Dynasties prevail as Lau, Yosef win chief rabbi races


David Lau and Yitzchak Yosef, both sons of former Israeli chief rabbis, were elected Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, respectively.

Wednesday’s vote by 147 Knesset members, local officials and regional rabbis was the culmination of a tense, months-long campaign with an unusually high public profile. Both terms are for 10 years.

Lau, who won 68 votes in the three-candidate race, is the son of former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. Like his father, who served from 1993 to 2003, Lau hopes to serve as a bridge between Israel’s Modern Orthodox and haredi Orthodox communities. He is currently chief rabbi of the central Israeli city of Modiin.

Yosef is the son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Sephardi Orthodox Shas party who held the post from 1973 to 1983. The head of the Hazon Ovadia yeshiva in Jerusalem, which was founded by and named for his father, picked up 68 votes to defeat three candidates; next was Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu with 49. His win is seen as a victory for Shas, which the elder Yosef founded soon after his chief rabbi term ended.

Lau staved off the challenge of runner-up Rabbi David Stav, a reformist candidate who gained widespread support from secular Israelis with his pledges to streamline the rabbinate bureaucracy. Stav, who garnered 54 votes, also was the preferred candidate of several political parties, including the centrist Yesh Atid, the hardline Yisrael Beiteinu and the nationalist Jewish Home.

Can Bibi’s wife Sara spoil Israel’s coalition?


Forging a coalition is, without a doubt, the most difficult part of the election process in Israel.

After a long, hard fought and often ugly election battle, it falls to the future prime minister to make deals with those who were, until recently, his nemesis all in order to obtain the required 60 Knesset seats necessary for his party to govern the country. Election planks and platforms are first weighed and then cast away in favor of the issues of power, control and of course, prestige.

Well before the final results were in, Benjamin Netanyahu placed calls to potential coalition partners. Immediate calls went out to the ultra orthodox Sephardi party Shas which then won 11 seats, the ultra orthodox Ashkenazi party United Torah which then won 7 seats and the anti ultra orthodox Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party which in the end won 19 seats.

The call Netanyahu did not immediately make was to the party that, to all appearances, is the natural partner to his own Likud/Yisrael Beitenu party. Netanyahu did not place a call to Ha Bayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) party, a modern Zionist orthodox party which garnered 12 seats, until late Thursday. And there is a simple reason for that.

Netanyahu's wife Sara did not want him to make the call. There is bad blood between Naftali Bennett, the leader of The Jewish Home, and Mrs. Netanyahu. The feud goes back to the time before Bennett headed and then sold a multi-million dollar start-up it goes back to the time when Bennett was chief of staff in the office of the prime minister.

Imagine the pressure in the Netanyahu household. Netanyahu needed to weigh the sides to weigh the wrath of his wife against his need for a successful coalition that would insure his position as prime minister. Not an easy decision to make. Sara has a strong hold on her man, but the pull of the prime ministry may be even stronger. Despite the protestations and clash of personalities, Bennett can only help Netanyahu and the phone call was made.

Sara Netanyahu is known to have a long memory and to hold a grudge. Many an adviser who crossed paths with this first lady ended with crossed swords and was tossed out with the trash. She is probably no different than Barbara Bush or Nancy Reagan or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton. But she is definitely less subtle. In the end Sara will probably lose this battle, but she will come back later with a vengeance.

Israel is thought to be so easily understood by Western commentators and analysts. Pollsters think that it is an easy nut to crack. But unless you understand the nuance of the country, unless you can read the people, commentators, analysts and pollsters will get it wrong every time.

They think that because English is so readily and often eloquently spoken and because so many Israelis have been educated in the United States or other Western countries that Israel is a Western culture. But it is not. Israel is almost Western, but it is also very much a Middle Eastern country — albeit a modern Middle Eastern country, and that makes all the difference.

Many western commentators don't really take the time to analyze Israel. That is why for months now commentators and analysts have been talking about the radicalization of Israeli politics and bemoaning the fact that mainstream Israel was leaning more and more to the right.

If this election teaches us anything it teaches us that they were wrong. Why were they so wrong? They failed to do their own analysis and instead, these observers of Israeli politics swallowed hook, line and sinker the Palestinian line. That line is simply anti-Israel. And so anything that is not decisively pro-Palestinian is seen by commentators as rabidly right wing and as an extremist point of view.

By now the picture of true Israeli society should be perfectly clear. The centrist Atid party with nineteen seats is now the 2nd largest party in the Knesset only after Netanyahu's Likud. And it will almost certainly insist on playing a major role in the ruling coalition. The most important platform put forth by Atid is the universal draft – a requirement that every Israeli serve in the army. This general platform resonated with masses of Israelis and was also referred to as 'an equal burden' to be shared by all Israelis, including Arab Israelis. This issue catapulted Atid into a major position in the 19th Knesset.

Interestingly, the other new and newly huge party in the Knesset, Habayit HaYehudi or The Jewish Home, now the fourth largest party in the country, believes in the same principle. And both parties believe in the breakdown of the power of the ultra orthodox rabbinate.

These two new parties, both led by young new political leaders, obtained a combined thirty Knesset seats. That is exactly 25% of the Israeli parliament. They are not extremist. They are a real reflection of the new Israel.

With Netanyahu and his 31 seats, Yair Lapid and his Atid party with 19 seats and Naftali Bennett and his The Jewish Home party with 12 seats these three parties combined have 62 seats, a perfect number to form a ruling coalition. They make up just over half of the 120 seats needed to form a government.

Sara Netanyahu had better start getting used to it. I think that her husband will be spending a lot more time with Naftali and Yair than he will with her in the very near future. The rest of Israel made the decision for him.

Studying Sephardic roots


Adina Jalali, a 15-year-old student at Yeshiva High Tech in Los Angeles, has many Ashkenazi friends, but when her parents recently offered her the chance to visit Israel for the first time, she opted for a trip that would resonate with her Sephardic upbringing. 

Over winter break, Jalali, from Beverlywood, was one of nine teens to visit Israel on a unique tour run by the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC) out of Los Angeles.

While the tours organized by the SEC — for teens and young adults as well as people their parents’ age and older — go to some of the same cultural and holy sites as other trips, the emphasis here is on Sephardic history, culture, philosophy and religious practice. 

“Every other Israel program is ‘Ashkenaz,’ and I would have had trouble relating to them,” Adina said. With the SEC, “we visited Sephardic synagogues, went to the tombs of Sephardic rabbis, ate Sephardic food. I connected to my culture and am feeling proud of being Sephardic.” 

The SEC was founded in 1979 to provide Jews of all backgrounds with “authentic Sephardic Judaism,” according to Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, the center’s director.

“The goal was to share more than ethnic food and music,” he said.  “Our purpose is to share the whole intellectual, spiritual and halachic side of Sephardic Judaism that has been a largely untapped resource.” 

In much of the Jewish world, Judaism “has been largely expressed through an Ashkenazi lens, whether it be [Joseph] Soloveitchik or [Abraham Joshua] Heschel,” Bouskila said of the preeminent Orthodox and Conservative rabbi-thinkers of the 20th century.  

“What we’re saying is, there is another way to approach Judaism and the issues” ordinarily seen through the lens of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism.

The fact that most Diaspora Jews are unfamiliar with the works of the great Sephardic rabbis “is largely due to the language factor,” the rabbi said. The SEC is now assembling a team of scholars in Israel who will translate some of these texts. 

In its early years, the SEC focused on educating high school pupils, college-age students and young adults, but in recent years it has expanded to adult education programs. The Los Angeles center serves more than 2,000 adults each year. 

“In the Diaspora we are an outreach organization,” Bouskila explained. “It can be anything from scholar-in-residence lectures to informal groups [in] private homes.” 

There are Shabbatons, and Bouskila himself offers lectures on Sephardic customs and practices prior to major Jewish holidays. Topics this winter include a series on Maimonides. 

