Losing to Gain: The Central Paradox of Death Rituals – The Break that Binds by Isaac Pollak


[Ed. Note: This is a reprise from 2014. — JB]

Central to religious practice, rituals may often seem intentionally obtuse, to the point of irrationality. This, in fact may be their very purpose. By devising rituals that at times seem to make little or no sense to the uninitiated, those who learn to perform the rituals – if not understand them, become part of a distinct community. The fact that rituals often don’t make practical or rational sense is exactly what makes them useful for social identification. The cognitive psychologist Christine LeGare has done a number of studies showing that rituals declare that you are a member of a particular social group. Lewis Mumford, the social philosopher, historian, and greatest urbanist of the 20th century, makes a clear case that what sets humans apart from other animals is not the use of tools, but rather our use of language and ritual, and those are what makes us “Community”. Sharing information and ideas among participants was the foundation of all societies, and “community is the most precious collective invention.”

Although there are rituals designed for every aspect of the human life cycle, the rituals surrounding “DEATH” are often the least understood, yet the most often performed. Even the irreligious may insist upon death rituals for themselves or their loved ones. Matthew Frank in his book Preparing the Ghost speaks about “our need to mythologize, ritualize, and spin tales about that which we “fear.”

The greater the lack of comprehension, the increased the amount of the rituals with DEATH, by far the most ritualized of any aspect of a society’s life cycle in every culture. The more rituals there are, the stronger the bonds of community and social identification. The life cycle events the least understood emerge in ritual earlier and are more deeply rooted.

Witness the recent tragic murder of three young Israeli teenagers which bought every dimension of Judaism – and beyond – into a unified community – from the Ultra-Hassidic to Messianics. Everyone adopted and prayed for these young men in accord with the adage ”kol Yisrael Arevim zeh l\L’zeh”, all of us are responsible for one another. Death brought us a sense of unified community as nothing else ever could.

A life broken, an individual link lost, paradoxically strengthens the group unity and identity. Rituals give us a sense of control over an area where we have none. Mundane actions are suffused with arbitrary conventions, and that makes it important to us and gives us a sense of “being in charge”. Rituals engage members of a community in the collective enterprise of building and sustaining a “PEOPLE.”

Jewish death rituals have a foundation that travels back in time 3000 years and has made us a community like none other. In fact, a new developing Jewish community has an obligation to set aside ground for a cemetery before setting aside land for a synagogue. How wise were our Rabbis.

Let us preciously value these so vitally irrational traditions and hoary rituals that bring us together to pray, to improve ourselves, and to elevate ourselves in response to mysteries we don’t comprehend.

Let me conclude by paraphrasing the German poet Rainer M. Rilke in his letters to a young Poet:

“I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign tongue. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

 

Isaac Pollak

Isaac Pollak

Isaac Pollak is President and CEO of an international marketing business for almost 4 decades at this point. He holds graduate degrees in Marketing, Industrial Psychology, Art History, and Jewish Material Culture from City College, LIU, JTS, and Columbia University. He has been a student in the Gamliel Institute, and serves as a consultant to the institution. He has been the rosh/head of a Chevrah Kadisha on the upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC, for over 3 decades, and is an avid collector of Chevrah Kadisha material cultural items, having several hundred in his own collection. He serves as chairperson of the Acquisition Committee for Traditional Material Culture at the Jewish Museum in NYC. Born and raised in NYC, married, with 3 children and 3 grandchildren.

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester, starting September 5th, 2017. This is the core course focusing on Taharah and Shmirah ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means.

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

There is a Free Preview/Overview of the course being offered on Monday August 14th at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST. You are welcome to join us to decide if this course is one in which you would like to enroll. Contact info@jewish-funerals.org or  j.blair@jewish-funerals.org for information on how to connect to the preview webinar.

There will be an orientation session on how to use the online platform and access the materials on Monday, September 4th, 2017, at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST online. Register or contact us for more information.

Information on attending the online orientation and course will be sent to those registered.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

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Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly.

If you are interested in offering a teaching, you can contact us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

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Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have complete three or more Gamliel Institute courses are invited to be on the lookout for information on a series of “Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (in three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series.  The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first two series tentatively planned will be on Psalms and on the Death & the Zohar. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge to attend (more information to be sent soon). Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact them, register at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/, or email info@jewish-funerals.org.

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DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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The essential values of khastegari remain entrenched in Persian-Jewish life in Los Angeles, with parental involvement replacing dating apps and bar scenes in the dating lives of many young Persians. Illustration by Shirin Raban

Khastegari: The Persian-Jewish version of meet the parents


Shannon Delijani was 14 years old, enjoying a cousin’s wedding ceremony, when an older Persian man spotted her, sat down next to her and started telling her about his son: He’s tall, he’s a doctor, he owns his own house …

“I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, this is happening,’ ” said Delijani, now 21. “I had heard about this but I didn’t think it would happen so soon.”

Unsure how to react, Delijani complied with the man’s request for her phone number and full name. When he finally asked her age and she told him, he gazed pensively into the distance. After a long pause, he patted her on the shoulder and conceded, with great disappointment, that she was too young for his 27-year-old son.

Delijani and other Persian Jews know this matchmaking ritual as khastegari, a word that loosely translates to “proposal” but denotes the elaborate Persian courtship custom that precedes the formal offer. What sets khastegari apart from ordinary matchmaking among Jews is the overt, active role families play in arranging matches for their children, sometimes meeting the potential suitor before the couple even plans a first date.

In its most traditional form, a suitor — the khastegar — and his family visit a young woman’s home to evaluate her family over tea and pastries. If the families approve of one another, the couple gets their blessings for a first date or even an engagement. Sometimes the children have a say in the selection; sometimes they don’t.

Several generations and one American migration later, the essential values of khastegari still are entrenched in the landscape of Persian-Jewish dating in Los Angeles, with parental involvement replacing dating apps and bar scenes in the dating lives of many young Persians. The custom is a source of amusement for many young women, who have coined the slang verb “khastegared” and trade stories with friends about awkward encounters like Delijani’s.

For her part, Delijani said she doesn’t mind when adults try to set her up with their relatives. She said every time she tells a non-Persian friend about the custom, they ask if her mom can set them up, too.

“Everyone always complains about not being able to meet people [to date], but here we have this built-in system for meeting someone,” Delijani said.

She’s not exaggerating when she says built in: It’s not rare for single Persian Jews to throw implicit “khastegari parties” with the intention of letting friends scope out potential marriage partners.

Delijani attributed the roots of khastegari to the centrality of family in Persian-Jewish culture, which makes parental involvement a major factor in shaping their children’s lives.

Shaina Pakravan, a master’s candidate at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, created a short film called “Roksana,” based on her mother’s and grandmother’s khastegari experiences. The film, which won a 2015 Short Short Story Film Festival award, follows a young woman with obsessive-compulsive tendencies as she sits awkwardly through a first meeting with a potential suitor and his parents.

Pakravan, 25, said she rarely sees formal khastegari rituals among her own generation. Still, she said, Persian culture’s communal nature persists in the United States despite the influence of American individualism. Meeting a potential spouse’s family still factors heavily into the course of Persian dating, as young adults know how big of a role their in-laws will play in their married lives.

In a sense, Persian Jews marry families, not individuals.

Afshin met his girlfriend of seven months, Arezou (their names have been changed to protect their privacy), through a modern twist on khastegari, as a pair of cousins decided the two might make a good match. One of Afshin’s cousins called Arezou’s parents for their blessing to arrange a date, then called Afshin’s parents for their permission, and somehow Arezou’s number made its way into Afshin’s phone.

They did make a good match, and after a first date at a Santa Monica bar, Afshin said he was surprised by how easy it was to connect with Arezou based on shared cultural background and values, as vetted by their relatives.

“Persian-Jewish women’s mental algorithm might be stronger than, like, dating apps,” Afshin said. He thinks it is the primacy of marriage in Persian culture that lends Persian women their sharp instinct for matchmaking.

“In American culture, if you want to stay single, that’s an acceptable lifestyle choice,” Afshin said. “In Persian-Jewish culture, if you want to stay single, then there’s something wrong with you.”

The tight-knit nature of the Persian-Jewish community provides the intimate knowledge of who’s who that strategic matchmaking requires. Coupled with the fact that Persian Jews tend to travel in familiar circles, khastegari can happen anytime, anywhere — even on Tu b’Av, a Jewish holiday of love, which starts on Aug. 6.

“Ashkenazi women are not going to do matchmaking in the parsley section of Elat Market,” Afshin said, referring to the kosher Persian supermarket on Pico Boulevard. “When they go to Whole Foods or Ralph’s, they’re probably not going to bump into a bunch of people they know.”

Among the qualities matchmaking mothers look for are a similar degree of Jewish observance, an education level and profession that match the caliber of one’s own family, and, above all, a solid family reputation in the Persian-Jewish community. Stains on a family history could be a deal breaker, Afshin said. People talk.

In traditional Persian circles, if a woman dated a man for too long and the relationship fell apart, she was marked as damaged goods, said Homa Halimi Nassirzadeh, a Persian-Jewish marriage and family therapist.

Nassirzadeh, who was courted by a number of khastegars when she was young and single, said she appreciates that modern life in Los Angeles has dissolved much of the intimate knowledge Persian-Jewish families have of one another. She said it’s good for kids to approach the dating scene without too many boundaries — save, perhaps, that they date someone Jewish.

Nassirzadeh said she finds that some of the Persian parents she counsels are apprehensive about today’s upside-down approach to dating, in which children introduce their parents into the equation only after their relationship has gotten serious.

“The biggest struggle for my generation is to shut our mouths,” Nassirzadeh said. “My advice to parents is usually, ‘Leave your kids alone and let them live their own lives.’ ”

Shirin Kohan, 32, said she feels strongly that a relationship between two adults is none of their parents’ business. She thinks some of her Persian peers mistake parental control for parental care.

“I think ‘khastegaring’ is the first step where marital problems begin,” Kohan said. “If you’ve started allowing other people into your relationship from the beginning, it’s a step in the wrong direction.”

Kohan noted that khastegari generally involves a man and his family soliciting a younger woman’s family, which she said objectifies women by denying them agency apart from their parents. The language surrounding the ritual suggests the same: The khastegar is the only named actor, whereas a female subject is only implied.

Delijani said it is not unusual to hear of Persian adults keeping an eye on girls in elementary school as potential spouses for their teenage sons, focusing specifically on the girls who come from prominent families.

“[Khastegari] is dehumanizing,” Kohan said. “It’s unhealthy and I don’t think it’s working in California in this day and age.”

To young Persian Jews like Afshin and Arezou, however, khastegari is a valuable tool to meet a compatible partner, no better or worse than a dating app.

“It feels natural [with Arezou] because we have a common cultural connection,” Afshin said. “I can’t say that it isn’t organic. It is.”

Khastegari is yet another iteration of the eternal contests that play out in Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities alike — tradition vs. modernity, parental oversight vs. independence, and arranged vs. spontaneous dating. It’s another gray area where Persian-Jewish families can negotiate the lines of assimilation and identity.

“[Khastegari] is just part of being a first-generation insert-something-here American,” Delijani said. “Everyone has to deal with these cultural clashes. But at the end of the day, these are our traditions.”

Reinventing Jewish rituals


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

In ancient times, every seven years the King would gather everyone in the country for a special ceremony called “Hakhel” or “Assembly” to read the Book of Deuteronomy. At Jerusalem’s Western Wall this year, tens of thousands came to hear Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, read the traditional text.

A few miles away, at the First Station, a renovated railway station originally built in Ottoman times, a different type of “Assembly” was taking place. Here, volunteers from the audience were encouraged to go onto the stage and read whatever part of the Bible they chose in whatever language they felt comfortable.

“The whole idea of the Assembly is about bringing everyone together and about unity,” Elisa Rabinowitz, the founder of Kol HaOt which organized the Bible reading told The Media Line. “It is about democratizing the Bible and making it accessible to everyone. We want to hear all voices — men, women and children.”

About 150 people gathered on open benches in the middle of the First Station for the reading during the recent Jewish festival of Sukkot, or Tabernacles. Around them were stands selling everything from ice cream to grape leaves. The reading was punctuated with musical selections and a live illustrator quickly sketched while the reading took place.

Some of those participating had reserved their spot online, but many decided to participate at the last minute. Sami Reuben, a British businessman who visits Israel frequently, was one of the few dressed formally for the occasion. In stentorian tones, with a plummy British accent, he read the passage of the Ten Commandments.

“I decided to do it in English to represent the English speaking community and make a statement that the Torah belongs to everyone of all backgrounds,” he told The Media Line. “I feel inspired, and there is a great sense of unity here. Part of the process of being in Israel is to recreate these rituals.”

The crowd was primarily native English-speakers, many with young children in tow. They appeared to be a mix between secular and modern Orthodox. One young father came up with his three-month-old son.

“He’ll be reading here in 13 years,” the father joked.

Another father brought his six-year-old son to read, who already knew part of the Book of Exodus and chanted it fluently. Several young women who recently celebrated their bat mitzas also came up to read.

“It felt amazing,” Miya Elitzur, a young woman, who had her hair covered with a scarf, indicating that she is married and an Orthodox Jew. “It felt like doing the commandment of Hakhel (Assembly) in a modern way, but also connected to our past.”

Others said they enjoyed choosing passages that were especially meaningful to them.

