For downtown’s Persian Jews, work plus worship equals success


Fast-paced techno dance music blasts through Chikas, a retail clothing store off Santee Street in the heart of downtown Los Angeles’ Fashion District, which many call the Garment District. Robert Mahgerefteh, the store’s owner, helps the dozen or so young women looking for great deals on the latest fashions.

“Many of us from the Iranian-Jewish community working in the Garment District have a very hard work ethic, sometimes working six or seven days a week,” he said. “People like myself grew up seeing our dads and uncles put the time and effort into making their businesses a success, so we’re following in their footsteps.”

Mahgerefteh, 29, is among the more than 300 Iranian Jews who work as retailers, wholesalers or importers of clothing, fabrics and fashion accessories in downtown’s Fashion District. Over the last 30 years, their businesses and Iranian-Jewish investment in downtown real estate have helped transform the district into one of the major business hubs in Southern California.

In addition to improving the area, Iranian-Jewish businessmen have brought their faith and practice with them, establishing synagogues in the area and supporting several downtown kosher restaurants. Rabbis even travel to the Fashion District to teach Torah and other topics during lunch-and-learn sessions.

And while the flood of cheaper clothing and fabrics from China has driven some Iranian Jews out of the business, others have remained downtown, finding their niche in the new marketplace.

Following their immigration to Los Angeles from Iran, hundreds of Iranian Jews flocked to the Fashion District in the late 1970s and early 1980s, either because of their familiarity with the garment trade or because it seemed the easiest way to earn a living.

Iranian-Jewish real estate developer Behrooz Neman, who has owned properties in downtown’s Fashion District since the mid-1980s, said the area was in dire economic conditions when Iranian Jews first arrived.

“It looked like South Central with only old buildings and empty warehouses,” Neman said. “I can honestly say that if the Iranian Jews had never come to Los Angeles, there would be no Garment District as you see it today.”

Those Iranian Jews who first worked the Fashion District didn’t have the higher overhead costs of the larger American fabric companies, said Amir “Aby” Emrani, co-owner of Emday Fabrics.

“And, we also gave ourselves smaller commissions,” he said.

Today, Emday Fabrics and a handful of other Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses are among downtown’s largest and most successful fabrics importers, selling to both a national and international clientele.

“In the early days, we worked very hard and long hours — it was just myself, my brother and my father. … Little by little, the hard work and our ability to give much lower pricing to our customers allowed us to grow,” Emrani said.

Among the businesses that found a niche early was Donna Vinci, a division of Brasseur Inc., which specializes in plus-size women’s suits, among its other high-end women’s clothing.

“It was very successful for us, and we have continued over the years to build on that idea with many different designs and brands for the same customers,” said Danny Golshan, Donna Vinci’s co-owner. “Our focus is on being unique and bringing up-to-date clothing to our customers.”

With Hollywood not too far away, Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses such as the Italian Fashion Group have also supported the needs of costume designers for major television shows and films. The company, run by three Iranian- Jewish siblings, has become a top manufacturer of high-end, custom-made Italian suits that attract entertainment industry designers and celebrities such as Al Pacino, Terrence Howard and James Belushi.

“Our custom line of suits, Di Stefano, has become the pearl of our company,” said Shahrouz Stefano Kalepari, co-owner of the Italian Fashion Group, adding that their suits have appeared on such televisions shows as “The Mentalist,” “Castle,” “Law & Order: Los Angeles” and “The Defenders.”

“Our suits and shirts are 100 percent hand made and the patterns are designed from scratch for each individual order, to create a very personalized and custom fit for our customers. We use the most precious accessories such as horsehair canvas inside our suits, pure silk linings and mother-of-pearl buttons,” Kalepari said.

But with cheaper labor and raw material in China and the Far East flooding the Fashion District, Iranian-Jewish businesses have found it increasingly difficult to compete with Chinese goods.

Businessmen like Kalepari say they have had to be more aggressive in marketing their products and educating their customers about the higher quality of their clothing in order to survive.

“Unfair competition with China, combined with the lack of knowledge from some customers, makes it very frustrating at times,” Kalepari said. “But in the end, a high-quality product speaks for itself, and when a famous designer of top-quality clothes in Beverly Hills uses our company’s line for his own personal use, this gives us the utmost satisfaction that we have done the right thing and can survive in this market.”

Aside from the district’s retail and wholesale businesses, nearly 40 Iranian-Jewish real estate developers have purchased or constructed buildings and other properties over the years to further solidify the community’s influence in the area.

These Iranian-Jewish developers have not only upgraded the appearance of the stores and buildings in the area, but were pivotal in the creation and growth of the widely popular “alley” shopping area within the heart of the district — a nearly three-block stretch along Santee Street that resembles a Middle Eastern-style open bazaar.

“In the early 1980s, there was no alley in existence,” Neman said. “The idea to use the space in the alley area came from mostly Iranian Jewish developers who wanted to get the maximum use of their properties in the area by making these smaller spaces behind their buildings available for retailers.”

Not only have Iranian-Jewish businesses thrived and prospered in the fabrics and clothing industry, but city officials have praised the community’s entrepreneurial efforts during the last three decades of the Fashion District’s revitalization.

“The Persian community has helped to reshape the district by partnering with stakeholders in the area to form business development districts to keep the area safe and clean for business to thrive,” L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel said. “This community has been at the forefront of growth in the Garment District, and I am confident that the future will bring greater prosperity as downtown continues its transformation.”

The financial growth over the last 25 years alone in Southern California’s garment business speaks for itself.

“In 1984, California Mart in downtown’s Garment District did about $50 million in sales annually, which was for all the U.S. sales of garments on the West Coast,” Neman said. “Today the annual sales for the garment business in Southern California alone is $150 billion — and without a doubt it is because of the hard work of Iranian-Jewish- and Korean-owned businesses in downtown.”

Many local Iranian Jews also credit Ezat Delijani, one of the community’s most prominent real estate developers, who died in late August, for having transformed the area by pioneering mixed-use developments in downtown Los Angeles as well as for purchasing and renovating four historic theaters on Broadway near the Fashion District.

“The investment Ezat Delijani made in the historic area of Broadway brought new life to an area that was stricken with graffiti and blight,” said David Rahimian, a former special assistant to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “The Delijani family led a preservation effort that brought the theater back to life, not only making it a jewel on Broadway but a proud site for all Angelenos to enjoy.”

With all of their financial success, Iranian- Jewish businessmen in the area have still maintained their strong Jewish bonds in the district, even establishing three synagogues in the area.

Ohr HaShalom, also called the Downtown Synagogue, is perhaps the most popular synagogue in the Fashion District. Located inside a 300-square-foot storefront, it attracts up to 30 Iranian-Jewish businessmen for daily prayers.

“It’s more convenient for businessmen from our community to come to the synagogue that is close to their businesses in the area in order to do their early morning prayers or to say the Kaddish prayers on the anniversary of the deaths of their loved ones,” said Abner Cohen, a fabrics businessman and co-founder of Ohr HaShalom.

The other two synagogues in the area are located within the offices of Iranian-Jewish businesses, housing Torahs as well as other prayer books. Yet the business owners operating these office synagogues would not grant The Jewish Journal entry out of concern that the publicity could attract unwanted security challenges.

In addition to the synagogues, a handful of local rabbis frequent the different Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses in the Fashion District, providing free lunchtime classes on Torah and religious practices.

“We love teaching Judaism, and we offer these businessmen insights on how they could benefit from Torah in their everyday lives to become better fathers, better partners and better community members,” said Rabbi Yosef Shemtov, executive director of the Yachad Outreach Center, which is affiliated with the Pico-Robertson-based Torat Hayim synagogue.

Over the course of each week, Shemtov and two other Iranian Jewish rabbis from his group visit more than 50 Iranian-Jewish businesses in downtown’s fashion and jewelry districts. Their group began the teaching program for Iranian Jews working in downtown Los Angeles eight years ago and, Shemtov said, it has gradually grown in popularity.

Kosher restaurants in recent years have also popped up the Fashion District, including Snack 26 deli, offering sandwiches to Iranian-Jewish businessmen on the run, and Afshan Restaurant, providing customers with kosher chicken and beef kebabs as well as popular Persian stews and rice dishes. Both eateries also deliver to their clients downtown.

With all of the ups and downs in their businesses, Iranian Jews working in the Fashion District said their strong sense of spirituality and Jewish values have enabled them to continue working hard to achieve success in the fashion industry.

Shervin Arastoozad, an Iranian-Jewish designer and owner of Cut n’ Paste Handbags, says the one thing he’s learned about business is that you must build a foundation to get anywhere.

“One very important foundation for me has been Judaism and the morality it brings into [my] business and everyday life,” he said.

For more interviews with Iranian-Jewish businessmen in downtown’s Fashion District, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

Think you know ‘The Jazz Singer’? You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!


On Oct. 6, 1927, audiences attending the premiere of “The Jazz Singer” at New York’s Warner Theatre witnessed a revolution that gave voice to a medium that had lived in silence since its birth, more than 30 years before. With his double-barrel delivery of the improvised line, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Wait a minute, I tell ya. You ain’t heard nothin’!” Al Jolson fired the ad-lib heard around the world, signifying the death of the silent era and the birth of the “talkies.”

It’s been 80 years, and now the American Cinematheque is celebrating the anniversary with a three-day tribute to Jolson that includes a screening of a new digitally restored print of “The Jazz Singer,” screening Oct. 5 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. In addition, Warner Bros. plans to release a special three-disc DVD set including the restored film plus several of the first shorts produced by Vitaphone, Warner’s pioneer sound division.

“The Jazz Singer” tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a cantor’s son who rejects his father’s wishes to follow family tradition and serve in the synagogue, pursuing instead a career in show business as a jazz singer. The music-based story afforded Warners the opportunity to produce a feature film using the sound-on-disc Vitaphone process they had recently licensed from Bell Telephone. Up to that point, Vitaphone had been used only experimentally on short subjects.

The Warners predicted, correctly, that “The Jazz Singer” would be “without a doubt, the biggest stride since the birth of the industry.” But the film’s importance may not rest solely on the fact that it was the first sound film. It was also the first film to boldly address the assimilation of immigrant Jews into American culture.

“It is basically a showbiz story, but in back of it is the big question of assimilation and, of course, the conflict of the generations,” Herbert Goldman, author of the book “Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life,” said in an interview. Goldman, who will be a guest panelist at the Cinematheque event adds, “There was a special appeal to the Jewish people, but the national audience was not Jewish, and yet it went over with them too. When you think about it, it’s amazing that for the first talking picture Warner Bros. chose a theme that was so overtly Jewish for a national audience.”

It may not be so amazing, considering the parallel between Jakie Rabinowitz and the Warners themselves. Like Jakie, the Warner brothers left home to enter show business, and like so many of the other Jewish studio moguls, they assimilated themselves into secular American culture. In his book “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” author Neal Gabler points out ‘”The Jazz Singer’ did something that was extremely rare in Hollywood; it provided an extraordinary revealing window on the dilemmas of the Hollywood Jews generally, and the Warners specifically.”

“The Jazz Singer” began as a short story called “The Day of Atonement,” published in Everybody’s Magazine in 1922. The author was Samson Raphaelson, who would go on to become a top writer in Hollywood, known for witty and sophisticated screenplays, many of which were directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch. Jolson, already a popular entertainer, read the story and was drawn to it because he felt the story’s conflict between an aging cantor and his “Americanized” son who yearned to be in show business mirrored his own life.

Jolson brought the story to DW Griffith, who rejected it because he felt it was too racial. The other studios in town passed for the same reason. Apparently, Raphaelson was unaware of Jolson’s efforts. When Jolson met the writer at a nightclub, he told him he wanted to turn the story into a musical revue. Raphaelson dismissed the idea and instead adapted his story into a straight dramatic play. Ironically, Raphaelson had been inspired to write his story after seeing Jolson perform in “Robinson Crusoe, Jr.” in 1917 at the University of Illinois, while the young author was a student there. Raphaelson recalled, “I shall never forget the first five minutes of Jolson — his velocity, the amazing fluidity with which he shifted from tremendous absorption in his audience to a tremendous absorption in his song … when he finished I turned to the girl beside me, dazed with memories of my childhood on the East Side … my God, this isn’t a jazz singer, this is a cantor!”

The original title of Raphaelson’s play was “Prayboy” but it was changed to “The Jazz Singer” before its Broadway opening on Sept. 14, 1925. The star of the show was vaudeville comedian George Jessel. Reviews of the show were lukewarm, and it got off to a slow start. But since the audiences were 90 percent Jewish, it picked up momentum around the High Holy Days and ran for 38 weeks, closing only because Jessel had signed a contract with Warner Bros. The day before closing, Warner Bros. purchased the rights for $50,000, presumably with the intention of having Jessel reprise his stage role. According to Jessel, in Neal Gabler’s book “An Empire of Their Own,” Harry Warner thought, “It would be a good picture to make for the sake of racial tolerance, if nothing else.”

The story of why Jessel was replaced by Jolson is a film history “Rashomon.” One version is that Jessel’s contract with Warner was for silent films, but when Jessel discovered it was going to be a Vitaphone production, he demanded $10,000 extra. Jessel would later claim the reason he did not do the film was not over money differences, but because he objected to the revised ending. In the play, the son abandons the stage and becomes cantor of his father’s synagogue, but in the film, he remains an entertainer. Jessel demanded they keep the original ending, but Jack Warner refused. Another version is that Jessel was upset over the casting of two non-Jews, Warner Oland and Eugenie Besserer, as Jakie’s parents. According to Neal Gabler in his book, “Jessel was probably too Jewish for the kind of assimilation story that Jack and Sam Warner wanted to make. To them ‘The Jazz Singer’ was more of a personal dramatization of their own family conflicts than a plea for racial tolerance, and they would want to cast a Jew that was as assimilated as they were.” Losing the film role plagued Jessel for the rest of his life.

The opening of “The Jazz Singer” lived up to the film’s tag line “Warner Brothers’ Supreme Triumph!” According to The New York Times, it received “The biggest ovation in a theater since the introduction of Vitaphone.” Variety called the film “Undoubtedly the best thing Vitaphone ever put on the screen.” But Miles Kreuger, president of The Institute of the American Musical, attributes the film’s success solely to its star: “It was Al Jolson, even more than the film itself, or even the content of the film that made it an international success. Just the fact that the whole world, which had heard Jolson on phonograph records, could finally see him in a movie, that is the key to the success of ‘The Jazz Singer.'”

Working Girl


I’m a multitasker. I can type an e-mail and conduct a conference call; I can watch a reel and read a memo. I can rub my tummy and pat my head, or pat your tummy and rub your head — which sounds like a lot more fun.

Point is, I can do two things at once and do them both well. But not everyone thinks so. Last week, my friends and I were downing Thai at Red Corner Asia when my married buddy Marc asked, “Carin, why do you think you’re waiting to get married?”

“Top answer on the board? Can’t marry myself.”

“Well, that. But I thought of you today,” he said. “I read that a lot of women now spend their 20s focused on their career, not on dating. Then they wake up one day to find themselves successful, but alone. It’s a tragedy.”

A tragedy? Come on, “Othello” is a tragedy. My social life? A comedy. Well, maybe more like a one-hour dramedy. Like “Ugly Betty” or “Desperate Housewives” or “Ally McBeal” — except not ugly. Or desperate. Or stick skinny. You’re picturing my tight curves now, aren’t you? Pretty hot, huh? Well stop dreaming and keep reading.

I’m an accomplished exec. I worked hard to get here. I work hard for the money. But work never gets in the way of dating, and dating never gets in the way of work.

Yet suddenly, this working girl feels defensive. If I just happened to still be single, it’s a matter of bad luck, bad timing or bad boys. I’m not to blame. It’s just how life goes on for me. But if I’m still single ‘cuz I focused on my job, then it’s my own fault I’m hauling around that “Miss” before my name.

According to Marc, I could be married by now, if only I’d been a huge failure.