The center’s most well-known event is its annual Sephardic Film Festival, which is a fundraiser and a way to contribute to the cultural life of Los Angeles and educate the public. In November, the 11th annual film festival began with a gala evening at Paramount Studios. The weeklong festival, which attracted 1,500 movie-goers, screened films about Jewish communities in Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Yemen and India, among others. Every night featured a Q-and-A by a Sephardic actor, filmmaker or rabbi. 

Neil Sheff, a Westside immigration attorney, helped create the film festival and remains co-chair. He was part of the first SEC Israel summer program in 1980, and he went on to be a counselor for future summer programs as well as the first executive director for the center in Los Angeles.

The SEC and its programs have been like family for Sheff, now an executive board member in Los Angeles and Jerusalem — and not just because he met his wife at one of the center’s cultural and social programs for young professionals and his 15-year-old son just returned from a trip to Israel with the organization.

He continues to organize and attend retreats and gatherings for young couples and families, and aside from whatever specific material he learns, the events carry a more important, consistent message: Judaism without extremism or judgment of others.

“The approach that the SEC promotes, which is a classic Sephardic approach, is one of moderation that makes Judaism as a lifestyle accessible to all at each individual’s own level of observance as we strive to learn more about our religious heritage,” Sheff said.

While the SEC’s executive offices are in Los Angeles, where it offers a broad array of programming, the center’s heart is in Jerusalem. There it maintains a small but vibrant campus that serves as a base for visiting groups. 

In a typical year, the campus, located in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, hosts 50 to 75 teens and young adults. Every other year, it also hosts 20 to 25 adults.   

“We’re not a mass production type of organization,” Bouskila said. “We fill a niche.”

Adult visitors to Israel spend a week immersed in seminars, beit midrash learning and a bit of travel. Local professors and scholars provide the teaching.  

This year’s teen participants — whose parents visited Israel on SEC tours decades ago — went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, hiked in the Ein Gedi nature reserve near the Dead Sea and climbed Masada. 

While such activities are fairly typical of teen tours, others were more unique. The L.A. students attended the graduation ceremony of Air Force pilots in the presence of the prime minister and the minister of defense. After the ceremony, they met one of the star graduates: the first religious Israeli woman to become a combat navigator. 

“We took pictures, but we can’t share them due to military regulations,” Bouskila said. 

In the northern city of Sfat, they visited the tombs of the Sephardic refugees exiled from Spain who later formed the inner circle of kabbalists.

Every morning and on Shabbat, the participants prayed from Sephardic prayerbooks and recited the melodies they have known since childhood. 

The center’s location in the Old City enabled the students to soak up Jewish history and learn about the Jews, Muslims, Christians and Armenians who live there. 

“Our center in Jerusalem is our intellectual, spiritual home,” Bouskila said, “where all our programs are housed.”

The three-building complex includes classrooms, multipurpose rooms, a synagogue, dining hall, full-service catering kitchen and about 50 dorm rooms. Renovations will add 15 luxury rooms, a library/beit midrash, new classrooms, offices, a student lounge and lecture hall as well as a museum/visitors center. 

When its own groups aren’t using the campus, the SEC rents it out to other groups. The income helps support SEC programs and made it possible for the center to host the most recent group of students free of charge. 

“This current trip, they paid only the airfare,” Bouskila said. 

Although he could have come to Israel on just about any teen program, Ezra Soriano, 16, from Woodland Hills, was determined to tour with the SEC, just as his parents did in the 1980s.

“I’m with Rabbi Bouskila and a bunch of friends, and I’m learning a whole bunch of new things about myself and the people around me,” he said. 

One thing Ezra learned is that the Jewish traditions his family practices at home are shared by many other Sephardic Jews. His family’s roots are in the Greek island of Rhodes.

“I thought I was unique, but now I’m grateful that I can share these traditions with my friends and hopefully with my own family one day in the future,” the teen said. 

While Sephardic culture is a central theme of the SEC tour, Soriano and his friends spent their winter break getting to know all kinds of Israelis. 

“I’m realizing how closely connected I am to Israel and how much more connected I want to be,” Soriano said. “When we get home, we want to be ambassadors to all the people in our Jewish community.”

Film Fest celebrates Sephardim


For its 11th festival, the Los Angeles Sephardic Jewish Film Festival (LASJFF) needed an honoree for its gala, which takes place Nov. 11 at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. At the same time, the Portuguese-American actress Daniela Ruah needed a community. Or at least as much of a community as a busy young actress on a hit TV show can find time to fit in. 

Which is probably why it was a kind of kismet that Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Education Center (SEC), was half-watching “The Craig Ferguson Show” one evening in January, just as “NCIS: Los Angeles” star Ruah was being asked about her just-concluded 2011 holidays back in her homeland.

Ferguson asked Ruah about her experience at Christmas, and the actress replied that for her the celebration would be Chanukah. 

“And he said, ‘I didn’t know you were Jewish. … How do you pronounce it
in Portuguese?’ And she said, ‘Chanu-KAH,’ ” Bouskila recalled. “The minute I heard that Sephardic pronunciation, I started Googling her. That night I sent an e-mail to [festival co-director] Neil [Sheff] saying, ‘I think I’ve found our honoree.’ ”

As it happened, a board member of the SEC was a close friend of the wardrobe manager for “NCIS: Los Angeles.” Through that connection, the SEC reached out to Ruah, who met with Bouskila and Sheff. The actress was flattered at the invitation, but puzzled, professing to consider herself unworthy yet of any career recognition. 

“ ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’ is sort of like the first big thing I’ve ever done here,” Ruah said. “I was so taken aback by this wonderful offer, so to speak, that I was, like, ‘Are you sure?’ They were so sweet. They said, ‘This is more that we’re proud you’re of Sephardic Jewish descent. We’re proud of where you are and where you’re going.’ ”

Confirmed Bouskila, “If Jews are very tribal, Sephardic Jews are even more tribal in pride over our own. She deserves it. It’s a big deal.” 

The daughter of a surgeon father and an otologist mother, Ruah was born in Boston but moved to Portugal at age 5. She attended university in London and has worked extensively in Portugal, including winning the Portuguese equivalent of “Dancing With the Stars.” In 2009, Ruah was living in New York and making the rounds for pilot season when CBS was casting for “NCIS: Los Angeles,” the spin-off of the franchise “NCIS.” Despite giving what she felt was a horrible audition, Ruah got a callback, nailed that second chance and won the part of special agent Kensi Blye, a character who was originally conceived as Asian. A week later, she had relocated to Los Angeles and — on the small screen, at least — she has been fighting, shooting and detecting ever since.  

With seven days between the move and shooting, Ruah decided to apply the lessons learned from Craig Wroe’s guidebook, “An Actor Prepares … to Live in New York City,” to her move to Los Angeles.

“Before you start searching for work, and before you start learning the business, the most important thing is to have a safe haven to come home to,” Ruah said. “You need to make yourself a home and a place where you feel safe and where you are yourself.”

The haven part is long taken care of, says Ruah, who shares hers with two dogs. Through the discovery of the Sephardic center and the upcoming festival award, Ruah now has also found a community that in some ways mimics her roots in Portugal — to which she returns twice yearly during the show’s hiatus, and again at Chanu-KAH.

Ruah by now has met on more than one occasion with Sheff and co-director Sarita Fields. When Ruah’s father was visiting, she took him to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at Sheff’s house, and she has gone to holiday services at the center when her schedule permits.

“It was sort of like the community I was looking for sort of came to me, and they were so accepting,” Ruah said. “Someone once asked me how did being Sephardic influence and play a part in my life. I come from such a small community. Here, people are both Ashkenazi and Sephardic; you can’t distinguish between the two, because otherwise you’d have three people in each place, and that’s not a community. Everybody kind of gels together.”  

