Photo from Pexels.

A Deeper Feminism

When I lived in Washington, D.C., in my 20s, I often wore miniskirts. The prim and proper ladies there used to stare at me. This didn’t make me stop, but it did make me feel self-conscious until a friend said, “You know, it’s not that they disapprove; it’s that they wish they could wear them, too.”

I never wore miniskirts to work. I could have — there wasn’t much of a dress code — but I was eager to be taken seriously as a writer. You could say that’s a double standard, but perhaps it isn’t. I’m not sure if a guy who wore his shirt unbuttoned to his navel would have been taken seriously, either.

Once or twice I put myself in situations that could have led to unfortunate outcomes. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have done that. The one time something icky — but not scarring — happened was on a high school ski trip. I never told anyone afterward; at the time, I thought these types of things just happened.

Like many women, these past couple of weeks have made me think about various experiences I had in my late teens and into my 20s, and how I handled them. Feminism freed young women to wear miniskirts, go unchaperoned on high school ski trips, go to the apartments of older colleagues to watch movies.

Sometimes we make these choices to experiment; sometimes we make them to help us define our identities; sometimes we make them just for fun. Sometimes they end badly.

Nevertheless, the freedom to make these choices is an essential part of feminism. But there is another essential part that hasn’t gotten much attention. Along with freedom comes a need for thoughtfulness, a need to recognize reality and human nature.

We have an opportunity to deepen feminism with wisdom and even joy.

For me, that begins with facing reality. Take beauty. Contrary to Naomi Wolf’s infamous “beauty myth,” beauty is not a social construct forced upon women to keep them in the bathrooms and out of the boardrooms. Evolutionary psychology has explained why men are attracted to youth and beauty (the instinct to father healthy children), and no amount of social engineering is going to change that fact.

What can be changed is our attitudes toward beauty. When I write about art and design, I use the term “deep beauty” to describe a layered, soulful, imperfect beauty that stems from nature. Women (and men) also can strive for a deeper beauty — a beauty that resonates with soulfulness, intelligence and confidence. A beauty that doesn’t fade.

Sexuality, both male and female, also exists.

Last month, my 8-year-old son and his friend were tossing a football in Central Park when we happened upon some young women who were topless. Not surprisingly, the boys started to stare and giggle. The women scowled at me: How dare I raise a son who hasn’t been taught that this is normal and natural!

Actually, the boys’ response was normal and natural — hormones begin to kick in well before puberty. Sure, you have every right to go topless in Central Park. But don’t expect human nature to look away.

Women are equal to men but we are different. This is a reality that we should not just accept, but embrace. We should take pleasure in the differences. Do we really want to live in a sanitized world devoid of any flirting or sexual tension? Or worse, do we want to live in a world where we become so paranoid that men and women in professional situations are afraid to shake hands, let alone hug?

Yes, we need to teach males of all ages that being a respectful gentleman is a prerequisite to 21st-century masculinity. But we also need to teach females that being a strong, responsible woman is a prerequisite to 21st-century femininity and feminism.

The fact is, women who are truly in touch with their sexuality tend to be the strongest women. I’m not talking about flaunting one’s sexuality; I’m talking about a deep sexuality that comes from being comfortable with yourself.

I know a 40-ish woman in New York who runs a multinational company. She started it from scratch and never changed any aspect of herself in the process. With her infectious laugh, inspiring charm, and sensually appropriate attire, she walks into a room like a boss — but also as a woman.

That’s deep feminism.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and the author of “The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World” (Doubleday).Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal and Metropolis, among others.

Let’s talk about sex

This may have been the most distracting, scatter-brained interview I’ve ever conducted. Dogs were barking, phones were ringing off the hook, and Internet was iffy, at best. 

Regardless, Jewish feminist Elana Sztokman seemed unfazed. Of course, she showed moments of frazzledness — merely glimpses, but who could blame her? This Skype interview (which had been rescheduled a couple of times already) was pure chaos.

Sztokman, 45, specializes in Jewish women. A Jewish woman herself, perhaps she’s used to meshugges. Originally from Flatbush, N.Y. (obvious from her Brooklyn accent), she made aliyah in 1993 when she moved to Modiin, where she currently resides. 

She’s the co-creator of a five-week webinar series, “Desire: Sex, Judaism and Feminism.” At the time of the interview, Sztokman had reached the fourth week of her telecourse, a difficult one. Its topic was sexual abuse, pain and dysfunction. Sex therapist and fellow co-creator Talli Rosenbaum (who also lives in Israel) was appearing on the panel that day, alongside sexologist Nachshon David Carmi and psychotherapist Sheri Oz; Sztokman facilitated the discussion. Correlations between sexual abuse and eating disorders were discussed (a topic Sztokman wants to address in her next telecourse, “Hunger,” which will air in the fall).

“This telecourse is a little out of my comfort zone,” Sztokman said of the first episode of the “Desire” series, which aired July 1 and was watched live by subscribers tuning in from around the world (South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, Israel, Canada and the United States). The episode went on successfully, albeit with an occasional Internet lag and glitch — but that’s to be expected when the panelists are communicating via webcams.

This online telecourse, which ran during the month of July, was geared toward Jewish adults — men and women, gay and straight, observant and secular.  “The broader, the better,” she said of the diverse net she cast for an audience. 

For most of her professional life, Sztokman designed curricula solely for Orthodox women. “And I’m done with that,” she said. Now she hopes a wider demographic might give Orthodox women some outside perspective. “I think this cross-denominational conversation is really important,” she said.

The webinar reflects the many identities of Sztokman who, until two years ago, was living a traditional Orthodox lifestyle. “I started shying away from the Orthodox label — not because my ideas of halachah changed, but just because I find it unhelpful,” she said. 

“Orthodoxy is a construct created by men who feel the need to be gatekeepers,” Sztokman said. And for a seasoned feminist like Sztokman, identifying as an “Orthodox woman” became too small a box. 

During the telecourse, the wide spectrum of issues covered ranged from Charedi Jews to LGBTQ issues. “The reason why I made this course is because everything we talk about in feminism comes down to sex,” she said. When Sztokman approached Rosenbaum with the idea for the series, the duo played off of one another’s areas of expertise. Sztokman was well versed on gender issues and feminism, and Rosenbaum brought the psycho-social-sexual perspective to the table. “I love Talli,” Sztokman said, “I just think she’s so special in her approach.”

Relocating to Israel was transformative for Sztokman, who immigrated with her husband and three children (she now has four). “Before moving to Israel, I wasn’t a feminist,” she said. Maybe it was something in the landscape, the desert air, but she and her husband took the plunge and transformed together (from Orthodox to nondenominational). But that’s not to say it hasn’t been difficult.

Five years into their marriage, when Sztokman was 26, she took off her head covering. “The hat became my identity marker. Meaning, I became my hat,” she explained. She still remembers the day she took it off, a symbolic gesture of liberation. Positive that everyone would notice, she learned an important lesson when nobody, except one friend, remarked on her exposed hair. She relayed the story with a sigh of relief.

“What women need now is courage — courage to speak our truths,” she said. And with this telecourse, her website ( and the numerous publications to which she contributes, Sztokman has created a platform that gives voice to numerous Jewish women, especially in the Orthodox world.

“Sexuality is not just sex. It’s passion, it’s pleasure, it’s joy, it’s relationship, it’s feeling,” Sztokman said, her voice filled with passion, her intonation changing, becoming softer, more lyrical.

“Healthy sexuality allows you to taste the world.”

Anne Frank’s inferred sexuality in novel upsets kin

The family of Anne Frank is accusing a British author for exploiting the famed diarist’s relationship with Peter van Pels for her new novel.

In “Annexed,” Sharon Dogar created a set of diaries from Peter’s perspective detailing his time in the building with the teenage Anne, as well as his subsequent time and death in a concentration camp. Dogar elaborates on the the experiences between Peter and Anne in the novel on the basis that she “is in no doubt that they were in love.”

Her portrayal of their encounters spurred Anne’s family and others involved with preserving her name and story to speak out against Dogar.

“Anne was not the child she is in this book,” said Bernhard “Buddy” Elias, Anne’s cousin and head of the memorial foundation Anne Frank-Fonds in Basel, Switzerland. “I also do not think that their terrible destiny should be used to invent some fictitious story.”

The Anne Frank Trust’s co-founder, Gillian Walnes, is among those who criticized Dogar’s decision to write about Anne and Peter, who was three years older than Anne.

“Fictionalization is totally unnecessary, and in fact sensationalist,” she said, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Dogar’s representatives, however, maintain the opposite.

“It is categorically not an attempt to ‘sex up’ her incredibly important story,” a spokesperson for Andersen Press told the Jerusalem Post. “Sharon is very aware of the enduring importance that Anne’s account has for generations both past, present and future.”

Theater: De-fusing ‘Random Sharp Objects’

In the semi-autobiographical play “Random Sharp Objects,” two Jewish women engage in a kind of impromptu psychoanalysis session. Hali (Hali Morell) describes growing up with a hippie-therapist Dad who talked too frankly about sex. As an adult, she says, she was drawn to a series of disturbed men she hoped she could “save,” including homeless men and a skinhead who taped quarters to her floor.

Esther (Esther Friedman), who is half black and half Jewish, recounts how her mother once beat her for playing house with an African American classmate and advised her to spurn black men because they “only want to get into your pants.” Esther felt frightened by black men who called out to her in the street: “I built a white picket fence around myself,” she says in the play. “I’ll be walking to my car, and they yell out at me. And I’ll flash back my ‘look.’ It’s called, ‘Back the f— up. Don’t come any closer. Don’t even ask me my name because I will cut your b– — off.”

“Objects” began four years ago when Friedman, who is in her 30s, wrote a solo show to explore why she wouldn’t even speak to black men, much less date them. When she brought her work-in-progress to director Frank Megna at the Working Stage Theater, he suggested she develop extra scenes with Morell.

“I thought both women had a similar dynamic about how their pasts had influenced their relationships,” he says.

The artists talked frankly about themselves as they improvised parts of the show. Morell — now happily married — remembered how she’d seek out “the troubled guys and try to be that ‘special’ person who could make them come around.” Although she never dated a homeless man, she was drawn to “bums who looked kind of attractive, like they could have been from the 1960s. I found myself wondering, ‘How did they get there,’ and I’d want to get to know that person.”

Friedman described how confused she felt about her diverse identities. On the one hand, her grandmother encouraged her to “pass” as white; on the other, she was perceived as black (and thus, alien) at Hebrew school. Her mother forced her to attend, stating that “Jesus was Jewish, and so are you.”

“All the kids and their moms would stare at us when we arrived,” Esther says in the play. “I asked, ‘Mommy, why are they looking at us like that?’…. The kids made fun of me and said I wasn’t a real Jew.”

The play has proved cathartic for both actresses. “I kept many of these stories secret for years, because they were so painful,” Friedman says. “But keeping secrets can kill your spirit.”

“Random Sharp Objects” runs through Oct. 20 at the Working Stage Theater, 1516 N. Gardner St., West Hollywood. For tickets and information, call (323) 851-2603.

Voices of women loud and proud with ‘Vox Femina’

More than a decade ago, when Gay Men’s Chorus director John Bailey lobbied Iris Levine, chair of the music department at Cal Poly Pomona, to start up a parallel women’s group, she balked. “It wasn’t something I wanted to do,” she said over the phone recently, recalling how Bailey envisioned a large, all-lesbian group.

Later, Levine said, Bailey approached her again, having realized that a women’s group might be different in nature from the men’s group — more intimate and “about being women, not about being lesbian.” With this new premise and a grant from the Gay Men’s Chorus, Levine founded Vox Femina, which will be performing “Nerli,” a children’s Chanukah song, at the 47th annual Los Angeles County Holiday Celebration on Dec. 24 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Now in its 10th year, Vox Femina recently staged its season opener, “Defying Gravity: Flying High on L.A.,” focusing on music about the heavens. One song on that bill, “Sky Dances,” also appears on Vox’s new CD, “Still I Rise.”

“Sky Dances” seems emblematic of the music sung by the 38-member women’s group — choral music with lyrics limited to a large extent to the refrain and with an emphasis on high soprano singers. Yet “Still I Rise” also includes the Marvin Hamlisch-Edward Kleban “A Chorus Line” tune “At the Ballet”; a snappy folk-rock number, “Closer to Fine,” and the titular gospel song, “Still I Rise,” all three of which feature soloists, alto singers and, in one case, an acoustic guitar.

Despite its eclectic repertoire, Vox Femina is not to be confused with the Whiffenpoofs, a Broadway chorus or a 1960s girl group. It is not an a cappella group; it almost always receives accompaniment on piano. The members are primarily interested in world music composed by women, not Cole Porter or Bob Dylan.

Levine is not only the founder of Vox Femina, she is also its artistic director. She chooses the themes of the performances, the music and even the singers. She also sometimes does the arrangements of the songs, such as that of “Hinei Mah Tov,” which the group once sang in Hebrew. For that piece, she provided group members with transliterated Hebrew; she herself knows the language from studying at a kibbutz ulpan.

Although Vox Femina will be singing “Nerli” in Hebrew, it is not in any sense a Jewish singing group. The women in Vox come from all backgrounds, not only in their sexuality, but also in ethnicity, race, religion and age. They sing in many foreign languages and even gave one concert entirely in Spanish at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, where they practice.

“We want to give the women of Los Angeles a voice,” said Levine, pointing out that every world song in their repertoire “has a population right here” in Los Angeles. She added that world music is “the music of the people.”

