L.A. Russian Jewish Young Adult Network: Everybody has a story


FINDING HERSELF

When Viktoriya Kernes was just 13, her mother sent her to a Jewish social event. Kernes had no idea why. 

At the time, she did not know she was Jewish. 

“I really didn’t know what to make of it,” Kernes, now 29, said recently of the discovery she made while growing up in Moscow. 

She didn’t fully embrace the mensch life in the beginning, however. In an interview, Kernes said she spent her youth in Russia partying and hanging out with the wrong people. 

But after moving to Los Angeles at the age of 16, Kernes began to embrace Jewish life more fully. She attended American Jewish University, where she “found a passion for doing things Jewishly with purpose,” she said.

While she considers herself more culturally Jewish than anything, she is much less ambivalent about her Judaism than she was before. Part of the reason, she said, is her involvement with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Community Leadership Institute for Russian Jews. She is a graduate of the program’s first group and is serving as a co-chair of the current cohort. She is also an information technology manager at Warner Bros.

Ultimately, Kernes said, she hopes her Jewish involvement will help her find herself.

[Related: L.A.’s Russians recapture their Jewish soul]

“I think going back in history, and understanding our parents, and understanding the culture, and understanding the circumstances, is a way for you to reconcile and understand and recognize patterns of how you behave and why you do certain things,” she said.

JEWISH FIRST

Eric Fihman, 29, said Judaism comes first in his three-fold identity. 

“I am a Jewish American Russian; that’s how I see myself,” the CPA at NBCUniversal said in an interview. 

Born in the United States to Russian parents, Fihman is different from his peers on the L.A. Russian Jewish Young Adult Network’s (Ru-Ju-LA) steering committee, many of whose members immigrated to the States during their teens. 

He is also more observant than many of L.A.’s Russian Jews. 

“It’s tough. Some of it bothered me. I wanted a full-on seder, but some of these people wouldn’t have come,” he said of the April Ru-Ju-LA seder he helped organize. “In my heart, it’s a struggle. Is it perfect? No. Is it a stepping stone? Hopefully.”

ACCULTURATION

When Polyna Berlin’s family moved to the United States from Ukraine and settled in West Hollywood, Berlin, age 10 at the time, enrolled in elementary school there.

She and her family, however, did not stay in the heavily Russian community of West Hollywood for long.

“My family didn’t want us growing up in a Russian ghetto atmosphere,” she said. “They saw life for us as less Russian and more American.”

The family relocated to Tarzana and with financial assistance from The Jewish Federation, Berlin was able to attend Kadima Day School in the San Fernando Valley. Berlin, who is 32 now and works in public relations, is a graduate of University of California, Irvine. Today, as a member of the Ru-Ju-LA steering committee and a graduate of Federation’s Community Leadership Institute for Russians, she is actively involved with programs for Russian-speaking young adult Jews. 

Part of the reason, she said, is to repay the American-Jewish community that helped her family with their acculturation process.

“The Jewish Federation did a lot for my family. … I want to give back someday.”

A LEADER

Alex Grager founded Ru-Ju-LA as a way to unify his peers, he said.

Perhaps his interest stems from his lifelong connection to Judaism. Unlike many others in the community, Grager knew he was Jewish all of his life. Even in Moldova, the small country wedged between Romania and Ukraine where he grew up, his family practiced Judaism. He had a bar mitzvah and attended programs at a Jewish community center. 

“My parents were not on anybody’s watch list … we were just another Jewish family,” he said in an interview.

Still, the family did not dare “parade” their Judaism, Grager said. And, finding few opportunities for professional advancement, the Grager family packed up and departed for the United States during the early 1990s.

The family’s future was uncertain, but Grager’s folks told their son not to worry. 

“ ‘The less you know, the better you’ll sleep,’ ” Grager said, recalling what his parents told him prior to the move.

Everything ended up OK. Grager attended Valley Torah High School, where he was one of the few non-Orthodox students but still found a welcoming environment. He went on to college at the University of Southern California. 

Now a family-law attorney by day and a leader in the Russian-speaking young adult community by night, Grager somehow also finds time to play keyboard in a band that plays songs in Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish. They have even been featured at Ru-Ju-LA events. 

L.A.’s Russians recapture their Jewish soul


In March, Svetlana Rapoport became a bat mitzvah.

Raised in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, where practicing religion was discouraged and anti-Semitism was rampant, Rapoport hadn’t had the chance to celebrate this rite of passage.

Finally, at 34, Rapoport had her moment on the bimah.

“This day symbolizes a new beginning … a new level of devotion and dedication to our people,” she said in her speech to her family and friends gathered for the occasion at Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica.

Rapoport had come to this point because of the Russian Jewish B’nai Mitzvah Project, an initiative designed to strengthen Jewish identity among young adults of Russian heritage. It is sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Genesis Philanthropy Group. Some of the participants are immigrants from Russia and its neighbors, including Ukraine, Belarus and other former Soviet countries. Others are first-generation Russian-Americans. All have roots in a land and culture where religion was spurned, and, as a result, many of them were once a blank slate with regard to their Judaism.

 “What’s unique about Russian Jews is they feel Judaism very differently than the rest of Jews,” said Jenny Gitkis Vainstein, a regional representative in Los Angeles for the Jewish Agency for Israel. Gitkis Vainstein’s job is to increase interest in Judaism among Russian Jews, and she has been working with Federation toward that goal since 2010.

Institutional engagement with this community is not new. In fact, it dates back to at least the 1970s, when the Soviet Union still existed and its government was making life miserable for Jews there. Even as Soviet leaders placed restrictions on education, arts and culture, and religious practice, they denied Jews the right to emigrate, fearing if the Jews left, they would reveal Soviet secrets to the international community. 

The refusal to issue exit visas to Jews led to the popularization of the name refusenik, The refuseniks were, in essence, trapped inside the Soviet Union, as author and Jewish Daily Forward journalist Gal Beckerman described them in his award-winning book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.” And, in the 1970s and ’80s, their plight prompted a swell of activism among American Jews.

When the Soviets eventually allowed a mass exodus of the Jews, it was largely in response to international pressure and the fact that the Soviet Union itself was dissolving.

[Related: Everybody has a story]

Andrew Cushnir, executive vice president and chief program officer at Federation, said approximately 25,000 Russian Jews eventually settled in Los Angeles as a result of the multiple immigration waves out of the former Soviet Union that took place between the 1970s and ’90s. Federation and other organizations actively assisted those Russian immigrants with their transition to life in the United States. And along the way, many of the activists who had advocated on the immigrants’ behalf recognized that the Russians often were not engaged religiously. This was troubling to them, Beckerman said in a phone interview with the Journal from his office in New York, adding that there were too many other immediate needs at the time to focus on giving this serious attention.

“For people who just arrived, for them the most important thing is to get bread on the table, to have jobs, to have their kids in school,” Maya Segal, an L.A. community member who ran Federation’s resettlement efforts for Russians and Iranians from 1997 to 2013, said in an interview. “The spiritual part, the religious part, comes later.”

That time is now, apparently.

Today, approximately 80,000 Russian Jews live in Los Angeles, Gitkis Vainstein estimates. And they don’t all live in West Hollywood. Sure, Russians playing dominoes is a common sight in the neighborhood’s Plummer Park on a Saturday morning, and Russian eateries, grocery stores and businesses line the stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard that runs through West Hollywood. 

Today, however, Russian Jews are dispersed throughout L.A. — especially the first-generation Russian-Americans, the 20- and 30-somethings born in America, as well as those young adults who arrived here as children with their families. They live all over Los Angeles, including the Westside, but also Studio City, West Los Angeles, Santa Monica and other neighborhoods. Gitkis Vainstein described them as a hip crowd of college degree-carrying professionals. “They’re very cool; they’re very educated. They are lawyers, they are doctors, they are involved in computer science. They are very successful in life, very warm, very funny,” she said.

Among them is Alex Grager, a managing partner at family-law firm Lopez and Grager and co-founder of Ru-Ju-LA, the Los Angeles Russian Jewish Network, a group that got started as a grass-roots effort propelled by Grager’s vision to unite this cohort. 

“When I first started thinking about this — there are a bunch of Russian-Jewish young adults in town, and all of their friends are Russian Jews, and they hang out … so they certainly have something in common, but they don’t really … do anything about it,” Grager said. He has been making a big push to change that. 

Today, Ru-Ju-LA has come under the auspices of The Jewish Federation and it has a steering committee of young Russian-speaking Jews. However, among its members, familiarity with Jewish life runs the full gamut. Some come from families who practiced Judaism, at least somewhat. Others learned they were Jewish in their teens.

“The majority have very few Jewish stories to share from Russia, and there are those with deeply embedded Jewish experiences,” Tal Gozani, Federation’s senior vice president of young adult engagement and leadership development, told the Journal.

What unites them is their interest in negotiating the role Judaism will play in their lives and spreading their passion for this journey to other Russian young adults.

Ru-Ju-LA is similar to some other young adults groups, such as ATID at Sinai Temple and the Federation’s Young Adults of Los Angeles (YALA). Its events are usually connected to Jewish holidays and often feel a bit like singles’ parties. 

And because they are meant to offer introductions to Judaism, without being particularly learning-bound, they are generally low-key in their Jewish content, so as not to discourage their observance-averse target audience from showing up. 

Last December, for example, dozens of young adults met for drinks at a West Hollywood bar for a Ru-Ju-LA Chanukah party. During the event, Grager sat down for an interview even as a stream of friends kept coming up to say hello. 

It was late in the evening when Gitkis Vanstein interrupted all the shmoozing to demonstrate how to light Chanukah candles. 

“We do this so they will celebrate it in their homes,” Gitkis Vainstein explained later. Otherwise, she said, “they wouldn’t.” 

Another Ru-Ju-LA party a few months later, this one for Purim, was in the same vein — heavy on socializing, light on Jewish content. But a recent Passover seder was an exception. Approximately 70 young adults gathered for the Ru-Ju-LA seder at Maxim, a restaurant in the Fairfax District, and their seder followed a haggadah specially created by Ru-Ju-LA.

“This Haggadah has been designed to integrate the modern miracle of the freedom attained by Soviet Jews with the beauty and excitement of a modern Passover Seder,” the haggadah reads. 

The attendees sat at long, banquet-style tables covered in white tablecloths complete with ceremonial seder plates, and, throughout, they drank the ritual wine, but also vodka in the tradition of their homeland — in fact, they were instructed that if they ran out of wine for the service, they could drink as much vodka as they wanted, which, as a part of the evening’s celebratory mood, they took to heart. 

Toward the end of the night, a DJ spun pop hits, including Robin Thicke’s 2013 smash “Blurred Lines.” In response, the crowd left their seats and turned the empty space between the tables and the restaurant’s stage into a joyous dance floor.

 

Another project at Federation to engage the Russian-Jewish community falls under its Community Leadership Institute (CLI). In terms of its organizational Russian-Jewish engagement and outreach, CLI might seem the brainy older brother of Ru-Ju-LA. The Russian program is just one of four leadership development programs, or “tracks,” as  Federation refers to them, for cohorts of young professionals ages 25 to 45. Currently, CLI’s Russian track is in its second year. 

Of course, CLI, like Ru-Ju-LA, wouldn’t be possible without funding. Genesis Philanthropy Group, founded by several wealthy Russian Jews with offices in North America, Israel and Russia, provides much of the resources driving Federation’s Russian programs, paid for through two grants totaling $140,000. Ilia Salita, the nonprofit’s executive director, believes it is essential to partner with organizations such as Federation on this work.

“This is extremely important in this day and age — community-building programs for Russian-speaking Jewish communities around the world,” he said.

Cushnir agrees, describing the Russian Jews as “a dynamic space in the community. Everyone is defining what it means to be Jewish differently.”

Genesis money must be used only for the engagement of Russian Jews. It also pays the salary of a Federation staff person — an assistant director focused exclusively on working with the Russian-Jewish community. Sasha Zlobina, who had worked previously in Jewish organizational life, both inside Russia and out, was hired for this position. She recently moved to Los Angeles from Odessa, in Ukraine, where she worked for a Hillel.

She has also worked as an executive assistant at Jewlicious, the youth engagement nonprofit led by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein. 

Unlike many of her peers, Zlobina came to the United States in her 20s. Now 27, she moved here at 23 to marry her husband, George Gromovoy, who owns a moving company; she met him during a retreat for Hillels in the former Soviet Union. Zlobina said she did not know she was Jewish until she was 16. A family friend in Odessa invited her to an event at a Hillel, which, in former Soviet Union countries, is open to all Jews and not affiliated with universities as they are in the United States. She was surprised by the invitation.

 “She said, ‘You’re totally Jewish,’ ” Zlobina told the Journal. “And I went to my mom and asked if that was true, and my mom said ‘yes,’ and she started telling me about our history and my grandmother and my [great-] grandmother, and that’s how I realized that I am. That’s how my Jewish journey begins.”

After the revelation, Zlobina became heavily involved with Hillel. 

“I went there and started to learn about Judaism and the history of Israel and all kinds of Jewish stuff. I decided to consider myself Jewish and tell everybody that I am Jewish, and then it became kind of a big deal for me,” she said.

Hillel offered her a job in outreach, which eventually led her to become its deputy director. 

She said she loves her work now at Federation in Los Angeles; her oversight of CLI allows her to draw upon work she did in Odessa. 

CLI’s first cohort attempted to create a Soviet Jewish film archive, and asked participants to interview their parents and grandparents about their lives in the Soviet Union. The plan was to translate the interviews into English, edit them together and hold a screening. But so far, the project has not proceeded beyond the filming stage. 

Grager, a graduate of the first CLI cohort and current co-chair of the second, takes such shortcomings in stride. Any attempts at creating engagement with a new immigrant community can have setbacks, he said. “I think the key here is small steps, and I sometimes get frustrated, because I think we are moving too slowly, but then I recognize this is how this community is going to develop,” he said.

Grager’s own ambitious plans include opening a center for the Russian-Jewish community, “a space for [the] Russian-Jewish community both to get together and enjoy each other’s company. In other words, what we are trying to accomplish is [to allow] members of the Russian community to be a resource for each other — be it social, educational, professional, whatever you want it to be.”

Meanwhile, Federation is considering creating a Birthright trip to Israel exclusively targeted to the Russian community. 

“We’ve had one conversation about it; we’re just trying to explore it,” Gozani told the Journal. “We think there might be interest.”

Gozani already has led one trip to Israel for the Russian participants of the inaugural CLI. She was new to the job at the time, but she was ready for the challenge. Gozani, who isn’t Russian, said she was moved by the experience of traveling with Russians who have such unique personal stories. 

“A week after [I started] the job, we spent 10 days in Israel,” she said. “I had an amazing experience with them and have been close with them since.”

 

At Kehillat Ma’arav last March, Svetlana Rapoport was one of 13 young adults from that first CLI cohort celebrating their b’nai mitzvah. She had been chosen from among the group to give her interpretation of the week’s Torah portion on behalf of all the celebrants. As Rapoport spoke, her 4-year-old daughter, Alena, left her seat and walked up to join her mother on the bimah.

Audience members laughed, delighted by the sight of the little girl so charmingly oblivious to social norms. Rapoport herself, however, was a little embarrassed. She apologized, picked up her daughter, and continued her speech: “We should always strive to be better, wiser, stronger and happier,” she said, holding the girl in her arms. 

Perhaps, in retrospect, it was apt that Alena had joined her mother on the bimah. After all, it was Alena who inspired Rapoport to undertake the long hours of preparation for her bat mitzvah. Benjamin Rapoport, Svetlana’s husband, told the Journal how this all came to be: “We want to make sure we can pass on something to our daughter,” he said. “So that she will know more about where we came from, and make sure she grows up understanding our religion, our tradition. And, hopefully, continues that legacy.”

Ru-Ju-LA founder Grager points to the Russian b’nai mitzvah project as one of the biggest successes of local engagement for this community effort to date. 

