Jews get into the Christmas spirit


Sonny Calderon still remembers the words his outraged 8-year-old son cried out when he learned Santa Claus wasn’t real, that his father had been perpetuating a myth: “I hate you, and I hate the way your farts smell.”

Calderon relived this traumatic moment on Dec. 10 in front of a packed house at hipster-hangout El Cid, where the irreverent, nondenominational collective East Side Jews held a storytelling show called “Light Up the Night: Holiday Mashup.”

“It was a very L.A. moment, having this flamenco venue on Sunset Boulevard, with Jews coming to talk about Christmas. It was a great melting-pot moment,” said Zan Romanoff, program coordinator for Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center
(SIJCC). East Side Jews operates under the aegis of SIJCC.

As the smell of paella wafted and sangria intoxicated, five storytellers, including Calderon, took the stage. The evening acted as a middle ground between the two holidays, Christmas and Chanukah, and — at least for one night — the two holidays got along famously.

Romanoff, who is an occasional contributor to the Journal, kicked off the night with ease by introducing the storytellers. The 27-year-old, who has a Jewish father and a formerly Catholic mother who has since converted, asked the audience to tweet the evening (#eastsidejews) “so we can take back our hashtag!” To which one person in the audience whispered, “Who took it?” 

Immediately after, Brett Fromson, Deanna Neil and Tannaz Sassooni performed “Instagram,” a millennial rendition of Paul Simon’s 1973 single “Kodachrome.”

Storyteller Becca Frucht, a Southern belle with an interfaith upbringing, talked about her family’s iconic “Chanuk-as” (Chanukah + Christmas) parties in a town where, as Frucht described it, “There’s more fried okra than Jews.” Meanwhile, she donned a Christmas-inspired yarmulke that just about summed up the evening.

Storyteller Avishay Artsy, a news producer at KCRW and a Jewish Journal contributor, prompted his story with a precursor about his notions of Christmas. 

“The music is great,” he said, “granted, all the music is written by Jews …” 

Artsy, who is in a committed interfaith relationship, discussed his own qualms about the holiday’s illustrious staple: the Christmas tree. (See his full story in the Dec. 12 issue or online at

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.

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday the 7th

Take a stroll for a good cause at today’s 14th annual Alzheimer’s Association Memory Walk. More than 100 teams are scheduled for the 5K recreational walk around Hollywood Park racetrack, and those wishing to register today are also welcome. Also ambling are celebrities Peter Gallagher, David Hyde Pierce, Leeza Gibbons and Lea Thompson.

7 a.m. (registration), 8:30 a.m. (opening ceremonies), 8:45 a.m. (warm up). 9 a.m. (walk). 10:15 a.m.-noon (health expo, live entertainment, celebrity autographs and prizes). 1050 S. Prairie Ave., Inglewood. (323) 930-6228.

” TARGET=”_blank”>www.actoberfest.com.

Monday the 9th

Sneak behind the curtain into the life of Pulitzer and Tony award-winning playwright Tony Kushner in the new documentary, “Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner.” Following the writer from just after Sept. 11, 2001 to the 2004 presidential election, cameras captured Kushner’s work on the Broadway musical, “Caroline, or Change.” and the children’s Holocaust opera, “Brundibar,” as well as his “humor, ambition, vision and dazzling braininess,” according to Newsweek.

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Jewish Renewal leader Rabbi Shefa Gold debuts her first book, “Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land,” this month. Described as an approach for using the Torah as a path for spiritual growth, the text has been praised by Renewal leaders like Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Gold visits Los Angeles this week, offering workshops in conjunction with the release. Tonight, she is at B’nai Horin/Children of Freedom.

Oct. 10: (310) 441-4434 or e-mail PeggiS@mac.com.

For other workshop dates, visit ” TARGET=”_blank”>www.uclalive.org.

Thursday the 12th

Storytelling for grownups comes courtesy of UCLA Live this week. “The Moth,” a New York storytelling organization, comes west for a night at Royce Hall titled, “Out on a Limb: Stories From the Edge.” The show of real-life narratives will include host Andy Borowitz (creator of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”), Jonathan Ames (author, “Wake Up Sir!”), comedian Margaret Cho, Cindy Chupak (writer and executive producer, “Sex and the City”), RUN DMC’s Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Steve Osborne (retired NYPD lieutenant).

8 p.m. $25-$35. Royce Hall, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 825-2101. ” target = “_blank”>Loudon Wainwright III (photo below), read theirs tonight.

7:30 p.m. $8-$15. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (866) 468-3399.

Clowning Around


clowns

Dan Berkley always carries two noses. “I always try to have a spare,” he says. “Particularly in a pie fight, it can come off. Doing anything, you’re gonna lose a nose.”

Berkley knows noses. He’s a clown in town with the Ringling Bros. When we met, he’d just jumped off the circus train from Fresno. Applying his makeup off Clown Alley backstage at Staples Center, Berkley explained how a nice boy from “the last exit off the Garden State Parkway” ran away with the Barnum and Bailey and the whole mishagoss.

He didn’t. First he got a degree in physics from a college in Maine. Then he fooled around with Circus Smirkus in Vermont and the Pickle Players in the Bay Area, developing a scientist character along the way. Did I mention he’s smart? Now, at 25, he’s an entertainer in “The Greatest Show on Earth!” (Take that Mandy Patinkin.)

Some of my best friends are clowns. I know that sounds like a line, but it’s true. Jewish clowns, too. Back East, there’s Dr. Meatloaf and Dr. Noodle (aka Stephen Ringold and Ilene Weiss). They’re in the CCU, the “Clown Care Unit” of the Big Apple Circus. Like badchens (Yiddish for clown) for the broken up, they play hospitals instead of weddings.

Here, Berkley takes a header into a pie with 15 other clown pals when an elephant walks into his diner. In a “Smashcar” pit-stop sketch, he reaches the heights — depths? — of pratfalling. Yet, his zany behavior onstage in front of thousands of ooh-ing and ahh-ing children contradicts a yeshiva bocher-level interest Berkley has in his art off-stage.

Berkley knows the difference between a badchen and a kachina (a Hopi clown). He learned some of his craft at the funny feet of the wonderful messugenah clown Avner “the Eccentric” Eisenberg. Avner lives off the coast of Maine and is, if not a ba’al teshuvah then not a bad Baal Shem Tov, using humor as a healing tool for the heart and breath. Berkley learned from Avner (and Bill Irwin and other mentors) that clowning “is an evolutionary art.”

“You’re always trying to come up with something new,” he says. “Of course, there are no new ideas. There’s your take on it.”

Clowning has deep Jewish storytelling roots — notably the cartoon faith of Krusty the Clown on “The Simpsons.” His real name is Herschel Krustofski, and his father, voiced by Jackie Mason, was a rabbi. Berkley remembers a line from the Talmud that Bart Simpson quotes in one episode: “Who shall bring redemption if not the jesters?”

