In “Remember” a common enemy unites two survivors in a deadly mission
Action heroes in Hollywood movies are generally handsome, virile studs, handy with a gun or a girl, preferably both.
However, in “Remember,” the two principals, Zev and Max, are both 90-year-old Holocaust survivors, passing their not-so-golden years in an assisted living facility.
Max (Martin Landau) is wheelchair-bound but with sharp mind, while Zev (Christopher Plummer), though ambulatory, slips in and out of dementia and borderline Alzheimer’s. The two are bound by a common tragedy. Both of their families were murdered in Auschwitz by the same SS guard.
Now, some 70 years later, Max has discovered that the murderous guard escaped to America after the war and assumed the name of Rudy Kurlander. To complicate matters, Max has been informed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (nice plug) that there are four men by that name living in the United States and Canada.
During a long session at the retirement home, Max hands Zev an envelope full of addresses, instructions and $100 bills, and tasks him to find each of the Kurlanders, and, when he finds the ex-SS guard, to kill him.
1,500 raise voices in song to remember Debbie Friedman
As the piano struck the first notes of Debbie Friedman’s “Elohai N’Shama,” Cantor Linda Kates paused before the approximately 1,500 people gathered in the sanctuary at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) and recalled a story about how the late singer-songwriter energized a crowd of Jewish students while teaching them the song.
“We all have a ‘Debbie story,’ ” Kates said, as the audience laughed along with her.
More than a dozen Jewish musicians, rabbis and cantors told their “Debbie stories” and performed some of Friedman’s most popular tunes as part of a free, public memorial concert VBS hosted Feb. 13 to honor the composer’s legacy. Titled “Lechi Lach” after one of Friedman’s early hits, the evening marked the end of the traditional 30-day period of mourning following her death Jan. 9.
The mood was upbeat and joyous as performers including Craig Taubman, Julie Silver and Sam Glaser performed Friedman’s crowd-pleasers, frequently inviting the audience to stand, clap and sing along. Community members and clergy came from across Los Angeles to celebrate the way Friedman reinvigorated Jewish communal worship during her career and touched the lives of those who knew her as a friend.
“How do you say ‘thank you’ for all the gifts she gave over her lifetime? How do you say ‘thank you’ for all the songs we sing that came from her?” wondered Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi of VBS, who organized the memorial. “To gather together and sing … that’s the highest form of grieving, the deepest form of remembering, the most powerful form of resurrection.”
The power of Friedman’s music to unite Jewish people was evident as audience members young and old belted out familiar lyrics with gusto, relishing tunes many had grown up with at Hebrew school and summer camp.
Spanning Friedman’s nearly 40-year recording career, starting with her 1972 debut album, “Sing Unto God,” the program featured more esoteric compositions alongside melodies that long ago entered the canon of contemporary Jewish liturgical music. Songs included Friedman’s original arrangements of “Oseh Shalom” and “Mi Shebeirach,” now staples of Reform synagogue services, and her folk-rock anthems “Turn the World Around,” “And the Youth Shall See Visions” and “Not By Might.”
Glaser sang Friedman’s iconic “Tefilat HaDerech” and a medley of her children’s songs, including “The Latke Song” and her ubiquitous tune for the Alef-Bet. After the concert, he praised the way the event brought together Jews of all denominations beneath one roof.
“When you suffer a loss like this, it erases boundaries,” said Glaser, who described Friedman’s music as “a gift from God.”
Cantor and performer Kenny Ellis of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita reminded attendees of Friedman’s humorous side when he showed off a pair of oversize red clown shoes Friedman years ago had goaded a choir into wearing.
Singer-songwriter Silver took the stage in an energetic performance of Friedman’s “Devorah’s Song,” “You Are the One” and “Not By Might.” Silver said she credits her years of friendship with Friedman for inspiring her to become a performer of Jewish music.
“Debbie Friedman’s greatest gift to me was the gift of song. I was a student learning her songs, an educator transmitting her pieces, and finally a songwriter and performer as a result of the vision she shared with me,” Silver said. “She was a master teacher, composer, healer and song-leader, and anyone who was lucky enough to have stood in her light knows how important it is to the future of our people to carry the torch forward.”
Taubman, music producer and performer with Craig ’n Co., sang Friedman’s arrangement of “V’shamru” and “Sow in Tears, Reap in Joy,” stepping down off the bimah and exhorting the crowd to lead the songs themselves. Like others during and after the concert, Taubman said he found it difficult to memorialize Friedman’s legacy through words alone. But in celebrating her music, he said, “her spirit lives on.”
Other performers included Cantor Mike Stein of Temple Aliyah and his family band, the Rolling Steins, and music educator and performer Cindy Paley Aboody, who sang “Lechi Lach” (the feminine form of God’s commandment to Abraham and Sarah to “go forth”).
VBS put the concert together over a two-week period, with no budget. Performers and organizers volunteered their time out of love for Friedman, and even if the show in places seemed unrehearsed, it had all the spirit of an impromptu campfire sing-along.
During the finale, in which Silver led an ensemble performance of “Mourning Into Dancing” and “Miriam’s Song,” women across the audience leapt to their feet and danced around the sanctuary in a grapevine.
Friedman’s mother, Frieda, and sister, Cheryl, were in the audience, along with Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
Cheryl Friedman of Orange County said she was touched by the outpouring of respect and affection in her sister’s honor. “Even during the upbeat songs, we had tears in our eyes,” she said. “When people were dancing in the aisles, I looked at my mom and said, ‘Look what Debbie did.’ I just wish she could have been alive to see this.”
We dare not murder memories of genocide
Amnesia of the past foreshadows amnesia of the future. Forget yesterday's tragedy and the threat to tomorrow is denied. Forget the first genocide of the 20th century — the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 — and the memory and atrocities of the first genocide of the 21st century in Darfur turn invisible, and the world response is muted.
The Polish Jewish jurist, Raphael Lempkin, who coined the term “genocide,” defined it in large part by what happened to the Armenians in 1915. Armenia was the cautionary record of a mass murder of a people, which tragically and shamelessly the world has and continues to repress.
Amnesia is a sickness and feigned amnesia is a blasphemy. To choose to forget what happened to the martyrs is an insult to their memory and a danger to our children. As the philosopher Cicero sagely observed, “Not to know what happened to you before you were born is to remain forever a child.”
Infantilizing ourselves and our progeny is dangerous, and silence is lethal. We dare not murder memory.
The Hebrew term for remember (zachor) appears 169 times in the Bible. Memory is a sacred mandate. Jewish World Watch, founded almost three years ago and comprised of over 50 synagogues of every denomination throughout Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Orange counties, was formed to use its energies to make people aware of and stop genocide. Its initial focus has been on the ongoing genocide of the persecuted people of Darfur.
It continues its work in Darfur and Chad by building and supporting medical clinics; creating water wells; sending solar cookers for women intimidated, branded, tortured and raped by the Janjaweed in the fields where they have to forage for scraps of firewood to cook; providing educational materials to children desperate for any sense of normalcy, and a social worker dedicated to providing grief counseling to a population where every single family has lost at least one of its members.
No two dyings are the same. No two holocausts are the same. Darfur is not Rwanda; the killing fields of Cambodia are not the crematoria of the Nazi death camps.
Every genocide is singular. But a kinship of suffering unites us all. To play the shameless game of “one-downsmanship” is an invidious sport. My blood is not redder than yours, my suffering not more painful than yours. Hatred consumes us all indiscriminately.
We have enough tears to shed for others. Our tear ducts are not dried up. Our hearts are not so small that they cannot beat for and with another.
We join together to remember and to bind each other's wounds. In memory, we together raise our collective conscience and act out our resolve. “Never again” will we allow the threat of genocide to terrorize any nation, religion or ethnic community. Together we demonstrate our solidarity and mutual support.
On Friday, April 27, at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino, Jewish World Watch will honor Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, a joint service of memory, including Armenian and Jewish choirs, liturgy, song and reflection. Prior to the 8:15 p.m. service, an Armenian Sabbath dinner will be served at 6 p.m. (by reservation only).
Harold M Schulweis is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and founder of Jewish World Watch.
The IDF and Civilians: A Personal Account
To all those who feel that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers have no regard for civilians, and that they “do what they need to do” without regard for potential
civilian casualties, I offer no opinions on this matter.
Instead, I offer this personal experience for your consideration.
It was July 12, 1984, my first day on the Ketziot basic training base, my new “home” as an IDF soldier in the Givati Infantry Brigade. One by one, we were issued what was then the standard IDF infantry weapon, the Israeli-made Galil rifle. Here we were, 18-year-old kids who barely knew anything about life, suddenly holding in our hands a weapon that had the potential to save lives or to take lives.
Upon receiving these weapons, we were gathered into a large mess hall, where an officer was waiting to address us. We expected a lesson on the mechanics of the Galil rifle. Instead, the officer had come to speak to us about Tohar Ha-Neshek — the “Purity of the Weapon.”