“I read the part about the spies going to the land of Israel,” Howard Metz, a Jerusalem dentist told The Media Line. “I felt like royalty. It was the King who used to read, and now I’m doing it.”

One ultra-Orthodox man, pushing a stroller and with two young children in two, stopped to watch. In the ultra-Orthodox community, women do not lead religious rituals. At the Western Wall, for example, ultra-Orthodox Jews have attacked women who tried to publicly read the Torah, the Old Testament, there. Several women have been arrested for violating the protocol of the site, which is defined as a synagogue.

Here the reading was from a printed book, not a hand-written Torah scroll, and Aaron Gusher, 33, a full time yeshiva student and a father of six did not seem disturbed at all.

“This is a wonderful thing,” he said “You see all different types of people paying attention and learning about different things.”

What about the egalitarian nature of the event?

“It’s perfectly fine,” he insisted. “In a synagogue there might be some who disagree, but it in an open forum like this it’s fine. The Torah (the Bible) is for everyone, even for non-Jews.”

Poem: Ritual


Is it for our smiling faces
that she gets up at seven on Fridays to put an apron on
and stand in front of a hot stove, even in the summer heat
when the air conditioner’s not working well, even when
her ankle is swollen and her medicine is making her throat dry
and her body tired?
Is it for the kisses planted on both her cheeks
that she cooks a feast every week for fifteen people?
pot roast and carrots, chicken, salmon, eggplants,
and special vegetarian dishes for her oldest granddaughter.
Is it the ritual she loves? — setting wine and challah on a white cloth
so her children, some married, some with children of their own,
can come stand around her table and listen in silence
as one of her sons reads Kiddush.
Or are these the gestures of a woman who gives without thinking?
whose fingers turn a beet into a delicacy,
whose hands find pleasure in onions, parsley, and garlic cloves.

Lori Levy is the author of “In the Mood for Orange,” published in Israel in a bilingual English/Hebrew edition. Her poems have appeared in literary journals in the United States, England and Israel.

The High Holy Days: Something meaningful, or just going through the motions?


Most of us who go to synagogue for the High Holy Days have no clue what’s going on.

We don’t speak or read Hebrew well enough to understand the prayers or the Torah portion. We don’t know why we say the prayers in the order we say them. We don’t like the stilted English translations. Many of us don’t even believe in God, or religion. It’s true: Jews are the least religious of all adherents. According to Gallup, only 38 percent of us consider ourselves religious, while 54 percent of us self-describe as nonreligious and 2 percent as atheist. Meanwhile, almost 80 percent attend synagogue on the High Holy Days.

To summarize: Most of us spend a dozen hours in synagogue and hundreds of dollars on tickets to pray in a language we don’t understand to a God we don’t believe in.  

Why? 

The answer is: For a lot of different reasons. Some Jews, of course, do understand and do believe, so that’s a lock. Many of us are groping our way toward understanding and belief. Others like the tradition, the feeling of community, the chance to hear a sermon, the feeling they get participating in a ritual. Many go out of guilt or habit or superstition. 

I suspect that it’s often a mix of these motivations that compel us, in varying amounts, depending on the year. Anyway, who said you have to understand what’s going on in order to be moved? Ritual is a human desire, like music. You don’t need to understand it, or play it, or “believe” in it to be changed by it.

My friend Jon Drucker  belongs to what I suspect is a large subset of Jews who know and understand a lot, but who are still deeply skeptical. I asked him why he bothers to go, then. He quoted back to me a joke that Woody Allen tells in Annie Hall to explain relationships: A guy tells his psychiatrist, “My brother’s crazy, he thinks he’s a chicken.” The doc says, “Why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would but I need the eggs.”

Jon said he goes to synagogue for the eggs.

There is something crazy, irrational and absurd about the Days of Awe in the City of Angels. Tens of thousands of people step outside the daily rhythms of their lives, leave behind their modern homes, their cars, their jobs and gather to hear the sound of a hollowed-out ram’s horn and the chanting of words written on a sheepskin scroll.  

Last year, I watched a man park his Tesla near the Venice Pier, walk to the seashore, throw old bread into the waves, then get back into his 21st-century technological miracle and drive away. There is no way the scene would have made sense to anyone who hadn’t heard of tashlich

But these scenes repeat themselves, all over the city. Dressed in our modern clothes, we re-create the most ancient of rituals. We have everything we need, but we still need this.

What is this?

Sigmund Freud was one of those Jews who didn’t speak Hebrew, who didn’t believe in the sacred texts, and who had no, as he called them, “nationalist impulses.” Why then, he wondered, did Judaism have such a claim on him? What remained? 

“A very great deal,” he wrote, “and probably its very essence.”

What Freud called the essence, what my friend Jon calls the eggs, I think it all circles around the same need, the same idea: teshuvah.

Teshuvah means returning. The High Holy Days are an elaborate extended ritual of return — to get us to turn back toward our true selves, toward what we know is right, toward what believers would call God and what the rest would call our essence.

“Our human longing to return to the Source is fully part of the natural order,” Rabbi Arthur Green writes. “We are born to be God seekers.”

This is not a Jewish thing; it’s a human thing. Judaism offers a way. That’s the reason so many of us find ourselves stepping into synagogues at this time of year — it’s our outward response to our inward call. Two thousand years later, not Leonardo, not Edison, not even Elon Musk, has improved on the design of the shofar. 

We go because we have a feeling that while it may not in and of itself work or even make much sense, it’s a step in the right direction. It helps. We live in a society whose every moment and every message tells us, “Get moving, go forward!” This time of year, something calls out to us from within and says, “Here’s a better idea: Stop, and go deep.”

Shanah tovah.

Give Polish Jewry a kosher choice


Remember “Had Gadya”? What satisfaction when, onto the scene of carnage, walks the Holy One of Blessing, and destroys the angel of death that slew the butcher that killed the ox that drank the water that quenched the fire that burned the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the kid. And what relief! But only momentarily. For where are we in this lineup of violence? It is forever, for us, the question of what am I, now, an angel of death or the little white kid that daddy bought for two zuzim? And can I be both? And do I have to be either?

To be human is to be aware of one’s own morality. To be able to act morally, we must have the freedom to choose to do or not to do so, which demands we have the freedom to reject morality. Without that freedom, we are but tools in other people’s hands. 

In the recent debate on the Polish government’s decree de-legalizing shechitah, or kosher ritual slaughter, we hear strident voices from many sides. Some say the only motivation for the decision was to prevent needless animal suffering. Other voices argue that skillfully performed shechitah causes the animal less pain than all the other feasible methods of killing it. Others still express discontent, outrage or fear, due to the fact that discontinuing kosher slaughter effectively makes it impossible for observant Polish Jews to eat meat altogether.

I do not know which is worse: a shochet’s knife to the throat, or a killing machine in a meat plant. I know that, kosher or not, slaughterhouses are cruel places, where overworked butchers have to do their quota of killing, and helpless animals experience horror and pain. While I realize that Poland cannot, for reasons of its largely agriculture-based economy, its traditions and customs, opt out of mass production and consumption of meat, I would like government experts to conduct an inquiry into all killing of animals — not just the preparation of kosher meat — to ensure that animals’ deaths can become less traumatic than they are now. As important is an inquiry into how these animals live before they find their deaths in Polish slaughterhouses. I imagine a national commission, made up of Muslim leaders, Progressive Jewish leadership, Orthodox rabbinate, philosophers and ethicists, as well as animal behaviorists and farm engineers, working together to design ways to lessen the severity of pain we inflict on livestock as it is reared, handled and killed. 

Once a viable system is designed and a door is opened about kosher (and halal) slaughter, it may be easier to open it for all slaughter. So what I imagine as a solution now is a law that would keep wholesale butchering for export markets outlawed, but would ensure that Polish faith communities that require kosher (or halal) meat are enabled to butcher the chickens, the calves, the cows and the kids whose meat they want to eat. In other words, I want a law that, while keeping the ban on mass killing for foreign markets, would ensure the existence in Poland of slaughterhouses producing meats for local communities and provide for this meat’s fair distribution. 

My current choices don’t really give me a choice. Could the sages of our government work with our rabbis to devise a law that would return to Polish Jews the freedom currently enjoyed, at least potentially, by non-Jewish Poles, of pondering in meat shops the decision of whether to participate, with just a flick of my credit card, the animal hecatomb people have carried on since Noah and the flood, or refusing to do it? For Jews to be able to exercise such a choice, the meat bought or rejected must be kosher meat. 

We are a complex people. We embrace our diversity. Given the freedom to choose, some of us will want to go and butcher that kid that they can buy for two zuzim. Some will let it live. Some will focus on whether the kid can live a life where it is treated with care and regard for its needs, and whether it dies as painless and humane a death as possible. Some will flicker between choices, depending on a myriad of reasons why. Even though I hold with one of these choices only, I respect them all. After all, only the Knower of Secrets, the Holy One of Blessing, knows what lies deep at the root of our choices and how we arrive at our decisions. And it is only when He, the final player in the “Had Gadya” we sing here on Earth, says so, will the world break up the cycle of violence. In the meantime, each Polish Jew should be granted the freedom to choose for herself or himself whether they will or will not become, by virtue of buying their meat or refusing it, the halef — an instrument that transforms life into death.


Dr. Joanna Auron is a new board member of Beit Polska, the Poland-wide Progressive Jewish umbrella organization of Jews affiliated with the European Union for Progressive Judaism and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. She lives and works in Poland.

German Parliament passes law guaranteeing legality of ritual circumcision


The German Parliament passed a law protecting the right of Jewish and Muslim parents to choose a ritual circumcision for their sons, after months of heated debate over efforts to ban the practice.

In all, 434 legislators voted Wednesday for the new law proposed by the federal government; there were 100 votes against, and 46 abstentions.

The decision was applauded by Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who said in a statement that he was “pleased and relieved … The circumcision law finally brings legal security and hopefully brings this highly disastrous debate, which marked this past year, to an end.”

The new law, which introduces restrictions on the practice for the first time, requires that the procedure be carried out by a medically trained and certified practitioner such as a mohel, or ritual circumciser, or by a medical professional, and that anesthetic be used if needed. For a child over 6 months old, the procedure must be done in a hospital.

The campaign against ritual circumcision in Germany, led by a cadre of activists and boosted by some politicians on the left, picked up steam last May after a Cologne District Court ruled that the circumcision of a Muslim minor was a criminal assault. The ruling came to light in the general public in June. In response, Jewish and Muslim leaders demanded a legal response that would protect their religious freedom.

Graumann said in his statement today that the law provided a sense of security that Jews and Muslims could continue to practice their faith in Germany. “In my view, the recent debate was also a tolerance test for our society. And I am very glad that we have passed the test.”

European rabbis protest circumcision bans, plan to lobby


The Conference of European Rabbis will lobby against recent circumcision bans by advocating legislation supporting the practice.

This week, hospitals in Switzerland and a province of Austria announced that they would stop allowing ritual circumcision.

The German lower house of parliament passed a non-binding resolution last week to protect the religious circumcision of infant boys after a district court ban on the practice outraged Muslims and Jews.

“Our fears that the court ruling in Cologne, Germany, could have a knock-on effect across Europe are now being realized,” said Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis. “We must send out the clearest possible message that campaigners against infant circumcision are themselves threatening the human rights of our children in the most fundamental way.”

Rabbinic leaders in Austria and Switzerland have already begun the advocacy process.

“We are working with the government and hope to achieve a commitment for developing specific legislation,” said Chaim Eisenberg, chief rabbi of Vienna.

On Tuesday, Gov. Markus Wallner of the Vorarlberg province in Austria ordered doctors to stop performing infant circumcision for religious reasons until the legal status of the procedure is clarified.

“This is a subject that has to be regulated countrywide,” he said.

The French news agency AFP reported that the children’s hospital in Graz, the capital of the southeastern province of Styria, also has ceased scheduling infant circumcisions.

On Monday, U.S. military doctors in Germany declared that they would continue to perform ritual circumcision.

Germany’s Jews won’t be punished for circumcisions


Germany’s Jews and Muslims will not be punished for breaking the law if they carry out circumcisions on young boys, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said.

“For everyone in the government it is absolutely clear that we want to have Jewish and Muslim religious life in Germany,” Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said Friday according to Reuters. “Circumcision carried out in a responsible manner must be possible in this country without punishment.”

Earlier this week Europe’s main Orthodox rabbinical body held an emergency meeting in Berlin after a Cologne court ruling that said the religious ritual could be considered a criminal act. Regardless, the rabbis urged Jews in Germany to uphold the commandment to circumcise newborn sons.

The decision came in the ruling in the case of a Muslim boy taken to a doctor with bleeding after circumcision. The Cologne court said the practice inflicts bodily harm and should not be carried out on young boys, but could be practiced on older males who give consent. The ruling by the Cologne Regional Court applies to the city and surrounding districts.

In a press conference held Thursday at the Amano Hotel in central Berlin, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said his organization was ready to back Jews in challenging the May ruling by a Cologne district court, which Jewish groups see as symptomatic of a trend across Europe against some Jewish rituals.  Rabbi Goldschmidt did not give details about what actions his group could take.

The rabbinical conference also announced that it is joining with the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of Germany to create an association of mohels, or ritual circumcisers, to be supervised by the Association of Jewish Doctors and Psychologists

Goldschmidt, who is chief rabbi of Moscow, told JTA he didn’t think “that 70 years after the Holocaust a German court would put a parent or a mohel in jail for performing a Jewish religious commandment.”