Levine began her musical career by taking the obligatory piano lessons at age of 5 or 6. Later, she sang in or accompanied choruses in high school.

When it came time for her to go to college, her mother encouraged her to pursue her love for music. After getting a B.A. in music at the University of New Hampshire, the Boston native followed up with a master’s degree from Temple University and then a doctorate at USC.

When she is not teaching music to college students or conducting Vox Femina, Levine directs the choir at Stephen S. Wise Temple, a job she has held for nearly two decades.

One gets the sense that she has almost no time for leisure. Given her schedule, it is perhaps not surprising that she had a cold when she spoke to a reporter recently, which affected her voice. But she is not a singer. She is a conductor, arranger, choir director, professor and artistic director, a Renaissance woman of the people.

Vox Femina will perform along with more than 40 other ensembles, including the Gay Men’s Chorus, the TishTones, the Beth Shir Shalom Choir, the Burbank Chorale and the Universal Dance Designs Kennedy Tap Company at the L.A. County Holiday Celebration on Sunday, Dec. 24, from 3 to 9 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For information, call (213) 972-7211 or go to

Books: It’s the end of the world as we know it — again

“A History of the End of the World” by Jonathan Kirsch (Harper San Francisco; $25.95)

To true believers, North Korea’s recent nuclear test was just the latest in a series of signs that the end-time is near. In Jonathan Kirsch’s compelling new book, “A History of the End of the World,” he points out that false prophets and “numbers crunchers” have been calling for Armageddon for 2,000 years, despite the fact that the reputed author of the Book of Revelation, John, son of Zebedee, “teaches his readers and hearers to do nothing about the evil that surrounds them except to keep the faith and keep quiet.”

Apparently, ours is not the only historically challenged era, because over the last two millennia, everyone from Savonarola to Jonathan Edwards to Billy Graham and David Koresh has forgotten the past and has offered new predictions about the end-times. They’ve all been wrong. Still, each new generation brings a new seer or two and a new list of seemingly prophetic calamities like the Black Death, the Crusades, the Civil War, World War I (dubbed the “war to end all wars,” a clear reference to Armageddon), World War II and now the War on Terror, all of which are supposed to foretell the apocalypse.

Yet Jesus, who some believe wrote Revelation, specifies in the Gospels that no one, not even he, will ever know when the world will end. Only God knows, apparently. And the final battle will take place not on Earth, but in Heaven, one clear indication that the Book of Revelation has been misread throughout history.

Kirsch, who has written 10 books, including five previous ones on the Bible, did prodigious research for his latest tome. He purchased obscure, out-of-print texts and took 1,000 pages of single-space notes. For Kirsch, a book critic and lawyer, who represents The Jewish Journal on a pro bono basis, reading and writing flow through his DNA. For 30 years, his father wrote six book reviews a week for the L.A. Times, a mere fraction of the 20 books he read each week. Kirsch’s own son is also a book reviewer, and his daughter an accomplished reader.

Like literary critic Harold Bloom, author of “The Book of J,” Kirsch has not only made a valiant effort at conquering the Western canon through voluminous reading (he has pored through the ancient works of Josephus and Augustine, the sermons of Cotton Mather and other Puritans, and “medieval bestsellers,” to list just a few examples), he has also had a long-held interest in the authorship of the Bible.

Where Bloom speculated in “The Book of J” that the J writer, whose lyrical Torah passages feature a distinctive anthropomorphic God, was a woman, Kirsch suggests that the author of the Book of Revelation was not simply a man but a Jewish one at that.

Revelation, as Kirsch shows in his book, is infused with Jewish messianic tropes, such as the constant use of the totemic number seven, a figure of great significance to Jews going back to Genesis. Moreover, Revelation contains almost no references to the Trinity, Communion or the “love thy neighbor” ethos of the Christian Bible. Instead, it presents Jesus as a violent and sanguinary warrior, whose vengefulness calls to mind a monstrous version of the Torah’s God.

Revelation’s author, a killjoy in extremis, has a hatred for human sexuality, particularly that of women. That has not stopped women from being some of the most renowned interpreters of the scripture. Many of these mystics and visionary nuns, like Na Prous Boneta and Marguerite Porete, were burned at the stake during the Inquisition.

But women alone are not doomed. The only men certain of being saved are the 144,000 ones “who have not defiled themselves with women,” which means that Mel Gibson will have to find another way to heaven.
Gibson may indeed have more to worry about than Jews. Referring to Amos’ apocalyptic writings in the Torah, Kirsch writes, “The prophet Amos, quite unlike the author of Revelation, does not predict that God will destroy and replace it with a celestial paradise in the clouds. Rather, as Amos sees it, God will spare the Israelites who have remained faithful to the divine law, and he will grant them nothing more exalted than a good life in the here and now.”

Although Kirsch does not deny the bloodthirsty nature of Revelation, he notes that many readers have interpreted it as having a happy ending. There are true believers who anticipate the Rapture as the greatest day of their lives, and some fundamentalists over the years have decided to do good deeds by ending slavery and helping the poor. A few millennial cults have even conducted themselves with more than a degree of postmodern whimsy, like the House of David, a sect famous for its long beards and barnstorming baseball games.

Unfortunately, for every relatively benign outfit like the House of David, there have been multiple Branch Davidians, willing to kill themselves and others as a final act. And for every Jimmy Carter, a humane born-again, there have been more than a few charlatans among Christians and Jews, participating in what The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier calls a “grim comedy of mutual condescension.”

As Kirsch says, “They gain political advantage by betraying themselves and playing cynically on someone else’s values.”

Faithful, happily ever after, right?

It’s 8 p.m., and it’s about that time for me to change the topic of conversation.

“I know a dozen quality women but really very few men,” says
some guy named something, I don’t catch it.

That’s because I’m sitting on a couch at a house party with my girlfriend trying to catch up with her and enjoy my crudités when this guy comes over and somehow — I don’t know how it always comes back to this, like bad celery repeating on you — the topic in question is the dating world.

“All the good guys I know are married — or completely not marriage material,” he says, scooting himself next to us on the couch.

He, ostensibly, is one of the good guys: taken. The gold band on his fourth finger waves in the air like a “sold” sticker slapped on a piece of real estate. If there’s one thing that’s more painful than listening to single people lament the lack of good men around, it’s a married person commenting on the fact.

“Hey, did you ever read Bridget Jones?” I asked.

This fast-talking entertainment lawyer hadn’t, of course, nor had he seen the movie, and so I enlightened him on the concept of Smug Marrieds, and how Bridget taught us that it’s as unacceptable to ask a “Singleton” how her love life is as it is to ask a “Smug Married,” about his sex life.
Which is exactly what I did. OK, not exactly. But I turned the conversation around to Mr. Lawyer’s own marriage. Turns out he wasn’t a Smug Married at all. He wasn’t even happily married. Not the way it sounded to me.
“I’m happily married…compared to most people,” he said, therein taking us into a terrain into which I am completely unfamiliar. How happy are married people? What happens after the “‘Til Death Do Us Part?”
Not what Mr. Lawyer expected. His wife of 10 years was once his “best friend” and also a powerhouse attorney who said she always wanted to work. But after they had kids, she stopped working and now spends her days in the Valley carpooling, housekeeping, lunching and shopping (on an allowance from him). Now they have nothing to talk about, he says, but it’s OK, because “she lets me do what I want.”
What he wants is to stay out working — or taking meetings — until midnight, traveling around the world on various projects and throwing himself into his work, which he “loves.”
“What about real love?” I ask him. “What about companionship?”
This, he has, I find out from his raised eyebrows. His is a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” marriage, where as long as the bills are paid, the beds are made, everybody is happy. (By happy he must mean satisfied or some other definition of the word.)
“Look, it’s better than my best friend,” he says, telling me about a guy who seemed to be in love with his wife of a decade, but then announced one day he was leaving her for his mistress.
“Big mistake,” Lawyer says.
Within two months the mistress dumped him, and he went back to his wife to work things out, “but things will never be the same.”
I’m having so many problems on so many levels with this conversation that I’m not sure where to begin. As I’m mulling it over, my girlfriend returns, and she joins in.
“It’s really hard to be with the same person for more than four years,” she says. She cheated on her boyfriend of six years, even though she still loved him.
“Look, everyone does,” she says. “Best if you just don’t know.”
Everyone cheats? Surely I’ve been living in a sheltered world. Where I come from infidelity is the rare exception to the rule; and yet, in the world I live now, the distinction seems to be between people who admit they cheat and people who don’t. In the new movie, “The Last Kiss,” infidelity is treated as something inevitable to be dealt with, like hair loss or chicken pox.
Perhaps now is the time to rail against society’s expectations for matrimony. I’m comfortable doing this when it suits my purposes, i.e., when I don’t want to be pressured into marriage or ostracized for singledom. But when it comes to society’s expectations for monogamy, I’m on board. I believe in “the last kiss,” that there will be one person I’ll want to spend the rest of my life with, and he with me.
Am I an idiot? Am I bourgeoisie and conservative? Na?ve and romantic? Now that I’m older, I’m realistic enough to know that maybe at times it will be hard — hard to keep the romance alive, hard to find time for love in the midst of kids and bills and work and community obligations, hard not to want to kill the person you’re with at least, say, once a week — but is it really impossible? Is adultery inevitable?
I’ve spent so much time looking for Mr. Right, but what does it matter if Mr. Right is going to be the guy flirting with some single girls at a house party while his wife waits at home thinking he’s at a meeting?
I look at Mr. Lawyer and think, “Is this what I have to look forward to?”
I also think, “Is your hand on my knee?!!”
Quickly, I take it off, excuse myself and leave the party, thankfully, this time, alone.


Uhry’s Latest Knocks Down Stereotypes

Even at the age of 69, Alfred Uhry has a slight lilt in his voice over the phone. It does not cover up his gravelly timbre, but one can detect the hidden mirthfulness of a former drama teacher.

During the 1970s, Uhry taught drama for seven years at an experimental Manhattan high school that featured the progressive open classroom environment, then in vogue. Students called him Alfred, just as the two students in “Without Walls,” now playing at the Mark Taper Forum, call Laurence Fishburne’s drama teacher by his first name, Morocco.

Although Fishburne’s Morocco is African American while Uhry is Jewish, Uhry has always understood what it is like to be an outsider. He grew up in the South in a German Jewish household nearly devoid of Judaism, so much so that he famously participated in Easter egg hunts and Christmas tree celebrations (much like the family in his Tony Award-winning 1996 play, “Last Night at Ballyhoo”). He points out that while he felt like a “minority in the South, there was a bigger minority than me.”

This is not Uhry’s first play about race. In “Driving Miss Daisy,” his best known work, Uhry explored the relationship between a black chauffeur and an aging Jewish matriarch, played in the 1989 film adaptation by Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy.

However, in “Without Walls,” Uhry deals not only with race but also sexuality. Fishburne’s drama teacher is a somewhat flamboyant gay man. When Anton, a young hunk played by newcomer Matt Lanter, arrives full of energy and attitude at Morocco’s apartment, he disdainfully notes his teacher’s sexuality, then cozies up to him by reciting with much bravado and emotion one of Lysander’s speeches from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” We sense that the homoerotic bond between this teenage male and his father figure will ripen by act three.

Uhry says his play “is not about gay and straight. It’s about limits.”

He echoes what Morocco says late in the play to Anton: “We were never friends. We were needy.”

Given the play’s setting, Manhattan, 1976, such neediness knows no restraints. After all, this was the time, Uhry says, “after the advent of the pill and before AIDS, when pot was looked at as being good for you and sex was everywhere.”

“The ’70s are what the ’60s were supposed to have been,” he adds, which means that “it was perfectly OK for a kid to live with a teacher,” as he says occurred on several occasions at the high school where he taught.

Although comparisons might be made to “Welcome Back, Kotter” or “Fame,” both of which take place at Manhattan high schools during the free-love era, Uhry says he did not think about either when writing his play. Instead, the playwright conspicuously pays homage to “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” Muriel Spark’s novel, later adapted for the stage and the screen, about a teacher plagued by scandal over an alleged affair.

“Without Walls” lacks the tragedy of “Brodie.” There is too much humor, good will and idealism in “Without Walls,” which cleverly plays upon its title, as all the actors break the fourth wall, directly addressing the audience on numerous occasions. Sometimes, we are not sure if we are witnessing a play within a play as Anton and Lexy, another student played by Amanda MacDonald, might or might not be rehearsing scenes from “Brodie.” Other times, when Morocco talks to us, we don’t know if he is talking to a room full of students in his class or to an audience of theatergoers.

When Fishburne, looking bulkier than ever before, stands at the back of the set observing his two pupils, we don’t know if he is stage-directing them, spying on them, or orchestrating their love lives — like Oberon and Puck do to Titania, Bottom, Lysander and their cohorts in the Athenian forest in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Uhry says that he directed “Dream” when he was a high school teacher. He spent years behind the scenes in the world of theater, writing lyrics for Frank Loesser among others, doing regional musicals at the Goodspeed Opera House, teaching drama.

His first play wasn’t staged until 1987, when he was 50. But that play, “Driving Miss Daisy,” won Uhry the Pulitzer Prize and later an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Since then, he has won two Tony Awards (best play for “Ballyhoo” and best book of a musical for 1998’s “Parade”).

He now lives with his Episcopalian wife on the Upper West Side, where he says that his four children are “half and half of something like every other kid on the Upper West Side.”

