Survival hinges on being light unto nations


It’s impossible to augur the future of the Jewish people. It can only be summed up in two words: “I hope.”

In a paradoxical sense, the current political, economic and military
strength of the Jewish people does not suggest much self-confidence. We never before have had such a strong army and such a powerful state, just as we never have had such a great support network and influence as we have with today’s worldwide Jewry.

Nevertheless we are fearful. Every day we worry about our future and wonder if there still is hope for us. We fear annihilation and destruction. We see foes behind every shadow. Is this security? Are the fruits of independence and sovereignty the loss of the Jewish people’s faith in “netzach yisrael,” the eternity of the Jewish people?

We have tremendous national experience in survival and in forging means of existence in the face of a hostile world. But we have yet to develop a national strategy for times of respite, acceptance and equality, whether in our sovereign nation or in our Diaspora society.

The question for our future is, can the Jewish people, the vast majority of whom live today in the democratic hemisphere, survive without an external enemy?

The key to that future doesn’t really depend on our military or political strength but in decoding the Jewish genome that succeeded in getting us through so many challenging periods.

The Jewish people never survived merely for the purposes of survival or subsisted solely for the purpose of subsisting. Judaism and the Jews can survive only if we, connected with one another, are aimed toward a goal far larger than physical survival. We must aim for the destiny of the entire world and think about our contribution to humanity.

This is how we gave the world the notion of liberty, expressed during the exodus from Egypt in the eternal cry, “Let my people go.” This was the humanistic universalism of the prophets, and this is the Jewish ethical lesson for the world’s generations.

Without enlightened universal humanism, the Jewish people do not justify their existence or the heavy price we and others pay with suffering. A state and sovereignty are only the means. The question must always come back to a means to what, a state for what.

The strategy for the Jewish people can be found in our past. We must return to a position in which our contributions to the world will be so vital and unique that neither we nor the world can afford to forgo our existence.

In the medieval era, when the daughters of Judaism — Islam and Christianity — blossomed, Maimonides said, “There is no difference between our days and the messianic era except for the subjugation of the nations.”

What he meant was the only difference between history and post-history is that in the messianic era, nations will not subjugate other nations, people will not conquer other peoples, individuals will not humiliate or oppress other individuals, men will not abuse women.

This universal Jewish call for peace, equality and justice, which preceded all the modern revolutions, is still relevant and far from being fulfilled.

The fulfillment of Maimonides’ grand humanistic dream is undergoing the incredible experiment of our generation. As the nation of victims, we must not claim for ourselves a monopoly on suffering. We must not be closed or apathetic to the sufferings of others “because our trauma is bigger than yours.”

We must transform our suffering to a model for the world — of good against evil, of light against darkness. The cry “never again” means never again for anyone who is suffering, never again for anyone who is persecuted, never again to the evildoers and the malicious — not, heaven forbid, never again for the Jews alone.

The Jewish future means undergoing a revolutionary change from Holocaust to recovery, from trauma to trust, from victim to protector of victims, from an era of enslavement to an era of fellowship.

We will secure our existence by being a model for the world and for ourselves. We must go from a nation of victims to a nation that is of the righteous among the nations for the entire world. We must be there for suffering people around the world who need us as we needed others — even though, except for a few isolated cases, there were no others there when we needed them.

We can have no loftier a national goal. It carries on its wings the promise for the future of the Jewish people in these enlightened and open modern times into which we have been fortunate enough to have been born.

This piece was translated from Hebrew by Uriel Heilman, Jewish Telegraphic Agency associate editor.


Avraham Burg is a former speaker of Israel’s Knesset, former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and author most recently of “Defeating Hitler” (2007).


Victory of a Blessing


There are times in our lives where after periods of struggle and conflict, we seek peace and quiet.

As life would have it, the term of tranquility is short, but we can emerge
from these times strengthened both physically and spiritually.

“Vayeshev Ya’akov — And Jacob settled down in the land where his ancestors had sojourned….”

The opening words of this week’s reading elicited the following comment from our sages: Just when Jacob sought tranquility, the crisis of Joseph erupts.

