How you can end slavery

During Passover, we celebrate the end to slavery. We are wrong.

Throughout the world, nearly 37 million men, women and children are held in bondage. Fighting slavery has not been a Jewish communal priority, but it is time we change that. We must speak up and fight for the freedom of those who are enslaved today. They are not far away; in fact, thousands of them live among us.

Let’s call her Anna. Anna’s father had sexually and physically abused her since she was a child, but our dysfunctional foster system only exchanged abuse for extreme neglect. Finally, she ran away. Now in the streets, unable to get work, find shelter or support herself, a young man sees that she is vulnerable and approaches her. He pretends to be her boyfriend but soon begins raping her and then forcing her to have sex for money, all of which goes to him. She is often stopped by police officers who arrest her for prostitution, solicitation, drug abuse, petty theft and loitering. She spends the next few years in and out of the juvenile justice system and is picked up by her trafficker every time she gets out. 

Why not leave her trafficker? Because she still has nowhere to go and no way to support herself. And all the police do is lock her up for crimes she has been forced to commit. By the time she is 20 years old, she has had several traffickers/rapists and she has been arrested and convicted of multiple crimes.

Let’s name this. It is bondage. Anna must “choose” between being trafficked by a rapist or being locked up by the juvenile justice system. Anna herself is a composite, but she is typical. A typical modern slave.

Do our institutions help her achieve her own freedom? Far from it. Anna might get very lucky, find a trafficking hotline, call for help and get assistance from a social service agency and police trained to recognize trafficking. They understand she is a victim, not a criminal. But she will continue to be shackled by the chains of an unjust criminal record, making it virtually impossible to rent an apartment or get a job. It is bad enough to be brutalized by traffickers; it is outrageous to be silenced and further mistreated by our institutions of justice.

Our legal system treats brutalized victims of human trafficking — both sex and labor trafficking — as criminals. Traffickers force, defraud and coerce victims into crime, and law enforcement and the courts then convict and imprison them without even considering the facts of their enslavement. California must change this unjust and unfair treatment of human trafficking survivors — now.

The Jewish community can help by advocating for three critical policies that would ensure that victims of trafficking are no longer treated as criminals: safe harbor for child victims, which would ensure that children who are committing crimes due to trafficking are treated as victims; an affirmative defense for victims charged with a crime so that they can use the fact that they were victims of human trafficking to have charges against them dismissed; and vacating convictions, a policy that would allow survivors of trafficking to retroactively have their criminal records vacated for crimes they were forced to commit.

Now, the good news: We don’t have to start from scratch. Assemblymembers Miguel Santiago, Shirley Weber and Nora Campos have introduced Assembly Bills 1760, 1761 and 1762, which are bills that take steps toward the aforementioned policies in California. We have a unique political opening for reform. These are anti-trafficking bills. They are anti-slavery bills. They are also Jewish bills. Supporting them is not simply a good thing to do; it is the obligation of our heritage.

The Torah commands us to protect the stranger in our midst 36 times — according to the Talmud, more often than the laws of the Sabbath or keeping kosher. Passover only begins this commitment; for the next seven weeks, we prepare for Shavuot, the festival of justice. During this time, think about the very tangible ways you can help stop the cycle of slavery in Los Angeles and California. Will the Jewish community step up to make a difference? Or will we stand idly by? The choice is yours.

Maya Paley is the director of Legislative and Community Engagement at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles and Jonathan Zasloff is a professor of law at UCLA.

Does slavery have a future? The ISIS challenge through Jewish lens

Human Rights Watch recounts the journey from slavery to freedom of Rewshe, a Yazidi teenager from the Iraqi village of Sinjar, who was among 200 women and girls carried to Raqqa, ISIS’ de facto capital in Syria. There, she was auctioned off for $1,000 but escaped before her slaveholder could make her his wife, his concubine or his household drudge. 

Her story has singular drama, but should we really pay that much attention when estimates are that 20 million to 30 million people, mostly young women and men, are victims of modern slavery, held as sex slaves or forced laborers in not only Arab and Muslim countries, but also in European or U.S. brothels or sweat shops? Even Israel is not immune to complaints of human trafficking, which President Barack Obama has correctly denounced as a modern-day form of slavery. 

The difference is that modern slavery — sometimes called “the dark side of globalization” — tries to exist beneath the radar. Those responsible offer no real justification except in some places, such as Saudi Arabia, where the fiction still prevails that foreign-born domestics, forced into virtual slavery, are really willing maids. 

What makes ISIS different is that — alone among modern slaveholders — it has thrown down the gauntlet in order to rationalize its revival of slavery as a Quranic “positive good”: a justification not heard in the U.S. since the master class theories of South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun. (In 1860, New York Rabbi Morris J. Raphall delivered a notorious sermon condemning abolitionists, but even he was careful to distinguish slavery in ancient Israel, as found in the Bible, with “harsher” American plantation slavery.) 

According to Dabiq, ISIS’ slick new Internet magazine, the Yazidis are mushriks (idolators or devil worshippers) whose subjugation is demanded by none other than the Prophet Muhammad. They are to be enslaved as modern-day war booty: “The Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots. They have a statement to make that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy, and uncover its deviant nature.” This indeed is “boots on the ground” with a vengeance; it demands more than a bootless response. 

A convert to Judaism, David Brion Davis — the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who recently received an award from Obama for a lifetime devoted to the study of slavery and abolition — offers a cautionary note about history-and-progress that’s partly informed by his understanding of the Jewish experience. In “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation” (2014), the concluding volume of his great trilogy, Davis warns that history does not necessarily move in a linear direction. It often has moved — and may still move — in cycles with regressive downturns or backward movements, wiping out the periods of advance. Davis’ caution is a counterpoint to the optimism of Steven Pinker’s best-selling “The Better Angels of Our Nature” (2011), which is very much in the tradition of Jewish modernity and forward-looking modern science. 

Modern-day slavery — despite its global reach — is an ideological aberration, really at home only in places such as oppressed Burmese villages, Nepalese carpet mills and North Korean slave-labor camps. In contrast, liberal capitalist societies, warts and all, are founded on free labor. About this, Karl Marx agreed with Adam Smith. 

ISIS’ revival of slavery is a real embarrassment because it raises a fundamental question of how a movement that has conquered large junks of Iraq and Syria can brazenly justify its crimes against humanity in the name of Islam and Shariah law. 

Saudi Arabia officially abolished slavery in 1962. Even Al Qaeda has never called for its revival; this is probably one reason that ISIS does champion slavery, in order to differentiate itself from its parent organization. Polls indicate minimal support for ISIS throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Yet there are places — such as Nigeria, where Boko Haram apparently has just agreed to accept political ransom for 200 kidnapped Christian girls — that an Islamic rationale for slavery’s renewal strikes a responsive chord. 

We can paper over this truth for politically correct reasons, but draconian interpretations of Shariah law, prescribing the death penalty for such offenses as apostasy and homosexuality, remain popular in much of the Arab and Muslim world. In Saudi Arabia, slavery is technically illegal. Yet in 2003, Sheik Saleh Al-Fawzan issued a fatwa declaring: “Slavery is a part of Islam. It is a part of jihad, and jihad will remain as long as there is Islam.” He strongly objected to Muslim scholars who denied slavery as an Islamic practice, saying: “They are ignorant, not scholars … They are merely writers. Whoever says such things is an infidel.” As of last year, Al-Fawzan was a member of the Council of Senior Scholars  — Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body — and  the imam of Prince Mitaeb Mosque in Riyadh. What probably was purely theory — or hard-line Wahhabi theology — for Al-Fawzan, ISIS has now put into practice. The result may be the beginnings of an internal struggle for the soul of Islam of a kind of Christianity experienced during the Reformation and Enlightenment, and Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple almost 2,000 years ago. Islam has to accept as irreversible the moral foundations of the modern world, just as have Christianity and Judaism. 

Is there anything — in either theory or practice — among Christians or Jews in this day and age to compare to ISIS’ revival of slavery? There is this much: The tiny following of Rousas John Rushdoony’s “Bible commonwealth” perhaps still dreams of a day when the breakup of the U.S. may allow them to revive their version of “Old Testament slavery” in some Rocky Mountain redoubt of “Christian Reconstructionism.” 

Rushdoony died in 2001, dreaming of a reactionary apocalypse. Short of that happening, ISIS — and its overt or covert fans — will continue to monopolize the field among religious true believers trying to reverse history and human progress by seriously reviving slavery. 

