November 14, 2018

The Royal Wedding of Shavuot

Steve Parsons/Pool via REUTERS

Last Saturday, the world was transfixed by the fairy-tale royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Markle was the embodiment of a Disney princess: a mixed-race, American-born, divorced television star who is now the Duchess of Sussex.

No expense was spared for the celebration. The entire event was estimated to have cost more than $40 million.

There are reasons to criticize such an ostentatious display of wealth and power and people’s fascination, bordering on obsession, with royal weddings. There are better ways to spend $40 million. Nonetheless, there is something spiritually significant about the royal wedding.

At the same time this wedding was taking place, Jews around the world were  celebrating Shavuot, which in Jewish mysticism is often viewed as a metaphor for marriage. On Shavuot, we remember and renew the marriage between God and his people. The wedding canopy was the cloud of glory on Mount Sinai. The witnesses were heaven and Earth. And our ketubah — marriage contract — is the Torah. On Shavuot night we study Torah to express our commitment to our Beloved.

God marrying the Jewish people is a fairy tale. We rose from humble beginnings to the peak of spiritual aristocracy. A broken, downtrodden people were saved from the throes of destruction by an all-powerful God, and as if salvation was not enough, God “put a ring on it” and took the Jewish people to the altar. The midrash says that the entire world was silent during the revelation at Sinai. The world was watching.

Ideally, the joy and celebration of our marriage to God should match the pomp and circumstance of the royal wedding.

There is great appeal in the mystical marriage metaphor. It helps us understand an idea too large to comprehend. But the metaphor is clumsy without context. The royal wedding is that context. Imagine we are all Meghan Markle, and now we are all married to the Crown. Ideally, the joy and celebration of our marriage to God should match the pomp and circumstance of the royal wedding.

There is a talmudic law to make a blessing upon seeing royalty. The rabbis of the Talmud encouraged all Jewish people to run just to see the face of the monarch. They even relaxed a rabbinic prohibition regarding ritual impurity and cemeteries so that more people could see royalty.

Why was it so important to the rabbis for us to see royalty? The Talmud explains “sh’im yizkeh, yavchin.”  — “when one merits [to see a Jewish king], one will understand.”

Despite the reservations we may have about overindulging in the royal wedding spectacle, we should imbibe this grand display so that we may understand, by way of example, the spiritual significance of our marriage to God. We should look at the iconic photo of Meghan Markle gazing lovingly at Prince Harry with a dazzling smile and a twinkle in her eye, so that we might look to God the same way.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Shavuot Sessions Point to Jewish Diversity

Photo from Max Pixel.

“What does it mean to be God-fearing?”

Steve Lackner, a program manager in the U.S. Air Force, posed that question to a small group of people who had come out for a night of Shavuot learning at Pico Shul on May 19.

Responses ranged from being disciplined and religiously observant, to doing good deeds. Lackner validated each of the responses and then gave an example by discussing the story of Shifra and Puah, two midwives in ancient Egypt who defied the decree of Pharaoh to murder the first-born children of the Israelites. It was their fear of God, Lackner said, that compelled them to disobey Pharaoh’s order. And, he added, it was also the first recorded act of civil disobedience.

Pico Shul’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot went well past midnight, as part of the holiday tradition of commemorating the Jewish people being given the Torah on Mount Sinai by staying up all night to study. The gathering, organized by Pico Shul’s Rabbi Yonah and Rebbetzin Rachel Bookstein and billed as “Shavuot Night Live,” was one of many such events held at synagogues throughout Los Angeles.

The range and breadth of Shavuot classes provided people from different backgrounds with the opportunity to experience many different flavors of Judaism, and highlighted the diversity of Jewish thought and experience in the city.

“Who among us would you trust with the button? One who fears God or the atheist?” — Steve Lackner

At Pico Shul, Lackner left his audience with a question addressing faith in God versus atheism. He spoke of a scenario where, during a debate, a man asked a renowned atheist what he would do if there were a button that would give a man everything his heart desired but would also kill one anonymous Chinese peasant. “Who among us would you trust with the button?” Lackner asked. “One who fears God or the atheist?”

Additional speakers included stand-up comedian Sarah Afkami. In an exaggerated Persian accent, Akfami imitated her father introducing eligible bachelors to her and her sister as if they were cars for sale.

Rapper Kosha Dillz performed a freestyle rap about Shavuot. He then delved into a story about traveling from Poland to Colorado to perform at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. He had made the decision to travel across the world for the concert, thinking it would be his big break. However, as he was selling merchandise after the show, an employee told him he was not allowed to do so and kicked him out. He told the crowd he was embarrassed by the story but wanted to share it anyway.

“I think showing your true colors is what this holiday is all about,” he said.

At Young Israel of Century City, Senior Rabbi Elazar Muskin led about 70 men and women at 1:30 a.m. in a discussion of halachah, specifically whether it is forbidden to kill lice on Shabbat or if lice are so microscopic as to be unobservable, and thus not governed by the laws.

“Whatever the naked eye can see, that is halachah,” Muskin said.

At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, out-of-the-box thinking was the name of the Shavuot game. The Reform synagogue held an escape room-themed Shavuot. Titled “Escape to Sinai,” the program prompted people to solve puzzles, unlock clues and discover the mysteries of Revelation.

Progressive egalitarian community IKAR held a Shavuot program called “This, Too, Is Torah.” Attendees gathered until 1 a.m., learning in traditional and not-so-traditional activities about how everything can be Torah. Held at Shalhevet High School, the evening included, among other things, cooking, meditation and text study.

At Temple Beth Am, a Conservative congregation near Pico and La Cienega boulevards, people engaged in learning sessions from 8:45 p.m. until 4:45 a.m. The evening began with Journal Senior Writer Danielle Berrin moderating a discussion with Beth Am Rabbis Adam Kligfeld and Ari Lucas and Journal columnist Rabbi Eli Fink speaking about “Living on the Edge.”

Additional discussions at Beth Am included “God Is Dangerous and So Is God’s Torah,” featuring Rabbi Aryeh Cohen; and “Climbing to the Mountain: A Game of Spiritual Transformation,” with Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Reflections on the Festival of Shavuot

Screenshot from YouTube.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
Aleph Institute

How do I prepare myself to receive the unique message God’s Torah has for me? How do I get ready to convene with God? According to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi — the 18th-century mystic and talmudist — the precondition for this meeting is what he calls “self-nullification.” As developed in the Tanya, his quietly revolutionary work, self-nullification requires one to separate from his ego, his smugness and his importance.

This is not to denigrate the ego. We need our egos in order to grow, in order to fulfill the biblical charge to master the world, in order to effect tikkun olam. But, just as we suspend our physical creativity (i.e., the tangible expression of our ego) on Shabbat and yom tov, we must also subordinate our egos (on the deepest level) during those activities in which we seek to join our will to God’s.

Each of us also has the ability to “channel” God. When we forget ourselves in prayer, we let God enter. When we give tzedakah — not as an expression of our power, but as an agent of God in the distribution of His bounty — we are God’s conduit into the world. And when we learn Torah as a way of unifying our minds with His, we are increasing God’s presence on Earth.

This Shavuot, and every day, each of us has the ability to receive the Torah — our Torah — and become a vehicle for holiness.

Excerpted from an essay on steinsaltz.org.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner
Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism

The Festival of Shavuot provides an ideal Jewish textual grounding for celebrating our diversity, and lifting up various and dissenting voices, even as we apply the enduring values of our sacred texts to the modern day.

On Shavuot, we celebrate our ancestors receiving the Torah from God at Mount Sinai. However, the covenant of the Torah was not only for those present at Sinai. It was for all Jews — and all people — around the world and throughout the generations.

When God spoke, all people, in all the languages of the day, could understand. In the midrash, Rabbi Johanan says, “It was one voice that divided itself into seven voices, and these into 70 languages.” We learn further that when God spoke it “was with the power of all voices” to speak to each person according to their powers of comprehension (Midrash Rabbah: Exodus, Chapter 28).

We see from this beginning, from the entrance into the covenant at Sinai, that each voice counts, and the experience, culture, and heritage — the language and framework that each person brings to the study of Torah — is valuable.

On Shavuot, the Jewish people receive the Torah anew each year. Tradition calls for us to engage in all-night study. We cannot be closed off from the opportunity to learn from others. This is our opportunity not only to delve deeply into the text, but also to join in chavurah (study in partnership with another), to debate and test our assumptions. We do not shrink from the tension of disagreement but take seriously the alternate views of our peers who seek to learn from the Torah and bring its commandments to life.

Excerpted from an essay on reformjudaism.org.

Rabbi Yehuda Turetsky
Yeshivat Sha’alvim

In the first of the Ten Commandments, God said clearly and unequivocally, “I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of Egypt, from the house of slavery” (Shemot 20:2). The paramount importance of this verse is clear; there is a God, and we must believe in Him.

Yet, a basic question emerges. Why would God formulate such an important tenet of our faith without giving us insight into how to attain it? Why would something as fundamental as belief in God not come with a “how-to guide” about how to reach it? It appears that the Torah wishes to convey the message that what we believe is more important than how we believe, that knowledge of God is primary and it can be acquired in varying ways. People are not all moved the same way or inspired in the same manner. God wants us to believe in Him, but how we get there is up to us.

The recognition that people work and think differently, that there is no uniform and singular path toward belief in HaShem, is significant. It has led to divisiveness and arguments about which approach is most authentic. But, in truth, this recognition should have the opposite effect. It should encourage a more ambitious approach that is also more accepting. It should enable us to find allies instead of adversaries and engender empathy instead of enmity, all in the name of creating a more successful and integrated community.

Excerpted from an essay at yutorah.org/lectures.

Rabba Sara Hurwitz
Hebrew Institute of Riverdale

A midrashic tradition teaches us that the Israelites overslept the morning of Matan Torah. They had to be woken up, to embark on their new journey of pursuing a life of Torah, a life of God, a life of justice.

The kabbalists established Tikkun leil Shavuot, a process of “rectifying” our forebears’ lack of vigilance. While they slept, keeping the Torah and its code of ethics waiting for them, we spend the night absorbed in learning its core messages.

Tikkun leil Shavuot is an opportunity to correct past mistakes. It is a call to wake up, arouse our souls, rise to the challenge of our imperfect world, and commit not to wait to repair its brokenness. There is much to be fixed: poverty, hunger, abuse and discrimination are just a few of the many plagues that require our alert attention.

Sleep is sweet. Closing our eyes is easier than being awake and recognizing that we must address the pain and destruction that diminishes our world. But sleeping can no longer be an option. We must rise up and accept our obligation to overcome injustice.

The Talmud teaches that sleep is 1/60th of death (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 57b). Perhaps Chazal (the rabbis of the Talmud) is teaching that if we close our eyes to the darkness that surrounds us, we may as well be dead. To truly live, to truly be alive, is to be awake to the injustices of our society, and become vigilant about responding.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg
Author and educator

A midrash teaches that when God spoke the words of Torah at Sinai, the voice was heard throughout the world. The Israelites ran in the direction of the voice and as soon as they would arrive, the voice would move in another direction. After trying every direction, Israelites asked one another, “But wisdom, where shall it be found? And what is the place of understanding? [Job 28:12]” (Exodus Rabbah 5:9)

It’s a funny, kind of pathetic image, isn’t it? The Israelites scuttle around, running here and there and everywhere. The Israelites’ desperation is evident, and it’s pretty clear that the anxiety that they’re experiencing is serious business.

And it feels familiar, as well. So many of us these days are in constant motion, hurtling down the street with smartphone in hand, running from work to our social lives or home lives and errands and chores, and then going to bed and doing the same thing all over again. We’re in perpetual motion, running from north to east to south and back again, chasing a truth of some sort and not finding it — and, perhaps, wondering why we’re not hearing God’s voice more often than we do.

“Wisdom, where shall it be found?” Well, how about right here?

“What is the place of understanding?” How about this place?

Would the voice have changed directions if the Israelites had determined from the outset that they would stay and hear what was to be heard in the south? The midrash tells us that God’s voice reverberates throughout the world, after all — so why are they running in circles? I wonder if, perhaps, rather than chasing after God’s voice, they might actually be running from it.

After all, revelation is terrifying. What God asks of us is not always easy — in fact, it’s usually not easy.

Excerpted from an essay on huffingtonpost.com.

What’s Happening in Jewish L.A. May 18-23: Mayor Talks ‘Critical Issues’; Shavuot Events

Eric Garcetti.

FRI MAY 18
ADVANCE L.A. CONFERENCE

The Help Group, a nonprofit that serves children, adolescents and adults with special needs, holds its 2018 Advance L.A. Conference. The theme is “Thriving Through Transitions: Finding Strengths in Differences.” Featured speakers are Dan Siegel, an author, speaker and clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine; Robert Koegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University; and Rabbi Naomi Levy, who discusses how “Every Soul Is Uniquely Blessed.” 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Parents and others $120, students $80. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (818) 779-5198. advancela.org.

JNFUTURE SHABBAT ON THE BEACH

Izzy Ezagui.

Decorated Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Squad Commander Izzy Ezagui is an American who volunteered to serve in the IDF, lost his arm in combat and returned to the battlefield. He discusses his experiences in his new memoir, “Disarmed: Unconventional Lessons from the World’s Only One-Armed Special Forces Sharpshooter.” He is the featured guest speaker at this Shabbat event for young professionals. 6:30-9:30 p.m. $70 for the first 70 registrants, then $80. Annenberg Community Beach House, 415 Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica. (323) 964-1400, ext. 969. jnf.org.

SUN MAY 20
“A PLACE FOR US — A SYMPHONIC AND CHORAL PERFORMANCE”

Inspired by Leonard Bernstein’s dedication to making classical music accessible to all communities, Harmony Project and Urban Voices Project: A Skid Row Choir perform a special arrangement of the “West Side Story” classic “Somewhere.” The two musical groups also perform an uplifting symphonic and choral repertoire, including compositions by Tito Puente, Robert Buckley and even Carly Rae Jepsen. Leeav Sofer, the founder and bandleader of klezmer ensemble Mostly Kosher, leads the Urban Voices Project, which brings music to disenfranchised communities throughout Los Angeles County. 2 p.m. $12 general, $9 seniors, full-time students and children over 12, $7 children 2-12, free for Skirball members and children under 2. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

MON MAY 21
AN ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE IN OUR PRAYER

Noa Shaashua.

Kol Tikvah Cantor Noa Shaashua leads a three-part adult education class exploring different types of prayers, emphasizing the special prayers that express gratitude. She discusses the meaning and power of these prayers as they are transmuted into song, along with melodies that match the attitude of gratitude that are a hallmark of Judaism in general and prayer in particular. Students use storytelling, guided imagery, prayers, melodies and more. Two classes, including this one, remain in the series. The final class takes place on June 11. 7-8:30 p.m. Advance RSVP $36, day of $72. Cost is for the entire course. Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670. koltikvah.org.

WED MAY 23
“CRITICAL ISSUES FACING OUR CITY”

Eric Garcetti.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti discusses “Critical Issues Facing Our City” during a breakfast with the executives of the Los Angeles Jewish Home. Garcetti, of Mexican-Jewish descent, has tackled a number of issues as mayor, including homelessness, the environment, traffic and more. Expect him to touch on these issues during this appearance. 8 a.m. social time and breakfast; 8:30-9:30 a.m. program. $35 pre-registered, $40 at the door. Woodland Hills Country Club, 21150 Dumetz Road, Woodland Hills. (818) 774-3332. theexecutives.org.


Shavuot Events

SAT MAY 19
SHAVUOT WITH TEMPLE ISRAEL

A night of wine, cheese and blintz making, with chef Danny Corsun and Temple Israel of Hollywood Rabbis John Rosove and Jocee Hudson, spotlight this adults-only Shavuot celebration. Enjoy a little bit of text study, great cooking and a lot of wine. 6-8 p.m. Free. Private residence. (323) 876-8330. tioh.org.

THIS, TOO, IS TORAH

Join IKAR for all-night (or most of the night) learning in traditional and some not-so-traditional sessions. Participants learn how everything can be Torah and can get their fill of all things dairy. 7:45 p.m.-1 a.m. Free, no RSVP required. Shalhevet, 910 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. ikar-la.org.

