value, goodness would undoubtedly win. Certainly goodness is the trait that we most want everyone else to possess.

But if we say we value goodness above everything else — and surely Judaism does — why aren’t there more good people?

A big reason is that it is easier to value other things — including, and especially, positive things — more than goodness. So it’s much easier to be just about anything rather than good.

It’s easier to be religious than to be good.

The history of all religions is replete with examples of individuals who seem religious, yet who are not good and are sometimes downright evil. The most obvious examples today are found within Islam. But Judaism, Christianity and all other religions have provided examples. It was mean-spirited observant Jews (observant of laws between man and God) whom the Prophets most severely criticized. God doesn’t want your ritual observances, Isaiah said in God’s name, if you don’t treat people properly. And too much of European Christian history produced people who valued faith over goodness.

It’s easier to be progressive than to be good.

Just as it is easier to be religious than to be good, it is easier to hold progressive positions than to be good. Too many religious people have equated religious piety with goodness, and too many believers in today’s dominant religion, progressivism, equate left-wing positions with goodness. I saw this as a graduate student in the 1970s, when the most progressive students were so often personally mean and dishonest. They seemed to believe that protesting against war and racism defined the good human being — so how they treated actual people didn’t really matter. Defining goodness as having progressive social positions has helped produce a lot of mean-spirited and narcissistic individuals with the “right” social positions.

It’s easier to be brilliant (and successful) than to be good.

Ask your children — whether they are 5 or 45 — what they think you most want them to be: happy, good, successful or smart.

Parents have told me for decades how surprised they were that their children did not answer “good.” One reason is that so many parents have stressed brilliance (and the success that brilliance should lead to) over goodness. Thus, many parents brag about their child’s brilliance rather than about their goodness. How closely do parents monitor their children’s character as compared to how closely they monitor their children’s grades?

Brilliance is probably the most overrated human attribute. And there is absolutely no connection between it and goodness. 

It’s easier to care about the earth than to be good.

Everyone who cares about the next generation of human beings cares about the earth. But we live at a time when many care about the earth more than they care about human beings. That is why, for example, the environmentalist movement in the West persisted in banning DDT, despite the fact that not using DDT to destroy the Anopheles mosquito has resulted in millions of Africans dying of malaria.

Similarly, it is a lot easier to fight carbon emissions than to fight evil.

It’s easier to love animals than to love people.

The secular West has produced many people who love animals more than human beings. Ask people who love their pet if they would first try to save a beloved dog or cat that was drowning or a human being they did not know who was also drowning. If my asking this question for over 30 years is any indication, a significant percentage would answer that they would first try to save their dog or cat. Why? Because, they say, they love their pet and they don’t love the stranger.

Contrary to what is widely believed, love of animals does not translate into love of people. While those who are cruel to animals will likely be cruel to people, the converse is not true. Love of animals has little to do with, and can often substitute for, love of people. 

It’s easier to love humanity than to love your neighbor.

The greatest moral teaching of the Torah is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” not “Love humanity [or “all people”] as yourself.” Why? Because it’s easy to love humanity; it’s much tougher to love our neighbor.

It’s easier to be intellectual and cultured than to be good.

The most cultured nation in the world created the Holocaust. The nation that produced Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Wagner also produced the Nazis and Auschwitz. For those of us whose lives have been immeasurably enriched by the art and culture produced by Germans, that is a sobering fact.

It’s easier to intend to do good than to do good.

It is a truism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly all the evils of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in history, were committed not by sadists, but by people with good intentions.

That is why, when it comes to how we treat our fellow human beings, only our behavior — not our intention, and not how much we feel for others — matters. 

The primacy of behavior over feelings may well be Judaism’s greatest message. 

A happy and healthy new year to all my readers.


Dennis Prager will once again be conducting High Holy Day services in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.pragerhighholidays.net

Tasmanian state body recommends banning nonreligious circumcision


An advisory governmental institution in an Australian state is recommending that it ban non-medical circumcision on boys “except for religious reasons.”

The Tasmania Law Reform Institute – whose task is to modernize state laws – recommended “the enactment of a new and separate offence generally prohibiting the circumcision of incapable minors in Tasmania.” The state has “unclear” legislation on circumcision, the 101-page report says.

However, the report – which was released earlier this month – states the new legislation ought to create an exception for “some well-established religious or ethnicity motivated circumcision.”

More than half a million people live in Tasmania, according to a 2011 government census. About 150 Jews were living in the Australian state as of 2003, according to the New York Jewish Week.

Tasmania – one of six Australian states – founded the institute in 2001 along with the University of Tasmania and the Law Society of Tasmania.

Circumcision should not be performed on minors in any case without signed permission from both parents, according to the report.

The institute also wants to clarify what happens if parents disagree on whether a circumcision should be done and it says that a circumciser who fails to meet a certain standard of care should be criminally liable.

Czech Senate to consider property restitution


Czech Jewish leaders said they hoped their Senate would approve restitution of confiscated religious property.

The Czech Parliament on July 14 voted in favor of distributing $3.7 billion among 17 religious denominations, including the Jewish community. The money is compensation for property nationalized during the communist regime. The Senate is expected to vote on the proposal in the next two months.

“This legislation is a good compromise,” Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, told JTA.

The Jewish community’s share of the lump sum “will not be very high,” he added. The Czech Republic already offered restitution for Jewish property in 1994 and 2000.

The Czech Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party—both in the opposition—object to the compromise. The opposition enjoys a majority in the Senate.

Kraus said he believed the Czech upper house would veto the compromise. Parliament then would vote again on the issue, probably in September.

The compromise offers to end state subsidies for clergymen by 2029. The Czech government spends approximately $70 million on their salaries.

“The compromise allows all parties to win,” Kraus said. “For religious bodies it’s a moral victory, while the state can end funding clergymen. If the compromise is torpedoed, state funding for clergy could increase. The opposition is overlooking this.”

The number of priests in the Czech Republic grew from 3,500 a decade ago ago to 4,755 in 2009.

The current compensation of $3.7 billion is slightly lower than the sum offered in negotiations in 2008 between religious bodies and the government, according to Petr Papousek, vice chairman of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities.

“Ending state subsidies for religious leaders could mean financial uncertainty for the Jewish community, so there is also ambivalence regarding the compromise. Yet a different government could offer even less,” Papousek said.

I’m Not Religious; I’m Spiritual


In some prayer books, the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion serve as a preparation for prayer. The verses repeat over and over again that a perpetual fire shall continue to burn on the altar. Why the focus on the need to keep the fire burning? And what does it mean to us now, after the destruction of the Temple and the end of the sacrificial system, when there is no longer a literal fire? 

The Sefat Emet writes: “In the soul of every Jew there lies a hidden point that is aflame with love of God, a fire that cannot be put out. … This is true of the human soul: There needs to burn in it a fiery longing to worship the Creator, and this longing has to be renewed each day. …”

But how do we renew it? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains, using a verse from our portion: “ ‘And he shall take up the ashes … and carry the ashes outside.’ It is our daily duty to bring to our observance of the mitzvah a new zest, as if each time it was the first time. … The relics of the previous day’s work need clearing away, before the new day’s work can begin in a clean and renovated place.”

In other words, you have to clear away the ashes so as not to smother the fire. Clearing away the ashes, making room for new insights, new ways to experience prayer, is fraught with tension. On the one hand, if prayer is routine it is not able to awaken a fiery longing. On the other hand, if prayer is not familiar, it is difficult to pray in community.

This tension is captured in the classic description that so many of us have heard so many times: “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.” Translation: I have my own connection to a sense of divinity; I don’t need any organized structures to facilitate the connection.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind.” Religion has rules, structures and obligations — to God, to a tradition, to other people and, indeed, to the larger world. Spirituality, on the other hand, is about an individual’s connection to divinity. Without religion, spirituality runs the risk of becoming a kind of narcissism. Without spirituality, religion risks smothering the fiery longing in the ashes of repetition, routine and fear of change.

What might it mean for us to “carry away the ashes”? For some Jews, it means bringing different kinds of spiritual practice into Jewish prayer.

A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to experience Hebrew kirtan — a call-and-response chanting influenced by a Hindu prayer practice — in our Shabbat morning worship. Led by Rabbi Andrew Hahn, our New Emanuel Minyan experimented with Hebrew kirtan, and later that evening more than 140 people came together for a citywide kirtan.

For me, kirtan was a completely new experience, and not altogether comfortable. But there is no question that it was powerful, with the physical reverberations of the chanting lasting long after I returned home that evening.

And those 140 people — who were they? Jews connected to our synagogue and many other synagogues, and even more Jews not connected to any Jewish institution.

Samantha Orshan, a student in the joint program of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Jewish Nonprofit Management and the Rabbinic School, studied Temple Emanuel for her thesis on spirituality in a mainstream synagogue. It didn’t surprise her that there were many congregants who called themselves “spiritual seekers,” looking and finding intense spiritual experiences at our congregation. What did surprise her were how many people said they were not spiritual but really valued the opportunities to bring more intensity into the prayer experience — through powerful participatory music, meditation and silence. She calls those Jews “hide and seekers,” and she challenges all of our synagogues to do even more to help them come out of hiding.

Maybe that’s what our Torah portion means by “clearing away the ashes.”

Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (tebh.org), a Reform congregation.