Let’s not just hope — but act — to support those who struggle to ensure that Islam has a better future alongside the other great religions than a restored age of bigotry and bondage, and that ISIS is headed for the dustbin of history.

A consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, historian Harold Brackman is co-author with Ephraim Isaac of “From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans” (Africa World Press, forthcoming)

Modern slavery: Answering the cry

Modern slavery is everywhere, and women principally are its victims. 

Whether kidnapped by a single deviant, as appears to be the case in Cleveland, or trafficked en masse across national borders for purposes of labor or sex exploitation, women’s lives are being stolen from them. Unlike Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus and Michelle Knight, whose ordeals currently dominate the national news, most victims suffer — and sometimes die — in silence and anonymity.  

In the last decade, human trafficking and enslavement worldwide has exploded, rising from more than 12 million victims in 2005 to nearly 21 million victims in 2012. Everyone from organized crime syndicates to street gangs has (re)discovered the cheap cost of a reusable good — human life. 

According to a 2012 report by State Attorney General Kamala Harris, global profits from human trafficking surpassed $32 billion last year with almost 18,000 people smuggled into the United States destined for forced labor in industries and homes across our country. Shockingly, thousands more are American citizens — most often vulnerable girls, many of them runaways — who are lured via social media and other means into forced prostitution. 

These statistics are daunting, but there is hope — hope born of human kindness. 

“S” was brought to the United States from Indonesia to work as a domestic servant for a wealthy couple in La Cañada — a suburb of Los Angeles. The family confiscated her passport, ordered her not to speak to anyone outside the home and forced her to work without pay 16 hours a day, seven days a week. If she tried to escape, they warned, she would be raped, arrested and left to starve in prison, or captured by thugs who would harvest her organs and leave her to die in the street. 

The family confiscated her passport, ordered her not to speak to anyone outside the home. … If she tried to escape, they warned, she would be raped, arrested and left to starve in prison, or captured by thugs who would harvest her organs and leave her to die in the street.  

Despite these threats, “S” repeatedly tried to escape. The first time, she approached members of a construction crew working across the street, asking them to take her to the Indonesian Consulate, but they did not know where to go. Her next attempt was with a local plumber working down the block. 

Plumber: A lady approached me across the street with a note and request me to call the embassy. I called, and they claim they did not know her. I told her I had to finish my job. I’ll try to come back out to talk to her more. 

Attorney: What happened when you came back out?

Plumber: She was gone. I never saw her again.

This testimony was taken from the trial of a civil lawsuit brought by Bet Tzedek Legal Services with pro bono co-counsel at O’Melveny & Myers LLP.

Ultimately, “S” was freed because those initial encounters gave her courage to call an American friend, who alerted the police. The traffickers were prosecuted criminally and were sued civilly by Bet Tzedek, resulting in what is believed to be the first successful civil jury verdict under the California Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2005. At trial, the traffickers claimed that “S” was a guest in their home and argued that she fabricated the enslavement story in order to obtain a T-Visa, a special visa reserved by the federal government for trafficking victims.

“S” is among many victims whose stories have a happy ending because complete strangers recognized their plight and took action. The next three women, all clients of Bet Tzedek, never would have escaped without help. 

“A” was trafficked from Peru by a college professor who forced her to work as an unpaid domestic servant. A tenant on the professor’s property sensed something was wrong and gave her Bet Tzedek’s phone number. Following a series of secret meetings between “A” and her attorney, the professor became suspicious, drugged “A” and dumped her in Tijuana. Bet Tzedek found “A,” alerted the Peruvian Consulate and secured her release.  

“J” was brought to Los Angeles from the Philippines to work as a nanny. Once here, she was confined to the family condo, without pay, without her passport and without access to a phone or computer. Her first attempt to escape failed when “J” panicked and rejected the assistance of a health care practitioner who tried to help her. A second attempt succeeded when the condo doorman, who asked her if something was wrong, helped her to sneak out of the building and run away. 

“M” left an abusive husband in Ethiopia to work as a domestic servant in California, even though she spoke no English. Her employers beat her repeatedly, causing multiple injuries, including broken teeth. After one particularly brutal beating, she kicked open the back door of the house where she was being held and escaped. “M” lived on the streets for almost a month before a woman in a park approached her to ask if she needed help and took her to Little Ethiopia, where community members found her shelter. During her captivity, she had frequented many public places with the family, including Disneyland.

“These stories are all too common,” said Kay Buck, executive director of Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides services to trafficking victims and trains law enforcement officials, first responders and legal advocates how to recognize and assist victims. CAST has spearheaded anti-trafficking efforts resulting in the creation of stronger laws, including the 2005 Victims Protection Act and the 2010 Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which requires any retailer or manufacturer with annual worldwide revenues of more than $100 million to disclose its efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking.

These laws, and others at the federal level, form the backbone of a growing structure designed to combat trafficking. But laws are meaningless without civic participation.


Be aware. Trafficking victims are everywhere, and they often exhibit characteristics similar to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.  Physical indicators may include bruises and other evidence of beatings and assault, as well as untreated critical illnesses or sexually transmitted diseases.  Indicators of psychological distress may include poor dental health, depression and extreme anxiety. First responders should look for lack of personal possessions and numerous inconsistencies in personal history. 

Step up. If you see someone who needs help, call the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) at (888) 539-2373 or call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at (888) 373-7888.  Both are 24-hour hotlines.  You can also text INFO or HELP to BeFree (233733). 

Be informed. Consumers can make a difference. To find out more about the business practices of companies you buy from, go to or

Get involved. CAST and Bet Tzedek could not help nearly as many clients without the assistance of pro bono attorneys and other volunteers. To donate your time, go to ­ or

Elissa Barrett is vice president and general counsel of Bet Tzedek Legal Services. Kevin Kish is director of Bet Tzedek’s Employment Rights Project.

Passover: On slavery and memory

Judaism is a religion that likes symbols. The Passover Seder table is full of them: There’s the salt that can represent tears or bitterness, the wine as metaphor for blood, the unleavened matzah as a symbol for humility, and so on.

In the Passover story itself, one of the deeper areas for symbolic reflection is slavery: We can be slaves to our physical desires, to our craving for honor, even to our need for certainty.

Today, there’s a very modern strain of figurative slavery, the notion that we can be enslaved by informational “pollutants.”

I came across this idea while reading “The Sabbath World,” by Judith Shulevitz, in which she writes about the “pollutants of communications overload: the overabundance of information that turns us into triagers and managers, rather than readers; the proliferation of bad or useless or ersatz information; the forces that push us to process information quickly rather than thoughtfully.”

Drawing from the work of David Levy, a professor at the Information School at the University of Washington, Shulevitz cautions that “if we don’t fend off these pollutants, we risk becoming cut off from the world, rather than more connected; less able to make wise decisions, rather than better informed; and, in the end, less human.”

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Pretending to listen to someone while sneaking a look at our smart phones to check the breaking news or see if anyone has e-mailed us in the last … er … 30 seconds?

Shulevitz quotes a techno-addict trying to deprogram herself: “I love technology. I’m not a Luddite. But I realized it was a problem when I would sit down to check my e-mail and it was almost like I would wake up six hours later and find I was watching videos of puppies on YouTube.”

Mixed in with the amazing privilege of being able to access virtually any information in seconds is the slippery slope of allowing technology to run our lives.

This is the slavery of virtual connection. I am wired, therefore I am.

The funny thing is, the demon has been outed. We all know it. We hold our smart phones in our hands and in our beds knowing full well that technology now runs our lives. And yet …

Someone once asked me: What good is Judaism if it can’t make our lives better?

There’s one sure way, I responded, that Judaism can make our lives better: It promotes deep reflection. The very text of the haggadah demonstrates this. It is storytelling interrupted by countless questions and commentary.

We probe, we try to understand, we look for lessons, we seek to improve.

It is this value in our tradition that can free us from informational pollutants — our inclination to keep asking questions until we feel the tingle of a possible answer.

In Shuvelitz’s book, Levy provides one possible answer when he equates informational pollutants with real-life pollutants:

“Much as the modern-day environmental movement has worked to cultivate and preserve certain natural habitats, such as wetlands and old-growth forests, for the health of the planet, so too should we now begin to cultivate and preserve human habitats for the sake of our own well-being.” 

With a Maimonidean sense of moderation, Levy adds that “just as environmentalists no longer try to shut down factories or get rid of cities, information environmentalists should not try to slow down the pace of life or limit the information revolution.”

Instead, he says, “We will need to cultivate unhurried activities and quiet places, sanctuaries in time and space for reflection and contemplation.”

