Purim: Beyond the playfulness, a time for examination


The central character of Purim is Esther, whose name means hidden. The story is full of things hidden, and waiting for the right time to be revealed. Vashti refuses to expose her sexuality to the drunken men of the King’s court, and chooses instead to be hidden. Esther hides her Jewishness until the time is right to reveal her identity. Haman hides his humanity. The foolish king’s discernment is hidden. Even God is hidden in the story. Only Mordecai is not hidden, making his presence known to save lives. Mordecai is the counterbalance to hiding.  

The characters in the Purim story are archetypes teaching us about ourselves. What do you hide? Are you like Haman who keeps part of himself hidden in response to an old wound, or because it’s too risky to be vulnerable? Are you hiding a part of yourself because you are convinced (incorrectly) that you are not worthy, that your light is not great enough? As Marianne Williamson writes: “It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” Or, are you hiding that special part of you because you, like Esther, are waiting, strategically, for the right time to serve God? In the first and second scenarios, perhaps it’s time to be revealed. In the third, perhaps it’s better to remain hiding. In the midst of our pain, we ask ourselves, where is God? As Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk says, “God is where someone lets Him in.” So let Him in.

How can you let God in when you don’t feel so good about yourself? How can you turn what is hidden in you into something that is good and seen by others? The Baal Shem Tov says lift it up to the light. Lift up the things you’re not so proud of to the light, so that you can see that even that which you keep hidden is your desire for being connected to God. Do this in prayer, meditation, or in confidential conversation with a friend.

On Purim we are told to get so drunk that we can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach says this means that in this state of drunkenness we don’t know the difference between arrogance and humility. Haman was arrogant and Mordecai was humble, and we assume that being humble is better. But Shlomo says you need both. “All the emotions are very holy because God made them. You only have to know the right time to use them. The truth is, in order to be a servant of God you need a lot of pride.” Pride is like arrogance that will drive you to do something courageous when no one else will do it.

You must also have humility; not humility that makes you think you’re unworthy, and not humility that makes you feel small in relation to other people. The humility you need is to know your relationship to your Creator, your compass of ethical behavior. The holy humility that we require is knowing that everything we have comes from God. Shlomo says that “If you know exactly where to use your humility then you know exactly where to use your pride.”

When it comes to parenting our children or being a partner in relationship, we need to balance pride with humility. When we find ourselves quick to criticize and ready to make our children or partners or our parents feel small, insignificant, or inadequate, we must realize that this is misplaced pride. We need humility to recognize that the people in our lives are souls in human bodies needing acknowledgement and to be treated as holy.

And here’s one of the hidden secrets in the Purim story. When you feel rage and you want to lash out – like Haman did – with judgment, criticism or worse… stop, walk out of the room, splash cold water on your face. Be like Esther. Fast for three days and ask your community for support. Do teshuvah and search for that which is hidden in you. Do the work of teshuvah, returning to the holy spark of the divine that is in you.

The Tikunei Zohar says that Purim is like Yom Kippur. The Sfat Emet explains this statement saying that teshuvah is the key to meeting God face to face. Like Esther who fasts and does teshuvah, we also fast and do teshuvah before Purim. Only after fasting and teshuvah does she enter the king’s domain, and the decree is removed. It’s the same on Yom Kippur. The process of Teshuvah is (in part) coming out from hiding and returning to your commitment to God.

Like the High Priest in the Temple, who fasted before going into the Holy of Holies, we fast, we do teshuvah, and only then do we enter the “King’s domain”. Then the decree is removed, and we start fresh. It is stated in the Talmud (Megillah 14a): “The removal of the king’s ring [that Haman used to seal his evil decree] was greater than the 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses who prophesied to Israel. For all [of them] were unable to return the Jews to righteousness; whereas removal of the ring returned the Jews to righteousness.” The threat was so real and so severe that the Jews took the responsibility of teshuvah seriously. The Sfat Emet says this teaches the power of teshuvah is so great that it can reverse evil decrees. It can reverse our own decrees.

On this Purim, let us do teshuvah and live lives in which we are all seen rather than hidden. Let us return to living lives that honor the sacred in each other by treating each other ethically and with kindness and patience. Let us be so drunk that we have no fear of bringing God out of hiding and into the stories of our lives.


Rabbi Elihu Gevirtz can be reached at rabbielihu@gmail.com. You can read more at www.rabbielihu.com.

Giving as a fountain of youth


Al Azus has found his fountain of youth, and he’s not keeping it a secret. In fact, the 92-year-old philanthropist recently published a memoir whose title all but gives his formula away: “Live Longer by Giving.”

Azus has donated time, energy and millions of dollars from his successful envelope-printing company to Los Angeles social services agencies including Vista Del Mar, the Hollenbeck Youth Center and the Los Angeles Jewish Home. With Hedi Azus, his wife, he funded a children’s recovery room, family waiting room and pediatric assessment program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He has spent untold hours playing games and his clarinet with the children of Home-SAFE, a division of Vista Del Mar. To date, Home-SAFE’s Family Resource Center and Vista’s new school services building bear Al and Hedi’s names.

“I really believe I’m living a lot longer because I keep on giving,” Azus said at his home recently. “It’s my biggest pleasure in life. It makes me feel good.”

Azus penned his latest book with Loren Stephens, owner of Write Wisdom memoir publishing company. Stephens helped Azus write his first book, “Life Is a Game: Bet on Yourself,” in 2003 and in 2010 picked up his narrative again to tell the story of Azus’ altruistic spirit, forged during a life of hardship and tragedy.

“There are people with more money than Al has, but not nearly the heart that he has,” Stephens said. “This book is really a primer for people — it’s a sermon on how to be generous, how to live like Al has lived.”

Chapter 1 describes the origins of Azus’ philosophy: “Poverty can make you generous.”

Born in Chicago, the oldest of four children in a Sephardic Turkish family, Azus got his first job at age 8 and continued working throughout his school years. The Great Depression was under way, and his family was on welfare.

When Azus was 14, he went to work for Didech Brothers suit makers. One of his jobs was to deliver finished suits to customers, rain or shine. Before Yom Kippur one year, he had to deliver a suit to a good customer during a blizzard. Azus had no coat or boots and arrived at the client’s shoe store shivering and wet. The owner looked at the holes in Azus’ shoes and promptly handed him a new pair. “I always dreamed that someday I would find a way to give to children in the same way that so many generous people had given to me,” Azus writes.

At 21, Azus enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. When he returned unscathed from his four-year service, he knew he had to pay his good luck forward. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something. I’m on borrowed time,’ ” he recalled. After the war, the consumer industry was booming. Azus worked as a salesman, peddling refrigerators, dishwashers and vacuums door-to-door. Later he sold stationery, gambling on his natural gift for sales to build a livelihood on commission. It turned out to be a lucrative bet.

Clients would tell him they had trouble getting high-quality printed envelopes. He found a printing machine for sale for $750, took on a partner and founded Alna Envelope Co. in 1954. Slowly, doggedly, he grew his business into an industry giant.

And then, as the story goes, he decided to give back.

Children’s agencies have been Azus’ largest philanthropic cause. “Everyone is looking for love,” he said. “I find that with kids in need.”

Azus has funded programs at the Hollenbeck Youth Center for decades. Often, he would hire youths in need of income to work at Alna. Some still work at the company after 35 years. Not only did he help start careers, he also underwrote a multimedia program at the center to give kids trade training — so they could bet on themselves, as Azus had.

“Believe me, I receive a lot more than I give,” he said.

Last year, Al and Hedi Azus were honored at the ribbon cutting for Vista Del Mar’s new school services building. The couple donated $1.3 million for the project, just part of the $3 million they have given to the Cheviot Hills organization since the 1980s.

For Azus, the gift is personal.

Years before Alna, Azus’ first wife, Serene, died of tuberculosis. The Korean War was hurting his appliance store and he had just bought a house in Pacoima for his family that he could no longer afford. Azus was forced to seek help to care for his son and daughter, ages 3 and 2. He’d heard about Vista and asked if they could help his family. “They said, ‘We’ll help you — that’s what we do,’ ” he recalled. His children lived in foster care for two years, until he remarried and was able to make a home for them again. Azus never forgot the agency’s hospitality.

“Al is always one to say, ‘What can I do? What do you need?’ ” Vista Del Mar president and CEO Elias Lefferman said. “He cares genuinely. He says, ‘I’m here because kids need things.’ Acts of kindness and generosity by people like Al make all the difference.”

Azus doesn’t want the recognition, doesn’t care for plaques on the wall. “I have trouble being honored,” he said. “I hate to brag.”

His only concern, said Hedi Azus, is whether he’s doing enough. “The community needs so much, and Al wants to make sure he has enough money to cover it,” she said.

Yet Azus’ generosity doesn’t only benefit strangers. In “Live Longer by Giving,” he also writes of the importance of giving to family and employees. Before they were widespread, Azus started pension plans for his workers. He has helped them buy homes, care for their children and meet living expenses. In return, they have shown him professional and personal loyalty: In 1985, when Azus had quintuple bypass surgery, they all donated blood for his operation.

Family is especially meaningful to Azus. Serene was only 25 when she died, and he never got over her. His second wife, Harriet, died of cancer. His daughter, Rhonda, died several years ago after a lifelong struggle with mental illness. He talks about his remaining children and grandchildren with protective fondness. Of Hedi, to whom he has been married for 35 years, he writes, “With [her] by my side, everything is possible.”

Azus has given copies of his latest book to friends, family and employees, and distributed a limited run to colleagues at his favorite charities.

He still goes to his downtown office on Wednesdays. He reads his two books often and says he marvels over “what one person can do.”

“It’s amazing — starting out with no money at all and now giving away millions,” he said.

Even at 92, Azus said, giving is easy. Coming to terms with the challenges of age is the hard part. “Is living longer a curse or a blessing?” he wondered. “I can’t walk. I have health problems. I’ve lost so many loved ones. But it’s a blessing if you can do something for other people.”

‘Shalakhmones: The Purim Platters’


Translated from Yiddish and with an afterword by Curt Leviant, the author or translator of 25 books, including seven critically acclaimed novels, the most recent of which is the comic “A Novel of Klass.”

Wearing a silk kerchief and a plain apron — a combination of holiday and weekday attire — Mama stood by the table, practically at her wit’s end. It was no trifle, you know, receiving almost 100 shalakhmones, the traditional Purim platter of sweets, and sending out a like number. Mama had to be careful not to omit anyone or make any mistakes, God forbid; she also had to remember what sort of platter to send to whom. For instance, if someone favored you with a fruit-cut, two jam-filled pastries, a poppy-seed square, two tarts, a honey bun and two sugar cookies, it was customary to send in return two fruit-cuts, one jam-filled pastry, two poppy-seed squares, one tart, two honey buns, and three sugar cookies.

One had to have the brains of a prime minister not to create the sort of first-class muddle that once took place, alas, in our shtetl. What happened was that a woman named Rivke-Beyle mistakenly shipped back to one of the rich matrons the very same platter of Purim goodies that the rich matron had sent her. You should have seen the scandal this caused. The squabble that broke out between the husbands blossomed into a full-blown feud — smacks, denunciations and unending strife.

Besides worrying about what to send to whom, you also had to tip the youngsters who delivered the shalakhmones. And you had to know whether to give them one kopeck, or two or three.

The door opened up, and in came my rebbi’s daughter, a freckled girl with bright red hair. She went about from house to house collecting the Purim sweet platters for her father, the teacher. She carried a saucer covered with a cloth napkin which already contained one honey bun, dotted with a solitary raisin, and next to it — a silver coin. Mama lifted the napkin and placed another coin alongside the first. She also slipped something into the girl’s hand. The redhead blushed furiously and rattled off the traditional blessing:

“May you enjoy Purim a year from now, you, your husband, and your children.”

Following the teacher’s daughter came a chubby lad with a swollen cheek bound with a blue kerchief and eyes of unequal size. In his hand he held a little brass tray on which lay a fruit-cut. This small cake was impressed with the shape of a tiny fish filled with honeyed dough crumbs. Next to it lay several silver coins and a few paper rubles. The chubby lad went right up to Mama and in one breath rattled off his greeting as though it had been memorized by rote:

“Happy holiday the rabbi sent you this shalakhmones may you enjoy Purim a year from now you ’n your husband ’n your children.”

The chubby lad palmed his tip and took off without a farewell because by mistake he had dashed it off upon entering.

More people kept coming by. They brought various treats from the rabbinic judge, the cantor, the ritual slaughterers, the Torah scribe, the Talmud Torah teacher, the man who blew the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the butcher who specialized in removing thigh veins, the reader of the Purim megillah, the Scroll of Esther, and the water carrier and the bathhouse attendant (the latter two also fancied themselves religious functionaries). After them came Velvel the shamesh himself, hoarse and ailing — he was asthmatic, poor man. He stood awhile at the door and, hand to his chest, coughed his heart out.

“Well, what’s the good word?” Mama asked him, exhausted by now from the day’s work.

“A shalakhmones has been sent to you,” said Velvel, displaying a honey cake he had in his hand. “May you enjoy Purim a year from now, you and …”

“Who is it from?” asked Mama and stuck her hand beneath her apron, looking for a coin.

“Well, actually, it’s from me. May you enjoy Purim, you …” and he began coughing. “Pardon me … for coming myself … got no one to send … had a daughter but, alas, God preserve you … you remember Freydl, may she rest in peace …”

Velvel the shamesh coughed for an entire minute, and Mama quickly dug into her pocket and removed a few coins, which she put into his hand. She also offered him some cake and a couple of fruit-cuts. Velvel stuffed the cake and the fruit-cuts into his breast pocket, thanked her and said:

“May you enjoy Purim a year from now, you and your husband …” and once again began coughing.

I looked at Mama and noticed a tear standing in each of her beautiful eyes.

Velvel and his Purim treat cast a momentary gloom over the holiday mood. But it did not last long. Immediately after Velvel’s departure, other people arrived with more Purim sweet platters, and Mama kept on doling out the coins, here one, there two or three. Everyone received a piece of cake, a fruit-cut or a honey bun. For a poor man, too, should feel the joy of the holiday.

“May you enjoy Purim a year from now, you and your ….”

“The same to you and many more to you and yours.”


Afterword:

Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916), the great Yiddish humorist, always wrote stories pertaining to the holidays. The comedy and pathos of Purim in a shtetl are reflected in this touching little story. His narrative accurately reflects the tradition of sending platters or sweets to friends and relatives that is still practiced today. An entire socio-political dynamic surrounded the sending of shalakhmones. A woman always had to somehow balance the return platter so it should reflect the initial offering. Too little would be insulting; too much would be self-aggrandizing. And one must never ever send back the same plate to the person who sent it.

The shalakhmones were delivered by children who earned tips of a few kopecks for their service. In addition to cakes and pastries, coins were also sent to those people who needed extra income, like the narrator’s teacher. The daughter of the teacher, or rebbi, is actually collecting and not giving shalakhmones. She goes from house to house and gathers a few coins to supplement the meager income of the rebbi, who taught little boys in his house.

The chubby boy is bringing sweets from the shtetl’s rabbi — and that’s why in addition to coins there are also paper ruble notes on the plate, for the people’s generosity was enhanced for the shtetl’s leading religious figure. He, too, earned a meager salary.

And Velvel, the shamesh, or sexton, who took take care of the synagogue, and went from door to door early weekday mornings to wake the men up for services, also needs to supplement his small salary. Note that he apologizes for delivering the shalakhmones himself. Usually, this was done by children; it was not dignified for an adult to go from house to house delivering the Purim sweet platters. But, as we learn, Velvel had lost his only child, a daughter, and so perforce he himself has to go from household to household to offer his Purim sweets and collect something for himself.

Army Archerd: January 13, 1922 – September 8, 2009


From Variety.com:

Army Archerd, whose 52-year run as a Daily Variety columnist made him unique among showbiz reporters, died Tuesday in Los Angeles of a rare form of mesothelioma, a lung cancer thought to be the result of his exposure to asbestos in the Navy during WWII. He was 87.

