Tough neighborhoods, hard times feed cycle of poverty
PBS: ‘Los Angeles — Dream of A Different City’
Sick of traffic? Sick of smog? Sick of urban sprawl?
Don’t just complain about it. See what’s being done to change it.
On Jan. 11, KCET will air a Los Angeles-focused segment of its acclaimed series “Edens Lost & Found.”
This one-hour installment of the multipart series titled, “Los Angeles: Dream a Different City,” will focus on community leaders and groups in the greater L.A. area who are finding solutions to what a century of almost unchecked growth has wrought on our landscape and our lives.
The segment begins with host Jimmy Smits providing a quick overview of a familiar litany of problems besetting Los Angeles. There are traffic-choked interchanges, vast tracts of unchecked development, a trickle of water to slake a thirsty city and brownish air.
“If Southern California can solve these problems, there just might be hope for the rest of the world,” Smits says.
Producer and director Harry Wiland and Dale Bell track down the people and groups who have found ways to confront these problems. To watch the documentary is to find much reason for hope:
- TreePeople founder Andy Lipkis, who talks of discovering the importance of trees during summers at a Jewish camp in the San Bernardino Mountains, shows how urban forestry and water recovery projects throughout the city can provide shade, lower electricity usage and replenish groundwater.
The 35-year campaign has gained powerful allies. TreePeople’s main on-screen advocate is L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose first act as mayor was to plant a tree. And County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky says of the groundwater recovery efforts, “If it works it will revolutionize the way we do flood control.”
- Lewis MacAdams of Friends of the Los Angeles River and Melanie Winter of The River Project show how the battle to re-green the 58-mile cement ditch will reshape the city.
- Darrell Clarke and Presley Burroughs of Friends 4 Expo Transit speaks of his 21-year struggle to get a light-rail line from downtown to the beach.
“It’s a ladder for upward mobility,” Burroughs says.
That last theme is crucial to the filmmakers. A good amount of the program looks at how economically depressed areas in Boyle Heights, the north San Fernando Valley and El Monte benefit from re-connecting and fighting for Los Angeles’ environment. “Improving L.A.’s natural environment,” says the mayor on screen, “will improve families and the economy.”
“Eden’s Lost and Found” is part of a series that also looks at innovative solutions in Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago and other American cities. A companion book and DVD provide ample information for would-be activists.
Wiland, a Venice resident and Jewish activist, sees the effort as part of a larger educational and social campaign. “We want everyone to be involved in dreaming a different city,” he said.
Victory of a Blessing
There are times in our lives where after periods of struggle and conflict, we seek peace and quiet.
As life would have it, the term of tranquility is short, but we can emerge
from these times strengthened both physically and spiritually.
“Vayeshev Ya’akov — And Jacob settled down in the land where his ancestors had sojourned….”
The opening words of this week’s reading elicited the following comment from our sages: Just when Jacob sought tranquility, the crisis of Joseph erupts.
Jacob, our quintessential ancestor, is indeed a lifelong wrestler. Even before he is born, he is portrayed as wrestling in the womb with his twin brother, Esau.
In fact, his very name, Ya’akov, refers to an ancient wrestling technique. It means one who can strike at the Achilles’ heel of his opponent and cripple him, even while lying on the ground with the enemy’s heel at his own throat. Throughout his life, Jacob will constantly wrestle, and even in his final moments, we find him wrestling with Joseph, his favored son, in order to reverse the blessings between his two Egyptian-born grandsons.
Jacob will become “Israel” as a result of another wrestling match — this time against a mysterious, divine opponent. In this case, all commentaries seem to agree that we are confronted with a profoundly significant metamorphosis. Jacob becomes Israel.
When the patriarch finally succeeds in breaking the grip of the angel and achieves the upper hand, the angel begs to be released, and Jacob utters these famous words: “I will not release you until you grant me your blessing.” These words articulate an authentically Jewish value all too often overlooked.
According to 18th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, heroic thinking in the classical Mediterranean world defined victory as the killing of one’s opponent, which could be restated as:
“Might makes right.” Jacob and the meaning of Chanukah, incidentally, offer us a radically different definition of victory.
Perhaps it could best be expressed as: “Right makes might.” For the Jew, victory must mean receiving a blessing from the enemy, converting him into an ally.
The modern State of Israel never celebrated any of its stunning military victories with parades, parties, celebrations, dancing, etc., as do all other nations on earth.
The late Golda Meir said that we cannot celebrate, because our children had to kill and be killed. The only instance when we witnessed such a great wave of joy in Israel was when the enemy came to bless; i.e., when the late President Anwar Sadat of Egypt came to Israel, extending recognition and the offer of peace.
Sadly, Jacob/Israel must always be alert and ready to take up arms against the “violent hands” of Esau the hunter in order to survive.
As Edmond Jabes, one of the greatest 20th century Jewish writers, remarked concerning the Jewish people: “How inventive his means, how diligent his metamorphosis, deduce, adapt, plan, he can be hounded but not destroyed; Half man, half bird, half fish, half ghost, there is always one half which escapes the hangman…. ”
Our survival can be attributed in great measure to our adaptability but also to our inner spiritual victories.
David Baron is rabbi of the Temple of the Arts at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills.
Mayor implores people of faith to fight homelessness
“Local communities have to provide services and supportive housing. We can’t be a city that grows in one part and leaves people destitute in another,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told a crowd of more than 300 at Leo Baeck Temple on Sunday.
Teachings from the Torah, as well as triumphs on the football field, set the tone for a conference on homelessness, which also included County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; Ed Edelman, retired county supervisor and special representative for homeless initiatives for the City of Santa Monica; L.A. City Council Member Bill Rosendahl; and a panel of agency leaders, ready to enlist the conference participants in a wide range of activities.
“Homelessness is curable and we must cure it,” Leo Baeck Senior Rabbi Kenneth Chasen said in his welcoming remarks. “Jews know too well the experience of being strangers and outsiders. We have lived in countless places where there were no homes for us.”
More than 90,000 homeless people live in Los Angeles County, about 15,000 of them in downtown’s skid row.
“Los Angeles has the dubious distinction of being America’s homeless capital,” the mayor said, adding that the city is also home to 262,500 millionaires.
The mayor emphasized that homelessness is pervasive throughout the county.
“We have 15 council districts and 87 neighborhood councils, and at the end of the day we have to articulate a common vision…. Every neighborhood has the responsibility to bear the challenge of homelessness,” Villaraigosa said, citing studies showing that contrary to residents’ fears, property values do not fall, nor does crime increase when supportive housing is provided for the previously homeless.
Rosendahl cited a recent survey that had found scores of homeless people in West Los Angeles as well as Venice. Yaroslavky, emphasized that religious communities, which share a vision and passion for social justice can play a key role.
“The county has allocated $100 million for homelessness,” he said. “At one point that was as unlikely as UCLA beating USC in football. For the first time in my career, the political landscape is right for tackling this issue.”
A panel of directors of programs that provide services for the homeless provided the audience with specific programs that could use their services.
Adlai Wertman, the CEO of Chrysalis, which finds jobs for as many as 2,000 homeless people each year, left a career on Wall Street to work with the homeless.
“Why?” he asks. “First and foremost because I’m a Jew. I’m a wannabe rabbi. I spend four or five hours a week studying Torah; it was hard for me to read about the duty of taking care of the poor and the hungry without taking action.”
The New Direction Choir, composed of previously homeless veterans who’ve worked with the New Directions orgainzaton, had earlier provided concrete evidence through song and testimonies to the successes of their programs.
“I am a member of this congregation,” said Toni Reinis, executive director of the New Directions. “So I have to cite something. Our tradition teaches us that the recognition of injustice is not sufficient. Awareness must be followed by action. Real tzedakah is only committed through our acts of righteousness.”
Reinis urged members of the audience to stop by the Veteran’s Village Diner on the grounds of the Veteran’s Administration in West Los Angeles, which serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday.
Joel Roberts, the CEO of PATH, People Assisting the Homeless, introduced Mary Erickson of Imagine LA, a group whose goal is to help every faith-based community in Los Angeles to “adopt” one of the city’s 8,000 homeless families for a two year period.
The conference was spearheaded by Ralph Fertig, a professor at the USC School of Social Work. Fertig, who has long been active in the struggle for human and civil rights, joined Leo Baeck two years ago because of its tradition of social justice programming. The ex-Freedom Rider and civil rights lawyer approached the temple’s rabbis in the hope of engaging the congregation in issues of homelessness.
“We decided a conference would be the perfect opportunity to get our members’ sleeves rolled up,” said Rabbi Leah Lewis, who was also a key organizer.
“We though this could be a launching pad for more involvement.”
After the presentations, Edelman and Fertig urged everyone to sign up as volunteers. Their exhortations were echoed by Lewis in her concluding remarks.
“The Chanukah season is our time to re-dedicate ourselves to stand up for what is right,” she said. “The Macabees were not deterred by the enormity of their task. Like the Macabees, we move forward one step at a time. For us at Leo Baeck, partnering with all these agencies is our congregational first step.”
“There is no community or city or region in the country that has dealt successfully with homelessness without the full participation from religious communities of all faiths standing up for community responsibility,” said Torie Osborn, Villaraigosa’s senior adviser on homelessness.
“I’m especially delighted about the religious community coming together with the city and county,” Chasen said as the congregants moved to an adjoining room where tables were covered with snacks, literature and sign-up sheets.
“The remarkable thing is that both Mayor Villaraigosa and Supervisor Yaroslavsky came,” he said. “The city and the county have not always worked together on homelessness. It’s a great sign of successes to come.”
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.
I Love You, Carnivore
This column is in response to last week’s Torah Portion by Rabbi Zoë Klein, who confessed her secret enjoyment of meat, despite her family’s predominantly vegetarian diet.
To: My Not-So-Flesh-Eating Wife
From: Her Closeted Carnivorous/Publicly Vegetarian Husband
Worry not, my dear, your struggle is safe with me over vegetarianism. I try to be one, but you know the truth of my dilemma, although it is less debilitating for me than it is for you. After 20 years, I think I’m close to being true to myself when I ignore the leftover Shabbos schnitzel from our Hillel caterer.
You see, as you know, I love meat. Love it! Growing up, although it wasn’t kosher, I took extra delight in my mother’s marinated flank steak. She also made great meatballs, and do I ever miss Shake N’ Bake chicken. How fun it was to overcook hotdogs until they blistered on the grill outside, while watching “60 Minutes” on Sunday evenings as a family.
I have absolutely no repulsion toward seeing carcasses; only a sadness that others are troubled by it. Ultimately, “we are like vanity; our days are as a shadow that passes,” as you and I read when we officiate at funerals, so why not accept that the life on the paper plates used in our homes for the kids eating a little meat is temporal? When medical shows present brain surgeries, complete with machines sucking the blood away, I can watch without any angst.
You, on the other hand, must turn the station, and at the site of roadkill, you bristle and say, “God bless it.” Actually, thank you for teaching me to do the same.
“Does it really matter if I don’t turn off the water while I brush my teeth?” one of my environment-conscientious students queried me the other day. Elizabeth had been caught by another conservationist in the throes of committing what some consider a chilul Hashem, desecration of that which was holy. Wasting water is an act of bal tashchit, our tradition’s way of saying that we are stewards of the planet and as such, we have no right to waste or destroy needlessly.