I know what you’re thinking: That sounds a lot like Shabbat.

Well, yes, it does. But Shabbat per se is not the only antidote to our technology addictions. The idea behind Shabbat is equally important, that state of awareness and contemplation that puts us in touch with how we are leading our lives.

That Shabbat state is always available to us. It’s the spiritual smart phone of our souls that can be turned on at any time to reconnect us with our humanity.

Just as commercial smart phones connect us with the digital world, spiritual smart phones connect us with the very pitfalls of that world. 

If we remember to carry them, these spiritual phones will sound alarms when we ignore our loved ones during dinner in favor of a digital screen, or when we’re tempted to waste our lives away watching funny puppies on YouTube.

Because any power that enslaves is usually pervasive — whether it’s informational pollutants or our primal appetites — our vigilance must be pervasive as well. 

Maybe, then, we can say that the antidote to slavery is watchfulness or, if you prefer, continuous memory.

We must be wired for memory so we can remain free.

The seder table, where for centuries Jews have been reflecting on their ancient story, is the ultimate instrument of memory. It doesn’t just tell us to remember, it tells us to remember to remember. 

As Shulevitz writes at the end of her book, “We have to remember to stop so we can stop to remember.”

Happy Passover.

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

Slavery’s horrific shadow lives on — and so does Hitler’s

Quentin Tarantino’s “Django” is sparking controversy — and not just for its flagrant use of the n word. According to African-American film critic Tim Cogshell (quoted by Erin Aubry Kaplan in the Times), “The surreal liftoff that happens at some point in ‘Basterds’ [Tarantino’s take on the Holocaust] doesn’t happen here, because of the weight of what’s still real. For example, there’s a certain racial backlash to Obama that’s still going on. Quentin wants this to be a dark comedy, but with [black] history the way it is, you can’t get from here to there in a movie.”

There are two problems with Cogshell’s comment. First the after-effects of slavery experienced by African Americans are part of a global phenomenon of anti-black racism. Hardly anybody noticed, but just this past November the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory for Greece because of of “a rise in unprovoked harassment and violent attacks against persons who, because of their complexion, are perceived to be foreign migrants.” Africans, especially “illegal immigrants,” are the main target of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn Party, but there are also “confirmed reports of US African-American citizens detained by police conducting sweeps for illegal immigrants in Athens.”

Second, Hitler may be dead, but his noxious influence persists in the twenty-first century. A case in point: the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s new list of 2012’s top anti-Semites. Greek Golden Dawn’s founder Nikolaos Michaloliakos appeared to give a Nazi salute in the Athens City Council. He claims that it was merely “the salute of the national youth organization of Ioannis Metaxas.” In May, 2012, he told an interviewer that six million did not die in the Nazi Holocaust. He called the figure an exaggeration. “There were no ovens. This is a lie . . . there were no gas chambers, either.”

Artemis Matthaiopoulos, elected MP for the town of Serres, was the front man of the Nazi punk band Pogrom. One of the band’s songs, “Auschwitz” included anti-Semitic lyrics such as “f*** Wiesenthal”, “f*** Anne Frank”, “f*** the whole tribe of Abraham”, “Juden raus” and “The Star of David makes me vomit.” Matthaiopoulos is the second neo-Nazi rocker to represent Golden Dawn in the Greek Parliament.

Greece incubated democracy—but, of course, it’s not the only modern democracy with an anti-Semitism problem. Here at home, the phenomenon of Jew hatred crosses racial and religious lines. Case in point: perennial anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan who in 2012 said: “Jews control the media. They said it themselves. . . . In Washington right next to the Holocaust museum is the Federal Reserve where they print the money. Is that an accident? . . . Did you know the Quran says that Jews are the most violent of people? I didn’t write it, but I’m living to see it.”

Public opinion polls vary, but roughly 15 percent of Americans harbor hard-core anti-Semitic beliefs—about the same percentage who say they would never vote for an African American presidential candidate. Fortunately, these levels of prejudice are only a fraction of the large majorities throughout the Arab and Muslim world who profess hostility toward Judaism and Jews.

Still, we’ve still got a real problem with prejudice right here in America—and African Americans and Jews should collectively make a New Year’s Resolution to combat it!

Dr. Brackman is a Senior Consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance.

At Passover, let my people go south

Passover celebrates the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, their wandering in the desert for 40 years, and their ultimate deliverance to the Promised Land.

But a contemporary observer might be forgiven for imagining the holiday marks a different sort of migration: Large numbers of American Jews making their annual pilgrimage from cool northern climes to southern tropics, and from major metropolitan centers to the country, in advance of one of the most celebrated Jewish observances of the year.

For decades, a dedicated — and apparently growing — cohort of Jewish families has seen Passover as an opportunity to escape not from slavery but from crummy weather, kitchen drudgery and endless house cleaning, finding their salvation in gourmet kosher vacations on white-sand beaches in Miami or Aruba. Dozens of programs around the world are now offering fully catered, kosher-for-Passover vacations at top vacation destinations, saving families the hassle and headache of ridding their homes of leavened products and preparing a succession of lavish meals for friends and relatives.

This year, Passover is being observed by visitors at beachfront hotels in Miami; on a Caribbean cruise; along the canals in Venice, Italy; at an eco-resort in Costa Rica; at an exclusive getaway in Phuket, Thailand; and steps from Niagara Falls. There are programs in Ixtapa, Mexico; Sardinia, Italy; Marbella, Spain; and the south of France.

Those of a less adventurous spirit hit the Jersey Shore, the tried-and-true kosher hotels of the Catskill Mountains and the more corporate-style hotels in Connecticut and upstate New York. And that’s not counting Israel, where virtually every city offers multiple options for the Passover traveler.

“This year has probably been the biggest year we’ve ever had,” said Laurie van Esschoten, owner of the Ontario Travel Bureau in California, a travel agency that books Passover vacations to dozens of destinations. “It looks to me like people are getting back to the idea of traveling. It’s really been phenomenal for us.”

Passover vacations have existed as long as there have been kosher hotels. For decades, the Catskills in New York state and Miami Beach were the two prime destinations. But beginning in the early 1990s, operators began to expand their offerings — Puerto Rico, Arizona, Aruba and more became the sites of fully kosher Passover programs featuring noted speakers, entertainment, children’s programs and day trips, not to mention the ever-popular 24-hour tearooms.

With the proliferation of offerings, van Esschoten has become something of a Passover consultant, helping arrange travel and other logistics for Passover travelers but also guiding them through a bewildering array of options to a venue appropriate to their needs — particularly with respect to religious nuances.

The programs are generally geared toward an Orthodox clientele, with traditional gender-segregated prayer and high standards of kashrut. But there’s a range of observance within those parameters, and van Esschoten can divine the subtle clues that hint at the particular shade of Orthodoxy at each destination.

“The most important thing is, I’m checking to see if they’re going to have separate swimming,” she said. “Some of the more modern programs do have separate swimming, but only at certain times of day. If it’s not a complete hotel takeover, that might not be possible.”

Families who succeed in identifying the right program often return year after year. And once they become accustomed to outsourcing their Passover preparations, the habit becomes hard to break. Tour operators say their repeat business each year can be upward of 70 percent.

“This population is pretty much addicted to going away for Passover,” said Stuart Vidockler, who runs Presidential Kosher Holidays.

The typical Passover traveler is generally Orthodox, lives in a major Jewish center in the northern United States (though the programs boast they draw customers from around the world) and is relatively affluent. The price tag for the programs is not for the faint of heart, generally starting at about $2,500 per person based on double occupancy for 10 days.

Presidential is operating three programs this year — in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Aventura, Fla.; and on the Mayan Riviera in Mexico — that aim for the higher end of an already high-end market, with five-star resorts featuring championship golf courses, multiple swimming pools and other luxury amenities.

At the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach — one of the largest, oldest and best-known Passover destinations in the country — prices begin at more than $4,000 per person. A two-bedroom suite in the hotel’s Versailles Building will set you back about $10,000, not including a 25 percent surcharge for tips and taxes. For families traveling with children and grandparents, total travel costs can easily run into the tens of thousands.

There are less expensive — and often colder — options as well. Among the most affordable is the Stamford Plaza hotel in Connecticut, which runs over $2,000 per person (average April high temperature: 63). Ten days in Aruba starts at $3,299, but that doesn’t include airfare, which minimally adds another $500 per person for flights from the New York area.

Perhaps not surprisingly, industry insiders say a challenging economic climate — and especially the collapse in the financial services sector in 2009 — has had a dramatic effect on business, leading to the collapse of some companies.