‘The Adujustment Bureau’: Finally, an Action Thriller for Religious Thinkers


Films that offer profound philosophical lessons are a rarity. I remember watching The Matrix several years ago, noting that the movie was really a sci-fi version of Plato’s “Metaphor of the Cave,” which posits that most people are living in a false reality of shadows. More recently, Inception explored the similar epistemological concept of solipsism, that we’re really all just dreaming and physical reality is only a construct of the mind. Such films, which tickle one’s philosophical funny-bone, are slim pickings among a feast of mind-numbing cinematic banalities.

Even rarer are those films which tackle theological dilemmas, like the age-old apparent contradiction of free will vs. determinism. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all believe in an all-powerful and all-knowing God who controls everything that happens in the world. What, then, is the role of our own decisions? Does man truly possess free will, or does he only have the “appearance” of free will? Did I truly decide of my own free will to marry my wife, or did God orchestrate a complex set of circumstances which forced my hand and caused me to fall in love with this wonderful woman in order to fulfill His unknowable Divine plan?

This is precisely the theme of the new film, The Adjustment Bureau (Grace Films Media, now playing), and so when I received an invitation for a clergy-only screening of the film, I felt it was a worthwhile way to spend an evening with my son. One of the reasons I found it so exhilarating to watch was because this is the kind of film that can make a very important contribution to our society. Instead of movies that provide very little value to the world of ideas, The Adjustment Bureau provokes us to address this thorny theological issue with a new set of glasses. At the very least, it gets us thinking that maybe there is a God out there who has a larger plan for all of us.

Starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt and featuring a fast-paced script and lots of action, The Adjustment Bureau was smartly made for a general audience. The producers and directors clearly understood that in order for a movie to be successful, it can’t just appeal to rabbis and philosophers. There are plenty of chase scenes for the guys and a love story for the ladies. But the basic premise of the story is hardcore theology. It proposes that the leading man (Damon) has to be prevented from meeting his love interest (Blunt) so that these two highly motivated and gifted individuals can reach their respective professional goals (he, a senator, she, a dancer) independently of one another. An angel is put in charge of preventing the meeting, since if they fall in love, all of their passion will be funneled into their relationship instead of their careers, and as a result neither will realize his or her potential. When the angel botches the job and the two end up falling for each other, an entire corps of angels, comprising this “Adjustment Bureau,” has to clean up the mess to separate the couple. Of course, this is where the chase scenes come in, since Damon and Blunt have to flee the angels (depicted as dapper men in hats) who are trying to destroy their relationship.

In a very clever obfuscation of organized religion (which seems to be public enemy #1 in Hollywood) God is never mentioned by name. Instead, the angels work for “the Chairman,” who oversees the adjustment process.

The best line of the movie for me was when the Damon character is finally confronted by one of the higher up angels, who tells him that he must conform to his predestined fate. Damon looks at him and says, “What about free will?” The angel’s response (I’m paraphrasing from memory) is classic: “We tried giving humans free will and look what we ended up with: wars, pogroms, the Holocaust. That’s why we’ve been forced to take it away. You think you have free will? You only have the illusion of free will.”

The great Jewish medievalists, together with their Christian and Islamic counterparts, undertook the issue of free will with vigor. Yeshiva students are familiar with the dispute between 12th-century Maimonides and his often fiery opponent, Rabbi Abraham ibn Daud. Maimonides felt that the contradiction between free will and Divine foreknowledge was so difficult that the human mind could not fathom it properly, and thus one simply had to have faith that while for man there appears to be a contradiction, for God there is none. Ibn Daud felt that there was a coherent reconciliation, but his explanation is vague and continues to be debated to this day. More recently, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Lainer, the great Ishbitzer Rebbe, taught in the 19th century that indeed, free will is but an illusion; even when we think we’re doing something that is contra God’s will, it is we who are mistaken.

I won’t reveal how the film ends, but suffice it to say that the final message of the film lends itself to a number of different interpretations. One leaves the film never really knowing what the beliefs of the writer and director, George Nolfi, are about free will. This is one more victory for the film; it seeks not to preach religion but rather to provoke thought and conversation about life’s big issues.

This is a great movie for a synagogue group; see it and have a discussion over coffee afterwards. Your rabbi will be able to discuss with you the Jewish position on the free will vs. determinism issue, and your knowledge of Judaism will be all the better for it.

We live in the best of times and the worst of times. We have every luxury imaginable to modern man, but because of all the dizzying distractions of modern life we lack the ability to properly take stock of who we are and what our purpose is. As stand-up comedian Louis CK puts it, “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.” Back in the Middle Ages, religious philosophers like Boethius, Al-Ghazali, and Maimonides were able to grab a thinker’s attention because they weren’t competing with loud music, fast cars, high-speed Internet and text messaging. In our world, where deep, meditative thought about the meaning of life is so hard to achieve, a movie like The Adjustment Bureau is a welcome break from the distractions. It will leave you exercising brain muscles you’d forgotten you had.

In addition to his rabbinic duties at Yavneh in Hancock Park, Rabbi Korobkin is a graduate student at UCLA’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, where he studies medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy.

Death in the Hood


Laura Gitlin-Petlak was 48 when she died on Feb. 12 at her home in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

The next day, a few blocks from her house, a couple hundredpeople jammed the premises of Aish L.A., an Orthodox synagogue and outreach center, for her memorial service.

A neighbor suggested that I attend the service. I had never met Laura or any member of her family, but they were well-known in the community. The first time I heard her name was on Simchat Torah, when someone mentioned that a group of women from the community brought a sefer Torah to her bedside at her home, where she was recuperating from cancer surgery. In her presence, they sang songs and danced.

When Laura was in the hospital, she had insisted on long, personal visits. Her husband, Shmuel, made sure to schedule the visits so that there would be plenty of time for the kind of engaging talk his wife loved. Laura once noticed that a visitor was sniffling, and she asked if her friend had a cold. When she saw that they were sniffles of sadness, Laura blurted out: “Oh no, I’ll have none of that. Now tell me what’s going on in your life.”

Being a divorce attorney, Laura knew a lot about other people’s lives. In a profession where nasty confrontation is the norm, she fought for collaboration. Sometimes she even fought for peace.

At her memorial service, her husband told the story of a man who had “had it up to here” and wanted a divorce. After listening to his story, Laura calmly explained to the man that he should try to save his marriage by getting household help. It took some coaxing and convincing, but in the end, Laura helped save her client’s marriage.She nurtured her own marriage by working from home, which allowed her to be very involved with raising her two daughters, Alisa, 17, and Miriam, 9.

This is how Alisa describes her mother’s parenting style: “She never told us what to do, but she never allowed us to do the wrong thing.”It has been several days now since Laura’s memorial service, and I’m sharing my thoughts with you because, frankly, I can’t stop thinking about it.

The service was heartfelt, but it was also unsettling. There was a kind of emotional chaos in the air — almost a reluctance to accept that a beautiful life could be taken away from someone so God-fearing and life-giving.

Ever since I moved to this neighborhood, I’ve gotten used to seeing order and structure in the Orthodox community — a sense that life, with all its challenges and with God’s help, is unfolding as it should.

At Laura’s memorial service, you got a strange sense that life had stopped unfolding as it should.

To his credit, the head rabbi of Aish L.A., Rabbi Moshe Cohen, did not try to anaesthetize the pain. He spoke in a quivering, tear-choked voice. He talked about the only three instances in the code of Jewish law where the laws are considered “mitzvot gedolim” (great mitzvahs): To help someone who is destitute, to free a captive and to praise the departed.

He explained that what tied the three mitzvahs together was that they all covered people who couldn’t help themselves.

But it was clear that the rabbi couldn’t help himself either. Even though he ended on a brave note that touched on Laura’s legacy to the community, his body language was saying something else: “How could this be?”

Tragedy has a way of dulling the senses. Lost in a fog of grief, how can anyone see or understand anything? I wasn’t exactly lost, but all I could see was how wrong it was that Laura had died. That made me feel a little helpless, too.

Ironically, on a day when people felt somewhat helpless, they were honoring someone who was all about reaching out to those who needed help, or sometimes just a meal and company. As an example, Rabbi Cohen admitted how “most of us would prefer to choose our guests for Shabbat.” Then he recounted how, over the years, Laura and her family had welcomed hundreds of guests and strangers who didn’t have a place to eat on Shabbat.

Who would feel these strangers’ pain now and welcome them? How could a unique soul like Laura ever be replaced? How could a family’s pain ever heal?

As the rabbi spoke about Laura, I was thinking about how even a strong religious community has moments when it needs to be vulnerable and embrace its limitations. In our zeal to accept all challenges, perhaps the ultimate challenge is to accept that there are holes we can never fill and pains we can never heal.

We are grateful for our religious and communal rituals — the prayers, the sermons, the honoring of the departed, the community support — but deep down, the unspoken truth is that we’re still helpless. The pain of human loss is too deep (as I learned after losing my father).

Rituals can add comfort and legacies can be continued, but they won’t fill the hole or eliminate the pain.

This pain of loss belongs to no religion and no neighborhood.

It is a private, universal pain that speaks to the highest part of our Judaism, the one that cares about every soul in every hood.

Laura Gitlin-Petlak spent a lifetime caring about other people’s pain, and in her own way, she showed us that people can never be replaced, and that there is value in that.