For a man who as a teacher used to say, “What’s going on in the home [of the students], you can’t fix,” Uhry now knows what it’s like to be a parent. Just as he now knows what it’s like to be Jewish. At his wife’s encouragement, the family began having seders. Still, he wishes he had had a stronger Jewish upbringing: “I regret that I don’t have a foundation there.”

“Without Walls” runs Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2:30 p.m., 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. through July 16 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For more information, call (213) 628-2772.


Food for Thought

Vica is tall, blonde and Jewish. She is my interpreter.

It’s February 2005 and I am in Vilna, Lithuania, at the Baltics Limmud Conference. I am here as part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ strategic partnership with the Baltics communities to teach subjects as varied as “Judiasm & Sexuality,” “Conservative Judaism” and “The Meaning of Mitzvah” to a Jewish community whose knowledge of the Jewish tradition was decimated by 50 years of Soviet oppression.

Vica translates what I teach into Russian, the lingua franca of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, a remnant from the Soviet era. She is active in the burgeoning Jewish community in Vilna, and comes to Limmud to work as a translator and to participate in learning. Yet she dates a non-Jewish Lithuanian because there are so few Jewish men her age.

When I ask about her Jewish upbringing, she says she didn’t really have any.

“My mother is Jewish and my father is not,” she says. “My mother had forgotten most everything from her childhood and she was not allowed to practice or learn anything, so by the time I arrived she really didn’t know what to teach me. But once we went to shul on Passover, and I do remember the matzahs from the shul. I don’t remember what they were for, but I remember eating matzah once in shul.”

Vica remembers eating matzah. Don’t underestimate the importance of the taste buds. Jews are a smart people. We value good grades and we love a good debate. But at the beginning of all good Jewish learning, there is food.

In traditional communities, the Alef Bet is still taught by feeding Jewish children Hebrew letters covered in honey so they associate sweetness with Torah. After Moses and the leaders of the Jewish people affirm their covenant with God at Mount Sinai and have a dramatic vision of God, they sit down to eat and drink (Exodus 24:12).

On Passover, when the central mitzvah of the seder is to teach our children the story of the Jewish people, we eat. We eat spring and call it parsley. We eat bitterness and call it maror. We eat bricks and call it charoset. We eat poverty and call it matzah.

We teach our children the words, but when our children are denied the story for 50 years, when a mother “has forgotten most everything from her childhood” and “doesn’t know what to teach,” when nothing else remains, matzah, like a stubborn daffodil blooming after a hard winter’s frost, is what Vica remembers.

Why does food work so well?

Scientists will tell you that the senses of smell and taste are most strongly associated with memory. I think eating resembles what learning the Passover story should be — we allow something from outside of ourselves to enter us; we “digest it” and change it (it is we who must tell the story so that our children can hear it) and it changes us and nourishes us and stays with us forever.

The Passover seder is among the most observed holidays in the Jewish world. When other ties with Jewish life have frayed, Passover remains. The food of Passover has much to do with this fact. Too often, Jews feel disempowered to teach their children, or themselves, the Jewish tradition because they feel they do not know enough. But on Passover, the haggadah teaches — “all who are hungry, come and eat.” Everyone can eat. Passover remains.

But Passover cannot be enough. Matzah cannot be enough. During the rest of the year, what do our homes taste like? Will our children remember the taste of Shabbat dinner on Friday night? Will they remember blintzes on Shavuot? Latkes on Chanukah? Honey and Hebrew letters? Will they remember the smell of cooking food to be delivered to a family who is mourning? What will remain beyond matzah?

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center at the University of Judaism.


Boutique Teaches Brides Love Lessons

Where there’s a bride to be, there’s a bachelorette party. And for many Los Angeles women, that party means just one thing: The Love Boutique. For 25 years, the shop has entertained and educated parties of women about sexuality and sensuality. The Love Boutique parties are like Tupperware parties, but instead of selling kitchenware and sharing recipes, the consultants are selling romance gear and exchanging advice on how to heat things up in the bedroom.

“We provide women with an honest, authentic sexual education,” Love Boutique founder Judy Levy said. “We teach women everything their mothers didn’t and discuss everything that women are afraid to talk about.”

Levy, who describes herself as a nice Jewish mother, wasn’t always in the sexuality business. A graduate of Palisades High, this former B’nai B’rith Girls chapter president spent 15 years as a schoolteacher. While teaching in Europe, she was inspired by stores that sold sexual goods in a traditional retail environment. In January 1981, she brought her version of that liberal European attitude to the Los Angeles area, opening The Love Boutique in Tarzana and hosting home parties. Levy, who celebrated the shop’s 25th anniversary with a charity gala on Feb. 2, has since opened a second shop in Santa Monica and now hosts more than 100 parties each month.

The Love Boutique sells everything from massage oils to lingerie and romantic board games to self-help books. In keeping with the store’s philosophy, these items are merely tools to help women feel elegant, sexy and self-confident.

“The nighties are just the wrapping paper, you are the gift inside,” said Love Boutique party consultant Sophia Silver, who attends Stephen S. Wise. “We want to help women feel good about themselves and their relationships.”

But Levy’s Love Boutique parties aren’t promoting promiscuity or suggesting that women play the field.

“When women understand and respect their bodies, they will find partners who honor, appreciate and respect them,” Levy said. “Only men who understand this will get to be with us.”

Love Boutique consultants teach that sexuality is normal, healthy and fun. They explain that women will feel more powerful, creative and happy when they are comfortable with their sexuality, and that this sexual knowledge will lead to more successful relationships.

While Love Boutique’s parties and shops will have its detractors, Levy believes this education is important for all women, but especially young brides.

“Girls tend to focus on their wedding and forget about their wedding night and the nights after that,” said Levy, who was a virgin bride at 21. “It’s important that women think about how they’ll keep up that connection in their relationship.”

That’s where the Love Boutique’s bachelorette parties come in. The parties teach women to open up lines of communication and be proactive in their requests for what they want emotionally and physically. And attendees say they’re just plain fun. Hostesses invite 25 to 30 friends (over the age of 18) for lots of giggly, girly bonding and what else — shopping.

A love consultant arrives at the hostess’ home with a tablecloth, products and goodies. The party opens with a sexuality quiz. From there, the consultant opens up the conversation, allowing women to share stories and ask questions in a comfortable environment. The consultant leads the guests in games and discussions that help women learn about their own romantic needs. Then she walks the guests through the products available at Love Boutique.

The goods range from aphrodisiac candles to edible body frosting and some items that made this reporter blush to witness, let alone write about. Party consultants are aware that hostesses’ comfort levels may vary, and they will work with the hostess before the party to find a tone that works for her and her guests. At the end of the party, the consultant discretely meets with each guest individually to take orders to ensure that each remains private. The bachelorette receives a free hostess gift and a gift certificate valued at 10 percent of the party’s total sales.

Levy, who participates with ORT and Hadassah, believes her business meshes well with her Jewish beliefs. Many of her party consultants and hostesses are Jewish, and she says her work helps Jewish couples fulfill a Shabbat mitzvah.

“Every Friday night, my husband and I light Shabbat candles and stay home together,” said Levy, who belongs to Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana.

For Levy, who recently spent two weeks in Israel, tikkun olam (healing the world) is personal passion. The Love Boutique’s recent 25th anniversary party at the Jewish-owned Erotic Museum in Hollywood doubled as a benefit for Children of the Night, which rescues children from prostitution. During the month of February, 2 percent of all party, online and Love Boutique sales will go to the nonprofit.

Levy is thrilled to be helping the community at large and Jewish couples in particular through her business.

“We’re helping couples connect emotionally and physically, and it’s that connection that sustains a marriage,” she said.

To book a Love Boutique bachelorette party, call (310) 586-0902 or visit

Navel Gazing With Eve Ensler

Some years ago, playwright-performer Eve Ensler became mortified by her not-so-flat, post-40s belly. She starved herself, hired a trainer and watched late-night Ab-Roller infomercials. She compulsively worked the treadmill and even fantasized about contracting a parasite.

No matter that Ensler had authored the taboo-busting feminist global hit, “The Vagina Monologues.” Her preoccupation with her midriff eroded her confidence and her ability to work.

“I couldn’t understand how I, a radical activist, could spend this much time thinking about my stomach,” she says.

Hungry for answers, she created a new solo show, “The Good Body,” which dissects her angst and that of similarly obsessed women.

In the funny and brash play, Ensler recounts her dismay upon viewing svelte magazine cover girls, whom she describes as “the American dream, my personal nightmare.”

She adopts the role of 11 other women, including a model made over by her plastic surgeon husband, a Puerto Rican who dreads “the spread” and a Jew who cries upon realizing she’s got her mother’s tuchis. Then there’s legendary Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown — purveyor of the thin-is-sexy ideal — whose own mother said she was plain.

“I’m down to 90 pounds,” the 80-year-old character says in the play, while completing 100 sit-ups. “Another 10 years, I’ll be down to nothing. But even then, I won’t feel beautiful. I accept this terrible condition.”

Brown’s self-loathing was typical of the myriad women Ensler met while researching the play on her “Monologues” tour.

“It’s given that a woman will despise at least part of her body, and increasingly deemed advisable for her to go to any lengths to correct it,” she says.

Ensler blames the negative conditioning on continuing pressure from popular culture in patriarchal societies.

“What a great way to keep women out of power,” she adds, sounding cheeky and earthy during a phone interview sandwiched between Miami performances. “As long as we keep focusing on fixing ourselves, we aren’t going to rise up and fix the world, are we? We spend an unprecedented $40 billion a year on beauty products. But what if we used that time and money to improve life on this planet?”

Ensler, 52, certainly practices what she preaches. She has parlayed benefit performances of “Monologues” into a worldwide V-Day movement that has raised millions to end violence against women.

Critics mostly honor her intentions and her status as a feminist icon, and a number have lauded “The Good Body.” But some considered its theme old news when the play debuted on Broadway last year.

“Self-help books and cultural manifestos have been decrying the country’s emphasis on irrationally idealized body image and its pernicious influence on feminine self-esteem for decades,” the New York Times said.

Indeed, Susan Orbach published “Fat Is a Feminist Issue” in 1978, and Naomi Wolf wrote “The Beauty Myth” in 1991.

“The show often serves as therapy rather than crusading ideology,” the Philadelphia Inquirer said.

Ensler scoffs at the suggestion that “The Good Body” is lightweight or irrelevant.

“We’ve been talking about issues such as body image and domestic violence for as long as we can remember, and it’s not like we get done,” she says, annoyed. “And in an era when we have more anorexic girls than ever, and when extreme-makeover shows proliferate on TV, we clearly have far to go.”

Carole Black, a V-Day activist and former CEO of Lifetime Entertainment, agrees. “I have so many friends who are heads of networks who always worry about something, [such as] flabby arms or thighs,” she says. “It’s amazing that we still agonize about this, because the men I know don’t care.”

Perhaps Ensler’s approach works because it is more visceral than academic.

“The power of Eve’s words turns something very personal into something very universal,” said Pat Mitchell, V-Day Council chair and the president and CEO of PBS.

After listening to Ensler, even an initially skeptical Guardian reporter came around. “I felt something happen inside — intellectual anger about beauty tyranny changed into physical rejection of it, a less sophisticated but more formidable force,” she wrote. “[Ensler’s] plays are transforming armchair post-feminists into activists, and radicalizing women more effectively than a whole generation of feminist theory.”

Ensler traces her fixation on disenfranchised women (and her stomach) to her abuse-ridden childhood in Scarsdale, N.Y. She says her late Jewish father raped her from the ages of 5 to 10; thereafter he beat her and tormented her with food.

“He considered showing hunger to be gauche, revealing your lack of class and manners,” Ensler recalls. “He said, ‘Only pigs eat bread.’ Our dining room table was all about not eating too much, sitting up straight, which utensils you were supposed to use.

“I spent years liberating myself from the terror of that table. In fact, I didn’t have a dining room table until this year, because it was the set piece for so much anxiety.”

Young Eve found respite in a “nurturing, big-busted, luscious Jewish aunt” who stuffed her with brisket, taught her to love food and “to associate all things emotional and real with being Jewish.”

Meanwhile, Eve’s own blond, non-Jewish mother seemed dismayed by her theatricality and her resemblance to Anne Frank, Ensler says in “The Good Body.” Eve was hardly the paradigm of the “good” (i.e., blonde and perky) 1950s girl.

Enemas, perms and dancing lessons were prescribed to “clean me up, shut me up, make me good,” she says. When the budding performer spoke out, she felt like the 19th century actress Sarah Bernhardt, who was “Jewish and in deep s—.”

By the time Ensler was in high school, she was drinking heavily to numb her childhood pain. After college, she wandered the country in an alcohol-induced haze, living naked in communes, subsisting for months on booze and marinated mushrooms.

Playwriting and activism provided a crucial part of her recovery in her 20s and 30s.

By 1996, Ensler had interviewed hundreds of subjects to write “The Vagina Monologues,” which celebrates female sexuality, decries domestic violence and the shame women associate with their most private of parts. After performing the show for years, she says she “finally felt comfortable with my vagina after talking about it so much.”

When her shame moved up to her stomach, Ensler again grabbed her notebook and consulted women around the world. She met Asians who poisoned themselves with skin-lightening creams, mothers who removed their daughters’ ribs so they would not have to worry about dieting, Texas matrons who had their feet surgically narrowed to fit into Manolo Blahniks.

She also met Indian and African women who celebrated their roundness and helped Ensler to embrace her body.

So after performing “The Good Body” for more than a year, is the artist finally over her stomach? She says she is — mostly. She no longer meticulously diets and exercises, although she does feel the occasional twinge when she sees waifs with flat, pierced bellies. But she appreciates how generous her body is.

