Lisa Loeb’s new Chanukah song “Light”


Singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb has just released an original Chanukah song called “Light.” Telling the inspiring story of hope in the darkness, the song captures the essence of the metaphor of Chanukah that no matter how little there is left there is always hope. “I realized there aren't enough Chanukah songs this time of year, and I think that everyone has to find their light.” 

Documentary filmmaker has a ‘Hava Nagila’ in her heart


“Hava Nagila” is one of those songs, like “Celebration” and “Auld Lang Syne,” that brings back memories and gets stuck in one’s head. In fact, “Hava Nagila” is so ingrained in American pop culture that many non-Jews can readily identify it, and high-profile non-Jewish recording artists, including Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis and Glen Campbell, count their renditions as a career highlight. 

As filmmaker Roberta Grossman discovered, the circumstances that brought “Hava Nagila” to such widespread recognition are complex. With wit and scholarly research, she takes viewers on “Hava Nagila’s” journey, from its semi-tragic origins in the 19th century Ukrainian village of Sadigora to its nearly worldwide renown as a Jewish anthem today, through “Hava Nagila (The Movie).” 

Opening in L.A.-area theaters on March 15, there will be a March 7 screening and question-and-answer session with Grossman presented by the L.A. Jewish Film Festival and the Jewish Journal at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills. 

[For tickets to the “Hava Nagila” screening, visit Director Roberta Grossman   Photo by Robert Zuckerman

But when Grossman’s young daughter asked her to “make a happy film next time,” that led the filmmaker to consider making a substantial but entertaining documentary about “Hava Nagila” as a Jewish cultural milestone.

“While we were making it, I realized those ‘Hava’ moments at events like weddings, bar mitzvahs and other family gatherings stamped my soul,” Grossman recalled. “I did not know what the words meant, or know if it was a written song or traditional hymn. While researching and shooting, we encountered fabulous scholars who studied the origins and impact of ‘Hava Nagila.’ This, in turn, made us realize that the song is a window into more than 150 years of Jewish history, culture and spirituality.”   

Grossman and her team found some of the best material for the film by accident. For instance, while shooting footage in Sadigora, Grossman ran into the great-great-great grandson of Rabbi Yisroel Friedman, the Ruzhiner rebbe, who is credited with originating the song as a Chasidic nigun, or wordless melody, in the mid-19th century. (The lyrics were added in 1915 by composer Abraham Zevi Idelsohn.) For more than a year prior to that chance meeting, Grossman had been searching doggedly for a descendant of Friedman to discuss the role of Chasidic life and how it shaped the song’s beginnings.  

“My grandmother said the meeting … was bashert, or mean to be,” Grossman said. “Besides the fact that he spoke eloquently about Jews in Sadigora in the 19th century, he had a foot in the non-Chasidic world and graciously allowed us to film and interview him and to use the footage.”

One of the most profound revelations Grossman experienced while making the film came from interviews with klezmer musicians. 

“At first, I could not understand why they expressed hostility toward the song,” she said. “I eventually realized ‘Hava Nagila,’ for some, represented the disenfranchisement of the old Yiddish klezmer tradition in the way the Hebrew language displaced Yiddish.” 

Although Grossman’s next project will focus on the more somber topic of the secret archives of the Warsaw Ghetto, she makes the point that the widespread embrace of “Hava Nagila” in the ’50s and ’60s was ultimately a direct response to the Holocaust along with the determination of a people to endure and carve out a better life.  

Even with the exploration of the Warsaw Ghetto in progress, Grossman insists she will return to a cheerful topic. In much the way she did with “Hava Nagila,” she plans to examine the cultural impact of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Norman Jewison’s 1971 film adaptation of the Broadway hit. 

Almost like the song that inspired it, “Hava Nagila (The Movie)” has already made a big splash on the film festival circuit both nationally and internationally, including opening the 2012 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. 

“From the first frames on, people were clapping, singing along and laughing,” Grossman said. “There were 1,400 people in the audience at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, as well as three more sold-out screenings. Between July 2012 and March 2013, 55 Jewish film festivals included ‘Hava Nagila (The Movie),’ and about half of these had it open or close their program.

“No pun intended, but this film is really hitting a chord with viewers.”  

Iran denies report of AC/DC song playing from computers at nuclear site


Iran denied a report that some computers at the country’s nuclear facilities were hit with a virus that shut them down and played the AC/DC song “Thunderstruck” at full blast.

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization chief, Fereidoun Abbasi, called the report “incorrect,” according to Bloomberg News, citing the Iranian Students News Agency. He did not elaborate on the issue.

Late last month, an Iranian nuclear scientist reportedly complained to a cybersecurity expert via e-mail that the song was playing from some of the computers. The e-mail claimed that the virus also shut down part of the network.

The cybersecurity expert, Mikko Hypponen, the chief research officer at the Finnish security firm F-Secure, could not provide further details on the attack. F-Secure confirmed, however, that the e-mails were from Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.

Clergy push Debbie Friedman song


About two weeks before she died, Debbie Friedman stood with Rabbi Joy Levitt at the piano in Levitt’s Manhattan apartment, and she shared with her friend a melody that the legendary singer and composer would never have the chance to record.

It was a new version of “Shalom Aleichem,” the hymn traditionally sung Friday evenings to welcome the Sabbath angels.

Friedman told her friend Rabbi Joy Levitt that her version of “Shalom Aleichem” would be her legacy.

Friedman, who was in New York en route to the Limmud Festival in England, had sung the very same tune the previous night to Levitt’s cousin, who was dying of breast cancer. “I think this is going to be my legacy. This is going to be bigger than Mi Sheberach,” Friedman told Levitt, referring to her melody of the prayer for healing, which is widely used as part of the liturgy in liberal synagogues.

A few days later, Levitt wrote Friedman an email saying, “You gave me such a huge gift and I’m going to make it my business that everyone knows this ‘Shalom Aleichem.’” Levitt, who is the executive director of the JCC in Manhattan, never received a response.

Sick with the flu that would end her life, Friedman returned from England to her home in Southern California, where she died in a hospital on January 9, 2011. She was 59.

Since then, her “Shalom Aleichem” has been shared from one person and small group to the next, in an informal effort to weave the melody into the American Jewish canon. It is becoming increasingly popular at Friday night dinners and at Havdalah services, which mark the Sabbath’s end.

In the coming days, Levitt and Cantor Angela Buchdahl, of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, are planning to reach out to every clergy member in the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements — urging them to sing Friedman’s version of “Shalom Aleichem” on Feb. 3 and 4, which is Shabbat Shira, or the Sabbath of Song.

Buchdahl and musician Josh Nelson sang that very melody to a crowd of 700 people, who attended a memorial service for Friedman at Central Synagogue on January 27, 2011.

It was there that Vivian Lazar heard it for the first time. She brought it to HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir, which she directs. Some 300 HaZamir members sang it at their annual festival concert at Lincoln Center in March. Those high school students, from 18 U.S. cities and Israel, then took it back to their communities, Lazar said.

“We are keeping Debbie’s ‘Shalom Aleichem’ in our repertoire,” Lazar said. “It’s a song the kids love, and it’s our attempt to distribute the song to a wider and newer audience.”

The spring before she died, Friedman herself taught the melody to several hundred people at Hava Nashira, the annual Reform movement song leaders’ gathering.

That summer, Friedman sang the song, which she was still tweaking, for a class she was leading at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Nonprofit Management in Los Angeles. Richard Siegel, the school’s director, asked Friedman what she was working on. As Friedman sang her “Shalom Aleichem,” a student recorded it on an iPhone.

Siegel has sung it every week since at his Shabbat table. “Once you get the hang of it, it’s quite haunting,” he said.

Most recently, Cantor Jennifer Frost sang it before 6,000 people who gatherde for the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial gathering, held in December. Attendees could also request a biennial CD, which included Friedman’s version of “Shalom Aleichem,” and about 650 people did, said URJ spokeswoman Annette Powers.

Though it is only now reaching a critical mass of synagogues and Shabbat tables, the melody was composed in 2009, according to Merri Lovinger Arian, who taught with her at HUC–JIR’s cantorial school. That school has been renamed the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.

“She grabbed me and said she wanted me to listen to it, and she said, ‘Doesn’t it really sound like we were born with that melody, that it’s been around for a long time?’” Arian recalled. “She was right.”

In addition to the Shabbat Shira effort, Friedman’s “Shalom Aleichem” will be performed Feb. 1 at a Central Synagogue tribute to the late musician, which follows her first yahrzeit.

“All of us were left with this piece we know she was so excited about, she really wanted to get it out there,” Arian said. “Since it wasn’t recorded there is a feeling that we have a responsibility to get this, of all melodies, out. We all feel a sense of urgency about it.”

This story originally appeared in the Forward newspaper. To read more, please go to forward.com.

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1,500 raise voices in song to remember Debbie Friedman


As the piano struck the first notes of Debbie Friedman’s “Elohai N’Shama,” Cantor Linda Kates paused before the approximately 1,500 people gathered in the sanctuary at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) and recalled a story about how the late singer-songwriter energized a crowd of Jewish students while teaching them the song.

“We all have a ‘Debbie story,’ ” Kates said, as the audience laughed along with her.

More than a dozen Jewish musicians, rabbis and cantors told their “Debbie stories” and performed some of Friedman’s most popular tunes as part of a free, public memorial concert VBS hosted Feb. 13 to honor the composer’s legacy. Titled “Lechi Lach” after one of Friedman’s early hits, the evening marked the end of the traditional 30-day period of mourning following her death Jan. 9.

The mood was upbeat and joyous as performers including Craig Taubman, Julie Silver and Sam Glaser performed Friedman’s crowd-pleasers, frequently inviting the audience to stand, clap and sing along. Community members and clergy came from across Los Angeles to celebrate the way Friedman reinvigorated Jewish communal worship during her career and touched the lives of those who knew her as a friend.