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

Humbling Wisdom


A number of years ago I had to fly from Los Angeles to Cleveland, with a stop in St. Louis. The plane was supposed to leave at 8:45 a.m. and arrive in Cleveland in the
late afternoon. But due to a mechanical problem our flight didn’t leave LAX until 1:30 p.m., which put our Cleveland arrival at midnight on the first night of Chanukah.

As I stood on the very long line to change our tickets for the connecting flights, the fellow ahead of me dressed like Crocodile Dundee turned around, looked at me and said in a deep Midwestern accent, “Hi, my name is John, and boy are you in trouble.”

What a way to introduce oneself, I thought. He continued, “You are going to be arriving after sunset.”

At first I had no idea what he meant. Looking at my watch, I replied, “The way things are going it might even be tomorrow morning.”

“So what are you going to do?” he asked.

“Sleep,” I answered.

“No, I mean what are you going to do about lighting candles?” he said. “Isn’t tonight the first night of Chanukah?”

I thought for a moment that maybe “John” was a real Torah scholar who was raising a legal question about how late one can light Chanukah candles.

Although most authorities agree that one can kindle the menorah as long as a minimum of two people are still awake and can see the lights, perhaps he was referring to the opinion that you can kindle only if people are still walking outside.

But then looking again at him, I said to myself, “This fellow probably isn’t even Jewish let alone knowledgeable about halacha.”

Propelled by curiosity, I asked, “By the way are you Jewish?”

“Not at all,” he answered. “I was born Presbyterian, and now I am a Baptist. Maybe one day I will become Jewish. What do you think of that?”

Deciding it would be best not to answer, I acted Jewish and responded with a totally different question: “How do you know so much about Judaism and Chanukah?”

With total seriousness he said, “You can’t claim to be a religious Christian without knowing Judaism. All religious wisdom starts with Judaism.”

The truth is that we can find an elementary concept of wisdom in this week’s Torah portion.

Pharaoh recognizes Joseph’s uncanny ability to correctly interpret his dreams.

Almost in awe of the profound knowledge that Joseph reveals, the Egyptian monarch declares: “After God has informed you of all this, there is no one so understanding and wise as you” (Genesis 41:39).

Joseph is the first man in the Bible to be called “wise.” But what, asks 20th century biblical commentator Benno Jacob, was so special about Joseph’s wisdom that “all the wizards of Egypt and all its wise men” didn’t possess? The answer, he says, is obvious from the text: “Joseph’s wisdom defeated that of the Egyptians because it emanated from God; it was wisdom that led directly from God to him, and is fundamentally identical with fear of God…. It presents the genuinely Jewish combination of brains and heart.”

True wisdom, Benno Jacob argues, recognizes first that there is a God, and second that He is the source of all our talents and wisdom. There is no room for the haughty who think they are to be respected and worshipped because of their brains or special talents. Humility is the only possible response for men, for all emanates from God.

I remember that in my first position as rabbi when I was a young rookie just out of rabbinic school, one congregant publicly criticized me to the other members because I quoted my rabbinic teachers whenever I had to decide a question of Jewish law. This member opposed me by questioning, “Doesn’t Muskin have any opinions of his own?”

When I was informed of this criticism I was asked for a response. I replied with humor, “I don’t know, I will have to ask my teachers.”

After the laughing stopped I answered that I was actually honored by the comment. The truth is that as soon as we think we know all the answers and we do not need to turn to those with more knowledge and experience, we have demonstrated our ultimate ignorance.

Joseph taught us that our knowledge all comes from God in the first place, and if we have an opinion it better be His.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Second-class Conservative citizens


When I first read that there would be a vote by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Law and Standards regarding homosexuality and Jewish law, I was of
course interested.

I’m a gay man, and I have had both personal and professional ties to the Conservative movement since I was a child. In fact, some of my closest friends (and colleagues) are avowed Conservative Jews.

I grew up in the late ’60s and ’70s in a Conservative synagogue in northern New Jersey. It was a dying synagogue due to shifting demographics. My religious school class was made up of about eight students. My venerable, grandfatherly rabbi and the young, well-groomed cantor knew all of us by name. Having always been drawn to Jewish ritual, one year I volunteered my house for the religious school sukkah (much to my parents’ chagrin). My seventh-grade class, along with my teacher, Rabbi Zitter, a 20-something guy sporting tzitzit, built a sukkah in my backyard. The Sunday of Sukkot the rabbi, cantor and religious school principal all visited the synagogue’s “satellite” sukkah. I felt so honored. (And for years after that my family built a sukkah.)

As a middle school and high school student I often attended services at my Conservative synagogue and likely brought the average age of the congregants down to 65. The only other young congregant was a handsome, strapping young college-aged guy who was often called on to lift the Torah. This was the time when I first began to feel the stirrings of same-sex attraction. I didn’t understand it but knew that something was different for me. I imagine that neither the rabbi nor the cantor had a clue that any of his students was beginning to come to terms with anything other than a heterosexual identity. If “gay” was on their radar, I imagine it was “out there,” outside the austere stone building in Paterson, N.J.

I was an active, practicing Conservative Jew. I belonged to USY for a time, I went to USY Summer Encampment, and I went to Israel for the first time with USY’s Israel Pilgrimage. During my college years, I regularly davened with the Conservative minyan at Brandeis University, and upon graduating taught at a Conservative Jewish day school in the Boston area. When I moved to Los Angeles, I began teaching at Adat Ari El in the day school and also taught b’nai mitzvah students there for many years; in addition, I taught at L.A. Hebrew High School. I am currently on the professional staff of Temple Aliyah. My Conservative movement ties run deep.

Honestly, I’m glad that the recent vote of the Conservative movement has opened the door a bit toward acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews. Now that this teshuvah, or legal interpretation, was one of two that received a majority vote, I know that this helps some of my gay “friends and family” squeeze sideways through the now partially open door. I nevertheless remain sad and disappointed that the door has only opened a little, and the idea that it is a qualified acceptance is troubling to me. (Let alone that it rests side by side with a standing ruling of nonacceptance, or that a third accepted teshuvah purports that individuals — I assume “straight” people too — can control their sexual orientation.)

I understand the notion of baby steps, and I understand the notion of compromise in the name of baby steps. But I don’t have to like it. I think this decision perpetuates a system in which gays and lesbians continue to be second-class citizens. It also perpetuates one specific interpretation of a biblical text, which has been interpreted in other ways. Take me for who I am or don’t take me at all. I too am created in God’s holy image.

When I came out I never felt an incompatibility between my Jewish identity and my sexual identity.

Perhaps I was lucky, perhaps naïve. Who knows? I never doubted that God loves me for who I am. I am a Jewish educator and a Jewish communal professional. And I am gay. I hope that my students have experienced me as someone who is caring, compassionate and dedicated. I hope they have seen me as a role model. And I believe that I am these things not despite the fact that I am gay, but in large part because I am gay. My identity as a gay man has helped me to learn to be more empathic, to embrace differences and to overcome my own prejudices.

While I am pleased that the Conservative movement has inched forward in the direction of inclusivity, I find it difficult to rejoice. When I am allowed to sit in the front of the Conservative bus (without being singled out to pass a litmus test; without being subjected to the whim of the driver of that particular bus), then I shall surely rejoice, and I will be at the front of the line chanting the “Shehecheyanu” blessing.

Jeff Bernhardt is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He works as a teacher, social worker and Jewish communal service professional with Reform, Conservative and trans-denominational Jewish organizations.

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.

Iconic Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci, 77


The crusading Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci spent the last years of her life issuing fiery warnings against a Muslim world that she saw poised to overrun the West.
 
Critics accused Fallaci of sowing racial and religious hatred, but she became a heroine to many Jews and Israelis for her vocal defense of Israel and denunciations of new forms of anti-Semitism.
 
“She was the most loved and most hated woman in Italy,” said Clemente Mimun, the Jewish director of Italian television’s main news program.
 
Fallaci, who divided her later years between New York and her native Florence, died last Friday in Florence after a long battle with cancer. She was 77.A glamorous woman always seen with long hair and thick eye-liner and a cigarette poised in her fingers, Fallaci was a war correspondent in Vietnam and fought as a child in the anti-fascist resistance during World War II.

She never married but had a passionate affair with the Greek left-wing activist Alekos Panagulis in the mid-1970s. After his death in an automobile accident, she wrote a book based on his life, “A Man,” that sold 3.5 million copies.Fallaci became a celebrity icon in the 1960s and 1970s with incisive, baring interviews of global VIPs including Henry Kissinger, PLO leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. She also wrote a series of novels and other books.
 
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, marked a watershed.
 
Fallaci’s “The Rage and the Pride,” a vehement defense of the United States published soon after the attacks, became a best seller and provoked a storm of controversy with its strong language and uncompromising positions.
 
She followed with further books and articles that lambasted the West for weakness in the face of Islam and minced no words in her criticism of Muslims in general.
 
Islam, she wrote in her last book, “The Force of Reason,” “sows hatred in place of love and slavery in place of freedom.”
 
One of her most famous essays was a blistering attack on anti-Semitism published in April 2002 that read like a manifesto.
 
Repeating over and over the assertion “I find it shameful,” Fallaci unleashed a brutal indictment of Italy, Italians, the Catholic church, the left wing, the media, politically correct pacifists and Europeans in general for abandoning Israel and fomenting a new wave of anti-Semitism linked to the Mideast crisis.In the essay, Fallaci, who long had held pro-Palestinian views, declared herself “disgusted with the anti-Semitism of many Italians, of many Europeans” and “ashamed of this shame that dishonors my country and Europe.”
 