As the recipient of the 2012 festival’s Cinema Sepharad Award, Ruah takes her place quite comfortably within a festival lineup that is most decidedly tribal, yet also very wide- reaching. The five-night festival includes feature films, shorts and documentaries with thematic ties to Jewish communities in Iraq, India, Morocco, Sudan, Rhodes and Cuba. The international flavor even gets localized on the LASJFF’s closing day, with the 2 p.m. short documentary “Once Upon a Time at 55th and Hoover,” which chronicles the community of Rhodesli Sephardic Jews who congregated in the community of South Los Angeles.    

The Nov. 13 screening of “The Visionary: The Life of Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel,” which focuses on the life of the Israel’s first Sephardic Chief Rabbi, will be followed by a Q-and-A with Israeli Knesset Member Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a man Bouskila says could be the modern-day reincarnation of Rabbi Uziel. With the Israeli film “Persian Lullaby” (Nov. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the Laemmle Music Hall), LASJFF screens its first-ever film that is partially in Farsi. 

Sheff, who combs through hundreds of submissions looking for films that both contain Sephardic ties and are appropriate for a PG- or PG-13-minded audience, has seen the festival grow and blossom. Of the approximately 70 Jewish film festivals in North America, LASJFF’s is one of the few focused on Sephardic content. 

“The idea is to show the Sephardic experience on screen with a dual purpose,” Sheff said. “Those who aren’t too familiar with that experience can learn from the film something about what the experience of other Jews was like. And also people like to see at least a portion of their own family experience on screen.”

An outgrowth of SEC programs, the film festival began in 1997 as an alternative to annual fundraisers and a new way of enticing younger Jews to connect to their heritage. In addition to trips to Israel and opportunities to study abroad, the SEC developed the film festival as a way for Sephardic Jews of all nationalities to see themselves represented on screen. And to represent themselves: LASJFF has a student film competition that encourages filmmakers to continue the storytelling tradition.  

“The basic idea is that the opening night would be a fundraiser in place of a boring typical dinner at the Beverly Hilton,” Bouskila said. “The rest of the week would be a film festival in a public movie theater. In addition to raising money, the festival is like a cultural contribution to the community of Los Angeles — Jewish and non Jewish. It serves as a big event that the SEC does for the community.”


For more information about the festival, visit http://sephardicfilmfestival.com/shop/.

L.A.’s Top Ten Mensches — big hearted Angelenos


“It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone ‘a real mensch,'” writes Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish.”

The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation — “person” — with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.

Boy, could we use some now.

As the last pieces of 2008 crash down around us, there is ample evidence that mensch-hood (more properly, menschlikayt) is in short supply, at least judging by headlines. Worse, the Bernard Madoff scandal revealed a disturbing tendency to hide chicanery under the guise of do-goodery. Madoff, his middlemen and some charitable boards were doing good while doing wrong — either out of evil, in Madoff’s case, or, at best perhaps, just out of gullibility and incompetence.

So we look to The Journal’s fourth annual Top Ten Mensches list to brighten our spirits and boost our hopes for a better year. As the stories here demonstrate, these are people who in the course of lives no less hectic and demanding than our own, facing temptations no less alluring than those we all confront, manage to reach out and help others, making the world a better place, day in and day out.

The Jewish Journal created this list as a response to all those lists extolling fame, money, power and hot-ness. We honor these special ten because they are just people — menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural — who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do to help others.

Thank you to all our mensches, and to all who offered up names for consideration. Maybe next year we’ll all be candidates for the list….

Gabriel Halimi: Partying For a Cause

It was a stuttering problem that turned Gabriel Halimi into a mensch.

“I had a really bad stutter when I was kid,” the now 27-year-old recalled recently. “My therapist said I needed to speak up in class and try to get myself to talk more, and then I started falling into leadership activities because it forced me to talk.”

Dressed in a pink shirt and a brown blazer, Halimi looks much like the young professionals he now helps lead in the 4-year-old Beverly Hills-based nonprofit, Society of Young Philanthropists (SYP).

By day, Halimi works at ACG, a real estate consulting firm. But he recently passed the California Bar exam and said he hopes to be practicing as an attorney by February.

In addition to working full time and attending Loyola Law School, Halimi is one of 25 young professionals who helped found SYP and is currently serving as one of its board members. The philosophy behind SYP, Halimi said, is simple.

“We wanted to do well in our work,” he said. “We wanted to party, and we wanted to do something bigger than ourselves, and that’s kinda where SYP was born.”

Halimi grew up in Los Angeles, attending Temple Emanuel Community Day School before eventually transferring to Beverly Hills public schools. But Halimi said it wasn’t until college that his Jewish roots really took hold.

At UC Santa Barbara, Halimi joined the Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, and became immersed in its world of partying and doing good.

“He was really seen as a leader even among his peers,” said Elishia Shokrian Bolour, a childhood friend who, along with Halimi, helped found SYP.

However, Halimi insists that working with SYP has demanded little self-sacrifice. Throughout the year, SYP holds events — big, bold, boisterous events — and rather than have all the money go to the DJ, the club or the liquor, the majority of the proceeds (about 70 percent) goes to charity.

“We just kinda wanted to get people to think in more philanthropic terms,” Halimi said. “If you’re going to be doing this anyway [partying], you might as well be doing it for a good cause.”

On May 14, 2005, Halimi and his friends launched SYP’s first event by pulling all their resources together and throwing a huge bash in Beverly Hills.

Approximately 500 young Angelenos — mostly ages 18-30 — raised close to $70, 000 for three Jewish organizations: IMA Foundation, which is dedicated to disaster relief in Israel; the educational foundation Magbit, which helps those in Israel gain a higher education; and Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish drug rehabilitation center in Culver City.

Halimi said his favorite SYP cause so far, however, has been one that doesn’t directly involve the Jewish community: Darfur.

“It was just so beautiful,” Halimi said, referring to the $45,000 SYP donated to American Jewish World Service’s relief work in Darfur. “We could see beyond ourselves and recognize that there are a lot of people out there that could use our help.”
“It goes to the principle of tikkun olam,” healing the world, he said.

SYP is not a Jewish organization, although most of those involved have grown up within the Jewish community, and the nonprofit does not make any outright political statements.

“We don’t want to take any kind of political stance that might alienate someone,” he said.

The organization chooses the causes it supports democratically, allowing every member to have a say in the direction of the nonprofit.

In addition to SYP, Halimi is involved in 30 Years After, a nonprofit dedicated to uniting the Iranian American Jewish community, and the Lev Foundation, which promotes balanced, responsible living and is named in honor of Daniel Levian, a recent victim of a drunk driving accident.

When asked, Halimi said he doesn’t consider himself a mensch — he’s not worthy, he claimed — but he offered up this definition of one: “Someone who can see past themselves.”

But just ask Rhoda Weisman, executive director of the Professional Leaders Project, an organization dedicated to developing the next generation of Jewish leaders. She said, “In all honesty, if you were to ask me what a definition of a mensch is, I would name you Gabe.”

— Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer

Kim Krowne: ‘Hakuna Matata’Means Bringing Hope to Tanzanian Kids

Kim Krowne thought she’d be attending medical school. Instead, the 24-year-old Northridge native, a graduate of Sierra Canyon and Milken Community High School, spent most of 2007 and 2008 in Tanzania, improving the lives of orphaned children and many villagers. She’s been home for the past several months and plans to return to Africa in January.

ALTTEXTOnce a “total planner,” Krowne’s current philosophy of life is more hakuna matata — “there’s no problem” in Swahili, a language she speaks fluently. “Obviously, this was not my plan. But I love it. There’s so much work to be done,” she said.

The focus of her passion is the Matumaini Child Care Center, a small three-room building in the village of Rau that houses 20 children, ages 6 to 15. Krowne discovered it in the fall of 2006 while taking a year off after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where she fulfilled her premed requirements while majoring in the sociology and anthropology of health, concentrating on Africa.

At that time, the nongovernmental, nonreligious and nonprofit Matumaini Center cared for eight children whose parents had either died of HIV/AIDS, were alcoholic or couldn’t afford their care. Newly opened, it desperately needed funds for food and school fees, less than $20 annually per student. Krowne immediately e-mailed family and friends and raised $1,000.