Read the full story at Variety.com (ArmyArcherd.com).

JJ Vault:  An Army of One: American Friends of Hebrew University honors Variety columnist Army Archerd with its Scopus Award.

Oscar-winner Sandel gets Cine-Peace Award; Poker tourney a winner for JBBBS


Cinema of Peace

Oscar-winning director Ari Sandel (“West Bank Story”) racked up yet another prize when Americans for Peace Now presented him the 2008 Cine-Peace Award.
“I never in my wildest dreams expected the film to go as far as it did,” Sandel said during his acceptance speech.

Sandel spoke at length about traveling the world and being surprised by the number of people who had seen his musical comedy — a film about two competing falafel stands in the West Bank.

In Beirut, he said, a girl overheard him talking about his film at a restaurant. She approached him to say she managed to get a bootlegged version.
He was even well received in Chechnya, a country both the U.S government and his mother told him to avoid.

Sandel says he still receives e-mails from people the world over about how his film has affected them. Some, he says, have only seen the Jewish community as it is portrayed on screen.

The Cine-Peace event, held Sept. 22 at the Harmony Gold Preview House in Hollywood, also presented a number of other films that offered a perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Some members of the audience cried as they watched “Holy Land — Common Ground: Unbroken Circle,” a heartbreaking documentary that focuses on Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the conflict.

In the Israeli film “Roads,” a 13-year-old boy escapes the drug-infested city of Lod. At one point in the film, Ismayil is heard saying that two dead Arabs are nothing but that one dead Jew makes for a headline.

After the films, people shared dessert and each other’s company.

“It was very emotional,” Debbie Tehrani said. But “it turned out to be a good night and a very interesting event.”

— Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer

Big Gamble for JBBBS Poker Tourney

I liked my chances when I sat down last week at a poker table at Hollywood Park.
The Inglewood casino is my regular haunt, and I was playing in the Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters (JBBBS) charity poker tournament, hoping to outplay, outbluff and outluck 201 others to take home $7,500 in cash or, against my wife’s wishes, grab a $10,000 seat at next summer’s World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

Like any poker game, the tournament, in its fifth year, was filled with big hands and bad beats.

Victor Snider, a former JBBBS board member with 20 years of service, caught a royal flush — there’s about a one in 649,740 chance of that — during the first 10 minutes. Seated behind me, Greg Shane, whose father is president of JBBBS’ Camp Max Straus, called for more chips with a “rebuy” after the first hand as he tried to best his second-place finish in 2006.

“This organization is amazing. Jewish Big Brothers, Camp Max Straus — I have seen it change kids lives,” Shane said, adding that he was happy to contribute.

ALTTEXTStacks were small to begin — only 500 chips and with the blinds starting at 25-25 — so the prudent players in the room sat back and waited for big hands, chatting, drinking from the open bar and hearing the constant call of “Rebuy!”

When I busted out three hours into the tournament with a starting pair of sevens, the rebuy period was over — 288 stacks had been re-filled or added onto — so I schlepped downstairs to play the cash tables and redeem myself.

In the end the title of champion and the $7,500 cash prize, sponsored by Joyce Lederer, went to the big Libowsky — Cary Libowsky (photo). He won his final hand just after 1 a.m. with a pocket pair of kings.

The big winner, though, was JBBBS, which brought in $103,000 from the night of gambling and drinking and a little bit of dreaming at Hollywood Park.

— Brad Greenberg, Senior Writer

The Ultimate Playground for Adat Ari El

Adat Ari El’s Labowe Family Day School unveiled its new state-of-the-art sports pavilion on Sept. 21 during a ceremony honoring its benefactor, Manny Kaplan and dedicated in honor of his late wife, Sybil. The new 7,500-square-foot pavilion features 10 separate play areas and is equipped with a “smart ceiling,” which blocks the sun, increases air circulation and lowers the temperature by 25 degrees. Rain or shine, it’s play time for the schoolchildren of Adat Ari El.

In lieu of perfection


Two Jews once came before the Talmudic sage Rav Yannai.

“The branches of his tree extend into the public domain,” one claimed. “They’re a public hazard,
interfering with the camel traffic. Master, you must surely rule that he is obligated to remove the tree.”

The tree owner fidgeted silently, hoping against legal hope that somehow the tree could be spared.

Rav Yannai sat silently in thought, and finally, cryptically ruled, “Go home today, and come back tomorrow.”

Puzzled but always respectful, the parties agreed to do so.

When they returned on the next afternoon, Rav Yannai issued a clear and definitive ruling.

“It is obvious that you are obliged to cut the tree,” he said to the tree owner with little doubt as to the accuracy of his ruling.

But the tree owner had one last appeal up his sleeve.

“But my master also owns a tree whose branches extend into the public domain,” he said.

Rav Yannai replied, “Go and see. If my tree is still there, you may keep yours. But if mine is cut down, then you must cut yours, too.”

Apparently, Rav Yannai had been busy with his saw overnight, anticipating the ruling he’d be issuing the next day. (For the record, the Talmud records that up to that point Rav Yannai hadn’t thought about the negative impact of his tree on public traffic, thinking instead that the pubic enjoyed the shade it provided.)

Right there, in the shadow of the ever-popular “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” another mitzvah quietly sits: “Thou shall surely rebuke thy friend.” And while this may seem rude or intrusive, the Torah regards the obligation of mutual rebuke as the engine of communal righteousness.

To be sure, the Torah immediately adds safeguards, prohibiting us from publicly humiliating our wrongdoing friend, and enjoining us from engaging in rebuke that we know will be futile. But carried out appropriately and with good common sense, rebuke is a vitally important activity. Both our sages and our own experiences have taught “a person cannot perceive his own flaws.” There is no way that any of us can achieve continuing moral and religious growth, unless we are willing to point out flaws to one another. (And unless we are willing to accept constructive criticism from others.)

But the story of Rav Yannai points to a nasty Catch-22 in the rebuke mitzvah system. The Talmud wonders why Rav Yannai was so particular about cutting his own tree before he issued his ruling. Couldn’t he have just as well done so immediately afterward? The Talmud then concludes that we learn from Rav Yannai that you must first “adorn yourself. And only then, tell others that they should do the same.”

It is not permissible, and it probably isn’t effective, to rebuke a friend for a flaw that we ourselves also possess. We need the system of mutual rebuke because we cannot perceive our own flaws. But if we cannot perceive our own flaws, then we run the constant risk of urging others to “adorn themselves” when we utterly lack the necessary credentials to so do.

The whole system therefore grinds to a halt. Rabbi Tarfon bemoaned this paralysis, commenting, “I would be surprised if there is anyone in our generation who can deliver rebuke. If one says, ‘Remove the splinter from between your eyes,’ the other will respond, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes.'”

How then are we to go about fulfilling this vital mitzvah? How then are we to enable the ones we love to grow and achieve greater moral and spiritual refinement?

Fortunately, there is another way to go about it. The tradition recognizes a way in which one can deliver rebuke without necessarily having to meet the criterion of being completely personally “adorned.” Love can take the place of perfection.

As we read in the parsha a few weeks ago, God specifically chose Aaron to be the one who diagnosed the skin condition tzara’at, which was an external manifestation of the person’s ethical flaws (in particular that of habitually speaking ill of others). God knew that Aaron, although not without blemish himself, overflowed with love for each and every one of the people. Aaron was the one who reconciled friends and spouses, pursued peace and loved all. If Aaron were to say to you, “Dear friend, there is flaw in your character that you need to repair,” you would not question that he was right.

Rebuke that is a function of and which flows from love avoids the Catch-22 altogether. Rebuke is the catalyst for moral and religious growth, and true love is the necessary prerequisite for rebuke.

“Be among the disciples of Aaron,” the legendary sage Hillel taught. There is realistically no other way to fulfill the mitzvah upon which all of our individual growth and development hinges, and, in the end, the mitzvah upon which human progress hinges.

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

Where’s the Passover story?


It’s one of the great mysteries of the Jewish tradition. Every year, Jews around the world gather around a seder table to retell the story of our people’s liberationfrom slavery. You can read a thousand articles, talk to a thousand rabbis, and they’ll all say the same thing: At the Passover seder, we retell the story of the Exodus.

There’s only one problem with this statement: It’s not really true.

At least not if you go by the traditional definition of story.

Pay attention to every word when you go through the haggadah this year, and ask yourself: Where exactly is the story? Especially all you folks in Hollywood — agents, screenwriters, producers, actors — who live and breathe stories every day. Is this an actual story you are reading? Where’s the buildup? The character development? The narrative flow? The climax?

The haggadah, as handed down by our rabbinic sages, breaks all the rules of good storytelling.

Sure, there are snippets of story here and there: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but Hashem our God took us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm”; “The Egyptians did evil to us and afflicted us and imposed hard labors upon us,” and so on.

But the bulk of the haggadah is a mercurial mash-up of commentaries and biblical exhortations. A minute into the “story,” for example, we are mired in a Talmudic discussion between Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah and four other rabbis in Bnei Brak on the subtleties of a particular phrase in Deuteronomy — as they debate not the Exodus itself, but simply when and how often they should study it.

What comes next? Well, had the writers concerned themselves with the basics of storytelling, they might have continued like this:

“The year was 1445 B.C.E. The Israelites are now captives in Egypt, and the time of Joseph, the Jew who became prime minister in Egypt, is long forgotten. The ruling Pharaoh fears their numbers. The Israelites are an estimated 2 million in number. Moses, who had been raised in Pharaoh’s court, is now living as a shepherd in the desert.

“As he is tending to his flock, Moses sees a burning bush that is not consumed by the flames. He goes to the bush, and, to his astonishment, God speaks to him from it: ‘Come now, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, so that you may bring forth my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.’

“It took some convincing to get Moses to agree to the task. Moses was not a good speaker and he feared that he would fail. But still, he listened to God and set out with his family on the long trek to Egypt.”

The story goes on, and it’s an epic one, full of high drama and human conflict. Unfortunately, most of it is not in your haggadah.

Instead, after the Talmudic debate in Bnei Brak, the haggadah continues with one of the great non sequiturs of Jewish liturgy: The Four Sons. Think about it. What do these four characters have to do with the story of the Exodus? In Hollywood parlance, they don’t even establish a subtext, or plant the seeds for a future plot twist. They just show up.

So what gives here? Why is our annual night of storytelling so devoid of actual storytelling? How can we ask Jews to relive the story of their people if we don’t explain it to them — and make it part of the official liturgy? How can we expect them to embrace and discuss a story that looks so disjointed and full of holes?

Sometimes I think we should contact the Creative Artists Agency and ask them to produce the world’s most compelling retelling of the Passover story. Can you imagine the haggadah that an elite team of Jewish screenwriters and producers could create? Families and seder participants would be riveted to the page. The tension would build as each person would take turns reading from this extraordinary story — and no one would think of asking, “When do we eat?”

This all sounds so logical and wonderful that I feel like calling CAA right away. But before we rush off and rewrite our 2,000-year-old liturgy, it’s worth asking one key question: Why would our brilliant sages tell the story of the liberation of the Jewish people in such a mercurial and fragmented way?

The usual answer is that we are encouraged to fill in the holes with our own questions and discussion. This response has never satisfied me. I don’t know about you, but I’m more likely to discuss a story and ask questions if the story is told clearly and completely.

No, I think it’s possible that our sages had something deeper and more subtle in mind. Maybe, just maybe, our sages were elusive in their writing because they didn’t want us to get overly attached — to our own story.

This thought occurred to me during a recent Friday night meal at my place with two great thinkers from Israel (Avraham Infeld and Gidi Grinstein). We were talking about the need for Zionism to renew itself, and in doing so, to make sure it doesn’t stay too stuck to its old narratives. Yes, it is critical to remember the stories and lessons of our past, but not in a way that deadens our thinking in the present or stops us from considering new ideas for the future.

In that spirit, it could be that our sages gave us a more grainy and less explicit version of the Passover story so that we could review it from a healthy distance — and not get so enmeshed in the drama that we fall prey to triumphalism or victimhood. In other words, they wanted us to own the story, rather than have the story own us.

Maybe that’s the great hidden lesson of Passover: We can become slaves to anything, even to our own amazing story.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Better safe than sorry


It is late in the game for Pharaoh. Mitzrayim has just endured the penultimate plague: Dark. Pharaoh now knows he has little time left: It is, for him, the bottom of the ninth.

He summons Moshe, as he has done so many times before, and for the first time conducts an earnest negotiation. The king of Egypt now concedes the demand Moshe had made earlier — everyone may go, even the women and children. Only, says the Pharaoh, you must leave your cattle behind. Moshe declines the offer, and ups the ante. Not only are we going to take our cattle with us, he insists, but you must supplement the herd with some of your own.

Now, the Torah does not record this, but I imagine that there was, at this point, another negotiation. Pharaoh probably said: “Why do you need so many animals, and so many different kinds? I understand you are going to worship your god, and he will demand sacrifice. But come on, now! If your god likes goats, take goats; if he prefers cows, take cows; if it’s sheep he demands, take all the sheep you want. But why do you need to take them all? This makes no sense at all, and, moreover, it’s wasteful! Take only what you need.”

Now we understand Moshe’s reply. We must take it all with us, he says, because “we will not know how to serve the Lord until we arrive there.”

At last we have arrived at the real dispute between Moshe and Pharaoh, between God and Mitzrayim. Pharaoh, an Egyptian, knew what every god wanted — the exact method of honoring each idol and deity in the pantheon. Egypt was all about certainty and permanence. There was one eternal way, and nothing left to chance.

Moshe knew that when we serve God, we always live with uncertainty. How do we know for sure what God will ask of us? We know what He asked of our ancestors, but He might have a different plan for us. The answers of the past are a useful place to begin — an absolute requirement, actually — but that will not ensure success. In the worship of God, as in mutual funds, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Ibn Ezra offers this: We don’t know if we will need to serve God with this or with that, or with much or with little. Sometimes a small quantity of one service will be more pleasing to God than an overabundance of another service. We must be spiritually alert, flexible and well supplied.

In Mitzrayim, in the place of no options, there was no room for doubt. The world order, including the spiritual order, was not subject to speculation. The answers had all been given, and our assignments were not subject to change. Slaves were slaves; masters were masters. Some enjoyed a life of luxury, others toiled in the pit. And each god was well known and predictable.

For Israel, doubt is not an enemy of service. When we stand before God, we do not come with perfect clarity. We bring to God’s service all our confusions and disappointments as well as our faith and commitment. We don’t have all the answers — in fact, we don’t know all the right questions — but this does not prevent us from serving God with joy.

It is because of our uncertainty that we must bring to the task of serving God all our resources: our intellect, our experience, our imagination, and our learning. We cannot do it alone; we need to take with us all the wisdom we can find. Some resources will come from unexpected sources, like Pharaoh. Some will come from study of Torah and commentaries, of Talmud and codes, of Jewish history and literature. Some will come from our family, friends, teachers and community. Some will be a gift from heaven.

In our journeys out of Egypt toward Mount Sinai — the place of encounter between God and Israel, the place of Torah and covenant — we are always in between. We have left the verities of Egypt, and have not yet arrived at the world of truth, the place where ambiguities will be resolved. Until then, until we arrived there, we must be clever. If we bring all we have and all we can obtain to the tasks of serving God in this world, we might, when called, be ready.

Rabbi Dan Shevitz serves Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice and teaches rabbinical students at the American Jewish University.

Brotherly Love


With Chanukah recent history, I came across a fascinating review of a new book, “The Business of Holidays.” The book’s editor, Maud Lavin, notes that 81 percent of U.S. households celebrate Christmas with a tree in their homes, and not everybody is Christian. The line between Christmas and Chanukah has become very blurry in recent years, according to Lavin.

“I’m Jewish myself, and I didn’t even know that Purim was more the gift-giving holiday on the Jewish calendar,” Lavin writes. “But, Purim is in the spring, and so ‘no good,’ because it doesn’t participate in the Christmas season, and Jewish Americans especially turned Hanukah from a tiny holiday into a big consumerist holiday.”