Nicole Feld, circus co-producer with her father, Kenneth Feld, hopes such wisdom is prophetic. Her grandfather, Irvin Feld, first moved the venerable show from tent to arena. This is their 136th year and Feld, 28, wouldn’t say whether Berkley is her favorite clown — “That’s like asking me if I love my mom or my dad more!”

“He brought his college background and his interests in physics to his character,” Feld says. “Dan’s great because he can talk to kids about all kinds of stuff and helps us place the value on education.”

Dan starts by putting on his eyes (white, red, black). He can complete his face in 15 minutes. The latex nose goes on with skin adhesive.

“In the medical industry they use it for colostomy bags and stuff like that,” he says. “It works well. You really don’t wanna lose a nose. Guys that are prone to losing their nose, will paint their own nose red so worst-case scenario, they still have a nose. The nose within. The inner nose.”
Berkley steps away and powders.

“We powder our makeup to set it, keep it from smudging,” he explains. “I bump into somebody, I don’t want to leave my face on their costume.”
He tops off with a two-toned yak wig reminiscent of Sam Jaffee as Dr. Zorba on TV’s “Ben Casey.”

“I use yak hair because it’s tougher,” he says, too young for the reference. “It takes a beating. We beat up everything we use.”

Did you know clowns wear two pairs of boxers? For the final touch, Berkley pokes a tiny black clown dot into his dimpled chin. In floppy two-toned custom-made shoes, he’s ready to meander out — lime-green smock over orange shirt with dark bow tie, green-and-black plaid pants held up by red suspenders — for his pre-show “all access” visit with the early-arriving audience. He has been buffooning since 3 a.m., when he did a Univision appearance (Latino audiences are Ringling’s bread and butter in Los Angeles).

Berkley likes the Wavy Gravy line: “A clown is a poet who is also an orangutan.”
“There are a lot of contradictions in clowning,” Berkley says. “There are no rules. It’s one of those arts where you can do anything. You’re limited by what you can get your hands on sometimes and how much time you have to work on it.
In Staples, I ran into some Israelis I knew. Not to get all “Up With Laughter” about it, but they said Israel could sure use a circus. Leytzan, they told me, is the word for clown in Hebrew. Dan Berkley is very leytzan.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is currently in Anaheim, through Aug. 6. For ticket information, visit see www.ringling.com/schedule/.

Hank Rosenfeld learned in a Ringling Brothers audition “ya gotta have a heart as big as Alaska” to reach the top row.

The Blessing of Bibhilu


 

A book’s opening chapter is crucial to setting the mood and aura for the remainder of the book’s journey. Likewise, the opening scene of a film usually helps set the tone for what will ensue.

The Passover seder is both a reader’s experience and a moviegoer’s. We sit around the table and read the haggadah, and we also witness a host of rituals. But how does the seder leader creatively capture an audience and draw it into the experience from the beginning?

My father is neither novelist nor screenwriter, but from childhood he exposed me to a Moroccan seder ritual that immediately drew all those around the table into the full experience of a seder. This ritual is affectionately known amongst Moroccans as Bibhilu.

Following the kiddush, the karpas, and the yahatz (division of the matzah), the leader takes the brass seder plate, adorned with all of the ritual items, and he begins to walk around the table, waving the seder plate over each person’s head. As the plate is being waved, the entire gathering at the seder chants in unison: “Bibhilu yatsanu mimitsrayim” (“In a hurry we left Egypt”). When my father did this, each of us wondered whether he would simply wave the plate above our heads or knock us over the head with it. This ritual created lots of positive energy — between the anticipation of your turn under the plate and the chanting in unison of Bibhilu.

Yes, it’s a lot of fun. But is there a deeper spiritual meaning, or is this ritual simply some gimmick meant to create excitement among those who might be otherwise bored?

Throughout my life, I have always celebrated the seder in Moroccan fashion, Bibhilu and all. But only a few years ago did I first see a Moroccan haggadah.

At the beginning, there was, as in all haggadot, a drawing of the seder plate, illustrating the placement of each ritual item, which generally followed the Sephardic tradition. I had always known that Sephardic Jews arrange the seder plate differently than Ashkenazim, but again, I never knew why.

The Sephardic pattern, I knew, derives from tradition attributed to the great kabbalist from Safed known as the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria). In this haggadah, the drawing not only reflected the Ari’s Sephardic arrangement, but it added something that I had never seen, something which suddenly tied together for me the logic behind the Sephardic arrangement, and the reason behind the Moroccan Bibhilu ritual. Next to each ritual item on the plate was written one of the 10 kabbalistic sefirot, the mystical dimensions describing the sacred attributes of God. The three matzahs correspond to keter (crown), chochmah (wisdom) and binah (understanding); the shank bone corresponds to hesed (kindness); the egg corresponds to gevurah (strength); the bitter herbs correspond to tiferet (beauty); the charoset corresponds to netzach (victory), the karpas corresponds to hod (splendor), the hazeret corresponds to yesod (foundation); and the seder plate itself represents malchut (kingship).

It suddenly dawned upon me that, with this mystical arrangement, the seder plate is no longer just a platter carrying a selection of ritual items. The Ari’s Sephardic arrangement transformed the seder plate into a sacred representation of God, which means that when the seder plate is waved above your head during Bibhilu, you are being blessed by the spiritual strength of the Shekhina. The body of God, as represented by the sefirot, is now being waved above your head, and for the rest of the evening, the presence of the seder plate on the table represents the presence of the Shekhina in your midst.

From then on the Bibhilu ritual suddenly meant a lot more to me, because I now understood that, in addition to drawing in the audience, the Bibhilu ritual also represented a spiritual blessing for each participant as he or she prepares to set off on the haggadah’s storytelling journey from slavery to freedom.

As an American Jew raised in a Moroccan Jewish home, the Bibhilu ritual will always be part of my life. Having experienced it from childhood, and now coming full circle to understand its meaning, I will always look at the seder plate as a source of blessing and sanctity throughout the evening. Whether you are Moroccan or not, this ritual can become a powerful way to help infuse your seder with a newfound spiritual depth.

As it turns out, my father is now in a wheelchair, so he has transferred this privilege and responsibility to me. And yes, after all of those years under the seder plate, it’s lots of fun banging my father over the head while we all chant Bibhilu.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

 

Calendar


The Jewish Journal is no longer accepting mailed or

faxed event listing information. Please e-mail event listings at least three

weeks in advance to:
calendar@jewishjournal.com
.

By Keren Engelberg

Calendar

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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

68 Cent Crew and Theatre: 8 p.m. “The Knights of Mary Phagan” recounts the trial that tore Atlanta apart, caused a Ku Klux Klan resurgence and birthed the Anti-Defamation League. $20.

5419 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 467-6688.

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LECTURES

Los Angeles Yiddish Culture Club: 2 p.m. Beba Leventhal on the life and work of Yiddish poet Mani Leib. $4. 8339 W. Third St., Los Angeles. (310) 454-3687.

Congregation Ner Tamid: 7:30 p.m. Marc Dollinger on “What do we owe Peter Stuyvesant?” for the founding of Jewish participation in American history from 1654 to the present. Free. 5721 Crestridge Road, Rancho Palos Verdes. (310) 328-1981.