He spoke at length about the moral use of the weapon vs. the immoral use of the weapon, and of the responsibility we had to uphold the value of Tohar Ha-Neshek no matter what the circumstances. He concluded his remarks by saying, “I am not a particularly religious person, but remember that to uphold the purity of your weapon is a Kiddush ha-Shem (sanctification of God’s name), and to violate it is a Chilul ha-Shem (desecration of God’s name).”
Six months later, my unit found itself in Southern Lebanon, fighting the same Hezbollah that the IDF fights today. The Galil that we were issued six months earlier had unfortunately gotten its fair share of real-life wear and tear, but it was not until Feb. 5, 1985, that we learned a real-life lesson in “Purity of the Weapon.”
Late in the afternoon that day, as our convoy was leaving our post in Borj el Jimali (two miles east of Tyre), a Hezbollah suicide bomber drove his car straight into our convoy, triggering a massive explosion in our faces. We responded like we were taught — jump out of the vehicle, take cover and return fire. In typical Hezbollah fashion, they carried out this attack in an area filled with civilians, which means that we were faced with the awful prospect of firing into the homes of civilian men, women and children caught in the crossfire.
After our initial barrage of fire, our officer instructed us to regroup into small teams that would enter buildings to search for any terrorists cooperating with the suicide bomber. His instructions still ring clearly in my ear, and took me back to the lecture I heard about “Purity of Weapons” just six months earlier: “This area is filled with civilians, and there is no need to injure or kill them. In our search for terrorists, please try to minimize any civilian casualties.”
These instructions came from an officer who, just a few minutes earlier, had 100 kilos of dynamite explode into his face and that of his troops, yet he was still able to keep a clear mind and remember that the IDF was in Lebanon to fight Hezbollah terrorists, not Lebanese civilians.
It was true then, and it is still true today.
Daniel Bouskila is rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.
(Rob Eshman’s column will return next week.)
Out of the Shadows
It is the middle of the night. I hear a strange sound in the living room.
Heart pounding, I get out of bed, grope awkwardly through darkness for the light switch … push up … nothing happens. I try another switch. No light. I feel desperately alone. My surroundings remain one shadowed mass of space … my terror grows…. Then I wake up.
I’ve been having this same, vivid nightmare for months.
Once fully conscious, I turn on the light and sigh relief into the illumination. Safe again in “reality,” I tour my apartment — gratefully able to see that all my stuff is in place. I return to bed and muster up the courage to turn off the lamp and re-enter the obscurity. I wish I still had my childhood nightlight — back when it was acceptable to be afraid of the dark.
Darkness is frightening. It is the realm of uncertainty, with everything enveloped in a state of unified oblivion. The world we call “real” — based on substance, physical existence and visible actuality — is nullified by the blackness of night. In this domain of the unknown, boundaries blur, imagination stirs and possibilities of reality broaden beyond confines of fact. Separate materials and individuals distinguishable with light mesh together into nothing, and when they do, we become insecure. When the possessions and relationships by which we define our selves disappear, we become unsure of who we are. As did Jacob.
“Vayira Ya’akov meod vayetzer lo.” Upon sending forth all his possessions in hopes of placating his estranged brother Esav, “Jacob was very afraid and distressed.” In other words, without his stuff around to define him, Jake freaked. He suffered a hard blow to his ego, throwing him into identity crisis.
See, the ego exists in material reality, where physical boundaries separate one thing from another. It believes that “I” exists independently from “you” — with both of us distinct from every thing else. As the product of our transition from infancy (where we feel interconnection and wholeness) into adulthood, it is based on our capacity to name: to define parts from the whole. Its identity is defined in opposition to and in relationship with an “other,” and it thrives on its control and possession over any thing distinct from its limited sense of self.
Jacob’s distress came from his enormous ego. It inspired his betrayal of his brother — for the prestige of a birthright — and a life prioritized by the accumulation of property. When forced to give it up, he began the struggle that always results from an ego-based existence: Jacob’s separate sense of self confronted the fear and loneliness at its source. He had tried (as we do today … with VIP passes and Ferraris rather than birthrights and oxen) to compensate for his sense of lacking by accumulating more material; now he had to confront his motivating force: the terror of isolation from living in a reality of separation.
Suddenly, he had nothing. He sent all his possessions and relations away; in the middle of the night, he was “left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed … he wrenched Jacob’s hip.”
In the dark domain of the unknown; of imagination and blurry boundaries, where definitions of separation that encourage the ego to call “reality” real blend back together into one space of nothing, a nameless man attacked Jacob’s exposed ego.
He fought as we all fight: against illusions of nothing that we make into “somethings” of value — to be possessed by our individual selves as compensation for insecurity and loneliness. Within the limitless blackness he struggled with his attachments to the world of limited materials; he battled his definitions of self as opposed to, and seeking ownership over, everything else. He wrestled the fear; the fallacies of scarcity and disconnection — dislodging his hip in the process. In the depths of shadow, he contested the very idea of separation, for there must be an “other” to fight against.
He combated the nightmare of isolation…. Then he woke up.
His spiritual self became conscious. His ego weakened, and he began to remember the Oneness. The realities of abundance and sustenance; the wholeness (shleimut — that allows for peaceful being. The Source, whose first act of creation was to bring forth light from darkness, again made Itself manifest in that most fundamental way. Dawn broke; the light switch worked; and his nameless adversary affirmed that Jacob had prevailed over “beings Divine and human” before Jacob returned him to the nothingness of night. The identity crisis was over, and he was renamed: Israel.
Last week I had the nightmare again, but rather than becoming fearful when the lights would not work, I walked into the darkness. I realized I could make my way just fine. I was free: to dance in it; to laugh; to disappear into the primordial unity of darkness, from where I could — in the image of my Creator — recreate. As He did in the beginning. From out of shadows: the light and love of a reality I choose to live. A reality where nothing is more valuable than any thing I feel separate from.
Then I asked my parents to buy me a nightlight for Chanukah … just in case.
Karen Dietsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.
Chemistry and the Torah: The Limits of Understanding
As teenagers living in America, we are often encouraged to take advantage of our natural capacity to question. Throughout a regular school day, I’ve heard that the average student asks 25 questions, which is 125 questions a week and 4,500 questions in a school year. It is indisputable that questioning enhances our knowledge and helps us grow as people.
In both Judaic and secular subjects at Shalhevet High School, where I am a senior, my teachers are open to questioning and promote intellectual growth in that way. As a centrist Orthodox high school, Shalhevet expects us to adhere to halachic standards and, at the same time, our questions are encouraged and treated seriously.
What we need to ask ourselves, though, is at what point can we accept that answers might be beyond our understanding? Or, at what point are there no answers? And, if we don’t know or understand an answer, does that mean we can’t or don’t have to believe it?
In Judaism, we are always going to be faced with questions that contain answers that either we do not understand, or do not have answers for at all. Built in to the Torah are specific commandments that we don’t know the reason for. These commandments are known as chukim. As with everything in the Torah, these mitzvot must serve an essential purpose or they wouldn’t be there. It is even possible that chukim exist merely to promote the idea that we can’t or won’t understand everything we do.
A lack of understanding is something we deal with everyday. It is irrelevant how much I have paid attention in AP chemistry; I still do not understand colligative properties perfectly. I have questioned, and I have experimented, but the answers I have been given are just too complex. That does not mean that the properties aren’t accurate. It is merely a reflection on myself, and the fact that I am not learned enough to understand. I can still believe that when I mix salt with ice, I will raise the freezing point and therefore be able to make ice cream.
Similarly in Judaism, there are also commandments with reasons I may never understand. I cannot possibly understand why Hashem needs me to praise Him with the same words everyday (daven to Him, which is not a chok). I have heard many explanations, but I don’t understand them; they do not fully explain the requirement. Regardless, I am obligated to daven, whether or not I understand why.
I hope that in the future, after davening and learning, the answers will become clearer. The same way I do not completely understand colligative properties, I do not understand davening. But I never denied the validity of the properties, and I can also not deny the validity of davening.
Judaism is a simple religion containing many complexities. No one could realistically hope to understand everything. It is important to question and to learn. But when we don’t understand something, or don’t agree with something, we need to remember that it doesn’t give us license to not follow halacha or to not keep the Torah.
The Jew who believes in Hashem and the holiness of the Torah is not unlike the struggling chemistry student; if you believe in the foundations of the discipline, then you accept the validity of the parts you don’t understand and push for greater understanding in the future. Religion is simple and you must be loyal to Hashem’s every word regardless of your lack of understanding. But on top of that you are obligated to find out the answers to your questions and adapt them to your life.
It is extremely challenging to keep the commandments while not fully understanding them, but in reality we accept things constantly that we do not fully understanding (i.e., colligative properties). Commandments should, therefore, also be accepted without full understanding since they not only enhance our lives, but lead us in the correct derech (way) every day.
