Find your inner cheesecake


Next time I’ll be more careful before I make fun of cheesecakes. You might recall that last week, I waxed plaintively at how the custom of serving dairy has come to dominate people’s view of Shavuot — and how the holiday could certainly use some better marketing to make it more relevant to mainstream Judaism. I made a wisecrack that a holy day deserves more than cheesecakes and cheese blintzes, and I even asked readers to send me their ideas.

I was expecting my observant friends to take me to task and educate me on how Shavuot is a lot more than a mucus-generating dairy festival — that there is a treasure trove of meaning in the Book of Ruth, for example, that I failed to allude to.

What I did not expect was to get a phone call from one of the city’s illustrious Orthodox rabbis defending the magical, mystical, community-building power of … the cheesecake.

Yes, the cheesecake. There I was chilling with the kids last Saturday night when my cellphone rang. It was Rabbi Elazar Muskin, the fearless leader of Young Israel of Century City, and he had dairy and white flour on his mind.

Actually, he had it on his hands, too, as well as sugar and eggs and whatever else gourmet bakers put into their cheesecakes. You see, the rabbi was spending his Saturday night making cheesecakes. On this night, his profit margin would be the envy of Microsoft. He’d spend less than $20 on ingredients — and make a profit of about $8,000 selling his treats to people who would fork out over $1,000 for each cake (I didn’t ask the rabbi what he was putting in those cheesecakes).

The rabbi wasn’t calling to pitch me on a Muskin’s Cheesy Cheesecakes franchise, but to enlighten me on the transformative power of food in community and religious life. Like a good father, he gave all the credit to his children, in this case his 17-year-old daughter, Dina, who, several years ago and with the help of her older sister, started a Bake for Israel charity around the time of Shavuot.

And like all successful ideas, it took on a life of its own.

She sold her first cheesecake five years ago and ended up raising $1,200 for a little rehabilitation center in Israel. This year, she’s raising more than $25,000 selling all kinds of donated baked goods, with proceeds going to Amcha, a support group for Holocaust survivors living in Israel. And who’s donating all this baking time and buying up all these simple carbs? Many are members of Young Israel, of course, but according to Rabbi Muskin, his daughter’s baking bonanza has now spread all over the hood, with people from other shuls and communities chipping in.

In short, all those Shavuot cheesecakes I made fun of last week have helped unite the community around this holiday, and this year it will help bring some light to Holocaust survivors in Israel.

And there I was worrying about marketing hooks.

The elusive hook was staring me in the face, and I couldn’t see it. A simple cheesecake. You bake it. You donate it. You sell it. You help the Jews. How could there be stronger marketing than that?

The Book of Ruth that we read and study on Shavuot is all about kindness. The eating of dairy is connected to the primordial and motherly sustenance of the Torah, and to the attribute of humility (unlike wine, milk doesn’t need a fancy glass). The Torah that we received on Shavuot came to unite us, like a parent wants to unite his children.

Kindness, nourishment, humility and unity, all wrapped up in a 12-year-old girl’s idea to sell a few cheesecakes. No wonder the illustrious rabbi got Talmudic with me on the ins and outs of making a bake sale work — it didn’t sound too spiritual, but he saw something I didn’t: When you can get a community to rally behind a common activity and a worthy cause, that’s spiritual enough.

So Dina Muskin’s Shavuot Bake Sale is my surprise winner for a cool marketing idea for Shavuot, and I can see it catching on. If we can get so many Jews to light candles on Chanukah and eat matzah on Passover, I can see them baking a cheesecake on Shavuot, or, if they live in Los Angeles, executive producing one.

For the lactose intolerant, my winning entry is from Nancy Schwartz in Granada Hills, who proposed a cross between “Shabbat Across America” and the “Tellabration” events sponsored by the National Storytelling Network. Nancy would love to see a national Jewish story swap event on the Sunday evening before Shavuot, where Jews of all stripes and denominations would gather in shuls and homes across the country and share their favorite Jewish stories.

My runner-up is Jo Pitesky, who wrote: “Shavuot has to be the holiday that has the lowest shul attendance (for the non-Orthodox, at any rate). And as wonderful as the story is, and as wonderful as my blintzes are, it is not exactly a kid-friendly holiday. What to do for my kids?