I don’t think that these comments are any longer shocking, or for that matter, revealing. Even without Lavin’s book we knew this to be true. What interested me most, however, was the “Seinfeld” holiday Festivus:

“Festivus, an invention of Frank, George’s father on Seinfeld, had various rituals including the family sitting around the dining room table together criticizing each other. Then Ben & Jerry’s piggybacked on that and had, for a while, a Festivus ice cream. And, there really are people who continue to celebrate Festivus, especially on college campuses.”

I found all of this utterly fascinating because I compared it to this week’s Torah reading, which describes the amazing family reunion of Joseph with his brothers. Twenty-two years have passed since they sold him, and now Joseph finally reveals his true identity. He tells his brothers not to be sad and not to reproach themselves because God Himself had arranged the cycle of events that led to his eventually becoming viceroy of Egypt.

But this story has another side. A close examination of the biblical text reveals that the brothers’ feelings were neither forgotten nor forgiven, according to British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Consider what happens while Joseph is telling the brothers not to fret over the past. They remain totally silent. Only after Joseph has spoken for 13 verses and well more than 150 words are we told: “He then kissed all his brothers and wept upon them and afterward his brothers conversed with him” (Genesis 45:15). What the brothers said is conspicuously absent. Could this be the silence of indifference?

Estrangement also appears elsewhere. For example, what relationship did Joseph establish with his father? Was there any contact during the 17 years that Jacob and Joseph lived together in Egypt? Could it be they saw each other so infrequently that not once, but twice Joseph had to be called and told that his father was on his deathbed?

“Behold — your father is ill” (Genesis 48:1). Why did Jacob not trust Joseph when he promised that he would not bury him in Egypt? Was it really necessary to make Joseph take an oath?

What does all of this mean? Some suggest it is a realistic depiction of life. Life is such that despite the best efforts when there is a schism between family members, or for that matter between friends, the past cannot just be undone. Joseph, who left home at age 17 and rose to the top of the most powerful nation of the world, no longer speaks the same language. The innocence of youth, the closeness of father and son, the familial bond was lost forever. They had truly gone their separate ways.

Yet the Torah implies a different view of this story. True, it is hard to forget the hurt and hatred that once existed between Joseph and his brothers. But consider the length Joseph travels to reunite with them. Certainly he is hurt, yet he tries intensely to recreate the family bond. He is the one who single-handedly supports them. He doesn’t mend fences by holding a Festivus celebration, where each one criticizes the other. Just imagine, if he did, what that family gathering would have sounded like!

The lesson we can learn from this story is that in families, as in friendships, no room exists for Festivus gatherings. Unfortunately, American society today thinks that such gatherings not only are productive but even necessary. We are the generation of “tell it all.” But that presents a prescription for disaster. Instead of feeding criticism in our relationships, we must offer positive reinforcement with lots of love and understanding, or the relationships will fail. We can find enough criticism to go around, but can we find enough love?

So how did the Torah’s tale of sibling rivalry ultimately end? This week’s Haftorah from the Book of Ezekiel (37:19) captures a beautiful answer — “the tree of Joseph … and the tree of Judah will become one tree.” That only happens when kindness rather than criticism reigns supreme.

Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

The Shabbat the lights went out in Calabasas


Our synagogue’s name, Or Ami, means “Light of My People.” The name reflects our hope to shine brightly the values and lessons of Torah and Jewish spirituality into our little corner of the world. We are a community of individuals who each carry the light as far as they can.

But a funny thing happened to young Jeffrey Rosenberg on his way to becoming a bar mitzvah on Sept. 1 — the lights went out all over town. Nevertheless, the boy took his first steps by candlelight on the road to becoming a man, and in the process, taught us all what it really meant to be a bar mitzvah.

Lessons Learned While Sweating Profusely

It was hot day in Calabasas. The thermometer was topping out at 112 degrees.

As Jeffrey Rosenberg’s parents came to accept that they would have to forgo the family tradition of watching their child read Torah in their backyard (both sisters Jill and Lynn had given their parents much nachas [joy] at their backyard simchas), we made the decision to move his bar mitzvah service back into our Mureau Road synagogue.

It did not take long to realize how amazing this bar mitzvah experience would be. I sat with Jeffrey and his dad Richard as the decision was finalized. I offered support and counsel to the teen.

I said, “You see, perhaps there is a lesson here on what it means to become a man. When disappointments happen…”

“We need to accept them and find a way to move on,” Jeffrey concluded, without missing a beat.

It was then that I caught a glimpse of why this child, yet to read Torah, had already made the transition onto the path to becoming a man. Just four hours before his ceremony was scheduled to begin, when plans envisioned for more than a year were being upended by devastating heat, this amazing boy found it within himself to wax philosophical.

I arrived at the synagogue early to ensure everything was set: chairs arranged, siddurs laid out, air conditioning set low and working. Jeffrey’s family arrived soon after to snap a few photographs. Although harried by the change in venue, all expected everything to run smoothly from there.

Not five minutes later — a mere 30 minutes before the ceremony was to start — the electricity cut out. With it went the lights, the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light above the Ark) and the air conditioning.

As the Darkness Descended, New Lights Shined

What do you do when Torah needs to be read, but the sanctuary is dark?

Break out the candles.

A yahrtzeit memorial candle was placed above the Ark as our makeshift Ner Tamid, reaffirming God’s presence among us. Rows of votive candles, originally set aside for an upcoming meditational Selichot service, illumined the bimah podium. After a guest returned from the local Albertsons, warm light and sweet fragrance wafted forth from scented tea candles placed on aluminum foil in the aisles. Cantor Doug Cotler’s wife Gail brought over a few more flashlights and a battery-operated lantern so the Torah could be read without worrying about dripping wax.

Guests arrived to a sanctuary that glowed. Delicious hibiscus-flavored lemonade arrived from the caterer to quell our growing thirst. Cantor Cotler and I huddled together to discuss which prayers and songs could be passed over in anticipation of the rising warmth.

Setting a High Bar at the Bar Mitzvah

I looked around for Jeffrey, figuring any 13-year-old might need some calming words as he contemplated chanting Torah by candlelight. Calling out a refrain heard many a time during his wandering-filled life — “Where’s Jeffrey?” — I discovered him smiling happily, posing for pictures and hanging out with relatives and friends. Dark room, air conditioning out, still this kid did not even break a sweat. On this Shabbat, Jeffrey set a high “bar” for maturity at his bar mitzvah, ensuring that we too took it all in stride.

At the last moment, I opened the Ark just to make sure that the Torah was properly rolled. I was met with a gush of cool air. I called over Cantor Cotler and then the bar mitzvah boy. Each experienced the same rush of air. The Ark was the coolest place in the room. As a rabbi, I recall saying that “the words of Torah warm the heart”; I now learned how “cool” Torah really could be.

Jackets removed, we all settled in for a meaningful, though somewhat abbreviated service. Just as the first sounds emerged from the cantor’s guitar, an amazing thing occurred: the electricity — and with it the lights, the Ner Tamid and the air conditioning — miraculously popped back on. Looking back, it was as if God was saying, “Lesson learned. Proceed to manhood.”

Perhaps wanting to enjoy the lemonade we made from lemons, Jeffrey requested that we keep the lights off. And so we did, basking in the unique aura of spirituality created by the candles. He even whispered that we should say all the prayers now that there was no rush.

Jeffrey led us from Chatzi Kaddish through Silent Prayer with confidence and comfort. The room filled with melodies of songs sung, aliyot chanted and sniffles as tears were shed. In the midst of Jeffrey’s d’var Torah (speech), the electricity cut out again. Except for the fact that two pages were out of order in his speech, nothing could trip Jeffrey up. His mother, Katie, and dad, Richard, couldn’t have been prouder.

Blessings for an Amazing Bar Mitzvah Boy

At each bar or bat mitzvah service, I especially look forward to standing before the Ark for a private moment of blessing with the student. Each blessing I craft especially for each individual, taking into account each student’s bar/bat mitzvah process, life challenges, and my hopes for his/her future. I also remind the students that when they began the process, they couldn’t read Hebrew, never read from Torah and were anxious about the path ahead. Now with the service all but concluded, they learned the supreme lesson of becoming a bar/bat mitzvah: that when they put their minds to it, nothing is beyond their reach. Parents and friends often ask what we talk about before the Ark; usually the student and I cherish these words as our own confidential conversation of holiness.

Standing there before the Ark with Jeffrey, I found myself momentarily at a loss for words. What meaningful words could any rabbi possibly say to a young man who never broke a sweat as he faced down multiple challenges?

So I asked him, “How do you think you did?”

Jeffrey nodded his head nonchalantly and answered, “Pretty good.”

I responded, “Yup, you are a bar mitzvah now.” And the words of blessing flowed easily from there.

Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes (rabbipaul@orami.org) is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. He blogs on the Web at http://rabbipaul.blogspot.com

Family Feud — with my family, it’s no game


I would take my mom against Clint Eastwood in any movie. Sure, he usually plays a grizzled, gunslinger with cat-like reflexes and something to prove, but if you cross my
mother, you will find yourself, like the title of Clint’s greatest Western, “Unforgiven.”

Make no mistake; this isn’t a cute story about my “zany” Jewish mother and her unswerving ability to hold a grudge. Cute stories rarely involve relatives who suffocate themselves with plastic bags, but more about my Aunt Maurine’s untimely death in a minute.

No one really knows why my mother stopped talking to her sister. I think it was something about a china cabinet that once belonged to their mother. After my grandmother died, there was a duel over the mammoth piece of furniture. My mother got it (which I only know because I grew up with it in our dining room, our only piece of furniture not from a flea market). As anyone with even one screwed-up relationship in life knows, the squabble is never about the china cabinet, but about the heap of slights and injustices that could fill it. The cabinet just stores the resentments, puts them on display.

That cabinet was my grandmother’s favorite. So was my mother, so this isn’t a family feud syllogism that’s difficult to decode. Apparently, if your parents make it obvious that you’re the favorite, your siblings hate you, they unconsciously take out their feelings of rejection and hurt on you and you become spoiled and unpleasant. Put these feelings on simmer for about 30 years, and the flavors really intensify.

Here’s the thing. I’m just guessing and speculating about all of this. All I know for sure is that after a nine-year feud, during which my aunt and mother never once spoke, Aunt Maurine effectively ended the stalemate by killing herself about six years back.

I’ve never written about it before, nor did I give it much thought, until I got into my own feud with my mom two years ago and wondered who would get the last word — or leave the feud in a stretcher.

Back to my aunt and the resounding way she stuck it to my mom by offing herself.
I should mention here that I don’t mean to be cavalier about her death or her pain; but we’re Jews. That’s how we deal. Just the other day when I was sounding depressed on the phone with my dad he asked, voice filled with concern, “Are you eyeing your plastic bag collection?”

If we took every family tragedy seriously we’d be killing ourselves. I mean, in even greater numbers.

Aunt Maurine’s death didn’t seem like one of those “cry for help” suicides, because of the aforementioned plastic bag method, a technique she got from one of those “how-to-kill-yourself” books, which was found a few feet from her body.

She left a note, too, something about how her grown children didn’t love her (a feud may have been percolating there, too; feuds are big in my family). The suicide note contained no mention of my mother. My aunt had silenced herself yet still managed to get in the last word with one final snub. Score one: Maurine.

My mother went to Aunt Maurine’s funeral, but I don’t know if she regretted the feud.

Mom has about as much gray area in her personal relationships as the linoleum floor of a 1950s diner. The point is, like Clint Eastwood, she is not likely to be lukewarm on you. There are good guys and bad guys, and once you cross over, you are dead to her.

I lived in fear of saying no to her, displeasing her in some way as to flip the off switch on her loving me. Because she raised me alone and it was just the two of us, I was so close to her that the idea of her wishing me to her emotional cornfield rattled me to my core.

In essence, I should have spent my 20s wearing a yellow ribbon because I was a hostage; I did what she wanted, gritting my teeth every second of it, but complying nonetheless. I couldn’t lose her, but I also couldn’t stand her.

If she came to visit me, she stayed however long she wanted, we ate dinner when and where she wanted, she listened when she wanted (which wasn’t often), and I basically watered and manicured my grudge garden until it was overgrown and lush, and I was often petulant and bitter. She was the kind of mother, and lots of us have them, that demand we mother them. This so flies in the face of nature that you either become the codependent wife of an alcoholic or addict — continuing to mother people you shouldn’t — or you get very, very angry. Or you get yourself some therapy. I’ve done two out of three.

Here’s where I admit something. That part of me that loved “The Bell Jar” in junior high didn’t feel so bad about the incident with Aunt Maurine and the sinister feud preceding it. It added to my “crazy family” mystique. I didn’t choose to have a family chock full of the mentally ill, but once I realized there was no way of passing them off as normal, I decided to embrace it as part of my identity.

I had met my aunt only once at a family reunion when I was kid. I remember she had red hair, wore a crisp white pants suit, lived in Orange County, seemed like she couldn’t possibly be the sister of my hippie mother and generally seemed like a nice lady. I was 6; what did I know?

I certainly never predicted I would also have a blow-up with my mother leading to a long silent feud. Curiously enough, my feud also followed a funeral. Watch out for this; in my family, one of the stages of grief is creating a vendetta with someone living.

Here was our cabinet incident: Before my stepfather’s funeral two years ago, my mother insisted I speak at the ceremony.

‘The Good Shepherd’: I was a young man for the CIA


Eric Roth’s impressive resume as a Hollywood screenwriter includes an Oscar (for adapting “Forrest Gump”) and a string of reality-based screenplays about the difficulties important people face choosing between realpolitik and personal morality.

These include shared credits on 1999’s “The Insider,” about a tobacco-company whistleblower and the problems CBS “60 Minutes” had broadcasting his story; 2001’s “Ali,” a biopic about Muhammad Ali; and 2005’s “Munich,” Steven Spielberg’s film about an Israeli hit squad charged with punishing the Arab terrorists who killed 11 athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. (Both “The Insider” and “Ali” were Michael Mann films.)

And the theme is continued in the new drama “The Good Shepherd,” for which Roth has sole writing credit and on which he has worked for more than a decade. The Robert DeNiro-directed film follows Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) as he moves from college into the shadowy, treacherous world of American espionage during World War II and afterward, at the expense of good relations with his wife (Angelina Jolie).

It also tells the story of the Central Intelligence Agency’s formative years and is loosely based on the career of James Angleton, the late CIA counter-intelligence chief. Roth recalls one early influence was reading Norman Mailer’s “Harlot’s Ghost,” a 1,000-plus-page novel about the CIA published in 1992.

“I was interested in the notion of an organization devoted to secrecy and how that affects people’s lives, particularly their personal lives,” said Roth, via telephone. “And what the burden of carrying around those things is.”

The film includes references to actual Cold War confrontations, such as the overthrow of Guatemala’s leftist president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954, intrigue in the Belgian Congo, an effort to enlist the Mafia in overthrowing Cuba’s Fidel Castro and the thwarted 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

One intriguing reference in the movie is to a proposed trade between American intelligence agents and the Soviets in occupied post-World War II Berlin. The Russians propose trading Jewish scientists found in Nazi concentration camps for Nazi rocket scientists captured by U.S. troops. Roth said such trading was confirmed to him by the CIA sources he consulted in preparing his screenplay.

Roth, 61, credits his Jewishness with his screenwriting interests. “I think it comes down to my heritage and sense of values as to what is the sense of purpose on this earth,” he said. “I think it’s nice to have some kind of legacy and to do things that are worthwhile. There’s a value to doing something good and to have people thinking about things. I think it comes from the Jewish tradition within me and what my parents handed down to me.”

Born in Brooklyn, his father was a film publicist for United Artists and then, after moving to Los Angeles in Roth’s senior year of high school, taught film at University of Southern California. His mother wrote for radio quiz shows in New York and, in California, was a reader and head of the story department at UA. (Roth also grew up with a brother and sister; he and his wife today have six children and four grandchildren.)