Why, oh why, couldn’t I be a huge failure? Why did I have to be born witty and smart? Graduate Phi Beta Kappa? Earn my VP stripes? Why did I have to be confident, competent and driven? If only I’d remained entry level, I could be happily hitched by now.

Maybe Marc’s right. Maybe I should switch up my focus, take time off of work to concentrate on dating. That’s the ticket. I’ll walk into HR and ask to take my maternity leave early. What? Equal rights — why should some women get a three-month leave and not others? Instead of spending three months playing with a new baby, I’ll spend three months looking for a new man. Miss Hathaway, hold my calls. I won’t be in today, I’m going on a bachelor hunt.

C’mon. My work never stopped me from working it. If anything, men find my success sexy. They like a woman who can pay for her own meal — and kiss like no other. So it’s not that I’ve been waiting to get married; I’ve been waiting for my prince to come. And waiting. And waiting. Still waiting….

Actually, why I am still waiting? Why hasn’t a hot chick like me been swept up? Where are all my sweepers and suitors? And since when do I wait for anything? I’m a skip -to-the-front-of-the-velvet-rope kinda girl.

Maybe there is some truth to Marc’s statement. After all, we are the girl-power generation. We were told we could do anything, achieve everything, and be all that we can be. Where our moms had a wedding and kids right after college, we all got an apartment and a career. We were in no rush to get married. Now I’ve got an office and an assistant, but not a husband and a house. I didn’t intentionally avoid wearing the white dress while I cracked the glass ceiling. I know all work and no play makes me a dull Jew. I’ve dated a lot; I just haven’t closed the deal. I guess I always figured marriage would just kinda happen.

Sure, sometimes I worry that all the good ones have been taken. But I’m not taken, and I’m a good one. I’m a Tony the Tiger grrrreat one. Someone will be lucky to have me. So it’s more a matter of meeting my mensch.

Perhaps I should approach dating like I approach my job. Be a firecracker, be proactive, go after what I want. Start recruiting some fresh candidates, move meeting men to the top of my agenda. It’s nice to be successful; it would be nicer to celebrate that success with someone. To me, being married means being partners. It means supporting each other’s careers. It means sharing the joy of a new job, sharing the letdown of a layoff and sharing most of my new raise.

Life doesn’t have to be an either/or. I can have it all. I can do two things at once.

I can get engaged and get promoted. I can rule in the boardroom and the bedroom. I can take on a relationship and rock my power suit.

Or accept your rock and take off your power suit — which sounds like a lot more fun.

Carin Davis can be reached at sports@jewishjournal.com

Persian Jews break with tradition to break through in Hollywood


The generation of Iranian Jews who escaped Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution with their parents and traded a fearful existence for lives in New York and Los Angeles are now emerging in the entertainment industry.

Whether it’s producing Oscar-winning films, appearing on prime-time network television series or performing stand-up comedy, young Jews of Iranian heritage have been breaking with their community’s traditional norms and leaving their imprint on Hollywood.

Perhaps the most notable success came last year when Iranian Jewish film producer Bob Yari’s independent film, “Crash,” won the best picture Oscar and generated nearly $100 million in worldwide sales.

“I had a gut feeling that it would be something special, but you never know, so I was hoping and my hopes came to fruition,” said Yari, 45, whose four production companies have produced 26 independent films in the last four years.

Yari made his fortune in real estate development but is no novice when it comes to Hollywood. After receiving a degree in cinematography, he directed the 1989 film, “Mind Games,” for MGM. The litigation involved in the film and its lack of success drove Yari away from the industry until five years ago, when he returned as a producer.

“I’m always interested in telling stories that I think touch people and mean something to people,” he said. “One of the things that’s always attracted me to film is its power to influence people to put aside their prejudices or judging people based on their heritage or color of skin.”

Yari is not the only Iranian Jew doing well in Hollywood. Nightclub and hotel entrepreneur Sam Nazarian, 31, is financing and producing films through his L.A.-based SBE Entertainment Group. His production company, Element Films, has produced seven films in the last three years and is slated to release three more this year, according to the Internet Movie Database Web site.

Some Iranian Jewish filmmakers are trying to parlay their success to tell their own cultural narratives. Soly Haim, a L.A.-based independent producer, is seeking financing for a documentary about how Iranian Jews helped Jews flee Iraq in the middle of the 20th century.

“Documentaries are hard to get financing for because, unlike films, documentaries usually go for television broadcasts, and the revenues generated do not match the revenues generated from feature films,” said Haim, 45.

In the meantime, Haim’s production company, Screen Magic Entertainment, this summer will release the independent film, “When a Man Falls in the Forest,” starring Sharon Stone and Timothy Hutton. The film revolves around an unhappily married woman who shoplifts to relieve the suffering brought on by her boring marriage and to find excitement in a small Midwestern town.

Yari, for his part, said he’s looking to develop a feature film about the events that led to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the collapse of the late shah’s regime.

Young Iranian Jews have also achieved moderate success working behind the scenes in television. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences customarily honors the behind-the-scenes toilers, and at last year’s technical awards ceremony, Lila Yomtoob, a sound editor on the HBO documentary, “Baghdad ER,” became the first Iranian Jew to win an Emmy.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” said Yomtoob, who now lives in Brooklyn. “But when I saw that I was seated in the sixth row, I had a feeling I was going to win.”

“Baghdad ER” chronicles two months in the day-to-day lives of doctors, nurses, medics, soldiers and chaplains working in the U.S. Army’s premier medical facility in Baghdad’s Green Zone.Bahar SoomekhAfter completing film school in 2000, Yomtoob worked as a freelance sound editor on a variety of film and television projects, including “Two Weeks Notice,” which starred Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant, as well as for the HBO series, “The Wire.” Despite her recent success, she said her family did not initially approve of her career choice in Hollywood.

“I would say that my decision to get into the industry was met with skepticism,” Yomtoob said. “My parents, my family, a lot of cousins are doctors and lawyers. My father wanted the same for me, but I went ahead and did it anyway.”

The acting bug has also bitten a number of young Iranian Jews. The best-known to emerge in recent years is Bahar Soomekh, who made her film debut in “Crash” in the role of a young Iranian woman named Dorri.

“It’s really scary with acting because there is no guarantee,” said Soomekh, a 30-something L.A. resident. “It’s so different than anything else, because in the corporate world, you do something and you see your success, but with acting you could go to audition after audition, and 90 percent of the time there is rejection.”

Since “Crash,” Soomekh has landed roles in other major films, including last year’s “Mission: Impossible III” and the horror thriller “Saw III.” Last year she also played the role of Margo in the ABC television series, “Day Break.” She said she has been showered with support for her career from other Iranian Jews.

“Wherever I go, people I don’t even know grab me, hug me and tell me how proud they are and how exciting it is for them to see someone on the big screen from their community,” Soomekh said. “It’s unbelievable how many people my age in the community tell me, ‘It’s always been my dream, and I’m living vicariously through you’.”

Another Iranian Jewish actor, Jonathan Ahdout, 17, was a regular in the 2005 season on the Fox television series, “24,” playing the role of a young Iranian terrorist.

“My biggest fear is becoming typecast as the Muslim Middle Easterner, because I think society today has their sights set on the Middle East, and it’s become a much bigger part of American culture,” said Ahdout, who lives in Los Angeles. “I don’t want to necessarily fuel any type of stereotype.”

Ahdout made his acting debut four years ago in the acclaimed film, “House of Sand and Fog,” which was about an Iranian family in the United States, starring Oscar-winners Jennifer Connelly and Sir Ben Kingsley. In 2005, Ahdout also played the role of Ike opposite Forrest Whitaker in the independent film, “American Gun.”

Growing taste for kosher boils in U.S. melting pot


Hispanic and Asian foods are so different — in taste, textures, ingredients (even the utensils with which they are eaten) — that it seemed a strange pairing when the annual Expo Comida Latina was combined with the All Asian Food trade show at the Los Angeles Convention Center recently.

Yet among the 500 exhibitors offering food service establishments everything from refrigeration equipment to signage, etc., there was one with an “intangible” asset: kosher certification, something that intrigues ethnic food providers of all stripes.

Sitting alone in a simple booth with a few brochures and a backdrop banner declaring, “Star-K Kosher Certification / Kosher Supervision Worldwide / A Vital Ingredient in Your Success,” Steve Sichel, director of development for the Baltimore-based agency, fought off fatigue. He had raced to the airport right after Simchat Torah to fly across the country overnight.

Sichel is no stranger to conferences where he is the only man wearing a kippah: “I attend these kinds of shows all over the world.”

Kosher has come a long way from designating merely a set of obscure dietary restrictions that are strictly observed by only a minuscule fraction of the world’s population. According to a 2005 Mintel Organization International report, Kosher is a $14.6 billion industry and ranks among the fastest-growing segments in the retail food business.

“Outside of Israel and North America, Star-K has offices in Europe, Asia and Latin America,” Sichel reported. “Obviously, our consumers are not in India and China, but a growing number of food processing plants are interested in kosher certification in order to broaden their export markets, and they call on our mashgihim based in Bombay and Shanghai.”

The increased availability and desirability of kosher food, whether imported or domestic, is reflected in its astonishing growth rate. “While retail food sales grew at a rate of 6 percent last year, kosher food sales grew 15 percent,” Sichel told the audience attending his expo seminar, “Kosher Certification 101.”

The turnout for Sichel’s workshop was small: only a minyan of men and women, both foreigners and locals. Undiscouraged, Sichel went through his complete bilingual (English and Spanish) slide presentation: “The Latest Wrap About Kosher Hispanic Food — Lo Ultimo en Comida Latina Kosher.”

As Sichel likes to tell his audiences, “You don’t have to be Jewish to have kosher products.” In fact, Star-K is a member of the American Tortilla Industry Association, and Los Angeles’ own Tumaro’s Gourmet Tortillas — the country’s best-selling flavored (savory and sweet) tortilla brand — is certified kosher.

Nor do you have to be Jewish to buy, consume and enjoy kosher products. “The second largest consumer group for kosher food is Muslims,” Sichel noted. “There are 10 million Muslims in the United States, and in the absence of widespread halal certification, they have come to rely on kosher certification.”

According to Sichel, others who prefer to eat kosher include Seventh-day Adventists, vegetarians and health-conscious consumers.

“The kosher symbol is seen as an indication that there is another set of eyes keeping watch on what the company is doing,” he said.

The growing number of non-Jewish consumers of kosher food has not been lost on the supermarket chains.

“Given a choice, supermarkets prefer to stock kosher products — particularly products whose kashrut certification comes from a reliable agency.” he said.

Nor did this growth escape the attention of Diversified Business Communications, the company that owns and operates Expo Comida Latina and All Asian Food Expo, as well as Kosherfest, the country’s largest exhibition of kosher foods. In fact, Kosherfest — which was founded by Menachem Lubinsky 18 years ago and purchased from him by Diversified four years ago — was combined with New York City’s joint Expo Comida Latina and All Asian Food Expo in mid-November.

According to Brian Randall, Diversified’s group vice president for ethnic and cultural foods, Kosherfest, was not held in Los Angeles this year because of an unwritten agreement with Kosher World that the latter would hold kosher trade shows on the West Coast, as it did last spring in Anaheim.

In the meantime, Kosher World has been sold, and the brand dissolved, leaving it up to Randall and Diversified to decide whether to bring Kosherfest to Los Angeles next year.

Randall predicted more avenues for the growth of kosher products.

“We are going to see kosher kid products in all cuisines,” he said. “In addition, organic food is a nexus with kosher food for the growing healthy food market. Jewish parents want the best for their kids. Look for major kosher food producers, like Manischewitz, to introduce organic lines under their labels.”

Full circle


My daughter, the animal lover, has a father who isn’t. A hamster is the biggest pet I’ve gotten talked into so far. It lives in her room, and basically I wouldn’t even know
it was there except for one thing — it’s nocturnal.

All night long I could hear Ruby the hamster running in its wheel. The endless spinning and squeaking was driving me crazy. I couldn’t take it anymore.

I marched into my daughter’s room, bypassing her and heading straight for the tiny workout nut. I was ready to snatch it and its blasted wheel out of the cage, when something made me stop. I stood transfixed at the sight of Ruby exercising, and it hit me how much the two of us have in common. That hamster is living my life, I thought, running, running, running in endless circles, and not really getting anywhere.

I granted a stay of execution.

For all of the benefits running in circles affords a hamster, there are no positive implications when we use the expression “running in circles” to describe our own lives. With all we have to do, it often feels that all we are doing is keeping up. The opportunity to move ahead somehow eludes us.

Ironically, this time of year is all about going in circles. But unlike the stressful, unconstructive feeling of running in circles that we experience in our weekday routine, the circles of these holidays have a definite purpose and a positive message. Both Sukkot and Simchat Torah are characterized by communal hakafot, or going around in circles.

On Sukkot, we hold the arba minim (the four species) and proceed in a circle around the Torah, thereby proclaiming its centrality and holiness in Jewish life. On Simchat Torah, we remove all of the Torahs to the periphery of the circle, and march around an empty center.

What is the purpose of an empty center? To quote Rabbi Solovetchik (zt”l), “The answer is that the center is not empty. God is symbolically there. When nobody is there, Someone is there. There is no place bereft of His presence. The encircling Sifrei Torah pay homage to their Divine Author, acknowledging that the purpose of Torah is to direct us to God.”
Whether we are circling the Torah or circling God, there are two mathematical facts about circles that have great theological implications.

The first is that all points on the circle are equidistant from the center.

When we march in the hakafot, we are demonstrating that the Torah belongs to all of us, equally, and that we all have equal access to God.

There is a beautiful Midrash about the arba minim that illustrates this idea. Consider the etrog, or citron. It has a good taste and a good fragrance, symbolizing the Jews who possess scholarship and good deeds.

The lulav, or date palm branch, has a good taste, but no fragrance. It symbolizes Jews who possess scholarship, but few good deeds.

The hadassim, or myrtle, have a pleasant aroma but a bland taste. It represents the Jews who perform good deeds but are ignoramuses.

And finally, the aravot, or willow, have no pleasant smell or taste, standing for those among us who, sadly, have no redeeming features whatsoever.

Only the etrog is “perfect,” but one cannot recite the blessing on the etrog alone. It must be held tightly together with the other three species in order to fulfill the mitzvah. God wants us to stand together. No one has to be excluded from His Presence. You can be a Moses, an Abraham, a Rabbi Akiva or an ignoramus who isn’t even a very nice person. As long as you stand in that circle, you have the same access to God and His Torah as anyone else.

The second mathematical fact about circles is that the starting point and the ending point are one in the same. When we march in a circle we keep returning to where we started, as opposed to marching in a line where we would move away from the beginning point. The whole of Judaism is predicated on this concept — that our history is not far behind us in some distant past, but that our heroes and heroines, and all of our collective experiences, are very real to us today.

We look to Jacob to learn how to survive an oppressive exile, and Joseph shows us how to deal with success in exile. Queen Esther ably demonstrates how to outsmart a manipulative, deadly enemy. Rashi is not some scribbles on a page, but he is our best friend when we study the Chumash or Talmud, patiently helping us make sense of it all.

We don’t “commemorate” the destruction of our Temple; we sit low to the ground and mourn the loss as if it happened in our own generation. We sit at a seder every Passover with the goal of feeling as if we ourselves left Egypt, not some group of slaves thousands of years ago. We have a State of Israel today because even after 1,900 years of exile, we felt inextricably connected to that land. Like a circle, we never move too far away from where we started.

Physically, moving in circles like Ruby the hamster is a frustrating experience. In short, it gets us nowhere. But philosophically, participating in hakafot, can bring us to a new place. A place where we reconfirm that God and His Torah are at the center of our lives; where we rekindle that sense of unity and equality among all Jews; and where we reawaken the past, and immerse in the lives and events that have sustained us as a people for thousands of years.

In short, it brings us full circle.

Chag sameach.