She came home in March 2007 knowing she would return. Her last week there, she had met Michelle Kowalczyk, 27 and a nurse, and asked her to look after the kids, who then numbered 20. Kowalczyk also became enamored.

The following December, Krowne and Kowalczyk together formed a nonprofit, Knock Foundation (www.knockfoundation.org), to help solicit donations and grants. They also signed a five-year contract with Matumaini (meaning hope in Swahili) to fund the nonprofit and become decision-making partners.

When they returned to Tanzania they facilitated a host of improvements, including providing the children with nutritious meals, medical and dental care and school uniforms and supplies and paying salaries to the orphanage workers.

They also had bunk beds built in the rooms, upgraded the latrines, improved the general cleanliness and constructed a chicken coop on the property.

Their reach extends as well to the greater community in Rau and nearby villages, with the goal of making families more self-sufficient. One such effort, dubbed the Piggery Project, has provided 50 families with supplies needed to build a pig hut, as well as two pigs to raise. The families will keep some of the proceeds from the sale of the pigs and reinvest the remainder. They hope to expand the project.

They have also renovated a government medical clinic and dispensary in Shimbwe, the only health facility available to serve thousands of people in the Kilimanjaro region. In addition to repairing the clinic’s roof and painting its rooms, they purchased laboratory materials and medications.

Plus, they organized a two-day life skills and HIV/AIDS seminar in conjunction with a local NGO that was attended by 100 women and children. It will become a yearly event.

To date, Krowne and Kowalczyk have raised about $85,000 and need an additional $35,000 for 2009 to sustain the current projects. They would also like to construct a new building for Matumaini, start another orphanage and help provide secondary and university education for the children, among other dreams.

Kowalczyk marvels at Krowne’s ability to transcend barriers. “Kim has been able to reach people who otherwise would have been untouched,” she said. “We’ll be doing this for the rest of our lives.”

To make a donation or for more information, visit www.knockfoundation.org, call (818) 831-6075 or e-mail kim@knockfoundation.org.

— Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

Genetic research can open book on Jewish identity — for good and bad


Father William Sanchez wears a Star of David pendant on the same chain as his crucifix, and he keeps a menorah in his parish office. After a DNA test confirmed his Sephardic roots, the Albuquerque priest has been actively reconciling this discovery with his Catholic beliefs.

“Knowledge of my Jewish ancestry has provoked me to question things, yes,” Sanchez says in the book, “Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People” by Jon Entine (Grand Central, 2007).

Looking back over his childhood in New Mexico, Sanchez now recognizes the Jewish signs: his parents shunning pork, spinning tops during Christmas and covering the mirrors at home if someone in the family died.

For Crypto-Jews like Sanchez, DNA testing services can confirm or disprove suspicions about a hidden Jewish family history, uncover unknown genetic disease risks or inspire greater exploration of Judaism. For small populations in Africa and Asia, genetic research has shed light on claims of Jewish ancestry and provided a better understanding of Jewish migration over thousands of years.

But critics fear that Jewish genetic research also opens a Pandora’s box. The discovery of a shared genetic marker among men who claim to be descended from Kohanim grew into wild, exaggerated claims in the media that geneticists had confirmed the story of Aaron. Some have decried research exploring a genetic basis for Ashkenazi intelligence as politically incorrect and racist, since all humans are 99.9 percent similar.

Entine, who will be speaking at Adat Chaverim and Brandeis-Bardin this weekend, believes exploring that .1 percent is worth getting researchers riled up.

An American Enterprise Institute fellow and former NBC news producer, Entine is no stranger to controversy. He tackled the topic of race in sports with “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It” (PublicAffairs Books, 1999), which was lauded by Scientific American as a “well-researched, relatively thorough and lucidly written case.”

After “Taboo” was published, Entine learned his sister had breast cancer. As a teenager, he had lost his mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer over a period of three years. The family assumed it was a coincidence at the time, but recent genetic testing revealed the BRCA2 genetic mutation contributed to his sister’s cancer.

Since Entine has a young daughter, he decided to undergo testing, which confirmed he carries the mutation. The experience inspired him to research the link between Jews and DNA.

The result is “Abraham’s Children,” a survey of Jewish genetic research paired with a chronicle of Jewish history that explores the thorny question: “Who is a Jew?”

Entine writes that Jewishness is a function of religion and ancestry, shaped by faith, politics and culture. Given the Jewish community’s historically insular nature, most Jews also share genetic markers, which speaks to common ancestors.

This commonality inspired research in the 1990s that found the Cohen Modal Haplotype, a set of six identical genetic markers shared among Ashkenazic and Sephardic Kohanim, passed from father to son on the Y chromosome, which doesn’t change much over time and may have originated with a common ancestor. While the genetic markers alone do not prove the existence of Aaron, they can be seen to confirm a biblical tradition.

The haplotype, however, is also not unique to Jews — Kurds, Armenians, southern and central Italians share these same markers but to a lesser extent.

Rabbis on anti-gay marriage Prop 8: Yes, no, maybe


“Prop. 8 is presently the most crucial battle of the culture war here.” — Penny Harrington, legislative director, Concerned Women for America in California

The arguments and epithets surrounding state Prop. 8 are rising in volume and intensity as the Nov. 4 election draws near, so it may be useful to quote its exact wording.

ELIMINATES RIGHT OF SAME-SEX COUPLES TO MARRY. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT
  • Changes the California constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.
  • Provides that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

Jewish advocates on both sides have joined the controversy with customary vigor. Emulating the brevity of the initiative itself, the lineup for the rabbinical and congregational leaders of the main denominations, and most of their adherents, comes down to:

Orthodox: support Prop. 8, marriage only between a man and a woman.

Reform, Reconstructionist: oppose Prop. 8, marriage for all.

Conservative: No official stand.

This equation may be somewhat simplistic, but in general on the left and right of the denominational spectrum the lines are sharply drawn, with little room for mavericks or closet dissenters.

Repeated inquiries by The Journal failed to yield any Orthodox rabbi willing to declare his opposition to Prop. 8 or any Reform rabbi supporting the ballot measure.

However, there was some “crossover,” according to Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who polled the 290 members of his organization on their views.

Of the 120 responding, 112 (or 93 percent) voted against the proposition, six voted for, and two abstained. However, these results are not entirely conclusive, partly because only 41 percent of the membership responded, and because only six congregational Orthodox rabbis have chosen to affiliate with the organization.

However, leading spokesmen for all denominations, and supportive lay groups, discussed their views with The Journal.

Orthodox

Rabbi JJ Rabinowich, California director of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel, noted that “marriage between a man and a woman has been fundamental to the Jewish people for thousands of years. We also agree with the many studies showing that children flourish best when raised by a mother and father.”

A more detailed argument for supporting Prop. 8 was put forward by Daniel Korobkin, one of the city’s most visible Orthodox rabbis and one of three signatories of the official statement by the centrist Orthodox Union as its West Coast director for community and synagogue services.

The statement endorses Prop. 8 and notes that “One of G-d’s first acts is to join Adam and Eve in marriage and to command them to build a family.”

It adds, “We know the threat to people of faith and houses of worship is real and under way…. Religious institutions and people face charges of bigotry and could be denied government funding and more if same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land.”

Speaking in his capacity as “a community rabbi in Hancock Park,” Korobkin cited both biblical and contemporary reasons for his views.

While the Torah’s strictures against homosexual relations are well known, he said, talmudic literature goes beyond this injunction by warning that a society that endorses such a relationship endangers itself, which is a greater sin than the act itself.

“If we permit same-sex marriage today, why not incestual marriage tomorrow, or bestial marriage after that?” he asked.

Korobkin also expressed fears that defeat of Prop. 8 would endanger the right of religious adoption agencies to refuse adoptions to gay couples or compel schools to teach that all forms of marriage are equally viable.