“It performs eight shows a week for me. It travels the world. It doesn’t often get sick,” she says.

Ensler was pleased when several older Jewish viewers in Miami “got” her message after viewing her show recently.

“They said they were donating the money they had saved for plastic surgery to charity,” she says.

“My prayer for all women is that they stop seeking to look good and to be ‘good’ but to do good.”

“The Good Body” runs Jan. 31-Feb. 12 at the Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Building 226, Brentwood. For tickets, call (213) 365-3500. For information, visit


Unfashionable Crisis

Dov Charney, founder, CEO and president of American Apparel, has been hailed by many anti-sweatshop activists as a pioneer in the fair treatment of garment workers in Los Angeles, in an industry notorious for substandard working conditions and abuse. It’s a reputation, along with a quality product and a sexy image, that the 36-year-old, self-described “Jewish hustler” has parlayed into a company with sales expected to hit $250 million this year. But now, a competing, unflattering reputation is beginning to overtake his good press, as allegations of sexual harassment come to light.

In one lawsuit filed in May, two former employees allege that Charney subjected them to a “sexually hostile work environment,” and that Charney’s company and fellow executives “continually, repeatedly and purposely ignored the pervasive sexual harassment at American Apparel.”

A second lawsuit, also filed in May, accused Charney, among other things, of dropping his pants in front of female employees and conducting a job interview in his underwear. The women, who worked at the company for periods of nine months to nearly two years, allege that Charney gave employees vibrators, used derogatory language toward women and asked employees to masturbate with him.

Charney denies any wrongdoing. He labels the lawsuits as shakedowns that are attempts by disgruntled ex-employees to exploit his open personality. “The only victim here, unfortunately, is the accused,” he told The Journal.

At the same time, Charney acknowledged in a series of interviews behavior that pushes the bounds of what is conventionally acceptable in a modern workplace. He speaks openly about having consensual sexual relationships at work, and claims that he is inspired to do better work when surrounded by women with whom he has relationships. More then that, he says his aggressiveness and his sexuality is the fount of his creativity — even the key to his success.

“I’m being demonized for being a human being,” Charney told a reporter. “It’s very simple…. This is 2005, sex is now part of the fashion industry. I admit I am passionate. I don’t think I go over the line. Sexuality and sexual words become part of the daily banter of work life in any free society.”

Charney’s banter, in fact, is so explicit that The Journal edited his comments for vulgarity. Many of the allegations in the lawsuits also involve profane, explicitly sexual remarks.

As Charney sees it, the bigger his business gets, the bigger a target he becomes. American Apparel, under his leadership, has become the prototype for a wildly successful, sweatshop-free business — a company that produces its goods in America, pays its workers living wages and offers them such benefits as health insurance and English classes. The company currently employs about 5,000 people, the majority of whom work out of its Warehouse Street headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.

Regardless of the lawsuits’ outcome, Los Angeles-based organizations, such as the Progressive Jewish Alliance (which featured Charney in their “No Shvitz” anti-sweatshop book) and other anti-sweatshops activists worry that the public stain on Charney’s reputation will hurt their campaign for sweatshop reform.

Even before his legal troubles, some critics had struck a cautionary note, citing Charney’s opposition to a union organizing drive and accusing him of overhyping his company as more progressive then it truly is.

Union issues aside, if Charney transforms himself from progressive poster boy to sexual bad boy, other corporate players will press their claim that “progressive” and “profits” can’t mix after all. At the very least, activists won’t be able to hold up Charney’s company as a model at the expense of appearing to condone sexual harassment.

“If the current harassment allegations against him are correct, it is a real shame, because it will tarnish the good that he’s done,” said Progressive Jewish Alliance President Aryeh Cohen, who is also a professor at the University of Judaism. “Emotional abuse is just as much of a worker-justice issue as living wages are. So if the sexual harassment allegations are correct, then he’s not doing what he claims to be doing. It would be a shame, then, if other people point at him and say [a sweatshop-free business] can’t work.”

The Art of the T-Shirt

Charney hails from a family of successful, creative Jews whose careers have embodied civic involvement and betterment. His uncle is the famous Israeli Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, whose work includes the National Gallery of Canada and the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles. His father, Maurice Charney, is also an architect, and his mother, Sylvia Safdie, an artist.

“Growing up in Montreal in the 1970s and 1980s,” Charney said in an earlier published interview, “you couldn’t ask for a better milieu to cultivate expanded and creative thinking.”

Charney has talked of launching his career in clothing as a teenager selling screen-printed T-shirts he smuggled from the United States outside the Montreal Forum. His story includes an account of having dropped out of Boston’s Tufts University to set up a forerunner of American Apparel in South Carolina, which had problems and was transferred to Los Angeles in 1997.

Through what turned out to be a genius for marketing and a passion for great-fitting shirts, Charney quickly positioned his company as the brand of choice for cotton goods worn by Gen X and Gen Y hipsters. He photographed the company’s quasi-70s porn-style ads himself, using real men and women he met, not models.

The company is now the largest in-house manufacturer of T-shirts in Los Angeles, and its retail stores are spread from Beverly Hills to Los Feliz, with dozens of retail outlets across the country and in seven countries by year’s end. In addition to the brand’s qualify, low prices and sexy image, its marketing campaign expressly promotes the company as a sweatshop-free manufacturer.

Sweatshop labor is a heated issue for Los Angeles activists, where garment manufacturing employs about 250,000, according to the California Fashion Association. Some activists say the city leads the nation in the exploitation of primarily Latino and Asian immigrants, who are forced to produce clothing under illegal conditions and for unlivable wages.

Charney says he aspired to something more humane by refining a form of “vertical integration,” in which all manufacturing, design and marketing is done under one roof, cutting down on expenses and controlling all the variables (different designer, production and marketing companies) that usually contribute to sweatshop practices.

“Vertical integration hadn’t happened on the scale that he attempted it,” said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association, an industry networking organization.

“There’s always been a shooting star at any given time,” she added, referring to Charney’s sudden rise. “There’s always someone who comes out of nowhere and people say, ‘Where the hell did he come from?'”

Charney once said that he got the idea for vertical integration from seeing it done at a bagel shop in Montreal. “We’ve been able to advance a business machinery that’s really a human kind of business machinery, that can produce products that people really love to wear,” he said. “We’re a capitalist company, but we try to be a good place to work.”

Charney’s work made him almost a hero in the justice community, said activist Rabbi Sharon Brous of the IKAR Spiritual Community in Los Angeles. Brous, who also sits on the board of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, observed, “The Rabbis said of such people ‘adam chashuv shani’ — it is different with important people — those in the spotlight have an even greater responsibility to work against their inner demons, to fight for consistency.”

That’s a challenge perhaps for Charney, who explained the source of his fashion instincts to the Ottawa Citizen by thumping his chest and saying: “I know it here and in my pants.”

A Sexually Charged Workplace

The publicity tide began to shift for Charney in July 2004, after the writer of a Jane magazine profile wrote that Charney masturbated multiple times in front of her, with her consent, while she was reporting the story. Charney confirmed the encounter, saying, “It was 4 a.m., and there was alcohol, and friendship and pleasure in the air.”

“The Jane article, unfortunately, may have laid the groundwork for these lawsuits,” Charney added.

But if the former employees’ allegations — by a sales manager, a recruiter and a trade show coordinator — are true, Charney has been a lawsuit waiting to happen for some time. In the lawsuit, former recruiter Heather Pithie claims that “throughout the course of her employment,” she was subjected to “continual, repeated, egregious, sexually explicit comments, gestures and behavior.” At least once, he allegedly yelled at her: “I want you to find some hot girls: The kind of girls I am going to want to [word deleted]. He also allegedly told her to hire “any kind of _____, black, white, Asian, ooh! I love Asians, I just want to ____ them all.”

Pithie also accused Charney of simulating sex in front of her and telling her she need to stop this “feminist ____.”

Plaintiff Rebecca Brinegar’s bill of particulars include an episode in which Charney allegedly exposed himself “in the nude in front of her.” Brinegar, a trade show coordinator, claims in the suit, that she complained to her immediate supervisor, but that nothing changed. The lawsuit also alleges that there was an unreported rape of one employee by another. The unnamed alleged rapist was not Charney.

Charney, who considers himself an artist, says that the lawsuits misinterpret and misrepresent his company’s modern, creative work environment, and that he is being exploited because of his success and sexually open persona.

“The vernacular of the fashion industry should not be used as a device to extort money,” he said.

As for exposing himself, he joked: “I could pull my penis out right now, and I guarantee you no one would be offended.”

And as for allegations that he walked around the office in his underwear, Charney said, “Of course you have me in my underwear in front of high-level employees. Guess what? I design underwear!” Charney said that he thinks the culture at American Apparel is “healthy,” and he has no plans to change it.

“I never gave out sexual vibrators in my business,” Charney added. “I never exposed myself to any of these parties, and I never had sexual intentions, and I never invited anyone to masturbate with me as far as these three parties are concerned.”

That said, Charney says that he sees nothing wrong with having sexual relationships with the women who work for him: “Is it illegal to ask someone to masturbate, or to say to an employee, ‘Hey, do you want to go to a hotel or motel and let’s ____?'”

A ruling by the California Supreme Court last week could add to Charney’s worries in this respect. The case had been filed by female employees over a relationship that their supervisor had with another underling. The court ruled that the women not involved with the supervisor suffered from a hostile work environment and could proceed with claims of sexual harassment.

Charney is “not only vulnerable to a lawsuit from every woman he did have sexual relationships with, he’s also vulnerable to every woman he didn’t sleep with as well,” said Judith Kurtz, a Bay area attorney who specializes in employment discrimination. “It’s not illegal to have consensual sexual relations with employees, but there could be women who say that they feel like they didn’t have any choice. And there could be other women who say that the women who did have relationships with him gained advantages from it.”

Even if sexual favors were not demanded or provided in exchange for something, Kurtz said, it’s also illegal to “create a hostile working environment.” The allegations, if true, could certainly quality, she added.

Two of the women suing Charney, Pithie and Brinegar, are represented by feminist attorney Gloria Allred who would only say, “We look forward to trying this case in court.”

The third woman, Mary Nelson, is being represented by attorney Keith A. Fink, who characterized Charney as someone who mistakenly believes “that the First Amendment gives you a right to be a jerk.” Charney, in turn, asserts that Nelson is suing him because he didn’t renew her contract.

Charney calls his accusers substandard workers who never complained about his behavior while at the company. “It was well known that I was a pretty open person,” he told The Journal. “They just want money.”

“I’m an atheist, but I swear on the Torah, my bubbe and my zayde, that I had one fantasy about these women,” Charney said. “Want to hear it? I wanted to fire them all. I thought they were all lousy employees from the beginning.”

Charney drew parallels between his case and a lawsuit over sexually charged language in the writers’ room of the NBC sitcom, “Friends”: “You have to be able to speak freely in a creative environment, or else creativity doesn’t really happen.”

Charney likened his problems to homophobia, except in his case, “It’s sex phobia.”

Just ask Metchek of the California Fashion Association if Charney is beyond the pale. “He’s a kook, but they’re all kooks,” she responded. “They all have their own style. We have a lot of kooks in our business. He is very modern. In today’s world, and the looseness of the society of today, he is of this generation.”

She added: “You don’t see people who are not successful being sued by people who are ‘offended.’ If you don’t think that’s extortion, what is? The business community, as a community, is tired of it.”

In the end, she predicted, Charney could benefit from the furor. “Positively,” she said. “His business is up 15 percent this week. You’ve only heard of American Apparel since his notoriety.”

A Jewish Looking Glass

Despite his atheism, Charney feels sufficiently challenged to circle the tribal wagons.

“I think the Jewish community should have an inquiry,” he told The Journal. “What the hell is this? I think I’ve been an outstanding contributor to the dignity of Los Angeles. I’m committed to this city. I’m committed to my employees…. How do you think it is on a Jewish mother? It’s horrible for her to see her son facing these accusations.”

“I’ve participated with great joy in building American Apparel,” Charney added, “and I love every day of it…. I don’t think I should be cast this way as some ‘horny mack-daddy’ who humiliates women. There are some very strong women who work for American Apparel. Powerful women. More then half of the executives are women.”

That’s not enough clarity for Brous: “Let me make this clear: Everybody is flawed. But we are dealing with a person whose fame and fortune came from a public refusal to exploit workers — the very same people whom he is now accused of intimidating and abusing. That is, in my estimation, an incongruity that cannot be chalked up to ‘people are complex.’ It is utterly impossible to separate out economic and social justice — an environment of sexual intimidation is just as intimidating and abusive as a sweatshop in which a worker is afraid she’ll lose her job if she takes a bathroom break.”

The litigation discomforts anti-sweatshop activists who have supported American Apparel. They’d already had to accept Charney’s staunchly anti-union position. And for some time, a small chorus has never quite accepted Charney’s pro-labor bona fides, especially because he never submitted to voluntary inspections.

“Based on anecdotal evidence we’ve heard, he’s a cut above other manufacturers in Los Angeles, but I don’t know if he really lives up to the extravagant claims he makes,” said Richard Applebaum, author of “Behind the Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry” (UC Press, 2000). “He claims to pay higher wages, a living wage, but there’s no independent evidence of it. He made insurance available to his employees, but they had to pay for it. It’s like saying something is kosher, without having a rabbi look at it.”

A research colleague of Applebaum’s agrees.