“I find it shameful,” she wrote,” and I see in all this the resurgence of a new fascism, a new Nazism.”
 
She recalled that in the past “I fought often, and bitterly, with the Israelis, and I defended the Palestinians a lot — maybe more than they deserved.
 
“Nonetheless, I stand with Israel, I stand with the Jews,” she wrote. “I defend their right to exist, to defend themselves, and not to allow themselves to be exterminated a second time.”
 

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.”

Tisha B’Av Dilemma: Day of Solemnity or Celebration?


Traditional Jews mark Tisha B’Av by fasting, reading from the Book of Lamentations and observing rituals of mourning.

Not all congregations observe the solemn day, however. Tisha B’Av at The Valley Temple, a Reform synagogue in Cincinnati, took on a less somber demeanor last year. Temple Sisterhood members spent the holiday busily hosting their annual rummage sale, sorting through piles of household goods, toys and clothing and hawking them to prospective buyers.

In all fairness, the scheduling of the rummage sale on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, which falls this year at sundown on Aug. 2, was not deliberate. But the fact that Sisterhood members were not aware of the holiday, according to one spokesperson who asked not to be identified, reveals that Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar for Jews, is also a nonevent in some, usually Reform, congregations.

It also reveals how the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which occurred in both 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. and which Tisha B’Av commemorates, resonates differently among various denominations.

“There’s a challenge for Reform Jews around the observance of Tisha B’Av, and communities make all kinds of choices,” said Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of worship, music and religious living.

The Valley Temple was not the only Reform synagogue last year to host a rummage sale or new member brunch on Tisha B’Av. This is not surprising considering that references to the Temple’s rebuilding have been moved from the Reform movement’s liturgy. Granted, Reform Judaism does not deny the existence of the Temple or its historical role.

“But the difference theologically is that we’re not looking for restoration of the Temple and Temple sacrifices,” Wasserman said.

Some Reform Jews, as did 19th century Rabbi David Einhorn, actually see the holiday as celebratory, crediting the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile of the Jews with enabling the Jewish people to survive and become “a light unto the nations,” as prophesied in the Book of Isaiah (42:6 and 49:6).

Tisha B’Av is observed in most Conservative synagogues, according to Rabbi Ed Feinstein, spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

“The question for Jews like us is what does it mean to celebrate Tisha B’Av at a time when Israel is ours and Jerusalem is ours,” he said.

His congregation, in fact, tackled this question at a Tisha B’Av discussion several years ago, where, drawing on the Shavuot model of study, they spent two hours learning and debating. Afterward, they read the Book of Eicha, as Lamentations is called in Hebrew, and prayed.

Valley Beth Shalom traditionally partners with Adat Ari El in neighboring Valley Village for Tisha B’Av services. While both Conservative and only 10 minutes apart, the synagogues embody very different cultures, reflected in opposite approaches to the fast’s observance. Valley Beth Shalom engages in discussions; Adat Ari El, which is hosting this year’s service, favors a more emotional approach. This year, the service, in addition to reading the Book of Lamentations, will consist of some modern dramatic readings and the lighting of six candles, to commemorate the Holocaust and other tragedies that occurred on the ninth of Av, according to Rabbi Moshe Rothblum.

There doesn’t seem to be a basic theology or ideology concerning the role of the ancient Temple in Conservative Judaism, according to Feinstein. He believes that the age of animal sacrifices, appropriate at one time, has been superseded by an age of prayer, relegating the Temple to a symbol.

“When I read the prayers asking for the rebuilding of the Temple, I interpret that to mean the unification and redemption of the Jewish people,” he said.
At Reconstructionist Temple Beth Or in Miami, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian observes the eve of Tisha B’Av with her 125-family congregation. Usually the program includes a reading of excerpts from Eicha, followed by a contemporary take on Tisha B’Av, such as a discussion of Milton Steinberg’s “As a Driven Leaf,” a novel that unfolds during the time of the Temple’s destruction.

This year, Lillian is taking a slightly different approach. Tisha B’Av eve will include readings from Eicha, as usual. The following evening, congregants will focus on Darfur and modern genocides, a project of the temple’s social action committee.

“The destruction of the Temple was in many ways a genocide, killing Jews and kicking them out,” she said.

References to rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem have been removed from Reconstructionist liturgy. But because the movement is decentralized, individual synagogues have ample leeway in terms of how they celebrate various holidays, Lillian said.

There’s no ambivalence in the Orthodox world, however, concerning the role of the Temple.

“We pray [for its rebuilding] three times a day,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, which represents the ultra-Orthodox community.

Orthodox congregations across the spectrum continue to commemorate Tisha B’Av in traditional ways, such as observing a 25-hour fast from sundown to the next night, not wearing leather shoes, sitting on low stools or on the floor during the evening service and reciting Eicha and other elegies.

It is a day of absolute mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem’s two Temples. For many Orthodox Jews, and increasingly across the denominational spectrum, the day also encompasses other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people on the ninth of Av, including the fall of Betar, the last stronghold of the Bar-Kochba Revolt, in 135 C.E., the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the beginning of the Jews’ deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942.

Additionally, many in the ultra-Orthodox community memorialize the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av rather than on Yom HaShoah, the traditional day of commemoration for most Modern Orthodox and other denominational congregations. This is due, in part, to a reluctance to add new holidays or days of mourning to the calendar. More importantly, according to Shafran, “The illustrious rabbinical leaders of a quarter-century ago felt that nothing short of Tisha B’Av could suffice for a tragedy as great as the Holocaust.”

But in the ultra-Orthodox, as well as Modern Orthodox, communities over the past few years, on the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, a revolution of sorts has been taking place in many of the nation’s largest cities. Instead of what Shafran describes as “sleeping or sitting around and suffering,” groups of Jews are gathering by the thousands in large halls to hear dynamic speakers expound on relevant topics such as senseless hatred or hurtful speech.

“It’s become a mass movement of Jews from one hall to another, and it’s become a very dynamic day,” Shafran said.

Thrown For A Loop


“Avi we’re doing some looping for a movie called, ‘The Mount of Olives.’ It was filmed in Israel and we’re looking for Hebrew and Arabic speakers.”
Being an actor and comic in Los Angeles, you run into some interesting gigs. When my friend, Joey, himself a Christian Arab from Lebanon, called me about this one, I couldn’t resist.

Looping is plugging in background sound for movies after they are shot so they sound more realistic. I had done some looping sessions before, but they were all in English. While this movie was also in English, there were plenty of scenes with Hebrew and Arabic in them. My Hebrew is far from perfect, but I can still pull off the Israeli accent so I was pretty sure I could do the job.

I got to the soundstage early in the morning, and the first person I met was a really nice guy named Sayid from Egypt. He was an accomplished actor, and I even recognized him from the movie, “The Insider,” with Al Pacino.

As everyone else arrived for the looping and we filled out paperwork, we began schmoozing a little. (I’m guessing the Arabs would use a different word to describe it.) There were people from Egypt, Sudan, a really sweet girl from Iraq, a Druze from Lebanon whose family lived in Haifa, and four other Israelis beside me. There were Christians, Muslims, and Jews with all different levels of religious observance. I myself had to leave a little early because the session was on Friday, as I observe Shabbat.

The first few scenes were harmless enough — we covered small background conversations, mostly in Hebrew. I immediately noticed that while we were all very friendly with one another, when it came to where we all sat, all the Israelis were on one side, and the Arabs on another. I didn’t read too much into it and figured it was just out of convenience as most scenes were in either one language or another.

“OK guys, I need all five Hebrew speakers. This is right after a bus bombing, and I need as much sound as possible. You’ll notice paramedics, victims, etc.”
All five of us approached the microphone. We watched the scene with no sound and it was pretty gory. There was blood everywhere. We each decided who we would cover on the screen and got started. When the cue came, we all immediately started screaming our parts. You heard shouts in Hebrew of “My leg, my leg!” “I’m bleeding help me!” “Where’s my father!” “Out of the way, move, move!”

The one Hebrew-speaking woman was doing a great job crying in agony. When the sound cue was over we all stopped, and Joey chimed in, “I don’t know what you guys were saying but … man. Really intense guys.”

I looked over toward the Arab speakers, and I noticed them all staring back and forth at each other. The Iraqi girl named Yasmin Hannaney, who couldn’t have been nicer, finally just looked at us all and said, “Wow guys.”

I could tell they were affected by it, but oddly enough we sort of weren’t. It just seemed like we were almost too used to seeing it.

Shortly after there was a scene at a gravesite where Kaddish was being said. Two women displayed prominently in the shot were answering “amen,” and they needed to be dubbed. The only two female voices we had were Yasmin and the other Israeli woman. Yasmin smiled as she asked us, “How do I say it, aymen or amen?” As we told her the right way she just smiled and thanked us.

The next few scenes shifted to shots of Palestinians at various rallies, and Joey asked if he could get as many guys up as possible: “OK guys, we need a lot of volume to cover the chanting. Sayid, why don’t you lead.”

I suddenly found myself, along with all the other Israeli men, chanting “Allah Akbar,” and various other chants about God’s glory in Arabic. I couldn’t help but grin as I was doing it. Here I was, an Israeli-born Jew raised in a hugely Zionistic family, chanting at a Palestinian rally. I’d even spent the last three years leading a group of comics to Israel to perform to help support the state. I was at least hoping I would get a good joke out of all of this.