The Central Council of Jews in Germany has condemned the court’s decision and promised to work with German lawmakers to reverse the ruling. Muslim groups also have proposed bringing a test case to German courts.

Goldschmidt said his rabbinical group applauded the Central Council’s action and wanted to back it with moral and religious encouragement on a European level. He also said that the rabbinical conference had received assurances from Germany’s ambassador to Israel, Andreas Michaelis, that the German government will work on legislation to rectify the legal situation.

Seibert, according to Reuters, said that Merkel’s office would continue to work to resolve the legal issues.

The German Medical Association has advised doctors to not perform circumcisions until the legal questions are resolved, according to Reuters.

Rabbis to meet in Berlin to protest circumcision ban


Jewish religious leaders will hold an international meeting in Berlin on Tuesday to discuss how to respond to a German court ruling against performing circumcision on baby boys, which also sparked protests from Muslims and Christians in Germany.

A court in the western city of Cologne caused an uproar in June by ruling in the case of a Muslim boy who suffered bleeding after such an operation that circumcision causes bodily harm and should only be performed on males old enough to give consent.

The head of the Conference of European Rabbis told Reuters on Monday that it was part of a trend to limit religious freedom in Europe that was targeting Jewish and Muslim traditions such as circumcision and the religious slaughter of animals for meat.

“We see this decision by a German court in the context of a new European intolerance towards other religions,” said Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Swiss-born chief rabbi of Moscow and organizer of the meeting to be held in Berlin on Tuesday.

He cited a Swiss ban on building new minarets on mosques, a French ban on women wearing Islamic veils in public and a failed Dutch bid to outlaw kosher and halal meat prepared by Jewish and Muslim butchers as other examples of legislation inspired by resentment at growing Muslim immigration.

Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant leaders in Germany denounced the Cologne verdict as an infringement of religious freedom.

Germany’s foreign minister also spoke out, arguing tolerant modern societies such as Germany should permit such faith-based traditions. Turkey protested too, while the U.N. special rapporteur on religious freedom called the ruling “nonsense”.

Germany is home to about 4 million Muslims and 120,000 Jews.

The German ambassador to Israel appeared before a panel of its parliament on Monday to try to ease concerns the ruling, which he referred to as a “particularly sensitive” issue after the Nazi Holocaust, an Israeli statement said.

INFANTS

Ambassador Andreas Michaelis told the Diaspora Affairs Committee that the Cologne ruling pertained to only that region and that three German political parties were “advancing legislation to anchor the right to circumcision”, it said.

The statement released by the Israeli committee quoted Michaelis as saying: “Clearly, the subject of a ruling on the issue of banning circumcision is particularly sensitive in Germany, because of its guilt for the Holocaust.”

“But it is important to emphasize that the Jewish communities in Germany are growing and thriving,” it said.

Israeli lawmaker Danny Danon, the committee chairman, said at the session that “circumcision is one of the foundations of Judaism and the last time it was restricted was in Germany at its darkest hour”.

The Nazis killed 6 million Jews across Europe during World War Two, in addition to perpetrating legal and other forms of persecution against them for being members of their faith.

Jews usually circumcise male infants eight days after birth while the time for Muslim circumcision varies according to family, religion and country.

Rabbi Goldschmidt was speaking from Israel where he had also addressed parliament on the issue and said he hoped Germany might use legislation to get round the Cologne court ruling.

The Cologne court, which took action after the doctor who treated the boy for bleeding notified police, did not recommend a minimum age for circumcision.

A jurist involved in the debate, professor Holm Putzke from Passau University, says many doctors object to circumcisions that are not medically necessary, but he did not know whether other German courts would copy Cologne’s ruling.

Goldschmidt, whose organization represents about 700 rabbis, said he had witnessed many circumcisions on baby boys and adults – “and the older you get, the bigger surgery it is, needing more stitches and healing more slowly”.

Goldschmidt added that many health organizations recommended circumcision to prevent the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, while it was very widespread in the United States among non-Muslim and non-Jewish families.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Alison Williams

Dutch Senate to appoint ritual slaughter commission


The Dutch Senate has delayed its vote on banning ritual slaughter and will appoint a commission to study putting new standards for such slaughter into place.

Undersecretary for Agriculture Henk Bleker said Wednesday that he will appoint the commission to establish standards for ritual slaughter, including how long an animal can remain conscious, The Associated Press reported.

The upper house of the Dutch government froze the vote after a majority of senators expressed their objection to the ban on kosher slaughter, or shechitah. The measure had passed the lower house of the Dutch parliament in June.The Senate had been scheduled to vote on Dec. 20.

Proposed by the Animal Rights Party and supported by the anti-Muslim Party for Freedom led by Geert Wilders, the bill requires that animals be stunned before slaughter. Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter must be performed with the animal fully conscious.

Animal Rights Party leader Marianne Thieme said she would submit a new bill banning ritual slaughter to parliament if the current one is defeated by the Senate in January, when it is likely to vote on the measure.

The European Union requires animals to be stunned before slaughter but makes exceptions for religiously mandated ritual slaughter. Nevertheless, ritual slaughter is banned in Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. 

About 1 million animals are ritually slaughtered each year in the Netherlands, according to The Jerusalem Post, of which a few thousand undergo shechitah.

Proposed Dutch ban on ritual slaughter is unfair, ill advised


Animal rights or Jewish rites? That is the question this week before the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of the Dutch parliament, as it considers a bill that effectively would prohibit shechitah, the Jewish ritual slaughter of animals.

According to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, in 1674 the first Ashkenazi Jew who settled in The Hague was a kosher butcher. Well over three centuries later the Dutch parliament, seated in The Hague, may soon send all the kosher butchers packing.

The minuscule Party for the Animals has introduced a bill to ban animal slaughter without prior stunning. While the proposal is in the spirit of defending animal rights and does not represent any anti-Jewish intent, the brunt would be borne by the Dutch Jewish community of nearly 50,000 people.

Such an unjust result should not surprise anyone, since the premise of the bill itself is unjust. Jewish law commands humane treatment of animals, and several scientific studies have shown that shechitah is indeed humane. According to a 2004 peer-reviewed paper, “Physiological Insights Into Shechita,” by Dr. Stuart Rosen of Imperial College in London, “shechitah is a painless and humane method of animal slaughter.”

Given the general use of stunning in non-ritual slaughter in the Netherlands and the wide acceptance of anesthetic stunning as permissible for Muslim ritual slaughter, the proposed law would be a de facto ban only on Jewish ritual slaughter, which does not allow for stunning under any condition.

The Party for the Animals says that “The European Court of Human Rights has determined that forbidding unanaesthetised ritual slaughter does not contravene the right to freedom of religion.” This argument oversimplifies the specific issues and narrow applicability of the Cha’are Shalom Ve Tsedek v. France case, which concerned the demand of a haredi Orthodox Jewish group for a shechitah facility separate from the existing facility in France under the supervision of the chief rabbi of France when the possibility existed of importing meat from a slaughterhouse of the same haredi Orthodox group in Belgium.

In other words, the party claims that banning shechitah in the Netherlands would not infringe on religious freedom if kosher meat can be imported from Belgium.

This line of reasoning leads to two obvious and disturbing questions that Dutch parliamentarians should ask themselves: May we indirectly discriminate against Dutch Jews as long as Belgium does not do the same? How available would fresh kosher meat be to Dutch Jews if all European countries were to adopt the position that it could be imported from a neighboring country?

It is a safe assumption that approval in the Netherlands would encourage animal rights activists to promote similar measures in other European parliaments. The potential for a domino effect should not be underestimated. According to a Belgian animal rights group, a 2006 poll showed that 72 percent of Belgians supported a ban on ritual slaughter without prior stunning.

Switzerland provides a vivid example of the power of European animal rights groups. In 2002, the Swiss government tried to do the right thing and remove the ban on shechitah that had been in place since 1893. The reaction of animal rights groups was fast and furious. They launched a campaign to ban even the import of kosher meat (using the same popular referendum process that in 2010 led to a constitutional ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland.)

Faced with increasing popular support for the anti-import campaign, the Swiss Jewish community itself urged the government to back off and settle for a reaffirmation of the status quo. They rightly feared ending up with no kosher meat at all.

Aside from the potential practical consequences, the Dutch bill’s adoption would indirectly, but indisputably, convey a message of intolerance for traditional Judaism and for those who observe Jewish dietary laws. Dutch Jews, regardless of their observance of dietary laws, would be made to feel as second-class citizens.

In the 1581 Act of Abjuration, the Dutch declared independence from Spain, demanding “some degree of liberty, particularly relating to religion.” The practice of religious tolerance made the Netherlands a magnet for oppressed Jews from elsewhere in Europe.

Members of today’s Dutch parliament should be guided by their founding fathers’ championing of religious freedom, the Dutch tradition of religious tolerance and a commitment not to forsake that first kosher butcher who came to The Hague.

(Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the author most recently of “Jews & Money: The Story of a Stereotype.”)

Who shall live and who shall die: God’s iPhone, Rosh Hashanah 5769


ALTTEXT

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.



From the cover story by Marty Kaplan

The U’Netaneh Tokef prayer—or piyyut—was the subject of last week’s Torah Slam. Read Danielle Berrin’s report, and watch the video here.



The very best Tashlich custom is a toss-up


On paper, the Rosh Hashanah ritual of Tashlich is about doffing one’s sins to start the new year with a clean slate. For Jason Mauro, 16, it’s also about beach football.

Every year since he was 8, Mauro and his friends at Temple Israel of Hollywood have marked the afternoon ceremony, which the synagogue holds at a beach in Santa Monica, with a sand-logged scrimmage.

“It’s a routine now,” said Mauro of Studio City. “We bring a couple of footballs and give some to the younger kids. The games used to be kids vs. parents, but since we’ve gotten bigger and stronger, they kind of back off.”

Family ball games, picnics and drum circles are revitalizing Tashlich as a booming social event, local rabbis say. Built on the traditional casting of sins — often symbolized by breadcrumbs, rocks or lint — into the ocean, the ritual now draws throngs of participants eager to celebrate community, revel in the great outdoors and cut loose.

“People are really gung-ho about Tashlich,” said Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, associate rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood. “After spending the morning in synagogue, they get to take off their stockings and shoes and suits and ties and dresses and put on shorts and T-shirts and bathing suits and sun block. They take picnics and blankets, and we all meet at the beach.”

Maybe that’s why the ceremony, which Missaghieh brought to the Reform congregation when she joined its staff 13 years ago, has been steadily gaining in popularity. Starting with about 100 participants the first year, Temple Israel’s Tashlich event now draws a gathering so large — more than 450 people, Missaghieh said — that they have to obtain a permit from the city of Santa Monica to accommodate the crowd. The city also assigns lifeguards to watch over the waterside festivities.

“It’s a great service for people with families,” said Temple Israel member Bruce Miller, who has taken part in Tashlich for the past six years with his wife, Tracy, and their three young children. “You’re not sitting in one place in a big room where you have to be quiet and sit still. Three-year-olds don’t do that so well. Here, they can run around. Tashlich is more connected to things kids can relate to.”

Miller, a television writer based in Hancock Park, also enjoys the chance to experience Judaism amid nature’s majesty.

“It’s wonderful to hear the shofar outside at the beach,” he said. “Near the water, under the sky, it seems more spiritually relevant to what the holiday is about.”

A few blocks south on Venice Beach, Nashuva encourages Jews of all ages — including total strangers catching rays nearby — to tap into their spiritual sides by taking part in a drum circle. With more than 1,000 participants, Rabbi Naomi Levy said she’s been told Nashuva’s Tashlich ritual is the largest Jewish drum circle in the world.

“We’ve been doing this for four years, and it’s been growing exponentially,” Levy said. “We blow the shofar at the beach as a call for all Jews to come. You’d be surprised how many times we get an Israeli jogger passing by, or a couple of sunbathers who happen to be Jewish. You see people coming from all different parts to join in.”

Members of the Nashuva community, which during the rest of the year holds Friday night Shabbat services at Brentwood Presbyterian Church the first week of each month, gathers for Tashlich at the beach off Venice Boulevard at 4:30 p.m. on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Organizers hand out percussion instruments, but attendees are also urged to bring their own. Drums, tambourines and even spoons are welcomed.

The first time Brentwood resident Carol Taubman took part in Nashuva’s Tashlich ceremony in 2004, “it took my breath away,” she recalled. “There were so many people, all dressed in white, and this fabulous drumming circle. There was a great sense of community, and it was very powerful.”

Taubman has attended Tashlich ever since, drawn back by the inclusive spirit of the event.

“It’s such a welcoming experience,” she said. “Some people can be intimidated by all the prayers at a synagogue service, but anybody can hit a drum or bang two spoons together. It’s like sharing a communal language.”

But the point of Tashlich — to cleanse oneself of the past year’s sins — shouldn’t be undermined by the ritual’s festive atmosphere or the ease of tossing breadcrumbs into the ocean, said Rabbi Dan Shevitz of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice.

“The notion that we can dispose of our sins in such a casual manner is problematic,” said Shevitz, whose Conservative beachfront service gathers 200 to 400 people each year. “You can’t just empty your pockets and be rid of your sins. It takes more work than that.”

