Following apology from Spanish festival, Matisyahu confirms he will perform after all

After being re-invited, American Jewish reggae star Matisyahu confirmed he will perform at a Spanish music festival.

On Friday, two days after the Rototom SunSplash Festival apologized for canceling his performance in the face of pressure from the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Matisyahu announced on Facebook that he will perform there Saturday.

In his Facebook post, the singer wrote, “Today music wins. Freedom of expression wins.” Describing his feeling that he “was being used as a pawn for political convenience,” Matisyahu explained that, “It is my deep conviction however that acceptance and the ability for rebirth allow us to move forward.”

He added that the “incredible outpouring of worldwide support from fans and organizations who rose up as one to protest the intrusion of politics into a borderless celebration of music has been humbling.”

Matisyahu is not Israeli, but was apparently singled out by BDS activists because he was the only Jewish performer on the festival roster. Last week, after he ignored requests that he issue a statement declaring his support for Palestinian statehood, the festival cancelled his act. That sparked condemnation from Jewish organizations, the government of Spain and Matisyahu himself, who wrote on his Facebook page Monday that the festival organizers’ behavior had been “appalling and offensive.”

In a lengthy apology posted on Facebook Wednesday, festival organizers wrote, “Rototom Sunsplash rejects anti-Semitism and any form of discrimination towards the Jewish community.“
The statement said that the cancellation came due to pressure from the BDS movement, citing a “campaign of pressure, coercion and threats” against it that stoked fears the festival would be disrupted and “prevented the organization from reasoning clearly.”

Matisyahu ousted from Spanish festival for not endorsing Palestinian state

Matisyahu was disinvited from a Spanish music festival because he would not publicly endorse Palestinian statehood.

The Jewish-American reggae singer was scheduled to perform Aug. 22 at the Rototom Sunsplash festival in Benicassim, near Barcelona. But his show was canceled after he refused to release a public statement backing a Palestinian state, according to the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, which called the disinvitation a case of “anti-Semitic cowardice.”

The organizers had been pressured to disinvite Matisyahu by activists promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement against Israel, the report said.

“As Spaniards, we are ashamed of the organizers,” the Spanish federation’s statement said. “In this case, the BDS Movement employed all its anti-Semitic arsenal against the participation on Matthew Paul Miller,” using Matisyahu’s full name.

Matisyahu, a former Hasid, was the only festival performer asked to endorse a Palestinian state because he is Jewish, the federation said.

“Such acts violate fundamental human rights guaranteed by our constitution,” the statement said. According to the El Pais newspaper, other musicians threatened to cancel their performances unless Matisyahu made the declaration.

Matisyahu is not an Israeli citizen.

In a Facebook post Saturday about the decision, Rototom mentioned its “sensitivity to Palestine, its people and the occupation of its territory by Israel.”

Israelis, Palestinians vie for Latino support during Pope’s visit

The first Latin American pope brought a wave of Latino love with him on his trip to the Holy Land last weekend.

At Pope Francis’ public prayer at Manger Square on May 25 in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, near the site where Jesus is believed to have been born, Spanish was being spoken almost as much as Arabic. Flags from Argentina and Spain flew alongside those of the Palestinian Authority and the Vatican.

Francisco Primero, te quiere el mundo entero! (Francis the First, the whole world loves you!) a group of Spanish tourists chanted as they rushed the square, surrounded by giddy Palestinian schoolchildren. And then, louder: “Viva El Papa! (Long live the Pope!)

On the walls of stone buildings above the tourists, Palestinian Museum officials had hung mural-sized posters mixing images from classic Christian paintings with photos of Palestinian suffering. In one, a re-mixed “Madonna in the Meadow” showed the Virgin Mary huddling with Baby Jesus under the infamous separation wall that now divides Israel and the West Bank. In another, “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” the saint’s hand was replaced by a Palestinian’s holding out his ID for an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint.

“Welcome to Palestine,” a huge banner proclaimed on the local mosque. “The detainees in the occupations prisons are pleading for freedom and dignity.”

So began Day One of the “Hasbara Superbowl” between Israelis and Palestinians, in which the ultimate prize was support of the international Christian community — and, in particular, Christian Latinos.

Joseph Hyman, president and founder of the Center for Entrepreneurial Jewish Philanthropy, made the Superbowl comparison back during the first-ever Israel Summit last January, where 17 pro-Israel organizations were vying for funding from some 100 philanthropists. The star of the summit, Hyman said, was Fuente Latina, an organization that assists Spanish-language media looking to cover Israel and the region. The organization needed a funding boost to provide extra resources during the Pope’s much-anticipated visit to the Holy Land.

Its pitch was a no-brainer. Latinos form the largest minority in the United States — this year, they even surpassed non-Hispanic whites in California.

And in the University of California system, where impassioned debates over whether to divest from Israel have been pushing student-government meetings late into the night (as at many other campuses across the U.S.), more Latino students than white students have been accepted for fall 2014.

That’s not to mention the 21 countries that make up Latin America — whose population is 90 percent Christian, and mostly Catholic, like the pope — plus Spain and Portugal.

Fuente Latina’s director, Leah Soibel, an American with Argentinian parents, founded the organization in December 2012 after working seven years at The Israel Project, another nonprofit that aims to improve Israel’s image abroad. “We’ve been preparing for weeks,” she said in an interview a few days before the Pope’s arrival. “It’s going to be 72 hours of madness when he’s here. A lot of people are going to be watching — all eyes on Jerusalem.”

Even more than his predecessors, Pope Francis has captured hearts beyond the Catholic world: A pop-culture icon for his focus on the disenfranchised and his willingness to break molds of papal opulence, Francis was named 2013’s “Person of the Year” by Time Magazine. He speaks tirelessly of the importance of inter-religious dialogue and of putting social justice before capitalism. At a press conference in Jerusalem arranged by Fuente Latina, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the leader of Argentina’s Jewish community and one of the pope’s closest friends, called him “probably the most influential person in the world.” 

Soibel said that the three employees at Fuente Latina normally process 50 to 100 requests in a month. In contrast, during the Pope’s visit, the organization was providing heavy assistance to about 300 media outlets.

Fuente Latina connected reporters with Spanish-speaking experts in Israel, arranged press conferences — most notably, the one with Rabbi Skorka, who co-authored the pope’s book on inter-religious dialogue — and took them on helicopter rides across Israel.

On one such sky tour, Soibel explained the reality on the ground to reporters from Mexico and Columbia, with an emphasis on Israel’s reasoning for building the separation wall and the fear experienced by Israelis near the border. The group also touched down in Sderot to tour a police exhibit of rockets that have been fired from Gaza. “When they don’t feel they’re getting enough attention, they begin to send rockets again,” Soibel said of the terrorists in Gaza.

Fuente Latina Director Leah Soibel with a case of rockets fired on Israel from Gaza. Photo by Simone Wilson

Later, the Mexican reporter wrote in an online piece for her news site, Religión Confidencial, that although the pope would observe the separation wall, in many Israeli cities he would also observe minimal separation — places where Jews, Christians and Muslims live in peaceful coexistence.

Jewish philanthropy leader Hyman said of the helicopter rides: “For journalists to look at the size of Israel and understand its nature, it lends a sensitivity to why Israel is so concerned on the existential front.”

The Vatican also pulled its weight in the battle for public opinion. The pope’s visit was the picture of balance: He ate lunch with Palestinian refugees and spontaneously stepped down from his Popemobile to pray at the separation wall in Bethlehem, which is covered in anti-Israel graffiti. On the other side of the Green Line, he laid a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and blessed a group of gravely ill Christian Arab-Israeli children (at the request of Israel’s branch of the Make-A-Wish Foundation).

The pope also stopped for an instantly iconic photo of three very different Argentinians — the heads of Argentina’s Jewish, Catholic and Muslim communities — hugging at the Western Wall.

“He will try to balance,” Rabbi Skorka said in advance of the pope’s visit at the Fuente Latina press conference. “This is going to be his policy in his speeches and in his acts. Total balance, this is what he is.” 

But while Pope Francis tried to spread his love evenly, Israeli and Palestinian heads of state fought for the upper hand. After the pope’s stop at the separation wall, Israeli Prime Minister Benjaman Netanyah steered him toward a Jerusalem memorial for Israeli victims of terrorism, so he could pray there, too. And both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas argued in their welcoming speeches that life is better for Christians under their jurisdiction.

Abbas condemned “the settlement enterprise, and daily attacks on places of worship including churches and mosques.” He also emphasized his willingness to “work together to strengthen the Palestinian indigenous Christian presence in the Holy Land, especially in Jerusalem.”

Netanyahu, meanwhile, told the pope: “The rights of Christians in this state are protected. To my sorrow, that doesn’t happen in other places in the Middle East. … Palestinian terrorists not only hurt us, they also harm Christians.”

Rima Saba, an American-educated Palestinian and “staunch Catholic” from Ramallah, spoke to the Journal in the crowd at the Bethlehem rally — the pope’s only public, open-air event while in the Holy Land. “This is an international, historical moment,” Saba said. “It means a lot for Palestine and its people. This is the land of Jesus Christ, but it also carries a lot of meaning and emotion for us as Palestinians. The fact that [the Pope] chose to come to Palestine first shows he really has clarity of vision, vis à vis the Palestinian question — that we are refugees, that we have been tortured and evicted.”

An increasingly popular annual conference called “Christ at the Checkpoint,” a project of the Bethlehem Bible College, has tried to loosen Israel’s monopoly on Evangelical Christian financial and moral support abroad.

“With every passing month, more evidence is emerging that these anti-Israel Christians are succeeding in reaching beyond the evangelical left and are influencing the mainstream,” David Brog, executive director of Christians United For Israel (CUFI), wrote after this year’s conference. “In particular, they are penetrating the evangelical world at its soft underbelly: the millennial generation.”

OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano, author of the “¡Ask a Mexican!” column and an advocate of Jewish-Latino relations, agreed that although Israel has wooed many members of the Latino political class, it's losing them at college level: “In the Latin market in general, but especially in the U.S. and among young people, the Palestinians are definitely winning the battle.”

According to Arellano, the “brown people oppressed by white oppressors” narrative is easy for pro-Palestine groups to sell to young Latinos going through their “leftist years where they love all revolutionary causes.”

He said this stems from the reality that “the Israel question registers not a blip for Latinos — not until one side of the other comes to them with their perspective. Kind of like, ‘We’re yours, whoever gets to us first.’”

Pope Francis drives by a crowd holding Palestinian flags in Bethlehem. Photo by Simone Wilson

Separate polls conducted by The Israel Project and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) over the past few years have shown that U.S. Latinos, in particular, are somewhat of a blank slate when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“There’s a lack of awareness” about the region among Latinos in the U.S., Soibel said. “They have more pressing issues, like immigration, health care, economy. We know very well that Israel is down the list of things that matter personally to them.”

But as Latinos become more politically and economically empowered in America, said Dina Siegel Vann, director of the Latino and Latin American Institute at AJC, “they’re slowly but surely becoming a very influential and important group, which will have an impact on decision-making in this country. So it’s important to us that they understand what Israel is about. That they understand we are partners.”

Geraldo Rivera, a columnist for Fox News Latino, likewise pointed out in 2011 that Israel would not be a state, nor would Palestine enjoy “non-member state” status at the United Nations, if not for the Latin American voting block.

“Relations between Latin America and Israel are starting to look like a budding love affair,” World Politics Review commentator Frida Ghitis wrote in February following a wave of cross-globe visits between Israeli and Latin American leaders.

“Israel and Latin America have discovered each other — or, to be precise, a portion of Latin America has,” she added. “Latin America is increasingly falling into two separate camps, and it is one of those camps that has found an affinity for Israel.”

Speaking to the Journal at the pope’s prayer rally at Manger Square, most religious tourists from Spain and Latin America distanced themselves from the Israel-Palestine issue, refusing to take a stance.

“It’s very complicated,” said Laura Rodriguez, a Catholic visitor from Spain. “There’s no one truth about it.”

Also in the crowd was Buenos Aires politician Lidia Saya, who said she had traveled to Bethlehem with a group of 60 dignitaries, including Argentinian religious leaders Father Pepe Di Paola and Rabbi Alejandro Avruj. “The grand majority of us [Argentinians] don’t understand the conflict. The grand majority don’t have a position,” she said. However, “coming here, and having to go through a checkpoint just to get to the plaza — I can see that it’s very bad for the citizens.”

Argentinian journalist Nelson Castro interviews religious tourists from Argentina in Bethlehem. Photo by Simone Wilson

Carlos Boselle, also from Buenos Aires, was on a tour with around 70 Catholics from across Latin America. He said that many Israelis and Palestinians had tried to argue their position to him. Although he called the Israelis “big fanatics,” he said he understood that “Israel has its reasons” for building the separation wall. “They’re protecting their rights, too.”

Another group of sunburned Argentinians heading back through the checkpoint at the end of the day looked rather shell-shocked when all the Palestinians were pulled off the bus and examined for 20 minutes before they could continue on to Jerusalem.

According to Vann at the AJC, missing this prime era for Latino outreach could have big consequences. 

“It could go one way, or it could go the other way,” Vann said. “Because there’s a lack of information out there [about Israel], you have an incredible opportunity, if you do it correctly in a strategic way, to inform. … There’s a sense of urgency and a small window of opportunity to make a difference before Latinos truly become empowered.”

AJC, as well as the Anti-Defamation League, runs dozens of Israel tours for Latino politicians, faith leaders, culture-makers and other dignitaries. But other organizations, like Fuente Latina, have taken a more back-channel approach to reach a greater audience.

“As this area began to heat up in terms of the Arab Spring, which was widely covered by the Latino media — Syria, Egypt, ongoing issues here in Israel — there was a growing demand” for Spanish-language press resources in the region, Soibel said.

And with the pope’s visit to Israel, demand flew off the charts — opening new opportunities for Latino outreach. “When you have a journalist that is taking one stance versus another stance, it’s about making that personal connection,” Soibel added. “That’s why the language is so important.”

Holocaust Museum adds Spanish audio guide

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) announced Aug. 30 that it now offers a comprehensive Spanish-language audio guide covering 15 hours of historical material on display in America’s oldest Holocaust museum.

Funded by a $15,000 grant from the city and supported by Mayor Eric Garcetti when he was a city councilman, the guide includes recordings from prominent local Latinos, including state Sen. Alex Padilla, who represents part of the San Fernando Valley, discussing African-American soldiers who liberated concentration camps and Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board member Monica Garcia talking about Kristallnacht.

E. Randol Schoenberg, LAMOTH’s president and acting executive director, said, “Spanish is the most common foreign language request” at the museum. In addition to adding audio tours in Russian, Korean, Chinese and Japanese in the future, Schoenberg said he hopes to make LAMOTH part of the Common Core educational curriculum for LAUSD students.

State superintendent of public instruction Tom Torlakson, who attended the press conference announcing the guides, said that he would work with LAMOTH “to see how we can have the great collection of information and stories here — and truth here — shared with other students.”

Gabriella Karin, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia who is a docent at LAMOTH, said that she has given many tours to students from Los Angeles who speak little English. They have had to rely on their teacher translating for them — until now.

“It’s a wonderful tool now that we have a Spanish audio guide,” Karin said.

Technology makes education omnipresent

There was a time when students at Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School took annual fieldtrips to Spanish missions in California and wrapped up the experience with a final product that may seem as old-fashioned as the structures themselves — a written report.

That all changed when teachers permitted students to bring their iPads and other tablet devices. Suddenly, pupils were freed to record interviews, take pictures and create elaborate multimedia presentations

Which is exactly how technology ought to be used, according to Sam Gliksman, author of “iPad in Education for Dummies” and former director of educational technology at New Community Jewish High School.

“The device is irrelevant. It just so happens that today the device is the iPad,” said the Rancho Park resident who grew up in Australia. “But it’s more about what you do with the technology than the technology itself. The focus is always on educational reform rather than just the use of technology.”

A consultant in education and technology for more than 20 years, Gliksman maintains a blog ( with about 7,000 readers.

His mantra: Society should start viewing students as content creators and publishers instead of as content absorbers. His book, which came out in January, focuses on how iPads can be used as an educational device, with students using it to generate videos, presentations, graphics and more. 

So why the iPad or other tablet device? One of its most appealing features is the arsenal of affordable applications that are available for use, especially in conjunction with its built-in camera and microphone. 

From a practical perspective, tablets are lighter than laptops — or a stack of heavy textbooks — and provide almost instant access to the Internet, saving students valuable time they otherwise would waste booting up and logging on. It helps that the devices have a long battery life and can hold a charge throughout the school day. 

Plus, they’re fun. 

“iPad in Education for Dummies” also focuses on integrating mobile technology into education so that it can be used outside of the boundaries of school.

At Kadima Day School in West Hills, officials replaced a one-to-one student laptop program with one in which every student was provided with access to an iPad. Students use applications such as iMovie and Keynote to create presentations, and the school cut back on paper use by allowing students to submit their work through an app that can be accessed via the iPad. 

“We had a yearlong discussion on how to prepare our students for the future, and after a recommendation from Apple that tablet technology was the future, we made our decision to switch to iPads,” said Bill Cohen, head of school.

Phil Liff-Grieff, associate director of BJE-Builders of Jewish Education, said a number schools are still working to keep up with the times. 

“We are in a transitional moment in terms of technology in education, and, like many things, some are ahead of the curve [and] some are behind.”

This kind of evolution doesn’t come cheap. The newest, basic model iPad sells for $499 and the iPad mini goes for $329. But Gliksman stresses that a school doesn’t need a large amount of technology to influence progress in the educational system as long as the right technology is available to the students. Even if it’s just one device within a group, even if it’s a couple of tablet devices to a classroom, they can be used very creatively.  

In addition, Gliksman says one must take into account the amount of money schools already spend on technology and that there are government grants available to schools.

“American schools spend more money on education per student than any other country in the world; we just spend it very poorly,” Gliksman said. According to U.S. Census Bureau data released last month, Americans spent $10,560 per pupil in public elementary and secondary education in 2011.

The problem, Gliksman said, is that schools use money on expensive technology that provides limited return. They may purchase a Smart Board to aid in lecturing or buy a projector to display content, but the technology is used primarily by the teachers with a focus on delivering information to the students as opposed to helping students create their own content.

“Both of these devices [Smart Boards and projectors] put the teacher in contact with more technology instead of the students,” Gliksman said, “but the iPads allow for relevant technology to be put in the hands of students in an interactive way.” 

Building learning environments that are centered on the students instead of the teachers is one of Gliksman’s top priorities.

“What a lot of schools do is purchase technology, and practices that have been in place for the last 100 years are just reinforced,” he said. 

“The information is everywhere, and the skills that students need are how to access, how to filter, how to evaluate and how to utilize that information,” he said. “Education should be anywhere, anytime, and iPads can be a tool in creating that type of learning infrastructure where students can access knowledge and information anywhere anytime they want.”

Growing the fruits of peace in El Salvador

Don Israel speaks no English, and I speak almost no Spanish. But I understood him well enough to realize that, as I began to plant one of the mango trees that would be placed in his field that day,  he obviously thought I was doing it wrong. Our mutual patience eventually conquered our communication barrier, though, and with time, I learned and understood. We went on to plant about a dozen mango trees together that morning.