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

Pro soccer rookie Bornstein gives small goals a big kick


ChivasUSA’s Jonathan Bornstein is the top contender for the 2006 Major League Soccer (MLS) Rookie of the Year award. Not bad for the Los Alamitos native who was not invited to the MLS combine and was chosen in the fourth round (of four) of 2006 MLS SuperDraft (37th pick overall).

“Before the year started, I had small goals, such as getting some playing time on the team, maybe eventually getting a starting position,” said Bornstein, who started 30 games, leads the league in minutes played by a nongoalkeeper (2,698 — he only missed two minutes of the season) and leads MLS rookies in goals scored (six). With his undeniable success, he’s now setting his sights higher.

“To win an MLS cup would be another huge goal of mine,” said Bornstein, who was named MLS player of the month for July. “And to eventually make it to the national team level and represent our country.”

Bornstein, 21, is taking the attention and accolades in stride, determined to take it practice by practice and game by game. A self-proclaimed average guy, he comes home from practice, fixes lunch and settles in with a video game or his new guitar.

“I just went out and bought my guitar once I got my first paycheck. I’m really interested in music,” said Bornstein, who spends the rest of his free time on the golf course, at the beach or with his girlfriend.

Bornstein spent the first half of his college career at Cal Poly Pomona, where he was named California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Freshman of the Year, First Team All-CCAA and Second Team All-Far West Region. He then transferred to UCLA. During his senior year (2005-06) as a Bruin, he started all 20 games, scored five goals, made four assists, received All-Pac 10 honors and was named Met/RX Player of the Week.

Though Bornstein spent his entire amateur career playing forward, ChivasUSA head coach Bob Bradley moved him to fullback at the start of this season. He now clocks most of his time in the backfield, and, on occasion, plays forward or midfield. Bornstein shines in his new versatile role, having scored goals for ChivasUSA from all three positions.

With his transition to defense, new coaches, fresh mentors and the thrill of playing in the MLS, Bornstein has come into his own this year.

“I’ve been learning a lot from my teammates. These guys have so much experience beyond my years, so I just watch how they play and try to mimic them,” said Bornstein, who has four assists this season. “Also, I feel very comfortable here, and I think that has something to do with why I’ve been able to do so well here.”

It’s not surprising Bornstein feels at home on the Carson- based team. He is at home. He’s been playing soccer in the L.A. area since age 3.

“I really like it in Los Angeles. I was born here, I grew up here. I’ve been other places, and they don’t compare,” said Bornstein, who continues to live in Los Alamitos. “Playing in front of my family, my friends, my college buddies — it means the world to me.”

Bornstein also got the opportunity to play in front of an Israeli crowd when he led the United States to a silver medal in the 2005 Maccabiah Games.

“It was amazing. It was great. I loved it. It made me realize how fulfilling and enriched Jewish culture really is,” Bornstein said. “So in the past couple years, I’ve felt more Jewish than ever.”

His father is Jewish and his mother is a non-Jew from Mexico.

Bornstein grew up celebrating Passover and Rosh Hashanah with relatives. He did not have a bar mitzvah, and he doesn’t consider himself observant. The Maccabiah experience was a way for him to connect with Judaism.

“Outside of my UCLA teammate Benny Feilhaber, I never really thought there were other high-class Jewish soccer players out there,” he said. “With the Maccabiah Games, I definitely got the chance to experience a good thing. I realized there are a lot of really cool and really good Jewish athletes.”

Bornstein is hoping that his presence on ChivasUSA will help Los Angeles Jews feel a connection to the team and the sport of soccer.

“I’m hoping they’ll give it a chance — come out to one of the games, experience the atmosphere that comes with sitting in the Home Depot Center,” he said. “I think they would be surprised how much fun it is, how entertaining it is, how much of a real sport it is.”

ChivasUSA is headed to the MLS playoffs for the first time. The team plays Real Salt Lake at 4 p.m. on Oct. 15 at The Home Depot Center.

Chivas USA’s Jonathan Bornstein. Photo by Juan Miranda/Chivas USA


Freelance writer Carin Davis can be reached at sports@jewishjournal.com

Amy Klein’s bibliographical guide for the perplexed


“To the best of our understanding, God created the universe as an act of love. It was an act of love so immense that the human mind cannot even begin to fathom it. God created the world basically as a vehicle upon which He could bestow His good. But God’s love is so great that any good that He bestows must be in the greatest good possible. Anything less would simply not be enough…. God therefore gave man free will.” — “If You Were God” by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (Mesorah, 1983)
 
“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the byproduct of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: You have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run — in the long run, I say! — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.” — “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl (Pocket Books, 1984)
 
“When we open ourselves to our creativity, we open ourselves to the creator’s creativity within us and our lives; We are, ourselves, creations. And we, in turn, our meant to continue creativity by being creative ourselves; creativity is God’s gift to us. Using our creativity is our gift back to God.” — “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” by Julia Cameron (Tarcher, 2002)
 
“Knowing your purpose gives meaning to your life. We were made to have meaning. This is why people try dubious methods, like astrology or psychics to discover it…. When life has meaning, you can bear almost anything; without it, nothing is bearable.” — “The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?” (Rick Warren, Zondervan 2002)
 
“Tradition teaches us that the soul lies midway between understanding and unconsciousness, and that its instrument is neither the mind nor the body, but imagination. I understand therapy as nothing more than bringing imagination to areas that are devoid of it, which then must express themselves by becoming symptiomatic.” — “Care of the Soul: A guide for cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life” by Thomas A. Moore (HarperCollins, 2002).
 
“Many of us go through the rituals of survival with a deeper sense of something greater, or even something smaller. We may crave spiritual insight, or perhaps we yearn for simple pleasures, such as the time to close our eyes and take in the smells of a flower garden, feel the sun shining warmly on our faces, or to relish the comfort of a cozy oversized robe and good novel…. Indulge yourself by prioritizing self-nourishment — everyone benefits when you feel good.” — “The Book of Small Pleasures: 32 Inspiring Ways to Feed Your Body, Soul and Spirit” by Matthew McKay, Catherine Sutker, Kristin Beck (Barnes & Noble, 2001)
 
“God gave us a world that would inevitably break our hearts, and compensated for that by planting in our souls the gift of resilience…. If we could not temporarily put out of our minds some of the painful moments of our past, how would we find the courage to go on? … But if we would not remember, would we still be us? Those painful moments are such a large part of making us who we are….” — “Overcoming Life’s Disappointments” by Harold S. Kushner (Knopf, 2006)
 
“It is a fact that everybody wants happiness and does not want suffering; there is no argument about this. But there is disagreement about how to achieve happiness and how to overcome problems. There are many types of happiness and many ways to achieve them, and there are also many types of sufferings and ways to overcome them. As Buddhists, however, we aim not merely for temporary relief and temporary benefit but for long-term results. Buddhists are concerned not only for this life but for life after life, on and on. We count not weeks or months or even years, but lives and eons.” — “The Meaning of Life” by The Dalai Lama (Wisdom Publications, 1992)
 
“Human beings best qualify themselves for the world to come through a combination of studying Torah and good deeds…. Thus even the belief in the world to come is, in Judaism, a motivator to study Torah and to perform good deeds in this world.” — “To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics” by Elliot N. Dorff (The Jewish Publication Society of Philadelphia,
 
2002)
“We’ve forgotten that as mere mortals we are meant to search as much as to find. After all, each of us has had only a few decades of what has been a 14-billion-year evolution. We are finite creatures. How could we possibly have access to what is infinite: some all-encompassing Truth about the world or even our True selves? The fact is, there is no issue, large or small, that we can understand fully. When we think we’ve found the final truth, we’re a little less alive, a little less awake, and the world itself is diminished.” — “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” by Rabbi Irwin Kula with Linda Lowenthal (Hyperion, 2006)
 
“Judaism has survived 4,000 years, including 2,000 years without a homeland, without the Temple in Jerusalem, without any common geographical location, without support from the outside. Judaism and Jews survived because of the Torah. No matter where they lived, no matter what historical horrors or joys they experienced, the heart of their faith was carried and communicated through the way, the path and the teachings of the Torah.”

Education Giant Simha Lainer, 100


Simha Lainer
Simha Lainer, a diminutive centenarian who cut a towering figure in Jewish education in Los Angeles, died Tuesday, Aug. 8. He was 100.

“He was a giant,” said Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) Executive Director Gil Graff. “What he did was singularly remarkable: he established scholarships for children to attend Jewish schools, he created a program fund to recognize excellence in Jewish education. The Bureau of Jewish Education sits on the Sara and Simha Lainer floor of the Jewish Federation building, and it couldn’t be more fitting than that. Everything you envision in Jewish education, this is what Sara and Simha Lainer were all about.”

Lainer was born in Ukraine in the town of Bar in 1906. He moved from Ukraine to Palestine in 1925, then to South America and to Mexico until settling in Los Angeles with his wife Sara and three children in 1951.

In Los Angeles, Lainer founded Lainer Development, specializing in industrial warehouse type properties in the San Fernando Valley. Lainer’s sons Mark, Nahum and Luis joined him in business.

“Simha once told me his three rules for business success,” Graff recounted. “His first rule was, ‘Treat your workers like family.'”

From establishing funds through the Jewish Community Foundation in Los Angeles to starting the Simha and Sara Lainer Fund for Jewish Education through the BJE of Greater Los Angeles to supporting Israel, Lainer and Sara were key supporters of the Jewish community.

The Simha and Sara Lainer Fund for Jewish Education, which Simha and Sara Lainer established in 1989, has awarded close to $1 million in scholarships to more than 1,000 children at 37 Jewish day schools of all denominations across the city.

“When you do something for Jewish life, you do it for the good of the Jewish people,” Lainer told The Journal in a 2003 interview. “For 3,000 years the Jews have lived. Other people have disappeared in that 3,000 years, but we Jews have continued to survive primarily because of Jewish education. We need to continue our existence. Not that many Jewish families understand that Jewish education is critical for the continued existence of the Jewish people.”

Lainer is survived by his sons, Mark, Nahum and Luis; daughters-in-law, Ellie, Alice and Lee; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Funeral services are scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 3 at 2 p.m. at Mt. Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries.

Young Lawyer Has a Ball With Bet Tzedek


As a young summer associate with a Los Angeles law firm, Jeffrey Sklar looked forward to attending his first Justice Ball. He wanted to see ’80s icon Billy Idol do the “Rebel Yell” live. He wanted to hang out with other young attorneys and law students. He wasn’t going for any high-minded motives.

Back in 2000, Sklar, like most of the 20- and 30-somethings who go to the annual Justice Ball, had only the vaguest notion of what Bet Tzedek, the event’s sponsor and a local Jewish legal-aid outfit, does. That would soon change.

Sklar, an attorney at Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan LLP, went to the Ball and partied with friends. He also listened as Bet Tzedek executives briefly took the stage and talked up their organization and its need for dedicated volunteers to help society’s most vulnerable achieve a degree of justice. Their message resonated with Sklar, who, as a young boy, remembers dropping coins into his family’s tzedekah box. Now, six years later, Sklar is a regular legal volunteer, he’s helped recruit other lawyer friends to volunteer time, and he’s helping to plan this year’s event, which will take place July 8 at the Hollywood Palladium, featuring the Go-Go’s.

Founded in 1997, the Justice Ball has grown into one of the nation’s most successful nonprofit fundraisers/parties targeting young professionals, Jews and non-Jews alike. Over the past nine years, more than 16,000 attorneys, financiers and others have attended the soirees, and scores of them have gone on to become Bet Tzedek contributors and volunteers. Some, like Sklar, have gone on to serve on Bet Tzedek’s Justice Ball planning committee and even on to the board of directors, making the event more than just a fundraiser — it’s an important gateway to the organization.

“The Justice Ball is absolutely a good way for young blood to get involved,” said Bet Tzedek board member Brette Simon, a law partner at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP whose first exposure to the legal aid society came from attending the mega-parties.

To date, Justice Balls have raised more than $3.2 million in ticket sales and corporate sponsorships, said Randall Kaplan, the Justice Ball’s creator and cofounder of high-tech giant Akamai Technologies, Inc. Last year’s event raised $425,000, or nearly 8 percent of Bet Tzedek’s $5.5 million budget, Executive Director Mitch Kamin said. This year, the 10th anniversary gala is expected to be even bigger. Hopes are the popular L.A. Go-Go’s will draw more than 3,000 revelers and raise as much as $500,000, Kamin said.

“Everyone in the philanthropic world is puzzling over how you engage the truly young generation of professionals who haven’t been necessarily taught by their parents that giving is part of their religious or social responsibility,” Kamin said. “This is a chance for us to introduce ourselves to them, give them initial exposure to Bet Tzedek and raise their consciousness.”

Bet Tzedek’s success at reaching the coveted demographic of young Jewish professionals comes as other Jewish organizations are struggling to do the same. Faced with the growing competition from non-Jewish nonprofits, Jewish charities are grappling with a generation that, because of intermarriage and assimilation, often considers itself more American than Jewish, experts said. With young Jews standing to inherit billions over the next 20 years, finding a way to appeal to their generosity is perhaps the greatest challenge faced by Jewish charities.

In Los Angeles, Bet Tzedek is not alone in its success in appealing to this group. Young leadership initiatives at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, including its Young Leadership Division and the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund of Los Angeles, now account for about $5 million, or nearly 5 percent of The Federation’s annual campaign, said Craig Prizant, The Federation’s executive vice president for financial resource development.

Still, The Federation’s strong showing appears to be the exception rather than the rule in the organized Jewish world. Simply put, the stodgy chicken-dinner fundraisers favored by so many Jewish philanthropies fail to bring young movers-and-shakers to the table. The MTV generation would rather rock ‘n’ roll all night long.

The Justice Ball gives them a chance to do just that, along with learning a thing or two about Bet Tzedek’s mission of offering free legal aid to the poor, sick, elderly and homeless.

Soon after his first Justice Ball, Sklar joined the group’s planning committee. Like others touched by Justice Balls before him, he went on to volunteer his legal services to Bet Tzedek, including assisting a Holocaust survivor obtain restitution from the Hungarian government.

“As a lawyer, you make a decent living. You get to sit up here in real tall buildings with a real nice view. You get to drive a real nice car,” he said. “So the bottom line is you need to give back, you have to get back. This is a great way for me to do so.”

For more information on the Justice Ball, visit www.thejusticeball.org.

 

Next Year in Cannes


It’s a tough thing trying to arrange a Shabbat dinner at the Cannes Film Festival.

My friend, Scott Einbinder, had gotten the idea two years ago, during my first trip to the festival. At first, I was hesitant. I was focused on business, a filmmaker obsessed with my career. Plus, I was perfectly happy to twiddle my thumbs alone in my hotel room all Shabbat.

Einbinder, who is less observant, had to convince me, a “Young Israel” Jew, that this was a good idea. What better way to escape the madness and deal-making of the festival, he argued, than by joining together with friends for a Shabbat Friday night dinner?

I stayed skeptical. Would people be willing to spend $90 to attend a dinner without music, when they could instead be dancing it up with Paris Hilton at the MTV party?

We sent out e-mails, hired a five-star party planner and lo and behold, 42 people showed up. Einbinder flew in Rabbi Mendel Schwartz and his wife, Esther, of the Chai Center for spiritual leadership, and we invited the local Chabad rabbi to welcome the crowd. Steve Kaplan, our co-host, arranged free use of a magnificent villa, and our inaugural event was a great success.

This year, we wanted to do it bigger and better. Our goal was to double the number of guests. The rabbis joined as hosts, as did Hollywood heavyweights Craig Emanuel and Joan Hyler.

Unfortunately, the villa was not available. Rumor had it that Lenny Kravitz was staying there, and although Jewish, Shabbat dinner was not on his itinerary. Our party planner spent several months trying to find an alternate venue and eventually found a quaint, beachfront restaurant a few minutes walk from the hustle and bustle of the festival. The Chabad rabbi worked his kosher magic, and we hired one of the best chefs in town.

The response was great, everything was set and we were on our way to Cannes — then the bad news came. The restaurant bailed. Seems it wasn’t thrilled with the sweetheart deal we had negotiated and was talking to another party with a fatter wallet. Welcome to Cannes.