A NIGHT OF TRANSFORMATION

Experience a night of transformative Torah learning and explore the ways the Jewish people transcend, transmit, translate, transgress and transform our tradition. 6:45 p.m. Mincha, 7:15 p.m. seudah shelishit with light dinner, 8:15 p.m. Ma’ariv and Havdalah, 8:45 p.m. opening session. $18. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7353. tbala.org/shavuot.

“MOSES: A MUSICAL PORTRAIT”

Valley Beth Shalom holds composer Sergio Barer’s musical program “Moses: A Musical Portrait,” featuring selections from Barer’s work presented with the San Fernando Valley Master Chorale, Wilshire Boulevard Temple String Quartet and piano accompaniment. The evening also features a study session and conversation with Barer; Ma’ariv; blintz reception; and a late-night study session with rabbis. 7-11:30 p.m. Free. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000. vbs.org.

ALL NIGHT LEARNING

Nessah Congregation’s 11th annual all-night learning features Rabbi David Sabbah discussing “The Answer of What Life Is About,” “The New Secret for Our Generation” and “The Power of One: Kabbalah, Chassidut and the Mysticism: Necessary and Essential Paths to Power.” Rabbi Yitzkhok Sakhai discusses “Going Back to Our ‘Ruths.’ ” Reception at 11:15 p.m. followed by lectures. Full breakfast served after Shacharit. Free. Nessah Congregation, 142 S. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 273-2400. nessah.org.

SPIRITUAL REFLECTIONS AND STUDY

Join Temple Judea for an intimate gathering filled with learning, music, study and more. 8-10 p.m. Free. Private residence, address provided upon RSVP. (818) 758-3800. templejudea.com.

NASHUVA SHAVUOT

Nashuva holds a Shabbat Havdalah service, Shavuot learning, meditation and meal, and 14th birthday celebration. Don’t miss a night of wisdom, transformation, light and music with Nashuva Rabbi Naomi Levy and the Nashuva band. Blintzes and cheesecake served. 7:30-9 p.m. Free; donations welcome. Vista Del Mar, 3200 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. nashuva.com.

KEHILLAT MA’ARAV SHAVUOT

Celebrate Shavuot with Kehillat Ma’arav. The Conservative congregation holds a dairy dinner, singing under the stars, synagogue-made cheesecake dessert and learning. Kehillat Ma’arav, 1715 21st St., Santa Monica. km-synagogue.org.

SNL: SHAVUOT NIGHT LIVE

Join Pico Shul for a night of relevant and fun learning and food. Participants include Rabbi Yonah and Rebbetzin Rachel Bookstein; Cheston Mizel and Batsheva Frankel. The evening kicks off with Mincha, followed by a third meal, singing and more. A Shavuot dinner (RSVP online) begins at 8:30 p.m. Afterward, Torah learning — with fast-paced (20 minutes or less) classes on various topics — commences, with coffee, beer and a cheesecake buffet. A midnight sushi bar requires RSVP. 7 p.m. through the night. Free. Pico Shul, 9116 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. picoshul.org.

“FINDING FAITH IN THE GOD YOU MIGHT NOT BELIEVE IN”

Writer, lecturer and teacher Michael Berenbaum discusses his recent trip with young professionals on March of the Living and his experience engaging millennials in their exploration of faith and Jewish identity. The event kicks off with Havdalah. 8:15-10 p.m. Free. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518. sinaitemple.org.

Reclaiming Our Mystical Mojo on Shavuot

Rabbi Joseph Karo.

It is time to take back mysticism, and Shavuot is the perfect time to reclaim our mystical mojo.

Modern man has become skeptical and cynical. We demand evidence and logical arguments. Usually, that is a good thing, but without an unreasonable suspension of disbelief or religious imperative, modernity turns mysticism from inspiration into “fake news.”

There is a tradition to study Torah all night on Shavuot. The origins of this practice are cloaked in mysticism and mystery. Rabbis Joseph Karo and Shlomo Alkabetz lived in 16th century Safed, Israel, with a small group of dedicated disciples. Alkabetz, who composed “Lecha Dodi,” was an extraordinary poet and musician. He was pure soul. Karo, compiler of the “Shulchan Arukh” — Jewish Code of Law — was a halachist without peer. His study partner could only be an angel of God. Karo studied with an angel and he recorded their conversations in a book called “Maggid Meisharim.” Nobody knew about Karo’s special chavruta until Shavuot night 5733.

Karo and Alkabetz made a pact to study Torah for the entire night with their students, reverently chanting the holy words. At midnight, a disembodied voice began to speak through Karo:

“You are blessed in this world and the next word because of the crown you have returned to my head. Years ago, I was thrown into the garbage heap and my crown was taken from me. I was inconsolable but tonight you have restored my crown to its glory. Be strong! Be courageous, my loves! Rejoice and celebrate!”

Alkabetz understood this heavenly voice was Karo’s study partner.

Stories do not need to be true to inspire and invigorate us spiritually. They just need to be good.

After the monologue, the group studied mystical secrets of the Torah together with the voice. However, they were informed that they lacked a minyan (a quorum of 10 men), so they could not hear all the secrets of the Torah.

The group diligently completed their vigil of Torah study until morning. Three students missed the learn-a-thon because they went to sleep. When they heard the story, they were heartbroken. So they decided to do study for a second consecutive night.

On the second night, the voice did not wait until midnight. When the group began to study, the voice returned with more praise, love and insights. The angel said that on both nights, their Torah was able to touch God and hasten the redemption.

And so, a tradition was born.

Judaism ceded mysticism and mystery to the Charedim. Everyone else is a skeptic. But we all need the legends of the mystics in our Judaism. Stories do not need to be true to inspire and invigorate us spiritually. They just need to be good.

We need great stories like Karo and the voice of God on Shavuot night to inspire another 500 years of Judaism.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Cheesecake from New York or Israel? You Decide

During Shavuot, Jews eat soft cheeses and dairy-based meals for several reasons. First, the Torah was given to our people by Moses on Shabbat, when no animals could be slaughtered and no utensils could be koshered. Also, the Torah is likened to nourishing milk, or “chalav” in Hebrew. The numerical values of the word chalav totals 40, the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai when receiving the Torah.

But even for secular Israelis, tradition dictates that every table has a cheesecake on it at this time of year. Because I can’t think about cheesecake without thinking of my Aunt Dora and Uncle Nissim, I reached out to my cousin recently to get her recipe for the classic Israeli preparation. I recalled a summer I spent living with them in their apartment in Tel Aviv, during which I realized how much my aunt spoiled my uncle and how much he loved and adored her for it.

My uncle was not an emotive man. If I could describe him in a few sentences, I’d say that he could have been the prototype for James Bond in the Sean Connery era. Cool and stoic, devastatingly handsome and gentlemanly, my uncle was a man of refined tastes. He was a gourmand, a connoisseur and a foodie.

He used his considerable charms as leverage to get my aunt to cook him anything he wanted at any time day or night. There was never a time when there was not a perfectly smooth and velvety chocolate mousse or a crème caramel in the fridge, just in case my uncle felt like something sweet after what was usually a four-course meal.

Even though my uncle was a bon vivant, he was not an easy man to feed. My aunt called him an “especzico,” which in Ladino roughly translated means picky eater. She would peel his tomatoes, temper his hot chocolate and serve him only the “troncho,” or the heart of the lettuce.

When she made her famous cheesecake, she knew that it was acceptable to give my uncle a slice only after it had cooled a bit but was still warm from the oven. A cold slice of cheesecake would sit uneaten, as would everything my uncle left on his plate if it weren’t absolutely to his liking.

But when my uncle ate something he liked, the smile on his face was her reward, and you could almost see his heart melting for my aunt as he took his first bite.

But even for secular Israelis, tradition dictates that every table has a cheesecake on it at this time of year.

Because my uncle and I were kindred spirits in this regard, and I am also a bit of a food snob and an “especzico,” like him, I tend not to eat anything that I don’t love. My cheesecake recipe is one that I’ve adapted from Veniero’s in New York City, an Italian, family-run bakery that has been making the rich and dense New York-style version for 125 years.

While my aunt’s recipe will yield a fluffy, light cheesecake that appeals more to the Israeli palate, my recipe is the New York-American-style cheesecake, which has that irresistibly velvety texture from being cooked in a water bath like the true custard that it is. Although I am not a sweets eater, preferring savory food over desserts, I have to admit that this cheesecake is one of my favorite things. You can top it with berries or sugar-coated rose petals for Shavuot, but I like it best unadorned.

Either recipe you use, know that they both have the stamp of approval of two “especzicos.” Chag sameach!

DORA’S ISRAELI-STYLE CHEESECAKE

Crust:
7 ounces petit beurre biscuits, crushed (or similar dry butter cookies)
3 1/2 ounces butter, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon salt

Filling:
4 large eggs, separated
3/4 cup sugar, divided
23 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 package vanilla instant pudding
3 tablespoons cornstarch

Topping:
1 1/4 cups sour cream, room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest of 1 lemon

Preheat oven to 390 degrees F.

Crumble butter cookies with a rolling pin or heavy object and mix with room-temperature butter and salt. Press evenly into a greased 10-inch diameter springform pan.

Whip egg whites and 1/2 cup sugar until soft peaks form. In a separate bowl, combine cream cheese, remaining 1/4 cup sugar, egg yolks, instant pudding and cornstarch. Fold egg whites into yolk mixture and mix thoroughly until no white streaks remain.

Pour over prepared crust and bake in a 390 -degree-F oven for 15 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 350 F and bake for approximately 45 minutes more or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

While the cake is baking, combine sour cream, powdered sugar, vanilla extract and lemon zest. After the cheesecake is done, turn off oven, pour sour cream mixture evenly over the cheesecake and return to the oven to set for about an hour. Serve warm “especzico”-style or refrigerate overnight and serve cold.

Makes about 10  servings.

YAMIT’S CLASSIC NEW YORK-STYLE CHEESECAKE

Crust:
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/3 cup butter, room temperature

Filling:
32 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs, plus 1 large egg yolk
3/4 cup sour cream
Zest of one lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch

Preheat over to 400 F.

Grease a 9-inch cake pan and line its bottom with parchment paper. Thoroughly mix crust ingredients and press evenly into the bottom of the pan, pushing crumbs two-thirds of the way up its sides. Place crust in oven for 10 minutes, remove and place in freezer.

Turn oven temperature to 450 F. Place a large pan with 1/2 inch of boiling water in the middle rack of the oven.

Using a stand mixer, mix cream cheese, sugar, salt and vanilla. Make sure all ingredients are room temperature to avoid lumps of cream cheese. Using a paddle attachment or a hand mixer on low speed, blend until smooth and creamy, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl every few minutes. Add eggs and eggs yolk one at a time and mix to incorporate, followed by sour cream, lemon zest, lemon juice, flour and cornstarch. Try not to incorporate too much air into the mixture.

Pour mixture into prepared crust from a height to pop remaining air bubbles, and then tap the pan a few times lightly on the counter to remove any remaining air. Bake in water bath for 15 minutes and then turn down oven temperature to 225 F and bake the cheesecake for another 30 minutes.

Turn off oven and leave cheesecake in oven for 30 more minutes. Then crack open oven door and leave in a final 30 minutes.

Remove cheesecake from oven and let it sit at room temperature for 1 hour. Cheesecake should still have a slight jiggle at its center.

Cover pan with foil and refrigerate cheesecake overnight or at least 6 hours.

Before serving, run a sharp knife around the inside of the pan. Place pan on a hot stove burner for 30 seconds to loosen the cheesecake and invert onto a clean plate. Then invert the cheesecake again onto another plate or a cake stand for serving so that it is crust side down.

Slice with sharp knife whose blade has been dipped in hot water, redipping the knife into the water and wiping it off in between cuts.

Makes about 10 servings.

Conversion Doesn’t Stop at the Mikveh

This past New Year’s Eve, I was with my husband, Daniel Lobell, in the living room of our good friend, talking with him about our struggles with Judaism. We were lonely and lost. It felt like I was hitting rock bottom with my spirituality.

I had become increasingly disenchanted with my Orthodox Judaism. I was sick of hearing criticism of the #MeToo movement at the Shabbat table. I was tired of seeing unabashed support of President Donald Trump.

I also felt very out of place in my community, because I had just turned 29 and couldn’t afford to have children yet, while many of my peers had at least two kids and a mortgage. I couldn’t see any future where we’d be able to afford a house or send our future kids to a Jewish school in Los Angeles.

It had been 2 1/2 years since my conversion through an Orthodox beit din. But before dipping into the mikveh and signing my conversion papers, I’d been living an Orthodox life for years. I’d gradually given up treif food, observed Shabbat, prayed frequently, learned at least once a week and moved into the religious community in Pico-Robertson. I was becoming more observant and it was easy; I had an end goal to look forward to.

Even though I already went to the mikveh, every day that I get up and decide to live another day as a committed Jew, I convert all over again.

After I dipped in the mikveh, and got married, I finally took a breather. For years, I had imposter syndrome, and for once, I could just “be Jewish.”

I kept the laws but ceased learning regularly. I began going to synagogue on Shabbat later and later and skipping it some weeks. Our best friends, with whom we had spent every Shabbat, moved to New Jersey. People’s lives were progressing all around us, and Daniel and I seemed stuck in the same place.

This all led to me breaking down at the end of last year. Not knowing where else to turn, we called our friend for advice. He listened patiently and said Orthodox Judaism is something that he has struggled with, too. We were so surprised. Daniel and I looked up to him and thought that he had it all together. But even he had challenges.

Our friend encouraged us to build our own community by going to different synagogues, seeing what we liked and appreciating each one for what it had to offer. He talked about how he learns regularly with a few inspiring rabbis around town. He invited us for a Shabbat lunch, introduced us to new people and took Daniel to a local minyan, where they had a spiritually uplifting experience.

Thanks to our friend, I realized that just because I was feeling low it didn’t mean I had to throw it all away. There were always solutions.

We started to visit different synagogues. We met more people, received invitations to meals and felt less alone. I started learning with a chavruta (study partner) and going to shul earlier.

I took on additional mitzvot and began to daven consistently. As for the political and cultural issues within Orthodoxy, I discovered a movement called Open Orthodoxy that has similar views to mine. Strengthening my spirituality has helped me have faith that Daniel and I will be able to make it in L.A.

Today, I am stronger in my Judaism than ever before. The more I learn, the more I want to learn. The earlier I go to shul, the more I want to attend. If I do more I feel connected, and want to only increase that connection.

Just like any Jewish person, I need constantly to take on more mitzvot, study and try to be better. And the politics and customs in my community shouldn’t discourage me, because it’s not about that. It’s about putting faith in HaShem and doing what is right and true to myself.

Even though I already went to the mikveh, every day that I get up and decide to live another day as a committed Jew, I convert all over again.

When the Timely Fights the Timeless

What do the riots at the Gaza border have to do with the Jewish festival of Shavuot? What does the dramatic and historic move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem have to do with the custom of baking cheesecakes for Shavuot, or the ritual of learning Torah all night?

One of the dilemmas of Jewish journalism is what to do when the timely interferes with the timeless. We decided several months ago that Shavuot would be our cover story for this week. Since the festival commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Sinai some 3,300 years ago, it coincided perfectly with the release of Dennis Prager’s new book, “The Rational Bible.”

So, that was the plan — we would honor a holiday of Torah by reviewing a new book about the Torah.

And then, of course, reality intruded. The timeless Torah got ambushed by the timely news.

In fact, rarely do I recall a time period with so much consequential news — from the U.S. backing out of the Iran nuclear deal to the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem to the violent riots at the Gaza border, and, yes, even to Israel’s victory at the Eurovision Song Contest, when 200 million viewers watched Netta Barzilai take home the grand prize with an irresistible song that featured the memorable line, “I’m not your toy, you stupid boy.”

As we shoot down the rapids of this never-ending news cycle, Judaism comes to remind us that there are little coves on the side of the river that are waiting for us to pitch a tent, light a fire and appreciate the beauty and complexity around us.