“How do you say ‘thank you’ for all the gifts she gave over her lifetime? How do you say ‘thank you’ for all the songs we sing that came from her?” wondered Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi of VBS, who organized the memorial. “To gather together and sing … that’s the highest form of grieving, the deepest form of remembering, the most powerful form of resurrection.”

The power of Friedman’s music to unite Jewish people was evident as audience members young and old belted out familiar lyrics with gusto, relishing tunes many had grown up with at Hebrew school and summer camp.

Spanning Friedman’s nearly 40-year recording career, starting with her 1972 debut album, “Sing Unto God,” the program featured more esoteric compositions alongside melodies that long ago entered the canon of contemporary Jewish liturgical music. Songs included Friedman’s original arrangements of “Oseh Shalom” and “Mi Shebeirach,” now staples of Reform synagogue services, and her folk-rock anthems “Turn the World Around,” “And the Youth Shall See Visions” and “Not By Might.”

Glaser sang Friedman’s iconic “Tefilat HaDerech” and a medley of her children’s songs, including “The Latke Song” and her ubiquitous tune for the Alef-Bet. After the concert, he praised the way the event brought together Jews of all denominations beneath one roof.

“When you suffer a loss like this, it erases boundaries,” said Glaser, who described Friedman’s music as “a gift from God.”

Cantor and performer Kenny Ellis of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita reminded attendees of Friedman’s humorous side when he showed off a pair of oversize red clown shoes Friedman years ago had goaded a choir into wearing.

Singer-songwriter Silver took the stage in an energetic performance of Friedman’s “Devorah’s Song,” “You Are the One” and “Not By Might.” Silver said she credits her years of friendship with Friedman for inspiring her to become a performer of Jewish music.

“Debbie Friedman’s greatest gift to me was the gift of song. I was a student learning her songs, an educator transmitting her pieces, and finally a songwriter and performer as a result of the vision she shared with me,” Silver said. “She was a master teacher, composer, healer and song-leader, and anyone who was lucky enough to have stood in her light knows how important it is to the future of our people to carry the torch forward.”

Taubman, music producer and performer with Craig ’n Co., sang Friedman’s arrangement of “V’shamru” and “Sow in Tears, Reap in Joy,” stepping down off the bimah and exhorting the crowd to lead the songs themselves. Like others during and after the concert, Taubman said he found it difficult to memorialize Friedman’s legacy through words alone. But in celebrating her music, he said, “her spirit lives on.”

Other performers included Cantor Mike Stein of Temple Aliyah and his family band, the Rolling Steins, and music educator and performer Cindy Paley Aboody, who sang “Lechi Lach” (the feminine form of God’s commandment to Abraham and Sarah to “go forth”).

VBS put the concert together over a two-week period, with no budget. Performers and organizers volunteered their time out of love for Friedman, and even if the show in places seemed unrehearsed, it had all the spirit of an impromptu campfire sing-along.

During the finale, in which Silver led an ensemble performance of “Mourning Into Dancing” and “Miriam’s Song,” women across the audience leapt to their feet and danced around the sanctuary in a grapevine.

Friedman’s mother, Frieda, and sister, Cheryl, were in the audience, along with Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Cheryl Friedman of Orange County said she was touched by the outpouring of respect and affection in her sister’s honor. “Even during the upbeat songs, we had tears in our eyes,” she said. “When people were dancing in the aisles, I looked at my mom and said, ‘Look what Debbie did.’ I just wish she could have been alive to see this.”

Debbie Friedman remembered at funeral in words and song


Singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman was eulogized at her funeral by friends, rabbis and fellow musicians in words and through her songs.

Her acoustic guitar lay on top of her casket during Tuesday’s funeral service at Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, Calif., the Orange County Register reported.

Friedman, whose music transformed Jewish worship in synagogues and summer camps, died Jan. 9 at the age of 59 after being diagnosed with pneumonia and admitted to a hospital a few days earlier.

She blended the folk music roots of the 1960s and 1970s and combined them with traditional Jewish prayers and liturgy, and was frequently described as the “Joan Baez of Jewish song.”

Mourners at the service joined Craig Taubman and other performers in singing such famous Friedman works as “Sing Unto God,” “Devorah’s Song,” “You Are The One,” “Miriam’s Song” and “L’chi Lach.”

Perhaps Friedman’s best-known composition is “Mi Shebeirach,” a popular version of the prayer of healing for the sick.

During the funeral, Rabbi Heidi Cohen of Temple Beth Sholom described Friedman as a modest artist, despite her fame.

“If Debbie were here today, she would say, ‘What’s the big fuss? I don’t need this. I don’t want this,’ ” Cohen said.

Rabbi Richard Levy of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles said of his former colleague, “Debbie wanted us to believe that God is good and God takes our prayers seriously. Even though all our prayers did not [heal her], they provided an escort into the next world that sang unto God, this woman is going to rock your throne.”

Also Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council adjourned its meeting in memory of Friedman, whom Council member Paul Koretz eulogized saying “Anyone who has ever attended a liberal Jewish synagogue or summer camp or youth group event has been touched by Debbie Friedman.”

He added, “She was always ahead of the curve—be it in songs for lifecycle events, Jewish feminist music or interfaith spirituality. May her memory, and her music, be a blessing.”

MUSIC VIDEO: ‘Chanukah, O Chanukah’ (extra kvelling version)


We don’t know anything about YouTube user Birdman445 except that she posted the most kvell-worthy version of ‘Chanukah, O Chanukah’ we’ve ever seen.

Kvell on!

Lebhar’s Dream


If you wanted to start a worldwide revival of Moroccan Jewish customs, where would you base your operations? Probably where there’s already a high concentration of Moroccan Jews, like, say, Israel, Montreal or France. But right in the heart of trendy Westwood?

Maybe there’s a disconnect there, but don’t say that to Rabbi Mordechai Lebhar. He’s very happy in Westwood.

For one thing, he’s happy wherever his books are. On a recent Sunday afternoon in his cozy Westwood apartment, he showed me some of these books, arranged in high piles on his dining room table. He picked up each one like a watchmaker with a fragile watch. The books contain teachings of the great Moroccan sages going back several centuries.

They are rare books seen by few people, fragile and precious.

But there’s one book in those piles that is not so rare. This is a book the rabbi himself wrote three years ago, “Magen Avot” (“Shield of our Fathers”). The book distilled many of the Moroccan customs discussed by the sages, and it has caused a mini-stir in Moroccan circles around the world because it challenges Moroccan Jews everywhere to reclaim their long-forgotten traditions.

Lebhar’s got this mad love affair with tradition. At one point, he choked up as he spoke of a certain Moroccan custom which I also recall from childhood: Before the final evening prayers of Shabbat, and in front of the congregation, the best voices of the shul would sing these beautiful Tehilim melodies. Why did they do that?

Our Moroccan ancestors, the rabbi explained, were Torah romantics. They were so in love with Shabbat that they didn’t want it to end. So they sang these soulful melodies at the twilight of the holy day, as a way of soaking up and deepening the Shabbat experience, longing against all odds that it would never end.

The rabbi thinks that if Moroccan Jews would become more aware of the reasons behind their traditions, they would be more likely to honor them.

And those reasons are not always romantic. For example, at Shabbat meals, Moroccans have a tradition of saying certain brachas over food, between the Kiddush and the blessing on the bread. Why? Not because our salads are so amazing that we can’t stand to wait another minute, but because Torah-observant Jews have an obligation to recite 100 brachas a day. Since Shabbat prayers have fewer brachas than weekday prayers, our ancestors used the Shabbat meal to help them fulfill that obligation.

Lebhar’s got hundreds of those customs. He can go on for hours on even silly customs, like, say, why Moroccan Jews kiss each other in shul. A few years ago, the great Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who hails from Iraq and often makes rulings that differ from Moroccan customs, ruled that kissing was not allowed in synagogue. He interpreted a talmudic teaching differently than the Moroccan sages, who allowed this traditional greeting between men, based on their own talmudic interpretation.

The point that Lebhar keeps making is that all those Moroccan traditions, silly or not, have good reasons behind them, many of them talmudic reasons driven by a deep respect for Jewish law.

“A lot of Moroccans treat these customs like grandmothers’ folktales,” he told me. “They don’t take them seriously. But you can’t just throw 500 years out the window.”

Since he published his book, he says he’s been getting calls from Moroccan Jews around the world who are gaining a new appreciation for their own customs. That’s why he’s planning to write three more volumes.

Still, for someone so obsessed with reviving his ancestors’ customs, Lebhar has some explaining to do.

Like, for starters, why did he leave his Moroccan community in Montreal when he was in his early 20s to study for more than 10 years in some of the world’s most hard-core Lithuanian yeshivas? And then become fluent in Yiddish?

And why did he become a key player in a whole other Torah revival, one run by Ashkenazi Jews out of Westwood Kehilla, where Lebhar heads a busy outreach kollel?

He doesn’t get defensive when I confront him with these contradictions. He wanted to learn in the best yeshivas, he says, and immerse himself in Talmud. As far as his role with Westwood Kehilla and their program LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel), he loves that they’re creating another “Torah hood” on the Westside.

The person who brought him out here a few years ago, Rabbi Asher Brander, who runs Westwood Kehilla and LINK, has built a portable center of Torah outreach where, Lebhar says, “there’s always serious learning going on.”

That’s the word, I think, that might explain Lebhar’s seeming contradictions: Serious. He takes his Torah seriously, and so do the rabbis and students at Westwood Kehilla and LINK. Lebhar’s a funny guy, but get him going on a piece of Talmud, and he’s in another world.

Seriousness might also explain the bond he feels with his Moroccan ancestors those holy men of Fez, Meknes, Marakkesh and Casablanca who took their traditions very seriously, and whose words live on in the books on Lebhar’s dining room table.

When I asked him what compels him to continue working on this dream of a Sephardi Moroccan revival while immersed in an Ashkenazi community he told me that when he lived in Jerusalem, and studied at the Litvish Yeshiva, he would visit this holy man every week.