In 2009, Lasko Family Kosher Tours, operators of the popular Fontainebleau program, was sued for failing to pay more than $200,000 to one of its suppliers. A federal judge ruled against the company, requiring Lasko to make payments of $120,000.

Sam Lasko declined to discuss his company’s finances. But this year, the company is operating under a new name, Lasko Kosher Getaways, and is operating only two programs, in Miami and Orlando, down from seven in 2009, when it ran programs in Nevada; Arizona; and Westchester County, N.Y.

“Passover 2009 was the worst year,” Vidockler said. “About half the operators went out of business. Customers disappeared. We probably had a 20 percent decrease.”

For those who would otherwise be cleaning their homes and spending endless hours preparing meals, the appeal of Passover vacations isn’t hard to understand. But with restrictions on travel and electricity use mandated by Orthodox observance of the holidays, they can also become confining — and a bit boring.

“There’s nowhere to go,” said Lisa Rubenstein, who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and goes away for Passover with her family almost every year. “It’s what I imagine a cruise to be. You can’t leave. There’s always some food happening in the dining room. It’s always teatime, snack time, dinner’s being served, whatever. And you’re seeing old people from your synagogue in bathing suits — you know, people you don’t want to see in bathing suits.”

Program organizers go to great lengths to pepper their itineraries with diversions. Jewish scholars are flown in to deliver lectures. Bands, comedians, mentalists, magicians and more provide entertainment. Some programs feature well-known cantors leading services and seders. The Chasidic reggae star Matisyahu performed at several Passover destinations before his celebrity profile outgrew them.

But veterans of Passover programs almost uniformly agree — it’s all about the food.

“The eating situation in general, I think back on it as pretty gluttonous,” said Jack Steinberg, who has gone away for Passover with his family about a half-dozen times. “The food is a really major aspect of the whole event. There are people storming the cafeteria the moment that it opens.”

Ellen Weiss, who also has been on numerous programs at various destinations and describes their cost as “an insane, sick amount of money,” has had more mixed experiences. At a Florida hotel one year, she enjoyed a private beach and an extremely solicitous staff. Another year, in New York, the crowd was pushy and impolite.

It was also more religious than Weiss would have liked. One gentleman upbraided her for not dressing with sufficient modesty.

“He wondered why I was wasn’t wearing stockings,” Weiss recalled. “I said, ‘Well, why are you looking at my feet?’ ”

Slavery, seen by a descendant of slaves

Alan Cheuse is probably best known for his savvy and engaging book reviews on National Public Radio, but he is also an accomplished novelist and essayist. His latest book, “Song of Slaves in the Desert” (Sourcebooks, $25.99), is a Great American Novel in the most profound and important sense — a novel about the human experience of slavery in the American South.

The title is borrowed from a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, and the novel itself opens with a burst of lyricism — the night flight of a family of slaves and the stone with enigmatic markings that they carry with them. “What hands had passed it along from time through time,” muses the author, “until it lay in the palm of a man sprawled on his back on the desert floor between the town and the river?”

Cheuse excites and gratifies the reader’s curiosity, both in the opening passages and throughout the saga that unfolds across the pages of his novel. Thus, for example, he allows us to understand that the stone links a family of African American slaves to their distant homeland, and he passes the narrator’s duties back and forth with a charming character named Nathaniel Pereira — “sandy-haired, blue-eyed, with a handsome bent nose” — who stands in for the 3 to 5 percent of American slaveholders in the antebellum South who were Jewish.

Pereira, “a perfect Manhattan lad,” is sent by his father to inspect a rice plantation in the South — “I know nothing about rice,” he protests,

“[a]nd less about slaves” — and he quickly recognizes the irony of his task. “And it was only an hour or so after my arrival here on a delightful morning,” he reports, “that I, a descendant of slaves from Egypt and Babylon, witnessed my first trading in human flesh.” Indeed, the squalor of slavery turns out to be a harsh but crucial starting place for his moral education.

“Well, I’m glad you came down here from up North to learn some things,” says a slave named Isaac. “Because you got a lot to learn.”

Surprises and tensions of various kinds drive the story along. When Nathaniel’s cousin tells him that “we have recently had quite a revolution,” he is referring to the installation of an organ in the Beth Elohim synagogue in Charleston. And when Nathaniel imagines the slave girl Liza on the auction block, we realize that his thoughts have nothing to do with buying and selling slaves: “Cinnamon and bonfire,” he rhapsodizes, “a bouquet of blood and wine.” But the parallel narrative, which follows a family of artisans from Timbuktu on their descent into slavery in the New World, is the more primal story in every sense, as when Cheuse describes the slave market at a place called Tambacounda.

“The traders led their entourage off to one side of the courtyard, where a long-bearded man with a book inscribed numbers with a reed pen,” goes the faintly biblical account. “His wives and many concubines stood behind him wearing fine silks, bands of gold and silver around their heads, singing quietly among themselves while their master went about his work of dispatching the goods presented to them by the traders.” The goods, of course, are human beings: “Zainab screamed and the girls wailed and before they knew it they lived apart from each other for the rest of their lives.”

The two narratives eventually entwine in the most urgent and heart-tugging ways. I will not spoil the bittersweet experience of “Songs of Slaves in the Desert” except to say that it is the work of a master storyteller. Now and then, for example, Cheuse pauses, muses out loud and offers an aside to the reader. Sometimes he enters the thoughts and dreams of his characters, sometimes he fills in the blank spots in their family history, and sometimes he simply addresses his audience: “Please remember,” he writes at one point, “no matter what you hear or see, these Africans are neither inferior people nor anything like animals, though you will see them traded, bought and sold as though they were.” Indeed, Cheuse deserves credit for affording his African American characters the dignity they deserve — they may be enslaved, but they are not reduced to the stereotype of slaves.

The tale that Cheuse tells in “Song of Slaves in the Desert” has been told many times before and in many different ways. But he tells it with a kind of majesty and intensity that I found wholly lacking in, say, E.L. Doctorow’s “The March.” I think it’s a perfect choice for book clubs and reading groups because it offers so much to talk about. And for the Jewish reader who is preparing for Passover, the book can be approached as nothing less than a latter-day haggadah, a challenge to imagine that we were slaves, not in the Egypt of biblical antiquity, but somewhere much closer to home in both time and space.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at {encode=”” title=””}.

Video: From slavery to freedom

Rabbi Irwin Kula video courtesy ‘ TARGET=’_blank’>

Seven-Year Switch

We want to have everything, and we want it better, bigger and more spectacular than everyone else. Gas-guzzlers roam the roads, and our oil dependency forces us to redefine values and ideals, like democracy and freedom. In Las Vegas and Palm Springs, we must have lusciously green golf courses and lawns watered generously, while other areas are pumped dry or threatened with drought. We demand constant availability of fruits and vegetables, regardless of the season.

As the sages write in Pirke Avot: “Greed, desire and arrogance drive people out of this world.” Indeed, if we don’t wake up, these traits will drive the world away from us.

The first role God designated for humankind is the one we most blatantly ignore. When God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, He ordered him to cultivate and protect the planet. And while we have cultivated the rich soils of planet Earth, in the last couple of decades it is achingly clear that if we do not do our best to keep the second part of the commandment — to guard the planet — we might lose it altogether.

This week’s parsha offers inspiration for re-establishing this much-needed balance. The Torah orders the Israelites to fallow the land every seventh year — the Shemita, or Sabbatical year. During that year, naturally grown crops are divided evenly among the whole population. There are no class differences. Even the animals are not prevented from taking their share. This idea must have been shocking and disturbing to agrarian societies in ancient times, and it is still revolutionary today.

The benefits of the seven-year cycle are immeasurable. First, the land recovers the trace minerals it needs without using ammonium-nitrate-based fertilizers, which endangers the aquatic ecosystems. Second, the social structure is corrected every seven years; the differences between the classes are eroded and a sense of unity and togetherness takes over. Lastly, the seventh year provides an opportunity to stop the insane race for provisions, power and glory. It allows people to reconnect to the precious gifts of their family and their inner self.

After seven cycles of Shemita, or 49 years, the Jubilee is to be celebrated. During the Jubilee year, not only would the land be fallowed but all slaves would be released and all nonresidential properties that were previously sold would return to the original owner.

The Jubilee made sure that there would be no lifetime slaves. Since absolute slavery was prevalent in biblical times, this system was a lesser evil that eventually paved the way to total abolishment of slavery in Judaism, long before slavery was relinquished in the rest of the world.