University of Judaism Department of Continuing Education: 7:30 p.m. “Reforming Islam From Within: Two Passionate Muslim Thinkers Speak on Needed Changes.” $25. 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1246.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

University of Judaism: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Opening of “Hued and Hewn” painting and sculpture exhibit, with artist reception from 3-5 p.m.15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 476-9777, ext. 201.

Temple Menorah: 11 a.m. A tour of the Einstein exhibit at the Skirball with luxury bus transportation and lunch. $21-$31. 1101 Camino Real, Redondo Beach. (310) 316-8444.

Nimoy Concert Series: 3 p.m. Envision Chamber Consort honoring 350 years of Jews in America, Felix Mendelssohn, Andre Previn, David Lefkowitz and others. Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (213) 805-4261.

Valley Beth Shalom: 7 p.m. “Tradition – Music From the Heart,” an evening of music with world renowned cantors. $30-$50. 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 530-4091.

Yuval Ron Music: 7 p.m. “Sacred Soul II – An Interfaith Sacred Music Concert Celebrating the Spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.” with musical traditions of Judaism, Sufism, the Christian Armenian Church and African American spirituals and gospel. $15. Wilshire Methodist Church, 4350 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 505-1355.

Kosher Komedy: 7:30 p.m. Ayelet the Kosher Komic on shidduchim, airlines, Pesach and more, confined to the rules of Jewish halacha. $18. Irvine residence. (949) 551-3998. Also, Feb. 23, 8:30 p.m. for women only. $15, at AISH L.A., 9100 W. Pico Blvd. www.aishla.com.

West Valley Educational Association: Comedy night and benefit auction at the Madrid Theatre featuring Willie Tyler and Lester and Jim Lavoe of Three Dog Night. 21622 Sherman Way, Canoga Park. (818) 348-3000.

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CLASSES

West Valley JCC: 8-11 p.m. Israeli folk dancing with James Zimmer. $5-$7. 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (310) 284-3638.

CLASSES

West Valley JCC: 8-11 p.m. Israeli folk dancing with James Zimmer. $5-$7. 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (310) 284-3638.

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ARTS &
ENTERTAINMENT

Workmen’s Circle: 2-8 p.m. Have your portrait sketched by master artist Vadim Zang. Appointments are scheduled for every half-hour. $30. 1525 Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 552-2007.

EVENTS

East Valley Multipurpose Senior Center: 1-2 p.m. Yiddish Club with conversation, music, storytelling and films. All levels and abilities welcome. $2 donation. 5000 Colfax Ave., North Hollywood. (818) 766-5165.

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LECTURES

Women’s League for Conservative Judaism: 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Torah Fund Study Day on “Women and the Rabbinate.” $25 (with a $36 contribution to the Torah Fund Campaign). University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 476-5359.

SHABBAT

Temple Adat Elohim: 6 p.m. Buffet-style Shabbat dinner followed by services at 7:30 p.m. for the deaf community. $12 (must be mailed in advance to 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks, CA 91362).
(805) 497-7101.

Upcoming:

FEBRUARY 26

EVENTS

Bnei Akiva: 4:15 p.m. Snif Shuchot at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy. Walking groups from circle park at 3:45 p.m. Pick up from Beth Jacob on Motzei Shabbat. (310) 248-2450.

Singles

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Singles Helping Others: 9 a.m.-
1 p.m. or noon-4 p.m. or all day. Help with registration, raffle, set-up, etc. at Olive Crest Rock ‘N’ Bowl to benefit children in foster care. Pinz,
12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 345-8802.

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Harbor Jewish Singles (55+): “The Little Foxes,” about a ruthless beauty whose ambition spelled doom for three men. Dinner to follow at a local restaurant. Newport Theater, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. (949) 631-0288.

Between Dates (35+): 6-8 p.m. Come out and shoot, play or hustle, however you do pool. No skill required. $12. Valley area. R.S.V.P. for more information, (818) 587-4643.

Singles Helping Others: 8 a.m.-noon. Volunteer for Project Chicken Soup. Help prepare meals in a commercial kitchen for those living with AIDS. 338 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (818) 343-4722.

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Coffee Talk (30s and 40s): 8:15 p.m. Weekly discussion group. $7. 9911 W. Pico Blvd., Suite 102, Los Angeles.
(310) 552-4595, ext. 27.

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Westwood Jewish Singles (45+):

7:30 p.m. “Emotional Differences Between Men and Women,” discussion with therapist Maxine Gellar. $10. West Los Angeles. (310) 444-8986.

Jewish Learning Exchange: 7:45 p.m. “Why Being Single Happens to Good People” with Dr. Lisa Aiken. 7223 Beverly Blvd., Suite 201, Los Angeles. (323) 857-0923.

L.A.’s Fabulous Best Connections: Chinese Food at Shanghai Diamond Garden. 9401 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 782-0435.

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Wilshire Boulevard Temple: 7:30 p.m.-midnight. David Dassa’s weekly dance lessons, beginner at 7:30 p.m., regular class at 8 p.m. and open dancing from 9:15 p.m. on. $7. 2112 S. Barrington Ave., Los Angeles. ddassa@att.net.

Dinner With Friends (30-45): Gourmet cooking class at the Culinary Classroom in West Los Angeles. www.dinnerwithfriends.com.

Helkeinu (20-40): 9 p.m. Weekly lecture series on self-improvement. Free. (310) 785-0440. events@helkeinu.com.

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Sunshine Seniors Club: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Weekly meeting. Valley Jewish Community Center, 13164 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 764-4532.

American Civil Liberties Union: 7:30 p.m. “Current Threats to the Separation of Church and State” with Harry Schwartzbart. Free. Westside Pavilion, third floor, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 392-7149.

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Adat Shalom: 7 p.m. Cafe Adat Shalom new program for young professionals, with erev Shabbat musical service, wine and cheese reception and musical accompaniment. 3030 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 475-4985.

Ethiopian American Culture Center: 9:30 p.m. Weekly klezmer night. $5. 5819 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 857-6661.

Chai Center (21-36): Dinner for 60 Strangers. www.chaicenter.org/ shabbat_dinner_rsvp.htm

Jewish Singles, Meet! (30s-40s): Reservation deadline for a Feb. 26 gathering at Little Rock in Tarzana. Pool, darts, drinks and live music in a casual atmosphere. No cover. (818) 750-0095.

Upcoming

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J-Ski (20s-40s): Taos ski trip. $689. Also, March 18-20, Mammoth ski trip. $185. (818) 342-9508. JskiLa@aol.com.

Jewish Movies Head South

‘Tis the season of film fests, and this week Orange County Jews do their part with the Pacific Jewish Film Festival. Sunday kicks it off with an afternoon screening of “Columbia: The Tragic Loss,” about the 2003 space shuttle disaster, followed by an evening showing of director Eytan Fox’s “Walk on Water.” Other documentaries, features and shorts from Israel and elsewhere will screen through Sat., Feb. 26, including the 2003 film “Nina’s Tragedies,” which won 11 Israeli Academy Awards, and “My 100 Children,” which won the Jerusalem International Film Festival Jewish Experience Award.

