In Quest for Meaning

Man is a meaning-seeking animal. Hardly a second goes by in which our mind does not stop its routine activities to ponder the meaning of the input it receives from our senses or from its own activities.

When faced with meaningless observations, the mind invents its own fantasies to pacify its meaning-seeking urges. We find meaning and hidden messages in the position of the stars, in natural disasters, in coffee readings and, of course, in our very existence.

From a scientific viewpoint, “finding meaning” means embedding an event in a cognitive context capable of generating a rich set of expectations. Those expectations are comforting because they make the future appear less bewildering, hence more manageable. A God-governed universe is one such context, social Darwinism is another.

Our mind is a society of expectation-generating contexts that often contradict and constantly compete with one another for attention. For example, the idea of an omniscient Almighty (or even law-governed physics) contradicts the idea of free will, yet most of the time we live happily with this contradiction and, like the particle-wave duality in quantum mechanics, we manage to use the right model at the right time for the right purpose.

As we enter the Holy Day of Yom Kippur, these contradictions intensify because on this day we seek meaning for notions of an existential nature: man’s role in the universe, justice, good and evil, pleasure, sin, atonement, forgiveness, redemption, human suffering and, of course, the role of God in all of the above.

The meaning of human suffering, in particular, has perplexed generations of theologians and has not become any clearer since the time of Job. It has, in fact, become utterly incomprehensible to us Jews in the wake of the Holocaust.

How can one reconcile such infinite suffering with the notion of divine justice and a caring God? Is there a hidden message in such shocks of incomprehensibility? Are they concealed tests of our faith or capacity to forgive? Is God unwilling or unable to interfere?

Christians, so I understand, have a more or less satisfactory solution to these questions; suffering in itself has divine virtue. Suffering somehow redeems us or redeems someone else, or prepares for us some kind of a better life in another world. The whole idea of Jesus dying on the cross to absolve men of sins is a product of this concept of divine power inherent in suffering.

But I find it hard to understand why the suffering of one individual would have anything to do with the redemption of another. As Jews, we are brought up to believe that our deeds, and our deeds alone can shape our redemption as human beings. Therefore, I would feel awfully guilty knowing that another person, however willing or divine, went through hardship or pain to absolve me from responsibilities that are totally mine.

I guess my Jewish and scientific backgrounds stand in the way of my attempts to internalize ideas that Christians find natural and appealing.

Frankly, I think that the connection between pain and redemption — the basis of all sacrificial rituals — may have evolved out of a mistaken interpretation of a Pavlovian, stimulus-response experience at childhood. Conditioned to expect the comforting presence of a loving mother each time he falls and scrapes his knee, a child can easily mistake pain to be the cause of comfort, and from here the road to mistaking sacrifice as a producer of care, forgiveness and redemption is not too far.

But putting aside the construct of redemption, I still cannot buy the notion that suffering carries hidden meaning to us as human beings. Save for the obvious fact that suffering, like any other mental shock, acts as an awakener that provokes a healthy examination of our assumptions about society, our paradigms of good and evil, and the enigmatic role of divine providence, I cannot see a particularly deep meaning in that senseless act of Lady Chance.

How then do I cope with the terrible injustice that befell our son Danny? How do I reconcile the crying contradiction between our intuitive notions of good and evil, reward and punishment, divine supervision, loving God and the brutal murder of the most gentle person I have known — the physical embodiment of all qualities and values one would ever wish to see in a person?

The truth is: I don’t, and I am not even going to try. I know that these deeply ingrained intuitions — however essential for cognition — are but poetic visions of reality, that history occasionally reminds us of their fallibility, and I resign myself to the fact that there is nothing particularly significant about when or how these reminders cross our path. So, as random victims of those reminders, my family and I simply put our minds on the opportunities that our private tragedy has imposed on us, rather than agonizing over a God who slept late on the morning of January 30, 2002.

Oh, God! How sloppy can an Almighty be?

I actually find support for this attitude in Genesis, in the story of the Akedah (Isaac’s binding): “And God tried Abraham, and said to him: ‘Abraham!’ and he said: ‘Here I am.'”

I have always felt uncomfortable with this perplexing, even depressing story of the Akedah. I never understood how people could admire a father sacrificing his son for some God who plays games with his creatures to see how much they love him.

What vanity! The very idea of a God who creates creatures in his own image, then tries them with suffering and guilt is unfathomable. Moreover, the Bible that commands us not to sacrifice children to deities, here praises a person who attempted to do just that — and all on account of some imagined sound saying: “Abraham! Take your son….”

But I have begun to understand the story from a different angle.

Can happiness be taught?

Are you happy?

No, seriously.

Are. You. Happy?

You can’t answer that question, can you? You know what the first two words mean, but you’re not exactly sure what that third word is, even though you use it all the time. “This makes me happy”; “She seems happy”; “Happy Birthday”; “There! Are you [un]happy now?”

And does “Are you happy?” mean are you happy right in this very moment that you are reading this sentence? Or, happy with your entire life? Anyway, what does it mean to be happy? Does it mean to experience constant pleasure? Bouts of joy? Moments of ecstasy? Does it mean to suffer no pain? Never be sad? Never struggle with challenges? Whatever it is, how does one get happy?

It’s a High Holy Days challenge if ever there were one, since if we all lived happier lives, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

So. Are you happy? Or are all these questions making you miserable?

Happiness. It’s the new black.

Actually, the quest is not new. From Adam to Aristotle, Tony Robbins to Tony Soprano, from the Bible to the best-seller lists, philosophers, religious leaders, theologians, politicians — all have dealt in one way or another with what it takes to live a happy life. America, in fact, is the only nation founded upon this: The pursuit of happiness is our inalienable right.

And pursue it we do, with vigor.

Now more than ever before, it seems. If the ’60s were about “Freedom,” the ’70s about “Me,” the ’80s about “Money,” the ’90s about “Power,” in the new millennium we’re recognizing something essential: None of the above, by themselves, can bring about happiness.

Think about it: Anything anyone has ever wanted in life — to be free, to be king, to be rich, to be slim, to be loved — can be boiled down to “one thing,” to quote Curly in “City Slickers”: To be happy.

And never before has the word happiness appeared in so many popular book titles. “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment,” by Tal Ben-Shahar; “Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Becoming the Best You Can Be,” by Abraham J. Twerski; and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” by Chris Gardner and Quincy Troupe, upon which the Will Smith movie is based, to name a few.

Even the world of psychology — which has long studied human suffering — has joined the fray. With the recent founding of “positive psychology,” a new branch devoted to applying empirical methods to studying and creating happiness, it seems everyone — from rabbis to doctors to teachers to coaches — is involved in the quest once dominated by self-help gurus.

But what does it mean to be happy? And how do we get there?

Here is some of what a wide range of writers, psychologists, rabbis and happiness gurus have to say on the subject:

What is happiness?

“Most people have a very fragmented idea of what happiness is,” said Dr. John Drimmer, who co-founded of The Positive Psychology Center of California last year, which offers individual and group psychotherapy, professional training and corporate consulting to help people live lives of purpose and joy and fulfillment. Drimmer said Americans equate happiness with self-esteem — but that’s only a part of it; self-esteem alone doesn’t lead to happiness.

“Let’s say you put all your emphasis into developing oneself. Ultimately, the truth is we’re all going to die,” he said, adding, “Sorry to sound like an existential Jew.”

Instead of happiness, he said, “Well-being is a better word. That’s what I think we can expect, and want, out of life.”

Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar puts it quite simply: “Happiness is the overall experience of pleasure and meaning,” the Israeli-born author writes. In a phone conversation from his home in Israel — he will commute to Boston to continue to teach his positive psychology class next semester — Ben-Shahar said that we tend to confuse pleasure with happiness.

“Pleasure is an important component, but not the only one … we also need our behavior to be personally meaningful, to be personally significant,” Ben-Shahar said.

True happiness lies somewhere between the hedonist’s indulgent lifestyle (live only for today) and the religious ascetic’s lifestyle (live only for the world to come). The Hebrew word for happiness is osher.

“In Hebrew osher means approved — I live a life of which I approve, an authentic life,” Ben-Shahar said.

“Authentic Happiness” is the name of another book, this one by Dr. Martin Seligman, who in 1998 founded the field of positive psychology, which “focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character and healthy institutions,” according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center. Seligman’s research, the center’s Web site says, “has demonstrated that it is possible to be happier — to feel more satisfied, to be more engaged with life, find more meaning, have higher hopes, and probably even laugh and smile more, regardless of one’s circumstances.” (At, you can find tests to take using positive psychology.)

One of the best scientific explanations of what it feels like to be happy comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the “Flow” series that began with the 1990 “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Steps Toward Enhancing the Quality of Life)”: “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

These moments of flow, or optimal experience, can occur while working; socializing; exercising; reading; being with family, friends, lovers or alone (but probably not while watching TV, which, according to his scientific monitoring, actually produces lower levels of flow). Here’s how he breaks down the phenomenology of enjoyment:

  • We take on tasks we have a chance of completing.
  • We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.
  • The task has clear goals and immediate feedback.
  • We have a deep and effortless involvement and are separated from everyday worries;
  • We have a sense of control over our actions during the experience.
  • Our concern for self disappears, but emerges stronger after the flow experience.
  • Our sense of time is altered during the experience.

But why are we so concerned with happiness at this particular time — are we so very unhappy now?

Some people would argue that we are not any more unhappy than our grandparents were.

“Nothing changes, because the human condition is eternal,” said Dennis Prager, radio host and author of “Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual” (Harper Perennial, 1999). “If you would have asked your grandmother if she was happy, she would have looked askance at your question.”

He said her response might have been, “If I had lunch and are my kids well,” then that’s happiness.

Others might say that we think about these questions only because we have the time and leisure now to think about them.

“In a way, there’s never been a time or place in the history of the world in which you have so many people who didn’t have to worry about meeting their basic needs,” Drimmer said. If you’re running for your life, trying to feed your family, evade natural disasters or political terrors, you might not have the wherewithal to ponder, “Am I happy?”

But now — for better or for worse — we do.

And perhaps it used to be that people — people like our grandparents, and their grandparents — thought that if they just had this one thing (food, freedom, wealth, kids, security, their daughter marrying a doctor) then they would be happy.

“Traditionally, people looked for it in more money and prestige, but they [now] realize it hasn’t worked,” Ben-Shahar said.

In other words, some of us have gotten everything we ever wanted, and we are still not happy.

“Jealousy, desire and the pursuit of honor are the three biggies that will take you out of your life,” Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, a post-denominational spiritual community in Los Angeles, said, quoting “Pirkei Avot” (Ethics of Our Fathers, 4:28). “They will destroy your life. I counsel people all the time who have spent so much time pursuing things that don’t make them happy, and they don’t understand why they’re not happy. We spend our whole lives thinking that this next thing will make us happy — whatever the next thing is — it’s very easy for us to fall into that pattern.”

Many rabbis and spiritual leaders believe that unhappiness is the modern plague because we are so disconnected from religion.

“When a man has a path, he is happy,” said Rabbi Matityahu Glazerson, author and speaker from the RazOt, The Lev Eliyahu Institute, who recently lectured on joy at The Happy Minyan in Los Angeles. “There is no happiness like the closing off of doubt.”

“To be truly happy, we need to live as spiritual beings,” writes Twerski, a doctor and rabbi, in “Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Being the Best You Can Be.”
He’s not talking about being religious.

“Every person can be spiritual, regardless of the degree or even presence of formal religion, by being the best person he or she can be,” he said.

Even scientists agree that our general disconnect from religion might be what has gotten us to this search for happiness, because religion and religious institutions provide many of the essential ingredients needed to be happy: interconnectedness, community, family, meaning, uplifting experiences, a sense of purpose. But many scientists, who pride themselves on intellectual rigor, say the days of formalized religion are over, despite those benefits.

“The shields that have worked in the past — the order that religion, patriotism, ethnic traditions and habits instilled by social classes used to profit — are no longer effective for [the] increasing number of people who feel exposed to the harsh winds of chaos,” Csikszentmihalyi writes. “Today it is more difficult to accept their world view as definitive. The forms in which religions have presented their truths — myths, revelations, holy texts — no longer compels life in an era of scientific rationality, even though the substance of the truth may have remained unchanged,” he said.

Maybe a new, intellectually satisfying religion will arise, he said, but “in the meantime, those who seek consolation in existing churches often pay for their peace of mind with a tacit agreement to ignore a great deal of what is known about the way the world works.”

Others see our era in more dire terms: It could be, they argue, that ours is an apocalyptic time. “We are on the verge of the messianic era,” said Arjang Zendehdel, head of Dreamality Education & Coaching a center that uses 14 different disciplines, including positive psychology, to support people in discovering their full potential. Zen-dehdel, who was also a host of a weekly radio show in English and Farsi, said the messianic era means intense divine consciousness and awareness.

“People are becoming more and more thirsty, and they’re not satisfied with the way things were,” Zendehdel said.

Is it possible to become happy?

First, scholars in the field argue, happiness is not a static or definitive state of being, it’s actually a process. The question, Ben-Shahar writes, should not be “Am I happy?” but “How can I be happier?”

“The question acknowledges the nature of happiness and the fact that its pursuit is an ongoing process best represented by an infinite continuum, not by a finite point,” Ben-Shahar writes. “We can always be happier; no person experiences perfect bliss at all times and has nothing more to which he can aspire.”

And that is the whole point of psychology — or at least positive psychology.

“It’s the empirical study of how people can live rich, rewarding, wonderful lives,” Drimmer said. “Not just individually. How can we create families that are like that and even countries that are like that?”

It’s true that there are some genetic and environmental factors. Some people are born with better temperaments, better parents, better living conditions, better lives. But almost all the happiness research has shown that happiness has little to do with outside conditions.

Viktor Frankl, in “Man’s Search for Meaning” (Mass Market Paperback, 1997), catalogued Holocaust survivors who found meaning in their lives, and even Alexander Solzhenitsyn was at times in “flow” in prison. Twerski found conjoined twins who didn’t want to separate because they were happy. On the other hand, every day we read about celebrities — who would seem to have reached the epitome of what we’re striving for — who nevertheless are on drugs, in rehab or on the verge of suicide.

“Many people assume that money is the key to greater happiness. In fact for most people, money has a very small effect on happiness, because their basic needs are satisfied already, and there are much more important causes of happiness,” writes Michael Argyle in “The Psychology of Happiness” (Routledge, 2002).

“Ultimately, happiness is not based on what we have,” Zendehdel said in an interview. “Ultimately, happiness comes from within.”

Levy said she pays close attention to the Torah verse, “V’samachta b’chagecha” (and you shall be happy on your holidays).

“Can you command joy? If you can command it, it must be that joy is an option, that it’s within your strengths to achieve it,” she said. “There’s an aspect to happiness that’s in our power, ‘Sameich Bechelko,’ [Who is happy? He who is happy with his lot].”

Prager takes it one step further. Not only is attaining happiness possible, it is a person’s duty to be happy.

“We’re morally obligated to act as happy as possible,” he said. “I have increasingly less patience for the chronically unhappy. Because almost everybody alive has a reason to be unhappy.”

How can we become happier?

Even though most happiness guides say that they cannot simply “give recipes for how to be happy” (“Flow”), most offer steps toward a well-lived life.

Twerski offers 10: Be humble, compassionate, patient, open to change, choose wisely, make the most of all situations, improve yourself, have perspective, purpose and search for truth.

Prager offers five: Express gratitude, let go of our images, act happy, don’t rely on children for your happiness and practice self-control.

Ben-Shahar offers six: Accept emotion, engage in enjoyable and pleasurable activities, have perspective, simplify, take care of your body and express gratitude.

Zendehdel offers five: Gratitude, perspective, faith that everything happens for the good, spirituality and growth.

All of the lists stress gratitude and perspective, which brings to mind the parable of rabbi Nachum Gam Zu, who always said, despite his misfortune, “Gam Zu Le’Tovah” — it’s all for the best.

To acquire these traits, though, is not as easy as reading a book, taking a class, making a resolution. They must be practiced.

For example, Drimmer explained in an interview three exercises he has his UCLA medical students do.

  • For gratitude: Every night for a month, students must take five minutes to go through their day and think of three things that made them happy.
    “And what we know is that over a period of a month the neural pathways begin to shift,” Drimmer said. “The reason to do it at the end of the day is we know about the nature of memory, and the last thing reflected on before we go to bed is very powerful.”

  • For meaning: The students meditate in class on their week, to find what it was that was most personally meaningful.
    “Why did that matter to you?” He keeps asking them to get it down to an irreversible word: “Invariably the words are different aspects of the same irreducible gem — they are all words about connection and caring and unity.

  • For purpose and using strengths: Each student must ask five classmates to identify their five top positive characteristics from a 24 “Character Strengths” list, and then pick the most common occurrences and see if they can use those strengths the next day.
    Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t offer exercises, but he does advise people to become involved in auto-telic pursuits: “a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.”

Which is what they say about mitzvot, or positive commandments: they are a reward in themselves.

So where does Judaism fit into this? Does God want us to be happy? Can a religious person be happy?

There has long been a debate as to whether it is an actual mitzvah to be happy. “Mitzvah Gedolah Lehiyot B’simcha,” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, meaning, it’s a great mitzvah to be happy.

But many debate whether this is a positive commandment in itself, as it comes from the Psalms, “Ivdu et Hashem B’simcha” (worship God with joy). Some say the words simply mean one should be happy when performing a mitzvah, especially since being happy is not counted as one of the 613 commandments.

But Rabbi Aharon of Karlin, one of the early Chasidic leaders, reportedly said, “There is no mitzvah to be joyous, but joy can bring on the greatest mitzvot.” It is also true, he said, that “it is not a sin to be sad, but sadness can bring on the greatest sins.”

Some say the Eskimos have 100 words for snow, but the Torah has many different words for happiness. “Simcha” is the generic word for happiness; “aliz” means joy.

According to Glazerson, who wrote “Letters of Fire: Mystical Insights Into the Hebrew Language” (Feldheim, 1991), many of the words for happiness kabbalistically refer to a certain type of happiness: “Sasson is a sudden unexpected happiness, gila is the happiness of discovery, rina is a refreshing happiness, ditza is a sublime joy, chedva is the happiness of togetherness and tzahala is dancing and rejoicing.”

Hebrew’s Osher, for happiness, has the same root as the Hebrew word for head, rosh. Simcha has the same letters as thought, or machshava. “There is no happiness without the head. It’s all in a person’s mind,” Glazerson said. “If the head is straight, you will be happy.”

In fact, the advent of the Chasidic movement in the 17th century sought to bring a mystic joy — with singing, dancing and prayer — a reaction to what they saw as an overly ritualistic, intellectual Judaism among those who came to be known as “mitnagdim,” or opponents.

The popularity of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in the 20th century, again, has sought to bring that primal joy of song back to Judaism.

Joy is “what Judaism is all about,” Glazerson said. “How can a person be unhappy if he truly believes in God?”

In “Living a Joyous Life: the True Spirit of Joyous Practice” (Trumpeter Books, 2007), Rabbi David Aaron talks about a prediction from the Zohar mystical text: “It said there will come a time when the Jews will relate to Jewish tradition like cows eating grass, and that this generation will bring ruin upon itself.”

“The Talmud said that when people accept the Torah with joy and happiness, these feelings are guaranteed to be long lasting,” he added. “But when people accept the Torah with anger or feelings of coercion, though they may observe its commandments for a while, eventually they reject them and everything breaks down.”

It’s easy to lose the point in whatever we are doing, Levy said.

“It’s easy to practice a Judaism that’s rigid, it’s also easy to practice in a way that’s mindless, to just get out of bed and not be aware of anything. It’s easy to lose all of it,” she said. “The more mindless we are, the more we act out of fear, or the more we don’t learn that we can’t just show up and expect something to happen. The more passive we are as Jews, the less we’re going to get out of it.”

The question of how to make Judaism more meaningful and relevant is a different story, but everyone agrees that it must be practiced voluntarily and with … happiness.