He estimated that about 90 percent of Orthodox congregants agreed with his views, but that some might vote against Prop. 8 anyhow because they feared a breach in state-church separation or were uneasy about the overwhelming role of evangelical Christians in the pro-Prop. 8 campaign.

However, Korobkin emphasized, “We have tremendous empathy for gay people and what we stand for is not hate speech, nor are we prompted by malice. Some of our people are gay, though not overtly. When they come to us for guidance, we are extremely sympathetic.”

Conservative

Neither the rabbinical nor the congregational arms of the Conservative movement are taking a stand on Prop. 8, according to Rabbi Richard Flom, president of the regional Rabbinical Assembly, and Joel Baker, regional executive director of the United Synagogue.

One reason may be the general reluctance of Conservative congregations to take political stands, given the wide ideological spread among its members, Baker suggested.

Many of his congregants, said Flom of Burbank Temple Emanu El, are trying to strike a balance between support for the civil rights of gays and “personal halachic [Jewish law] concerns.”

Flom himself recently gave a sermon opposing Prop. 8, partly based on his reservations about whether the state has any right to become involved in this issue.

“If I were a betting man, I would wager that the bulk of our members would oppose Prop. 8,” Flom said.

Indeed some of the most respected names in the Conservative rabbinate have publicly come out for the marriage rights of same-sex couples.

Rabbis Harold Schulweis and Edward Feinstein, both of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, can be seen and heard on YouTube strongly advocating the defeat of Prop. 8 (www.cafaithforequality.org/Support1.html).

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at American Jewish University, is one of the most eloquent voices opposing Prop. 8.

Positioning same-sex marriage as a civil rights and equality issue, Dorff said, “We Jews have benefited greatly from the Enlightenment; it would be ironic, it would be mean, if we now came out against a minority within a minority.

“Marriage means that two people take responsibility for each other and their biological or adopted children, and society has a vested interest in that,” Dorff added.

Despite the official neutrality of the main Conservative organizations, Dorff believes that “an overwhelming majority” of Conservative rabbis and congregants will oppose Prop. 8.

Reform

Reform rabbis and congregants constitute the most vigorous segment of the Jewish community in fighting Prop. 8, supported by the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and National Council of Jewish Women.

Rabbi Linda Bertenthal, a regional director for the Union for Reform Judaism, cited her organization’s resolution, which describes marriage as “a basic human right and an individual personal choice.”

The statement adds, “the state should not interfere with same-gender couples who choose to marry and share freely and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of civil marriage.”

Taking an active part in the campaign is Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, whose members are reaching out to voters through phone banks and collaboration with interfaith groups.

Eger was the first member of the clergy to officiate at a same-gender marriage in California on June 16 of this year, immediately after the State Supreme Court legalized such marriages by overturning a voter-approved 2000 initiative and statute to ban them.

Also heavily involved are such groups as the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College and Jews for Marriage Equality.

Psychologist Joel Kushner, director of the institute, observed that opposition to Prop. 8 is in line with the “Jewish heritage of justice,” while clearly not forcing any objecting rabbi to officiate at same-sex marriages.

Jews for Marriage Equality was founded by Steve Krantz, who retired after a notable career as a computer engineer to become a defender of the rights of one of his two sons, who is gay.

Krantz said he has compiled a list of 220 names, which include the majority of California rabbis, who went on record in opposing Prop. 8.

His goal now is to reach unaffiliated “gustatory” Jews through large ads in the primary Jewish weeklies in Los Angeles and San Francisco, working in partnership with the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

If Prop. 8 wins, he said, his organization will continue its work, but if the ballot measure loses, “we’ll have a big party.”



Striking an individual stance, separate from his collegial pro and con advocates, is Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. He was one of the two abstainers when the Board of Rabbis voted overwhelmingly to oppose Prop. 8.

“I felt that it violated the board’s ethical code to take a stance on a political matter,” he said.

Personally, he asserted, he would never officiate at a same-sex or interfaith marriage.

“I think my congregation would have a feeling of discomfort if its rabbi participated in such a ceremony,” Bouskila said. “In Sephardic tradition, we believe that religion is religion and politics is politics.”

As the saying has it, as goes California, so goes the nation, and the outcome of the Prop. 8 battle is being monitored across the country.

It is expected that the two sides of the issue will together spend a total of $40 million on their campaigns, the most for a social issue proposition, with contributions flowing in from some 10,000 people in 50 states.

The “No on Prop. 8” campaign has announced $100,000 contributions each from filmmaker Steven Spielberg, Richard Haas of the Levi Strauss dynasty and actor Brad Pitt.

Same-sex marriage is likely to remain a hot-button issue in the presidential race, with Prop. 8 backers looking to Sen. John McCain for ideological support, and opponents to Sen. Barack Obama.

On Thursday, Oct. 16, The Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee will present a nonpartisan forum on critical ballot issues. It’s at 7 p.m. in The Jewish Federation Goldsmith Center, Sanders Board Room, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For security reasons, R.S.V.P. by Oct. 13 to (323) 761-8145 or e-mail LAJCRC@JewishLA.org

MUSIC: ‘That Yemenite Kid’ Diwon makes a mix tape — in Yiddish


NEW YORK (JTA) — Courtesy of Diwon, the artist formerly known as DJ Handler and otherwise known as the executive director of Modular Moods and Shemspeed.com, comes this fresh mix of pop, hip-hop, electronica and . . . Yiddish?

We spoke to “That Yemenite Kid” and asked him what’s up with this unusual release.

JTA: As an artist and producer you’ve focused on highlighting Sephardic and Yemenite Jewish music as an alternative to what some see as the Ashkenazic domination of the Jewish cultural scene. With that in mind, what’s a nice Yemenite kid like you doing in a Yiddishe place like this?

Diwon: I’m half-Yemenite. My other side is Ashkenaz. That is the side that came out here. Don’t forget, I started a klezmer punk band in college called Juez. So this really isn’t too far out for me. I think just because of the recent change of my artist name from DJ Handler to Diwon and some of the press around the music, now I’m seen as very Yemenite and the past is sort of washed over. I’m definitely more passionate about the Yemenite music I’m making because I feel that there has already been a big Yiddish and klezmer music revival.

At the same time, I don’t know of any Yiddish mixtapes that have ever been made — you know, Yiddish through the eyes of a street mixtape DJ. It was a challenge to take the source material flip it over my own beats and remixes and then throw in some of my friends who are fusing Yiddish with electronic music and what not. Plus that Andrew sisters “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” is so hot. I DJ it in clubs all the time. That in itself was almost reason enough to create this mixtape.

JTA: I notice you have some Hebrew language stuff in there as well. That’s going to make the Yiddishists angry . . .

Diwon: Ha! I don’t know. I guess some controversy is good.

There is a lot of great classic Yiddish music out there that, beyond revivals from Golem and Socalled, most young Jews today are completely unfamiliar with.


Click for streaming audio

JTA: Do you see any potential for the reinvigoration of Yiddish music as anything more than a novelty for this generation?

Diwon: I could see why people would say that Socalled is a novelty, but you could argue the music isn’t a novelty because he grew up listening to Yiddish records and this is how he makes Yiddish music — as opposed to say, an artist who put one Yiddish thing on their non-Yiddish album, as a novelty.

It’s a tough question to answer since most artists fuse different elements and genres and influences into their compositions. I don’t think that it’s novelty if an artist fuses their tradition into their music if it’s done in a sincere way and not with a smirk.

JTA: But what about for the consumer? So let’s say your doing Yemenite music isn’t a novelty, it’s an expression of your identity, but for the average music consumer, it’s a novelty. Take Matisyahu for example. Did non-Jews buy his album because he’s a great reggae artist, or because he’s an amusement?

Diwon: I think it depends on the consumer. One who isn’t that familiar with the tradition might buy it as novelty. But someone who knows the music and likes Yiddish or Yemenite music will buy it to expand their collection and for them its not necessarily a novelty purchase.