Isidore C. and Penny W. Myers Theater, One Federation Way, Irvine. (949) 435-3400.

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday, October 30

The title says it all in playwright Larry Gelbart’s satirical look at political scandals, “Mastergate.” Utilizing a Hollywood action film as a front – the fictional controversy goes – the White House has allegedly engaged in some illegal shipping of arms. The play centers on the congressional hearings that must logically follow. It plays at the Actors Group Theatre through Nov. 14.

8 p.m. (Fri. and Sat.), 7 p.m. (Sun., except Oct. 31.), 2 p.m. (Oct. 31). $12-$15. 4378 Lankershim Blvd., Universal City. (818) 506-4644.

Sunday, October 31

Old-fashioned music and romance converge in Bruce Kates’ operetta, “Sophie: A Musical Love Story of the 1930s.” Set in Los Angeles, the tale begins with Miles Pearson, a widower who has been so heartbroken by the tragic death of his young bride that he has spent years burying himself in his work as a professor. A series of chance meetings with Diane Walker, an actress heartbroken by life’s injustices, will change him – and her. The show runs through Nov. 14.

2 p.m. (Sundays). $10. Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. R.S.V.P., (323) 665-2208.

Monday, November 1

The prolific and beloved Maurice Sendak gives the kids something new to get excited about: Yiddish. The “Where the Wild Things Are” author employs his storytelling talents in a collaboration with The Shirim Klezmer Orchestra in a klezmer variation of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” “Pincus and the Pig: A Klezmer Tale” is the resulting CD and full-color booklet, which includes original drawings and removable stickers.

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Tuesday, November 2

Inspired by the stars, artist Renee Amitai depicts the cosmos based on images from the Hubble telescope in her latest works, included in Gallery Asto’s “Conceptual Expressionism” exhibition. “My paintings translate the outward reflection of the inner nature of things,” Amitai writes. “Dream and reality, the continual mystery at the cycle of life, the transcendence of nature.”

11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Tues.-Fri.), 1 p.m.-5 p.m. (Sat.). 923 E. Third St., No. 107, Los Angeles. (213) 972-0995.

Wednesday, November 3

Jewish Book Month continues with tough choices today. Nessa Rapoport battles it out against Jonathan Kirsch for your attention. For Rapoport, head to Arcadia to hear her discuss her book, “House on the River: A Summer Journey” as part of San Gabriel’s Jewish Book Festival. Kirsch fans book it to the Robertson branch library, where he’ll discuss, sell and sign “God Against the Gods.” Stay tuned for The Journal’s Book Issue, Nov. 12.

Rapoport: 7:30 p.m. $10. Arcadia residence. R.S.V.P., (626) 967-3656.
Kirsch: 6-7:30 p.m. 1719 Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 761-8648

Thursday, November 4

Klezmer fun continues at UCLA’s Fowler Museum. “Fowler Out Loud: Klezmer Juice” presents the titular klezmer fusion and world music quintet al fresco with light refreshments this evening. Take advantage of our city’s superior climate and musical groups in Westwood tonight.

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Friday, November 5

The Museum of Television and Radio’s aptly titled, “Two Five-Letter Words: Lenny Bruce” begins today. The screening follows the provocative comedian’s quick rise to fame and subsequent fall through excerpts from appearances on “One Night Stand: The World of Lenny Bruce” and “Playboy’s Penthouse” with Hugh Hefner and Nat King Cole, among others, and a final frenetic interview on “The Steve Allen Show” that was never aired.

Noon-5 p.m. (Wed.-Sun.). Through Jan. 9. Free. 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 786-1000.

The Sound
and the Fusion

by Gaby Wenig, Staff Writer

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Every Saturday night at the Disraeli household in Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek in northern Israel, the mandolins would come out and three generations of Disraelis would start to play and sing.

“My grandparents were the original chalutzim [pioneers] who came into Israel before it was even a country, and my grandfather was a poet who wrote songs,” said Itai Disraeli, who now plays bass and percussion for the band Maetar. “So on Saturday night we would get together with them and play harmonies – this music is in our blood.”

In 1991, Disraeli and his brother, Hagai Izraeli, left Israel, but not the music. Three years ago they joined with drummer Peter Buck to start Maetar, a jazz/funk/rock/hip-hop/reggae band that plays clubs all over Los Angeles.

“People ask us what kind of music do we play, and even though we try pretty hard to find a box, the reality is that our music is outside the box,” Disraeli said. “We contain musical influences from Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, klezmer music, Chinese music and Arab music, but our music is totally original. We are innovators, not imitators.”

“We try to intermingle our sounds and voices,” Izraeli said. “It’s a collective sound. At any time any one of us can be leading or following.”

“But it’s very coherent,” Disraeli interjected. “It’s not meaningless meanderings into the jungles of our mind.”

The two chose the name Maetar at the suggestion of Izraeli’s wife. In Hebrew, Maetar has a few meanings. It means string, as in instrument strings. If you break the word up, mae and tar, it means water that you take with you on a journey; another translation is vibrations of change.

These meanings, say the brothers, embody the spirit of their music.

“The beauty of jazz is that it’s a model of democracy,” Izraeli said. “Every person that plays can be the utmost of who he or she is and, at the same time, his powers of [being] individual do not separate him from the group. Music is the true democracy in action.”

Maetar will be playing at Cafe Z at the Skirball Cultural Center, on Oct. 30, noon-2 p.m. Free. For more information, visit

‘First’ an Atypical New York Story


A brother announces to his sister that another sister has vanished, as “The First Desire” (Pantheon) opens. Nancy Reisman’s highly-praised novel is unusual in many ways, from its premise to the quality of writing to its setting. She follows the lives of the Cohen family, from the Depression to the years following World War II, not on the Lower East Side or in Brooklyn, but in a stately neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y.

Sentence by sentence, this is an exquisite story of family. Reisman writes with assuredness and tenderness, as the story unfolds serially from five perspectives: three of the four Cohen sisters, the brother and their father’s mistress.

The Jewish Week spoke with Reisman by telephone at her home in Ann Arbor, where she teaches in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan. She’s upbeat and both modest and grateful about the book’s strong reception. She speaks of her own family — her long-married parents and three siblings — with a depth of love and connection. Clearly, she understands the themes she writes of — the unbreakable though fragile ties among siblings; devotion to parents, beyond their lives; how a family is much more than anything any one of them might have created. But her own family sounds far less eccentric than the characters she has created.

When Goldie, the oldest Cohen sister, disappears one July day, there is no sign whether she has left town or perhaps tragically fell into nearby Niagara Falls. The book’s title is first mentioned in reference to Goldie, who was born in Russia and came to America with her mother in 1901, rejoining her father who had come earlier and settled in Buffalo. For Goldie, “the first desire was to be with her mother, the second to be invisible.” The title reverberates through the novel in all sorts of yearnings — for love and affection, for rootedness, for something that feels like happiness, for freedom — as the characters affirm their ties to the family and also seek to vanish and be independent of it.