After high school, Roth headed back east to Columbia University to study English. But he returned to study film and folklore at UCLA, where he won the Samuel Goldwyn Screenwriting Award. That led to his first feature film — in Israel.

“The movie was being financed by a group that took Christians to Holy Land tours, and they knew the director, a nice man named Jim Collier, who went on to make a film [“The Hiding Place”] about a Dutch family who hid Jews during World War II, Corrie ten Boom,” Roth said.

“It had two or three titles — one was ‘Catch a Pebble,’ I think. It was released here for like two seconds. The man who made it was a very religious Christian who made documentaries for Billy Graham, and this was a lay project, just a love story.

“It was his story,” Roth explained. “A stewardess was escaping a bad relationship and working for an airline that goes to Israel. She was barely pregnant at the time and decides not to come back to the States. She decides to hide out and get her life together in Israel. She meets an Israeli who takes her to his kibbutz, and they fall in love.”

Roth vividly remembers when the playwright Lanford Wilson, who already had the successful “Balm in Giliad” and was soon to write “The Hot L Baltimore,” was visiting an actor friend during that film’s shoot. “He came over and I remember him helping me write a scene I was having trouble with,” Roth said. “That was a lovely moment.”

From there on, Roth’s career has only gotten better — he wrote screenplays for such movies as “Suspect,” “Memories of Me,” “The Horse Whisperer” and “The Nickel Ride,” besides those previously mentioned. He also shares a screenplay credit (with Brian Helgeland) for one of Hollywood’s great recent stinkers, Kevin Costner’s three-hour-long “The Postman,” from 1997.

“I had written that as a satire for Tom Hanks many years before the movie got made — well before ‘Forrest Gump,'” Roth recalled. “That’s how I met Tom, through ‘The Postman.’ It was not meant to be taken seriously.

“Later, Kevin Costner developed it, and he made a more earnest version,” he continued. “And the guy who rewrote me went on to win an Oscar, Brian Helgeland [‘L.A. Confidential’]. So it goes to show that sometimes things just don’t work.”

“The Good Shepherd” opens Dec. 22.

Jewish Book Month’s Table of Contents


With fall comes the annual harvest of books (and authors) to hit town for Jewish Book Month, Nov. 15-Dec. 16, with fare ranging from politics to social commentary to humorous memoir.The autumnal visitors will include David Mamet at the Central Library, Harry Shearer at Temple Beth Israel of Pomona and children’s book writers at the Jewish Community Library.Here’s just a sampling of dozens of other events that will reap food for thought around town:

Host: The Jewish Book Festival, presented by the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, Nov. 2-Dec. 3

Author: David Brog, Nov. 30
Book: “Standing With Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State”
Scoop: This Capitol Hill insider says evangelical Christian Zionists are Israel’s friends, not foes
Info: At Sinai Temple of Glendale: (818) 246-8101 (the event is sponsored by The Jewish Journal)

Author: Sandy Tolan, Dec. 3
Book: “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew and the Heart of the Middle East”
Scoop: True story of the friendship between a Holocaust survivor whose only son died in a terrorist attack, and a Palestinian whose relatives were killed by an Israeli missile
Info: At Beth Shalom of Whittier: (562) 941-8744

Host: The Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles

Author: Michelle Markel, Nov. 19
Book: “Dreamer From the Village: The Story of Marc Chagall”
Scoop: Portrait of the artist as a shtetl kid who worked hard and made good
Info: At the Jewish Community Library: (323) 761-8644

Host: ALOUD at Central Library

Author: David Mamet, Nov. 8
Book: “The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and the Jews”
Scoop: The Pulitzer Prize winner will dish on his scathing new tome with Los Angeles Times Book Review Editor David L. Ulin
Info: At the Central Library downtown; for reservations: (213) 228-7025 or www.aloudla.org

Author: Steve Wozniak, Nov. 30
Book: “Iwoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon — How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple and Had Fun Doing It”
Scoop: Geek sheds his low profile to tell all about how he masterminded the most globe-altering invention of this past century
Info: See above

— Naomi Pfefferman, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Schmoozing with the Shammes of Shanghai


The shammes of Shanghai is an 87-year-old man named Wang Fa Liang.
I often write for this paper when I return from overseas travel, but
halfway through my recent trip to China with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, I was at a loss for a topic. And then I played hooky one morning in Shanghai.

I knew the general outline of the story of the Jews of Shanghai. Fleeing Nazi persecution, thousands of Jews journeyed halfway around the world to the sanctuary offered by Shanghai’s unique status as a free trade city. A small yet vibrant Jewish community had formed on the edge of the Middle Kingdom. While not discussed in my guidebooks, I hoped its remnants might still be found today.

Armed with an address from a Google search, three of us (former California Treasurer Kathleen Brown, Los Angeles Times reporter Duke Helfand and I) hired a car and asked the driver to find 62 Chang Yang Road. After a few wrong turns, the driver pulled up in front of Ohel Moishe (the “Tent of Moses”), a shul that had stood at the center of Shanghai’s ghetto.

We stepped from a Chinese street of working-class clothing, beauty and fish merchants into the world of our fathers. Ohel Moishe is a well-maintained, small but sturdy three-story brick building recessed from Chang Yang Road via a courtyard. Under a Star of David, we kissed the mezuzah and entered a plain sanctuary. The Torah scrolls had long been removed from the ark, but one could imagine the half-dozen rows jammed on Shabbat in Shanghai long ago.
The shul was nearly empty save for a couple from Brazil and four other Americans. Wang, the octogenarian caretaker and Shanghai native, assembled us around an old table upstairs to watch a video on the area’s history.

Wang then addressed us, drawing a portrait of centuries of Jewish privation with the erudition and compassion of a skilled rabbi. Hundreds of years of history, ours and his, spilled forth.
Wang told us of the Sephardim, principally from Iraq, who had traveled the Silk Road to Shanghai. Their descendants had gone on to greatness in Shanghai — one of the city’s defining landmarks, the Peace Hotel, was erected by Sir Victor Sassoon.

Then there were the Ashkenazim (Wang could discuss the distinctions between Jews with greater dexterity than we could discuss the subtleties of the Chinese) from Russia who — following pogroms, the Russo-Japanese War and the Revolution — moved to Shanghai at the start of the 20th century.

Finally, Wang told us of the Jews who had fled the Nazis. He spoke movingly of yeshiva students from Poland and musicians from Vienna who had sailed from Genoa or traversed Siberia to settle in his neighborhood. He spoke of the heroism of Japanese Consul General Chiune Sugihara in Kaunas, who had processed paperwork permitting thousands of Jews to flee from Lithuania to Shanghai. He told us the astonishing story of a failed mid-war German-Japanese plot to kill Shanghai’s European Jews (the plotters had evidently neglected the Sephardim, he noted).

Wang’s lecture was a tour de force. He beamed as he pointed to the pictures of the Israeli leaders — Herzog, Rabin, Peres and Netanyahu, among others — who had visited Ohel Moishe. He showed off reunion photos taken with former Jewish refugees who return from time to time.

When he concluded, Duke asked him a sim

ple question — “Why do you work here?”
He responded, “I remember my colleagues Mr. Stein and Mr. Friedman from the cafe where we worked in the ’40s. There were so many Jews in this area it was called ‘Little Vienna.’ Mr. Stein and Mr. Friedman moved away, and they helped my family move into a Jewish house.”
As we left the shul, Wang followed us down the street, pointing out additional landmarks.

“Make sure you see the park — Jewish families played there,” he called after us.

We were on a tight schedule to rejoin the mayor of Los Angeles, but the mayor of Little Vienna wouldn’t let us go.

I turned to Duke and Kathleen and told them how uplifted I felt, and I mentioned the story of Sugihara.

“He’s famous — I think he’s been recognized as a Righteous Gentile,” Duke said.

The memory and sanctuary of thousands of Jews are being kept alive by an old Chinese man in Shanghai, a man who did more than move into a Jewish house — a man who moved into Jewish lives, and became the guardian of their memories. Surely Wang Fa Liang is righteous as well.

Ohel Moishe, located at 62 Chang Yang Road in northeast Shanghai, is open daily 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Telephone – 86-21-65415008.

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Councilman Jack Weiss, Kathleen Brown, and Duke Helfand.

A grown-up children’s story


Inner child therapy is a psychological method aimed at giving voice to part of the adult psyche that remains eternally childlike. It purports that a vulnerable innocence
exists within our subconscious; when acknowledged, a more complete and mature life experience is attained.

For example, were my inner child invited to describe Parshat Noach, she might say:
 

51 Birch Street: House of Blocks . . . House of Cards?


We all know about “the generation gap.” The “mother-daughter bond.” Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons.” Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” or any number of his plays for that matter. Our literature and our language are rife with expressions of the struggles inherent in that most primal bond Doug Block with his fatherbetween parents and children.

In his personal documentary, “51 Birch Street,” filmmaker Doug Block sets out to explore his relationship with his father. His mother has died, and Block wants to document the dismantling of the family home before it is sold. A “baby-boomer” who came of age in the “let it all hang out” ’60s, Block is taken aback when he learns that his parents’ 54-year marriage was not at all what it seemed. Wrestling with disturbing revelations, Block’s film questions how well any of us truly know the people we love, how well we might really want to know them, and perhaps most importantly, what right we have to know.

On the surface, the Block family is a typical, post-war, middle-class suburban Jewish family. Mike Block and Mina Vogel married shortly after World War II, had three children over the course of four years and moved from Brooklyn to a brand-new house in the suburbs to raise their family. They were among the founding families of a Reform congregation that became the center of their social lives. Their children — two girls and a boy — went to (or more accurately “suffered through,” as son Doug describes it) Hebrew school through confirmation. Mike worked long hours as a mechanical engineer while Mina stayed home to raise the children, working outside of the home only as the children grew up. Mike and Mina were “inseparable.”

Mina’s death was shocking not only in its swiftness, but for the maelstrom of unexpected revelations that followed. Three months after his wife’s death, Mike Block traveled to Florida, returning only to announce that he was moving there to live with Kitty, his secretary from 40 years earlier. They wed shortly thereafter. As if this wasn’t enough for the Block siblings to absorb, Mike and Kitty decided to sell the family home on Birch Street. It fell upon Doug and his sisters to help their father sort through the accumulated detritus of 50 years of family life.

Block, a documentary filmmaker by vocation (“Home Page” and “The Heck With Hollywood!”) and an inveterate home-movie-maker by avocation, always felt close to his mother; her death left him bereft. In contrast, he felt both very different than and distant from his father. He hoped to use his camera, as was his wont, to help him get to know his subject — in this case his father — better.

As we travel with Block through his arduous path of discovery, watching long-buried secrets of his parents’ unhappiness slowly come to light, we see his family struggle with their newfound knowledge. And we struggle alongside them, wrestling not only with our own fears about trust and intimacy, but with questions of privacy and disclosure.

These questions come to a head when Block uncovers volumes of personal diaries his mother had written over a three- year period. Pained as his father obviously is by seeing them, he nevertheless tells his son to “save them.” Block is both drawn to and fearful of reading them, and decides to consult an “expert” on the ethical issues involved.

He turns to Rabbi Jonathan Blake, a young rabbi with a warm smile and quick wit, who Block felt was “wise” beyond his years. Asking Blake if it’s “right” to read his mother’s diaries (the mention of which causes an amusing moment of eyebrow-raising by Blake on camera), Blake first answers in true Rabbinic fashion, with another question: “What does your heart tell you to do?” Yet after wrestling a bit with the dilemma, Blake tells Block that learning more about one’s parents can be valuable, if the knowledge is used for “a holy purpose.”

Thus encouraged, Block decided to forge ahead — at times ambivalent, at times stunned.

“From the outside, to us, we thought they were actually wonderfully compatible. They had similar interests, they traveled, they bickered a bit but never argued,” Block said in an interview.

But as his mother’s diaries revealed, she was deeply unhappy in her marriage.
Block searched for ways to reconcile his image of his parents’ “model marriage” with the emerging picture of discord, anger and infidelity.

Although the film contains no explicit explanation of how Block, a “cultural” but non-observant Jew, interpreted the rabbi’s words, Block said he believed the rabbi “meant if I’m using it to honor and celebrate my mother’s life … it’s a holy thing.”
Yet, during the process of making the film, it wasn’t always clear to Block that his work hewed to this “holy” purpose.

“There were many times I thought it was a holy mess! I thought, all I’m going to do is burn in hell,” he said. “My mother will come off looking horribly, and I’ll look even worse for doing this.” He said he spent “many sleepless nights feeling the weight of picking out the right phrases and words of all the volumes of writings, to honor her complexity, her intelligence, to show her as a rounded human being.”

“On one level,” Block said, his film “is a story of assimilation, of city Jews moving to the suburbs and trying to fit in,” the pressures of which were one source of his mother’s unhappiness. Block says it’s also “very Jewish” that his family “covers up a lot of stuff through sarcasm and humor.” And he believes that his film was a profound act of teshuvah, a concept he discussed with Los Angeles Rabbi Judith Halevy while filming. Creating a portrait of his parents’ lives, including their fallibility, was for Block an “act of coming to forgiveness, and somehow getting cleansed in the process.”

Yet “51 Birch Street” is also a universal tale. Ultimately the story is — like the complex lives it reveals to us — a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, it is a truly sad story: of thwarted potential, of betrayal and of the defeat of good intentions. But it is also a story of redemption, of two men who manage to transcend the pain of their lives to forge new relationships: Mike Block with Kitty, and Doug Block with his father.

‘The End’ is nigh for Lemony Snicket


What will Lemony Snicket do now? And who is Beatrice? These are the questions that are setting children abuzz — a word which here means “something that everyone is talking and guessing about,” — now that “The End” (Harper Collins), the final, 13th book of 13 chapters in Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” hit bookstores on Oct. 13, which happened to be a Friday.

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Accompanying the publication of “The End” is an epistle collection called, “The Beatrice Letters,” which are letters from Snicket to Beatrice and vice versa. Beatrice is the mysterious woman to whom Snicket has dedicated all of the books, with inscriptions like, “For Beatrice — No one could extinguish my love or your house.”

Snicket is not only the author, but also the narrator of this very funny and literate series, which chronicles the lives of the tremendously unfortunate Baudelaire orphans. The orphans’ lives go from bad to worse — a phrase that here means “nothing good seems to happen to them even though they are all very clever and plucky and are the inheritors of an enormous fortune,” — after their parents die in a fire.

In “The End,” the Baudelaires are washed up on a desert island, where they meet a community of fellow castaways, including the leader Ishmael (‘Call me Ish’), a young orphan named Friday and a Rabbi Bligh, who is something of a philosopher. There they learn more about their parents, and some of the mysteries that have hooked more than 50 million readers onto the series are solved.

Daniel Handler — the actual writer behind the shadowy Snicket — said in an interview that he included Bligh because “it is often handy to have a rabbi around,” and that the books’ themes of misery multiplied had an antecedent in his Jewish heritage and his background as the son of a Holocaust survivor.
“I think a general theme of suffering without good reason is a mainstay of Jewish culture,” he said. “I got a taste of that early and continuously.”

After talking to Handler, The Journal was lucky enough to catch a few words with Snicket himself, who said that though he plans to produce more work, whether we see more of him or not “will depend on whether you will walk in while I am in the bath.”

Lemony Snicket, also known as Daniel Handler, will be appearing at Sinai Temple 10400 Wilshire Blvd., on Oct. 23 at 6 p.m.

For more information, call 310-659-3110, or visit Will kill for laughs

Life at 85: what a trip!


I was born in Chicago some 85 years ago. My home was Jewish Orthodox and consisted of my mother, her two brothers and their father, my grandfather. I specify
my grandfather because, in those days, nobody ever thought of placing their old father in an old folks’ home.

My closest friend while growing up was Alan, who lived across the street. Each evening, we would go for a walk — generally lasting about two hours. He and I really liked each other, but this walk was a very silent one, neither of us had much to say.

In 1943, I left Chicago and moved to Los Angeles. It was during the war, and I became a flight test engineer and copilot on the airplane known as the B-25. From then on, Alan and I spoke on the phone but also had personal visits during the years.