“The whole idea behind this program was to return the Russian-speaking Jewish adults to their Judaism one way or another, and this adult b’nai mitzvah class really kind of exemplifies everything this [CLI] leadership class, and Ru-Ju-LA for that matter, stands for,” Grager told the Journal on the day of the ceremony. “It’s an opportunity, it’s a reminder, and it allowed them to do something they wouldn’t have done otherwise.”

Mike Wallace: A dissent


Praise for Mike Wallace as a probing investigative reporter saturated news media immediately after his death April 7 at age 93. Virtually all tributes omitted the fact that when it came to anti-Israeli tyrants, terrorists and oppressors of Jewish minorities, Wallace son of Russian Jewish immigrants usually pitched softballs and parroted propaganda.

Wallace spent parts or all of seven decades in journalism, 38 as a correspondent on CBS Televisions 60 Minutes. He won 21 Emmys. This makes his record of failure when it came to covering Israel and Jews noteworthy and peculiar. Among the many examples:

* In a 1975 segment on a terrorized minority in Syria, Wallace reported that today, life for Syrias Jews is better than it was in years past. He described Syrias brutal dictator, Hafez al-Assad, as cool, strong, austere and independent.

* In 1984, a Wallace 60 Minutes segment rehearsed Syrias line about its regional interests. One thing Syria wants in Lebanon is a government representative of all the peoples of that country, he intoned, as if Damascus then recognized Lebanese sovereignty and sought a multi-party democracy there rather than imposed a police state occupation. Regarding Israel, Wallace said Syria wanted the Golan Heights back. He did not explain that Israel gained the Golan in self-defense in 1967 and retained it similarly in 1973.

* In 1987, Wallace glossed over oppression of Russian Jewry the way he had Syrias treatment of its Jews. He reported that the fact remains that one and a-half million Soviets identified as Jews apparently live more or less satisfying lives there. And theirs has been a story largely untold. This just before, under Mikhail Gorbachev, hundreds of thousands of Jews would emigrate, most going to Israel. In this segment Wallace suggested that the Jewish Siberian region of Birobidzhan where Jews were a small minority could be home for Soviets seeking a life of Jewish culture.

* In 1988, 60 Minutes examined pro-Israel activism in the United States, focusing on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Wallace claimed there are many who charge that AIPAC, with its sights set only on Israel, is just too demanding of U.S. politicians. Among other tilts in the segment, Wallace quoted George Ball, a former undersecretary of state known for his anti-Israel stance, but not George Shultz, the incumbent secretary of state. This even though Shultz had said that U.S. support for Israel shouldnt be called foreign aid because this money goes for our security first of all. It helps us that Israel is strong.

* In a 1989 interview of Yasser Arafat, Wallace failed to challenge, among other things, the Palestine Liberation Organization leaders misrepresentation of terrorism as resistance or his insistence that a PLO group intercepted by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon had been on its way to attack troops, not civilians. The late David Bar-Illan, then executive editor of The Jerusalem Post, wrote of the interview that had he treated America politicians this way, [Wallace] would have been drummed out of the profession.

* In 1990, Wallace probed an outbreak of violence on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. He aired interviews with seven Arab eyewitnesses but only one Jew, and cast doubt on the latters statements; skipped over the cause of the fighting efforts by Fatah and Hamas to reignite the first intifada; and did not interview the main Israeli investigators. Wallace referred to Temple Mount as Islams third most holy place but did not mention it is Judaisms most holy site.

* In 1992, Wallace returned for a 60 Minutes segment on Israels absorption of the 400,000-plus Soviet Jews who had arrived in the previous three years. Their unemployment rate was 11 percent and many worked at jobs beneath their level of education and training. Prominent refusenik immigrant Natan Sharansky painted a more positive picture, but his comments were cut. Wallace wrongly implied that a U.S. loan guarantee to assist Israel absorb the immigrant wave was a grant and that it would help Israel annex the West Bank, something the government did not plan.

* In 2006, Wallace fawned over another dictator, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Boston Globes Jeff Jacoby summarized the interview this way: Wallace let Ahmadinejad brush him off with inanities and lies he would have pounced on had they been uttered by a business executive or an American politician.

The lionizing of Mike Wallace epitomizes news media refusal to describe accurately, warts and all, those they hold out as journalistic exemplars.


The author is Washington director of CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. 

Abolish Jackson-Vanik, Russian Jews urge Congress


Representatives of the Russian Jewish Congress asked the U.S. Congress to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

The appeal was addressed to the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Beyrly, during a meeting Monday in Moscow that took place on the 36th anniversary of the amendment’s adoption. The amendment restricts Russian trade with the United States.

“The viewpoint of the Jewish community on the problem is that the amendment affects the community negatively now, being a stumbling block in the development of U.S.- Russia relations,” Russian Jewish Congress President Yuri Kanner said in a statement.

“We believe that repeal of the amendment will mark positive changes in the life of the Jewish community in Russia since the end of the policy of state anti-Semitism, and will also contribute to the ‘reset’ of relations between Russia and the U.S.”

Beyrly said at the meeting that the amendment’s repeal is a priority for the Obama administration in 2011, according to Kanner.

The Jackson-Vanik amendment is a provision in United States federal law, adopted in 1974, that was intended to pressure the Soviet Union to allow emigration of Jews to Israel. It remains in force but has been waived regularly in recent years.

Briefs: Governator opens new Saban Free Clinic, Weisenthal Center pressures Swiss on Iran deal


Free Clinic Named in Honor of Sabans

The Los Angeles Free Clinic was renamed the Saban Free Clinic this week in honor of Cheryl and Haim Saban, who last month pledged a $10 million gift to the health care facility that treated Cheryl Saban some 25 years ago, when she was a divorced mother of two.

“This is what I call a match made in heaven,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said at the ceremonial unveiling Monday. “When you team up a great clinic like this with the extraordinary generosity and vision of Cheryl and Haim Saban, how can the people of California do anything else but win?”

The Free Clinic operates four facilities that handle 100,000 patient visits a year, providing physician services, disease testing, prescription filling and nutritional counseling. Co-CEO Abbe Land has said the Sabans’ unrestricted gift probably will be used to supplement decreased government funding.

Haim Saban is chair and CEO of Saban Capital Group and chair of Univision Communications; Cheryl Saban is the author of several books on parenting, marriage and child advocacy and founder of the nonprofit 50 Ways to Save Our Children.

“Our greatest wish is that this gift will create further awareness among the community and will drive additional contributions to support the long-term success of the clinic in providing health services to the uninsured in Los Angeles,” Haim Saban said.

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

Wiesenthal Center Urges Swiss to Cancel $18 Billion Gas Deal With Iranians

The Simon Wiesenthal Center urged the Swiss government to cancel its $18 billion gas deal with Iran.

“This ill-conceived and ill-timed deal, signed in the presence of the Swiss foreign minister, bolsters the Iranian regime and weakens the international community’s efforts to use economic sanctions to force Iran to stop its nuclearization program,” said a statement by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the L.A.-based Wiesenthal Center and Leo Adler of the Canadian-based Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center. The two released the statement following their meeting last week with Swiss State Secretary Michael Ambuhl in Bern, the Swedish capital.

“Further, press reports indicate that the bulk of the Iranian gas is destined for Italy and not, as was asserted, a way for Switzerland to lessen its reliance on Russian gas. So the question remains as to whose strategic and national interests are being served,” the statement said.

During their meeting with Ambuhl, Cooper and Adler also urged Switzerland to oppose the anti-Israel resolutions frequently approved by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“Since the council’s inception, it has passed 20 resolutions — 19 against Israel and one on Burma — but nothing on the genocide in Darfur or the current crisis in Tibet,” Cooper and Adler noted.

â??- Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Chabad Hosts ‘Sober Seder’ — With Twists

Chabad offered a “Sober Seder” last Sunday that was traditional — with a couple of twists. For one, grape juice was used instead of wine. For another, every few minutes, someone shared his or her struggles with addiction.

During the service, a burly, middle-age man told the 100 participants: “I’m an alcoholic and drug addict.” As a result of his addictions, he said, he ended up “living in a cardboard box and pushing a shopping cart around. For food, sometimes I’d pull stuff out of garbage bins.” He now has his life back as a result of Chabad’s recovery program.

British-born Rabbi Mendel Cohen, 25, presided with an infectious energy, sense of fun and occasional moments of joyful dancing. Throughout, Cohen reminded the crowd — many of whom were graduates of Chabad’s residential addiction program — that recovery can be thought of as leaving Egypt.

One woman stood up to agree. Sobriety, she said, has released her from enslavement. A man in his mid-40s said the seder was “always a time to get drunk, from the age of 12. Chabad taught me how to live. I have freedom now, but inside I also have pain from my past, so I work through it every day.”

“Once I saw Judaism as the enemy,” he said. “Now I see it as my path to recovery.”

— Roberto Loiederman, Contributing Writer

UC Irvine Muslim Group Co-Sponsoring Talk by Strong Critic of Israeli Policy

Norman Finkelstein will speak at the UC Irvine student center on May 7 in an appearance co-sponsored by the Muslim Student Union. The former DePaul University professor is a vigorous critic of Israeli policy and author of “The Holocaust Industry” and “Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict.”

UC Irvine has been at the center of controversy over what some Jewish students allege to be repeated instances of harassment and anti-Semitic speech, which the university has refused to condemn. Other students say the situation at UC Irvine is now dramatically improved and that the administration has been responsive to Jewish concerns.

— JTA

‘Non-Jewish’ Jews endure challenges living in Israel


In Israel, the “non-Jewish Jews,” as some Israelis call them, are everywhere. They drive buses, teach university classes, patrol in army jeeps and follow the latest Israeli reality TV shows as avidly as their Jewish counterparts.

For these people — mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jews according to Israeli law — the question of where they fit into the Jewish state remains unanswered nearly two decades after they began coming to Israel.

At an estimated 320,000 people and with their ranks growing due to childbirth, the question is growing ever more acute.

“They are not going to be religious but want to be part of what is called the Jewish secular population,” said Asher Cohen, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, who has written a book on the subject.

“Thousands are being born here, and they are no longer immigrants,” he said. “They are raised just like their secular neighbors, and these children want to know why they are not Jewish because their mother is not Jewish. The problem is just getting worse.”

In almost every respect, these Israelis live as do their secular fellow countrymen, even marking the Jewish holidays, lighting candles on Chanukah and conducting seders on Passover. But, because they do not qualify as Jews according to halacha, or Jewish law, they are treated differently when it comes to matters that are the purview of the Orthodox-controlled religious establishment, such as lifecycle events like marriage, divorce and burial.

For some, the real question is about identity and fitting in.

Unlike non-Jews residing in Israel illegally, these are people who qualified to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants the right of Israeli citizenship to all descendants of a Jewish grandparent or those married to such persons. But the Israeli government does not consider them Jews, because their mothers are not Jewish. Non-Jewish Israelis constitute almost a third of all immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Some of these people say they’ve always considered themselves Jewish and were thought as such by others — until they came to Israel.

Lilia Itskov, 36, grew up in Siberia with a paternal grandmother who preserved the traditions of her observant Jewish home. She said she is heartbroken when her daughter questions whether they are Jewish because Itskov’s mother was not Jewish.

“She studies the Bible in school; it’s all she knows,” Itskov said of her daughter. “She cannot understand why she is not considered a Jew.”

Itskov observed Jewish holidays even back in Siberia, and she said she never tried to hide her Jewishness.

“I want people to understand we are part of this country, and where we lived before we were always considered Jews,” she said. “And now, after so many years, I am told that I am a goy (non-Jew).”

Others are believing Christians who struggle to maintain their religious identity while living in Jewish communities in Israel. Keeping a low profile, many of them attend religious services on Sundays in community members’ apartments or go to Arab-run Christian churches in Jerusalem and Jaffa on major holidays. In the Israeli Arab village of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem, there are church services held in Hebrew.

“Little is known about them; there is no research about them, and they try to hide their faith,” Cohen said of the active Christians among the Russian-speaking immigrants. “It’s hard for them to be Christians in any overt way here.”

For Vera Gorman, 21, whose family immigrated to Israel from Russia seven years ago and whose mother’s grandfather was Jewish, the sting of exclusion hit for the first time when it came time to marry.

In Israel, where there is no civil marriage, all citizens must be married by clergymen, and Jewish clergy are not allowed to perform intermarriages. Gorman is Jewish, but the man she planned on marrying, Maxim Gorman, was not, so there was no way for the couple to get married in Israel. Instead, they had to go to Prague. Marriages abroad are recognized in Israel. They were angry and bewildered by the rules.

Maxim Gorman, 25, who served in an Israel Defense Forces combat unit and twice was injured in fighting in Gaza, said he does not understand why, if he spilled blood for his country, he had to go abroad on the most important day of his life.

“It was especially hard, because although I am not Jewish according to halacha, I do feel Jewish in my heart,” he said. “In my opinion, state and religion simply do not go together. Israel needs to be democratic and Jewish, and we need to protect our traditions, because this is what unites us. But we live in the 21st century, and we need to be going forward.”

Some Israelis, especially religious ones, take issue with the large number of non-Jews able to become Israeli, saying they threaten the Jewish character of the state. They complain about the rising number of butchers that sell pork and condemn the proliferation of Christmas trees, tinsel and plastic Santa Claus dolls that go on sale at shops around the country around Christmastime to cater to the growing population in Israel that celebrates the holiday.

Russian immigrants — Jews among them — say they’re not so much celebrating Christmas as participating in festivities honoring the new year.

A few rabbis and members of Orthodox parties in the Knesset have suggested changing the Law of Return to exclude non-Jews from becoming Israeli. But many secular Israelis argue against such changes and say immigration is vital to the country’s future.

Despite the challenges they face in Israel as non-Jews, only a minority of non-Jewish immigrants to Israel choose to convert to Judaism.

Because Orthodox conversions are the only kind accepted by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which controls religious law in Israel, prospective converts must master Jewish knowledge and pledge to become strictly observant Jews. Most immigrants from the former Soviet Union — both Jewish and not — are secular and uninterested in enduring a lengthy, restrictive conversion process.

Lawsuit Filed in Granada Hills Jewish Community Center Shooting


Lawsuit Filed in Granada Hills Jewish Community Center Shooting

Families of the victims of the 1999 North Valley Jewish Community Center (JCC) shooting in Granada Hills are suing the state of Washington for allegedly failing to supervise the man who committed the crime. The $15 million lawsuit filed Aug. 18 says the state’s Department of Corrections failed to adequately monitor Buford Furrow Jr., an ex-convict on probation from a Washington state jail. On Aug. 10, 1999, Furrow burst into the North Valley JCC and opened fire. He wounded two small boys, a teenager and an adult receptionist, and later killed a Filipino-American letter carrier nearby. Furrow is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.

Young Quits After ‘Hurtful’ Remarks

Andrew Young resigned as a Wal-Mart advocate after disparaging Jewish, Arab and Korean shop owners. A former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and mayor of Atlanta, Young resigned as head of “Working Families for Wal-Mart,” and apologized. The Los Angeles Sentinel, a black newspaper, asked Young how he could advocate for an organization that displaces “mom and pop” outfits. Young said he was pleased when those stores were “run out” of his neighborhood. “Those are the people who have been overcharging us — selling us stale bread, and bad meat and wilted vegetables,” he said. “And they sold out and moved to Florida. I think they’ve ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it’s Arabs, very few black people own these stores.”

Olmert Pressed on War Inquiry

Ehud Olmert is under pressure to establish a state commission of inquiry to investigate how officials handled Israel’s war with Hezbollah. The Israeli prime minister told the attorney general to see what alternatives exist for such an investigation, ranging from inquiries that would be made public to those that might remain confidential within the Cabinet. Meanwhile, criticism of how the war was conducted is mounting. Petitions have been circulating by reserve soldiers who have returned from fighting in Lebanon with long lists of complaints.

Diaspora Money Heads North

World Jewry is expected to contribute about $344 million to rehabilitating Israel’s northern towns and cities. The money, according to an Israeli government plan announced Sunday, would contribute to the overall cost of repairing damage and providing assistance to northern residents, estimated at about $1 billion. Money would go to financial aid for residents and businesses, repairs, psychological counseling, rebuilding schools and other projects run by a newly formed Israeli government committee. An emergency campaign in the United States has already raised $220 million for assistance to the North.