Don Israel’s small parcel of land is in a rural village in the Lempa River region of El Salvador. I was there as part of a delegation sent by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), consisting of 16 extraordinary young people training to be rabbis, educators or leaders of Jewish nonprofits. (I was honored to be the scholar-in-residence for the group.) For 10 days, we labored alongside our hosts, planting trees, digging irrigation ditches and building latrines. But it became obvious fairly early on that our primary mission there was not to work (we were, after all, a fairly inexperienced work bunch), but rather to learn and to understand, as human beings and as Jews. Patience turned out to be our most important asset, as the story of the Lempa River region took time to comprehend. And though there is still much more to know, I left with at least the outline of a story of war and peace, of exile and return, of anxiety and hope, and of human courage and nobility. It is a story that has enriched my religious life and has expanded my sense of religious duty.

The story begins with an event that I had been embarrassingly ignorant about, the vicious civil war that wracked El Salvador through the 1980s. And although I had done some reading about it in anticipation of this trip, the event was still remote and emotionally inaccessible. But this changed suddenly and dramatically on our very first afternoon, as we gathered beneath the thatched-roof courtyard just outside Chungo Fuentes’ home. Fuentes is the bearer of the story, the embodiment of the memory.

Fuentes’ part of the story is rooted in the political dissent that had been growing throughout the 1970s among El Salvador’s lower economic classes. The dissent was fueled by bitter resentment against the military-backed government under whose rule the great majority of the country’s land was owned by fewer than 20 wealthy families, leaving much of the population struggling for sustenance. The Catholic Church became a major organizer of the political protest movement, whose voice was thwarted through the government’s rigging of elections, and the military’s tactics of physical intimidation and violence. The 1980 assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, a highly influential figure in the protest movement, helped to spark an all-out civil war between leftist guerilla groups and the Salvadoran military. Many rural villages whose civilian residents were sympathetic to the guerillas came under attack at the hands of military death squads, who killed indiscriminately, and who, in December 1981, carried out a horrific massacre of civilians at the village of El Mozote. (“Report of the U.N. Truth Commission on El Salvador” is an excellent source of further information.)

As this was unfolding, Fuentes led a group of nearly 1,000 villagers across the border into Honduras, and from there to the mountains of Panama, where they were granted political asylum. As he recounts the story for us, Fuentes speaks of the faith they all had that this exile would be temporary, and that they would return to their homeland one day. That day came 10 years later, in 1992, when the two sides signed a peace accord in which the government, among other things, agreed to distribute land to the common people, including Fuentes and his fellow refugees.

It is worth noting that all of us in the group reflexively drew parallels between the story we were hearing and our own national story. It was only the following week that we realized that we were far from the first to make the connection. The massive mural in town depicting the story dedicates one panel to the oppression at the hand of the government. It prominently features an image of the Egyptian pyramids.

As dramatic as it was, though, it was not primarily a story of war that we had come to El Salvador to learn and understand, rather a story of how people recover from war. It took time and required patience for the details of this story to come together, but when it did, what we learned is that recovery only happens when people on the ground are able to summon up the very best of what makes us human, and when people from the outside bring their core moral and religious convictions to bear on the situation of strangers.

The peace accords were far from a panacea. Yes, men and women now came to the Lempa River region to claim their new parcels of land. But as many of these men and women had been on opposite sides of the fighting, distrust and the potential for further violence came with them. In addition to which, no one had money to invest in farming, and nobody was trained in modern agricultural methods. The area lacked even the most basic infrastructure — to this day, in fact, most of the roads are unpaved, streetlights are few, there are no sanitation or postal services, and the nearest hospital is an hour and a half away — and on top of all of that, the new landowners were living, without any evacuation plan, right next to a river that regularly overflowed its banks. I can still see Fuentes holding his palm to his waist when he described the devastating floods of this past October.

That people aren’t fighting and aren’t starving in the Lempa River region today is due to a small group of residents who convened right after the war, pledging to create a peace zone in which grievances could be aired, but also that a commitment to putting aside past differences in the name of community-building would prevail. They pledged to go from village to village to hear what people most needed and also to enlist them in a voluntary cooperative through which they would become trained in sustainable methods of farming and environmental protection. They also would agree to work collectively to market their agricultural output, thus maximizing profit for all. They drew up an evacuation plan for the next flood (last October they succeeded in evacuating 7,000 people, losing not one soul to the disaster). A parallel women’s group created an NGO that provided micro-loans for war widows, enabling them to purchase livestock. (Today it provides all kinds of economic and social services to the women of the region.) People, scarred by years of poverty and war,  with every reason to be untrusting and suspicious of one another, instead formed a democratic, self-governing organization to forge a better life for everyone. Two of the organization’s directors today serve in El Salvador’s parliament.

But this is only one half of the story.

The other part is that none of this could have unfolded without outside help. There was plenty of evidence on the ground of the impact of USAID, most dramatically in the person of our local guide, Chema Argueta, who was plucked as a high school senior from a poor fishing village on the Jiquilisco Bay, trained for two years in Portland, Ore., in the management of natural resources, and returned to his community where he today humbly leads the effort to preserve the bay’s mangrove ecosystem, thus securing the future for the bay’s fisherman and their families. And then there was the ubiquitous presence of the AJWS, which has been making grants for community organizations in the Lempa River region for decades. One group after another gratefully acknowledged AJWS’ impact. It’s difficult to describe, by the way, the sense of pride we felt each time AJWS was mentioned by people who otherwise would never have had any contact with Jews, but who now know us as a compassionate, smart and forward-looking humanitarian partner. 

And this is the other half of the story we had come to learn: that visionary outsiders empower visionaries on the ground. It can’t happen any other way.

Torah study was woven through our 10 days in the country. Within our group we learned and analyzed texts concerning the halachic responsibility to respond to human beings in crisis, the imperative to extend justice to the disadvantaged, the command to preserve the dignity of those who are receiving aid, and the very complex question as to where tzedakah directed toward the wider human community fits within our tzedakah obligation toward our fellow Jews. As leaders and future leaders of Jewish institutions, we all intuitively understood how important this latter question is.

The story of the Lempa River region is far from over. Next year, hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. economic development aid will flow into El Salvador through the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC). Local leaders are worried, though, that the MCC’s requirement that the recipient government invest the funds in a manner that will attract international private sector investment (not a bad plan in and of itself) might undermine their work by creating incentives and pressures on farmers to grow crops that will bring short-term profits but long-term soil depletion, or to sell their parcels to larger land owners, which will ultimately land them back where they were before the war. Good news might be bad news. Everything is complicated.

And of course, as the autumn approaches, everyone there will be keeping a wary eye on the water level in the Lempa.

On the plane ride home, I thought a lot about Don Israel, Chungo Fuentes,  Chema Argueta, and the many other men and women we met. I thought about the nobility of their common struggle, the fragility of their gains and the vulnerability of their livelihoods. And about the wise teaching of Rabbi Tarfon, who taught that while it is not ours to complete the task, we are not free to desist from it either.

For more information about American Jewish World Service, visit

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Amigos in San Miguel de Allende: A Shavuot Story of Conversion

Click here to read this article in Spanish.

Earlier this year, I got a call from an old friend, Rabbi Juan Mejia. Juan asked me if I’d be willing to accompany him and Rabbi Felipe Goodman to San Miguel de Allende for a couple of days in early February. Juan, Felipe and I have a lot in common: We laugh at the same jokes, we all speak Spanish, and we’re all rabbis. A little getaway to Mexico in the middle of winter? Sure, I could fit that into my schedule — no problem, I said.

Three Spanish-speaking rabbis were needed for a beit din (rabbinic court) in the quaint village of San Miguel de Allende. Our purpose was conversions. It sounds like the set-up to a joke: One day a Colombian rabbi from Oklahoma City (Juan), a Mexican rabbi from Las Vegas (Felipe) and an Argentinean rabbi from Los Angeles (me) get on a plane and fly to a little colonial town in Mexico. Many of the people in the town have never seen a rabbi before; as a matter of fact, it’s the first time in more than a century that three rabbis have gathered together in the town for a beit din. The townsfolk don’t know quite what to make of them …

So, late on a Saturday night, I went to LAX to catch a plane. I knew the flight number and the time, but I didn’t really know where I was flying, exactly. I met Felipe and his assistant at the gate, and together we boarded the red-eye to Guanajuato/Leon. Exhausted, we landed an hour late. Waiting to meet us was a young man with payot wearing a black kippah, white shirt, black slacks, black vest and tzitzit. I have to admit, we gawked. It was as if a character had just stepped out of a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” — only with a much darker complexion.

The young man introduced himself as Josue and drove us to his house in Guanajuato. There, his wife, Paola, and their 2-year-old son, Salomon, joined us for the next leg of our journey. Salomon is almost criminally cute, and he kept us entertained and in high spirits, despite our fatigue from the overnight flight. We continued driving for another hour and a half until we reached San Miguel de Allende.

We arrived at the home of Dr. Daniel Lessner, co-president of the Jewish community in San Miguel de Allende. He graciously served us a sumptuous breakfast — and, immediately after, herded the six adult conversion candidates and us into another car, in which we drove to a palatial home. Eager to get started, they urged us to begin the beit din immediately.

Before us stood six people who didn’t know what to expect from three American rabbis. As they faced the beit din waiting for the questioning to begin, we must have seemed formidable. It was evident they felt a considerable measure of fear and anxiety. Little by little, they began to open up. One by one, they shared their stories with us.

In their journeys to become Jews, most of them had encountered daunting obstacles. Some of them had already been denied the opportunity to convert. When they had inquired about it in Mexican synagogues, they had been summarily turned away; they had even been prevented from attending services. For more than a year, five of the six conversion candidates had to drive for an hour or more every week in order to attend services and classes in San Miguel de Allende, because every other place had rejected them.