Can a cover that commemorates an event from 3,300 years ago survive so much hot news? I can think of at least three timely cover stories we could have done instead of the one on Shavuot.

And yet, we decided to stick with the Shavuot cover. Why? For one thing, it reminds us that there’s more to life than news. News is sexy. It’s an adrenalin rush, a sugar high. I have a few trusted news sites that I know will give me a news hit every 15 minutes or so.

And when I don’t go to them, they come to me, either through a Twitter feed or an email blast or any other number of digital bursts.

All day long, I get hit with news items, mostly about politics, the Jewish world and Hollywood. And here’s the crazy part — I don’t complain. I’m used to it. It makes me feel like I’m always in the know. When I meet people, I feel empowered because I know “what’s going on” about the important issues in the world.

How can a 3,300-year-old story compete with all those hot news stories, especially an ancient story that offers us the same traditions and rituals year after year, without fault? Is there value to a story that is always there, a story that is rooted in eternity?

One of the best metaphors I ever heard about the challenge of parenting was, “Give your kids roots and wings.” As I interpret that statement, the “timeless” provides the roots and the “timely” provides the wings.

In a crazy world that keeps going faster and faster, the timeless is what keeps us grounded. Perhaps the best example is Shabbat, that ancient ritual that compels us to slow down and reconnect with our roots and our humanity.

Maybe that is one essential question of Shavuot — trying to understand why and how a news story can still be newsworthy after 3,300 years.

At the recent Milken Global Summit, I was immersed in a throng of high-achieving innovation junkies who offered smart and sophisticated answers to society’s ills. It was impressive. And yet, one of the most popular panels was one about life longevity — how to slow down and learn habits that will increase both the quality and length of your life.

When I spoke to one of the panelists, Arianna Huffington, after her talk, one of the first words out of her mouth was, “Shabbat.” She told me that her new movement, Thrive Global, is eager to start a “Shabbat track” because this Jewish ritual of weekly renewal is just what the world needs right now.

The news will keep coming at us, whether we like it or not. We’ll celebrate when the news is good, we’ll be sad when it’s bad, we’ll be confused when it’s good and bad, we’ll argue over whether it’s good or bad, and then we’ll all wait for the next hit.

As we shoot down the rapids of this never-ending news cycle, Judaism comes to remind us that there are little coves on the side of the river that are waiting for us to pitch a tent, light a fire and appreciate the beauty and complexity around us.

One of those little coves is the festival of Shavuot, when we recall that day when our ancestors gathered in a desert and accepted a book that we still study today. Maybe that is one essential question of Shavuot — trying to understand why and how a news story can still be newsworthy after 3,300 years.

What? Milk in My Chocolate for Shavuot?

I can’t tell you how many people tell me sheepishly that they prefer milk chocolate bars while others gloat over their dark chocolate preferences. Israel’s Elite chocolate produced a charming video of children tasting chocolate for the first time. It messages that only adults can understand the sophistication of dark chocolate, leaving milk chocolate to untutored naifs. Shifting the Israeli palate from milk to dark defies the famous image on Elite’s red cow wrapper.

The Shavuot celebration coming in May, with its emphasis on dairy foods, seems like a good time to take a look at this milk/dark chocolate controversy. Fortunately, the “Torah” of chocolate has shifted. Today’s craft and artisan chocolate makers smooth over the divide by offering dark milk chocolates. These are chocolates that mix milk solids with cocoa content in the 40 to 60% range, yielding a smooth mouthfeel and rich taste.

Milk chocolate is regulated by food standards and vary around the world. For instance, be aware that the minimum percentage of milk solids required by the FDA runs around 12% while the requirement in European Union countries is 15%. The FDA only requires 10% cocoa solids in those milk chocolates. That means there are a lot of other ingredients in that treat.

For those with dairy allergies, the FDA does not require producers to identify traces of dairy which may be picked up on the production line. Indeed a recent FDA study showed that three in four dark chocolate products contain dairy without identification of such on the label. If you really need to know about the milk in your chocolate, look for a formal pareve, vegan or dairy free certification.

So, why milk chocolate? To celebrate the gift of Torah at Mount Sinai when our ancestors were too busy preparing for the revelation to eat anything but easily prepared milk foods, of course.

Rich Garcia: Stepping forward for Marines and Judaism

Rich Garcia, head of security at Sinai Temple, is a Jew by Choice and a military veteran. Photo by Ryan Torok

When U.S. Marine Sgt. Rich Garcia was on a mission in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, an improvised explosive device destroyed the vehicle he would have been on had he not moved to another to take over for a Marine who was ill.

He credits a siddur, of all things, with keeping him safe.

“That was the first time I carried a siddur out on patrol,” Garcia told the Journal. “After that, I carried that siddur everywhere.”

Garcia, 33, was a Marine from 2002 to 2011, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was raised by a Jewish father, who also was a Marine, and a Catholic mother. They separated when he was young and he lived with his father.

As a Marine, Garcia went to Shabbat services at boot camp and wore a Star of David necklace under his combat gear. He began converting to Judaism in 2014 through the program Judaism by Choice. Today, his connection to Judaism is not just spiritual but professional as the head of security at Sinai Temple.

“I think since he has chosen Judaism, he has made a connection with our families, and it’s more than just a job,” Sinai Temple Rabbi Erez Sherman said. “It is a sense of duty.”

Born in Corsicana, Texas, Garcia grew up outside of San Diego, raised mostly by his father, Richard Levine. Garcia said his father encouraged him to go to synagogue on Shabbat at a Conservative congregation.

“He pretty much said, ‘Hey, you can pick whatever religion you want … but let’s go to synagogue,’ ” Garcia said at Sinai, a handgun holstered at his side.

On Sept. 11, 2001, his father woke him up to watch on television as the second plane flew into the World Trade Center. A high school senior, he skipped school that day and visited a military recruiter.

“I grew up in a very patriotic household,” he said. “Honestly, I probably knew what terrorism was when other high school kids were not even thinking about it.”

During boot camp in San Diego, he participated in Shabbat services. It was then that a rabbi on base gave him the siddur he would carry with him throughout his service.

After his discharge, Garcia moved to Los Angeles, drawn to its large Jewish community and the job opportunities in private security. He began working at Sinai Temple last year, around the time that he completed his conversion coursework, led by Rabbi Neil Weinberg.

“He is a single man who wanted to become Jewish because he loves the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. He did all the requirements in our program — keeping Shabbat every week, going to synagogue weekly and keeping kosher,” Weinberg said in an email. “I am very proud that he converted to Judaism through our Judaism by Choice program.”

At Sinai, Garcia runs a team of former military men. He said providing employment to military veterans is a way of helping them after their service. “Give them a role, make them feel like they’re needed, because in the military we were needed, we had a role,” he said.

Garcia, who lives in the San Fernando Valley, is an employee of Centurion Group, a full-service security company that serves houses of worship, among other clients. A member of Sinai Temple, he holds a degree in criminal justice from the University of Phoenix and he plans to earn an Emergency Medical Technician certification.

His Sinai team attends the annual High Holy Days security briefing organized by the Anti-Defamation League. He works closely with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles in keeping abreast of security threats.

As a Marine, Garcia went to Shabbat services at boot camp and wore a Star of David necklace under his combat gear.

Gone are the days of discovering improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan. These days, he is more likely to order an evacuation after a suspicious package is spotted at a bar mitzvah. Recently, a spate of threats targeting Jewish community centers put his team on higher alert. 

“It kept my guys on their toes — we took it personally,” he said. “This is our home, and we’re not going to let anybody destroy our community.”

In March, he traveled to Israel for the first time and participated in the Jerusalem Marathon as part of a delegation that included Sherman as well as other Sinai congregants . He ran in memory of Marcus Preudhomme, a fellow Marine who was killed in action in Iraq in 2008. Preudhomme’s name is inscribed on a bracelet on Garcia’s wrist.

During the trip, Garcia became a bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. Sherman was by his side as he recited an aliyah — Parashat Vayakhel.

Though he spends his free hours at the gym, he ran the half-marathon instead of the full.

“I ran the half, I’m not going to lie to you. Oh, my gosh, that was hard,” he said. “It was hills. I’m in the Jewish community. I wish they would’ve told me Jerusalem is all hills — they knew I was going. But it was great.”

Shavuot session uses biblical holiday to teach about refugees

Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS

The star of the Shavuot liturgy is Ruth, celebrated as the first convert to Judaism. But a late-night study session held by seven synagogues and two Jewish advocacy organizations recast the holiday’s main character as a prototype for today’s refugees, fleeing conflict across Africa and the Middle East.  

The groups met at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) on May 30, the first night of Shavuot, for an evening of learning about Torah — and asylum and immigration policy.

“The American-Jewish community is a refugee community,” Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the Jewish refugee resettlement organization, told the crowd of some 350. “And now that we’re in, we owe it to [today’s] refugees to ensure they’re treated the way our ancestors were treated, or the way our ancestors should have been treated.”

A program called “Refugees, Immigration and Jewish Responsibility” drew together members of VBS, Temple Beth Hillel, Temple Isaiah, Adat Ari El, Congregation Kol Ami, Stephen Wise Temple and University Synagogue.

Later on in the evening, the crowd broke up into individual study sessions led by the rabbis of the various synagogues present. Sitting in a circle of some two dozen guests during one of them, VBS Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein connected the theme of refugee relief with the biblical plight of Ruth, whom Feinstein called “the quintessential stranger.”

In the text, the widowed and wandering Ruth, having followed her mother-in-law back to Bethlehem, is redeemed by a Jewish man, who marries her and gives her a son.

Feinstein argued that only through accepting the stranger can the Jewish people bring about their own redemption: Ruth’s great-grandson is King David, from whose lineage the Messiah is prophesied to come.

Hetfield likewise turned to Torah to encourage the crowd to welcome the stranger — a commandment repeated 36 times in the text, he said.

HIAS opened its doors in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to assist Jewish immigrants, mainly from Eastern Europe. But in the late 20th century, the stream of Jewish refugees began to recede.

Although the group was “founded to welcome refugees because they were Jewish,” Hetfield said, “today HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish.”

He noted that in 1939, around this time of year, the passengers on the German ocean liner MS St. Louis celebrated Shavuot before it was turned away from North America and sent back to Europe. Many of the Jewish refugees onboard eventually were murdered by the Nazis.

The incident had a lasting impact on Jews in the United States, as well as its immigration policy.

Hetfield recalled that when he was an official at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a branch of the State Department, one of his superiors used to say, “Every policy that the United States has should follow one rule when it comes to refugees, and that is, ‘Would this policy have saved the passengers on the St. Louis, or would it turn them back?’ ”

After Hetfield, Janice Kamenir-Reznik, a VBS member and co-founder of the anti-genocide organization Jewish World Watch, urged those present to take action.

“There’s so much noise and chaos in Washington that this issue will get lost if we’re not constantly reminding them that it matters,” she said, calling on those in the audience to write to their members of Congress to take action on the global refugee crisis.

After her remarks, the crowd met in five groups for text study.

“Tonight, you get an opportunity you don’t normally get,” Feinstein said, “which is to learn with a rabbi who’s not your rabbi.”

The Shavuot holiday, which commemorates the handing down of the Torah, was a fitting occasion to bring together different synagogues, said Rabbi Sarah Hronsky of Temple Beth Hillel, noting that the synagogues gathered “shoulder to shoulder, as if we were at Mount Sinai receiving the Torah. What could be more beautiful than that?”

What to do in Los Angeles this week: June 2-8

June 3: "Jackie"

SAT | JUNE 3

“JACKIE”

Experience the screening and the world-premiere live performance of the score from “Jackie.” Composer Mica Levi’s soundtrack for the 2016 film about Jacqueline Kennedy garnered the first Academy Award nomination for best original score by a female composer in 20 years. Told through the eyes of the iconic first lady, “Jackie” is an intimate portrait of a woman going through one of the most tragic moments in American history, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The music will be performed by the Wordless Music Orchestra, led by conductor Jayce Ogren. Presented by Nederlander Concerts and Wordless Music. 8 p.m. Tickets starting at $29. The Theatre at Ace Hotel, 929 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. (213) 623-3233. wordlessmusic.org/jackie.

SIX-DAY WAR ANNIVERSARY SERVICE

In observance of the Six-Day War’s 50th anniversary, attend a special Shabbat service and lecture honoring the war’s heroes and celebrating Israel’s victory. Presented by the Jewish Platform for Advocacy and Community Engagement. Service led by Rabbi Danny Cohen of Hebron and Cantor David Caytak of Jerusalem. Lecture by David Suissa, president of TRIBE Media and the Jewish Journal. 9:30 a.m. service; 11:30 a.m. lecture. Free. The Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills. beverlyhillsjc.org.

“EINSTEIN!”

The one-man drama “Einstein!” returns to the Santa Monica Playhouse for six performances. The drama explores Albert Einstein’s years as a young father while he was trying to prove his theory of relativity during World War I. Directed by Tom Blomquist. Followed by Q-and-A with writer-performer Jack Fry. 3 p.m. $40. Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. (310) 394-9779. einsteintheplay.com.

“THE MERCHANT OF VENICE”

Alan Blumenfeld stars as Shylock in William Shakespeare’s tragicomedy about a merchant who must default on a large loan given by a Jewish moneylender. The 16th-century play continues to raise questions about racism, religion, mercy and justice. Directed by Ellen Geer. 7:30 p.m. Tickets starting at $25; discounts for seniors, students, veterans, teachers and children. Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. (310) 455-3723. theatricum.com.

SHAVUOT WHITE PARTY

Adults ages 50 and older are invited to celebrate Shavuot with dairy appetizers, wine, dancing and live music at this event sponsored by the Israeli-American Council. Bring your favorite dessert to share. Performance by singer Hodaya. 8:30 p.m. $20 online at eventbrite.com; $25 at the door. IAC Shepher Community Center, 6530 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. (818) 505-4920. israeliamerican.org.

SUN | JUNE 4

“FROM BROOKLYN AVENUE TO CESAR CHAVEZ”

Celebrate the summer installation of this exhibition that explores Jewish histories in multi-ethnic Boyle Heights and reveals the urban, social, economic and cultural changes inscribed in its layered past. Part of the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies’ digital project Mapping Jewish L.A. (mappingjewishla.org). There will be musical performances and refreshments from local vendors. 2 p.m. Breed Street Shul, 247 N. Breed St., Los Angeles. Free. RSVP to cjsrsvp@humnet.ucla.edu. (310) 267-5327. cjs.ucla.edu.

“HOW TO BEGIN YOUR GENEALOGY”

Whether you are new to genealogy or a seasoned genealogist, there is something for everyone to learn at this program presented by Jan Meisels Allen, president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of the Conejo Valley and Ventura County. Learn about family documents, timelines, census records, immigration and naturalization records, family photos, interviewing techniques, newspaper research and more. 1:30 p.m. Free. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. jgscv.org.

“BROKE AS A JOKE”

Comedian Danny Lobell performs his one-man show, “Broke as a Joke,” about the crazy things he’s done for money and the hilarity they have produced. 9:30 p.m. Additional shows June 8, 10 and 11. $10. Sacred Fools Theater Studio, 1078 Lillian Way, Los Angeles. hollywoodfringe.org.

MON | JUNE 5

FILMMAKER MARCEL OPHULS

Documentary filmmaker Marcel Ophuls — best known for his films dealing with the atrocities of World War II, including “The Memory of Justice” and “Hotel Terminus” — will be in conversation with Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, scholars and students. Part of Shadows of the 20th Century: Ophuls Film Festival, with screenings and lectures through June 8 at various locations. 4 p.m. Free with required pre-registration. UCLA Meyer and Rene Luskin Conference Center, 425 Westwood Plaza, Los Angeles. (310) 267-5327. cjs.ucla.edu.