Jacob, our quintessential ancestor, is indeed a lifelong wrestler. Even before he is born, he is portrayed as wrestling in the womb with his twin brother, Esau.

In fact, his very name, Ya’akov, refers to an ancient wrestling technique. It means one who can strike at the Achilles’ heel of his opponent and cripple him, even while lying on the ground with the enemy’s heel at his own throat. Throughout his life, Jacob will constantly wrestle, and even in his final moments, we find him wrestling with Joseph, his favored son, in order to reverse the blessings between his two Egyptian-born grandsons.

Jacob will become “Israel” as a result of another wrestling match — this time against a mysterious, divine opponent. In this case, all commentaries seem to agree that we are confronted with a profoundly significant metamorphosis. Jacob becomes Israel.

When the patriarch finally succeeds in breaking the grip of the angel and achieves the upper hand, the angel begs to be released, and Jacob utters these famous words: “I will not release you until you grant me your blessing.” These words articulate an authentically Jewish value all too often overlooked.

According to 18th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, heroic thinking in the classical Mediterranean world defined victory as the killing of one’s opponent, which could be restated as:

“Might makes right.” Jacob and the meaning of Chanukah, incidentally, offer us a radically different definition of victory.

Perhaps it could best be expressed as: “Right makes might.” For the Jew, victory must mean receiving a blessing from the enemy, converting him into an ally.

The modern State of Israel never celebrated any of its stunning military victories with parades, parties, celebrations, dancing, etc., as do all other nations on earth.

The late Golda Meir said that we cannot celebrate, because our children had to kill and be killed. The only instance when we witnessed such a great wave of joy in Israel was when the enemy came to bless; i.e., when the late President Anwar Sadat of Egypt came to Israel, extending recognition and the offer of peace.

Sadly, Jacob/Israel must always be alert and ready to take up arms against the “violent hands” of Esau the hunter in order to survive.

As Edmond Jabes, one of the greatest 20th century Jewish writers, remarked concerning the Jewish people: “How inventive his means, how diligent his metamorphosis, deduce, adapt, plan, he can be hounded but not destroyed; Half man, half bird, half fish, half ghost, there is always one half which escapes the hangman…. ”

Our survival can be attributed in great measure to our adaptability but also to our inner spiritual victories.

David Baron is rabbi of the Temple of the Arts at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills.

Spectator – The ‘Truth’ That Lies Beneath


For Josh Bernstein, host of The History Channel’s “Digging for the Truth,” myth-dispelling, artifact-hunting and body-straining adventure are part of his regular routine.

“Digging,” now in its second season, has taken Bernstein from Peru to Greenland to Zimbabwe and Egypt searching for answers to archaeological mysteries, such as locating the lost tribe of Israel and uncovering the Holy Grail.

This Jewish Indiana Jones seems to have the travel bug in his DNA. Bernstein says he traveled from his home in New York to Israel to see family several times prior to age 2.

“My father was born in the Old City of Jerusalem, and I think just by nature the Israeli culture is very pro-travel. They still are today,” he explains. “As far back as I can remember I have always been on airplanes and in other countries.”

Bernstein grew up in a Conservative Jewish household on the Upper East Side, attended Hebrew school, was bar mitzvahed and enjoyed Shabbat dinner Friday nights. After he graduated from Cornell, where he majored in anthropology and psychology, Bernstein spent a year studying Judaic texts for at least 12 hours a day at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.

While the majority of his fellow classmates continued their studies in rabbinical school, Bernstein opted to explore a different profession: “I wanted to pursue a career in the outdoors and get my knowledge from the same place.”

Bernstein soon began working at the Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS) a program that teaches a field-based, hands-on curriculum of wilderness survival skills. After moving up the ranks to CEO, and establishing himself as an outdoor survival expert, Bernstein added another occupation to his resume: Television show host.

On “Digging for the Truth,” he is able to integrate his interest in the social sciences and his love of frequenting remote destinations.

“I’m actually physically there with the experts … exploring the actual tombs, temples or pyramids and bringing that to life in a very physical and hopefully accessible way,” he said.

When he’s not filming for the History Channel, Bernstein may be found in New York or Utah, or in Colorado, where four times yearly he continues to run courses for BOSS.