“About 6 or 7 years ago, I read about a Shavuot custom from North Africa. The Jews in these areas equate Torah with water — both are life-giving. When they return home from shul on the afternoon of Shavuot, they change their clothing… and then go outside for a rousing water fight! That’s how ‘Cheesecakeorama’ was born: a pool party after shul, accompanied by a huge buffet of cheesecakes. This year, we’ve even added a twist of helping a water-based charity called, ‘Ryan’s Well.'”

If you ask me, I think Dina, Nancy and Jo should pool their efforts. Just think how much better the Jewish stories will sound if the kids are having their fun while you’re about to sink your teeth into one of Rabbi Muskin’s $1,000 cheesecakes.

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

Shavuot – Ruth’s Tale Provides Contemporary Guide


“Second Chances: Transforming the Bitterness of Hope and the Story of Ruth,” by Rabbi Levi Meier (Urim Publications, $19.95)

Rabbi Levi Meier is fond of saying that we are all on a journey, whether or not we know it. Of course, he is referring to life itself, and in his latest book, Meier illuminates that journey by looking at the compelling and sometimes tragic life of the biblical figure of Ruth. His book, “Second Chances: Transforming the Bitterness of Hope and the Story of Ruth,” is at once a rich source of biblical scholarship and a guide designed to help readers deal with their own personal difficulties.

The Book of Ruth, which will be read during the coming holiday of Shavuot, tells of Ruth, a Moabite princess, who marries the son of a wealthy Jew who had taken his family to Moab to avoid a devastating famine in Israel — and, more importantly also to avoid sharing his wealth and food with fellow Jews in their time of need.

Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, suffer a catastrophe when Ruth’s husband, her husband’s only brother and her father-in-law die precipitously. Naomi is left with two young childless daughters-in-law, neither of whom is Jewish.

Naomi urges Ruth and Orpah, Ruth’s sister-in-law, to remain in Moab, with Naomi returning to Israel to put the pieces of her life together. Orpah decides to leave Naomi, but in a stunning gesture, Ruth declares that she has decided to stay with Naomi. In an act of pure loving-kindness, she states, “Do not urge me to desert you, to turn away from you. For wherever you go, I shall go; wherever you rest, I will rest; your people are my people, and your God is my God.”

This is Ruth’s classic statement of conversion, which is used to this very day when non-Jews convert to Judaism.

As Meier points out, Ruth is not just taking on the form of Naomi’s faith, she is becoming one with it. There is nothing tentative in her action. She is taking on the very journey of Abraham, the founder of Judaism, when God instructed him in Genesis 12:1, “lech lecha — go forth from your land, your father’s house, your birthplace to the land I will show you.”

The parallels between the two are stunning.

Meier notes further, “Any person who would undertake such a difficult, dangerous and frightening journey requires special divine protection. That is what was promised to Abraham when he became the first convert.”

The relationship of Ruth and Naomi is full of compassion and kindness.

“Even when Naomi is confronting her inner bitterness, she extends kindness to Ruth, and Ruth reciprocates in the same manner,” Meier writes. “Kindness as a response to pain, suffering and tragedy is one of the overriding themes of the Book of Ruth.” It is also one of the main themes of “Second Chances.”

Meier states that individual acts of kindness have repercussions well beyond themselves, as when Ruth accepts the generous offer of Boaz (whom she will later marry) to follow his harvesters and glean the grain that they leave behind.

“She leaves some food uneaten, intending to take it home to share with Naomi,” Meier writes. “In this way, Ruth takes advantage of an opportunity to repair the past — she demonstrates how different she is from her selfish Moabite forebears, who wanted to sell bread and water to Israelites wandering through the desert.”

Ruth is ultimately rewarded for her great kindness by becoming the progenitor of King David, from whom the Bible states the Messiah will come.

As a contemporary analyst of the Bible, Meier contributes the insightful perspective of his own experience as chief chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and as a clinical Jungian psychologist.

His book is both an informative retelling of the story of Ruth and an ongoing extrapolation from it: Throughout his account, Meier will tell about an incident in Ruth’s life and then relate it to common life problems.