Shevitz has put together a reading reflecting the idea that sins can never be truly cast off, but they can be “purified, as we treat sewage.”

The ceremony, which Mishkon Tephilo has done for decades, attracts more and more congregants each year, he said. “It’s as much a social occasion as a liturgical one. It’s a refreshing alternative to the sobriety of the morning service.”

Further inland, Encino-based Valley Beth Shalom has seen a spike in Tashlich attendance for the same reason. The Conservative congregation has been holding a ceremony on the second day of Rosh Hashanah for the past 10 years at Encino’s Lake Balboa.

“Tashlich is amazingly popular,” said Rabbi Edward Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom. “The sunshine is wonderful, we’re out in the fresh air, and we can begin to smell the autumn coming. It’s really joyful.”

This year, Valley Beth Shalom will partner with Valley Village congregation Adat Ari El for a joint Tashlich service. Feinstein is expecting a crowd of about 250 at the lakeside park, which Los Angeles park rangers keep open an extra hour for the ceremony.

An added bonus of holding Tashlich at the site, Feinstein noted, is that the bits of challah thrown into the water end up feeding the ducks that live on the lake grounds.

Temple Israel of Hollywood chooses to forgo traditional breadcrumbs for a more novel approach to the purging of sins, Rabbi Missaghieh said. As soon as the crowd gathers at 4 p.m. on the first day of the holiday, all the children begin building a wall of sand along the shore. After songs and readings, participants consider an area of their lives they want to improve in the new year, then inscribe their thoughts by hand into the wall. The waves eventually wash the sand away, carrying congregants’ written confessions out to sea.

“I think there’s something very magical about it,” Missaghieh said. “You spend the whole morning thinking about God, talking to God. But then you actually go out into nature and feel the grandness of God’s creation on the day of creation. It’s a very visceral moment; not just your mind, but your whole body is experiencing the rebirth of the world.”

Is our fate really sealed? Is change possible?


These are nervous-making times.

No, I’m not talking about the damage the capital campaign may do to you, or — at my temple, anyway — whether you’ll find a parking place for services, which is enough to make anyone want to reach for a Xanax.

What I mean is this protracted season of suspense we inhabit, this waiting for the other shoe to drop, this not knowing what comes next.

The uncertain outcome of the presidential election would by itself be enough to give anyone the jitters, no matter which way you want it to turn out. The economy, both national and global, seems to be lurching from one meltdown to another. Hotspots and tragedies on the international scene may have fallen off the radar screen of the ADD-afflicted news media, but anyone who continues to pay attention to the Middle East or Russia or Darfur, to name just three, has reason to be plenty anxious. Terrorists, loose nukes, avian flu, climate change, the lurking Big One: it’s a wonder anyone can get out of bed these days.

Yet even though the country has a bad case of shpilkes, and despite the nervousness that comes from uncertainty, both presidential candidates have hitched their campaigns to the bandwagon of change. From Barack Obama: “Change You Can Believe In,” “The Change We Need. “From John McCain: “The Change You Deserve,” “Change Is Coming.”

Clearly it’s a welcome message. Eight out of 10 Americans say the country is on the wrong track. All the polls say that the country wants change. Despite the upheaval and disorientation that change often brings with it, nearly all of us want a divorce from the present, a clean break, a fresh start.

But can one leader — whether Obama or McCain — really change us? How much can any one man, no matter how vigorously he exercises his powers, no matter how energetically he uses his bully pulpit, change us, let alone change Washington, or America, or the world?

The answer, of course, depends on how capable of change you believe anyone is, or can be.

I’m not asking whether the next president, whoever he is, will have an impact on our lives. For better and worse, presidents have changed the course of innumerable American lives, and their actions have remade the nation’s place in the world. The issue I’m trying to get at — and I’ll be the first to admit that the question may be unanswerable — is the human capacity for change, the malleability of our individual souls.

Some people maintain — and there is a long tradition that this conception arises from — that people really can’t change. People are inherently good, or they are inherently bad, or they are inherently programmed to be selfish or altruistic or whatever innate characteristics you believe are built into our species. In other words, human beings are limited and run by something called “human nature.”

Yes, there is variety within groups; yes, personal circumstances and social experiences also shape us along the way; yes, we do develop along several dimensions during the course of our lives. But all these variations occur — says this point of view — within the framework of our hardwiring, our genetic givens, our fundamental nature. When real change does occur in our species, it happens during a glacial time frame, not within individual lifetimes; it arises from random variation and natural selection, not from new leaders and new policies.

But the contrary view has just as long a history. It says that conscious human evolution is possible. It maintains that free will can move genetic mountains, that big ideas can change civilizations, that consciousness is not a prison, but a battlefield. Where the notion of human nature leads ultimately to a tragic sense of life, the concept of conscious evolution is ultimately utopian — the belief that there is something perfectible about society, and not over the course of eons, but within our own lifetimes.

José Ortega y Gasset put this way: “Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is — history.” Yes, there may be local and temporal limitations on our freedom to act, but if someone tells you that you can’t change human nature, beware of power politics masquerading as evolutionary biology. Just about every progressive social movement — abolition, suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, environmentalism — starts from this premise. So does what Philip Rieff called “The Triumph of the Therapeutic”: the culture of self-help, the faith that each of us has the power to change our own life.

Which brings me back to the High Holy Days.

Within the calendar that constitutes the Jewish cathedral in time, no days are more saturated with the experience of human nature, and with experiments in human change, than the Days of Awe. This is when we are asked, paradoxically, both to steep in our powerlessness to escape our species’ fate, and yet also to try out behaviors that can rescue us from our destinies.

This is a good moment for me to confess that I have never been particularly comfortable with the grand narrative of the High Holy Days liturgy, the story of the Book of Life.

Shuls to observe Tisha B’Av through study, films


Tisha B’Av the ninth day of the month of Av is a day of fasting and mourning to commemorate some of the greatest tragedies to befall the Jewish people, among them the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem and the expulsion from Spain in 1492. But despite this litany of sorrow, many contemporary Jews are left wondering how to connect to these millennia-old tragedies that seemingly have no bearing on their lives. To assist in internalizing the message of this day, synagogues across the region and across the denominations are hosting Tisha B’Av programs on Saturday, Aug. 9 and Sunday, Aug. 10.

Like most traditional synagogues, the Westwood Kehilla will read the book of Eicha (Lamentations) on Saturday night, followed by a talk about striving for the final redemption. The Kehilla, an Orthodox synagogue, and the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel (LINK) follow their long-standing annual tradition of hosting a full day of programming. After morning services on Sunday, the congregation will join in reciting and analyzing the Kinot, elegies that bemoan tragedies including the Crusades, pogroms and the Holocaust. After an ease-the-fast nap break, “Leaving Envy Behind,” a two-part video, will explore the importance of being worthy of a final redemption and feeling true love for fellow Jews. The day will conclude with a lecture and a light break-the-fast.

Many congregations use Tisha B’Av as an opportunity to offer joint programming with other synagogues, sending an important message about ahavat Yisrael, loving your fellow Jews a central theme of Tisha B’Av. Adat Ari El in Valley Village and Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino, both Conservative synagogues, will engage their congregants in a joint community study, discussion and reading of Lamentations, lead by Rabbi Elianna Yolkut (Adat Ari El) and Rabbi Ed Feinstein (VBS) at Adat Ari El on Saturday night. Morning and afternoon services will commence the following day at each temple.

Young Israel of Century City (YICC) and B’nai David-Judea, two Orthodox synagogues in the Pico-Robertson area, are joining for services at YICC. The eve of Tisha B’av will include the reading of Eicha at 9 p.m. on Saturday, and on Sunday, the reading of Kinot and learning will begin at 8:30 a.m., led by Rabbis Elazar Muskin, Nachum Braverman, Ari Leubitz and Jason Weiner. Following the recitation of Kinot, a video from the Chofetz Chaim Foundation will be shown at 11:45 a.m.

IKAR and Shteibl Minyan, both on the Westside, are also joining forces at the Workmen’s Circle on Saturday at 9 p.m. (bring cushions for sitting on the floor).

Shomrei Torah Synagogue and Temple Aliyah, both in the West Valley, continue their tradition of a joint program, held this year at Shomrei Torah on Saturday night. At University Synagogue of Brentwood, a Reform congregation, Rabbi Morley Feinstein and Cantor Jay Frailich will provide a lesson and prayer on “Jerusalem, Then and Now” at 10 a.m. on Sunday.

If Lamentations and elegies just won’t hit home for you, JconnectLA will be showing the film “I Have Never Forgotten You,” a documentary on the life of Nazi-hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, narrated by Academy award-winner Nicole Kidman, at 12:30 p.m. at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

For teens, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) runs a program at Shaarei Tzedek in North Hollywood from 9:30-11:30 p.m. on Aug 9. Solly Hess, the Los Angeles director for NCSY, and Derek Gorman, the director of education for the Jewish Student Union, will show video clips and speak about the importance of having a profound connection to the land of Israel. “The idea is for the kids to feel a loyalty to Israel and really understand why we should feel so upset on Tisha B’av,” Hess said.

This year, Tisha B’Av begins at 7:49 p.m. on Aug 9. The fast ends at 8:30 p.m. on Aug 10. The rabbinical prohibitions on Tisha B’Av include: no eating or drinking, no wearing leather shoes, no bathing, no application of ointments or lotions, and no sexual relations.



Tisha B’Av guide:

Mom’s final resting places — a cremation story


If you are offended either by the idea of cremation or humor about the dead, you may want to stop reading. It's OK.

Maybe you weren't raised (as I was) by a woman who had no short-term memory for several years before she died, but retained a sharp and sick sense of humor — including about her death.

Mom passed away June 13, 2006.

Over the years, Mom made sure my sister Sue and I knew that she didn't want to be kept alive by artificial means or buried in a casket.

“Make sure I'm cremated,” she'd say.

And then the three of us would brainstorm about where to scatter her ashes. We'd get silly and think of ridiculous places and we'd laugh together, not completely accepting the reality of Mom someday being gone.

Mom was, indeed, cremated, and the company that did so divided her ashes into two urns, so that Sue could have Mom there, in North Carolina, and I could have Mom here.

I was going to visit Sue in a few months, so I just took her share of the ashes with me. Although the plane was delayed and the suitcase with Mom's urn almost didn't make it, I finally handed my sister her share of our mother's remains. I think the container is still in Sue's closet, along with the ashes of five beloved dogs.

Back home, I thought about scattering Mom's ashes along a trail where I hike regularly, thinking that she would have loved the trees. My hiking friends and I laughed about attaching bags of the ashes inside our pants' legs and slowly letting the dust pour out while we hiked, hoping not to be caught performing this illegal act.

Although I always thought it was odd when people selected a cemetery plot, saying, “Oh, Grandma will love the view from here,” once my mother died, I understood the idea of finding a place she would enjoy. None of my ideas for Mom's ashes seemed quite right, and they remained in the plastic urn for a year.

The following June, I was swimming laps in our pool and I thought about Mom, who was a great swimmer. I missed her. And I suddenly had an urge to talk with her.

How to start?

I just dove in, so to speak: “Mom, are you there?”

There was a pause and then I heard that familiar voice. “Ellie-bell, I've been waiting to hear from you! How are you, darling?”

Although I was definitely astonished, it also seemed completely natural to talk with my invisible mother — almost like the many years of long-distance phone calls between Ohio and California.

I kept swimming, and my mother asked her usual questions — “How's Ben?” “How are the dogs?” and “How's that lovely man of yours?”

Mom offered her consistently sound, albeit unsolicited, advice: “Don't you think Ben should….?” “Why don't you try….?” “You're not working too hard, are you?”

We laughed about her worrying.

We were silent for a few moments, and then I heard myself asking, “Where exactly are you, Mom?”

She answered immediately: “Oh, I'm every place I've ever loved!”

It's hard to describe how I felt hearing this: Relieved. Elated. Hopeful.

She apparently had something else to do, because she said we'd talk again and was gone. I felt a mixture of sadness and contentment.

That afternoon, I finally opened the urn, took out some of Mom's ashes and scattered them in my garden. Mom, who was quite the gardener, would have loved it among the pansies and geraniums, her favorite flowers.

A few months later, I was going to Ohio to visit my father with my 16-year-old son, Ben, and my boyfriend, Vince. I poured half of Mom's remaining ashes into several Ziplock bags to take with me, since Cleveland was Mom's birthplace.

My father was delighted to accompany us on our expedition to visit all of Mom's homes and leave some of her ashes at each. Dad served as tour guide, reminiscing about his family and growing up in Cleveland.

Mom's favorite home was the house where Sue and I had spent many happy hours and nights, visiting my grandparents. The home sat on a tiny lake where my mother skated in the winter and canoed in the summer. I recalled Mom's favorite story about canoeing there with a boyfriend when she was 16: the canoe suddenly tipped over, the young man swam for his life to the shore, and Mom stood up in knee-deep water and pulled the canoe in. Mom couldn't get through the story, even in later years, without laughing hysterically.

Dad showed us where, in 1943, he and my mother had their first home — a tiny shack in the woods. Dad barely had time to build a shower, before leaving to serve in the army.

Our last stop was the house where I'd lived until I was 9, when my parents divorced. In that driveway, Mom had used a shovel to remove snow piled on top of her Chevy convertible. We couldn't use the car for the rest of the winter because of the rip she made in the soft-top roof.