Israeli Officials Face Sexual-Harassment Charges

On Monday, police seized computers and documents from President Moshe Katsav’s Residence in Jerusalem, seeking possible evidence related to charges by a former employee who has claimed that Katsav coerced her into sexual relations. Katsav has denied any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Israel’s justice minister resigned in the wake of sexual-harassment charges. Haim Ramon announced his resignation Sunday. Israel’s attorney general said he plans to indict Ramon on charges that he forcibly kissed an 18-year-old soldier at an office party July 12, the day the war started between Israel and Hezbollah.

“I am sure that I will succeed in court,” Ramon said. “A kiss of two, three seconds, based on the version of the complainant, cannot be turned into a criminal act.”

Israeli Children Anxious After War

About 35 percent of Israeli schoolchildren who stayed in the North during the war with Hezbollah are suffering from anxiety, nightmares and other problems, a survey found. The 16,000 or so children also were found to have difficulty concentrating and are crying more often, the Tel Chai Academic College found in the survey. Problems are especially acute among preschoolers.

Major Israeli Writer Dies

Writer Yizhar Smilansky, an Israel Prize-winner better known by the pen name S. Yizhar, died Monday. One month shy of his 90th birthday, Yizhar died of heart failure. Known as a major innovator of Hebrew literature, he wrote prose, poetry and children’s literature. He also was well-known for his essays, which gained attention at the beginning of the war in Lebanon in 1982. His writing, which often challenged the Zionist narrative and the morality of the army, was the subject of intense controversy.

Israel: Hezbollah Used Russian Weapons

Israel complained to Russia that Russian-made anti-tank missiles reached Hezbollah fighters, who used them with devastating effect against Israeli troops. An Israeli delegation traveled to Moscow earlier this week to deliver the complaint, Ha’aretz reported. The anti-tank missiles proved to be one of Hezbollah’s most effective weapons in the monthlong war in Lebanon, responsible for the deaths of at least 50 of the 118 Israeli soldiers killed in the fighting. Israel protested in recent years when Russia sold advanced weapons to Syria, warning that they would be forwarded them to Hezbollah, but Russia dismissed the concerns. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said it was “impossible” that Russian weapons could have reached Hezbollah.

Jewish-Owned Market in Moscow Bombed

An explosion at a Jewish-owned market in Moscow killed at least 10 people and left 16 to 40 wounded. According to preliminary reports, no Jews were hurt in the blast at the Cherkizovsky market. The market is believed to be owned and operated by members of the “Mountain Jewish” community, which has its roots in Azerbaijan. At least two children died in the Monday morning blast in Moscow. Investigators say the explosion, which caused a two-story building to collapse, could have been a settling of scores among gangs, but officials are not ruling out that the blast was a terrorist attack.

Restaurant in India Named After Hitler

A new restaurant in India is named after Hitler and has swastikas on its walls. The owner of the Hitler’s Cross restaurant in Bombay told Reuters that he just wanted to stand out from the crowd. India’s Jewish community is protesting the name.

Annan Chides Iran on Holocaust Cartoons

Commenting on an exhibit of cartoons questioning the Holocaust, Kofi Annan’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said that the U.N. secretary-general has made clear in past conversations with Iranian officials that while he supports free speech, “people need to exercise that right responsibly and not use it as a pretext for incitement, hatred or for insulting beliefs of any community.”

A museum in Tehran opened the exhibit last week, in response to the publication in Denmark last year of cartoons that targeted Mohammed, the Muslim prophet.Exhibit organizers say they took their cue from Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called the Holocaust a “myth.” Annan is to visit Iran in coming weeks as part of a tour to follow up on the Lebanon-Israel cease-fire.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Gunter Grass Admits to SS Past


Gunter Grass Admits to SS Past

Nobel Prize-winning author Gunter Grass’ admission that he was an SS member has drawn both rage and defenses of the writer.

While some say the revelation devalues his life’s work, others are showing more understanding for the pressures faced by the teenager who later would write such modern German classics as “The Tin Drum.”

Grass, 78, whose autobiography is due out this fall, told the Frankfurter Allegmeine Zeitung in an interview published last Friday that he was drafted into the Waffen SS in the final months of World War II.

The Waffen SS was the elite fighting force of the SS, the Nazi Party’s quasi-military unit, and was declared part of a criminal organization at the Nuremberg Trials. Grass was interned briefly in a POW camp in Bavaria after the war.

Literary critic Helmuth Karasek told the radio program BDR that Grass should have revealed the truth sooner, and suggested that the Nobel Prize committee might not have honored someone “whom they knew had been a member of the Waffen SS and had long denied it.” Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.

Grass biographer Michael Juergs said he was “personally disappointed,” and has called into question the validity of Grass’ life work. But German writer Erich Loest told the Tagesspiegel newspaper that Grass’ admission should be “accepted without condemnation. He was very young and there was no one to influence him in the opposite direction,” he said.

Grass told the Frankfurt paper he was drafted as a 17-year-old following a stint in a support unit for the German air force, and was brought to serve in a Waffen SS tank division in Dresden. In the forthcoming autobiography, “While Skinning an Onion,” he writes that the past had “oppressed him. My suppression of this through the years was among the reasons why I have written this book. It had to come out, finally.”

Grass said he originally had volunteered to serve in a Nazi submarine unit, which was “just as crazy.”

Until now, his biography has shown that Grass was drafted in the support unit for the air force in 1944, then served as a soldier. In the new book, he writes about how he was 15 when he tried to volunteer with the submarine corps and was rejected because of his age. He was called up in 1944, as were all boys born in 1927.

He was assigned to the Waffen SS, which “in the final year of the war took draftees, not only volunteers,” he said in an interview with the German Press Agency.

Grass said he never had tried to hide the fact that as a youth he was vulnerable to Nazi propaganda. He also told the Frankfurt paper that he never actually served in the Waffen SS division to which he had been assigned. He ended up behind the Russian front on reconnaissance patrols, witnessing what he described as gruesome scenes and surviving by pure chance. During his brief internment as a POW, Grass says he met the similarly interned Joseph Ratzinger, who now is Pope Benedict XVI.

Israelis Arrested for Allegedly Running U.S. Hooker Ring

Two Israelis are under arrest for allegedly running a sophisticated, multi-million-dollar prostitution ring in four Western states, employing up to 240 women.

Boaz Benmoshe, 44, and Ofer Moses Lupovitz, 43, the alleged leaders of the ring headquartered in Palm Springs, are now in a local jail, Sheriff Bob Doyle of Riverside County announced Monday.

Also arrested were two Russian nationals, Moti M. Vintrov, 33, and Eliran Vintrov, 28, together with their spouses.

According to authorities, the two Israelis ran the sex ring under the cover of Elite Entertainment, an adult escort business, which dispatched prostitutes to clients in California, Nevada, Arizona and Oregon.

The Press-Enterprise news service in Riverside described the ring’s Palm Springs headquarters as a glass-walled office in a quiet open-air business complex, which also included the district office of U.S. Republican Rep. Mary Bono.Elite Entertainment allegedly operated 80 phone lines, over which clients ordered sexual services through their credit cards. Rates varied from $200 to $2,000, “depending on what you’re getting done,” Doyle said.

Local authorities and U.S. Secret Service agents arrested the suspects after a two and a half year investigation and seized $5 million in assets and more than a dozen computers.

The suspects used their income to fraudulently obtain loans to buy luxury homes in the Palm Springs area, authorities alleged.

An arraignment is scheduled for Aug. 21.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

AIPAC Judge Won’t Broaden Case

The judge in the classified information case against two former pro-Israel lobbyists rejected a prosecution attempt to broaden the indictment. Prosecutors had sought to redefine as classified a document described as unclassified in the original indictment.

Judge T.S. Ellis III rejected the request last Friday, saying it would unconstitutionally alter the indictment.

Keith Weissman, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s former Iran analyst, asked Larry Franklin, a Pentagon Iran analyst who since has pleaded guilty, for the document in June 2003.

It’s the only document that Weissman or his former boss, Steve Rosen, actively solicited, according to their August 2005 indictment.

In pre-trial rulings, Ellis has made clear that at trial he will expect a higher bar of evidence to prove that defendants knew they were hearing classified information in conversations, as opposed to receiving documentation.

Holocaust Cartoon Exhibit Opens in Iran

Iran opened a competition for the cartoons in reaction to last year’s controversy over the publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper about the Islamic prophet Muhammad. One of more than 200 cartoons displayed shows the Statue of Liberty holding a book on the Holocaust in one hand and giving a Nazi-style salute in the other, The Associated Press reported.

Scandal Over General’s Stocks

Israel’s military chief drew fire following revelations that he sold an investment portfolio when the Lebanon war erupted. Within hours of a Hezbollah border raid July 12 in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two abducted, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz sold off some $25,000 worth of stocks, Ma’ariv reported Tuesday. Halutz confirmed the sale, which came shortly before markets tumbled at the prospect of major unrest in the Middle East, but said he did not know at the time that there would be a war. Ma’ariv’s revelations further stoked Israeli ire at the military’s handling of the offensive against Hezbollah, which ended this week in a cease-fire. Lawmakers from across Israel’s political spectrum called for Halutz’s resignation, and Attorney General Menachem Mazuz was asked to investigate whether the stock sale constituted a criminal breach of trust.

Jewish Greeks Advocate for Israel

Jewish fraternities and sororities are launching an Israel advocacy push on college campuses this fall. Alpha Epsilon Pi and Alpha Epsilon Phi, the two largest Jewish Greek organizations, brought 90 students to Louisville, Ky., from Sunday through Tuesday to learn about building support for Israel.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Evangelicals Slate Pro-Israel Lobbying


Some 2,000 extremely pro-Israel community and religious leaders will meet in Washington on July 19, fan out across Capitol Hill and, in effect, tell their legislators: If you want our political backing, you must support the Jewish state — no ifs or buts.

There won’t be a single Jew among the citizen lobbyists. They will all be evangelical Christians, mainly ordained and lay pastors, embarking on the first major public action of the newly formed Christians United for Israel (CUFI).

The founder and leader of the group is the Rev. John C. Hagee of the 19,000-member Cornerstone Church of San Antonio, Texas, and a televangelist whose broadcasts reach millions in the United States and 120 other countries.

In 1978, in the first of his 21 trips to Israel, “I went as a tourist and returned as a Zionist,” Hagee said.

Last week, Hagee visited Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego to enlist support for his 4-month-old organization –both among fellow evangelicals and in front of generally enthusiastic, but occasionally skeptical, Jewish audiences.

Addressing the Board of Rabbis of Southern California at the L.A. Jewish Community Building, Hagee outlined two major projects, in addition to the July summit in Washington:

  • Expand the existing “rapid response network” of 12,000 pastors, who can mobilize their congregations instantly to flood the White House and Congress with e-mails on any legislation affecting Israel’s security and well-being.
  • Institute an annual “Night to Honor Israel” in every major American city to assure Israel and Jews everywhere that “you do not stand alone.” The emotional event is already a fixture in large Texas cities and in other Southern states.

Hagee and his followers have given a total of $8.5 million to Israeli causes, including an orphanage and for absorption of Russian immigrants, he said, but the major impact of CUFI is likely to be on the political scene.

The pastor didn’t spell it out, but his associates made clear that they view CUFI as a kind of super American Israel Public Affairs Committee, representing some 50 million evangelical Christians. This constituency, in sharp contrast to the Jewish community, shares the conservative social outlook of the present administration and represents its hardcore political base.

This kind of influence cannot be ignored by U.S. Jews, said Shimon Erem, founding president of the Israel-Christian Nexus, who introduced Hagee.

“We don’t have too many friends; we cannot prevail without them,” said Erem.

CUFI’s purpose, according to its official brochure, is “to provide a national association through which every pro-Israel church, parachurch organization, ministry or individual in America can speak and act with one voice in support of Israel in matters related to biblical issues.”

The last six words may sound vague, but they are key to the evangelicals’ deeply rooted advocacy for Israel. As unquestioning believers in the inerrant truth of Scripture, Hagee and his followers are convinced that every inch of the God-given land belongs to the Jews alone and forever.

Hagee insists that he never interferes in the decisions of the Israeli government, but his opposition to the withdrawals in Gaza and the West Bank, for instance, gives concern to liberal Jewish organizations.

However, it is mainly Orthodox spokesmen, who otherwise agree with Hagee’s social and biblical views, who have publicly questioned whether the pastor’s underlying motive is the conversion of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.

The Rabbinical Council of America, representing Orthodox rabbis and congregations, has officially protested the Israeli government’s license to Daystar, the second largest Christian network in the United States, to broadcast 24/7 over an Israeli satellite network.

Hagee, a major Daystar supporter and on-air personality, has consistently affirmed that he will not proselytize Jews, although the network’s lineup also includes “messianic” Jews with long pro-conversion records.

When Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, head of the anti-cult Jews for Judaism, raised this issue with Hagee at the Los Angeles meeting, the pastor did not respond directly, but his genial Southern folksiness took on a harder edge.

“If rabbis would put more emphasis on putting Jewish kids into Jewish schools, young Jews would never want to become Christians,” Hagee said.

 

Latin American Jews Create L.A. Oasis


Imagine that you live in Latin America and you’re Jewish. Typically, you and your family would belong to a full-service Jewish club with cultural, recreational, educational and athletic activities for all ages. The club is reasonably priced, promotes Jewish identity in a secular manner and is the backbone of your social life.

You spend a lot of time in club-sponsored activities with your nuclear and extended family, and with friends from the club: Friday night dinners, Sunday afternoon barbecues, weekends in the country, vacations at the seashore — a full and active communal life.

Now imagine that — mainly for economic reasons — you emigrate from such a country and come to Los Angeles. You have your nuclear family, but you’re separated from your extended family and friends. You may know enough English to earn a living, but you’re not at ease with the language. As a result, it remains difficult for you to have a social life with English-speaking friends, or participate fully in an American cultural life — whether you’re a new arrival or have been in the country for a number of years.

And even though you have a strong Jewish identity — you may speak Hebrew and/or Yiddish — you’re not really interested in a communal life that revolves around a shul: first, you’re not observant and you don’t want to make a shul the center of your life; second, it would be in English, not Spanish; and third, it would mean spending more than you feel you can afford. The Jewish Community Center (JCC) might be a possibility, but in the last few years there has been a cutback in JCCs in Los Angeles, and what they offer is not exactly you’re looking for.

So what do you do?

What you could do is start your own Jewish organization, using the Latin American model. That’s what happened in early 2005 when the Latin American Jewish Association (LAJA) was founded by several people with exactly that idea.

Omar Zayat, director of LAJA and one of its founders, said the “drive to create this organization came from the fact that after 2001, with the economic crash in Argentina, many Jews left there, and a lot of them came to L.A. Once here, they wanted to recreate the kind of community they’d left behind, and creating their own club seemed a good way to go about it.”

In Argentina, Zayat had worked for Jewish groups, organizing children’s summer camps and programs for seniors and other age groups, so it was logical that he would continue doing that kind of work here. He’s not a hands-off administrator: LAJA presents evening dance workshops that are both energetic and sweat-inducing and where about 20 to 30 people get a good workout in Israeli and other kinds of dance. Zayat himself leads these groups.

“For now,” he said, “we have 85 families signed up and many more come when we have special events. We have the names of 400 families that we contact for these events, like movies that someone has brought from Argentina or casino night or a tango show.”

One of the challenges for LAJA has been to adapt to Los Angeles’ sprawling area, which has meager public transport. Here, a parent needs to drop off and pick up a child, which takes getting used to by Latin American parents whose children were accustomed to using good public transport or cheap taxis to navigate their own way around a city like Buenos Aires. It also means scheduling activities to fit working parents who double as chauffeurs.

LAJA divides its activities into youth, Jewish education, university student programs, adults, sports, arts and drama and marketing. Youth activities are handled by teenage madrichim, Hebrew for guides. Zayat said that “using the Latin American model, older kids are trained to guide the younger ones, encouraging Jewish identity and having fun while doing it.”