Alison Silver is a senior at Shalhevet High School. Her article originally appeared in The Boiling Point.
In the Seats Around You
I got a new outfit for yontif. The clothes add to the newness of this time of year, just like the first day of school. I sometimes wonder if the synagogues crank up the air conditioning on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so we have an excuse to wear our new fall clothes.
The shul I grew up in had assigned seats — the bigger the macher, the closer to the bimah — so we got to know the people who sat around us. I came to rely on them being in their seats as part of the holiday: the woman a few rows in front with the beautiful silver hair; the board member who sat with his son in the section to our right, who was recently carrying his grandson up and down the aisle; the May-December couple who now look more like the a November-December couple, and the “lady doctor” who sat next to us. We knew she was a doctor because Dr. preceded her name on the pledge form we dutifully handed her each year. However, we’ve never learned her name because we didn’t have time to read the entire card as we were passing them on. I wish we had asked her name. Instead, we settled for a smile and a “Good yontif.” I still ask my parents how she is when I call home after services.
I remember the women who wore hats (my mother said women should wear hats on yontif). And I remember hanging out as a teenager, laughing and flirting. Since all the adults were in services and the teachers were busy with the younger children, the shul and its hallways were ours.
Funnily, I can’t remember the beautiful sermons my rabbi gave, but I remember these people. We marked the passing of our years by observing them — the graying of hair, the addition of grandchildren.
I’ve watched as the people having aliyahs have gone from being my parents’ friends to my friends. The children in the hallways are my children. When did this happen? The feeling of being itchy in my new tights and wool jumper, and eating apples and honey with my Hebrew school class is still so fresh in my mind.
The High Holidays make your mind wander — wander around the people around you and no longer around you. I remember sitting in the back of the sanctuary during Yizkor. I wasn’t supposed to be there. None of my friends were allowed to sit with me. But my sister did. We wanted to be there to remember our grandparents. And it was important to be in the sanctuary as if by being there we were lending our strength to our parents who were reciting “Kaddish.”
The first Rosh Hashanah away from my childhood synagogue was lonely. I was a stranger. My husband stayed home with our infant daughter so I could attend services. I sat in the front, not because I was a macher, but because I got there early. I looked around. No one had beautiful gray hair, I had no idea who the board members were and no one was sitting next to me. I saw some men drifting off, but they were not my father. I missed him as I missed my mother and my sister. I missed the familiarity of the hallways. I missed my congregation. I was wearing new clothes, but it didn’t feel like yontif. Suddenly, in walked a boy who I had grown up with, who I was in Hebrew school carpool with. He sat next to me and introduced me to his wife who was expecting their first child. He pointed out people he knew.
We reminisced about home. And with that, it wasn’t just some synagogue anymore — it was my shul.
I know that I was angry at L. I remember feeling frustrated and sad, not so much over L., but about the life we had envisioned, that I had started to view as a reality. I found myself mourning the losses that never were — theoretical, suppositional losses — the honeymoon we would not spend in Jerusalem; the home we would not set up together; the children we would not have.
L. and I broke off our engagement last year, a month before our wedding date of June 20.
On the day our wedding was to have been, I was intensely aware of the time when we would have been standing under the chuppah, without seeing a clock or watch. My breath stopped, and I stood still, feeling the growing ache in my chest. I spent the day alone, and I cried. And I thought about cosmic meaning and why this was happening to me. And then everything was fine.
It was not a pleasant summer, but June 21 marked a new phase. Once the day of the non-wedding passed, I was able to move on.
It was a weird time. People didn’t know what to say. It was not a tragedy; it was not even heartbreaking like a divorce when children are involved. I recognized that. But it did suck.
“Better now than later,” people said.
Better still would have been before the invitations went out, guests made plane and hotel reservations and gifts were delivered. As L. was from Colorado but studying in New York, all the gifts had been delivered to my parents’ house in New York, and served as a reminder for weeks of what would not be — until everything could be sorted out. One of the hardest things was having to explain to each person why the gifts were being returned.
I immediately missed having someone in my life; I missed being a couple, interacting with others as a couple, a state I had graduated to after years of singlehood. I had been one of the elite, an engaged man, a living defiance of statistics and the fear of commitment. I missed L.’s smile, and the joy of giving to someone so fully and with such love. How could it have fallen apart so quickly, all in the span of a week?
Of course, hindsight is astounding in its clarity. I was so eager to marry that I made the mistake of getting engaged to the wrong woman. I remain thankful that the marriage did not go through, not because L. is a horrible person — on the contrary, she is sweet and lovely — but simply because we were wrong for each other.
I think I agree with what some rabbis say — that you could get married to 90 percent of the opposite sex and make it work … but why should you have to? Why not look for the 10 percent who are actually a good fit for you?
All the anger, sadness, frustration have long since dissipated. I can barely recall how excited I was on our first date, or the pain I felt when it was clear things would not work out. Instead, I remember all the wonderful friends — and people I had not been in touch with for years — who called to tell me of their own broken engagement stories.
A few months ago, I took apart the scrapbook I had made for L. as an engagement gift, and just this past week, as part of a cleaning spree, I threw out all the pictures I had of her. I don’t like throwing out pictures — something about seeing faces in a wastebasket is eerie — but I didn’t feel right holding onto them. It was the closing of a book, and having not read it for a while, it was slowly fading, the details becoming distant memory, the story a blend of the real and the imagined. June 20 came and went like a dream.
Michael Rose is a New York-based writer at work on his first novel. He can be reached at email@example.com.
It’s Not Your Zayde’s Klezmer Anymore
Musician Eric Stein felt disillusioned with rock ‘n’ roll. He spent years slogging away in a band without “making it,” so he started looking for something else.
He considered being a history professor, but then, a new instrument and an old style of music changed his mind.
The instrument was a mandolin and the music klezmer.
“There was level of musical sophistication that goes with the kind of music you can play on the mandolin, and my intention was to start a new acoustic-fusion thing, with an emphasis on string and wind instruments,” said Stein, who went on to form Beyond the Pale, a klezmer-fusion band.
“I had been brought up as a secular Jew, and I didn’t know much about Jewish music except that it was dorky,” said Stein on the phone from Toronto, where his band is based. “But when klezmer got hot a few years ago, I found that the music really spoke to me on a cultural level. All the time, I was trying to play other people’s music, but this is the music of my family and my history.”
Stein’s approach to klezmer — seeing it as part of his heritage, but wanting to put an innovative, modern stamp on it, is typical of today’s klezmer revival. More and more musicians are attracted to the music, but want to move it beyond its European folk roots.
Hence, bands like Beyond the Pale fuse klezmer with reggae, jazz, ska and bluegrass music. As a result, klezmer keeps one foot in its shtetl past and another in the post-modern present.
“That’s why we called the band Beyond the Pale, because the expression means something that is unexpected and beyond the bounds,” Stein said. “[The name] refers to the Jewish roots of the band, but it also refers to the idea that we want to get outside of the rules — to pay homage to the traditions, but at the same time express ourselves.”
“Consensus” is the name of Beyond the Pale’s new CD, but while the title implies harmonic accord, even compromise, the tunes on the CD do not. Although not disharmonious, the tunes startle the listener with their complex boldness.
In “Whassat,” for instance, the 10th song on the CD, a clarinet melody starts off plaintive and wailing, only to be overlaid by a thumping base beat that builds into a rhythmic crescendo that is less “Tevye” and more jazz club.
In “Skalavaye,” Beyond the Pale gives a modern, ska-tinged rendition of a 1940s Yiddish classic, with contemporary nods to Yiddish humor. “Halevai (I only wish that) I was a keg of beer,” warbles vocalist Josh Dolgin. “So you could quench your thirst with me, my dear'”
For Stein, the CD, a live recording of a Toronto concert, epitomizes the new direction of klezmer.
“Historically, klezmer music was just about extinct by the mid-60s, for all sorts of different reasons, such as demographics and the Holocaust,” Stein said. “So for the first 15 to 20 years of the klezmer revival, [which started in the 1970s], the overriding influence was about ‘Let’s rescue what was forgotten and bring it back.’ But in the 1990s, we have the second generation of the klezmer revival, and that is when things really started to evolve. [The musicians] were marrying klezmer to jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, funk and reggae.”
Klezmer was not only becoming musically assimilated, but moving beyond the confines of the Jewish community. Stein is the only member of his five-piece band who is Jewish, and the band’s audiences have also changed.
No longer do klezmer bands attract only the bubbes and zaydes who remember the music from the old days. Now, in many venues, klezmer audiences can be primarily non-Jewish.
“People from within the Jewish community are embracing it, and using it as a way to express their own cultural heritage, but it is also having a life outside of the Jewish community altogether,” said Martin Van de Ven, Beyond the Pale’s clarinetist. “It has become [a style of music] with its own direction and way of doing things. More and more musicians are getting involved with it….”