Their stories were remarkable; we felt privileged to hear and witness them. Each personal journey was both a struggle and an epiphany. These six adults deeply yearned to become part of the Jewish people. It made me think of how often we who are born Jewish take our rich traditions and cultural heritage for granted. All six candidates were well prepared and passed with flying colors. As I reflect on their inspiring stories, I realize that as much as we are dayanim (judges), we are also witnesses to people’s entrance into the Jewish tradition. It is an honor beyond measure. The depth of their commitment to Judaism inspires me.

Rabbi Daniel Mehlman officiates with Josue and Paola under the chuppah. Behind the bride, Rabbi Juan Mejia videotapes with a small camera. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Daniel Mehlman

After the beit din, another man joined us for a long lunch. Just off the bus from a five-hour ride from Guadalajara, he accompanied us on a walk through the charming town center. This man had ridden for five hours to be with us for only a short time, to see if we could help him pursue his own dream of conversion, along with his wife and their two little girls. He rode five hours, spent just two hours with us, then rode back for five more hours — just because he wants to live his life as a Jew.

That evening we dined at the home of an American-born member of the community. There we met with several wonderful people, many of them Americans who had retired in charming San Miguel de Allende. After dinner, we were allowed a few short hours of sleep; we had to arise at daybreak to go to the mikveh, the ritual bath.

We were a tired but eager caravan of 12 people, driving to the Rio Laja. Abutting the river were three small lagoons fed by flowing thermal springs. Despite the early hour, the lagoons were occupied when we arrived. Townspeople were using them to take baths and wash their laundry, as many of them had no access to running water. So, eager with anticipation, we waited. After a while, one of the lagoons was vacated, and our natural mikveh was free. One by one, the adults immersed themselves. Little Salomon, the seventh to convert, was handed to Paola in the mikveh after both his parents had their tevilah (immersion). Now we were all Jews.

Time to party! From there we drove to a beautiful colonial hotel and showed everyone what Jews do best: eat. It was an amazing reception, with more than 100 people attending. And after the eating, naturally, came the talking. Everyone thanked everyone else for making the moment possible. They thanked the three rabbis for donating their time. And can anyone guess whether the three rabbis each wanted to get in on the act and give a little speech, too?

Rabbi Mejia was very emotional in his remarks, having personally experienced the same kind of rejection when he wanted to convert in his native Colombia. Rabbi Goodman emphasized the fact that the three members of The Rabbinical Assembly constituted a beit din that is widely recognized. I mentioned that on the same week we learn of the lighting of the menorah — our seven-branched candelabra and the oldest Jewish symbol — we participated in an event in which seven new lights were added to our people.

After the speeches, all six adults read the Declaration of Faith, in unison, and by then there was not a dry eye in the house. After the new members of the Jewish people received their certificates of conversion, a surprise took place — a Jewish wedding. Under the chuppah, the three rabbis officiated at the union of Josue and Paola. With a wide-eyed Salomon looking on, Yehoshua Ilan and Adina Tamar were married according to the laws of Moses and the precepts of Israel. A wonderful reception with more to eat came after, with an opportunity to mingle with the wonderful community in San Miguel de Allende.

And here’s another note: Remember the man who joined us after a five-hour bus ride? Last week, he flew to Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters, ages 7 and 4. They went straight to the American Jewish University to stand before the Rabbinical Assembly beit din. There they shared their remarkable story. Their yearning to join the Jewish people took them on a journey to a faraway land, a bit like Abraham and Sarah.

That evening, 20 or so people gathered at a charming little synagogue in Studio City and became an instant family. Most didn’t know one another; none knew the bride and groom or their daughters — yet they celebrated together. Yes, once again I was lucky enough to attend another Jewish wedding under a chuppah, to witness them sealing their commitment to each other in our traditional Jewish way. Jewish for only a few hours, they shared a millennia-old ceremony. Not only are they now part of our future together, they share our long history as well. Candlesticks and a Kiddush Cup were among the presents they received from people whom they had never before met. Then they spent a whole Shabbat with their brand-new community. The day spoke of a promising future for all Jews.

I will return to San Miguel de Allende. I must go back, not only for a Shabbat, but to be part of another beit din. I want to witness the next conversions that will occur in this holy place. We, the ones who were born Jews, often take our birthright for granted. We rarely dwell on what it means to be Jewish. On this trip, I was reminded that the Jewish journey is one of the most amazing adventures a person could experience. Every time I witness a conversion, my heart fills with joy and hope. Am Yisrael Chai — the people of Israel live. We are diverse, we are joyous, and despite our tragedies, we are yet alive. L’dor v’dor — from one generation to the next, the torch passes, and continues to be a light unto the world.

Rabbi Daniel Mehlman is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Meier in Studio City. He can be reached at {encode=”” title=””}.

En Español

Amigos en San Vicente de Allende

Por Rabino Daniel Mehlman

Unos meses atrás recibí la llamada de un viejo amigo, el Rabino Juan Mejía.  Juan me pregunto si estaría dispuesto a acompañarlo junto con Felipe a San Miguel de Allende por un par de días a principio de Febrero.

Juan, Felipe y yo tenemos mucho en común: nos reímos de los mismos chistes, todos hablamos español, y todos somos rabinos.

¿Unas pequeñas vacaciones a México en la mitad del invierno? Claro, yo puedo acomodar eso en mi agenda- ningún problema dije.

Tres rabinos de habla hispana se necesitaban para una corte rabínica (Beit Din) en la villa de San Miguel de Allende. Nuestro propósito eran conversiones.

Suena como un chiste: Un día un rabino colombiano de Oklahoma City, un rabino mexicano de Las Vegas, y un rabino argentino de Los Angeles subieron a un avión y volaron a un pequeño pueblo colonial de México. Muchas de las personas del pueblo no habían visto a un rabino antes; de hecho, es la primera vez en mas de cien años que tres rabinos se juntan en el pueblo-incluso tal vez en territorio mexicano- para un Bet Din. Los pueblerinos no estaban seguros que hacer de ello…

Entonces el sábado tarde, a la noche, fui al aeropuerto a agarrar un avión.  Sabía el número de vuelo y la hora, pero no sabía realmente adonde estaba volando.

Me encontré con el Rabino Felipe Goodman y su asistente en la puerta, y juntos abordamos a Guanajato/León. Exhaustos arribamos a Guanajato con una hora de atraso. Nos estaba esperando un joven con peyes; estaba usando una kipá negra, camisa blanca, pantalones negros, chaleco negro y tzitzit. Tengo que admitir que eso nos asombró.

Era como si uno de los personajes de “Violinista sobre el tejado” se hubiera escapado de la obra -solo que este tenía una complexión mucho más oscura.

El joven hombre se presentó como Josué y nos condujo a su casa en Guanajato. Allí su esposa Paola y su hijo de dos años, Salomón, se unieron para la siguiente parte del viaje. Salomón es casi criminalmente encantador, nos mantuvo entretenidos y en buen espíritu aún con nuestra fatiga por el viaje nocturno. Seguimos manejando por otra hora y media hasta que llegamos a San Miguel de Allende.

A la mañana llegamos temprano y radiantes al hogar del Dr. Daniel Lessner,  co-presidente de la comunidad Judía de San Miguel de Allende.  Cortésmente nos sirvió un suntuoso desayuno, e inmediatamente después nos llevo junto con los seis candidatos adultos para la conversión.

Nos condujeron hacia un palacio, deseosos por comenzar. Deseaban que comenzáramos con el Bet Din inmediatamente.

Ante nosotros estaban seis personas que no sabían que esperar de tres Rabinos Americanos.  Encarando el Bet Din, esperando que el cuestionario empezara debimos parecerles formidables.  Era evidente que sentían una considerable cantidad de miedo y ansiedad.  Poco a poco comenzaron a abrirse. Uno por uno comenzaron a compartir sus historias con nosotros.

En su viaje a volverse Judíos, la mayoría de ellos se encontraron con intimidantes obstáculos. A alguno de ellos ya se le había negado la oportunidad de conversión.  Al preguntar acerca de esto en las sinagogas mexicanas, no solo se les había rechazado, incluso se les había prohibido atender servicios. Por mas de un año, cinco de los seis candidatos a conversión tuvieron que manejar una hora o más para poder asistir a los servicios y clases en San Miguel de Allende, ya que todos los otros lugares los habían rechazado. Mirándonos, es de esperar que pensaran que nosotros los íbamos a rechazar también.

Sus historias eran extraordinarias; nos sentimos privilegiados de escucharlas y ser testigos de ellas. Cada camino personal fue, ambos, de obstáculos y de epifanía. Estos seis adultos profundamente desearon volverse parte del pueblo Judío. Me hizo pensar que tan a menudo aquellos nacidos Judíos tomamos nuestra rica tradición y herencia cultural por dada. Todos, los seis candidatos estaban bien preparados pasando con brillantez. Como he reflejado en sus historias que nos inspiran, me di cuenta que por mucho que seamos Dayanim, jueces, somos también testigos de la entrada de personas al la tradición Judía. Es un honor que no se puede medir. La profundidad de su compromiso al Judaísmo me inspira nuevo amor por nuestra tradición.

Después del Bet Din alguien nuevo se nos unió para almorzar. Recién bajado del autobús después de un viaje de cinco horas nos acompañó en un tour por el cálido centro del pueblo. Este hombre viajó por cinco horas para estar con nosotros por un corto periodo de tiempo, para ver si podríamos ayudarlo con su propio sueño de conversión, junto a su esposa y dos pequeñas hijas.  Viajó cinco horas, estuvo solo dos horas con nosotros y luego viajó cinco horas de regreso, solamente porque quiere vivir su vida como Judío.