“Charney is a master PR man, a great self-promoter, a very effective entrepreneur and hustler,” said Peter Dreier, a professor of public policy at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

“The only way to know if a garment factory is ‘sweat free’ is still to look for the union label,” he said. “There are garment factories in the U.S. where employees have union contracts, get full family health benefits, decent wages, three and four weeks of paid vacations, a decent pension and respect from their supervisors. When you buy a shirt, a dress, a suit or a T-shirt from these companies, you can shop with a conscience. This isn’t the case at American Apparel.”

Metchek of the Fashion Association defends Charney’s record: “Dov’s doing the very best he can for a workforce that is working under the cloud of illegal immigration.”

However, if the harassment allegations prove out, those activists who’ve supported Charney’s business model could find themselves in a quandary.

“It is very dangerous to judge based only on allegations,” Brous told The Journal. “That said, I would personally not feel comfortable associating with someone who, when faced with these accusations, responds in such a glib and dismissive way…. If these charges are true, he has made a mockery of his supposed pursuit of justice. Needless to say, I, for one, will not shop at American Apparel until this is resolved.”

A conclusion like that could loom larger over Charney’s future then even the two lawsuits. Still, others are withholding their judgment.

“We don’t want to prejudge … innocent until proven guilty,” said professor Aryeh Cohen, who has never met Charney. But “if the allegations are right, it’s kind of tragic. It’s disappointing. Here was a model, a guy who was doing well by doing good, and he wasn’t doing so good if the allegations are right.”

Portions of this article first appeared in The Forward. Additional reporting by Jim Crogan.


Beyond the Birds and the Bees


It was lights out in the guys bunk at Camp Alonim, and the beginning of the nightly brag session. Some of the 15 and 16 year olds started egging each other on to share details of who snuck where with whom and how far they got.

But tonight Seth Ort, the 21-year-old counselor, had some new ammunition to put a stop to it.

As the big talkers started in, Ort reminded them about Steven, a fictional character who showed up in a scenario during their seminar on sexual ethics. Ort reminded the 20 boys what they’d said about Steven, who had boasted about his experiences and tried to push a pal into also going “all the way” with a girl.

Ort recounted their own words about Steven:

“He’s a jerk,” they had said.

“He’s making it tough for the rest of the guys.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about and he’s probably making it up.”

The guys remembered and the room got quieter. Ort said he’s noticed a lot less bragging since then. And he’s heard some of the entering 11th graders — boys and girls — use terms and skills they gleaned in the intensive sex-ed program, which is aimed at helping teens make ethically and psychologically sound sexual decisions.

“I don’t think they went back after the program and said I’m going to change everything about the way I relate to the opposite sex, but I think it did have a subtle effect,” Ort said.

The 60 Camp Alonim campers who are entering 11th grade are the first participants in “Bridging the Gap: Jewish Sexual Ethics for Teens and Their Parents,” developed by the Brandeis Bardin Institute in consultation with experts in the fields of Jewish studies, education and psychology.

The program combines text study, group therapy and parent participation over a single weekend to bring a Jewish educational component to the summer fling, with the hopes of extending that new sensibility to year-round decision-making. The first campers to participate were a particularly key group because they are “counselors-in-training,” who spend a small portion of their time working with younger kids. These older campers help set the tone for all of Camp Alonim, and they also are old enough to exploit the potential sexual opportunities that go along with virtually any camp setting. Brandeis will run the program twice more for ninth and 10th graders.

“The idea is we touch the kids’ lives and teach them that Judaism and Jewish values are something they will have throughout their lives in a real way that they can apply, not just as something hypothetical and abstract,” said Alonim director Ed Gelb, who conceived the program.

Camp Alonim, located at Brandeis in Simi Valley, deals with sex pretty much like most Jewish and non-Jewish camps: It forbids sexual activity. While “sexual activity” is never defined in lurid detail, teens in years past have been sent home for having intercourse or oral sex. Camp staff acknowledges that, despite nightly patrols and keeping close watch, some “messing around” goes on. Which is why, they say, having this program at camp makes so much sense.

“Bridging the Gap” doesn’t go over the plumbing, which kids get in biology and health class at school. Nor do they get a by-the-book run-down of halacha (Jewish law), since Alonim is nondenominational and most of the kids are not halachically observant. It also doesn’t mandate what 16 year olds should or shouldn’t be doing.

Rather, the point is for teens to learn ways that Judaism defines a healthy and sacred relationship, to understand their own parents’ values on the topic and to use that information — along what they already know about the realities of sex in the 21st century — to set their own moral compass.

“Faith-based summer camp is a great place for this kind of program to take place because it allows teens to get a sense of their community’s values,” said Martha Kempner, director of public information for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a 40-year-old nonprofit based in New York. “Too often we focus on disaster prevention, on preventing teen pregnancy or STDs, and we forget that really our ultimate goal is to create sexually healthy adults.”

A complete education happens over years in many venues, but a weekend program at camp is a great start, Kempner said.

About 45 percent of American high schoolers surveyed in 2001 had sex in the three months prior to the survey, and a greater number are sexually active, though not necessarily having intercourse, according to a biannual study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control. (That number is down 10 percentage points since 1991.)

While many schools and synagogue youth programs have Jewish sexual-ethics courses, sex ed seems a natural fit for the microcosmic world of camp, where informal Jewish education often becomes a more formative experience than Hebrew school or even day school. At camp, kids are the comfortable keepers of their own turf, a day feels like a week and relationships happen quickly and deeply. Camp has long been a venue for sexual discovery, from that first kiss in the starlight behind a bunk to sneaking into the sports shed while counselors are at a late-night staff meeting.

Not as natural was the idea of bringing parents into this strictly parent-free zone, a risk Brandeis felt was justified by the benefit of having teens and parents hear each other on this often-taboo topic.

It was precisely that risk that made “Bridging the Gap” stand out for the Foundation for Jewish Camping, a national organization based in New York that awarded Brandeis a $20,000 grant to develop the seminar.

“This program is extremely modern and extremely relevant to the environment that these young teens live in,” said Jerry Silverman, president of the foundation. “We felt that this could have a significant impact not just for the teens within the camp setting, but as something that can evolve into year-round discussions in the home.”

This month, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles awarded Brandeis an additional $20,000 to evaluate its program and then to teach other camp directors how to run it — a welcome prospect, other directors say.

While sexuality comes up in informal camper-counselor conversations — and in laying out the camp rules — no formal venue exists for talking about sexual ethics with campers at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s two camps, Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop, in Malibu, said director Douglas Lynn.

During staff training at Hess Kramer, a social worker and rabbi helped counselors learn how to handle sensitive topics of sexuality. This type of staff training is a growing trend among all camps, Jewish and non-Jewish, according to Silverman.

At Camp Ramah in Ojai, counselors spent a full day with rabbis and mental health professionals in a seminar they call “B’tzelem Elohim: In God’s Image.” The goal is to foster a healthy camp atmosphere for dealing with topics such as body image, sexuality and social pressure.

In developing “Bridging the Gap,” Brandeis consulted child mental-health specialists Ian Russ and Wendy Mogel, both highly acclaimed in the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Family therapist Miriam Wolf came into the project later, taking on the job of presenting the material to campers. Dr. Aryeh Cohen, a professor of rabbinic literature at the University of Judaism, worked on the Jewish-values piece, along with his wife, Andrea Hodos, a former Jewish studies teacher at Milken Community High School.

Hodos had developed a similar program at Milken, where she incorporated the study of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with a critical analysis of the 1998 coming-of-age film “Pleasantville.” In that movie, two teenagers foment a sexual revolution in a 1950s town, opening the town’s eyes much as Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened in Genesis, after they ate the forbidden fruit.

Through studying that chapter of Genesis and rabbinic commentaries on it, the teens explored issues such as temptation, peer pressure, decision-making, and how to view other human beings.

Hodos and Wolf, along with Alonim staff educators, talked with the teens about how intimacy holds a prominent and holy place in strong relationships, about the value of privacy, about how each human is created in the image of God and must respect himself and others. They focused on seeing others as people who deserved to be comprehended and responded to, not treated as tools to be used.

Hodos and Wolf didn’t expect to hit every note right on the first try, and they were disappointed that the terminology from the text-study sessions didn’t come up later in the day, when kids were dissecting a scenario of a camp romance gone bad. But the teens did express some of the concepts in their own words.

Most of the teens said they enjoyed the group discussions but found the Jewish text portion boring and irrelevant. Organizers reworked the program for the next run, which took place last weekend. They made the material more interactive and spread out some of the text study to Saturday, rather than cramming everything into Sunday.

Despite scattered complaints, camp staff is pretty certain a lot sunk in, including the part about respecting someone as a complete person.

“It’s had an effect on the way the guys treat the girls and the way the girls feel they ought to be treated,” said adviser Lindsay Salk.

Hodos and Wolf hope the teens’ analysis of the Genesis texts, along with the moral parsing they engaged in later on, will help these youths find Jewish ways to answer questions about casual fooling around, “friends with benefits” and how far is too far, even in a committed relationship.

One important piece of this program — even at camp — is parents.

About 30 parents answered the invitation for an evening program with the kids — out of a pool of 120. Some parents attended reluctantly, saying they felt uncomfortable about interrupting the sacred parent-child separation of camp, or felt that the topic invaded their child’s privacy or their own.

But research and polling indicates a sex-communication gap between the generations that needs to be bridged. In an NBC/People Magazine poll from 2004, 85 percent of parents said they often talk to their kids about sex, but only 41 percent of teens reported frequent conversations with their parents on this subject.

At dusk on Sunday at Brandeis, those conversations were happening in earnest.

Parents were not placed with their own kids in break-out groups led by camp educators, in order to respect familial privacy and keep things more theoretical. In remarkably open discussions, both generations talked about what their side wanted and needed most from the other.

“I never hear my parents say they made mistakes. They act like they’re perfect and I know they’re not,” one boy said.

“Hypocrisy and lecturing just annoy all teenagers,” a girl opined.

“Don’t wait to have the ‘Big Talk’ with us. Nobody wants it and everybody dreads it,’ one girl told the parents. “Just have lots of little conversations, so it’s a natural thing for us to talk about.”

The teens also talked about double standards.

“My dad is turning my brother into someone he would never let me go out with,” one girl said.

“Sometimes,” one girl said, “we really, really need to talk to you about something that happened, but we’re afraid you’ll get mad or we’ll get grounded, so we just don’t tell you.”

The advice and questions went the other way, too. Dads asked whether their girls wanted to talk to their fathers about sex. One girl said talking to her dad about guys made her cringe, another said she was more comfortable talking to her dad than her mom, and he could tell her more about what guys were thinking.

“Our one main concern is that you don’t get hurt, physically or emotionally,” one dad said.

“We’re really afraid for you,” a mother said.

“So tell us that you’re afraid,” said a boy.

“I always like getting information from my daughter before I find out another way,” one mother offered.

Another mother tried to explain to the kids why parenting is so hard.

“The parents here are really an in-between generation,” she said. “We never spoke to our parents about anything having to do with sex, so we don’t have any experience in talking about these things. We need to be shown how to be there. We want to talk to you, but we don’t really know how.”

Organizers hope this interchange helped parents and teens develop a common language in which to talk about sex. At the very least, they may have opened the door for a long overdue conversation.

“I have never talked to my parents about sex before, except for them saying, ‘Make sure you’re safe,'” said one girl. “Then, on the car ride to camp, we were so much more open because they were coming for this. We had this open, honest conversation, and it was an ideal conversation. I was so happy about it.”

L.A. Camps Host National Powwow

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

Board members of the Foundation for Jewish Camping will converge on L.A.-area camps this week as they hold their annual meeting. Members will shuttle among the Brandeis Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, Camp Ramah in Ojai, Camp JCA Shalom and Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop in Malibu.

Among the topics they discuss will be the newly commissioned study of the L.A. Jewish camping market to find out who is and isn’t sending their kids where and why. The study was just awarded a $25,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, which will augment $40,000 that the Foundation for Jewish Camping is contributing to the effort.

“We then will be able to share that information with the Los Angeles community so we can create very specific marketing strategies and make the right programmatic changes to meet the consumer’s needs and to work to grow the market share of camping in the Los Angeles Jewish community,” said Jerry Silverman, president of the Foundation for Jewish Camping.

Robert Bildner and Elissa Spungen-Bildner founded the Foundation for Jewish Camping in 1998 to focus more community attention and dollars on camping, which study after study has shown to be one of the most effective, formative Jewish experiences.

Silverman said one significant concern in the Los Angeles market is that there is no Orthodox camp west of the Mississippi. Every summer, hundreds of Orthodox Angelenos board planes to attend camps in the Midwest and on the East Coast, and hundreds more opt not to go to a residential camp at all.

Silverman said he is in the preliminary stages of speaking to potential supporters for such a camp.

“Our hope is that in the next two or three years there will be an Orthodox camp on the West Coast,” Silverman said.

While some in the Orthodox community have spent years trying to establish a camp, efforts have been stymied by the price of real estate and by differing notions of what philosophy and practices an Orthodox camp would espouse.

Why Women Stray

“Undressing Infidelity: Why More Wives Are Unfaithful” (Adam Media Corp, $14.95)

Diane Shader Smith is a fearless Jewish mother, or would that be redundant? Smith, with her new, hot-selling book, “Undressing Infidelity: Why More Wives Are Unfaithful” has gone where very few have dared go in unmasking the myth that women don’t stray and actually have fun while doing it.

Women are cheating in every section of the country and in every walk of life, she reported.