Although Rebecca Cohen, the late family matriarch is absent through the novel, she has profound influence on all of the characters, sending “ripple effects through their lives,” as Reisman explains.

The novelist captures the small moments of life — a grown daughter’s pleasure when her father calls her by a childhood endearment, the silent understandings between sisters as one washes the hair of another — and the emotional static that erupts in families.

Although Reisman shifts the storytelling angle among characters, she keeps the narrative in the third person. Of Goldie, who loves books and resents the responsibilities she has for caring for the others, she writes, “She found that slices of herself were missing and she imagines her body to be a variegation of solid stripes and empty space, like a wrought-iron fence.”

Sadie is the most grounded, the only sibling to marry and have children, who maintains a Jewish household and whose life is most connected to the Jewish community; she secretly refuses her father’s command to sit shiva for Goldie.

“You can’t erase a person,” she says.

Celia is impaired and needs the family more than any of the others. Irving loves to play cards and go out with women, often invading the petty cash box in his father’s jewelry store and turning to Sadie to repay his debts. For him, the name Irving is a cloak that doesn’t fit and he takes on a non-Jewish-sounding name, even sending himself postcards to a secret address as if to solidify that identity. Jo is perhaps the saddest of the group, trapped in many ways, suspicious of people and regretful of her own sharp speech; she glimpses happiness in her short-lived affection for another woman but ultimately hides her desires.

The patriarch Abe, who is bossy, elegant, ignoring of his children but still lovable, doesn’t get his own chapters, but Lillian — the sister of his best friend, Moshe, whom he begins to date while his wife is very sick, to the dismay of his children — has a voice.

There’s much that is timely in Reisman’s depiction of war, when America is “perched on the brink of emergency and war seeps “into the smallest corners of life.” Irving joins the Army, Celia volunteers at the Red Cross and a friend of the family persists in writing letters to her relatives in Poland, which are never answered, but the letters themselves are a kind of prayer.

When the war breaks out, Sadie’s daughter is mastering shoes and socks.

“It had been a relief to discuss socks, shoes after socks, the matching up of shoes and feet, finessing knots and bows…. For a time, Sadie tried to acknowledge Europe only after the girls were asleep, but even the attempt seemed absurd. There were temple meetings, committees for fundraising, committees for refugees; and the weekly arrival of worsening news she learned to hold in her mind, silently, while drawing the alphabet in huge blue letters and slicing apples to demonstrate fractions.”

For Reisman, one of the challenges of writing the novel was writing about the war in a way that acknowledged the power of what was happening, yet stayed within the context of the family dynamics she was examining.

“I think it’s a hard balancing act for all of us,” Reisman comments. “Protecting the things we cherish most and without tuning out the world.”

Reisman, 43, grew up just outside of Buffalo and left to attend college. Although she hasn’t lived there since, she visits several times a year. Her parents grew up in Buffalo and her grandparents spent much of their lives there as well. She writes of a time before she was born, “a time planted in my imagination when I was young. A sort of lost world,” she explains, adding, “I miss the storytellers who told me about it.”

The author of an award-winning collection of stories, “House Fires,” she writes in part from memory. As she explains, “it has to do with a sense of place. I mean the landscape, the sky, the way the wind comes in off the lake. I think that has really marked my sensibility. Here and there, bits and pieces of my own life are woven in, how a room in a house might have felt to me.”

Of the Cohen siblings, Sadie emerges as the most responsible, although she finds that being wife, mother, sister and daughter can be overwhelming. For her, “There’s always a feeling of hurry, of catching up, only glimpsing each moment before it shifts.”

Reisman reflects on mothers as “the secret heart of this book. The loss of one’s mother — either through absence and illness or death, or through a withholding of love — seems to me profoundly heartbreaking,” she says.

The book includes other mothers, too — Lillian’s mother, Sadie’s mother-in-law, other women in the community — some of whom withhold love, or mix it up with anger and disappointment.

“I’m also interested in the ways that the characters learn to care for and to some degree parent each other, how their incorporate their mothers’ best legacies into their own adult live,” she said.

‘Memory’ Shapes Life and History


"The Persistence of Memory" by Tony Eprile (Norton, $24.95).

Tony Eprile opens up the complex terrain of a changing South Africa in "The Persistence of Memory."

This is an ambitious novel, a novel of many ideas. Eprile is a gifted storyteller who delves into the inner life and family, and also politics, social commentary and warfare. The literary thread that links these different kinds of stories — whether accounts of sensual meals, embarrassing school episodes or brutal battles — and propels the narrative is suggested by the title: the way that memory, the act of remembering, shapes life and history.

Eprile writes luminous sentences, and he leavens his serious subject matter with humor. Although "The Persistence of Memory" is a first novel, it is not a first book. Eprile’s collection of stories, "Temporary Sojourner and Other South African Tales," was published in 1989 to much acclaim.

For the novel’s narrator Paul Sweetbread, memory is his homeland. Sweetbread has the gift of perfect memory, but his total recall is in sharp contrast to the selective recall of most of the people around him. In school, his classmates, with names like Colin Goldberg, Sedgewick Schwartz and Ophelia Birnbaum "have no objection to repeating their parents’ histories: to be a lawyer or chartered financial accountant like Dad, to play tennis and attend afternoon teas like Mum. History, memory, is plastic here in R.S.A. You remember it the way you would have wanted it to be, not the way it was."

He’s also something of a misfit — an overweight, sensitive boy (and then man) who is obsessed with food. He gets into trouble in school for asking more questions than his teachers were prepared to answer. After high school, Sweetbread enters the South African army, where he has a hard time with the rigorous regimen and the taunts of his fellow recruits and commanders. He is relieved to be appointed as cook for his unit, and dark humor ensues. On the border, where they are engaged in the secret war with Angola and Namibia, he witnesses and remembers unjust events. Later, he appears before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and reports on what he has seen.

Throughout the novel, memory is manifested in different forms: through the psychoanalysis Sweetbread undergoes as a child after his father dies, the photography and filmmaking he takes up (and takes quite naturally to) in the army, through food and its sensory connections, and through the amnesia of those who prefer to forget. He also writes of libraries as "the greatest of human inventions, a vast repository of collective memory far greater than any single mind could hold."

"The world’s first libraries were the savannas and deserts of Southern Africa; the first writing, tracks in the sand."

During the war, Sweetbread encounters bushmen, who are excellent trackers, with their visual memory of how stones, sand and pebbles have shifted.

"Tracks are a form of recorded memory," Eprile said in a telephone interview from his home in Bennington, Vt.

Do memories add up to truth?

"I don’t think any one person has a monopoly on truth," he said. "We best get truth from being open to not only our own memories but to the memories of others. Perhaps this is an imaginative leap, to try to have empathy for viewpoints you might not agree with."