I know non-Jews who bought Matisyahu’s record because they like reggae. But then there are tons that probably bought it off the hype that was fueled by the novelty of it all. But I don’t think any of that matters. If he had put out one record and then went to making regular, non-Jewish reggae, I think it would be different. People would say “what a fake” and “what kind of marketing stunt is this?” But the fact is this is his true expression. He tours the world playing it and he is onto his third record, making it. It’s obvious that he doesn’t view it as a novelty. And the fact that he is still successful at it shows that it’s definitely more than a novelty. That and maybe the fact that he doesn’t wear a suit and a black hat anymore.

JTA: How’s the Jewish music scene holding up in light of the current economic downturn? Is your label, Modular Moods, surviving, thriving, dying?

Diwon: Well stateside we’re still alright. It’s a bit harder when I tour internationally, but no matter what I’m still going to grind and get as much good music out there as possible. If only to cheer up the people who are down due to the economy.

JTA: Well, giving away free music helps!

Diwon: Yeah, well music is basically free nowadays anyway, so why try and front? I feel like I give 75% of my music out for free and use the other 25% to fund it all and survive.

JTA: So what can we expect from Modular Moods in the coming months?

Diwon: Don’t miss the Sephardic Music Festival this Chanukah in NYC, the Shemspeed 40 Days 40 Nights Tour of college campuses in February, and a slew of new songs and albums unlike anything people have ever heard. We ain’t gonna stop now.

VIDEO: CNN visits the dwindling Jewish community of Yemen


CNN’s Paula Newton reports on the few hundred Jews left in Yemen

The Best of (Jewish) Los Angeles 2008


We like to think of our Annual Guide to the Best of (Jewish) Los Angeles as kvetch-proof. Our writers and editors provide personal favorites that are so idiosyncratic and eclectic that it’s hard to argue. (“No, that’s not the best place to buy a $50 set of used Talmud, this is!”)Our contributors are out there — in the community, in the neighborhoods, off the beaten track — and their choices not only reflect the varied tastes of our staff, but the great diversity of L.A. Jewish life. Year after year, by the way, Los Angeles is still our “Best Jewish City.”

Best Places to See Jewish Opera: Los Angeles and Long Beach

Thanks to maestro James Conlon and his “Recovered Voices” project, Los Angeles Opera has become the go-to destination in this country to see fully staged productions of works suppressed by the Nazis. This year’s fare included the one-act “The Broken Jug” by Viktor Ullmann, who composed the piece just before he was interned at Terezin (he died in Auschwitz in 1944). Conlon aims to stage one such opera per year to help “right musical wrongs” — Walter Braunfel’s rarely performed “The Birds” is planned for 2009. Meanwhile, the iconoclastic Long Beach Opera had such a successful run with its re-staging of Grigori Frid’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” (performed in a parking garage to evoke the claustrophobia of Anne’s attic) that a second production was added this month.Los Angeles Opera, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.(213) 972-8001.Long Beach Opera, 507 Pacific Ave., Long Beach. (562) 432-5934. .

— Naomi Pfefferman

Best Really Jewish-Themed Plays Now Around Town (or, At Least, Some of the Many)

If you’re in the mood for a long weekend of Jewish theater (you’d have to start on a Thursday), check out Jennifer Maisel’s “The Last Seder,” in which the family patriarch has Alzheimer’s, the pregnant lesbian daughter brings her life partner and another daughter shows up with a guy she met at the train station, among other intrigues (at the Greenway Court Theatre through July 27). Then there’s Naomi Newman, of San Francisco’s acclaimed Traveling Jewish Theatre, who’ll play a Holocaust survivor recounting her long life (traversing the 20th century) in Martin Sherman’s solo show, “Rose” (among Rose’s adventures: visits to a hippie commune and to a West Bank settlement), at the Odyssey Theatre (July 5-Aug 31). “The Accomplices,” by former New York Times political reporter Bernard Weinraub, spotlights what the United States government and American Jews did — and didn’t do — to help Jews fleeing the Nazis, at the Fountain Theatre (July 12-Aug. 24). The satiric “Adam Baum and the Jew Movie,” directed by Paul Mazursky, is at the Hayworth Theatre through July 20. Watch these pages for more shows as they hit town. Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 655-7679. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 477-2055. Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 663-1525. Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 389-9860.

— NP

Best New Literary Salon:Town Hall’s Writers Bloc

A decade ago, Andrea Grossman started Writers Bloc in her Beverly Hills kitchen; over the years, the salon has hosted pop-culture-meets-literati conversations between the likes of Norman Mailer, Elmore Leonard and Erica Jong. This past year, the venerated series merged with Los Angeles’ 70-year-old Town Hall Los Angeles program to form (what else?) Town Hall’s Writers Bloc series, which has made a splash with authors from Salmon Rushdie to angry Jewish comic Lewis Black. Stay tuned for best-selling author Paul Auster (“Brooklyn Follies”) who will talk about his war-themed new book, “Man in the Dark,” later this summer.Town Hall Los Angeles, 515 Flower St., Los Angeles.

— NP

Best (Sinfully Rich) Persian-Infused French Bakery: Mignon

When I see a bakery with a French name in the Valley, it’s a good bet it’s Persian. One example is Mignon Bakery (mignon means cute in French). The aroma of fresh pastries baking and the owner’s warm smile make Mignon a delightful stop on a shopping trip to Valley Produce, a favorite market among Israelis. Although there are French items, so far I’ve focused on the Persian pastries, and all that I’ve tried have been fresh and of good quality, from saffron-glazed turnovers with almond-cardamom filling to tasty cinnamon-walnut baklava to exotic sweets like cardamom-flavored chickpea balls. There are a variety of Persian cakes and pastries, like delicate Yazdi cupcakes, syrupy fried pastries and gata, a rich round breakfast bread. This is the only place I know to get fresh barbary bread, the long, oval ridged Persian bread. Like baguette, it has a pleasing crust that’s most delicious when just baked. If you want some, come early — they disappear quickly. Try not to eat the whole loaf before you get home! Mignon Bakery, Valley Produce Plaza, 18353 Vanowen St. Suite G, Reseda. (818) 774-9920.

— Faye Levy

Best Place to Learn Persian and Hebrew While Drinking Blended Coffee: The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf

image

The L.A.-based Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, whose stores are certified kosher throughout Nevada and Southern California, draws a wide range of customers who enjoy drinking a blended beverage and maybe picking up a new language. At many of the stores, from Pico-Robertson to the Westside to Ventura Boulevard, you can hear Persian-language speakers and Hebrew speakers mingle over mochas. Just plop in a corner and see if you can follow along. As an added bonus, the purple straws and yummy pastries have been joined by challahs, available for order and pickup right at the store. For locations, visit coffeebean.com.

— Shoshana Lewin

Best Way to Visit the World of Krusty the (Jewish) Clown: The Simpsons Rideat Universal Studios Hollywood

ALTTEXT

Homer, Marge, Bart and the rest of the family have recently moved from Springfield to Universal City. The six-minute simulator attraction took the site once occupied by the “Back to the Future” ride — and completely changed the look of the theme park’s upper lot. The ride takes you into the crazy world of Krusty (a.k.a. Herschel Shmoikel Pinkus Yerucham Krustofsky) through a visit to the very low-budget Krustyland. But there’s a hitch: Sideshow Bob has escaped from prison and can’t wait to get revenge on Krusty and the Simpsons. After riding Krusty’s “

Paris with a Jewish accent


I’m sitting in a Paris courtroom, and I might as well be in an art museum. There are huge windows, high ceilings, old chandeliers, and a very nervous group ofpeople awaiting a decision.

We’re in the Cour d’appel, the French Appellate Court, on the day the court is to render its decision in the case of Philippe Karsenty against the government-funded Channel 2 television station. For the past six years, Karsenty has devoted his life to proving that the station’s report claiming that the IDF was responsible for the death of young Mohammed Al Durrah at the beginning of the second intifada was part of a staged hoax. The station was so taken aback by Karsenty’s public attacks that it sued him for defamation, and won. That was two years ago.