The man was the former chief rabbi of Morocco, Rabbi Chalom Essas. After a few years, Lebhar was so impressed with the chief rabbi’s knowledge of Moroccan tradition that he suggested to Rabbi Essas that he should write a book on the subject.

In true Jewish fashion, the chief rabbi, probably having no clue that Lebhar would soon be living in trendy Westwood, replied: “That’s a great idea. Why don’t you do it?”

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Comedy singer drawn to Jewish thought — but not shul


It is commonplace that the best comedy is essentially serious. Of course, clichés often have an underlying truth, so maybe that explains why Rob Tannenbaum, one half of the comedy-music duo, Good for the Jews, playing at the Knitting Factory on Dec. 14, is both a very funny guy, and nevertheless someone who discusses his work in surprisingly sober terms.

OK, he discusses it in sober terms some of the time. On the other hand, when asked about his Jewish upbringing in WASPy Fairfield County, Conn., the 32-year-old Tannenbaum replies with an ear-to-ear grin: “What Jewish upbringing? ‘Connecticut Jew’ is an oxymoron. I come from the land of the Izod yarmulke.”

Then he gets serious,

“I was a ‘bar mitzvah’ Jew,” Tannenbaum admits. “But I believe my personality and my sense of humor are deeply Jewish. In fact, I’m Jewish in every way except my religion. I guess ‘real’ Jews would call me a Christian.”

Probably not, although they might call him an apikoros (apostate). The simple fact is, like so many other secular Jews, Tannenbaum feels drawn to Jewish thought, Jewish ethics and Jewish cultural efforts, but not to synagogue.

“The things I love [about being Jewish] have to do with my friends and family,” he says.

But he is completely committed to the idea of Jewish identity, so much so that several years ago, while fronting a punk band — “of no great significance,” he adds with a rueful smile — he was so miffed by the omnipresence of that other December holiday that he wrote a song, “It’s Good to Be a Jew at Christmas.”

“It’s a protest song about identity and pride,” Tannenbaum says. “And that’s how it started.”

The song ended up on a compilation of Jewish comedy songs, “with a song by my hero, Mel Brooks,” he notes proudly.

“The turning point in my songwriting was going to see ‘The Producers’ on Broadway,” Tannenbaum says. “There I was in a theater full of tourists who were laughing at songs about the Holocaust and the Nazis. I felt liberated.”

Tannenbaum is probably better known as a rock critic, the music editor of the magazine, Blender, than as a singer-songwriter-humorist. Or you may remember him as one-half of What I Like About Jew, with former Rockapella frontman Sean Altman. That was the project that brought him some prominence in Jewish circles. It also brought some tsuris (trouble) when the pair split up.

“It wasn’t a happy breakup,” he admits. “Talking about what happened would turn this into a different story. Look, thousands of rock groups have broken up; that’s what happens.”

Both he and Altman have continued in the comedy and music vein. Each still performs some of the songs they wrote together.

Several of those songs, and the new ones Tannenbaum is writing on his own or with his new musical partner, David Fagin, may hit the occasional raw nerve, like the sex-obsessed bar mitzvah ballad, “Today I Am a Man”; the minihistory lesson, “They Tried to Kill Us (We Survived, Let’s Eat)”; or his new anthem, “Shiksas Are for Practice.”

“We don’t expect consensus,” he says. “Not everybody is going to find every song funny.”

But he tells a story about receiving some important validation from a friend, “the only child of two survivors of Auschwitz,” he says. “She came to one of our shows, and I have some material about the difficulties of being a German Jew. This is the person I know who has experienced the most suffering from anti-Semitism, and she found joy and hopefulness in those jokes. If she finds a joke about German Jews funny, that’s all the license I need.”

At the same time, though, he readily acknowledges that others may not be so relaxed.

“As a college-educated Reform Jew, I understand that some people may feel I’m not entitled to speak on some subjects,” Tannenbaum says. “The Jewish people are not monolithic, and I’ve had dialogues with people after our shows who have misgivings about the material.”

The one area about which there can be no argument, however, is the comfort level of his partnership with Fagin, who is also the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for the Rosenbergs, a highly acclaimed power pop band.

“I met David at an event sponsored by Heeb,” Tannenbaum recalls. “He was performing, and I was emceeing. I’ve been a big fan of the Rosenbergs, so afterwards, I called him up and said, ‘Let’s start a band.’ I knew he was a great singer and musician, and the songs he wrote for the band were witty, but I didn’t know he was funny, too.”

Given that they’re in the middle of a 13-city tour over 17 days, he’d have to be funny.

But when you ask Tannenbaum if his forays into Jewish humor have affected his sense of Jewish identity, he gets serious again — serious and bit flummoxed.

“Yes, it has … but how?” he asks earnestly. “I went to shul for the High Holy Days this year for the first time in a long time. Was I looking for new material?

“Look, the stuff we’re doing brings me into pretty intensive contact with the Jewish community. It requires me to think about what it means to be a Jew. If you can accept the idea that someone can be a practicing Jew without being observant — well, I’ve spent a lot of time practicing my Judaism. And my sense of Judaism has developed. I guess I’m an Orthodox version of a secular Jew.”

Which may or may not be funny, but it’s certainly serious minded.

Good for the Jews will be playing the AlterKnit Lounge at the Knitting Factory Hollywood, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Dec. 14, 7 and 10 p.m. For information, phone (323) 463-0204 or visit http://www.knittingfactory.com.

A Night at the Fais Do-Do


There is a burgundy motif at Club Fais Do-Do — burgundy curtains, burgundy tablecloths. The eastern wall is also painted a dark red hue but seems to have other colors
beneath that seep through from the past.

Just south of the 10 Freeway, in a nondescript part of Culver City, three young men test their music equipment on the stage at this hipster café/club that books regular gigs and treats visitors to New Orleans cuisine, including Creole and Cajun dishes like po’boys, jambalaya and even a Ya’Ya Turkey Burger (“good for you, bad for the turkey,” reads its description).

On this night, in addition to these savories, the ” target = “_blank”>N.O.M.A.D.S., short for Notorious Offensive Male Arabs Discussing Sh*t. The concert is co-sponsored by the Craft and Folk Art Museum, in conjunction with its current exhibition, “Sovereign Threads: The History of Palestinian Embroidery.”

One might wonder if this will be an incendiary evening, given that it features hip-hoppers, artists known for insurrection. But the three men onstage are mild-mannered musicians, three skinny white kids, probably in their 20s, who it turns out are the opening act, New West.

After keeping us waiting for the obligatory hour, the funk-rock band plays a half-dozen songs, during the last few of which members of the crowd begin dancing. It’s an intimate venue, with a high ceiling but only a few tables and booths, so most people stand.

Later, the audience comes out in even greater numbers in anticipation of the Legitimates, another funk-rock outfit. As the Legitimates mount the stage, they wear black hats and black suits, some of a rumpled variety, and bear a resemblance to the Blues Brothers or “a bunch of Chasidic diamond merchants,” to quote Aretha Franklin from the film starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
But they are not necessarily Jews, and given how hot it is onstage, the band members, led by front man drummer Donnie Baseball, named in honor of former Yankee star Don Mattingly, begin to discard their jackets. Baseball plays a ferocious set of drums as the band performs several instrumentals.

As midnight approaches, a tall youth with some fuzz above his lip steps before the microphone. Like the Legitimates, the emcee, clean-cut by rapper standards, wears a dark suit and a dark Yankees cap, adhering to the Bronx Bomber theme. He says his name is Ragtop, but it’s a moniker. His real name is Nizar Wattad, and he was, according to the press material, “born on a mountain in Palestine.”

Ragtop says he is 6-foot-5, but because he is so thin, it is hard to judge his height. It is also hard to judge his voice. Despite his Yankee cap and the fact that he was raised in Tennessee, his voice doesn’t seem to come from either New York or the South. He produces a sound that blends in nicely with the band, and he doesn’t show off or become obstreperous like some rappers, but with his dynamic physical gestures and syncopated intonation, he exudes a kind of ghetto authenticity.

Ragtop, along with a cohort with a shaved head, rap of “that long time ago”; they rap about the proletariat, tsunamis and a lack of justice. But they do so cheerfully, respectfully.

After they point out that rapping requires a participatory audience, Ragtop asks, “Who here holds down a 9-to-5 job they hate?” A number of people in the crowd raise their hands.

This is about as subversive as the Philistines get. They look almost wholesome in their suits and clean or trim beards, though their shirts stylishly hang outside their pants. And they occasionally adopt Ragtop’s partial Southern roots, addressing the crowd as “y’all.” Indeed, these Arab street hip-hoppers come across as being almost All-American.

With midnight approaching and bedtime beckoning, my wife and I grab a CD comprised of “23 rounds of heavyweight hip-hop” between the N.O.M.A.D.S. and the Philistines.

Slipping the CD into the car player, we finally hear something approximating Arab music. There is a wind instrument, perhaps a flute, playing in the intro. It wafts in the background, as if through the labyrinthine air of a bazaar. We imagine a swami is calling us, trying to draw us out like a genie, until the gangsta rap pierces the moment.

That is when we return to urban American hip-hop, with all the tropes of the art form — the ubiquitous, nonstop patter; the ingenious rhymes, such as “Iverson” with “Bedford-Stuyvesant”; the word-smithery and prolonged assonance of multisyllabic words beginning with the letter O.

The N.O.M.A.D.S. battle the Philistines to a draw. Both are hailed for drawing attention to the angst of checkpoints, but it is hard to discern all the lyrics, let alone any political content in them, just the occasional reference to Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah or Mexico.

They even have a joint song titled, “The Inquisition.” In it, my wife, a better listener than I, detects the phrase, “passing for a Jew.” Whether or not they can pass for Jews, they can certainly pass for rappers as American as Kanye West or Eminem.