Our dream dinner was turning into a disaster. Fortunately, Einbinder was already in Cannes. Along with the Chabad rabbi — who no doubt threatened the wrath of God — they convinced the restaurant owner to honor the negotiated price. We were back in production.

Cannes is hard to describe. Its beauty is unparalleled, its ambiance is magical, full of romance and excitement. Most of all, people who travel there have a sense of jubilation.

We spent Friday recruiting a few more guests to the Shabbat dinner. I bumped into veteran producer Arthur Cohn, who unfortunately couldn’t make the walk to the restaurant but was so excited, he wrote a check for two seats just so he could somehow participate.

On my way to the dinner, I pulled aside two eager, young British paparazzi who were hanging out in front of the Carlton Hotel. I told them that although Tom Hanks and Penelope Cruz would not be attending, our Shabbat dinner was a unique party not to be missed. For a nominal fee and the promise of delicious kosher food and wine, they agreed to shoot the event until sundown.

As the sun started to set, guests trickled into the party. Twilight in Cannes is always beautiful, the calm waters adding to the tranquility of the Shabbat. About 15 guests huddled for a quick prayer service, while others circled the hors d’oéuvres and posed for photos. Shabbat candles were lit and Kiddush recited. Then it was off to the requisite buffet.

More than 80 studio executives, producers, directors, lawyers, agents, distributors and rabbis all enjoyed a Shabbat dinner together in the south of France. For some, Shabbat was a new experience. For others, a weekly ritual. Still for others, it was simply another networking event.

But amid all the business talk, I couldn’t help but notice that this Shabbat experience was transforming business acquaintances into friends, strangers into family — from all over the globe, Jew or non-Jew, Reform or Orthodox, Sephardic or Ashkenazi, it didn’t matter. In a town that evokes images of Bridget Bardot in a bikini and Pamela Anderson in “Barb Wire” leather, we were infusing Cannes with Kiddush, conversation and tranquility — the very essence of Shabbat.

After a few short speeches and probably a few too many l’chaims, the delicious dinner was over. Everyone was happy and vowing to bring more friends next year. One woman came up to me and proclaimed that she would return to Cannes next year “if only to experience such a Shabbat again.”

One guest was so moved that he said he was making plans to throw his son a bar mitzvah party so he can share with him the experience of his Jewish tradition.

The next few days were very gratifying for all of us. We were the talk of Cannes. As we walked the Croisette, familiar Hollywood faces stopped us and promised they’d come next year

I even found myself next to Paris Hilton at a party. She’d heard all about the dinner. “I’ll attend if I have a Jewish boyfriend next year,” she told me.

I’m available!

I got into the movie business because I thought movies could change the world. I’m not sure if my movies will ever change the world, but I know that our Shabbat dinner certainly affected a few people.

There may be a lot of stress and aggravation in planning a Shabbat dinner in Cannes, but I know it was biggest Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name, I had ever been involved with. Next year, we plan to have an even more spectacular event. Who knows? Maybe Lenny Kravitz will sing with us.

Max Gottlieb is a film producer living in Los Angeles. If you would like to be placed on the invitation list, e-mail snowmax@comcast.net.

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Warren Buffett’s Jewish Connection


Warren Buffett is not a Jew; in fact, he describes himself as an agnostic.

Still, the billionaire investment guru, who made big news in May when his Berkshire Hathaway corporation bought an 80 percent share in the Israeli metalworks conglomerate, Iscar, for $4 billion, for years has been making his mark on the U.S. Jewish community back home — although sometimes in a roundabout way.

“Proportionally, if you look at the number of Jews in this country and in the world, I’m associated with a hugely disproportionate number,” said Buffett, the second-richest man in the world. His life, he added, “has been blessed by friendship with many Jews.”

The Israeli government stands to reap about $1 billion in taxes on Buffett’s purchase of Iscar. Shortly after announcing the deal, Buffett said he was surprised to learn that a Berkshire subsidiary, CTB International, was purchasing a controlling interest in another Israeli company, AgroLogic.

In Israel — which Buffett plans to visit in the fall — the hope is that the deals will have longer legs: Buffett himself has not ruled out future purchases there and, considering his status as a leading investor, observers say others also may take a look at Israeli companies now that Buffett has done so.

“You won’t find in the world a better-run operation than Iscar,” Buffett says. “I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s run by Israelis.”

Among the first companies Buffett acquired after launching Berkshire Hathaway, the Omaha-based investment and insurance giant, was The Sun Newspapers of Omaha, then owned by Stan Lipsey, one-time chairman of The Jewish Press, Omaha’s Jewish newspaper.

“At the time, the Omaha Club did not take Jewish members, and the Highland Country Club, a golf club, didn’t have any [non-Jewish] members,” Lipsey recalled. “Warren volunteered to join the Highland” — rather than the Omaha — “to set an example of nondiscrimination.”

Buffett happily recalls the fallout from his application.

“It created this big rhubarb,” he said. “All of the rabbis appeared on my behalf, the [Anti-Defamation League] guy appeared on my behalf. Finally they voted to let me in.”

But that wasn’t the end of the story, Buffett said. The Highland had a rule requiring members to donate a certain amount of money to their synagogues. Buffett, of course, wasn’t a synagogue member, so the club changed its policy: Members now would be expected to give to their synagogues, temples or churches.

But that still didn’t quite work, Buffett recalls with a laugh, because of his agnosticism.

In the end, the rule was amended to ask simply that members make some sort of charitable donation, and the path to Buffet’s membership was clear.

“He’s an incredible guy,” said Lipsey, today the publisher of the Buffalo News. In 1973, The Sun won a Pulitzer Prize in local investigative specialized reporting for an expose on financial impropriety at Boys Town, Neb.

“Warren came up with the key source for us knowing what was going on out there,” Lipsey said.

Buffett himself researched Boys Town’s stocks to bolster the story, Lipsey added.

In the 1960s, Omaha Rabbi Myer Kripke decided to invest in his friend Buffett’s new business venture. Their wives had become friendly, he said, and the foursome enjoyed playing the occasional game of bridge together.

“My wife had no card sense and I was certainly no competition to Warren, who is a very good bridge player and a lover of the game,” said Kripke, rabbi emeritus of Omaha’s Conservative Beth El Synagogue. “He’s very bright and very personable and very decent. He is a rich man who is as clean as can be.”

Kripke, father of the noted philosopher Saul Kripke, bought a few shares in Berkshire Hathaway and quickly sold them, doubling his money, he said.

Recognizing a good thing when he saw it, he bought a bunch more shares in his friend’s company, shares that by the 1990s had made Kripke — who says he never earned more than $30,000 a year as a rabbi — a millionaire.

Asked if he credits Buffett with his financial success, he didn’t hesitate.

“Entirely, yes,” he said. “I never had much of an income.”

The Sun newspaper group was not Buffett’s only early purchase of a Jewish-owned company. In 1983, sealing the deal with a handshake, Buffett bought 90 percent of the Nebraska Furniture Mart from Rose Blumkin, a Russian-born Jew who moved to the United States in 1917.

In 1989, he purchased a majority of the stock in Borsheim’s Fine Jewelry and Gifts, a phenomenally successful jewelry store, from the Friedman family.

“He has many friends in the Jewish community,” said Forrest Krutter, secretary of Berkshire Hathaway and a former president of the Jewish Federation of Omaha.

Buffett’s former son-in-law, Allen Greenberg, is a Jew, and now runs the Buffett Foundation, much of whose work has dealt with reproductive rights and family-planning issues. Buffett’s personal assistant is Ian Jacobs, who goes by his Hebrew name, Shami.

Buffett himself counts the late Nebraska businessman Howard “Micky” Newman and philanthropist Jack Skirball as among his “very closest friends.”

Further, Buffett said his “hero and the man who made me an investment success” was Ben Graham. Graham, along with Newman’s father, Jerry, ran a New York fund called Graham-Newman Corp.

“After besieging Ben for the three years after I received my degree from Columbia, Ben and Jerry finally hired me,” Buffett said. “I was the first gentile ever employed by the firm — including secretaries — in its 18 years of existence. My first son bears the middle name Graham after Ben.”

Buffett “is very much honored in the Jewish community,” Kripke said.

 

Perfectly Imperfect


Jewish kids all get A’s. It’s a fact. They’re all well above average. Jewish kids always star in the show, play first violin in the orchestra, win the debate championship. This week the last of the college acceptance letters went out. They all got into Stanford, Berkeley and Brown. Their admissions process began years ago when they stood out in the city’s best nursery programs, excelled in the top elementary schools and shined in the most demanding high schools. And now they will attend the finest colleges. At every stage they were relentlessly tested, measured, evaluated and graded. They wear their scores and grades like a merit badge. My nephew has a 5.2 grade average — on a 4-point scale.

But what happens when they don’t excel? Are we still proud of them? Is there room in the Jewish family for the average or the not-quite-average child? Is there place for C’s and D’s and even F’s? Is there love and acceptance for the child who can’t fulfill our dreams of Harvard? My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, once observed that we Jews practice a particularly cruel form of child abuse. It’s called disappointment.

I worry about children who are told they must get every answer correct. I worry about kids told there’s no room for second best. I worry about the child who must always be the star. If we demand success each time, and leave no room for failure, our children’s dreams will shrink to fit their certainties. They will play it safe and never try too hard, never reach too far, never put too much of themselves into any pursuit. It is entirely possible to exalt the mind while crushing the soul.

If it doesn’t break us, failure can be life’s greatest teacher. What can we learn from failure? That we can start again. That we can ask for help. That we can be forgiven. What does failure teach? That we are limited, finite, fallible, vulnerable, but still worthy of love. Do we really want doctors, lawyers and leaders who only got As in school, and never failed at anything? Do we really expect care or justice or leadership from people who never learned to recognize and confess their own mistakes? From people who never experienced failure as a beginning and not an end? Does a 5.2 grade average give us people of healing, compassion and wisdom?

This week’s Torah portion describes the rites of priestly expiation. Each year on Yom Kippur, the holy place, the priests and, finally, the entire people were cleansed of sin. Arcane and intricate, this rite of expiation is a wonderful gift. Expiation bespeaks a unique kind of divine love. Despite all the reverence and precision of the priests and the Levites in following God’s laws of holiness, the Torah recognizes that the altar and the shrine are subject to inevitable mistakes. Failure finds its way into all human endeavors. But God doesn’t withdraw when we err or when we fail. God offers a process of repair and renewal and return.

It is no accident that this Torah reading is often paired with the following one, as it is this year. Having recognized and wrestled with our imperfection, we are ready to hear the Torah’s most stirring announcement: Kedoshim ti-hiyu ki kadosh ani (You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy) (Leviticus 19:2). God doesn’t ask for high SAT scores or Ivy League degrees. God asks for kedushah, holiness. Kedushah is a unique quality. It includes ethics and ritual and communal loyalty, and yet is broader. Kedoshim tihiyu is God’s invitation to return to the oneness, wholeness and peace of Eden, one act at a time. The pursuit of kedusha is the way we bond ourselves to God, to Creation and to one another. Kedoshim tihiyu demands of us to be godly and care for the world as God does.

The parent proudly relates to me the list of distinguished colleges his kid got into. And I nod and smile and share his nachas. But every now and again a parent will come and tell me, not of a kid’s scores and grades and acceptance letters, but of acts of compassion, generosity and depth. Those moments bring tears of joy.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.

 

So Much to Learn, So Little Time


Gina Gross would like to attend Jewish adult-education classes, but at the moment, she has a hard time even talking about how much she’d like it. The Beverly Hills licensing consultant briefly puts down the phone and turns lovingly to her 7-year-old daughter: “Dani, buzz off!”

Dani runs off to play with her 5-year-old sister, Sydney, which gives Gross a few minutes to discuss adult education, but not nearly enough leeway to pursue it.

“My kids are too little,” said Gross, who adds that her Reform congregation, Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park, “does a really good job of marketing adult education during the High Holidays. And every year I hope I’m gonna do it. And I never do it. Kids. Work. Everything else.”

There are thousands of adults in similar straits throughout Southern California.

“We are blessed in Los Angeles with a plethora of adult learning opportunities,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “Synagogues offer literally hundreds of courses for adults as do many other fine institutions.”

“Having said that,” the Conservative rabbi added, “I wouldn’t even hazard a guess to how few Jewish adults are actually involved in ongoing Jewish learning. I fear the number is relatively small. People need to avail themselves of these programs.”

There are no comprehensive statistics on how many adults attend classes related to Judaism, or even whether these classes are attracting increasing or shrinking numbers. But synagogues and local universities continue to list impressive offerings, relying on their own learned staffers and rabbis, talented community members and a broader Jewish community rich with resources and scholars.

At Westwood’s Conservative Sinai Temple, Rabbi David Wolpe’s Torah study classes attract an average of 100 people every Thursday morning at 8:15 a.m.

“That’s huge,” said Sinai program coordinator Rachel Martin.

Lunch-and-learn events at Sinai regularly attract about 80 people.

“Anything on mysticism is really popular,” Martin said. “It’s more of the touchy-feely stuff that’s really popular.”

Over the years, said Reform Rabbi Steve Jacobs of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, congregants have shown tremendous interest in “learning about lifecycles, and in adult [b’nai] mitzvah classes.”

Courses on Israel peaked in the 1970s and ’80s, Jacobs said, but now interfaith courses and classes on Jewish cooking are on the upswing.

But who has the time? Attorney Josh Wayser and his life partner have three young children in Beverlywood and are members of both Temple Isaiah and the gay/lesbian Reform synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim, in Pico-Robertson.

“If you have young children, it’s almost impossible to do adult education,” said Wayser, a national board member with the Union of Reform Judaism.

“The problem is you’re choosing between spending time with children or enriching yourself,” he said. “They don’t want to hear that you’re going off to adult education at night or on the weekend. I have to spend time way from home because of work, and I volunteer in the Jewish community. Everything personal comes last.”

Not that he hasn’t tried: “It was very enjoyable, but it was on a Saturday. On Saturday there are birthday parties and all these things that you have to do.”

Orthodox Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein said that deepening one’s knowledge of Judaism should not be considered an option, nor buried near the bottom of the to-do list.

“I hate to be blunt about it, but the Orthodox have an advantage that the heterodox movements do not, and that’s the concept of mitzvah — mitzvah in the real sense of commandment rather than in good deeds,” said Adlerstein, who does extensive teaching and directs Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “The mandate to study Torah is one of the most important of all of the 613 commandments in the Torah.”

For Orthodox Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, “the barometer of success can’t be how many people come. It’s how good the program is,” he said.

Muskin has mixed traditional Torah study with offerings such as scholar-in-residence programs. “Our approach is what the Talmud says,” he said. “If you only learn Torah from one person, you haven’t learned Torah.”

And, he added, there’s no seasonal slowdown: “We don’t only run a series that lasts for six weeks or five weeks. There are regular classes, day in, day out.”

One new option is the Internet and sites such as www.aish.com or www.askmoses.com, which are Orthodox in orientation.

Diamon of the Board of Rabbis said these sites will never replace people-to-people encounters.

“Internet learning is great,” he said. “But nothing replaces sitting down with another individual or a group of individuals and studying together face-to-face and in person. That’s classic Jewish learning.”

For Kol Tikvah’s Jacobs, Jewish learning also is about more than history, scholarship, religious tradition and ritual. It’s about a cleaned-up Santa Monica Bay, too, and fair rental housing rates for migrant farm workers in Oxnard onion fields.

“Learning Torah for the sake of Torah does not complete the act of what it is to be a Jew,” he said. “It’s a combination of action and learning. It’s what you do in terms of tikkun olam and tikkun hanefesh, the repair of the soul’ You must act, and you must do, and you must learn.”

Intense Me’ah Gets High Marks


A Jewish adult education program is bearing fruit, according to a recent survey.

And now Me’ah — an intensive, two-year Jewish adult-education program marking its 10th year — is spreading from Boston across the country.