“It is really evolving beyond just a Jewish form of music,” he said.
I Love a Parade
I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t love a parade. The first one I remember attending was as a 10-year-old. My parents took my brother and me to what was then called the “Santa Claus Lane Parade,” which took place just after Thanksgiving Day and made its way down Hollywood Boulevard. There were movie and TV stars as well as the people on horses and floats. I remember it being a lot of fun.
Until last July 14 I had never attended a military parade. You know the kind where soldiers and sailors walk in a procession down a large, wide boulevard. They are typically accompanied by a very awesome display of military firepower, such as tanks and missiles and rockets of all sizes and descriptions. The highlight of a military parade is usually not what is on the ground but rather what files overhead. At the end of the parade one hears from a distance a sound of approaching aircraft and then — to everyone’s amazement and delight — a squad of jets fly over in a precise formation, usually leaving behind a plume of colored smoke. Everyone cheers and yells and then leaves the parade route feeling quite proud of the strength and power of the military branch or country that sponsored the event.
This past July 14, Carol and I were in Paris and attended the Bastille Day parade commemoration of French Independence Day. Hundreds of thousands of people were in attendance lining the Champs Elysees. The weather was perfect and the participants were dressed in all their military finery. Actually, the group that got the largest round of applause didn’t come from the military but rather from the fire department. The event was a lot of fun and I was glad that I took the time to see it.
What do we have in Judaism that comes closest to a military parade? It occurred to me that every Sabbath morning, when we take out the Torah and walk around the sanctuary, we are actually simulating a military parade. No guns, not tanks, no jet planes to impress onlookers. But when the Torah is carried down the aisles of the temple, people of all ages stand at attention and show it the highest form of respect. Many even are eager to touch or even kiss what is contained on that long roll of parchment: commandments and laws and guidelines for living a moral and satisfying life. We also know that the Torah we are viewing is but one in a long history of Torahs that have been carried from one country to another as we Jews have been exiled and escaped from the power of ruthless and evil leaders.
One of the biblical prophets once declared: “Not by might, nor by power — but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.” The spirit of God is found in the Torah. We Jews have rarely given over our trust to weapons of mass destruction. For we know that stronger and more powerful weapons are always being created. Egypt was defeated by Assyria and Assyria by Babylonia and Babylonia by the Romans and on and on and on. But we Jews are still alive and our survival can be attributed to the most portable weapon ever created: the Torah. We have carried it from one land to another. Other armies may defeat armies with more potent weapons. But any army that relies on the word of God is invincible.
So the next time you see the Torah being marched around think of it as the major weapon in the battle for goodness and justice. Salute the Torah, cheer the Torah and, above all, honor the Torah for it is the greatest safeguard and protection we have.
Lawrence Goldmark is the rabbi at Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada.
Fate With a Frummie
A funny thing happened on the way to the Old City. Well, technically, it happened in the Old City. My friend, Matt, invited me to Shabbat lunch at his rabbi’s house. I covered my cleavage and accepted the invite. Packed with kids and black hats, this third meal was standing-room only. I was balancing a Kiddush cup in one hand and the rabbi’s baby in the other, when Matt introduced me to Yakov. Yakov was a tall drink of Manischevitz. A bearded yeshiva student about my age, he took one look at me and said: "Carin, are you from Chicago?"
Confident my Chicago accent didn’t come out during ‘da Hamotzi, I wondered how he knew.
"I went to high school with you. My name back then was Jake."
Of all the Jew joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I walk into his. The artist formerly known as Jake didn’t just go to my high school. I was a freshman cheerleader in a sophomore geometry class and Jake was the hot football player who sat next to me. He barely noticed me. But every Friday, game day, he’d wear his jersey, I’d wear my cheerleading skirt, and we’d talk through morning announcements about how Deerfield High School football rules. I had a major crush on Jake, I passed notes about Jake, I dreamed he’d ask me to homecoming. Then I learned he was dating Risa Rosen — a sophomore. I cried, I sulked, I couldn’t eat for days. And today I’m eating lunch with him in Israel. Someone call VH1, I know where he is now.
After each of my high school heartbreaks, my mom would say, "Ten years from now you won’t remember this boy. Who knows where you’ll be by then? Who knows where he’ll be by then? Forget about looking back on this and laughing. You won’t even look back."
She’s right, I’m not looking back. I’m looking across the table — at Jake, his sweet religious wife and their adorable baby. Talk about a high school reunion. What are the chances? I try to figure out the probability of our random meeting, but can’t run the numbers in my head. I should have paid attention to something in math class besides Jake’s profile.
I have a million questions for my hometown hottie. When did he become observant? When did he move to Israel? Does he still play football? Can frummies play football? When did he get married? How did he pick this yeshiva? How many licks do talumudic scholars say it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?
I can’t ask him that. I can’t even hug him. I can’t even shake his hand. If I don’t know the hummus fork from the salad fork, how am I supposed to know how to greet a long-lost, now deeply observant friend? I should have brushed up on my Shabbat etiquette. Where’s Martha Schwartz when I need her? Do I sit next to him or next to his wife? Do I bring up old times? Should I bust out a DHS cheer? Of course, the rabbi would see doing the splits as working on Shabbat, so I settle on a smile and say, "What have you been up to since grunge was in style?"
We exchange a decade of Cliffs Notes over cucumber salad. We’ve got a lot in common. He’s married, has a son, lives in Jerusalem. I’m single, have a plant, live in a studio. OK, not so much in common. Except that we’re both happy. As the great sage Peter "Pinchas" Brady once said, "When it’s time to change you’ve got to rearrange who you are and what you’re gonna be."
Jake is an Orthodox yeshiva student in Israel. I’m, well — I’m still figuring things out. But I have figured out we weren’t meant to be together. I couldn’t have known that in high school. I didn’t even know it an hour ago. Actually, I’d forgotten about Jake until an hour ago. But seeing him made me realize that things happen — or don’t happen — for a reason. Even running into Jake had a purpose, if only to hear him say, "Wow, you look just like you did in high school."
Seeing Jake also gave me a fresh perspective on my boyfriend shortage. I used to blame myself for my single condition. Why am I alone? What’s wrong with me? What does Risa Rosen have that I don’t have?
But now, I’ve kicked the habit. Instead of crying into my kugel, I think of Jake. I can’t get down on myself every time some guy doesn’t want to date, commit or ask me to a semi-formal, buy me a corsage and take awkward photos under a balloon arch. I can’t get my fringes in a knot over every unrequited crush.
Maybe we just aren’t meant to be together. Maybe life has a different path for me — or him — that I just can’t see yet. And maybe, like Jake, our paths will cross again sometime.
As for Jake, well, we’ll always have geometry.
Carin Davis, a freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mom and Dementia
My mother sounded upset when she called the other day. "What’s wrong, Ma?" I asked. "I don’t know what’s going on or where I am she said. "Who are these people with me?"
I reminded Mom of her move to Los Angeles three years ago, and her life at a San Fernando Valley board and care.
She sighed and said, "Ellie, I’m losing my marbles."
The painful truth is she’s right. Mom’s dementia impacts so much in her life. Once an avid reader, she can’t remember the plot of a book after the first page. Eventually, she stopped trying. Reading her short articles in the newspaper holds her attention for a while, but since she doesn’t know what’s going on in the world, most news means little to her. Mom and the other women in her residential care home occassionally watch CNN. It’s hard to tell if any of them really know what’s going on. Like my mother, their intelligence is intact, but for most their short-term memory is gone.
Recently when I was there, we watched images from a terrible suicide bombing in northern Iraq. My mother was horrified. I reminded her about Bush and the war in Iraq and she made some disparaging comments about Bush’s intelligence. Fifteen minutes later, my sister called from North Carolina. I leaned close to the phone at Mom’s ear so I could listen. After the usual chatter about the weather, the dogs and my mother’s digestion, my sister said, "Isn’t what’s happening in Iraq just horrible?"
Mom said, "It certainly is."
Then she covered the phone and whispered to me, "What happened in Iraq?"
She sounded concerned and looked anxious, like she should know. But any memory of what she’d just seen on the news was gone.
Though much of what’s happening to my mother’s mind is painful, there are moments of levity caused by her dementia. In fact, Mom is very often amused by her own forgetfulness. While her short-term memory is gone, her wonderful, slightly sick sense of humor is intact.
Last year, my mother and I went to my Uncle Bob’s funeral. We were escorted to front-row seats at the graveside and after a moment my mother looked at the casket and loudly said, "Who died?"
Heads around us turned. Mom looked at me, her embarrassment quickly shifting to amusement and she started to giggle. Then I started to giggle. I was reminded of Friday night services years ago, when my mother would start to sing, very off-key, and we’d both end up with tears rolling down our face from trying to swallow our laughter.