The Jubilee also guaranteed that shrewd businessmen and moneylenders would not be able to amass huge estates and create feudal societies. Instead, every 50 years, land distribution would go back to the beginning, when each household was granted land according to its size.

As urban dwellers, we are far removed from the daily reality of agrarian life, but the message of Shemita and Jubilee goes beyond the agrarian framework. Early mystics pointed out that the Shabbat, the Shemita and the Jubilee are part of the same seven-stroke cycle that extends to greater, cosmic cycles beyond our comprehension. Tuning in to this cycle, mentally and physically, blesses us with inner calm, with love and caring toward planet Earth and toward all humans. It teaches us the real values in life and pulls us away from greed, desire and arrogance.

And while modern life doesn’t permit many of us to take a sabbatical, we can turn our free time into quality time, helping ourselves and the planet. Spending more time with your kids, eating wisely and educating yourself about organic agriculture, global warming and air and water pollution are good beginnings.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at

Kosher Gospel — a Joyful Noise at Shul

Joshua Nelson is resting his voice. That’s a tall order for Nelson, the 29-year-old African American Jewish singer who has blended black style and Jewish prayers and folksongs into a new, foot-stomping, synagogue-shaking praise music he has dubbed “kosher gospel.”

Though he’s been spreading his unique gospel for years, lately it’s been catching on like wildfire; an appearance on “Oprah” last fall solidified it as a hot commodity in crossover music, and Nelson as its inventor and chief spokesman. So Nelson has been speaking — and singing — a lot lately, which is why he is doing his best to do as little as possible of both between dates of his current tour (he and his band arrive at University Synagogue in Irvine on Jan. 22).

But once he gets started, once a certain spirit moves him and a passion for the subject matter takes hold, it’s hard for him to stop.

One subject he never seems to tire talking about is how he was moved to create kosher gospel, which for all its appeal strikes many people (Jewish and non-Jewish) as a contradiction of terms. Nelson is African American in the truest sense of the word: his Orthodox mother (his father is also Jewish) is from West Africa, and he grew up in South Orange, N.J. He is a third-generation Jew who grew up around predominantly black synagogues in Harlem and in his hometown. But his original inspiration for kosher gospel came from a traditional rabbi in Jersey who cornered him when he was a teenager honing his singing style. Rabbi Sky saw not only potential in Nelson as a performer, but also in his performance style–the potential to attract new generations of Jews.

“Rabbi Sky was strict, and I thought he was going to scorn me and the way I sang,” recalls Nelson. “But he didn’t. He said, ‘You should put that sound to Jewish music. You can encourage young people to come to temple!'”

Nelson has done that, and then some. His widening audience includes not just reinvigorated Jews, but non-Jews drawn to the undeniable spirit of the music, especially African Americans who were raised on this music in churches and who have always been steeped in it culturally. The fact that Nelson sings Jewish liturgy and prayer — often in Hebrew and not about Jesus — matters not to folks like Oprah, who respond primarily to Nelson’s soaring voice, his infectious rhythms and his conviction, all of which look and sound awfully familiar.

And the fact that Jewish and Christian themes and theology overlap, especially in the black church — the story of Moses and the divinely aided deliverance of his people from slavery comes to mind — makes Nelson resonate that much more. All of which is fine by him.

“Blacks have always put soul into something, wherever they are in the world,” he says.

A scholar of gospel, he stresses that despite the synonymity of the music with church, gospel originated in the fields where black slaves toiled for centuries in the American South.

“When slaves were introduced to Christianity, their moans and groans were wedded to hymns — that was syncopation. That was how gospel really came to be,” explains Nelson, who in addition to being a singer is a Hebrew teacher at his longtime temple, Shari-Tefilo Israel in South Orange. “Gospel wasn’t really accepted by churches, which thought it was too bluesy. Ultimately, it was too black.”

Nelson says his idol, gospel great Mahalia Jackson (whom he closely resembles in voice), encountered the same kind of disapproval early in her career in her adopted hometown of Chicago, which was populated by middle-class blacks seeking to distance themselves from black folk traditions and all things Southern. The power of gospel won out, of course, and Jackson went on to become a superstar and a catalyst for the music’s popularity.

Nelson says there’s a parallel between that dynamic and one unfolding today in Christianity: “You have a euphoric element in all denominations now.”

As for Judaism, he believes that gospel at temple is an idea whose time has come.

“In Jewish tradition, there were songs that [blacks) always sung with soul,” he muses. “We always did at our temple. It wasn’t exactly gospel, but it was different. We brought our traditions to it, like Jews all over the world brought their own traditions to the faith.”

It’s irresistible to speculate that kosher gospel is just the sort of entertaining, listener-friendly thing needed to help bridge the divide between blacks and Jews that developed after the 1960s and that conscientious folks in both camps have wrung their hands about ever since. Though he has no problem with multiculturalism or with coalition-building — his own Reform temple is notably diverse — Nelson cautions against equating race with religion, or implying it, in any discussions of blacks and Jews, or of Jews and any other ethnic group.

“Jewishness is not a race,” he says emphatically. “We tend to think in this country that all Jews are European or Ashkenazi. That’s how the immigration went. But that’s not the case.” Ironically, Nelson says that he encounters skepticism most frequently not from Jews or whites, but from blacks. “They’ve just never met a black Jew before,” he says, particularly one singing gospel. He adds, with a laugh: “They get a little confused.”

Joshua Nelson and his Kosher Gospel Singers will be in concert Jan. 22, 6:45 p.m., at University Synagogue, 3400 Michelson Drive, Irvine. For tickets, call (949) 553-3535.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a regular Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.


Where Streets Were Paved With Sorrow

“Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced Into Prostitution in the Americas” by Isabel Vincent (William Morrow, $25.95).

Memory is a central concept in Judaism. When someone dies, we say that he or she lives on in how he or she is remembered by others. Countless museum exhibits, oral histories, films, books and archives that memorialize the Holocaust repeat the mantra, “We will never forget.”

Conversely, the biggest insult that any Jew can face is to be forgotten — by fellow Jews, by history, by the country in which he or she lived. This was the fate that nearly awaited the Jewish “shtetl girls,” who were lured to South America by wealthy-looking men who promptly sold them into lives of prostitution. Thankfully, Isabel Vincent, a journalist who spent five years researching these women and their situation, rescues them from obscurity in her new book, “Bodies and Souls.”

Vincent introduces us to three women who illuminate three very different aspects of the shameful reality of white slavery that existed in Latin America between 1860 and 1939. Sophia Chamys excitedly came to the Americas with Isaac Boorosky, a pimp who she believed — at some level, until her death — was her husband; Rebecca Freedman first became a prostitute in New York and then went on to work for and lead the Society of Truth, an organization devoted to giving Jewish prostitutes a proper Jewish burial; and Rachel Liberman was instrumental (at great personal risk) in helping police plan a series of raids of the Zwi Migdal crime syndicate.

One of the most profound ideas that Vincent gets across is the sense of cosmic disappointment that is common to the three women. We have all heard horror stories of shtetl life, the violence and fear that lurked around every corner — but to read about how America turned out to be nearly as terrible for these eager girls is almost as heartbreaking as the physical pain and degradation that the prostitutes endured.

The narrative arc of the book, from Sophia’s crushed naiveté to Rachel’s open resistance, makes Vincent’s work a deeply Jewish story where out of abandonment, suffering and disillusionment come self-determination and a fierce survival instinct. Ultimately the shock and shame of learning about the atrocities that Jewish pimps inflicted on their modest shtetl sisters is somewhat rescued by the nobility that many of the women managed to salvage for themselves.

If Vincent has misstepped at all in this book, it is largely in her overuse of theoretical language: “Maybe, in order to make her feel better about her situation, Madame Nathalia told Sophia that she was one of the lucky girls.” “It must have taken a tremendous effort of will for Julio Alsogaray to remain calm throughout the lengthy interrogation.” Nearly every page contains some similar stylistic hedging.

This linguistic tic seems more a mark of Vincent’s careful reporting than of mere misjudgment, especially since, as she notes, most of the 20,000 women who were involved in the trafficking could not read or write. Historical records were quite hard to come by. But reading “might have,” “must have,” “may have” and “perhaps” over and over again throughout the book had the net effect of leaving the reader questioning how sure Vincent was of even those things she did report as fact: She knew that “tin cups and utensils were set out on coarse blankets on the whitewashed floors” of a Buenos Aires immigrants’ hotel, but had to say, “flustered, Sally must have also shown the stranger her first-class ticket.”