LAJA is co-sponsored by The New JCC at Milken in West Hills, which has provided office space and other facilities. Since many of the new immigrants arrived with limited resources, the JCC has permitted them to become members at a discounted price.

If you go to The New JCC at Milken nowadays, you’re as likely to hear Spanish as English. There’s an unmistakable spark of creative, communal energy in the air, whether one attends a workshop that helps new arrivals get oriented to life in Los Angeles or a Latin American-style barbecue or a musical recital.

Michael Jeser, director of development and community affairs at The New JCC at Milken, noted that “one of the most exciting pieces in working with the Latin American Jewish Association is that the JCC, historically, has been a home for new immigrants and a venue for the absorption of new immigrants into American society. And here we are in 2006, and it’s really no different. When the Latin American group came to us and said, ‘We’re looking for a home,’ it was a really natural partnership, and we’ve sort of adopted them, made them into one of our own programs, and have watched them flourish.”

Jeser said that “seeing how the members are interacting with our other JCC members, it’s the extension of a real family, and the feeling of a real international ethnic Jewish community, even beyond Los Angeles’ typical ethnic diversity. The JCC has been home to a large Russian community, a large Persian community, a large Israeli community, and now with the growing Latin American group, it’s just getting larger. And we are very proud to have this community [because] they have a strong history with Jewish community centers in Argentina, which lent itself to this partnership.”

“Having them here is like having a piece that we were missing,” Jeser said. “Now we’ve filled that void in the community and are looking to expand it.”

?LAJA is located at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. They can be contacted at (818) 464-3274. Their Web site (in Spanish) is

L’Chaim to Kitsch!


On a dark spotlight-lit stage, a man in a long, black suit; yarmulke; and tallit slung over one shoulder fervently sings into a microphone, while a dance troupe in similar — but sexier — garb twirls behind him.

He’s not a cantor. He’s not a rabbi. He’s not even religious. He is Evgeni Valevich, a performer whose repertoire includes a program of Russian Jewish music in the genre called Estrada. Estrada may be a genre unknown to Westerners, but to Russians, the term is immediately recognizable.

This glitzy stage entertainment was popularized in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s, and a modernized and glamorized version is still highly popular in contemporary Russia. Its format is simple: a singer in glittering stage costume — sometimes backed up by a dance crew or a music ensemble, sometimes not — performs pop music numbers on a stage with a backdrop similar to the ones shown on the American TV show, “American Idol.”

The format of Jewish Estrada is identical to the Russian version: a lit-up stage, sparkling costumes, emotional music. The only difference is that the singers choose themes that reflect their Jewish identity. With his dress, Valevich plays up his Jewishness, although for others, the Jewish link can be weak.

At “A Night of Jewish Music and Humor” held earlier this month at the 2,500-seat Rossiya Concert Hall in Moscow, Joseph Kobzon — once recognized as the “People’s Artist of the U.S.S.R.” — performed a song in which the main verse ran: “L’chaim to all / Pour more (vodka) into the glass / Raise the glass higher.”

The keyword designating this song as “Jewish” is “l’chaim.” Otherwise, the song is Russian through and through.

For many Russian Jews, Judaism is still an exotic form of cultural expression. Russian, or even Soviet, culture is still closer to heart. That’s where artists like Kobzon come in.

“We started to go to these shows rather recently,” said Yevgenya Abramovna, a pensioner who has lived in Moscow her entire life.

She and her husband were attending “A Night of Jewish Music and Humor” in which Kobzon, Valevich and a half-dozen other Jewish artists performed.

This couple’s interest in Jewish culture was a new phenomenon that developed as they reached old age. The mere fact that singers sang in Yiddish or their songs touched on Jewish symbols was enough for them.

“We never knew anything about Jewish culture,” Abramovna said. “Where else can we go to see something like this?”

In the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk, Valevich recently got a standing ovation from the few hundred Jews — a large majority of the Jewish Estrada fans are Jewish — who gathered to watch his performance. It wasn’t to thank him for braving a three-day train trip from Moscow. Instead, the ovation was for the same reason the audience snatched up his DVDs after the show: They were excited by his rather unusual and simple stage presentation of Jewish culture intertwined with a familiar entertainment genre.

Valevich’s performance is interesting because he boldly uses stereotypical Jewish images. Other Jewish Estrada artists make do with Jewish themes in their music and lyrics.

He not only sings about Jewish topics, he also dresses himself and his dance troupe in clichéd Jewish garb. For most of his performance, he resembles a shaved Chasidic Jew who has just emerged from shul — tallit casually draped over his shoulder.

Valevich goes even further by openly incorporating religious rituals into his performance. His number, “Shabbat,” takes the Shabbat candle-lighting ritual and prayer, backs it up with three female dancers twirling with candles in hand, adds violin music and turns it into what fans see as an emotionally moving stage number.

Although some criticize his use of Jewish imagery for propagating Jewish stereotypes, there’s a market for the type of entertainment he offers. While he’s only been in this genre for five years, Valevich, 29, and his troupe have toured extensively in the former Soviet Union, as well as in the United States.

It comes as no surprise that Jews living in Russia and in Russian immigrant communities in the United States enthusiastically receive him. For many Russian Jews, Valevich’s repertoire combines the two parts of their heritage that are difficult to combine: contemporary Russian pop music and Jewish themes.

“The very fact that this musical genre is in demand shows that Jewish culture is healthy,” said Evgeni Hazdan, a professional musician in St. Petersburg actively involved in Jewish folk music.

He believes that the diversity in Jewish musical tastes signifies that Russian Jews are experiencing Jewish culture according to their own varied tastes.

Although the only attendees at “A Night of Jewish Dance and Humor” younger than 40 seemed to be young children or young adults accompanying their aging parents, Valevich seems to think that there is a future for his type of show. The trick is to somehow involve the younger generation. He’s willing to try to drag them out and buy a ticket to one of his shows. His new techno number of “Hava Nagila” may just do the trick.

Who knows, maybe next time that nice Jewish boy taking his grandmother out to the concert will also take his Jewish girlfriend along.

 

Cantor Glickman Returns to Israel


Cantor Binyamin Glickman, who taught generations of Los Angeles children to love God through music, is returning home to his beloved Jerusalem.

Ask him what he will see from his flat there and the 70-year-old smiles.

“The cemetery of Mount Olive, where grandparents are buried and my [first] wife is buried and I will be buried,” he said.” His view also includes the building that housed the old British Mandate offices, a place he walked by as a child in Palestine.

Glickman is not going back to retire but to direct the Jerusalem Center for Jewish Music. Aside from that, his grandfatherly wisdom is sought.

“‘The family needs you,'” Glickman said, repeating what his grown children have told him. Thirty-five of his 44 grandchildren live in Israel.

Glickman will leave behind a Los Angeles community of Jews he has known and taught since 1960, when he began a 22-year stretch as cantor at Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox shul on Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills. He returned to Israel in the early 1980s, but by 2001 he was back in Los Angeles at Congregation Mogen David, the Pico-Robertson Orthodox shul that sits across the street from the Museum of Tolerance.

“Generations of bar mitzvah students were taught by him,” said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, dean of the rabbinical school at the Academy of Jewish Religion, where Glickman also teaches. “Cantors in shuls in Pico-Robertson were all taught by Cantor Glickman at some point.”

“Everybody loves this guy,” said Cantor Nathan Lam of Bel Air’s Reform synagogue, Stephen S. Wise Temple, and dean of the Jewish academy’s cantorial school. “He’s a special human being. He makes a room feel good. If you’re sick, he’s the guy you want to come and cheer you up.”

On Nov. 30, Glickman’s synagogue will stage a community farewell concert in his honor hosted by longtime TV producer Sol Turtletaub of “Sanford & Son” fame. Glickman sang at Turtletaub’s son’s bar mitzvah — one of thousands of religious events graced by his tenor.

“I have [taught] hundreds of kids who know how to sing, know how to pray,” Glickman said.

Expected to attend are old friends, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who knew Glickman decades ago when both were active in the movement to help Soviet Jews.

Glickman’s late wife also was involved in that movement and demonstrated repeatedly at the Soviet consulate in San Francisco. “Hundreds and hundreds of Jews came out of Russia because of my wife,” he said.

A fifth-generation Jerusalemite, the gregarious Glickman got behind a microphone early. As a boy in Palestine during World War II, he won an audition to sing the jingle that introduced the BBC’s daily Hebrew-language broadcast. After finishing his musical studies in 1955, he conducted choirs before moving to Los Angeles in 1960.

He interrupted his career in Los Angeles to return to Israel to fight in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Glickman left Congregation Beth Jacob in 1982 to live in Israel. During his 10 years there, he set up the Jerusalem Center for Jewish Music and served as director of the separate Jewish music center at the Gush Etzion settlement near Jerusalem. He twice visited Russian Jews in the 1990s and compiled a 1991 Hebrew-Russian songbook.

With his children grown, Glickman returned to the United States in 1992.

Cantors, he said, are paid poorly in Israel, but they can make a living in America.

Glickman worked in Connecticut from 1992 to 2001 as cantor at Congregation Agudath Shalom in Stamford; his wife died in 1994. In 2001, he accepted his position at Mogen David.

Come December, he’ll reside in Israel with his second wife Shifra, 62, who will take Ulpan courses to learn Hebrew.

He is proud of his work with Soviet Jews and proud that he fought for Israel, but his work as a conductor and cantor are what will stay with him.

“I transmitted the Jewish musical experience to a whole generation here,” he said, “to bring them closer to God.”

 

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, October 15

Joyous dance and celebration is at the heart of Russian American painter Ann Krasnow’s art. Take it in, and meet the artist in person at Solaris Gallery’s opening reception for “Ann Krasner: New Work.”

6-9 p.m. 9009 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. (310) 273-6935.

1114 by Ann Krasner 
“1114” by Ann Krasner. 

Sunday, October 16

Your favorite glass-eyed investigator gets honored by the American Cinematheque this weekend at their “Peter Falk In Person Retrospective.” Friday, see a double feature of “The In-Laws” and “Mikey and Nickey,” with a discussion in between films with Columbo himself. Saturday, see “Happy New Year,” or come later for “Wings of Desire” followed by a talk with Falk and director Wim Wenders. And wrap up the weekend with today’s screening of “A Woman Under the Influence.”

$6-9 (per feature or double feature). Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. (323) 466-3456.

 
(From left) Alan Arkin, Peter Falk and director Arthur Hiller.

Monday, October 17

In David Margolick’s new book, “Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink,” a boxing match in the days leading up to World War II carried the weight of the world. Hear all about it, as Margolick reads from and signs his book tonight at Book Soup.

7 p.m. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110.

Schmeling
Schmeling, a drenched Joe Jacobs at his side. Photo courtesy New York Daily News

Tuesday, October 18

The daughter of late British Jewish actor Laurence Harvey and supermodel Paulene Stone, Domino Harvey led a turbulent existence. Tony Scott’s new biopic, “Domino,” is loosely based on her life story as a drug- and adrenaline-addicted heiress turned bounty hunter. The film opens this week and stars Keira Knightley.

www.dominomovie.com.

Keira Knightley
Keira Knightley stars as model-turned-bounty hunter Domino Harvey. Pnoto by Daniela Scaramuzza/New Line Productions

Wednesday, October 19

“If Hitler had the atomic bomb first, we’d all be speaking German,” observes one World War II British agent in the PBS documentary “Secrets of the Dead: The Hunt for Nazi Scientists.” There’s plenty of derring-do behind enemy lines to track down Nazi nuclear and rocket scientists, and then to snatch them before the Russians could. Harrowing testimony by survivors detail the deaths of 10,000 slave laborers used in the German weapon project. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

8 p.m. on KCET. www.kcet.org.

 

Thursday, October 20

Theatrical readings along the theme of “In a Lonely Place” take place today at the Hammer Museum. Co-sponsored by Los Angeles Conservancy’s “Curating the City: Wilshire Boulevard” project, readers include actress Dana Delaney and prototypical L.A. writers James Ellroy and Bruce Wagner.

7 p.m. 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 443-7000.

Bruce Wagner
Bruce Wagner

Friday, October 14

Recall the angst-ridden days of college application season in David T. Levinson’s new comedic play, “Early Decision.” The playwright may be more recognizable as the founder and chair of Big Sunday, Los Angeles’ largest volunteer day, but the Jewish community has a role in his play as well.

Oct. 9-Nov. 13. Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica. (310) 392-7327.

Early Decision
(From left) Susan Merson, Lara Everly, Brain Chase and Bob Neches star in “Early Decision.”

 

Sacred Sounds All Over Town


There’s an inescapable irony in vocalist Vanessa Paloma performing Ladino songs at the San Gabriel Mission, which was founded by Spanish Catholics. It was, of course, Spanish Roman Catholics who expelled Ladino-speaking Jews from Spain in 1492. Paloma called the venue “emotionally charged,” but she hopes the music and ambiance will prove to be healing as well as musically appealing.

“Just the fact of sitting in that room and listening to that music will be an interesting experience, and hopefully a powerful one,” she said.

Paloma’s performance at the 200-year-old mission is one highlight of the 2005 World Festival of Sacred Music, which will be spread out among many Los Angeles locations over a two-week period beginning Saturday.

The festival, directed by Judy Mitoma, will show Angelenos how cultures from around the world find spiritual sustenance through music. Jewish cultures of the Iberian peninsula, Eastern Europe and the Middle East are well represented. Here are some of the notable events:

Wed., Sept. 21 — Yuval Ron Ensemble. 7 p.m., Alfred Newman Recital Hall at USC; $20. For tickets, call (213) 740-2167 or visit www.usc.edu/spectrum

Ron, an Israeli composer and record producer, pulls together traditions of Judaism, Islam, and the Armenian Church in music and dance. In this program, Ron’s troupe, which includes artists from Israel, Lebanon, Armenia, Iran, France, and the United States, explore the mystical teachings of different Middle Eastern cultures and the deep connections among them.

Thurs., Sept. 22 — Flor de Serena, with vocalist Vanessa Paloma and guitarist Jordan Charnofsky. Noon, San Fernando Mission, 15151 San Fernando Mission Blvd., Mission Hills; free. For tickets, call (818) 361-0186 or visit www.flordeserena.com.

The ensemble, which includes percussion and bass, will play music composed and performed by Sephardim after arriving in the Americas as well as tunes originating in Spain and Portugal. Historian Arthur Benveniste will narrate the musical journey of Spanish Jews after their expulsion from Iberia in the 1490s.

Paloma, who grew up in Colombia, traces her Sephardic heritage to the north of Spain. She formed Flor de Serena with Charnofsky after a trip to Israel, where she discovered music for many obscure Ladino songs.

Sephardic music, she told The Journal, “integrates the Spanish-speaking and Jewish aspects of my life.”

Charnofsky, who began playing with klezmer bands in the early 1990s, isn’t Sephardic but describes Sephardic music as a natural bridge between his instrument, the guitar, which was developed on the Iberian peninsula, and his growing involvement with Jewish music.

Sun., Sept. 25 — Cantori Domino. 7:30 p.m., John Anson Ford Amphitheater, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood; $25. For tickets, call (323) 461-3673 or visit www.fordamphitheater.org.

This 50-voice choir, will sing Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” accompanied by musicians on harp, timpani and two pianos. The selection of psalms encompass themes of joy, innocence, war, trust, hope and unity.

Conductor Maurita Phillips-Thornburgh, though not Jewish, has been music director for the High Holidays at Stephen S. Wise Temple for 14 years.

“I don’t know of a time when this [work] wouldn’t be timely, but it seems particularly timely now,” she said.

Mon., Sept. 26 — The Psalms of Ra. 6 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., Alchemy Building, 5209 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; $25. For tickets: (323) 769-5069 or visit www.psalmsofra.com

Jim Berenholtz, who has traveled widely in the Middle East, uses his “neo-ancient” music to illustrate the creative and spiritual cross-fertilization he says existed between the New Kingdom Egyptians and the Jews who lived in Egypt for centuries. He sets ancient Egyptian and Hebrew texts to contemporary sacred music, according to the billing. Some of his works interweave mystical Hebrew incantations with Egyptian mantras; his settings of Hebrew texts include Psalm 116, which speaks of being lifted up after hitting life’s bottom.