I’m not sure how I would have felt had I had to do some scenes where the chants were “Death to Israel” or something similar. Luckily it never came up. The time just seemed to fly by. Before I knew it I had to leave, and Joey told me it was fine. He completely understood, as opposed to most Jews I deal with in Hollywood who seem to always give me problems over my observance.

I felt badly that I had to sneak out so quickly, not having said goodbye to everyone, but I’ve kept in contact with some of the people from the session. Yasmin and I have e-mailed back and forth, and she’s started an organization dealing with making films in the Middle East.

I was honored when she asked me if I wanted to be involved and immediately accepted. I invited her and some of the other guys to some of my upcoming shows.

It seems ironic that if you want to make a movie about Arabs and Jews fighting with each other, the only way you can make it work is if you have them getting along.

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?

Fleeing Nazis Breaks His Father’s Spirit


My father, rarely impetuous, married my much younger mother when he was 46, and he was 49 when I was born.

When I was a toddler and we went occasionally together to the Berlin zoo, people came up and congratulated my father on his cute grandson. So there was this age gap, to begin with. We went on vacations together to a Baltic Sea resort or Denmark, but we never kicked a soccer ball around (who knew about baseball?).

My father, Dr. Gustav Tugendreich, was a well-known pediatrician and a pioneer in infant health care who had served as a frontline medical officer for four years in the Kaiser’s army during World War I.

He was profoundly steeped in German culture, could probably recite most of Goethe’s and Schiller’s works by heart and was an enthusiastic classical music buff.

As in most upper-class German Jewish families, the upbringing of my older sister and I was left largely in the hands of a devoted governess.

Typical of the time and class, my parents were completely assimilated, much more so than American Jews of that era. My earliest recollection of any religious rite was standing around the Christmas tree with the servants and singing “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”).

Yet, my father’s assimilation had its limits. When he was offered the directorship of the Berlin municipal hospital, on condition that he convert to Christianity, he refused.

Everything, of course, changed in 1933, when Hitler came to power — but only gradually. First, my father could no longer treat his “Aryan” patients. Then our beloved governess had to leave under a new law that no Aryan woman under 45 could work in a Jewish household.

For me, living in cosmopolitan Berlin, the change was hardly noticeable. I had gone to a private Montessori school, so didn’t have to switch. Now I was sent to a suburban Jewish boarding school, where I had the time of my life, the best teachers I have ever known and lived in Albert Einstein’s summer home, which he had donated to the boarding school.

In the beginning of the Nazi era, my father, thanks to his international reputation, was offered various positions abroad, including, oddly enough, at the main hospital in Tehran, but he couldn’t conceive of leaving Germany. Like many old-time German Jews, he looked on Hitler as a temporary aberration, which the good sense of the German people would soon reverse.

We still spent our family vacations abroad, the only prolonged stretches of time I recall with my father.

It’s odd what sticks in your mind. In 1935 or 1936, we vacationed on the idyllic Danish island of Bornholm, staying at a boarding house. One morning, a German man and his family arrived, and when the Danish host tried to introduce him to my father at the breakfast table, the German bowed briefly and stiffly but did not shake hands. My father responded in kind.

What puzzled me at the time was why the German wouldn’t shake hands, and later, how he knew immediately that we were Jews.

Finally, in 1937, two years after the Nuremberg laws consigned all Jews to third-class status, my father reluctantly agreed that it was time to leave. As in most families faced with life-changing decisions, it was my mother who was the more flexible, resolute and pragmatic.

But by now, all potential countries of refuge had pretty well closed their borders, and there was a line stretching ahead for years to get an American visa.

We were saved, in retrospect, by one of those odd happenstances that determine our lives.

Back in 1919, British and American Quakers sent missions to defeated Germany to help feed its hungry children, and my father was appointed liaison to the Quakers by the German government. Now my father recalled the brief relationship and tracked down the Quakers.

By a quirk of the U.S. immigration laws, academicians who had taught at a foreign university before emigration, and were guaranteed a one-year position at an American college, were granted a “nonquota” visa and skipped the immigration line.

Though my father had never been a professor, the British and American Quakers went to work and arranged a lectureship in public health, first at the University of London, and then at Bryn Mawr College, near Philadelphia.

So it was decided that my father would go ahead, spend 1937-38 in London and 1938-39 at Bryn Mawr, at which time the rest of the family would join him.

My mother was then head of the German WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) and reluctant to leave her post, and, anyhow, what was the hurry? Everybody in Germany knew that Hitler was so shrewd that he would get what he wanted without a war, and of course, anything like a Holocaust was beyond imagination.

My father was always a bit of a worrywart, and I clearly remember how we chuckled over his increasingly urgent letters, especially after the 1938 Munich pact, begging us to forget about bringing the furniture and money and come to America right away.

So we took our time and left flag-bedecked Berlin in style on April 20, 1939 — Hitler’s 50th birthday — flying from Tempelhof Airport to London, and then traveling on a German passenger ship from Southampton to New York, arriving in the middle of May.

We were met at the harbor by my father and some old Berlin friends (I believe we skipped Ellis Island), but I have no emotional recollection of the reunion.

I do remember that a few weeks later, the reunited family left for a couple of weeks for New Hampshire’s scenic White Mountains. There the Quakers had set up a camp with young American counselors to introduce the new refugees, mainly Jewish, to the native customs of their new country.

One lesson was that after each meal, the assorted ex-professors, doctors and lawyers and their wives and children had to bus and clean their own dishes. You have to know the ingrained European class distinctions to realize what an absolute shock this request represented.

My father, who had a great sense of humor, laughed the whole thing off and complied readily. But as I was carrying my dishes, an elderly refugee came up to me to express his shame and horror that the son of Herr Doctor would be asked to perform so menial a task.

Of course, the “yekkes” — German Jews — who arrived in Palestine in the 1930s had to undergo similar adjustments but perhaps with less sympathy from the old-time inhabitants.

Three months after that experience, and to my immense astonishment, Hitler invaded Poland, and World War II was under way.

My father tried hard but unsuccessfully to overcome his heavy Teutonic accent, but, in truth, the forced emigration had broken his heart and spirit. After his Bryn Mawr lectureship expired, he was too old, too ill and too weary to start from the beginning and try to study for an American medical license.

I was then a pimply teenager, completely self-centered, trying to cope with a new culture and language. I was of little help and solace to my father and happily enlisted in the U.S. Army as my first chance to get away.

My father died in 1948 at the age of 71. I recently received a very polite letter from the German Association of Pediatricians, mentioning my father’s name and expressing remorse for the treatment of Jewish physicians by their Aryan colleagues during the Nazi era.

It was a little too late.

 

Gay Marriage Ban Could Alienate Jews


It’s a familiar calculus in the relationship between the Jewish community and the Bush administration: a social issue that divides the country 50-50 has the Jewish community split 75-25 against where President Bush stands.

On Monday, Bush strongly endorsed the federal marriage amendment to the U.S. constitution, which would effectively ban gay marriage.

“Marriage is the most fundamental institution of civilization, and it should not be redefined by activist judges,” Bush said after meeting with supporters of the constitutional amendment. He was referring to the 2004 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court to recognize same-sex marriages.

The bill, which was likely to be considered by the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, has virtually no chance of passing. Constitutional amendments need 67 of the 100 Senate votes to pass, and no one anticipates the vote breaking 55.

That makes it a win-win for Bush in his effort to keep evangelical conservatives on board ahead of the November midterm congressional elections. The reasoning is that the amendment will still resonate with the GOP’s conservative base five months from now, but will likely have disappeared from the memories of Republican-leaning social moderates.

However, Jewish Republicans, who have been trying to lure Jews away from their solid 3-to-1 support for Democrats, might have been dealt a blow, at least according to the amendment’s opponents.

“It’s unclear to me how the Republican Party will gain ground in the Jewish community by bringing forth a centerpiece of the religious right’s agenda,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “For a large section of the Jewish community, this is an issue of fundamental rights and they will be watching closely to see how their senators vote.”

The Reform and Reconstructionist movements oppose the amendment. On Tuesday, the Conservative movement’s leadership joined in the opposition, in a statement that referred to a 2003 United Synagogue resolution opposing any such discrimination. Also in opposition are major Jewish civil liberties groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.

The National Council of Jewish Women has taken a lead in opposing the legislation, organizing clerical lobbying against it and leading an alliance of liberal Jewish groups in urging senators to vote it down. Orthodox groups, led by the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, support the amendment.

The most recent polling on the issue, by Gallup, found 50 percent of Americans in favor of the amendment and 47 percent opposed. A 2004 American Jewish Committee survey of American Jews found 24 percent in favor and 74 percent opposed.

Jewish supporters of the amendment suggested they would sell the amendment to the Jewish community as one that would guarantee religious freedoms.

Proponents of gay marriage were “pursuing a deliberate plan of litigation and political pressure which will not only redefine marriage, but will follow from that to threaten the first freedom enshrined in the First Amendment — religious liberty,” said Nathan Diament, the director of the Washington office of the Orthodox Union.

Diament, the only Jewish participant at the meeting with Bush on Monday, said the Massachusetts ruling already had a negative impact on religious freedom. He cited as example the state’s Roman Catholic Church decision to drop out of the adoption business because it would be required to consider gay couples as parents.