The day was wonderful — showing Ben where I grew up, recalling my own childhood and listening to Dad's stories. It was also another chance to remember and celebrate my mother as I left her ashes in gardens and curbside lawns.

My mother's favorite place in the world was Italy. After her first visit there in 1964, she surrounded herself with all things Italian — playing the operas over and over, taking Italian lessons and arranging for an Italian exchange student.

As it happened, last October, Vince and I went to Italy. And Mom went with us.

We stayed in Rome for five days, and at the Forum, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, I had a little conversation with Mom about the sights and deposited some of her ashes.

We rented a car and drove to Assisi, one of Mom's favorite Italian cities. She always had a statue of Saint Francis in her garden, to protect the birds and squirrels — and now Saint Francis has Mom's ashes in the garden outside his church.

Our last stop was Venice, which Mom adored. Near the apartment we rented, I sat on a tiny dock overlooking the Grand Canal. I thought about my mother, about her singing — loudly and off-key– “La Donna e Mobile” from “Rigoletto.” I watched the gondolas go by, and thought also about our very complex relationship — the love, the challenges, the laughter, and the years when our roles were reversed, as she became more dependent and less aware of the world around her. She still remembered me, thank goodness, and still loved Italian operas.

Then I took out the last bag of my mother's remains, turned it upside down between the wooden planks, and let the ashes fall to the water below. I sat for a moment, just breathing, listening to the birds, and looking out over the water, thinking about Mom.

Suddenly, from under the dock, came a large gray film of ash, floating on top of the water, out into the canal, alarmingly visible against the dark water.

I held my breath, waiting for someone to notice how I'd polluted the Grand Canal with the last of my dear mother.

Then a gondola approached the gray film, and the singing gondolier, eyes focused on his passengers and vice versa, scattered my mother's ashes to the fish below.

And my mother was, indeed, in all of the places she most loved.

Ellie Kahn is an oral historian, founder of Living Legacies, at www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com, and president of the nonprofit Living Legacies Historical Foundation. She can be reached at ekzmail@gmail.com.

Write your own dirge for Tisha B’Av 2008


Jewish tradition teaches that we are commanded to write a Torah in our lifetime, but not a kinah, or dirge. For ages, our prophets and rabbis have done this for us, filtering and distancing, putting our most painful group memories into acrostic, poetic form.

Beginning with Eicha (Lamentations) and continuing with additional kinot, our forebears have turned the darkest days in our history into a ready-to-use alef-bet of tragedy.

Now as we approach Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, the fast day on which we remember the destruction of the First and Second Temples and other disasters that occurred on this date by chanting these kinot, I am encouraging you in this age of immersion and Googley do-it-yourself to pick up pencil or pen and write your own dirge.

Tisha B’Av, which starts this year on the night of Aug. 9, literally cries out for our involvement. Writing your own kinah can create a powerful connection to a summer day that might otherwise pass you by.

Historically, not all kinot were in Hebrew—Italian Jews wrote them in their own language, so you can, too.

Through the kinot, Tisha B’Av lives as a construct of memory. The day takes on new meaning as we place our own memories, in our own words, into the construct.

The writing of personal kinot is an activity that I have led several times in Los Angeles with a lay-led Jewish community called the Movable Minyan. Participants have found that writing their own kinot helps them forge an intimate connection to Tisha B’Av—a fast day many Jews find difficult to encounter—especially if they are read or even chanted.

In these kinot workshops, participants have written about personal loss during the Holocaust, onset and recovery from serious illness, how Jewish generational links have been broken and re-forged, earthquakes and riots.

Over the centuries the focus of these poems—which began with the destruction of the ancient Jewish Temples—has evolved to include other calamities as well. There is a kinah for the York massacre in 1190 and one for the French Crown’s order in 1242 that all copies of the Talmud be burned.

The Ten Martyrs—you will recall them from Yom Kippur’s Martyrology Service—also have a kinah dedicated to their sacrifice. Several kinot have been written about the Holocaust and are now in use around the world. Sephardim have written them about the Expulsion from Spain.

No one is expecting you to be an elegiac master. With a few good moments of focus and intent, the form of the acrostic kinah can be yours to appreciate and use. Don’t be thrown by the acrostic part. It is based on the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, with the acrostic being created by the initial letter of each verse. Two common explanations for choosing this literary form are that the use of the entire alphabet represents the totality of the destruction, and that even in destruction there is a beginning and an end.

In Hebrew, the lines of a typical kinah gain strength from alternating long and short lines. Rhythmically, the lines play off each other, adding nuance and meaning. In English translation, you can reach some of the same rhythm.

Take, for example, this section from the beginning of Eicha, the book read on the night of Tisha B’Av (it helps to read aloud):

Alas!
Lonely sits the city
Once great with people!
She that was great among nations
Is become like a widow;
The princess among states
Is become a thrall.
(JPS Translation © 2000)

And here, listen carefully to each line’s rhythm:

Her enemies are now the masters,
Her foes are at ease,
Because the Lord has afflicted her
For her many transgressions;
Her infants have gone into captivity
Before the enemy.

For your kinah, writing 10 lines will give you a good feel for the form. Alas, the wellspring for poetic inspiration about loss and tragedy in Jewish life often seems endless. Yet try to focus on one theme. Your source might be Jewish-related news, an e-mail or a late-night call.

Once you have a theme, simply begin your first line with an “A” word and work your way line by line to “J.”

There is no need to rhyme, only to recall and feel. Think of the kinah as a soulful mnemonic in which each line’s beginning helps you to remember.

As you prepare to write, get into the mood of the approaching day. Many congregations chant Eicha while seated on low stools or even on the floor. Lights are dimmed. For as the commentary Eicha Rabbah teaches, “What does a mortal king do when he is in mourning, he extinguishes the lanterns.”

Use a simple pen or pencil. Find an “un-easy” chair. Go basic, light a candle. If you can, let some hope in, as Eicha’s closing line is: “Renew our days as of old.”

On Tisha B’Av, sitting together, we chant the kinot. It’s a communal experience where the memories and pain are mourning shared.

Prepare and help others to prepare for Tisha B’Av by sharing your creation.

To awaken your inner poet, just listen a little, sift a bit, think and write yourself into this Jewish way of remembering.

Edmon J. Rodman is a writer and designer of children’s media and toys.

 

Will ‘Bro Mitzvah’ find roots in African American community?


Decked out in a black tuxedo, a brimmed hat set fashionably on his head, Douglas LeVandia Ulmer Jr., better known as DJ, walked down the aisle to the beat of two African drummers.

This was the night of his 16th birthday, and his mother, Lillie Hill, was celebrating his coming of age as an extraordinary black young adult with what she dubbed a “bro mitzvah.”

Hill knew that 16 marked a turning point in DJ’s life. And while she had looked into several African rites of passage, she believed the Jewish bar mitzvah ceremony, with its emphasis on family heritage and good deeds, gave her the best blueprint to validate her son’s dedication to family, school, community and church and to pass on her family’s values of education, worship and social outreach.

“This was a way to give him a stepping stone to build upon as he crosses into his adult life,” said Hill, who grew up as the youngest of 10 children in rural Indianola, Miss., and is a trained social worker who is currently teaching.

At the black-tie celebration, held last July at the West Palm Beach Marriott in Palm Beach, Fla., with about 45 people in attendance, DJ was embraced by his grandmother, mother and three sets of aunts and uncles from his extended family. They spoke lovingly of his hard work at Palm Beach Lakes High School, his mentoring of youngsters through the Children’s Coalition and his youth group work at SunCoast Church of Christ in Lake Worth. DJ’s father, Palm Beach County firefighter Douglas Ulmer, had died almost two years earlier.

A church elder, Lowrie Simon, presented DJ with his own Kente cloth, a colorful woven stole depicting his African and slave heritage as well as his family’s now predominant professions in education and psychology. Mayor Thomas Masters of nearby Riviera Beach gave the keynote talk, focusing on the troubled fate of many African American young men.

“It was very emotional; my family doing something so special,” DJ said.

Hill believed that she had created the bro mitzvah herself, learning only later of the Disney Channel’s 2006 episode of “That’s So Raven,” in which Corey finagles a bro mitzvah at the Chill Grill for the monetary rewards. Later in the episode, Corey reconsiders his motives, donating the gifts to charity.

And just last October, unaware of Corey’s fictional bro mitzvah and DJ’s real one, Paul Marx, professor emeritus of English at the University of New Haven and author of “Utopia in America” (Burke Publishing, 2002), wrote an opinion piece in the New York Jewish newsweekly, The Forward, advocating a ritual for 13-year-old black inner-city youths that could help steer them away from gang life.

Purposely refraining from calling it a black bar mitzvah, Marx suggested the ceremony be held during Kwanzaa and fall under the Kwanzaan principle of kuumba.

“Its principle is that blacks should do as much as they can to leave their community more beautiful and beneficial than they inherited it,” he wrote.

He envisioned a ceremony encompassing a serious initiation in which boys would cross a symbolic chalk line and take a vow committing themselves to certain ways of behaving. There would also be plentiful gift giving.

Marx didn’t receive his hoped-for response, but he said he is inclined to try again.

General guidelines for throwing a bro mitzvah are readily available on eHow.com, but most people are unaware of the ceremony, and it remains rare, at best.

And while Jews and non-Jews alike laud the bar mitzvah as a powerful ritual in which the Jewish community stops and takes stock of its youngsters at a crucial juncture in their lives, both Jewish and African American educators question whether a ritual can successfully be adapted from one religion or culture to another.

“I think it’s very tricky,” said Julie Batz, director of programs for Jewish Milestones, a nonprofit that serves as a community resource for San Francisco Bay Area Jews preparing for life-cycle rituals.

Batz believes that the essence of a bar mitzvah as a rite of passage — an exploration of identity; a connection to heritage; an intellectual, spiritual or physical challenge, and a gathering of witnesses — is transferable.

“But when you get to the specifics, when somebody’s studying Jewish texts or learning to lain [read] Torah, I think that doesn’t translate, and it’s difficult cross-culturally,” she said.

But everyone agrees that there is a definite need for a rite of passage ceremony in the African American community.

“The whole concept of black manhood has been kind of devalued. We have racism on one side and lack of self-valuation and self-affirmation on the other side,” said Yitz Jordan, otherwise known as Y-Love, the black Chasidic hip-hop artist whose debut album, “This Is Babylon,” was released March 1.

Jordan, who knew from age 7 he wanted to be Jewish and who underwent an Orthodox conversion almost 10 years ago at age 20, pointed out that becoming a bar mitzvah, a son of the commandments, is actually a universal concept.

Jordan bases his statement on the Noahide Laws in Genesis, which, advocating such commandments as don’t kill and don’t steal, form the basic building blocks of morality and which are applicable to all humanity.

“According to commentaries in the Talmud, the nations of the world are commanded to do this when they’re 13, so really there is no cultural misappropriation,” he said, after checking with authorities at Brooklyn’s Yeshiva Darkei Noam.

But others, such as Maulana Karenga, professor of black studies at Cal State Long Beach and creator of the pan-African holiday, Kwanzaa, feel strongly that the ritual should come from within the African culture. “There are literally hundreds of rites of passage for young black men around the country,” he wrote in an e-mail exchange.

Karenga, whose Organization Us created Majando, a rite of passage model used by various churches and institutions across the United States, favors rituals that don’t deal with real or imagined pathology but rather address the ancient motive of transforming boys into men.

Unique party planning isn’t chopped liver


Some things never change, or do they? Bar and bat mitzvah parties overwhelmingly follow a recipe that everyone assumes is written in stone, said Gail Greenberg, creator of mitzvahchic.com. The only room for creativity, people think, is to have a unique theme.

So why are people stuck? Greenberg attributed people’s unwillingness to change due to pressure, unspoken or not, from peers and parents.

“For the most part, people are afraid of doing something different,” she said.

It’s either fear that friends will think badly of them if they shirk their proper role or worry that grandparents don’t want to be embarrassed in front of their friends by any crazy ideas.

And yet, a few adventuresome families are breaking with the “chopped liver sculpture party” and its accoutrements of loud music, DJ, dancers, candle lighting — invented by a caterer, by the way — and an array of desserts (today’s top runner being Dippin’ Dots, tiny pellet-size ice cream balls).

Sometimes, families are pressed to try something different because a formal party does not make sense for their child.

Walter Spiegel, whose wife, Sharon, planned their son’s bar mitzvah at Jeremy’s summer camp, said his son was not particularly mature at 13 and had no interest in a formal party. However, since the family loved to camp, the weekend with guests in cabins, service in an outdoor chapel (until it rained) and a casual party with country line dancing and a hayride was comfortable for him.

The biggest downside of the camp experience was the planning required, having given up the synagogue infrastructure. But as is reported by many families who try something a little different, the Spiegels’ friends told them it was the best bar mitzvah they ever attended.

Other people replace the typical bar mitzvah party with low-key alternatives, either a Kiddush luncheon for the congregation or an informal meal at home, plus a separate party tailored to what children like to do — not necessarily dancing and party games.

Leslie Belay said that probably 90 percent of families in her synagogue celebrate without the typical fanfare. She attributed their willingness to avoid a lavish party to her rabbi’s stand for meaning and against ostentation.

After the renovation of the social hall, the rabbi laid the groundwork for lower-key celebrations. As Belay remembered it, the rabbi suggested that celebrations maintain the ruach, or spirit, of the congregation — keeping down the expense and inviting fellow congregants to a party that took place right after the service.