The way to transform bitterness and pain to hope, Meier writes, is through personal acts of generosity and kindness. The most important, and the hardest, are acts of kindness within one’s own family.

Some ideas in this profound book came to Meier while he was teaching a monthly Torah class to Hollywood writers. I was privileged to be among them; Rabbi Meier is a gifted teacher.

“Second Chances,” like his teaching, is full of readily applicable observations. Using anecdotes from his clinical and life experiences — and relating them to the story of Ruth — Rabbi Meier personalizes his insights, giving encouragement and strength to those readers who would make the most of their own second chances.

David Brandes wrote and produced the award-winning film, “The Quarrel,” and created and served as executive producer of the Showtime series, “My Life as a Dog.” He can be reached at at quarrel@pacbell.net.

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RUTH, A TRUE FRIEND

On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth. Even though Ruth’s husband died, she decides not to desert her mother-in-law, Naomi, who has lost her husband and two sons. Ruth leaves her home in Moab to accompany Naomi back to Israel. She cares for Naomi and goes to work in the fields of her relative, Boaz. Ruth later marries him, and lives, I suppose, happily ever after.

This book is about friendship, loyalty and compassion. In fact, the rabbis say that Ruth’s name comes from the Hebrew word for friendship — Re’ut. That is why it is so important to read this book on the day we celebrate the giving of the Torah. All the laws and commandments of the Torah would be worth nothing if we did not, before anything, know how to be a good friend.

L.A.’s New Leaders


If you’re a young Jewish leader who would like to know more about Los Angeles civic life, or if you’re a young civic leader who wants to be more in step with the Los Angeles Jewish community, the New Leaders Project might have a place for you. NLP, sponsored in Los Angeles by the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation Council, is currently seeking applications for its fourth class.

The program, which graduated its first class a few months after the riots split the city asunder in 1992, aims to create an informative blend of civic instruction and Jewish values that appeal to its audience of about 15 to 20 men and women, ranging from their mid-20s to early 40s.


“I loved the idea of 16 of us sharing background and ideas and thoughts. It broadened my knowledge of this city.”

— Larry Greenfield, businessman, attorney and political activist


“Each year, we’ve attracted people into the program who I don’t think would have entered into a traditional Jewishleadership program,” said NLP co-founder and co-chair Donna Bojarsky. One of the main goals, she said, is to build bridges across the city between the civic and Jewish communities.

“As our cities have become increasingly complex and diverse places, it’s important to call upon Jewish values to inform us as good Jewish leaders and also to be civic leaders,” said Bojarsky, a longtime political and Jewish activist who is a public-policy consultant to actor Richard Dreyfuss.

As in the previous two sessions, the 1996 program, which ended in October, began with a weekend retreat in which speakers — including rabbis, previous NLP graduates, Federation and civic leaders, and media representatives — spoke about such topics as Jewish values and public policy, the meaning of Jewish leadership and spirituality, and, of course, the challenges facing Los Angeles. In the months that followed (usually on alternate Sundays), NLP participants met with leaders from the African-American, Asian and Latino communities, as well as with city officials, educators and Jewish leaders. Other events included potluck Shabbat dinners, a spiritual retreat, and a discussion on leadership from the Orthodox Jewish perspective.

One of the most meaningful parts of the program, according to some participants, was creating a community-service project that could be put into action and, presumably, would have some impact. Working on a project helped Dean Shapiro tie his business skills with Jewish activism. Shapiro is vice president of international theatrical sales at Metromedia Entertainment in Century City. He and another NLP member, Nicole Silverton, produced a reading of a new play titled “Magda’s Story” at the Wiesenthal Center. Putting together the production, with actors Stockard Channing, Michael York and Larry Drake (Benny in “L.A. Law”), was “really thrilling,” Shapiro said. The play, a Holocaust theater piece for schoolchildren about a righteous gentile’s effort to save a former boyfriend from the death camps, proved popular and will be staged again this summer with a different cast.