Oct. 1 — World Jewish Music Fest. Noon, 200 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica; free. Information: (310) 434-3431 or www.smc.edu/madison.

Westsider Stefani Valadez will perform Ladino songs from Spain and North Africa, and Russian clarinetist Leo Chelyapov will appear with his Hollywood Klezmer Trio. The family-oriented afternoon will also feature Israeli dancing.

The Moscow-born Chelyapov, who first heard klezmer music when his grandfather took him to Jewish weddings in Kiev, had made playing it his “calling” by the time he arrived in Los Angeles in 1992.

“It touches my Jewishness, and it feels natural to me,” he told The Journal. Not only is klezmer music historically identified with weddings, which Chelyapov called “a mystical point of life,” but it often employs liturgical texts and, most importantly, he said, “it’s supposed to elevate your spirit.”

For a complete schedule, visit www.festivalofsacredmusic.org or call (310) 825-0507.

 

The Arts


The three A’s in “Natasha” are filled in by tiny stylized Matryoshka dolls, the traditional Russian stacking dolls,
on the book jacket of David Bezmozgis’ radiant debut (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $18).

In this collection of linked stories, the three figures at the center are a mother,
father and son who leave Riga, Latvia, for Toronto, Canada. The stories are told from
the point of view of the son, Mark Berman, who observes everything and helps interpret the New World for his parents.

Like his narrator, Bezmozgis is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. He left Riga in 1979 and arrived in Toronto
in 1980 at the age of 6. But the stories are “not very autobiographical – they are only superficially based on my family.
It’s a combination of incidents that happened, things I misremembered, stories that happened to other immigrants,” he said.

Bezmozgis writes with a beautiful economy of words, and with warmth, wit and loyalty toward a community he feels very much part of.
The first story opens soon after the family arrives in Toronto, and they live “one respectable block” from the center of the Russian
community with its “flapping clotheslines” and borscht-smelling hallways. Through the stories they struggle and progress to better
apartments and to a suburban house “at the edge of Toronto’s sprawl.”

Each story is a fully lived moment on the Berman family’s journey toward fitting in. In Latvia, Roman Berman was a massage therapist, a
trainer of Olympic athletes. Sometimes, when the father isn’t around, the young boy takes out and studies an old photo of his father in Riga,
his face carrying the “detached confidence of the highly placed Soviet functionary.” For the boy, “it was comforting to think that
the man in the picture and my father were once the same person.”

In the story “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist,” the father passes difficult certification exams, sets up an office with his name on
the door and then waits for clients. A rabbi suggests advertising, and they pass out copies of a flyer full of newly acquired superlatives.
When a doctor calls and invites the family to Shabbat dinner, they accept, full of hope.

He writes, “Before Stalin, my great-grandmother lit the candles and made an apple cake every Friday night. In my grandfather’s recollection
of prewar Jewish Latvia, the candles and apple cakes feature prominently. When my mother was a girl, Stalin was already in charge, and although
there was still apple cake, there were no more candles. By the time I was born, there were neither candles nor apple cake, though in my mother’s
mind, apple cake still meant Jewish. With this in mind, she retrieved the apple cake recipe and went to the expensive supermarket for the
ingredients.”

They arrive at Dr. Kornblum’s home with “feigned confidence” and a warm apple cake. The doctor means well, but is patronizing, even insulting,
sending the family home with their cold apple cake. Fearing more bad luck and rejection, they dump the cake, expensive ingredients and all.

With poignancy, Bezmozgis shows how the yearnings of the immigrants and the good intentions of others don’t quite match. Other stories
reveal gaps of understanding between the family and friends they left behind, and between members of the larger family.

Bezmozgis, Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar are a troika of young Russian Jewish émigré fiction writers of considerable talent. They
write of a sense of being between worlds, although each is quite different: Shteyngart is the satirist of the group. Bezmozgis and Vapnyar,
who has also published a collections of stories, are more similar in their spare, understated style, although most of Vapnyar’s stories are
set in the former Soviet Union, while Bezmozgis portrays one émigré family, and through them, the larger community.

The three follow in a long, respected line of Jewish writers who have creatively mined their immigrant pasts and ethnic neighborhoods
in fiction. Writers like Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mordecai Richler and Bernard Malamud come to mind.

“It’s a dream to be part of that tradition,” Bezmozgis said, although he feels most akin, stylistically and thematically, with writers
like Isaac Babel and Leonard Michaels.

For the author, being Jewish is very important. “I’m an atheist. I think that limits what kind of religious life I can have without
being a tourist or hypocrite. Being part of a community, at synagogue, gives me pleasure.” He added, “You put me in a synagogue with old
Eastern European Jews, and I’m likely to break down in tears. That is my idea of Jewish tradition and my identity.”

Growing up, he was the family’s translator and since he was 10, he would write letters for his father, a massage therapist like
Roman Berman. The author attended an Orthodox Jewish day school for eight years and then a public high school. After graduating from
McGill University in Montreal, he received an MFA in film. He worked in Los Angeles for five years as a documentary filmmaker before
moving back to Toronto.

He admittedly has a poor memory, and finds that can be valuable. About Latvia, he remembers nothing. “It allows me not to be too
deeply connected to things. I can’t be faithful to something I can’t remember.” In writing he tries “to find the emotional truth,
not a documentary truth,” he said.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Aaron Samson wrote and stars in “Not Dead Yet,” a piece inspired by his grandfather’s memoirs of his Russian past: working for Leon Trotsky, the consequent threat of execution by Russia’s communist regime and his quick escape to the United States where he began a new life. The one-man show follows the journey of a grandson, Jacob Samson, back to Russia to find his roots and the missing pieces of the story his grandfather Leo wrote down. It plays today at the Elephant Lab.Runs Saturdays, through Sept. 18. 8 p.m. $10. 1078 Lillian Way, Los Angeles. (323) 878-2377.

Sunday

Might wanna throw some buttered popcorn into the picnic basket tonight for the Hollywood Bowl’s movie night program, “The Big Picture.” John Mauceri conducts the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in selections from MGM/UA movie scores, as scenes from the films are projected on the Bowl’s giant screen. The James Bond series, “Rocky,” “The Pink Panther” and “West Side Story” are some of the featured films.7:30 p.m. $3-$88. 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (213) 480-3232 (for tickets).

Monday

Horn in on High Holiday fun with shofar-making activities this week. The Hebrew Discovery Center holds a Shofar Factory Party on Sunday for kids ages 5 and up, while Calabasas Shul holds a shofar-making workshop at the local Albertsons today.HDC: Sept. 5, Noon. $7 (per child, include slice of pizza and refreshments). (818) 348-4432. Calabasas Shul: Sept. 6, 5-6:30 p.m. $5 (per shofar). (818) 591-7485.

Tuesday

The Mexican Jewish community isn’t one that gets much ofa spotlight, but for filmmaker Guita Shyfter, it made sense to focus on her ownroots and community. “Like a Bride” (“Novia Que Te Vea”) is the result. Thefilm’s uncommon subject matter is made more unique by its treatment: the storyof two women friends coming of age in 1960s Mexico City is told primarilythrough dialogue in Ladino and Spanish, with some Hebrew and Yiddish, as well.It is newly released on DVD. $17.96. www.amazon.com

.

Wednesday

Klezmer goes upbeat in the latest CD by Yiddishe Cup,”Meshugeneh Mambo.” Six parody tracks pay tribute to klezmer comedian MickeyKatz, with the rest offering up original or reworked “neo-Borscht Belt klezmercomedy” tunes, and the titles say it all: “K’nock Around the Clock,” “I Am A Manof Constant Blessings” and “Second Avenue Square Dance.” $15. www.yiddishecup.com .

Thursday

Sports nuts despair not. With the close of this summer’s Olympic Games also comes the opening of “Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like?” at USC Fisher Gallery. The exhibition features photographs of women from the 1890s to today participating in sports from hunting to ping-pong to soccer. Creator Jane Gottesman has compiled images from myriad sources, including the Associated Press and various renown photographers including Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, April Saul and Annie Leibowitz.Runs through Oct. 30. Noon-5 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.). Harris Hall, 823 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 740-4561.

Friday

The Nuart goes behind the music tonight, presenting the L.A. premiere of “End of the Century,” a documentary about the seminal punk rock band, The Ramones. From their interpersonal disputes to their struggles for fame, the doc takes a hard look at the hard-living band that arguably failed to achieve the recognition they deserved until long after they’d split.11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 281-8223.

Russian Kids’ Home Has Fashionable Help


Who would guess that every hip-hop kid sporting the Ecko label inadvertently helps save a Jewish child half a world away in the former Soviet Union?

The founders of Ecko Unltd., a popular line of hip-hop apparel that features a distinctive rhinoceros, promised in 1998 to donate a portion of their profits to charity if they got out from under their considerable debt. In late 2000, Marc Ecko, Marci Tapper and Seth Gerzberg started fulfilling that promise after learning about Ukraine’s Ohr Dessa Project and Tikva Children’s Home.

The Ohr Dessa Project was established 11 years ago by Rabbi Shlomo Bakst to rebuild Kiev’s Great Choral Synagogue, completed in 1997. During reconstruction, Bakst became aware of numerous homeless Jewish orphans in Odessa. The Tikva Children’s Home was created in 1996 as a spin-off of the Ohr Dessa Project.

Today, Ecko Unltd., based in South River, N.J., underwrites all administrative costs for Tivka, which means “hope” in Hebrew.

“Marc [Ecko] and his business partners have had a major influence on Tikva,” said Emily Lehrmann, Tikva’s director of operations. “They have enabled us to more than double the number of children we are able to help.”

Ecko also draws other U.S. supporters to Tikva, including Sandra and Leonard Piontak, of Corona del Mar, who became Tikva’s largest contributors.

On their last fundraising mission to Odessa in May, Ecko and friends raised over $700,000 for Tikva, bringing the total amount raised this year to $2.5 million. The effort is part of a larger capital campaign (with a goal of $6.5 million) that will support the construction of a new girls’ high school, dormitory and infants’ home, set to open in the fall of 2006. The Piontaks are Tikva trustees.

Sandra Piontak got involved with Tikva a year ago at the suggestion of Effy Zinkin, general counsel for Ecko Unltd. “‘Just wait until you see these kids,’ he told me,” Piontak said. “He was right.”

The Piontaks and their son Adam took an 11-hour flight to Budapest, Hungary and from there they flew to Odessa. After touring the city and visiting many places where Jewish children live — some in train stations by the tracks, some small one-room houses crammed full with people — the group of executives went to the children’s home.

“The great thing about Tikva is that you can actually see, touch and smell the difference that you’re making in the children’s lives,” Sandra Piontak said.

Tikva provides food, shelter and schooling for 180 girls and boys and educates an additional 500 Jewish children in the greater Odessa area. All children attending Tikva’s schools receive two hot meals a day.

Since her first trip last year, Piontak says the children recognize her and come running up, offering a wave of affection. On this last trip in May, Piontak visited three brothers, aged 8 months, 2 and 4 years old. Atur, the oldest, pulled up a chair for her to join them in the common room. Older children helped translate.

“The kids are just adorable,” Piontak said. “You fall in love with them right away.”

The younger ones are very fond of bubbles, she said. Ecko’s influence can be seen in the older children’s taste in music — they rave about Eminem and Beyoncé.

In addition to Atur’s two younger brothers, he has 11 cousins living in Tikva’s home with him. This is often the case, according to Lehrmann. Tikva’s staff includes researchers, who sift through old Soviet records — birth certificates, passports, etc. — to confirm a child’s true Jewish heritage and to find relatives of children that have come through Tikva’s doors.

The organization also provides other services to the greater Jewish community, including a daily “meals on wheels” program for the elderly and a day care center for working parents. The group is the largest and most well-respected group seeking to rebuild the Jewish community in Odessa.

After hearing horror stories about Jewish survival, most especially the Holocaust, Piontak feels compelled to give something back.

“Meeting these children and spending time with them has been the most moving experience of my life,” she said.

For more information about Tikva, visit

Kazan’s Residents:


A Sunday in the park. A brilliant, bright sun warms the air. The frozen tundra has given way to seedlings, flowers and patches of green. On this day, memories of the harsh Russian winter recede like so much melted snow.

Along with the blue skies and verdant forests, Judaism has returned here after a long hibernation. About 125 Russian Jews gathered May 9 to celebrate Lag B’Omer, a minor Jewish holiday that commemorates the day a plague ended during the time of Rabbi Akiba. Boys kicked around a soccer ball. Parents stopped to catch up with old friends or to share a smoke. A crowd huddled around a fiery barbecue from which the sweet smells of succulent chicken kabobs wafted.

Spring had arrived in Kazan, a city of 1.4 million about 500 miles southeast of Moscow. Life seemed especially good for the estimated 7,000 Jews who continue to call the place home. For decades, Kazan’s Jews had lived uncomfortably in an atheist state that viewed them as outsiders. Practicing Judaism during the Soviet era — publicly or even privately — could derail careers, lead to academic expulsions and attract the unwanted attention of the KGB.

Today, a Jewish renaissance is taking place in Kazan, as in other parts of the former Soviet Union (FSU). In the past 15 years, a Jewish community has slowly grown up in here, partly under the auspices of the Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch sect. Kazan has a renovated Jewish community center in the heart of town that houses a synagogue, a mikvah (ritual bath), and a library teeming with Jewish texts. Jewish pensioners receive free medical care, meals and Hebrew lessons from a group called Hessid. In March, a new 30-minute radio program about Jewish philosophy began airing on a local station.

"We now have the possibility in Kazan to say we’re Jewish and proud of it," said Sofia Botodova, a 45-year-old mother of two and director of cultural programs for the Jewish Community Center. "We can celebrate all the Jewish holidays and invite our non-Jewish and Jewish friends. We can have a Jewish life here."

That’s not to suggest anti-Semitism has disappeared from the Russian landscape. It hasn’t, said Alistair Hodgett, spokesman for Amnesty International. In recent years, Jews have been beaten, robbed and intimidated for their beliefs, and Russian authorities have sometimes shown a reluctance to classify anti-Semetic acts as hate crimes, he said.

Still, many Jews in Kazan and elsewhere in the FSU said things have improved dramatically since the crumbling of communism.

Grigory Dyakov, born to a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, said religion never mattered much to him growing up. But when his grandmother died six years ago, Dyakov went to temple to say Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer for the dead. The 32-year-old investment banker said he discovered a beauty in Judaism that completed him. He has since become an Orthodox Jew and underwent an adult circumcision in 1999.

"The synagogue has become my top priority," he said as he performed the Jewish religious custom of wrapping tefillin. "I come to pray in the morning, at lunch and in the evening. I am a better Jew, and I think a better person as well."

Kazan State University student Jenya Sontz said she has forged her closest friendships at the Union of Kazan Jewish Youth Center. There, students celebrate Shabbat, attend lectures on Judaism and feel pride in their heritage.

"Maybe it’s a cliché to say, but we’re all family," she said.

In Kazan, Chabad works in tandem with several other Jewish organizations, including the Joint Distribution Committee, Hillel and the Russian Jewish Congress to support Jewish life. Elsewhere in the FSU, Chabad is "the only game in town," said Sue Fishkoff, author of "The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch" (Schoken Books, 2003).

The group has permanently stationed 220 rabbis throughout the FSU, funds seven Jewish day schools, 10 Jewish orphanages, Jewish summer camps and soup kitchens, among other projects. Its annual budget for the region of $60 million dwarfs that of other Jewish organizations. Chabad traces its roots to the former Russian city of Lubavitch.

Some Russian Jews mutter privately that Chabad wants nothing less than to turn the largely secular Jews of the FSU into ultra-Orthodox foot soldiers. Nonsense, said Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, the executive director of the Chabad-Lubavitch-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union.

"Chabad wants to help every Jew: man, woman, or child, to appreciate and love their faith and traditions more and go up one step at a time to add a little more to their observance," he said.