Eprile, 49, was born in South Africa, but he promptly points out that his own story doesn’t play into the book. He wanted to create a character who came from a more typical middle-class South African Jewish background than his own. Eprile’s father was from an Orthodox family in Scotland; he came to cover the 50th anniversary of Johannesburg in 1936 and stayed. His mother escaped from Germany, also in 1936.

While he was growing up, Eprile’s parents were very active in anti-apartheid efforts; his father was editor of the country’s first mass-circulation newspaper geared toward the black population. When the police, who were suspicious of his father’s many contacts, raided their house, young Tony and his brother went to school with their briefcases filled with their father’s sensitive papers. Soon after that, in 1968, the family left South Africa and traveled to several places before arriving in the United States in 1970 and then settling here permanently in 1972.

"Anyone who has left his or her country is inclined to think, ‘What would I have been like had I stayed,’" he said, adding, "Maybe there is a phantom Tony Eprile."

Eprile has been back to South Africa, most recently in 1992, and he follows events there quite closely.

He presents South Africa as "a kind of mirror for Americans to see an exaggerated version of certain issues and trends in America itself." Among the parallels he points out is that between the Vietnam War and the war with Namibia, also known as "Nam."

Eprile’s father died in 1993; his mother lives in a South African Jewish enclave near San Diego. And while he feels at home with the accents there, it’s not his community. Eprile, who teaches writing, said he feels most at home with "writers who are misfits," and then added, "fiction writers are misfits."

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Step away from the Raid can and lean in for a closer look at that bug you’re about to zap into oblivion. After all, that cockroach is in the same scientific class as Jiminy Cricket and deserves some of your respect. Not convinced? Well, we can’t say we blame you. But before you go spray-crazy, head to Pages Books in Tarzana today for a little reminder that we are all a part of the kingdom animalia. Storyteller Shari Sack tells tales of “Bugliest Bug and Other Creepy Crawlies.” The kids’ll enjoy the craft project that follows, and you’ll emerge enlightened, feeling as warm and fuzzy as a tarantula.11 a.m. $3 (materials fee). Ages 3-8. 18399 Ventura Blvd., No. 15, Tarzana. For more information, call (818) 342-6657.

Sunday

You may think of a rotating exhibition of gallery inventory as a fancy term for “leftovers on display.” But we prefer to think of it as an all-you-can-eat art buffet. Check out galerie yoramgil’s current smorgasbord of Israeli and American art. You’re bound to find something you like at this “Group Show.”Runs through Sept. 1. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (Sundays), 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Tuesdays and Wednesdays), 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. (Thursdays-Saturdays), closed Mondays. 319 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. For more information, call (310) 275-8130.

Monday

Tonight, the The Jewish Federation’s Legal Division and Bet Tzedek Legal Services sponsor a panel discussion addressing constitutional issues and a presentation on Holocaust reparations. But starting out the evening is the play, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” The one-act drama is sure to keep the legal mumbo-jumbo in proper perspective, as it chronicles the story of life behind the walls of the Terezin ghetto, as seen through the eyes of the children.6 p.m. (outdoor barbecue dinner), 7 p.m. (program). $35 (pre-registration), $50 (at the door). Santa Monica College Main Stage, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. For reservations, call (323) 761-8297.

Tuesday

Looking for the Zabar’s bagel of theatrical experiences? Well, the Denver Post’s Alan Stern says he’s found it in Donald Margulies’ comedic-drama “Collected Stories.” Guess that makes his characters Ruth Steiner and Lisa Morrison the ultimate toppers. We’re just wondering which one’s the lox and which one’s the schmeer?Runs through Sept. 4. 8 p.m. (Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays). $15 (general), $7.50 (students and theatrical union members on stand-by basis). Theatre 40, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. Located on the Beverly High School Campus. For reservations, call (310) 364-0535.

Wednesday

Any musician who pays tribute to the great Barry “Oh Mandy” Manilow deserves to be lauded. (Hey, bet you didn’t know he wrote the song that makes the whole world sing, “State Farm Is There.” That’s right, Manilow is responsible for lots of commercial ditties now part of pop-culture consciousness. So back off, man.) But back to the subject at hand. Dale Gonyea, who wrote Grammy-nominated song spoof, “I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow,” has been compared to Dudley Moore, Garrison Keillor and Victor Borge and is performing “Gonyeaville, Here I Come!” tonight at the University of Judaism.7:30 p.m. $12. 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. For reservations, call (310) 440-1246.

Thursday

Could be the Basque origins or the fact that you can’t understand what he’s singing about, but Kepa Junkera (with the help of his band) sure does put the “sex” in sextet. Playing tonight at the Skirball Cultural Center, Junkera blends rock, jazz and blues influences with Malagasy folk and Spanish pop trends. He apparently plays a mean trikitixas (that’s a two-row diatonic button accordion for you gringos). And the band accompanies on other well-named instruments, including the cuatro (Puerto Rican guitar) and txalaparta (percussion instrument). Don’t you just love the sound of that?7:30 p.m. Free. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 440-4500.

Friday

No excuses tonight. Take a nap when you get home and gear up for the Nuart Theatre’s midnight movie. Tonight only, super-Jew Alan Arkin plays Captain Invincible in the musical, “The Return of Captain Invincible.” It’s the 1980s and the captain is a washed-up former “Legend in Leotards” who’s forgotten how to fly. But when the evil Mr. Midnight (Christopher Lee) threatens to destroy the world with his hypno-ray, only C.I. himself can stop him.Midnight. $9 (general), $6 (seniors and children 12 and under). 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 478-6379.

A Family Passover


Of all our family traditions, the Passover seder is the one we look forward to the most. We all fight over who will host it, but no matter, everyone pitches in with the cooking, making sure the seder plate is appropriately filled, the multicourse table properly set. My father and brother, Dennis, share responsibilities for hiding the afikomen and rewarding the lucky child who finds it. Although my father leads the service, with Dennis by his side, all generations participate, down to my 6-year-old granddaughter, Tiara.

Although we love retelling the story of the first Passover — we use our best Hollywood voices — and are often moved to tears at the horrors endured under Pharaoh, like any good story, we are lightened by the happy ending and the unique way we obtained our freedom. The only problem with poignant storytelling is that it is endless and it is often two hours before we get to the main course.

Because we are starving, we gratefully pass the parsley around, anxiously dipping it in salt water and hungrily stuffing it into our mouths. Next comes the hard-boiled egg, although I hate filling up on eggs when I know my favorite brisket isn’t far behind.

For most of us, the most fun is making the charoset sandwich — mixing the sweet fruit and nuts with the bitter horseradish and piling it between two pieces of matzah to symbolize the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom. The trick is to put just the right amount of horseradish, or else we are caught quite breathless and giant tears overwhelm our eyes.

Tiara always wants as much as the big people. But, I caution her to look at the other end of the table at her cousin, Joey, who is coughing and choking — he thinks he is impervious to his grandmother’s horseradish. When we are finally finished experiencing the trip through the Red Sea, out of Egypt and singing about the joys of spring, all of us matriarchs hurry to the kitchen to serve up the best meal of the year.