AUTHORS MICHAEL CHABON AND AYELET WALDMAN

On the anniversary of the Six-Day War, husband-and-wife authors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman discuss their new book, “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation,” with Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence and Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR. The book features numerous authors who visited the West Bank and Gaza, reporting on what they saw. Sponsored by Breaking the Silence, HarperCollins, New Israel Fund and IKAR Culture Series. Free. Pico Union Project, 1153 Valencia St., Los Angeles. 7:30 p.m. doors open; 8 p.m. program. Reception to follow. (323) 643-1616. Tinyurl.com/LDZJOAM.

ISRAEL BONDS SOCIAL

Join Israel Bonds Los Angeles New Leadership, in conjunction with the Israeli-American Council Los Angeles and American Friends of Magen David Adom, for a summer social. Open bar for three hours. 8 p.m. $25; $36 at the door. Register at conta.cc/2rkc7uJ. At Now Boarding, 7746 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. israelbonds.com.

TUES | JUNE 6

TOP PRODUCERS PANEL

IAC Real Estate Network presents the “Nadlanist Top Producers Panel,” where multimillion-dollar real estate producers share success stories. Doron Zilbermintz, explaining new building ordinances and more, will kick off the event. Enjoy an evening of insight, connections, drinks and food. Panelists include Adi Livyatan, Sheri Bienstock, Lisa Cutman, Michelle Hirsch, Tsafrir (Jeff) Aviezer, Ron Feder and Richard Schulman. Co-sponsored by Arletta Insurance, L.A. Fixers and The Livyatan Group. 7 p.m. $50. IAC Shepher Community Center, 6530 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. israeliamerican.org/megapanel.

THURS | JUNE 8

STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY

Character actor and storyteller Stephen Tobolowsky shares stories from his latest book, “My Adventures With God.” This funny, introspective collection explores love, catastrophe and triumph. Book available for purchase. Book signing and Q-and-A to follow. 2 p.m. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

PETER WORTSMAN

Peter Wortsman with Marjorie Perloff will discuss Wortsman’s book of stories “Footprints in Wet Cement.” The author also will sign copies of the book. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. booksoup.com.

How to make blintzes: A video tutorial

 

FOR THE BLINTZES:

– 1 cup flour
– 2 tbsp. sugar
– 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
– 1/2 tsp. salt
– 3 eggs
– 1 1/4 cups whole milk
– 1 tbsp. vegetable oil

FOR THE FILLING:

– 1 lb. ricotta cheese, at room temperature
– 2 tbsp sour cream or mascarpone
– 3 egg yolks
– 3 tbsp. sugar
– 1/2 tsp. lemon zest
– 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1.  Combine crepe batter ingredients in blender or bowl and mix until smooth.  Let rest a half hour.

2.  Combine filling ingredients in mixer or bowl and blend until smooth. (Use good quality ricotta.  If very moist, drain in cheesecloth-lined colander; set inside pan for a few hours or overnight in refrigerator)

3.  Heat a non-stick crepe pan or 8 inch skillet.  Rub with oil or butter.  Add ¼ cup batter and tilt pan to spread batter thin.  Cook until set then flip.  Cook until dry, then turn out onto plate.  Repeat until all the batter is used.

4.  Spread 2 or 3 tbsp. of filling along bottom of crepe.  Roll up into a cylinder, tucking ends in before you finish rolling. Repeat until all the crepes are filled.

5.  Heat one tbsp. vegetable oil in a skillet, Add crepes 2-3 at a time and cook on each side until golden. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and fresh berries.

Makes 10–12

 

 

 

Frozen blintzes are for cowards, so here’s how to make them from scratch

Not pictured: freezer burn. Photo by Tess Cutler

Don’t get me wrong. I have at least four boxes of (Streit’s?) cheese blintzes gathering a third layer of permafrost in my freezer right now. I bought them before the glatt marts could jack up the prices because this is not my first go-round, folks. This is my life.

However! I do not expect to unpackage them this holiday. Or, perhaps, ever. That is because after making my own blintzes with the following recipe I have settled on the conclusion that frozen blintzes are for cowards. You can whip up a batch homemade so easily that to buy the little kosher hot pockets from the store would be to impugn—nay, swear off—your integrity in the kitchen.

Not to mention that the frozen kind never cook evenly and don’t taste that great to begin with. Have I ever had a positive frozen blintz experience? The short answer is no. The long answer is, has anyone? Nothing like biting into a blackened potatoey crust that you are certain is cooked all the way, only for the cool dispassion of stubborn icicles to greet you in the interior. Come on now. Let’s just make them from scratch.

First: go shopping!

Here’s what you need that you might not have: good ricotta cheese, sour cream, a lemon, and blueberries. (I take it you have vanilla.) Everything else is below:

You will need:

…for the crepes

1 cup flour
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
3 eggs
1.25 cups whole milk
1 tbsp vegetable oil

…for the filling

1 lb ricotta cheese (get the good stuff)
3 tbsp sour cream or mascarpone
2 egg yolks
3 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

…for the win

hella blueberries
a tablespoon (or less!) of sugar

Also get out: a big round frying pan, a saucepan, a mixing bowl, a strainer and a stick of butter to play around with.

After you have all your ingredients together, start by making the crepe batter. Take all the ingredients from the first half and whisk them together in a bowl. This should be a relatively thin liquid, thin enough to drip off the whisk when you hold it over the bowl but thick enough that it doesn’t all run off immediately. Okay, now let it sit.

[The life hack here is to double this part of the recipe and save half the batter for breakfast, when you can cook up crepes any other way you like. Thank me later.]

Next, take a look at the ricotta. Is it good and wet, dripping like a baby fresh out the bathtub? In that case, let it towel off in a colander to drain some of that excess liquid. (You can also dry it out in the fridge.) We’re not trying to make soggy blintzes. That’s what Big Kosher wants us to do.

[It’s important, here that we’re pronouncing ricotta “ree-coatt-ah.” It enhances the taste, I guarantee it. Make sure to get that double ‘t’ sound.]

When the ricotta is ready and at room temperature, combine the filling ingredients in a separate bowl and blend until smooth. You should have a nice, heavy whip going.

Okay, now you’re ready to make the crepes!

Heat a non-stick crepe pan or 8 inch skillet.  Grab that stick o’ butter and slather the pan with it. The pan should froth about it as you are merely teasing the main event. So, deep breath at this point. Next is the part where you showcase your elegance and prove your worth as a chef: pour about a quarter-cup of batter into the frying pan as you tilt the pan to spread the batter thin. You’re making broad, thin circles here, about seven or eight inches in diameter.

It should cook in a flash — no more than twenty seconds on each side if your pan is hot enough. Throw it on a plate to cool and repeat. Make a bunch of these and kill the batter, unless you wisely doubled the recipe for later, in which case kill half of it.

All set? Now take the action to the countertop. Spread a crepe out onto a flat surface (cutting board is fine), and drop a couple of tablespoons’ worth of filling into the bottom third of the crepe. Don’t worry about spreading it out—it’s easier to roll up into a lil’ burrito this way. Roll the bottom flap over the filling and tuck it under, then fold over the side leaves, then roll the whole thing forward like a sleeping bag. Honestly, just make a lil’ burrito. Repeat until all the crepes are filled.

Now heat up that pan and smother it with butter again. (Hey, diets don’t count on chag!) Throw your Hungarian blintzes on there 2-3 at a time and cook on each side until golden. Then you’re done.

Oh yeah! Blueberry sauce: take all those blueberries, throw them in a pot, and throw some sugar on top of it, and then just cook it until you get this oozing pot of succulence that looks like it does on the frozen box of Streit’s blintzes. That takes like 10 minutes? Tops.

I have no idea how many this makes because I eat them as I go. Rob, whose recipe this is, says it’s good for about a dozen. Happy Shavuot!

Edited to add: this recipe makes about eight blintzes.

A Single Soul

The gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery are graced by U.S. flags on Memorial Day. Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem (via WikiCommons)

In 1971, by act of the United States Congress, the last Monday in May officially became the Federal holiday known as Memorial Day. Its roots, though, go all the way back to just after the Civil War when General John A. Logan, the leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a day of remembrance for all those who had fallen in the war to be held on May 30th of that same year.

By 1890, all of the Northern states had decided to observe what was then called “Decoration Day,” and soon after World War I, the Southern states joined as well.

It’s understandable that in the decades immediately following our bitter Civil War, a conflict that resulted in over 600,000 deaths, the two sides couldn’t even agree to remember and honor their dead together.

This year, Memorial Day falls immediately before Shavuot, Z’man Matan Torateinu – the Time of the Giving of Our Torah.

Here’s the lesson: immediately after pausing to remember the more than 1,300,000 Americans who have fallen in battle, we celebrate Torah, whose essence, according to Rabbi Akiva, is: וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ – “Love your neighbor as yourself.” For many interpreters, the last word of the verse is the key to understanding: kamocha (“as yourself”). The big idea is the realization of how much we are all alike. Ultimately, there is no distinction between self and “other.” We are, all humanity, a single soul: North and South, man and woman, black and white, Jew and Gentile.

It took sixty years for Americans to agree to remember their dead together.

It will take time, I know, and I’m sure it seems naive and hopelessly unrealistic given the state of our world, but my prayer is that someday, soon, we will so fully and universally recognize our shared humanity that war itself will be nothing more than a memory. We will gather on Memorial Day to mourn the fallen and give thanks for the realization of the Prophet Isaiah’s vision:

לֹא-יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל-גּוֹי חֶרֶב, וְלֹא-יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה.

“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.”


Yoshi Zweiback is Senior Rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple and Schools.

What is Shavuot?

May 30 (evening) to June 1

BACKGROUND

Shavuot (literally “weeks”) takes place on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, seven weeks after the first day of Passover, when wheat was planted. It marks the day God gave the Jewish people the Torah at Mount Sinai, as well as the first fruits of spring. Shavuot is one of the ancient pilgrimage holidays — along with Passover and Sukkot — when offerings were taken to the Temple in Jerusalem.

TRADITIONS

On Shavuot, we read the Ten Commandments and the Book of Ruth, about the convert Ruth and her acceptance of God. Ruth was an ancestor of King David, whose lineage is to give rise to the Messiah. There’s also a special reading of a liturgical poem called Akdamut, which highlights God’s mighty power.

Many Jews stay up on the first night of Shavuot studying all night (Tikkun Leil Shavuot), a practice with roots in the midrash that when it was time for the Israelites to receive the Torah, they were all asleep and had to be awakened by Moses. The idea is to make up for their mistake with our modern enthusiasm and readiness.

SPECIAL FOOD

For various reasons, a popular Shavuot tradition is to consume dairy foods, such as cheesecake, ice cream and blintzes. In The Song of Songs, it says, “honey and milk are under your tongue.” Rabbis have stated that the love between God and the nation of Israel is like “honey and milk.” Another explanation is the Jews didn’t have kosher meat to eat since they weren’t given the laws of kashrut yet on Shavuot. It is a practice among some to have a meat meal later on Shavuot.

Sources: HebCal, My Jewish Learning

Amelia Saltsman’s silan recipe for Shavuot

SILAN

Results will vary depending on how dry the dates are and the variety used. Unfortunately, deglet noor dates, the most commonly available variety, produce beet-red silan and honey dates turn purple when cooked. You can halve the amount of dates and cut your prep time, but I don’t recommend multiplying the amount unless you’ve got extra hands to help.

– 2 pounds dates, such as barhi, medjool or khadrawy
– Water

Soak: Place dates in a large bowl. Add water to the bowl to cover dates by one inch, about 6 cups for 2 pounds of dates. Cover bowl and set aside, away from direct sunlight, to soak at least 4 hours or overnight.

Cook: Lift dates out of soaking liquid and shred them with your fingers. Place them, along with the pits, into a wide pot. Stir in 4 cups fresh water. Bring to gentle boil, uncovered, over medium heat, about 10 minutes. At this point, the tan-colored mixture will start to thicken. Skim off any scum that rises to the top. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the date mixture has reduced by about one-third, is shiny, thick and jamlike, and its color has deepened to a medium brown, about 50 minutes longer. As the mixture thickens, after about 40 minutes, stir more frequently to prevent sticking. Remove date mixture from heat and cool.

Extract: Place a strainer over a large bowl and place a nut-milk or jelly bag in the strainer. Transfer some of the cooked date mixture into the bag. Drain date “juice” into the bowl, wringing the bag to extract all liquids from the date solids. Discard solids and repeat with remaining dates, working in batches. You’ll have about 4 cups of bland “date juice.”

Reduce: Place date juice and 1/2 cup fresh water in a medium pot. Starting over medium heat, bring to a good simmer; reduce heat as needed to keep liquid at a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced by more than half to a deep brown rich-tasting syrup the consistency of honey, about 1 hour, stirring more frequently to prevent scorching as the syrup thickens. The silan is ready if it stays parted briefly when you run a spatula through the pot. (If it has thickened too much, turning almost taffy-like, stir in 1/4 cup water, and cook briefly.) Turn off the heat. The silan will continue to thicken as it cools.

Pour into clean jars, cover tightly, and store at room temperature away from sunlight. The silan will keep at least 4 to 6 weeks, although complex flavors may flatten over time and sugars crystalize. Heat silan briefly to dissolve crystals.

Makes about 2 cups silan.

TOASTED NUT AND SILAN SQUARES

Toasted nut and silan squares

These chewy bar cookies taste better the day after they’re baked and keep well for several days.

– 1 cup walnuts or pecans
– 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
– 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
– 1/2 cup (1 stick) cold butter, cut into 1/4- to 1/2 -inch pieces, plus 2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
– 3 tablespoons sugar
– 1/4 tsp salt
– 1/2 cup silan
– 1 tablespoon water
– 1 teaspoon lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Place nuts on sheet pan and toast in oven until fragrant and lightly browned, 7 to 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Make the crust: In a mixing bowl, toss together the flours, 1 stick of butter, sugar and salt. Using your fingers or a pastry cutter, crumble the ingredients together to the texture of coarse cornmeal. Pour mixture into 8-inch-square pan and gently press evenly over bottom and partway up the sides of the pan, giving extra attention to where the bottom meets the side of the pan to keep thickness even. Bake until light golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and gently smooth the crust with the back of a soup spoon to seal any cracks, pushing gently along sides if crust has slumped during baking.

While the crust is baking, prepare filling. Place silan, remaining 2 tablespoons butter, water, lemon and pinch of salt into heatproof or microwavable bowl (I like to use a 1-quart glass liquid measuring cup). Heat in microwave just until butter melts, 30 to 45 seconds, or place bowl in a pot of simmering water just until butter melts. Stir to blend.

Chop nuts and stir them and any “nut dust” into silan mixture. Pour filling evenly over crust. Return pan to oven and bake until edges of crust are golden brown and filling is bubbling and thickened, about 20 minutes. Filling will continue to set as it cools. Cool several hours or overnight before cutting into squares. Store covered at room temperature up to four days and refrigerate up to six.

Makes 16 2-inch squares

SPICY SWEET GRILLED ROOTS AND TUBERS WITH SILAN,
HARISSA AND SHANKLISH

Spicy Sweet Grilled Roots and Tubers With Silan, Harissa and Shanklish. Photo by Tess Cutler

Use a mix of sweet potatoes, carrots and beets, or all of one kind of vegetable. Served with freekeh or rice and lentils, this makes a hearty vegetarian main course. For a vegan version, substitute tahini sauce for the shanklish. Accompany with pickled peppers, okra or onions. Note: If using red beets, keep them separate during preparation to avoid staining the other vegetables.

– 3/4 pound sweet potatoes
– 3/4 pound large carrots
– 3/4 pound tennis-ball-size beets
– 1/2 cup healthy oil, such as olive, avocado or safflower
– 1/4 cup silan
– 2 heaping tablespoons harissa
– 2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
– 2 cups labneh
– 2 cloves garlic
– 2 tablespoons za’atar spice blend
– 1/2 to 1 teaspoon Aleppo, Maras or Urfa pepper
– Chopped parsley, cilantro or thyme leaves, optional
– Cooked freekeh or other grain, optional

Scrub or peel carrots and cut on the diagonal into largest possible oval slices, 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick. Scrub sweet potatoes and cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick wedges. Scrub beets and cut on diagonal into largest possible disks, 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick

Have a bowl filled with ice and water ready near the stove. Cook carrots in generously salted boiling water until their color brightens and carrots are slightly flexible, 2 minutes. Lift carrots out with a spider or slotted spoon and drop into the ice water bath to stop the cooking process and preserve color. Repeat with the sweet potato wedges. Lift carrots and potatoes out of ice bath and drain on cloth or paper towels. Repeat blanching process with beets and place on separate towel. Pat vegetables dry. Vegetables may be prepared a day ahead to this point and refrigerated covered.