Kazan was gentler to its Jews than most other parts of the FSU. Jews began settling there in the 1830s when the czar forcibly conscripted young Jewish boys to serve him in the region. Jewish traders and craftsman followed, bringing the Jewish population to about 2,000 by the end of the 19th century. In 1915, the relatively prosperous Jewish community opened a synagogue, which the Soviets later nationalized and turned into a cultural center for teachers.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Ukrainian and White Russian Jewish students barred from their home universities fled to Kazan where anti-Jewish quotas were more relaxed. Kazan authorities sometimes looked the other way when Jews celebrated minor Jewish holidays such as Simchat Torah or baked matzah in their homes.

But Kazan’s Jews faced insurmountable obstacles to practicing their faith. During Soviet times, there existed "no Jewish schools, no Jewish education, really no organized Jewish life here," said Lev Bunimovich, a 77-year-old retired welder. Even in the nominally tolerant ’60s, a Jewish professor of mathematics lost his job for refusing to teach on Shabbat.

Under former Soviet leader Mikail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika, Jewish culture reasserted itself in Kazan. Jewish youth choirs and klezmer bands emerged and held large concerts. Hundreds attended public seders. Still, about 4,000 of Kazan’s Jews immigrated to Israel and the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Surprisingly, those who decided to stay behind did — not because they had lost touch with their heritage — but because they wanted to build a Jewish life in their homeland. Israel’s economic woes and vulnerability to terrorism have put a brake on new immigration and have actually led to a reverse migration. In recent years, an estimated 50,000 Soviet Israeli Jews have returned to the FSU, experts said.

Alexander Velder is one Kazan’s many Jews who said he has no regrets about remaining. The 45-year-old furniture manufacturer chairs a local philanthropic organization called the United Jewish Council of Kazan. The group is actively raising local money to build Russia’s first Jewish home for the aging, which, when completed next year, will house 50 seniors.

Reflecting on Kazan’s Jewish renaissance, Velder smiled and said: "It was never like this for most of my life."

Community Briefs


Cooper Visits Sudan, DiscussesSlavery

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, spent an eventful 21 hours in Sudan in mid-February when he met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to discuss the country’s ongoing slave trade and a peace treaty with Sudanese rebel.

“The whole notion of enslavement in the 20th and 21st century really has sparked concern and anger in many, many corners,” Cooper told The Journal.

That could change through negotiations to end two horrific decades of civil war between the Muslim-dominated government in Sudan’s north and Christian rebels in the south. At the Sudanese presidential palace in Khartoum, Bashir listened to Cooper’s recommendation to allow anti-slavery activists free reign in traveling across Sudan, seeking to help end slavery.

“Whatever can be done to speed that along,” he said.

Mohammed Khan, a second-generation Pakistani American in Los Angeles and adviser to the American Sudanese Council, traveled with Cooper.

“The Sudanese government is making it very clear that they have nothing to hide,” Khan said.

Decades of civil war mean that “the Sudan was viewed by the U.S. as a kind out outpost and welcome mat for terrorists,” Cooper said. “With all of the bloodshed and everything else that’s taken place, number one, the terrorists are gone.”

The rabbi said he felt comfortable walking around war-torn Khartoum.

“It’s been a long, long time since the people over there have seen any Jews,” he said — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

JFS to Give More to Russian Outreach

Following complaints from elderly ex-Soviet Jews, JFS Family Service (JFS) has scaled back its planned shutdown of a decade-long Santa Monica program of entertainment, social services and twice-monthly meetings for about 150 Russian and Baltic Jewish senior citizens.

JFS instead is allocating more money to the Russian Outreach Program, but the program coordinator has quit because JFS cut her weekly hours from 15 to four.

“I will not work four hours a week and I don’t know who can,” Lina Haimsky said. “There is no possible way anyone can run the program working four hours a week.”

JFS Executive Director Paul Castro said that following a Feb. 16 meeting with concerned senior citizens, JFS decided to cut Haimsky’s hours, but increase the Russian Senior Program’s annual activity fund budget from $1,500 to $2,000 and increase JFS case management for program participants.

“This essentially reinstates the program, but at a smaller level, a lower level,” Castro said.

Retiree Rachel Flaum, who lobbied JFS to save the outreach program, said, “On the one hand, it’s very good because they gave us more money for our activity. But on the other hand, they cut the salary for the coordinator, so she quit. For a short time, we will try to do something without a coordinator, just to keep the people together.” — DF

Social Services Battle SacramentoCuts

Jewish social service agency leaders are planning a spring Sacramento pilgrimage to seek mercy from state legislators planning extensive cuts in health and welfare budgets.

“This is a pretty tough year in Sacramento; there aren’t too many people who are really speaking for the poor and the underrepresented,” said Coby King, association director of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee (JPAC). The statewide coalition of mostly Federation-based groups led a Feb. 11 delegation to Sacramento and is a planning a similar May 10-11 lobbying trip, King said, “to try to lessen some of the damage that’s being done up there.”

Paul Castro, executive director of Jewish Family Service, said JPAC’s Feb. 11 trip had Jewish agency leaders meeting with state Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge), plus senior staff from state senators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office to discuss medical service cuts.

“Everybody’s sympathetic. I don’t think there’s any clear solution,” Castro said. “There’s a little bit of guarded optimism [about Schwarzenegger]. I guess there’s a sense that he’s not tied into one place or another.”

H. Eric Schockman, executive director of the West Los Angeles-based MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, did not attend the Feb. 11 trip but is monitoring proposed budget cuts in the food stamp and child-care programs.

“Cuts into child care force families to spend more on food resources,” Schockman said. “These all have rippling effects in both our economy and our social fabric. Food is a basic building block for everything else.”

For information about JPAC’s May 10-11 Sacramentolobbying trip, contact Coby King at (310) 489-2820 or visit www.jpac-cal.org . — DF

The Protocols Come to L.A. — in Russian


The "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" have come to Los Angeles. On its 100th anniversary, the vicious, primitive forgery has struck again, this time in a Russian-language tabloid circulated in the heavily Russian Jewish neighborhoods around West Hollywood.

First published on August 28, 1903, the "Protocols" have been translated and published all over the world — including the United States — in dozens of languages. They have been exposed again and again as forgeries by courts, by investigative reporters of respectable publications and by scholarly analyses conducted by reputable scholars. The original sources from which this abomination was copied are known. They have nothing to do with Jews but still they keep rising from the dead like vampires in Hollywood movies.

This time the "Protocols" were presented as historical fact in the most unlikely venue: Kontakt, a Russian-language Los Angeles weekly serving a predominantly Jewish readership. Kontakt is owned by Vladimir Parenago, who bought the publication a few years ago. Generally clad in black and sporting a large crucifix on a necklace, he bills himself as a "healer" and "mystic."

His wife, Lyubov Parenago, is the editor of Kontakt. It was her signed editorial that discussed the "Protocols" and listed the important lessons Kontakt’s readers could learn from studying them.

She presented the "Protocols" as historical fact and as a true exposé of "the special secret [Jewish] plan to control all the world’s finances." She explained that the plan was adopted at a meeting that took place at the home of Meier Rothschild in 1773, to where he had invited 12 of the world’s most influential bankers — including six members of the Rothschild family — to take part in the conspiracy. The result was "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Reaction to the publication among Russian Jews has been angry and intense, but has largely been kept within the community. For many immigrants, dissent and criticism are still frightening and uncomfortable, so the reaction of most of the Russian Jews has consisted of complaining to one another, contacting people who are seen as a bridge between "Americans" and "Russians," and writing letters, mostly unsigned, to Washington, Sacramento, the LAPD, City Hall and Russian-language radio, TV and newspapers.

In addition, the two largest immigrant groups — World War II Veterans and Holocaust Survivors — sent letters to Kontakt.

The letters were never published. But in the most recent issue of Kontakt, Lyubov Parenago admitted that she has received many letters, some of them complimentary, others viciously hostile.

"Obviously those who were offended suffer from a lack of a sense of humor," she wrote.

Reader e-mails obtained by The Journal ranged from "What on earth were they thinking of?" to "These anti-Semites should go back to Russia where they will feel right at home." The most extensive and literate e-mail was from a local immigrant, Viktor K., who sent a copy of a letter he wrote to Kontakt. Here are some excerpts translated from the Russian:

"You must be aware that this year is the 100th anniversary of the publication of the ‘Protocols’ — the major historical forgery of the 20th century that was the ideological justification for pre-revolutionary pogroms, as well as the anti-Jewish atrocities of the White forces and the suffering of thousands. This forgery was exposed more than 80 years ago but it is still being used today by Hitlerite nazis, Islamic fundamentalists and assorted anti-Semites. This is why your publication of an additional ‘Protocol’ that is connected with the Rothschild family and predates the other by 130 years is a very personal contribution on your part… Later you informed your readers that it was all a joke and bemoaned the absence of a sense of humor among your readers. Well, your sense of humor is impressive."

Reached by phone, Lyubov Parenago said she was genuinely puzzled at what she saw as a lack of appreciation by the Jewish community. "I print stories about Israel," she said. "I support Jewish causes, I publicize Russian Jewish artists touring the United States. This was a fantasy that shouldn’t have been taken seriously, it was just advice on how to become rich, the Rothschild plan was never seen or read by anyone, it was a service to the community."

Lyubov Parenago then went on to deny that the "Protocols" she published were the actual ones. "This story wasn’t about the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’" she said, "it was about a different ‘Protocol,’ a different plot, a different idea, a Rothschild idea. How could anyone think that I would publish those ‘Protocols?’

"I can express my opinion," she went on. "I can say what I think in this free country. Why this hostile reaction? I don’t understand."


Si Frumkin is chairman of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.

Haven of Refuge


For centuries, most people have viewed Siberia as a dreaded prison of frozen tundra, the closest cold spot on earth to the gloom of purgatory.

But for the Jews of Asia and Europe, Siberia has represented something far more attractive: a great escape. The targets of deadly anti-Semitism and mass expulsions elsewhere on the continent, Jews historically have looked to Siberia as something of a refuge from hostile local governments that killed, exploited or expelled their Jews.

“The good thing about Siberia is that once you were exiled here, there was nowhere else to go,” an elderly Siberian Jew said.

Jews have been migrating to Siberia from all over the continent for several centuries, lured by Siberia’s relative isolation and, sometimes, the promise of wealth. Today, that same isolation is a hindrance to a revival of Jewish life in Siberia, where it has been slower to arrive than elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

During the Soviet era, not everything was slow to arrive in Siberia. On the night of June 14, 1941, Moishe Kiselevskiy was sound asleep in his Baltic home when Soviet troops barged into his living room and gave him 20 minutes to get up and cram into a railroad freight car bound for Siberia.

His family was one of several Jewish families with successful private businesses that the Soviet state had deemed “dangerous social elements.” Fortuitously, the terrifying evacuation saved Kiselevskiy and his family from the Nazis: Hitler’s forces arrived two weeks later and, with the help of local collaborators, slaughtered more than 90 percent of the Jews of Latvia and Lithuania.

Jews first arrived in Siberia in the late 17th century, seeking gold and fur. In the 19th century, the Russian government offered free land plots and relocation allowances to pioneers willing to move to the untouched region. A small portion of those who went to Siberia were Jews looking to escape anti-Semitism in the Pale of Settlement, the swath of land in western Russia, where Jews generally were forced to live after 1835.

Early in the 20th century, when tens of thousands of Jews were fleeing to the United States to escape the hunger, university quotas and anti-Semitism in the Pale, Jacob Schniderman, 72, was among the few who opted for Siberia. Today he owns a bakery in Birobidzhan.

Schniderman is atypical; most Jews did not really choose to go to Siberia. In the 18th and 19th centuries, czarist exiles, including many political prisoners and criminals, were sent there. Among them were Jews, whose descendants managed to thrive as merchants. In 1898, there were 44,000 registered Jews in 26 Siberian communities.

Others Jews went to Siberia because there was no other place they could go to escape anti-Semitism at home. The family of Elena Uvarovskaya, head of the Jewish community center in the Siberian city of Ulan Ude, fled there to escape the 1915 pogroms in Lithuania.

The Jewish population of Siberia swelled during World War I, when Czar Nicholas II sent to the region Jewish soldiers, whom he feared were German spies.

Synagogues and Jewish schools began to be built in Siberia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Local officials were split between implementing czarist anti-Semitic policies and creating a comfortable environment for an ethnic group that was helping fuel the local economy.

As Jews got comfortable in their adopted home, religious observances fell by the wayside. Many worked on the Sabbath and attended synagogue only on the High Holidays. During the Soviet era, intermarriage was the norm, largely because relatively few Jewish women could be found in Russia’s Far East.

The Soviet state culled highly educated and skilled workers from western Russia to fill posts in military-related and scientific fields. Consequently, most of the Jewish workers who headed east were male — as many as 90 percent, according to some.

“There were no Jewish girls over here,” said Zelick Shniederman, a Jew from Krasnoyarsk, explaining the region’s high intermarriage rate.

“Siberia was the worst place to be Jewish during Soviet times,” said Zev Vagner, a Moscow-based rabbi and author of the Russian Jewish Encyclopedia. “The KGB was much more strict than in Moscow, which made a show for tourists and visitors. In Siberia, you couldn’t make a move.”

Others disagreed, arguing that Siberia’s distance from Moscow allowed for limited religious freedoms in Russia’s Far East.

Today, Siberia’s Jews are free to practice their religion as they see fit, but few are interested in the Jewish tradition, local Jewish officials said.

A Hero for Seder


I don’t remember how long ago it was that Michael visited Los Angeles. Fifteen years? Twenty? I do remember that I was driving him around the city when he said, “Could you stop the car for a moment? I would like to photograph this.”

I was puzzled. “Photograph what?” I asked.

There was nothing remarkable that I could see. Michael laughed.

“The street sign, of course. They named a street after me.”

Sure enough. There it was. Sherbourne Drive. I am certain that whoever named it had never heard of Michael Sherbourne. A pity. He deserves having a street named after him.

Later that day, he told me of another honor.

“I am probably the only Jew who was promoted to a member of the British nobility by a communist newspaper,” he said.

In the 1970s, Pravda, the major Soviet newspaper, ran a lengthy editorial about that “Zionist provocateur and a typical representative of the rotten British ruling class, Lord Sherbourne.” Michael never asked Pravda for a correction. The truth is that Michael’s father, who escaped from czarist Russia to England, was a sailor on a British merchant vessel in 1914, when England went to war with Germany. The other sailors gave him a hard time because they though he was German — his name was something like Ginsburg or Friedman. When the ship returned, Michael’s father got a copy of “Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage,” a listing of all the titled names, found a name he liked and had his name changed to the, oh-so-very British Sherbourne.

Michael and his wife went to a kibbutz in British-ruled Palestine in the 1930s. He joined the navy when war broke out and later ended up teaching French and metal shop at a London high school. It was there that he accepted a challenge that changed his life. A colleague sneered at French as a language. It was too easy, he said.

“Now Russian is a tough language. I bet you couldn’t learn Russian,” he taunted.

Michael smiles when he tells the story.

“It was tougher than I thought,” he said. “I was in my 40s by then, and I almost gave up a few times. But I did it eventually.”

He did indeed. Last time I saw him was in London in 1999. My formerly Muscovite wife Ella, Michael and I were having a sandwich in a London deli, with Michael chatting away in pure and fluent Russian with Ella. She asked him if he liked Russian literature and what he thought about the great Russian poet Pushkin.

“Pushkin?” Michael said. “I love Pushkin. His poetry is like music. Just listen.”

And then he began reciting “Evgeny Onegin,” chapter after chapter, by heart, without a pause.

In the 1960s and ’70s, when the Soviet Jewry movement in the West was born as a reaction to Soviet anti-Semitism, Michael became the voice of the Jews in the West to the refuseniks and activists in the USSR. He made hundreds, maybe thousands of phone calls in Russian to the Jews who didn’t know whether their voices were being heard in the West. He knew the phone numbers and names of all of them — all the activists who were harassed, arrested, tried and sentenced by the authorities who couldn’t understand what motivated the handful of Jews to fight the Soviet superpower. He was the indirect conduit and lifeline to thousands of others. The information he gathered helped us fight the Soviet Jewry battle in the West.