“For those who subscribe to the morality of duty, finding meaning — leading a moral life — necessitates sacrifice,” Ben-Shahar writes. “Sacrifice, by definition, is not pleasurable (if it were, it would not be sacrifice). The morality of duty, therefore, puts meaning and pleasure against each other.”

Most theologians and scientists agree that religion does provide a structure and opportunity for happiness.

“Religion can provide standards of right and wrong that are not altered by expedience. While it is true that people may distort religion for their own needs, religion can still provide guidelines that help us know how to be more considerate, more compassionate, more spiritual,” Twerski writes.

Both Prager and Ben-Shahar were raised in Orthodox homes and still ascribe to many of the strictures, although they do not call themselves Orthodox.

“Many of the habits that I was taught, or that I practiced as a child, when I was Orthodox, I still keep today,” Ben-Shahar said. “I value them today on a much more conscious level than I did then.”

“The best advertisement for religiosity is a happy religious person; the worst is an unhappy one,” Prager said. “So I make this appeal to religious Jews who walk around unhappy: Either walk around happy, or stop being religious.”

But can an atheist achieve happiness? (Duh!)

Prager doesn’t think so: “If you believe that there is no God, there is no ultimate justice, then everything is pointless. I don’t understand how you can be happy with those beliefs. I just don’t understand it,” he said. But he’s in the minority.

Every person can acquire a spiritual side that is necessary to achieve a state of happiness.

“You don’t have to believe in God or be a religious person to be appreciative or to have great things in your life,” Levy said. “Judaism is just one way to happiness, not the way.” What makes a spiritual person is an “expansive” outlook, she said. “It’s the ability to be aware of your surroundings, it’s the ability to find some kind of connection, to feel connected — whether you’re a person of faith or not.”

For believers and nonbelievers alike, happiness should be a priority. Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?”

Ben-Shahar said, “If we do not make the pursuit of our own happiness a priority, we are hurting ourselves and, by extension, our inclination to help others.”

Are we there yet?

Since happiness is not a destination but a lifelong process, it is not possible to achieve Curly’s “One Thing” and then rest on our laurels forever. “I think it’s in our DNA to want more,” Zendehdel said.

Or, to quote Al Pacino’s character in “The Scent of a Woman”: “The day we stop lookin’, Charlie, is the day we die.”

Reb Shlomo Carlebach teaches and sings about the mitzvah of joy in this streaming MP3 audio file.

Tal Ben-Shahar will be speaking in Los Angeles at the Professional Leaders Project Think Tank on Oct. 29.

Books: Witness to horrors

At first glance, “Testimony” (Aperture, $40) looks like an innocent-enough coffee table book of Israel-themed photographs. Thumb through the first few pages and you’ll see examples of photographer Gillian Laub’s excellent portraiture. Each color image is accompanied by a simple enough quote from the subject, an Arab or Jew sharing the same bit of the Holy Land.

But the drama builds.

Soon, the simpler images give way to unimaginably more difficult ones: of former Israeli beauties mutilated by the effects of a suicide bomber; of Palestinian children missing limbs as a result of an Israeli settler’s attack.

The pace soon becomes relentless: Arab and Jew, wounded, suffering, trying to regain life and hope after enduring brutalizing, life-scarring violence. And in each case, Laub lets her subjects have the last word.

“Many times I try to imagine what happened was a dream,” said a Palestinian father of his son Mohammed, who at age 9 was rendered mute and paralyzed for life by a stray Israeli army bullet. “In war, everyone pays a price.”

Michal, whom Laub photographs lying on her bed, missing both legs as a result of a suicide bomber in a pizza restaurant, is one of many young Israelis in the book.

“Maybe a day will come where I will arrive where I want to be,” she writes. “And that is to go back to a normal life.”

And so on. By the book’s end, I was in tears. No kidding.

Laub composed the book to struggle with her fascination regarding Israel. The 20-something New York-based photographer began traveling to and around Israel in 2002, set on exploring her own Jewish questions.

“I was trying to focus on identity issues,” she said in a telephone interview, “then there was a bombing and I couldn’t be photographing in Israel and not address what was going on.”

She used assignments from clients like Time magazine (for whom she photographed then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the Man of the Year cover) and The New York Times to get her to Israel. One person led to another, one story to the next. The theme of the book emerged when she came face to face with Kinneret. A friend described her as “one of the prettiest girls in Tel Aviv,” before a suicide bombing attack left her with burns covering 70 percent of her body. Laub’s photo of Kinneret shows the shocking wounds as well as a defiant, strong young woman’s face.

“She was really hard to look at,” Laub said. “When I first saw her she was oozing out of her eyes. But she was so sweet and had this huge smile. What do you say to somebody like that? I was amazed she had this energy. She was given a 3 percent chance to live. What makes people like her go on and why? I saw pictures of her and her boyfriend before the bombing and she was gorgeous. If this person can smile after her life was turned upside down, there’s something to be said for that. I knew from then I was totally changed.”

For a document on political violence, “Testimony” is strangely apolitical. Laub knew that approach had its dangers.

“There’s no moral equivalence to a bomber,” she said. “But I just wanted to show the suffering of innocent people.”

No doubt that will offend some people’s sense of political correctness — a Palestinian photographer pulled out of a joint exhibit with Laub, attacking her pictures as too sympathetic to Israeli Jews.

But “Testimony” ultimately bears witness to the strengths that average Jews and Arabs demonstrate as humans, and to the human cost of the conflict in which they are locked.

Holy Doubt

This week’s Torah portion contains a story that most of us skipped in Hebrew school — the story of Dina.

Dina goes out to “see the daughters of the land.”

the eponymous local prince, sees her, sleeps with her and vaye’aneha — sexually forces or humiliates her.

His soul clings to her, he loves her, and he speaks tenderly to her.

This begins a protracted negotiation, in which Jacob remains silent and his sons, Dina’s brothers, maintain their outrage.

Shechem invites Jacob and the brothers to name any amount for a bride price.

The brothers answer with guile, seeming to accept Shechem’s proposal with the proviso that he and all his male subjects undergo circumcision to become “one people” with the Israelites.

Three days after all the males of Shechem are circumcised, while they are still in pain, Simon and Levi, two of Dina’s full brothers, enter the city, confident. They kill all the men and remove Dina from the house.

Jacob’s sons appropriate the property of the slain and take the women captive. Jacob objects: “You have stirred up trouble …[with my neighbors] while I am few in number, so if they band together against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.”

The sons answer: “Shall our sister be dealt with like a whore?”

The story raises many questions, particularly from Dina’s perspective.

Did she learn of her impending marriage? If so, from whom? What was it like for her in the three or four days after the rape and before the “rescue”?

How did she feel when her brothers stormed in, killing the men and taking the women who were to be her new family? Was this similar to the way she had been taken captive? What was she looking for when she “went out to see the daughters of the land”? Had she and the local women already forged the kind of friendship and alliance that the men were negotiating for?

Or could Dina have been a spy against the women? (“To see” and “to spy on” are the same verb in Hebrew.) Can we imagine her as a Mata Hari figure, conspiring with her brothers to conquer Shechem? Or did Dina’s soul cleave to Shechem’s as improbably and enduringly as his cleaved to hers?

The Torah focuses on the men’s motivations, yet these, too, are far from clear. Jacob’s political objection to his sons’ actions ignores the harm to Dina, the sons’ deception and violence, and the murder of innocents. Is Jacob cautiously protecting the clan after a traumatic loss, or has he ceded control and leadership? Is he indifferent to his daughter’s suffering, or so distraught that he becomes passive?

Are the brothers overzealous defenders of their sister’s honor (perhaps in response to Jacob’s passivity) and/or do they see an opportunity for a land grab?

On his deathbed, Jacob will condemn Simon and Levi’s excesses and bar the two tribes from owning land (Genesis 49:5-7). Is the crime that most troubles the brothers rape — or theft? The males of Dina’s family should have commanded a bride price for her in advance, and the brothers seem more interested in orchestrating revenge than in facilitating Dina’s release.

Is Shechem a rapist? It is certainly not typical of a rapist to love his victim, want to marry her, offer to pay any amount of money and undergo genital surgery to be with her. Shechem more than fulfills all the requirements later imposed on Israelites (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) who bed an unbetrothed girl without gaining permission first.

Perhaps Shechem, prince of the land, thought that Dina, visiting among the daughters of the land, was one of his subjects, and therefore legal and eligible to him.

Long before Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent,” the ancient rabbis wondered if Dina chose — before or after the fact — to be with Shechem.

One midrash suggests that Dina was enticed by his uncircumcised body, and had to be removed from his house because she would not leave voluntarily.

Other midrashim don’t attribute sexual volition to Dina, but posit instead her extraordinary spiritual power: she would have caused Esau to repent had she been paired with him; she was Job’s second wife and healed him. Dina was indeed raped, but she inspired a rapist to repent immediately and completely.

The verb vaye’aneha — usually translated as “he raped her” — comes from the root ayin-nun-hey, which has two meanings: to answer or respond; or to force, afflict or humiliate, especially sexually.

Translating according to the first definition, it is possible to read vaye’aneha as parallel to vayidaber al lev hane’ara, he spoke to the girl tenderly (Genesis 34:2-3). This supports the interpretation that Shechem seduced Dina, rather than raped her. Similarly, it is possible to reverse the usual translation in 34:13: the brothers didn’t just answer Shechem with guile, they afflicted him with it.

It surprises me how confident people sometimes are about exactly what the Bible intends. What is meant, literally and in context, by “frontlets between your eyes” or “a man lying with a man as with a woman” or even “your neighbor?”

The Bible is laconic, allusive, ambiguous, layered.

It is not always clear to me, after years of study, which stories are cautionary tales and which are examples to be emulated.

Torah urges us: read again, review again, and don’t be so sure.

Approach with holy doubt, and humility.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana. More of her writings can be found at

Tale of heroics, terror from the top of the world

It was a beautiful morning in May on the world’s highest mountain, and Dan Mazur was feeling good. He had been hiking throughout the night in below-freezing temperatures, and now he and his team — a sherpa and two other climbers — had only two hours to go until reaching the summit of Mount Everest.

Mazur had reached the top before, 15 years earlier. But this time, the mountain climber and guide was leading two clients who were paying more than $20,000 each for the chance to accomplish the goal of a lifetime. Their objective was so close they could almost reach out and touch it.

Suddenly, Mazur saw something unexpected — some yellow fabric in the distance. At first it looked like a tent, but then it became clear that it was a person, a man sitting cross-legged on a narrow ridge with an 8,000-foot drop to one side and a 6,000-foot drop to the other.

At 28,000 feet — a part of the mountain dubbed the “death zone,” because the weather is so cold and oxygen is so scarce — the man wore no gloves, no hat and had unzipped his down suit to his waist.

“I imagine you’re surprised to see me here,” the man said.

What happened next would cost Mazur his summit and save the man’s life. Now, more than six months later, Mazur, a 46-year-old who lives in Olympia, Wash., will talk about the adventure and dramatic rescue at the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue on Wednesday evening, Dec. 6.

As it turned out, the man on the ledge was Lincoln Hall, one of Australia’s best-known climbers. Hall had attempted to summit Everest 22 years earlier but never made it. This time, at age 50, Hall had made it to the top.

But on the way down the day before, Hall had started having trouble.

Experiencing the classic symptoms of altitude sickness — fatigue and hallucinations — Hall had refused to continue down the mountain and ended up passing out. The two sherpas with him concluded, after poking Hall in the eye and getting no response, that Hall was dead. Suffering from lack of oxygen themselves, they hurried down the mountain.

A friend had already broken the news to Hall’s wife and teenage sons: Hall was dead — or so they thought. In fact, he was struggling but alive. He ended up lasting through the night alone.

Atop the mountain, at around 7:30 a.m., Mazur and his team persuaded a resistant Hall to put on his gloves and hat. They gave him oxygen, tea and a Snickers bar and tethered him to their rope. They radioed down to Hall’s expedition group, which dispatched a rescue team.

It would take more than three hours for the rescuers to arrive. But Mazur and his climbers waited with Hall, while their chances of summiting slipped away.
In the end, Hall suffered frostbite; he lost some fingertips. But he made it down the mountain.

Mazur’s rescue caught the attention of national media, which had reported only days earlier the demise of another Everest climber, David Sharp, who died after an estimated 40 climbers passed him without offering any help.

“I was always taught that when you see someone who needs help, you’ve got to help him right away,” Mazur said, speaking on the phone from Washington State.

If he had the day to do over, he said, “I would do it again exactly the same.”
Mazur, who grew up with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, said he is more spiritual than religious. But that day, high on the mountain, Mazur prayed. He prayed that God would help Hall.

“I believe that Lincoln Hall survived because he was very lucky; the weather was not too bad; he was in good shape,” Mazur said. “And I believe there was a higher power that was looking after him.”

Dan Mazur will speak on Wednesday, Dec. 6 at 7:30 p.m. at the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, 24855 Pacific Coast Highway. Admission is free.
For more information, call (310) 456-2178

PASSOVER: 10 Contemporary Plagues

In the Passover haggadah, we read of the 10 Plagues that God sent to convince Pharoah to let the Hebrew slaves go free. The plagues — bloody, violent, magical — are a dramatic highpoint of the narrative. Mindful of the pain these plagues brought even to innocent Egyptians, Jews have traditionally spilled out a drop of their festive seder wine at the recitation of each plague.

We don’t suggest that these modern plagues are the work of a punitive God or punishment for society’s wrongdoing — we’ll leave that analysis to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

But we recall that with the original plagues, the rabbis tell us, the purpose was to instruct the Israelites as much as to punish the Egyptians. In that light, we offer 10 contemporary plagues, named in Hebrew, as an opportunity to mourn their victims and discuss how we can prevent them and their like from plaguing us next year.

Where Streets Were Paved With Sorrow

“Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced Into Prostitution in the Americas” by Isabel Vincent (William Morrow, $25.95).

Memory is a central concept in Judaism. When someone dies, we say that he or she lives on in how he or she is remembered by others. Countless museum exhibits, oral histories, films, books and archives that memorialize the Holocaust repeat the mantra, “We will never forget.”

Conversely, the biggest insult that any Jew can face is to be forgotten — by fellow Jews, by history, by the country in which he or she lived. This was the fate that nearly awaited the Jewish “shtetl girls,” who were lured to South America by wealthy-looking men who promptly sold them into lives of prostitution. Thankfully, Isabel Vincent, a journalist who spent five years researching these women and their situation, rescues them from obscurity in her new book, “Bodies and Souls.”

Vincent introduces us to three women who illuminate three very different aspects of the shameful reality of white slavery that existed in Latin America between 1860 and 1939. Sophia Chamys excitedly came to the Americas with Isaac Boorosky, a pimp who she believed — at some level, until her death — was her husband; Rebecca Freedman first became a prostitute in New York and then went on to work for and lead the Society of Truth, an organization devoted to giving Jewish prostitutes a proper Jewish burial; and Rachel Liberman was instrumental (at great personal risk) in helping police plan a series of raids of the Zwi Migdal crime syndicate.

One of the most profound ideas that Vincent gets across is the sense of cosmic disappointment that is common to the three women. We have all heard horror stories of shtetl life, the violence and fear that lurked around every corner — but to read about how America turned out to be nearly as terrible for these eager girls is almost as heartbreaking as the physical pain and degradation that the prostitutes endured.

The narrative arc of the book, from Sophia’s crushed naiveté to Rachel’s open resistance, makes Vincent’s work a deeply Jewish story where out of abandonment, suffering and disillusionment come self-determination and a fierce survival instinct. Ultimately the shock and shame of learning about the atrocities that Jewish pimps inflicted on their modest shtetl sisters is somewhat rescued by the nobility that many of the women managed to salvage for themselves.

If Vincent has misstepped at all in this book, it is largely in her overuse of theoretical language: “Maybe, in order to make her feel better about her situation, Madame Nathalia told Sophia that she was one of the lucky girls.” “It must have taken a tremendous effort of will for Julio Alsogaray to remain calm throughout the lengthy interrogation.” Nearly every page contains some similar stylistic hedging.

This linguistic tic seems more a mark of Vincent’s careful reporting than of mere misjudgment, especially since, as she notes, most of the 20,000 women who were involved in the trafficking could not read or write. Historical records were quite hard to come by. But reading “might have,” “must have,” “may have” and “perhaps” over and over again throughout the book had the net effect of leaving the reader questioning how sure Vincent was of even those things she did report as fact: She knew that “tin cups and utensils were set out on coarse blankets on the whitewashed floors” of a Buenos Aires immigrants’ hotel, but had to say, “flustered, Sally must have also shown the stranger her first-class ticket.”

Although it’s annoying, this stylistic choice further highlights the sad reality of the subjects of Vincent’s book: how history, religion and shame conspired to threaten these Jewish prostitutes with that most dire of prospects — to be forgotten. There was sparse historical record, few survivors and even fewer family members who were willing to speak openly with Vincent. One might wish that Vincent had opted instead to write a work of historical fiction in which she would not have to constantly apologize for her lack of reportable material. But there is a certain amount of intellectual honesty in her choice. It is not merely that she resisted the temptation to falsely beef up her work; by choosing to acknowledge this story as a real chapter in history, Vincent affords her subjects the dignity of not being “spoken for,” as they were so often and so cruelly during their lives.

This article was reprinted courtesy of The Forward.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Mass.


Divine Listening

“This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac. Isaac was 40 years old when he took to wife Rebecca, daughter of

Bethuel of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord responded to his plea, and his wife Rebecca conceived. But the children struggled in her womb and she said, ‘If so why do I exist?'” (Genesis 25:19-22).

How do we answer those in pain?

This week’s Torah portion begins with an issue that is a recurrent one for our foremothers — difficulty conceiving. As Sarah before her and Rachel after her, Rebecca has trouble getting pregnant. After her husband Isaac pleads with God, she does conceive. But the pregnancy is a painful one — so much so that Rebecca cries out with words to the effect of, “Would that I did not exist!” Out of this depth of despair she approaches God.

She went to inquire of the Lord, and the Lord answered her: “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).

God’s response is profound and gives us great insight into how we can help those in pain. The most noteworthy element is that God does not seek to take away Rebecca’s pain. Rather God listens to her with no interruptions. While such listening does not cure Rebecca of her pain by removing it, it heals her because it helps overcome some of the isolation and loneliness that often accompanies those who are suffering.

In addition, God points out that her pain is due to the nature of the fetuses that she carries and is indicative of the way they will be as both individuals and even as kingdoms. In essence, God informs Rebecca that her pain is not random and pointless but that it has meaning and significance. After being heard, Rebecca is able to motivate herself and endure her suffering until the end of her term.

So often when we encounter those who are in pain we make several mistakes. Our natural reaction is to want to take their suffering away. While understandable, it is also highly impractical since we cannot really do it (nor by the way do people expect us to do so). But since we cannot directly relieve them of their suffering, we search for the right thing to do or say in an attempt to make everything OK.

Another error we make in our desire to help is to talk. We either say that they should not worry and that everything will be all right. Or we hear their pain and then tell them of our own experiences in an attempt to show that we empathize with them.

But these responses make us feel better and not those who we are seeking to help.

When someone is hurting, there truly are no right things to say or do. It’s sometimes enough merely to be present, to show people that they are heard and hence not alone. We must acknowledge where they are so that they know we have heard them in all their pain. Furthermore, we must help them see that their suffering is not for nothing, but has meaning and purpose; for these two things allow them to bear that which would otherwise be unbearable.

To be able hear someone’s pain and give meaning to his or her suffering are the most important things we can do when we approach those in difficulty — and in doing so effectively we act divinely.

Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard is a rabbi at Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in Valley Village. He can be reached at


Many With Gaucher Unaware of Disease

When Jewish New Yorker Joan La Belle, now 70-something, was in her mid-20s, she began to experience scary symptoms, suggesting a serious health problem: “I felt exhausted, had rough menstrual periods with very heavy bleeding and terrible nose bleeds.”