Song of the Sons


The centerpiece of the third section of the Tanach, the section known as Ketuvim (the Writings), is the Book of Psalms. The Book of Psalms contains some of the most majestic poetic images in the history of the Hebrew language. They express awe at the artistic power of the Creator and express wonder at the reality of all Being. They reflect on the redemptive design of the God of history who took us out of Egypt and anticipate the ultimate redemption at the end of days. They cry out in the pain of human suffering and appeal to a God of healing. They protest the injustice that surrounds us and the domination of the powerful over the weak. They sing of the yearning for communion with God. And more.

Nowhere is the relationship between God and the Jewish people articulated with more poetic power or artistic beauty than in the 150 chapters of the Psalms. The Psalms have withstood the test of time with their undiminished power to inspire, to move, to touch and elevate the human soul.

The original purpose of the Psalms was liturgical, written to be sung by a choir of Levites during the sacrificial service in the Temples in Jerusalem. Still, in our own day, many of the Psalms are used liturgically and comprise entire sections of the prayer book, the most obvious examples being Psukei d’Zimrah (the preliminary service recited daily before the Shachrit prayers) and Hallel, (the thanksgiving liturgy recited on holidays and Rosh Chodesh), the kabbalists of Safed in the 16th century used Psalms when creating the Kabbalat Shabbat service, which introduces the Shabbat evening prayers with great beauty.

Although the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) ascribes authorship of the Book of Psalms to King David, even the Talmud ascribes composite authorship, insisting that David incorporated earlier collections of Psalms into his own. Among those the Talmud identifies are two collections, Psalms 42-49 and Psalms 84-88, 13 in all, that were written by the sons of Korah.

It is a stunning statistic that almost 10 percent of the Book of Psalms was written by the sons of Korah. The very name, Korah, symbolizes all that can go wrong in communal life. Korah was the cousin of Moshe and Aharon and Miriam, who protested the undemocratic centralization and personalization of power in the other side of the family. Korah led a rebellion in the wilderness against the authority of Moshe and Aharon. In the guise of egalitarianism and inclusiveness, with the claim that all of the Levites are equally holy, Korah incited 250 followers to join him in his rebellion. The rebellion was immediately recognized as a thinly veiled exercise of political opportunism and a shameful power grab. The rebellion ended badly, as it should have, as it was destined to. In the final scene, Korah was swallowed up by the earth, his minions and his ideas disappearing with him into the depths.

But his sons were not with him.

One might think that because his end was so dramatic, so violent, and so final, that Korah was wiped out once and for all. Remarkably, even though Korahism was dealt a fatal blow in the wilderness, the line of Korah did not die. The sons embraced the claim of the father that they were indeed holy, and they wrote holy words. His sons became poets; they wrote Psalms.

That is, perhaps, one of the reasons why Psalm 49 was selected to be read in a house of mourning. Beyond the ideas contained in the words themselves lies the power of the Psalm’s authorship. The heading of the Psalm reads: “To the leader: A Psalm of the sons of Korah.” The message of Psalm 49, a lesson the sons apparently learned from the bad example of their father, is that death comes to everyone, rich and poor alike. The importance of wealth and status in life is exaggerated because neither can protect us from death; nor are they of any use to us after we die. What is important in life, and in death, are the relationships we have formed with loved ones, with friends, and with God. Love transcends death. Love is eternal, and lives on after us.

Korach is the symbol of rebellion and conflict and despair; his sons are a symbol of hope. Korah brought dissension and tension into the world; his sons comfort the bereaved. Through the words of the sons of Korah, and by their example, we are inspired to embrace life with gratitude, with optimism and with passion, as long as our souls remain in our bodies.

Perry Netter is rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and author of “Divorce Is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies” (Jewish Lights, 2002). He can be reached at pnetter@tbala.org.

‘Cabaret’ Glides Into Shoah-Era Tango


Once, when I was on an all-night bus ride in Brazil, an Argentine man sitting in the rear strummed a guitar, singing one tango after another. The slow, emotional music, its lyrics filled with loss and nostalgia, seemed the appropriate soundtrack. But after a while the Brazilians aboard had enough.

One passenger finally yelled, “Don’t you know any sambas?”

Another shouted, “He doesn’t know any sambas! He only knows how to cry.”

Yes, tango is sad music. No wonder that Jews, and Jewish musicians, have been drawn to it. With its melancholy passion, it’s a vehicle for expressing the mournful side of the Jewish soul … and experience.

Jewish Tango Cabaret — a performance at the New JCC at Milken in West Hills on Saturday, May 13 — takes this link a step further. The show uses dance, music and song — as well as drama and narration — to trace high and low points in Jewish history from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s. The live music will be performed by a five-piece tango band headed by Argentine-born Pablo Goldstein; the dancing is by Tango for Three Dance Company — all of whom are Jews originally from Argentina.

Goldstein got the idea for the show three years ago when he saw a recital/lecture that demonstrated the musical links between tango and Jewish music. He then spoke with Arnold Kopikis, an Argentine-born rabbi who had already researched the topic.

“The tango began in Argentina, of course,” Kopikis said in an interview with The Journal, “in the brothels and lower-class bars, often played by Italian and Jewish immigrant musicians. By the 1920s, the tango had radiated out from Argentina to North America and Europe. It became the rage in Paris and London and Berlin.” By the 1930s musicians were blending tango with the popular music of each region. Jewish musicians did this as well, combining it with traditional Jewish music.

Kopikis said that tango was a part of Jewish life even in the ghettos and concentration camps: “There was a Jewish poet who was assigned by the Nazis to gather an archive of poetry for a museum that the Nazis hoped would display the relics of a disappeared culture. What happened is that this poet found a whole series of tango lyrics in Yiddish. He hid them, escaped, and was able to get to Israel with the lyrics. These were not translations. These were tangos originally written in Yiddish.”

These tango lyrics, Kopikis added, harshly describe daily life in the ghetto, and even in the death camps.

“I’m a musician,” said Goldstein, the show’s music director, “and the knowledge that there was this connection, that tango had been a part of Jewish life moved me deeply. I wanted to put this concept together in a total musical-theatrical presentation, one that includes dancers and a real tango band.”

Goldstein also realized that some songs in Hebrew from Israel’s early days had tango roots.

“Yaffa Yarkoni and others sang tangos — like “Habibi” — that inspired a young Israel in the 1950s. So for Jewish Tango Cabaret, I wanted a vocalist who not only sings in Spanish — the language of most tangos — but also in Yiddish and Hebrew.

His singer, who goes by the single name Elisheva, is Mexican and Jewish, heavily steeped in Yiddishkayt. She grew up absorbing these songs, without even knowing they were tangos.

“Her voice is beautiful and pure and melodic,” Goldstein said.

The show’s setting is a fictional cabaret in Berlin whose owners and customers are Jewish. It starts during the early 1930s, the elegant but ominous years between the wars. As the interplay among song, instruments and dancers evolves, so too does the drama. We see the cabaret after Kristallnacht, its furniture in ruins. The scene shifts to a ghetto, then to a concentration camp, where — Kopikis said — the tango continued to be played and danced, in improvised locations, offering a bit of hope in the face of death.

Jewish Tango Cabaret’s only spoken words are a narration (in English) before each scene. The narrator is an old man remembering his life story, what he’s experienced, and the dancers, musicians and singer perform that man’s memories.

“The show is not just artistic, it’s also educational, and for all ages,” said Teresa, Goldstein’s wife and one of Tango for Three’s dancers, who also prefer, for their performance work, to use only their first names. “We want people to know an aspect of Jewish culture and history that’s not known at all. But we also emphasize the triumphant periods after the war, the founding of Israel, as well as a celebration of Jewish life in the U.S. The same characters who are at the cabaret in Berlin in the 1930s, and later in the ghetto and the concentration camp, meet in a nightclub in New York in 1948.”

The show is only being performed on one date in the Los Angeles area, so I had to rely on a taped preview to get a sense for it. What I saw includes part of the New York 1948 reunion dance and song, set in a Manhattan nightclub. There’s bust-out energy in the music and dance, tangos in Spanish and Yiddish, and swing-dancing — an emotional and exciting reaffirmation of life.

“We did the show at the San Diego Jewish Arts Festival and at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills,” Teresa said, “and got wonderful responses.” The day after this interview, the Jewish Tango Cabaret went to Argentina to perform there.

Omar Zayat, director of the Latin American Jewish Association, which is presenting the show, said the show is a natural fit for his group’s efforts. Who better to sponsor a performance about tango and Jews than an organization that caters to Latin American Jews?

Jewish Tango Cabaret will perform on May 13 at 8 p.m. at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. $25-$40. Jewish Tango Cabaret will perform on May 13, 2006 at 8 p.m. at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. $25-$40. For more information, call (818) 464-3274 or visit

Find Your Melody


This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shirah and is named for the “Song of the Sea” sung by Moses and the Israelites after they experienced the redemption at the splitting of the Red Sea.

What was it, the rabbis asked, that evoked shirah, song, at this point and not earlier when they actually left Egypt? What propels the song to burst forth from their lips? When are we motivated to truly sing the song in our hearts?

I remember a powerful insight from Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav that a dear colleague shared years ago. Every person, Rabbi Nachman believed, has his or her own niggun, a wordless melody that is like a key that opens up our Neshamah, our soul. The task of our lives, he continues, is to find that melody that opens us up. Just as each lock has a different key, each person has to find his or her own special melody.

The ancient Israelites found their niggun, their melody, at that moment when they were saved from the Egyptians. The text teaches, “On that day, the Lord delivered Israel from the Egyptians. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. And when Israel saw the wondrous power, which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses. Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord” (Exodus 14:30-15:1).

There is a Chasidic teaching that believes: “Ha’ke’riayah M’orair Ha’zman.” The designated Torah reading on Shabbat wakes up a dormant yearning within us.

When we chant “Shirat Hayam” from the Torah, we can actually use the energy of the day to find our personal niggun and to open our hearts. Our song, however, is often hidden from us, buried by the routines in our busy lives, unknown and never used. Also, our true song is not only about “joy” but is about sadness and loss, yearning and hope, faith and despair. We often do not want to experience all these feelings, and cannot sing.