The name of the program, which means 100 in Hebrew, refers to the roughly 100 hours of study time participants spend over the two-year cycle.

Me’ah, which began in 1994 with 50 students in greater Boston, is also now being offered in Baltimore, Cleveland, Rhode Island, Florida, New Jersey and New York.

In separate conversations about Me’ah, its creators, David Gordis, president of Hebrew College, and Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, cite quality and location as the key to its success.

The program is held in neighborhood synagogues and Jewish community centers.

Gordis and Shrage are touting the results of a survey of Me’ah’s Boston-area graduates, who are moving into leadership positions in their Jewish communities.

Nearly two-thirds of graduates say the program had a major or moderate impact on their involvement in Jewish communal life. Close to half report increasing their charitable giving to synagogues and other Jewish causes.

“Adult education is up there with day schools [as far as] transformational opportunities,” Shrage said. “This is the right moment in Jewish history because there’s a huge longing for spirituality, community and a serious engagement with Judaism.”

Me’ah’s rigor and neutrality are appealing to a broad range of the American Jewish population, said Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. At the same time, he added, he would like to see a more sophisticated, outside, independent evaluation. The lack of such evaluations is a consistent issue with programs serving the American Jewish community, he said.

But Wertheimer applauded how Me’ah taps such resources as Jewish scholars for the benefit of the broader community as well as its transdenominational approach.

“The down side,” he said, “is that it may be too neutral and not sufficiently prescriptive to encourage involvement.”

Me’ah is one response to the controversial National Jewish Population Survey published in 1990, which alarmed the community about the long-term affects of assimilation.

“We were dealing with a population of people who by and large have been exposed to quality higher education and had become accustomed within their Jewish connections to be satisfied with mediocrity,” Gordis recalled.

Their prescription was a high-quality, academically rigorous curriculum taught by college-level professors during a two-year course of study using Jewish texts.

“We’re bringing the university to the synagogue,” said Richard Feczko, Me’ah’s national director. “It changes the relationship because it brings together elements of the Jewish community that normally don’t come together.”

Tuition runs about $1,200 for each student, about half of which is covered through subsidies from sponsoring Jewish federations.

If Me’ah’s approach sounds obvious now, there were nonetheless few offerings of this caliber when the program was launched, said Gordis and Shrage. Other adult Jewish learning either was episodic or was higher-level learning aimed at a small cadre of synagogue leaders.

“Me’ah begins the exploration at an extremely high level,” Shrage said. “You have the chance to change the zeitgeist.”

Terry Rosenberg heard Shrage’s motivational speech about Me’ah about nine years ago when her synagogue, Beth Elohim in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, was looking to revitalize its synagogue life.

“It was five minutes that changed my life,” Rosenberg said.

Shrage prodded the group, Rosenberg recalled vividly: “‘How come you have no problem if I asked you to distinguish between a Rembrandt and a Monet, but you’re not embarrassed that you don’t know about Rashi or Maimonides?'”

Rosenberg was so inspired that she organized a Me’ah class for Beth Elohim. In its first year, 1997, it attracted 50 members, who were divided into two classes.

“We realized that we wanted a Jewish identity which meant more than bagels and lox and High Holiday services,” she said.

Many of the Beth Elohim graduates now are active leaders in the synagogue. Rosenberg now co-chairs the organization’s committee on Jewish continuity and education, which is the funding source for Me’ah.

Richard Pzena could easily be the poster face for Me’ah: After he heard from a friend who works at Hebrew College that Me’ah might be expanding beyond the Boston area, he organized a group in his synagogue, Temple Sinai, in Summit, N.J.

“It struck a chord with a lot of people. You create bonds with your classmates and really learn on an academic level. Most of us went to Hebrew school, which was like pediatric Judaism,” he said.

Eighteen people enrolled in the first two-year class. By the time they held an open house for the second class, 25 people signed up.

Pzena, 46, who runs a small money management firm, caught the Me’ah bug. Post-Me’ah, he’s a member of his synagogue board, and sits on the investment committee of the United Jewish Appeal as well as Me’ah’s advisory board.

“If you look at our group of synagogue leaders, there’s a lot of overlap with Me’ah graduates,” Pzena said. “Some were already involved, but others had a desire to be involved and saw Me’ah as an entree.”

Singing Klezmer Isn’t Hard to Do


Neil Sedaka is a punctual, polite musical legend, and at 65, he still likes being a mama’s boy.

“I do. I like being protected,” Sedaka said. He grew up in a loving Sephardic/Ashkenazic home in Brooklyn, where he practiced piano for hours. It was a sheltered Coney Island Avenue universe in which, “my sister fought my battles in school,” Sedaka said. “To me, the raising of a voice was very jarring. My mother told me that everything I did was perfect.”

When it comes to catchy tunes with perfect melodies, the world often has agreed with Mama Sedaka (now 88 and living in Ft. Lauderdale). And while having Andy Warhol paint your portrait and seeing one’s songwriting skills praised in Bob Dylan’s recent autobiography are great, it is the Yiddish songs he grew up listening to that now claim Sedaka’s melodic soul.

His CD, “Brighton Beach Memories: Neil Sedaka Sings Yiddish,” cost less than $10,000 to produce, prompted a Carnegie Hall concert last summer and is now coming to the Wilshire Theatre this weekend — complete with a klezmer band. The show’s second half will be from Sedaka’s own large repertoire, with the show’s first half dedicated to Yiddish tunes such as “My Yiddishe Mamme” and “Shein vi di L’Vone” (“Pretty as the Moon”).

“I grew up on these songs. I wanted to do something that was close to my heart,” Sedaka told The Journal in telephone interview from his Park Avenue apartment. “But I have to tell you that this CD has taken a life of its own.”

Since dropping out of Juilliard in 1958, Sedaka’s 1,000 songs have included nearly 50 hummable and singable hits, including “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “Calendar Girl,” “Stupid Cupid” and “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.” A product of Manhattan’s 1960s Brill Building songwriting factory, his music has been sung by Frank Sinatra, Cher, Sheryl Crow, ABBA, David Cassidy, Mandy Moore and The Monkees. A hit single this year came out of “American Idol” — Clay Aiken’s rendition of “Solitaire.”

“It’s a big body of work,” Sedaka said. His high baritone voice prompted a compliment decades ago from fellow Las Vegas Hilton staple Elvis Presley. “He said to me that when he was in the Army, he would go to the jukebox and sing the ‘Sedaka songs,'” he said.

Sedaka has had a noteworthy place in American music for four decades; he became a comfortable perennial who did not let himself turn into a tortured titan like Sinatra or a forgettable one-hit wonder like The Imperials, Haircut 100 or Luscious Jackson.

One does not cringe when VH1 asks “Where Are They Now?” of Sedaka, because he usually has a hit somewhere, including at least one Billboard chart-topper each decade since 1958. Even while touring the Great Wall of China, the songwriter marveled at his Chinese guide singing one of his songs on the tour bus, the tour guide then refusing to believe Sedaka when he identified himself.

His hit-making consistency and songwriting discipline also have made him a man entirely lacking in public scandal. His work is remembered more than anything else, overshadowing even his enviable 42-year marriage to fellow New Yorker Leba Strassberg. The couple, who met in the Catskills, have two children — daughter Dara, a recording artist, and son Marc, an L.A. screenwriter — and twin granddaughters, Amanda and Charlotte.

He also finds Israeli audiences enjoying him when he sings Hebrew versions of his hits; his decidedly “charitable” last name (tzedaka means charity), he said, “has been very helpful.”

Yet, Sedaka admits that for all the pop hits he has written and heard played, hummed or sung in elevators, supermarkets and cocktail lounges, writing pop music is not bubblegum and can require as much elaborate creation as a Bach symphony.

“The hardest thing is to write a simple melody,” he said. “I do wish that I could write something a little more complicated, but it’s not me; it’s not my makeup. I’m very disciplined. It was kind of a long, long career. It never went to my head.”

His evergreen tunes (before Aiken, Elvis recorded “Solitaire”) means Sedaka has not had to work the ’50s hits revival circuit.

“I love oldies, but I never had to do those shows,” the songwriter said.

Sedaka’s choice of rock ‘n’ roll and pop over classical notes initially irked his mother, who saw her baby as the next Arthur Rubinstein. When someone suggested that young Neil, with his unique high voice, become a chazan, his mother dismissed that, too, insisting he would be a concert pianist.

But success smiled on his mother’s dashed dreams when at 19, his songwriting brought in royalties of $42,000.

“I bought her a mink stole,” Sedaka said. “That made the difference. We call it her Hadassah tallit.”

Neil Sedaka performs Saturday, Dec. 4 at 8 p.m, and Sunday, Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $35-$55 with an eight-ticket limit. For more information, call (323) 468-1770 or go to

Valuable Art From a Disregarded People


From the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to the Museum of the Negev in Beersheba; from the walls of Reverend Al Sharpton’s home in New York to the mantle of photographer Irene Furtik’s home in Santa Monica, Ethiopian Israeli art has arrived.

Award-winning artist Elaine Galen, whose work has been displayed in prestigious venues across America, describes her favorite Ethiopian Israeli piece — a sandy-colored, miniature clay sculpture that sits atop the fireplace in her living room:

"It’s in the likeness of an Ethiopian rabbi. He has a beard, he’s wearing a kippah on his head, and he has a tallit draped down his back…. His arms are extended in front: His hands come forward, like two hands in prayer, then suddenly become a unit, turning into a plaque that is a symbol of the Torah…. [H]is head is extending up, with his mouth halfway open — as if he knows the words by heart, as if he’s reciting them. It’s beautiful," she said.

Galen immediately bought the sculpture for her private art collection, an eclectic mix following her one guiding principle — good taste in art.

"When I saw this piece," she said, "I saw quality."

The indigenous, noncommercial feel of the art was especially appealing to Galen, and it is a key ingredient in the growing attraction to Ethiopian Israeli pieces sold throughout Israel and abroad.

"Word goes out that this is avant garde art that you can’t find anywhere else," said Michael Jankelowitz, spokesperson of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Drawn to its signature style, he said, Israeli tourists hungrily purchase Ethiopian artwork at galleries and stores across the country.

For numerous Ethiopian artists throughout Israel, artwork is their primary source of income. Some work for an hourly wage at a studio; others work independently from their homes.

One independent artist, who prefers to remain anonymous, has created a well-known line of biblical paintings with all-black figures — from Noah and Moses to Devorah and Miriam. In this way, his art parallels much African American religious art, challenging European-based images of religious history.

The bold colors of his paintings — yellow, green, red, orange and blue — also can be found in the embroidery of Yazazo Aklum, who has several works housed in the Israel Museum’s collection of Ethiopian art. Ora Shwartz-Be’eri, Israel Museum curator, beams as she holds up one of his pieces.

"It’s exceptional," she said passionately.

With its vibrant portrayal of the Ten Commandments, two Lions of Judah with Stars of David, and a dove and rainbow from Noah’s arc, the tapestry is indeed breathtaking. For this reason, it was photographed for the 1994 postcard printed in honor of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan.

Despite the success of Ethiopian Israeli art, Ethiopian Israeli artists are struggling for power and economic leverage in representing their own work. According to Shlomo Akele, director of Bahalachin Cultural Center for Ethiopian Jews, individual artists are disenfranchised, because there is currently no museum, gallery, or center run by a community member.

Tasamach Tazazo, a retired potter and embroidery artist living in Tel Aviv, agrees.

"We have to take this on ourselves," she said emphatically, "and not let other people manage our artwork." But independence will take time, she adds, being that it is linked to complex social, racial and economic struggles associated with the community’s relatively recent immigration.

"On the one hand, they say we are primitive, even tell us we are not real Jews, and on the other hand they get all excited about our artwork," she explained. "Not everyone. But there are people who have bought my artwork, even turned around and sold it for up to seven times what they paid, and all the while looked down at me as stupid and worthless."

In a conversation with Avital Armoni, the owner of Armoni’s Art, Tazazo’s claims ring true. Among its other art products, Armoni’s company makes magnetic prints of Ethiopian Israeli embroideries — a popular and seemingly lucrative sales item. Though her company profits from the work of Ethiopian Israeli artists, Armoni makes a point of asserting that Ethiopian Jews "are not really Jewish."

In addition to facing battles over their identity, Ethiopian Israeli artists are facing tremendous financial hardships. The Ethiopian community is reportedly the hardest hit by Israel’s economic crisis, and out of desperation for money, many artists tolerate exploitation.

Others turn to Bahalachin for help.

"Our dream is to create a big center in Jerusalem," Akele said in response to the numerous requests he receives. "There are very many talented artists … we just need the framework to support and develop them." That framework, he noted sadly, takes the financial resources not coming to Bahalachin during these hard times.

As an upshot, while the artwork of Ethiopian Jews is enjoying financial success and mainstream acceptance, Ethiopian Israeli artists are struggling for respectful recognition, economic empowerment and self-representation. Ironic though it may seem, art has always been ahead of its time.

Loolwa Khazzoom (

Expert Wants Israel Quake Forecast Role


The man hailed by many of his fellow scientists as the world’s leading earthquake predictor has proven his mettle in California and Japan and now wants to help Israel become the forecasting center for the Middle East.

Professor Vladimir "Volodia" Keilis-Borok at 82 has become a modest media celebrity in California through his accurate predictions of two major temblors in 2003. His peers and quake-conscious citizens around the Pacific Rim are watching anxiously whether his third prediction will hit the mark.

He is now working at UCLA, after a brilliant career in his native Russia, where his scientific skills were so valued that he reached and retained high posts — despite being a Jew — even under the communist regime. The Soviets granted him the privilege of traveling to Israel in the 1960s, where he organized two symposia, as well as to the United States.

Keilis-Borok is convinced that Israeli seismologists, geophysicists and mathematicians have the Yiddishe kop (Jewish brains) to build on his method and warn their country and the surrounding Arab nations of impending major quakes. He urges his Israeli colleagues to shrei gevalt (scream for help) to persuade their government to fund their work.

Seismologists consider the art of earthquake prediction as the holy grail of their craft, Keilis-Borok said. Many have claimed to have found it, only to be proven wrong, to the point that more than a few skeptical scientists believe the task may be impossible.

Not so, demurred Keilis-Borok, a mathematical geophysicist and now professor in residence at the UCLA Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, while continuing to lead a research group in his field at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

"We have made a major breakthrough, discovering the possibility of making predictions months ahead of time, instead of years as in previously known methods," he said. "This discovery culminates 20 years of multinational and interdisciplinary collaboration by a team of scientists from Russia, America, Western Europe, Japan and Canada."

Keilis-Borok is the first to warn that his predictions cannot pinpoint the exact day and place of a big quake, but he has come a lot closer than anyone else.

His team’s first success came when it predicted in June 2003 that an earthquake of magnitude 6.4 or higher would strike within nine months in a 310-mile region of Central California. In December, a 6.5 quake hit the southern part of the region.

In July 2003, the team predicted a magnitude 7 quake or higher in Japan’s northern island region. An 8.1 quake hit off Hokkaido island on Sept. 25.

At the beginning of this year, Keilis-Borok forecast a 6.4 or higher quake in a broad swath of the Southern California desert by Sept. 5. If the UCLA scientist hits the mark this time, even skeptical colleagues will have to acknowledge that more than coincidence is at play.

His fellow earthquake scientist at UCLA, professor Leon Knopoff, described Keilis-Borok as "an extraordinarily creative and imaginative thinker, who works in unconventional areas passed up by others."

Keilis-Borok and his team have evolved their method over the last two years and dub it the "tail-wags-the-dog" approach, meaning that in a given region, small earthquakes eventually "wag" a major quake.

Stations around the globe constantly record background seismic activity in the earth’s crust. Keilis-Borok’s team monitors the data, looking for four symptoms that might point to an eventual large quake.

These symptoms are small quakes in an area becoming more frequent, becoming more clustered in time and space, occurring almost simultaneously over large distances within a seismic region and the ratio of medium-sized quakes to smaller quakes increasing. If the symptoms fall in line, Keilis-Borok signals a nine-month alarm. If they don’t, he keeps quiet.