Prepare the shanklish. Crush garlic through a press into the labneh and add za’atar and Aleppo pepper to taste. Stir vigorously to blend. Labneh may be prepared a day ahead and refrigerated.

Heat a gas or charcoal grill to medium. Place oil, silan, harissa and salt in a microwavable or heatproof bowl. Heat briefly in microwave oven or place bowl in a pot of simmering water to soften ingredients. Whisk to blend.

Toss silan mixture with vegetables to coat generously (toss red beets separately to prevent staining the other vegetables). Grill vegetables, reserving silan mixture, until nicely scored and tender, 4 to 6 minutes per side. Adjust heat or move vegetables to cooler part of grill as needed to avoid burning. As vegetables are done, return them to the remaining silan mixture and toss to coat.

Arrange vegetables on a platter, top with chopped herbs, if desired, and accompany with the shanklish. Vegetables may be grilled several hours ahead and served at room temperature. Serve warm or at room temperature and accompany with freekeh, if desired.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Shavuot inspires children’s books

"Yossi and the Monkeys" and "The Greatest Ten" are two Shavuot-related children's books.

Shavuot — the celebration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai — is not often associated with the variety of children’s literature inspired by other holidays, such as Chanukah or Passover. This year, however, one of the main publishers of Jewish children’s books, Kar-Ben, is offering two new holiday-themed titles.

And in another book, a Los Angeles author tackles the difficult task of explaining the Ten Commandments to a pre-school audience and creates a lovely, inclusive read-aloud story, appropriate for Jewish families of every denomination.

The Art Lesson: A Shavuot Story” by Allison and Wayne Marks. Illustrated by Annie Wilkinson. (Kar-Ben, 2017)

This story is based on Eastern European Jews’ custom of decorating their windows with Jewish-themed papercuts during the Shavuot holiday. Children should enjoy this cleverly imagined tale of a girl who loves spending time doing art projects with her talented grandmother. Young Shoshana dresses in her treasured artist’s smock and black beret for her weekly visit to the home of Grandma Jacobs, who stocks an art studio that would enchant any child. Calling her granddaughter “My little Chagall” or “My little Modigliani,” she stirs creative juices as she instructs Shoshana how to make papercuts — “something my bubbe taught me how to do when I was a little girl.” When Shoshana gets frustrated with what she believes are meager efforts, her grandmother encourages her to use her imagination to define success and states lovingly that “Every papercut is special. Just like you.” Adults will appreciate the various references to famous artists’ styles that the illustrator has hidden among the pages, helped by an author’s note explaining Grandma Jacobs’ use of nicknames. Simple instructions for a Star of David papercut are included.

“Yossi and the Monkeys: A Shavuot Story” by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod. Illustrated by Shirley Waisman. (Kar-Ben, 2017)

Fun, colorful and off-kilter comic illustrations set the tone for this Ashkenazi-flavored folktale, an echo of the children’s classic, “Caps for Sale,” by Esphyr Slobodkina. When Yossi tries to sell his wife’s lovely handmade kippot at the local market, he meets a mischievous monkey who steals the merchandise. But Yossi and the monkey join forces when he realizes the animal’s antics charm customers. Yossi names the monkey “Zelig” (“Blessing”), and his business flourishes until rains come and Zelig is nowhere to be found. When Yossi realizes a circus is in town, he knows where to go find his new friend. The title, however, is a bit misleading as the Shavuot content is rather sketchy. In the final pages, Zelig joins Yossi and family at a festive Shavuot meal of blintzes as Yossi presents Shavuot flowers to his wife. A short author’s note explains a bit about the holiday.

The Greatest Ten” by Janice Surlin. Illustrated by Rivka Krinsky. (Hummingbird Jewel Press, 2017)

Los Angeles author Janice Surlin has been writing stories for Jewish children for years, and this first effort in self-publishing is a great success. She takes pains to show respect for all denominations of Judaism in the text and illustrations. Examples include depicting figures dressed modestly and all males wearing kippot, while the theme of universal ethics as depicted by the Ten Commandments is appropriate for all. The commandments are explained by a rhyme scheme that can be delightfully sung to the tune of “This Old Man,” such as the first verse, “I am God, I am One, I am God for everyone.” When dealing with the commandment not to commit adultery, readers observe a wedding couple under a chuppah and sing this verse:

When you love someone who

Cares about and loves you too,

How you act is the only way for your love to show

And be loyal, God says so

The bright watercolor illustrations will engage pre-school children at Shavuot and any other time of year.

In the land of milk and silan

Amelia Saltsman's silan. Photo by Tess Cutler

The Bible drips with mentions of honey. There’s the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey; its symbolic use at Rosh Hashanah for a sweet new year; and at Shavuot, coming next week, to represent the sweetness of the gift of the Torah. And then there are those sensual lines in The Song of Songs: “Sweetness drops from your lips, O bride; honey and milk are under your tongue.”

But what sort of honey? Historians now believe that most biblical mentions of honey refer not to the golden nectar produced by bees, but to a syrup prepared from dates. This makes sense. Reducing bushels of dates — one of the revered seven biblical species — into amphorae of “honey” turns out to be a perfect preservation method. Not to mention, those long-lasting jars of the region’s first sweetener were immensely portable just in case of an expulsion, say, to Babylon.

[Recipe: Silan recipe for Shavuot]

Creating date honey, dibs in Arabic (also translated into English as date molasses or syrup), was, and is, a processing technique common to all date-growing regions of the Middle East and North Africa. For Jews, the culinary tradition is most associated with the Jews of Iraq (ah, Babylon), who spoke Judeo-Arabic. They called it silan, the term adopted into modern Hebrew.

According to Jewish food scholar Gil Marks, Iraqi silan-based charoset, halek in Judeo-Arabic, is the original “mortar,” a logical deduction, given the abundance of dates in early Jewish civilizations and the absence of apples. (The Ashkenazi apple-based version is a mere thousand or so years old.) Traditionally, silan was made once a year after the date harvest in early fall, giving dates and date honey first-fruit status at Rosh Hashanah.

Over the millennia, silan has never been out of production, whether at home or in date-syrup manufactories. (Date presses were found in the ruins at Qumran and elsewhere; modern Israeli commercial production didn’t begin until the early 1980s). The sweetener always has been highly regarded by locals for its antibacterial and antioxidant properties and thought to aid a variety of conditions, including lowering blood pressure and enhancing sexual prowess.

With today’s growing interest in Middle Eastern cuisines, silan is having a well-deserved moment. The ancient recipe is pretty much the same one used today: one ingredient plus water subjected to four basic techniques in sequence — soaking, cooking, extracting and reducing — that require no kitchen inventions beyond fire. The result is something of a miracle: silky smooth, rich brown that glows auburn when the light catches it, and complex notes of deep caramel, citrus and even coffee revealed through long, slow cooking. And, once upon a time I imagine, there were hints of smoke as the date extract slowly reduced over live embers.

I wanted in. I needed to join the ancient lineage of cooks in a process little changed by modern technology. My fascination with silan began with my paternal grandmother, Rachel Yochanan Ben-Aziz, who came from many generations in Iraq before she, my grandfather Ezekiel, and six of their seven children, among them my father, immigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine in the early 1930s. Although I learned a lot about Iraqi cooking from Safta Rachel during our visits to Israel and hers to us in Los Angeles, I somehow missed the bit about silan until after she had died.

A few years ago, my cousin told me about our safta’s delicious silan-and-toasted-pecan charoset. I immediately added it to our Passover traditions, using ready-made syrup I bought at the Iranian market in my neighborhood. Then, one day, my Aunt Hanna let slip that safta used to make her own silan. Wait, what?!?

I had little to go on. From Hanna, I knew only that my grandmother had soaked a lot of dates in water and enlisted her nephews to vigorously wring, that is, extract, the “juice.” Initial research in cookbooks and online didn’t offer much more. In fact, I discovered some pretty wild attempts to re-create silan, including the addition of copious amounts of sugar. This would have been unlikely in the original process, since, at 60- to 80-percent sugar, dates were the regional source for sugar production, not sugar cane or beets. And besides, how would my grandmother have had access to all that sugar in those early lean years in Israel? My guess is that the use of cane sugar is a modern shortcut to thick syrup, and that the missing ingredients lost through the years were a couple of steps plus time and patience.

But, the misguided sugar shortcut offers clues. Because date solids are very dense, water must be introduced to release the sugar, resulting in diluted flavor. A second step was needed — cooking the soaked pulp — to begin reconcentrating the sugars and start caramelization.

Then, using what I know about making clear caramel syrup by slowly heating, melting and reducing cane sugar with a little water to keep it liquified, I applied those principles to Safta Rachel’s extracted “date juice.” That was it; a slow reduction was the fourth and final step to gorgeous silan.

So, not exactly a recipe. Just four rudimentary techniques that ask a cook to slow down, pay attention and develop a feel for the process. Making silan never ceases to surprise me. I’ve learned something new with every batch I’ve made these past few months. I suspect it will always be thus. Perhaps by the time I will have been at it as long as my grandmother was, I’ll be OK with that.

Amelia Saltsman

Here’s what you need to know about making silan at home. It requires a lot of dates. Two pounds net a scant two cups of syrup, which is actually an ample amount of honey. Any number of date varieties will work, such as barhi, medjool, halawy or khadrawy. Each imparts its own color and flavor characteristics to the finished silan, and each particular batch of dates affects the cooking time and final yield, depending on how fibrous or dried it is. Avoid the deglet noor variety, the most commonly available cultivar; it changes color when exposed to heat and yields beet-red silan. And the honey date variety, I learned from Chef Jeremy Fox, turns purple when cooked.

Start soaking the dates the night before you want to make silan, and figure on a half day of intermittent work to finish. There’s not a lot of active work other than the extraction step; plan on puttering around the house as the dates cook, cool and reduce in turn.

Invest in a nut-milk bag to simplify the extraction step, but don’t bother to spend money on pitted dates or take time to pit them, since you’ll discard all the date solids anyway. The uncracked pits may even add flavor — there’s a traditional date-pit coffee substitute made from roasted and ground seeds.

The syrup is rather forgiving. If you’ve reduced it too far and it’s turning into taffy, stir in a little water and cook briefly to restore. After you pour the finished silan into jars, deglaze the pot with water for a small, second round of thin silan that is the cook’s reward.

And here’s what you should do with silan. Drizzle over almond butter or tahini and toast for a breakfast of champions. Spoon over thick yogurt or vanilla ice cream and top with strawberries, bananas or orange segments, and chopped nuts (a little crumbled halvah couldn’t hurt). Use silan instead of molasses or brown sugar in pies and cookies. Mix it with harissa for a spicy-sweet mop for grilled vegetables. When served with shanklish — a Lebanese way with labneh with za’atar and garlic — and the green wheat known as freekeh — “new ears parched with fire” — this main dish becomes a Shavuot homage to both milk and honey and the spring wheat harvest we’ve been so anxiously awaiting.

Ready-Made Silan

Let’s get real. Silan is too wonderful and versatile to enjoy only when you have time to make your own. Ready-made silan is a fantastic convenience condiment to have in one’s pantry — if you buy a good-quality one. Now you know to look for those that contain dates and nothing else (some ingredient lists include water; some don’t). Various brands have long been available at Middle Eastern, Iranian and Israeli markets. Silan has gone mainstream enough to show up at Whole Foods and other high-end supermarkets; Date Lady, an American brand selling imported silan, is the most commonly found. My favorite commercial Israeli brand is Kinneret Farm, the country’s largest producer of high-quality silan. It is available online at makoletonline.com and on Amazon. I haven’t yet found it on grocery shelves in the Los Angeles area.

From barley to holiness in 49 days

We have a tendency in the Jewish world to jump very quickly to the meaning of things. A good example is the tradition of counting the Omer, the 49 days from Passover to Shavuot. This odd ritual is loaded with symbolic meaning. You can read many commentaries on how the 49 days are a period of spiritual preparation for the awesome experience of receiving the Torah on Shavuot, how each day represents an opportunity to repair our impurities, and so forth.

But while I do enjoy the jump from ritual to meaning, there’s also something to be said for the value of a story itself. Where does this unusual ritual come from? And what can it tell us about our people and our tradition?

It turns out it all started with a little barley.

The Jews were very much a people of agriculture during biblical times. Their Whole Foods was really whole foods. Their ability to work the land, especially for the making of bread, was a matter of holiness and survival. It was an elaborate process: Oxen helped plow the land, seeds were sown by hand, grain was reaped with a sickle and brought to a threshing floor, where it was ground and then winnowed of debris, and so on until a beautiful loaf of bread was born.

There was a sense of miracle about all this. Our ancestors were intimately aware that growing food could never happen without the raw gifts from God, from rain and earth and wind, to the sun, fire and animals. Finding ways of thanking God was a dominant theme of the time, and bringing sacrifices to the Temple was one of the holier ways. It’s not well known that many of these sacrifices did not involve animals but agricultural produce.

The tradition at harvest times was to bring as an offering a part of that harvest. Each Jewish farmer, for example, was required to bring to the Holy Temple the first of each fruit that ripened on his farm.

Which brings us back to barley, the crop harvested at Passover at the beginning of the harvest season. To show gratitude to God and pray for continued blessings, on the second day of Passover, our ancestors would bring an omer (“sheaf”) of barley to the Holy Temple.

Forty-nine days later, on Shavuot, the kohanim (priests) would bring two loaves of bread as an offering to God. These loaves came from wheat, which was considered a higher-grade crop than barley. One interpretation for the ritual of counting the 49 days is that it was a way of ascending from the humble barley crop to the majestic loaf of bread.

It makes sense, then, that Shavuot would be the time to celebrate the receiving of the Torah. The Torah is God’s ultimate gift to our people — the spiritual loaf of bread that has kept us nourished for millennia.

The Jews were very much a people of agriculture during Biblical times. Their Whole Foods was really whole foods.

The power of this gift is not just that it is full of fascinating stories and moral ideas,  but that these stories and ideas are embodied in concrete rituals that keep us connected to God and our ancestors.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the Jews were faced with perhaps their greatest challenge: How do you continue a tradition of rituals without the physical structure upon which so many of these rituals revolved?

How do you suddenly shift to a new way of thanking God after doing it the same way for centuries? And who decides on this new paradigm?

The sages of the Talmud did. It was the centuries of talmudic debate and argument that created Judaism 2.0 and enabled the tradition to survive without its physical core.

One of the ways we bring offerings to God in our days is through prayers and the recitation of blessings. It’s not the same, of course, as bringing a sheaf of barley to a magnificent structure in Jerusalem, but that’s not the point.

The point is this: Holy Temple or not, can we still strive for holiness? And can we honor the rituals that help us strive for that holiness?

Finding personal meaning when we practice the rituals is one way to honor them. Another is to delve into the stories in which these rituals are rooted.

I love seeing how far our ancestors went to honor God. I love imagining the elaborate process they went through as they trekked from the fields to the Temple to thank their Creator for the simple miracle of barley.

And I especially love that a few thousand years later, we’re still talking about it.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Forced to pick between observance and graduation, Jewish Bruins choose both

Aaron Ebriani was 11 when his father, Eli, died, and the event inspired him to honor his memory by fulfilling as many mitzvot as possible — and by helping others do the same.

So when he realized a few months ago that all of UCLA’s departmental graduations fell on Shabbat or the holiday of Shavuot, he saw a chance to commemorate his father by helping some fellow students keep the faith.  

“I jumped on it,” he said onstage June 9, standing in front of about 80 other Jewish undergraduates during a ceremony he instituted. “This entire graduation was done in [my father’s] name.” 