Esa tardecita cenamos en el hogar de un miembro de la comunidad nacido en America. Allí conocimos personas maravillosas, muchos de ellos Americanos retirados en la cálida San Miguel de Allende. Después de cenar, se nos permitió unas horas de sueño, teníamos que levantarnos al amanecer para ir a la Mikveh, el baño ritual.

Éramos una caravana de doce personas, cansadas pero deseosas, manejando al Río Laja. Orillando el río había tres pequeñas lagunas de agua termal. Aunque temprano, las lagunas estaban ocupadas a nuestra llegada. Pueblerinos las estaban usando para bañarse y lavar la ropa ya que muchos de ellos no tienen acceso al agua corriente. Así que deseosos con la anticipación, esperamos. Después de un rato una de las lagunas se desocupó, y nuestro Mikveh natural estaba disponible. Uno a uno los adultos se sumergieron en la Mikveh. El pequeño Salomón, el séptimo a convertir fue entregado a Paola en la Mikveh después que sus padres tuvieron su Tvilah (inmersión). Ahora todos éramos Judíos.

La hora de festejar! Desde ahí manejamos hacia un hermoso hotel colonial y les mostramos a todos lo que los Judíos hacemos mejor: comer. Después de la comida, por supuesto viene los discursos. Todos agradecieron a todos por hacer ese momento posible. Agradecieron a los tres rabinos por donar su tiempo. Y puede alguien imaginar si los tres rabinos aceptaron dar una pequeña oratoria también?

El rabino Mejia fue muy emotivo en su comentarios, habiendo experimentado personalmente la misma clase de rechazo cuando quiso convertirse en Colombia. El rabino Goodman enfatizó el hecho que tres miembros de la Asamblea Rabínica constituyeron un Bet Din que es ampliamente reconocido.  Yo mencioné que durante la misma semana aprendimos del encendido de la Menorah, nuestro candelabro de siete brazos, el mas antiguo de los símbolos Judíos, participamos en un evento donde siete nuevas luces fueron encendidas en nuestro pueblo.

Después de la oratoria, los seis adultos leyeron la Declaración de Fe al unísono, para entonces no había un par de ojos secos en el recinto. Después de que los nuevos miembros del pueblo Judío recibieron sus certificados de conversión, una sorpresa tomó lugar- una boda Judía. Bajo la jupá, los tres rabinos oficiaron la unión de Josué y Paola. Con un Salomón de ojos bien abiertos, Yehoshua Ilan y Adina Tamar fueron casados de acuerdo a la Ley de Moises y los preceptos de Israel. Una magnifica recepción con mas comida sobrevino después, con la oportunidad de mezclarnos con la comunidad de San Miguel de Allende.

Agrego aquí una nota, ¿se acuerdan del hombre que se encontró con nosotros luego de viajar por 5 horas? La semana pasada, él, junto con su esposa y sus ni¬ñas de 7 y 4 años volaron a Los Ángeles. Fueron directamente a la Universidad Judeo-Americana presentándose frente al Bet Din, la corte rabínica de la Asamblea Rabínica, la organización rabínica del movimiento conservador. Allí ellos contaron su extraordinaria historia. Su deseo de unirse al pueblo judío los llevó a una travesía a una lejana tierra, un poco como Abraham y Sarah.

Esa noche unas veintitantas personas se reunieron en la encantadora pequeña sinagoga en Studio City y se convirtieron instantáneamente en su nueva familia. La mayoría no se conocían entre ellos, ninguno había conocido antes al novio, la novia o las dos niñas, y así y todo se reunieron para celebrar juntos. Sí, una vez más tuve la fortuna de presenciar otra boda judía bajo la jupá, para atestiguar su compromiso de crear un hogar judío y unirse de acuerdo a la tradición judía. Judíos por sólo unas horas, compartieron la milenaria ceremonia. No sólo son ahora parte de nuestro futuro, ellos comparten ahora nuestra larga historia común también. Recibieron los augurios y el amor de gente que nunca los había conocido. Y luego pasaron su primer Shabat como Judíos en su nueva comunidad.

Esos momentos llenan de esperanza el futuro del pueblo judío.

Regresaré a San Miguel de Allende. Tengo que volver, no solamente para un Shabbat, pero para ser parte de otro Bet Din. Quiero presenciar las próximas conversiones que sucedan en este lugar sagrado. Nosotros, aquellos que hemos nacido Judíos, a menudo tomamos nuestro derecho de nacimiento por otorgado. Raramente nos detenemos a ver que significa el ser Judío. La semana pasada fui recordado de que el camino Judío es uno de las mas maravillosas aventuras que una persona puede experimentar. Cada vez que soy testigo de una conversión, mi corazón se llena de alegría y esperanza. Am Israel Jai- el pueblo de Israel vive. Somos diversos, somos alegres, aun con nuestras tragedias, estamos aun vivos. LeDor vador- de una generación a la próxima la antorcha se pasa y continua para ser una luz sobre el mundo.

Rabbi Daniel Mehlman es el rabino de la Congregación Beth Meier en Studio City, California. Lo puede ubicar en {encode=”” title=””}.

Spanish official gives first formal apology for Inquisition

A Spanish official has given what is being heralded as the country’s first formal apology for the Inquisition’s killing of Jews.

On the island of Mallorca, where 37 Jews were killed in 1691 for secretly practicing Judaism, the regional president offered the apology at a May 5 memorial service in the city of Palma.

“We have dared to gather here to recognize the grave injustice committed against those Mallorcans who were accused, persecuted, charged and condemned to death for their faith and their beliefs,” the Balearic Islands regional president, Francesc Antich, told a crowd of 130, according to an Associated Press report.

Spain’s Jewish federation told reporters it may have been the first such government-sponsored event in Spanish history.

The ceremony was suggested by Michael Freund, chairman of Shavei Israel, an Israel-based nonprofit that seeks out “lost Jews” around the world, the AP reported. Freund said he hoped it would inspire similar ceremonies elsewhere in Spain.

When the Inquisition was launched in 1492, Spain’s Jews either left the country or converted to Catholicism. Many “conversos” continued to practice Judaism in secret, and were punished severely if caught.

On Mallorca, 82 conversos were condemned in 1691. Thirty four were publicly garroted, and their bodies were burned in bonfires. Another three, including a rabbi, were burned alive.

It is beleived that about 15,000 descendants of conversos live on Mallorca today. Almost all are Catholic.

Latinos, Jews to Join in Historic Boyle Heights Celebration

The Jewish and Latino communities will join Sunday at Fiesta Shalom, celebrating their joint past, present and future ties and the achievements of the State of Israel since its independence.

A combination of street fair, live music and dance, food booths, interactive workshops, exhibits, children’s activities and a few rousing speeches, the fiesta will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and play out, appropriately, in front of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights.

It was at the historic synagogue that the Israeli flag was hoisted for the first time in Los Angeles on May 15, 1948, the day after the Jewish state declared its independence.

For nostalgia buffs, there will be a one-time return of Canter’s Deli, a Boyle Heights institution before it moved west to Fairfax.

Stressing Jewish/Israeli and Latino connections will be Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Sheriff Lee Baca, Israel Consul General Yaakov Dayan, LA City Councilman Jose Huizar of Boyle Heights and John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

For the first time, the Jewish Journal and the Spanish-language daily La Opinion have jointly published a bilingual English-Spanish insert in their May 15 editions, with both publications looking toward future collaborations.

Planning for the fiesta started last year, shortly after Dayan took up his diplomatic post in Los Angeles and advanced the idea in a meeting between Huizar and Gil Artzyeli, the Israeli deputy consul general.

“As a Latino growing up in Boyle Heights, I know very well about the community’s storied Jewish and Latino histories,” Huizar said. “Fiesta Shalom gives us the unique opportunity to come together to celebrate these two cultures that have been so influential in making Boyle Heights the vibrant community that it is today.”

Boyle Heights evolved into Los Angeles’ largest shtetl in the five years following World War I, when the city’s Jewish population rose from 19,000 to 45,000, and remained predominant until the late 1940s.

Before the Jewish exodus westward after World War II, Boyle Heights boasted 27 synagogues and shtiebels. The Breed Street Shul, formally Congregation Talmud Torah, was the jewel in the crown and is now being restored, after years of neglect, at the initiative of the Jewish Historical Society.
In those earlier days, Brooklyn Street, the main thoroughfare, was lined with stores advertising their wares in Yiddish, and the “official” Jewish bordello stood at the corner of First St. and Boyle Ave.

As a growing number of Latinos, as well as African-Americans and Asians, moved in, Boyle Heights became a vibrantly diverse community, as Rosalie Turrola, a high school counselor and life-long resident of Boyle Heights, recalled.

“I remember everyone lighting candles on Friday nights, and I loved the potato pancakes,” she told The Journal. “I had a nice neighbor who always called me ‘a shayne maidele’ [a pretty girl].”

Fiesta Shalom has a couple of historical antecedents. In 1894, Max Mayberg organized the first Fiesta de Los Angeles, featuring a carnival and parade, to make the city’s multi-ethnic citizenry forget the economic miseries of the 1893 Depression.

In the late 1940s, the Soto-Michigan Jewish Community Center in Boyle Heights pioneered the Jewish community’s outreach to other ethnic groups through the Friendship Festival, which brought together 12,000 “Mexicans, Japanese, Negro and Jewish youths in a cooperative venture,” wrote historian George Sanchez.

In its modern incarnation, Consul General Dayan said, “Fiesta Shalom will, we hope, send the message of unity and mutual support between communities and Israel from Los Angeles to the entire United States.” The Jewish Federation’s Fishel noted that “the festivities in Boyle Heights celebrate the many community projects that are strengthening bonds between the Latino and Jewish communities throughout Los Angeles.”

Among the sponsors of Fiesta Shalom are the Israeli consulate and tourism office, Jewish Federation, El Al, Jewish Journal, Canter’s Deli and various Latino organizations and officials.