Baked Brisket

1 4- to 5-pound beef brisket
Kosher salt, to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon paprika
3 to 4 onions, sliced
1 cup water
1 cup dry red wine
3 medium carrots, cut into chunks
3 to 5 whole garlic cloves
2 to 3 celery stalks, sliced
8 to 10 small new potatoes
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 bay leaf

Preheat oven to 350 F. Rub both sides of meat with salt, pepper and paprika. Spread half the onions over bottom of a shallow roasting pan. Place brisket, fat side up, in the pan; top with remaining onions. Add 1/4 cup of water. Bake, uncovered, basting occasionally, until meat and onions begin to brown, about one hour.

Pour in enough of the remaining water and wine to reach halfway up the sides of the meat. Add remaining ingredients, cover and reduce heat to 300 degrees. Cook until meat is fork-tender and the thickest part of the brisket registers about 175 F on a meat thermometer. Cover brisket loosely with foil; let stand for 20 minutes before carving. Slice brisket diagonally against the grain, about 1/8-inch thick. Brisket can be prepared up to two days ahead and reheated in the gravy. Serve with horseradish or whole grain mustard. Total cooking time is about three to four hours (one hour per pound).

Adapted from "The World of Jewish Entertaining” by Gil Marks, (Simon & Schuster, 1998).

Seder Storytelling


There’s much to be done as we turn to this month’s Pesach passage to freedom: menus to be planned, guests to be invited, homes to be cleaned of their chametz (leavening). I start thinking about the most important aspect of a successful seder: creating a fun-filled, positive Jewish experience which, for the time it takes to tell, sing and eat, will help us relive the story of our exodus from Egypt.

Whether you believe the exodus from Egypt is historical reality or myth containing the power of religious truth, the Pesach story tells Jews who we were, who we are and how we must live our lives. Our seder is supposed to be a transformational experience. Through it, we recall symbolically and spiritually our central story: Once we were oppressed, then we cried out, “Enough.” The Source of all Healing and Salvation provided us with leaders, courage and strength to walk forth to freedom.

The Seder as More Than Recitation

For many Jews, the seder has become the rote recitation of ancient words and the mindless performance of meaningless rituals. But it was not meant to be that. In fact, when the ancient rabbis created the seder, it was an engaging pedagogical innovation to provide parents with a multisensory, experiential tool with which they could teach their children. In fact, the haggadah preserves the rabbis’ discussion of the teaching theory behind the seder. Remember the passage about the four children? It was never intended as a reading in the haggadah, but rather as a theory of teaching.

The Four Children as Teaching Theory

In the haggadah, the rabbis speak with reference to four children: one wise, one rebelliously cynical (often misinterpreted as “wicked”), one simple and one who does not know how to ask. The wise child asks, “What is the meaning of the laws and traditions and rituals which God has commanded us? This wise one, seeing himself or herself as part of the experience, seeks understanding of the Exodus and of the Pesach rituals. She/he requires a seder experience that is intellectual and comprehensive.

The rebelliously cynical child asks, “What is this service to you?” “You,” this one insinuates, not herself or himself, because she/he already is distanced from the story and experience. The cynic requires a seder experience led by a patiently engaging facilitator, who uses drama, visuals and learning games to retell the story.

The simple child asks, “What is this all about?” This child, plainly unclear about the significance of the experience, requires a seder filled with age-appropriate meaningful explanations.

As for the child who does not know how to ask, you shall begin teaching from the beginning; starting with the story and using the symbols and foods to pique his or her interest.

All of these children need their seder leaders to become vibrant storytellers. Our seder should model itself on positive bedtime story reading adventures, not the experience of having major surgery without anesthesia.

My wife Michelle and I have three wonderful yet very different children. We have learned that the differences between our children require that we rear each child in a manner unique to his or her specific needs, behaviors and aptitudes. Similarly, our seder experience must come alive, offering each child (and each participant) the entrée into Pesach that is appropriate to his or her learning style. One child thrives on play-acting; another wants to discuss the personalities of the main characters. A third is happy with singing and dipping the food. So we use the haggadah and our own creative ideas to provide each with tailored learning activities within the seder.

Adults Are Kids, Too

But what about adults? Does this haggadah passage teach us anything about the learning needs of adults?

Diane Pickton Schuster, director of the Jewish Lives/Jewish Learning Project at the Center for Educational Studies, Claremont Graduate University, and Isa Aron, professor of Jewish education at Hebrew Union College’s Rhea Hirsch School of Jewish Education, interpret the ancient rabbis’ discussion of seder learning theory as it relates to how adults learn. In their article, “What Congregations Need to Know about the Adult Learner,” these scholar-teachers explain that synagogue learning opportunities, worship experiences and even home rituals like the seder need to take into account the different ways we each approach our Judaism.

Schuster and Aron teach: “The wise one may be symbolized by the congregant who has already learned to read some Hebrew and/or has had some experience with Jewish texts. She/he tends to be self-directed … to probe more deeply. The rebellious one represents the skeptic who asks, ‘What do these Jewish texts and traditions have to do with me … especially when there is pressing business (synagogue or personal) which needs our attention?’ The innocent one might signify the spiritual seeker who might be grappling with tough questions about ‘Who am I as a Jew?’ and ‘How can I find greater meaning in my life?’ The one who does not know what to ask might be the silent one, a congregant raised in a totally secular household, a woman discouraged from receiving a Jewish education, a man who suffered a humiliating experience preparing for his bar mitzvah, or perhaps a person who was raised to believe that only scholars and rabbis are qualified to be at the table of Jewish learning.”

The Four Children Inside Each of Us

In my own growth as a Jew and as a teacher of other Jews, I have found that at different times in our lives, each of us has assumed the Jewish role of the wise one, the skeptic, the spiritual seeker and the silent one. I have learned that a family’s home seder, in its commitment to touching all attendees — adults and children alike — needs to be a Jewish experience that addresses the particular approaches to Judaism of each of these types of Jews. You see, our story teaches that we were all part of the exodus from Egypt and that we were all at Mount Sinai when we received the Torah. So now, we all have a right to be part of the continuing saga of Judaism — including the skeptic and the one who does not know how to ask. We can start by welcoming the skeptic and allowing him/her to question even the most basic tenets of our faith and tradition. We can start by teaching the innocent one, touching the soul of the spiritual searcher and engaging the mind of the wise one. As Jewish storytellers, we want to reach out to those want to show up and find ways to engage those who dislike showing up.

This Pesach I will remember (metaphorically and dramatically) when I went forth from Egypt. This Pesach our family seder will provide all participants with opportunities to enjoy and celebrate and learn. I hope you will all transform your seders into such engaging experiences that the story can be retold joyously.

Other Voices


My father has always revered Joe Louis. Asurprising hero, perhaps, for a man born and raised in far-awayHungary. Not the hero one might expect of a Jewish cantor, whose workall his life has been singing liturgy in synagogues. Yet, among themost vivid memories I have from my childhood in Hungary and Israel,through my teen-age years in the United States, are the stories myfather told of Joe Louis.