“Industries and big businesses waste far more water every day than people do brushing their teeth and watering their lawns,” she added. “Truth be told, I knew that I should turn off the water faucet, but does it really matter?”
“Maybe the key is to try to turn it off but not feel immense guilt for keeping it on, since it has virtually no effect on the environment,” I offered as a compromise. She seemed content.
As we left this “lunch ‘n’ learn” at USC’s health science campus, I had an epiphany. I wondered whether Elizabeth was channeling Torah from Sinai for me with my struggle to conquer my yetzer hara, the evil impulse toward consuming fleishigs: If I privately eat the Persian kabob leftovers after our weekly Wednesday barbecue, so that no one knows and it has no impact on anyone, might that be the ideal?
My act of civil disobedience — refusing to consume the flesh of once-living, breathing animals — has virtually no effect, perhaps none whatsoever. Agribusiness decides far in advance how many cows to raise and then slaughter without regard to my individual case.
It is almost entirely unlikely that the good folks at Rubashkin’s or some other slaughterhouse would ever take an inventory that would reflect my decision. It seems that being a vegetarian in America is as effective for slowing down meat production as trying to convince our son, Rocky, that muesli tastes better than marshmallows.
However, perhaps eating leftovers is still a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of these animals. Kabbalah teaches that when we eat foods, we elevate the divine sparks within them, so by consuming these leftovers, I am ensuring that these sparks are not wasted. It would be wrong to let the leftovers get dumped, as that would certainly be a violation of the law of bal tashchit.
The purposeful consumption of leftover meats then makes sense. However, if anyone were to find out that I was not a true vegetarian, they might never consider a vegetarian lifestyle. This would betray my values: While I can’t individually change the meat production levels in this society, creating a vegetarian movement would help keep cows jumping over the moon in perpetuity. I’m pretty much convinced that had my sister, Sylvia, never been a vegetarian, I might have never ended up in this dilemma, which pits my conscience against my cravings.
So, dear, continue to chew gum after eating a hamburger in order to mask the taste of once-living animals on your breath. Even as I argue for public vegetarianism with a strictly private consumption of leftovers, I am beginning to reach the point where even my interest in meat is disappearing. One too many PETA videos, I suppose.
Hoisting and shackling the cows horrifies me, and while kosher, I would much rather take my cues from the likes of Shlomo Goren, Isaac Bashevis Singer, S.I. Agnon and A.D. Gordon, not to mention Albert Einstein, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, all famous Jewish vegetarians.
Our prayers are for Moshiach, a messianic era in which the world order will improve in its very essence. When I say “Bayom Hahu,” on that day, I join Rav Kook in imagining a world when we need not sacrifice animals on any altar ever again.
I love you, even if you do sneak a roast beef sandwich from time to time.
Jonathan Klein is the Allen and Ruth Ziegler rabbinic director at USC Hillel.
Russian City Gets New JCC
At a time when Jewish Community Centers in the West frequently struggle to survive in prosperous communities with lots of Jews, the small Russian port city of Arkhangelsk near the Arctic Circle is on the verge of getting a brand-new JCC. A local businessman had pledged to build and fund the facility for a Jewish community of fewer than 2,000 people.
The current JCC building is located on the edge of town — one floor above a blood transfusion clinic. It is tiny and in disrepair; building materials and a few wheelchairs dusty from neglect clutter a hallway connecting its five small rooms. This space houses a library that doubles as a kitchen, two offices and a meeting room.
Anatoly Obermeister, a local Jewish businessman, decided to improve the situation. “We need something that we can call our own and a place where we know we will always be able to stay,” he said.
Obermeister, president of the construction and development firm ASTRA, plans to offer the ground floor — about 6,000 square feet — of a new housing project in the center of town for use as a Jewish community center that could include a restaurant, clinic, school and other social services.
Nothing is left of the two synagogues that were built after the arrival of Jewish merchants and soldiers in the army during the 19th century. The wooden buildings fell into ruin and were scrapped after their closures during communist times.
Outside funding assistance for the new JCC would be welcomed for consideration, but Obermeister prefers that the community should not have to rely on outside sources to support itself — something that rarely happens in Jewish communities anywhere in Russia, where Jewish life still largely relies on the generosity of foreign donors.
In recent years, the Arkhangelsk Jewish community has seen an involvement of international Jewish organizations. Like almost everywhere across the region, Chabad, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel have all assumed some role in this remote Russian Jewish community.
This involvement means an increase in Jewish social support and cultural life for Arkhangelsk’s Jews. However, the increase in Jewish identification also has led many local Jews to emigrate.
Since the Jewish Agency first opened a center here in 1998, the community has seen a heavy flow of Jews moving to Israel, said Lilya Martinova, coordinator for the St. Petersburg department of the Jewish Agency, which handles communities in northwestern Russia.
“Ten to 15 people make aliyah to Israel every year from the Arkhangelsk area,” said Igor Prober, director of the local Hesed Avraham welfare center.
For a community the size of Arkhangelsk, that is a considerable number.
The Arkhangelsk Jewish community is a branch of the Federation of Jewish Communities — a Chabad-sponsored organization. It, along with the JDC and local donors, helps fund various educational and social programs, including a tiny Sunday school of about 15 participants and a youth club.
Although the JDC-operated Hesed Avraham is thriving in its work of assisting the elderly, local Jewish leaders don’t think the future of the small Jewish community has much of a chance.
Yet, though Jewish activity should be declining, it may, in fact, be gaining momentum. Many Jews are leaving, but many are also coming out of the woodwork. Those with some Jewish heritage are finding their way to the evolving community and are becoming active participants.
“When they become interested in their identity, the half- and quarter-Jews become very active in Jewish cultural life — usually much more active than the full-blooded Jews,” Prober said.
Post-Bar Mitzvah Stress Disorder
Our youngest son has just celebrated his bar mitzvah, and I am recovering from a case of Post-Bar Mitzvah Stress Disorder. This is a seriously underreported malady, yet shockingly, the government has yet to allocate a single dollar to research. If this doesn’t change soon, I’m going to launch an awareness campaign, complete with blue-and-white ribbons, pins and car decals.
Post-Bar Mitzvah Stress Disorder (PBMSD) usually follows a case of Pre-Bar Mitzvah Stress Disorder. This is characterized by speed-dialing your caterer several times daily until you actually hear him chewing antacids while you speak; zipping around so frantically from errand to errand that you have no time to eat anything other than large brownies in the car (perversely, this still causes weight gain), and bursting into tears with no warning because your little boy is no longer a little boy but a newly minted teen who has the audacity to catapult into puberty before your very eyes.
You don’t need to be Jewish to understand PBMSD. After all, symptoms are identical to those that flare up after other life-cycle events, the kind that often demand throwing large parties for people, some of whom are not on speaking terms but who will be forced into close proximity with one another for several hours, while having to smile much of that time.
My symptoms became acute as the weeks counted down to The Big Day. The following diary entries explain why:
Five weeks before the bar mitzvah: The invitations arrive, but the envelopes won’t seal shut. Wrestling the envelope flaps down with a hot glue gun for six hours eventually does the trick. I struggle to pare down guest list and fail. Like a powerful Hollywood party hostess, I withhold a batch of B-list invitees, pending the acceptance rates of other guests.
Four weeks and counting: Son is still growing too fast to buy the suit. He practices his Torah chanting each night, perfecting the reading. I worry about his speech, since the boy talks 90 m.p.h. Is it too late to hire a speaking coach?
Three weeks to go: Response cards coming in each day, many including checks. Son discovers that happiness is a positive cash flow. An alarming 90 percent of invitees have accepted. Cannot decide about B-list. Send to all anyway.
Two weeks left: Son has grown another inch and still afraid to buy suit. In meeting with caterer, son insists on a dinner menu of corn dogs and pasta. Fortunately, few 13-year-old boys are on the South Beach Diet. Musician calls me repeatedly, urging me to hire his entire orchestra. I repeatedly refuse, citing budget concerns. This is not a presidential inauguration, I tell him. It’s just a bar mitzvah. Musician sounds dirgical. I remain firm.
One week and a half away: I help son polish his speech, restraining myself from overediting. We simply add a few transitions and a laugh line or two when appropriate. Son’s delivery speed still faster than a major league pitch. Consider speech printouts on each seat?
Seven days: Musician, magician and caterer all need deposits. Consider asking son for loan.
Six days: Should I get a new dress? Daughter and many female friends are asking what I plan to wear. I had planned to lose 10 pounds for the occasion, but failed to take necessary actions. Too late now. Decide to wear ivory-colored spring suit, which still fits. Musician calls again, countering with an offer of just one additional musician. I agree, just to get rid of him. The fraud detection department of my credit card company calls to warn me of an unusual amount of activity on my account.
Five days: Must get son’s suit now. Even if he grows another two inches this week, it will still fit. Son insists all formal shirts in the store are too scratchy. I snag a hand-me-down shirt from the closet, worn at an older brother’s bar mitzvah. Finally, I save money.
Four days: Try to prearrange seating for family dinner. No configuration seems likely to prevent Uncle Harold from starting up with Cousin Norman about … what was that fight about, anyway? Pray that Aunt Shirley takes her meds before arrival. Stock up on my supply of migraine pills just in case.
Three days: Call everyone who hasn’t sent in response card. Some remind me testily that they did send them in, and I must have lost them. Of course they are coming. Several of son’s friends call to ask me if I can arrange their rides to and from the party. I lose my house keys.
Two days: Caterer calls and says he can’t get the special petit fours I had ordered, and a trucking strike on the East Coast may mean we can’t get the sorbet, either. Default to bakery cookies. Photographer calls. An emergency has arisen, and she’ll send her trainee instead. Will that be OK?
Day before: I supervise floral delivery to synagogue. Florist with heavy Italian accent assures me they will be “stupendous” but doesn’t warn me they’re nearly as big as Mount Sinai and will hardly fit through the door. At home, the phone won’t stop ringing. Everyone apologizes for calling, since I must be so busy, but what time is the party called for? Can they bring a niece who unexpectedly flew into town? Two invitations sent to close friends are returned as “address unknown.” My keys have not shown up yet, and I lose my spare set as well. Next move: climbing through the window to get into the house.
The Big Day: Get up early enough to put in contact lenses and dress with care. On goes the ivory suit. While drinking a quick cup of coffee in the kitchen, a crisis erupts. The dog rushes in from the yard, ecstatic at seeing me after an absence of seven minutes. He leaps up to greet me, festooning my ivory suit with muddy paw prints. I’ve got to leave for synagogue in three minutes or I’ll miss son’s big moment, but have no Plan B for another outfit. I race to my room and throw on a dark blue suit whose jacket won’t button all the way. No one seems to notice, so like a dope, I call attention to the unnecessary fact to my friends.
Son chants his portion from the Torah beautifully. He looks both adorable and handsome in his suit, straddling that brief, shining moment between boyhood and manhood. Miraculously, he gives his speech slow enough for most people to hear, and waits as I had instructed him for audience to laugh at appropriate moments. Sometimes, nagging pays off. In his speech, he thanks his father for taking him to Dodger games; me for correcting his grammar. He is in his glory, and I am in mine, even if my dress is too tight.
Four days later: The party goes smoothly. Some computer glitches make the music intermittent, and the silences are hard to explain. Several people wander into the hall, fill plates with food and leave. I have never seen these people before in my life. The desserts are a big hit, especially the brownies. I could have told them that. Keys still MIA.