After Uncle Bob’s funeral, Mom and I were sitting on the sofa at the reception, enjoying a sandwich and a little wine. Mom stopped chewing suddenly. "Where are we?" she asked me.
"Carole and Bob’s house," I responded.
She glanced around the room, then said, "Where’s Bob?"
I almost choked. I looked at her and whispered, "We just buried him."
She looked completely confused, then we both burst out laughing. We got a number of suspicious looks from people around the room who probably thought we’d had too much wine.
Then there was the morning after the Queen Mother died. My mom was living at her former board and care, and during breakfast another resident, Sally, was reading the newspaper. She suddenly said, "The Queen Mother died."
My mother looked up from her oatmeal and asked, "Really, how old was she?"
"Let me look," Sally said. "She was 102."
My mother responded, "Isn’t that wonderful!" Moments passed. Then Sally, still reading the paper, said, "Did you know the Queen Mother just died?"
My mother replied, "No. How old was she?"
Sally read further, then said, "She was 102."
"Imagine. Isn’t that wonderful!" exclaimed my mother. This same conversation apparently repeated for 10 minutes, both women enjoying their exchange over and over again.
Maybe this is the upside of my mother’s dementia. Each moment is totally new. In fact, for her, each moment is all there is. While most of us agonize over the future or analyze and regret the past, my mother — having lost track of the past and lacking the ability to imagine the future — lives wholly in the present.
Ellie Kahn is a family historian, journalist and documentary filmmaker.
She can be reached at email@example.com.
Barbaric Acts Kill Palestinian Sympathy
I know there are many Palestinians out there who are sickened and ashamed by what happened in Gaza to the remains of the six dead Israeli soldiers.
I don’t hold them responsible; I don’t associate them with those acts just because they are Palestinians or Arabs, not in any way.
In fact, I think it’s important now to remember Arabs like the Palestinian man who drowned in the Sea of Galilee a couple of years ago trying to save a drowning Israeli boy. I remember a Jaffa Arab who was killed in 1992, I think, trying to stop a wild man from Gaza who was slashing at Jewish children with a saber.
An old Iraqi Jewish woman in Ramat Gan once told me how her neighbor back in Baghdad, a rich Sunni Muslim, had sheltered her family and scores of other local Jews from a pogrom, and had told the rioters that if they wanted to kill the Jews in his house, they would have to kill him first. A lot of Jews who survived the 1929 pogrom in Hebron could have described the same kind of scenes.
There are some Arabs who have a humanity and courage that is rare to find in any society — including, by the way, among Jews. Then there are many Arabs, although I can’t guess what proportion, who are just ordinary decent people.
But there are some Arabs living in the Middle East who are, to say the least, indecent. They do things that Jews here or anywhere else don’t do, no matter the provocation — and Jews over the years have had their provocations, including some even worse than anything faced by the Palestinians.
There is no shortage of Israeli soldiers who have done despicable things to Palestinians — although less despicable, on the whole, than what soldiers in most, if not all, other armies have been known to do to their enemies.
The point is, we are living next to a society that is, for all its decent people and even its righteous gentiles, different from ours in a crucial way: some of its members are out and out monsters.
Their behavior is utterly demented, yet they’re perfectly sane. Worse, they’re not only tolerated, they’re cheered by many of their peers. And the decent members of Palestinian society seem powerless to stop them or prevent them from coming out again and again.
I’m an Israeli leftist who hates the occupation, and there are a lot of things the Palestinians do that I’m willing to put down to circumstances, to this long tragedy we’ve been living in. Zionists, after all, deliberately killed plenty of innocent Arab civilians in the ’30s and ’40s.
But there are no circumstances that mitigate this reveling in the body parts of the enemy, the grabbing and parading of Israeli bones and gore as trophies. That’s something that can’t be traced to politics, and there is no political solution for it.
Wherever this behavior comes from, it didn’t begin with the bone-snatching in Gaza’s Zeitoun neighborhood. In this intifada, it began with the crowd dancing on the blood of the two soldiers lynched in Ramallah. It resurfaced when two boys in Tekoa were bludgeoned literally to a pulp. It gets reprised every time a crowd of Palestinians gathers to celebrate another bus full of Israelis getting blown apart.
This prominent feature of the intifada has hollowed out any idealism I once had about “making up” with the Palestinians and becoming good neighbors. While there are so many I’ve met whom I would love to have as neighbors in my apartment building, and a great many more I haven’t met who are in no way monsters, as far as the Palestinian nation goes, I want a hard border between them and us, and separate national lives — because of what we were reminded of at Zeitoun, because Palestinian society allows that element to flourish.
I’m afraid that this deformed face of the intifada has withered the idealism of a lot of people on the Zionist left. I don’t think it’s made anybody a fan of the occupation, or changed their ideas about where the final borders should be, but it’s blighted the spirit of the peace movement. Speaking for myself, it’s deadened my heart toward the Palestinians.
As much as ever, I’m still filled with rage at Israelis who enjoy abusing and humiliating innocent people. I still have no tolerance for sadism. But my attitude has become sort of abstract, a matter of conscience alone, because while I still feel fury at the bullies, I no longer feel compassion for the victims.
If I knew that the civilians being treated viciously were not enthusiasts of Hamas, Islamic Jihad or Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, that they did not root for the violent deaths of Israeli children, then my heart would go out to them as before.
But since the intifada began, I know there’s a very strong chance that a given Palestinian goes around hoping that the suicide bombers will get through. So unless I know otherwise, I’ll believe in his human rights, but I can’t feel any sympathy for him. Too much candy has passed between Palestinian hands for that.
Sympathy for the Palestinians and shame over their repression were the animating emotions of the Israeli peace movement, but the eager barbarity of the intifada has removed much of that shame and about all of the sympathy. What remains for peaceniks is a hatred of injustice and brutality, and a yearning for security, but a numbed heart.
To all the brave and humane or even just decent Palestinians out there, I’m sorry. In no way am I blaming you. I just hope you won’t blame me, either.
Larry Derfner is the Tel Aviv correspondent for The Jewish Journal.
Iraq Situation: It’s Vietnam Deja Vu
Determination is a virtue. Remember how determined we were in Vietnam?
No bunch of barefoot peasants was going to force the United States of America to cut and run. No sir. Through eight long years and 58,000 dead soldiers we demonstrated our refusal to be cowed.
We were in Vietnam to protect the freedom of the South Vietnamese people against the godless communists who were out to enslave them. Unfortunately, the fact that the enemy was ethnically identical to the citizens we were protecting made it a little hard at times to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.
Some of the troops got so fed up with the effort that they stopped trying to tell them apart. On their helmets they had a catchy solution: "Kill ’em all. Let God sort ’em out."
Then, as now, we had persuasive reasons for persisting, even after it became apparent that we couldn’t win. There was the infamous "domino effect" of collapsing Asian countries if we left. And of course, the ever-popular "bloodbath" that would follow if the communists took over the South. Naturally, we had to keep fighting so as not to abandon our POW’s, who, it turned out, were repatriated immediately after we left.
Then there was the knotty problem of how to leave. We needed to "save face," to ensure our continued credibility among the nations of the world (most of whom thought we were crazy to be there). We finally left the way we came — on boats and planes.
During our prolonged adventure in Southeast Asia, we heard constantly that we were engaged in a struggle for the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people. Sound familiar?
We tried to win them over with crop assistance and relocation to "strategic hamlets." We built schools and clinics. When that didn’t work, we established "free-fire zones," where we shot anything that moved, including water buffalo.
And we were always making progress. Maps showing steady increases in territory "pacified" were popular backdrops for briefing senior administration officials when they visited. But the people doing the killing and dying had a slightly more cynical view. On a restroom wall in Long Binh I read, "Would the last person out of the tunnel please turn out the light."
In the end, we lost because we didn’t belong. We were foreigners pursuing what we considered our own self-interest at the expense of a people we saw as "underdeveloped."
They sent us packing, because, in the end, they were more willing to die than we were to kill them. It was, after all, their country. Vietnam should have taught us this: Determination in the pursuit of folly is the indulgence of fools.
Now we seek to disengage from Iraq, that ungrateful tar baby of a country, wondering all the while at the absence of the flower petals with which the inhabitants were supposed to greet us, their liberators. Instead it appears that many of them hate us so much that it is not enough to kill us. They want to dismember our burned bodies and hang us from the nearest bridge.
Can’t they see that we only want for them the freedom and democracy that is the natural condition for all people?
All right, we tell ourselves, the resistance to what is best for them is the work of a few "insurgents" or "Saddam loyalists" or "outside terrorists." Surely, most of the Iraqis like us and appreciate what we’re trying to do for them.
Meanwhile, in a related story, our own country is in the hands of the most arrogant, secretive, ill-informed administration in memory. These are people for whom the lesson of Vietnam was that we didn’t try hard enough, didn’t give the military free rein. Sure we dropped more bombs on the place than were used by all parties to World War II, but, by gosh, if Washington hadn’t micromanaged that war, if we had really taken the gloves off, we could have won.