Karsenty appealed the decision and has made a serious comeback, introducing additional evidence and garnering more public support. Six years of his long fight against one of France’s most distinguished reporters, Charles Enderlin, came down to this moment.

Once the panel of judges took their seats, it took less than 60 seconds for the head judge to announce the decision: The case against Karsenty had no merit. Evidently, he had introduced more than enough doubt regarding the credibility of the report. Little David had prevailed against the Goliath of French media. In the controlled chaos that ensued, opposing lawyers wore a look of shock, while everybody else just sort of looked at each other, as if to say: “What just happened?” There was enough legalese in the judge’s verdict that many people on Karsenty’s side, myself included, were asking questions more than actually celebrating — wondering whether there were any legal strings attached.

But there weren’t. It was a clean victory. Outside, on the courthouse steps, cameramen and reporters were clinging to Karsenty’s every word, including his demand that the station make a public apology in reparation to the worldwide Jewish community, which had been slandered by the original report.

That night, after celebrating the victory in a kosher restaurant in a Jewish neighborhood of Paris, I reflected on the difference between perception and reality. It’s true that there’s plenty of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment in France, and in fact, the opposition that Karsenty faced during his long trial showed some of that sentiment.

But it’s also true that justice prevailed for a little Jew against an icon of French media and culture. Considering all we hear about the precarious situation for Jews living in France, that kind of result shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Beyond the high drama of this Jewish victory for truth and justice, however, there is another, quieter drama unfolding for the Jewish community of Paris. This is the silent drama of neighborhoods, the kind I often write about in Los Angeles.

During my week there, I visited two of these neighborhoods, each one going in a very different direction.

The first was the oldest Jewish neighborhood in Paris, known as Le Marais, home to the renowned Jewish Museum, a yeshiva, kosher markets, Judaica stores and anything else you’d expect to find on Fairfax or Pico.

But with one big difference: this neighborhood is disappearing.

The manager of the Mi-Va-Ni kosher grill, Benny Maman, lamented the decline. Five years ago, he told me, there were about 20 small kosher restaurants in the area; today there are only three. Same thing with synagogues, kosher butchers, Jewish bookstores, etc. There is only a handful left, mostly on one street, Rue des Rosiers.

Where Jewish merchants once stood are now trendy boutiques with names like Koo Kai and Custo Barcelona. A storefront with the faded name of a Jewish bakery is now a gay bar. Of the remaining Jewish shops, several have “for lease” signs on them.

Where did the Jewish life go? Did Jews scramble out because of the anti-Semitism we hear so much about? Actually, according to Maman, it’s mainly about the parking. When they turned Rue des Rosiers into a pedestrian walkway, it made a bad parking situation even worse. As a result, significantly fewer Jews have patronized the area, and businesses and residents have wandered off to other neighborhoods.

Like, for example, the neighborhood where I spent Shabbat, the 17th “arrondissement.” This is becoming the Pico-Robertson of Paris. There’s practically a Shilo’s Restaurant or Delice Bistro on every corner. I spent Shabbat with my all-time favorite chazzan, Ouriel Elbilia (you must hear his Shabbat CD), who runs a synagogue called Beth Rambam in an ornate old building. The community here is on the upswing, but are residents afraid of anti-Semitism? I asked a few people, and they all told me the same thing: The fear is mostly in the racially charged suburbs. But they still watch their backs around here, and several of them complained about the difficulty of making a living in modern-day France.

So those were my Jewish encounters in Paris. I met a Jew in an old neighborhood who lamented the passing of the good old days and complained about parking. I heard a Sephardic chazzan singing beautiful melodies in a thriving Jewish neighborhood, where Jews aren’t afraid to be Jews, but where they still find plenty to kvetch about.

And I hung out with an outspoken and articulate Jew who annoys the establishment with his relentless pursuit of truth and justice, and who wouldn’t mind, by the way, turning his story into a Hollywood motion picture.

Really, if it hadn’t been for the gorgeous architecture, I might have felt right at home.

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




MUSIC VIDEO: French rapper Francky Perez and Broadway: ‘Hatikvah’

Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Amar to visit Los Angeles


The Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel will visit Los Angeles next week for the first time, a move that signifies the growing importance of the religious community here around the world. Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who has been serving as chief rabbi since 2003, along with Ashkenazi counterpart Rabbi Yona Metzger, comes to Los Angeles Oct 22-28 to meet with leaders of Los Angeles Jewish community — both Ashkenazic and Sephardic — to offer religious and spiritual support.


“This is the first time he’s coming to the West Coast, and he will learn about the vast Jewish activity here, from the schools and the shuls to the institutions and the mikveh and the eruv,” said Rabbi David Toledano of Magen David, the Sephardic Syrian community of Beverly Hills, who is coordinating and hosting the trip.

Amar, also respectfully referred to as Rishon L’Tzion, will meet with community leaders from the Wiesenthal Center, the Rabbinical Council of California and various Sephardic rabbis. He will also visit several Los Angeles’ ultra-Orthodox schools (including Hillel Hebrew Academy, Torath Emet, Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy, Yeshiva Gedola, Chabad, Ohr Eliyahu, Bais Yakov and Yavneh), as well as staff at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Israel Consul General Ehud Danoch, who is also helping plan the trip, has set up an interfaith meeting between Amar and 100 Christian clergy.

“This will help open dialogue with different religions,” Toledano said.

He is also set to meet with government officials such as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and hold “kabbalat panim” reception hours in Toledano’s home by appointment. In addition to his lectures and shiurim Torah studies, Amar will be honored on Thursday, Oct. 26, by Em Habanim in North Hollywood. Amar will spend Shabbat in the city at Mogen David in Pico-Robertson and will appear on a panel open to the public on Saturday afternoon.

Amar is the first Sephardi chief rabbi not of Iraqi descent (he is Moroccan). He is known in Israel for his changes to the conversion and divorce laws, which are administered by the Israeli government. According to an announcement from the Rabbinate last December, Jews converted in the Diaspora by rabbis not recognized by the religious courts will have to undergo another conversion in Israel in order to be recognized by Rabbinate courts as Jews.

Women granted a get, or Jewish divorce, by rabbis not recognized by the courts, will also have to go through the process again.

Toledano stressed that by setting down standards and a list of accepted rabbis, the chief rabbi has streamlined the process and eliminated corruption from the system.

“The most important thing is the proper approach,” he said. “It’s not random anymore, not anyone can [do a conversion or divorce] so it’s more kosher.”

Ask A (Different) Rabbi

Can a religious businessperson keep his Internet site open on Shabbat? What about a Web site uploaded on Shabbat — can a religious person look at it? Are you allowed to watch television on Shabbat if the set has been on since before sundown?

These types of modern-day halachic questions aren’t addressed in the Talmud or the ancient rabbis’ books of wisdom, but they are at Jerusalem’s Eretz Hemdah Institute, The Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies.

Rabbi Yosef Carmel, dean of the institute, which trains rabbis for advanced, post-ordination study (equivalent of a Ph.D), will be visiting Los Angeles this week.

The Institute, which opened in 1987 to train future Zionist rabbinical leaders of the State of Israel, has graduated some 100 rabbis from its seven-year course. The institute also grapples with modern-day questions of Jewish law. Its Web site, “Ask A Rabbi,” which is affiliated with the Orthodox Union, has answered more than 1

1,000 questions pertaining to Jewish law.
Last summer, when Israel was at war with Hezbollah, Eretz Hemdah (“beautiful land”) opened a special hotline for soldiers. Some questions: What should a soldier do with his car if he has to drive to base on Shabbat? How can a man in combat celebrate his son’s pidyon ha-ben (redemption of the oldest son).

Carmel will lecturing at Rabbi Daniel Korobkin’s school, Kehillat Yavneh (5353 W. Third St.) on Friday Oct 27 and Shabbat Oct. 28, on topics such as “Dilemmas in the World of Halacha” and “Indirect Business Transactions on Shabbat.”