As a result, Belay observed, “nobody is feeling pressured to spend up. The pressure is to celebrate authentically without being ostentatious.”

In most places, though, the bar mitzvah party formula remains an immovable fortress, evolving little and usually more focused on the hosts than on the guests, who are usually parked at big tables, making awkward chitchat with people they don’t know.

While Karen Echeverria admitted that the bat mitzvah she planned for her twin daughters was “out of the box to the expensive side,” she kept her guests’ experience front and center.

“Most successful parties are where the guests have a great time, not the hosts,” she said.

Echeverria was determined to serve the mixed needs of her expected guests — elderly relatives who would not want to stay up too late; children who needed to be entertained; Orthodox relatives who would have to come late to the June shindig; and friends who would prefer quiet conversation to loud music.

She used a model she had learned from cruise ships, where people crisscrossed a central lobby and visited surrounding rooms, each with a different flavor and interesting activities — she took over a country club and created four separate venues. One room had lots of couches and a jazz band; another held a casino with games and a magician; a third was set up as a nightclub room with platform seating; and the last offered virtual reality games, where kids could create videos of themselves playing electronic sports.

In Greenberg’s book, “Mitzvah Chic: How to Host a Meaningful, Fun, Drop-Dead Gorgeous Bar or Bat Mitzvah,” she would like to see more people throw out the formula and experiment. For people who are worried about what their friends think, Greenberg suggested that a little creativity can go a long way.

“I’ve always assumed in my life,” she said, “that you get a better reaction when you surprise people in a pleasant way.”

Michele Alperin is a freelance writer and a former life-cycle editor for MyJewishLearning.com. She has a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Finding the sacred in the mundane


My grandparents were not big readers. Their English was slightly accented but fluent — they both left Poland in their early teens and came to America in the 1920s. But like many Orthodox Jews of their generation, when they had “leisure” time (although I’m not sure they knew the concept), it was spent reading Tehillim. They would sit at the table or on the bus or on the wooden bench outside their two-family brick house in Brooklyn chanting psalms from a weatherworn leather book.

Jewish presses hadn’t yet emerged as an industry, and the publishers at that time printed prayer books, Hebrew holy books and explications of the Hebrew holy books. Half a century later, the market was thriving for Jewish books in English: novels, kids’ books, poetry and non-fiction — clean and kosher enough for a religious, somewhat sheltered audience.

Now, following the latest publishing craze of themed Jewish anthologies comes “Bread and Fire: Jewish Women Find God in the Everyday” (Urim Publications, 2008), edited by Rivkah Slonim (with consulting editor Liz Rosenberg). The 400-page compilation features writings from 60 women on topics including modesty, faith, childbirth, prayer, family, community, feminism and, in one way or another, Orthodox Judaism.

“What can it mean to be a Jewish woman today? Does the Jewish tradition offer ways in which a contemporary woman can bring spirituality and meaning to her life? How and where does one begin in a practical way?” writes Slonim, a lecturer and Chabad shaliach, or emissary, of the Lubavitcher movement who works with her husband, Rabbi Aaron Slonim in Binghamton, N.Y. Slonim also edited “Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology” (Jason Aaronson, 1996, Urim, 2006).

“We all have moments of existential reflection. We might question why we are here. We might doubt our ability to make a difference, or despair of connecting to our inner self and to God,” she writes.

But this is not a book about existential reflection, doubt or inner despair. It’s not even a book about questions. It’s more of a collection of writings from people who have already found the answers. Some have had questions in their past — a number of the writers are ba’alei teshuva, or newly religious.

In Elizabeth Ehrlich’s essay “Seasons of the Soul,” on gradually becoming kosher over the course of a year, she writes: “Here are the things I have to give up: lobsters in New England, oysters sensually slithering down my throat, the French butcher. I give up calamari on Christmas Eve with a favorite friend, a traditional meal that links her to her Italian grandparents, and thus connects me to my friend’s childhood. I sacrifice bacon at my aunt’s house, crisped and greaseless beside a home-baked corn muffin, forgo Western omelets at diners I once loved to frequent. I give up being able to eat comfortably anywhere, able to make casual assumptions. It is like being an immigrant, maybe; never quite feeling at home.”

There’s the famous modesty queen Wendy Shalit, in a excerpt from her book “A Return To Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue,” on her fascination with “modestyniks” — her word for young single women raised secular who decide to become religious, wear long skirts and abstain from touching men until marriage.

There’s also Jan Feldman’s essay, “How a Daughter of the Enlightenment Ends Up in a Sheitl”: “I began to take on mitzvot sequentially in a way that appeared rational, at least to me, though perhaps irrational to others,” she writes.

First Feldman focuses on family purity and mikvah, then starts keeping kosher and finally becomes shomer Shabbat. When she and her family moved to Montreal, she decided to cover her hair, first with a tichel (kerchief) and later with a sheitl (wig).

“Donning a sheitl represented the seriousness of my commitment to Hashem,” she writes. “The sheitl will continue to be a symbol of beauty and controversy, but mostly, it will continue to be a source of blessing.”

Most of the notes of controversy — on covering hair, being modest, keeping kosher — while mentioned, are explained away in each essay. But that’s OK; these are women who have chosen to lead a religious lifestyle and to air their thoughts and feelings on subjects by which they are disturbed (Passover cleaning), pained (circumcision), inspired (chevra kadisha, or burial preparation) and awed (birth).

“Birth transforms the birthing couple and their caretakers. Meeting the dangers with awe, stepping out of our normal realms of control into God’s vast and magnificent dance, can renew all involved,” Tamara Edell-Gottstein writes in “Birthing Lives.”

This is an anthology for anyone interested in religion, in the religious experience, in a community of women who have chosen to live differently from the norm. Varda Branfman, for example, in “The Voice of Tehillim,” writes that during her first year in Jerusalem she was “peeling off the layers of my American cultural identity until I was left with what I had been all along, a Jew.” She discovered a custom of saying the psalm that corresponds to the number of years one has lived. At 29, she recited psalm 30:

“Hashem, my God, I cried out to You and You healed me. Hashem, you have raised up my soul from the lower world, You have preserved me from my descent to the pit…. Hashem my God, forever I will thank You.”

Perhaps this is what my grandparents had been doing all that time — they were reciting Psalms, although I am not sure they’d have been able to express it in Branfman’s words: “Even before we begin to say them, the act of taking the Tehillim down from the shelf returns us to the calm at the center of the storm. By saying these words, we climb into a lifeboat that carries us beyond this moment, beyond peril, beyond our finite lives.”

Sukkot Man


I have perfectly normal, respectable friends — doctors, producers, financiers — who every year slip into something more comfortable and head down to Burning Man.

About 25,000 gather for one week each year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to create “an experimental community”

“You have to come,” they say each year, and each year I look at their photos from a week spent in the Nevada desert in the baking sun with thousands of strangers into everything from Druid solstice worship to group hug camps and tell them, “Um, no thanks.”

Part of me can think of nothing I’d rather do than take a break from my professional and familial duties and watch aging and wannabe hippies do naked yoga in the Nevada sun — one must always expand one’s horizons. But then I think of the shlep and the dust and the smell of patchouli — I hate patchouli — and the potential for sunburn, and I lose interest.

“But you have to experience it to understand it,” they say. Well, that I believe. For as long as people have mistaken my simple curiosity or bemused expression for an eagerness to join them on whatever farkhakta spiritual journey they’ve embarked on, they’ve relied on the old “You’ll never know ’til you try” to get me on board. I’ve heard it from acolytes of everything from est to Jews for Jesus to Scientology to ecstasy.

The Burning Man Web site chides, “Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind.” Which begs the question: Does a blind person really care what puce looks like?

But I think I do know a little about the spiritual and communal power of Burning Man.

Because I have Sukkot.

When it comes down to it, there are two types of Jews in the world: Those who celebrate Sukkot, and those who don’t.

Either you know what it is to sit outdoors under a sukkah on a cool autumn night, surrounded by family and friends, feasting on traditional Sukkot foods, laughing and singing as if it were summer camp all over, or you don’t.

Either you know that Judaism offers evenings of ease and joy and unmitigated celebration, or you don’t.

Why so many Jews neglect to celebrate this holiday (which begins this year on the evening of Sept. 26 and lasts a week) may go to the heart of why so many Jews are alienated from Jewish life. To observe Yom Kippur but not Sukkot is to experience Judaism as a dour and guilt-inducing religion, full of difficult prayers and expensive tickets.

Sukkot makes no such demands. Judaism, in its time-tested wisdom, presents Jews with the melancholy reflection of Rosh Hashanah and the awesome duty of Yom Kippur. But Sukkot, which comes four days after Yom Kippur, is the religion’s equivalent of Miller Time. All you need to do is sit outdoors in a festive sort of hut, a sukkah, say a few blessings and eat a good meal. The sun sets, platters are emptied, jokes told, wine bottles drained. If someone has a guitar, even better. At my first meal in a sukkah, I thought I had walked into a different religion.

There is a deep religious, historical and spiritual meaning to Sukkot and some rituals and rules that accompany it. Also called the Festival of Booths and the Feast of the Harvest, it commemorates the successful harvest of the preceding year and the time of the first rains, as well as the journey of the Children of Israel through the wilderness on their way to Sinai.

Observant Jews follow the commandment of holding branches of willow, myrtle and palm and an etrog, or citron, during each evening’s blessing. Sukkah guests can discuss the symbolism of these four species for hours: the intertwining of the masculine and the feminine, of Israel with God, etc. Or you can focus on draining those bottles of wine.

But, ultimately, the beauty of Sukkot derives from the holiday’s biblical name (Exodus 23:14-16): the Feast of the Ingathering. The sukkah creates an intimacy that is the glorious opposite of many large, modern Jewish institutions. A sukkah meal is part picnic and part secret clubhouse meeting, part … Burning Man.

Not surprisingly, children delight in Sukkot. They watch as the grownups essentially ape what children do the rest of the year: construct a playhouse. The kids can help decorate it any way they wish — Martha Stewart need not apply — and then every meal becomes a kind of camping trip. Sukkot is the mystery and revelry of Thanksgiving — a holiday whose pagan origins in harvest festivals Sukkot likely shares — taken to an exquisitely deeper level, perfected.

There is no better way to introduce non-Jews to Judaism than by inviting them for a Sukkot meal. For that matter, there is no better way to introduce Jews to Judaism.

Next year, perhaps some local innovator will find a large, convenient piece of property and erect a capacious, traditional sukkah upon it, a community sukkah. It will be open to all Angelenos, Jews and non-Jews, all day and night for the entire week, and be a place where the ancient holiday can be used to forge new friendships, new community, new understanding. It will bring the beauty of Sukkot to all and become an annual L.A. institution.

People will pass this giant sukkah and ask, “What is it?” and someone will answer, “To understand it, you have to experience it.”

Sacramento PBS TV affiliate won’t run anti-Semitism documentary


David Hosley thinks a scene in which a group of devious Jews slash the throat of a young boy in a ritual slaughter to cull his blood for Passover matzah is not the type of thing that should be shown on television.

Yitzhak Santis thinks it’s exactly what we should be seeing. Santis is the director of Middle Eastern affairs for the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

But Hosley is the general manager of a TV station, the PBS affiliate KVIE in Sacramento. So his word goes.

Hosley passed on running the documentary, “Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence,” which most Public Broadcasting stations ran in early January, including Los Angeles’ KCET, which ran it on Jan. 8. The film, narrated by Judy Woodruff, provides a history of the hatred of Jews in the Christian West and Muslim East, accompanied by historical cartoons depicting the Jew as “Christ killer,” bloodsucker, ravisher of virgins and plotter of world domination.

Hosley defended his decision, which he said was a difficult one and came only after input from a board of station employees, professors and local religious leaders, including a rabbi, imam and Christian ministers.

“I am interested in the topic, but I’m looking for a program that lives up to its title and is well made,” said Hosley, a documentary filmmaker himself and the station’s general manager for the past eight years.

Hosley said the film, produced by Andrew Goldberg, was journalistically problematic. He claimed that its rapid cuts and interviews with unseen, off-screen questioners left it unclear if the young Arabs being questioned were stating their heartfelt opinions or repeating stories they’d heard. He also complained that the film spent far too long revisiting the history of European anti-Semitism in the 20th century. As for the ritual slaughter scene — an excerpt from a Syrian TV drama — he and his panel felt it was blunt, gory and the message could have been made without the depiction of a boy’s throat being slashed.

Hosley said his panel told him the film would do “more harm than good” for the relationships among Sacramento’s various religious groups.

“I’m very familiar with this program and I couldn’t disagree more,” said Santis of Hosley’s argument. “If you really want to understand the incitement that is being made in Arab and Muslim media, the fact that it is so dramatic and gruesome really demonstrates the level of demonization of Jews that’s going on. I have a copy of that [clip] and I’ve shown it to audiences here and people do close their eyes and I have heard gasps.

“I use it as a wake-up call,” Santis said. “This is using 21st century technology to perpetuate the blood libel and people should be made aware of that.”

Along with a bevy of letters both supporting and denouncing the documentary, PBS ombudsman Michael Getler wrote a largely supportive entry on behalf of “Anti-Semitism” on the PBS Web site.