Avivah Zorenberg, in her Torah commentary, understood that the power of Shabbat Shirah is recognizing that a song is not simply an explosion of jubilant gratitude. The Song, she states, “is a complex set of emotions and points to life and death … justice and mercy.” The moment the Israelites sang was an opening that “transcends a simple split between ‘us’ and ‘them.'” The song emerged from that moment of tension: remembering their overwhelming physical suffering on the one hand, and experiencing the joy of God’s salvation on the other.

The Israelites’ song sprang from a deep place of knowing that no one is exempt from human torment and no one is always safe. It is for those precious moments when we are saved and jubilant, and understand how sacred these moments are, that we are able to sing.

The Sfat Emet, the renowned 19th century Chasidic rabbi, taught that the “Song of the Sea” was implanted in the Jewish soul forever. It was only after the miracle of the Exodus and the splitting of the sea that the Israelites were able to call it forth. They had to first witness the salvation, understand God’s awesome power and experience emunah, abiding faith, and not until then could they sing.

Rabbi Gedaliah Shorr, in his commentary, teaches that songs are like wings of birds because just like a wing lifts a bird off the ground, so, too, a song lifts us off the ground. When we sing, he explains, we are lifted out of our worldly concerns to reveal the hidden parts of God in all things.

Medieval commentator Rashi explained that when Moses saw the miracle of the splitting sea, he had to wait a few minutes until his heart told him he should sing. It was only when he was aroused and inspired, that the song emerged.

When we sing our inspired song, we are revealing heaven on earth. When we sing our true song, we gain perspective and know we can praise God in times of pain and sorrow, as well as in times of joy.

May we all be inspired to open our hearts to life’s possibilities, to the Divine within, and sing our songs.

Toba August, rabbi of Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles, can be reached at tobaug@aol.com.

 

Bob Dylan: In His Own Lyrics


Torah References:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”

Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”

God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me comin’ you better run:

Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killing’ done?”

God says, “Out on Highway 61.”

— From “Highway 61 Revisited” on the album, “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965)

Someone showed me a picture and I just laughed

Dignity never been photographed

I went into the red, went into the black

In the valley of dry bone dreams

…Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take

To find dignity

— From “Dignity” on the album, “Under the Red Sky” (1991)

Reference to Jewish Liturgy:

May God bless and keep you always

May your wishes all come true

May you always do for others

And let others do for you….

— From “Forever Young” on the album, “Planet Waves” (1973)

Christian Reference:

I was blinded by the devil

Born already ruined

Stone-cold dead

As I stepped out of the womb

By His grace I have been touched

By His word I have been healed

By His hand I’ve been delivered

By His spirit I’ve been sealed

— From “Saved” (with Tim Drummond) on the album, “Saved” (1980)

Allusions to Jesus:

You’re a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds

Manipulator of crowds, you’re a dream twister

You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah

But what do you care?

Ain’t nobody there would want to marry your sister

Friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame

You look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name

— From “Jokerman” on the album, “Infidels” (1983)

Pro-Israel, Pro-Jewish Reference:

The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land

He’s wandered the earth an exiled man

Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn

He’s always on trial for just being born

He’s the neighborhood bully

— From “Neighborhood Bully” on the album, “Infidels” (1983)

On Social Justice:

Come you masters of war

You that build all the guns

You that build the death planes

You that build the big bombs

You that hide behind walls

You that hide behind desks

I just want you to know

I can see through your masks

— From “Masters of War” on the album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (1963)

On Faith in God:

Father of grain, Father of wheat

Father of cold and Father of heat

Father of air and Father of trees

Who dwells in our hearts and our memories

Father of minutes, Father of days

Father of whom we most solemnly praise

— From “Father of Night” on the album, “New Morning” (1970)

Source: “Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-2001” (Simon & Schuster, 2004)

 

My Brilliant Masterpiece


All the Casanovas open with some killer line.

I stick my foot into my mouth every single time.

If I were a great artist, I would use my expertise,

Turn this foolish scene into my brilliant masterpiece. — Don Conoscenti

That’s the chorus of a song by a singer-songwriter I stumbled upon while trying to think of something to say to a girl in a music club in Kentucky.

In the midst of wishing I knew what to say, I listened to this troubadour with a whole song about wishing he could know what to say.

Sometimes music is like that. It finds us when we need it; it fills the prescription. It comforts us by saying: At least some obscure folk singer-songwriter who lives out of a minivan can relate to me.

I was so overwhelmed by the sentiment and timing that, uncharacteristically, I’m willing to forgive the attempted rhyme of “line” with “time.” I do this only because Mr. Conoscenti belongs to that tiny minority of lyricists (especially folk singers) who uses the subjunctive: If I were a great artist, not “was.”

In case you’re ever on my bad side, it’s handy to know that correct use of the subjunctive will afford you a lot of slack.

Do what you will, but tell me: “If I were a better girlfriend, I wouldn’t have stolen your car, sold your cats and slept with your best friend” and most everything will be forgiven.

Anyhow, this song was about talking to girls, or more to the point, not talking. Being “frozen in their lights” as an earlier verse goes. I can relate all too well.

I go to a bar and all my wit, worldly experience and education instantly deteriorates into those POV shots in “The Terminator.” Suddenly, I’m scanning my database for a response. And unlike that title character, I come up with nothing. There’s a short-circuit. The CPU crashes. I’m not programmed for this. I’ve failed in my mission to become a player, or a futuristic murdering robot-turned-governor.

What gets me is knowing — or at least believing — that someone else in this situation would know what to say and do. All those Casanovas opening with their killer lines and closing with a phone number wile I’m left just fingering the Chex mix.

But if I were a great artist….

I’d love to be Cary Grant, James Bond — who am I kidding? I’d settle for Jimmy Fallon on a good day. (I can be foppish yet aloof, can’t I?)

I’d love to display ease and mastery of a social situation — especially one that has potential to result in meeting the love of my life (or at least the love of my evening).

Honestly, maybe I’m too hard on myself. Didn’t James Bond have his awkward teen years? Just once, wasn’t he unable to screw up his courage? Didn’t he ever say: “Bond, James Blond — I mean Bond! Oy, listen to me! I sound like such a shmuck.”

They don’t show those scenes in the movies though, do they? Instead, James Bond taunts me with his perfect swagger, perfect hair, and perfect women. I tell you: I’m beginning to think he may be a fictional character.

But back to the reality of the barroom, where I hope to craft my masterpiece. Let’s assume for a moment that a bar can be where art can happen, that The Cat & Fiddle is a canvas.

Art is risk and a great risk demands an occasional spectacular nosedive. Not every attempted Picasso is, well, a Picasso. Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” Spielberg’s “1941,” Prince’s “Black Album,” Bochco’s “CopRock,” America’s 43rd president. These are all necessary stumbles that made future work even better.

And even with a bona fide masterpiece, surely there are drafts, sketches, revisions, rough cuts. Even Jackson Pollock didn’t get the drips right the first time.

I want to keep these artworks in mind the next time I approach a woman awkwardly. I must remember: Like any artist, to make something beautiful, I have to be willing to get ugly. I’m going to get paint in my hair, fast-spinning clay under my fingernails, paper cuts, carpal-tunnel, welding burns. I’m going to have to put up with editors and critics and bachelorettes who just don’t get me.

It’s the cost of doing business, and if you keep going, you get to something ultimately more valuable than the phone number of a girl at a music club in Kentucky, or the song you keep in her honor.

By the way, don’t worry if you’ve never heard of Conoscenti — most people outside of his immediate family haven’t. If you want to learn more, visit www.doncon.com, or else join me on my next road trip across the desert. Just don’t blame me when you realize the doors are locked and you’re miles from nowhere as I’m singing folk songs with the subtle nuances of an air raid siren.

People in passing cars must think this a foolish scene, but I know better: It’s my brilliant masterpiece.

Keith van Straaten is a writer and performer who hosts “What’s My Line? — Live on Stage” Wednesdays in Los Angeles. For more information, visit

Noa Back With New Album, Daughter


Renowned recording artist Noa, known as Achinoam Nini in Israel, is currently at home basking in the glory of her latest creation.

And no, it’s not a new album.

It’s her daughter, Enéa. “It means ‘her eyes’ in Hebrew,” says Noa, who has written a song with the same title.

“My wish for her is that she sees the world always through her own eyes, and that they be eyes of love and beauty.”

Born on Aug. 12, Enéa is Noa’s second child. Her son, Ayehli, is now 3. This latest birth, says Noa, was “natural, short and painful, but that’s the way it goes.”

“My daughter is healthy and beautiful,” she says. “But I’m far from objective. And she doesn’t look anything like me. In fact, she looks like something new … not anybody’s photocopy, as well she should.”

Noa has had a busy year. She performed up until her eighth month, but admits, “Pregnancy is bound to slow you down at some point. I did not do much songwriting because creating life took up all my energy.”

Nevertheless, having children clearly agrees with her. Noa says her last album was “deeply inspired by my first child. His arrival changed my life.”

Noa considers that album, “Now,” to be her best. Her latest European tour was met with great success, particularly in Spain and Italy.

“The highlights for me were a performance in the Euro-League basketball championships, broadcast to millions throughout Europe,” she says. “That, and a live event performed in front of 400,000 people in Rome titled, ‘We Are the Future,’ organized by Quincy Jones as a follow up to ‘We Are the World.'”

The event was designed to raise funds for children who are victims of war. It was also broadcast on MTV and VHI to millions of viewers worldwide.

“I did both those performances in my seventh month of pregnancy with a big belly,” she states proudly.

And although her children have clearly inspired a great deal of her work, Noa says she’s not too keen with the idea of them following in her footsteps.

“I hope my children will love and enjoy music,” she says. “But I would not wish them a musician’s life, especially not the way the world and the music business look today. They both stink,” she states matter-of-factly.