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Ignorance is not really bliss, as current events have proved. Rather, knowledge brings about understanding and peace, especially when it comes to faith and religion. That’s why Wilshire Boulevard Temple has opened up The Center for Religious Inquiry, an adult education institution hoping to build bridges between all faiths.

Partnering with the Center for Religious Inquiry at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York and St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis, Wilshire Boulevard’s new center will feature religious leaders, scholars, ethicists and scientists from different religious backgrounds and is open to Angelenos of all faiths. Its motto is “Mipnei d’archei shalom” (Because it leads to paths of peace).

“After 144 years, we are recommitting our historic temple campus not just as the center of Jewish life and practice, but, now, as a home to all religious exploration,” said Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein, director of the Center for Religious Inquiry.

Programs include the tried and true, such as “Intro to Judaism,” and special lectures such as “The Jewish Bible in Christmas Art,” and a lecture series titled, “America: The Moral Nation,” whose last panel discussion, “What Is a Just War?” is scheduled for Nov. 14. Next semester’s programs will include a deeper look into different faiths, as well as classes on Jewish topics, such as “Not Madonna’s Kabbalah,” an introduction to Jewish mystical literature.

The center is one of a number of Los Angeles Jewish organizations featuring lectures and classes for adults, but hopes to be different because “rather than presenting a speaker on a topic or himself, we’re hoping to thread these into a larger socio-cultural context,” Stein said.

“It’s necessary because the world is an increasingly complicated place,” he said. “It’s becoming ever more focused on religious ideas. And in our small, humble way, we hope to be a center where people can come and encounter learning and explore religion in a safe environment.”

Texas Quartet Bucks Tradition


"I love shattering musical stereotypes," Galeet Dardashti said. Her energetic quartet, Divahn, plays Sephardi and Mizrahi music with an American twist.

The group’s adaptation of a 16th-century Iraqi zmira (tune) blends banjo and tabla drums. Bluegrass-influenced violin infuses a Ladino wedding song.

Dubbed "best new band of 2001" by the Austin Chronicle, its members sing in Farsi, Aramaic, Arabic, Ladino and Hebrew.

No wonder Divahn stands out among American groups, such as The Klezmatics, who emphasize Ashkenazi fare.

"We’re proving Jewish music doesn’t just mean klezmer," Dardashti said.

Divahn, performing at the University of Judaism on Aug. 17 — reflects Dardashti’s diverse musical heritage. Her late grandfather, a renown Tehran chazan, was also a famous singer of Persian classical music before relocating to Israel. Her father, Farid, served as a cantor at Valley Beth Shalom and other synagogues while Dardashti was growing up in Encino and other U.S. cities. Since childhood, she performed Jewish music with her family in a traveling troupe.

Yet she was reluctant when percussionist Lauren De Albert approached her about forming Divahn while she was at the University of Texas in 2000. Immersed in doctoral studies in cultural anthropology, the 30-year-old singer-guitarist figured she wouldn’t have time.

Researching her dissertation changed her mind: "I was studying the emerging popularity of Middle Eastern music in Israel, where it was previously marginalized in favor of Ashkenazi music," said Dardashti, now continuing her studies on a Fulbright/Hays fellowship. "I was also learning about how this marginalization affected my grandfather."

She agreed to form the band, in part, to reclaim his musical roots.

The Austin-based ensemble went on to receive rave reviews for its eponymous CD, released on its own label, Miz Rocky. While the label’s title is tongue-in-cheek, the political message is not.

"Just as we’re shattering stereotypes about Jewish music, we’re also shattering stereotypes about the historical, cultural relationship between Arabs and Jews," Dardashti said.

Divahn will perform Aug. 17 in the UJ’s Mulholland Nights concert series with Elan. $25. 6 p.m. (reception), 7 p.m. (concert). For tickets, call (310) 440-1246.

The Honeymoon is Over


Nine months after Ehud Barak took office as “everybody’s prime minister,” the honeymoon is over — with his voters, coalition allies and Arab partners in the quest for peace. It is too early to write him off, but the Labor leader can no longer rely on loyalty or goodwill to see him through.

On the domestic front, he shows no sign of delivering to the neglected, mainly Sephardi, citizens in the rundown development towns and city slums to whom he promised jobs and a fair share of the national cake. Unemployment is still running in double figures in these backwaters. Firms are still closing unprofitable textile factories. The old women in overcrowded hospitals, a potent symbol in Barak’s election campaign, are still sleeping in the corridors.

To the dismay of Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who tried to persuade him to reactivate Labor’s social agenda, the prime minister and the Treasury conservatives are relying on a “peace dividend” to stimulate the economy. In the best Reagan-Thatcher mode, they put their faith in a trickle-down effect. The rich will get richer, the poor will be a little less poor. But not yet.

Barak is not, as some of his detractors would have us believe, a Bibi Netanyahu clone. For starters, most Israelis still credit him with genuinely seeking peace and a readiness to pay a heavy price for it. But Barak is starting to suffer from the Bibi syndrome.

The professional politicians, whom he treated with ill-concealed contempt when he was forming his administration, are rubbing their hands. His junior coalition parties are flexing their muscles. The heads of three of them — Shas, the National Religious Party and Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael B’aliya — have signed an opposition Likud draft bill, which would block any compromise with the Palestinians over Jerusalem. So has Roni Milo of the Center party. Sharansky and the NRP’s Yitzhak Levy are also campaigning against withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

At the beginning of this week, Shas’ back-benchers voted against the prime minister on a Likud no-confidence motion. Ostensibly, they were warning Barak not to tamper with Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. In fact, they were protesting because leftist Meretz Education Minister Yossi Sarid has refused to give his Shas deputy minister, Meshulam Nahari, any work to do.

With an aura of success and the peace process moving forward, Barak could stifle many of these challenges. His trouble is that peace is floundering on every front. The much-decorated ex-chief of staff set targets and timetables for the Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese. He thought that if he tempted them enough, they would let him write the script. It hasn’t worked that way. They have their own agendas, and they are rigorously pursuing them.

Syrian President Hafez Assad is sticking to his maximalist demand. Israel, he insists, must withdraw not just from the Golan plateau, but to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. And he is making it more difficult for Barak to sell a deal to the Israeli public — by forbidding his diplomats to shake Israeli hands, by accusing Israel of behaving like Nazis, by hinting that peace would be no more than a staging post toward the ultimate Arab goal of destroying the Zionist state.

For their part, the Palestinians are declining to accept whatever slices of the West Bank Barak deigns to give them under the delayed Oslo accords. They want areas closer to Jerusalem. They want to be consulted. They want to bargain. Otherwise, they won’t play ball — and the security services are already warning of renewed Palestinian violence.

This week, Yasser Arafat publicly accused Barak of being no better than Netanyahu. The Palestinian leader is reported to have told Miguel Moratinos, the European Union’s roving Middle East troubleshooter: “Barak tried and failed to assassinate me three times when he was serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Now he is trying to kill me by means of my own people. He is humiliating me and trying to coerce me into accepting his surrender terms.”

In Lebanon, bombing civilian power stations has boomeranged. The Hezbollah guerrillas are still shooting Israeli soldiers (though they have been deterred, for now, from firing Katyusha rockets at civilian communities in Northern Israel). But Beirut has exploited the air strikes to rally the Arab world — and much of the West — against Israel. The escalation has provoked a crisis between Barak and President Hosni Mubarak, who flew to Lebanon for the first visit there by an Egyptian leader in half a century.

Barak is keeping his nerve. He is setting new deadlines, working to revive negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians. He still promises to “bring the boys home” from Lebanon by July. But he is looking more and more like the boy on the burning deck.

Israeli commentators are uniformly gloomy. The nearest to an optimist this week was Hemi Shalev, who suggested in Ma’ariv that “Arab public opinion discerns in its gut that the peace process is coming of age, and that the time for decisions is approaching.” On this reading, Shalev dubbed it, “The storm before the calm.”

The alternative, he might have added, would not be a return to the old bromide of no-peace, no-war.