Five days later: My son’s 15 minutes of fame are over, and he is returning to life as a mere mortal. He announces his first major purchase with his bar mitzvah money will be a chameleon and a six-month supply of meal worms. He also announces plans to grow his hair very long. And each day, he continues his deployment into manhood, standing a little taller, his face and body becoming ever thinner. The next time I see his chubby cheeks, they’ll be on my grandchildren. I am wildly happy that he is not embarrassed to say, “I love you, Mom.”
His dad and I are immensely proud of him, and love him more than any words can say. I am also nearly wildly happy that my keys finally turned up — in the backyard. My symptoms of PBMSD are dissipating at last. Mazal tov!
Out of the Shadows
It is the middle of the night. I hear a strange sound in the living room.
Heart pounding, I get out of bed, grope awkwardly through darkness for the light switch … push up … nothing happens. I try another switch. No light. I feel desperately alone. My surroundings remain one shadowed mass of space … my terror grows…. Then I wake up.
I’ve been having this same, vivid nightmare for months.
Once fully conscious, I turn on the light and sigh relief into the illumination. Safe again in “reality,” I tour my apartment — gratefully able to see that all my stuff is in place. I return to bed and muster up the courage to turn off the lamp and re-enter the obscurity. I wish I still had my childhood nightlight — back when it was acceptable to be afraid of the dark.
Darkness is frightening. It is the realm of uncertainty, with everything enveloped in a state of unified oblivion. The world we call “real” — based on substance, physical existence and visible actuality — is nullified by the blackness of night. In this domain of the unknown, boundaries blur, imagination stirs and possibilities of reality broaden beyond confines of fact. Separate materials and individuals distinguishable with light mesh together into nothing, and when they do, we become insecure. When the possessions and relationships by which we define our selves disappear, we become unsure of who we are. As did Jacob.
“Vayira Ya’akov meod vayetzer lo.” Upon sending forth all his possessions in hopes of placating his estranged brother Esav, “Jacob was very afraid and distressed.” In other words, without his stuff around to define him, Jake freaked. He suffered a hard blow to his ego, throwing him into identity crisis.
See, the ego exists in material reality, where physical boundaries separate one thing from another. It believes that “I” exists independently from “you” — with both of us distinct from every thing else. As the product of our transition from infancy (where we feel interconnection and wholeness) into adulthood, it is based on our capacity to name: to define parts from the whole. Its identity is defined in opposition to and in relationship with an “other,” and it thrives on its control and possession over any thing distinct from its limited sense of self.
Jacob’s distress came from his enormous ego. It inspired his betrayal of his brother — for the prestige of a birthright — and a life prioritized by the accumulation of property. When forced to give it up, he began the struggle that always results from an ego-based existence: Jacob’s separate sense of self confronted the fear and loneliness at its source. He had tried (as we do today … with VIP passes and Ferraris rather than birthrights and oxen) to compensate for his sense of lacking by accumulating more material; now he had to confront his motivating force: the terror of isolation from living in a reality of separation.
Suddenly, he had nothing. He sent all his possessions and relations away; in the middle of the night, he was “left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed … he wrenched Jacob’s hip.”
In the dark domain of the unknown; of imagination and blurry boundaries, where definitions of separation that encourage the ego to call “reality” real blend back together into one space of nothing, a nameless man attacked Jacob’s exposed ego.
He fought as we all fight: against illusions of nothing that we make into “somethings” of value — to be possessed by our individual selves as compensation for insecurity and loneliness. Within the limitless blackness he struggled with his attachments to the world of limited materials; he battled his definitions of self as opposed to, and seeking ownership over, everything else. He wrestled the fear; the fallacies of scarcity and disconnection — dislodging his hip in the process. In the depths of shadow, he contested the very idea of separation, for there must be an “other” to fight against.
He combated the nightmare of isolation…. Then he woke up.
His spiritual self became conscious. His ego weakened, and he began to remember the Oneness. The realities of abundance and sustenance; the wholeness (shleimut — that allows for peaceful being. The Source, whose first act of creation was to bring forth light from darkness, again made Itself manifest in that most fundamental way. Dawn broke; the light switch worked; and his nameless adversary affirmed that Jacob had prevailed over “beings Divine and human” before Jacob returned him to the nothingness of night. The identity crisis was over, and he was renamed: Israel.
Last week I had the nightmare again, but rather than becoming fearful when the lights would not work, I walked into the darkness. I realized I could make my way just fine. I was free: to dance in it; to laugh; to disappear into the primordial unity of darkness, from where I could — in the image of my Creator — recreate. As He did in the beginning. From out of shadows: the light and love of a reality I choose to live. A reality where nothing is more valuable than any thing I feel separate from.
Then I asked my parents to buy me a nightlight for Chanukah … just in case.
Karen Dietsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.
The Lost Words
“Yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei.” Three words into Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, Yoni stumbled on an unfamiliar vowel. Then, again and again, as he continued reciting the traditional prayer at his mother’s funeral in Jerusalem, he twisted and mangled the words. He frowned in concentration and tried very hard, but the words would not take their proper shape. The life of a secular young man, even in Israel, contains little preparation for the rituals of a Jewish funeral.
I had come to the funeral for Yoni’s sake. He and my son had been best friends when they were in grade school. For me, Yoni was still that tousled-haired kid in the photo squinting into the sun as he stands next to his bike.
It was Yoni who had come to visit his mother one weekend but instead had found only her body. I wanted somehow to comfort this boy turned young man, whose mother had died so young. Instead, I found myself cringing at his tortured recitation.
Why did it matter? After all, religion was not important in Yoni’s home. His mother, an immigrant from the United States, never mastered Hebrew. She certainly didn’t know Aramaic, the main component of Kaddish and Yoni’s stumbling block.
Yoni’s father, a secular sabra, had no use for ritual. Yoni never had a bar mitzvah; possibly never set foot in a synagogue. There was no way he could have been prepared for this moment. And, perhaps, for his family that did not matter.
So why did it matter to me? This prayer that combines Hebrew and Aramaic speaks not of the dead but rather about the God who has created the world “according to his will.” It continues as a thesaurus of hosannas: “Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One.”
The language is light years from anything a secular young man in Israel might say or think. For a moment I thought that it might be time for a pop version, one that would roll easily off any Israeli tongue.
One thing I knew for certain: I want my own children to be able to recite the Kaddish without stumbling. That Friday at dinner I told them the story of the garbled prayer, hoping they would get the message without my having to come out and say, “Get it right!”
And it’s impossible to get it right without some practice.
They responded blithely, as if it was no concern of theirs.
“The dead person doesn’t care, anyway,” my youngest son scoffed.
Nevertheless, I sensed they’d gotten the message. But why was that so important? I have so little interest in praising, exalting and lauding any supreme being. And I know that the only afterlife is the memory we keep of the person who is gone. The body at the funeral is but an empty shell.
Perhaps what’s at issue is my own life: I’m a word person. For more than 20 years I’ve made my living by writing and editing. Getting the words right is what I labor to achieve, all day every day. It’s a struggle that often leaves me in despair.
But there’s more to it than that. In the face of the greatest anguish, words fail. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a compulsive sender of messages of sympathy to those far away who have lost someone dear, and I sense that those words give some comfort, if only the reminder that someone on the other side of the planet acknowledges the loss.
But what can one say to the mother of a toddler who has died of cancer; to the father of a youngster who has committed suicide; to the teenager whose father has been killed in a car accident? Words seem an intrusion, a violation of the mourner’s right to grieve undisturbed. Nor can even the most eloquent eulogy offer more than a moment’s balm.
It is here that the ancient formula stands in for mere words, since these can never encompass the loss. The repetition of the set phrases, whose literal meaning escapes most people, is a remedy where words fail. It is a recognition that no words, not even the most beautiful or the most caring, can undo what is done. It is a recognition that at times like these one should not have to seek the words. The mourner has a set role, and the participants have a supporting one, reciting one of the lines with the mourner and completing the prayer with a chorus of amen.
This is how it has been from generation to generation, through the chain of Jewish history. The Kaddish is a way of touching all the mourners who have been and all those who will be. It offers both a sense of community and a sense of continuity.
That’s why we have to get it right.
Esther Hecht is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.
On March 31, The New York Times ran an astonishing page: a photo showing Christian, Jewish and Muslim clerics gathered in what the newspaper called “a rare show of unity.” What brought these sometime enemies together? The headline told the story: “Religious Chiefs Decry Gay Pride Fest in Jerusalem.”
Lorri L. Jean, executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, sent the article out to many of us in the community with a short introduction:
“Finally, the way to peace in the Middle East. Uniting against us!”
Do we laugh or cry? The people in the photo would have us hang our heads in shame, but instead we shake our heads in disbelief. When I read further, I realized why they are afraid — the people they imagine us to be are not the people we are. They envision a scary “other,” a kind of “terrorist” actively seeking to destroy their way of life, while I picture people I actually know, people like me and my partner and my congregants — Jews who take Judaism seriously, living Jewish lives in a caring community. Like many who journey to Israel, we look forward to visiting Jerusalem in the company of others who would gather to study, to pray, to celebrate respect and appreciation for one another, earnest in our belief that we too are created in God’s image, and charged with the responsibility of making our world a better one.
This week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot, gives us the first of two verses in Torah that have been understood for generations as prohibiting men from having sex with other men: “You shall not lie with a male like lying with a woman: it is an offensive thing” (Leviticus 18:22). Along with Leviticus 20:13, the verse continues to be the source of much agony in our time as gay men and lesbians struggle for civil rights and for a place in religious communities. During discussions of marriage equality or who can be a rabbi, it is still the verse most commonly quoted.
In response to the three clerics who made the front page of The New York Times, in just one week several hundred clergy, mostly from the United States, signed on to a letter of support for WorldPride in Jerusalem, saying, among other things, that “Jerusalem, a living, holy city, a pilgrimage site for people of many faiths and many beliefs, increases in holiness when all are welcome within her walls.”
I am grateful to be hearing voices of other clergy speaking out. But I’m also saddened by the necessity of pitting ourselves one against another, spending our time and energies fighting each other instead of looking for common ground.
Acharei Mot begins with a different set of instructions before arriving at the litany of sexual prohibitions. God instructs Moses to instruct Aaron on the sacrifices of expiation to be offered on Yom Kippur. Therein we find the original scapegoat — an actual goat on whose head “Aaron shall lay both his hands … and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites” (16:21) before sending it off into the wilderness. Ever since this practice ended (or maybe before it began), individuals and groups have served as scapegoats — the declared cause of this, that and another ill that has befallen society or that prevents people or nations from being all they could be. Having invented the idea of scapegoat, Jews ironically are no strangers to serving as one. So we know the unfairness and inaccuracy of the practice, yet we ourselves also often manage to engage in scapegoating. Liberal Jews scapegoat Orthodox Jews and vice versa, to name but one example.
But as Aaron did with the original scapegoat, when we scapegoat human beings we also send them away into the wilderness. We banish them from our lives by describing them as enemies, by imagining we have nothing in common, by deciding to fear each other, by condemning or dismissing or blaming one another. All of which, of course, makes it increasingly unlikely that we will ever instead get to know one another, ever look for our common humanity, ever discover our shared respect for the values and ethics of our shared religions or our shared God.
This Shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Pesach begins, a time to ready ourselves for this z’man kheruteinu — the “season of our freedom.” Wouldn’t it be a wonder if “this year in Jerusalem” we found both freedom of religion and the freedom that comes to each of us when we feel true respect for one another?
Chag Pesach sameach.
Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim — House of New Life — in Los Angeles.
Episcopal Church Saves Silver Lake JCC
Just two months before its probable closure, the Silver Lake Independent Jewish Community Center has gained a new lease on life thanks to the efforts of a benevolent high-ranking member of the Episcopal Church.
In a bid to save the center, Bishop Jon Bruno of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has joined forces with the Silver Lake group and jointly purchased the property from its owner, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA). The $2.1-million deal closed April 20 and gives the Episcopalians a 49 percent ownership stake and the Silver Lake supporters a 51 percent share. They will share the facility, with the Diocese planning to hold Sunday services and night programming.
"I’m thrilled. I’m in heaven. It’s still hard to believe we did it," said Silver Lake president Janie Schulman, who spearheaded efforts to save the center, which has more than 100 children enrolled in its preschool and kindergarten and offers many social, education and cultural programs.
Bruno grew up in the area and played basketball at the center in his youth. He dipped into a church discretionary fund to help with the purchase.
If Silver Lake proponents had failed to purchase the property, JCCGLA planned to put it on the market and shutter the center June 30, Schulman said.
For Silver Lake supporters, the sale represents a happy ending to their four-year struggle to keep alive what they consider an important piece of Jewish Los Angeles that has helped create a sense of community among Jews in Silver Lake, Echo Park and Los Feliz.
Even though Silver Lake has constantly made a profit in recent years, its fate was tied to the JCCGLA, the property’s owner and, until recently, the overseer of the cities Jewish community centers. Plagued by financial mismanagement and debt, the JCCGLA shuttered the Conejo Valley JCC and the Bay Cities JCC threatened repeatedly to sell Silver Lake — much to the chagrin of its supporters. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, one of the Southland’s largest philanthropic groups, held a $550,000 lien on the Silver Lake property.
The Federation, long criticized for failing to forgive the debt that Silver Lake inherited from JCCGLA, contributed no money to the recent purchase. Instead, Bruno, individual contributions from center supporters and a loan from Far East National Bank made the deal possible, Schulman said. The Federation, which in recent years has allocated more than more than $2 million in total subsidies and free services to Valley Cities JCC in Sherman Oaks, the Westside JCC and West Valley JCC, has offered Silver Lake no financial support.
"My focus is on the terrific new partnership and looking forward," said Jenny Isaacson, a Silver Lake board member. "That [relations with the Federation] is water under the bridge."
Call Me Shoshynsh
One of the worst things to say about an American Indian is that he or she acts like they have no family. Every spring I go back 200
years; I go upriver to see my American Indian family.
Last Yom Kippur, Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple read the names of the past year’s departed loved ones during the Yizkor service. One name was Tseluknot –my Dad. This might have have been the first speaking of Chinook by a rabbi and the congregation probably missed it.
I am the son of a chief of an Indian nation. Tseluknot and Ceotit adopted me, the son of Max and Grace Schwartz of Brooklyn.
Back in 1979, after four years as a lawyer representing American Indians charged with murders and insurrection, I moved to Oregon for a simpler, quieter life. But, in 1982, the state and federal governments decided to finish a process begun in the 19th century. They wanted all Indians moved away from the Columbia River. Mass evictions, military raids and undercover arrests of fishermen and their families hit the region like a firestorm. I was asked by the American Indians to move in and join the tribes’ struggle. And after a number of years in court, we again won the right to live, fish and pray along the Columbia River. One of the defendants, who was also the chief, adopted me as his son.
My Indian mother decided that I would have the family name Shoshynsh. This means Steelhead Trout, the one fish that always makes it back up the river, to sustain the people.
A ceremony was held along the Columbia River many years ago, in the Celilo Village Longhouse beside what was once the great Celilo Falls of the Columbia River Gorge. My birth parents were invited to the ceremony. They were given presents from the tribe, including a long knife for my father, because the American Indians thought it was probably dangerous for them to live in New York City.
As I stood before the gathering, I listened to speeches of the elders. They talked about why they approved of my adoption and naming. I did not know most of the speakers, but they had been watching me for quite some time. They stated that most outsiders came and helped for a little while, and then left before the job was done. However, I did not leave.
Two of the men who spoke said that they had not known a Jewish person before they went to Europe during World War II. They learned that I was Jewish, and said it made sense that their tribe’s lawyer would be Jewish because what the white people had done to the Jewish people in Europe made the Jews the only non-Indians who would understand what it would be like to be Indian.
In August of last summer, after being hounded by the authorities over the care of his horses, my American Indian Dad took ill and went into intensive care. He died, and his grandchildren dressed and painted him. We, the sons of the chief, buried him by our own hands, on Labor Day.
In January, the Jewish world and its friends memorialized the death camps at Auschwitz. We mourned the victims and honored the dead. Today, we must struggle to prevent genocide wherever and whenever it happens. Indian America had its own holocaust. And, sometimes, in some parts of our country, race hatred as public policy still rears its ugly head. We have to stop it — now and forever.
Jack Schwartz is a lawyer and adjunct professor of law, and is still looking to meet someone to have Jewish children with. He can be reached at email@example.com.
What do you think about when you hear the word Israel?
Chances are if you’re like most Americans, when you hear Israel, you think war. Ask most Americans to free-word associate with the word “Israel” and they’d probably say: terrorists, Palestinians, danger and conflict.
At worst, oppression and ethnic cleansing.
But there are people out there who are trying to change that.
One of them is Larry Weinberg, executive vice president of Israel 21c, a California-based media advocacy group that tries to promote Israel “beyond the conflict,” its Web site says. On the site (www.Israel21c.com) are articles primarily about technology, health and business — anything but the conflict.
“Our modern brand is in trouble,” Weinberg told a group of Los Angeles Jewish leaders who gathered last week to discuss branding and advocacy on Israel at the Israeli consulate.
The brand he talks about, of course, is Israel. In America, “Israel is better known than liked,” Weinberg said, referring to a recent Young & Rubicam survey that measured Israel as a brand, to discover people’s emotional attachment to it.
Mainstream Americans — especially college students — have a lot of emotions toward Israel; attachment is another story. Weinberg’s point: Change the subject.
“The ‘Israel-Palestine Conflict’ is a no-win hasbara war,” said businessman Jonathan Medved, the main speaker of the morning. “Whoever sets the terms of the debates wins. If we continue to argue only on this turf, then even the best ‘ambassador’ is doomed to failure.”
This message wasn’t exactly popular with some meeting participants, who spend much of their time on campus battling pro-Palestinian groups and engaged in the hasbara, or advocacy, wars.
But, if you accept Medved and Weinberg’s logic, what is a pro-Israel advocate to do?
They do not advise putting all the advocates out of business. They do believe in changing the mix — taking the focus off the conflict.
Medved is the founder and general partner of Israel Seed Partners, an Israel-focused venture capital fund of $262 million. In 2004, he said, $1.46 billion was invested in Israel (up 45 percent from 2003), with 55 percent of the total dollars invested from outside Israel.
Of course foreign investment is good for Israel; and it also may profit investors, as well. After all, Israel is a hotbed of technology, creating everything from computer chips to voice technology.
But can changing the subject from the conflict to technology really help?
Medved said it reaches out to core constituencies in America.
“It speaks to Jews, makes them proud and mobilizes them,” he said, noting that a technology pitch also appeals to Christians, the Asian community and the business community.
The concept, of course, is to appeal to Americans’ self-interest, be it business, health or technology, and have them associate Israel with those concepts.
How will this help, though, on campus, where the battle is about the conflict?
Medved has one word: Divestment. He tells a story about a meeting at Carnegie Mellon University on how to divest from Israel. One student stood up and said something to the effect of, “Wait a minute. Do you mean I have to stop using my computer? My credit card? My voice mail? Forget it!”
The point is: Americans are too invested in Israel to divest. Consider that Teva pharmaceuticals is the largest distributor of generic pills in America, or that most laptops contain a chip produced in Israel — it wouldn’t be easy to boycott Israeli products. (Although, as someone at the meeting pointed out, divestment could target specific industries, like the military. And just targeting tourism could have a devastating effect.)
It’s not only about defending against divestment, Medved said. It’s about encouraging investment before the subject becomes divestment.
Medved advocates hosting investment lectures at business schools, science schools. Forget the social sciences, he said.
Israel certainly is about more than the conflict. It’s about great food, innovative art, cutting-edge music; it has pioneered in fields of democracy, religion and the judicial system (although it certainly has farther to go on all these fronts).
Would an American form a better opinion of Israel after learning that Israeli technology produced his computer chip or provided her affordable medicine or developed their uncle’s artificial heart or manufactured my cheap Gap clothing? (OK that last one’s not technology, but it’s important to me.)
I don’t know.
The truth is — and I suspect Medved and Weinberg would agree — the conflict in Israel is the elephant in the room that must be addressed. And the peace process is the best hope Israel has for improving its image.
On the other hand, people are tired of hearing about the conflict. And Israel is about so much more than the struggle. So a campus event addressing another subject — from Israel’s venture-capital opportunities to Israeli films — might not alter perceptions, but it could inspire a second look or a deeper one. It might make someone willing to listen.
Rolls of Veterans Groups Dwindling
Seymour Goldman spent World War II with an Army cleanup crew handling mustard gas drums in India.
“It was a terrible job,” said the 83-year-old, a retired TV repairman who lives in Culver City. “When I got out, I just didn’t want anything more to do with it.”
For Goldman and millions of other veterans — Jews and non-Jews alike — service in World War II was not a grand struggle, but exhaustive work.
Of the estimated 12 million to 13 million American men and women in uniform during World War II, only 1 million to 2 million of them saw actual combat. While Thursday’s Veterans Day services brought out many veterans who have vivid memories of fighting the Nazis, scores of veterans served in support positions, which left them with little interest in remembrance or nostalgia.
“I had no illusions about action. We were quartered in mansions,” said the Brooklyn-bred Goldman, whose unit was composed of himself, another Jewish soldier and 26 non-Jews, all from Texas.
The paucity of Jews serving on front lines may explain the dwindling numbers of members belonging to Jewish war veteran organizations.
Other reasons for the fewer members in the organization include the graying of the membership, and the fewer younger Jews serving in the military — and therefore joining — local Jewish veterans groups.
The San Fernando Valley’s Jewish War Veterans Post 603 has 325 members, but that is a decline over the past decade. The post is part of California’s 20,000 members who make up the Jewish War Veterans 110,000-member national roster, once dominated by World War II veterans.
Navy veteran Si Prussin, 81, spent most of the war in San Diego, waiting to be shipped out as a motor machinist on a landing craft.
“I wouldn’t have avoided going into the service; there was a feeling that it was an important and useful thing to do,” said Prussin, who later used the G.I. Bill to go to college
Prussin, raised in the Bronx, received an advanced degree from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon University. He has had a long career in metallurgy and semiconductor engineering and still teaches electrical engineering at UCLA.
He briefly joined a veterans group for a short time, but then dropped out. “It was not my atmosphere,” he told The Journal.