“But,” she adds, “if they want it badly, nothing’s going to stop them, and I will always encourage them to follow their heart. I can only wish them happiness.”

In the meantime, barely a month after her daughter’s birth, Noa is back writing songs again.

“I’m really looking forward to the challenges of a new project, a new album and a tour with my newly expanded family,” she says, adding that she plans to take her kids on the road as much as possible.

Together with Gil Dor, she is currently working on songs for a new album, with several tours planned later this year. “However, we’ll mostly be writing and recording,” she says. “The year 2006 will be more of a touring year.”

But American fans won’t have to wait till then to see Noa perform. From Nov. 25 to Dec. 8, Noa will be touring the United States. She will perform at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza’s Fred Kavli Theatre on Nov. 28, presented by Temple Beth Haverim and Jewish Family of Conejo Simi and West Valley.

“I want to warmly invite all my American fans to come and see us live, to listen to the songs and really enjoy themselves,” she says. “We invest our souls into the music and the lyrics, which,” she is quick to point out, “are mostly in English.”

“I hope [our songs] will resonate with and possibly even bring hope and light to as many people as possible.”

Writing, recording, touring. It’s a punishing schedule for a mother with two small children. But her response to the inevitable question of how she manages to juggle her career with motherhood is simple.

“It’s the hardest thing in the world,” she admits. “I do it with very little sleep and with more love than you can imagine.”

The concert by Noa will be on Nov. 28, 7:30 p.m. $39-$203. Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Tickets can be purchased at the Civic Arts Plaza box office in person or by calling Ticketmaster at (213) 480-3232. For more information about Noa, visit

For the Kids


Soul Solution

Summer is over, now the real work starts. Last week we remembered hard-working Americans on Labor Day. But that’s nothing compared to the work we Jews will do over the next two weeks — on our souls. There will be a lot of hard-core thinking:
What did I do that I won’t do again? What do I want to do better? How can I learn to be a more generous, considerate person? And how will I show it?

“Apples Dipped in Honey for Rosh Hashanah” is a song many of you know. Well, how about honey dipped in apples? Here’s a great idea for a Personal Honey Bowl.

Core the apple, but make sure you do not go through the bottom. Use the spoon to scoop out more of the apple. If your apple has absolutely no holes, you will not need a cup. Just pour the honey straight into the apple hole. Now each person at your table can dip their apple slice in the honey that’s in the apple.

Mr. ‘Saturday Night’


If there are two blockbuster motion pictures that stand as the defining pop-cultural phenomena of the 1970s, they are, arguably, “Star Wars” and “Saturday Night Fever.” And while “Star Wars — the Broadway Musical” is probably not as far-off as we may think, “Saturday Night Fever — The Broadway Musical” is already here. As in here … in Los Angeles.

One person we have to thank for that is Jon B. Platt, who is co-producing the “Fever” musical with its creator, Robert Stigwood. At 46, Platt has staged numerous Broadway productions and national tours, including popular Jewish-themed works such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Angels in America,” which garnered two Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize.

“Fever — the Musical” takes its cues from a popular movie that captured a generation: the image of John Travolta in a tight white suit pulling off those hot dance moves to the disco pulse of the Bee Gees’ infectious pop confections has become shorthand for ’70s era sexuality and style.

The songs are the true stars of the musical, Platt said. The Bee Gees penned two new compositions especially for the occasion: “Immortality” and “First & Last.” But unlike, say, the ABBA-driven “Mamma Mia,” for which a story line was created around the songs, Platt said his production “faithfully follows the story of the film.”

“Fever” revolves around its Italian American anti-hero, though Platt is no stranger to Jewish stories. Some of his most innovative productions have featured Jewish content. Beyond the “Fiddler” revival, Platt worked on the critically acclaimed staging of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” starring Natalie Portman prior to her “Phantom Menace” success.

Next up for the Boston-based producer is what he calls a “reconceived” revival of “Man of La Mancha,” tentatively due in the fall of next year.

Occasionally, Platt muses over the decision years ago to leave behind his Boston University biochemistry studies and pursue entertainment — to his parents’ dismay.

“They were horrified,” Platt recalled with a laugh. “Now my mother has a Tony Award sitting on her television set. This is my doctorate.”

“Saturday Night Fever,” Shubert Theatre, Century City, May 29 – June 24; Orange County performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa, June 26 – July 8.

Composing Life


On the cover of Jack Bielan’s new CD, “From the Heart of a Jewish Soul,” a pianist plays as his keyboard expands and spirals heavenward. Below, the glow from two yahrtzeit candles joins the keys soaring into the clouds.

The painting is, in a way, Bielan’s portrait.

For the past 14 years, the keyboardist-composer-arranger has been the musical director at Valley Outreach Synagogue, where he conducts an annual Shabbat service with a full gospel choir and High Holy Days services with more than 35 singers and chamber musicians. Bielan has toured with Bobby Vinton, written funk music for Motown Records and worked on arrangements for James Taylor’s gold album, “Sweet Baby James.”

But on Dec. 3, the composer will sail into uncharted musical territory: For the first time ever, he’ll conduct a concert of his own Jewish music. His new CD, to also debut Dec. 3, is the first to feature his original Jewish songs.

Bielan, who has earnest blue eyes and sensitive features, rarely wrote his own lyrics until several years ago. The change came after he endured a parent’s worst nightmare, which began on a dark highway near Barstow on Sept. 17, 1995. Bielan’s 17-year-old son, Blake, and his 14-year-old daughter, Samantha, were en route back to L.A. after transporting equipment to one of their father’s gigs. They never made it home. Around 1 a.m., their van was hit head-on by a drunk driver. Both children, along with the driver, died at the scene.

“From the Heart of a Jewish Soul” was born of Bielan’s subsequent spiritual struggle and his ultimate reconciliation with God. “It’s not music about death, but about praising God and praising life,” he says. “The message is that it’s OK to challenge God at the worst of times, because He can take it.”

Bielan, the son of a kosher butcher, became a bar mitzvah at Congregation Etz Jacob, just across the street from his fourplex on Stanley Avenue in Beverly-Fairfax. His musical education began even earlier, after he demonstrated perfect pitch at the age of 6 on the family’s new May Company spinet piano.

By his senior year at Fairfax High, he was a student by day, while by night he talked philosophy with the working-class people who listened to him strum guitar at Peacock Alley on Eighth Street. At 18, he played keyboards for an incarnation of the Strawberry Alarm Clock (think “Incense and Peppermints”); during the early years of his former marriage, he founded a special events company; and in 1985, he was persuaded to become musical director of Valley Outreach Synagogue, though he initially insisted he knew more about Motown than Moses.

All the while, Bielan averaged 20 weeks a year on the road, but in 1991, he abruptly stopped touring. The then-divorced dad had become a single father, with legal custody of his three children, Blake, Samantha and Megan Rose.

“I coached their Little League teams,” he recalls. “I learned to braid girls’ hair. I made sure my kids were off to school and their homework was done and that they were feeling good about themselves and knew they were loved. My children were my life.”

When the police arrived to deliver the news about the accident, Bielan collapsed in his driveway and shouted at God to return his children. Within the hour, his home was filled with Valley Outreach congregants, who fed him and took care of the funeral arrangements and even identified the bodies.Bielan professed his continued faith at the memorial service; when he conducted High Holy Days services two weeks later, he felt he was “in the best, safest place I could possibly have been.” Valley Outreach President Mickey Bilsky recalls, “It was one of the most inspiring High Holy Days services ever.”

But in the following months, Bielan privately went to war with God. “There is no blasphemy, no obscenity towards God which I have not uttered,” he wrote in an essay. “I would find open fields … and I would scream until there was blood in my throat and I couldn’t scream anymore. I would lay down in the middle of the road and rail at God, demanding that He bring a car to kill me.”

In June 1996, having sunk into an almost comatose depression, Bielan decided to attend Samantha’s junior high graduation and Blake’s high school commencement, both scheduled on the same day. “I was still their father, and I would not have their names acknowledged … without being there,” he explains. And so he sat among the cheering parents, never feeling more alone. “I returned home that night feeling certain of my impending suicide,” he says.

When 8-year-old Megan, who had suddenly, horribly become an only child, crawled into his bed that evening, Bielan changed his mind. “[I] looked at my beautiful, innocent, blue-eyed girl … and felt compelled to say to her, ‘I promise I won’t leave you,'” he recalls. Some hours later, Bielan knelt and addressed God. “I’ve lost two of my children, and I can’t lose You, too,” he whispered. “It was at that specific moment that I truly knew God would forgive me and that He was crying with me.”

It’s been a long road back for Bielan and Megan, now 13, but father and daughter have survived, even thrived. “The loss still hurts every day,” Bielan admits. But he finds joy in composing his liturgical music, and he is grateful that Megan is a healthy, athletic eighth-grader who sings and solos for the Valley Outreach choir. Recently, the family celebrated Megan’s Bat Mitzvah in a lively ceremony with Valley Outreach. And Bielan is engaged to be married next year. “I feel blessed,” he says. “I would never diminish anything that’s happened to me, but I have absolutely no interest in being viewed as a victim. I have love and happiness in my life, and I really do cherish every day.”

“Jack is very positive and very spiritual,” Bilsky says.

“From the Heart of a Jewish Soul” is Bielan’s message for people in trouble. “I want them to feel, ‘If this man survived the worst of losses with courage and faith, I can survive, too,'” he says. “The whole album is in the praise of God.”

For tickets to the Jack Bielan and Friends concert at the Performing Arts Center of Cal State Northridge Dec. 3, call (818) 348-4867 or (818) 677-2488. To order Bielan’s CD, go to www.serenitysong.com

The Lady Behind the Dancing Man


Around the end of August, every year for the past 20 years, the Chabad Telethon comes around. It gets so you can’t drive anywhere without seeing the purple banners featuring the silhouette of a man wearing tzitzit and dancing joyously to some unheard song.

What many people do not know is that the producer behind this show where men dance with men and a female voice is never heard singing is… a woman.