As with Vietnam, we were wrong to go to Iraq, and we are wrong to stay. The action-oriented neoconservatives currently controlling our government are convinced that our proper place in the world is as an imperial power, disdaining the opinions of other nations, attacking preemptively whomever we feel threatened by. Do we imagine that the skewed intelligence and downright deceptions used to justify this war are irrelevant to its outcome?
And now, once again, standing on the ash heap of lies and miscalculations that have characterized this disastrous and unilateral aggression, the gang in charge looks at the rest of us smugly and speaks of a need to "stay the course" in an effort to sell this misbegotten invasion as an example of determined leadership in the war on terrorism.
If we are stupid enough to buy this approach for another four years, we deserve the whirlwind that awaits us.
Gordon Livingston is a West Point graduate who served as an Army doctor in Vietnam. He became an antiwar activist, and is now a psychiatrist in Columbia, Md.
Shoah Book Brings Museum Experience
"A Promise to Remember: The Holocaust in the Words and Voices of Its Survivors," by Michael Berenbaum. (Bulfinch Press. $29.95.)
You don’t find an index or bibliography in a museum. You go there for images, for impressions, to be moved, as well as educated — so, too, with "A Promise to Remember."
Michael Berenbaum, a first-rate scholar and writer, who was founding director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has produced, in effect, a traveling museum, or in barely more than two score pages, a traveling museum exhibit.
More than a catalogue of a museum exhibition, Berenbaum, now director of the University of Judaism’s Sigi Ziering Institute, presents a total museum experience. Instead of walking down aisles and reading information panels, you hold the artifacts in your hands.
Through words (his own and interviews with a small number of Holocaust survivors), photos (mostly sepia, with some in color), reproduced documents (copies of a wartime rabbi’s sermon from Berlin and a politician’s letter from Bulgaria, etc.) and an accompanying CD (audio to complement the visual), Berenbaum emphasizes, subjectively but accurately, some of the most important elements of the Shoah experience.
These Shoah elements include: the background of the Final Solution, ghetto life, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the participants and bystanders, rescue by sympathetic non-Jews and, finally, liberation.
This book is clearly for the novice, for someone uninitiated in the terror that gripped the world in the mid-20th century — for the individual who isn’t likely to enter an actual Holocaust museum. The book is a tactile, sensual experience. Only the sense of smell is missing.
In the introduction, Berenbaum writes, "Nothing this brief could possibly do justice to an event as vast as the Holocaust, which evolved over 12 years and enveloped the entire continent of Europe; which consumed some 6 million dead; and whose implications are seen in headlines and images that have entered the conscious and unconscious of all humanity."
He offers nothing new in these pages, no new facts or novel interpretations, but the totality of the familiar, presented in an unfamiliar way, is striking and unsettling. The product, part coffee table book, part reference guide, is a beautifully designed masterpiece. You read the chapter on "The Decision to Kill the Jews," and you look on the same page into the austere eyes of Richard Heydrich and his fellow henchmen in genocide and you feel a chill.
He offers no footnotes or bibliography — no scholarly sources beyond the identifications that describe the interviewees. They aren’t needed; anyone affected by the book, whose interest is whetted, can contact the institutions cited in the acknowledgments.
The book isn’t meant to be read in one reading. Each chapter, to be absorbed and understood adequately, should be read separately. It will take the careful reader a few hours to go through "A Promise to Remember."
Just the length of time it takes to walk through a museum.
The Power of Memory
Memory is a multibillion-dollar enterprise these days. I am personally on my fourth PDA and angling for a fifth even sleeker, more efficient model. Reminder cards and scheduler programs abound. Capitalizing on human frailty, the memory industry offers compensation.
For in a world that moves ever so quickly, we dare not forget that crucial meeting nor miss that all-important birthday (anniversary, wedding or bar mitzvah…). If forgetting is a touchstone of our humanity, then the opposite perspective should reign from the Divine. "Ein Shikcha lifnei kisei kevodecha" — "There is no forgetting before Your Divine throne" — is the great theme of Rosh Hashanah and is a vital component of God’s curriculum vitae. Imagine our surprise when we encounter in Parshat Noah the striking concept of Divine memory as the very explanation for the recession of the flood waters:
"And God remembered Noah and all of the animals that were with him on the Ark and God brought a wind upon the Earth and the Waters receded."
And God remembered?
What, pray tell, was God doing until that point? And while this might be the first time we encounter Divine memory, by no means is it the last. God keeps on remembering — be it Sarah, Rachel or Chana in their state of barrenness or the Jewish people as they wallow in the depths of Egypt. The notion of Divine memory certainly deserves our attention. Does God also need a Palm? (I have three older models.)
Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1270) distinguishes between the process of memory and its role. The process of remembering entails bringing an image from the past into the forefront of one’s thought.
Quite apart from its process, memory serves a specific role. Consider the disorientation of the advanced Alzheimer’s patient or the tragic plight of the stroke victim who courageously relearns the fine art of walking, talking and eating. Reflect upon the personal frustration we all feel when we just can’t put the name to the face. Without memory, opportunities for social, physical or intellectual advancement range from minimal to none.
Thus, the role of memory is to allow us to develop proficiency by reflecting upon and refining our previous bits of knowledge. It is in this vein that we speak of national or cultural memory — a knowledge of the past that allows us to advance civilization a notch beyond.
Surely, God has no need for the process of memory. He never forgets. Yet, the role of memory is acutely relevant to the Divine realm. When the Torah states that "God remembered Noah" — i.e. He bestowed upon him special mercy — it is for a particular higher purpose. Were God not to remember Noah, surely Noah would be reduced to spiritual toast. Similarly, Sarah, Rachel and Chana, as beneficiaries of Divine memory, are enabled to transcend their physical barrenness in order to serve as matriarchs of the Jewish people. In the realm of the Divine, memory is totally purpose-oriented.
Divine memory need not be restricted to God. About three years ago a particularly pious-looking young man walked into our daily afternoon prayer service. His gentle swaying and intense prayer bespoke a refined yet fervent religious commitment. Surely, I had no recollection of this fellow; yet he looked hauntingly familiar. Mentally, I exchanged his formal dresswear with a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. My mind’s eye darted back 10 years, the beginning of my teaching career, to recollect a dear high school student who lived life on the wild side — able to rile up an entire school with a single howl; a student whose cresting popularity easily propelled him to the student council presidency. As I conjured up these images, I stared at the prayerful figure in the room, and was stirred by the realization that this was my beloved student — now a responsible, charismatic, intense young man, a newly minted abba to boot. As the two pictures collided, I gained a new appreciation of his personal odyssey. Here was an individual who did not remain stuck in the quagmire of memory, but one who was able to build upon yesterday’s passions to build a prayerful personality.
For some time now, "We will never forget" has been a mantra of the Jewish community. To never forget is not enough. Instead, we would do well to heed Yogi Berra’s comment that "nostalgia isn’t what it used to be."
When Mark Twain wonders aloud: "All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?" do we simply smile or do we understand the implied challenge to grow our personal and communal Judaism?
The raison d’être of our collective Jewish memory should not merely warm the heart, but should serve to reorient our perspective on all things past. Divine memory, as a notion, issues a clarion call of renewed obligation, inspiration and energy. Are we listening?
Rabbi Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools.
For the Kids
Summer’s almost over. I hope you’re having a great time. Did you go to camp? Were you in summer school? Did your parents take you on a fun trip?
In this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, Moses asks the Israelites to remember that, while they are about to enter a rich and fertile land, “flowing with milk and honey,” they must always remember those who need help: the orphan, the widow, the stranger and the poor.
So, while you continue to enjoy your summer, maybe you can also think a little about someone who needs your help. Why not pay a visit to a sick friend? Or bring some food to a homeless shelter? You can brighten up someone else’s summer, too.
Unscramble the words to discover what you can do to help others. At the SOVA Food Pantry, (818) 789-7633, you can OTRS ODOF, TKOSC EVSLHSE and CPKA RCEIGORSE.
You can help the Family Violence Project, (818) 505-0900. Ask your parents for all AMOPSOH, DINCNEROTOI and OPSA that they collected from hotels on vacation. Then pack them up with some gently used YSOT.
by Nathalie Interiano.
Rabbi Levi was taking a walk down the street when he came upon little Jacob, who was standing on tiptoe, trying to reach the doorbell.
The rabbi said, “Shalom. Here, let me help you.”
The boy waited until the rabbi pushed the doorbell and then said, “Thanks rabbi. Now run as fast as you can!”
The Big Question
We’re now in the midst of a period called Bein HaMetzarim, a three-week period of national mourning for tragedies throughout Jewish history.
The most powerful of these tragedies was the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem; these three weeks culminate with Tisha B’Av, the day that commemorates this tragedy.