For Shapiro, the play’s message about people of different backgrounds helping each other “is the core of the New Leaders Project.” The 27-year-old Los Angeles native, a member of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, said that the program was stronger in its civic than its religious components, but that he received “an excellent foundation on how political Los Angeles works, how the Los Angeles Jewish community works, and how they work together.” It also proved invaluable as a networking tool. “I now know someone at AIPAC, someone who works in Israel Bonds and at City Hall. When, in the rest of my public life, I need to call them, I can. And when there’s something I might know about, they can call me.”

Scott Stone, another member of the class of 1996, was also impressed with how much he learned about the way the Los Angeles Jewish community works. Other than his involvement with his synagogue, Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Stone, 41, who has his own television production company (Stone Stanley Productions), had had little understanding or connection with the organized Jewish community here. “For me, this was a way of being exposed to a much more Jewish approach to tikkun olam, to creating bridges between communities I was already involved in.”

Stone’s project, which is still a work in progress, grew out of his commitment to both the Jewish and gay and lesbian communities. He is making a documentary about successful gay and lesbian couples, where both partners are Jewish. “My hope is that by showing examples of couples in relationships of anywhere from six months to 50 years, I will be able to depoliticize and take the religious edge off the issue,” Stone said.

Larry Greenfield, a businessman, attorney and political activist for international human rights and Jewish causes, refers to himself as “born and bred into Conservative Jewish life,” in Los Angeles. Among other things, he is co-chair of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Leadership 2000 group, on JCRC’s board of directors and co-chair of Unity ’97, Los Angeles Young Adult conference commemorating Zionism’s centennial. Being part of NLP allowed him to become more familiar with civic Los Angeles, Greenfield said. “I loved the idea of 16 of us sharing background and ideas and thoughts. It broadened my knowledge of this city.”

At graduation, however, Greenfield made a speech in which he challenged the facilitators of the NLP program to seek out not only the “usual minority coalition partners…but also such groups as the Christian Right or the Libertarians or Cultural Conservatives or others with whom you do not often agree.”

The New Leaders Project, however it evolves in the future, has already spawned programs in four other cities: Boston, Indianapolis, Detroit and Flint, Mich. Two additional cities, still unnamed, will offer the program later this year.

NLP in Los Angeles is funded by grants from the Charles I. Brown Foundation, the Hillside Foundation, Stanley Hirsh, the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Charitable Foundation, the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation through the National New Leaders Project, the David Polak Foundation, program alumni and many individual donors. Richard S. Volpert chairs the program, and E. Eric Schockman is the program director.

NLP applications are encouraged by May 16, but will be accepted until May 30. For information, call (213) 852-7730.

The Third Generation


As the son of Holocaust survivors, Adi Liberman grew up, as many second-generation children did, with a sense of profound loss. He knew that he had no grandparents, that his mother, a hidden child during the war, had lost her parents at age 5, and that his father’s father died before the war and his father’s mother in Auschwitz.

Now, as he watches his 27-month-old daughter, Hannah, growing up, Liberman wrestles with a mix of emotions about his own upbringing and about the legacy he wants to pass on to his child.

Above, Adi Liberman; at left, Dr. Aaron Hass

“A lot of us in the second generation criticize our parents because they can’t separate enough, for wanting to live their childhood through us. And here we have these children, and the children have these grandparents we never had,” Liberman said. Now, he said, he has a new appreciation of what his parents went through in their search for vicarious pleasure.

“I see how much my daughter enjoys the relationship [with her grandparents], and I want to be the grandchild too. I want to have the relationship with my parents that my daughter is having with them and that I never had with my own grandparents,” said Liberman, chief of staff to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter and an executive-board member of Second Generation, a group that meets regularly at the Jewish Federation Building in Los Angeles.

Liberman, like other children of survivors who themselves have become parents, has had to come to terms with how, what and when to pass on his legacy to his children, the third generation. Although much has been written, and is being written, about survivors and their children, little, so far, has been said about this new generation of survivors’ descendants, many of whom are still very young.

While still grappling with the overwhelming impact that his parents’ experiences have had on his own life, Liberman, nevertheless, wants his daughter to know, from an early age, about the Holocaust and how it has impacted her life.

“I think it would be just shocking to one day tell our child at age 8 or 10, ‘Here are all the horrible, grisly things that happened, that are part of your past.’ I would rather her confront it at an earlier age.”