“Digging for the Truth” airs on The History Channel Mondays at 9 p.m., check local listings for additional times. Shows are also available on DVD.

Wiesel Adds Sinai to Shabbat ‘Collection’


“I miss Shabbat,” Elie Wiesel told a packed audience at Sinai Temple in Westwood last Friday night.

The renowned author and Nobel Peace Prize winner spoke at Sinai’s Friday Night Live, a monthly Shabbat service combining music with mingling and prayer geared to young professionals. The evening also celebrated the congregation’s 100th anniversary.

Wiesel’s remarks stressed the importance of maintaining rituals in the Jewish faith — and Shabbat in particular.

“Shabbat transcends time,” he said.

This night it was standing-room only as Shabbat also transcended the service’s typical 25-40 age group, as well as Sinai’s seating capacity.

Having celebrated Shabbat around the world, Wiesel conveyed the novelty of Sinai’s Friday Night Live service, which invites singles to stick around for socializing.

After being welcomed by a standing ovation, Wiesel captivated the audience with anecdotes about his small hometown in Romania and with commentary about a Jew’s relationship to Shabbat.

According to Wiesel, who survived the Nazi camps in Auchwitz, “even the poorest” and even non-Jews in his town celebrated Shabbat. Quoting from “Shir Hashirim,” Wiesel emphasized the need for today’s Jews to retain the practice of setting aside a day for rest, prayer and study.

Wiesel’s output of oral and written histories, including his books “A Beggar in Jerusalem,” “The Golem,” “Dawn,” and the Nobel Prize-winning “Night,” has been relentless, as noted in the introduction by Sinai’s Rabbi David Wolpe.

Wiesel, who ultimately chose to study philosophy over music and conducting, shared stories of his Shabbat experiences and interactions with fellow singers and musicians. He claimed that words, after all, can dance much like a song.

In a time of raised awareness about genocide and recent reports, false it turns out (see page 14) about an Iranian law that would require Jews to wear yellow bands, Wiesel’s speech to Sinai’s audience, which he said represents the “symbol of Jewish survival,” seemed nothing short of inspiring, to many in the audience.

“I collect Shabbats,” he said.

This Shabbat, for many in attendance, was certainly worth collecting.

Wiesel’s speech was followed by a performance by actor-singer Theodore Bikel, additional melodious prayers and a Kiddush wherein the more than 1,500 attendees could mingle, participate in Israeli dancing and meet Wiesel — or their beshert.

 

Israel Needs Hope for Survival


Nearly 60 years ago, out of the ashes of the Holocaust, thousands of Jews came with not much more than the shirts on their backs to a land recognizable only as a collective and distant memory. There they found other Jews who had been there for several years, working to forge a new destiny for a people long beleaguered by suffering and hardship that culminated in the mass slaughter of roughly 30 percent of our entire population.

On May 14, 1948 (Iyar 5 on the Jewish calendar), after a journey begun nearly 1,900 years before, the Jews managed to find their way home. It had indeed been a long journey, one that involved an ancient and holy promise of a return to Eretz Yisrael, our ancient homeland.

For the first time in nearly two millennia, Jews had something we had lacked during the whole of the Diaspora — hope. Hope for a better life for us and for our children, and hope for survival of our faith and of our people, something that seemed impossible just a few years before.

Throughout our history, the world has not let us rest, and this certainly did not change upon the founding of the modern State of Israel. From the moment it was established, Israelis have been forced perpetually to defend the Jewish state from a multitude of adversaries, whether conventional armies, terrorist groups or a culture of incitement and hatred that spans the globe. These threats against Israel, much like the threats against the Jewish people throughout the centuries, have come about not because of anything we have done but because of who we are and what we represent.

Israel is a microcosm of the Jewish existence. On one hand, our nation is a model of freedom, tolerance, democracy and the rule of law in an otherwise enslaved, intolerant, totalitarian and lawless region of the globe. Given a chance, this could serve as a model for the rest of the Middle East.