There is no admission charge for the event at 247 N. Breed St. For location, directions and parking spaces go to

Alperts endow Jewish studies at CSULB, ADL en Espanol

Alperts Endow Jewish Studies Chair at Cal State Long Beach

Ten years after its creation, the Jewish studies program at Cal State Long Beach has received a $1 million endowment for a chaired professor.

Barbara and Ray Alpert, whose name is on the Long Beach Jewish Community Center they heavily support, donated the funds for the new faculty position, The Barbara and Ray Alpert Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies.

“The Jewish studies program is an important department for the university, one that can enhance the understanding of history, especially the Holocaust and its implications, as well as the study of language, ethics and other related areas,” Ray Alpert, whose father co-founded Alpert &Alpert Iron &Metal seven decades ago, said in a statement.

“It’s wonderful to contribute to a program that helps students understand and appreciate this great heritage, history and culture, a program that attracts students from all over the world,” Alpert added. “Our hope is that our contribution will further the growth of the program for years to come.”

University President F. King Alexander and Jewish studies faculty said the Alperts’ donation would help the program expand both in size and scholarship. The program, which offers a minor and major in Jewish studies, provides more than 20 courses annually, hosts a speakers series, invites guest lecturers and organizes campus symposia.

“This gift,” said Jeffrey Blutinger, program co-director and a professor of Jewish history, “will have a profound impact.”

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

Wells Fargo Donates $10,000 to SOVA

In response to increasing demand at SOVA’s three food pantries, Wells Fargo has donated $10,000 to the program of Jewish Family Service (JFS).

As The Journal reported last month, the downturn in the economy has hit Jewish social service organizations from both sides: Resources are declining because of higher gas and food prices and decreased public and private funding, which coincides with increasing demand.

SOVA Community Food and Resource Program, which provides food, counseling and referral services for Jews and non-Jews from locations in the Valley, the Fairfax district and the Westside, has seen monthly client visits double since 2002. June’s 5,600 visits were the most since November, a historically high-traffic month because of Thanksgiving.

“With demand soaring and donations declining, our local food banks are in desperate need of support,” Shelley Freeman, Wells Fargo regional president, said in a statement. “Wells Fargo is encouraging corporate leaders in greater Los Angeles to donate time and money to the regional food banks to see them through this crisis.”

For more information about SOVA, call (818) 988-7682 or visit

— BG

ADL Publishes Spanish-Language Version of Its Israel Advocacy Guide

Continuing outreach to Latinos, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has published a Spanish-language version of its Israel advocacy guide.

The 85-page guide provides a glossary of terms, background on major moments in Israel’s history — the British Mandate, the Oslo accords, the Second Intifada — and facts for countering anti-Israel messages. “Israel: Una Guía para el Activista,” according to the ADL, also “identifies common inaccuracies about Israel and offers strategies for getting the facts to elected officials, the media and around university campuses.”

“With the ongoing conflict in the region, there are those who continue to level unfair and inaccurate accusations against Israel,” Abraham H. Foxman, ADL national director, said in a statement. “The Spanish-language edition of the guide is a critical resource for those in Latin America, Spain and Spanish-speaking communities worldwide who wish to counter those misconceptions.”

With their swelling American influence and higher frequency of anti-Semitism, Latinos have been of increasing interest to Jewish leaders. (The Pew Hispanic Center reported last year that 44 percent of Latinos held favorable views of Jews, compared to 77 percent among all Americans.)

For the past 15 years, the ADL’s Los Angeles office has brought Latino and Jewish leaders together through its roundtable dialogue. The American Jewish Congress last year hired a Latino outreach director to focus on business leaders and politicians. In addition, last fall, the American Jewish Committee celebrated Sukkot with a number of Latino pastors, some of whom the organization took to Israel this May.

“Assimilation works,” Amanda Susskind, ADL’s regional director, said last year. “Going to schools with Jews, going to different parishes, learning about diversity in the school system and on the playground actually changes the way Latinos look at Jews. It is nothing genetic. It is just what they learned. But they can de-learn.”

The guide was published in English in 2001. The Spanish-language edition can be downloaded at

— BG

Video de Pesaj from Argentina — ‘Don’t worry, be matzoh!’

Video de Pesaj from Argentina—‘Don’t worry, be matzoh!’

If it wasn’t for Jews, Las Vegas wouldn’t be the town it is today

If it wasn’t for Jews, Las Vegas wouldn’t be the town it is today. Proof of Jewish prosperity can be found across the city, especially in its stunning architecture.

Hollywood has shot films here for nearly a century, from early silent Westerns to “Easy Rider” (1969) and “Red Dawn” (1984). But as evidenced in the 2001 cross-country documentary, “Freedom Downtime,” people sometimes confuse this Las Vegas with the Nevada gambling mecca.

Located nearly 700 miles east of the The Strip, and founded 70 years before Sin City was first established as a railroad town, Las Vegas, N.M., was an early destination for Jewish settlers hoping to stake a claim in the burgeoning West.
Today Las Vegas is largely a Latino town of about 16,000, located in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, an hour’s drive east of Santa Fe.

Its main street is straight out of a Western movie, and its architecture ranges from one-story adobes to Victorian painted ladies. The former synagogue, Temple Montefiore, established in 1886 as the first Jewish congregation in the New Mexico territory, is now the St. Paul’s Newman Center. However, the space is still used for monthly Shabbat services on the first Saturday of the month by the Jewish Community of Las Vegas, a 40-family congregation.

While settled by Spaniards in the 18th century, the Santa Fe Trail helped put Las Vegas on the map in 1821. It was the first town that American pioneers came to after hundreds of dusty miles on the Great Plains, and Las Vegas soon became a center of commerce.

With the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad in 1879, Las Vegas became a boomtown, attracting Jewish merchants driven out of Germany by social and economic restrictions. From 1880 to the early 20th century, the city’s Jewish population rivaled that of Albuquerque.

Its most prominent Jewish pioneer was Charles Ilfeld, who came to America to avoid the draft in his native Prussia. In 1865, he arrived in Taos, N.M., at the age of 18 with $5 in his pocket. Ilfeld went to work with another Jewish merchant, Adolph Letcher. Hearing that trade in Las Vegas was better, they loaded their goods onto 75 mules and moved.

Ilfdeld’s three-story department store, The Great Emporium, was labeled “the largest and finest department house in all the Southwest” by the Las Vegas Daily Optic, a newspaper still in operation today. His business, The Charcles Ilfeld Co., eventually branched out into 20 communities and continued to operate into the 1950s. His building stands at 224 Plaza St., next door to the imposing 1882 Plaza Hotel. On one exterior wall, in faded letters, you can still read: “Charles Ilfeld Co. Wholesalers of Everything.”

Las Vegas’ synagogue was established in 1884, after Charles Ilfeld purchased the lot for $640; many non-Jewish locals contributed to the construction fund. The building was later moved to Eighth and Columbia streets and modified.

Ilfeld Auditorium on the campus of New Mexico Highland University, where Charles Ilfeld served as president on the board of regents, was established in 1920 in memory of his wife, Adele. The purplish sandstone structure was recently restored, and has been called the finest example of Roman Revival in New Mexico.

Pictures of the Ilfeld family and other Jewish pioneers hang on the walls of La Galeria de los Artisanos, a homey bookstore that’s been in the same location at 220 North Plaza for 45 years. Formerly the law offices of Charles Ilfeld’s son, Louis, the building is now owned by Diane Stein.

Another prominent arrival was Emanuel Rosenwald, whose building at the corner of the Plaza and Bridge streets, the town’s main drag, once sported a large glass and cast-iron awning. Now a storage facility fronted by a faded sign, “Navajo Textiles,” it awaits restoration.

The Citizens’ Committee for Historic Preservation at 127 Bridge St. has a useful brochure, “Historic Las Vegas, New Mexico: Along the Santa Fe Trail,” which provides maps and descriptions of residences of Ilfeld family members and others.

The 1890s saw the beginning of years of economic depression in Las Vegas, and by the 1920s the Jewish population had begun to decline. Restrictions on U.S. immigration prevented new blood from arriving, and many Jewish residents, including Ilfeld, moved to Albuquerque and other large cities.

Jewish Las Vegas in the 21st century is more subdued than in its late 19th century heyday. And while no descendants of the original settlers remain, a new generation of Jews has taken root in this unspoiled Western town.

Newcomers include Ken and Carol Weisner, owners of Victory Alpaca Ranch, and Francis Salman of nearby Salman Raspberry Ranch, which features a 19th century hacienda and a u-pick farm.

Some 40 families belong to the Jewish Community of Las Vegas. There are baby-naming and b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, and the Jewish holidays bring out a fair crowd to the St. Paul’s Newman Center.

Las Vegas resident Michael Immerman said that the Jewish community continues to thrive here. In lieu of a regular synagogue space, “[religion] is pretty much done in everyone’s home,” he said.

” TARGET=”_blank”>The Citizens’ Committee for Historic Preservation

” TARGET=”_blank”>Salman Raspberry Ranch

Renata Polt is a film reviewer and freelance travel writer based in Berkeley.

Oxnard Kosher Dining Is a Sur Thing

“Kosher gourmet” sounds like an oxymoron. And “Oxnard kosher” sounds like the nocturnal ravings of some deluded diner.

Well, get used to it. Gourmet kosher dining has arrived in the Southern California farming community of Oxnard. Paris, London, New York maybe. But Oxnard? Home of big-box grocery chains, Mexican cantinas and strawberry fields forever.

Oxnard’s population is more than 70 percent Latino, which could explain why Tierra Sur, the finest new kosher restaurant on this coast (or almost any other), has decided to open with a decidedly Mediterranean-Spanish flavor, with a large dose of Tuscany thrown in for good measure.

So what’s a nice kosher restaurant doing in a place like this?