She also suffered substantial hemorrhaging in childbirth, she said in a recent telephone interview from Minneapolis, where she has been a longtime resident.

Hemorrhaging and an enlarged spleen — another of her symptoms — are often misdiagnosed as leukemia, and bone pain is often mistaken for arthritis, so La Belle said that she really didn’t know the actual cause of her symptoms for years.

Finally, 15 or 20 years ago, a Jewish physician filling in for her regular internist correctly recognized her enlarged spleen as an indicator of Gaucher (pronounced go-SHAY) disease, to which Jews are especially susceptible.

Gaucher is sufficiently rare that many doctors weren’t and still aren’t aware of it. And when LaBelle was diagnosed, “they were just doing research, and there was not a glimmer of hope” for a treatment, she said

But then, medical researchers produced the enzyme regimen that LaBelle needed, and for the last 12 or 13 years, she has received regular infusions that have dramatically improved her life, she said. These enzyme treatments completely control her symptoms, LaBelle reported.

“Prior to the [enzyme therapy], I used to have hemorrhaging and my hemoglobin was very low,” she said. “But, now it’s normal.”

LaBelle receives intravenous infusions of the latest formulation of the enzyme, called Cerezyme, at a local Minneapolis hospital every other week. It takes 60 to 75 minutes, she said. The length of time per patient varies, depending on the number of units a patient needs.

LaBelle said “every couple of months” she has a “bone crisis,” which is an event of intense pain that occurs because of a sudden lack of oxygen in an area where Gaucher-affected cells have interfered with normal blood flow. The episode can last for hours or days. She said she treats the pain with medication.

Based on statistical probability, half of the Gaucher patients at the Lysosomal Diseases Treatment Center at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin should be of Ashkenazi (Central and Eastern European) Jewish heritage.

In fact, however, only one of the eight Gaucher patients, though not Jewish, believes he has Ashkenazi ancestry. The reason could be the lack of knowledge about the disease, said genetic counselor Amy White, who works at the Lysosomal Diseases Treatment Center.

This means that many people who are at risk or suffering have not been diagnosed or treated. The disease is not thought to be life threatening, but it’s chronic and painful and doctors frequently mistake the symptoms for something else. However, even when it’s recognized, treatment remains extremely expensive.

The undiagnosed cases are probably due to “a lack of awareness among both medical and lay communities,” according to the National Gaucher Foundation (NGF).

So this year for the first time, the NGF designated a “National Gaucher Disease Awareness Month” in the hope of educating health-care providers and the public about the importance of recognizing the signs and symptoms of the disease. The results of this effort, which took place in September, are not conclusive, but researchers and advocates especially wanted to reach the Jewish community, where this often painful and debilitating — but highly treatable — disease is most prevalent.

According to the National Gaucher Foundation, Gaucher disease occurs when a person inherits a mutated gene from both parents, but if the person inherits a mutated gene from one parent and a normal gene from the other parent, he or she will not have the disease but may be a carrier. A carrier may pass the gene on to the next generation, depending on the genetic makeup of the person he or she marries.

White said that the Lysosomal Treatment Center has a lot to offer Gaucher patients, in addition to the life-changing Cerezyme infusions. Despite being located in Children’s Hospital, the genetics center, headed by Dr. William J. Rhead, chief of the generics department, does not limit its services to children.

“We see any individual or family who has a genetic condition,” White said. “We provide an initial evaluation and make recommendations as to specialists in Gaucher disease.”

The center also provides semiannual or annual evaluations of the course of a patient’s disease, as well as its treatment. It takes X-rays, does bone MRIs and CTs of the liver and spleen and conducts specialized blood tests for Gaucher Disease markers. These tell a patient how the disease is progressing and whether the Cerezyme dosage is adequate.

In addition, the center provides genetic counseling to couples contemplating pregnancy, as well as to expectant parents. It also counsels patients and their families on the psychosocial aspects of the disease.

The genetics center can assist Gaucher patients with medical insurance issues, an important service because of the cost of Cerezyme.

A version of this article was first published in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.



” class=”boldbluelinklmenu”>Lack of One Enzyme Triggers Illness

Artist Depicts Pain of Genetic Ailment


When he was 6 years old, Los Angeles artist Ted Meyer had two life-changing experiences. He won his first art show prize after copying a flamingo drawn by an older friend. Secondly, he was diagnosed as suffering from Gaucher Disease after intensive bouts of pain in his knees and hip bones.

“It felt like someone was slowly breaking your bones for days on end,” Meyer recalled.

Initially, his parents took him to several hospitals in the New York area, where puzzled doctors shook their heads and warned that they might have to amputate the boy’s legs. Finally, a European intern at Mount Sinai Hospital recognized the symptoms of Gaucher Disease, but in the absence of any effective treatment at the time, all he could prescribe were painkillers.

Over the next year, Meyer’s stomach distended, he was constantly fatigued and he bruised and bled easily. Doctors removed his large spleen when he was 7, but that offered little relief. And his persistent nosebleeds seemed only to worsen.

“I didn’t go to school much, and I was the smallest kid in my class,” the 47-year-old Meyer remembered. “I had to stay in hospitals three or four times a year, and there were some weeks when I couldn’t move my legs at all.”

Meyer’s grandparents had emigrated from Lithuania, Poland and Russia. His parents were carriers of the abnormal gene that can cause the disease, but they were not affected. Meyer’s older brother has Gaucher Disease, too, but a third brother never got it.

Between bouts of pain and hospitalization, Meyer developed his painting skills and eventually got a bachelor’s degree in design at Arizona State.

His early works reflected his own physical struggles, and in the series “Structural Abnormalities,” he depicted painted contorted structural images.

“I was at war with my body, and these paintings expressed my trapped and isolated feelings,” he said. “My condition was so rare that there was no one I could talk to about it.”

In his early 30s, Meyer underwent two sets of hip replacements, but 10 years ago, he started receiving the new enzyme replacement infusions and within six months showed dramatic improvement.

Now living in a combination apartment and studio at the Brewery Arts Complex in downtown Los Angeles, Meyer is a well-known graphic designer for magazines and Web sites and has written four popular books.

One of his eye-catching “Structural Abnormalities” paintings is on the cover of “Message to Elijah,” an educational video on Gaucher Disease narrated by actor Elliott Gould.

Every two weeks, Meyer visits a doctor for enzyme therapy, though “after 10-12 days, I usually get tired and feel some pain,” he said.

Long-haired and slim, Meyer would be taken as a healthy specimen on the surface, and he usually doesn’t mention his affliction. One reason, he said, is that New Age devotees in California, who like almost every one else have no idea what Gaucher is, usually advise him to just take some herbs for his problem.

A major hurdle facing many Gaucher patients is the huge cost of the treatments, which can run to $200,000 a year.

“I am lucky that I have insurance through an authors’ group, but even so, you can reach the $2 million lifetime cap in 10 years,” Meyer noted.

Meyer is among an estimated 1,000 Los Angeles-area Jews of Ashkenazi descent with Gaucher Disease. Experts estimate that only about one in 10 is receiving proper treatment. Approximately 50,000 area Jews are carriers of the defective gene and could pass the disease to offspring.

The chief reason for the low treatment rate is that many Los Angeles doctors, including Jewish physicians, are not trained to recognize the symptoms of Gaucher, said Dr. Barry Rosenbloom, a UCLA professor and director of the Comprehensive Gaucher Treatment Center at Tower Hematology Oncology. The center is listed by the National Gaucher Foundation as the primary treatment facility in the Los Angeles area.

“Once correctly diagnosed through a simple blood test, Gaucher patients can be restored through treatment within one year,” Rosenbloom said.

The Comprehensive Gaucher Treatment Center is located at 9090 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 888-8680.

Detailed information about the disease, as well as financial assistance, is available through the National Gaucher Foundation. Call (800) 925-8885, or visit


Many With Gaucher Unaware of Disease

Lack of One Enzyme Triggers Illness

Balancing Tikkun Olam and Self-Interest

I’m reluctant to draw lessons from the hurricane, even if the High Holidays are a time of stock taking, and even if Jewish tradition suggests that calamities are “heavenly alarms” meant to arouse repentance. If God is speaking to us through Katrina, he might want to brush up on His communication skills.

Besides, there is a fine line between taking personal and communal lessons from calamity, and exploiting a tragedy to score political and theological points.

That being said, the hurricane and its aftermath afford a moment to consider Jewish communal priorities, and especially a moment to ask where our commitments to our own communities end and where our responsibilities to a wider world begin.

In Ian McEwan’s riveting new novel, “Saturday” (Nan A. Talese) a London brain surgeon is pondering how human beings give themselves license to kill and eat other animals, even as evidence mounts that they too feel pain.

“The key to human success and domination is to be selective in your mercies,” the surgeon concludes.

I don’t know about the success and domination part, but if it weren’t for our abilities to be selective in our mercies, I think we’d all go mad. The panorama of human suffering that followed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is almost too great to absorb.

We’ve all probably played out in our minds the dark fantasy of what we’d do if we had to start from scratch — no home, little money, plunked down in a far-off city. For most American Jews, the immigration era ended around 1925. For 12,000 New Orleans Jews, it began two weeks ago.

But there I go, being selective in my mercies. There’s no doubt that the human toll of the disaster fell most heavily on the poor, the black, the indigent elderly. The mostly middle-class Jews of the Gulf states fell back on friends and communities in Houston and Atlanta and Dallas, or made it to hotels where they could sit out the worst of the storm before returning to reclaim or rebuild their flooded homes.

To pity Chabad or the Jewish federations and synagogues seems almost indulgent when viewed this way, a real-life twist on the famous joke about the Jewish newspaper announcing the apocalypse: “World to end tomorrow; Jews to suffer the most.”

Tribalism does become obscene when carried to extremes. Take a recent decision by Israel’s Defense Ministry. After a Jewish gunman shot up a bus in the Galilee town of Shfaram, the Defense Ministry declared that the Israeli-Arab families of those killed were not considered terrorism victims under Israeli law. Why? Because their killer was Jewish.

Apparently, Israeli law defines terrorist acts as those carried out by “enemies of Israel.” That didn’t go down well with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who earlier had denounced the shootings in Shfaram as “a sinful act by a bloodthirsty terrorist.”

Sharon directed the Justice Ministry to amend the law so that the families could receive the same government aid accorded to victims of Palestinian violence. Call him a bleeding heart, but Sharon understands that to define terrorism as an attack by Arabs on Jews is to take tribalism to its extreme.

And yet, we need the tribal impulse if we are to cope with tragedies like Katrina, because it reduces a vast, impossible-to-grasp event to a human scale. As Primo Levi famously put it, a “single Anne Frank excites more emotion than the myriad who suffered as she did, but whose image has remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is necessary that it can be so. If we had to and were able to suffer the sufferings of everyone, we could not live.”

So we focus on the pain of those most like us, and trust that other communities of faith and feeling are doing the same for their own.

But if “we could not live” without a focus for our pain, we could not live with ourselves if we addressed only our own people’s suffering. So nearly all of the Jewish organizations accepting donations for hurricane relief — B’nai B’rith, United Jewish Communities, the Union for Reform Judaism, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, American Jewish Committee, Mazon — are also pledging to aid non-Jewish victims of the deluge, even as they help restore synagogues and other Jewish institutions lost under the waters.

A cynic will say we do this out of self-interest — that if gentiles see us supporting them in their time of need, they’ll also support us in ours. And community relations is a time-honored Jewish practice. But self-interest doesn’t account for an equally strong tradition of Jewish universalism, a strain that transformed the highly esoteric kabalistic concept of tikkun olam (heal the world) into a synonym for global action.

That impulse — particularizing the universal, universalizing the particular — is another gift of the Jews to the wider world. From our place as a tiny minority, we understand well what it means to be at the mercy of tragedies natural and man made. In lean times, we turn inward, emphasizing our tribal concerns over those of others. In times of plenty, we allow ourselves to reach out.

In times like these, the key to human success is remembering that we are all created in God’s image, and compelled to do the good and right thing.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.


‘Call Waiting’ Rings Emotional Bell

There’s pain and then there’s the big pain.

Pain is what happens in a regular life — the predictable illnesses, disappointments and aggravations. The big pain is something like the Holocaust and the aftermath of surviving it.

The larger pain makes the regular mode of suffering seem unworthy, even whiny.

Coming to terms with someone else’s anguish is one subject of “Call Waiting,” a new film about the bedridden daughter of Holocaust survivors. The film stars Caroline Aaron, who recreates her successful turn from the stage version. Aaron can relate to the material, both because she is Jewish and because her family has its own significant pain.

“It’s odd how life morphs into art,” Aaron said.

In the film based on Dori Fram’s play, the fictional Judy Baxter (played by Aaron) is paralyzed not only by her excruciating bladder disease, but also by her inability to write her parents’ Holocaust story. There’s also a wartime secret that threatens Baxter’s relationship with her sister.

“So she represses her feelings, which makes her ill,” said playwright Fram, who also wrote the movie.

Aaron performed the hilarious, poignant play to rave reviews in 1994 and 2001. And she could personally identify with her character’s belief that as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, her own suffering doesn’t count.

Aaron’s late mother was a survivor of another sort. A Virginia civil rights activist, she had to endure cross-burnings on her front lawn and, more tragically, the loss of her husband and both parents at the age of 38.

“You don’t feel entitled to your pain when you come from the big pain,” Aaron said.

Aaron also related to the movie character’s sibling rivalry, because she, too, had a difficult relationship with a strong-willed older sister, Josie Abady — a prominent director. Abady resisted employing her sister because they were related.

“I wanted nepotism to be on my side, but it was not,” Aaron said.

Her resentments melted away when Abady was diagnosed with terminal cancer some years ago.

“I realized I didn’t have time for sibling rivalry, because the luxury of growing old together was off the table,” she said.

The Los Angeles-based actress often flew to New York to spend time with her sister, attending every medical procedure and caring for Abady in the months before her death in May 2003.

She’d already been cast for the film version of the play, but had second thoughts after her sister died, because the material hit so close to home. Aaron was uncertain about whether she wanted to proceed when she met with director Jodi Binstock (“Boy Meets World”) and producers Dan Bucatinsky (“All Over the Guy”) and Don Roos (“The Opposite of Sex”).

“I thought the film would either give me a safe, constructive place to express my sorrow, or it would expand it into a gaping wound,” she said.

In the end, Aaron decided to use her anguish. She believed her performance would be more convincing, because she connected to the material in a new way: “For the first time, I understood what it meant for Judy to challenge her sister and risk losing her forever,” she said. “I knew the stakes, and it heightened and intensified my work.”

The 48-year-old Aaron (“Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Bounce”) recently discussed the movie — which has won awards on the festival circuit — in her homey Hancock Park living room, surrounded by photographs of Abady and other family members. She exudes the same manic Jewish humor and melodramatic flair as her character, and like her character, also seems addicted to the phone, cocking her head each time the answering machine picked up (which it did four times in a half hour).

Dressed in black sweats and heavy silver jewelry, she recalled how she was startled when the producers said they wanted to shoot “Call Waiting” as a one-person movie. She had assumed that they would hire other actors to portray the characters on the other side of her character’s phone conversations. After all, one-person films are rare (one example is Robert Altman’s acclaimed “Secret Honor” (1984) starring Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon).

The producers believed such a movie would work, because “Caroline’s conversations in the play are so vivid, it feels more like a show with a dozen characters,” producer Roos said. Even so, the producers planned to make the monologue more cinematic by adding several scenes with one new character, who also is played by Aaron.

The new character is “desperately afraid to admit she’s needed by others, while Aaron’s character is scared to death to acknowledge that she needs her sister,” producer Bucatinsky said.

For Aaron — who often talks about how much she misses Abady — the film did not provide any kind of emotional catharsis.

“I don’t feel like I’ll ever completely work through the loss of my sister,” she said. “But at least the movie gave me a safe place in which to express those feelings.”

“Call Waiting” screens Oct. 5 at the Arpa International Film Festival. Other Arpa Jewish films include the documentaries “Between Two Worlds,” about a Jewish World War II pilot, and “American Holocaust,” which draws parallels between the Nazi and Native American genocides. For information, go to

“Call Waiting” will also screen Oct. 7 at the Majestic Crest Theater in Westwood:


Getting Out Before Katrina Still Painful

It’s hard for Gideon Daneshrad to imagine himself on the receiving end of tzedakah (charitable giving). In the 30 years since he arrived from Iran to study computer science at North Louisiana University in Monroe, Daneshrad, 56, has built himself a full life — with four children, a lakefront home and New Orleans’ only kosher restaurant.

“Just close your eyes and imagine that you wake up in the morning and you are stripped of your identity,” Daneshrad says. “You are nobody. You are nothing. You have no money coming in. You don’t have clothes. You don’t have food. And all the people you knew are scattered around the world.”

Daneshrad and his family have been in Los Angeles for more than a week, and he still finds himself imagining this is all a nightmare.

“Every night I go to bed and think I’ll wake up and everything will be fine,” he says. “It just hurts so much.”

The Daneshrads left New Orleans early Sunday morning on Aug. 28, just before Hurricane Katrina came whipping through. They threw a few things in an overnight bag, expecting to be home in a day or two. Daneshrad didn’t take more cash than he happened to have on hand, put his three cockatoos up on a table to keep them dry, filled up his tank and loaded his family in the car.

Their lakefront house — recently remodeled with mahogany floors throughout and six blocks from the Lake Pontchartrain levee break — disappeared under 18 feet of water. Their restaurant, Creole Kosher Kitchen — the only kosher establishment in the French Quarter — is most likely a murky mess of rotting meat and shorted appliances.

The shul where Gideon was gabbai, Beth Israel, is under water, along with eight Torah scrolls. Their small, close-knit Orthodox community is dispersed.

It may be months before the family will be allowed to go back to survey the damage and collect anything salvageable — jewelry, photos that may have survived on the second floor, maybe the teddy bear their daughter keeps asking for.

“I am the dad,” Daneshrad says. “All of a sudden, the person who makes everything OK is powerless. I can’t do anything.”

He sleeps on the floor of his sister’s three-bedroom home in Reseda, when he can sleep at all. His wife, Rut, doesn’t talk much about what happened during an interview; she just sits quietly wiping away tears.

Their girls, ages 5 and 8, wake up with nightmares. They want to go home, and they don’t understand why their mother didn’t pack their stuff.

The Daneshrads opened the Creole Kosher Kitchen on Chartres Street near the convention center in November 2000. This year was the first the restaurant, which Zagat rated as “excellent,” turned a profit.

The restaurant was “a place for Jews who are suffering in New Orleans with all the nonkosher pork and shrimp and crawfish and lobster and crab — so they could get a little Creole taste,” Daneshrad says.

Daneshrad was obviously not among the thousand of subsistence poor in New Orleans; he had operated successful gift shops in the French Quarter before starting his restaurant. He knew he had money in the bank when he left town. But he also had business loans with the same bank — for a restaurant that no longer exists. And he had no flood insurance.

What he has left financially, if anything, will be worked out over the next months. And he hasn’t a clue what happened to the cockatoos.

When the family arrived in Los Angeles, Daneshrad’s youngest sister, who has three children and runs a day care out of her home, took in Daneshrad, his wife and his two daughters. The Daneshrads’ oldest son is at Brooklyn College, and their 15-year-old boy had already been attending the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Dallas.

The girls go to classes at Emek Hebrew Academy/Teichman Family Torah Center in Sherman Oaks. Aside from covering tuition, the parent body, lay leadership and administration of the school has provided uniforms and shoes for the girls, cash and transportation, while coordinating with Jewish Family Service’s Aleinu Center for help with long-term needs, such as jobs and a place to live.

“We may have lost all our belongings, but we didn’t lose what belongs to us, which is Judaism,” says a grateful Daneshrad.