Jeff Cutler – her first name is short for Jefferson, a family tradition – is a former actress and television producer on shows including “Candid Camera” and “The Suzanne Somers Show.” She was first approached by Rabbi Shlomo Cunin of Chabad to produce the organization’s initial telethon in 1980, after she and her husband, Rabbi Jerry Cutler, helped Cunin with a fundraiser. Cutler, who is of Scottish heritage, said she was very impressed with Cunin and his community.

“The Scots are a wild people. They have that verve for life, and that’s what I found among the people of Chabad,” Cutler said.

She recalls the celebration following the very first telethon, when the show broke the $1 million mark. “We broke out the champagne – kosher, of course – and then the rabbis and all the other men in their black hats and coats encircled me and sang “Loch Lomond” (a traditional Scottish song) in Yiddish,” she said. “It was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to me.”

Since that time, Cutler has been the producer of every Chabad telethon. She begins her preparation for each year’s show in June and for the next three months eats, sleeps and breathes telethon business. Her family is also in on the act, with her husband writing the show (between duties as spiritual leader of the Creative Arts Temple in Los Angeles) and daughters Chelsea, 15, and Tess, 11, doing mailings and helping transcribe the show’s script.

There is also Cutler’s extended family, her crew, including associate producer Andrew Martin, film editor David Mower and project coordinators Ruchi Stillman and her daughter Shaina, plus an assortment of production assistants. Everyone pitches in, Cutler said, adding that one never knows what might be required.

“There are no job descriptions here. You can go from phoning a celebrity to holding a boom mike to emptying the trash – we do everything.”

Over the course of a summer, Cutler pulls together all the elements for the partly live, partly taped show. The crew meets in June to figure out the theme for this year’s event, then the research begins to find subjects to interview from the current clients of Chabad’s Los Angeles residential drug-treatment center. The interviews will be interspersed throughout the seven-hour show, along with celebrity greetings featuring the likes of Martin Sheen, Sir Anthony Hopkins and this year the “Millionaire” man himself, Regis Philbin.

The final, hectic weeks are spent editing the videotaped segments and pulling together last-minute acts to fill the on-air time. The Sunday before the show is to air, Cutler is in her office viewing a video someone has sent her of a group of men dancing the kazatzki. Shaina thinks they would make a good act for the show and Cutler agrees; the act looks like something out of “Fiddler on the Roof” and will resonate well with her core audience. The acts for the show are restricted by the code of Jewish tradition, wherein men are forbidden to listen to a woman sing and men and women may not touch. She herself is not as observant as Chabad dictates and notes that her lifestyle occasionally leads to conflict with her clients.

“I consider myself a modern female. I’ve always had a career, and I am very independent in my thinking,” she said. “I try to dress conservatively when I’m here, and I find that, although I do have my differences with Rabbi Cunin, we respect each other.”

Cutler said she loves her job, especially the opportunity to do live television.”I like to live on the edge,” she said. “I should have been here [in Los Angeles] in the 1950’s when all shows were live.”

“Everything you could ever imagine happening on a live program has happened here, but it always works out,” chimed in associate producer Andrew Martin, the self-described “class clown” of the group. Martin signed onto the show 12 years ago and said no one could have been more surprised than he was to get involved with Chabad.

“I was raised a Reform Jew in the Valley. My family belonged to Temple Solael, and I attended Jewish camp, but that was about it,” Martin recalled. “Chabad was very intimidating to me. [But] after being here a few hours, I just fell in love with the whole project.”

The show’s producers are hoping to exceed last year’s fundraising figure of $4.5 million. According to Rabbi Cunin, the money will all be spent in California, mostly in Southern California and primarily on the drug rehabilitation program, efforts to help the homeless and what the rabbi calls the Chesed (Kindness) Project, helping individuals in need. Some funds will also go toward a center for latchkey children on Robertson Boulevard that Cunin hopes to open this fall.

In addition to the national broadcast, the telethon will also be carried live on the Internet. Donations come from as far away as Great Britain and Israel.

“The telethon has a life beyond raising money. It is the biggest demonstration of Yiddishkayt, of Jewish pride and Jewish joy,” Cunin said.

Cutler said it is Cunin’s dedication to the show, as well as that of her crew, that keeps her coming back year after year.

“I love having people around me all working for the same cause,” she said. “We truly are a family.” The Chabad Telethon will air on UPN Channel 13 on Sunday, Aug. 27, from 5 p.m. to midnight.

‘Strange Fruit’ and Stalinism


Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

David Margolick, writer of books and articles on legal issues for The New York Times and Vanity Fair, has hit a raw nerve with his haunting book, “Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights” (Running Press). The book is an account of the scalding impact of one song – a song about a lynching – on scores of Ameri-can activists, writers, musicians, artists and intellectuals.

When I interviewed him, Margolick told me of how he discovered “Strange Fruit”: “I got into Billie Holiday 15 years ago and bought a record. When I saw the song’s title, I thought it might be a sort of goofy long song with that playful title, kind of exotic and sexy. So I was utterly unprepared for what it actually was. I was amazed by two things: what it was about, and that I didn’t know about it.

“I fancied myself a student of civil rights a little bit. I grew up reading about it, caring about it, and I never knew anything about this. So I sensed there was a void. I always had at the back of my mind to write something about it. It stayed and grew in my mind. I just knew there was a story.”

“Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher, who used the nom de plume “Lewis Allan,” combining the names of two of his children who died as infants.

Meeropol, a Communist who adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 when they were executed as Soviet spies, first wrote the song as a poem, later setting it to music, when he saw a photograph of a horrendous lynching in a civil rights magazine. In 1939, Meeropol brought the song to Barney Josephson, the owner of Cafe Society, a legendary, integrated Greenwich Village club. Josephson gave the song to Billie Holiday, who made it indelibly her own.

Columbia refused to record the song, and Holiday took it to Milt Gabler, a producer who ran his record label out of his Commodore Record Shop in Manhattan. Gabler recorded it, and it has never gone away. In recent years, the song has been performed by Nina Simone, Tori Amos, Cassandra Wilson, Sting and UB40.

“Decades later,” Margolick writes, “the experience of listening to, and watching, Billie Holiday perform ‘Strange Fruit’ – her eyes closed and head back, the familiar gardenia over her ear, her ruby lipstick magnifying her mocha complexion, her fingers snapping lightly, her hands holding the microphone stand as if it were a teacup – lingered in many memories.”

As Pete Hamill has commented, “Strange Fruit” was not concocted by a songwriter with a fedora and a cigar sitting at a piano in the Brill building hoping for a hit. It put a searchlight on one of the ugliest facets of the American experience from 1889 to 1940, when, according to a study by the Tuskegee Institute, 3,833 people were lynched in the United States, 90 percent of them in the South.

Margolick’s concentration on just one song’s impact is an illustration of the power of the written word to change and transform our lives. I will never forget my own epiphanies of this kind – among them Kay Boyle reading James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” to my writing class at the New School for Social Research when it came out in The New Yorker.

I come to Margolick’s book from a somewhat unique perspective. While writing my novel about the Rosenbergs, “Red Love,” I researched the Communist Party’s deeply cynical and exploitative role in the campaign supposedly to free them (in fact, the party, at Soviet direction, wanted nothing of the kind). I also drew upon my own personal adolescence experience, when Communist historian Herbert Aptheker, chronicler of slave rebellions, with his blazing red hair and equally blazing eyes, gave his last lectures at the crumbling Jefferson School of Social Science after Khrushchev’s speech about Stalin’s crimes in 1956.I loved to watch Aptheker; he was highly intelligent, and there was an inspired lunacy about him.

Sometimes he started “talking black.” And sometimes he turned his back to the class for long periods of silent contemplation. We would wait patiently. Stalin’s words of inspiration were on the blackboard, and in a shaking voice, Aptheker defended Soviet troops in Hungary and quoted a Brecht poem that Communists did not kill, they stopped killing. Yeah, right. I remember Aptheker once whispering to me that Tennessee Williams was “on our side,” that Stanley Kowalski was a “splendid revolutionary,” and that Williams’ plays were magic (he was right about that).

Aptheker also told me of his own youthful days risking his life battling Jim Crow in the South. On that score I believed him then and I do today. American Communists could betray a good cause in a heartbeat (and Ralph Ellison writes brilliantly of their abrupt abandonment, literally overnight, of Harlem in “Invisible Man”), but like other ideologues, if instructed to do the right thing, they could do it with passionate hearts and sometimes even do it well.

Which brings me to the only difficulty I have with Margolick’s elegant and compact book, as enduring an achievement as it is. Margolick uses the word “progressive” to denote everything good, and that includes Henry Wallace, his leadership of the Communist-dominated Progressive Party, and the Communist Party itself. By not critically examining the party’s historic role, Margolick almost unwittingly lends himself to the currently fashionable revisionist view of the party as somehow, maybe in spite of itself, a force for democracy-that it really was indigenous, radical and progressive, and not a servile defender of a brutal, anti-Semitic and murderous Soviet status quo that embraced the Hitler-Stalin pact, barbarous repression and concentration camps.

Abel Meeropol’s great and beautiful song helped pierce the American conscience and transform society, and that is almost entirely what David Margolick’s book is about. But there is an inherent problem in embracing an ethos that somehow suggests, if only by historical omission, that democracies have “no enemies on the left.” Stalin and Pol Pot, among many others, would hasten to disagree.

Being Perfect


Consider the lyrics of Cheryl Wheeler’s song “Unworthy”:

“I’m unworthy — and no matter what I’m doing I should certainly be doing something else.

And it’s selfish, to be thinking I’m unworthy. All this me, me, me, me, self, self, self, self, self.

I should learn how to meditate and sew and bake and dance and paint and sail and make gazpacho.

I should let someone teach me to run Windows and learn French that I can read and write and speak.

I should get life in prison for how I treated my parents from third grade until last week.

And I should spend more time playing with my dog and much less money on this needless junk I buy.