Tierra Sur is found deep in the heart of Oxnard’s industrial section, 60 miles north of Los Angeles and a mile and a half off Highway 101, nestled in the confines of the Herzog Winery.

Herzog itself has come a long way. It began making kosher wine back in 1848 in the small Slovakian village of Vrobove, where Philip Herzog crushed grapes for Austro-Hungarian royalty. The winery moved to upstate New York in the early 20th century, and then switched to California, where it is now headquartered and makes surprisingly good wines.

The front of its $13 million state-of-the-art winery houses an elegant tasting room and gift shop, which features high-end table wear, glasses and gifts appropriate to the sophistication of the entire operation.

But the pièce de résistance is Tierra Sur, with its high-ceilinged dining room, flanked by tall windows draped in heavy silks, soft leather dining room chairs pulled up to intimate-sized tables adorned with white table clothes and Reidel crystal stemware. The lighting is subdued, and the color scheme — earth tones of soft olive, gold and browns — highlights the elegant Mediterranean menu.

All this décor is very nice of course, but what about the food?

It more than measures up to the ambience.

Chef Todd Aarons, who grills some of his best creations in an outdoor wood-burning fireplace on the patio, grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from the California Culinary Academy and cut his kitchen teeth at San Francisco’s Zuni Café. Two years later he moved to Savoy in New York’s Soho district. However, his cooking chops and tastes were really formed during a sabbatical in Tuscany, working at four restaurants and imbibing the culture of the Mediterranean table through his pores.

Following his return to California, Aarons went to a post-graduate program at Beringer Vineyard’s School for American Chefs in Sonoma, developing his skills in matching wine with food.

But it was while working for an Italian coffee company in Israel, and developing menus for Italian-Mediterranean restaurants in Netanya and Tel Aviv, that Aarons rediscovered his Jewish roots, fell in love with an Orthodox young woman and eventually became a ba’al teshuvah. Now the dietary laws of kashrut have became the most important element of his cooking.

Aarons commutes to the new restaurant from his home in North Hollywood, where he lives with his wife and three young daughters within the eruv.

Before his Oxnard venture, Aarons ran Mosaica, an upscale glatt kosher French Mediterranean restaurant in New Jersey. But the opportunity to create a restaurant from scratch with the financial support of the Herzog brand was impossible to resist.

So with sous chef Chaim Davids, Tierra Sur opened in late 2005 with kosher supervision by the Orthodox Union. But if you expect pickles, corned beef on rye, or matzah ball soup — fuhgeddaboudit.

Dinner with five-star service — on a par with a dining room in a Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton — changes not just with the seasons but every evening according to the chef’s whim and the availability of the finest and freshest ingredients.

The Mediterranean influence is most visible in the appetizers, many of which come directly from the Spanish tapas or Greek mezes so beloved of the countries bordering that sea.

Platillos were small plates of delicate salt cod beignets; mushrooms a la Greque, cooked in truffle oil (one of the many instances where the absence of butter in the kitchen does nothing but improve the flavors); and a baba ghanoush that is fire roasted in the patio oven. The boudin blanc was a house-made veal-and-chicken sausage with roasted pink lady apples and turnips, and a corn and salt cod chowder was a warm starter on a foggy Oxnard eve.

The dinner entrees, which range in price from $25 to $44, include a farm-raised venison imported from the Mashgichim farm in Goshen, N.Y.; a delicate pan-seared wild Pacific king salmon with braised leeks, root vegetable Spanish tortillas and tarragon salsa; a marjoram and honey roasted chicken leg stuffed with porcini mushroom and chick pea ragout; and a pomegranate-marinated roasted lamb with sautéed broccoli rabe and fresh fava beans. Hannibal Lector eat your heart out. (A more modestly priced menu of soups, salads and sandwiches is available for lunch.)

Desserts like orange almond flan, a warm Mexican chocolate cake with caramel frozen custard and churros y chocolate are simple, inexpensive and delicious.

And, of course, the food can be accompanied by a dazzling selection of kosher wines — by the glass or by the bottle — from winemaker Joe Hurliman.

Already Tierra Sur, which also offers a wine-tasting menu, has been discovered by the Ventura dining cognoscenti and its private dining room has become a popular spot for everything from award dinners held by the Ventura’s Jewish Federation and its various offshoots to dinner celebrations for local corporate heavyweights such as Camarillo’s Amgen.

And the Orthodox are coming from miles around. There is always a fair sprinkling of men in kippot and women in wigs lining up to wash their hands at the small stainless steel sink hidden discreetly in a corner of the dining room.

On the night we went, customers included a couple who had driven up from Hancock Park, a family from the San Fernando Valley headed by a lady who doubles as the Jewish chaplain for the Los Angeles womens prison and a grandmother from Leisure Village in Camarillo who was treating her grandson and his wife from Philadelphia to a wedding anniversary dinner.

And in all cases, their food reviews were a unanimous thumbs up.

Tierra Sur Restaurant is located at 3201 Camino Del Sol in Oxnard. The restaurant is open everyday but Saturday for lunch, and Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday for dinner. For more information, call (805) 983-1560 or visit for links.

Sally Ogle Davis is a Southern California-based freelance writer. Ivor Davis writes a column for The New York Times Syndicate.


How Do We Do It?

I was late getting home from mymeeting the other night. Too late to help my daughter prepare for herSpanish quiz. Too late to massage her shoulders after softballpractice. “Do Not Disturb,” read the sign on her door. Hernight-stand light was on, but Samantha was already asleep.

Disregarding her warning sign, I entered, andpulled the covers over her. “Sweet dreams,” I whispered, and I kissedher forehead. I knew from our car-phone talk that she had had a goodday. Still, until I saw Samantha myself, her hair neatly pulled backwith a barrette, I could not rest. At nearly 16, my daughter isaccustomed to making her own meals, putting herself to bed. Thebalance of power has shifted: I need the good-night kiss more thanshe does.

I’ve been a single parent a long time now. I knowa lot about it. When Jewish organizations need a speaker on singleparenting, they often ask me — and I’ll be at the Westside JewishCommunity Center this Sunday for the daylong conference, “CreatingFamily Life as a Single Parent,” sponsored by Jewish Family Service’snew Jewish Single Parent Network (818-762-8800.)

Fifteen percent of all Jewish households withchildren under 16 are single-parent, according to the soon-to-bereleased Los Angeles Jewish community population survey. That’s aboutone in six. We may have fewer teen pregnancies than the surroundingmainstream community, but lots of divorce, lots of widowhood, lots ofsingle parents by choice.

And the questions I’m asked most often are: “Howdo you do it?” “How do you make choices about the child’s welfarewithout someone to bat the ideas around with?” “How do you play goodcop/bad cop by yourself?” “How do you get any time for yourself aftera long day’s work?” “How do you retain a social life that doesn’tleave the child feeling excluded?”

The single answer to all of these issues changeswith time. Raising a child alone is so overwhelming “There’s noschool for parenting,” my mother used to tell me, and single parentsare even more in the dark. Whipped about in the heady winds of achild’s emotions, I’ve had no one else to provide an anchor. Yet,somehow, homework gets done, new Adidas get bought. We get throughthe school semester. We get over our tantrums. We get our hugs. I getby, with a little help from my friends.

I’m not kidding. Some nights I can’t bear theweight of the worry. And some days I have to kvell out loud. Ineither case, I talk: to the pillow, or to Marika, Jane or Willie. Orto God. I hold back nothing. My advice to single parents is: Pickyour friends wisely. Forget the meaning of shame. And learn themeaning of pride.

It’s about pride that I want to make a specialpoint. A single parent’s life is generally deemed to be one of pity,sadness, handicap. The prevailing attitude of our synagogues andorganizations, and of married couples who belong to them, is that wesingle parents are “broken,” while they, of course, are “intact.” Ina series of focus groups sponsored by Jewish Family Service in LosAngeles, single parents reported that they felt “unwelcome” in Jewishlife. There’s a bias toward the nuclear family; anyone who doesn’tconform is a challenge and a threat to community norms.

Perhaps it goes back to the biblical commandmentof caring for the widow and orphan, but single parents carry, inaddition to extraordinary financial and emotional obligations, aweighty psychological burden to prove their wholeness. The Jewishsingle parent is regarded as a war veteran, like the one-legged guywho stands on the highway with a tin cup. Battle-scarred, needinghelp.

Wrong! The aura of handicap that hangs over singlefamilies not only hurts parents, who ache with a sense of their owninadequacy, but it destroys the burgeoning confidence of Jewishchildren.

There are plenty of stumbling blocks in a parent’slife; let’s get rid of the crazy ones. We have to see single parentsfor who they are: strong, tireless, persevering and role models ofselfless love.

The community, rather, could honor us not withpity but with support, including low-cost synagogue membership andb’nai mitzvah fees, and scholarships for summer camp. But the biggestboon to single parents would come when the Jewish world begins toredefine “family” according to the realities of today. After all, theLos Angeles community survey demonstrates that only 23 percent of allJewish households are in the traditional “Leave it to Beaver” mode:Mom, Dad, kids.

Well, my house is part of the new majority. Ididn’t exactly plan to raise my child alone, but, even so, it is arewarding life. I was lucky to do her bat mitzvah alone, without aspouse to argue with over “how Jewish” it would be. I have vacationswith my daughter each year that are the envy of many two-parentfamilies. We have closeness and intimacy and friendship. I love her,and she’s still talking to me, so I can’t be doing too bad ajob.

I’m a single parent, sure. Glad of it.

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of TheJewish Journal. She hosts the Jewish community chat Thursday eveningsat 8 p.m. on American Online. Her e-mail address

All rights reserved by author.