His watch is still set on New Orleans time, but it would be hard to go back. He thinks that maybe the time is right to bring hand-rolled Andouille sausage, jambalaya and gumbo to Southern California, if he can find investors willing to stand behind a Creole Kosher Kitchen in Los Angeles.

His optimism is somehow still intact: “What keeps us going here, right now, is that God has given human beings the best gift of all — the ability to forget pain and sorrow.”


A Holocaust-Inspired Vegetarian

Recently, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) issued an apology for its Holocaust on Your Plate campaign and exhibit, which showed concentration camp images next to photos of animal abuse on factory farms. The comparison was extraordinarily tasteless, and widely condemned. PETA expressed surprise at the negative reaction, and while they should have known better, their campaign has thankfully ended.

However, we should not go as far as some who disavow any consideration of the Holocaust in reacting to cruelty to farm animals. PETA’s display was vulgar and offensive, but it taps into a deep call for justice that should speak to anyone who still feels the utter horror of the Final Solution, which continues to cast its dark shadow over the Jewish collective memory.

I remember as a child listening to survivors’ stories of utter inhumanity, trying to imagine the incomprehensible magnitude of suffering. I once started counting to 6 million, calculating that it would take months to do so even without stopping to eat or sleep.

Long after the war, my grandfather, an Auschwitz survivor, would cover his mouth in panic attacks, believing he smelled the gas. On Holocaust Memorial Day, I always confronted the unfathomable question of how so many people could act with a complete lack of compassion or basic moral decency. While such monstrous evil flourished, people went about their lives averting their eyes.

For me, these stories were defining elements of my moral character. The ethnic cleansings in Bosnia, the genocide in Rwanda — these were different from the Holocaust in important ways. And yet, the specter of concentration camps and gas chambers hangs over my head when I read about these atrocities, while the world does nothing.

I still remember when I first learned about factory farms. Animals crammed in crates and cages so tightly they could not turn around, lie down or stretch a limb; living in their own filth, beaten with iron bars and electric prods. Body parts torn off with pliers or mutilated with hot knives. Animals’ bodies hormonally and genetically manipulated to grow so fast that their legs deform and break under their own weight. Animals never allowed to breathe fresh air, feel sunlight, experience any mental stimulation or feel any affection. And then meeting their final fate, often skinned alive or drowned in tanks of scalding water.

Raised with storybook pictures of pigs rolling in the mud and chickens pecking in the barnyard, the reality of modern agriculture shocked me. The enormity of it — literally billions of animals each year suffering this miserable fate in our country alone — was incomprehensible. I’d never heard about it before — why was nobody talking about it? Could I justify these horrific abuses just for the momentary pleasure of flesh on my tongue? After all, these cruelties were not driven by ideology, but by economics: they were doing it because I was paying them to.

Had I not been raised under the shadow of the Holocaust, I might very well have chosen simply not to think about it. How easy it would have been to avert my eyes and enjoy my chicken wings. But the memory of 6 million murdered Jews spoke to me. Not because of some offensive equating of concentration camp victims with animals, or of the Holocaust with farming, but because I could not let myself be like the Germans who allowed themselves to be complicit in a massive crime. One does not have to offensively compare Jews with cows, or an ideology of hate with profit-driven cruelty, to see the application of what for me was a central lesson of the Holocaust: When the strong abuse the weak, we should not remain silent.

This was how the Holocaust inspired me to stop eating animal products. And I am hardly alone. Just as Holocaust memories have inspired so many Jews to fight for civil rights, religious freedom and other forms of social justice, they have also inspired many of us to fight against the horrors of factory farming. Doubtlessly, PETA was hoping for this kind of thinking with their wildly inappropriate exhibit, expecting that the injustice of the Holocaust would wake our consciences about another, albeit completely different, injustice. Unfortunately, in spite of their repeated assertions that they were not equating humans and animals, their exhibit appeared to do just that. People were rightly outraged.

Nevertheless, I worry that many Jews will remember the Holocaust but forget its lessons. We should never avert our eyes to cruelty, and say, “I don’t want to think about it.” Critics of the PETA exhibit universally concede that the factory farm cruelties are wrong, but have let PETA’s exhibit distract them from speaking out against these cruelties. With the exhibit over, we no longer have any excuse.

Right now animals are being squeezed into trucks so tightly that their innards prolapse. Animals with broken legs are being dragged to the slaughterhouse by chains behind trucks. Animals are being branded with hot irons and castrated without painkillers. Sick or injured animals are left without medical care to die slow, painful deaths. The abuses go on and on. While we shouldn’t need to remember the Holocaust to know this cannot be justified merely to please our palates, that memory serves for me as a stark reminder that I want no part in mercilessness.

Noam Mohr is coordinator of Jewish Vegetarians of North America. The views
expressed here, however, are his own.


Surgery Offers Hope to Dystonia Victims

Twelve-year-old Josh Gaskin walks to the front door and shakes a visitor’s hand. While this gesture would seem routine for most adolescents, two years ago it would have been impossible for Josh.

By the time he had reached the fourth grade, Josh’s dystonia caused his right hand to involuntarily clench into a fist so tight that he could only open it by force. His feet turned inward, requiring him to wear braces. The symptoms had forced Josh to quit his baseball and basketball teams after six years of playing, leaving him depressed and angry.

Josh’s mother, Andrea, had read about an unusual procedure that might hold hope for her son. Deep brain stimulation (DBS) involves placing tiny electrodes deep in the brain. The electrodes are connected by wires running internally down each side of the neck to small pulse generators implanted under the skin of the chest.

The electrical pulses disrupt the brain signals that cause involuntary movement. The procedure had been used extensively to relieve Parkinson’s disease symptoms, and had recently been found to help some dystonia patients.

Andrea was intrigued. Still, DBS involves multiple surgical procedures. At the time, few procedures had been done for dystonia patients, and only a handful of them had involved children.

“Deep inside, I knew that this was going to be for us,” she said. “My husband was more hesitant…. You’re dealing with the brain and things can happen.”

But Andrea felt strongly. “The way I looked at it, why let it get worse before I make him better. The more your body starts twisting, the harder you have to work to put it back to what it was,” she said. “I didn’t want him go through any more suffering.”

In April 2004, Josh underwent DBS surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. During the procedure, a metal halo was screwed into his skull to assure no movement. The doctor drilled a small hole in Josh’s skull and inserted the electrodes.

Josh was a awake for much of the six-hour surgery, because his doctors needed to ask him questions in order to place the electrodes most effectively. Two days after his surgery, Josh’s doctors inserted batteries into the device.

By the following day, Josh was able to play video games with his father at Times Square’s ESPN Zone. Within a month, he could walk without the foot braces. He began shooting hoops and hitting baseballs.

“I had forgotten how it felt to open my arms,” Josh said. “It felt good to go back to normal.”

Josh suffered a setback last June, when one of the leads caused a leakage of brain fluid, and the apparatus on one side of his body had to be removed. Within six months, his walking was worse than it had been before the surgery.

Last March, he returned to New York to have the device re-implanted, and has been slowly improving ever since. He can write again. He plays basketball and runs track at school. He hopes to re-join a sports league, and is practicing his skills. His speech remains slurred as it was prior to the surgery, but he hopes that it, too, will slowly improve.

Each month, Josh must visit the doctor to have his electrical settings fine tuned. He will need surgery to have his batteries replaced every three to four years.

Nevertheless, neither Josh nor his mother have any regrets. “It’s not for everybody, but for us, this surgery has been a blessing,” Andrea said. “We’ve seen a big improvement.”

Before the procedure, “I was angry, mad and sad. I didn’t know why I had [dystonia],” Josh said. “Now, I have a better outlook.”

As he recounted his story, Josh was asked about scabs on both his knees. They weren’t from surgery. He had been fooling around on his parent’s treadmill, put it on maximum and fell. Just like any other normal 12-year-old kid. — NSS


After the Ashes


On a rabbinic mission to Israel in 1998, Natan Sharansky, then Israel’s minister of industry and trade, addressed our group.

Sharansky recounted to us how he was invited to visit Russia a year after his election to the Knesset. It was the first time in history that a past prisoner of the Russian government returned as a leader in the free world. Sharansky told of other unique aspects of his trip.

“I was the first state guest who insisted not on going to the Russian Ballet,” he said. “But rather I wanted to visit the former KGB prison where I was incarcerated.”

The Russians were baffled by this unusual request. It actually took a good deal of time for Moscow to agree, and the trip was delayed until consent was granted. The Russians meticulously prepared for the visit.

Sharansky said, “It was so clean that it almost looked like the Ballet Theater. Of course they cleaned it up in my honor, and I thanked them for their kindness.”

As Sharansky and his wife, Avital, toured the prison, he asked his hosts, “Please show me the punishment cell.”

The officials didn’t know what to do. They were not prepared for this request, and obviously it wasn’t on the official itinerary. Furthermore, they wanted to deny that there was such a room.

“They showed me a regular cell and said it was the punishment cell,” he said. “I told them that if there is one thing they cannot deceive me about, it is Russian prisons.

“So they finally consented and showed me a punishment cell that was empty. I then asked to be left alone with my wife for 15 minutes.”

When the Sharanskys reappeared, the journalists asked why he insisted on such a visit. They wanted to know if this was an act of masochism.

“‘On the contrary, it was the most inspiring moment of my life,'” Sharansky responded. “‘When I was a prisoner of the Soviet Union, my jailers tortured and taunted me and told me that world Jewry had betrayed me and that I would never leave the prison alive.’

“Today, the KGB does not exist, the Soviet Union does not exist, and 1 million Jews have left the punishment cell called the Soviet Union. This is what I went back to see. This is what I am thankful for.”

Sharansky’s attitude is as old as the Bible. This week’s Torah portion began with a description of the olah, the obligatory burnt offering that was brought twice a day — morning and afternoon — to the Holy Temple.

Strangely, the description starts with four verses devoted to the laws about removing the ashes of the sacrifice that was consumed throughout the previous night. Only with verse five do we find the laws pertaining to the sacrifice itself.

Rabbi Chayim ben Attar, the 18th-century Moroccan kabbalist and commentator, suggested that this order was replete with a moral message. In his biblical commentary, the Or HaChayim, he argued that it depicted Jewish history in which suffering seems to dominate, but in the end victory will reign.

“This is the teaching of the burnt offering: It is the burnt offering on the firewood….”

Our history has been “the offering on the firewood,” that consumed so many Jews, he notes in Or HaChayim. When one reads Jewish history it appears like a gigantic furnace devouring so many of our people.

The fire of anti-Semitism burned throughout a long, dark night that seems to have no end. The Torah, however, tells us that this is not our destiny; rather, “the Kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning … you shall not extinguish it.”

We, the generation after the Holocaust, the generation of the establishment of the State of Israel, the generation of the freedom of Soviet Jewry and the generation of the ingathering of Ethiopian Jewry, know the truth of this message.

Jewish history is not only fire and ashes; it is the promise of a glorious destiny. Our job is to make that destiny happen sooner rather than later.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.


Letters to the Editor


Alterman Hurt

It is quite painful for a proud, practicing pro-Zionist Jew, who was bar mitzvahed, educated in Israel, lights candles on Shabbat, attends shul regularly, contributes to The Forward and educates his own child into the religious tradition, to be accused publicly of anti-Semitism (“When Jews Wax Anti-Semitic,” Feb. 18).

It has happened to me on occasion in extremely obscure, right-wing Web sites but only twice in the mainstream media. Both times it has been done by Cathy Young on the editorial page of The Boston Globe. The last time, I was denied the courtesy of a response. I hope that will not be the case today.

As most people are aware, the accusation of anti-Semitism, like that of anti-Americanism, can be employed by people to stifle debate and stigmatize points of view with which they disagree. In this case, Cathy Young seeks to silence anyone who recognizes the reality of Jewish responsibility for Palestinian suffering.

This is unfortunate, for many reasons – one cannot hope for peace in the Middle East without a mutual recognition of the pain the conflict has caused – but more to the point, phony accusations of anti-Semitism have the effect of weakening societal strictures against the real thing. By employing this slander against me now twice, Cathy Young is actually aiding and abetting the anti-Semites by robbing the term of any coherent meaning.

Here, for the record, is the entire text of the blog text that has led Young to call me these horrid names:

“I’m a Jew, but I don’t expect Arabs to pay tribute to my people’s suffering, while Jews, in the form of Israel an its supporters – and in this I include myself – are causing much of theirs.

Would Andrew [Sullivan] want to go to a service in honor of the suffering of gay-bashing bigots? (Wait, don’t answer that. Would a gay person who didn’t regularly offer his political support to gay-bashing bigots want to go?)

Anyway, I’m sure what I’m saying will be twisted beyond recognition, and so I suppose that makes it stupid to do, but I’m sorry. The Palestinians have also suffered because of the Holocaust.

They lost their homeland as the world – in the form of the United Nations – reacted to European crimes by awarding half of Palestine to the Zionists. They call this the “Nakba” or the “Catastrophe.”

To ask Arabs to participate in a ceremony that does not recognize their own suffering but implicitly endorses the view that caused their catastrophe is morally idiotic – which is why, I guess, I’m not surprised Andrew’s doing it.

Also via Little Roy, here’s another conservative Jew joining David Horowitz in endorsing Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism,, and even William Donohue’s disgusting anal-sex-obsessed anti-Jewish attack, which was broadcast on MSNBC and implicitly endorsed by Pat Buchanan.”

You can see from the above, while the item does recognize the political folly of demanding that Arabs, who have suffered their own catastrophe at the hands of Jews, be demanded to pay fealty to Jews without any recognition of their own suffering, the item also contains an attack on the genuine anti-Semitism of both “The Passion of the Christ” and the Catholic League’s Donahue blaming America’s moral ills on “Hollywood’s secular Jews,” whom he informed MSNBC’s Buchanan “like anal sex.”

Nowhere do I, as Young accuses, hold “Jews responsible for ‘much’ of the suffering of Muslims everywhere,” as I was clearly talking about Palestine, and nor, for the same reasons, can I be accused of arguing that “every Muslim is justified in viewing every Jew as the enemy.”

As for her accusation that I actually blame “long-dead Holocaust victims,” well, it boggles the mind that your editors would allow this hateful poison into your newspaper, whatever Young’s motives may be for spreading it.

That a newspaper with the reputation of The Boston Globe would allow itself to be used for Young’s vicious vendetta against me – now twice – is both shameful and shocking. I would appreciate a retraction and apology.

Eric Alterman
New York, N.Y.

Not Joining GOP

I’m not quite ready to join any political organization that so desperately needs new members. By attacking the DNC in the mean, misleading manner (“Join the RJC” ad, Feb. 18), they expose the cheap-shot propaganda methods of their leaders.

The horrible photo of suicide bombers with a small child was not what Howard Dean was responding to in September of 2003. Not taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at the time, was diplomatic commentary.

Prior to the Bush election of 2000, we might recall his statements regarding that conflict: “no nation building.” During Bush’s first four years, he gave warnings to both sides.

And, oh yes, ask John McCain about Republican rhetoric in the South coming out of Bush’s primary campaign during debates within the party.

No, I’m not ready to become a bedfellow to the likes of Jerry Fallwell (“There is an anti-Christ among us, and he is probably a Jew”) and quite a few evangelicals who believe that if I don’t believe as they, I’m going to hell.

Jack Abrams
Valley Village

Bus No. 19

Louis Lainer objected to our partnering with the Christian group that owns Jerusalem Bus 19, because he disagrees with some of their views (“Bus No. 19 Making Controversial Stop,” Jan. 21).

As a peace activist, Lainer, of all people, should understand that when groups have important common ground, they come together to produce results and try to overlook their differences. This does not mean that their political views have suddenly merged.

We were pure of heart when we brought the bus to various cities. We wanted people to feel closer to the pain and suffering caused by suicide bombing all over the world.

We wanted to spark commitment, so people would join together to pressure world leaders to declare suicide bombing a crime against humanity. This is not a political position. All people should stand shoulder to shoulder to express abhorrence of this crime and disgust with countries that fund and incite terrorist training and operations.

Suicide bombing cannot possibly be a legitimate form of negotiation. That is what we all hoped to emphasize.

It is disheartening that a peace activist would worry more about the Christian sponsor’s position on disengagement than about the deeper and more crucial issue of why international organizations like the U.N. are taking so long to define terrorism and to condemn it.

Roz Rothstein,
Executive Director

ADHD Disorder

I am writing to raise your consciousness about how offensive it is that Mark Miller chooses to make jokes at the expense of people with attention deficit disorder (ADHD).

ADHD is a recognized medical condition that, untreated, can lead to serious difficulties and much suffering (“Why the Web Wins,” Feb. 18). I assume that Miller would not make fun of people with diabetes or cancer – this is no different. Moreover, Miller’s implication that people with ADHD are automatically not desirable social companions is both insulting and incorrect.

I would ask that Miller make an apology in his next column to the numerous people among your newspaper’s readers who are affected by ADHD (estimated to be somewhere between 2 percent and 4 percent of the adult population in the United States).

For more information, please review the fact sheet found at the following link:

Name withheld by request

Ban Practice

The archaic practice of metzizah b’peh should be banned universally by the highest rabbinic authorities (“Death Spotlights Old Circumcision Rite,” Feb. 18).

When the custom of metzizah was established, it was thought that drawing blood in this manner would protect against infection. It is now known that the opposite is true. The human oral cavity has more virulent bacteria than that of a dog.

Aside from the possibility of the mohel passing infection to the infant, this could also occur in reverse. It is beyond comprehension that anyone could condone such a practice or even debate the mystical benefits of this practice.

Dr. Steven Shoham


As a former and potential future Shalhevet parent, I thought Julie Gruenbaum Fax’s article (“What’s Next for Shalhevet?” Feb. 4) was fair and accurate. Shalhevet has consistently turned out amazing graduates, but it also has great problems that have turned off many families of alumni.

Shalhevet’s problems are not those that its opponents in the right-wing Orthodox community, most of whom have never set foot on its campus, wrongly and loudly accuse it of.

Those baseless accusations are not why Shalhevet’s attendance and quality has declined the past two years. Those slanders have been around for a decade, yet until two years ago, most entering classes had some 60 of the best kids around.

Why have the last two years seen perhaps two dozen families of Shalhevet alumni sending their next child somewhere else? Simple. They felt Shalhevet’s leadership had become inept, disorganized, out of touch and often mean-spirited.

Indeed, the worst impact of the lies told about the school was that the administration circled its wagons in response, and mislabeled as opponents those who loved the school but were nonetheless critical of it and demanded change.

Los Angeles desperately needs Shalhevet. But Shalhevet must reorganize.

Jerry Friedman had the vision to start the school, but, like a child, when an institution matures, it needs to spread its wings and strike out on its own. Shalhevet can no longer function as a one-man show. It needs an independent board and administration.

Fortunately, it seems to be taking some steps in the right direction. I hope so. There are many of us who would love to again be Shalhevet families.

Name Withheld by Request
Los Angeles

I was horribly offended by the direction of the “What’s Next for Shalhevet?” article authored by Julie Gruenbaum Fax.

Since when do we Jews repay so much dedication and determination by an acknowledged community leader and visionary like Shalhevet’s founder, Jerry Friedman, to be so disrespected and undermined.

To be sure, Shalhevet and YULA are competing schools, and we have profound philosophical differences. But menschlechkeit is menschlechkeit!

His herculean effort to inspire a generation of young people, much at the expense of his personal time and treasure, can only be recognized as a monumental achievement by a man with incredible devotion to young people and Jewish education.

How dare he be rewarded with disdain by others who have never begun to sacrifice quality years as he has!

Rabbi Meyer H. May
Executive Director
Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

I am an involved member of the Temple Beth Am Library Minyan, graduate of Pressman Academy, senior at Shalhevet High and chair of the Israel Action Committee at my school.

The article that Julie Gruenbaum Fax wrote and published about Shalhevet personally offended me. Shalhevet is a wonderful institution that teaches Jewish youth religiosity, Zionism, morality and good citizenship.