The other day, I got a call from Alan, who is now 87 and a widower.

Now, not as before, there was ongoing conversation. Not silent anymore. But what did we have to talk about? The talk ran easy. We spoke for a long time about his hip problems and my back and other health problems. The opening, “How are you?” was for one minute, and the health conversation lasted for one hour.

Now you may ask, why I am telling you the story of my friend? It has to do with my past. When he and I were growing up, how in the world would we ever know or think about hip problems at the age of 87? We would have asked: What do you mean by “the age of 87?” It was another world. A world of which we had no knowledge.
My reaction to our long conversation was very emotional. I was in tears when it was time to say goodbye. I said, “Alan, you have my love.”

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But this is what the past does for you — it is really another life; it’s gone but never forgotten. That thought will always put a tear in your eye.

The goodbye was so different than our youthful, nonspeaking days.

The conversation with Alan opened the door of my brain. I suddenly realized I am 85 and part of another world: It’s called the present. I have gone through the youth time, the middle time when I was 40 to 60 and, now, I find myself in the third stage. What a trip! Really unbelievable.

We look back on the past because it was another era. In our youth and young years, life included activities you chose. Your responsibilities were minimal compared to those as you grew older. Being young and thinking young allowed you to exist in a world that is the start of the middle age.

Of course, there are exceptions, and some people are required to give more of themselves as required by family obligations. But those times somewhat establish the makeup you will carry the rest of your life.

From the middle age, we enter what is called the old-age era. Old age is intended to slow the flow of time so we can get back to the real “hopefully pleasant” moments of the past.

How do I handle belonging to the senior group? How do I accept the present? It is very, very hard to say to myself: “You are old.” Stepping into this stage is not easy; it’s difficult to accept the number 85.

At 85 I have given up driving. I just can’t see well enough. There are two other “loves of my life that also went by the wayside: tennis and jogging. My eyesight also contributes to hardship in reading the newspaper. I find it difficult to really accept the fact that I can no longer do all of the middle-life chores or continue with many of my chosen activities. I find myself thinking about the activities that came so easily in my middle life.

But in the “old age” category, one must force oneself to realize the here and now. Activities must conform to the present place you are in life, both physically and mentally. When you come to accept the present position, time wise, I think you can then enjoy what you have — and prosper with all the good things that are there.

You can take advantage of the knowledge of the past, an example of which is the seven-member men’s club I belong to. It used to be that each time we met, the opening welcome was a cordial handshake. The past brought me to ask this group of men, a gender that often refuses to show hidden emotions, “Are you glad to see each other?”

The answer was, of course, “Yes.”

So I suggested a hug in place of a handshake — and the hug has taken over.
I find others, friends not in their 80s, display emotional tenderness to me and my wife, who is 84. I detect my friends thinking that age brings great knowledge not present in the early years. Another great experience is having our family close by and the joy they exhibit at having us with them.

The past is very important; it contributes to the actions of the present. Look back and enjoy your thoughts, but the present is here and now. Live it up, take pleasure in your friends and do not feel bad thinking about who you are today. Tell your thoughts and become a charter member of “Senior Time.”


Red Lachman is a short-story writer.

New Year brings new hope to inmates


Daniel, a 24-year-old UCLA student, has gotten under my skin. I met him a month ago when I followed Rabbi Yossi Carron on his rounds through Men’s Central Jail
and Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles. Daniel had a few more days to serve on the six-month sentence he received after his was convicted of dealing methamphetamine to some of his fellow Bruins — most likely, his release date would fall just before or just after Rosh Hashanah.

When I learned Daniel would be celebrating his last day in jail during the New Year’s service Carron organized for his prison shul, I asked to tag along.
In a hallway at Men’s Central on a Tuesday afternoon, Carron and three rabbinical students are maneuvering a pair of rickety carts loaded with prayer books and a Rosh Hashanah feast past a prisoner-painted mural that depicts a SWAT team, guns raised, staring down passersby.

At one point, several packages of pita bread slide off the top of one of the loads. At the rear of the convoy, where a Torah scroll on loan from a Sephardic temple nestles under a tallit, someone makes a joke about Uzzah — the poor guy in 2 Samuel, chapter 6, who meets with God’s wrath when he touches the Ark to keep it from bouncing off an ox cart.

Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, is onhand, along with half a dozen volunteers. As the afternoon sun slants through broken windowpanes 20 feet above the concrete floor, this small group of Jews lays tablecloths and arranges flowers to transform a disused prison dining hall into sacred space.

Simon — his name, like those of other inmates, has been changed to protect his identity — is one of the first inmates to arrive. Now 30, he has lived on the streets or in jail since he was 15. His arms are inked with menacing skulls and demons, but the most affecting tattoo is a single teardrop on his left cheek — a memento he got when his time behind bars passed the five-year mark.

“I get out again in 33 days,” he says, adding that his first stop will be a drug treatment center in Torrance. “This time I’m staying out.”

Eventually the room holds about 20 inmates from Men’s Central and from Twin Towers Correctional Facility across the street.

“You have more rabbis and rabbis-to-be in this room than you’ll ever see again in your life,” Carron tells the men in his prison shul. “Mingle and make use of them.”

The soft buzz of friendly conversation fills the hall.

I manage to get in a few words with Daniel, who looks quietly jubilant.
“Man, this feels so good,” he tells me. “This is like the perfect way to end this experience. I’ve learned so much. It sounds strange, but I’m actually kind of grateful.”

At another table, Gary, an inmate whose hard years are etched onto a face that resembles a walnut, has recognized Pauline Lederer, a wheelchair-bound but sharp-witted nonagenarian who has been volunteering in Los Angeles County jails since the 1930s.

“I first met Pauline in 1983!” Gary exclaims.

After her conversation with Gary, Pauline says, “Things aren’t going well for him. Spending so much time in here is bad for the soul. It’s very sad, but I hope this helps.”

Soon Carron asks everyone to take a seat so that service can begin. Over the next hour, he weaves prayers recalling the Israelites’ liberation from bondage in Egypt with the traditional Rosh Hashana liturgy. Noam Raucher delivers a homily about how his experience shadowing Carron has shaped his understanding of teshuvah, and Alison Abrams opens the rosewood ark to read a passage from the Torah.

At the end of the service, Michael Chusid, a veteran of last year’s Rosh Hashanah celebration at Men’s Central, blows the shofar.

“Every generation has to overcome terrible suffering,” Carron says later, after the last of the roasted chicken and apple tart has disappeared. “What we’re doing on Rosh Hashanah is redeeming that holy spark within us, which is what happened when we crossed the Red Sea. It also points toward the freedom that I hope each of these guys will experience in some way in the New Year.”

Carron’s hope reminds me of Daniel, who’s marking the New Year and his newfound freedom by returning to a life that will be completely the same and totally different from the life he knew six months ago. Really, each day is like that — each day is the beginning of a new year. That’s easy to say, but hard to accept. In my own life, I’m starting to realize that, for now, it’s enough to move through each day as if I accepted it.

So whenever you happen to be reading this, Shana Tova.

For more on Rabbi Carron’s work, see

The Key Is Rejoicing


A story is told about a Chasidic rabbi visited by an enthusiastic follower. The man eagerly wanted to update the rabbi on his latest religious undertaking.

“I have decided to inflict my body and deprive myself from mundane pleasures,” the man said. “Every day I roll in the snow after receiving 39 lashes; I sleep standing, put nails in my shoes, drink only water and eat only raw vegetables. I feel that I am taking off my bodily garb and dress up in a spiritual, heavenly cloth.”

Instead of responding, the rabbi started walking with his follower around the village until they arrived at a stable. There the rabbi paused and, gazing admiringly at one of the horses, asked the man: “Isn’t this a magnificent animal?”

The man could not control his frustration.

“Rabbi, this is truly beyond me,” he complained. “I am talking spirituality here and you are thinking about horses?”

The rabbi remained unmoved by the man’s outburst and answered calmly, “This horse drinks only water and eats straw, sleeps standing and has nails in its shoes; its master uses the whip ruthlessly and rolling in the snow is its daily ritual, but after all it is still a horse.”

The rabbi might have been inspired by this week’s portion. At first glance, admittedly, it seems like an eclectic collection of laws and instructions, dealing with such disparate issues as dietary laws, agrarian laws anti-paganism campaign and more. A close look at the Re’eh, though, will reveal a key word that illuminates the working thesis of this collection of laws.

The root “shin, mem, chet” — be happy, rejoice — appears in the parsha seven times, and it is always in the context of the family and the community. You should rejoice in the place your God has chosen, with your sons and daughters, and servants, with the sojourners and with the Levites who have no permanent residence in the land of Israel.

This key phrase is an insight into what Judaism considers to be the true way of serving God. It is a way of life that is imbued with happiness and gratitude. It is sharing your blessings with family, friends and the less fortunate. It is one of the main reasons for the agrarian laws, which guarantee social justice and equality, as well as a partial reason for the rejection of paganism.

A bitter, angry man can only wreak havoc, even more so if he thinks he represents God. Jacques Barzun, the famous historian tacitly described the motive for religious wars: “Be my brother or I will kill you.”

This is exactly the pagan attitude shunned in Re’eh. The Torah warns against the pagan practice of wounding one’s flesh as a sign of mourning or spiritual fervor (Deuteronomy 14:1) and against the horrifying practice of offering one’s offspring as a burnt sacrifice to the gods (Deuteronomy 12:31).

These two practices not only are linked but they are the breeders of religious fanaticism.

If you are willing to inflict physical pain upon yourself as a service to your god, why not treat others to the same spiritual experience? Paradoxically, they will be killed or harmed because of your love for them.

What other atrocities can be committed by those who murder their own children in the name of God? We would like to think that such practices are extinct, but unfortunately this is not the case. There are still religious sects around the world who herald asceticism and acts that border with masochism. In some cases it leads to religious or ethnic terrorism, and in others to a complete apathy and indifference to the fate of the less fortunate (India, abundant with Yogi, Brahmins and fakirs, is a good example as home to spirituality seekers from around the world but also to millions of untouchable who live in subhuman conditions just because they were born into a certain caste).

The practice of human sacrifices did not disappear with the demise of the Phoenicians or the annihilation of South American cultures by the conquistadores as we would like to think. Since the dawn of humanity fathers and mothers have been marching their children off to unnecessary wars in the name of bloodthirsty gods.

The message of this week’s parsha reverberates with that of Isaiah: “Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the chords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home … then shall your light burst through like the dawn” (Deuteronomy 58:5-8).

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

‘Restless’ Hunk Reveals Family Secret: He’s Jewish


Don Diamont is the resident hunk on “The Young and the Restless,” where his buff muscles and six-pack abs make female fans drool.

Don DiamontWhile his character, Brad Carlton, has done far more than strut about in cut-offs (he’s mourned the loss of an unborn son, among other weighty scenarios), devotees can’t quite forget his 1994 Playgirl centerfold, his status as one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” and as one of the first actors to bare his tush on TV.

Now comes a plot twist in which Diamont, 43, will expose far more than his derriere. “I’m ‘outing’ myself as a Jew,” he says. “It’s the most meaningful story [line] of my career.”

In the Friday, July 28, episode, the fictional Carlton will reveal that his real name is George Kaplan and that his mother (Millie Perkins, who starred in the 1959 film, “The Diary of Anne Frank) is an Italian Jew who was forced to catalogue looted Nazi art in a concentration camp, Diamont says. After the war, she immigrated to the United States, started a new family and became a kind of art-oriented Simon Wiesenthal, tracking down stolen works and returning them to their rightful owners.

Those displeased with her efforts eventually bludgeoned most of her American family to death, save for herself and George, who were away from home at the time. Mother and son subsequently went into hiding, although the Bad Guys may be close at present.

Diamont — a 21-year “Restless” veteran — has been sworn to secrecy about future episodes. He says he only learned of his character’s true name upon reading a script a couple months ago. He was so startled that he telephoned head writer Lynn Latham, who confirmed that Kaplan was Jewish.

“‘I said, ‘This isn’t what we typically do here; we do baptisms and weddings in front of the cross.’ And she [replied], ‘We’re going to change that.'”

The change means that Diamont will play perhaps the only overtly Jewish lead on daytime TV, which is known for WASPy protagonists. He is likely the first soap actor to star in a story line about Nazi-looted art. It doesn’t hurt that pilfered art is currently a hot news topic; that the tall-dark-and-handsome Diamont would remain popular if his character turned out to be a Martian, or that “Restless” has been the top-rated soap for more than 17 years.

Latham says she had other reasons for turning Carlton into Kaplan.

“I have always preferred to write for an ethnically and racially mixed cast that represents most religions,” she told The Journal. “That’s the world … most of us live in.”

Diamont (né Feinberg) relates to his “new” character because he, too, has felt compelled to hide his Jewishness and has lost much of his family. Between scenes on a CBS sound stage, the actor comes off not so much as a sex symbol (despite his tight black Calvin Klein T-shirt) than as a thoughtful man whose real life story sounds as dramatic as any soap’s.

As a youth, he learned his mother’s cousin, who was Dutch, had been injected with gasoline during medical experiments at Auschwitz. In high school, several fellow jocks tormented him with anti-Semitic slurs (and slugs) for three years; the otherwise popular teenager kept the abuse secret, even from his parents, until he decided had had enough and repeatedly punched one bully. Since he had been victimized so long, his punishment was mild, just detention, but Diamont was left with mixed feelings about his heritage.

Because he had been raised in a secular home, “I didn’t know who I was, or why I should have pride in who I was,” he says. “Part of me was ashamed because I had been shamed…. I wanted to hide.”

Upon his agent’s advice, he agreed to use his mother’s maiden name as his stage name, instead of the more identifiably Jewish “Feinberg.”

The change began around 1987 as his father, then dying of kidney cancer, lamented raising his children without a sense of tradition and history. When Diamont’s brother, Jack, was diagnosed with a brain tumor two years later, the siblings decided to study together for a joint bar mitzvah. They had to stop when Jack deteriorated from a 210-pound athlete to an invalid. After Jack’s death, Diamont went on to become a bar mitzvah, alone, at Stephen S. Wise Temple, and to raise his six children Jewish. Temple rabbis conducted the funerals when his sister, Bette, succumbed to cardiac arrest nine years later and his mother died of emphysema just three weeks ago.

The actor, who is as tough and stoic as his character, came to work within hours of his mother’s death. That day he broke down only once — when he had to say the line, “I just spoke with my mother.” He recovered several minutes later and has not missed a shot since.

“It is ironic that as my mother passed, my TV mother has just been introduced on the show,” he says.

But he’s happy about the plot twist.

“You can’t tell the story of the Holocaust enough, especially since genocide continues today,” he says.

“Given the layer of insulation from the world I had wanted to not be immediately identified as a Jew, I’m ‘coming out’ in a most public way,” he adds.Of course, “Restless” is a daytime drama, so the plotline will undoubtedly involve steamy new love triangles for his character, Diamont says.

And, if we’re lucky, perhaps we’ll even get some more glimpses of those fabulous abs.

“The Young & the Restless” airs weekdays at 11:30 a.m. on CBS.

Spectator – The Woman Who Fought the Tigers


Helene Klodawsky remembers how her survivor mother and girlfriends stayed up all night, laughing and crying as they recounted their Holocaust experiences over cigarettes and coffee.

“I became consumed with questions about women and war,” the 50-year-old Canadian filmmaker said.

Her new documentary, “No More Tears Sister” — about the struggle of Sri Lankan human rights activist Rajani Thiranagama — reflects that lifelong obsession.

The film describes how the late Thiranagama, a physician, joined a militant group she believed would help her people amid brutal civil war in the 1980s. She eventually left that group, the Tamil Tigers, when she learned their murders and bombings tormented civilians, especially women. She founded the University Teachers for Human Rights to document and disseminate reports about atrocities perpetuated by Tigers and other factions.

Thiranagama wrote of women’s dead bodies — bloated, beaten, shot, raped and left to rot on the roadside. She helped expose how the Tigers convinced sexually assaulted teenagers, considered tainted by society, to become suicide bombers.