Prussin and other Jewish veterans who did not see combat said they didn’t need to belong to veterans groups, with Prussin noting that no combat means no nightmares.
Yiddish translator Hershel Hartman, 75, also didn’t serve on the front lines in the Korean War — but not by choice. The Army kept him at New Jersey’s Ft. Dix for 15 months, because he was considered a security risk due to his memberships in left-wing, communist-allied groups.
“I refused to sign the loyalty oath,” said Hartman, who was trained at an Army radio school but never was sent to Korea while he and his family were being investigated.
What Hartman remembers most of his service is not combat but tragedy. With Ft. Dix being close enough to New York, Hartman traveled to Manhattan for a rally on the day in 1954 that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as Soviet spies. “I remember that day very well.”
There are other Jewish veterans who saw terrible events, and do participate in Veterans groups. But Jewish veterans from World War II and Korea are aging and their memories are slipping, which is why it’s important to the groups to attract younger members.
At 32, U.S. Army Capt. David Sellen is the youngest member of Jewish War Veterans Post 603. The Valley Glen resident was an infantry officer in Afghanistan and now serves as a civil defense operations officer at Missouri’s Ft. Leonard Wood.
“I think the next guy is in his early 60s or late 50s,” said Sellen, whose mother is a nursery school teacher at Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom. “There are more Jewish soldiers at least known today, and so I think more of it has to do with getting the word out. I didn’t know it existed.”
Why don’t younger Jewish war veterans join organizations?
“They don’t have the time to get into organizations,” he said. “They save most of the [free] time for their families.”
Drama in Israel, High Stakes in the U.S.
Israeli politics is always a mix of high drama and low comedy, but the current fight within Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s divided government is anything but entertaining for Jewish leaders here.
Israeli commentators have noted that it is a struggle for the soul of the Likud party. How that turns out will have consequences for the U.S.-Israel relationship and on Israel’s already-low standing around the world.
It will also have a major impact on an American Jewish community that has come together to support a beleaguered Israel, but which is unlikely to stay together to support settlers who want to remain in their Gaza and West Bank enclaves.
According to sources here, the pro-Israel lobby has sent an unambiguous message to Sharon and his warring government ministers: expect problems in U.S.-Israel relations if you can’t approve a comprehensive Gaza withdrawal plan.
The reasons aren’t hard to grasp.
President George W. Bush, initially cool to the plan, latched on to it last month as an alternative to the stalled Mideast “road map.” To help Sharon win the promised Likud referendum on the pullout, the president offered some dramatic concessions, including rejection of the Palestinian right of return and an acknowledgment that Israel can retain some West Bank land after a settlement with the Palestinians.
Bush paid a big diplomatic price for those concessions; European and Arab allies were incensed at just the moment when the administration was seeking their help in the Iraq tangle. Their anger intensified when Sharon lost the Likud referendum and began talking about a watered-down or phased plan, making President Bush look like the sucker of the decade.
The administration can’t afford a second loss. Now, officials here clearly expect Sharon to find a way to sell the plan to his government and start implementing it — pronto.
Bush’s need for a diplomatic victory will only increase as he holds a series of meetings here and abroad this month trying to enlist international cooperation in the effort to bring a semblance of stability to Iraq.
Officials here expect a full withdrawal, not a piecemeal or partial one, and they expect Israel to coordinate with the hated Palestinian Authority to prevent a Hamas takeover when Israeli troops and settlers evacuate Gaza.
Sharon has gotten that message; this week he is sending his foreign minister to Cairo to discuss the handover with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
With an election only five months away and both parties scrambling for Jewish support, the Bush administration has no intention of publicly squeezing Israel.
But the message is going out through diplomatic channels: after Nov. 2, there could be hell to pay if Sharon does not make good on his deal with Bush.
If Sharon loses the withdrawal fight to the well-organized settler minority, the role of the settlers in setting national policy will dramatically increase, with huge diplomatic consequences.
President Bush’s unusually strong affinity for Sharon has everything to do with the Israeli leader’s tough and uncompromising response to terrorism, nothing to do with his longtime advocacy of settlements, which this administration, like its predecessors, continues to regard as an impediment to any peace process.
Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority leader, may identify with Israeli settlers, but the core of Israel’s political support on Capitol Hill has little sympathy for Israel’s not-one-inch crowd.
Since Sept. 11, the American public has gained a better understanding of the problems Israel faces. But that new sympathy could evaporate if Sharon is defeated by a small band of settlers regarded here as ideological and religious zealots.
There are also potential communal consequences.
The Jewish community has long been divided over the best route to peace in the region, but it has mostly put those divisions on hold since the resumption of widespread Palestinian terrorism in 2000.
Sharon has been a divisive figure over his long career, but by and large American Jews have stood behind his government as it confronts terrorists and a Yasser Arafat that even avid doves concede is not a fit partner for peace.
But beneath today’s veneer of unity, the Jewish community is more divided than ever. An increasingly vocal minority, backed by powerful friends in the Christian community, reject any new territorial concessions. But a majority still support the concept of land for peace negotiations, although many remain skeptical about the current Palestinian leadership.
A failure by Sharon to put over the plan will bring those divisions back into the open and intensify them as American Jews choose up sides in the fight between settlers and mainstream Israel.
The groups that call the Gaza plan a “surrender” or “retreat” plan may be among the loudest in Jewish life today, but it’s the Jewish mainstream that Israel relies on as the foundation of its political support in this country.
That foundation, as well as relations with a sympathetic administration, is at risk as Sharon fights the most difficult battle in a life of difficult battles.
Iraq Situation: It’s Vietnam Deja Vu
Determination is a virtue. Remember how determined we were in Vietnam?
No bunch of barefoot peasants was going to force the United States of America to cut and run. No sir. Through eight long years and 58,000 dead soldiers we demonstrated our refusal to be cowed.
We were in Vietnam to protect the freedom of the South Vietnamese people against the godless communists who were out to enslave them. Unfortunately, the fact that the enemy was ethnically identical to the citizens we were protecting made it a little hard at times to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.
Some of the troops got so fed up with the effort that they stopped trying to tell them apart. On their helmets they had a catchy solution: "Kill ’em all. Let God sort ’em out."
Then, as now, we had persuasive reasons for persisting, even after it became apparent that we couldn’t win. There was the infamous "domino effect" of collapsing Asian countries if we left. And of course, the ever-popular "bloodbath" that would follow if the communists took over the South. Naturally, we had to keep fighting so as not to abandon our POW’s, who, it turned out, were repatriated immediately after we left.
Then there was the knotty problem of how to leave. We needed to "save face," to ensure our continued credibility among the nations of the world (most of whom thought we were crazy to be there). We finally left the way we came — on boats and planes.
During our prolonged adventure in Southeast Asia, we heard constantly that we were engaged in a struggle for the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people. Sound familiar?
We tried to win them over with crop assistance and relocation to "strategic hamlets." We built schools and clinics. When that didn’t work, we established "free-fire zones," where we shot anything that moved, including water buffalo.
And we were always making progress. Maps showing steady increases in territory "pacified" were popular backdrops for briefing senior administration officials when they visited. But the people doing the killing and dying had a slightly more cynical view. On a restroom wall in Long Binh I read, "Would the last person out of the tunnel please turn out the light."
In the end, we lost because we didn’t belong. We were foreigners pursuing what we considered our own self-interest at the expense of a people we saw as "underdeveloped."
They sent us packing, because, in the end, they were more willing to die than we were to kill them. It was, after all, their country. Vietnam should have taught us this: Determination in the pursuit of folly is the indulgence of fools.
Now we seek to disengage from Iraq, that ungrateful tar baby of a country, wondering all the while at the absence of the flower petals with which the inhabitants were supposed to greet us, their liberators. Instead it appears that many of them hate us so much that it is not enough to kill us. They want to dismember our burned bodies and hang us from the nearest bridge.
Can’t they see that we only want for them the freedom and democracy that is the natural condition for all people?
All right, we tell ourselves, the resistance to what is best for them is the work of a few "insurgents" or "Saddam loyalists" or "outside terrorists." Surely, most of the Iraqis like us and appreciate what we’re trying to do for them.
Meanwhile, in a related story, our own country is in the hands of the most arrogant, secretive, ill-informed administration in memory. These are people for whom the lesson of Vietnam was that we didn’t try hard enough, didn’t give the military free rein. Sure we dropped more bombs on the place than were used by all parties to World War II, but, by gosh, if Washington hadn’t micromanaged that war, if we had really taken the gloves off, we could have won.
As with Vietnam, we were wrong to go to Iraq, and we are wrong to stay. The action-oriented neoconservatives currently controlling our government are convinced that our proper place in the world is as an imperial power, disdaining the opinions of other nations, attacking preemptively whomever we feel threatened by. Do we imagine that the skewed intelligence and downright deceptions used to justify this war are irrelevant to its outcome?
And now, once again, standing on the ash heap of lies and miscalculations that have characterized this disastrous and unilateral aggression, the gang in charge looks at the rest of us smugly and speaks of a need to "stay the course" in an effort to sell this misbegotten invasion as an example of determined leadership in the war on terrorism.
If we are stupid enough to buy this approach for another four years, we deserve the whirlwind that awaits us.
Gordon Livingston is a West Point graduate who served as an Army doctor in Vietnam. He became an antiwar activist, and is now a psychiatrist in Columbia, Md.
Immigrants and the Recall
Who would have thought that a recall campaign built around the energy and budget crises might end up being decided by attitudes toward immigrants? Yet that may be what happens on Election Day. The controversy over a new law granting driver’s licenses to undocumented residents may reframe the election around the under-the-surface issue of 1990s California: How do we feel about how immigration has changed California? How might the injection of this issue affect Jewish voting in the recall election? Perhaps the last time immigration dominated a statewide election might be a place to look for answers.
The immigration issue burst into state politics in 1994 when unpopular Republican Gov. Pete Wilson used Proposition 187, a measure to deny public services to undocumented residents, to save his reelection. In a famous commercial, shadowy pictures of immigrants apparently crossing the border, with the caption: "They keep coming." Proposition 187 passed 2-1, and Wilson survived.
What saved Wilson devastated Republicans statewide; Latinos came to view Proposition 187 as an assault on their own community. A million new Latino voters joined the California electorate in the 1990s, and Pete Wilson remains an unwelcome name in Latino households. Wilson delivered California to the Democrats, as Latino participation powered Democrats to statewide victories and a sweep of all state offices in 2002.
Proposition 187 created new coalition patterns in California. Previously, conflict over the role of African Americans had structured much of party politics. But with Proposition 187, the role of Latino immigrants emerged as a new and critical cleavage. The strongest opposition to 187 came from Latinos who voted against it 77-23 percent. African Americans, pressured by demographic changes in their own neighborhoods, were ambivalent, but only 47 percent favored the proposition. Not surprisingly, the strongest support for Proposition 187 came from whites (especially men), conservatives and Republicans, all of whom provided huge margins in favor. According to a Los Angeles Times exit poll, 78 percent of Republicans and conservatives and 63 percent of all whites backed it.
Jews were quite different from other whites, and only 45 percent voted for Proposition 187. Most Jewish organizations spoke out against it. The fact, however, that a minority of African Americans and Jews were to some degree drawn to the reaction against immigration showed how sensitive and volatile the issue was in those days. Yet for neither group did Proposition 187 become the wedge to remove them from the Democratic Party loyalty they have shown since.