“This struck me as just the thing Public TV ought to be doing,” he wrote in a Thursday, Jan. 11 posting on PBS.org. “It is unlikely that any diverse audience will ever say that you got this subject just right, but producers need to take a shot at it. Its value, I thought, was in explaining the evolution of anti-Semitism, the original Christian and European role and the differences with Islam, and in exposing to American audiences the kind of hate-filled imagery about Jews that is broadcast and publicly stated in many Arab countries that Americans are unaware of and that the American media rarely captures and broadcasts if they see it.”

Hosley said he that it was far from a rebellious act to not run the documentary, as each national program offered is presented at the discretion of the individual affiliate. Hosley estimates he’s rejected more than 100 hours of nonrequired programming over the past year. And of the roughly 50 largest PBS affiliates, 18 did not run “Anti-Semitism” in the time slot PBS central had earmarked for it, if at all.

In place of “Anti-Semitism” Hosley ran a documentary about America’s oil dependence and the nation’s relationship with oil-producing nations.

Time warp again? Take a step toward tradition


When I think back to my bat mitzvah 30-plus years ago, here’s what I remember most: following the photographer’s prompts as I posed against the tree in the synagogue courtyard, standing nervously on the bimah chanting my Torah portion, and giving a speech in which I excoriated President Nixon. I don’t recall how I tied that in with the parsha, but I relished having the congregation laugh at my political barbs. I loved dancing with my friends and hoped that the boy I had secretly admired for months would finally realize what a prize I was and begin to like me in return.

My bat mitzvah was exciting and fun. It even gave me a vague notion of the meaning of Jewish adulthood. My grandfather, who trained me for my bat mitzvah, claimed that back in the 1940s he pioneered bat mitzvahs (at least here in Los Angeles) when he trained my aunt for this rite of passage. My grandfather came to the United States from Europe with visions of a more modern religious life. He was proud to have blazed the trail for bat mitzvahs in the Conservative movement.

So what would he think of his great-granddaughter pushing the clock back and having a bat mitzvah, shared mostly with girlfriends, sans Torah reading? Well, styles in fashion and religion come and go, and over time my husband and I became more committed to a Torah-observant lifestyle.

Just as the peasant look that I wore in the ’70s has returned, so has the Orthodoxy that that my grandfather left behind in Bialystock.

I’m the first to admit that I once would have scoffed at the idea that any daughter of mine (I had been a dues-paying member of NOW, after all) would not read from the Torah at her bat mitzvah. It was too regressive to deserve comment. It took several years until I was willing to entertain the Torah’s views about spirituality. It rankled to learn that some of the ideas were totally, unrepentantly politically incorrect, including notions about men’s and women’s differing roles in public ritual life. But the insights they revealed about human psychology rang true.

It’s very clear to most people unburdened with a master’s in sociology that men and women need different types of nurturing for emotional, spiritual and intellectual health. Yet many academics still kick and scream when you state the obvious (just ask former Harvard President Larry Summers). Men’s obligations to attend minyan, lead services and read from the Torah are all part of this care-and-feeding program for men.

Psychologically, it’s brilliant: men, who tend to lack meaningful male bonding, can get regular doses at their neighborhood minyan every day. Women will bond with other women, minyan or no minyan. Just watch us.

That’s why I didn’t lose sleep that my daughter’s bat mitzvah would be a less public affair than her brothers’ bar mitzvahs. Girls are considered to become bat mitzvah at 12, again revealing the Torah’s insight that girls are usually a year ahead of boys in terms of maturity at that age.

Like her brothers, Yael was excited and a little awed at the prospect of becoming responsible for her own actions, for mitzvahs as well as misdeeds, responsible to fast, to pray, to continue to grow spiritually and to contribute her special talents and energy to the community.

We also wanted her bat mitzvah to be more than just an expensive birthday party. Of course we had great food, music, dancing and an art project that the girls made and donated to Chai Lifeline for their Purim baskets. But Yael also prepared by studying a text for several months with a teacher (in her case, me). Together we chose to study the Eishet Chayil, a portion of Proverbs that is traditionally sung in honor of the Jewish woman at the Shabbat table each Friday night.

We plumbed the text and its elucidation, written by a phenomenal rebbetzin in Jerusalem. It was the first time that I had gone beyond a superficial reading of the Eishet Chayil, despite having sung it hundreds of times. Together, Yael and I tried to understand the deeper insights these proverbs reveal about life, about the spiritual potential of the Jewish woman, and about faith. Many of the concepts were beyond the grasp of even the most mature 12-year-old. Still, we soldiered on, and by the end we each shared a sense of accomplishment.

On her big day, Yael spoke with maturity and depth about the concepts of oz and hadar, strength and splendor, for which the Jewish woman is praised in Eishet Chayil. She explained that this is the kind of strength that springs from faith in God and from the courage of one’s convictions.

Listening to her speak with confidence and poise, I was willing to bet that her great-grandfather would have been beaming with pride. True, she may not have stepped up to the bimah with a tallit draped over her shoulder the way her mother had, but she was clearly and purposefully stepping up to Jewish adulthood with joy, pride and faith. And ultimately, that’s what any bat or bar mitzvah should really be about, isn’t it?


Judy Gruen writes the popular “Off My Noodle” column @ judygruen.com. Her next book, “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement,” will be published in May.

Fry the latkes, try the gingerbread


In a second-grade classroom I visited recently, the children were comparing how many presents they were going to receive for Christmas. When they finished, Sarah announced, “I don’t celebrate Christmas, I celebrate Chanukah. We get eight presents every night for eight nights.”

Even for those who were not yet up on their multiplication tables, her total clearly trumped the previous top scorer. It was a valiant attempt to compete with Christmas, and I think it worked on the other children. But she couldn’t fool me. I’ve been there myself, plus I’m a therapist.

Therapists aim to place themselves in their client’s shoes. What is life like for them? What is their subjective experience?

So let’s be a young Jewish child living in North America in the weeks leading up to Dec. 25.

Your best friend, who is not Jewish, lives down the street.

Her parents, who normally won’t allow her to bring anything bigger than a twig or a rock into the house, drag a dark, fragrant, 7-foot fir tree through the front door.

For hours they work to decorate the tree with twinkling and glittering objects.

These normally tidy people fling handfuls of shiny tinsel at the needles, careless of how many fall to the floor, and at the end of this happy ritual one of the grownups balances on a stepladder to place a star atop the tree.

This unusual activity is in preparation for a visit from a man traveling from the North Pole in a sleigh drawn by reindeer.

Everything about him is out of the realm of ordinary experience. He wears a red suit decorated with white fur, lands on their roof and enters their house through their chimney. In exchange for a simple offering of cookies and a glass of milk, he delivers to them exactly the presents their hearts desire (as long as his magical list shows that they have been “nice”).

He lovingly places tiny red-and-white-striped candy canes and small gifts in a sock with their name on it pinned to the fireplace, and places the larger items under the tree.

Where do all these gifts come from? They were made and wrapped by happy, highly industrious elves.

What is your experience beyond your friend’s house? A soundtrack of lovely, jaunty songs in anticipation of the man’s visit plays all month everywhere you go. When you go to the store with your mom to buy a present for your teacher, the saleswoman leans over and asks “The Question.” Even if your family buys all their holiday presents online or at the Chanukah boutique at the temple, if you don’t live in Tel Aviv or Monsey, someone will ask, “What do you want Santa to bring you? What did you ask Santa for?”

You aren’t sure what to say to be polite and still protect your pride. Santa doesn’t come to your house not because of the naughty-nice business, but because you don’t celebrate Christmas. You, as a 3-year-old non-Jewish acquaintance of mine says, celebrate “Harmonica.”

For a whole month your life is like the saying, “Don’t think about an elephant.” You can’t help it because the elephants are everywhere.

Now let’s go to your house. The home of no graven images, maybe a few blue-and-white decorations. On the first few nights of Chanukah your family puts pale wax candles in a cold, metal, fork-like object as a tribute to a military victory and something called the miracle of the oil — a story considerably less romantic than the one about three wandering kings following a star to a baby in a manger.

As for Chanukah rituals, there is always some confusion about the proper prayers, the right combination of words and melody, because you don’t hear them all day, every day playing at the mall. Some nights your family might even forget to light the candles.

You host or attend a party or two where you eat latkes, a treat so delicious that you say, like you do about charoset at Passover and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, “Why don’t we have this every week?” You play a gambling game by spinning a little chunk of wood, but no one is quite sure of the rules. Instead of money you use chocolate coins wrapped in foil, each alike, except the ones that are squashed, all a bit waxy when you take a bite, none shaped like trees or stars or snowmen. If you go to a Jewish day school you get to have jelly doughnuts.

All of this is sweet and delightful and you do get a lot of presents, but they are spread out over eight nights, so the getting doesn’t have the majesty of one huge blowout of unwrapping, swooning and delirium. There are only two songs to sing for your holiday, one very straightforward, detailing action by action exactly what you’re doing anyway — “Lalalalalalalala, come light the menorah, let’s have a party, we’ll all dance the hora” — and one about an old rock.

It is tempting to spin this situation for your child: Honey, you are so lucky, you get presents for eight nights!…. We celebrate Chanukah and so many other wonderful holidays all the year through!…. We can buy some fruit and vegetable Christmas ornaments on sale after Thanksgiving and use them to decorate our sukkah next fall!

But these concepts ask your child to stretch her mind to encompass the whole cinematic epic of how wonderful Jewish traditions are and, at the moment, your child isn’t looking at a movie. She is looking at a bright, colorful snapshot, and the snapshot is filled with such potent allure that your words float off into the category of grown-up speak, a category that contains nonsense such as, “You don’t really want that ice-cream cone so close to dinner, you just think you do.”

It’s hard to empathize with people who seem to have everything. Yes, our children have amazingly good lives; yes, they have a stunningly profound religious heritage; yes, their parents are hopelessly devoted. But they don’t have Christmas, and we can do them a kindness by taking a moment in the next few weeks to look at the temporarily dazzling world of Christmas from their perspective.

Alter Kayakers make waves in Newport Bay


Every Thursday morning, 11 supremely fit old men come thundering into Newport Bay, rounding up all the good rental kayaks on the Balboa Peninsula and singing at the top of their lungs.

Most are major fundraisers for Heritage Pointe, Orange County’s Home for the Jewish Aging, and they call themselves the Alter Kayakers.

The name was a natural, said Stan Sackler, 70, of Newport Beach, a retired fuel dealer, who was already a member of a Jewish cycling group in Fullerton called Shlemiels on Wheels.

Sackler and Steve Fienberg, 67, of Irvine assembled the group four years ago, and let Howard Weinstein, 72, of Corona del Mar coin the name. They’ve never had a slow moment since.

“I look forward to this all week,” Weinstein said. “I can’t wait for Thursday.”
Not that Weinstein, or any of the other Alter Kayakers, lives in the slow lane the rest of the week.

Weinstein hiked and rode horseback through Patagonia for 18 days last fall. He plays tennis four times a week, works out with a personal trainer twice a week and he’ll have to miss the Alter Kayakers’ February cruise to Mexico because he’ll be in Botswana.

“I figure that if I stay active when I’m 72, I’ll still have a life when I’m 92,” Weinstein said.

The Alter Kayakers stand out for their awesome endurance and robust bearing, and they cram their days with endless bicycling, hiking, tennis, martial arts and river rafting. But no one has to quit when his abilities falter.

Seymour Lobel, 77, a retired auto financier from Corona del Mar, for example, has lost much of his vision. Other members of the Alter Kayakers drive him to Newport Bay each week, and in the water, someone always keeps an eye on his kayak.

Members love to reminisce about their Kern River rafting trip last September, when the raft overturned and all the members were dumped into the churning river’s Class 4 rapids. Stronger members helped stragglers get back onto the raft, and the team spirit that prevailed made even these tough men of steel mist up for a moment.

Two seconds of sober reminiscence passed, and then Weinstein said, “Stan Sackler, wearing a hearing aid, came damn close to getting electrocuted.”

Ephie Beard, 75, a Newport Beach resident of 13 years who owned car auction businesses in Anaheim and Fontana, introduced the Alter Kayakers to whitewater rafting.

“I’d been doing it for 21 years,” he said. But the day the raft flipped, he said, “it was pretty scary for some of those guys.”

But all this running around without performing a few mitzvot is against Alter Kayaker rules.

“We all try to do something for the Jewish community,” said David Stoll, who owns a boat engine business in Newport Beach. “Most of us are Diamond Donors to Heritage Pointe in Mission Viejo. My personal feeling is that you have to pay your Jewish dues. If you don’t pay the community back, it really gets on our nerves.”

Two of the Alter Kayakers aren’t Jewish, but they’re treated like Members of the Tribe. Stan Angermeir, 67, a nursing home operator who lives on Lido Isle, belongs to Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana with his Jewish wife. Wayne Harmon, 69, of Corona del Mar, the other non-Jew in the group, has a serious relationship with a Jewish woman.

“Believe it or not,” joked Stoll, 68, “we made Wayne our treasurer.”

“But we don’t have anything in the treasury,” added Stackler, a former director of the Orange County Jewish Federation.

Every year, the Alter Kayakers hold an awards ceremony.

“Everyone wins first place in something,” Stoll said. “Wayne Harmon won first prize for looking the least Jewish.”

Most of the Alter Kayakers are retired or semiretired professionals or businessmen.