Our close-knit community allows for bonding and growth. Our strong academics yield bright students with outstanding college acceptance records. Most importantly, our devotion to the small Jewish community we see at Shalhevet on a daily basis and the larger Jewish community we feel worldwide inspire us to do great things.

One of those great things currently being taken upon by students is the organization and execution of a communitywide Israeli street fair aimed to raise money for Israeli terror victims and soldiers.

Our 3-year-old Israel Action Committee, which is led by myself and senior Eliya Shachar, has had success in the past with a large community fair and hopes to be just as successful this year. We are securing vendors (such as Muzikal store and Brenco Judaica), restaurants (such as Nathan’s and Jeffs Gourmet), musicians and organizations (such as StandWithUs) to be a part in our event.

The idea is to create an Israeli-like atmosphere in which Jews from all over the community can come to eat, listen to live Israeli music and buy products. All of our proceeds will then go to Israeli charities (i.e. OneFamily Foundation, A Package From Home and the North American Conference of Ethiopian Jewry).

This is the beauty of Shalhevet that the article failed to portray.

As a concerned Israel Action Committee chair, Shalhevet student and ultimately community member, I would like to ask you to please cover this event in The Jewish Journal so that people can understand what the amazing Jewish institution called Shalhevet is really about, and so that as many people as possible can come to and support this enormous, unprecedented teenage effort to raise both funds and awareness for Israel.

Whether this letter itself is published, an interview with me is conducted and then printed or simply a small story explaining this “fair-y” tale event appears in an issue, please help us help Israel and heal the wounds that were created with the printing of Mrs. Gruenbaum Fax’s article.

Zach Cutler
Via E-Mail

Refreshing View

I have been reading The Journal for a very long time and enjoy it very much. However, I have never taken the time to write to you and thank you for the great service you contribute to the Jewish community.

I am a senior citizen, and I enjoy reading articles about seniors. I was pleased to read the article written by Ed Shevick in the Feb. 4 issue titled, “The Good, the Bad and the Confusing.”

Most articles written about seniors are written by younger people and reflect their views on what they think are older people’s outlook on life. It was refreshing to get the view from one of our own (I am 84).

Please let us have more articles by Shevick and his views on life as a senior citizen.

Philip Shubb

Power of Blessing

I write this e-mail with gratitude to Naomi Levy for her beautiful blessings that she willingly shared. (“Power of Blessing,” Dec. 24, 2004). We plan to use her loving words, which articulate our feelings so well.

Naomi, thank you for opening a door to Jewish spirituality that we have never walked through before.

Elizabeth Sax
via E-Mail


How could so many things be wrong when everything is so right?

As Orthodox Jews, we naturally sent our son to a Jewish day school. Considering our way of life and the fact that my son has always attended a Chabad school, you would think that, given a choice between YULA and Shalhevet, we would obviously pick YULA.

As fate would have it, I filled out the application for Shalhevet and hand-delivered it. As I walked into the building, I was immediately taken in by the atmosphere. The kids seemed happy and very comfortable with their environment.

I certainly did not concern myself with the “disorganization and flakiness.” We never even applied to YULA or anywhere else.

My son is now a sophomore at Shalhevet, and I have the same view of the school as I did the first time I walked into the building.

This is a school where teachers, for the most part, are devoted to their students and try to help them work to their potential. This is where students develop a strong Judaic and secular background.

This is where teachers are willing to meet with parents at 7 a.m., 7 p.m. or any other time that is convenient to the parents. This is where my son had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to Israel for the first time and have an incredible experience.

These are the things that as a parent and an educator are important to me. If this is the school that Dr. Jerry Friedman created, my hat goes off to him.

This is not to say that I have never experienced a lack of organization or “flakiness.” Nevertheless, without attempting to rationalize, those things are present in any school.

I also would tend to agree that sometimes change is necessary. However, I am somewhat concerned that empowering 22 people (with 40 opinions) to run the school could easily produce a result that is not nearly as good as we have right now.

To sum up, I strongly disagree with the parent’s opinion that “the problems overwhelm the mission.” Quite the contrary. It is our responsibility as parents to look beyond the internal housekeeping problems and appreciate all of the positive things that Shalhevet has to offer our children.

Marilyn Kalson
Los Angeles

Every now and again, I read something in The Journal that jolts me – an article, an editorial or sometimes a reader’s letter. In the Feb. 18 Journal, a letter by “Name Withheld” about Shalhevet School contained the following statement. “Had there been such schools in Europe 80 years ago, there may have been many more survivors.”

Are there really Jews, readers of The Journal, who believe that?

It’s what we read and hear from anti-Semitic hate groups. It’s Nazi propaganda that the millions of men, women and children Hitler tortured and murdered in a planned, methodical, barbaric and premeditated manner were somehow an inferior race of uneducated humans.

Obviously, your readership includes many stupid or ignorant readers, but how could you print such a comment? What an insult to the memory of all the doctors, professors, musicians, artists and millions of others just like “Name Withheld” who were exterminated just because they were Jewish.

Mendel Levin
Los Angeles

AIPAC Not ‘Silent’

Ron Kampeas and Matthew Berger of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency got it wrong in their characterization of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) role in the Senate and House resolutions congratulating the Palestinian people on their recent elections (“Bush Mideast Plan Gets Tepid Response,” Feb. 11).

These resolutions, which called upon the Palestinians to live up to their obligations to fight terror, were passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support in both Houses. AIPAC was instrumental in the passage of these resolutions and was consulted in the early stages of the drafting of these resolutions.

For the authors of this article to imply that AIPAC was “silent” is preposterous. I would expect that the JTA would correct this mischaracterization.

This type of broad support does not happen by itself. Because AIPAC reflects the broad mainstream of the Jewish community, it is trusted by both Democrats and Republicans.

In the meantime, AIPAC looks forward to working with Congress on new legislation that will help the Palestinians take steps to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure and provide Israel with a sincere and credible partner capable of making progress toward peace.

Howard Welnsky
Toluca Lake

CAIR Reality Check

Whoa! Time for a reality check. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) is not sweet and cuddly as presented by Stephen Krashen (“Letters,” Feb. 18).

CAIR is an outgrowth of the Hamas group, the Islamic Association of Palestine, and is described by the FBI as engaging in propaganda for militants. Steve Pomerantz, former FBI chief of counterterrorism, concludes: “CAIR, its leaders and its activities give aid to international terrorist groups.”

Sen. Charles Schumer [D-N.Y.] of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism stated in 2003, “We know CAIR has ties to terrorism.”

CAIR has recently (Dec. 30) been named in a trillion dollar suit filed in New York by the family of John P. O’Neill, former head of the counterterrorism division of the FBI and the world’s foremost expert on Islamic terrorism.

It is encumbent upon the community to get informed and to do due diligence before unwarranted praise is attributed to such an organization. See and

Ophira Levant
Los Angeles

Super Sunday

I read the Los Angeles [Times] Feb. 14 news item regarding The Federation “estimate of $4.6 million raised” with special interest, as I have served as a Federation staff and board member for many years.

Now retired and housed in a care facility because of health reasons and age (89), I do, however, retain a deep interest in both the Jewish and general community.

Believing in response to The Times story is an internal matter, this letter is to The Jewish Journal.

Back in the 1947-1948 spring campaigns under Leo Gallen, one of best fundraisers I’ve known, $10 million were raised from 50,000 givers under the Jewish Community Council in the name of the Jewish Community Council, United Jewish Appeal.

The subsequent merger with The Federation led to the present structure (The Jewish [Community] Centers were an important part of life at that time).

Super Sunday in those days would have been for clean-up.

I believe in a change to yesterday could prove to be what we need today and tomorrow.

Hyman Haves
Pacific Palisades

I read with interest The Journal’s Feb. 11 issue regarding the fundraising goal of The Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles (“Super Sunday Seeks to Top $4.5 Million”).

It is tragic that needy services will be cut back or eliminated due to loss of government funds. Perhaps the JFC should look in house for solutions.

As a charity organization supported by donations and government funds, perhaps its directors could lower their salaries to make up the shortfalls? According to their latest tax information (available on line at for 2002) JFC’s president earns $350,000 annually, and at least five directors earn from $137,000 to $183,000.

If they were to be magnanimous and take a 10 percent reduction in pay, that would more or less make up the $125,000 shortfall for the homeless shelter that houses 57 people.

What is the priority here – the homeless shelter or inflated salaries?

David Amitai
Los Angeles

Eric Alterman

I have been involved with pro-Israel activism since 1967, so I think I know what anti-Semitism is and isn’t. Cathy Young does not (“When Jews Wax Anti-Semitic,” Feb. 18).

She calls author and professor Eric Alterman an anti-Semitic Jew, essentially because he has repeatedly expressed sympathy for the Palestinian people and has supported President Bush’s formulation for Middle East peace, “two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side.”

Young has it precisely backward. I read Alterman regularly, and it is obvious that his support for a Palestinian state derives from his strong Jewish identity. He simply understands that for Israel to survive, it must have peace – and that means peace with the Palestinians.

For Alterman, Israel’s survival as a Jewish state is a moral imperative, one that drives his Mideast views. It is not Alterman who should have to defend himself against the charge of indifference to Jewish suffering. It is people like Young who have repeatedly supported perpetuation of the deadly status quo over peace through territorial compromise.

Young may consider herself pro-Israel and Eric Alterman hostile. For me the difference is this: Young is always ready to fight to the last Israeli. Alterman is not.

The [Boston] Globe should be ashamed of itself for allowing her baseless name-calling to appear on its editorial page.

M.J. Rosenberg
Washington, D.C.

With friends like Cathy Young, the Jews don’t need enemies. It is truly unnecessary for her to resort to name-calling and her own version of political correctness in monitoring how progressive Jews respond to the reality of the current situation between Israelis and Palestinians. Yet, in her gratuitous attack on Eric Alterman, she does just that.

What Alterman states – and what is stated by centrists in Israel today – is that there is a different reality for Israelis and Palestinians. Israel, created out of necessity from the ashes of the Holocaust – did create a situation of displacement for Palestinians. That is a historic fact.

Israelis, who today seem closer to peace than in the last several years, are not asking of the Palestinian leadership that they become Zionists, simply that they become partners in peace to build a constructive future for all the peoples of the region. That is the point that Alterman was making in his recent MSNBC blog, after which Young chose to attack him.

There is no question that until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reaches a just resolution for both peoples, relations between Jews and Muslims will suffer, another point of Alterman’s. Whether these relations will improve after there are two states – Israel and Palestine side by side – only time will tell.

Hopefully, with the Sharm el-Sheik summit – and pragmatists on both sides in the ascendancy – that time may now be forthcoming.

Jo-Ann Mort
via E-Mail

Having known Eric Alterman for more than 25 years, I was distressed to read Cathy Young’s piece.

I have been involved in the organized Jewish community for decades and have always appreciated the desire and willingness of many to engage in free, open and honest debate on issues of concern to our community and beyond. For me, a pro-Israel activist, that debate is essential.

Indeed, having just returned from yet another visit to Israel, I can assure you that the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues unabated there. It is unfortunate that some would attempt to stifle that debate here.

To suggest that Alterman is anti-Semitic is preposterous. Rather, what Young appears to be doing (in addition to misrepresenting his views) is equating recognition of support for a Palestinian state and some understanding for the Palestinian point of view with anti-Semitism. This is a disservice to all.

I can assure you that Alterman is neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Israel. Indeed, he, like many others, believes in and advocates for a two-state solution and for peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

The fact that he does so in a way that recognizes the views of both sides does not make him anti-Semitic. It simply represents a point of view of how to resolve the conflict, a point of view which is shared by many here in the United States and in Israel itself.

Anyone who knows Alterman knows that he has been supportive of a Jewish democratic state living within secure borders and at peace with a neighboring Palestinian state. That, to me, is the essence of being pro-Israel. It is unfortunate that Young does not have room for a diversity of views on the subject.

I am truly sorry that The Boston Globe saw fit to print Young’s unfortunate article. I hope that an appropriate apology to Alterman will be forthcoming.

Geoffrey H. Lewis

As a long-standing supporter of Israel, let me congratulate you on publishing Cathy Young’s column taking Alterman so rightly to task for the kind of tripe he’s made a living out of spouting for so long. It’s time someone stood up to these phonies and recognized that a strong Israel is in the interests of both the United States and the world.

The hue and cry he has raised in response only underscores the degree of distance that currently exists between those who recognize the need to stand up and be counted during Israel’s toughest struggle (the intifada) and those who would rather coddle the left-wing intelligentsia they depend on for validation.

Alterman has had this coming for a long time. That he squeals like a stuck pig and tries to rally everyone he can think of to his cause, only serves to underscore what a fraud he is as both a professor of journalism and friend of Israel.

Coming as it does at a time when brave journalism students at Columbia are standing up to real anti-Semitic intimidation, is it any wonder that so few in the mainstream Jewish community have had anything to say on Alterman’s behalf.

Anyone who wants to understand more, need only read his columns over the past few years, or better yet, sit down in a comfortable chair and re-read Philip Roth’s classic short story, “Defender of the Faith.”

Ted Goode
via E-Mail

Cathy Young was too easy on Eric Alterman. She could have pointed out that no Arabs lost their homeland – that is Arabia, which no one ever invaded.

All their states outside of Arabia are occupied territory of other nations, particularly the country which they themselves called “the land of the Jews” when they first invaded it.

Another Alterman reversal of truth: It was not half of Palestine that was awarded to the Zionists, but half of Israel that was awarded to the Hashemites by the British, and half the remainder that was awarded to the Arab settlers in Judea, Samaria, Gaza and the Galilee by the U.N., leaving us one-eighth of our own land.

When one uncritically repeats the enemy’s propaganda, taking the stand that they can do no wrong; one’s own people can do no right. The label “self-hating” is patently justified.

Louis Richter
via E-Mail

“Tolerant Generation”

As a teenage journalist, for the third consecutive year I was afforded the opportunity to interview Holocaust survivors at the Shoah Foundation’s annual event Each year, the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, so it is fortunate that the Shoah Foundation has preserved the testimony of over 50,000 survivors.

In light of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (“Auschwitz Memorial Marks ’45 Liberation,” Feb. 4) and the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, I believe I have a duty and obligation to do what I can to educate my generation and others as to the need for greater tolerance in the world.

This year, the Shoah Foundation honored former President Bill Clinton with the Ambassadors for Humanity award. When I interviewed the former president in the past, I asked him if he thought my generation was more apathetic to the political fervor that existed when he was growing up.

His response was, “Definitely not.” I would like my generation to be known as the “tolerant generation” – the generation that put an end to genocide and war.

Fred Medill
Beverly Hills

Unilateral Withdrawal

The Feb 18 issue of The Jewish Journal carried a most remarkable analysis of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Palestinian Land (“Unilateral Withdrawal”). As quoted on the front page of the issue: “Disengagement is the real peace process … and what makes it a masterstroke is … it doesn’t depend on the Palestinian body politic, only on Israel’s.”

The logical next step would be to apply “withdrawal” to any area of conflict. Thus, if hoodlums and mass murderers were to move into your neighborhood, it follows that resolution of the social problem, the locals might feel, would simply require that they run away and move out of the area.

Of course, that is exactly the goal of the Palestinian Authority). The P.A. teaches all its citizens that all of Israel is occupied Arab land. P.A. spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi has openly stated: Israelis, go back to Moscow and Brooklyn, where you came from.

Thus, unilateral withdrawal is a position the P.A. does indeed endorse, except that Larry Derfner forgot to say: unilateral withdrawal from all of Israel.

Truly, we can be our own worst enemy!

Fred Korr
Los Angeles

One can only wonder how The Journal can headline “disengagement is the real peace process” and consistently refuse to expose readers to essential news sources like Arutz Sheva (, the Israel National News network that the leftist government outlawed. Arutz Sheva provides daily news, commentary, Torah and insight from a, dare I say it, religious Zionist perspective.

So I ask The Journal, which perspective has kept the Jewish people alive and filled with vision for the past 4,000 years? The perspective of disengagement or the perspective of Torah and ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel, the Jewish people)?

Joshua Spiegelman

Ad a Sham

The Republican Party ad in The Journal Feb. 18 is a sham. President Bush has done the same re: “taking sides,” as diplomatically, we have an interest in retaining Arab relationships, oil and finding peace.

Hyman Haves
Pacific Palisades

Inappropriate Behavior

I attended the UJ lecture series featuring Alan Dershowitz and Bill O’Reilly and was horrified and embarrassed by the reactions of some members of the audience.

Whether or not one agrees or disagrees with anything said by either speaker, the boos, hisses and other outbursts were embarrassing. Jews, of all people, should not react in such an inappropriate manner.

If one cannot act appropriately, then one should not attend this type of debate. Those who acted in this manner brought shame to our community.

Paul Jeser
Via E-Mail

Conservative Bandwagon

The articles in the Opinion Section of the Feb. 18-24 issue by Cathy Young (“When Jews Wax Anti-Semitic”) and David Klinghoffer (“It’s Time to Return to Our Mission”), plus the full page ad by the Republican Jewish Coalition, seem to indicate that a minority of American Jews have chosen to hop on the Christian conservative bandwagon for the wrong reasons.

Most financially comfortable Jews always tended to vote Republican, but to believe that conservative Christians are in love with Jews, is naive. Ecumenical Christians and moderate Jews are equally upset with the Bush evangelicals’ attempt to make this nation a Christian theocracy.

Klinghoffer must know that the evangelical belief in the Second Coming will mean the end of Judaism. Also, Mel Gibson chose to film a Passion play that defied the Vatican criteria, which absolves the Jews from responsibility for Jesus’ death, by choosing the version of a 19th-century anti-Semitic nun.

Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League hoped that changes would be made, but he misjudged the intensity of the anti-Semitic feelings of Mel and papa Gibson.

Martin J. Weisman
Westlake Village


What Lies Beneath


“When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough” by Rabbi Harold Kushner (Pocket, 1987).

“A man sat opposite me in my study one evening: ‘Two weeks ago, for the first time in my life I went to the funeral of a man my own age…. He died suddenly over the weekend…. That was two weeks ago. They have already replaced him at the office…. Two weeks ago he was working 50 feet away from me, and now it’s as if he never existed. It’s like a rock falling into a pool of water. For a few seconds, it makes ripples in the water, and then the water is the same as it was before, but the rock isn’t there anymore. Rabbi, I’ve hardly slept at all since then. I can’t stop thinking that it could happen to me, that one day it will happen to me, and a few days later I will be forgotten as if I had never lived. Shouldn’t a man’s life be more than that?'”

So begins Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough.” Kushner is most famous for his book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” in which he confronts why a benevolent God permits evil in His world. But while I have known suffering in my life, I also know that, like many people, I have been spared the kind of searing pain that provoked Kushner’s most famous book.

“This book is written to help people cope with another, more subtle kind of tragedy,” Kushner writes, “the disease of boredom, meaninglessness, a sense of the futility and purposelessness of our lives.”

I first read “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough” during my freshman year in college when my mom hid it away in one of the bags I took to school. University reading of a different sort. My mom read it over the summer, probably because I was the last child to leave home and she was becoming an “empty nester,” about to experience the exhilarating, terrifying feeling of freedom to be “not just a mom” after so many years of hard work raising my siblings and me. The quiet. The serenity. The emptiness.

Reading Kushner’s book as a freshman did not provoke in me a radical change in lifestyle; I stayed in school, went to parties, continued my swimming career. But as graduation grew closer, I got scared. Scared of taking a job. Scared of getting an apartment and being a commuter. Scared of getting married and getting a house and having kids and buying a mini-van and getting promoted and waking up 15 years later in Kushner’s office wondering “Shouldn’t my life be more than this?”

“I am convinced that it is not the fear of death, of our lives ending, that haunts our sleep,” Kushner writes, “so much as the fear that our lives will not have mattered, that as far as the world is concerned, we might as well never have lived. What we miss in our lives, no matter how much we have, is that sense of meaning.”