Ebriani’s realization was followed by a flurry of emails and hours of meetings to organize a Thursday afternoon graduation that Jewish students could attend without violating proscriptions against driving or carrying objects on a holiday.

To demonstrate the need for such an event, he circulated a petition to present to UCLA’s administration that gathered more than 300 signatures. Later, Rebecca Zaghi, a graduating senior who directed the event, went through each of the names on the petition to send an invitation via text message.

Although Shabbat-observant Jews could attend a class-wide graduation before dusk on June 10, they would have had to break Shabbat or Shavuot to attend the smaller ceremony in the following days associated with their individual majors.

“The whole idea was that departmental [graduations] are more small and intimate,” Zaghi told the Journal. “They’re the people that you’ve taken classes with and grown with.”

Statistics from UCLA and the Jewish student organization Hillel International suggest that most of the approximately 450 Jewish UCLA seniors did not attend the ceremony. But, using Hillel at UCLA’s status as a registered campus organization, along with $1,000 in Hillel funding, the June 9 graduation nearly filled each of the 505 seats in the auditorium of UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall with friends and families.

“You have 80 Jewish students who for the first time ever self-organized a graduation so that they could observe our traditions,” said Rabbi Aaron Lerner, executive director of Hillel at UCLA. “It’s amazing. It’s really amazing.”

Zaghi said that at her and Ebriani’s urging, UCLA administrators have made note of the next year when Shavuot would interfere with graduation — 2024 — and are taking steps to avoid the conflict. But she said now that the tradition has started, moving forward, “Why shouldn’t the Jewish community have their own graduation?”

“If it wasn’t for Shavuot and the whole conflict with graduation, none of us would be here today,” Ebriani said at the event. “So let’s take a moment to appreciate that.”

The ceremony began after the graduates filed in to “Pomp and Circumstance.” Then Heather Rosen, the UCLA student president, who is Jewish, called for a moment of silence for William Klug, the professor slain on campus the previous week in a murder-suicide, along with the four victims of a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv the day before. The sound of raucous cheers and air horns blown with abandon quickly died out as audience members bowed their heads.

Toward the end of the ceremony, when UCLA Dean of Students Maria Blandizzi asked the crowd to hold its applause until she finished conferring degrees, her request predictably fell on deaf ears, as celebratory cries and air horns sounded nearly throughout, despite a visibly irate usher who confiscated the noisemakers.

When Ebriani marched across the stage, it was a culmination not just of a UCLA degree, but also months spent to put the event together. “It really wasn’t the easiest thing,” he said in an interview the next day. “But I’m glad we did it.” 

IKAR’s progressive Shavuot learning experience

IKAR, a politically liberal Jewish community with a focus on social justice, went progressive in another sense during a June 11 Shavuot Torah study program. That’s when about 130 participants started at one member’s home and, over the course of the night, walked to the backyards of two other IKAR members to continue studying. 

At each stop of the IKAR Shavuot Street Crawl, attendees basked in the warmth of heat lamps, consumed vegetarian chili and mini-desserts of the brownie and cheesecake variety, and got down to studying source sheets with some of the community’s leading teachers. 

Upon arrival at each location, guests were asked to wear a sticker that answered a question; these were then used as icebreakers. For instance, at the first stop — the home of Steven Rubenstein and Laura Spitzer — people were asked whom their dream dinner date would be: Barbra Streisand, Moses, Larry David or Ruth Bader Ginsberg (whose stickers disappeared quickly).

To launch the evening, IKAR Cantor Hillel Tigay and his trusty guitar led the assembled in a rousing Havdalah marking the separation between the holiness of Shabbat and the holiness of Shavuot, the day which commemorates the Jewish people’s receipt of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Under slightly cloudy skies, participants took seats in dozens of folding chairs all over the backyard, some of them adjacent to rosemary plants that filled the air with their distinctive fragrance.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at American Jewish University, launched the learning with an exploration of the kabbalistic sefirot, the 10 attributes or emanations of God, charging participants to consider which sefira — crown, wisdom, understanding, power, love, beauty, splendor, eternity, foundation or presence — best described the manner in which they received their own personal Torah. Artson also guided participants through texts that explored the relationship between God and the Jewish people.

Tigay provided musical transitions between elements of the evening, playing diverse tunes like “Norwegian Wood” and “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” as people took their seats or availed themselves of refreshments.

Stop No. 2 was the home of Amy Slomovits and Jeremy Goldscheider, where the arrival stickers featured favorite inventions — like telephones, the internet and ice cream makers — and the presenting rabbis stood in front of a wooden swingset as they spoke. 

IKAR Associate Rabbi Ronit Tsadok charged attendees to think about a time when they were absolutely convinced that they had all the right information, only to discover that they were absolutely wrong, and discuss it with a partner who had the same sticker; some conversations focused on information that comes over social media and is widely distributed, only to be proven to be false later. 

Then Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University, led the group in identifying anxieties about participation in prayer, including not knowing the prayers, the tunes, the language, the expectations of the community. Greenwald suggested, based on an idea by writer Anne Lamott, that there are three ways that everyone can pray: “help,” asking for something that’s needed; “thanks,” acknowledging the things for which we are grateful; and “wow,” an expression for something amazing in the world. 

For the 50 or so people with the stamina to last beyond midnight, the final stop of the night — with stickers asking guests to designate a “spirit animal,” an animal with which they felt a particular affinity, like a mouse, a unicorn or a giraffe — was at the home of IKAR Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous and David Light. 

As chocolate-covered strawberries made the rounds, guests paired up (designated by finding another person with the same sticker) to study some formative texts about Moses: his birth and extraction from the Nile; his encounter with the Egyptian beating a Hebrew; and his involvement in defending the daughters of the priest of Midian.

After Brous concluded, the group dispersed, and while a few stalwart students (and a few of the teachers) made their way to Temple Beth Am for all-night study, most returned to their homes for some well-deserved rest, having brought in the holiday with both study and sweets.

A Shavuot all-nighter at Temple Beth Am

Charlie Carnow showed up at Temple Beth Am on June 11 with big plans. A paper in his pocket listed all the synagogues he wanted to visit on Shavuot: Beth Am, B’nai David-Judea and LINK Kollel & Shul.

But, midway through the evening, he gave up on his temple-hopping ambitions and decided to stay put at Beth Am, which, like numerous area congregations, held an all-night learning session in celebration of the holiday that marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The importance of attending the program, “The Torah of Me: How Do You Receive Torah,” was simple, said Carnow, a member of IKAR.

“It’s escaping the world of work, and devoting yourself to Torah,” he said.

The Shavuot experience at Beth Am began with afternoon prayer, followed by a light dinner. It continued with an opening session at 9 p.m., “Torah Through Our Multiple Intelligences,” featuring songwriter Craig Taubman, sans guitar, leading attendees in song.

Taubman also discussed current events, specifically the broadcast of the Muhammad Ali memorial that had aired the previous day. He read aloud some of the criticism that had been lobbed at Rabbi Michael Lerner, a progressive rabbi who protested the Vietnam War with Ali and whose remarks at the memorial denounced the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

“I was more critical of the criticism of him, than his actual remarks,” Taubman said in an interview after the holiday. “I don’t have to agree with his remarks, but I do have to agree with the right for him to speak his Torah, and that’s what Shavuot is about, that if everybody receives Torah, then everybody should have the right to speak their Torah and not be edited or chastised for having a point of view that’s not yours.”

Other speakers at the kickoff session included Rabbi Aryeh Cohen of the American Jewish University Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and his wife, Andrea Hodos, part-time program director at NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, along with Dan Messinger, owner of Bibi’s Bakery & Cafe in Pico-Robertson, who spoke about operating the cafe and how it affords him the opportunity to interact with Jews of all backgrounds.

Breakout sessions followed, and around midnight, about 25 people gathered in the Temple Beth Am Pressman Academy Lainer Library to discuss how to make God more prevalent at Jewish summer camp. Camp Ramah in California staff members Dani Kohanzadeh and Ami Fields-Meyer led the session, during which attendees grappled with quotes about God from the likes of Martin Buber and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Outside the library, attendees munched on brownies, fruit and vegetables and filled their cups with caffeinated drinks. They also indulged in cheesecake — like learning, it is customary to eat dairy foods on Shavuot.

While adults enjoyed the intellectual stimulation that was occurring on the upper floors of the congregation’s campus, students of Pressman Academy, the synagogue’s elementary and middle school, had a different kind of experience on the lower floors: a sleepover party.

Supervised by Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman, director of youth learning and engagement at Beth Am, pajama-clad kids wandered around the hallways or played table tennis and foosball in the campus recreational room. (Hoffman managed to find some time to dedicate himself to pursue learning, sitting in the back of the room during one session with his head buried in a book.)

Without question, some of the students could have used the caffeine available upstairs. “I’m so tired right now,” one Pressman student told a friend while walking like a zombie down a hallway.

The helpful reply: “Go to sleep.”

The Hottest Summer in Baghdad: 75th anniversary of the Farhud

The festival of Shavuot, which this year took place June 12-13, commemorates a time when Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai. It also marks the beginning of a new agricultural season, Chag Hakatsir (The Harvest Holiday). It comes seven weeks after Passover.

Shavuot in Baghdad marks the beginning of the brutal summer heat and dry weather. The temperature during the day reaches up to 110 degrees, and at times even 120 degrees. Air conditioning and refrigerators were unheard of when I was growing up in the 1930s. At night, it cooled off a bit. Everyone slept on the roofs of their houses. Poor people slept outdoors.

After a joyful celebration of Passover with family and friends, I remember we children anxiously waiting for the new and different celebration of Shavuot.

On the eve of Shavuot, my uncles and distant relatives would come to our house. They prayed and chanted throughout the night, reading the book of Ruth and studying Torah. Grownups and children would stay up late all night, enjoying delicious festive foods and sweets, and light candles for the departed.  One of my fondest memories is gathering around the kindled lights with my cousins collecting the wax and making different figurine and animals.

On the actual day of Shavuot, many families went on a Ziara (Pilgrimage) to visit the grave of the biblical Prophet Ezekiel, on the Euphrates River, some 50 miles away from Baghdad. This was a great time for us children to play with others in the community and picnic with many of my Mom’s treats such as chicken rice with almonds and raisins, along with other snacks, such as mango and cucumber pickles.

The Shavuot of 1941 fell on June 1 and 2. On April 13, 1941, a pro-Nazi Coup was headed by Rashid Ali Algailkani and plotted successfully by the German attaché Dr. Fritz Grova and the grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Al Husani. This inextricably lead King Faisal, the Regent Abdyl Illah and the Prime Minister Taha Al Hashimi to flee Baghdad.

Radio Baghdad, the government’s mouthpiece, along with other media outlets, began a steady stream of anti-Jewish propaganda. On the Daily, public hatred increased as the summer heat and shook up every Iraqi Jew to the core. Many stayed home fearing for their lives. I distinctly remember my father and my older brothers not being able to hide their sadness and worries of what was to come. They tried to put on a happy face, thinking that would protect me, 11 years old, and my 8-year-old brother, Nory. We were restricted from leaving the house, which made things worse for us. I began to have nightmares and sleepless nights. I found myself crying for no reason at all.

The Iraqi coup leaders in Baghdad, decided to do the next best thing — exterminate the Jewish population in a single blow. Jews were ordered to stay in their homes. The “proto-Nazi youth movement,” Al Futuwwa, marked the doors of the Jewish home with a red Hamsa (shape of a palm, a symbol that allowed the rioters to identify Jewish homes.

On May 31, the British forces arrived with fresh troops from Nepal and India on the outskirts of Baghdad. The extermination plot fell apart. The coup leaders fled, which created a power vacuum.

Bands of soldiers in concert with police in civilian clothing, and common criminals along with nondescript mobs, rampaged through Baghdad hunting for Jews. They were easy to fine. Hundreds of Jews were cut down by sword and rifle, some even decapitated. Babies were sliced in half and thrown into the Tigris River. Girls were raped in front of their parents. Parents were mercilessly killed in front of their children.

Hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses were looted and then burnt. The official government count shows that 180 were killed and 240 wounded; private estimates indicate as many as 400 were killed and 2,100 injured. There were no arrests, convictions or sentencing. Jews were afraid to report or file a complaint against any Muslim, for fear of retaliation and threats to their lives.

For almost two days, June 1-2, the carnage continued unabated. If it weren’t for some righteous Muslim men standing in front of Jewish homes with knives, daggers, and swords preventing the rioters from breaking into Jewish homes, the carnage would have been much more devastating. Those were the decent and honorable Muslims, the Righteous among the Nations.

We began fortifying our house. We reinforced the front door by stacking heavy furniture against it. My brother Eliyahoo electrified the chicken wire fence atop the stone wall on our side of the garden. I helped carry buckets of boiling water to the roof, ready to toss on marauders if needed. From the second-floor window, I saw looters on the street carrying away clothes and boxes. We stayed awake all night. Two of my brothers maintained contact with the neighbors via the roof, bringing any news downstairs. By afternoon the next day, June 2, the British soldiers had entered Baghdad and quelled the riots. We were safe.

My family was fortunate; we had moved a year earlier from the old city to Bab el Shargy close to the Tigris River. My Uncle Moshi and Uncle Meir’s houses in the old city were totally emptied. They escaped by jumping from their roof to the neighbor’s and then to another. They were lucky; they sustained minor injuries —twisted ankle and scratches.

This Holocaust-era pogrom became known as the Farhud. In Arabic, it means “violent dispossession.” The Farhud left bitterness and hopelessness in the hearts of the Iraq Jewish community. Many wanted to leave after the Farhud, but there was no place to go to or a country that would take us in.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, in 1948, most of the Iraqi community, including my family and I, fled to Israel. We became refugees. We stood in line for free meals, slept on a steel bed anchored in the sand during scorching hot summers.  We had left behind our homes, our stores and other businesses, our land, buildings, schools and other property.

The memory of a few, decent and honorable Muslims’ and their deep friendship was overshadowed by the long history of fear, pain, suffering and humiliation. I doubt if there is one Jew from an Arab land or Islamic country who would ever entertain the idea of going back to live there again permanently. We are lucky to be out and lucky to be where we are.

In 1948, there were some 135,000 Jews in Iraq. Baghdad’s population was nearly 25 percent Jewish. By 1953, some 80 percent had left for Israel. The rest stayed, deluding themselves that they would be seen as loyal Iraqis. Over the years, they have faced systemic pauperization — their bank accounts were frozen, and they have faced trumped-up charges and forced confessions through torture.  In 1969, seven Jews were hanged in Baghdad’s public square, accused of spying.  At present, this 26-century-old Jewish community has now totally vanished. Only 8 Jews are reported to remain.

This Shavuot marks the 75th anniversary of the Farhud. It was commemorated in four cities — London, New York, Washington and Jerusalem — by lighting 27 candles, one for each century the Jews inhabited the land. It is also commemorated annually by the survivors, their descendants and every decent freedom loving person, I know.


Joe Samuels is a native of Baghdad who served in the Israeli navy from 1950 to 1953. He has been living in Santa Monica for the past 36 years with his wife, Ruby, and his family. He is a retired real estate developer and currently serves on the board of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, Los Angeles.

After Orlando: Heartbroken, but with resolve

My heart is broken. I woke up Shavuot morning inspired by a night of study with my Reform colleagues and our communities. I was ready to receive the Torah at our morning service as we stood at Sinai again and then celebrate the continuation of gay pride weekend the same day.

Yet, I awoke to horror and tragedy. The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., was targeted by a madman, a terrorist who murdered young people dancing the night away. He murdered LGBTQ young people because of their gender identity and sexual orientation. He murdered people because he was taught to hate. He terrorized our nation and me because of his radicalization that has gone unchecked.

And then the texts came in from community activists that a man had been detained in Santa Monica on his way to West Hollywood’s LA Pride parade armed with weapons and materials for an improvised explosive device.

I am still shaking. Young people ought to be out on a Saturday night dancing. Celebrating the gift of their youth, with the pulsing beat of the bass line all that they should hear. Not the sound of rapid, automatic gunfire and bullets tearing through flesh.