“One day a bullet will silence me,” Thiranagama said of her work. Her premonition came true on Sept. 21, 1989 when a Tamil gunman assassinated her in her rural hometown of Jaffna. She was only 35.

“Sister” spotlights the legacy Thiranagama left Sri Lanka: “The idea that militarism does not benefit women, who are often caught in the crossfire between groups of armed men,” Klodawsky said.

The fear of such gunmen challenged “Sister’s” production in 2003 and 2004. Although Thiranagama’s relatives agreed to speak on camera, many potential subjects declined to be interviewed, even in shadow, and even when they lived as far away as Canada. Those who participated did so only when the director agreed to film them far from their homes. Because Kladowsky could not shoot in Thiranagama’s Tamil-controlled hometown, she decided to tell the story largely through staged recreations — a technique often frowned upon by cineastes.

“These flagrantly fictional images push the already elastic limits of documentary almost to the breaking point,” The New York Times said of “Sister” in a mixed review.

Other critics praised the film as powerful.

Kodlawsky said her goal was to tell Thiranagama’s story vividly; in a way, it reminded her of those late-night discussions over cigarettes and coffee. Her mother’s friends often spoke of how Kodlawsky’s mother risked death to smuggle food to others at Bergen-Belsen.

“Her courage came in very private, localized ways, not to say it was a lesser courage,” Kodlawsky said.

“No More Tears Sister” airs July 11, 10 p.m. on KCET.

 

The Ultimate Enigma


Zot chukat haTorah begins this week’s parsha, telling us that the subject of the Red Heifer is the chok of the Torah. A chok is a law that is simply incomprehensible. It makes no sense to us whatsoever.

When I tell you that a person who had become ritually defiled by close contact with a human corpse could purify himself by counting seven days, and on days three and seven have the ashes of a red heifer sprinkled on him, you’ll understand what I mean.

There is logic to honoring one’s parents. There is a rationale for not stealing or murdering. But for purification in a ruddy, bovine shower, why would God ask such a thing of us?

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know. But neither did King Solomon, the wisest of men. It seems that this is part of the definition of a chok, that its raison d’etre remains a mystery.

There are many chukim that defy a logical explanation — keeping kosher, not wearing a garment made of wool and linen and yes, ritual impurity. We can’t ask the question, “Why do we observe them?” The only correct answer is that we observe these mitzvot because God told us to — period.

But because Judaism does not subscribe to blind faith, we must follow up with a second question. Not why, but what. What benefit is there to us by observing this law? How does keeping this commandment make our life richer, infuse our existence with a greater sense of purpose, expand our understanding of the truths of this world?

When we ask “what” regarding the laws governing the Red Heifer, we will understand why this mitzvah is singled out as the paradigmatic chok, the mother of all chukim, if you will. We will also see how intensely relevant an incomprehensible set of laws that haven’t been practiced in thousands of years can be.

Spiritual impurity, tumah, is brought about by different circumstances. For example, one becomes impure, tamay, from close contact with a dead animal. One also becomes tamay if he/she contracts tzaraas, the spiritual equivalent of leprosy. These forms of tumah can be removed simply by immersing in a mikvah, a ritual bath. However, if a person comes in close contact with a human being who has passed away, the level of impurity is much more severe, and the purification process becomes much more involved, requiring mikvah immersion and the Red Heifer concoction.

The difference in the severity of the tumah can be found in the source, or the impetus, of the impurity. Emotionally and psychologically, what does a person experience when they see a dead animal or a body racked by disease? They experience a sense of revulsion and disgust at the decaying organism. They may be sickened and repelled by the diseased tissue overtaking what was once a strong and healthy body. When we chance upon a squirrel that has been run over in the street, we don’t mourn the squirrel. We are grossed out from the blood and the guts, and we just want to get away from it.

Contrast that to the experience of the death of a human being. True, a corpse is not pleasant to behold, but that is not the focus of our emotional/psychological experience. It is so much more. It is the realization that in all of the universe, the deceased was unique. The person had individual talents, a singular purpose no longer to be fulfilled.

Inside every human being lies unlimited potential, and death means that it is lost forever. This most severe form of impurity stems from the recognition that every life has infinite value; that every person truly is an entire world.

The story is told that the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, paid a visit to Anwar Sadat shortly before the Yom Kippur War and advised him not to go to war with Israel. Sadat responded by handing him a copy of the publication, Maariv. The cover had a picture of a young man in uniform who was killed and was being mourned by an entire nation. Sadat said that such a people won’t endure a long war if to them, each dead person is important and precious.

As I write this, myself and fellow Jews all over the world, are praying and beseeching God for the safe return of another young man in uniform, Gilad Shalit. To us, he is not just another soldier. He is a unique and precious individual whose loss, God forbid, would be the paradigm of that which doesn’t make sense. Zot chukat haTorah. That a precious life can just be snuffed out is the most illogical and unintelligible chok of the Torah.

Through the parsha of the Red Heifer, we learn to value not just life, but every life. That is why we don’t lump all victims of terror together, but each one has a picture and a name, because each one represents an unimaginable loss. That is why every Shabbat, we pray for the return of the Israeli MIAs. Not to care about the fate of each and every one of them is incomprehensible to us. Yes Sadat, you were right. Every individual is precious and important to us, and every loss a sickening tragedy.

But you were wrong, too. Appreciating the worth of each individual has not weakened us. It is what has given us the strength to keep going. Death may never make sense to us, but the greatness and grandeur of life does. And as incomprehensible as it may seem to you, we choose life.

We hope and pray that very soon, the rest of the world will, too.

Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

 

Iranian Colored Band Report Discredited


When the renowned exiled Iranian journalist Amir Taheri reported in a Canadian newspaper last week that Iran had just passed a law requiring Jews to wear yellow bands on their clothing, the world reacted with shock. The story, which also outlined required colored bands for Christians and Zoroastrians, was immediately picked up by major newspapers in Israel, and the word spread quickly. The purpose of the law according to Taheri’s article, was to set a standard dress code for Muslims and also for Iranian Muslims “to easily recognize non-Muslims so that they can avoid shaking hands with them by mistake and thus becoming najis [unclean]”.

The story seemed credible, given that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been making anti-Semitic and anti-Israel proclamations for months. But, as it turned out, Taheri was wrong. No such law had been passed.

Nevertheless, Taheri’s report set in motion a media frenzy, with checks and balances of rumor control that illustrate how on edge — and careful — the Iranian exile community is these days. Local Iranian Jewish leaders were bombarded with requests for comments from the international media on the reported legislation, but they held back from responding until they had received solid confirmation from their sources in Iran.

“To the best of my knowledge the final version of the law does not demand any identifying marks by the religious minority groups,” Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation said in a press release. “I am not aware of what was said by whom, but it is possible that some ideas might have been thrown around.”

Kermanian also said that while Iran’s Islamic officials have in the past put out ideas in the media to gauge international reaction, there was no specific information about this instance.

The report stemmed from new legislation geared to making women in Iran dress more conservatively and avoid Western fashions, Iranian legislator Emad Afroogh Afroogh who sponsored the Islamic Dress Code bill told the Associated Press on Friday. Allegations that new rules affecting religious minorities were not part of the new regulations, he said.

“It’s a sheer lie. The rumors about this are worthless,” Afroogh said. “There is no mention of religious minorities and their clothing in the bill.”

Morris Motamed, the Jewish representative in the Iranian Parliament also denied the existence of any bills designed to segregate Jews in the country with special insignia on their clothes.

“Such a plan has never been proposed or discussed in the parliament,” Motamed said. “Such news, which appeared abroad, is an insult to religious minorities here.”

Rumors of anti-Semitic laws in Iran have disturbed local Iranian Jews who have been increasingly concerned for the safety of roughly 25,000 Jews still living in Iran since Ahmadinejad denied the existence of the Holocaust and called for Israel to “wiped off the map” late last year.

“The mere fact that such possibilities are considered to be plausible is a reflection of the sad state of affairs of the religious minority groups in Iran,” Kermanian said in his press release.

According to a 2004 report prepared by Frank Nikbakht, a local Iranian Jewish activist who tracks anti-Semitism in Iran, the Jewish community lives in constant fear for its security amid threats from militant Islamic factions in the country. Since 1979, at least 14 Jews were murdered or assassinated by the regime’s agents, 11 Jews have disappeared after being arrested, at least two Jews died while in custody and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime. In 1999, Feizollah Mekhoubad, a 78-year-old cantor of the popular Yousefabad synagogue in Tehran, was the last Jew to be officially executed by the regime, stated the report.

In 2000, the local Iranian Jewish community was at the forefront of an international human rights campaign to save the lives of 13 Jews in Shiraz. They were facing imminent execution after being arrested on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States. Ultimately, the Shiraz Jews were not executed but sentenced to prison terms and have since been released.

Both Jews and Muslims of Iranian origins living in Southern California have been closely collaborating to raise public awareness of Ahmadinejad’s comments. Nearly 2,000 Iranians of various faiths gathered at a pro-Israel rally in Westwood last November to condemn Ahmadinejad’s calls for Israel’s destruction.

“We wanted to show the world that we are against such comments made by Mr. Ahmadinejad and that his comments are not representative of the Iranian people,” said Assadollah Morovati, owner of KRSI “Radio Sedaye Iran,” a Persian language satellite radio station based in Beverly Hills that broadcasts news around the world. “Iranians are not the type to want the destruction of another people. We respect the Jewish people and only wish success for the State of Israel.”

 

Shlub to Hero: Film Sketches Gehry Life


“He starts out with that,” says Barry Diller, alluding to a squiggle-like drawing in the new documentary, “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” and “he ends up with this,” pointing to a model of the InterActive Corp. (IAC) Building, currently under construction in Manhattan. Although made completely of glass, a material that likes to be flat, Gehry has molded the glass walls to resemble a row of sailboats billowing in the wind.

Even to the architect’s detractors — and there are many — buildings like the IAC offer something new and unexpected, even if a lot of looking is needed sometimes to wrap one’s mind around these edifices. In short, the IAC Building aspires to be a work of architecture that is simultaneously and unapologetically a work of art.

There’s an implicit question in the comments of Diller, the chairman of Expedia and Gehry’s client for the IAC Building: How did that blankety-blank squiggle turn into a really good building?

The film, a rare departure into documentary by Sidney Pollack, director of “Tootsie” and “Out of Africa,” assays the mystery of Gehry, an outwardly aw-shucks guy, who regularly produces some of the world’s most aggressive and attention-getting buildings.

While it is interesting to hear Gehry, 77, describe his formative influences — building blocks during childhood, the images of fish, the architecture of Finnish master Alvar Aalto — this kind of museum-docent talk does not bring us close to the core of Gehry’s creativity. Pollack’s film is strongest when filling in the human, rather than theoretical, background.

The real question here is: How did this lower-middle-class Jew from Toronto become the most celebrated architect in the world, and one of the rare people in the profession, outside of Frank Lloyd Wright, to become a household name? (What other architect is well-known enough to be spoofed on “The Simpsons”?)

Pollack, with his skill in developing character, locates the Freudian threads in Gehry’s life story. A Canadian in Southern California, the young Gehry, then known as Goldberg, struggled in architecture school, believing himself victimized by anti-Semitism in a largely all-WASP profession.

He has the outsider’s simultaneous rejection of, and reverence for, authority, here symbolized by the architectural profession, with its weighty baggage of uptight, exclusionary, backward-looking rules. The young Gehry wonders why architecture must be so authoritarian and rule-bound, as opposed to something akin to the delight he experienced as a child, building imaginary cities on the floor of his aunt’s apartment.

Gehry’s creative solution — his psychoanalytic victory — was to embrace the delight of free-form design, while making sure that his buildings met the needs of his clients. His freedom in designing what appear to be purely sculptural objects that subsequently win rapturous praise must make him the envy of all architects who secretly wish they could find such willing clients. Gehry seems to embody the myth of the artist-hero, a symbol of personal attainment and untrammeled freedom of expression.

Yet self-doubt remains. On the eve of his greatest popular triumph, the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, five years ago, the architect recalls walking around the spectacular complex, shortly to become the most photographed and discussed building of the past 50 years, asking himself, “What have I done?” It is the most touching moment in the film.

That kind of vulnerability and introspection makes “Sketches of Frank Gehry” at times resemble a Woody Allen movie. The plotline certainly sounds a lot like Allen: A sad sack, Jewish shlub who feels excluded from the country club set of architects, turns out to be the designer of amazing buildings that turn the world of architecture on its ear. Meanwhile, the hero, in all innocence, says things like, “Gee, did I really do that?”

Adding to the Allen-like texture of the film is a series of celebrity talking heads — Diller, ex-Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, actor Dennis Hopper, rock musician Bob Geldof, ex-talent agency director Michael Ovitz, artist Julian Schnabel, the late architect Philip Johnson — each expressing his admiration for cher maitre.

And in the archetypally Allen moment, we meet Gehry’s psychoanalyst of 35 years, who acknowledges with a coy smile that “Frank has made me famous,” while adding that he refuses services to other architects seeking to emulate Gehry’s inner transformation. (Question for Gideon Kanner: Is there a statute of limitations on physician confidentiality?)

This enjoyable, undemanding film from the hand of a master director holds no terrors for nonarchitects and others who feel flummoxed by the mystique and technical complexity of the profession. This very much reflects the attitude of Gehry, who seems intent on puncturing a certain kind of architectural snobbery.

What the film does not do is help us understand the process through which a scribbled drawing turns into a finished building. For all the accessibility of Gehry the man, Gehry the creative personality remains a mystery.

Real Danger in Myth


The film version of author Dan Brown’s bestseller, “The Da Vinci Code,” premiered this week amid a cacophony of unhappy historians and theologians who hoped to reach the horde of curious moviegoers seeking a good diversion — which is also what prompted many readers to pick up the book in the first place. In these pages, two scholar/writers — a Jew (David Klinghoffer) and a Catholic (Gabriel Meyer) — offer their individual responses to The Code.

Meanwhile, art expert Tom Freudenheim (p. 30) finds a museum exhibit with artifacts from the time of Jesus that have their own story to tell about ancient times.

And if you’re looking for a real Da Vinci Code, the Christian Bible and the newly found Gospel of Judas are good places to start, especially if the Greek classics also sit on your bookshelf. Managing Editor Howard Blume (p. 29) has selected excerpts from a talk by Bible scholar Dennis R. MacDonald.

Jews, Too, Should Beware the ‘Code’

by David Klinghoffer



The Catholic Church has good reason to take issue with Dan Brown’s megaselling “The Da Vinci Code” — and the film version of the book that opens this weekend. But should non-Christians be concerned? And should Jews, in particular, care when, in effect, another religion is maligned through a popular and persuasive work of fiction that pretends to be more than fiction?

The answer to both questions is yes.

In fact, Jews, in particular, need to be aware of the unwitting gift Brown has given to anti-Semites.

As most everyone knows by now, Brown uses the medium of a gripping suspense story, set in the present, to inform us that Jesus was not celibate but instead married Mary Magdalene, and that he has descendants living in Europe today. Furthermore, according to the film, the members of this surviving family of Jesus have been protected for centuries by an altruistic secret organization, the Priory of Sion, which is locked in combat with a sinister, violent Catholic group, Opus Dei, which seeks to keep the secret of Jesus’ fecundity from getting out. Behind Opus Dei stands the Catholic Church. For millennia, the church has perpetrated what the film calls “the biggest cover-up in human history.”

Opus Dei, the real-life Catholic lay order, asked Sony Pictures to place a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie admitting that the story is fictional — as of press time, the studio refused. Sony’s compliance or noncompliance hardly makes a difference, though, for much damage has already been done. Brown himself states at the outset of the novel that his tale is grounded in “fact”: “The Priory of Sion — a European secret society founded in 1099 — is a real organization” and so on.