It was because of Kushner’s book that I turned down a job offer after college and went to Israel to explore Judaism. Religions speak the language of ultimacy. They answer not how the world came into being, but why. They answer not how to get rich or what profession to choose, but why should I have wealth and what should I do with it. The Jewish God is not the stale Prime Mover of Aristotle; Adonai is God’s name. He cares for us and cares what we do.

When we lie awake at night, alone with our thoughts in a city of 16 million Angelenos, in a country of 260 million Americans, on a planet with 5 billion people, God whispers in our ear, “do not believe that you are small, that your life has no meaning.”

Judaism brings to every Jew the astonishing possibility that the Master of the Universe needs you.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “In this world there are only two tragedies: One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Kushner’s book is an indispensable guide for Jews in America, who have so much and yet feel so empty. If we have not felt the emptiness of satiation afforded by our homes and cars and restaurants, could it be that Kushner’s question — what more? — lies buried because we fear to ask it. His book can teach us to see what we have wanted is not enough, to unearth the question beneath the surface of our souls, “shouldn’t my life be more than this?”

Early in my own life, Kushner’s book taught me not to settle for what my money could buy. His book can teach all of us to ask again what more there is, and to believe our answers matter to the One who created it all.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is executive director of Camp Ramah in California.


Yom Kippur in Chad: Fasting a Way of Life

I am sitting in Adam’s living room — a carpet on a dirt patio. On one side is a small tent for his five children, as well as two nephews and a niece who have been orphaned. On the other side is a small tent for Adam, his wife and all they could carry out of Darfur.

Around us, the Kounoungo refugee camp is filled with a shattering sound — silence. It is the sound of despair. It is the sound of genocide coming closer and the world turning away.

This year, I observed Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar, in a Sudanese refugee camp in Chad. It is the day when Jews throughout the world abstain from food and drink to assess their lives and seek forgiveness for their wrongdoings. In this tragic moment, I could think of nowhere more fitting to keep the Yom Kippur fast than among people who have fasted for days on end — only not as a ritual but as an agonizing condition of life.

Adam is the only refugee I met who spoke English. He belongs to the Fur tribe and provides me with his analysis of the Sudanese genocide. He speaks calmly and rationally. He tells of how his village was set on fire by the Janjaweed and of other villages that met the same fate.

In his view, the problem is quite simple: The fundamentalist Arab Muslim government in Khartoum intends to eviscerate the African Muslim and tribal people. Listening to him, I think of the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and other atrocities of the 20th century, where the conflict also boiled down to the ambition of one ethnic group to eradicate another.

Adam appreciates the noble humanitarian effort in the refugee camps but wonders why the international community is not doing more to stop this unfolding catastrophe.

I was in Kounoungo because of Adam — a human being I did not know existed, suffering a fate to which I cannot be indifferent. His condition as a human being is real, not reality television.

The enormity of the suffering — between 50,000 and 100,000 killed, nearly a million left homeless, over 200,000 refugees in Chad, hundreds of thousand more remaining in Darfur — tends to make us more numb than horrified. I find it hard to comprehend the numbers, but I do relate to Adam.

His desperate situation reminds me of the human capacity for cruelty. But his gentle humanity reminds me that kindness and decency are also possible.

Confronted by the misery of Kounoungo, I worry that I do not feel the shame, the embarrassment and even the disgust that I should. Many of us rationalize our indifference and inaction with the false notion that we cannot possibly make a difference. Overwhelmed by the complexity of human affairs, we forget about the human beings involved.

Yet I cannot forget the faces of the people I saw. As haggard and desperate as they are, they are no different than we — just immeasurably less fortunate. To turn away from them is to forget that we are one of them, all of us descended from the very first Adam.

In the Book of Genesis, God searches for Adam in the garden of Eden, asking, “Where are you?” In the Jewish tradition, this has always been understood as a moral question: Where is your conscience? Why are you hiding? Where do you stand?

The question hasn’t changed. What will be our answer?

Rabbi Lee Bycel is a board member of MAZON: A Jewish response to hunger and traveled to Chad under the auspices of the International Medical Corps. For more information, visit or

Israeli Docs Save Third World Hearts

Inside the Mnaje Mojo hospital — “one coconut” in Swahili — it was absolute chaos. The place was teeming with people and I had to push my way through what seemed a never-ending crowd to get to the small room at the end of the corridor.

When I opened the door to the pitch-black chamber, the only light I saw came from a computer monitor in the back. In the top right hand corner of the screen I read the words, “Save a Child’s Heart.”

Two white men sat huddled together, focused intently on the screen, while a black woman wearing a burka sat on a bed holding an infant.

These are the moments that make me proud to be a part of the Jewish people.

The men, Drs. Uri Katz and Lior Sassoun, were Israeli Jewish physicians from the Save A Child’s Heart organization, through which the pair travels around the world examining children with congenital heart problems and bringing them back to Israel for free surgeries and treatment. I was in Zanzibar volunteering for the group.

The organization — now the largest project in the world providing urgently needed, pediatric cardiac surgery and follow-up care for children from third world and developing countries free of charge — was founded in 1995, by American-born Israeli pediatric cardiac surgeon Ami Cohen.

Here we were in Zanzibar, a tiny Muslim island in the tropics off the coast of Tanzania, working in a hospital with virtually no suitable equipment and a poorly trained and overworked medical staff. All they had was the portable echo machine — manufactured in Israel — and their hands to treat many potential pediatric cardiac surgical cases.

And now they had the Israelis.

Lines of hopeful families extended out the door, through the hallway, into the pediatric ward, down the stairs and out into the main hospital courtyard.

They were all responding to an announcement on Zanzibari radio earlier in the week inviting parents to bring children suffering from heart problems to be examined by two heart specialists from Israel.

Occasionally, Katz and Sassoun peered out of the exam room to check just how many patients remained to be seen. This was going to be a long week — the Israeli heart doctors committed themselves to examining every single child who showed up at the hospital.

The long lines were nothing new for these doctors. In fact, the duo — as well as other Save a Child’s Heart staff — has become accustomed to such crowds after traveling around the world in search of candidates for cost-free heart procedures at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, south of Tel Aviv.

Since its inception, the group’s staff has operated on nearly 1,000 children ranging in age from infants to teenagers. Patients, who are selected without regard to race or religion, have come from nations around the world, including China, Ethiopia, Moldova, Ghana, Jordan, Nigeria and Tanzania, as well as Zanzibar.

Nearly 40 percent of Save a Child’s Heart’s pediatric cases come from the Palestinian Authority.

In addition to the actual cardiac care and surgeries in Israel, the group has an outreach training program for medical personnel from participating countries.

Doctors and nurses are brought to Israel for in-depth training, and Save’s staff travel overseas to educate and perform surgeries in cooperation with local personnel. The group’s ultimate goal is to make partner countries self-sufficient in performing cardiac surgeries on their children.

On this particular mission to Zanzibar, the doctors were also examining children on whom they had operated in the past to see how they had progressed since their surgeries.

Still, the primary purpose of this trip to East Africa was to select new cases to bring back with them for operations.

I was especially excited to see the post-operative children: I had observed, firsthand, the open heart surgeries of several of these Zanzibari children one year before in Israel.

When I said goodbye to those kids in Holon more than 12 months ago, never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would see them again on their native island — and certainly not good as new.

It was easy to identify the post-op children: When the doctor finished examining them, these little kids would say, “todah rabah” and “l’hitraot” — thank you very much and goodbye, in Hebrew — the words they had learned during their stays in the Israeli hospital.

More apparent, however, were the physical changes. I recognized the faces of children who had arrived in Israel as skin and bones, on the verge of death due to complications from their respective heart problems.

But since their surgeries, many of these children had gained 20-30 pounds and generally looked more energetic.

As an aspiring physician, it was fascinating for me to observe these doctors at work. They graciously explained to me how to read the echo machine and how properly to listen to the patient’s heart and lungs to pinpoint the exact nature of the heart problem.

It was incredible to witness how these experts, after just a few seconds of listening to the heart, before even looking at the echo, were able to diagnose a particular kind of heart murmur, a broken valve, a battered-up septum, a missing ventricle or a malfunctioning artery.

Yet, there were some agonizing moments during those few days. Like the 17-year-old girl the doctor diagnosed with Esptein’s Heart syndrome, a fatal heart disease that is uncorrectable.

This particular girl had developed terrible secondary complications from her heart problems that were clearly affecting her day-to-day living. She was unable to move on her own and had extreme difficulty breathing. The doctors told me that it was a miracle that she had lived this long, but she only had a few months left.

When the doctors sat with the family and explained that the prognosis was not good and their team would be unable to help, I was in tears. Like with so many other children these doctors have come across in these developing countries, if the kids had access to regular health care, perhaps their lives could have been spared with early detection and intervention. But now that their diseases had matured, the situation was beyond repair.

Yet, perhaps the most amazing aspect of my experience in Zanzibar and the Save a Child’s Heart endeavor in general, was watching how, when Katz and Sassoun examined a child, they were indifferent to what the kid or his mother was wearing, whether the child’s name was Abdullah Muhammed or Abrahim Rantissi Jr.

All they saw was a ticking a heart on an echo machine that desperately needed fixing.

For more information on the Save A Child’s Heart organization, visit

Fear or Fury?

It’s hard to believe that a whole year has passed. Almost one year ago to the day, Dr. David Appelbaum and his daughter, Nava, were murdered when a suicide bomber exploded himself at Cafe Hillel in Jerusalem. Dr. Appelbaum, 50, was the head of emergency medicine at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital, and was a rabbinical scholar to boot. He had treated countless victims of terror, Jewish and Arab patients alike. Nava, 20, was to be wed the next day. Alas, she never made it to her chuppah.

These are painful memories that we are tempted to shelve into the recesses of our distant memories. Yet we dare not, just as we dare not forget the holy martyrs of the Shoah and all other martyrs of our people’s past.

Is there a Divine message in all of this? How can there not be? Two weeks before the Appelbaum murders, a bus filled with passengers on their way back from the Kotel was blown up. How is it that we read in this week’s haftarah (Isaiah 60:18): “No longer will chamas (violence) be heard in your land!” How can we sing the “Od Yishama” song with sincerity as we dance with the bride and groom, reciting the words, “There will still be heard in the cities of Judah and the environs of Jerusalem … the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride”? The bride’s voice was no longer heard — only the voices of cries at the funeral.

I remember my feelings upon reading the news — so many conflicting emotions. I was initially filled with profound shock, sorrow and anguish upon hearing the news. Such a pathetic, tragic loss!

But then, the anger set in, and with the anger, all the political fuming: How can we allow these evil attacks to continue? How can the Palestinians be allowed to continue — even celebrate — their violence? How can the Israeli government sit on their hands? How dare the international community accuse Israel of destroying the peace process? How can the American government be so hypocritical — going after Afghani and Iraqi terrorists is OK, but not Palestinians? Is Jewish blood so cheap in the world’s eyes?

I found myself emotionally paralyzed by my conflicting feelings. I was, and sometimes still am, a mix of contradictory emotions — from sorrow, a “feminine,” passive emotion, to the “masculine” side of that emotion: anger and rage and a desire to destroy. Then, to fear: fear for my own son in Israel, for all of the sons and daughters of Israel, then to sorrow again, then to anger — the cycle continues.

This conflict of emotion is really a part of the affliction of living in exile. This week’s portion states, “While there [in the Diaspora], God will give you a heart that is ragaz, eyes that are blinded, and a soul of dread” (28:65). What does ragaz mean? There is a dispute between the ancient commentaries of Onkelos and the Talmud. According to Onkeles, ragaz means “fearful.” Our punishment in the Diaspora is to suffer in fear. But the Talmud (Nedarim 22a) understands that ragaz means violent anger — while in the Diaspora, our hearts will be filled with rage against our persecutors.

If our sages cannot agree whether our hearts are to be filled with fear or fury — two mutually exclusive emotions — then perhaps part of our fate in the exile is this emotional paralysis and impotence.

The problem goes further. Just when I’m thinking that perhaps I can do something meaningful as a response to all the suffering of my Jewish brethren — maybe I can do teshuvah (repentance), pray harder, give more tzedakah, more acts of kindness, etc. — I am suddenly caught by fury against the enemy: “Why should I do teshuvah? It’s the enemy’s fault!” We sometimes become too infuriated with the politics of the situation to focus on our own need for self-rectification.

But our calling is to rise above exile. Despite the political maelstrom, it is necessary to put the anger aside at some point, and find a personal message, something that speaks to me, about what I can do — on a metaphysical level — to make a difference.

The Zohar tells us that if a person cries over the deaths of righteous people, then all his sins are forgiven. This is the reason why the Yom Kippur Torah reading begins with a recap of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s righteous sons who died tragically. One is supposed to think to oneself: “If the flame consumed the great cedars, then what hope is there for the creeping ivy?” If the great Dr. Appelbaum, who devoted his life to Torah, Israel and saving lives, could perish so, what about me, God forbid? This is a great impetus for teshuvah, which leads to absolute closeness with God.

So yes, King Solomon’s directive of “Remove anger from your heart” (Ecclesiastes 11:10), at some point is necessary. When presented with the shock of the battlefield, our soldiers are meant to channel their anger in order to destroy Amalek and all our other enemies. But we, who are not on the battlefield, have to at times put the anger aside, so that when coming into the High Holidays, we can allow the deaths of the righteous of the past few years to have personal meaning and act as an impetus to our own spiritual growth.

Let us accept upon ourselves something proactive that we can do for the sake of these holy martyrs before the end of 5764 so that their deaths will have meaning for us. And let us pray for peace and an end to death and suffering for the coming year. May it be His will, amen.

Shana tovah.

Face to Face

Before he was the Buddha, or Enlightened One, Prince Siddhartha lived a luxurious life behind the walls of his family castle. But each time he ventured out, the legend goes, he discovered the lame, the halt, the dying. His squire, Chandara, convinced him to ignore such things, as the world was full of suffering. Then his wife gave birth, and Siddhartha, at 29, was struck by the inexplicable mysteries of life and death. Late one night, he kissed his sleeping wife and newborn son goodbye and wandered out of the palace with Chandara to find the answer to how one overcomes suffering.

I read this legend in the home of my friends, John and Jip, in Seattle last weekend, and it struck me why I would make a lousy Buddhist. I imagined Siddhartha’s wife as she awoke the next day and was told her husband left her and her newborn to find the meaning of human suffering. I imagined what if Siddhartha’s wife was Jewish. He did what? He wanted to find out what? Suffering? Let him stay, I’ll show him suffering….

My friend John is a school librarian. Jip — her name is pronounced Jeep, the sound of a young bird — was born and raised in a village near Chaing Mai in Thailand. She was working as a nurse in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border when she met John, who was teaching English at the camp.

She came with him back to Seattle, where she earned her master’s in public health at the University of Washington. They married. Not long afterward, doctors diagnosed Jip with multiple sclerosis.

That was 13 years ago. Now Jip — a beautiful, bright, luminous, raven-haired and almond-eyed 42-year-old — is a quadriplegic. She has lost feeling below her chest, lost the use of her arms and legs, and she has gone almost completely blind. Her limp, recalcitrant body is confined to a medieval assortment of wheelchairs, body lifts and standing platforms.

Weekdays, home-care aides come and assist her. Nights and weekends, John tends to her. The financial toll of home-care on a middle-income couple is simply bankrupting.

The emotional toll is something I tried my best to fathom, as I watched John manipulate Jip’s spasmodic legs, lift her in and out of their car for a picnic, bring her food and drink. They disappeared behind their bedroom door for hours, as he bathed and dressed her and took her to the bathroom. This was my weekend; this is their life.

They have friends, literally. Their community of Quakers has formed a "care committee" to provide practical and spiritual support. The committee makes sure someone brings over dinner four nights each week. The committee meets on Sunday to help them strategize on medical treatment, deal with mundane errands, help make life-and-death decisions. It is bikur holim, the prescribed act of visiting the sick, taken to yet another level. "They’re there for me as much as for Jip," John told me.

John and Jip’s home has acquired many of the same books my cousin’s apartment had after he was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gherig’s disease: "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying," Anne Lamott’s "Traveling Mercies," numerous volumes by the Dalai Lama and the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, books on healing and nutrition.

If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are few dogmatists facing serious illness. In the cereal aisle of American spirituality, people can pick through great traditions to find the little parts that work for them — antioxidants, acupuncture, meditation, snippets from the kaballah, quotes from Thomas Merton. Whatever works. To be fair, though, Jip was a practicing Buddhist long before she ever walked into a Barnes and Noble.

When John disappeared with Jip into their room, I plunged through their books; I needed them all. Intellectually, I know people have been on this wheel of birth and suffering and death for thousands of years, and no one has figured it out, no one has escaped, and no one has resigned him or herself to it.

Faced with what John and Jip have to endure, I was wondering if any of those books on their shelves offered, well, The Answer. When my cousin was dying, I’d read many of these same books, but the wisdom doesn’t stick, and every anguish seems fresh and inexplicable.

I read like a fiend but stopped short when I came to that story of Siddhartha. I know little of Buddhism and apologize in advance for insulting readers who do, but it struck me that John and Jip, by staying put, by facing the suffering in their own home, were on a path as holy and transcendent as any Prince Siddhartha undertook.

If Siddhartha were Jewish, I’d like to believe he would have turned back to the castle to be with his wife and son. The Book of Isaiah speaks of a time when God will "swallow up death forever … and will wipe away tears from all faces." But that will be then, this is now.

In the face of sorrow, suffering and death, Judaism puts aside the big questions for prescribed practices: rituals, traditions, prayers. Confronting her father’s long and difficult illness, historian Deborah Lipstadt reflected once that Jewish traditions are "the exact antithesis of the tendency to separate oneself from reality." Understanding is not the aim. The key is to face it, not fear it.

John, a young and vibrant man devoted in his care to his ailing wife, was the embodiment of that. If Suffering thought it could scare off this son of the Midwest with gentle blue eyes and broad smile, it thought wrong.

As for any Big Answer I sought, the closest I came was on the flight back to Los Angeles. I was watching the movie, "American Splendor," about the middle-aged Jewish American comic book author Harvey Pekar. "Life seems so sweet and so sad," Pekar says, "and so hard to let go of in the end."

Danger in Not Knowing Our Story

Claire Luce Booth, the wife of the owner of Luce Publications, reported a frank conversation with a Jewish friend. Booth said, “I must admit being positively bored by all this talk of the Holocaust and its constant repetition of Jewish suffering.” The Jewish friend replied, “I know just how you feel. I feel exactly the same way about the Crucifixion.”

Each would like to see the other's story go away. But neither will go away. Golgotha and Auschwitz, the Crucifixion and the Holocaust, remain the dybbuk of our culture. They must both be confronted and understood.

I saw Gibson's Passion movie because I had to. When in conversation with Christians or Jews, they ask me, “Did you see the movie?”, and I reply, “No,” the conversation is broken.

The conversation must not be broken. The dialogue must continue. I cannot and ought not hide my eyes from this crucial and excruciating story seen by millions throughout the world. Both terms “crucial” and “excruciating” are more than etymologically related to the Latin “crux“, “cross”, Latin for “excruciare“, “to crucify”. I saw the movie at a public screening and behind me sat a woman who sobbed and gasped throughout the movie. I understood her tears. She saw in this tortured, relentlessly violated figure on the cross a martyrdom, which in Greek means “witness” and “agape“, an altruism which is the highest form of love, to sacrifice oneself for another. The god-man on the cross died to save her soul.

She cried, and I cried. I saw, on that Roman cross, the crucifixion of my people. For two thousand years my people have been hounded by the unspeakable accusation of deicide, the murder of God. Blood libel, pogrom, inquisitions, expulsion, are bound with fearsome chains to the Passion story. On the cross, I saw 1.5 million Jewish children hanged, 90% of Eastern European Jews decimated, eight out of ten rabbis in Europe slaughtered. Who can reasonably expect that I can see this picture of priests and crowds, draped with prayer shawls, hovered over by a she-devil, without a measure of paranoia? Who can expect a traumatized people to review this film with dispassion? I remembered my zayde's fear when he crossed the street before a church, not out of disrespect, but out of fear. The Crucifixion may be a symbol of self-sacrificial love, but to a black man, a fiery cross set on his lawn by the K.K.K. is no act of compassion.