Although it’s annoying, this stylistic choice further highlights the sad reality of the subjects of Vincent’s book: how history, religion and shame conspired to threaten these Jewish prostitutes with that most dire of prospects — to be forgotten. There was sparse historical record, few survivors and even fewer family members who were willing to speak openly with Vincent. One might wish that Vincent had opted instead to write a work of historical fiction in which she would not have to constantly apologize for her lack of reportable material. But there is a certain amount of intellectual honesty in her choice. It is not merely that she resisted the temptation to falsely beef up her work; by choosing to acknowledge this story as a real chapter in history, Vincent affords her subjects the dignity of not being “spoken for,” as they were so often and so cruelly during their lives.

This article was reprinted courtesy of The Forward.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Mass.


It’s Time to Change

The oldest and most primitive human dates back about 7 million years, according to a skull found by scientists in Central Africa.

"That’s so depressing," I say to my husband, Larry. "I can’t believe that in 7 million years we haven’t evolved any further than this."

"This" being a world in which half the people live on less than $2 a day; in which 1 billion people go to bed hungry every night; in which 115 million children never go to school at all; and in which 27 million people live in some kind of slavery.

"You’re looking at this all wrong," Larry assures me. "Seven million years is an insignificant blip in the history of the cosmos."

And, Jewish tradition tells me, the first 6,994,235 years hardly count.

After all, it’s not the birth of the prehominid that scientists have named "Toumai" that marks the beginning of our moral evolution, but rather the birth of Adam and Eve.

We Jews recognize this milestone as Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, which occurred 5765 years ago and which begins this year at sundown on Sept. 15.

Also known as the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah gives us an opportunity — well, actually, it obligates us — to commit to improving ourselves and our world.

This concept of effecting personal and collective transformation is nothing short of revolutionary. As Thomas Cahill points out in his book, "The Gifts of the Jews" (Anchor, 1999), we were the first ancient people to realize that we could actually make a difference. According to Cahill, ancient Jews recognized, "We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free."

Not free in the sense that my four sons envision — free from parental criticism, curfews and curbs on Internet use — but free in the sense of having the opportunity to partner with God to help eliminate poverty, hunger, illiteracy, slavery and other ills.

But we haven’t always used this freedom wisely. Fewer than 2,000 years after Adam and Eve’s eviction from the Garden of Eden, mankind’s egregious misbehavior led God to destroy everyone but Noah and his family. When we built and worshiped the golden calf while Moses was fetching the badly needed Ten Commandments, we came close to annihilation for a second time; only Moses’ intervention saved us. And there have been other close calls as well.

Yes, our moral progress is slow. We are stiff-necked. We whine and we moan. We look for the easy way out.

And yet, once a year at Rosh Hashanah, we must fearlessly and aggressively assess our mistakes, misdeeds and misbehavior. We must make apologies and amends both to other people and to God, and vow to make positive changes.

"I’m a teenager. You can’t make me change," Jeremy, my 15-year-old son, says, proving that stubbornness is not just an ancient characteristic.

"No, but you can make yourself change," I answer. And the consequences, I remind him, as the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer tells us, are nothing short of determining "who shall live and who shall die."

And so we strive to make "Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes," as the David Bowie song goes. Changes that are probing, painful and substantive. Changes that are powerful enough to avert a decree of death.

These changes come about in three ways:

First, through teshuvah. Often translated as "repentance," this Hebrew term actually means "returning," referring to a return to God. It involves the difficult work of introspection, apology and amends that begins in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and ends with the blowing of the shofar signaling the end of Yom Kippur.

Teshuvah, one Midrash tells us, was so important that God created it before creating the world, knowing that our free will would invariably lead us astray, and understanding that we would need a way back.

Second, change can occur through tefilah, or prayer. But, as Rabbi Ed Feinstein explains in his book, "Tough Questions Jews Ask" (Jewish Lights, 2003): "Real prayer, prayer that works, doesn’t change the world; it changes us. We can’t ask God to change the world for us. We have to do that ourselves."

Third, we can change through tzedakah. Though commonly translated as "charity," the Hebrew root of tzedakah means "justice," which is yet another route toward meaningful change. As God commands in Deuteronomy 16:20, "Justice, justice shall you pursue."

Larry and I ask our sons what they will be doing in the coming year to help repair the world.

Zack, 20, will continue to write and edit for the Williams College newspaper, spending long hours every week helping to keep the students and staff informed and involved.

Gabe, 17, will be co-organizing a program for Milken Community High School juniors and seniors to live and work for two days at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles.

Jeremy will do at least 120 hours of volunteer work at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, assisting in the emergency room and in pediatrics.

And Danny, 13, is kicking off his campaign for president of the United States, with the goal of helping to eliminate poverty.

To paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, it is not our responsibility to finish the work, yet neither are we free to walk away from it.

Which is maybe what happened 7 million years ago.

This article reprinted courtesy of JTA.

Why Keep Kosher?

The end of this week’s Torah portion supplies the major
biblical reasons for kashrut: “For I am God….

You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy….
For I am God who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God…. To
distinguish between the ritually impure and ritually pure, between living
things that may be eaten and living things that may not be eaten” (Leviticus

This coda doesn’t exactly clarify the reasons behind
kashrut. What do cloven-hoofed cud-chewers have to do with ritual purity, much
less holiness? In what way do fins and scales on a fish acknowledge God as the
One who redeemed us from slavery? The “explanation” for kashrut demands further

Keeping kosher is a chok (that variety of Jewish law that is
not based on reason). Most commandments can be understood rationally. “Don’t
murder” — that makes for a workable social contract. “Don’t commit adultery” —
there are lies and anguish down the road, if you do. But “don’t eat a pig; cows
are OK?” There is no humanly discernible reason behind kashrut.

Religion is meant to inform our lives — and to add a holy
mystery to them. Chukim, super-rational laws, acknowledge and make us aware of
life’s mystery. Kashrut in particular acknowledges that there is a taxonomy to
the world beyond what we discern — and, accordingly, cows yes, pigs no. Kashrut
has nothing to do with health considerations or scientifically meaningful
categories. It does, in some mysterious way, have to do with making ourselves
holy by making distinctions, and remembering who God is for us.

Commentators derive lessons from individual elements of kashurt.
Rabbinical laws that spare animals pain during slaughter are meant to inculcate
compassion generally. Birds of prey are forbidden, lest we absorb their
predatory quality. Pigs are the ultimate symbol of treif (non-kosher) because
one must look closely to see that they don’t meet kosher standards. Beware of
hypocrites and charlatans and (self-)deception through packaging.

The ancient rabbis were both drawn to and cautious about
uncovering ta’amei hamitzvot (reasons behind the commandments). Certainly, we
all want a literate Jewish populace for whom practice is based on
understanding, and not just obedience. But there is also an inherent danger and
hubris in thinking that one “understands” the mitzvot. If you believe you have
the reason for a mitzvah, you might stop studying or resist new
interpretations. There is even a chance that you might stop practicing: I have
the message, why bother with the mechanics? Knowing about Judaism
intellectually is no substitute for practicing it. Practice often leads to new
insight, which leads to deeper practice, which leads to new insight….

Keeping kosher has been most helpful and meaningful to me as
a kind of rehearsal. When I pay attention to what I ingest physically, it
reminds me to pay attention to what I take in spiritually. Kashrut presents an
order to the world that I don’t understand, but nevertheless accept. In that
way, it parallels — and prepares me for accepting — other things about how the
world is ordered that I can’t comprehend. Death and random suffering are
embedded into the structure of the universe for reasons I will never fully
understand. Yet, I must somehow learn to accept and deal with those realities. 

Keeping kosher keeps me mindful of relationships. Every
worthwhile association requires sacrifices. My relationship with God, like any
relationship, is strengthened by giving out of love when reason doesn’t demand
it. The reasonable requests are easy to meet. What do I do when a normally
rational loved one asks something of me that doesn’t make logical sense? With
God and with people, how much do I keep score? How much do I accommodate? How
much do I savor the opportunity to respond purely out of love?

My personal attachment to kashrut was cemented age 14, when
I first traveled alone by train. A man seemed to be staring at me, so I moved
my seat. He moved his. I changed compartments; he followed me. I left my
luggage, taking only my wallet to the dining car, hoping he would move on by
the time I returned. When I sat down again, he approached me. Of course, I was

Then he asked, “Are you Debra Orenstein?”

He wasn’t quite the masher I had feared.

He explained: “I wasn’t sure it was you. I was a student of
your father’s, and the last time I saw you, you were six years old. I noticed
that you were going to the dining car, and I thought, ‘If she comes back with
something kosher, then I’ll know it’s Debra.'”