He is currently not sounding any alarms for Israel, but he notes that large temblors have occurred in this area and along the Mediterranean coastline since biblical times.

Going back into recent history, he has paid particular attention to the magnitude 7.3 Aquaba quake in 1995 and the 6.9 quake in Cyprus in 1996. In both instances, all the prior symptoms pointed to major quakes, and Keilis-Borok believes that if his method had been developed in the early 1990s, he could have predicted both quakes a few months in advance.

He argues that better short-term quake forecasting is vitally important to Israel.

"Just as in war, Israel must be prepared, because it has many unsafe buildings and because her enemies might take advantage of a devastating quake," he said.

"There are excellent scientists in this field, especially at Ben-Gurion University, but also at the Weizmann Institute, Technion and Hebrew University, but what they need now is government support," the scientist added.

With such backing, he believes Israel would become the forecasting center for the Middle East. "The whole Arab world would either have to join Israel in this effort, or become dependent on Israel’s preeminence," he said.

Keilis-Borok was born in 1921 and raised in "a little Jewish section" of Moscow near the Bolshoi Theater. His parents spoke Yiddish, but "my Jewishness came from the intellectual atmosphere and the hunger for excellence," he said.

By the early 1960s, his reputation was such that during the nuclear test ban negotiations in Geneva, both the Soviet Union and the United States relied on his expertise to help set the standards for distinguishing seismic signals emitted by an underground nuclear explosion from those triggered by an earthquake.

His service in Geneva and later his directorship of a Russian scientific institute allowed him to travel widely, although he had to leave his family in Moscow.

Being Jewish, he said, "created difficulties" but did not hinder his professional career, although it affected his daughter and granddaughter. "The system was not a solid wall," he said. "It had lots of chinks, and if you weren’t afraid, you could find the chinks."

Such "chinks" allowed him to protect and get exit visas for his young Jewish and other assistants, he said.

His "tail-wags-the-dog" mathematical method is now being applied to predictions in fields well beyond earthquakes. Keilis-Borok and colleagues in other disciplines are into forecasting economic recessions, unemployment peaks and surges in homicides.

He and historian Allen Lichtman of the American University in Washington, D.C., have even ventured into predicting the popular vote in U.S. presidential elections. After deconstructing every presidential election since 1860, they found that the contests turned mainly on how well the White House incumbent and his party had governed during a given term.

Using 13 factors or "keys," they concluded that time-honored debates, speeches, rallies, platforms or campaign tactics exerted very little influence on the outcome. As of now and according to his 13 indicators, said Lichtman, President Bush will win the popular vote and a second term in November.

Balance Paramount to UPN Head Ostroff


Dawn Ostroff, who in addition to being a religiously observant wife and mother, has worked her way up to a glamorous, powerful and exciting position: president of entertainment at UPN. Offering insight into the art of balancing home and work life and achieving one’s professional dreams, she reminds us that it’s never too late.

Determine what is important.

Ostroff is responsible for all creative aspects of the network’s entertainment, including programming and development for weekly shows, specials, movies and miniseries. Additionally, with the help of a nanny, she cares for her two young children, while her husband Mark is across the country half of the month. She also volunteers on professional committees, but only a select two that are very close to her heart. While others are soliciting her leadership, she prioritizes what causes are most important, and turns down the other committee positions.

Focus and compartmentalize.

To balance her personal life with her professional responsibilities, the 44-year-old UPN power-exec stays focused.

“When I’m at work, I’m really able to focus on work, and when I’m at home, I’m really able to focus on my family. Of course, there are always times when things cross over, like when my child is sick or I have an obligation at school. Or, when I’m home and the phone is ringing and I still have work to do,” Ostroff said. “But for the most part, I really try to be respectful of wherever I am in my life, and covet the time and focus on what I need to get done. Or when I’m with my family, really focus on just enjoying them.” Having a toddler, she joked, “who is just demanding and wants you certainly makes it easier to focus on him.”

Balance your schedule to work for you.

Ostroff starts her days at 4 a.m. and usually works until 6 a.m., when her son Michael usually wakes up. After spending a couple of hours with him and her baby, she is at her desk at about 9 a.m. Ostroff is typically busy with meetings, returning telephone calls and “keeping up with everyone.” She also visits a set to watch rough cuts or catch up with other production-related duties. Ostroff usually gets home around 7:30 p.m., has dinner with her family and relaxes with her husband.

“And the weekends, we spend as a family,” though she has also devoted herself over the years to philanthropic organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, which brings international relief to victims of hate and bias.

Ostroff flies to New York about once a month to see her two stepsons. Her husband commutes to New York every other week, and has an office in both locations.

“We definitely have a challenging lifestyle, but it works for us,” she said.

Passion, patience and persistence.

Ostroff has a motto for her success.

“I believe in the three Ps: passion, persistence and patience. I always feel that if you have these three things, good things will come to you if you set your sight on something,” she said.

Good things have come her way since she began her career at 16.

“At 16, I was already very interested in the media and wound up answering request lines at a local station in Miami. Then I ended up interning at a lot of different TV stations down there. By the time I was 18, I was a reporter for the CBS ‘All News’ radio station WINZ in Miami.” All while attending college.

“I was very determined. I worked weekends at the radio station as a reporter and an anchor and I worked the weekdays as an intern at the local CBS television affiliate on sort of a local ’60 Minutes’-type show called ‘Montage.’ I really started to figure out what part of the business interested me and started to explore all different areas. I worked in the promotions department, the news department, and produced documentaries,” she said.

Fine-tune your interests.

After trying different positions, Ostroff made the critical decision that news didn’t fit the way she wanted to live her life: “At 18, I had seen more tragedy, death and despair that most people see in a lifetime. I decided that there might be a happier way for me to earn a living.”

A college graduate at 19, Ostroff began her career from the bottom up all over again.

“I had an opportunity to move to Los Angeles and go into the entertainment side of the industry, and I just took the chance when it came up and moved to L.A. by myself when I was 21,” she said.

In Los Angeles, she worked as a casting assistant, a secretary floating for different departments at 20th Century Fox and then figured out the area that really interested her: development.

Develop your skills

From there, she got development jobs and worked her way up.

She was at 20th Century Fox as an assistant for several years before securing her first opportunity as an executive for a small independent company called Kushner Locke, where she produced different “Movies of the Week” and television programs for HBO.

“As I started to develop my skills,” Ostroff said, “the company was developing at the same time.”

Take intermediate steps

Following her seven-year stint at Kushner Locke, Ostroff was offered a job at Disney to be a producer with writer Michael Jacobs. Together, they produced sitcoms for several networks and worked on shows like “Dinosaurs” and “Boy Meets World.” She stayed with Jacobs for five years.

“We enjoyed a good amount of success. ‘Boy Meets World’ is still on the air all the time now,” she said.

Ostroff’s career took off at high speed from there. She was offered a position at 20th Century Fox, where she served as president of development.

“A couple of shows really seemed to strike a chord, so that was really great. In fact,” she said. “One of the shows I developed was ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.'”

Work well with others.

By “developed,” Ostroff means that producers and writers bring her an idea and, as an executive of the studio, she develops it with them, helps them sell it and “sits on the sidelines as a guidance counselor/champion of the project.”

“In no way do you create it” she said. “You are just there to support the creative entities and make sure all the pieces fall into place so the show can be successful.”

She is involved in casting, script notes, selecting the director and the other important pieces of the puzzle. It is then pitched to the network.

Keep up the stride.

Following her executive position at 20th Century Fox, Ostroff was offered a position at Lifetime and, under her stewardship, it rose from the sixth highest-rated network in cable television to the No. 1 in prime time.

“A lot of people didn’t believe that a network geared toward women could ever become the No. 1 cable network,” she said, but attributed its success to good projects, network talent, and a supportive board.

This was the last rung on a long ladder to success before landing at UPN.

Always evaluate where you are at.

Would she change any step she’s taken during the course of her career?

“I think there were different times when I would have changed things, but in hindsight the experiences that I had helped make me a better-rounded executive, and that’s the thing that I’m most appreciative of.”

“I do believe that everything happens for a reason,” she added. “One of the things that I am really grateful for is the many experiences I’ve had behind the camera, in front of the camera, as a producer, as an executive, that I feel that I can identify with everyone throughout the process and I understand what everybody’s going through. I understand what their issues are and I think that makes me a better executive because I am able to really able to put myself in everyone else’s shoes and know what they have to do to get the best project.”

Remember, you can have it all.

And after the weekend, she is just as motivated to once again rise at 4 a.m. to meet the challenges of her job. According to the tireless Ostroff, she has a great passion for her work.

“It’s never a chore,” she said. “Never. I can’t really say that there’s too many days when I wake up and say, ‘Ugh, I’ve got to go to work,’ like I felt about school. I’m excited every day and I’ve been doing it forever.”

Tull Lends a Hand to the Homeless


What is a homeless shelter? The definition really upsets Tanya Tull.

“A shelter is a place to stay for the night,” she says, raising her voice. “But a shelter is not the answer. Shelters are not going to solve the problem.”

Tull is referring to Los Angeles’ high cost of housing and the resulting homelessness. She first started worrying about those on the streets in 1980, and now, 24 years later, Tull is fighting against a real estate boom that prices the low-wage earners out of the housing market and federal aid cuts that exacerbate the problem. Tull outlined the issue with hard numbers in a March Los Angeles Times article: 8,000 children sleep on Los Angeles streets every night, 5,000 families will lose their Section 8 housing in 2005 and 15,000 families will lose their houses over the next five years.

But she isn’t content with worrying. As the president and CEO of Beyond Shelter Inc., an organization that helps people find permanent housing as quickly as possible and then supports them with services for a period of time, Tull is one of several Jewish Angelenos — like David Grunwald, chief executive of L.A. Family Housing Corp, and Ruth Schwartz, executive director of Shelter Partnership of Los Angeles — who is devoting her career to getting people off the streets and into homes.

“When I started doing this work, my aunts and grandmothers asked me why am I not doing it in the Jewish community,” said Tull, 61. “I answered that this feels right. I am working in third-world America. And if we don’t do this, who will?”

Tull’s programs have been so successful — in 2001 she helped 5,000 families with rental support services and put 220 homeless families into permanent housing — that she is now working with the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, both based in Washington, D.C., to implement them in other cities across America.

After seeing Beyond Shelter’s five-floor office space in downtown Los Angeles and hearing Tull talk about her myriad programs, it’s hard to imagine that she didn’t even know what a nonprofit was when she started. She plunged headfirst into the world of organized charities and it was her idealism and bullheaded belief in making a difference that drove her success.

After she spent time on a kibbutz in her early 20s, she returned to Los Angeles as a single mother; Tull then worked as a social worker in South Los Angeles and Skid Row and then quit out of frustration because “there was so much poverty and hopelessness and I couldn’t do anything about it.” In the ’70s she briefly retired from changing the world — something she said she wanted to do when she was younger — got teaching credentials and settled down to raise her three children.

But when she read a Los Angeles Times article in 1980 about children living in Skid Row hotels, she was so incensed that she created a nonprofit on her living room table called Para Los Ninos (For the Children). Tull started raising money for a daycare center in a converted warehouse and eventually set up a host of programs for babies and children up to the age of 5.

“Then I began thinking more about the families,” she said. “It really bothered me that these children needed to go home to these hotels every night. I went to the Community Redevelopment Agency of L.A. and asked them where the affordable housing was, and they said there was none and they weren’t building any because the government had pretty well slashed affordable housing.”

Tull got to work. She co-founded the L.A. Family Housing Corporation in 1983 and developed a low-income housing project in South Los Angeles. She wanted the project to function similar to a kibbutz. She envisioned someone providing childcare while the residents tilled a communal vegetable garden. But the experiment failed, and it taught Tull a lesson in her fight to end homelessness.

“Housing is a basic human right,” she said. “It can’t be a reward for good behavior.”

Tull also realized that emergency shelters were only going to “recycle” the homeless, and in 1988 she started Beyond Shelter to get people into permanent homes.

Now Beyond Shelter has an annual budget of more than $4 million and works to build affordable rental units and revitalize neighborhoods, create relationships with the landlord community so it can advocate on behalf of people who have bad credit ratings and numerous evictions on their record, help people find jobs and offer support services to poor families.

And Tull wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

“There were many other things I could do [as a career] and I often wonder about them,” she said. “But I don’t think I could ever have given up this experience of being able to impact so many lives.”

For more information on Beyond Shelter, visit www.beyondshelter.org  or call (213) 252-0772.

College Finals Test Gymnasts’ Mettle


Two Jewish gymnasts, University of Denver’s Ashley Shible and University of Florida’s Orley Szmuch, are tumbling toward success at the NCAA’s National Collegiate Women’s Gymnastics Championships, held April 15-17 at UCLA’s legendary Pauley Pavilion.

For Szmuch the competition is both a joyful homecoming and opportunity to best her 2003 scores, but for Shible it’s the last hurrah of a successful college career.

Shible, a two-time Colorado Sportswoman of the Year, comes to the nationals without her team. She and teammate Heather Huffaker qualified as individual all-around competitors, but the University of Denver Pioneers failed to qualify.

“It’s a little scary to go without a team, but I’ve been here before, and I know what to expect,” said Shible, who went to the championships with her team in 2001 and as an individual in 2002.

As a child, Shible attended Sunday school and she still celebrates Jewish holidays when she’s home with her family.

“I think about the holidays, and try to celebrate them at school, but it’s harder when I’m on my own,” said Shible, whose family lives in Palm Harbor, Fla.

In her freshman year at Denver, the 5-foot-2 Shible became the school’s first freshman All-American gymnast since 1983, won Denver’s Freshman of the Year award, broke the school’s all-around record and then went on to break her own record — twice. In her college career, Shible has scored three perfect 10s, is the lone gymnast in Denver history to score a 10 on the vault and has two signature vaults name after her.

“Vault’s my favorite event. When you land a move that no one else has ever done, they name it after you. So now there’s a Shible 1 and a Shible 2,” said the gymnast, who won four vault titles, two all-around titles and one uneven bars title this season.

When not competing, Shible spends as much time as possible outdoors. She plays softball and other non-gymnastic sports. She’s even picked up fishing.

“When I first came to Denver, my boyfriend, who I’m still with, taught me how to fly fish,” Shible said. “I love it.”

Shible excels at academics as well. The senior biology major graduated high school with a 4.0 and is a three-time University of Denver academic bronze medalist. After graduation, she hopes to have a career in animal training.

“My dream is to work with dolphins, but I’m happy working my way up,” Shible said.

She currently works with sea otters, river otters and tigers at her internship with Denver’s Ocean Journey.

Shible has never been to Los Angeles and is as excited about exploring the city this week as she is about the championship meet.

“My excitement’s split about 50-50. I should have some extra time before the competition and I can’t wait to see all the sites,” she said.

Shible hasn’t put any added pressure on herself for her final collegiate gymnastics appearance.

“This is my last meet,” said Shible, who graduates this spring. “So I want to do well, but I want to have fun more than anything.”

For Orley Szmuch, this week’s national championship marks her homecoming. Szmuch lived in Northridge until age 11. Her family lived in several cities in the West afterward, but her parents have since moved back to Burbank.

“I’m so excited to be competing in Los Angeles in front of my parents, sister and cousins,” said Szmuch, who sees her family just once a year during winter break. “It’s such a benefit for me to have them there.”

Szmuch attended religious school as a youngster, but found it difficult to balance with her practice schedule. “Gymnastics took over and I wasn’t able to continue with Hebrew school. I was never bat mitzvahed — but my parents would have liked that,” said Szmuch, whose family currently belongs to a synagogue.

Szmuch, who stands at 4-foot-11.5, was a top-three finisher in six of her 10 all-around performances this season. She was named Southeastern Conference Gymnast of the Week on Jan. 20, her third such honor in her collegiate career. She was the NCAA South Central Region vault co-champion with a season-best 9.95 and was named runner-up in the regional all-around with a season-best 39.60. Her freshman year, she was NCAA Central Region vault champion and was named SEC Freshman of the Year.