Scholars have done a solid job of pointing out the fictions that interweave Brown’s “facts.” Notably, the Priory of Sion is real only in the sense that it really is the modern invention of Pierre Plantard, an eccentric and paranoid Frenchman. Plantard’s creation co-opts the name of an ancient order that disappeared into history, but the incarnation of his hoax dates to 1956 not 1099. The historic Priory of Sion was a medieval monastic order that ceased to exist by the 14th century and had nothing to do with legends about Jesus’ fathering children.

You may wonder if Brown’s readers find his tall tale convincing. The answer is, they do. A Barna Group poll found that 53 percent of the book’s readers said “The Da Vinci Code” aided their “personal spiritual growth and understanding.”

But why should a Jew care?

Consider that the alleged conspiracy underlying the “biggest cover-up in human history” bears a remarkable resemblance to another phony conspiracy, the one that underlies the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

In both conspiracy theories, an ancient world religion turns out to be a massive fraud perpetrated to gain or maintain power. In Brown’s version, the Priory of Sion (“Sion” means “Zion” in French) is the good guy. It’s been sitting on the secret about Jesus having children, waiting for the right moment to reveal the truth, meanwhile giving safe harbor to the children of those descendants.

The priory also practices a pagan goddess worship that, as we’re supposed to understand, is the true religion intended by Jesus and his spouse, Mary Magdalene. All the while, in the tale, the Catholic Church plots to hide the truth about the holy “goddess” and the “sacred feminine” forever. To ensure that the world’s people remain in the dark, the story says Opus Dei is willing to go to any lengths, including murder, all to keep the male-dominated church hierarchy in power.

In the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — a text thought by many scholars to have been authored by Russian monarchist and anti-Semite Mathieu Golovinski in 1898 — a secret society of Jewish elders plot to rule the world through “Darwinism, Marxism and Nietzscheism.” Here the “Zion” (or “Sion”) team is the bad guy. Like the Catholic Church in Brown’s scenario, the elders of Zion are committed to keeping their diabolical plot absolutely secret.

Plantard (1920-2000), the French monarchist and anti-Semite who gave us the Priory of Sion hoax, spent much of his life inventing fantastical, esoteric organizations intended to “purify” France of the evil influences of modernity — and of Judaism. A group he started in 1937, Alpha Galates, which like all his efforts attracted few followers, supposedly devoted itself to fighting “the corrupt principles of the old democratic Judaeo-Freemasonry.” In 1940, he wrote of the “terrible Masonic and Jewish conspiracy” that threatened France.

The Priory of Sion existed almost exclusively on paper and in his imagination. The point of this occult order was to advance Plantard’s claim that he was the surviving heir of the ancient Merovingian line of French kings, whose “holy blood” was guarded by the priory. The idea that the Merovingians were the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene was added later by others — not Brown.

In Plantard’s fantasy, this priory was not founded by him but by Godfrey de Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade. Godfrey is the same person who in reality presided over the massacre of the entire Jewish population of Jerusalem in 1099.

Undoubtedly Plantard knew of the “Protocols.” How did it influence him?

That’s hard to know. But we can say with certainty that the same poisonous European air of delusional paranoia that fed the “Protocols” also fed Plantard’s fantasies about Jews and himself.

The fact that the two conspiracies highlight the word “Zion” or “Sion” would only be an interesting coincidence, except that both myths share an understanding of how to deal with ideas you disagree with. Rather than taking traditional Christian beliefs at face value and arguing against them, Brown portrays the religion as a belief system based on a lie told about history. The purported lie that Jesus had no wife allows the church’s elders, who are all men, to perpetuate male-domination of the Christian religion. This strategy excuses Brown from having to make any arguments for his book’s promotion of the “sacred feminine.”

Anti-Semites do much the same thing. The “Protocols” were composed initially as a response to Russian revolutionary socialism. In form, they are the supposed instructions to a new member of the Jewish conspiracy of the elders of Zion, outlining how the Jews will manipulate the media and financial institutions to establish control over ignorant gentiles. The elders’ tools include the modern secular, liberal ideologies, which will detach non-Jews from their old loyalties to traditional structures of the church and of the monarchy.

Rather than coming out honestly and openly against Darwinism or Marxism or modernity in general, the author of the “Protocols” concocted a story about Judaism as a conspiracy taking the form of a religion — a cover-up, a lie, designed to perpetuate the rule of the Jewish elders over the unlucky non-Jews. Judaism, in this view, may be a religion, but its primary importance is as a conspiracy. The “Protocols” remains a global phenomenon of staggering popularity and, to many readers, especially in the Arab world, it’s accepted as truth.

I don’t mean to imply that Brown ever intended to foment bigotry, nor that he is an anti-Semite, a bigot or anything remotely similar. There would be no warrant whatsoever for saying that.

But we live in a time when conspiracies based on flagrant hoaxes captivate millions. A healthier culture would demand serious proof for startling claims or simply put no stock in them when they appear in fictional entertainments. Today, Americans and others will accept dubious beliefs simply because they tickle their fancy, or because those beliefs appeal to an increasingly influential anti-religious impulse — about which Jews often seem strangely unconcerned.

Such a world stands in peril of succumbing to all manner of untruths, from the benign to the deadly. Like other intellectual and physical capacities, the ability to distinguish fact from fancy needs to be exercised to remain strong. Each time we fall prey to another hoax, our powers of discrimination are weakened.

If you don’t think America has fallen prey to the hoax of the Priory of Sion, then contemplate the Barna Group finding: More than half of Brown’s readers believe their “personal spiritual growth and understanding” was aided by knowing about, among other things, the wild conspiracy theory given as fact in Brown’s novel.

Brown has inadvertently encouraged in his readers the habits of paranoia and gullibility. For anti-Semites and other conspiracy theorists, the gullibility of Americans is welcome news. For people committed to finding the truth through investigation and argumentation, it’s worrisome.

For Jews, it’s even more troubling. Historically, we as a people haven’t fared well when the culture we live in turns to entertaining fantasies and delusions at the expense of unfashionable religions.

“The Da Vinci Code” phenomenon has more serious potential ramifications than Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” ever did — because it’s been a long time since the ancient slur that the Jews killed Jesus got any serious traction. On the other hand, the charge that Judaism is a conspiracy seeking power over gentiles is one that still claims numerous believers. Many Muslims find the idea entirely plausible — and not only Muslims, as anyone who listens to talk radio can tell you. “The Da Vinci Code,” in encouraging people to think of religions as conspiracies, is playing with dynamite in a way that Gibson wasn’t. Surely, this merits some attention from our official community. So far it has received none.

I hope that our discerning anti-defamation groups, committed to defending Jewish interests as well as to fighting the unfair maligning of other faiths, will take an interest in the way the Catholic Church is being defamed by Brown.

To recognize the peril in his storytelling would be in our own interest. It’s also the right thing to do.

David Klinghoffer (

A Holy Mess for Church Leaders


by Gabriel Meyer


The May 19 release of the film version of Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel, “The Da Vinci Code,” published in 2003, promises, if anything, to intensify the controversy that has swirled around this dark thriller — and its breathless and profoundly misleading tour of medieval Christian esoterica — what New York Times critic Janet Maslin, who liked the book, calls “the motherlode of religious conspiracy theory.”

Not surprisingly, Catholic opposition to the “Code,” off to a fairly slow start, has become more vocal. The Vatican is the predictable bogeyman of Brown’s story, which features an upside down version of the canonical Christian Gospels, with Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus and real leader of the church and subsequent co-divinity — a narrative, according to the “Code,” that the Catholic Church both knows to be true and ruthlessly suppresses.

For good measure, the international Catholic organization, Opus Dei, is brought on stage as the principal agent of the Vatican’s murderous cover-up — complete with an albino monk. (Shades of “Monk” Lewis and the 19th century Gothic novel!)

(A priest friend of mine recently got a taste of what may be in store for him, when, after responding long and thoughtfully to a young person’s question about Jesus’ celibacy, was told: “Well, you would say that, of course.”

One Vatican official, Msgr. Angelo Amato, has called Brown’s “slanders” — on par with insulting the prophet Mohammed or denying the Holocaust, and some church leaders have called for a boycott — no doubt, to the delight of the film’s producers.

Last year, Genoese Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s official doctrinal watchdog, called for a boycott of the book and this past March launched a series of public debates on Brown’s work in Italy in anticipation of the release of the film adaptation. You couldn’t pay for better publicity.

A number of Catholic publications and Web sites, such as the El Cajon, Calif.-based Catholic Answers, have posted fulsome point-by-point refutations of the “Code.” More seriously, Catholic scholars Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel — Miesel is an expert on medieval history — weighed in with a thorough debunking of Brown’s historical claims in “The Da Vinci Hoax” (Ignatius Press, 2004). And they’re hardly the only ones.

Amid this furor, casual readers — and now moviegoers — can be forgiven for asking: What’s all the fuss about? It’s a pulp thriller, for goodness sake, not a theological treatise: it’s an airport read with a plot twist at the end of every chapter, the sort of book you stick into your carry-on for the long flight to Cincinnati. It’s just entertainment. Nobody takes this stuff seriously, do they?

Well, yes they can and do. According to recent polls, more than one-third of Brown’s 18 million readers to date are persuaded that the book’s “motherlode of religious conspiracy theory” is literally true. That’s worth pondering — not only in terms of Brown’s book, but, more importantly, in terms of the larger questions it raises about our society and culture.

Part of the problem is inherent in the material — its goulash of “facts” and fiction, the interweaving of real people and institutions with fictional ones. Brown is often quoted as saying that his book is a work of fiction. Fine, but he also stresses how meticulously researched “The Da Vinci Code” is and how factual its historical assertions are.

Brown even appends a fact page to the front of the book, underscoring the purported reliability of the book’s claims, particularly about the so-called Priory of Sion, Opus Dei and the descriptions of art, architecture and rituals. As one critic put it recently in a television interview: “Brown offers [his work] as fiction, but sells it as fact. You can’t have it both ways.”

In a revealing comment on his Web site, Brown isn’t as coy about the question of fact or fiction:

“The secret I reveal is one that has been whispered for centuries. It is not my own. Admittedly, this may be the first time the secret has been unveiled within the format of a popular thriller, but the information is anything but new.” (Emphasis added.)

Well, well.

As Miesel has written: “By manipulating his audience through the conventions of romance writing, Brown invites his readers to identify with his smart, glamorous characters who’ve seen through the impostures of the clerics who hide the ‘truth’ about Jesus and his wife. Blasphemy is delivered in a soft voice with a knowing chuckle: ‘Every faith in the world is based on fabrication.'”

Just for the record, hardly any of the facts in “The Da Vinci Code” are accurate nor are they the result of original or even respectable research. Brown’s ideas are drawn not from primary source material, but from popular New Age excursions through the Grail legend and goddess worship and from popular books about early Christian gnosticism. When he has his characters confidently assert hitherto unknown facts about the origins of the biblical canon, for example — that the Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicea codified the Bible as we know it — this is, at best, willful ignorance.

One example of many: The Knights Templar were a real 12th century military-religious order, set up to accompany and protect pilgrims in the Holy Land. But the myth of the Templars as masters of occult wisdom is a creation of the late 18th century, where they loom large in Masonic lore and later in the speculations of the Nazis.

And so on.

There are larger problems here than sloppy research, however, and larger issues at stake.

With nearly 20 million in sales and editions in 44 languages, and with a film adaptation in release, there’s no doubt that “The Da Vinci Code” has struck a chord in the modern world, but we would do well to ask what the nature of that chord is.

As David Klinghoffer points out, the popularity of conspiracy theories, in whatever form, is always a matter of serious concern.

The infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” portions of which were first serialized in a Russian newspaper in 1903, may have been plagiarized, in part, from a mid-19th century French political satire that had Freemasons playing the “heavy.” In the hands of Russian anti-Semites, the work was recast to feature Jewish leaders and financiers as the “puppet-masters” of world events and has gone on to play a vicious role in 20th century European anti-Semitism. It currently unleashes its toxins in cheap editions that can be found on street corners throughout the Muslim world.

Conspiracy theories are perennially attractive because they not only provide us with simple explanations for complex phenomena, but they usually do so in such a way that our prejudices remain blissfully unchallenged.

The story line remains the same — betrayal and deception for the sake of power, though the identity of the villain may change: now the Masons, now the Jews, or the Rothschilds, or the Vatican or whomever else we have been taught to hate or fear. And as the 20th century proved all too conclusively, what begins in triviality may end in murder.

Gabriel Meyer is an award-winning poet, journalist and novelist. He won Catholic Press Association awards for his coverage of the first Palestinian intifada in 1989 and went on to cover the Balkan war for the National Catholic Register in the early 1990s. Since 1998, he has written extensively on the civil war in Sudan and is the author of “War and Faith in Sudan” (Eerdmans, 2005).

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, May 13

The beat goes on today at the annual Santa Monica Festival. Head down to participate in a drum circle; hear multicultural music, including a concert by Bucovina Klezmer; and enter the Eco Zone. The city steps up its commitment to environmental responsibility this year, with totally solar powered stages and a host of activities centered on caring for the Earth, including an outdoor adventure challenge course for kids, and a mobile TidePool Cruiser.

11 a.m.-6 p.m. Free. Clover Park, 2600 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt =””>

Sunday, May 14

When a lovely young woman becomes possessed by a dybbuk, it takes a minyan to cast out the demon. In Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Tenth Man,” they only have nine, until they pull a troubled man off the street to help with the Jewish exorcism. But he’s got his own demons. The play opens this weekend at The Skylight Theatre.

8 p.m. (Fri. and Sat.), 3 p.m. (Sun.). $20. 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz. (310) 358-9936.

Monday, May 15

Great American music takes center stage this evening, with a tribute to the works of celebrated lyricist Dorothy Fields. Michael Feinstein, Marvin Hamlisch and others perform “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” a celebration of the life and lyrics of Fields, who wrote the titular hit, and numerous others including “The Way You Look Tonight” and “I’m in the Mood For Love.” A post-performance cast party will follow. The event benefits L.A.’s Center Theatre Group’s discount ticket programs, and is hosted by Corina Villaraigosa.

8 p.m. $200 and $500. 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-3139.

 

Tuesday, May 16

S.T.A.R. Sephardic Tradition and Recreation goes big this Lag B’Omer, and invites the community to join in. This evening they’ve rented out the Santa Monica Pier for a citywide Jewish celebration, complete with rides, kosher food and live entertainment.

5-9 p.m. $8. Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica. (818) 782-7359. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt = “”>

Wednesday, May 17

Bring your child — or your inner child — to L.A. Artcore’s exhibition of Ursula Kammer-Fox’s “Play Mates,” on view through May 31. Kammer-Fox has created a number of whimsical sculptures of made-up creatures for this show, and she explains, “I perceive one of life’s demands to be that we escape our prisons. This body of work represents my escape from the prison of constant seriousness, and the esthetics of higher education.”

Noon-5 p.m. (Wed.-Sun.). Free. LA Artcore Center, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. (213) 617-3274. ” width=”15″ height=”1″alt = “”>

Thursday, May 18

Lauded short story writer Deborah Eisenberg discusses her latest collection, “Twilight of the Superheroes: Stories” on KCRW’s Bookworm program this afternoon. Host Michael Silverblatt will engage Eisenberg more specifically on the subject of writing about the post-Sept. 11 American sensibility.

2:30-3 p.m. KCRW 89.9 FM.

Friday, May 19

Silliness reigns at the Academy tonight, as it presents a special cast and crew reunion and screening of the classic comedy “Airplane!” Writers-directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker and actor Robert Hays, among others, are scheduled to attend the discussion. No word on the jive-talking Barbara Billingsley.

8 p.m. $3-$5. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 247-3600.

Search for Similarity in Aliyah Tales


“Aliya: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel” by Liel Leibovitz (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95).

When the Pilgrims were making their way to the land that would become America, Liel Leibovitz’s German ancestors were moving to the Holy Land. A cultural writer for The Jewish Week, Leibovitz is a ninth-generation Israeli, now living in New York City. His own story of leaving Israel — for now — and his constant grappling with that question is the back story for his compelling and original book, “Aliya: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel,” in which he profiles three families who made aliyah at different points in Israel’s history: 1947, 1969 and 2001.