Part of his desire, Liberman admitted, comes out of his own need to have his daughter relate to his own difficult experience growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust.

“It definitely, totally colored who I am,” he said. “I want her to absorb it in such a way that she feels it as coming from within her. Part of it is, I feel, how can she understand me, my brother, my sister, my parents, my family without being able to understand this?”

On the other hand, Liberman wonders if, by passing on this legacy, he is perhaps placing too heavy a burden on his daughter — the same weight of memory his parents passed on to him.

“Why should my children feel this?” he said. “Maybe I should give them a break and let them break free of this cycle.”

The answers to these questions, of course, are anything but easy and certainly not uniform. Just as sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors were affected differently by their parents’ experiences during the war, the experiences of the third generation will be even more varied, suggests Dr. Aaron Hass, the author of two highly acclaimed books on the Shoah’s legacy, “In the Shadow of the Holocaust: The Second Generation” and “The Aftermath: Living With the Holocaust.” Hass, a professor of psychology at Cal State Dominguez Hills and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, is himself the child of Holocaust survivors and the parent of three young children. Hass, who has lectured widely on the Holocaust, says that he is often asked about the right time to start speaking to children about the subject.

“My response is one that I follow in my own home: It’s not age so much that matters as the temperament of the child. If you have a child who is frightened, then that needs to be taken into consideration.” Personally, Hass says, he is careful when talking to his children, ages 12, 8 and 5, making sure not to engender the kind of fear that so haunted many members of the second generation. At the seder table last month, he made general references to the Holocaust and talked about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began on Pesach 1943.

“There is a difference between that and sitting your child down and saying, ‘I want you to watch this movie with me. I want you to know about this,'” Hass said.

For Dan Rothblatt, director of resource development for the American Jewish Committee, the legacy that he learned as the son of survivors is one that he plans to pass on carefully to his daughter, who is almost 6. Although his daughter has fond memories of baking cookies at age 3 with her great-grandmother, whose cooking skills helped her survive a Viennese prison during the war, Rothblatt still believes that the Holocaust is “too complicated an issue” for such a young child.

Also active in Second Generation, he says that many of the members, now parents, are wrestling with the issue of translating the message of the Holocaust to a third generation. Although some Jews have relied on institutions, such as the Jewish Federation Council’s Martyrs Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust and the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, to do the telling for them, that isn’t enough for members of the second generation, for whom the Holocaust is totally personal, Rothblatt said. “It’s the story of the blood that runs in our veins and the people who bore us. It’s not like some biblical tale — they killed our families. That’s about as real as anything can be.”

Rothblatt and his wife always light candles in their home during Yom HaShoah as both a personal remembrance and a reminder of the 6 million Jews who were murdered. But they decided not to bring their daughter to Holocaust Remembrance Day services this year.

“She is still worrying about a shark coming up through the bathroom drain,” Rothblatt said. “To put in her mind that there were once armies of people out to get her, me and everyone Jewish is too terrifying a thing.”

Jeremy Kingston Cynamon, the 3-year-old child of two second-generation parents, has been learning about the Holocaust almost since birth. At just 3 months, he sat in his mother’s arms as Marilyn Kingston gave a speech at a Yom HaShoah service at University Synagogue. Since then, Kingston and her husband, Harry Cynamon, have taken their son to other Holocaust Remembrance events, the Holocaust Museum in Washington and to Israel to meet the artist who made a special Holocaust memorial plaque for her in-laws’ temple in Florida.

“I know he doesn’t understand everything, but I feel it’s important for him to be there, whatever he absorbs,” Kingston said. “I don’t want my son learning about [the Holocaust] late in life. I want him to know it from his parents and grandparents. I think knowledge is really your only defense against oppression, against genocide.”

Growing up in what she describes as a happy home, with “extremely lovely, insightful parents” and a grandmother who early on told her and her brother about the family’s war experiences, has given Kingston a model for passing the knowledge of a painful past onto her own son without traumatizing him, she said.

Jeremy “will always be different than his American peers,” just by virtue of having four grandparents who are survivors, Kingston said. “I certainly was different, and so was my husband. The effect will be less dramatic for [Jeremy]…[but] he will know that most of his family was killed, and he will be affected by that in a way that others won’t.”