We both cried, she because she saw in the Crucifixion the saving of her soul, and I because I saw in it the cremation of millions of innocent lives. In the movie, I was not troubled by the discrepancy between the New Testament and Gibson's version, nor the logic which condemns Judas for doing that which he was fated to do by the design of the Father who willingly sacrificed His son to wipe out the sins of mankind. Faith is not logic. Against all arguments, the Church father Tertullian declared, “Credo quia absurdam est” — “I believe because it is absurd.” Beyond logic or the intentional or unintentional anti-Semitism of the movie, I became troubled by something else. That became clearer to me on one particular occasion, when seated at a dinner alongside an intelligent Jewish man, who initiated a conversation about the movie he had just seen. The intensity of his discomfort and nervousness was evident. He touched my hand and asked me with earnestness, “Rabbi, how do we answer it? Did the Jews kill their god? Why do we Jews reject Jesus? Why did we not appreciate his suffering?” The depth of his questioning revealed that something more than anti-Semitism was at stake. His question recalled my earlier years in the rabbinate when parents would come to ask me, “What do I say to my child who wants to know 'Why can't we have a Christmas tree?'” It soon became evident to me that the parents were not concerned about the tree, but with the root of the question. Not, “Why can't we have a Christmas tree?” but, “Why can't we be Christians?” In other conversations about the movie with some Jews, I heard similar undertones of doubt and came to realize that Jewish ignorance is lethal, that it eats away at our morale and our self-understanding. It made me more aware of how dangerous the lack of philosophic and theological grasp of our tradition is.

We have to understand their sacred story but assuredly, we must understand our own sacred story. Every religion has its root story which expresses the purpose and meaning of life — who we are, what we hope our children will become, how we regard those who may not accept our story. Every religion has its own unique story. Mine is not superior to yours, nor yours to mine. Without understanding what Judaism affirms, we are left only with what others consider our rejection. Out of ignorance of our own story, we tend to see ourselves through the eyes of those who view us as apostates.

My friend echoes their question, whether or why we killed the son of God. I don't understand the question. The question derives from their story, their premises and presuppositions. What does it mean to torture and murder God? In my story, the question makes no sense. In my story, God is not a person, not incarnate, not made of flesh and blood. In my story, God is not visible, not mortal, not victim, not capable of being killed. God is not a sacrifice. In my story, we bring sacrifices in the name of God, but God is not our sacrificial lamb. Abraham's sacrificial ram is not Isaac, the son of Abraham, nor the son of God. In our story, when Abraham believes that God would have him sacrifice his son Isaac, the angel of God in the Bible contravenes: “Do not raise your hand against this child or do anything to him.”

The accusation “Why did Jews kill God?” begs the question. It makes sense only if you accept the theological premises and presuppositions of another story. I feel trapped, much in the same way that the defendant is tricked by the lawyer's question “And when did you stop beating your wife?” It wrongly assumes that which is to be proven. In my story God is not to be made into any image: “You shall not make me into any image or any likeness that is in the heavens above or in the earth beneath.” We sing it in our liturgy: “God is not a body, nor the semblance of a body.”

We must respect the uniqueness of each other's story, but we cannot impose our story upon the other. Am I to respond to your question “Why did you reject Jesus as the son of God?” with “Why did you reject the tradition of Moses? Why did you reject the mother faith?”

If you understand the affirmation of our faith, you will understand that the rejection does not single out Jesus for rejection. In our story, no one, neither Abraham nor Isaac nor Jacob nor Moses nor David is accepted as divine, perfect or infallible. There is no rejection of any priest or prophet, only an affirmation expressed in the book of Ecclesiastes: “There is no person who has walked the face of the earth and has done good and who has not sinned.” In our story, no one who walks the face of the earth is divine. In our story, the struggle is against apotheosis, making of anyone a god. No priest, patriarch, rabbi is worshipped. We have no saints; we have no beatification or canonization of any patriarch, priest or prophet. In our story, we do not even know where Moses was buried lest his burial place become a shrine. In our Passover story, the name of Moses is not to be found in the Haggadah, lest we deify a human being. This is our affirmation, not our rejection. Our affirmation of the One-ness of God is prior to the claim of the Trinity of God.

We are asked why we do not accept a savior to save our souls from the burning coals of hell and perdition. Here again the question is loaded: The question makes sense from the point of view of their story that is based upon the belief that every human embryo is stigmatized by an original sin, not a consequences of free choices, but, like DNA, an involuntary sin inherited from conception. In that story, sin is supernatural and therefore cannot be overcome, erased or expiated by human deeds or human efforts. In that story, vicarious atonement, the death of God's son, can wipe out my sins. But that never was our story. In our story, no sin is original, no sin is supernatural. My sins are not inherited, they are chosen by me and I am responsible to expiate for my transgressions. There is something I can do to apologize, forgive and repair for the hurt.

In my story, neither God, nor priest nor rabbi can stand in my place. In my story, there is no vicarious atonement, no surrogate for my doing teshuvah. If I sin, it is I who must pay, I who must appease. No one else, neither father, nor mother, nor saint can suffer for the hurt I have inflicted on others. It is I who must bind the wounds, set aright the broken bones. In our story, no one can fast for us, no one can pray for us, no one can beg forgiveness for us.

When you speak of saving our souls from hell and perdition, you impose another story upon ours. In our story, hell is not “down there.” Hell is not an eternal torture for people who don't believe in our story. In our story, hell is here on earth — starvation is hell, slavery is hell, genocide is hell, terror is hell, prejudice is hell, hatred is hell. In our story, in the Talmud, in the name of Rabbi Jacob it is taught that “One hour of repentance and the practice of good deeds are better than the entire world to come.”

You cannot read your story into mine and then question my fidelity. Out of your story comes the belief that souls must be saved, that “extra ecclesia nulla salus“, “outside of the Church nobody is saved.” That story is not ours. In our story, no one who does well, no one who lives a good and decent life, is excluded from the world to come. In our story, the sages declare: “I call as witnesses heaven and earth that be it an Israelite or Gentile, a man or a woman, only according to the deed does the Holy Spirit rest upon him.” In your story, souls are saved. In our story lives not souls, are to be saved.

It is true that we own different stories, but it is equally true that those stories can change, and that stories have changed. It is a desecration of the nobility and power of the Church's moral capacity to change, as it is a blasphemy to Islam or Judaism when the wisdom and compassion to change is denied. Experience, history, compassion and moral sensibility correct our stories and add to them new wisdom and new love. What concerns serious critics about the movie is it's assault upon the post-Vatican II Church which has proven to be sensitive to the misuse of the Christian story.

Something revolutionary occurred forty years ago when the Second Vatican Council opened its doors to 2,540 bishops gathered in Saint Peter's Basilica. One of the most unforgettable figures in contemporary history, Pope John XXIII, introduced two concepts that revolutionized religious thinking in the twentieth century and into our century. One concept, “aggiornamento”, called for the “updating of the tradition;” and the other, a French term, “ressourcement“, urged “the recovery of ancient sources,” especially the sources from Judaism, the mother tradition which nurtured and gave birth to Christianity and to Islam. After thousands of years of persecution, Inquisition, Crusades, Pope John XXIII courageously opened up the windows of the Church.

In 1960, Pope John XXIII with a notable Jewish historian, Jules Isaac, and began an intense discussion with him. Jules Isaac presented the Pope with a book entitled Contempt of the Jews, in which he appealed to the Pope to remove the anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic elements in Catholic liturgy. Pope John XXIII kept Jules Isaac in the Vatican for three days, and when they emerged from their deep conversation, Jules Isaac said to the Pope, “Can I leave with hope?” And the Pope responded, “You are entitled to more than hope.” Thus began the greatest blessing of the Church and honor to the memory of its savior.

Lest we allow the movie to eclipse the moral heroism of the Church, let us recall the changes within the Church. Only yesterday, at the turn of our century, Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, called upon Pope Pious X to support the cause of Zionism and the return of the homeless people to Zion, Pope Pious X responded with a classic position from the old Church theology: “We are unfavorable to the movement. We cannot prevent Jews from going to Jerusalem, but we can never sanction it. The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people. Should the Jews manage to set foot on the once promised old-new land, the missionaries of the Church stand prepared to baptize them.” This was the stigma of Cain, placed upon the wandering Jew, who would have no rest until the second coming of Christ.

But this present pope, John Paul II, on December 30th, 1993, and against the internal opposition from right-wing Catholics and Arab states, and even over the objection of his Secretary of State, established full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, exchanged ambassadors and put an end to the Church's condemnation of the Jewish people as the eternally uprooted, wandering Jew. That event was celebrated here at Valley Beth Shalom at a Service on a Friday night in the presence of Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles and bishops and priests and nuns from the Catholic community.

It is important that men and women of good will, from churches and synagogues, not allow high jacking of Vatican II post-Holocaust Church. Mel Gibson does not hide his opposition to the Pope, nor to the papacy, since John XXIII.

Jews and Catholics alike honor this pope, under whose auspices a “Mea Culpa“, a plea for repentance, was proclaimed. This pope, in our time, urged the Church to remember in the words of the Pontifical Commission wrote: “The Second Millennium draws to a close. It is imperative that the Church should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recording all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his counsel.” This Pope, in our time, called on the sons and daughters of the Church “to purify their hearts in repentance of past errors and infidelities so as to help cure the wounds of past injustice.” In this synagogue, at Valley Beth Shalom, in the presence of the Cardinal and Catholic theologians, we discussed with amity and love the need for repentance, the acknowledgment of responsibility of the Church and the importance of excising from Catholic liturgy, Catholic prayer, those sections that were plainly anti- Jewish and anti-Judaic.

We must not allow this retrograde movie to dismiss the remarkable progress of the Church when Father John Pawlokowski, among others, searched through the Catholic textbooks taught in parochial schools to eliminate those passages inimical to Jewish life and to Jewish thought. The prayer on Good Friday that condemned “Jewish perfidy”, the alleged betrayal and treason of Jews, was excised. In January 1965, the prayer written by Pope John XXIII to be read in all Catholic churches, was printed in Commentary Magazine. It must be read over and over again: “We are conscious today that many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes so that we can no longer see the beauty of Thy chosen people. We realize that the Mark of Cain stands on our forehead across the centuries that our brother Abel has lain in blood which we drew. And we shed tears that we caused, forgetting Thy love. Forgive us for crucifying a second time in their flesh, for we knew not what we did.” It would be a betrayal of hope and of goodness to let a hate-filled film become the definitive statement of Christianity. It would be a blasphemy to raise Gibson's perverted notion of the New Testament based upon the writings of two Medieval, anti-Semitic nuns as the Catholic position.

What are we to do? We must recognize the struggle, after 2,000 years of anti-Judaic venom, to detoxify the poisons of contempt. We must engage our Christian brothers in a continual dialogue to educate, to understand the sanctity of our respective stories.

But first, Jews must understand their own story, their own theology — what it is that we believe, and why it is that we believe, else they will be confused and defensive.

We must take advantage of the new interest in religion, amongst Christians and Jews and unbelievers, and turn the sorry state of events into the great opportunity to penetrate darkness with light, sickness with health and contempt with compassion.

May not be reproduced (except for personal use) or published without written permission of the author. For permission, contact Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis at Valley Beth Shalom, 818-530-4007 or

If We Don’t Cry Over Carnage, Who Will?

Yechezkel Chezi Goldberg, a Jerusalem-based counselor for adolescents and families at risk, wrote the following essay in 2001. On Jan. 29, Goldberg was murdered in a Jerusalem bus bombing.

The scene: 7:30 a.m. Israel time, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2001 — eight hours after a triple terror attack at Jerusalem’s popular Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall.

He walked into shul, synagogue. I nodded my acknowledgment as I always do. He made some strange gesture, which I didn’t comprehend. I continued praying.

A few minutes later, he walked over to me and said: “Didn’t you hear?”

“Hear about what?” I replied.

He grew impatient, almost frustrated. “Didn’t you hear?”

I understood that he was talking about last night’s terror attack on Ben Yehuda mall, a trendy nightspot frequented not only by Israelis but also Western tourists. I assumed that he obviously was intimating that someone we knew was hurt or killed.

I replied: “About who?”

He looked at me as if I had landed from another planet.

“About who? About everyone who was attacked last night.”

I nodded. “Yes, of course I heard.”

“Then why aren’t you crying?”

His words shot through me like a spear piercing my heart. Our sages teach that “words that come from the heart, enter the heart.” He was right, of course. Why wasn’t I crying?

I could not answer. I had nothing to say.

He pointed around the shul. “Why aren’t all of my friends crying?”

I could not answer. I had nothing to say.

“Shouldn’t we all be crying?”

I could not answer. I had nothing to say.

What has happened to all of us, myself included? We have turned to stone. Some would call it numbness. Some would call it collective national shock. Some would say that we all have suffered never-ending trauma and it has affected our senses.

Frankly, the excuses are worthless. All the reasons in the world don’t justify our distance from the real pain that is burning in our midst.

When an attack happens, in the heat of the moment, we frantically check to see if someone we know has been hurt or killed. And then, if we find out that our friends and family are safe, we sigh a deep sigh of relief, grunt and grumble about the latest tragic event, and then we continue with our robotic motions and go on with our lives.

We have not lost our minds, my friends. We have lost our hearts. And that is why we keep on losing our lives.

When I left shul, my friend said to me with tears dripping from his bloodshot eyes: “I heard once that the Torah teaches that for every tear that drops from our eyes, another drop of blood is saved.”

We are living in a time of absolute madness. It is obvious what is going on around us, and yet, we detach ourselves and keep running on automatic in our daily lives.

Last night, when it was only 10 people who were known killed and just 200 injured, even referred to the triple terror attack as a “slaughter.” (More tragedy, it turns out, awaited us a few hours later.)

And yet, we are not crying.

I know a woman who lost sensitivity in her fingers. When she approaches fire, she doesn’t feel the pain. That puts her in a very dangerous position, because she might be unaware she is burning herself.

If we are being hurt and we don’t feel it, then we are in a very risky position. A devastating three-pronged suicide attack on Jerusalem’s most popular thoroughfare should evoke a cry of pain and suffering from all of us, should it not? Unless of course, we have lost our senses.

And if we have lost our senses, then what hope is there?

When our enemies pound us and we don’t react, because we no longer feel the pain, we are truly in a dangerous and precarious position in the battle and struggle to survive.

Perhaps, my friends, we are being foolish to really believe that the nations of the world should be upset about the continuous murder and slaughter of Jews if we are not crying about it. Am I my brother’s keeper?

The most effective way for us to stop the carnage in our midst is to wake up and to react to it from our hearts. How can we demand that the Creator stop the tragedy, when most of us react like robots when tragedy strikes?

If we don’t cry about what is happening around us, who will?

If you don’t cry about what is happening around us, who will?

If I don’t cry about what is happening to us, who will?

Maybe our salvation from this horrific mess will come only after we tune into our emotions and cry and scream about it.

As King Solomon said, “There is a time for everything under the sun.” Now is the time for crying.

May He protect each and every one of us from our enemies, so that we will not have to cry in the future.

Reprinted with permission by

Kibbutz Camp Offers Hope to Survivors

In Kibbutz Negba, a dozen Israeli teenagers attending a summer camp in the guesthouses of this Negev kibbutz were asked to model small trees, and then decorate them with photographs of themselves.

One sculpted a tree that had been struck by lightning and died. Another molded a three-pronged cactus; one branch had been cut short.

A third boy made a tree from modeling clay and paper; it refused to stand up. "If you give it too much attention," he explained, "it falls down. If you don’t give it enough attention, it falls down."

In another class, younger campers were asked to stick pictures of themselves in a setting of their choice. Most drew a house; one drew a coffin.

These are no ordinary children and this is no ordinary camp. All of this week’s 150 campers have lost parents, brothers, sisters or other relatives in terrorist attacks. The art classes are taught by therapists.

"We give them a chance to express themselves," said Vinnie Ofri, one of the therapists. "I get them to work on themselves, to imagine places they would like to be. But I’m careful not to open things I won’t be able to develop in the time I’m with them."

The camp is named after Koby Mandell, one of two 14-year-old truants bludgeoned to death while hiking in the Judean wilderness near their West Bank home two years ago. His parents, Seth and Sherri, who made aliyah from the United States in 1996, channeled their grief by launching the Koby Mandell Foundation, which provides "healing" activities for more than 350 bereaved families.

Camp Koby is their biggest project — a series of three 10-day camps for a total of 500 youngsters from 55 towns and villages all over Israel and the West Bank and Gaza settlements. To bridge the religious-secular divide, they have separate all-boys, all-girls and mixed camps. One family sent six children. This week they welcomed their first five from the Druze minority.

The other morning, the site was buzzing with art and drama groups. Teenage boys were practicing karate on a shaded lawn; girls were pounding on finger drums in a clubhouse.

"The camp gives them the freedom to be kids," explained Sherri Mandell, a slim 47-year-old writer with three other children. "They don’t have to feel guilty at being alive. Everybody is the same. Kids are often silent victims because they don’t want to bother their parents. Here they get a lot of attention. The camp becomes an extended family."

As well as a professional director, a psychologist, a resident rabbi, therapists and coordinators, the camp has a team of young madrichim who live and work with the children, two such counselors for every five youngsters.

Their job is not just to play with their charges, but also to listen to them and comfort them. During our visit, a withdrawn 8-year-old boy on the brink of tears refused to join the others. No one forced him. A madrich quietly took him aside, then offered him a mobile phone to call home. He preferred to play video games on it.

The camp seems to work. In an art class for 8- and 9-year-olds in a converted henhouse, Nadav Littenberg was painstakingly coloring a frame around his picture with crayons. His cousin was killed on the West Bank a year ago. Nadav came to the camp with the dead boy’s brother.

"It’s lots of fun here," he enthused. "It helps you to forget, though you don’t really forget somebody you lost. It helps you to get better. Everybody tells his story about who they lost and how. It’s easier with people you didn’t know before. I couldn’t do it with my class at school."

The foundation is run by Seth Mandell, 53, an extrovert Orthodox rabbi in shorts and biblical sandals who used to work for Hillel on American campuses. His budget for the coming year has grown to $1.5 million, most of it contributed by well-wishers in the United States.

In addition to Camp Koby, the Mandells arrange healing retreats for bereaved mothers, two-day getaways for widows and mothers. Sometimes whole families come along, including fathers. They hold shorter children’s camps at Sukkot, Chanukah and Pesach.

"The emphasis is on a combination of fun and healing," Sherri Mandell said. "If not fun, at least relaxation and some element of release." She calls it "therapy lite."

Youth Charts Future for Ethiopian Jews

For most of the last hour in this bomb shelter-cum-multipurpose youth room in Ashdod, Israel, Avivit Sabat has been sitting quietly, her long arms and legs folded protectively across her body. Her hair, pulled tight in a low bun, highlights her delicately defined 17-year-old beauty.

Once or twice she twists around to smile or whisper to someone, or she nods at a particularly biting truth as told by her friends, all of them Ethiopian Jewish teenagers who founded and run an advocacy group.

"What motivates you?" an American guest with the Wexner Heritage Foundation asks. "What gives you the strength to fight for both elders and children?"

The words spill from Sabat in a quiet torrent: "When we were little we suffered from all sorts of things because our parents couldn’t speak Hebrew and didn’t know the culture," she says in Hebrew. "We are trying to do for others what our parents would have done for us if they had been able."