“They’re trying to impose their position on society at large,” he said of proponents of gay marriage. “How a society defines marriage affects everybody.”

That view had some backing from at least one Jewish civil rights group, the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).

Marc Stern, the AJCongress’ general counsel, cited the example of an Orthodox kosher caterer who could face a lawsuit for refusing to cater a same-sex wedding.

A successful compromise would “recognize the marriages in the context of a secular economy, for instance by not discriminating on domestic partner benefits, but it would not force people to act in areas they find morally reprehensible,” Stern said.

Chai Feldblum, a Georgetown University law professor and an activist for gay rights, said such arguments had no place in the public arena.

“There are lots of ways in which a religious organization can run its business as it wishes,” Feldblum said. “Rabbis don’t have to perform a marriage that they don’t agree with, a religious organization does not have to allow lesbians as rabbis. The problem is when religious organizations are operating in the public arena, with lunch banks, day camps, shelters. Then it’s very difficult to allow a religious organization to go against the public policy of the state.”

Republican Jewish spokesmen turned down requests for comment, but the amendment was not likely to help their efforts to appeal to Jews on domestic issues.

The emphasis before the 2004 election on Bush’s friendship with Israel and his tough reputation on security issues failed to make much of a dent on the Jewish Republican vote, which crept up to between 23 percent and 25 percent from about 19 percent in 2000.

Since then, Jewish Republicans have learned the lesson of emphasizing foreign policy too much and have carefully calibrated a social message designed to appeal to younger Jews. In Jewish newspaper advertisements and in stump speeches, Bush’s pro-business record is pitched to Jewish voters who may be more fiscally conservative than their parents.

And spokesmen like party chairman Ken Mehlman, who is Jewish, bluntly acknowledge to Jews that the Democrats were on the right side of history when they backed civil rights in the 1960s; but they say that Bush has inherited that mantle with his efforts to promote democracy abroad and force education reforms at home.

The most prominent Jewish Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would vote against the amendment. He cited classic Republican small government philosophy: government “ought to be kept off our backs, out of our pocketbooks and out of our bedrooms,” Specter said, according to The New York Times.

Democrats said the marriage amendment would help cripple such efforts.

“The Republicans are saddled with an agenda that’s horrific to the vast majority of American Jews,” said Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Supporters of the amendment said they believed momentum was on their side. A similar effort in 2004 garnered just 48 Senate votes; this effort will top 50, they believe.

Abba Cohen, the Washington director of Agudath Israel of America, said he believed all Americans would eventually internalize the amendment’s moral arguments.

“This battle will be won in stages,” he said. “It takes time for the nation to fully absorb the implications of allowing same-sex marriage and the effect it will have on traditional families.”

The Reform movement’s Pelavin said his impression was that time was on the side of opponents of the amendment.

“This isn’t a fight that we picked, this is a fight that the president and the Republican leadership have picked,” he said. “This is an issue of fairness.”

 

Iranian Colored Band Report Discredited


When the renowned exiled Iranian journalist Amir Taheri reported in a Canadian newspaper last week that Iran had just passed a law requiring Jews to wear yellow bands on their clothing, the world reacted with shock. The story, which also outlined required colored bands for Christians and Zoroastrians, was immediately picked up by major newspapers in Israel, and the word spread quickly. The purpose of the law according to Taheri’s article, was to set a standard dress code for Muslims and also for Iranian Muslims “to easily recognize non-Muslims so that they can avoid shaking hands with them by mistake and thus becoming najis [unclean]”.

The story seemed credible, given that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been making anti-Semitic and anti-Israel proclamations for months. But, as it turned out, Taheri was wrong. No such law had been passed.

Nevertheless, Taheri’s report set in motion a media frenzy, with checks and balances of rumor control that illustrate how on edge — and careful — the Iranian exile community is these days. Local Iranian Jewish leaders were bombarded with requests for comments from the international media on the reported legislation, but they held back from responding until they had received solid confirmation from their sources in Iran.

“To the best of my knowledge the final version of the law does not demand any identifying marks by the religious minority groups,” Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation said in a press release. “I am not aware of what was said by whom, but it is possible that some ideas might have been thrown around.”

Kermanian also said that while Iran’s Islamic officials have in the past put out ideas in the media to gauge international reaction, there was no specific information about this instance.

The report stemmed from new legislation geared to making women in Iran dress more conservatively and avoid Western fashions, Iranian legislator Emad Afroogh Afroogh who sponsored the Islamic Dress Code bill told the Associated Press on Friday. Allegations that new rules affecting religious minorities were not part of the new regulations, he said.

“It’s a sheer lie. The rumors about this are worthless,” Afroogh said. “There is no mention of religious minorities and their clothing in the bill.”

Morris Motamed, the Jewish representative in the Iranian Parliament also denied the existence of any bills designed to segregate Jews in the country with special insignia on their clothes.

“Such a plan has never been proposed or discussed in the parliament,” Motamed said. “Such news, which appeared abroad, is an insult to religious minorities here.”

Rumors of anti-Semitic laws in Iran have disturbed local Iranian Jews who have been increasingly concerned for the safety of roughly 25,000 Jews still living in Iran since Ahmadinejad denied the existence of the Holocaust and called for Israel to “wiped off the map” late last year.

“The mere fact that such possibilities are considered to be plausible is a reflection of the sad state of affairs of the religious minority groups in Iran,” Kermanian said in his press release.

According to a 2004 report prepared by Frank Nikbakht, a local Iranian Jewish activist who tracks anti-Semitism in Iran, the Jewish community lives in constant fear for its security amid threats from militant Islamic factions in the country. Since 1979, at least 14 Jews were murdered or assassinated by the regime’s agents, 11 Jews have disappeared after being arrested, at least two Jews died while in custody and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime. In 1999, Feizollah Mekhoubad, a 78-year-old cantor of the popular Yousefabad synagogue in Tehran, was the last Jew to be officially executed by the regime, stated the report.

In 2000, the local Iranian Jewish community was at the forefront of an international human rights campaign to save the lives of 13 Jews in Shiraz. They were facing imminent execution after being arrested on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States. Ultimately, the Shiraz Jews were not executed but sentenced to prison terms and have since been released.

Both Jews and Muslims of Iranian origins living in Southern California have been closely collaborating to raise public awareness of Ahmadinejad’s comments. Nearly 2,000 Iranians of various faiths gathered at a pro-Israel rally in Westwood last November to condemn Ahmadinejad’s calls for Israel’s destruction.

“We wanted to show the world that we are against such comments made by Mr. Ahmadinejad and that his comments are not representative of the Iranian people,” said Assadollah Morovati, owner of KRSI “Radio Sedaye Iran,” a Persian language satellite radio station based in Beverly Hills that broadcasts news around the world. “Iranians are not the type to want the destruction of another people. We respect the Jewish people and only wish success for the State of Israel.”

 

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.

 

‘Steins’ Skewers Simcha Rivalry


“Keeping Up With the Steins” proves that you don’t have to be Jewish to make a funny, insider Jewish film, or that if you grow up in the Bronx or went to school in North Hollywood, you become a Jew by osmosis.

Case in point is the son-father team of Scott and Garry Marshall, with the younger one directing the movie and the older one just about stealing the show as a hippie Jewish grandfather, who teaches his yuppie descendants that there’s more to a bar mitzvah than throwing the most lavish party in Brentwood.

The film opens with an aerial shot of a Queen Mary-sized cruise ship, whose bow displays a giant banner “Mazal Tov, Zachary.” The theme of the modest celebration is the last voyage of the Titanic, complete with a huge iceberg mockup, from which emerge a bevy of scantily clad mermaids — and that’s just for the appetizer.

Hosting the simcha is Arnie Stein (Larry Miller), “agent for the stars” and his trophy wife, who met at a Texas wet T-shirt contest.

Among the guests, and gnashing his teeth, is Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven, also slick agent Ari Gold in the HBO series “Entourage”), Stein’s business competitor, accompanied by his wife Joanne (Jami Gertz) and nerdy-looking son Benjamin (Daryl Sabara), whose own bar mitzvah is coming up in a few months.

Driving home from the Titanic bash, Adam Fiedler starts obsessing about his own heir’s bar mitzvah party. It’s not enough to keep up with the Steins — he has to put on a bash that will crush and humiliate his rival.

Safaris are so 1990, but renting Dodger Stadium is a possibility. At night, Adam dreams about a line of yarmulke-wearing Laker Girls as a bar mitzvah highlight.

As Adam’s fevered mind nears the breaking point, up pops his father, Irwin (Garry Marshall), pony-tailed and hippie-clad, along with his spaced-out blonde girlfriend Sandy (Daryl Hannah), whom he met on an Indian reservation, where her name is Sacred Flower.

Irwin deserted his wife, Rose (Doris Roberts), and young family 26 years ago, and Adam, who hasn’t seen or talked to his father since, has never forgiven him.

Father-son relations go from bad to worse when Irwin and Sandy go skinny-dipping in the family pool (in public view but backsides only), although the old hippie has better luck bonding with his grandson Benjamin.

Gradually it dawns on the boy, his parents and his up-to-date rabbi (who is busy preparing for his “Bill O’Reilly Show” appearance to discuss “The Passion of the Jews” and is portrayed by Richard Benjamin) that maybe, just maybe, the religious and spiritual aspects of the rite of passage are more important than the prize for the most ostentatious party.