Shavuot morning services should have lifted us up as we received the Torah again. I could not wish my congregation a chag sameach on this blood-stained morning. I couldn’t help but focus on the sixth commandment, “Lo Tirzach,” “Thou shalt not murder.” Has our world gone so mad that it enables murder to be committed in such wholesale ways?

This is not the first time that the LGBTQ community has been attacked. The gay pride movement got its start as a response to a police raid on a gay bar in New York City in 1969.  And the LGBTQ community remembers only too well the fire in 1973 at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, and the murder and torture of Matthew Shepard in Fort Collins, Colo., in 1998, or the hundreds of violent deaths of transgender people, gay men and lesbians each year. Even this year, in March in Los Angeles, a young man was shot by his father because he was gay. This kind of hatred and violence is not isolated to some remote small town or a particular region of our country.

This heinous crime committed in Orlando rings across our nation. For me, it must be a wake-up call. Gun violence is an epidemic. Those who oppose background checks for gun buyers or removing assault weapons from the streets are sorely misguided. How many more have to die? We said it after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and the murders at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. We said it after Virginia Tech and just two weeks ago at UCLA.

Our Jewish community knows only too well the consequences of terror and guns in Israel and here. We have experienced firsthand the horrific moments at the North Valley Jewish Community Center and the murders at the Jewish Federation offices in Seattle and the cafes in Tel Aviv. We as a community must work hard to change the national conversation about gun violence.

The hate-filled rhetoric that surrounds us must be silenced. There are too many political leaders and religious leaders who teach that the LGBTQ community is less than human.

The backlash against the LGBTQ community since last year’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality is vicious. With the introduction and passage of so many legislative bills across the United States that take away basic human rights, even to use a bathroom, the environment against LGBTQ people has become even more toxic than before. Many of those bills give businesses and individuals the right to discriminate in the public square. This coordinated attack on the LGBTQ community gives permission to continue to dehumanize gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people. Why are they so afraid of us? Of me?

We must not give in to our fears, but must live our strengths and act as our God teaches us to act in the belief that all people are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. I believe we must insist on better from ourselves and those who want to lead — be they clerics, politicians, teachers, celebrities or journalists.

The LGBTQ revolution began as an effort to be left alone. It began as a way to say “Stop harassing us. Let us be ourselves, and we will speak up and march for and with our dignity and for our rights.” That is really the idea behind pride.

When we talk about this past weekend — and the pride celebrations of the LGBTQ community — this, my friends, is what we are striving for. The freedom to be ourselves. To stand strong in our abilities. To assert our equality and speak our truths. And even when they try to strip us of our civil rights, to fight not with anger, but with dignity, love and strength.

We, the Jewish people, have always been an “or lagoyim,” a “light to the nations.” We have just received our Torah once again at Sinai in the wilderness. The great Babylonian rabbi, Rava, taught that when people open themselves to everyone like a wilderness, God gives them the Torah.

It is time to teach and lead that openness to all. Our Torah teaches us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This must be our commitment to changing the rhetoric and hate focused at the LGBTQ community. It must be our commitment in thought and deed and, yes, in the House and Senate, and state legislatures and everywhere.

Today I am still mourning the deaths of these young people in Orlando. Young people whose lives were cut short. I send my consolation and condolences to the families and friends who have lost someone in this violent tragedy. I pray for healing for all those injured and give thanks for the responders, the doctors, nurses, police and fire departments, ambulance drivers and people who helped rescue and treat the victims.

But when the time of our mourning has ended, I will redouble my efforts to eradicate discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ community. I will work for safe and sane gun regulations and reach out to those that are perceived as “other” in friendship and love.


Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and the current president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Shavuot and Pride Week: A double holiday turns to grief

Jewish mysticism holds that every year at around midnight on Shavuot, the skies open up, as they did in the Torah story over Mount Sinai, for prayers to ascend to God.

Not long after the skies were supposed to have opened this year, 49 people were murdered by a terrorist in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and 50 more were wounded — the deadliest mass shooting in American history. 

On the opposite side of the country in Los Angeles, news of the massacre instantly transformed what would have been a festive, double-holiday weekend — Shavuot and pride week — into a community-wide exercise in grief, courage and solidarity.

Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood learned about the massacre in a text from the shul’s rabbinic student as she was preparing for the Sunday morning holiday service. The devastating news came after a long night at a Shavuot teach-in with seven other Reform synagogues at Stephen Wise Temple.

The news quickly put a damper on a weekend that began at Kol Ami with a Friday evening gay pride service.

“We prayed for the welfare of lesbian, gay and transgender people; we prayed for our straight allies and friends,” Eger said in a phone call with the Journal. “And then you wake up the day after Shabbos in the midst of supposedly a holiday where we’re wishing each other ‘chag sameach’ [happy holiday].”

She added, “I said to my congregation this morning, ‘I don’t really feel like I can do the joy part this morning.’ I can’t wish them a happy holiday.”

By the time the pride parade was starting in West Hollywood on June 12, the news was beginning to percolate through concerned calls, texts and social media posts.

Neil Spears, a board member at JQ International, a Jewish LGBTQ support and educational organization, read about the massacre before he even got out of bed. But the news suddenly became personal when he got a call on his way to the parade from a friend who had been at the nightclub that evening.

The friend was calling to tell Spears about a man who’d been heading to the L.A. pride parade when he was arrested in Santa Monica with weapons and supplies for explosives. 

He also mentioned that a friend of his had been killed in Orlando, and another was unaccounted for.

“I just had to sit down on the sidewalk,” Spears said. “I just had to stop and pause, because it hits really close to home.”

When he arrived at the JQ International office, which is on the parade route, he found that security had been stepped up because of the Santa Monica incident. He was supposed to lead a meeting of the Jewish Queer Straight Alliance (JQSA), a group for teens, but entry to the office was restricted to minors. So they met on the sidewalk with the parade in full swing.

At one point, Ron Galperin, L.A.’s city controller and the first openly gay person elected to citywide office, came by on a float while Spears was meeting with the teens.

“I said to them, ‘That guy up there is gay and Jewish,’ and then they cheered,” he said. “They were happy to know that.”

In advance of the parade, Galperin released a statement saying, “The parade is a chance for the LGBT community to come together in the name of love — love for one another and for ourselves. Today we extend that love to our brothers and sisters in Orlando and march in solidarity with them.”

Tami Miller, JQ International’s development director, who marched in the parade with people from her organization and other Jewish groups, said that the number of marchers was lower than in years past because of the holiday.

She said she hadn’t heard about the massacre until after she arrived at the pride parade — by which time, fortunately, she had a group of friendly faces to help her cope.

“Today was our vigil,” she said. “And the way we did our vigil is to be proud and be strong.”

Miller added that the organization will be looking to expand its program, offering inclusion training for Jewish organizations on how to interact with LGBT issues and vice versa.

At the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica boulevards, Beth Chayim Chadashim Cantor Juval Porat and Rabbi Heather Miller stood alongside a banner reading “World Congress of GLBT Jews.”

Speaking from the parade by phone with the Journal later that day, Porat said events such as the shooting in Orlando should galvanize the community around LGBT issues.

“Today, LGBT people and their allies should march prouder and louder and more colorful, and just shout out the values upon which I believe society can be healthy — and that is love and acceptance and inclusion and, most of all, less focused on fear and less focused on bashing others and judging others. … It might sound banal and trite, but this is what it’s about. It’s not easy; we’re trying to model that,” he said.

Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, a national organization that works toward LGBT inclusion in the Jewish community, said in a statement that she had been contacted with messages of solidarity from Christian and Muslim leaders. 

“When the shooter opened fire, many Jews were observing the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates when the Jewish people stood together at Mt. Sinai,” the statement read.

It continued, “So, too, we stand together in solidarity with the people of Orlando and with LGBTQ people and allies everywhere.”

Rabbi Zach Shapiro, who leads Temple Akiba in Culver City and is married to Galperin, offered his thoughts in an email to the Journal.

“Ecclesiastes teaches, ‘There is a time to be silent and a time to speak,’ ” he wrote. “While a moment of silence may feel appropriate in memory of the precious souls that were murdered — silence won’t make the very real issues we face disappear.” 

He added, “It is a time to speak to each other. We can only face these issues when we engage in earnest, and often difficult, conversations.”

The Torah of female power

Men had their chance. 

I’m even willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and say maybe they didn’t rule the world as badly as it seems they did. Because the truth is, we do not yet know what an equal world looks like, let alone one in which the world’s women might hold a disproportionate balance of power. So the notion that a better world than the one we have now might exist remains strictly speculative. 

But if the wildly unpredictable U.S. election has taught us anything about the direction of our future, it’s that change is not only necessary, it’s imminent. 

Like her or loathe her, this week Hillary Clinton became the first woman in U.S. history to clinch the Democratic nomination for president. And you know what? That’s f—–g cool. 

In the same week, Forbes released its annual list of the world’s most powerful women, with Clinton coming in second behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Last year, Merkel stunned the international community when she dared to invite hundreds of thousands of refugees inside Germany’s borders, demonstrating the courage to do something many believed unimaginable and dangerously unpredictable. Perhaps it takes a leader who comes from outside the conventions of power to make choices that defy convention. 

But even with modern, wind-tunnel forces like Sheryl Sandberg and Melinda Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Anna Wintour, Christine Lagarde and Michelle Obama, “Statistics on women in positions of power remain bleak,” Forbes noted. Citing the nonprofit tracker Catalyst, a survey found that women occupy only “a measly 4% of corner offices at S&P 500 companies. And they hold only 25% of executive or senior-level jobs in those same firms.”

The fact that this list exists at all is a triumph; it is a public nod to women’s impact on the engines of our world, and it is evidence of a spreading, worldwide contagion.

In the Jewish community, the Jewish Women’s Archive in partnership with Jewish Women’s Theatre recently launched an online database of women rabbis that explores how female leaders are transforming Judaism. Since 2009, the organizers surveyed women rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, and their testimonies describe risky, experimental and innovative choices that are revitalizing Jewish life to the point of “renaissance.” 

And yet, we live in a world of contradictions. For every bit of progress — in every sphere — inequality remains. We see it in Jewish liturgy and communal life, and in the wider world. Ordaining women rabbis was a good first step in expanding the unharnessed potential of Jewish possibility; but how many women run our community’s most important institutions? And how much are they paid in comparison with their male counterparts? 

Liberation is a process still unfurling. We know that for every Forbes woman of power, there are tens of millions of women around the world who suffer the daily indignities of utter powerlessness. What does female power even mean if those with newly realized strength do not uplift those who are weak? 

As Shavuot teaches us, liberation alone is not enough. You can leave Egypt and become free, but freedom is meaningless without a system for living that ensures freedom for all. The only thing that could stop newly freed slaves from repeating the mistakes of their oppressors was to give them Torah — a system of laws that could shape a just and fair society. 

Isaiah Berlin famously taught that there are two kinds of freedoms: freedom from and freedom to. What good is freedom from oppression without the will to make a better world? 

So I say to the world’s powerful women: Liberation is only the first step. It is now up to you to use your newfound power to enact the values that feminism has always promised. Electing a woman to the highest office in the land is meaningless unless that woman ensures that all the things she’s talked about become real — including women’s reproductive rights, paid maternity leave for families, equal pay for equal work and rebuilding the middle class. To be able simply to call someone “Madam President” is a mark of liberation, not transformation. Without the will to change, it would be like leaving Egypt without ever getting to Sinai. 

I want to believe that shifting the balance of power could mean new ways of exercising it. Liberian activist and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Leymah Gbowee once told a story about her father, who was a respected community leader, but was demoted when he refused to subject his daughters to female genital mutilation. His defiance of tribal custom cost him, and he lost the respect of many in the community. But his courage to act preserved his daughters’ dignity. Real power, Gbowee learned, was not about keeping it all for yourself, but having the strength to give some power away. 

The power structure of every lasting system, from religion to government, can become antiquated. But survival depends on an ability to adapt to the needs of an evolving populace. What will women bring that will improve upon institutional foundations? How will the memory of oppression shape the experience of female power? 

In Judaism, ultimate power resides in partnership with God, a shared responsibility for the well-being of the world. Female leadership should reinforce the idea that greatness comes from empowering others. 

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

The everyday deity

I was not a Jew; now I am. 

I did not believe in God; now I do.

In 2009, I was an atheist. By 2013, I was a theist and a Jew. Today, my beliefs live among the other things that, while miraculous, are routine. When I need to breathe, there is air. When it’s time to walk or lie down, I have gravity. Food grows from the earth. There’s God. I’m a Jew.

We read about the Israelites at Mount Sinai seeing God as smoke and hearing God as thunder. I relate to that mountain vision. While looking at the ocean makes me wonder about planet Earth and tremble at its power, when I look out from my car at the 405, God shines at me from the broad hillsides of the Sepulveda Pass. Maybe what I see there is something like God’s immanence at Sinai. 

I never used to see that. 

Telling this story is tricky. Talking about belief in God can be difficult even among co-religionists. There’s an awkward feeling that the person giving such testimony may be a nitwit, or an evangelist, or a demagogue. It’s also easy to get into trouble. Many of us carry wounds that were inflicted by someone who invoked God. 

My story is not one of white lights, or miraculous coincidences, or disaster averted. 

I’ve told parts of the story, but never the whole thing.

In 2009, I stopped drinking and found recovery from alcoholism in Alcoholics Anonymous. I hit no obvious bottom — I emailed a sober friend, he told me to try not drinking and to start going to meetings, and I did.

A few months later, someone asked me what had gotten me to stop drinking. My reflexive answer was that it was random. Very shortly thereafter, I realized that this answer was not intellectually satisfying to me. I am an alcoholic, more than a habitual drinker. I’m an addict. I don’t just randomly stop.

It was something beyond me that lent me the ability to stop drinking. 

It was God.

This realization did not come from some extreme moment. Rather, God’s existence presented itself to me as the only satisfying answer to the question, “Why and how did I stop drinking?” In this way, at the age of 40, God became a part of my understanding of the world.

Two years later. I arrived early to Yom Kippur services. Not a Jew. I went because my wife is Jewish, and we are raising our son as a Jew. Yom Kippur was the one day a year I went to shul. This had been the arrangement for 10 years. I sat close to some observant Jews wrapped in tallit and davening. As in previous years, I stayed at services all day and had a terrible time.

Over the next few days, I thought about those daveners. Two years of not drinking had, predictably, given me a sober mind. While I am an introvert and a misanthrope, I also knew I wanted community. I wanted a life that, even if I did not pray, included space for prayer. Then I thought about my family. My wife, a Jew. My son, a Jew. Me, wanting community and prayer. I can also be a Jew.

I started attending Shabbat morning services almost every week. A year later, I decided to pursue a formal conversion process. This time, I knew that randomness was not at play. 

God helped me find my place among the Jews.

I mentioned earlier that describing my new belief in God would be tricky, and here’s the trick. Getting sober and finding my way to Judaism are amazing experiences I had, and I just credited God with providing them. And that is how I understood it at the time. It’s difficult to explain finding God without describing some substantial experience that can be credited to God. But I honestly don’t think that God is much concerned with whether I drink, or whether I’m a Jew. I don’t think God truly intervened in my life to make those moments happen. 

God’s existence has been manifested to me in the form of other people’s actions. The sober friend who got me to meetings. The fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. And, most important, the Jews who have welcomed and supported every aspect of my conversion and participation in the Jewish community. Without these human actors, I could not have become a Jew, and God would never have become so apparent to me.

I converted three years ago and I pray every Shabbat morning. My prayer is very simple. I stand, with tallit on and eyes closed, rocking this way and that. I get to be the same person I am every other time of the week, but I get to be this person among my fellow Jews.

John Crooks converted to Judaism in 2013 through the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University. Originally from Boston, he worked as a bassist in New York City and Los Angeles for many years. Now he is a software developer and multimedia designer primarily in the field of motion picture music and sound design.

I lost my mom but found a family

In 2003, I was 20 and living on the South Side of Chicago, in a dirty 10,000-square-foot warehouse with six roommates and four cats. There was a mysterious fungus, shaped like a human ear, growing in the corner of my room, and I did nothing about it. A typical day consisted of waking up around noon and smoking weed until I went to sleep. On the weekends, we’d throw raves in the warehouse. The place had a huge empty room, and we’d smash fluorescent lights against the walls and shatter them for fun. Life was going great.