On the other hand, we still have many challenges to overcome. For the last three and a half years, Israel has been the target of a relentless campaign of terror and murder. Simple day-to-day activities — a bus ride, a trip to the supermarket, a night out at a cafe — have become cause for great anxiety among Israelis.

Nearly 1,000 innocent civilians have been tragically murdered, causing great pain throughout the nation. Anti-Semitism, masked as anti-Zionism, has become legitimate in many circles in Europe and even here in the United States — not to mention the Arab and Muslim worlds. On top of all that, we have witnessed an international propaganda campaign designed to undermine our legitimacy.

Israel is a democracy and a strong one at that. But we are also a democracy facing terrible dilemmas, trying to walk the thin line between defending our citizens on the one hand and defending morality and the rule of law on the other.

It is a difficult task. But just like we have done throughout our history, we shall emerge from these challenges wiser, stronger and with a better sense of ourselves and of our role in the world.

This year on Yom HaAtzmaut, we are celebrating not just our independence. We celebrate our survival, our prosperity and our accomplishments in the face of extraordinary adversity.

Despite the efforts to destroy us, we have not only survived but have transcended our own expectations. Despite living in a virtual war zone, Israel has managed to maintain its democracy.

We maintained and even enhanced civil rights for all, including more than 1 million Israeli Arabs. We have become a global leader in engineering, computer science, agriculture, medicine and biotechnology. And, most importantly, we have strengthened our resolve to one day achieve a just and lasting peace with those who would destroy us.

It is on this day that we reflect on the uniqueness of Israel. For centuries, the Jewish people had no territory, no land to call our own. We had only a book, a faith and a collective history.

Since then, as always, we Jews are still striving to find a sense of normalcy in an abnormal place. But through it all, we have not forgotten, nor will we forget, that our destiny as a people is to make the world more human.

This is the hope that fuels our identity and our pride in the State of Israel. It is a hope that is built upon the collective memory of nearly 2,000 years. It is our hope to live in freedom in our land — the land of hope, the land of peace the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

Chanukah Rights


Growing up, I was one of the few children that did not
receive Chanukah presents. My family gave gelt, the money that children
traditionally receive on the holiday while gambling over the
game of dreidel, the spinning top.

My parents wanted to make the holiday as different from that
green and red one that sometimes falls at the same time. An easier task then, I
suppose, than now.

But isn’t that what the Festival of Lights is really about —
making sure we stay different? The Israelites resisted Hellenization; can the
American Jews resist Christmasization?

¬†From Adam Sandler to “The Hebrew Hammer” to the ultimate
public display of Chanukah — Chabad’s giant chocolate menorah at Fashion Island
in Newport Beach — we Jews have managed to procure equal Chanukah rights for
all, thank you very much. Maybe that’s not a good thing.

One nice thing about my time living in Israel — aside from
avoiding overly sentimental holiday songs and films — was the fact that most
people I knew didn’t have a lot of money. Most of us couldn’t afford to buy
everything we ever wanted, so we stuck to buying the things that we needed,
like toilet paper and shoes.

As an anonymous Yiddish author wrote in “A Treasury of
Jewish Humor,” which was compiled in 1967: “To have money is not so ai-ai-ai!
But not to have money is oy-oy-oy!”

There is no going back in time to when we were less
affluent, to when we gave a few pennies for gelt instead of gifts, to when
Chanukah and Christmas weren’t often synonymous for “the holidays.” And that’s
a good thing in many ways, I suppose.

But can’t we Jews bring something more to the holiday table?
Don’t we have more to offer this season than a giant chocolate menorah and
eight gifts instead of one?

In Judaism and in life, the world presents two inherent forces
competing for every person’s soul: gashmiyut (materialism) and ruchaniyut
(spirituality). We don’t shun one in service for the other; the tradition
understands that the material world has a place, too: our spiritual leaders
don’t take vows of celibacy — they marry.

A person who chooses to be a nazir (an ascetic) can only do
so for 30 days. The Jewish tradition teaches that wealth should be used to
enhance spirituality: avodah b’gashmiyut. Worship through materialism.

This week, as Chanukah and Christmas collide, instead of
unrealistically calling for a moratorium on spending (who would listen?),
perhaps we should look to our tradition to see how we can enhance our values
through materialism: avodah b’gashmiyut.