For me, kashrut is ultimately the rehearsal of identity.
Every time I eat, I remember who we are to God and among the Jewish people —
and who we are asked to be.   

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Congregation Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana and editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997).


It is the Torah’s most exciting, most cinematic story. The
Israelites, newly freed from slavery, were camped at the shores of the sea when suddenly the sounds Pharaoh’s approaching
chariots filled the air. Realizing they were trapped, the ex-slaves cried
bitterly to Moses, “Were there too few graves in Egypt, that you brought us to
die here?” (Exodus 14:11) Moses prayed for deliverance, and was commanded:
“Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up the rod and hold out your
arm over the sea and split it.” (Exodus 14:15-16)

Moses raised the rod, the sea split and the Israelites
crossed in safety. Then, they beheld the final act of Exodus drama: The sea
crashed down upon Pharaoh and his armies. As they once drowned Israelite
children in the Nile, now the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. The Israelites
raised their voices in song. They had been slaves. Their parents, grandparents
and great-grandparents had been slaves and, for all they knew, their children
and grandchildren would be slaves. But suddenly, overnight, they received the
gifts of freedom and the promised return to the land of their forefathers.

That’s how the Torah tells the story. But when the rabbis of
the Talmud told it, an element was added. Typical of Midrash, a vignette finds
its place between the lines: The people cry out, Moses prays and God commands.
But when Moses lifts his rod to split the sea, nothing happens. He tries again,
carefully rehearsing God’s words to himself. And again, nothing. Panic builds
within him, he tries and tries again. But the sea does not move. Beads of
perspiration rise on his forehead, the people renew their screams of terror, but
Moses is powerless. Suddenly, out of the crowd, comes one man, identified by
the Midrash as Nachshon ben Aminadav, a prince of the tribe of Judah. To the
astonishment of the people gathered on the shores of the sea, Nachshon jumps
into the water.

“Are you crazy? What are you doing?” shout his family. He
knows exactly what he’s doing. He understands, as no one else, not even Moses,
why the sea would not split. He understands that all of redemption to this
point has been an act of God. God sent Moses, and God sent the plagues; God
shattered Pharaoh’s arrogance, and God brought the Israelites to the shores of
the Sea. But now, God was waiting to see if but one Israelite would take the
task of redemption into his own hands. Would one be willing to risk himself to
finish the process of liberation?

So, Nachshon jumps in and wades out until the water reaches
his waist. His family’s screams fade as the people stand in silence, watching
in wonder. He wades out and the water reaches higher. Finally, the water covers
his nostrils. And at that point, with Nachshon’s life in peril, the sea opens
and Israel crosses in safety.

This story isn’t found in the Torah. It was inserted by the
rabbis. For as much as they loved and revered the Torah’s exodus story, they
knew that something was missing. Missing was the human role in the process of
redemption. God creates the conditions for redemption. But if redemption is to
come, someone must jump into the water. Someone of vision and courage must be
willing to put his or her life on the line and jump into the waters of history
to bring us out of slavery. And that kind of courage is the greatest of God’s
miracles, the most powerful sign of God’s stake in human history.

Standing on the shore, patiently or anxiously, faithfully or
cynically, brings nothing — no salvation, no rescue, no transformation of
society or history.

Understand that the waters are cold and dangerous, the
currents strong and unpredictable. Sometimes the water splits and sometimes it
doesn’t. But only when someone is willing to jump in, will redemption be ours.
And these are the holy ones whose faith redeems us from slavery and whose
courage redeems us from hopelessness. Nachshon, the Bible teaches, was the
ancestor of Boaz, who was the ancestor of King David, who is the ancestor of
the Messiah.  

Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Out of Egypt

At every Passover seder, in each generation, Jews are reminded to see themselves as though they came out of Egypt in person.

I used to count paragraphs in the Maxwell House haggadah to figure out which parts of the story I would read and how long it would be until dinner. Asking the Four Questions, like the foolish child, I did not search for the meaning of slavery and freedom.

I went to Egypt hoping to see myself in the Exodus story. And I did. But it wasn’t the ancient stones of Pharaoh’s treasure-cities that revealed the wise child — it was Irma.

We shared a sleeper compartment on the Cairo-to-Aswan night train. There she was, sitting primly on the edge of her berth, thumbing through a dog-eared Bible.

In Spanish, she told me her name was Irma and asked mine. This was the last place I expected to dust off my college Spanish.

A conductor came by to check our tickets. Irma asked him in Spanish for an extra blanket. I provided simultaneous interpretation into English, prompting Irma to ask why the conductor didn’t understand Spanish.

"They speak Arabic in Egypt, but the conductor speaks English as well," I said, wondering which turnip truck Irma had fallen off and how she ended up in Egypt.

"Dios mío!" she cried, "If they don’t speak Spanish in Egypt, does that mean they won’t speak Spanish in Israel either?"

Irma was from Ecuador, on tour with a dozen other compatriots who filled the adjoining compartments. "We flew from Quito to Cairo. We’ll spend 12 days in Egypt, and then we’ll tour Israel," she said. Her eyes welled with tears as she mentioned Israel.

The conductor-cum-waiter came by to list our dining options. Meals were included with the train fare, but drinks were not. I explained this to Irma. "Ay!" she exclaimed. "We have no money to pay for drinks." I asked the conductor to distribute bottled water to all the Ecuadorians. My treat.

Irma’s tour mates trickled over to our compartment and thanked me for the water. Everyone had questions. "Is it true that they don’t speak Spanish in Egypt?" asked a young man in a Panama hat.

"Are there any Catholic churches in Israel?" asked a grandmotherly type, almost quaking. I answered their questions and wondered about their naiveté.

They asked me where I was from. "I’m from Los Angeles, California," I said.

One of the men said, with great reverence, "It does not surprise me that you come from Los Angeles, the city of angels, since you are an angel who has been sent to us from above." I wasn’t quite sure why I was heaven-sent, but I was determined to find out.

When we were alone in our compartment, Irma whispered, "Andrea, my friends and I, we are not typical tourists. We will stay in Israel for a long time. If we are on a tour, it will be easier to enter the country." The Ecuadorians were illegally immigrating to Israel. Each had spent their life savings, desperate to earn money to send back to their families.

I was spending my life savings too, for a trip around the world. My biggest concern was where to go next. I was free to leap into the unexpected, whereas Irma was being thrust into it.

Irma let the others know that their secret was safe with me. A line formed outside our compartment as the group came by for advice on what the future would hold in Tel Aviv. They hung on my every word. Some requested benedictions for a safe journey. How could I refuse? After all, I was their guardian angel.

We disembarked at Aswan in the morning and said our farewells. "Vaya con Dios," I said, thrilled to use that particular phrase in the proper context.

Twelve days later I climbed onto a bus and settled in for the 10-hour ride to Tel Aviv. Downtown Cairo faded into endless desert. Suddenly the bus lurched to a halt, and like a mirage, a group of tourists materialized and boarded with much clamor.

"Dios mío!" Irma’s familiar voice called out.

"Look, it’s our guardian angel, Andrea," said the man who had bestowed angel status upon me in the first place.

We would cross into Israel at Rafah, a dusty outpost on the northern reaches of the Sinai. The Ecuadorians were certain that I had been sent to lead them to their new lives.

I contemplated my own experiences with border crossings in Israel. Ever since my first trip to Israel, when I was plucked out of line just before boarding my plane and interrogated for an hour, I’ve had problems. Somehow, I look suspicious. I now have a Holy Land dossier. Showing up at Rafah with a group of illegal immigrants was not going to help my case.

I told my flock that I had to give up guardian-angel duties once we reached the border. "I can’t help you through the border crossing. It will create problems," I said, without going into detail. They nodded in understanding.

I breezed through the checkpoint and waited for the rest of my fellow-passengers to clear, so we could continue our journey to Tel Aviv. Out of the corner of my eye, I detected some action as the Ecuadorians attempted to pass through. A Hebrew-accented voice boomed over the loudspeaker in the nearly empty lounge, "If anyone is speaking Spanish, come to the Customs." Self-preservation won out over any good-Samaritan tendencies, as I ignored the call and feigned interest in the book I was reading.

It didn’t take long for the Ecuadorians to crack. "Andrea, por favor, we need you," they said.

"How do you know these people?" barked the boyish border guard, grabbing my passport.

"I met them in Egypt," I said, wondering how aiding and abetting illegal immigrants would look on my already tarnished record. I was whisked aside for questioning.