While growing up, I resented that the Bein HaMetzarim fell during summer vacation. The summer was when we were out of school, unfettered by school rules and homework. Why did the rabbis have to put a damper on a kid’s summer by sticking such a sorrowful period of three weeks smack in the middle? I especially disliked the rabbis for their ban on swimming during the nine days between the first of Av and Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av). You want to restrict my swimming? Do it in February — not during a searing August!
Part of the mourning process is the reading of the Book of Eicha (Lamentations) on the evening of Tisha B’Av (Aug. 6). This five-chapter dirge is Jeremiah’s moving account of the First Temple’s destruction. Eicha — how? — was the first word that Jeremiah used to describe the devastation. It expresses the horrified bewilderment of a person who has witnessed his entire world crumble all around him.
The Midrash (Torah commentary) introduces Eicha by noting that three prophets used the word: Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Moses said, “How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance?” (Deuteronomy 1:12); Isaiah said, “Howhas the faithful city become a harlot?” (Isaiah 1:21); and Jeremiah said, “How does the city sit solitary?” (Lamentations 1:1).
Rabbi Levi said, “It may be likened to a matron who had three groomsmen: one beheld her in her happiness, a second beheld her in her infidelity and the third beheld her in her disgrace. Similarly, Moses beheld Israel in their glory and happiness … Isaiah beheld them in their infidelity … Jeremiah beheld them in their disgrace; and all three exclaimed, ‘eicha!'”
We can understand the connection between Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s “hows.” Isaiah was lamenting the Jews’ spiritual nadir shortly before the destruction of the Temple, while Jeremiah was lamenting the consequent destruction. But when Moses exclaimed “eicha,” he wasn’t lamenting at all. He led the Jews during their spiritual apex, hundreds of years before the Temple era. He was saying, “Wow! What a colossal people. How can I, humble Moses, possibly bear the brunt of this massive nation?”
He was a doting parent, kvelling at the spiritual, emotional and physical growth of his children over the course of 40 years in the desert. Why, then, does the Midrash tie his “how” with the other two?
The fact that Tisha B’Av falls in the summer is not just a stroke of bad luck. God deliberately destroyed the Temple in the summer. Summer, when the world is outside their closed homes and offices, taking vacations, having fun. Summer, when there is the greatest propensity for calamity, because of our carefree attitudes. This is why it’s worthwhile to take some time amid all the fun to contemplate our sad history; to remember that it was these good times that precipitated a carelessness in our spiritual devotion that escalated into the ultimate destruction.
What’s the last thing we do at a Jewish wedding, under the chuppah? Break the glass. We deliberately put a damper on our simcha (celebration), to remind ourselves that our intense happiness should be channeled toward productive spirituality, instead of the narcissistic gratification — prevalent in too many marriages today — that leads to so much destruction. One thought of the Temple is all it takes to put our joy in the proper perspective. God, then, is not being a killjoy; He’s just reminding us that our “summer fun” should be integrated with spirituality, not estranged from it. And that’s precisely why Moses shouted “eicha.” Remember, says Moses, use your joy and prosperity as tools in the service of God instead of tools for self-destruction.
I know it may be inconvenient to have Tisha B’Av during summer. It may interfere with your summer plans, be it a cruise, family getaway or just a day at the beach. But try to take some time to appreciate all the divine blessings in your life, and connect them to the tragedies that have occurred throughout history and still continue. Connect the “how” of a prosperous today to the “how” of yesterday’s persecutions. Break the proverbial glass this year on Tisha B’Av. Appreciate that our heaven-sent blessings are tools for coming closer to our Maker. If we do our job correctly, next summer we’ll get to swim on Tisha B’Av in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehila at Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park.
A Biblical ‘Song’ and Dance
Two years ago, Aileen Passloff stumbled across a long-lost rehearsal tape from her 1967 dance/opera, "The Song of Songs," inspired by the Bible’s "Song of Solomon." The New York choreographer promptly telephoned her friend, Deborah Lawlor, co-founder of Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre, who had performed in the lyrically erotic show.
"This music had lived so vividly in our hearts all these years … [but] having never been written down, [it] had subsequently been lost," Lawlor, 63, said. When Passloff called, they decided to restore the tape digitallly to give the music "a new production and a new life."
Al Carmines’ lush score provides the backdrop for "The Song of Songs," now at the Fountain, in which five dancers pair off while singers chant biblical text. Its creators hope to convey the essence of the ancient poetry, which describes God’s love for the Israelites as the passion between a man and a woman. "The chief metaphor is that of a woman’s body as a garden," Passloff, 71, said. "It’s unexpected stuff for the Bible."
The acclaimed choreographer — the granddaughter of Russian Jews — was herself surprised by the sensual text when her first boyfriend gave her a copy in high school. Years later, she jumped at the chance to turn "Song" into dance at Carmine’s Judson Memorial Church, a Greenwich Village artist’s hangout.
While recreating the work in Hollywood a quarter century later, Passloff didn’t remember a single step of the original. But the music she had discovered on that dusty reel-to-reel tape helped her remain true to its romantic spirit, she said. If she and Lawlor relied on musical archeology to revive the piece, they feel it’s as relevant post-Sept. 11 as it was in ’67.
"There’s so much ugliness in the world, it’s important to think about the qualities that make us human rather than beasts," Lawlor told The Journal.
"At a time when it’s scary to be vulnerable, the ‘Song’ is about daring to open up and to love," Passloff said.
The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (323) 663-1525.
Remember the Good
One of the most precious moments parents and children share
with each other is the quiet and routine of bedtime. I hope you sleep
well at night, but, as we all know, sometimes it is
difficult to fall asleep, or to have a restful sleep. There are too many things
on our minds. We’re filled with excitement and anticipation. Or we aren’t
feeling all that good. Things are happening in other places that concern us or
King Ahashuerus had such a night in the Purim story. We read
in Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, that one night following the first
feast that Queen Esther had for King Ahashuerus and Haman, “sleep deserted the
king, and he ordered the book of records, the annals to be brought; and it was
read to the king.”
We’re all familiar with the story: The king discovers that
Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, has not been rewarded for saving Ahashuerus’ life. He
orders that this honor is to be carried out by Haman, and things begin to
change for the Jews of Shushan.
Jewish tradition sees something more taking place in this
scene. Judaism’s moral imagination describes that King Ahashuerus was not able
to sleep because of all that was going on around him: Esther was involved with
planning and preparing her next feast; Haman was busy building gallows;
Mordecai was upset, praying and wearing sackcloth. The midrash even states that
this was the very same night, in an earlier generation, during which the
Children of Israel remained on guard, watching for the angel of death to pass
over their homes as they anticipated their exodus from Egypt.
How can anyone sleep, our tradition seems to wonder, when
people are in peril? How can we find rest while others are weary, nervous or
even awaiting their redemption? For you and me it seems so easy. We crawl into
bed, turn off the news and it’s quiet all around us. Or at least it seems that
way. Do we really turn off our consciences so easily? Do we actually stop being
aware of everything we will awaken to the next morning?
I don’t think so. Even King Ahashuerus seemed to understand
that he needed to find a way to respond or he wouldn’t calm himself nor find
any rest on that fateful night. According to our tradition, the thing that most
disturbed Ahashuerus was whether or not someone had “asah li tovah” ( done
something good for me), which he had not properly acknowledged.
What a beautiful way to end a day! Did I fail to recognize
any goodness today? Is there something I can do about it now or tomorrow? The
difficult, the troubling, all that disturbs does startle us from our sleep.
That’s human nature. But what of goodness, of caring, of all that reflects our
ideals – — how do we remember all of that?
This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Zachor” (the Sabbath of
Remembrance). We read about Amalek, Haman’s ancestor whose evil attack against
the Children of Israel is recalled by the Torah to inspire us toward goodness
King Ahashuerus isn’t the only one with a record book.
Earlier in the Torah, Moses is told to write down as a lasting memory all that
Amalek did to Israel. As he does so, the Israelites quarrel among themselves as
they complain for water and sustenance.
“Is the Eternal present among us or not?” they ask.
The next verse then states: “Amalek came forward and fought
It was the weakness of the people’s own spirit, their
inability to appreciate all that had brought them to this very moment of
redemption and opportunity that presented Amalek with the opportunity to
attack. They were separated from the truths and lessons of their own
experience, of the presence of God in their own story. Whom did Amalek reach?
The “stragglers” — those who were weak of heart and spirit, not physical
strength, the midrash suggests. Those people who knew how to complain but could
not appreciate the miracle and reality of their lives.
Remember King Ahashuerus’ sleepless night? We learned that
he was disturbed because something good might have been done for him to which
he had not properly responded.
As a father, this is what I want for my children. When I say
“good night” at the end of a day, of course I want them to sleep comfortably
and undisturbed. But I also want them to focus on remembering the good, the
decent and the beautiful of their day.