“Floor is the most fun event,” said Szmuch who earned 2003 All-American second team honors for her floor exercise in the NCAA Championships’ team competition.

“But, I love practicing bars. It’s an exhilarating event. It’s such an amazing feeling to fly through the air,” said Szmuch, whose collegiate best on bars is a 9.975.

The powerhouse gymnast almost didn’t attend Florida because the tape she sent to the athletic department was returned to her unopened.

“I had the wrong address, but I didn’t know it. Then one of my coaches ran into one of the Florida coaches and talked me up,” Szmuch said.

She resent the tape, visited the school and knew it was the right match.

“I was blown away. I instantly fit in; there’s an amazing support staff, and there’s just so much the school offers.”

Attending college so far from home hasn’t been easy on the gymnast, so she depends on a close-knit group of girlfriends.

“I moved from the West Coast, and don’t have any family nearby. So the girls on the team are like family to me,” said Szmuch, who rooms with teammate Sheri Owens, and Gator track team members Krystle Moss and Sara Cooper.

Szmuch plans to stay with gymnastics after graduation, but she has additional career goals.

“I want to work with people and make a difference,” the junior sociology major said. “I’d love to work for the [Anti-Defamation League].”

For now she’s focused on the championships. “Hopefully my experience will help me be a little more relaxed than my first time here,” said Szmuch, who attended the 2003 Championships with her Gator team. “I’m more of a veteran this year and want to help out the freshman on the team as we head to L.A.”

Offering advice to younger gymnasts who hope to compete at the collegiate level, Szmuch said: “You have to enjoy what you do and make sure you’re doing you’re sport for yourself. I love this sport; that’s what’s kept me going for 15 years and keeps me going now.”

The NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships will be held
April 15-17 at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. For ticket information, go to

Q & A With Norman Brokaw


Norman Brokaw’s first day at the William Morris Agency was July 7, 1943; he has never worked anywhere else.

The 15-year-old, $25-a-week mailboy was the first mailroom trainee to become an agent, later becoming the agency’s chairman of the board. He represented Bill Cosby for four decades and was responsible for introducing Joe DiMaggio to Marilyn Monroe.

On April 20 at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, Brokaw’s three decades of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center philanthropy — as a member of the hospital’s board of governors, board of directors and now life trustee — are being honored by Cedars-Sinai’s Heart Fund as Brokaw receives its Steven S. Cohen Humanitarian Award.

The cardiology unit is special to Brokaw because his mother had a stroke and heart attack while her older sons fought in World War II (one was executed on the Bataan Death March). One of Brokaw’s brothers and his father died of heart attacks.

In his cozy office, the 76-year-old William Morris icon gave a rare interview to The Journal discussing his 30-year love affair with Cedars-Sinai.

Jewish Journal: How did you get involved with Cedars-Sinai?

Norman Brokaw: I’ve always had an interest in things that had to do with the heart, because of family history. Having had all this experience, first at the age of 15, when my mother had a heart attack, I lost a brother who died at the age of 43 with a heart attack, I’m very mindful of the heart situation. When my father and brother had their heart attacks, if we had that knowledge then (about the heart), they’d be living a much longer life.

JJ: What’s the connection between your success at work and your success at philanthropy?

NB: If you work hard in business and you work hard for the hospital, if you’re successful in business you can be successful for the hospital.

JJ: What do you think of philanthropy in Hollywood today? George Gobel once joked, "By the time I got to Hollywood, the only charity that was left was water on the knee."

NB: Well there you are. Everybody has a favorite charity. Cedars has been very, very special to me. So many doctors I know are longtime, personal friends of mine, and they all work through the hospital, treating family and friends of mine, including actors, writers, directors, producers, etc. Chances are that their personal physicians are on staff or had privileges at Cedars-Sinai.

So many people are drawn to the hospital; it has an incredible reputation. With Dr. P.K. Shah, the director of cardiology and atherosclerosis, and the research and things that are accomplished in his department, it’s really the whole future.

JJ: What did you learn about philanthropy from Lew Wasserman?

NB: A great and friendly competitor. I considered him a mentor to me. I liked everything about Lew Wasserman. How he supported candidates from both political parties. He cared about everybody.

JJ: During the same 60 years you have been in Hollywood, you’ve also seen the rise of Jewish philanthropy and institutions in Los Angeles, including Cedars-Sinai.

NB: As a young man, I was in the entertainment section of the United Jewish Welfare Fund. I was one of the two founders of the Cedars-Sinai annual tennis tournament, which is now in its 32nd year. I did create a huge benefit to launch the Betty Ford cancer center, because of my relationship with President and Mrs. Ford.

My main contributions go to Cedars-Sinai, because of my involvement with them. I’ve always made contributions to the United Jewish Welfare Fund.

JJ: There is also a very personal reason why you are so attached to Cedars-Sinai and especially Shah, its cardiology division director.

NB: P.K. Shah saved my life. Because of my family history, every year I go to Cedars-Sinai and take a complete physical. Dr. Shah spotted a change in my cardiograph about a year-and-a-half ago and told me he wanted me to have a angiogram.

I told him that I had no aches, no pains, no shortness of breath, I work 17 hours a day and did I really have to have an angiogram? He said yes and scheduled it for a few days later.

At 5:30 in the morning, they did an angiogram. When I awakened about four hours later, I learned I had a triple bypass.

Because of P.K. Shah’s early detection, they found there was blockage in three of the arteries. I was operated on with no damage to my heart. I was back working from home four days later and back in the office in three weeks.

Again, it was because P.K. Shah spotted that there was something going on. His early detection prevented me from having a major heart attack.

For tickets to the Heart Fund Humanitarian of the Year gala on April 20 honoring Norman Brokaw, call (310) 423-3657.

Persian Arrivals


Tribes of Jews move through the history of Los Angeles in predictable cadences. First as new immigrants, raw and clannish and eager to succeed; then as successful citizens, integrated or assimilated, their accents lost in their children’s mouths. Finally they earn the right to choose the life they want: to identify themselves with their traditions or not, to shape the city or withdraw into its shapelessness.

My mind wandered in these directions as I sat watching stunning Persian Jewish men and women dance the night away at a gala event Saturday night inaugurating Neman Hall, a sumptuous ballroom at the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) in West Hollywood.

A ballroom is a ballroom, right? Wrong. Neman Hall, designed by architect Abdi Khoranian, happens to be quite elegant, more fairy tale than function-room, though its mirror-paneled walls do hide a state-of-the-art Internet hookup, satellite receivers and flat-panel displays.

But this night was, ultimately, not about celebrating architecture, but arrival. "It is a kind of renaissance," said Joe Shoshani, one of the evening’s organizers. "We are having freedom both in Israel and the United States, and our people are flowering in both."

To drive home that point, the honored guest Saturday night was Israel’s Minister of Defense Shaul Mofaz. Mofaz, 56, was born in Iran and immigrated to Israel at age 9. His rise to the top of Israel’s army as chief of staff, and his subsequent appointment to what is widely considered the No. 2 post in the government, is a source of great pride to the Persian Jewish community here.

On a two-day visit, Mofaz spoke at a fundraiser at the Beverly Hills home of Parviz Nazarian for Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel, a pro-democracy project founded by Nazarian. Mofaz was the keynote speaker at a major fundraiser the next day for Israel Bonds, and in between he cut the ribbon at the Neman Hall event.

"I can’t speak Farsi," he told the crowd Saturday evening. Nevertheless, he said he shared in their pride and congratulated them on their achievement. He received several standing ovations.

The 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey put the number of Persian Jews living in Los Angeles at 18,000. Others put the number at up to six times that, but demographer Pini Herman, who conducted the survey with Bruce Phillips, has said it is unlikely the number, if it is higher, is higher by much.

"You see the same people at every event," one partygoer at Neman Hall said. "Maybe there are only 200 of us."

But numbers — and there are more than 200 — matter less than impact. The Persian Jewish community has established itself economically, and as IAJF President Shokrollah Baravarian said at the event, it has successfully created mechanisms to transmit its values and concerns to the next generation. The IAJF building houses social-service outreach to new immigrants and the needy; organizations like Magbit and Nessah provide cultural and social support, there are singles groups, religious study groups and now, with Neman Hall, a social gathering spot open to the entire community, a room of one’s own.

There are other religious and cultural centers for Persian Jews of the Westside and the Valley, but one advantage is that the West Hollywood locale allows for festivities to continue until 2 a.m. That comes in handy, as dinner doesn’t appear at many Persian events until 10 p.m., following an onslaught of hors d’oeuvres.

"It brings the community together," Leon Neman said. Neman’s brother, Yoel, spearheaded the two-year effort to construct the $1 million hall, named for and largely financed by their late father, Feizollah Neman. Brothers Leon, John and Yoel run Neman Brothers and Associates, a major textile concern.

"The Persian Jews fled Iran, but here we’re showing what we can be," Leon Neman said.

David Nahai, an attorney who served as master of ceremonies, took the idea a step further.

"This hall bears silent witness to the fact that we have spread our roots in the community," he said. "We have gone from stunned, wide-eyed immigrants to an affluent community with incredible potential."

Nahai is a member and former chair of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, active in Jewish life and in political and environmental movements. Such involvement is the natural next step for a community that has, as Nahai said, already spread its wings so successfully.

"We can no longer be insular," Nahai said, "because we are not immune from the events that go on around us."

Nahai urged the attendees to apply their resources and skills to improving the lot of all Angelenos and Californians.

That, I realized, is the next step in the immigrant story: Immigration, success, organization and then outreach. Time and again Jews have come to this city and done just that — made the city work for them, then worked hard to make the city better. And that is when you know they’ve arrived.

Just Do It


Back in 1981, when I was attending rabbinical college in Boston, there was a young rabbi — fresh out of seminary — who founded a small congregation in the Boston suburb South Brookline. He would often hang out with us as "one of the guys." From the day he started up his shul, he was quite successful. He developed a strong following and quickly put his name on the map. I often wondered to myself wherein lay the key to his success and popularity. Upon meeting him, one really could not notice anything particularly remarkable about him.

One day, I picked up a newspaper only to find a picture of this young rabbi sitting and chatting with President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office, accompanied by a write-up about how he was sharing the message of Chanukah with the president. The story was carried nationally. That was enough for me. I had to find out how this young "shnook" was doing it. I asked him how he managed to accomplish all of these wonderful things. He put it very simply: "It’s because I want to. It’s not about brilliance, eloquence and experience [though those things are certainly useful and important] as much as it is about confidence, persistence and performance."

He went on to say: "Look, I decided I had something to say to the president and that I wanted to meet with him, so I went out there and made it happen."

In the first of this week’s double Torah portion of Vayakel-Pekuday, we learn about the various items contributed by the different groups among the Israelites toward the building of the Mishkan (the Holy Tabernacle) during the journey in the desert. The Torah tells us that the Nesiyim — the leaders of the tribes — donated the precious gems for the breastplate of the High Priest.

The commentator Rashi takes note of the fact that when using the word "Nesi’im" to describe the leaders’ participation, the Torah deliberately misspells it as "Nesm" as an indication of a flaw and deficiency in the leaders’ manner of participation.

What was the flaw? You see, when the time came for each group to come forward and state what they would give, the Nesi’im volunteered that they would cover whatever was missing after all other donations came in. As it turned out, the outstanding items were the stones and, as such, this was their contribution.

Now why is this manner of service — agreeing to underwrite whatever was not already covered — somehow deemed deficient? After all, it demonstrated a willingness to be there in whatever capacity they’d be called upon. And, in fact, they did end up donating some rather pricey materials. Where was the flaw in their approach?

The keys to the success of any significant project are capability and motivation. Potential + perseverance = success. Now between the two, which is primary? Our sages teach us, "There is nothing that can stand in the way of one’s ratzon [genuine will and desire]." Simply put, skill without will leaves one an underachiever, whereas drive and perseverance enables one to rise above one’s shortcomings and achieve greatness.

For example, this Torah portion describes the workers who volunteered to build the Mishkan as "every man whose heart inspired him." These Israelites had absolutely no experience in this type of unique construction. What then made them qualified to carry it forth? The answer: Their "hearts inspired them." In other words, they had a desire. They were eager to do it. And by virtue of this desire and eagerness, they became qualified and rose to the occasion.

This is what God wants to see from us. "Don’t tell Me how talented or untalented you are," the Almighty says. "Just tell me what you’re ready and willing to do, and let Me worry about the ‘able’ part."

So they ask these Heads of the Tribes: "What will you folks be donating to the Mishkan?" Essentially, they answer, "Well … whatever. Just give us a call when all is said and done and let us know where you need us to come in. Metals, boards, stones — we’ve got it all."

That’s very nice — extremely generous. It’s nice to know what you’re capable of. As leaders of the Jewish people, however, these Nesi’im should have demonstrated that when there is a call for action, it is not a time to talk about what you can do, but what you will do. With the excitement of the construction campaign in the air, the Nesi’im should have been the first in line — not the last — to act with initiative, diligence and specificity. Their failure to do so, however well-intended, is seen as a deficiency.

We’re taught that the most essential ingredient is not contemplation or analysis, but action. When we’re presented with an opportunity to do a mitzvah, to become more religiously observant or to get involved in a worthwhile endeavor, let us lighten up a bit on the philosophical introspection and self-examination and "Just do it!" It is not when we become spiritual that we can first decide to act spiritual. Indeed, it is only if we act spiritual that we can become spiritual.

I’ve seen it time and time again; it really is not about brilliance, eloquence and experience as much as it is about confidence, persistence and performance. In fact, I think I would like to have a conversation about this very issue with President George W. Bush.

Hmmmm….


Rabbi Moshe Bryski is executive director of Chabad of Agoura Hills and dean of the Conejo Jewish Day School.

Taking a Leap


No one asked me to my senior prom. Jon asked Liz, Steve asked Jen, Brian asked me how to ask Kim, but my dance card remained empty. I sulked, I cried, I listened to Monster Ballads.

I swore my life was over. Then I found inspiration in an article on famous women who never went to their prom — I was inspired to keep my name from ever appearing on a list of powerful chicks who missed their big dance. This Cinderella was going to the ball. I picked up the phone, called Dave Rosenberg, and invited him to Prom ’92.

This weekend, you can do the same. Well, not exactly the same. I mean you shouldn’t ask out an 18-year-old football player or call Dave Rosenberg. But dial a guy and ask him out. Or ask him to marry you.

Don’t drop your jaw at me. Popular tradition says Feb. 29 is one day it’s appropriate for a woman to propose to a man. Women can get down on one knee and pop the question on leap year day. It sounds risky, but let’s be honest, guys never say "no" to a girl on her knees. So in this Sunday’s performance of "Love Life," the role of "pushing things forward" will be played by a woman.

Leap year fixes a flaw in the calendar and a glitch in our culture. We women constantly complain about our position on the dating food chain. We have to wait for men to ask us out, make the first move and call the next day. Well now we can stop waiting and start dating. This leap year weekend, don’t wait for him to give you a ring, don’t wait for the phone to ring, don’t wait for anything or anyone involving any sort of ring. Throw out the outdated dating rules, find your inner chutzpah and go for the gold. Or platinum. Or princess cut.

We’ve all heard that aggressive women can scare men off. But maybe it’s women who are really scared. We feel safe in our dating role; we’re comfortable waiting. But at times in relationships, you can’t just wait. There’s some assembly required.

I know, I know, what about tradition? If the girl asks the guy, does she call his parents for permission? Who pays for the ring? Who throws the bouquet? Who gets the sheep and the 200 zuzim? And what about the dream proposal you’ve always imagined? Not that I’ve fantasized about my engagement; I’m not the type of girl who daydreams. I almost never picture my name on the Jumbotron, him saying he loves me as I choke on the diamond ring he hid in my Bud Light. OK, maybe I’ve thought about it a few (100) times and hopefully, it will happen — minus the choking. Hopefully, I’ll meet a man who likes the Sprite in me, falls in love with me and proposes to me. But what if that doesn’t happen? What if I’m not asked? Most of my friends have already walked the aisle, but I’m far from buying a big white dress.