We can use our spiritual — and hopefully, emotional — wealth
to give to others: to donate our time, our services, our money.

But we need to do more than co-opt the “holiday spirit,”
that somewhat superficial niceness that descends on everyone, for say, two
weeks out of the year. Chanukah shouldn’t be completely Americanized, neutered
of all spiritual meaning, with candles instead of a tree, latkes instead of
fruitcake (as if that’s a fair choice).

The Festival of Lights, of course, is about a battle that
was won by the few against the many and the miracle of the Temple menorah’s oil
that lasted eight days instead of one.

Perhaps this year, some will draw a parallel of the
Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks to the United States’ capture of Saddam
Hussein.

To me, Chanukah is about the survival of the Jewish people.
How do we do it? Julie Gruenbaum Fax writes this week about how some movements
are looking to conversion as a route to survival. Many stories in this issue
testify to the ways we continue: from Tom Teicholtz’s article on the revival of
Yiddish (The “always dying but never dead” language) to Rabbi Eli Hecht’s tale
of his feisty bubbie’s stolen menorah. Survival is apparent, too, in our own
community, where the Orthodox Union held its annual West Coast Convention, just
days after the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra gave a masterful performance at
Disney Hall and the next day went to Milken High School to visit with student
musicians.

What does it take to survive? Strength, courage and, yes,
even adaptability and change. If the victory against the Greeks was about
withstanding assimilation and taking on foreign ways, perhaps this Chanukah we
remember that some of our greatest gifts come, already unwrapped, from our very
own tradition.  

Hadassah Encourages Women to ‘Check Out’ Program


Janine McMillion was 29 when she married, entered her third year of law school and was diagnosed with breast
cancer. Today, the Huntington Beach resident is an employment lawyer, whose
survival story was the centerpiece of “Check It Out,” an early-detection
program for youth put on by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization.

The program was instigated by Adena Kaufman, 34, of Aliso
Viejo, compelled to action by the loss of a girlhood friend to breast cancer in
2001. “It’s made me grateful to be alive,” she said.

The December event for the Bureau of Jewish Education’s
TALIT students was the first presentation in Orange County by Hadassah, which
introduced the program in Texas a decade ago. About 90 girls and their mothers
attended the program at Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom. They received bags
stuffed with brochures, an anatomically correct breast model with simulated
lumps, instruction on self-examination and genetic risk factors.

“Nobody ever explained that to me before,” 15-year-old
Daniella Gruber told her mother, Roe, afterward.

“She got something out of it,” Gruber’s mother said.

Despite winning a $5,900 grant in December 2001 from the
Susan G. Komen Foundation to present the program free to 2,000 students,
Hadassah’s Long Beach-Orange County chapter has, so far, found few takers.

“We’ve had a difficult time getting into public schools,”
said Michelle Shahon, director of the 3,200-member Costa Mesa-based group, “If
you teach them good life habits early on, that’s the best method of early
detection,” she said.

Shahon intends to seek an extension of the grant and keep
knocking on doors.

Faith in Unique Places


When it comes to faith, Niles Goldstein seems to have it in spades — at least the faith in his own survival. After all, when the 36-year-old rabbi went on a quest to find God, he didn’t play musical synagogues or do a Beatles-style sit-in with the Maharishi. Instead, he set out on a variety of dangerous pilgrimages, ranging from trekking along the unpredictable Silk Road of Central Asia to cruising with federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents through the South Bronx.

Being chased by a ravenous grizzly bear out in the wilderness may seem like an odd approach to exploring the tug-of-war between uncertainty and faith, but Goldstein came away with a deeper understanding of this universal struggle, which he shared with fellow spirituality-seekers at The New Shul, his three-year-old multidenominational congregation in New York’s Greenwich Village.

Then came Sept. 11, and with the nation’s faith tested to a previously unimaginable degree, Goldstein high-tailed it to Ground Zero.

"A priest colleague used the phrase ‘ministry of presence,’ and I think that applies to how I was trying to help," he explains. "Just coming together and being there made people believe in the flip side of despair."