Arthur Friedman, 71, of Balboa was a dermatologist. Sid Field, 77, who lives in Newport Coast, was a dentist. Robert Baker, 64, of Newport Beach and Fienberg were lawyers.

Weinstein was a pharmacist who became a pharmaceutical manufacturer. Harmon was an executive with J.C. Penney. The rest were entrepreneurs.

When they gather, they are sure to sing “Kayakers’ Spirit,” their own anthem, sung to the tune of the “Illini Fight Song.” Field, a University of Illinois alum, wrote the words. The anthem concludes their weekly Thursday ritual, which starts with a 4-mile, one-hour kayak expedition into Newport Bay and progresses to lunch at Newport Landing Restaurant.
“Same seats or we forget the name of the guy next to us,” Sackler explained.

Same menu, too, it turns out: A half portion of Caesar, Cobb or chicken avocado salad. Ironmen feasting on salad fragments?

“Some members are on diets or too cheap to buy a whole salad,” Weinstein said. “One member who shall remain nameless orders a sandwich off the menu, and he is penalized by getting a separate check.”

The Alter Kayakers say they don’t accept new members.

“Our membership is now closed because the group has such good chemistry, and we don’t want to tamper with it,” Fienberg said. “Also, the place we rent kayaks from only has about 11 good kayaks, and more than 11 for lunch is a bit much.”

They also discourage lunch guests.

“You must be mishpachah,” Weinstein said. “You can be a ninth cousin, but you have to be in the family.”

All but one of the Alter Kayakers are married, nearly all to their first wives — Stoll for 42 years, Baker for 41.

“My wife loves it,” Weinstein said. “It gives me an opportunity to socialize with the boys and to go out and exercise.”

There are no greens fees or memberships to eat away at the family budget; it costs $10 to rent a kayak.

So far none of the Alter Kayakers’ wives has taken to renting a kayak of her own.
“My wife came out with me in a tandem in Newport once,” Sackler said, “and loved it as long as I did the paddling.”

‘Moishe Houses’ provide post-Hillel hangout for 20-somethings


Say you’re a few years out of college, living with friends and working in a low-paying job for some do-good organization. You don’t go to synagogue, but you miss the camaraderie of your college Hillel, and you like to invite people over for Shabbat meals.

Imagine if someone was willing to pay you to keep doing it?
 
That’s what’s offered by Moishe House, a fast-growing network of subsidized homes for 20-something Jews committed to building Jewish community for themselves and their peers.
The project was launched less than a year ago by The Forest Foundation, a Santa Barbara-based philanthropy. The foundation’s executive director, David Cygielman, 25, says the goal was to give young activist Jews the financial freedom to focus on creative programming designed to reach other young, unaffiliated Jews.

To the people living in these houses, it’s a terrific gift.
 
“We were already having Shabbat dinners three or four times a month and then they came along and said, ‘We’re looking for people doing what you’re doing. Keep it up, and we’ll support you,'” said Jonathan Herzog, 29, who lives in the Seattle house with his sister Norah and two friends.
 
The project is a validation of these young Jews’ efforts to create a Jewish home for an age group they feel gets lost in the communal shuffle.
 
“After college there’s no more Hillel, and they don’t join the Jewish community until they have families,” Cygielman noted.
 
The first Moishe House opened last December in San Francisco. Seattle was next in February, joined quickly by houses in Boston and Los Angeles.
 
New ones are to open in October in Oakland, Washington, Uruguay and Nigeria, and the plan is to have 12 houses up and running by next year.
 
Except for the Nigerian house, which is a one-man outreach operation, they all follow the same formula: Three or four Jews in their 20s receive a rent subsidy of up to $2,500 a month, along with $500 for programming, and are expected to become a communal hub for young Jews by hosting Shabbat meals, card games, Yiddish lessons, film nights, book discussions, neighborhood clean-ups and other social, intellectual and civic-minded activities.
 
Residents say the formula works because it lets young people organize events they themselves would want to attend, rather than having something imposed from above by a synagogue or JCC.
In many ways, it’s the bayit of the 21st century. But unlike those communal Jewish homes of the 1970s and ’80s, which usually were sponsored by Zionist youth groups, residents of Moishe Houses don’t subscribe to a particular ideology.
 
The focus varies according to residents’ interests: The houses in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco host a lot of poker parties and film nights, while the Boston house is more involved in social action.
 
Houses have great freedom, Cygielman says, so long as they meet the minimum requirements: hosting eight to 12 events a month, making weekly reports, maintaining a Web site and reaching out to young people. Funding can be withdrawn if a house doesn’t perform.
 
“I won’t tell them what’s a wrong program or a right program,” Cygielman said. “I don’t care, so long as they’re building community and lots of people are coming.”
 
Maia Ipp, 24, moved into the San Francisco house in June. She runs a women’s group and a cooking club that is working its way alphabetically through the world’s cuisines.
 
Her parents once lived in a bayit sponsored by Habonim, a Labor Zionist youth group, but Ipp prefers the Moishe House model.
 
“We’re not affiliated with a movement that has a belief system, which frees us to do new, fresh work and engage young adults in ways other movements and campus groups can’t,” she said.
 
One recent evening, the four young residents of the San Francisco house got together for their weekly meeting. They sat around the large table in the dining room, which opens onto a large patio they use for Shabbat dinners and holiday parties.
 
David Persyko, 25, started hanging out at the house soon after it opened.
 
“I found myself really attached to being part of a Jewish community again,” he said. “Some of my fondest memories growing up were from Camp Swig, and coming here, I felt that rush of support I hadn’t felt in 10 years.”
 
He moved in in June and now runs poker night, which draws a group of guys every three weeks to “vent about the women in our lives,” Persyko said.
 
Aaron Gilbert, 24, runs a book club. The books aren’t Jewish, but the participants are, and talking about the books leads to talking about other things.
 
“It’s really intimate. We hang out, catch up on each others’ lives,” he said.
 
The house holds a big Shabbat dinner once a month and sponsors a softball team called the Matzah Ballstars. But the events and programs are secondary to the real draw.
 
“At our core, we’re four people who live in a house and we’re inviting people over. That’s appealing to people like us. It’s not institutional,” said Isaac Zones, 24, national director of the Moishe House network and a founding member of the San Francisco house.
 
On a table in the corner is a silver-toned bust of Zones’ grandfather, a man who founded his business empire with money he won playing poker. Zones makes sure the statue is always there during games.
 
The Moishe House concept is still in its early stages, and some things need to be tweaked. For example, the Los Angeles and Seattle houses are trying to beef up their social action component, while the Boston house is being encouraged to offer more “fun events,” Cygielman said.
 
It’s all part of figuring out what constitutes a Jewish community, or even a Jewish event. Must it be something devoted purely to a Jewish ritual or Zionist goal? Or is it enough to bring together a bunch of Jewish people to shmooze and eat?

Pico-Robertson Live in the ‘hood: Little sukkahs, on the hillside, little huts made of …


You rise from your 300-thread cotton sheets and walk along your Carrera marble floors through the hand-crafted French doors that give out to a spectacular patiooverlooking the city. Off to the side is a small, frail- looking structure that looks like an old hut, with palm leaves on top.

You make your way into this little hut, and you say a blessing. There is art from your children on the vinyl walls, as well as a picture of the kabbalist Rav Kadoori. Over a Persian rug is a 2-by-8-foot table with 10 folding chairs, and on a beige tablecloth sits two covered challahs, a jar of honey, a Kiddush cup, and a Chumash. In the corner there is a wooden stand with an oriental lamp, and hanging from the thatched roof are fake fruit and other decorations that your kids made.
 
You have entered one of the great rituals of Jewish life: The sukkah.It may also be the least comfortable.
 
I have eaten in sukkots in Crown Heights where rain fell on my soup. I’ve slept in sukkot and my lower back was mad at me for a week. The sitting can be tight, there is rarely enough space to move around, and if you’re in my hometown of Montreal, you better bring your scarf and gloves.
 
So what is it about this odd ritual that has such a hold on the people who experience it?
 
The first, most obvious thing is that it’s really a lot of fun. This is not a very noble thing to say about a holy ritual, but it’s true. You get to feel like a kid again, like when you used to assemble play kits, or get silly with your siblings under a makeshift tent in the living room.
 
Once you enter the sukkah, you feel blessed. Don’t ask me to explain this. It’s just a vibe. A glow. An energy field — you walk into a sukkah and you’re happy to be alive.
 
The coffee tastes better. The kugel and the spicy Moroccan fish are incredible. You sing like Bocelli. Your kids don’t get on your nerves as much. Even your shmoozing is happier; you’re more likely to bring up the new Cirque du Soleil Beatles show than the enraging U.N. representative they had on “The O’Reilly Factor.”
 
Am I exaggerating? Of course, I am. (I’m Sephardic). But a sukkah will do that to you. It makes your heart overflow; you feel more generous, more grateful.Maybe that’s because the sukkah itself overflows. A rabbi once said that the sukkah is “the only mitzvah that you can walk into with your muddy boots.” It envelops all of you. Other mitzvahs connect to one part of the body — you eat matzah with the mouth, you put on tefilin with the hands, you read Torah with the eyes — but the sukkah wants every part of you!
 
The sukkah loves your beautiful voice and wonderful humor, but it also embraces your warts and wrinkles and “muddy boots.” It understands human nature: You can’t separate the good from the bad. This little hut does not discriminate.In fact, the sukkah might be the most egalitarian, unifying mitzvah of all. The origin of this holiday is agricultural — a way of thanking God for the blessings of the land. Every “species” of the land that we commemorate — the lulav (palm), the etrog (citron), the willow and the myrtle — represent, according to our Midrash, a different part of the Jewish people. Our little sukkah embraces them all.
 
Which makes you wonder: If something is so much fun and so magical, so overflowing with unconditional love and embracing of every part of every Jew, why are there not more Jews putting up their own sukkah? I can’t speak for all Jews, but in my new neighborhood, they embrace the sukkah like a Chassid embraces another l’chaim.
 
Pico-Robertson is where the sukkah rocks. You can feel it in the air. From the frantic rush to purchase sukkah kits at the local mitzvah store, to the last-minute scramble to get schach (palm leaves to cover the sukkah), to kids everywhere bringing home sukkah decorations from school, to seeing so many sukkot being put up on the front lawns, you are reminded that in this part of the world, you simply do not hide your Judaism.
 
And in a few days, all the sukkot of the Hood will have sprouted. If you want to see how cool this looks, you should really rent a helicopter.
 
But for now, just use your imagination and picture , as you fly above, hundreds and hundreds of cozy little huts speckling the landscape. Inside each of these little huts there will be thousands of songs that will be sung, thousands of blessings and l’chaims that will be made, and thousands of stories that will be told.
 
After you land, feel free to pop into one of these little huts — and don’t forget your muddy boots.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Six self-help books seek to help you get sealed in the Book of Life


In these days of asking tough questions, taking stock, revisiting memories and trying to do better in 5767, books are essential tools. Several new works from different disciplines and traditions, some of which don’t mention the words Days of Awe, lend new meaning to the holidays — on caring for orphans, baking bread, deepening celebrations, understanding forgiveness, practicing kindness, exploring traditional liturgy and rituals.

 

The Trailblazer’s Toolbox: Programs That Grab


Here’s a brief rundown of the national synagogue revitalization programs that have arisen since the early 1990s.

  • Billed as the first such initiative, the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) was created in 1992. It strives to popularize Jewish learning among congregants while encouraging synagogues to embrace fundamental and long-lasting change.

    Fifty-five synagogues have participated in ECE, which has a yearly budget that generally ranges from $500,000 to $750,000. Chief funders have included The Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Mandel Associated Foundations, the Covenant Foundation and the UJA-Federation of New York. Contact Rob Weinberg at (847) 328-0032 or rweinberg@huc.edu.

  • Synagogue 2000, which began in 1995, developed a wide-ranging curriculum that more than 100 synagogues have used to rethink their overall approach and to deepen their congregants’ spiritual engagement.

    This influential program recently morphed into Synagogue 3000, whose mission is to train synagogue and academic leaders in order to better implement the goals of Synagogue 2000. Among those goals: Demonstrate that synagogues do not exist just to serve the needs of congregants, according to program co-founder Ron Wolfson at the University of Judaism, but rather to motivate them to “do tikkun olam, God’s work on earth.”

    Synagogue 2000, whose annual budget topped out at roughly $2 million, was funded by several major donors, including the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Whizin Foundation, the Rose Family Foundation and the UJA-Federation. Contact Ron Wolfson or Joshua Avedon at (310) 553-7930 or info411@synagogue3000.org.

  • Three years ago, in 2003, a Minneapolis-based initiative known as Star, or Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal, created Synaplex, which helps synagogues supplement regular Shabbat services with diverse programming, including films, music, meditation, lectures and arts and crafts.

    Synagogue
    One of three Star programs, Synaplex is based on the principle that some of today’s Jews need a variety of entry points into Jewish involvement, and that those portals — artistic, academic, activist and ritual — are equally valid vehicles for engaging Jewishly. More than 100 congregations have signed on.
    Synaplex has an annual budget of around $1 million, and its main funders include the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Jewish Life

    Network/Steinhardt Foundation and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. In addition, the UJA-Federation of New York helps underwrite Synaplex at three participating synagogues.

    Contact Rabbi Hayim Herring at (952) 746-8181 or hherring@starsynagogue.org.