Sabat and her colleagues are members of a pivotal generation for the Ethiopian Jewish community, which refers to itself as Beta Israel. Born in Israel or primarily raised in Israel, the generation now coming into adulthood was the focus of much of Israel’s early efforts at acculturation and education. They now have the ability to define where Beta Israel — which now numbers 85,000 — finds its place in the State of Israel.

With the spark of Zionism and the wrenching romance of their journey across the Sudan and to Jerusalem still very much alive, this generation is faced with a harsh reality of poverty, substandard education, racism and a rich heritage that is being acculturated into obscurity, if not oblivion.

Teenagers and young adults like Sabat are confronting these problems, and their success or failure can determine whether Beta Israel becomes an Israeli underclass or the ultimate Zionist success story.

Sabat is a member of Noar Tesfa, a 3-year-old group founded and run by 15- to 18-year-olds in Ashdod, whose name mixes the Hebrew for "youth" and the Amharic for "hope." Eight of the founders sat down recently with American and Israeli members of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, a Jewish leadership program.

"We saw the troubles of our community, and we organized ourselves because the establishment takes advantage of our weaknesses," said Daniel Azanega, 17. "The community doesn’t know what rights they have."

Three days a week, the teens volunteer their time to tutor younger kids and help them with homework. They have taken on a local school’s segregated classrooms by going to both municipal authorities and the local and national media. They are working to reopen a local library and are fighting to keep open the community center where they meet.

"Our group is a shield for the community," said Babu Ayelleyn, who just graduated high school. "If the system wants to do something for the community, they have to talk to us. If they do something negative, they have to face us."

This attitude is somewhat foreign in the Ethiopian culture of graciousness, where elders go out of their way to thank Israel for its tremendous courage and unprecedented generosity in the Ethiopian aliyah, which began in earnest in the early 1980s and tapered off in 1993, highlighted by two dramatic airlifts in 1984 and 1991.

But the kids have caught on to the Israeli chutzpah that is necessary to get things done, even if means turning on its head the traditional reverence for elders that was an integral feature of Ethiopian village life.

Shula Mola, until recently the director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), thinks the aggressiveness is necessary for Ethiopians to pull themselves up the socioeconomic ladder.

"It took us a while to realize the whole system in Israel is very different. We didn’t know we can ask things from the government," said Mola, 31, who was with IAEJ for nine years before she was selected to receive a full scholarship to study educational leadership at the Mandel School in Jerusalem. "Today we can see more and more young people who have skills and understand the system, who understand organizing together and demanding rights."

Some of that effort has been hampered by what the community perceives as a growing tendency on the part of Israelis toward stereotyping, coupled with a paternalism in the way help is meted out.

"The bottom line today is that I would say a lot of Ethiopians feel that in Israel there is racism," Mola said. "We feel rejected from Israeli society. In the beginning everyone came to be with us — our people, reunited. At first there was a lot of trust and that is kind of broken now. There is a struggle to get them see that we are adults and have a lot to say."

It was an attitude Mola first sensed when at age 12 she arrived in Israel after walking barefoot across the Sudanese desert with her ailing brother on her back. Separated from mainstream Judaism for 2,000 years, the Ethiopian community has always longed to return to Jerusalem. With pre-Talmudic Jewish observance based almost entirely on the Bible through the later prophets and writings, the community may have its origins as the lost tribe of Dan, the descendants of Solomon and Sheba, or converts by the ancient Yemenite Jewish community.

"When we got here in the beginning, Israel was very happy about our aliyah and they gave us everything we needed — but basic things. They never realized that what we really wanted was an education," Mola said.

The Israelis reasoned that compared to the education and the lifestyle they had in Ethiopia, Mola added, being a mechanic or nanny was striving high enough.

Today, more than 6 percent of Ethiopians drop out of high school, double the national average. Less than 30 percent — half the national average — pass the Bagrut (matriculation) exam necessary to get into university. More Ethiopian children rank below grade level in Hebrew, math and reading, and there are twice as many Ethiopian juvenile delinquents than among other Israelis.

That is why the focus of nearly all the Ethiopian advocacy groups is youth and education — after-school tutoring programs for elementary school kids; programs to get students into academic rather than vocational high schools; drop-in centers for at-risk youth and programs to train mediators to help kids, parents and schools communicate with each other. The Israeli government pays for college tuition for Ethiopians and with lobbying from IAEJ a few years ago created a steering committee for Ethiopians in the education system.

There have been some tremendous success stories, with Ethiopian doctors, lawyers and teachers working their way up and community empowerment on the rise. In January, social worker Negist Mengesha unsuccessfully ran for a Knesset seat under the Meretz Party banner. (Labor’s Addisu Messele has been the only Ethiopian MK thus far; he served one term about a decade ago.)

"On one hand the situation is better — more and more young Ethiopians are getting higher education and a chance to get onto the Bagrut track. You see more Ethiopians realize that if they want to be part of society they have to get more education," said Mola, who has a masters from Hebrew University. "But you also see the bad things more and more, even stronger than the good things — kids drop out of school because they don’t trust the system and the schools."

The hope is that education can pull them out of the poverty common in most families, such as that of Daniel Azanega, the Noar Tesfa member who invited his American guests into his family’s third-floor walk-up in a poor neighborhood in Ashdod. Born in Israel, Azanega is about to repeat 11th grade, but has high hopes for eventually matriculating.

His father, who like many Ethiopians was a subsistence sharecropper, hasn’t worked since they arrived in Israel nearly two decades ago.

About 70 percent of all Ethiopian families have no incoming salary, a statistic whose implications are about to become more dire with Israel’s harsh budget cuts. More than 70 percent of Ethiopian children live below the poverty line and 90 percent of homeowners live in distressed neighborhoods, despite government efforts to prevent such concentrations when in 1988 it began granting Ethiopian immigrants enough money to cover a mortgage.

Despite the extreme poverty, Azanega and his family are happy to be Israelis. Their home is small but brightly decorated with a confusion of Israeli, European and Ethiopian decor. So many family members and friends come and go that one can easily imagine this as an open hut in a tight-knit village.

Azanega looks on with pride when his father pulls out the crude wooden plow he once tied to his oxen to till the mountainous fields in his village. He is eager, too, for his sister to perform the traditional coffee ceremony, where the aromas of roasted beans and incense are said to diffuse bad spirits, where each visitor gets three cups of slowly stirred sweet brew — enough sipping time to cover the issues of the day.

"You can be an Israeli, but you always have to remember where you come from," Azanega said, slowly breaking apart a piece of popcorn — a traditional Ethiopian food. "You have to remember your culture and your source — that’s what roots you."

Like many of his colleagues in Noar Tesfa, Azanega is proud of his Ethiopian heritage, though his knowledge of that heritage is minimal.

"The sense is growing that it is not enough to know that you came from Ethiopia and to look like an Ethiopian, but they need to identify as Ethiopians," said Shoshana Ben-Dor, Israel director of North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. "But they don’t entirely know what that means, and they haven’t really been taught."

If Azanega’s concern for his culture underlies his work, what is at the surface is a practical commitment to improve everyday life for his community, both in the immediate and long-term sense. Azanega, Sabat and their colleagues are aware that their actions will reverberate for years to come: Will the community integrate successfully into Israeli society, or will it become a permanent Israeli underclass?

They aren’t ready to leave much to chance, and this group of 16- to 18-year-olds heading toward graduation and army service just started training a group of 12-year-olds to take over their work.

Says Bruno Bhiatha, a Noar Tesfa member, "We understand that if we don’t make changes, no one will."

Blessings Over Curses

This week’s Torah portion presents the blessings and curses that follow from observance or defiance of the law. Some people understand this as a rigid system of reward and punishment. Keep the covenant, and all will be well; violate it, and you will suffer.

The blessings and curses can also be read as a loving explanation of consequences. When a doctor warns a diabetic that eating sugar will make him sick, she is trying to help him, not wishing him ill. Torah laws are instructions for how to live in the world from the One who created the world.

Curiously, in Ki Tavo, as in parallel ancient Near Eastern texts, curses far outnumber blessings. But maybe the weighting of blessings and curses is not as disproportionate as it seems.

The whole premise of the High Holidays is that forgiveness is more powerful than a grudge. Repentance conquers sin. Good is stronger than evil. "The wicked spring up like grass" — quick to grow and easy to trample. "The righteous grow like a cedar" — slow to mature, but substantial and enduring (Psalm 92:8,13).

So, too, blessings carry more weight, and last longer, than curses.

In the holiday liturgy, we recite from Exodus 34:6-7, "Adonai, Adonai, merciful and gracious God, patient and abounding in goodness and truth. Keeping lovingkindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity…." We emphasize God’s blessings using God’s own self-description.

But verse seven continues: "Yet by no means clearing the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the ancestors upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation." The prayer quotes only the blessing, but children inherit iniquity.

No less a figure than Jeremiah objected: "They shall say no more, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the sons’ teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone shall die for his own iniquity" (Jeremiah 31:28-29).

In truth, if not in justice, the curses of sin are commonly passed down for three and four generations. A man beats his daughter, and it affects her parenting. Her wounds wound her child. Then that child raises children, reacting to, and perhaps passing on, the consequences of a grandfather’s sin. Certainly, the cycle can be broken, but three and four generations live and make choices in the shadow of the sin. Our verse is not prescriptive: here is your punishment for an ancestor’s sin. Rather, it is descriptive: here is a lesson about how sin works in families.

It is harder to understand the blessing. Can we really fathom that God’s grace lasts 1,000 generations? Is lovingkindness that powerful?

When I study Torah, I feel my zeyde’s zeyde with me. Something ineffable — love, communal memory — is passed down with the text. The principle of zechut avot says that we inherit the merit of our ancestors for an unlimited number of generations. No explanation sounds complete or logical — the merit inspires us, it rubs off on us, it shapes our collective unconscious, it delights God. Yet, I have sensed, as I hope you have, that when a crowd gathers on the High Holidays, it is not just the people in the room who are present. Past generations assist us in the work of repentance and forgiveness. Their loving energy remains long after any sins and torment have dissipated.

Lovingkindness enjoys not just longevity, but immediate power. As a rabbi, I have witnessed devastating passages that most of us, thankfully, will never experience. Parents stand by their child’s hospital bed, praying for healing and, if not, at least for release from pain. An accident wipes out a young father’s memory, so that he cannot hold a job — or a coherent conversation.

In such terrible situations, people become exquisitely sensitive to blessings. Sometimes blessings can even eclipse the suffering. Every kindness by neighbors and nurses, every moment of peace and clarity, is felt keenly and deeply. Through the pain, love touches the heart and revives the soul.

High Holiday liturgy and theology acknowledge two types of blessings and curses. There are blessings we merit by practicing repentance, prayer and charity in the face of our own troubles. And there are blessings gifted to us by God’s grace. There are curses we bring on by our own poor choices. And there are "natural" curses — fallout from prior generations, random suffering we cannot explain or justify, and death itself. Life’s blessings make the curses bearable. Blessings have a unique power, regardless of whether they — or we — can fix everything.

This season, we seek to control what we can. We challenge ourselves: What harm am I committing or perpetuating — to others and to myself? How can I maximize blessings in the world?

The Talmud Megillah teaches: "[We read Ki Tavo] before the New Year … so that the year may end along with its curses."

By our actions and God’s mercy, may the coming year bring blessing, life and peace.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Congregation Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana.

7 Days In Arts


Laemmle Theatres serves up more Jewish documentariesthis weekend under the banner of their cleverly titled screening series “Bagelsand Docs.” At Laemmle Monica, early risers can catch “Undying Love,” a film thatrecounts the stories of young couples whose relationships were affected by WorldWar II. “Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good,” and “Ruthie and Connie: Every Roomin the House” will also be shown as part of the morning screening series thisweekend, at the Laemmle Fallbrook and Sunset 5, respectively. Bagels notincluded.



Short and stout? Think again. Encouraging a reexamination of such houseware stereotypes, Long Beach Museum of Art unveils its new exhibition today, “Teapots Everywhere.” Designs by Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring are just two of the more than 250 mold-breaking variations featured in the show. Other contributors include Cindy Sherman, Ron Nagle and Tony Marsh, promising kettles in every size, shape and material imaginable.11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Tuesday-Sunday). Runs through Sept. 14. $5 (general), $4 (students and seniors), free (children under 12 and for everyone on the first Friday of the month). 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. (562) 439-2119.”Mona Lisa/Van Gogh” by Noi Volkoy.


Zehava Ben lends her unique voice and singing style totwo new CDs that manage to feature many of the same Israeli standards and, atthe same time, sound completely different. In “Beit Avi” (“My Father’s House”)Ben is accompanied by the Symphonic Orchestra of Hadera, lending a soulful,classic Mediterranean sound to songs like “Hanasich Hakatan” (“The LittlePrince”) and “Zemer Noge” (“Sentimental Tune”). In “Laroz Variations,” Ben’spairing with top Israeli electronic music producer Haim Laroz adds trance beatsfor a world-fusion treatment of those same melodies and others. $15-$17.



The tale begins when Ivy League-educated Richard Rubin takes a job as a reporter in the small Mississippi town of Greenwood. Part coming-of-age story, part courtroom drama, “Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South” dispels some assumptions about the New South just as it corroborates others, and is out in paperback this month.Atria Books, $14.


Do you aspire to hobnob, but can’t afford thegrand-a-plate dinners quite yet? Benefiting Lifeline to Argentina, an emergencyrelief project that helps Argentine Jews, Charity Stars sponsors an artexhibition and wine tasting on the beach in Santa Monica. At $25 a ticket (inadvance), it’s a good deed you can afford, plus excellent preparation forplayers-in-training. 7:30-10:30 p.m. $25 (in advance), $35 (at the door).Hamilton Galleries, 1431 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 936-5674



Grab a date and head out for good jazz and good food tonight. Steve March Torme (as in Mel Torme’s offspring) performs at The Vic in Santa Monica, the upstairs part of the romantic Victorian. Expect some old standards like “Blue Skies” and “Stardust,” both from his new album “The Essence of Love.” Just be sure to make a reservation. That’s the only way you’ll find out the password required to gain entry to this modern-day speakeasy.8 p.m. and 10 p.m. $10 (cover). 2640 Main St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (888) 367-5299.


Jennifer Maisel’s “The Last Seder” tells the story of a family’s last gathering before the father, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, will be placed in a care facility. Through the course of the play, the ritual of the seder becomes a channel for the family’s healing. Having helped launch the careers of playwrights like Christopher Durang and Wendy Wasserstein, the Ensemble Studio Theatre (through their West Coast branch, “The L.A. Project”) presents a staged reading of this new play tonight and Sunday.8 p.m. (June 27 and 29). $10. Theatre/Theater, 6425 Hollywood Blvd., fourth floor, Hollywood. (213) 368-9552.

Mission to Argentina

Last month, seven Los Angeles rabbis and five community leaders traveled to Argentina for a whirlwind 72-hour trip. The mission, organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, helped them gain firsthand knowledge of the crisis in Argentina. Upon their return to Los Angeles, the leaders have begun promoting the Federation’s Lifeline to Argentina campaign, a $1 million challenge grant matching every dollar raised. Below are some of their thoughts and photos of the trip.

“We all promised this Jewish family of ours that we in Los Angeles — whose lives are so blessed — would not forget them. At our final meeting we were able to visit the now-abandoned Jewish community center (one of several that has had to close) that is currently used for only one purpose — a unique “community pharmacy” that the Tzedaka Foundation and JDC run to provide free medicine for those in need. We watched in awe as a combination of paid and volunteer pharmacists showed us how they process 16,000 prescriptions a month that literally are keeping the Jewish people alive.” — Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation

“One of our most memorable experiences was a visit to a nonsectarian soup kitchen sponsored by the JDC. Downstairs, JDC staff and volunteers serve a hot meal each day to children who live in the local shantytown. Upstairs, their mothers learn to weave colorful fabrics into clothing to provide a meager income for their families. Amid the pain and suffering, the JDC brings a message of hope as it carries out its mission of tikkun olam.” — Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president, Board of Rabbis

“I was most moved by the unity and cooperation between the various movements and denominations within the Argentine Jewish community. I did not feel the polarity that exists here between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy. The Argentine community is a great example of how crisis brings people together and breeds innovation and fosters unity. There is a lot we can learn and emulate from the Argentine Jewish community.” — Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Sephardic Temple Tifererth Israel

“For me, the highlight of the trip was to see the creativity the Jewish community has used to address the problem of decreasing enrollment in Jewish schools because of the poverty. They responded by building afternoon schools where they feed children a hot lunch and then offer a variety of Jewish and secular programs in a Jewish environment. Such a program is Morasha, organized by the Orthodox community of Buenos Aires. It serves 1,200 students and reaches out to the entire spectrum of Jews.” — Rabbi Elazar Muskin, Young Israel of Century City

Different Heroes

“Od lo avda tikvataynu.”

A poster of Moshe Dayan hung in my childhood bedroom. Growing up in the light of the Six-Day War, I adored this new Jewish hero — tough, cocky, a Jew without fear. A generation later, we venerated Yitzchak Rabin — the warrior peacemaker, the realistic visionary, the taciturn prophet. This year, I celebrate a different kind of hero and a different kind of courage.

Every Israeli child knows someone who has been killed. Every child has a cousin or a playmate, a teacher or a neighbor who has been killed or maimed during the onslaught of terror. For every fatality, there are dozens who are brutally wounded, and hundreds of traumatized family, friends and neighbors.

What happens to kids 9, 10, 11 years old who are attending funerals on a regular basis? Or who are regularly visiting friends in the hospital trauma center? What part of their childhood is lost? What part of their innocence is betrayed? What happens to parents who want to protect their children, but there’s nothing they can do? The teacher of my friend’s 12-year-old daughter was killed in one of the bombings. My friend went into her bedroom that night to console her.

She looked at him with eyes suddenly so much older and said, “Don’t worry, Abba. I understand.”

Such is life in Israel these days.

Purim in Israel was different this year. Usually, a Mardi Gras delirium takes hold of the country for a day or two. Streets fill with costumed Queen Esthers and righteous Mordecais, as well as species of Spider-Man and Superman. Shopkeepers offer each passerby a “L’chaim!” Everyone has a party to attend. This year, however, security officials requested that masks not be worn on the streets and in public places, and that costumes remain simple, for fear that terrorists might take the opportunity and turn a festival of joy into an eruption of destruction. Such is life in Israel these days.

But there were masks — gas masks. Fearing the poisonous intentions of Saddam, Israelis were once again issued gas masks — even small children — and ordered to prepare sealed rooms in their homes and businesses. So Holocaust survivors must watch their children and grandchildren prepare to meet poisonous gas attacks. Such is life in Israel these days.

We think of heroism in flashing images of courage and daring: A Queen Esther or Judah Maccabee who risks it all to save the people. There is another image of heroism. It is the heroism of sustained resilience. There is heroism in a tenacity of conviction facing a steady surge of evil, rising and falling like the tide, but — like the tide — never subsiding. Perhaps this is a more authentically Jewish form of heroism: the steadfast refusal to surrender to the darkness, to collapse into despair — the refusal to give up the dream.

This week’s Torah reading begins: “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him” (Leviticus 21:1).

The Chasidic master, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, read the verse as a warning against the defilement of the soul. The soul is defiled, its essence violated, when it is infected with the bitterness and rage that comes with senseless suffering and tragedy. Ironically, only those who hold out faith that human existence is ultimately meaningful are susceptible to this bitterness. One who believes that life is absurd and meaningless is never disappointed, never shaken. Without expectations or dreams, he knows no tragedy. The Ishbitzer taught that those who — like the priests, sons of Aaron — would serve God, are commanded to find the resources to resist the defilements of despair and darkness. Despair is the ultimate denial of God; surrender to darkness, the ultimate blasphemy.

This week, we celebrate the heroes who have given us the miracle of the State of Israel. We also celebrate those whose names are not listed in books or commemorated on plaques — heroes of resilience and resolution who cling to our ancient dream despite the relentless tide of evil. Od lo avda tikvataynu. For their sake, we haven’t lost our hope.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.