Garry Marshall, born 72 years ago under the good Italian family name of Marscharelli, said that his son, the director, picked him for the grandfather role as “his 10th choice.”

In truth, agreed Scott Marshall, 37, he had first tried to cast Carl Reiner or Mel Brooks, but both balked at the skinny-dipping part. When he finally approached his father, the latter asked who would be his pool partner. Told it would be Hannah, Garry Marshall quickly agreed.

During a joint interview at the Marshall family-built and run Falcon Theatre in Burbank, father and son noted their qualifications as honorary Jews.

Garry, whose credits as comedy writer, producer, actor and director (film, television and now opera) stretch from “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” of the 1960s, through TV’s “Mork and Mindy” to such films as “Pretty Woman” and the recent “The Princess Diaries 2,” pointed to his Bronx boyhood and accent.

However, his real education came as decades-long comedy writer, when he was thoroughly indoctrinated with Jewish and Yiddish humor by his fellow scribes.

Scott, directing his first full-length feature film, passed the ethnic test when he had to convince “Steins” producer A.D. Oppenheim that he could do justice to the script by Mark Zakarin, even if he wasn’t Jewish.

“I told the producer that I married a Jewish woman, and therefore, in a way, I have a Jewish mother,” Scott Marshall said. “Luckily, that was close enough.”

He further strengthened his case during the interview by referring to “bubbe’s latkes” and his education at the Oakwood School in North Hollywood.

“When I was in seventh grade, I went to over-the-top bar mitzvahs all the time,” Scott Marshall recalled. “At that age, it was about the only place you could meet girls and socialize.”

He met his future wife at the school and even tried his hand at writing a youthful bar mitzvah party script.

“Steins” was shot in 25 days in Brentwood and other parts of Los Angeles, with the synagogue scenes filmed at Adat Ari El in Valley Village.

After shooting three separate bar mitzvah ceremonies or parties for the movie, Scott Marshall noted “Through this experience, I feel I have finally become a man.”

“Keeping Up With The Steins,” a Miramax film, opens May 12 at selected theaters.

 

Misguided Passion About Gibson’s Film


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 — Original Sin.

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

2 — Faith vs. Law.

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

3 — The Messiah.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

Wandering Jew – Upside Down


Here’s a verse that should be written in Psalms: “He who is lenient about Purim is a truly unhappy person.” Or, as one rabbi put it:

“Who doesn’t enjoy a bacchanalian feast where it’s a mitzvah to get drunk?”

Los Angeles Jewry, despite its reputation for disjointedness and spiritual lassitude, manages to be machmir — fastidious — in its observance of the “upside down” holiday, which includes costumes, carnivals, megillah reading, mishloach manot food baskets and the commandment to drink until you “don’t know the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai” — the villain and hero of the ancient Persian story of the redemption of the Jews.

Festivities began early on the weekend — consider Beth Chayim Chadashim’s Friday night Purim celebration with its klezmer band, Gay Gezunt — and then Saturday night with a blowout outdoor — brr!! — party in Beverly Hills, as well as children’s carnivals around town on Sunday (not rained out, to the dismay of many parents and glee of many mini-Mordechais and Esthers.)

Ending the Fast of Esther on Monday (not necessarily as fastidiously observed as the revelry) there were a bevy of choices for megillah readings, Purim shpiel skits and parties, depending on one’s religious observance, age, marital/kid status, sexual orientation, location and financial situation (the Kabbalah Centre’s party was $72, a multiple of chai, 18, the Jewish lucky number — lucky for them). Ikar’s party at the Westside Jewish Community Center had a bit of something for everyone: a Purim carnival for kids, an egalitarian megillah reading enhanced by video captions and explanations from Rabbi Sharon Brous, dressed as a pregnant ski bunny (oh, the stomach wasn’t a costume) and an irreverent but sometimes insider Purim shpiel followed by a liquered, DJ’ed dance party, during which the kids’ bouncy was toppled over. (Talk about upside down).

A general maxim for L.A. costume parties is that women wear skimpy, sultry outfits designed to entice and attract, rather than clever cumbersome contraptions expounding on current events or clever ironies. (For example, in Washington, D.C., a friend’s non-Jewish boyfriend dressed up for Purim as a wasp — not WASP, as he’s Catholic.)

On Purim, this custom of sexy dressing still holds: evidence includes a French maid, a bumblebee in fishnets, flappers, ’60s mini-dresses, ’70s mod-squads, butterflies, Pocahontas (yours truly). But some women risked it with clever/incomprehensible costumes: a woman in a ball gown peppered with broken credit cards (Angel of Debt), a red-faced woman dressed in all red (not meant to be an apple, but a red string; strangely she forgot to wear red strings) and someone who was An Eye for An Eye (don’t ask).

The other maxim for L.A. costumery is that it’s uncool for men to put too much effort into their costumes — if they dress up at all. Clever but low-maintenance costumes included a man in dry cleaning (plastic wrap over a hanger with paper reading “Mr. Dry Cleaning”), an Olympics curling outfit, and a multitude of cowboys who were very quick to point out that they were just lazy and not, repeat, not imitating the Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain” — which was spoofed in the Purim Shpiel as “Brokeback Shushan.” (Get it? Shushan, the capital of Persia, the setting for the Megillah?). “Capote,” another Oscar nominee for best picture, was strangely underrepresented. Go figure. Best Costume for a Jewish Man, or most effort: a JDate Profile — random pictures replete with clichéd lines ironed on a T-shirt.

While one is supposed to hear every word of the Story of Esther, it’s difficult between the noise and the costumes and the kids and the tedium of concentrating on 10 chapters in Hebrew. A couple of standout readings around town included Rabbi David Czapnik at the Jewish Learning Center in Hancock Park, who read with voices — not supernatural voices channeled from the other side (although that would be pretty cool), but acting out the main parts of the Megillah while still following the traditional trope tunes; the “edgy” women’s Megillah reading at B’nai David-Judea, an Orthodox synagogue that pushes the boundaries of tradition with its feminist takeover of the bimah, and, for those pressed for time, a superspeedy Megillah reading at Loeb & Loeb LLP law firm on Tuesday that took between 10 and 15 minutes (as opposed to the usual hour).

That sort of brevity should give one enough time to deliver Purim baskets — or have the kids traipse around town to trade with their friends’ candy or “loot.” Creativity and cleverness are also a hallmark of shalach manot; some went beyond the usual wine and hamantaschen, using themes: a flowerpot filled with flower-shaped foods, a beach basket with a sand pail and beach mat, a psuedo Italian basket with red wine and a cake that looked like spaghetti and meatballs. (Why? Why? Why?) That’s what many parents asked themselves this year, as people increasingly eschewed the homemade baskets in favor of sending out one basket through their shuls and schools (with proceeds donated to charity, as matanot l’evyonim is one of the main obligations of the holiday). Purim celebrations continued beyond the holiday and into the weekend.

The other one is the seuda, or the Purim meal, where wine, scotch and words of Torah flowed into one another. One particularly memorable note: After the Messiah comes the Talmud says that the only holiday Jews will still celebrate will be Purim. I’ll drink to that!

 

Europe’s Jews Caught in Cartoon Furor


European Jews have expressed a mixture of anger and frustration as the furor over a Muslim cartoon erupted into violence in Europe and the Middle East.

As frequent targets of anti-Semitic cartoons — many of them in the Arab press — Jews on one hand sympathized with the Muslim outrage over depictions of the Islamic prophet Mohammed, which is considered by Muslims to be blasphemous.

But Jews joined many others in expressing shock at the level of violence the controversy sparked.

“Of course, we condemn all forms of propaganda that carry prejudice toward any faith. But people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” said Serge Cwajgenbaum, the secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress.

In Denmark, Jews felt solidarity with their country as it came under attack after a Danish newspaper printed the controversial cartoons, including one that depicted the Islamic prophet Mohammed as wearing a turban shaped as a bomb.

“Usually the Jews are always in the center of things, but here we feel we are part of the Danish population,” said Rabbi Bent Lexner, Denmark’s chief rabbi.

Other newspapers across the world — in France, in Australia and in the United States — printed one or more of the cartoons. In France, the editorial director of France Soir, was fired after running at least one of the cartoons. At least one Israeli paper, the Jerusalem Post, also reprinted the cartoons. A German Jewish Web site, haGalil, was hacked after it posted some of the Danish cartoons.

The fallout took on specific Jewish overtones as the Muslim reaction intensified. As Muslims rioted across the Middle East, the Web site of the Arab European League printed anti-Semitic cartoons and Iran’s largest newspaper requested cartoon submissions that question the Holocaust.

“The cartoon was made by a Danish newspaper, not a Jewish one. But once again, someone does something and we as Jews are guilty,” said Petr Kadlcek, the head of Poland’s Union of Religious Jewish Communities.

Most European Jews, led by France’s chief rabbi, Joseph Sitruk, saw the original cartoons as a needless provocation.

Following a meeting with French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, Sitruk said, “We win nothing by disparaging religions, humiliating them by making caricatures of them.”

Jews are no strangers to racism dressed up as humor, said David Ruzie, a French university professor and international law specialist.

“There is humor, and there is humor,” Ruzie said. “It was through derision that Germany, and in France as well, before World War II, began to attack Jews.”

There was widespread condemnation of the Muslim reaction, which in addition to the anti-Semitic cartoons, included Muslim violence, throwing rocks at Danish and other European institutions abroad and, in some cases, setting buildings ablaze.