The recall election is already polarizing white voters, particularly Republicans on one side, and minority voters, mostly Democrats, on the other. Independent candidates are becoming irrelevant, and the partisan, ideological, racial and ethnic lines are emerging with full clarity. The driver’s license issue will keep driving those wedges into the electorate, particularly as Arnold Schwarzenegger tries to strengthen his shaky hold on Republican conservatives and Cruz Bustamante seeks to maximize his support from Latinos. Each has something to gain. Schwarzenegger, having avoided debates and specifics on important matters of state policy, can take a visible position on an issue without alienating conservatives. Bustamante can try to reach the minority of Latino voters who currently say they may vote for Schwarzenegger.
If the battle is close, white Democrats (and especially Jews) might hold the balance of power. Historically race and ethnicity have proven to be the most reliable ways to move white voters from the Democratic to the Republican column. Democratic candidates have to struggle to win enough white votes to overcome this effect, and Jewish support has therefore been crucial to Democratic candidates. Jews have been more resistant than other whites to these race-based appeals, but have on occasion leaned rightward.
Jews are likely to vote in their usual disproportionate numbers, and in this intensely fought election a high-turnout voting group is exceptionally important. And, as usual, in racially tinged political battles, Jews will be somewhere between the minority and the white position. How far along either path Jewish voters travel on Election Day, may determine this historic election.
Driver’s licenses may be the path to a Republican takeover of the governor’s office. But that road has perils for Republicans as well. Nowadays, dreaming of California as it was before immigration seems out of place. Members of both parties in Congress are debating proposals to normalize the status of undocumented workers. In that context, driver’s licenses are hardly far away anyway. Republicans are desperate to win support from Latino voters as they worriedly examine census data showing the declining demographic power of their largely white voting base. But Republicans should also be concerned that appeals to their own conservative and in some cases nativist voters, perhaps nostalgic for a white-dominated California of years past, will not endear them to Jewish voters, either.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton.
When a Yeshiva Bocher Loves a Hooker
Sitting at a French Cafe in Westwood, Eitan Gorlin comes across as the very antithesis of the Hollywood self-promoter. The writer-director of “The Holy Land” has indeed kept such a low profile that, during months of inquiries, his name drew an absolute blank among Israel film mavens in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles.
But the debut feature by this unknown has already won remarkable recognition in America, including an Independent Spirit nomination for Gorlin as “Someone to Watch.”
For now, Gorlin is focusing on his film. “‘The Holy Land’ shows the underbelly of real life in Jerusalem after the tourists and Orthodox families go to sleep,” he said.
Yet the film packs a great deal more into its 96 minutes.
On the slender storyline of a young, sheltered yeshiva student who falls in love with an even younger Russian prostitute, “The Holy Land” ranges across the Israeli landscape of the late 1990s, with its ultra-Orthodox Haredim, ultra-religious Zionist settlers, Arab collaborators and terrorists and Russian and American immigrants.
The film’s protagonist is Mendy, who is studying at a yeshiva in B’nai B’rak and finds it increasingly hard to keep his thoughts off women and sex and on Torah reading. His rabbi advises him to “get it out of his system” by visiting a prostitute.
Mendy takes off for Jerusalem and, at a strip club, meets Sasha, a 19-year-old prostitute from the Ukraine. The inexperienced Mendy falls hard for the hooker, while vaguely hoping to “save” her, and, in turn, she introduces him to Mike’s Place.
The seedy pub in East Jerusalem is run by Mike, a big, blustery American ex-war photographer, whose joint is a combination of Rick’s Cafe in a postmodern “Casablanca” and the cantina in “Star Wars.”
Yet the pull of Mendy’s early and simpler religious life grows as his new secular experiences and relationships become more complex and disturbing. The resolution of this internal conflict in the movie’s last minutes adds the ultimate shocker to the iconoclastic film.
The struggle between the secular and religious poles in Israel, in the lives of individuals as in the general society, is an evolving theme for filmmakers and writers. Since “The Holy Land” represents such a singular, largely autobiographical, vision, Gorlin’s own background serves as a useful program guide.
At 34, Gorlin’s life has moved between the religious and worldly poles and has encompassed the bohemian restlessness and searching of the American expatriate writers of the 1920s.
He was born in Silver Springs, Md., studied at The Yeshiva of Greater Washington (D.C.) and, after graduating at 17, headed for Israel and enrolled at the national religious Yeshiva Sha’alvim.
After a stint as a congressional intern in Washington, the wandering spirit struck again. For the next two years he lived in Paris, London, Prague, Cairo, Calcutta, Bangkok, Saigon and Hanoi, doing odd jobs as waiter, bartender, party promoter and street performer.
He interrupted his global tramping for a three-year stay in Israel, during which he served as a gunner in an Israeli army tank unit, and met the real-life Mike, who hired him as a bartender.
(Mike’s Place subsequently moved to Tel Aviv, where it was blown up by two British Arab terrorists in April of this year.)
Returning again to the United States, Gorlin wrote three scripts and a novella, titled “Mike’s Place, a Jerusalem Diary,” which became the basis of the movie.
At the end of 1999, he had raised enough private money (he won’t disclose how much) to return to Israel and, for one solid year, worked 20 hours a day, seven days a week, to cast and shoot “The Holy Land.” For the principal roles he cast two sabras: 23-year-old Oren Rehary as Mendy and 19-year-old Tchelet Semel as Sasha, with American actor Saul Stein portraying Mike.
Once the film was in the can, nobody wanted to screen it. “We were turned down by every Jewish film festival in the United States and by the Jerusalem Festival in Israel,” he said.
Finally, on a sudden impulse, he entered his picture in the 2002 Slamdance Film Festival.
“The Holy Land” was not only one of the 14 feature films accepted among 1,000 applicants, but it walked off with the top Grand Jury Prize. Success bred success. Gorlin won the 21st Century Filmmaker Award at the Avignon/New York Film Festival, and later was nominated for the Independent Spirit “Someone to Watch” award.
After these successes, an American film distributor, CAVU Pictures, finally showed up, signed Gorlin to a contract, and the picture is currently slated for some 15 cities.
Like Mendy, Gorlin keeps struggling with his religious identity.
“We seem to be the chosen people of an angry God. Maybe we’re doing something wrong,” he said. “Part of me wants to reject God, but I can’t do it.”
“The Holy Land” opens Aug. 1 at select Laemmle Theatres.For more information, visit
Rebels and Leaders
One of my favorite Torah portions is the one that we will read this Shabbat. It reveals to us myriad recognizable human traits while transmitting to us some vital lessons.
From this story, we see that some characteristics are bad while others are good; and, along the way, we observe the consequences of indifference.
Taking center stage — but for a brief while — is Korah, who along with his wrongheaded cohorts Dathan, Abiram and On, challenges God’s authority and attempts to remove Moses from his preeminent leadership role by means of a massive rebellion. In the process, they almost cause the Israelites to be totally destroyed.
Korah forces us to examine the motives of those who are either appointed or elected officials. Furthermore, we’re encouraged to probe the reasons why some people attempt to become self-appointed leaders.
With very clear-cut precision, the Torah posits Moses as the epitome of responsible leadership. He is — above all else — a visionary who is selfless, unconditionally dedicated to his task, and by now unquestionably accepting of the mandate thrust upon him by God.
Moses is even willing to tolerate the enduring foibles of those whom he is leading away from servitude and toward freedom, away from ignorance and toward knowledge and away from empty secularism and toward a fulfilling life rooted in sacredness.
In contrast, along comes Korah, who is full of self-importance and guile and who depends upon an alluring charisma to persuade his henchmen and every Israelite to follow his lead. Taking and then spinning the very words of God and Moses, who declare that the Israelites are a holy and priestly people, Korah proclaims that there is no reason why the Israelites ought to depend on Moses, who has established a theocratic rule over them.
Rather, he preaches that everyone should function within the context of a democracy in which he will voluntarily assume the mantle of leadership and take them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land.
While Korah is quick to condemn Moses as someone who has lifted himself above the community — he makes no reference to God’s part in this epoch adventure — it is actually Korah who does the lifting so as to capture the people’s favor in order to satisfy his own ego-driven need for absolute power over them.
And he almost gets away with it, because the Israelites are too gullible and so quick to rebel against Moses, who has been — by necessity — very demanding in his messages and relentless in his actions.
Meanwhile, what does Moses do in the midst of this life-and-death struggle? Instead of drawing a line in the sand and fighting off Korah’s challenge, Moses removes himself from the scene and opts for an overnight respite. Sleeplessly meditating on what has occurred, and praying to God for strength and guidance, Moses emotionally girds himself so he may effectively deal with Korah and those who support his rebellious cause at the dawn of a new day.
Soon thereafter, Moses and the Israelites witness the obliteration of this misguided, defiant competitor of God’s will.
So, what are some of the lessons that emerge out of this text?
Reading about Korah’s attempt to shove Moses aside, we see how a demagogue attempts to grasp the truth and then to twist it in an effort to promote his own cause. Therefore, it’s essential that we always examine the motives of anyone who tells us that he possesses all of the answers to life’s riddles, who urges us to stop wrestling with life’s challenges and to put all of our trust in him and who suggests that it’s not necessary that we safeguard our own integrity, since absolute reliance on him will get us to where we want (or need) to be.
Every demagogue’s lust for power is so all-consuming that only bad things will occur if they have their own way. In contrast, Moses reveals to us the benefits that we may all derive when we place our confidence in authentic leaders who are dreamers and visionaries, and who are genuine public servants whose motives are ceaselessly selfless. It is these men and women who are constantly aware of God’s lofty but accessible ethical standards, who are imbued with values that have been etched upon their hearts and minds beginning early in childhood and are taught by loved ones and mentors the dimensions and demands of responsible leadership, to whom we ought to turn for direction — even when their demands on us seem to be so very burdensome.
This episode in the Torah is a dramatic reminder that we can ill afford to be indifferent. The Israelites stood idly by while Moses was forced to defend a harsh reality and Korah proffered a far more pleasing fantasy. The Israelites were willing to go along with Korah’s plot just because he seemed to know an easy way out of their ordeal no matter what disasters might occur in the long run.
Following Moses’ example, it’s important that — when facing hard choices — we gain some perspective by stepping back from a perplexing problem, acquire some objectivity and seek spiritual and intellectual guidance from someone whom we can trust. Also, like Moses, we ought to meditate and pray as we concentrate on finding solutions and use time itself to be a balancing element.
Allen I. Freehling, rabbi emeritus of University Synagogue, is the executive director of the Human Relations Commission of the city of Los Angeles.
Reflections After the Fire
On May 7, at about 6:30 a.m., I was awakened by a call informing me that an incendiary bomb had been thrown through the stained-glass window of our sanctuary at Valley Beth Shalom. I rushed to the temple, only to find that our custodians, uninstructed by any temple official, had themselves rushed into the sanctuary, opened the ark, removed the scrolls of the Torah and deposited them safely in another room. A spark of holiness penetrated the darkness of our mood. Here were men and women who take care of the grounds of the synagogue, clean and prepare the classes, seminars and programs of our congregation, people mostly Hispanic and Catholic, not of our faith or our catechism, who would not stand idly by and observe without action the violation of a people’s sanctuary. We must acknowledge Marcial Cano, Martha Arelleno, Irma Buenelo and Carlos Crespian, custodians lovingly supervised by Sigfredo Barker and his daughter, Noemi Lasky. Here are people who realized in their lives the potentiality of God’s image invested in every child of Adam and Eve.