He used different names, but the authorities knew who he was. An operator in Moscow told him so when he pretended to be a Russian engineer calling from Dnepropetrovsk.

“We know who you are, Mr. Sherbourne,” she laughed.

Michael called me a few months ago to tell me that he was coming to spend the Passover with his granddaughter who lives in Washington, D.C.

“Why don’t you come and join us for a Russian seder in Los Angeles,” I asked.

Michael was surprised.

“A Russian seder?” he asked.

I explained that Los Angeles has been celebrating Passover with a community seder for the last 10 years. It started out as a joint project of the Bureau of Jewish Education, the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews and the Association of Soviet Jewish Emigres. We produced a Russian-language haggadah; invited Svetlana Portnyansky, a major international singing star to serve as our cantor, and I appointed myself to conduct the evening. The first year about 150 people showed up. They were senior citizens with vague childhood memories of Passover. As time went on, attendance grew and more younger people and children came. For the last three years, we had to have it on both nights to accommodate the more than 600 people. This year we held it at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills on April 16 and 17.

There was a moment of silence on the line.

“A Russian seder? Really?” And then, “I would love to come.”

And so, on April 17, Michael had a chance to take a look at what the challenge by a colleague 35 years ago had wrought.

I wish I could add “Michael” to the Sherbourne Drive street sign so that there really would be a street here named after him. He deserves it. And he doesn’t need to be a real lord to be one of the noblest men I have ever known.

Russia’s Jews Rediscover Roots


Lev Entin, a 90-year-old resident of St. Petersburg, has spent the past year relearning something he spent most of his life trying to forget: his Judaism.

Entin’s father was a shochet (ritual slaughterer), and until Entin was 12, he attended a cheder (Jewish school). But after that, Entin, "a product of the Bolshevik Revolution," as he puts it, did not pay attention to his religion.

But in the past year, Entin has reintroduced himself to his tradition by reading books and brochures he receives from his local Hesed welfare center.

"Only this year did I become a Jew again," he said.

Roughly 175,000 Jewish elderly in Russia are now served by the 88 Heseds across the former Soviet Union. These centers, run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), account for about one-half of all Jewish social and welfare organizations in the former Soviet Union.

They provide basic services, such as food and health care, to the large numbers of elderly who were impoverished both by the chaos of post-Communist Russia and by last August’s economic collapse. But the Heseds, which mean "charitable deed," also play a role that is just as important in creating a Jewish community for the Russian elderly.

When the JDC began opening Heseds in the former Soviet Union earlier this decade, the organizers were afraid of two things: that the centers would be overwhelmed by requests from non-Jewish clients, and that the centers would lead to an anti-Semitic backlash. None of the fears has come true.

Indeed, in some places Hesed centers serve as a model for similar state-run organizations. In St. Petersburg, for example, Hesed Avraham is among the most successful welfare organizations in the city of 4 million. Last year, Hesed Avraham started a joint project with a local government-funded welfare organization, where one of the Hesed dining rooms is now feeding 100 non-Jewish needy elderly.

The success of the Hesed program has led to some problems. Indeed, in some cities, local authorities ignore the needs of Jewish clients because there are other organizations to take care of them.

"The state sometimes wants to lay its responsibility onto the Heseds. But Jews are citizens of this country just like non-Jews and the state has certain obligations toward them," says Benjamin Haller, director of the JDC’s William Rosenwald Institute for Communal and Welfare Workers in St. Petersburg, which trains Jewish social workers and conducts sociological research of the Jewish elderly in the former Soviet Union.

But there is one aspect of the Hesed activities where the state welfare system cannot help: reconnecting people to their Judaism.

"People are coming to Heseds not only to get a piece of bread. They come to taste the spirit which makes us unique, distinct from other similar organizations. This is the spirit of belonging to the Jewish people," Haller said.

For example, in the city of Tula, some 190 miles south of Moscow, about 50 elderly Jews gathered on a recent Friday night at the Hasdei Neshama center. A concert by a local klezmer band was followed by a Shabbat service and a meal conducted by a Moscow rabbi who comes to the city every weekend.

In St. Petersburg, Hesed Avraham publishes Hesed Shalom, a bimonthly newspaper with a print run of 15,000.

This process of creating a community extends beyond the clients served by the Hesed centers to the volunteers who assist.

Last year, about 7,000 volunteers participated in the provision of welfare and other social services in the centers.

"Any program we run involves people helping other people. Even a bedridden person can call another bedridden [person] so that they will not feel lonely," Haller said.

In most communities, youths and students of Jewish schools occasionally volunteer in some social programs. But the average volunteer is recently retired and is in his early 60s. These people deliver food to the homebound, do home repair or work once or twice a week as hairdressers, shoemakers, electricians. Medical doctors conduct regular free consultations for Jewish elderly in almost every Hesed center.

Despite all the good work they are doing, the future of the Heseds is not entirely rosy. With the ongoing economic crisis and the depreciation of pensions, money is becoming rare, particularly to supply medicines.

The multimillion-dollar annual budget of the Heseds comes from several sources. Most Russian Heseds operate with the money channeled by JDC from funds raised by the joint campaign of the United Jewish Appeal and local federations in the United States. These funds go primarily to support the most fund-consuming part of the Hesed operations — food programs, including monthly and holiday food packages and distribution of hot meals through community dining rooms and meals-on-wheels programs.

While the activities are operated by the JDC in conjunction with local groups, including the Russian Jewish Congress, a majority of the funds for the multimillion-dollar project are provided by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — particularly in Ukraine and Belarus, which were under Nazi rule during World War II.

Most observers say Hesed programs have been the most successful — in their scope and outreach — of all similar projects supported with local and foreign funds.

They appear to be successful for Sofia Shapiro, an 80-year-old retired engineer who receives several services from her local Hesed in Yekaterinburg. The homebound Shapiro and her bedridden blind sister, Vera Brook, have no relatives and a caretaker from Hesed visits them daily. The center also gave Shapiro a walker made by some of the eight staff workers and 39 volunteers who assemble a total of 2,500 wheelchairs, walkers, walking canes and crutches a month at a plant in St. Petersburg.

"There is a sticker here," Shapiro says, pointing at the bottom part of the walker. "It says, ‘Live with Hope.’ So I do."

The Russian Club


What the Russian Jewish immigrants of Orange County lack in numbers they make up for in passion.

There are between 3,000-10,000 Russian Jewish immigrants in Orange County — no one is quite sure of the exact number.

Most of these newcomers have only a slight connection to the larger Jewish immigrant community. They may run into each other at the only Russian deli in Orange County or come to a concert at the Russian Club that meets once a month at the Jewish Community Center in Costa Mesa.

But other immigrants make a point to reach out and stay connected.

Some six decades ago, Olga Filatova was a 19-year-old medic in the Red Army, tending to wounded soldiers on the front lines. Later she finished medical school, had a successful career as a physician and eventually settled in Orange County. Ten years ago, she and a few others founded the Orange County organization of war veterans from the Soviet Union. “They voted me in as president 10 years ago and they keep re-electing me every year,” Filatova said. “I guess they like me.”

There is also, she acknowledges, a smaller pool from which to choose.

“We have about 300 members now,” Filatova said. “When we started there were 475, but so many have died. We are old.”

Filatova doesn’t sound old. Her voice is strong, energetic, full of life. She laughs readily, as she is now, when I ask her how old she is. “I spoke to a man in New York who had written a book about veterans organizations and he asked me the same question. I told him that I was 80. He said that I was just a kid, that he was 104 and writing books. You don’t get old when there are things to be done.”

The Red Army veterans are an integral part of the Russian Club — they provide much of the talent at the monthly meetings. There are skits, singers, poetry readings and, once in a while, a performance by an invited violinist or pianist.

“I am very happy in America,” Filatova told me. “We have a good organization. We have people in charge of artistic matters, of collecting dues or planning trips. And we have one person” — her voice lowered — “who takes care of the funerals. This too has to be done, you know.”

The Russian Club has 95 dues-paying members, according to club leader Olga Dubnikova. But, she said, many nonmembers come to the events, which include ballet performances by students who are taught at a nearby ballet school by non-Jewish former Soviet dancers. There is an English-language preschool at the Jewish Community Center, but only two immigrant children go there. From time to time there were efforts to create a facility to teach Russian to the children and grandchildren of immigrants but nothing really worked. Most kids speak very little Russian, even fewer are able to read or write it.

I told Dubnikova that Americans always like to tell me that their grandparents came from this or that Russian gubernia, an archaic term for a geographic division that has not been in use since the 1917 revolution. It is rare for them to know anything else about their heritage.

She laughed, sadly. “Yes, our children will also grow up knowing little about their background, where they came from. There is little we can do about it. We do what we can, but this is America, after all. It would be nice if we could have someone give lectures on the history of Russian Jews, on what was done for us so that we could emigrate. We know so little.”

The Russian Club makes an attempt to celebrate the Jewish holidays and will probably have a High Holidays service if a rabbi can be found to conduct it.

“Synagogues? I really don’t know how many of us have joined synagogues here. The Russian Club is mostly old people — the younger ones don’t really come here. I don’t know if they go to American synagogues.”

Dubnikova told me that they had Passover seders in Russian at the center, conducted by Chaim Marcus, a young American businessman from a rabbinical family who had spent several years in the Ukraine. He provided Russian haggadot, matzah and led the services.

“If we want to see a Jewish concert by a group from Russia that is touring California or go to a Jewish museum, we have to go to Los Angeles. Very few come to Orange County. And, of course, there is the question of money. We pay $2 a month in dues, but we also send packages to Russia and make contributions for Israel so that there is really no way we can rent a bus or pay for the tickets for our members.”

Dubnikova tells me that the club had placed an ad in the Jewish paper but that the response was very minimal.

“But what about your children? They are all working and making money, aren’t they?” I asked.

“Yes, they work, of course, they work, but they pay taxes, they have families, they have expenses, you know,” she said defensively.

“But so do the Americans, right? And they give to good causes. Why not the Russians? Why can’t a Russian doctor write a check for a thousand or so?” I ask.

“Who knows,” she said. “Our people just don’t. No one will write a check like that. I know the Armenians take care of their own and the Vietnamese, and even the Iranian Jews. But our people are less willing, they just aren’t used to it, I guess.”

Golan Under Development


What is the safest place in Israel?

The answer, according to Ronnie Lotan, is the Golan, which hasn’t had a single terrorist incident since the Heights, captured in 1967, were formally annexed to Israel 20 years ago.

Lotan, an avuncular looking man of 55, was in town to help organize Monday’s tribute dinner to Jerry Weintraub, the first major fundraiser for the year-old Golan Fund. Lotan, the fund’s president, says that his relatively modest goal for the next three years is to raise $3 million, with three projects topping the list.

Natura Village, a residential and social home for some100 adults with mental and behavioral problems, due to open in July.

Ohalo College in Qatzrin, capital of the Golan Heights,and the only college in Israel’s far North. Scholarships will help trainteachers in physical education and fitness.

Fellowships and scholarships for the Golan ResearchInstitute, which promotes knowledge and economic development of the region.

Cost of these and all other development projects are split — with the Israeli government paying two-thirds, and the Golan Fund providing the remainder.

A native of Tel Aviv, Lotan moved to the Golan in 1968 and now lives in Kibbutz Mevo Hama, one of 32 communities on the Golan. The region now has a population of 18,000, of whom some 7,000 live in Qatzrin. About 45 percent of Qatzrin’s residents are Russian emigrants. The Golan, which has no Arab residents, is an integral part of Israel, in contrast to the Jewish towns and settlements in the territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Fortunately, the region has been able to avoid the sharp ideological and religious confrontations plaguing much of the rest of Israel.

About one-third of the residents are observant Jews (though there are no enclaves of fervently Orthodox) and two-thirds are secular. There is one unified school system and kibbutzim and moshavim operate under a joint governing council. Lotan cites as the Golan’s biggest concern a slow drain of young people to the cities, where job opportunities are more varied and plentiful. One of his main goals is to create more good jobs in the region to staunch the drain and attract newcomers.

The father of seven children, Lotan declares proudly that five have remained on the Golan — the other two couldn’t find the right jobs.

For more information on the Golan Fund, check its Website at www.golanfund.org

Diversity in the Desert


For Dr. Jonathan Friedlander, the photography exhibit at UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History evokes vivid memories of the Sunday morning in 1991 he arrived at the central bus station in Be’er Sheva and discovered a place where worlds collide.

In the photos, soldiers toting Uzis await transportation to army bases in the south. In an open-air market, an Ethiopian Jewish woman in a brightly colored dress heatedly argues over the price of a chicken with a partially veiled Bedouin woman clad in dark robes. Elderly Russian war veterans sell Soviet medals to bargain-hunters; goats and camels are startled by rumbling convoys of flatbed semis hauling battle tanks.

“Transitions: Russians, Ethiopians and Bedouins in Israel’s Negev Desert” captures a unique moment in Israeli history: the year that tens of thousands of newly-arrived Russians and Ethiopians streamed into the desert and struggled to settle on the periphery of Israel’s urban culture. There, they encountered another group in transition: indigenous Bedouins moving from nomadic encampments to towns created for them in the desert.

Russians & Gays & Lesbians, Oh My…


Paul Koretz, a 44-year-old politician, owns up to an unusual distinction. He is the only member of the city council in the 15-year history of West Hollywood to have a wife and family at home.

Anywhere else in the country, being married with young children would be considered a plus for an ambitious office holder. In tolerant West Hollywood, his status is not a handicap, just an anomaly.

While Los Angeles as a whole acclaims itself the world capital of diversity, nowhere is the mix as singular as in the pistol-shaped, 1.9-sq.-mile enclave sandwiched between Beverly Hills and the Hollywood section of Los Angeles.

Allowing for overlaps between categories, half the city’s 38,000 residents are Jewish, 35 percent are gay men, 3 percent are lesbians, 19 percent are senior citizens, and 12 – 15 percent are Russian immigrants. West Hollywood may be the only city whose official 1998 population survey included check-offs for bisexual (7 percent) and transgendered (1 percent) taxpayers.

But West Hollywood is more than a demographer’s delight. It includes Southern California’s most vibrant night life, mainly along the fabled Sunset Strip. When snooty Beverly Hills rolls up the sidewalks at night, the action is just warming up at the Strip’s rock and roll clubs, comedy shows and tony restaurants. “We’re the Left Bank of Beverly Hills,” says Scott Svonkin, Koretz’s right-hand man.

After some rough times, the economy is now booming. Luxury hotels and swank night spots are going up while design-oriented businesses are encircling the landmark Pacific Design Center, dubbed The Blue Whale for its shape and color. It’s gotten to the point where city officials must restrain developers from encroaching into residential areas.

The city has an enviable range of social service programs for the elderly, immigrants and the AIDS-infected, and relations between the diverse citizenry and law enforcement agencies are, by all accounts, remarkably harmonious.

Back in 1984, harassment of gays by Los Angeles city police and fear that rent controls for apartment dwellers might be abolished led to an unusual gay-seniors alliance that pushed through incorporation of West Hollywood. The city now contracts for law enforcement with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which puts deputies through a sensitivity training course before assignment to West Hollywood.

When it first became a city, West Hollywood was dubbed the “Gay Camelot” by the press, which marveled at a municipality run by a five-person city council (one of whom serves as mayor on a rotating basis) with a three-man majority of gays.

Since then, the makeup of the council has fluctuated. At one time there were three Jews on the council, now there is one; at another time, there were three councilwomen, now there is none. The present council again has three gays, one senior, and Koretz, who has served since 1988.

On Super Tuesday, Koretz squeaked through in a very tight race to become the Democratic nominee for the State Assembly in the 42nd district.

In the heart of West Hollywood lies Plummer Park, where on any day hundreds of Jewish immigrants from all parts of the former Soviet Union play chess, or cards for modest stakes, which are quickly hidden when strangers, who might conceivably enforce the park’s anti-gambling rules, walk by. Anti-smoking rules are uniformly ignored as well.