“It’s happening in both affluent communities and in areas where money is an issue,” Smith said. “The temptation to stray is part of the human condition.”

Why do wives stray?

“Some women have made the decision to marry a man for security and do so at the expense of passion. Once they have what they thought they always wanted, they still feel something is missing,” she said.

Smith said a woman told her she’d have sex in the afternoon with her lover and sex with her husband at night to ensure he never suspected.

“Women are smart,” Smith said. “They know the warning signs when a man wanders, and they are careful to cover their tracks. Women don’t want to get caught, because they love their husbands and their lives. Their affairs are relationships they claim have nothing to do with their marriage.”

Smith believes women get caught when they want an exit strategy, but when they want to keep the marriage intact, they are very careful. She thinks it’s a misconception that more men cheat than women, and that in reality, for every man who cheats, there’s a woman who cheats, as well — and that includes Jewish women.

“No one should assume married men are sleeping with just single women,” Smith said. “Single women don’t make good partners for married men; they want a date on Saturday night … they want flowers. Married women don’t want things they’d have to explain to their husbands. If they’re smart, they don’t tell their friends, because there is too much at stake, and they have too much to lose.”

The author found cases where women ruined their lives by telling a friend.

“It’s hard for people to keep secrets,” she pointed out. “You wouldn’t want something like that hanging over your head.”

In looking at the generational aspects of adultery, Smith said she was surprised to find women in their 70s admitting to affairs.

“A small percent of older women cheat, but this generation [of younger women] had birth control readily available on campus and grew up reading ‘The Joy of Sex.’ They feel more comfortable with infidelity, more sexually entitled.”

The author said many admitted to enjoying the added drama that comes with an affair, as well as the sex and emotion.

“Women speak about the ritual of anticipation,” she explained. “They dress for their affairs, they bathe for them, they perfume and coif themselves. The process of preparing increases the sense of anticipation.”

The writer reported that most women she interviewed were not having affairs throughout their marriage. However, at some point, she said, they allowed themselves to get close to another man.

“The vast majority of women are not serial cheaters,” Smith explained. “Women said they stepped out once or twice during their marriage, but not time after time.”

At first glance, Smith would appear to be like any other mother and housewife, with two children in Beverly Hills public schools and numerous after-school activities. She wrote the book to satisfy her curiosity about infidelity — when she was tempted to stray.

“I decided that before I did anything, I should talk to other women in the same situation,” Smith said. “There was no ‘Girlfriend’s Guide to Infidelity,’ so I set about to make the subject accessible to women everywhere.”

This led her to every corner of America, interviewing women from all walks of life and economic strata over a four-year period. In doing the research, she found that women cheat for a variety reasons.

“In some cases, it is dissatisfaction in their marriage,” Smith said. “In other cases, women are trying to escape their own personal demons. And then there are those who simply feel they are entitled to enjoy the same extracurricular activities as men.”

There are other contributing reasons for the increase in affairs, too.

“We have no-fault divorce, which means women won’t have their children taken away,” she pointed out. “And anti-depressants, which contribute to sexual problems in marriages. Women like sex — when they’re not satiated at home, they are more likely to stray. And the women who marry for security at the expense of passion find themselves seeking relationships purely for sexual satisfaction.”

Her research revealed that another reason women cheat is because in many marriages, “there is no place for sex and romance, while raising children, paying bills, making sure dinner is on the table and helping kids with homework.”

“A lot of women said their affairs made their marriage better — that it jump-started their own sexuality and helped revitalize the sex in their marriage,” the author found. “Many of the women said they didn’t regret their affairs, because they restored their sense of femininity, which had been diminished by all the demands placed on married women today.”

The author discovered the 40s to be a popular age for infidelity, noting, “Women seem to stray then, because their kids are a little older, and they are no longer so tired all the time.”

“However, it’s also easier to stray at the beginning of a marriage, when there aren’t children, and there’s less of a bond,” she said. “Women with small children are the least likely group to stray, because they are so tired and often less interested in sex, period.”

She said infidelity is a fact of life that people don’t really want to talk about.

“No one sits you down when you get married and tells you how to handle it when you are attracted to another man,” Smith said. “It’s difficult for some people to talk about.”

The interviews revealed that there seemed to be no difference between religious and nonreligious women, when it came to straying from the marriage.

“One woman who was religious said she believed God had led her to her lover, and she left her husband to be with him,” she said.

Smith has concluded infidelity is like a cancer and can take various forms.

“It can be caught early and cured or become malignant and deadly,” she said.

When children find out a parent cheated it is devastating, Smith found, adding that “women owe it to their children to get professional help. It’s wrong to assume they’ll get over it on their own. The world teaches us you do not cheat, so how does a child rationalize his or her mother’s [or father’s] infidelity?”

Smith said every woman has to make her own decision on straying. She believes that cheating is bad, but that women often think it’s better to have the affair than to break up their children’s home.

Her interviews led her to conclude that there are many cases in which a woman is happier if she is enjoying the company of other men. However, in other situations, she noted, an adulterous affair has dropped a bomb on the lives of those involved. Smith found that some women get caught, while others confessed their infidelities and hoped their husbands would forgive them.

After writing the book, Smith said the best advice she can give brides is to make sure they are marrying for the right reasons.

“It’s also important to carve out time for yourself and your husband and be attentive to the romantic and sexual parts of your relationship,” she emphasized. Communication between a man and woman is a great way to minimize the possibility of extramarital sex in a marriage.”

So, after all the interviewing, did Smith stray?

“You’ll have to read the book to find out,” she said with a laugh.


Producer Channels

Gays weren’t even on the radar in Ilene Chaiken’s Jewish community in Philadelphia back in the 1960s.

The creator of Showtime’s lesbian drama, "The L Word," grew up in a home of "good liberal Jews" and belonged to a Reform temple.

"But I think the closest one ever came to acknowledging that homosexuality existed was that ‘queer’ was an insult," said Chaiken, 46. The poised, cerebral executive producer spoke to The Journal in her publicist’s Beverly Hills office. "For years, I was conditioned to think of myself as heterosexual and to measure myself in terms of how I fared in the heterosexual world."

After moving to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, the 22-year-old Chaiken obtained a job as an agent trainee and a steady boyfriend, with whom she shared an apartment. But despite the external stability, she felt out of sorts.

"I sensed it had something to do with my sexuality, but I didn’t confess that even to myself," she said.

The change came when she began hanging out at a West Hollywood cafe owned by several lesbians; eventually she struck up a friendship with one of the women, with whom she had her first same-sex affair.

While the relationship didn’t last long, she said, "it let me know that this was a possibility, and once I became aware of it as a possibility, suddenly life seemed a bit more right. The process was scary, but it was much more just a revelation and a relief."

Chaiken channeled that experience and others into "The L Word," which centers on a circle of hip lesbians in West Hollywood. The first television series to revolve around lesbian characters, it joins gay-themed TV shows such as HBO’s "Six Feet Under," NBC’s "Will & Grace," Showtime’s "Queer as Folk" and Bravo’s "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

Although "The L Word" has been well-received by TV critics, some observers worry that the series and others like it will enhance the allure of "bisexual chic" among teenage girls.

"Children, in particular, are vulnerable to messages they receive from the popular culture," said Robert Peters, president of the interfaith watchdog group, Morality in Media.

Chaiken, who dismisses such thinking as "archaic," insists the show "is not going to make something happen that is not already happening in the zeitgeist." In fact, she conceived the show while writing an article for Los Angeles magazine four years ago on the gay and lesbian baby boom, a trend she had personally experienced when her partner, Miggi, gave birth to their twin daughters in 1995.

"I suddenly realized that I was very much writing about my life and my community, and that there were so many more [lesbian] stories that hadn’t been told," she said. "I figured the best way to tell them was to do an ensemble TV show."

She brought elements of her own life to several of the characters, including the fictional Jenny Schecter (Mia Kirschner), a passionate, bookish Jewish writer, who is new to Los Angeles and living with a boyfriend, albeit sexually confused.

While Jenny soon questions her heterosexual relationship, the more hesitant Chaiken continued dating men for a year after her first lesbian experience. It took her even longer to come out to her parents, which happened when she was 24 and living with Miggi, an architect, whom she described as her roommate. But a few days after her mother came to visit around 1984, Chaiken knew she had to come clean.

"Things got very tense and awkward, because it’s unpleasant to live a lie," she recalled.

Over the course of 12 years, the Chaikens began including Miggi in family seders and calling her their daughter-in-law.

Each "L Word" character also tells her coming-out story, which Chaiken calls a seminal experience in every gay person’s life.

Charges that the steamy sex in the series is a ploy to draw male viewers irk Chaiken.

"The whole notion that we did this just to titillate men is just so off the mark," she said. "The sexuality portrayed in the show … speaks directly to gay women starved for representations of themselves on TV."

Although Chaiken’s primary concern is telling meaningful, universal stories, she also hopes the show reaches lesbians who feel as lost as she did during her early years in Los Angeles. "I hope it helps them come to terms with themselves and to feel less alone," she said.

"The L Word" airs Sundays, 10 p.m., on Showtime.

Enjoy Wedded Bliss in Lotus Position

Not every couple’s notion of the ideal honeymoon entails a hedonistic beach resort and lots of fruity drinks garnished with umbrellas. Some want to begin married life with yoga.

Some couples pursue tantric yoga, a form that includes a tranquil sexuality, in hopes of creating a powerful union of mind, body and spirit. The Institute for Ecstatic Living — (877) 982-6872; — organizes tantric vacations to Costa Rica, Hawaii and cruise getaways.

If that sounds a bit too New Age, there are other benefits to learning yoga as a couple. First, one partner can help the other get into the asanas, or poses, sort of like using a spotter in weight lifting. Second, yoga helps with the pursuit of other sports and activities. Finally, it’s fun.

When planning a yoga honeymoon, consider how much yoga each of you is likely to want to practice. Most spa resorts include some yoga as part of their overall fitness program, while some retreats offer more intensive yoga instruction. Unless both of you are experienced yogis, you’ll likely want a getaway that combines quality yoga instruction with other activities. In many cases, a resort with a high-quality destination spa will keep both partners happy. Here are some getaways to get you started:

Pura Vida Spa — (888) 767-7375; — in Costa Rica has special yoga weeks with guest instructors throughout the year, including a tantric week for couples. You can book its "Mind/Body/Spirit Adventure Week" any time. It includes seven nights’ lodging, daily yoga classes, hiking and a rain-forest excursion from $1,100-$2,000 per person, double occupancy.

New Age Health Spa — (800) 682-4348; — in New York’s Catskill Mountains has rates starting at $174 per person, per night, double occupancy, two-night minimum. That rate includes daily yoga classes. The spa also hosts weekend-long yoga programs for more intensive instruction.

In nearby Big Sur, Post Ranch Inn — (800) 527-2200; — overlooks the Pacific Ocean and is decidedly deluxe. Accommodations start at $485 per night. Guests can join daily yoga classes in The Yurt, as well as sample tai chi and qigong. The inn is surrounded by scenic hiking trails.

Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Spa — (800) 422-2736; — in Farmington, Pa., offers a "Couples Vacation." Accommodations range from lodge rooms to luxurious townhouse suites. Rates start at $185 per night.

Shambhala Spa at Parrot Cay — (877) 754-0726; — in Turks and Caicos, British West Indies, has special "Healing Weeks" scheduled throughout the year. Many feature guest yoga instructors. Prices vary, depending on the program, but one six-night yoga retreat is $4,610, double occupancy. That includes accommodations, three meals daily, five hours of yoga and meditation instruction each day, plus two hours of massage therapy during the week.

The new Mii amo Spa at Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Ariz. — (888) 749-2137; — is located right next to one of the seven "spiritual vortices" that make the area a mecca for New Age travelers. In addition to spa treatments, Mii amo hosts four-day yoga retreats that teach guests how to incorporate yoga into their daily lives. Four-night spa getaways start at $1,750.

Finally, one way to support Israel at this time is to honeymoon at a spa in the Jewish State, which offer yoga and exercise along with spa treatments. The Carmel Forest Spa Resort in the Carmel Mountains — — has Internet rates that range from $270 single on weekdays (Saturday to Wednesday) to $570 double on weekends for a deluxe suite.

Mizpe Hayamim, above the Sea of Galilee, offers a variety of treatments and massages. Internet rates at — range from $179 single during the regular season (which is now) to $367 double for a two-person executive suite during the peak season, which includes the High Holidays and Passover.

Article courtesy Copley News Service.

Alison Ashton is a San Diego-based freelance travel and health writer.

Staging a Body of Work

What’s a nice Jewish feminist performance artist to do when she’s heavily covered in tattoos? She creates a solo piece, “Jewess Tattoess,” exploring the conflict between her heritage and her body.

In her multimedia show, Marisa Carnesky examines the Jewish tattoo taboo by fusing elements of Yiddish melodrama, Victorian sideshows and Grand Guignol theater. She becomes the night demon Lilith, a possessed preteen and the Whore of Babylon, who in the piece is indisposed and on vacation.

“She’s sick and tired of women’s sexuality being demonized in traditional cultures, so she’s off sunbathing with her friends, Salome and the Queen of Sheba,” the sunny Carnesky, 32, said from her London home.

The character allows her to comment on “the clash between religions like Judaism and the choices we make as modern, feminist women.”

Carnesky noticed the conflict as a girl while sitting in the “ladies’ gallery” of her modern Orthodox synagogue: “It was hot and uncomfortable, and all about the hats and the outfits, and you couldn’t really see what the men were doing,” said the artist, whose pieces include “Carnesky’s Ghost Train.”