Where do you find the sparks of decency in tragedy? In the response of men and women of all faiths who, on the very next evening, gathered together in a prayer of solidarity at St. Cyril’s Catholic Church just two days after the fire-bombing. Men and women, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Baha’i, Armenian clergy, who sang and prayed and heard each others’ anguish and each others’ resolve to stand together to offer each other their houses of worship to those sanctuaries which were violated.
"How do you struggle against causeless hate?" the late Rabbi Abraham Kook asked. He answered simply, "You answer causeless hate with causeless love."
What can we learn from such incidents? Hatred is indiscriminate. It destroys synagogues, churches, mosques and ashrams. No one is exempt and everyone is responsible to protect each other. We have an antidote with which to counter the toxicity of hate. Vigilance, care, the sacred embrace of love that transcends one’s own sanctuary and enters the sacred space of our neighbors. We are Adam and Eve’s children and we share in common tears and fears and hopes. We cannot always prevent the violence, but we can always light up each other’s night.
Harold Schulweis is senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
The following piece was written after a recent trip to Haiti, during which a delegation from MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger was hosted by the Lambi Fund, one of MAZON’S longtime grantees.
It starts with a song. Soft at first, then louder, like slow rolling thunder, gentle harmonies that keep time with the clapping of hands.
Soon there will be time for serious talk — of politics, hard labor and the struggle to find food — but for now there is only the music.
Every Haitian man, woman and child knows this music, and during a recent trip to Haiti, I came to know it, too. I was there to visit several grass-roots organizations that help Haitians — most of them poor, many of them hungry — develop the skills they need to improve their everyday lives.
Haiti is a startling place. By all accounts is seems to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Driving around, I found a vast, barren wasteland, what you’d expect to find on a desolate moonscape or in some futuristic science fiction movie. Plagued by years of war, famine and political mismanagement, the country has been stripped of its natural resources, and with them its industry. Electricity is undependable, and running water an unheard of luxury. With mile after mile of nothing but rocky dirt road, Haiti seems like a place without hope, and certainly a place without a viable future.
And yet, five minutes into a conversation with a Haitian woman, I realized my first impression was wrong. I visited a grain mill in the center of the country, where local women bring their corn. In Haiti, women bear the brunt of the work burden. They are responsible for milling grain and working as vendors at local markets, while simultaneously tending to the needs of their families. The mill represents a significant improvement for the women who use it, and who previously had to walk great distances to process grain for family meals.
Despite their heavy loads, the women I met bubbled over with enthusiasm. These were not bitter, defeated women resigned to a life of poverty. In fact, the women — and the men — were decidedly upbeat. They recognized that they were poor but not powerless, and that systemic change would have to start with them.
Take Marie-Carmel. A 35-year-old mother of three, she understood what it would take to turn her fortunes around. When we were first introduced, she didn’t hesitate to make her views known.
"The politicians will do what they will," she said dismissively. Then she pointed to the mill and said, "This is my president. This is what I believe in."
In the face of extreme poverty, Haitians retain a tremendous sense of dignity. They may be dressing in rags caked with mud and clinging to machetes, but their children are spotless, wearing immaculate school uniforms and clutching battered books. Like parents all over the world, Haitian parents will sacrifice everything to give their kids a chance at a better life.
Several days into my trip, I drove through a torrential downpour to visit an agricultural site in a mountaintop village. After my visit, I climbed back into a rickety van with threadbare tires and began to descend the mountain, which was rapidly deteriorating into sludge. Several miles outside the village, the van sunk into the mud and was stuck. Within the hour, what seemed like the entire village had descended to help me. There was a sense among these people of the need for collective action, of getting around a problem and solving it. As I stood getting soaked, pushing the van out of the muck side by side Haitian men, women and children, I understood how poverty (unpaved roads, decrepit transportation) can be a physical obstacle to getting things done. But I also felt inspired by a sense of community and possibility.
For weeks leading up to my trip, I wondered what relevance all of this could have for the American Jewish community. For me, the question was more than academic, since I’ve dedicated the past several years of my life to raising funds from the Jewish community and distributing them to fight hunger in our country and around the world. How does Haiti affect Jews when it is a country with so few of us?
I found my answer in the faces of the Haitian men and women I was fortunate enough to meet. We are a people consumed by a vision of a more perfect world, and we are a people, many of us blessed with abundance, who can help build it. As Jews committed to tikkun olam, we send food to poverty stricken Haitians for the same reason we teach inner-city children to read and provide housing assistance for new immigrants in this country. We do it because we believe in kevod ha’beriyot, the respect due to every being. MAZON, the anti-hunger organization I head, was founded with this in mind, and shaped by the principle that Jews don’t discriminate.
Every meeting I attended in Haiti started with a song, and every song told a story. As I’ve replayed the lyrics in my head, I’ve become more convinced that the stories hold a lesson for us as Jews. It’s true that we have our own stories and songs. But ever since I’ve been back from Haiti, it’s struck me that it is the overlap, where our stories meet, where the real work gets done.
‘Finding’ Asperger’s Changed His Life
In “Finding Ben: A Mother’s Journey Through the Maze of
Asperger’s,” (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 2003) author Barbara LaSalle
writes about her family’s struggle to help her young son overcome a baffling
neurological disorder and have a “regular” existence. Misdiagnosed and
maladjusted, Ben Levinson was labeled as everything from learning disabled to
emotionally disturbed and was even committed to a psychiatric ward before
LaSalle, a marriage and family counselor, was able to correctly diagnose him
with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS).
While AS and autism diagnoses are increasing at alarming
rates, “Finding Ben” presents a frightening portrait of one family in the days
before treatment was widely available.
The book begins with Levinson’s birth in 1969 and goes
through the many torturous incidents that marked his differences throughout his
childhood and adolescence. It culminates in his arrest for threatening a
residential caretaker in a halfway house where he had been placed, and his long
road back to a normal life. It is disturbing to read, but compelling — the book
is as much about a family dealing with the guilt, anger and denial surrounding
caring for a disabled child as it is about Levinson’s unusual life.Â
One bright spot in the family’s struggle was their
involvement with Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village. Ben attended preschool
and had his bar mitzvah there, and LaSalle says the havurah in which they
participated was especially supportive. Despite his challenges, Levinson was
able to finish Hebrew school and LaSalle said the family still relies on
Levinson at Passover to read the Hebrew portions of the haggadah.
But, for the most part, life with Ben was a constant
challenge. As he grew, his problems increased to include asthma and Crohn’s
Disease, leading to medication which in turn led him to become morbidly obese.
The family tried motor therapy (an early form of occupational therapy), speech
therapy, even a private school where the teachers followed their students through
each grade level, in the hope that Ben might feel comfortable enough to make
friends. He never did.
All the while, LaSalle never stopped searching for answers.
Finally, when Levinson was 23, Dr. Mark Deantonio of UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric
Institute told her the truth: Ben was autistic. Not autistic in the classic
sense, but his problems put him on the autism spectrum.
Two years later, in 1994, the criteria was established in
the medical community for an even more specific diagnosis, that of AS, a
higher-functioning form of autism in which children have normal or even
superior verbal skills and intelligence.
“Finding Ben” is a modern tragedy — not in an exaggerated,
fictional sense, but a true tragedy in that the people involved are simply
living in the wrong time in history. Even Levinson himself, now 34 and
co-author of the book, acknowledges that, had the diagnosis of AS been
available when he was a child, his life would have been infinitely easier.
LaSalle said she started out writing the book as a way of
making sense of everything that had happened to her, to Levinson’s father (an
attorney, referred to as “Steven” in the book), his stepfather, John LaSalle,
and his brother, David. It is clear from talking to LaSalle and from her
writing that she still carries a great deal of guilt. Her honesty about her
feelings for and against her son are shocking: She opens the book with a
description of Levinson that would seem cruel coming from anyone, especially
from a mother. But LaSalle hopes her honesty will open the doors for readers to
come clean with their families and deal with their feelings, even the ugly ones.
“The most important thing is acceptance — that what is, is,”
she said. “We are required to accept and love our children no matter what. That
is the gift we give our kids.”
It is a lesson she almost learned too late. Only by letting
go of Ben as her “project,” and through volunteer work where she met a stroke
victim with even more profound problems than her son’s, was she able to change
her approach from that of “badgering mother” to one of support and acceptance.
“I saw my son as a job,” she said. “He wasn’t someone to
enjoy. I think we all have that [attitude] at times, when we have children with
special needs. But in treating it like it is a job, we miss out on what’s right
in front of us and our children miss out, as well.”
Levinson and his family seem to have made peace with his
diagnosis. He is currently in a 12-step program for people with weight
problems, which he credits with giving him the structure and social network to
finally not only make friends but learn to be a friend as well. An Orthodox rabbi
and his wife who participate in the program have helped him reconnect with “the
spiritual side of Judaism.” Levinson attends Loyola Marymount University where
he is studying American history with plans to graduate next year, possibly to
become a teacher.
Levinson also runs a Web site (www.aspergerjourney.com)
where he shares his insights on his disability and communicates with others
affected by AS. He feels his experience with AS, while difficult, has given him
a valuable perspective.
“One time I was complaining to my sponsor: Why did God put
this burden on me? And my sponsor said, ‘The reason you have had to go through
this is that one day you are going to meet someone who will require your
personal experience. You will be in a unique position to help another human
being,'” Levinson said. “There are a lot of us out there [affected by AS]. I
tell them, don’t be ashamed of who you are, be proud. Start to talk about it as
much as you can. Find people who understand and talk about it with them.
Asperger’s is a daily struggle, but it’s easier now because I’m not in denial.”
Both LaSalle and Levinson will discuss “Finding Ben” on
Friday, April 18, 7 p.m. at Dutton’s Brentwood Books, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Los
Angeles. (310) 476-6263. Â
Every day before Dina Goldstein (not her real name) leaves
the house to take her two young children to day care and herself to work, she
grabs two bagels and two boxes of orange juice. After buckling the kids into
the car, she gives them the bagels and the juice, and they eat breakfast in the
car on the way to school.
“I just don’t have time to get them ready, myself ready and
feed everyone before I leave the house,” said Goldstein, who works as a
religious day school teacher.
Like Goldstein, many women find maintaining a family and a
job overwhelming. With over 75 percent of women in the United States between
the ages of 25 and 54 working outside the home (according the International
Labor Organization), it is very likely that at some point most women will have
to do both things concurrently. While women choose to work for a variety of
reasons, for many in the Jewish community, a woman’s employment is not a matter
of personal fulfillment but of financial necessity.
With high tuition fees, synagogue dues and mortgages in the
Jewish neighborhoods, maintaining a presence in the community is difficult to
do on one income alone — meaning that the husband is no longer the sole
breadwinner in the family.
But many women find that their careers give them not one job
but two — their paid employment and their nonpaid work inside the house, which
seldom diminishes with the onset of employment. Few will say that the feminist
ideal of “having it all” is viable unless certain sacrifices are made. Finding
ways to produce calm out of the chaos requires innovation, skill, organization
and lots and lots of help.
“The ‘superwoman’ is a myth,” said Tova Hinda Siegal, a
Pico-Robertson midwife who is on-call seven days a week while raising her six
children. “It’s tremendously tricky to try to do everything.”