Zachor. We must all remember to tell this to our children
and our grandchildren. It is not enough to recall what Amalek did, as Moses was
commanded. Like Ahashuerus , we must also recognize the good that Mordecai did
and the meaning that every new day promises us all.
Shabbat Shalom! Happy Purim!
This weekend, Rabbi Ron Shulman celebrates his 20th anniversary with Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes.
The Lure of Extremism
As these words are written, Irv Rubin, the national chairman of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) lies in a coma, the apparent victim of self-inflicted wounds.
Having known Irv and the activities of the local JDL for over a quarter-century, it is an appropriate time to reflect on what animated someone like Irv to expend his prodigious energies in what were often pointless and counterproductive activities. For a man who was rational, and with whom one could discuss cause and effect and the logic of doing things one way (the non-inflammatory way) as opposed to another, it always amazed me how he would invariably choose the wrong path.
Whether choosing to picket the home of Tom Metzger in rural Fallbrook, when Metzger was a candidate for Congress in the early 1980s or choosing to defy the desires of the local community (Jews and non-Jews) by physically confronting a march of the pathetic remnant of the Aryan Nations in northern Idaho in the mid-90s, Irv was usually less concerned about the effect of what he did than the act of doing it and the publicity that ensued.
In following that modus operandi, Irv betrayed an attitude and world view that could only be described as extremist. Irv felt good picketing in front of Metzger’s home and got attention; Metzger was, after all, a bigot and head of the California Ku Klux Klan. But, as I remember asking Irv at the time, in trying to dissuade him from demonstrating, how many votes did he think that his presence would generate for Metzger? A 6-foot-plus Jewish militant coming down from Los Angeles and harassing a neighbor was hardly a political adviser’s recommendation on how to defeat Metzger’s bid in rural north San Diego County.
Irv understood — but he went and did his thing anyway. He had a different agenda than actually impacting the vote in the Metzger election. That same conflicted set of priorities played itself out time and time again.
In the days after Buford Furrow’s attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center and his murder of Joseph Ileto, there was an unprecedented rally against hate attended by thousands of Angelenos. Then-Attorney General Janet Reno, Gov. Gray Davis, former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and representatives of virtually every ethnic, racial and religious community were there. The only disruptive voice was Irv’s. He screamed and yelled while the governor and attorney general spoke, complaining about gun control legislation. How ironic that in a setting of unity and harmony — and in the wake of profound tragedy — his would be the lone voice of disharmony.
A review of Irv’s public life reflects his inability to free himself from the lure of extremism and the attention that it generates. Other than a brief period two decades ago when he ran for the Republican nomination for the Assembly and thought that, with some moderation, he might actually get elected, his career was one that had a disturbing symbiosis with extremism.
In every group, perhaps minority groups more than others because of the legitimate grievances that they often have, there is a constituency for a leader that brooks no compromise and offers "in your face" rhetoric to the rest of the world.
Whether Louis Farrakhan for the African American community, Meir Kahane and Irv for the Jews or the leaders of the hate-filled Nation of Aztlan in the Latino community, there is a small-but-solid core of folks who relish a militant leader who tells them, "I’m standing up for you and I don’t give a damn what they think." The "they" changes, but the tone, intensity and message don’t.
Irv played to that constituency in the Jewish community with occasional success. To the extent that other organizations in the Jewish community were seen as vocal — even militant — and effective, it cut into his audience. No wonder that he spent a significant amount of his energy attacking Jewish defense organizations — he had to discredit his perceived competition.
As Irv’s constituency got smaller, his need to act out and demonstrate his continued vitality and usefulness became even greater. No wonder that the crime of which he recently stood accused happened at the end of his career when his following was, literally, microscopic. He desperately needed to prove his relevance, no matter the manner.
The tragedy of Irv’s career is that his energy could have been put to useful purpose. The hours of picketing and harassing and the thought given to one enterprise after another might have borne fruit had they been directed toward positive ends. Perhaps a lesson for us all.
The Friends of Irv Rubin are organizing a prayer vigil for him at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 17, at County-USC Medical Center, 1200 N. State St., Los Angeles. Those coming should bring a candle.
David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a newly formed human relations organization in Los Angeles with former L.A. Mayor Richard J. Riordan as its chairman and Joe R. Hicks as its vice president.
6 Million Memorialized
At Yom HaShoah commemorations across Los Angeles, the Jewish community and friends looked to the past to remember and to the present to engage.
The Citywide Youth Commemoration at Wilshire Boulevard Temple on April 9 was a by-the-kid, for-the-kids affair, with elementary, middle and high school students presenting artistic renditions of their understanding of the Holocaust. Through song, story, poetry and the testimony of survivors they had interviewed, students from 15 Los Angeles area schools ensured that the memory of what happened will be passed on to the next generation. After the Emanuel Academy sang the Yiddish "Partisan’s Song," students from Fulton Middle School recounted a survivor’s testimony, "Seven Days Locked Up," in English and Spanish.
The state got involved in Yom HaShoah in part by honoring a Holocaust educator. Peter Fischl had spent his childhood in hiding in Budapest, and though he lost his family, he moved to America and forged a life for himself, working as a security guard for Pinkerton. Though he claims, "I am not a poet — you cannot ask me or pay me to write a poem," Fischl was so inspired by a Holocaust-era photo that his poetic response has become the basis of a high school curriculum on the Holocaust.
The photo, which Fischl first saw in a November 1960 Life Magazine, shows a young boy, arms up, fearfully walking away from Nazi gunmen during the roundup of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Fischl’s poem, "To the Little Polish Boy Standing With His Arms Up," reads in part: "And the monument will tremble/ so the blind world/ Now/ will know/ What fear is in the darkness." It ends: "I/ am/ Sorry/ that/ It was you/ and/ Not me."
Fischl’s poem inspired Morristown, N.J., English teacher Nancy Gorrell to develop a high school curriculum called, "Teaching Empathy Through Ecphrastic Poetry," to teach students to put themselves in the emotional place of Holocaust victims.
For his part in the curriculum, along with his long history of outreach in local schools, the state Lottery awarded Fischl its Hero in Education Award. The award ceremony will be broadcast on KCAL Channel 9 at 7 p.m.on Saturday, May 18. Educators can download lesson plans using the poem at www.holocaust-trc.org/lesson.htm’pb.
At Valley Beth Shalom on April 12, Rabbi Harold Schulweis and the VBS congregation continued their Yom HaShoah tradition of honoring the stories of Holocaust heroism. In previous years, VBS has celebrated the efforts of people in Denmark, Italy and Spain to save Jews. This year, the little known but extremely successful efforts of Bulgarian leaders was spotlighted.
Princess Maria Louisa of Bulgaria and Metropolitan Galactyon, leader of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church of Bulgaria, attended a Shabbat dinner at the synagogue honoring King Boris III of Bulgaria (the princess’ father), who worked with Bulgarian Orthodox Church leaders to convince the Nazis that Bulgaria’s Jews were needed to work in Bulgaria.
Before World War II, there were approximately 48,000 Jews in Bulgaria. Immediately afterward, there were approximately 50,000.
Yom HaShoah is about more than the past. It is a day of remembrance, but also a day of vigilance. This was apparent at Sinai Temple on April 14, where tight security measures were in place for the dignitaries in attendance.
Among the officials on hand at the temple were Gov. Gray Davis; Mayor James Hahn; Rep. Brad Sherman; City Councilmembers Jan Perry, Nate Holden, Eric Garcetti, Jack Weiss and Alex Padilla; District Attorney Steve Cooley; L.A. Board of Education members Julie Korenstein and David Tarkofsky; Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Yvonne Brathwaite-Burke; Sheriff Lee Baca, and state senators and members of the Assembly.
The Temple Sinai event focused on the present, with Ambassador Dennis Ross (see below) and Davis devoting their remarks to the violence in Israel, connecting unjustifiable death past and present.
Israeli Consul-General Yuval Rotem urged Palestinian leadership to take heed of the lesson of our shared ancestor Abraham: "Our sons cannot be sacrificed, for any reason." Davis drew some of the loudest applause as he acknowledged "the shared values that Israelis and Americans hold," and told the multigenerational crowd "We unequivocally declare our support for the state of Israel."
In parshat Shemini, this week’s portion, a very sad thing happens. The two older sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, die. No one is quite sure why God chooses to kill them. The only clue the Torah gives us is that they have brought “strange fire” before God. Even though we never really get an answer, the Torah is very clear on something else: Aaron’s grief. His grief silences him.
This coming Tuesday, we will observe Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day. No one will ever know why 11 million victims, among them, 6 million Jews, were sent to their death by Hitler. But we will continue to grieve for them. We will observe moments of silence, and we will allow their memory to move us to be better friends, better sons and daughters, better Jews.
The Holocaust is a sad subject, but we cannot close our eyes to it.