The only monument in the United States to the Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar stands nearby, with inscriptions in Russian Cyrillic script, English and Hebrew.

Most of the 5,000 to 6,000 Russian Jews settled in West Hollywood in two major immigration waves, 1978-79 and 1988-92, and their arrival led to inevitable frictions.

“Initially, the greatest conflict was between elderly Russian immigrants and the established Jewish seniors,” says Koretz. “The American Jews complained that the Russians, using their official ‘refugee’ status, were getting more of the social services and affordable housing than the old-timers.”

It also took the Russian housewives some time to learn not to cut into supermarket lines for fear that — as in their homeland — the stores would run out of supplies.

But more spectacular than the grumbling between two sets of elderly Jews was the encounter between the wildly different cultures of the Russian and gay communities.

There was hardly any physical violence, but “there would be a lot of screaming, and since they couldn’t understand each other’s language, we had a lot of misunderstandings,” says Rabbi Naftoli Estulin, who runs the Chabad Russian Immigrant Program and Synagogue.

Helen Levin, director of the city-funded Russian Cultural Center, explains that “in the Soviet Union, homosexuality was a crime, punishable by seven years in prison. You can’t expect people raised in that way to be open-minded and relaxed about openly gay behavior. They’re changing, but it’s a long process in education and tolerance.”

In general, it has taken American Jews some time to adjust to the Russian immigrants, adds Levin. “The Americans expected a race of heroes, like Natan Sharansky. But most Russians didn’t come for ideological reasons, but to make a better life for themselves and their children.”

While Levin’s cultural center is a more integral part of West Hollywood than the Chabad center, both offer a range of education, language, job training, counseling, social service, youth and senior programs. Since the immigrants must become U.S. citizens within seven years of arrival or lose their benefits, there is a heavy emphasis on citizenship training classes.

But, in line with Jewish custom, the two Russian centers don’t speak to each other. For a while, there was an annual confrontation as each center sought to stage its Chanukah festival in Plummer Park. A modus vivendi has now been reached in which each organization stages the festival in alternate years.

Otherwise, a cold peace prevails between the two centers. “Rabbi Estulin can’t tolerate a woman who raises her voice and is independent,” says Levin. “I can manage my relationship with anyone and have an understanding with every agency, but not with Chabad.”

Estulin shrugs off the relationship problem. “They see me with a beard and they think I’m from another world,” he says. “I’m just one of the boys, one of the guys.”

Preparing for the Worst


Mark Levin knows about as much as anybody about Jews in the former Soviet Union. But sitting in his office during a recent chat with reporters, he admitted he had no easy answers to the toughest question of all: When should Jewish leaders push the panic button and do everything possible to convince Russian Jews to get out while the getting is good?

The issue took on more overtones of urgency this week with a new wave of bombings in Moscow and growing U.S.-Russia strains over the NATO air war in Kosovo; the prospect that U.S. and Russian forces could clash over enforcement of an embargo on Serbia added to the sense of crisis.

“The political, economic and social conditions continue to deteriorate,” Levin, executive director of the National Conference of Soviet Jewry, said. “We do not believe we’ve reached the stage of mass exodus. But that doesn’t lessen our concern or our preparation for all possible scenarios.”

He conceded that the point at which Jewish leaders should actively promote a massive rescue effort is a blurry one, and cautioned against statements that could lead to panic among an aging, anxious Russian Jewish population.

But Jewish leaders across the spectrum are acutely aware that there is a danger they could wait too long in urging Russian Jews to head for the lifeboats.

The situation in Moscow grows more chaotic by the day. The economy continues its free-fall; big loans from the International Monetary Fund may stave off disaster for a few more months, but there is no longer much hope of serious economic reform by the battered, besieged government of President Boris Yeltsin.

Nationalists and retread Communists continue to infiltrate the political mainstream, capitalizing on the spreading economic misery and on Russia’s demise as a world power.

The extremists are poised to improve their position in the 1999 parliamentary elections. Predictions are risky, but it is not inconceivable that they could produce a candidate capable of replacing the retiring Yeltsin in 2000.

Bigotry and scapegoating are on the rise, with prominent officials openly voicing a conspiracy-minded anti-Semitism that echoes down the corridors of Russian history.

And U.S.-Russian relations are in a tailspin, pushed over the brink by Moscow’s support for the government of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and the rise of an ominous new anti-Western sentiment.

The new diplomatic strains have significantly reduced the ability of officials here to use their diplomatic leverage to protect minorities in Russia, especially the Jews. Many Russian Jews are making preliminary inquiries about emigrating, but few have done more than that.

So what are the options for Jewish leaders here?

Levin points to the most obvious: continuing to work with U.S. officials to keep the human-rights agenda a part of the U.S.-Russia diplomatic mix. Soviet Jewry groups have been surprisingly successful in that effort, but it will be significantly harder as U.S.-Russia relations erode.

Jewish leaders can make sure the refugee infrastructure is in place in case widespread, rapid emigration becomes necessary. That’s one reason Jewish groups have been so determined to preserve refugee slots that, in recent years, have not been in high demand. That could change overnight if the anti-Semitic talk in Russia produces anti-Semitic action; having extra slots available could save lives.

Leaders here can work to make sure that Russian Jews do not lose the automatic presumption of refugee status, a policy legacy of the refusenik era.

Culture, High and Low


It isn’t as though you exactly need a reason to visit the Getty Center. But for those in search of one, we can recommend a gem of an exhibition: the display of works by the famous Russian Jewish artist El Lissitzky (1890-1941).

Lissitzky was a major figure in the explosion of Russian art in the 1920s and 1930s. He was involved with Malevich and the Russian suprematists; he was inventive in the use of graphics and typography (including Hebrew letters and symbols); and he became a leader in applying art and architectural principles to book design and lithography. Some of his geometric abstractions are a delight to behold.

What gives this show a particular poignancy is that it moves between the playful, inventive abstractions and a series of Jewish book illustrations. The work calls to mind Chagall in its representations of Jewish folk culture.

The show was organized by Nancy Perloff, curator of manuscripts and archives of the Getty Research Institute and Eva Forgacs, an art historian at Art Center, who worked as a special consultant.

Take Note: The exhibit is housed in the Getty Research Institute galleries, directly across from the art museum. The show runs through Feb. 21, 1999. &’009;&’009;— Staff Report

The Editor’s Corner


My mother is87. Or is it 90? As long as I can remember, I thought that she hadbeen born in 1910, was named Miriam Euffa, and brought here from Kievas a 5-year-old by parents who were educated, and who had been partof what must have been a turn-of-the-century minority: theRussian-Ukrainian Jewish professional class. Now Medicare tells methat her Social Security card lists her year of birth as 1907.

At this point, I ask myself, what difference canit make? My mother has Alzheimer’s. The disease has ushered her intoa realm where days, weeks, years hardly seem to matter. Until just afew days ago, she resided in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where shewas recovering from pneumonia (which she apparently contracted aftershe broke her hip and underwent surgery at Midway Hospital inJanuary, followed by three weeks of physical therapy at the BeverlyHills Rehabilitation Center in February).

Thanks to her two-month period of extended stay inthese three separate medical facilities, I have become knowledgeable(and dismayed) about hospital life for the elderly. I have watched mymother move rapidly from living as a woman who was mobile,semi-independent and trapped in the early stages of Alzheimer’s tosomeone who is now a patient, stripped bare, functioning in a stateof helplessness, or what a doctor described as delusionalpsychosis.

Is this a natural decline, one in which the bodymalfunctions and the Alzheimer’s mind quickly follows suit? Or is it,in some large measure, a fallout from our cutting-edge,multimillion-dollar corporate hospital system? I have come to believethat this health-care system, with the best intentions in the world,failed me and the aging parent I turned over to their highlyspecialized care.

I know, this could just be my way of release, anexpression of despair, depression and, yes, an underlying ragebursting through after months of frustration. My mother enteredCedars because she had been overmedicated and had become highlyagitated. Once she was admitted, Cedars’ proficient medical expertisecame into play: Tests were given; X-rays taken; new medicationprescribed. It became evident that several weeks earlier, either atMidway or at the Beverly Hills Rehab Center, water had settled in herlungs. She had contracted pneumonia, but it had not shown up before,or else no one had noticed.

Treatment for pneumonia moved into high gear, but,in the process, her mind became more disoriented. Medication for herdementia became a hit-and-miss affair as doctors struggled valiantlyto find a combination of drugs and a proper dosage that would serveher (and the nurses) well. And I rediscovered what had begun to dawnon me earlier– namely, that the operating procedures at all threemedical facilities ran counter to my mother’s particular needs. Toput it bluntly, while the pneumonia was checked, her mental stateslipped radically. She needed individual care, and that apparentlywas outside the hospitals’, and the rehabilitation center’s, range ofcaregiving — in part for budgetary (read financial) concerns, inpart for organizational reasons. Had I known then the limitations andconsequences of her hospital care, I would have limited her stay ineach medical institution to a bare minimum.

The catalog of breakdowns over the two months hasbeen extensive, but I will cite only a few. At Cedars, for example,someone had been inattentive and let my mother struggle out of bedalone. She has no short-term memory and, so, is unaware that shecannot yet walk. The result: She fell on her head. A quick trip toX-ray revealed that this 90-pound 90-year-old sustained only a bump,soreness and some swelling. No concussion, no broken neck or hip, nosevere damage. And no immediate or direct communication withme.

In part, because of this fear for her safety, thenursing staff began tying her down in a quite effective way: arestraining band across her chest and, at times, her feet strapped tothe ends of the bed frame. I walked in once at Cedars to find herscreaming frantically for help, unclear where she was (she thoughtprison) or why these people had tied her down and locked the door.She was agitated and terrified. And convinced that the nurses wereplotting against her. Why else would they treat her this way?

The nurses were clearsighted about the answers.First, she was “restrained” to protect her from falling and breakingher hip again. Second, the door was closed because she made too muchnoise, calling for assistance or simply asking for attention. Inshort, she was a nuisance, and there was neither time nor staff tofill these needs of hers. She was being protected for her own good,to be sure, but there was a strong likelihood, as her doctorsverified to me, that she also was being driven mad.

“The reality is,” explained one of the nurses, “weare not equipped to give patients one-on-one care. Someone like yourmother needs an available nurse around the clock. We don’t providethat.” Hire private nurses, one of her doctors advised me. Eitherthat or send the family to care for her.

The difficulty appears to be that the system inplace is designed for maintaining order and organizationalefficiency, for diagnosing and treating illness, for deliveringbabies and removing someone’s appendix, for heart surgery andrespiratory ailments, but not necessarily for the individual care ofthose elderly who require personal attention. “Get your mother out ofhere as soon as possible,” a staff member at the rehab centerconfided to me when I complained that my mother’s needs were oftenignored and that her bed often reeked of urine. “This place hasexcellent facilities and people for physical therapy,” I was told,”but is totally unprepared to deal with Alzheimer patients.”

The problem largely has to do with money. Theresimply are not enough funds available to cover one-on-one nursingcare. Or at least it is not given high enough priority. Hospitals arestruggling to raise dollars in order to provide decent medical care.Medicare payments barely scratch the surface of costs andexpenses.

Fault also lies with the nursing system that hasbeen put in place. Nurses rotate on 12-hour shifts and are assignedeight or nine different rooms and patients each shift. What they arenot given is a set of individual men and women whom they follow fromadmission to release. The process works against the possibility thatnurses will become familiar with the rhythm of a patient’s life, orthat they will empathize or bond with anyone in their care. It makesfor impersonality when precisely the opposite is often desperatelyneeded for many seniors.

It also leads to a reporting system that isparticularistic but rarely complete. Nurses can only report todoctors what they have observed during their shift: percentage offood eaten, medication taken, a rasping cough, agitation. But thereis little intimate linking of these facts to the rise and fall of apatient’s mood, spirits or progress. When I made these observationsto a doctor, he exclaimed, wearily, that he had been fighting thatbattle (in vain, he implied) for more than 10 years.

One evening, when I slept in my mother’s room, Iheard a woman crying for help. She was half awake, half asleep nextdoor. I looked to see if a nurse was available. Yes. Someone was atthe nursing station, another nurse in the corridor. I went back tobed. But the cries — a constant moan now from a wan, elderly,delirious woman — continued. It had become half plea, half chant. Islipped into her room, touched her forehead and held her hand. Shequieted. What she seemed to want was assurance that she was notalone, abandoned in some strange, twilight world.

In fairness, I should add that not all the nursesare inured to the plight of patients or exhibitthis form ofdistance. Two, in particular, who pulled a shift with my mother –Marlene Williams and Daisy da Silva — responded to her in verycaring ways. But then I discovered they were LVNs (licensedvocational nurses), subordinate to the RNs. They had not had time, Ithought, to be subsumed by the system.

Then there are the physicians. They are the Lordsof the Manor, but, alas, mostly visiting Lords. The doctors I came toknow at Cedars, those responsible for my mother’s well-being — JayJordan, a cardiologist and her main physician; Ronald J. Davidson, apsychiatrist and her geriatric doctor; and Martin Gordon, a pulmonaryspecialist (along with Isaac Schmidt, her surgeon from MidwayHospital) — were all splendid, top-of-the-line, well-trained, caringand straightforward. No sentimentalizing, no euphemisms. Concernedfor their patient and concerned for me.

The gap between them and the daily life of thehospital — where, for the most part, they diagnose and prescribe forpatients and seem to function somewhat like specialized consultants– is enormous. They speak to the relevant nurses, who implement thecare, but who manage patients according to rotational shifts.

What gets passed along then are literal messages,often by telephone: Do this; stop that; change the medication. Allwritten down and passed along from one nurse to another. The rest,the details, the context, the exceptions, the parenthetical asides,the possibility that something may be amiss outside the illness thatis being treated, these all fall between the cracks. There are fewlengthy exchanges — little in the way of discussion.

It will probably come as no surprise to you thatabove and beyond the hospital bills, which Medicare and my mother’ssecondary insurance mainly covered, I hired two private caregiverswho agreed to look after my mother in the hospital, each taking a12-hour shift six days a week. They were not registered nurses,though they had considerable experience caring for seniors,particularly those with Alzheimer’s. The doctors listened attentively(and with gratitude) to their comments on my mother’s health andstate of being, for these caregivers became the best and mostconsistent guide to her moods, her behavior and her health — eventhough they were outside the hospital’s regimen and were notofficially accountable or responsible for her medicaltreatment.

I realize after the fact that what I had set upwas a process of caring for the sick and dying outside the legalentity we call a hospital. Actually, it is a practice I firstobserved more than 30 years ago, when I was a young journalist inWest Africa. There, I witnessed a handful of overworked well-traineddoctors ministering to more people than seemed humanly manageable.Alongside them, an overwhelmed cadre of nurses, not trained well byour standards, tried their best to render patient care underconditions that would never pass muster in the United States.

But every family shared the burden of caring fortheir sisters, brothers, parents, nieces and nephews by moving intothe hospital room. They remained there until it was possible to bringtheir relative home — or until death silenced everyone. It is ironicto me that in the midst of high-powered multimillion-dollar medicalinstitutions, great and wonderful and humane complexes, complete withsuperbly trained doctors, that is where I now find myself.

Early last week, I spoke to my mother’s doctors.Was there any point in keeping her in the hospital? I asked. Couldshe not just as easily be ill at home? Perhaps with more dignity? Andperhaps with more personal attention, since the two women who tendedher in the hospital will take turns living and caring for her. And ifshe is dying, is it not more humane to let her live her last monthsin her apartment, surrounded by familiar objects and personal voices,than in a hospital room? A place where we can all eat and laughtogether, touching her and letting her eavesdrop on us as we play outthe cycle of our lives?

Their answers were rational, direct, filled withcommon sense. Last Saturday, I removed my mother from the hospital.We carted home an oxygen connector and a backup tank. — GeneLichtenstein, Editor

For a story with a happier ending, see WendyMadnik’s description of The Jewish Home for the Aging.


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