Since 1947, approximately 100,000 American Jews have made aliyah. Last year, 3,100 new immigrants from North America arrived in Israel, an increase of 15 percent over 2004, and the highest number since 1983. In fact, aliyah numbers have been rising steadily over the last three years, with a lull in Israeli-Palestinian violence and an improving economy.

Through detailed, intimate reporting about his subjects’ lives, Leibovitz describes their motivations, but comes to understand that stated reasons aren’t enough, that the “real answer simply isn’t available to the cognitive facilities. It must be felt. It is sensed when one walks down the streets of Jerusalem, realizing that one’s ancestors walked those same streets centuries ago.” As he explains, it’s a spirituality that has less to do with texts and ritual than with “the air and the hills and the sea.”

Leibovitz is not a character in this book; his politics are not expressed. But the book is the narrative he lives and thinks about daily, albeit with a twist, as he says in an interview. Rather than asking about why he decided to leave Israel and live here, he ponders, after living in America and coming to know the American Jewish community, “why people who seemingly have it all would leave a comfortable place for a place that’s still unsafe.”

Now 29, he traces the intellectual journey that led to this book back to his childhood in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. His fascination with things American began when he was about 9 years old and visited relatives here; he was awestruck by the variety of food, television shows and movies. He remembers his absolute shock when he learned that these same relatives were making aliyah, giving up America.

After serving in the army and attending Tel Aviv University’s film school, he moved to New York, first working in a hardware store and then as a senior press officer for the Israeli Consulate. He later enrolled in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

“As much as I wanted to pretend that I was cosmopolitan at heart, once I came to live here, I realized just how Israeli I am at my core — it’s more biological than ideological,” he said. “I thought furiously about what my move meant, as opposed to the move of my cousins.”

At Columbia, when he began thinking about a book topic, he had no doubt about its theme. He spent two years researching, making 11 trips to Israel. To find the three families, he interviewed 180 people.

Stylistically, “Aliya” is in the tradition of serious nonfiction books by journalists that look at the events in ordinary people’s lives as a way of illuminating the historical landscape. Perhaps the first and best-known contemporary book in this genre is J. Anthony Lucas’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Common Ground,” which told the story of the court-ordered desegregation of Boston schools, through the stories of three families.

Leibovitz is a fine storyteller, and he succeeds in capturing the character and mindset of his characters. His three families represent the three main waves of immigration: the first, between 1947 and 1952, including people who had experienced World War II in some way; the second and strongest wave, between 1967 and 1972, inspired by the Six-Day War and the American sociopolitical culture of the late 1960s; and the third wave, from 1980 to the present, when the largest group of immigrants were Orthodox families.

Betty and Marlin Levin, an energetic couple now in their 80s, moved to Israel in 1947; their voyage by ship was their honeymoon. In New York, Betty worked as Hebrew teacher and Marlin, who fought in World War II, was a journalist and photographer. They were both passionately moved by the struggle for a Jewish homeland, and Marlin, after fighting the Germans, questioned how he could sit back while his own people were on trial. After arriving in Jerusalem and finding things not quite as they had pictured, the Levins were still determined to love their new city — “where strangers were virtually nonexistent” — and did. Marlin immediately found work with The Jerusalem Post and on his first day on the job, witnessed an explosion in the street. He continued to cover the city’s struggles as the nation was founded and war broke out.

Mike Ginsberg first moved with his mother and brothers to Israel before the 1967 war and they returned to the United States; he moved back in 1969, inspired by the Six-Day War. He fought in the Yom Kippur War and settled on a kibbutz in the north, where he has helped repel terrorist attacks. Over the years, he has spoken to many groups of American tourists and now is always moved when some young American-born Israeli soldier says that hearing Mike inspired him to make aliyah. He doesn’t think it’s necessary for every Jew to move to Israel. “The most important thing, he tells anyone who will listen, is to make the Jews united, in the United States and all over the world, to make them united in their support of each other and in their love for Israel. That, he says, is what he lives for.”

Sharon and Danny Kalker, the parents of four children, are the most recent arrivals — they moved to Israel from Queens in 2001, settling in Hashmonaim, a community just outside the Green Line. Making aliyah was something they considered for many years, and they were inspired by their oldest daughter’s decision to stay following a post-high school year there. Their religious and working lives are quite different than they expected and eventually very satisfying, although in the course of getting adjusted to their new lives, their marriage breaks up. Leibovitz explains that he gave them the option of not appearing in the book once they decided to divorce, but they chose to have their story told.

What the three families — who never met one another — share is a passionate commitment to Zionism and, on a certain level, to Judaism, Leibovitz explains. He also points out the tremendous hardships all have accepted: All of them, in different ways, have dodged their share of bullets. But for the most part, these are not people who questioned their decisions to move.

At home on the Upper West Side, Leibovitz and his wife, an American who has lived in Israel, speak a private blend of Hebrew and English, and move among several communities. He has come to believe, like Mike Ginsburg, “that it doesn’t matter where you live, it matters what’s in your heart.”

 

Three Madelehs of the Written Word


Jewish women have prominent roles in several new novels this season, penned by young Jewish writers with impressive track records — Ayelet Waldman, Allegra Goodman and Lara Vapnyar. The three have written urban stories, focused on relationships, and the books are closely observed slices of life.

The Jewish background and sensibility of these writers comes across on the page, although with varying degrees of transparency. Both Waldman and Vapnyar were born abroad: Vapnyar grew up in the former Soviet Union and came here as a young woman, while Waldman was born in Israel, came here as a child and grew up in New Jersey, although she lived in Israel again in high school and college and returns there often. Goodman may be the only well-known Jewish writer to hail from Hawaii.

“Love and Other Possible Pursuits” by Ayelet Waldman (Doubleday), who will be appearing at the L.A. Times Festival of Books this weekend, is a novel of marriage and motherhood that is also a love story and a New York story. Emilia Greenleaf, the narrator, is a Harvard Law School graduate who meets her soul mate, Jack, at her first job. He is a Syrian Jew, a partner in the firm and he’s married with a young son. He leaves his wife for Emilia, and they live in elegant comfort, but all is not happily-ever-after.

They lose a newborn daughter — the reader learns this early on, as the novel skips back and forth in time — and Emilia struggles with her new stepson, William, a precocious preschooler. She finds the boy to be insufferable, even as she tells herself that as an adult she should be able to love this innocent 5-year-old who corrects her pronunciation and rebuffs with a smirk her attempts to please him. Emilia also has to deal with the child’s overprotective mother and the mother’s friends who watch her every step, even as she picks him up from his high-achievers’ nursery school. But in small ways, Emilia and William find their way toward bonding.

The novel is funny and a quick read, and although it might look like chick-lit, Waldman goes deeper, conveying emotional complexity. Even though Emilia has the profile of the kind of woman others sometimes can’t abide, she is likeable in her imperfections and growing self-awareness.

The author, who also graduated from Harvard Law School, keenly portrays the life of well-to-do professionals who strive for the best for their children, unable to see the downside of their single-minded pursuits.

A resident of Berkeley, where she lives with her husband Michael Chabon and their four children, she captures New York in its splendid beauty, particularly the charms of Central Park in all seasons. Waldman, author of “Daughter’s Keeper” and the Mommy Track mystery series, takes on in this novel many of the themes of romance, relationships and parenting that she writes about in her essays on Salon.com and in The New York Times, Child Magazine, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

For years, Allegra Goodman was the poster child for the youngest generation of Jewish writers. She published her first story in Commentary during her freshman year at Harvard and her first book of stories on the day she graduated in 1989, and she has had a string of successes since then. She’s been applauded for her luminous style and originality, her humor, and her embrace of Judaism in her fiction. Now 38, she’s no longer the child at the literary table and has just published her most ambitious book to date, “Intuition” (The Dial Press).

Named by the New Yorker as one of the 20 best writers under 40, Goodman is the author of two collections of stories and two novels, “Paradise Park” and “Kaaterskill Falls,” a National Book Award finalist. She has also won a Whiting Writers Award, National Jewish Book Award and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Jewish Cultural Achievement Award.

Goodman was born in Brooklyn, lived briefly in Los Angeles as a toddler and grew up in Hawaii, where she sets many stories and her novel “Paradise Park.” Her parents, who taught at the University of Hawaii, lived there for 25 years and, although the Jewish community was limited, they consciously chose a Jewish lifestyle — they attended synagogue and imported kosher meat from California. As a child, Goodman often would visit Los Angeles, where her father grew up and her grandfather still lives. “Intuition” is, in fact, dedicated to her grandparents, Calvin and Florence Goodman (her grandmother died recently).

While her previous novels involved Jewish communities, “Intuition” is about a professional community, although several characters are Jewish. Compellingly told from several points of view, the novel is set at a prestigious research institute in Cambridge, Mass., where a team of scientists does sophisticated cancer investigations. Goodman shows readers the inside workings of a lab, from how projects are assigned to how mice are sac’ed — or sacrificed — to how scientists compete for funds. The cast of the novel is something of an ensemble, functioning in certain ways as a family, with relationships based on power, love, ambition and shared interests.

The novel has elements of mystery, as one postdoc raises questions about whether a colleague, her former boyfriend, may be falsifying his data. She acts based on intuition, which, in the lab, as Goodman writes, “was a restricted substance. Like imagination and emotion, intuition misled researchers, leading to willful interpretations.”

In a telephone interview from her home in Cambridge, Goodman explains that although the subject of this novel may be different, she remains interested in themes of “ritual, hierarchy, closed communities, questions of doubt and belief, who you believe in, what you put your faith in.”

This book is less comic than her others, but the distinctive Goodman voice — attentive to all details, wise, inventive, strong on characters’ inner and outer lives — is recognizable.

“I’ve been surrounded by scientists all my life,” she says, referring to her mother, sister, brother-in-law and husband.

She also spent time observing in an actual lab to understand its rhythms and mindset. As a writer who works in solitude, she is envious of the close collaborative nature of scientific work and sought to explore that. As a writer, she seeks truth, as scientists do — but she recognizes that she gets to make things up.

Goodman never shies away from writing about religious themes or religious people and sees this as “a very Jewish book. My subject in all my books is the American Jewish community, which is huge.”

In the book, both lab directors, Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn, are Jewish. While Glass (who shortened his name from Glazeroff “not just to forget that his grandparents were Eastern European Jews, but for aesthetic reasons. He could not countenance living and working in such a Russian bear-coat of a last name, and so he’d distilled Glazeroff to its purer form”) is intermarried and assimilated, Mendelssohn is neither, but Glass tries to use his Judaism when questions are raised about lab results. For several characters, their religion is science.

In conversation, Goodman, the mother of four children who range in age from 3 to 13, is upbeat — with a personality that matches her writing. She seems easygoing, likes to laugh and is drawn to the philosophical side of things. She has a doctorate in English and as a reader, she favors writers like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Eliot, as well as Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty. Among the contemporary writers she cites are Marilynne Robinson and Kazuro Ishiguro.

She’s not a confessional sort of writer; her novels aren’t memoiristic: She’s more interested in writing about other people. About her own writing, she thinks she’s getting better, having matured as a craftsman: “I’ve grown more patient, more willing to spend time to get things right. That comes with age.”

Lara Vapnyar, a Russian American Jewish writer, is at the forefront of a new generation of immigrant Jewish writers. Like Goodman, she has published stories in The New Yorker. Her first book, “There Are Jews in My House” a collection of short stores set in the former Soviet Union and in New York, won awards and much praise.

In her first novel, “Memoirs of a Muse” (Pantheon), Vapnyar again turns to the world of immigrants. With the understated humor characteristic of her stories, she portrays a young immigrant woman named Tanya who as a child in the Soviet Union developed an obsession with Dostoevsky and the woman who was his muse. In New York, she is determined to become the muse of a great American writer. When she meets a novelist at an Upper West Side reading, she becomes his live-in girlfriend, earnestly trying to help him. But she finds that while he goes to book parties and the gym and visits his analyst, he does little writing. As she learns English, she comes to understand all sides of her new world, and she learns about genuine artistic inspiration.

Published in 2003, “There Are Jews in My House,” received the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers. The novel, like her stories, touches on issues of alienation, identity, contrasts between East and West.

From her well-tuned prose, it’s hard to believe that English is not her first language. Vapnyar went through the Moscow school system and earned a master’s degree in Russian language and literature before moving to New York, where she largely taught herself English through reading.

Ayelet Waldman will be a panelist on the “Fiction: Reinventing the Family” event at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 29.

 

Life More Ordinary


I recently visited a congregant in the hospital and was surprised to find a doctor crying in the hallway. I told her I was a rabbi and asked if I could help. The doctor immediately apologized for her tears.

“It’s been a hard week,” she said, “I’ll be OK.”

She told me she had just presented a terminal cancer diagnosis to a woman in her early 40s. I felt for this doctor, and for her patient, but I also felt pleased at what I saw — a doctor who cries.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of the books “Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal” (Riverhead, 1996) and “My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging” (Riverhead, 2000) tells the story of how, as a young intern, she had been reprimanded by her chief resident for crying with a young couple whose baby had just died. Her supervisor told her she had let them down.

“They needed you to be strong,” he told her.

Now a teacher of physicians herself, Remen remains true to her initial impulse and teaches that crying with patients can be an appropriate response, saying, “You can burn out doing ‘meaningful’ work, if you lose the meaning.”

In this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzorah (Leviticus 13, in particular), God instructs Moses and Aaron on the role of priests when people take ill. The priests play diagnostician. They do not try to cure the sick, but they do examine people stricken with strange skin eruptions. The text — with more than enough description of skin ailments — is a little too graphic for some people. It also often seems irrelevant, as it describes practices no longer done by a priesthood that has long since faded from Jewish life.

But this portion also focuses attention on people who are not well. In order for the priest to evaluate what ails the people who are ill, he must get near to them, probably even touch them. And the priests see those who are ill more than once; they return days later to determine whether the person has recovered.

The daily tasks of the priests described elsewhere in the Torah consist primarily of animal sacrifice and temple caretaking, suggesting that priests are usually apart from the rest of the Israelites. So it is remarkable, and instructive, to imagine the priests — a part of the community — attending to the ill, taking note of those in need. Imagine Aaron, the high priest, coming to see the weak in the midst of the Israelites. Imagine a priest taking the time to speak with the afflicted among the people. Imagine the priest being the one to escort an afflicted person back into the community, declaring them free from contagion and assisting them in offering a sacrifice to God upon their recovery. Simple gestures perhaps, but imagine how welcome they would be to someone who had suffered physical pain and the worry that they might bring illness to others. Imagine how they might have restored someone’s sense of self-worth or desire to remain alive.

This past week saw another Yom HaShoah V’HaGevurah, the day of commemoration for the Holocaust and for Acts of Courage. When the Israeli Knesset years ago chose the 27th of Nissan for this annual day of commemoration, they did so amid controversy. Some would have preferred the anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but that landed (by Nazi plan) on the first day of Passover. Still, the Warsaw Ghetto and its heroes surely figured in the minds of those who selected the week following Passover for this memorial day – the uprising itself lasted almost a month.

Irena Klepfisz, whose parents managed to get her out of the ghetto and whose father died a hero in the Warsaw Ghetto, said in 1988, on the 45th anniversary of the uprising: “What we grieve for is not the loss of a grand vision, but rather the loss of common things, events and gestures…. Ordinariness is the most precious thing we struggle for, what the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto fought for. Not noble causes or abstract theories. But the right to go on living with a sense of purpose and a sense of self-worth — an ordinary life.”

How poignant to read her words this week as we read of the priests tending to the ill — not focused on the grander work of the Temple or the sacrifices that took place at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.

As we read in Leviticus of the extraordinary lives of the priests, tenders of the sacred flame, preservers of the religion as it was then, I like to think also about the sense of purpose God gave them in commanding them to offer simple gestures of concern and care; I like to think about the meaningfulness they might have found in their ordinariness and in their tears.

Lisa A. Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, and is also currently teaching Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.