I should send correspondence back to everyone who’s written, phoned or faxed since junior high.

I should sit with a therapist until I understand the way I felt back in my mom.

I should quit smoking, drinking, eating, thinking, sleeping, watching TV, and work harder at getting along.

I should know CPR and deep massage and Braille and sign language and how to change my oil.

I should go where the situation’s desperate and build and plant and trudge and tote and toil.

I’m unworthy.”

Sometimes it’s hard to feel worthy. Most of us expect an awful lot from ourselves and we expect a lot from our children. They’re pushed, coached, tutored and tested to the point that they feel loved for their performance, not their essence. We expect a lot of our parents and spouses, who, after all, do the best they can, just like we do. Yet we have such a hard time forgiving them their human frailties. Sometimes we have a hard time forgiving ourselves for being human, too.

Stand in line at the supermarket and look at the magazine covers. Then look at the people looking at the magazine covers; comparing themselves, their bodies, their lives, to those described in the glossy pages. Imagine what middle-aged men are thinking when they read about “dot com” kids — young men and women in their 20’s worth tens of millions.

L.A. ranks number one in cosmetic surgery and has the neat distinction of having the highest number of parents springing for breast implants as high school graduation presents so that their daughters can go off to college with “enhanced self-esteem.” We live in a city that manufactures and upholds superhuman images of perfection, raising the standard of what it means to be worthy — to its most ridiculous.

The Torah knew better; all of its heroes are imperfect. Abraham is a lousy father and husband but he’s called “the friend of God.” Jacob plays favorites with his sons. Joseph is arrogant. Moses loses his temper. Virtually every family in the Torah is dysfunctional. When God creates the world it’s called “good,” not perfect, just “good.” For God, good is good enough. God does not expect us to be perfect.

The rabbis make it clear through the special name and Torah reading assigned to this Shabbat. This Shabbat is called Shabbat Parah, the Sabbath of the Red Heifer. On it, we read one of the weirdest stories in the entire Torah. It has to do with when a person feels contaminated by something he has done wrong and is therefore unworthy of coming into God’s presence. That person can cleanse and purify himself by undergoing the ritual of the Red Heifer. A cow with completely red skin, without a single discolored hair or blemish is sacrificed and its ashes made into a paste that is applied to the person to purify him.

What’s this bizarre ritual really about? Here’s what one rabbi thinks. “The Red Heifer represents perfection. It is slaughtered to make the point that perfection has no place in this world. Perfect creatures belong in heaven, not on earth.”

Despite what we might surmise standing in line at the supermarket, L.A. and the rest of the world is for those of us with imperfections. God does not expect us to be God. God does not expect us to be perfect human beings. God only expects us to be humane.

The writer Anne Lamott put it this way: “I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up, I found that God handed you these rusty, bent, old tools — friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty — and said, ‘Do the best you can with these, they will have to do.'”

To Anne Lamott, to Cheryl Wheeler, to all of us who feel unworthy, our ancestors speak across a thousand generations this Shabbat Parah; slaughtering perfection and grinding it to a pulp. Reminding us that friendship, prayer, conscience and honesty might not be perfect, but they’re good, and good is good enough.


Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things,” published by Behrman House, Inc.

Ten Days of Atonement


A year after my father’s unexpected death from a kidney transplant, I returned home.

Six months earlier, my mother had sold our house, the one I had lived in my entire life. The synagogue was the same. The family was the same. Their friends were the same.

Only one thing was different. It didn’t feel like home.

“The drawers are different,” I told her.

“I know.”

“Where’s the extra soap?”

“Linen closet.”

“You have a linen closet?”

“I know.”

I had come for the holidays. Ten days. A New Year, then Day of Atonement.

“Tzedakeh in the puskeh,” she reminded me.

“Where’d you put it?” I asked her.

“Don’t be smart,” she said.

Rosh Hashanah passed with apples, challah and honey, and aunts and uncles pressing me to them just a little too hard. “Good Yontov,” they exclaimed so cheerily, their faces pinched with hiding, baring too many teeth.

A sweet new year, they toasted with sticky sweet wine.

“Next year in Byzantium,” echoed Bubbe, “… or wherever.”

He had been her son. The second she lost in as many years.

Four days down.

“Go to the cemetery,” my mother had said, more than half a dozen times since I’d been home. “You should go to the cemetery.”

I didn’t want to. But how could I say that?

“It’s proper. It’s right,” she insisted. “It’s a sign of respect.”

“It smells in here.”

“Do you hear me?”

“Did you just get new carpeting?”

“Ellie.”

“What else did you throw out?”

“I’m only going to say this one more time.”

“It’s not like he’s there!” I yelled, my first outburst.

She looked at me surprised. You of all people.

“I’ve gone to shul, I’ve said the prayers. I came home. Isn’t it enough?”

“No,” she said, so quietly.

“It’s not like I don’t talk to him anyway. I don’t need a monument to — there’s nothing to do with …”

But she was gone. Finally, she didn’t want to discuss it any longer.

Eight days down.

I visited my grandmothers. We sat with our feet up, talked about nothing, and ate a lot of sugar. Neither suggested I go to the cemetery.

“Do what you want,” Bubbe said.

“Just be nice to your mother,” Nana said.

I wanted to do what was right. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. Nothing could have left a larger void in my life than his death. And no one was questioning my love, least of all my mother, who knew best of all.

Nine days.

Friday evening, the night before I left, we broke fast with relatives after our day of starvation and prayer, bitterness and wishing, hoping, cursing and crying. Completely drained, I got into my car and headed back to my mother’s new place alone.

The car took the route it always had under my hands. From Nana’s, off the fork to the right, down the long street and right on —

I stopped. Inches shy of turning up the driveway, I realized. The radio started playing some incredibly sappy song. I looked to my right. My old house.

The driveway where he taught me to pitch a softball. The road he had pushed my two- wheeler along (“peddle, peddle, peddle!”) ’til I could go on my own. A house where we sat together at a piano singing “Fiddler on the Roof” songs, just this much off-key. Graduation photos in the driveway, yelling around the kitchen table and late-night movies after everyone else had gone to sleep. And I realized.

This was the place my father was buried. This was where his spirit lived and reigned, no matter what name was on the mailbox. Twenty-five years in one house. Two sons, one daughter, a wedding, two bar mitzvahs, a basketball net, a mortgage, a life. We had walked around the house after the shiva, we had let his spirit go. But he remained. His final resting spot.

I cried the entire length of the song, and turned around in the driveway to go home, to my mother’s condo.

I had made it to the cemetery after all.


Award-winning Chicago-based playwright, actress, choreographer and educator Jamie Pachino has served on the faculty of Columbia College and the Chicago Academy for the Arts.

Director Comes Full Circle with ‘The Envoy’


In 1961, a saddened and disheartened 23-year-old Algerian school teacher and musician named Gaston Ghenassia was merely one of the thousands of refugees on a ship bound for France, leaving his homeland in the aftermath of the Algerian Revolution. Little did he know at the time how defining a moment it was to become in his life.

For it was on that very ship ride that Ghenassia wrote “Adieu, Mon Pays” (“Goodbye, My Homeland”), the song that would not only launch his music career, but make him one of France’s hottest singer-songwriters and an international star.

Almost 40 years and more than 500 songs later, the entertainer, now known as Enrico Macias, tours the world playing sizable venues. In fact, his appearance next week at the Universal Amphitheater will complete his current tour of North America, where his loyal fans will appear yet again to see him perform his hits; compositions — such as “Oh Guitare, Guitare” and “Ma Maison, Ma Maison” — which have managed to reflect his Sephardic spirit even as they captured the imagination of France.

Born in Constantine, Enrico Macias lived a pied -noir existence in Algeria, often playing local concerts with his greatest creative influence — his musician father-in-law. But it was following his exile from Algeria that a deep social consciousness began to permeate Macias’ songwriting with tunes like “La Tolerance.”

“Always misunderstanding comes with the silence,” Macias recently told the Journal, “And I hate the silence…my job is to break the silence [through my music]…to build dialogue.”

Macias’ Jewish lineage is also at the heart of many of his signature recordings. He has sung Ashkenazi standards “Kol Nidre” and “Poi Poi Poi” and wrote “Six Millions De Larmes” (“Six Million Tears”) as a reaction to the Holocaust. One of his most popular songs, “Juif Espagnol” (“the Spanish Jew”), synthesizes his twin musical interests — his heritage and global brotherhood — in a simple and vulnerable first-person plea:

“I am a Spanish Jew/

I am a Greek-Armenian/

I am a French Creole/

I am a Jewish Arab/

I am every place where people reach out to each other.”

Over the course of his stellar career, Macias has toured the world many times over. He has recorded tracks in English, Hebrew, Spanish and Arabic. He sang before Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, and entertained Israeli troops on the front lines during the 1967 Six Day War. In 1997, Macias was designated a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, alongside Actor Michael Douglas.

But one of the greatest highlights of Macias’ life came in September 1979, when he played a command performance for a very special fan — Anwar Sadat. Meeting the Egyptian president made a great impact on the singer, and when Sadat was assassinated only weeks later, Macias was compelled to write the song “Un Berger Vient De Tomber” (“A Shepherd Just Fell”).

“He was a martyr for peace,” says Macias of Sadat. “He gave us the example and now we follow his example…When Rabin died, they asked me to write a song for Rabin. I said that I already wrote the song – “Un Berger Vient De Tomber.” Unfortunately the song is the same.”

Macias’ latest release, an album dedicated to his father-in-law mentor titled “Hommage au Chef Raymond,” takes the entertainer full circle back to his classic Algerian roots. As for his work as a U.N. emissary, Macias — who has met with refugees all over the world and spoken to the presidents of their countries — says that he finds himself in a privileged position.

“I cannot change the world,” says the singer. “I can only be an example. I am a witness, not a moralist.”

Enrico Macias will culminate his North American tour at the Universal Amphitheater on Nov. 4 at 8:30 p.m. For more information, call (310) 273-2824.