One of the ways that some women try to balance both job and
family is by finding careers that allow them to work from home, which gives
them close access to their family while still enabling them to bring in some
extra money. While there is not necessarily the same kind of career advancement
available to those who do not work in an office, many say that the sacrifice is
“It’s a hugely satisfying feeling to know that I can be
there for my kids when they need me, because I know how stressful it is for a
mother in an office when her kids have an odd day off,” said Judy Gruen, a
mother of four, Journal contributor andÂ Pico-Robertson writer on domesticity.
Other women make sure that their husbands are picking up the
slack, and that paid help in the house is not a luxury, but a necessity. “I
think it’s more important to have part-time help in your house than to buy new
clothes,” Siegal said. “People who are working should not be fighting with each
other over who does the laundry.”
Siegal also said that it’s up to a woman to train her
husband to do his share of the work.
“I think you have to tell your husband, ‘No, it’s not a good
idea to sit while I’m in the kitchen cleaning up,'”she said.
“In our house we made a rule that whoever cooks does not
have to clean up,” she continued. “That is an equitable division of labor. I
also think it’s fine that a mother gets up in the middle of the night to nurse
her babies, but in the morning, the father should get up and take the baby out
for a few hours and let her sleep. The husband should not feel that when he
does something he is doing his wife a favor. Both need to feel that they are
contributing to the family’s welfare.”
Even with a spouse’s help, keeping your household together
requires careful organization for it to run efficiently. Esther Simon, a Santa
Monica mother of seven and a professional home organizer, said that there are a
number of things one can do to help this process.
“You need to create a clutter-free home, where everything
has a place,” she said. “You should also have a family calendar day planner
where you write down what you want to do each day and what things need to be
done during the week, and then you work out what things can only be done by you
and what things can be done by someone else. Only you can give love to your
child; someone else can wash the floor.”
Simon also suggests laying out all your children’s clothes,
preparing breakfast and putting backpacks by the door the night before to
minimize the rush in the morning.
There is one upside to trying to do everything. “Working and
taking care of a family definitely keeps you out of trouble,” Siegal said. “You
just don’t have the time for anything else.” Â
Kenya Attacks Blur Lines of Terrorism
The attacks on Israeli targets in Kenya are not expected to divert the United States from a possible war with Iraq — or change U.S. limits on Israel’s response to Palestinian terror. One immediate effect of the Nov. 28 attacks, thought to be the work of Al Qaeda, may be a subtle change in the way Israel is perceived in the context of the war on terror.
Until now, the Bush administration has tried to distinguish between terror attacks like those of Sept. 11 and Palestinian terror attacks against Israel. Essentially, the administration has argued that the U.S. struggle is an uncompromising one against terrorists bent on destroying democratic values, while Israel’s war is a nationalistic dispute that must be solved through negotiations.
While the administration has condemned both kinds of attacks, some have argued that the distinction granted a sort of legitimacy — at least in many parts of the West — to Palestinian terrorism.
But last week’s attacks on an Israeli-owned hotel and an Israeli passenger plane in Kenya may blur those lines, analysts said.
"It highlights the fact that the myth — that all terror against Israel is because it occupies Palestinian territories — is wrong," said Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The blurring of the line between Palestinian and other terrorism may make Arab support harder to come by if the United States goes to war against Iraq, a State Department official said.
Arab states have been leery of what they see as the war on terror’s disproportionate focus on Arab and Muslim states. Their resistance to an Iraq war may rise if the Kenya attacks are subsumed into the war on terror and Arabs begin to believe that the United States is attacking Baghdad because of the attacks on Israel.
The attacks initially were claimed by an unknown group calling itself the Army of Palestine, but both Israel and the United States believe the attacks were carried out by Al Qaeda.
"Despite the name of the group that claimed responsibility, this does not seem to be a perceived act of Palestinian nationalism," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
An Internet posting attributed to Al Qaeda claims responsibility for the attacks. A "Letter to the American People," also purportedly from Al Qaeda and posted to the Internet several days before the Kenya attacks, for the first time defines support for Israel as the root cause of Al Qaeda’s hatred of the United States.
Analysts say the use of the front name indicates that Al Qaeda is trying to capitalize on the Palestinian issue to build support.
For Israel, the attacks may garner more sympathy from the American public and the Bush administration, but they are not expected to ease U.S. constraints on Israeli military actions against Palestinian terrorism. They also are not expected to alter the U.S. position that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be solved diplomatically, or change U.S. backing for the "road map" toward peace crafted by the diplomatic "Quartet" of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.
Israel probably will still find limits to the steps it can take against Palestinian terrorists, experts say.
The State Department frequently has criticized Israel for "targeted killings" and other tactics against Palestinian terrorists. Any Israeli actions that cause civilian casualties still will likely earn American reprimands. However, Israel may be given more leeway to strike at the perpetrators of the Kenya attacks.
"We recognize it creates pressure for the Israeli leadership," one State Department official said. "The Israeli people desire to have justice done as well."
If Israel does launch an attack with U.S. blessing, it will be a shift in policy for the Bush administration, which has tried to keep Israeli military action to a minimum during the run-up to a possible U.S. war with Iraq.
But the State Department seems to understand that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may feel it necessary to respond to preserve political face, especially as Israeli elections approach next month.
Israeli officials hope the Kenya attacks also will solidify perceptions of Israel as a victim of terrorism, and lead to an increase in international and American support. The attacks may make it easier for the United States approve up to $10 billion in loan guarantees and an extra $200 million in emergency aid for Israel. But the United States is not likely to shift its policies on the war against terrorism because of the Kenya attacks.
"Our problem with Al Qaeda didn’t need this to get people’s attention," Alterman said. "It highlights the importance of a global war on terrorism, with the emphasis on global."
Let’s not kid ourselves: Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) has been hurting for a long, long time. If some part of the system of centers and services are to be saved, as hundreds if not thousands of Jews are now trying to do, it will take surgery, not first aid.
The current crisis may be the most severe, but it didn’t arrive without warning: there have been years of public struggle over center programs and policies, a general dilapidation of many center properties, and a steady drop in overall center membership.
Now, in what only seems like a flash, the JCCGLA’s largest single benefactor, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has refused to give the flailing system a penny more to keep it afloat beyond June. What’s more, it wants JCCGLA to sell its properties in order to pay off a commercial bank loan The Federation is guaranteeing. Five of seven centers face complete closure and likely sale.
The Federation is not a bank, its leaders point out, the JCCGLA has no money, and at the end of the day, this is a money problem.
Or is it?
I’m realistic enough to know that behind every visionary plan there’s the problem of money, and I’m idealistic enough to believe that behind most money problems there’s a crisis of vision.
There is certainly enough money in this town to solve the JCC’s money woes. Depending on who tells more of the financial truth better (more on that later), the sums are not huge. Organizers out to save the Westside JCC say their deficit is $200,000. Even if they’re wrong by a factor of five, you’re still in the ballpark of affordable philanthropy. Last Sunday morning, a handful of organizers enabled 12,000 people committed to helping victims of Palestinian terror raise $500,000 — before lunch.
If money is not the problem, vision is. Those who believe in the utter necessity of a JCC system to attract future generations of committed Jews of all beliefs, of all backgrounds, of all income levels into Jewish life, have simply not been successful at making that case to people with money.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the JCCs epitomized the aggregation of both vision and money. The membership rolls of the JCC in its heyday boasted the movers and shakers of L.A. Jewry. Lou Warschaw was JCC president in the 1950s when the organization decided it was time to close the Michigan Soto Center, as Jews had mostly moved west. That decision also caused an uproar, but Warschaw and his board did it as they bolstered the system elsewhere. But let the system collapse? They built it. They believed in it.
Most communities still do. They depend on JCCs to reach out to Jews who are on the margins of Jewish life. In New York City, New Orleans, Orange County, Newton, Mass., Toronto and Silicon Valley, communities have spent millions on saving and revitalizing their JCCs.
JCCs in these cities face the same pressures those in Los Angeles do: limited resources, competition from synagogues and health clubs, changing demographics, aging structures. Their leaders saw these obstacles as challenges, not excuses. The same week the JCCGLA here announced its closures, The Forward newspaper in New York reported that the city’s preeminent JCC, the 92nd Street Y, had entered into an arrangement to offer salon and aromatherapy services, in order to attract a new generation of upscale Jews. The idea is to change with the times, not just give up.
As intermarriage and assimilation become greater challenges to creating a strong community, JCCs are ideally suited to draw in families who would never think — or who could never afford — to join a synagogue. The Silverlake-Los Feliz JCC serves an area thirsty for Jewish life: Temple Israel of Hollywood has grown 20 percent over the past five years. The Westside JCC still sits in the midst of numerous Jewish neighborhoods — The Federation paid for a demography study that proves it. Bay Cities, North Valley and West Valley JCCs also serve eager, diverse Jewish populations. If certain JCCs refuse to change and adapt to meet current Jewish needs, goodbye and good luck. But are we ready to let the whole system go down with no replacement?
Traditionally, JCCs have funneled their users into greater Jewish involvement. Rabbis and other Jewish leaders need to weigh in on behalf of one of the few Jewish institutions in this town that can reach across boundaries and bring our disparate Jewish communities together.
So why are so many people so willing to write this crisis off? For one, those responsible for the JCC system screwed up big time. Over the years, the level of mismanagement, miscommunication and neglect would be laughable if the results were not so bitter for thousands of JCC users and laid-off employees. The Journal is not ready to point fingers (yet), but activists and potential donors would be wise to demand a full accounting of what went wrong, and a concrete plan to prevent such a thing from happening again.
In this regard, it is not just the reputation of the JCCs at stake.
JCCs must understand that they have been, as Federation President John Fishel said at one public meeting, “hemorrhaging money.” But Federation board members must understand that thousands of JCC supporters are still turning to The Federation for answers and guidance. It is commendable that Fishel met publicly with JCC parents and supporters across the city to present his board’s views of the crisis. In doing so he weathered a verbal barrage that makes “The McLaughlin Group” look like “Blue’s Clues.”
But people still want to know more: If the mission of the centers was worth supporting with millions of donor dollars over the years, how can it suddenly be worth nothing?
How did The Federation, which oversaw JCCGLA books and demanded the JCCGLA use The Federation’s own outside auditor, plead ignorance of the extent of JCCGLA mismanagement?
Why do Federation leaders keep changing the degree of their own fundraising problems? Fishel told an audience at the West Valley JCC that a crisis in Federation’s own ability to raise funds was apparent in January. But in May, William S. Bernstein, Federation’s executive vice president for financial resource development, told the Journal that fundraising is “off to its best start in seven years.” If we’re all in this together — and we are — we all need to work off the same numbers.
Whether Los Angeles’ own JCCs are in the throes of death or painful rebirth depends on how honestly, and how creatively, this community faces these very difficult issues. We believe outgoing Federation President CEO Todd Morgan when he says that the concern across the community is real, and a search for solutions is at hand. It certainly goes against the grain to destroy the fruits of 50 years of Jewish communal vision without putting forward one of our own. In his interview last May with The Journal, Bernstein went on to say, “The accumulated wealth of the community … still leaves contributors with significant flexibility in terms of how they wish to spend their charitable dollars.”
So which is it? Are we short on cash, or bereft of vision?