By age 15, she’d abandoned her Habonim youth-group friends for “arty-punky” circles at her multicultural public school. While she dyed her hair purple to immerse herself in the horror-rock Gothic scene, she refused to wear the de rigeur crucifix, favoring instead a Star of David.

“I wanted to be a Jewish Goth,” she said.

Jewish concerns were also on her mind when she was 19, as she began acquiring body art based on photographs of Victorian tattooed ladies.

“I was obsessed by Holocaust imagery of bodies piled up, their humanity taken away,” she said. “My macabre thought was that if that ever happened to me, they wouldn’t be able to steal my personality because my body is so tattooed.”

Carnesky was prompted to turn such issues into “Jewess Tattoess” around 1999: “I had met a number of Jews in the theater and felt I had a lot in common with them,” she said. She studied Jewish folk tales, books on the Torah prohibition against tattooing and photographs of shtetls and showgirls; one picture depicted Jewish silent actress Theda Bara covered in jewelry as the biblical temptress Salome.

“The very sexual, decorated woman is reviled in most cultures, and I was looking for characters that societies have created to guide people away from them,” she said.

“Jewess Tattoess” has guided Carnesky back to Judaism by introducing her to alternative subcultures such as Heeb magazine.

So what’s next for this Jewish performance artist?

“Maybe a Star of David tattoo,” she said.

The show runs Oct. 1 and Oct. 3-5 as part of UCLA Live’ssecond annual International Theatre Festival;  or (310) 825-2101.

Ethics and Ironies

At least Ann Landers admitted when she was wrong.

And while she may have used a pseudonym, Esther Pauline "Eppie" Lederer claimed only to offer one woman’s point of view — no more, no less.

Times, alas, have changed, and along with them, The New York Times, whose Sunday Magazine’s readers are offered the judgments of "The Ethicist." The bearer of that grandiose title also has a name — Randy Cohen — but his designation is clearly meant to imply gravitas.

Cohen is generally sensible and very often quite funny. On Oct. 27, though, he goofed badly. And, what is worse, he seems unwilling to own up to his error, not an encouraging sign for any honorable man, much less still The Ethicist.

The question in question came from a woman who had closed a deal with an Orthodox Jewish real estate agent. She became offended, though, when the otherwise "courteous and competent" man declined to shake her hand, explaining that touching a woman other than his wife violated his religious code of conduct. The offendee wanted to tear up the contract they had signed, and sought the columnist’s advice.

"Sexism is sexism," Cohen responded, "even when motivated by religious convictions." And, invoking Brown vs. Board of Education to argue that "separate is by its very nature unequal," he advised his supplicant to rip away.

Had he bothered to inquire, The Ethicist would have discovered that the Jewish religious prohibition at issue in no way "render[s] a class of people untouchable," to use his words; it rather disapproves of a behavior. And it does so in a decidedly egalitarian manner. Both men and women are equally bound by Jewish law to refrain from affectionate physical contact with members of the other gender to whom they are not married. Many Orthodox authorities consider even a handshake to be included in the prohibition.

With that stricture, halacha expresses not sexism, but rather respect for both men and women — respect, that is, for the power of sexuality that Judaism reminds us is an integral part of the human condition.

That power, according to Jewish thought, when properly used is a deeply holy thing. Allowed free reign, though, it is an equally destructive one.

In our sex-saturated — and in fact, as a result, sexist — society, men and women eschewing handshakes to avoid any semblance of misplaced sexuality might seem a bit much to many. But that says something only about our base and cynical times, not about deeper, timeless truths. And a good case could in fact be made that the morally confused times in which we live require us to exercise more caution than ever in the realm of physical contact between the sexes. A cursory familiarity with current events should suffice to reveal how easily "casual" interactions can devolve into less innocent, even abusive, ones.

Cohen, of course, may not see things that way. But even he, one imagines, would admit that imposing unwanted physical contact is wrong. And so, as one reader of Cohen’s column wryly noted: "’Touch me or you’re fired’" would seem "a perfect example of sexual harassment" — hardly ethical by any measure.

While hope springs eternal, The Ethicist, at least so far, refuses to budge. Responding to some who contacted him, he pronounced: "That the origins of [the halachic prohibition] seem benign make it no less sexist and no less contrary to the values of an egalitarian society." Creating "separate spheres for women and men," he insists, remains "a manifestation of sexism."

Asked if his gender-blindness extended to endorsement of unisex restrooms and dressing rooms, he admitted that "there are a few cases where gender distinctions might be justified."

In other words, according to The Ethicist, it all depends on what he happens to feel is ethical.

Cohen makes no claim to speak for Judaism — he was raised Reform but takes a "resolutely secular approach to ethics," as he explained in an interview — and indeed does not. But an ethical ideal to which he clearly subscribes is tolerance. And that should include tolerance of others who choose to subscribe to Torah, not Cohen.

Just imagine The Ethicist’s ideal society. Men and women who, out of religious principle, eschew physical contact with members of the opposite sex would effectively be barred from pursuing their livelihoods. But society would be purged of sexism, real or imagined, and all would be well with the world — at least in Cohen’s eyes.

And so we are left with the irony of an intolerant Ethicist. And one, in fact, who embraces decidedly unethical behavior.

For in his quest for some illusory absolute egalitarianism, Cohen did, after all, counsel a questioner to tear up a contract she and her business partner had just signed.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America .

Opening the Closet

In Sandi Simcha DuBowski’s searing new documentary, “Trembling Before G-d,” about Orthodox gays and lesbians, David, a handsome L.A. doctor, describes struggling to change his sexuality. A psychotherapist prescribed aversion therapy; a rabbi advised David to recite psalms and to eat figs. “I would have tried anything,” he says.

“Trembling” also introduces Devorah, an ultra-Orthodox mother who requires anti-depressants to stay in her marriage, and Israel, who was confined to a mental hospital, then banished by his family because he was gay.

“One of the greatest sadnesses I’ve had in making this film is witnessing Jewish families casting out their own,” said DuBowski, 30, whose own supportive, Conservative parents will attend the film’s world premiere at Sundance.

Not that his coming out was easy. He did so on the last day of summer vacation before returning to Harvard for his sophomore year. “My mother and I sat on the edge of the bed and I said, ‘I have something to tell you, and are you going to love me no matter what?'” he recalled. “It took me 45 minutes to say it, and I was crying nonstop.” His mother couldn’t eat or sleep for the next three days. “There were fights and talks and a lack of information,” he added. “But there was never any question that I was loved.”

In fact, “Trembling” began after DuBowski moved back home with his parents in the early 1990s.

“Returning to Jewish Brooklyn awakened something,” said the director, whose previous films include an acclaimed short, “Tomboychik.” There was something, he said, about standing at Sheepshead Bay for tashlich, the annual ritual purging of sins, with a virtual “universe of Jews.” There were Russians and Syrians, Modern Orthodox and unaffiliated. DuBowski began to wonder about Jews who were gay and Orthodox and how they came to terms with the verse in Leviticus that deemed them an “abomination.”At the International Conference of Gay and Lesbian Jews in 1994, he met Mark, a British man with AIDS, exactly his age, who had abandoned Orthodoxy after being kicked out of seven yeshivas. “We became like chavruses [study partners] in a yeshiva without walls,” said DuBowski, who brought his camera along as Mark revisited the Israeli schools he had loved in Mea Shearim and B’nai Brak. On Lag BaOmer, director and subject davened and danced all night long on Mount Meron and watched 3-year-old Chassidic boys receiving their first haircuts at dawn. “The film began a Jewish journey for both of us,” said DuBowski, who now prays at Orthodox synagogues.

Obtaining additional interviews proved far more difficult. Devorah initially agreed to speak to DuBowski only in a parking lot far from her religious neighborhood. There were clandestine meetings in borrowed apartments or in parks with Jews who declined to reveal their real names or telephone numbers. Rabbis hung up on DuBowski; a former chief rabbi of Israel called his interviewees “animalistic.” “I was so distraught,” he said.

A Chassidic rebbe in Israel gave him the strength to carry on. The rabbi greeted him with a humble bow in his modest apartment, as a girl made rice pudding in the next room and children played on the outdoor balcony. “I just started weeping,” DuBowski recalled. “I told him I had been carrying the pain of so many Jews for so long — about Mark being sick and David trying to change and all these people who were unhappily married or who had been disowned. And he was utter rachmones [compassion]. He took my project very seriously, which validated the film for me and made me feel that it was not a chilul HaShem [a desecration of God’s name].”

Nevertheless, DuBowski expects his ground-breaking documentary to be controversial. After a recent screening for 75 heterosexual Orthodox Jews in New York, the viewers (some supportive, some not) shouted and argued with each other. A woman angrily told DuBowski that he was a liar; that gays could change, and that her daughter — cast out at 16 because she was a lesbian — could choose to become heterosexual. Her other daughter, meanwhile, who is not gay, informed the director that she would work hard to promote the movie in her Orthodox community.

DuBowski, who’ll appear at Sundance with interviewee Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the only openly gay Orthodox rabbi, hopes the film will continue to promote discussion about a previously taboo subject. “The point of the movie is to help Jews who are suffering,” he said.

For information about “Trembling,” and DuBowski’s upcoming Orthodox community education project, log on to

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Thirty years ago this week, the Exodus began for gays and lesbians.

And because Jews are a people of stories, gay and lesbian Jews tell theirs this week with special bookmarks that open to the pages of their dual struggles.

Just as the story of the ancient Hebrews’ deliverance from slavery has been retold over the generations as the defining moment of the Jewish people, so have the Stonewall Riots become the story of the deliverance of a people.

At B’nai Jeshurun, a synagogue on New York’s Upper West Side, the story of gay liberation was retold last Friday evening in the form of its fourth annual Stonewall Shabbat Seder, with its own Haggadah, rituals and symbols that mixed traditional Jewish prayer with poems, readings and history of the gay struggle throughout the ages.

With the New York Police Department playing the role of Pharaoh’s men, the rioters in Greenwich Village on June 27, 1969, were the Children of Israel, embarking on the long journey to the Promised Land.

On that June day, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, escalated into violence, and became the official “coming out” party for gays and lesbians around the world.

Before Stonewall, much of the gay community lived as the Crypto-Jews during the Inquisition — denying themselves public displays of who they are for fear of reprisals from the wider community.

“Were you out at the time of the riots?” one seder participant asked another.

“Before Stonewall, we were all living in the ghetto,” he replied.

The Haggadah for the seder was compiled by Mark Horn, who heads B’nai Jeshurun’s Gay and Lesbian Committee. Like the traditional Passover Haggadah, it is a combination of prayer, history, debate, questions and symbols that tell the story of liberation.

Among the symbols on the Stonewall seder plate:

* Challah that is unashamedly uncovered, even during the prayer over the wine.

* A variety of fruit “because sometimes we are called the ‘fruit’ people. And while it is meant as an insult, tonight we take it as a blessing in disguise.”

* A bundle of sticks — the “faggot” — to commemorate gay men and lesbians throughout history who were burned at the stake.

* Bricks and stones to remember the “bricks of resistance thrown at the police the night of the Stonewall riot.”

* An empty cup: “We recall those who did not live to see this moment, and those who are unable to celebrate openly their identity and connection to God. We are angry with the spiritual emptiness that the overwhelming majority of Jewish institutions offer to queer Jews.”

The Haggadah’s narrative takes participants from Hitler’s attempted genocide of homosexuals to the Exodus from the closet after Stonewall; from the martyrdom of Harvey Milk, a gay San Francisco city supervisor who was assassinated, to the plague of AIDS and the emergence of today’s more organized gay movement.

Readings range from the biblical “Song of Songs” to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

Also throughout is the use of the word “queer,” which Horn said is not a universally accepted term in the gay community. He compares it with the use of the word “Jew,” which until this century was considered an epithet by the Jewish community.

“Hebrew” or “Israelite” were the preferred terms until the Jewish people decided to take the word back as their own.

“I think it’s important to look at what the culture defines as ‘other’ as queer,” Horn said. “And how each of us, whether gay or straight or otherwise, is somehow in our lives seen as ‘other.’

“And it’s a way to examine what we think of as queer to God, and how to bring that forward, into the light, a way to bring ourselves fully before our Creator.”

Horn’s Haggadah sees this mix of spirituality and gay pride as a way of “looking at our Jewish heritage through a queer lens and at our queer heritage through a Jewish lens. It means remembering the queers in the death camps and the Jews at the Stonewall Inn.”

Seder participants talk about the dual discoveries of their Jewishness and sexual identities — describing how each form of identity defines them as “queer” to the rest of society, but makes them unique to themselves.

One by one, each man and woman at the tables talks of his or her lifelong feelings of detachment from the mainstream because of sexual orientation and Jewishness.

The seder openly addresses and debates how gay men and lesbians are seen as outcasts within Judaism, through the line from Leviticus, which calls homosexuality an “abomination.” They discuss the wounds the line opens for them, then they reinterpret it.

“And here is a verse of my Torah. It is a small verse. For when I stood at Sinai I heard God call out, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. Share your bed, your heart, your life with him, that your days may be long on the face of the earth.’ But no one wrote those words down when I heard them, all those years ago,” the Haggadah says.

There are biblical prohibitions against a lot of things that are not always adhered to by everybody in the Jewish community, Horn said.

“Everybody chooses to observe some things and ignore others. It’s a question of respecting everyone’s choice and believing they are acting out of their own integrity.”