Now, from April 19-21, Goldstein will be in Los Angeles for the Faith and Leadership Conference. He will discuss the impact of the attacks on faith — his own and others’ — as well as the relationship between faith and leadership on both a global and day-to-day level.

"Human nature hasn’t changed," says Goldstein of the post-Sept. 11 zeitgeist, "but we got a glimpse of a world that people like us generally don’t see. Now, even the most progressive Jews are finding that faith can offer spiritual nourishment in the form of ritual."

Ritual is not a word normally associated with this unconventional hipster, who is most often found in faded jeans and a T-shirt. A karate blackbelt and well-known author, Goldstein co-founded The New Shul, "a downtown shul with a downtown sensibility," along with two Emmy Award-winning theater professionals. Yet, while some have described The New Shul’s sensibility as avant-garde, Goldstein sees it another way. "The independent congregation frees us up to honor our tradition and excavate old rituals that have fallen into disuse and can be made relevant today." Rituals like the 2,000-year-old Jewish rain dance, which the rabbi says has residues in Orthodox liturgy, has been reinterpreted by him with chanting and music.

Then there are the Goldstein-led Jewish Outward Bound trips. "These challenges and bonding experiences can be used to teach Jewish values," Goldstein says.

It is not surprising that the poster boy for being "on the edge" is at the forefront of exploring the link between faith and leadership in everything from community activism to entertainment industry moguldom. "Any business entrepreneur knows that the willingness to take risks is critical," Goldstein says. "Kierkegaard said that faith is a leap. When you operate from a place of faith, you risk falling down and making mistakes. But that’s far more satisfying than embracing status quo."

As part of the Faith and Leadership Weekend, Rabbi Niles Goldstein will speak on Friday, April 19, at 7:30 p.m., on "Brushes With the Sacred: An Experimental Approach to Mitzvah" at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way; and at the all-day conference on Sunday, April 21 from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Stephen S. Wise Temple, 15550 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 761-8674.

Arts


The Man Behind ‘The Jew in the Lotus’

Documentary focuses on spiritual transformation of Rodger Kamenetz

By Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor

Eight years ago, writer Rodger Kamenetz, pictured below, traveled to Dharamsala, India, to meet the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet. He went as scribe to a group of Jewish scholars and rabbis invited by the Tibetan leader to share the Jewish secret of survival in exile. Kamenetz described the historic dialogue in his popular 1994 book, “The Jew in the Lotus.”

Now a compelling new film version of the best-seller, also called “The Jew in the Lotus,” reveals the as-yet-untold personal story behind the book. Laurel Chiten’s documentary focuses upon Kamenetz’s spiritual transformation in India, at the lowest point in his life.

The film describes how Kamenetz arrived in Dharamsala, anguished over the death of his infant son. He had poured his heart and soul into a book about the baby’s death, which had been brusquely rejected by publishers. He had disappointed his Jewish parents by not becoming a doctor; now he was a writer unsure he could write.

“I had an overwhelming sense of inferiority,” says Kamenetz, who scribbled his sentiments in a journal upon reaching India. “I’m nervous, which is nothing new in itself,” he wrote. “‘Nervous’ is my religion.”

But something unexpected happened to Kamenetz in Dharamsala; through his encounter with the Tibetan Buddhists, he realized he had undervalued what was precious about his own religion. Kamenetz began his journey back to Judaism; he went on to write “The Jew in the Lotus,” which put him on the map as a writer, and to become an expert on Jewish-Buddhist interface. When he returned to Dharamsala in 1996, with the film crew in tow, he finally had the courage to look the Dalai Lama in the eye.

Chiten, above, tells Kamenetz’s story with interviews of the author, his family and friends, underscored by brutal images of Indian poverty, teeming streets and misty, ethereal visions of the Himalayan foothills around Dharamsala. The award-winning filmmaker says she was drawn to Kamenetz’s story because it is so much her own.