"My brother lives in Tel Aviv," I offered meekly. When asked if I spoke Hebrew, I said, "I only speak dog Hebrew — sit, stay, come." My interrogators had heard enough.

Soon, we were all back on the bus, Tel Aviv-bound.

My friends became subdued as they contemplated the uncertainty of life in Israel. Irma clutched her Bible and asked if my brother needed a cleaning lady. The man in the Panama hat wanted to know where he could find work as a mechanic. This time, I didn’t have the answers.

The bus pulled into the station, and we said farewell again. I gave Irma my phone number in Tel Aviv and waved as the group was hustled off to a waiting van.

The following week, my brother’s father-in-law held the matzah high and began the Passover story: "Let all who are hungry come and eat!" I thought of my Ecuadorian friends and hoped they were not hungry. My young nephews, Mattan and Mickey, stood on chairs and proudly recited the Four Questions. The door was opened, and I truly felt Elijah’s presence.

Another seder. Another generation. "For it is written: This is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt."

A Reminder: Slavery Still Exists

Hundreds of people turned out for the Simon Weisenthal Center Museum of Tolerance’s one-day symposium, “A Call to Freedom.” The conference, held last month, highlighted the plight of black slaves in Sudan and Mauritania, where today, “tens of thousands of blacks are sold into slavery, raised like slaves and have the deadened expressions of men and women who know no other life but the life of a slave,” said Sam Cotton, author of “Silent Terror,” a book describing his secret trip to Mauritania where he interviewed slaves.

“In Mauritania, the slavery situation is rooted in race,” Cotton said. “The Berber, light-skinned Muslims of the North are enslaving the dark-skinned Muslims of the south. In Sudan, the situation is not of the color of skin as much as it is of religion,” Cotton said.

Cotton’s “calling to action” came from an unexpected informer: Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group was one of the first Americans to bring word of modern-day slavery in Africa to the media. Jacobs, then a full-time management consultant, learned about the state of slavery in Africa by chance. “I was at a seminar, and the man sitting next to me started talking about slavery in Africa. I couldn’t believe it was still going on today, and my research led to me creating the group,” Jacobs said.

Following Cotton’s trip to Mauritania, both men presented the information documented by Cotton, in testimony before Congress.

“For six years, we have been banging on America’s door with this story. People are just beginning to respond,”Jacobs said.

California state Sen. Tom Hayden joined the voice of the abolitionist movement, as did U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback. In addition, Pat Robertson and New York state Assemblyman Sheldon Silver vowed to commit their efforts to raising awareness in the U.S.

One resounding, if unexpected, response was from Barbara Vogel and her fifth graders in Aurora, Colo. Presently, the students are the most active abolitionists in the world, raising some $70,000 to buy slaves their freedom. A recent CBS News report on the students’ action was shown at the symposium. “We are not politically inspired,” Vogel said. “We are abolitionists.”

“Although the activity of buying back slaves for freedom is highly controversial, and most certainly not a cure, it is one way individuals have been able to respond without government support,” Jacobs said.

At a time when Muslim groups are accusing Jacobs of being involved in a “Jewish plot against the Muslims” and “an FBI trick,” little has been done in the U.S. or United Nations — aside from fact-finding — to challenge the Mauritanian government’s actions against slavery. “Even though slavery has been outlawed in Mauritania three times by the government, the government understands that culturally, slavery is really due to the drive by Islamic concepts and tradition,” Cotton told the symposium audience. “The status of slavery is real, regardless of what the government says.”

Most dramatic of all was personal testimony given by former slave Moctar Teyeb. “Slavery is systematic in Mauritania. My family has been enslaved for generations. I was told that this was how God created me,” he said, while displaying his deformed arm that never healed properly from a beating when he was 9. “Without the experience of freedom, how could I question it? Slavery is a total damage to your existence. I was driven by a dream of a better life. I once spoke of this desire in the open and was humiliated by my master. At age 19, when sent to the city to meet someone for my master, I escaped. It was when I crossed the Senegal River that I knew I was free.”

In light of the upcoming Passover holiday, when Jews recount the tale of their passage through the Red Sea to freedom, Jacobs encouraged Jews not to forget the tradition of extending their attention to those around the world who are not yet free.

“We are a country of abolitionists,” Jacobs said. “America tore itself apart over the issue of slavery. Let us today heed our abolitionist calling.”

Jacobs suggested that people leave an empty chair at their seder tables for the one without freedom in Africa, place a fourth matzo with the traditional three and read this prayer while holding the fourth matzo:

“We raise this fourth matzo to remind ourselves that slavery still exists, that people are still being bought and sold as property, that the Divine image within them is yet being denied. We make room at our seder table and in our hearts for those in the south of Sudan and in Mauritania who are now where we have been. We have known such treatment in our own history. We have suffered while others stood by and pretended not to see, not to know. We have eaten the bitter herb; we have been taken from our families and brutalized. We have experienced the horror of being forcibly converted. In the end, we have come to know in our very being that none can be free until all are free. And so, we commit and recommit ourselves to work for the freedom of these poor people. May the test of this bread of affliction remain in our mouths until they can eat in peace and security. Knowing that all people are Yours, O God, we will urge our government and all governments to do as You once commanded Pharaoh on our behalf: Shalach et Ami! Let My People Go! May we and they take these words to heart. Amen.”

Skirball Hosts Passover Festival

At noon on Sunday the Passover Posse will tromp through the lobby of the Skirball Cultural Center.

Also known as Alan Eder and Friends, the 20-member reggae band and West African drumming ensemble will beat atsimevu drum and axatse rattle to lure patrons of the Skirball’s premiere outdoors Passover Festival.

On the courtyard stage, the Posse, of “Reggae Passover”-CD fame, will belt out Bob Marley songs relating to the Exodus. They’ll perform a “Dayenu Suite” to African bobobo music, then segue to a rap version as Ghanian dancers in traditional garb groove.

That is only part of the multicultural festival, which runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on March 21, says Jordan Peimer, Skirball’s associate program director. Acclaimed African-American storyteller Sybil Desta, accompanied by the string base, will weave tales of slavery and redemption in West Africa and the West Coast. A multi-ethnic photography exhibit, “Young Ambassadors of Harmony,” will be on display in an adjacent gallery.

“The story of Jews and Passover is the story of the struggle for freedom, which is a universal theme, and a fundamentally American theme,” Peimer says.

Of course the Passover Festival, which comes on the heels of successful Skirball fests for Chanukah and Sukkot, offers plenty that is traditionally Jewish. The emphasis is on Pesach how-tos: The idea is for children and parents to learn holiday ditties with sing-a-long artists Caren Glasser and Wally Schachet-Briskin; to create an afikomen bag out of funky wallpaper; or inquire how to invent a customized Haggadah from Elie Gindi, author of “Family Haggadah,” who will be on hand for a book-signing.

There will also be kosher-for-Passover veggie lasagna made with eggplant instead of traditional pasta and a time set aside for children to search for the afikomen in the archeology dig sandbox.

For viewing there is also the Larry Rivers triptych, “History of Matzah: The Story of the Jews.” The winners of the Skirball’s Passover dessert recipe contest will be announced at 3:30 p.m. Time has been set aside to meet contest judges Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s “Good Food;” chef Judy Zeidler; Nancy Silverton, owner of La Brea Bakery and Campanile; and The Jewish Journal’s Managing Editor Rob Eshman, co-author of two cookbooks.

The festival’s goal is simple, says Skirball Assistant Program Director Amina Sanchez. “We want people to learn how they can celebrate Passover themselves,” she says. “And we hope that people will take home new ideas and new ways of enjoying the holiday.”

Festival parking is free in the lot across from the Skirball, or at Stephen S. Wise Temple, with frequent shuttle bus service to the Skirball. Tickets are $8 for adults; $6 for students and seniors; and free for Skirball members and children under 12. For advance tickets, call (323) 660-8587. For information, call (310) 440-4500.

Passover Inspires

Film Series

Passover is the impetus for the Skirball’s current film series, “Flights of Freedom,” which continues March 30 with the acclaimed 1991 Russian film “Get Thee Out.” The movie tells of a shtetl milkman, less complacent than Tevye, who chooses to fight rather than flee the pogroms. “Madman” (1978), which screens April 20, stars Sigourney Weaver and F. Murray Abraham in this true story of a former Soviet Jew bent on revenge against his Russian oppressors. “Life is Beautiful,” which shows on May 18, is Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust fable about a charming buffoon who invents a game to protect his son in a concentration camp. All screenings begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $6 for adults, $5 for Skirball members and $4 for students.