January 30, 1998One by One byOne


January 30, 1998TheDaughter


January 23, 1998Babysitters NoMore


January 16, 1998FalseAlarms


November 28, 1997As AmericanAs…


November 21, 1997The ThirteenWants


November 14, 1997Music to MyEars


November 7, 1997Four Takes on50


October 31, 1997ChallengingHernandez


October 24, 1997CommonGround


October 17, 1997Taking Off theMask


October 10, 1997Life’s a MixedBag


October 3, 1997And Now ForSomething Completely Different


September 26, 1997An OpenHeart


September 19, 1997My BronxTale


September 12, 1997 — Of Goddesses andSaints


August 22, 1997 — Who is Not a Jew


August 15, 1997 — A LegendaryFriendship


July 25, 1997 — A Perfect Orange


July 18, 1997 — News of Our Own


July 11, 1997 — Celluloid Heroes


July 4, 1997 — Meet theSeekowitzes


June 27, 1997 — The Facts of Life


June 20, 1997 — Reality Bites



Honoring Thy Mother

I called my mother to wish her a happynew year. She answered the phone like this: “Commo say yammo.” “Mom,why are you speaking in bad Spanish?” I asked. “I’ve been gettinghang-up calls, so I’m sabotaging my voice,” she answered. I broke uplaughing.

My mother bought my book retail, mind you and gave it to my aunt Syl as a gift. She autographed it,”From the author’s mother.” When she told me about it, she said thatshe hoped I didn’t mind. I broke up laughing.

Lately, I’ve been laughing a lot with her evenabout the memories I paid an analyst to help me work out: feelingdeprived when she served an 8-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola to fivepeople, or embarrassed when my husband thought the cereal bowl-sizedsalad she placed on the table was his serving, or angry the summershe put my brother and me to work tiling floors to save money onlabor, or frantic when she locked me out of the house after I ranaway from home and came back. I was 4.

Could that have really been me whining abouthaving to wear the sock samples she brought home from work? No matterwhat my foot size was, I wore them sometimes rolled under mytoes. I never went without; I just didn’t always have the rightsize.

My generation, the children of parents whosedreams were end-played by the Depression, had to pay someone tofigure out life without hearing the word love. Would I have beenbetter off if Mother had said, “I love you and here’s a pair of socksnot your size”?

What I used to cringe at I now admire. Beforethere was such a thing as consumer advocates, my mother took on theestablishment. Her latest battle is with the telephone company. She’saccused them of charging too much on her phone bill. She’s keeping alog of her calls, and in a recent exchange with a phone-companyexecutive, she was told, “Madam, our computers are far moresophisticated than your egg timer.” She received a $1.23 refundanyway.

Nothing gets past her. Three days after her secondhusband, Sam, died, she had the presence of mind to transfer hisfrequent-flier miles to her account. If I lied when I was a kid,which was often, I had the third-degree interrogation uncovered light bulb and all. She would have made a great hangingjudge or the kind of prosecutor who would have haunted an acquitteddefendant into jail.

I read that scientists are thinking about cloninga human. It’s a fascinating procedure in which a donor egg isstripped of its genetic makeup and one cell is removed from thecloner and ejected into the egg. What will result is a human beingwho is the exact genetic double of its mother. If this catches on,the psychoanalytic movement will have a renaissance.

If I were my mother’s clone, not only would therebe two of us which would probably bring back sanitariums,not for us but for everyone else in the family but how couldI have grown up to get along with her? The terror of being an adultis that you cannot blame anyone for not being in the life you want.So there’s a relationship between growing up and getting along withyour parents, especially if you still hold them accountable for yourproblems. Yawn.

I told my mother recently that I wish I had beenmore like her when it came to money. She said: “You’re a giver, evenwhen you don’t have it to give. I had to survive. But as long as I’mhere, you won’t have to worry.”

Where I once worried that she was in my life, nowI worry that she may not be? Not have to worry? I said it to myselfover and over. My mother is 85 years old. We have been arguing sincethe moment of my birth, when she said, “What’s she screaming about;I’m the one who had the pain!”

And now there’s laughter.

Linda Feldman is the co-author of the newly released “Where ToGo From Here: Discovering Your Own Life’s Wisdom” (Simon &Schuster).

All rights reserved by author.

Soup, Sandwiches

At left, from right, Al and Jean Langer with their son, Norm; Above, a mural in the back of the restaurant; Below, one of Langer’s venerable waitresses serves their famous sandwiches to a hungry crowd.

Photos by Ruth Stroud

Amid a blizzard of Spanish-language signs for passport photos, discount shoes and wedding gowns, Langer’s Delicatessen & Restaurant sits proudly at the corner of Alvarado and 7th streets, the location it has occupied for the past 50 years. The hours are shorter — 8 to 4, Monday through Saturday, closed Sundays — and the price for a pastrami on rye is certainly higher — $7.50, versus a quarter in 1947. The conversation emanating from the brown naugahyde booths is as often in Spanish as in English. And the Ramparts police substation across the street keeps a close watch on the multiethnic parade of humanity that mills about the busy intersection, once the hub of a lively Jewish neighborhood, second only to Boyle Heights.

The restaurant’s founders, Al and Jean Langer, 84 and 82, respectively, and their son, Norm, 52, who runs the place (with a constant pipeline of advice from his parents), don’t plan on closing up shop any time soon. In fact, they are celebrating the deli’s 50th anniversary — officially last Tuesday, June 17 — with a month-long contest, culminating in a drawing for $7,000 in cash and other prizes on July 1. In Los Angeles, “there aren’t a lot of restaurants and institutions that have survived that long and still have their doors open,” Norm said.

The opening of the Red Line in 1993 was a lifesaver. For a token round-trip tab of 50 cents, the subway line’s last stop was across the street from MacArthur Park, just a few steps from Langer’s. “We were almost ready to close,” Jean said. But the media blitz surrounding the MTA line helped entice crowds similar to those in the restaurant’s heyday, in the ’60s and ’70s. (In those days, Philharmonic- and theatergoers and the bar crowd kept the place hopping until the wee hours.)

The Red Line’s steep price hike to $2.70 round trip has been a bit prohibitive, the Langers said, and the bad press about crime in the area a few years back didn’t help. “In 50 years, we’ve had some broken windows, but no holdups and robberies,” Al said. The police have solved, or at least lessened, the crime problems tremendously, added Norm. “I’m not saying it’s Beverly Hills, but it’s been fantastic,” he said.

During a typical lunch hour, Langer’s bustles with activity. The booths fill with downtown lawyers and businessmen in suits and ties, as well as with more casually dressed residents of the nearby low-income apartments.

One morning before the rush begins in earnest, the Langers take some time to reminisce about their first 50 years. Actually, Al Langer begins his tale several decades before opening day, when he was a 12-year-old kid in Newark, N.J. To earn some money for his bar mitzvah, he went to work in a local delicatessen, later honing his talents in the Catskills and picking up an indispensable sandwich-making skill that he passed on to Norm.

“I don’t know how to make a bowl of soup,” says Al, spry and fit-looking in a salmon-colored polo shirt and dark pants and, obviously, still proud to call himself “a deli man.” “But I can handle a knife. You can’t be taught that.”

In Los Angeles, where he moved to in 1937, Langer went to work at Lax’s, a deli on Hollywood Boulevard, where he met Jean. A Chicago native, she had come out to Los Angeles a married woman and was working as a waitress at Lax’s. “For a Jewish girl, to be a waitress in those days was a shonda [a shame],” she said. “I told everyone I was working as a cashier.”

After Jean was widowed, she and Al were married on April 20, 1941. Two children, Norm in 1944 and Laurie in 1951, followed.

Following his discharge from the Army in 1943, Al borrowed $500 and opened a deli on 8th Street. Within two years, he walked away with $31,000 and invested it in English ceramic teapots. He lost all except $3,000, which he wisely put back in the deli business. He bought an 18-foot-long restaurant with three windows, at the corner of Alvarado and 7th. It had three booths, two tables and a counter — 35 seats altogether. Jean handled cooking and the books, and Al took care of the rest.

“He said to me, ‘The kitchen is yours,'” Jean said. “I said, ‘You meshugenah! I’ve never cooked for anyone but you.’ He said, ‘You’ll learn.'”

Langer’s took over a liquor store, then a Crocker Citizens Bank, expanding to 140 seats by 1967. It had 50 employees on the payroll and stayed open until 3 in the morning on weekends, 1 a.m. during the week. Over the years, numbers of local and national celebrities and politicos have passed through the glass double doors: George Segal, Jack Lord, Buddy Hackett, Mayor Richard Riordan, Zev Yaroslavsky, Jackie Goldberg and Gil Garcetti have all been there. Shecky Greene used to come in. And somewhere in a scrapbook, Norm has a picture of his 5-foot-5 father standing next to the towering basketball great Wilt Chamberlain.

Langer’s also used to cater weddings, Christmas parties, brises and other events. They still do funerals and parties for long-time clients, but not much else in the special-events department.

Norm, who began working at Langer’s at age 17, remembers riding the swan boats at MacArthur Park, going to the movies next door and bowling down the street. Jean would take time out to sunbathe in the park. “I wouldn’t set foot in there today,” she said.

Still, Langer’s is hanging in there. It was featured last week on KABC Talkradio, Fox TV, KTLA and in the Los Angeles Times in honor of its 50th. Neither Norm’s two grown children nor his sister’s two, pictured as tykes in photos hanging on the deli walls, are likely to go into the family business. But Norm isn’t planning on leaving any time soon. And even though his parents don’t work at the restaurant on a daily basis anymore, their son doesn’t do anything without consulting them, and vice versa. That “100-percent communication” and respect has been the secret of survival for Langer’s, Norm said. That, and the food, of course, which earned Zagat’s rating as the No. 1 deli for seven consecutive years, including one rave review that said the pastrami “was worth risking your life over.”

Well, worth a visit to Langer’s Deli anyway.