Although my father was recalling events that he’donly read about in newspapers and seen in newsreels nearly 20 yearspreviously, his stories were filled with dramatic detail. Many times,in our living room, back yard or even occasionally before services inshul, he’d ball up his fists, get into a prize fighter’s crouch andshow us how the Brown Bomber landed the savage right to MaxSchmeling’s kidney that fractured two vertebrae in the unluckychallenger’s back.

“Two minutes! Just two minutes and four seconds isall it took!” he would exclaim. “They say that a Texas millionairewas at ringside that night, wearing a big cowboy hat. When somebodyaccidentally knocked his hat off at the beginning of the fight, hebent down to get it. By the time he looked up, the fight was over.”Saying this, my father would laugh until tears came to his eyes. Thenhe’d add, dramatically: “Can you believe it? Hitler had even sentSchmeling a telegram before the fight. ‘Congratulations to the newheavyweight champion of the world!'” Again my father would laugh.Again, tears would come to his eyes.

My father is a gifted storyteller, and the storiesof great men are his favorite topic. He knows many stories. Some ofthem are of singers such as him, of Koussevitsky, the legendarycantor; Gigli, the great Italian operatic tenor; and Chaliapin, thefamed Russian bass-baritone. Others are about the teachings and thesayings of the great rabbis of history. And still others are abouthis childhood and adolescence in Hungary between the two worldwars.

Always, though, and to this day, he comes back tothe stories of Joe Louis. And of his own father.

There are only three pictures left of mygrandfather, Shaya. In one, he is a young man wearing his World War IHungarian army uniform. He is posing in profile, his rifle in hisright hand, a long pickax in his left. On his back is a fullknapsack, and binoculars hang from a strap around his neck. He was anadvance scout. His assignment throughout the war was to climbmountains and lookout towers, occasionally behind enemy lines, andreport on troop movements. His face, looking out of the olddaguerreotype is calmly confident, almost defiant — a man aware ofhis powers.

When World War I ended, small bands of troops fromthe retreating Czech army entered his city of Balassagyarmat andbegan looting homes. My grandfather stood by his front gate, rifle atthe ready. “They are not coming in here,” he said. Theydidn’t.

After the war, because of his army service, Shayawas allowed a gun permit and carried a pistol in his travels as apeddler. When, in the late 1930s, the many restrictions against Jewsbegan to be enforced, Shaya lost his permit and his gun. One day,traveling home from a successful selling trip, he was attacked by tworobbers. Wielding a loose plank from his cart, he knocked both mensenseless.

When my father was about 12 years old, he waswalking home from Saturday-morning synagogue services with a few ofhis friends. Grandfather Shaya and the other men were walking somedistance behind the boys. A group of young men surrounded the boysand began chanting, “Dirty Jews, dirty Jews.” One of them yanked myfather’s payis, the customary long sideburns of religious Jews, andlanded a blow to my father’s head. Shaya came running, and the youngmen fled. He caught two of them from behind and hit them so hard witha fist in each back that they fell face down on the ground.

In 1939, Shaya, despite being 52 years old, wasordered into the Munkaszolgálat, the work detail attached tothe Hungarian army into which many Jewish men were conscripted.Stationed far from home, he rarely saw his family. One week, however,his unit camped only five kilometers from Balassagyarmat. ThatFriday, Shaya walked home to spend the Sabbath with his family. Heneglected to inform anyone that he was leaving. When he returned onSunday afternoon, his commanding officer accused him of desertion.Shaya replied, “I’m here. Besides,” and at this point he steppedclose to the officer and repeatedly tapped the man’s chest with hisindex finger, “if you hadn’t seen your wife and children in threemonths, and you were this close, what would you have done?” Thematter was dropped.

Shaya was released from Munkaszolgálat whena lookout tower, like the ones he’d climbed more than 20 yearsbefore, but now rotted from years of neglect, collapsed under him. Hebroke his right shoulder and several ribs and never quite recoveredfrom his injuries.

When my brother and I were about 16 years old, mymother told us one day that she was our father’s second wife, thathe’d lost his first wife and their three young children in theHolocaust.

This almost unbelievable news suddenly explainedthe sadness I’d always sensed in my father but whose cause I’d neverknown. It seemed to explain why he kept to himself so much, why herarely joined my mother and brother and me on family outings to parksor beaches, saying that he needed time to study for the next week’sTorah reading. We all knew that was not true. He could almost recitethe readings by heart after so many years of study and repetition. Hedidn’t need to rehearse every Sunday afternoon, all afternoon.

The truth was, he wanted to be alone. It sometimesseemed to me that he wanted to be alone so much that he was not apart of our family. Twenty years after their murder, my father wasstill in mourning for his first family.

His frequent stories of Joe Louis now took onextra meaning for me. Over the years, I began to see why Joe Louis’victory over Max Schmeling held such mythic power for myfather.

Sixty years ago, on June 22, 1938, when Louisknocked out Schmeling, my father was living in Kunhegyes, a smalltown 125 kilometers east of Budapest. He served as rabbi, cantor andschoolteacher for the Jewish families living in that community.Although he was happy in his life in Kunhegyes, he was well aware ofthe gathering horror of Hitler. After Kristallnacht, in 1938, myfather had visible proof that Hitler’s insane rantings could inspirevery real violence and horror. In 1939, that horror and violencepounded on his door. When war broke out, like his father, Shaya, hewas ordered into the Munkaszolgálat. He spent much of the restof the war in work camps in Poland.

When he returned home to Kunhegyes in late 1944,my father discovered that he had lost everything to the Nazis.

While he was away in the Munkaszolgálat,much of his family was taken to Auschwitz in cattle trains. There, inaddition to countless more distant relatives, he lost his father,Shaya; his mother, Rose; his only brother; three sisters; twonephews; and, perhaps most excruciating of all, his wife, two sonsand daughter.

To this day, my father believes that Shaya, had henot been recovering from the fall from the lookout tower, would havenever been taken alive to Auschwitz. He is certain that Shaya wouldhave taken to the grave with him a number of the hated Hungarianstate police who rounded up Jews to transport to the camps.

My own fantasies are slightly different but evenmore unrealistic. I dream that Shaya might have been able to save thewhole family.

Joe Louis was an exce
ptional man, worthy of myfather’s admiration. However, my father did not look up to him onlyfor his athletic feats. He revered him because Joe Louis didsomething my father had not been able to do.

Joe Louis beat the Nazis.

In all his stories, my father never mentioned thatthe Joe Louis fight of 1938 was a return match, that Max Schmelinghad defeated Joe Louis two years previously. I was more than 30 yearsold when I read that in a biography of Louis. When I told my father,he hadn’t known. In that same biography, I read that Joe Louis andMax Schmeling were, in fact, not blood enemies, that, in later years,the men were friends. That, I never told my father. I didn’t thinkhe’d want to know.

Sandor Slomovits is free-lance writer whoresides in Ann Arbor, Mich.