Horn believes that the gay community is mirroring the larger society in a return to spirituality, but many still fear showing up at their local synagogue because they are not certain they would be welcome there. Slowly, however, more synagogues are welcoming and recognizing them, and gays are becoming part of the organized Jewish community.

Participation by gays in Jewish religious life, Horn’s Stonewall Haggadah says, makes the Jewish people whole. And it uses strong language to make the point.

“And so to the Jewish mullahs who would murder us, and the ostriches in the Jewish community who would ignore us and hope we go away, we say with all the thunder we can muster: When you condemn Queer Jews, you keep Judaism in exile. You cannot be whole without us. And we will not be silent.”

The seder ends with traditional prayers; then, with some chuckles and a few nods and winks, the participants launch into a simple melody — perhaps the traditional gay equivalent of “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

It is a song made popular by Judy Garland, who was buried the night of the Stonewall Riots: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Force of Nature

Where does a parent — a Jewish mother — begin a frank consideration of her daughter’s sexuality? As the Zen master says, you have to start from where you are, and then let it flow.

I am a single mom, and as a single mom, my sex life is pretty much on display. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve known single mothers who crawl out of the window at midnight to visit their lovers, but I’m not good at taking off the screens. I have secrets from my daughter, but they happen during the daylight.

Because I’m a single mom, in some ways it is easier for me to discuss the facts of life with my daughter. My mother left this particular job to my father, and, finally, just the other day, he got around to asking if there’s anything I’d like to know about men.

Avoidance just doesn’t work with Samantha and me. We’re not obsessed with the mechanics of sexuality (she gets too much of this from reality-based TV, see further on) but, rather, with its operational flow. Samantha looks at my life, a virtual relationship laboratory right in her own home. She sees me dating, making my own mistakes, frisky in perfume one minute, wearing my heart on my sleeve the next. She notices when a guy comes by, bringing flowers, and she’s right there when the flowers stop. Recently, when I was on the phone with a guy for a full hour, she came in to give me a hug. The lesson my mother could never teach me — that the heart is a sexual organ — my daughter already knows.

Sometimes, I feel I’m a failure in this department, but it’s as much history’s fault as my own. Sadly, the “sexual liberation” that I’d hoped to bequeath to my daughter doesn’t mean much in today’s terms. For my generation, the “Fear of Flying” crowd, liberation means the freedom to participate in one’s own sex life, to enjoy passion and fantasy, to understand lust as a natural hunger, as related to but distinct from love. See, it still casts a romantic glow.

I was hardly a libertine; I wanted then what I want now: a stable partner with a great imagination. I’m a ’60s Gal, electrified by the right to be alive during lovemaking, to choose my partners (rather than to be commanded by them), to own a wakeful body, and to never fake satisfaction just to be polite. The other side of the equation, the part I try to stress to Samantha, is that I believe in self-protection, taking responsibility for bad choices and learning from my mistakes. No matter what has happened since — no matter how naïve we were about the fragility of males, no matter that even great sex sometimes pales next to good companionship — I still regard the women’s movement as the purest time of my life, when the battle was waged for a full definition of female adulthood, a battle only yet partially won.

In my fantasies, I’d hoped my daughter’s generation would take up the fight. But woman plans, and God laughs.

One day, when she was in fourth grade, Samantha came home from school with the report that Magic Johnson got AIDS from unprotected sex. All her life, we had been talking about sexuality, body parts, where babies come from and the rest. But nothing like this. Looking at my little girl, my heart sank, and I still think of that moment as the true “fall from grace.” Her news (she said it just this way, “Magic Johnson got AIDS from unprotected sex”) meant that Samantha, along with every little girl and boy in America, was learning about sex not as joyful, loving, free and natural (if strained with emotional complications), but as a health crisis, tainted, diseased, stained. I flew the flag for sexual freedom at half-staff.

Even today, so many years after accommodating to our new, darker era, I still well up in a protective rage on behalf of our young girls. The bad news broke too soon. Samantha didn’t yet know what love means, what physical ecstasy evokes. Before she could develop her own unique metaphor — a fantasy of bliss or a vision of herself locked in a “From Here to Eternity” love embrace on a pristine beach –she was already thinking mechanically, clinically, of sex as “safe” or “unsafe.”

She knows too much about the wrong things, and not only about AIDS. She has been warned against child abusers, sexual disease and sexual harassment in a wide variety of forms. A macabre sideshow of twisted sexual images come to her from “Jerry Springer,” MTV, Angelyne, Michael Jackson’s androgyny. She’ll never be allowed a moment’s purity, naivete or nonchalance. I grieve for her imagination’s prematurely lost virginity.

I’d be less than forthright if I said that being a Jewish parent provides security, or spiritual advantage, in this regard. Like every parent, I worry about my child’s friends and her values, and I seek to insulate her from the dangers of the cruel world. Where Jewish tradition helps is: 1) in providing a long list of women who survived their own child’s teen-age years, and 2) in offering stories that encourage independent thinking, even in the midst of chaotic times.

Increasingly these days, I use both parts of that heritage: I think of my own mother, scared to death throughout my adolescence, while I felt certain I could take care of myself. And I

‘I Am Not an Adulterer’

It was Ted Koppel who broke the news to all the world that our president does not consider oral sex to constitute adultery. That being the case, Koppel concluded, it was perfectly correct for Clinton to maintain to probing journalists that he had never had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The president reportedly had once told Arkansas state troopers that oral sex is not, according to the Bible, adultery.

Is Clinton correct? “The answer is yes,” says Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a pre-eminent Conservative Jewish scholar on Jewish sexuality. Dorff explained that since the penalty for adultery was death, the ancient sages, as was their practice in the case of capital crimes, sought to define the act as narrowly as possible. Adultery, then, was defined as sex with a married woman.

But what kind of sex? Again, the rabbis narrowed their terms. Did the rabbis even know from oral sex? “Certainly,” said Dorff. “They weren’t bashful.”

The great scholar Maimonides, in the first chapter of “The Laws of Forbidden Intercourse,” decreed that adultery can only happen when “the penis of the man enters the vagina of the woman,” paraphrased Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism and author of a seminal report on Jewish law and sexuality.

On that score, Clinton is on firm ground: He would not have been strangled — the standard biblical penalty for adultery.

But if he did do what he is being accused of doing, he would have been, under his definition, whipped or fined. Those were the penalties for prostitution, a crime the rabbis defined broadly because no death penalty was involved. Prostitution involved any form of sexual contact with a woman other than one’s wife. In most countries, including Israel, such contact between consenting adults is no crime. “But Jewish tradition prizes marriage,” said Dorff. “The rabbis didn’t see consensual sex as outside the bounds of prostitution,” even if no money was involved.

In that, the ancient rabbis have something to say to all of us today, from presidents to paupers. “Whatever sex act you have [outside marriage] is certainly a breach of trust of the marital bond,” said Dorff, who also served on the Presidential Health Care Task Force headed by the first lady. “If he did what he’s accused of doing, Clinton subjected his wife and daughter to embarrassment and a breach of trust that a man owes his family. He also violated the fiduciary relationship between an employer and an employee. The biblical definition of adultery is the least of his problems.” –Robert Eshman, Managing Editor

From Sexuality to Sensuality

There we were, my family, 11 anarchists cruising down to Ensenada for four days on the Viking Serenade, celebrating my mother’s 85th birthday. I roomed with the birthday girl in one of those cabins where you have to yell, “Watch out!” when you exit the lavatory.

When we returned, I drove my mother to Senior Summer School at UC Santa Barbara. Riding down in the elevator, after bringing her suitcases up to her dormitory room, I said, kiddingly: “In your room before 11 p.m., write home but don’t come home, and don’t tell me about your sex life.” My mother laughed like a teen-ager along with the other women who were on their way to the cafeteria.

I looked at these zesty women and thought that cuddling — the socially acceptable sex life for a senior — was on their short list of sexy things to do. They were free, finally, of all that bound them to the conventions of their youth, and they were freed by their age, not by reading Erica Jong.

So when my editor suggested that I write about sex from the older perspective rather than a column about the family cruise, I cringed. When I wrote about seniors for the Los Angeles Times, every so often I was tempted to write a piece about sex and seniors. “What’s to write?” I asked myself. “What could possibly be the difference between the senior class and the freshman?” There certainly were a lot of similarities: drug problems, body self-consciousness, feelings of inadequacy, hair problems. “Must I be trapped in the problem prism? Wasn’t anyone having fun in bed?”

Then I interviewed Harold Mitchell, married more than 50 years to the same woman. I met him at a conference at USC’s Andrus Gerontology Center. Harold had a passion for life. He would be considered seductive for any age. I told him so. He told me that he was still courting his wife. He said that though the intimacies may be fewer, they are no longer rushed for the sake of reaching orgasm. And that’s how the conversation went, and I wrote it, and the Times published it.

Harold is among the 40 percent of people 65 and older who are sexually active. He said that he felt relieved after all these years to be less oriented toward sexual performance and more attuned to sensuality. In fact, he said that he felt ever-youthful because of how much longer it took to attain satisfaction. “Isn’t that what we always wanted when we were younger?” he asked.

Was it? I’m glad somebody was conscious. I was too busy being promiscuous. I can’t even conceive of how I would have turned out if my mother were a hippie or if boys read “Iron John” instead of “The Amboy Dukes” while I read “Forever Amber” and “Tropic of Cancer.” I had to travel to Europe for my sexual rebellion.

Now, kids rent a video, stay home and try to avoid catching their tongue studs on a pillowcase. Love yourself. Do what feels good. Rebellion is a lot scarier when there are no rules to rebel against. So much for the children of parents who brought us the “sexual revolution.”

Those in my mother’s generation became adults when they were still children. Two wars, an economic depression, influenza and working at age 9 forced people to grow up quickly. Sex was reserved for husbands and wives. However, my Aunt Ruthie rebelled. She was a flapper and smoked cigarettes, studied ballet, and broke the chastity rules.

Every generation of American women redefines itself by the times it lives in and measures itself by the progress of the women who came before. Naomi Wolf, 35, author of “Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood,” for instance, came of age during the Reagan-Bush years. She is first generation feminist movement. That is why I don’t get it when she writes, “Men were deciding for us if we were women.” Men didn’t decide if we were women; quite the contrary, we decide if they are men — but only if we understand we have that power. Otherwise, we do a lot of pretending and whining.

Postscript: Last year, Richard Gunther called me after getting my name from the UCLA Center On Aging. He wanted to explore the lives of older men. Let’s make it interesting, I suggested. Let’s try to find out if men, such as Harold Mitchell, make a transition from sexuality to sensuality. Is it natural, or does it have to be learned? What is the effect of lowered testosterone on the male spirit? How do we define and fulfill desire past 65? Instead of “navigating sexual turmoil” (Jewish Journal headline, June 27), let’s explore the open seas in a lighthearted, joyful way. Is there anybody out there who’s not in turmoil? All responses will be protected for their confidentiality.

Write to: Linda Feldman

c/o The Jewish Journal

3660 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 204

Los Angeles, CA 90010

Linda Feldman, a former columnist for the Los Angeles

Times, is the co-author of “Where To Go From Here: Discovering Your Own Life’s Wisdom,” due out his fall from Simon & Schuster.

All rights reserved by author

Open-Door Policy

They are your brother, your cousin, your lawyer, your best friend, or possibly yourself. Yet, while there are as many gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the Jewish community as in any other, they often feel like outcasts in their own faith, afraid that they can’t be open about their sexuality and a committed Jew as well.

Am Echad, a group that formally became part of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles in March, aims to help change both the perception and the reality of being homosexual or bisexual in the Southern California Jewish community. The organization, whose name means “one people” in Hebrew, will, for the second year, have a booth at the Christopher Street West Lesbian and Gay Pride Festival (CSW) this weekend (June 21-22), at the corner of San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards in West Hollywood. The importance of visibility was underscored by Am Echad co-chair Bruce Maxwell.

“I think it’s very important that many gays, lesbians and bisexuals feel that they don’t have to go back in the closet to get involved with the Jewish Federation Council or with any other Jewish organization,” Maxwell said. “Many people come to [Jewish] events with their spouse or partner, but, if you’re gay or lesbian, you have to think twice about whether you can safely support something because you’re not sure if you can bring your partner.”

By providing a safe place for gays, lesbians and bisexuals to come out as committed Jews and be visible in their own community, Am Echad “puts a face to the stranger,” said Maxwell.

At last year’s CSW Festival, Am Echad gathered 250 names of people interested in volunteering and contributing money to the Federation. Some were already affiliated with synagogues and other Jewish organizations, but many were not.

“For some, for the first time, they felt that ‘maybe, I can be who I am and be part of the larger Jewish community,'” said Stuart Leviton, Am Echad’s campaign chair.

Several groups within the Federation are co-sponsoring the Am Echad booth at CSW, including the Federation’s Metro and Western regions, the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles.

“It’s a tremendous step the Federation has taken in recognizing this community,” said Jan Simons, who chairs Am Echad’s Public Relations Committee.

Am Echad is the first gay and lesbian outreach group that has been made an official part of any federation across the country, Maxwell said. At least three similar groups are beginning efforts to affiliate with federations in San Francisco, Philadelphia and South Florida, he said.

The initiative to bring this organization into the Los Angeles Federation came from the Metro region, said Federation executive vice president John Fishel.

“There are large numbers of residents of this community who are positively identified as Jewish and are part of the gay and lesbian community, and who would like to be more…active in Jewish life,” Fishel said. “We thought that it was a good thing, and we’re encouraging it.”

For more information about Am Echad, call the Federation’s Metro office at (213) 852-7759. n