She came across “The Jew in the Lotus” at a low point in her own life, after Tourette’s Syndrome had ruined her career as a sign language interpreter and brought her to a personal crossroads. Chiten thereafter returned to film — her first love. But in 1994, her documentary about Tourette’s, “Twitch and Shout” was rejected by broadcasters, leaving her debt-ridden and determined never to make another movie. “My mantra was, ‘Nobody wants me, nobody wants my film,'” says the director, who for solace logged on to a Jewish-Buddhist chatroom where everyone was talking about “The Jew in the Lotus.” Chiten was at the bookstore the next morning to purchase the tome.

“I became obsessed with it,” says the Boston-based filmmaker, a Jew who has been interested in Buddhism since she began meditating and practicing yoga at age 14. “I carried it around with me everywhere. It was like glue in my hands.”

Before long, she wrote to Kamenetz, informing him that she had sworn off filmmaking until she had read his book. He agreed to a movie version of “The Jew in the Lotus,” though Chiten was initially daunted by the wide, esoteric scope of the book. When Kamenetz told her about the death of his infant son over tea one evening, Chiten knew she had her angle. “I realized what interested me the most was Rodger’s voice” she says. “I also wanted to talk about how spirituality deals with suffering.”

Now that the documentary is earning critical acclaim, Chiten sees another parallel between her life and Kamenetz’s. “I went to India terrified of making another film,” she says. “Today I’m taken seriously as a filmmaker.”


“The Jew in the Lotus” runs from Sept. 3-10 at the Laemmle Grand 4-Plex, 345 S. Figueroa St., L.A., (213) 617-0268.The filmmaker will answer questions at the Sept. 3 screening.

Torah Portion


An unusual Buddhist-Jewish dialogue took place inSeptember 1989, when the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, metwith a group of six Jewish leaders. The Dalai Lama requested themeeting, not because of an academic interest but, rather, because ofa practical need. He wanted to learn the Jewish “secret technique”for survival. “We always talk of Jewish people scattered in so manycountries, speaking so many languages, yet the Jews keep theirtraditions. It’s something remarkable,” he said.

Faced with the Buddhist challenge, the Jewishleaders debated what constitutes our secret survival technique. Amongthe numerous answers offered, the one that caught everyone’s fancystated that Jews survive because they know how to argue.Historically, the Jew could defend his faith because he was trainedto inquire, to probe, to question.

That answer seems particularly apropos, assurvival, once again, is high on our agenda. Indeed, how successfulis modern Jewish education in training our young to ask probing,life-sustaining questions? And what better time to raise this issuethan Passover, which focuses on both education and questions — theMa Nishtana, the four questions of seder fame? As everyone knows,youngsters in Jewish schools throughout the world learn to recite thequestions letter-perfect. Some children even learn them in more thanone language, dazzling their audiences with their multilingualtalents.

But does learning to parrot the questions in theHaggadah provide our children with survival techniques? At least onegreat medieval sage thought it did not. According to Maimonides (Lawsof Chametz and Matzah 8:2), when it comes time for the Ma Nishtana,”the son asks his own questions, and the reader says, ‘Ma Nishtana.'”A revolutionary idea. No more parroting of questions, and no morelittle children asking the Ma Nishtana. Rather, a free flow of ideastakes place. Maimonides thus advocates stimulating our children toprobe rather than programming them to parrot. Let them observe forthemselves why this right is different, and let them inquire in theirown way, creating their own set of questions. The seder is a time forquestions, for only those who question will find answers.

From this vantage point, we can now understand whyMaimonides insists that the seder leader recite the formal MaNishtana. He appreciated that the role of a good educator is to teachhis students to question. In order to achieve this goal, the teachermust first demonstrate the value of questioning, and what better waythan by asking questions himself?

But the teacher can’t stop there. He must teachhis students how to question, and the Ma Nishtana serves that purposeas well. Precision inquiry and intuitive thinking are present inthese four questions. They note all phenomena at the seder, and theyobserve all changes in behavior that deserve analysis.

On seder night, we all become teachers, and it isour responsibility to ignite our children’s imaginations. We willcommit a grave injustice to our children if all that we expect anddemand of Passover is a rote recitation of the Ma Nishtana.

Let us not waste the opportunity, and let us teachour youngsters that Judaism is only appreciated by those whoformulate their own questions and search for proper answers.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin is spiritual leader ofYoung Israel of Century City.