When it comes to everything else in my life — my career, my education, my writing — I go after my goals with every ounce of intelligence, determination and spunk I possess. I don’t wait for success to come my way — I make it happen. I’m a take-charge, woman-on-top kind of gal. But with something as important as marriage, I’m supposed to wait for someone else to decide when and if it’s going to happen? I don’t even like waiting for my car at the valet.

Now asking a man to get married is a whole different groove than asking him to prom — sure they both involve tuxedos, slow dancing and an alleged "first time," but one lasts a nighttime, the other a lifetime. And since I don’t have a groom-worthy boyfriend, or any boyfriend for that matter, I’m not going to propose to anyone just yet. But in the leap year spirit, I will kick-start my love life. On Sunday, I’ll call my crush, won’t hang up when he answers and ask him out for next week. Hey, it’s a start. One small step for Carin, one giant leap for womankind.


Carin Davis is a freelance writer
and can be reached at sports@jewishjournal.com.

Pledge Storm Hits Federation


The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles had a super Super Sunday, ringing up pledges of $4.5 million, or $800,000 more than last year.

"The volunteers were amazing, and, to tell you the truth, it was raining and more people were at home," said Craig Prizant, senior vice president of financial resource development for The Federation. "I think people are really feeling positive about what we’re doing."

Super Sunday’s strong showing comes on the heels of The Federation raising $1 million more in the 2003 General Campaign than one year earlier, he said.

In both instances, the improving economy made people more willing to open their wallets, Prizant said. But changes in the way The Federation raises money also has helped.

During Super Sunday, volunteers and staff spent more time on the phone discussing, in depth, The Federation’s various programs, Prizant said. Armed with the information, potential donors felt more comfortable as they knew the ways the money would benefit Jews both here and abroad, he said.

Prizant also credited the new lay leadership at The Federation for Super Sunday’s success. Federation chair Harriet Hochman, General Campaign chair Laurie Konheim and Women’s Campaign chair Sharon Janks worked tirelessly, personally greeting volunteers and making everyone feel at home. The trio also knows many of the big machers in the community and leveraged their contacts to help raise additional money, Prizant said.

An estimated 400 volunteers worked at The Federation’s office in midtown, another 400 staffed phones in the San Fernando Valley and 300 participated in the South Bay.

In Los Angeles, a coffee cart from the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf was wheeled around so volunteers could take a break, catch up with friends and network. The mood was festive, but focused.

In the Valley calling stations circled three rows deep around the George Gregory Family Gymnasium at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills. Teens ran completed pledge sheets from volunteers placing calls to those entering the donations on laptops set up around the gym, dodging brimming food carts along the way.

At 11:30 a.m., the scoreboard high above the crowded gym floor flashed the day’s first tally of more than $200,000. At 9 p.m., The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance closed Super Sunday with $1.7 million in donations, exceeding last year’s total of $1.58 million.

Many of the 1,000 volunteers who braved the rain throughout the day were pleased to discover that the inclement weather ensured more people were home to take the call.

"Rain is good," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who was among four public officials placing calls at the Valley location. "Maybe that’s the contribution from a higher power to The Jewish Federation."

City Councilman Dennis Zine, whose 3rd District is home to both the Valley Alliance and Jewish Home for the Aging, scored a substantial gift for The Federation early on.

"A donor who had given $1,000 in 2003 gave $10,000 this year," he said.

Sitting next to Zine, 2nd District City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel took pledges while her newborn son, Thomas, sat in her lap chewing on the phone cord.

"This is my first time. I’m so impressed with the number of people here," she said. "My son is going to be raised Jewish and I’m looking forward to being part of this community."

"Super Sunday has become not just a fundraising enterprise, it’s really the community reconnecting with itself in a fundamental way," said 3rd District County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who was doing double duty after opening the day at 6505 Wilshire. "This is the organized Jewish community reaching out and touching individual Jews and Jewish families in our community."

For Carole Koransky, this year marks her 20th Super Sunday and her first as the Valley Alliance’s new executive director, having started the position on Feb. 2.

"We finished a really great campaign in the Valley in 2003, and we’re just primed to jump even higher," she said. "We know how much is needed and how much we have to do, and we feel we are in really good shape to be doing it."

"Our general campaign last year was $7.2 million from the Valley Alliance," Valley Alliance President Ken Warner said. "We’re hoping to beat that, to get to an $8 million figure, which we’ll be thrilled with."

With the state facing a budget shortfall this year, Warner expects that the increase will likely go toward helping to make up for cuts in social service funding.

"We’re trying the best we can to pick up as much of that slack as possible," he said.

Between the Sheets


So what does a nice Jewish girl know about porn? Quite a bit. Writer Lynn Isenberg strived for silver screen success and Hollywood nights, but instead found sex scene success and "Boogie Nights." Tired of legitimate film studios’ constant rejection, Isenberg found success as a screenwriter for adult films.

"Everyone in Hollywood said I was a great writer, but I couldn’t get any projects going," said Isenberg, a Sinai Temple regular. "I wandered into the adult film industry by accident, but found I could tell good stories there and actually see them on film."

In contrast to her never-ending struggle to push projects through the legitimate studio system, Isenberg discovered the porn industry came with a quick turnaround and instant gratification.

"Instead of delayed contract talks, everything was done with a handshake deal," Isenberg said. "I found the industry to have a great deal of integrity."

Ten years later, Isenberg has written "My Life Uncovered," her debut novel inspired by her own unexpected journey through the porn industry. The book, published by Red Dress Ink, follows fictional protagonist Laura Taylor as she juggles her screenwriting dreams, secret adult film career, disastrous dating life and Jewish morals.

"The book is really about finding balance. It’s about self-improvement and self-discovery," Isenberg said.

What better place to discover oneself than in synagogue? That’s right, this insider peek at the porn industry comes complete with Shabbat morning service scenes. The rabbi’s sermons may not be steamy, but they are revealing. The book’s heroine does all her best thinking in shul.

"Laura has concerns about her work. She’s seeking moral redemption and solace. She finds it at synagogue," she said.

As for her own moral experience, Isenberg says she’s better for the time she spent in the adult industry.

"I’m a better person — more open-minded and less judgmental. I became more tolerant of others, of myself, and of the choices we make."

Isenberg will be appearing at Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino on Feb. 27, 7:30 p.m.

Saluting Jewish World War II Vets


When Jules Berlinsky took basic training in the South during World War II, his commanding officer said to him, “You don’t look Jewish. You don’t have horns.”

“He was serious,” said Berlinsky, 92, who was in the Army’s Spearhead Division. “He was on the ignorant side. He didn’t heckle us too much but he just let us know that we were different from him.”

Berlinsky is one of the 31 war veterans who reside at the Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA), and will be honored on Dec. 7 at the JHA’s Wells Fargo Walk of Ages IV fundraiser.

Dec. 7 is also Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, a date that — in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words — “will live in infamy,” when, in 1941, the Japanese launched their attack on Pearl Harbor, hurling the United States into the war.

Approximately 550,000 Jewish Americans served in the armed forces during World War II, about 4.23 percent of the total number of troops. Both Roosevelt and General Douglas MacArthur praised their bravery specifically. During the war, 52,000 Jewish soldiers received an award or decoration of some kind and 11,000 were killed.

Now, close to 60 years after World War II, veterans of the conflict have aged and their numbers are dwindling, but despite current ambivalence toward American war-like nature, America’s participation in World War II and relative success in making the world “safe for democracy” is never questioned.

“Since it was the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, we felt that doing this [honoring the veterans] would be fantastic,” said Shelly Markman, the Walk’s chair. “We opened it up not only to Jewish war veterans but to all war veterans. These people have given us freedom and the opportunity to make a living and raise a family and I think we should be thankful to them.”

At the JHA, a group of eight veterans (seven men, one woman), gathered to talk to The Journal about their experiences of being Jewish and in the armed forces during World War II. Several use walkers or canes; their speech, though sharp, is slow. They take out photographs of themselves in uniform looking young and handsome, confident and strong. One rolls up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo that a native etched on his skin with a palm frond and soot on a Pacific island during the war.

“Do you remember your serial number?” they ask each other. “Do you remember your rifle number? Do you remember that cigarettes cost us $2 a carton but we would sell them for $15?”

With time’s erosion of memory, their war experiences become reductive; a list of places stationed, and certain important events. But their recollection of being Jewish in the service — and the prejudice, ignorance, and the sense of being different that accompanied that — remains strong.

“I was in a battalion of 1,200 men,” said Ellis Simon, 80, who was in the Marines. “And there were two Jews, but we weren’t that friendly with each other. The other guy — his name was Hochberg, and he was a wuss. He got picked on mainly because he was a Jew. I wore a Jewish star, but I never had any trouble because I was a tough kid and I wouldn’t stand for that. One of the soldiers called me ‘Dirty Jew’ and I fought him.”

Berlinsky remembers a time when there was “a rumpus” in the chow hall.

“I got up to see what was wrong and this young Jewish guy from Brooklyn called Marty Cohen said ‘they’re trying to kill me. They are putting bacon in with the eggs there!,'” Berlinsky said. “I said ‘Marty, they’re not trying to kill you.’ This same fellow Marty had two twin sisters who would visit the camp and bring us salami and herring. It smelled so beautiful to us, but for those who were non-Jewish, it was a terrible smell. They couldn’t stand it.”

For Josie Joffe, the Army bought out strengths she never knew she had. “I became a sergeant major through no fault of my own,” she said. “I was a very quiet person and they had to teach me to shout commands. We used to take part in parades to welcome the troops and we would tend to wounded British pilots at a rest homes. We were a whole Jewish group and one day we heard one of the soldiers remark about the ‘bloody Jews’ so we never went back after that.”

Now of course, World War II and the struggle to liberate Europe and defeat Japan seem light years away and condensed into roundtable anecdotes, but for these men and women the armed forces experience doesn’t disappear.

Said Simon, “Once a marine always a marine.”

The Walk will take place on Dec. 7 at the JHA’s
Eisenberg Village Campus at 18855 Victory Blvd., Reseda. Registration begins at
7 a.m.; walk begins at 8:30 a.m. Comedian Don Rickles will serve as honorary
chair of the Walk. For more information, call (818) 774-3100 or visit www.walkofages.kintera.org .

Just the Facts


Jews in America are more favorably regarded than Catholics, barely less well liked than Protestants and far more highly viewed than Evangelical Christians. Facts you are not likely to have read in the direct mail you receive from solicitors of contributions.

It’s time for Jews, blacks and other minorities to reassess where we really stand in pluralistic America, not where many of our leaders would like us to think we are.

Last week The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal carried important op-eds by a Jew (J.J. Goldberg, editor of The Forward) and an African American academic (professor John McWhorter of UC Berkeley), which speak to our place in the United States of the 21st century.

McWhorter’s piece, "My Master’s House," criticizes the facile invocation of charges of racism from black leaders that "has drifted into a recreational crutch, assuaging the insecurity at the heart of the human soul … fashioning one’s self as eternally battling a white America mired in racism" is, he asserts, a troubling phenomenon.

McWhorter derides Jayson Blair, of New York Times fame, and his assertion of being the victim of bigotry. He also notes with concern other examples of claiming perpetual victim status, such as the president of the Florida NAACP who recently observed that "racism finds itself no matter where we are in the this country and holds its head high," and the head of the Georgia NAACP who announced that "if it were up to the majority of people in the state of Georgia, slavery would still be the law of the land."

I often speak about these and related topics. Invariably, white faces and Jewish heads will nod and agree that the scene regarding race and ethnicity in America has markedly improved in recent years and that those who see pervasive racism are beating a tired, if not nearly dead, horse. "How could anyone not see how the status of blacks, Latinos and other minorities have changed for the better!" the facial expressions shout.

But try and make the same case to a Jewish audience about Jews. Assert that we live in a better, far more accepting America than existed 25 — or 10 — years ago, and the vast majority of the heads will stop nodding vertically and begin a horizontal sweep of disagreement. Dare to tell that audience that Jews have made enormous progress and that anti-Semitism is not the biggest threat that we face domestically, and the arched eyebrows of skepticism spread like a wave across the audience. "Pollyanna" and "naïve" are the two nicest descriptors that inevitably emerge in the subsequent discussion.

The Goldberg piece in The New York Times gives a clue as to why our fears are so widely embraced despite all the evidence to the contrary — we look for, occasionally manufacture, and seem to welcome bad news, and ignore or dismiss information that contradicts our fears.

The recently released National Jewish Population Survey is a case in point. The survey was widely reported to have found that the U.S. Jewish population declined by 5 percent between 1990 and 2000. At this rate, even the most mathematically challenged can calculate, American Jewry is destined for virtual extinction. Countless sermons, synagogue boards of directors meetings and "strategic planning" studies have already been focused on this threat to Jewish "continuity." But, as Goldberg asserts, United Jewish Communities, the funder of the study, got it all wrong and, in fact, "invented a crisis." He raises genuine questions about the methodology of the study and the presentation of its data.

Goldberg cites the analogous study of a decade ago that proffered incorrect data on Jewish intermarriage rates. Goldberg asserts that the 1990 report was motivated, at least in part, "out of a desire to shock straying Jews into greater observance…. American Jews are not disappearing," Goldberg concludes.

Similarly, our fears of anti-Semitism ought to be tempered by reality. Not only is meaningful anti-Jewish hate not about to emerge in America, it hardly plays a role in our or our children’s lives.

A widely ignored 2002 study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, found that Jews were viewed favorably by 74 percent of the sample of over 2,000 adults. Our 74 percent is identical with the favorable rating for Protestants and Catholics, as contrasted with 54 percent for Muslim Americans and 55 percent for Evangelical Christians. The unfavorable rating for Jews (9 percent) was less than that for Catholics (13 percent), Evangelicals (18 percent) or Muslim Americans (22 percent) and only 1 percentage point below that for Protestants (8 percent).

We ought to just look around us. The vibrancy and activity levels of countless synagogues and Jewish cultural institutions are manifest (in Los Angeles alone, one could keep perpetually busy going to programs at the Skirball, the University of Judaism or the Museum of Tolerance, to name but a few) and belie any data that suggest our demise or ossification.

The American Jewish community needs to read what a McWhorter and Goldberg have to say. We are blessed to live in the real-world incarnation of the "Goldene Medina" that our forebears dreamed about and crossed oceans for. Residual racism and anti-Semitism exist, but the idea that this impedes our success is a fiction. We can be or achieve virtually whatever we set our sights on.

As we begin the New Year and evaluate ourselves, we should be honest in assessing how far we have come and realize that our future success depends most of all on us and what we create from within.


David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates, a year-old human relations organization chaired by former Mayor Richard J. Riordan.

Fed Campaign Ends on High Note


Propelled by a tide of last-minute contributions in the final weeks of its annual campaign, the Jewish Federation of Orange County raised a record $2.3 million, a 9 percent gain over last year, outpacing national results by the United Jewish Communities.

“We attribute the increase in the campaign to deliberate relationship building,” said Bunnie Mauldin, Federation executive director.

Each of the Federation’s various support groups increased its giving, though the 39 percent increase by the young professionals’ network was the largest. Gifts ranged from $5,000 to $100,000 or more.

Nearly 90 percent of the Federation’s contributors gave $500 or less, or 16 percent of the total.

“That is pretty much in step with what most philanthropy’s experience: 90 percent of the money comes from 10 percent of the donors,” Mauldin said.

In June, the Journal incorrectly reported the 2003 results as slightly down based on incomplete figures that did not reflect the final campaign push.

The Federation fell short of an ambitious $3.2 million target, but should be considered a success since other communities experienced meaningful declines, Federation President Lou Weiss, noted in the group’s annual report.

This year’s campaign exceeded last year’s level by $235,000, Mauldin said.