When the phone rang on the morning of May 6, I was sound asleep. It was from Michigan, and it was the police. The cop on the phone was cold and gruff.  He said my mother, Nancy, had gotten into a car accident, that she was dead and I had to get to the morgue immediately to identify her body. 

I hung up the phone and screamed — a guttural howl that ran through my entire body. I thought people would come running, but none of my roommates heard me, because we lived in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse. I had to walk into my best friend Jeff’s room and continue screaming. We got into his car and drove the four hours from Chicago to Grosse Pointe, Mich., the town where I grew up. I was in complete shock — sobbing and staring out the window, hoping we could either get there faster or never get there at all. It didn’t seem real. I felt bad because my mother was gone, but also for so many other reasons. I had taken her for granted. After all, at 20, I had my own super-fun, selfish life to worry about.

I felt bad that it was about to be Mother’s Day, and I could never give her the gift I’d been planning to give her. I felt bad that she’d died on the side of the I-94 freeway on a rainy night and I was miles away.

My parents divorced when I was 5, and my relationship with my father at the time of my mother’s death was strained. When I arrived and walked into my childhood home, my mother’s sister was sitting in the living room, Dewar’s in hand, with several of her girlfriends, discussing the memorial service. They kept talking about how the ceremony would be held at The Little Club, a private tennis club none of us could afford, because they had “great little sandwiches.” 

“Little sandwiches?!” I screamed. “Who gives a s—? What the hell are you talking about?!” 

I was furious that they were smoking in the house, too. I felt like they were erasing my mom’s smell.

Forever.

When I think back to that time, it seems like one long day, but it must have been at least a week or more. The memorial service took place as planned at The Little Club. All of my aunt’s friends were there. It basically felt like a homecoming party for my aunt. Open bar. Nothing my mother would have ever wanted. People kept saying, “This is so fun! We have to do this again! I mean … without the funeral part.” I read a eulogy I’d written, and several people came up to me after and told me that I’d made them cry, as if to say, “How dare you spoil the party with your bummer speech.”

For the longest time, I convinced myself that my mom was in Florida. The last time I saw her alive, I was dropping her off at the airport. She was on her way to Fort Lauderdale to see my aunt and grandmother. She wasn’t dead, she was just in Florida and I wouldn’t see her for a while. I mean, to be honest, death and being in Florida kind of seem like the same thing, anyway, but that’s me. I was in denial. I was lost. I had no guidance from anything or anyone in my life, and I didn’t know how to mourn. I hadn’t grown up religious at all, so I also had no spiritual handbook. In fact, it was a running joke that my parents had taken me to get baptized, but when they found out that they’d have to take a class in order to do it, they bailed. So I was alone and didn’t cope well. 

I quit smoking weed because my mother had always hated it, but then just compensated by binge drinking. At one point, I was buying a fifth of Maker’s Mark each night. I would draw a line on the bottle, in an attempt to police my drinking. “Do not cross the line.” But I’d always end up crossing the line, literally and figuratively. On the outside, I appeared to bounce right back. Laughing hard and making jokes, even the day after she died. But inside, there was turmoil. This continued for almost 10 years. Ten years of increasing isolation, quitting school, getting angry, getting sober, falling off the wagon, and being in a deep depression. 

Basically, not living.

Putting everything on pause and not being part of the world. And there was no one to lean on, either. My mother’s death had made an already-small family practically microscopic. I swallowed the mistreatment from my dad and aunt because I desperately wanted family, but I was empty.

In 2005, I moved to New York. I started to pursue a dream of performing and writing comedy.  It was there that I met my husband, Gil. 

We met at a show called “The Dirtiest Sketch Show,” where people would perform horribly obscene sketches. It was great. Our eyes first met over a nude man doing something wrong with a turkey baster. It was the perfect place for love to blossom.

A couple of weeks into dating, though, we were eating at a sushi restaurant, and Gil told me he wouldn’t marry someone who wasn’t Jewish. I was devastated. And then, right after he dropped that bomb, three men walked up to our table and sang “Happy Birthday.” I burst into tears out of shock. One of the waiters patted Gil on the back and said, “Wow, she had a great reaction!” assuming I was crying tears of joy.

A few months later, Gil took me to meet his parents for the first time — at Passover! It’s pretty intense to meet your boyfriend’s parents, but meeting them at a seder, when you’re not Jewish, is a whole other experience. I felt extremely awkward. Do they all hate me?

Do they think I’m stupid? What the hell are bitter herbs? I felt completely ignorant for not even knowing the most basic Bible stories. Gil seemed to know everything, though now I know he’s usually just talking confidently and has no idea what he’s saying. 

But once I got out of my own head, I realized this was a unique experience. My very limited exposure to religion had left the impression that questioning it in the slightest was wrong, but here was a large table of people doing just that. Questioning and analyzing everything. Having heated debates and praising one another for their theories and interpretations. There was a level of comfort in Gil’s family that I’d never experienced. He was close with his great uncle, they were friends, whereas, in my family, I avoided my elders because I was never pushed to be close to them. 

It was the first time I thought about converting. I found the idea of how Shabbat and the holidays unite a family incredibly appealing. 

There was only one thing that gave me pause, and that was giving up Christmas. It was my mother’s favorite holiday, and by letting it go, I felt as though I’d be losing a huge piece of her. In retrospect, I realize, I clung to Christmas because it was the only tradition my family had — the one time my house felt warm, bright and full of love.

I started conversion classes in 2014. In the first session, I felt like the dumbest person there, but every class got better and better, and they led to deep conversations between Gil and me, as well. Long talks about God, tradition, religion and things we might not discuss otherwise. Quite fittingly, the class that affected me most was about Jewish customs and rituals dealing with death. We learned about sitting shivah, walking around the block and re-entering the world no longer a mourner. We talked about shloshim and the unveiling. I realized that Jews had the guideline that I had looked for when my mother passed: a plan for mourning. 

At first, I was distraught. I was upset that I couldn’t go back in time and do all these things for my mom. That I couldn’t go back and help myself. But that regret eventually turned into relief because I also learned that there were other traditions that would connect me to her.

I finished my conversion that April, right before we went to Israel to meet Gil’s extended family. As they say, “I couldn’t go a shiksa, so I hit the mikveh.” I chose the Hebrew name Hanna for myself in tribute to my mother, as Hanna is a root for Nancy. I’d also always wanted a sister and there, sitting in the mikveh room as I dunked, was my beautiful, amazing, soon-to-be sister-in-law, Alexandra. 

I was pronounced a Jew and was left alone in the mikveh to reflect.

Without thinking, I began talking aloud to my mom. Laughing and crying about how life takes you to the craziest places. I don’t doubt for a second that my mom was in that room with me. It seems ironic now that I ended up “taking the class” that my parents never took in order to dunk myself and become a Jew. 

Upon landing in Israel, my small family became enormous. Gil’s Israeli family is huge. More than 150 cousins, uncles and aunts joined us at an engagement party we held there. Gil’s family is Yemenite, so we celebrated a very special ceremony they have called a Henne. We dressed in traditional garb; I wore a 3-foot-tall headpiece. My costume weighed more than 70 pounds. I sat with Gil as a procession of his tiny, adorable aunts approached and kissed me a million times, blessing me and telling me they loved me in Hebrew. “Todah,”  (thank you) I responded, like a clueless idiot. I was mystified by how quickly these people whom I couldn’t even communicate with accepted me with open arms. They seemed to see me as a good, loving, genuine person. That may sound strange to say about myself, but it’s something I have a hard time seeing. Especially after feeling selfish for so many years. I didn’t realize I’d been doing it, but I had been praying for this family for a long time, and I got what I’d wished for in the most unexpected, overwhelming way.

The most profound part of our trip to Israel coincided with Yom HaZikaron, which happened to fall on May 5 that year, the 11th anniversary of my mother’s death, to the day. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in Israel for Yom HaZikaron, but at some point during the day, they blast loud air horns for a minute straight in memory of soldiers that have died. Everyone in the entire country stops what they’re doing and takes a moment of silence to remember the fallen.

Even those driving on the road pull to the side, exit their cars and hang their heads to remember. We happened to be on the freeway on our way to Jerusalem when the horns blasted. We, along with all the cars around us, pulled to the shoulder of the freeway and got out of our car. The side of a freeway, exactly like where my mom had passed away 11 years earlier. It was incredibly eerie, and meaningful and special. It felt a little too coincidental that I would be there, forced to face the reality of what had happened to my mom. I cried uncontrollably, but it was cathartic, and I felt more supported than ever before — strangely, it felt, by the entire country of Israel. United by loss. After the horns stopped sounding, we got back into the car and finished our drive to Jerusalem. There my new aunt, Zehavah, would be waiting with a yahrzeit candle, which we’d light together. That night we celebrated Yom HaAtzmaut, partying in the streets, and in a way I was finally re-entering the world, no longer a mourner.

I now light a yahrzeit candle every year on May 5. We’ve also added to that tradition by playing my mom’s favorite game, Yahtzee, looking at photos of her and listening to music that she loved. I didn’t realize how much Judaism would help me to finally make peace with my mother’s death. For those 10 lost years, I wanted to do something to honor her, but I built up so much pressure about it that I ended up doing nothing. Judaism kind of forces you, in a helpful way, to deal with things you might otherwise avoid. It’s a guideline. The yahrzeit candle, the Mourner’s Kaddish, reflecting on how you’re doing and what you’d like to change at Yom Kippur. All these things have allowed me to heal. 

Last month was the 13th anniversary of my mom’s death. I usually refer to May 5 as “Stinko De Cryo,” but this year, for the first time, I felt good. Sure, I cried, but I also had a great time with my family. The traditions we’ve established help me to be proactive in a time when I want to avoid thinking altogether. At this point, my mother has been dead for more than half of the time I actually got to spend with her alive. It’s hard to remember what she was like, especially when you push it out of your mind to protect yourself. But this annual check-in reminds me of my mother’s joyous spirit. 

Judaism gave me a prescription to grieve my mom and the blessing of a family to help me do it with, and her memory will be passed down to my kids through those beautiful traditions. 

Emily Strachan has been performing and writing comedy since 2005. She’s written for such TV shows as “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and “Filthy Preppy Teen$.” She was also a staff writer for “Funny or Die.” She has been a house team member at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and can be seen performing in various shows around Los Angeles.

Jew-by-choice Mandie Davis also chooses homeless children

Mary “Mandie” Davis is passionate about a number of things: her husband, Ari Kadin, helping homeless children feel special and loved, and her Jewish identity.

It’s estimated that nationwide, 2.5 million children are homeless. But thanks to considerable effort from Davis and Kadin and their organization, Worthy of Love, the homeless children of Los Angeles can experience a party that makes them feel normal, special and loved. 

Each month, Worthy of Love throws a birthday party for homeless children, complete with DJ, dancing, cake and presents. Davis organizes and emcees the parties, calling on children with birthdays and presenting them with their gifts, and boogies with them on the dance floor. Her energy is infectious and elevates the downtrodden, both spiritually and, since the parties are on a rooftop, literally, as well. 

In an interview with the Jewish Journal, Davis recalled one child who started crying at her party. The girl explained she was happy: This was her first birthday party ever. The girl’s mother later revealed that she had terminal cancer; her medicine had bankrupted them to the point that they had to seek out a shelter. But for this one night, the daughter had a reason to celebrate, and at the photo booth, mother and daughter took their first photos together, as an emotional keepsake.

Davis grew up as a Southern Baptist in Georgia, and, by her own accounts, never knew a Jew. Living in Los Angeles, she was volunteering with a Skid Row theater group called Los Angeles Poverty Department when she met Kadin, and they fell in love. Davis became pregnant but miscarried three months later.

Through their devastation, they found a way to channel their loss and love into a positive space: If they couldn’t plan a birthday party for their own child, they would create birthday parties for the homeless children who desperately yearned for them.

They started volunteering at the Union Rescue Mission, which allows kids, holding birthday parties for the youngsters. They bought a cat mascot suit, creating a character called Skiddy Kat (named for Skid Row). The cat “gets called names because of where she lives and what she looks like but has to learn how to be the great lioness she was born to be. And ‘Ari’ also means ‘lion,’ ” Davis explained. They held their first party in January 2013.

When Kadin proposed in 2014, Davis had already decided she wanted to take the introduction to Judaism courses at American Jewish University’s Miller Program; Ari decided to join her for classes. The more she learned about Judaism, the more Davis realized that she wanted to become a Jew. 

“It had nothing to do with Ari – it was about how I felt. I was born with a Jewish soul. None of it made sense until I found Judaism, and now it all makes sense.” 

That Judaism encouraged questions was a bit of a culture shock. “In Christianity, you take the Bible so literally — the word is the truth, and there’s no other way.” With Judaism, she was finally “able to express how I feel and see a whole gray area that I love. It doesn’t have to be so literal. I have a million questions.” 

She says Shabbat has been one of her most meaningful practices. “Lighting the candles was this moment of unspeakable peace for me. Having that as a couple together, where we first started connecting as a couple and to God. As a Christian, you couldn’t connect with [both] God and husband. A ritual we could do together attracted me so much. It was powerful as a woman, lighting the candles in my home” — Davis made a motion of bringing in light in with her hands — “was addicting. I can’t wait to raise Jewish children.” 

In 2015, a month after her conversion and their wedding, Davis and Kadin took their first trip to Israel with Honeymoon Israel. Davis had always expected an emotional response to seeing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but when she got there, “something I’d known my whole life felt foreign,” she said. “Something in my spirit was different now.” But at the Western Wall, she “felt so connected because I’d been saying the Shema and to do it in Jerusalem … tears were shed. I’m more religious than [Ari] is, and he’s been a Jew his whole life.”

She knows that Judaism isn’t all celebration. For instance, learning about the Holocaust is “more intense than when I was learning about it ‘happened to them’ —  now ‘it’s happened to us’ — I’m emotional about it in the worst way. Knowing that anti-Semitism is real, I’m taking a risk on my own life to become Jewish because people might hate me now.”

Davis noted that “conversion stories make me light up all over again. My friends from Honeymoon Israel who converted — we all do Shabbat and validate each other.” Also, “having an aliyah for Yom Kippur [at IKAR] made me feel so validated and so important. I’m not just a bystander, but as family. That’s all we [Jews by choice] want to do is belong.”

Since 2013, Worthy of Love has served 3,600 kids at a cost of $3,000 per party, most of it raised through sponsors or donations of food and party goods. In the fall, Davis will be back at AJU, studying for her MBA, which, she hopes, will help her identify sustainability options for the organization. 

When people ask her how they can support Worthy of Love, she recommends birthday fundraisers, asking for donations instead of gifts, and volunteering at one of the parties, especially with their kids. (Underground parking and security is provided for volunteers and participants.)  

“Poverty is not TV. It’s 10 miles down the street,” she said. “On the rooftop, you don’t feel like you’re in Skid Row. There’s beautiful sky, but peek over the edge and you’ll see tents, mental illness, you’ll see it all. If you can make the drive and put yourself in these kids’ shoes — those who don’t have a choice to be there — that’s making the kid feel more normal and important, that you actually care enough to come down and make a difference.” 

Although they don’t currently have the financial support they’d need to expand, Davis said, the emotional support from the Jewish community “changed the way I looked at Judaism.” In one example, Miller Program Director Rabbi Adam Greenwald volunteered to help Davis and Kadin create a Worthy of Love Chanukah party: Greenwald presided over candle lighting and explained that Chanukah is about light in the darkness. 

“The kids really liked that,” Davis said. “They didn’t know what Chanukah means. These kids are looking for a miracle on Skid Row — to know that it’s possible is huge.” 

Because most of the groups helping the homeless are Christian, Davis also charged Los Angeles’ Jewish and civic leadership to step forward in a major way. “We’d love for Mayor [Eric] Garcetti to come to the party. We need organizations that aren’t going to put a religious label on it. And we need the Jewish community to say [to the homeless], ‘We’re here for you, too.’