“I don’t believe in absolute freedom of expression,” said journalist Jean-Claude Baboulin, writing in Guysen Israel News, a news service, “but I certainly don’t defend the Muslims who believe they have a right to forbid others what their religion forbids them,” he wrote, referring to the Muslim prohibition to depict Mohammed.

This is not the first example of religious slander in the European media, but the reactions are exaggerated, said Jean-Michel Rosenfeld, a Paris official.

“There is something to be angry over, just like when Catholics were furious over caricatures of the Holy Trinity in the French press,” he said, “but the Catholics did not go out and burn buildings.”

Others reacted with more equanimity.

People of all faiths must work to defuse the situation, said Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, complementing German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her call “for prudence and de-escalation.”

For some elderly Danish Jews, the violence brought back some historical nightmares, said Lexner, the Danish chief rabbi.

“I think that there are some kinds of fear, especially of those people who have seen this burning of flags and violence in the many countries, and they compare” that to the 1940s, fretting that “things are repeating themselves,” he said.

In England, both lawmakers and Muslim leaders condemned a demonstration last Friday in front of the country’s largest mosque, during which some Muslims threatened terrorism and another “7/7,” referring to the July subway and bus bombings that left 56 dead.

Most Muslim protests in Europe were peaceful, however.

Many European and American Jewish observers noted the irony of Muslims and Arabs objecting to an offensive characterization of Mohammed when anti-Jewish characterizations are rampant in the Arab world.

Some in the secular French Jewish community revealed bitterness at the anger expressed against France, particularly concerning demonstrations that took place in Gaza.

Ruzie wrote on the Web site desinfos.com: “The traditionally welcoming attitude of France toward the Palestinians” has not exactly “paid off.”

Underlying much of the reaction was an anger that efforts at tolerance and dialogue could now be jeopardized.

“Some people have worked for trying to integrate the Muslim community in the Danish society, and I think that, in that way, many years of work were destroyed,” Lexner said.

JTA staff writer Chanan Tigay in New York and correspondents Dinah A. Spritzer in Prague, Lauren Elkin and Brett Kline in Paris and Toby Axelrod in Berlin contributed to this report.

 

Drawn to Controversy


Early this week I started getting the letters. By midweek there were dozens of them, all strident, some using BIG CAPS to make their point.

“Do you have the GUTS to reprint those cartoons?” many of them started off.

Some substituted another part of the male anatomy for guts — heck, I don’t even have the guts to reprint that word.

“Rob, do you DARE publish this!” said another letter.

And another: “You have a RESPONSIBILITY to publish the controversial cartoons on Islamofascism. PUBLISH THE CARTOONS… we need to resist the Islamofascists on ALL fronts. In solidarity with the people of free Europe and in support of the concept of freedom.”

The letter writers wanted The Journal to reprint cartoons of the prophet Muhammed that first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September. The cartoons have sparked international outrage among Muslims, including riots, kidnapping, diplomatic reprisals and death threats.

I composed a standard reply for all these correspondents, some of whom seemed to belong to a concerted campaign or movement.

 


A cartoon in a Palestinian newspaper drew inspiration from blood libel claims.

A caricature of a Jew penning an anti-Muslim cartoon ran in the online Iranian newspaper al-Vefagh.

 

“Dear Writer,” I began, “I have the guts to publish the cartoons if YOU have the TIME to stand guard in front of our offices and my house.”

I didn’t sign on to be on the front lines of the war of civilizations, and I certainly don’t intend to be pushed there on account of some third-rate scribbles — which, by the way, I wouldn’t have published in the first place.

Just about everybody I’ve spoken with thinks the cartoons are appropriate, even funny. But the cartoon of the prophet Muhammed with a bomb for a turban was a crude, racist stereotype of an entire religion. We’ve published plenty of offensive cartoons and images. Our April 19, 2002 full-color cover caricature of Yasser Arafat sucking the bones of the dove of peace as blood dripped from his chin comes to mind. Numerous liberal groups protested that issue. Even last week’s cover on Hamas, showing a hand holding a victory sign, a grenade and the ink-stained finger of a Palestinian voter, drew criticism.

But those images were attacks on specific people or groups, not an entire religion. I understand suicide bombers and terrorists act in the name of their religion. But for a newspaper to publish a cartoon that then indicts that religion crosses a line of logic and sensitivity.

“The bottom line is we live in a world based on freedom of expression,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center told me.

“But it’s a double-edged sword. Especially in the times we live in, people should have enough derech eretz not to mock entire religions,” the rabbi said, using the Hebrew expression for “respect.”

There is the teensiest bit of hypocrisy in the reaction of some Jews and Jewish groups. These are the same people who regularly blow gaskets every time the Los Angeles Times runs an op-ed cartoon of, say, an Israeli soldier with a Star of David on his helmet. If the paper published an image defaming all Jews and Judaism, these groups would be livid — and they’d be right.

But of course, that’s where the comparison ends. The hypocrisy on the Muslim side is of staggering, laughable-were-it-not-so-tragic proportions. The state-sponsored Arab media gushes with anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, anti-Buddhist, anti-Hindu caricatures and writings. Groups like the Wiesenthal Center and MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, have been tracking such outrages for years. The bitter irony is that the European press, which itself has trafficked in anti-Israel cartoons that easily cross the line to anti-Semitism, has rarely if ever denounced these transgressions. And now their publishers and governments are shocked, shocked by the reaction from countries whose own press has long escaped their condemnation.

I won’t reprint those Danish cartoons, but I will reprint the above cartoon taken from a recent Palestinian newspaper, showing a Muslim girl crucified by an American and Israeli spear as Jews look on and gloat.

This is but one example. A program on state sponsored Syrian television dramatized the blood libel, and there were TV programs in Iran alleging that Israelis have murdered Palestinian children to use their eyes to give sight to blind Israeli children. The media and mosques mock and defame Jews, Americans and Christians, and the harshest reaction they garner is condemnation from the few organizations smart enough to understand where such extremism inexorably leads.

It leads to the beheading of American journalists, the kidnapping of innocent Christians aid workers — all in the name of Islam. “Muslims of the world, be reasonable,” wrote Jihad Momani, editor-in-chief of the weekly independent newspaper Al-Shihan in an editorial alongside the cartoons. “What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?” Following the publication, Momani was fired.

Hypocrisy of this scope and scale goes beyond the capacity of mere individuals — it must be the work of governments. Indeed, many analysts believe that Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and/or Egypt have a hand in these riots. “It’s hard to believe this is spontaneous combustion,” Rabbi Cooper said.

The cartoons initially appeared in September. Imans of state-funded mosques carried them around, whipping up Muslim youth who, as the riots earlier this year in France proved, are fairly well-alienated in any case.

Why the leaders of this effort pulled the trigger now is a matter of speculation. Rabbi Cooper believes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wanted to defuse pressure on his country’s development of nuclear weapons and test the international community’s resolve in confronting the “Arab street.” The Iranian News Agency actually runs an Arab-language newspaper on the Internet, al-Vefagh, that has stoked the controversy. The latest cartoon from al-Vefagh (pictured above), shows a Jew at work penning anti-Islam cartoons.

“The Iranians are taking notes, seeing how far they can push the West,” Rabbi Cooper said. “God forbid when they have nuclear weapons and can really bully us.”

Writing in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Dastour, Egyptian American journalist Mona Eltahawy said, “Perhaps the Muslim governments who spearheaded the campaign — led by Egypt — felt this was an easy way to burnish their Islamic credentials at a time when domestic Islamists are stronger than they have been in many years.”

On Tuesday, the Iranians found an even more insidious way to fan the flames: its largest newspaper launched a competition to find the 12 “best” cartoons about the Holocaust.

“The Western papers printed these sacrilegious cartoons on the pretext of freedom of expression, so let’s see if they mean what they say and also print these Holocaust cartoons,” Farid Mortazavi, graphics editor for Tehran’s Hamshahri newspaper, told the London Times.

My guess is Art Spiegelman isn’t going to be a finalist in this competition.

My other guess is that, crude and stupid as those cartoons will be, no Jews will start burning buildings or kidnapping Iranians.

This cartoon crisis is a battlefront in the war of civilizations. But that war isn’t between Islam and the West. It is between the tolerant and the intolerant, fanatics and moderates.

Those cartoons provided fuel for the fanatics to stoke the flames of the war.

But anybody with a wisp of hope for humanity cannot have a shred of sympathy for the rioters, the religious leaders and governments behind them.

Salaam al-Marayati, the executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC), told me that the cartoons crossed the line from free speech to hate speech. Many European countries have laws against Holocaust denial and Nazi propaganda, he said, and publishers of cartoons like these should face similar punishments. “Everybody has the right to be a racist,” he said, “but society has a responsibility to speak to these issues.”

In a press release, MPAC has condemned the cartoons and the violence. But its condemnation of the violence strikes me as too tame, too couched in criticism of the cartoons themselves.

Here’s some free advice to the leaders of American Muslim groups: Organize a massive, peaceful counterdemonstration against the rioters and their backers within Arab and Islamic regimes. Demonstrate for a peaceful resolution to this issue. Show the passion of moderate Islam. There is no excuse for crossing the line from being provoked and offended, to being violent.

I could publish those cartoons if I wanted to, but I don’t want to. The biggest casualty of this campaign of thuggery and intimidation is not free speech, but moderate Islam.