Is tefillin next?

Growing up, at my Conservative religious school in White Plains, New York, I didn’t win any awards in Tefillah or Torah study. As a towheaded kid, though, I did merit notice from the Hebrew instructor, an Orthodox guy far from his Brooklyn home doing penance no doubt for his religious transgressions by teaching the non-believers out in the suburbs. In hindsight I sometimes think about this insensitive soul who told me more than once that I would have made a good smuggler in the Warsaw Ghetto because I could have passed as Polish or German with the Nazi guards. No wonder the religious skepticism of Spinoza was more my thing by the time I had become a bar mitzvah than any commitment to trying to follow the 613 mitzvot.

Still, like so many other agnostic North American Jews, fast forward thirty years to my own son’s bar mitzvah. His parsha, Vayera, about the akedah or binding of Isaac wasn’t easy for either of us. Me as the parent troubled by the notion of a father asked by God to sacrifice his son and my son struggling to say something pithy for his drosh on the big day.

Then and now, my Story of Isaac isn’t the Talmudic version. Rather it is the Leonard Cohen rendition; the lugubrious wailing of the Canadian poet and songwriter who gave so many Jews and non-Jews alike their most memorable exposure to the Old Testament. What does it mean that for many of us our exposure to religious ritual comes from popular culture rather than from the religious school classroom or synagogue? On the one hand, it feels cheap, like reading the CliffsNotes version of Hamlet rather than Shakespeare’s actual opus. On the other, it is not at all strange; no less valid a way to find one’s ways to observance than being born and raised at the edge of the bimah. As I age, I find more and more instances of ritual creeping into my life in unexpected places.

A week before the November election I joined a group from Bend the Arc, A Jewish Partnership for Justice, canvassing for Hillary Clinton and other Democrats in the identical subdivisions outside of Las Vegas. The bus was barely out of the Sepulveda Pass when the Rabbi heading up the trip asked the religiously-mixed group of 25 of us to join him in saying kaddish for political activist Tom Hayden who had died recently.

Tom Hayden’s kaddish was just one more example of the way Jews, and non-Jews, are learning about Jewish ritual outside of the synagogue, the traditional route for Jewish learning about religious practice. And at least in this case, the prayer was led by a Rabbi rather than an actress playing one online. The reference of course is to Transparent, the wildly successful series on Amazon Prime that has become a primer of sorts for viewers about Jewish ritual, from the mikvah to havdalah.

But like tashlich on the beach in Santa Monica or at the lake in Echo Park, Jews are picking up Jewish ritual selectively like their parents and grandparents once picked items from Column A or Column B at the Cantonese restaurants that used to be the only option for Chinese food in the cities where so many of us were raised.

Kashruth, the mezuzah, kaddish are one thing but havdalah and tashlich are another. It is surprising to me that the latter rituals which I always viewed as reserved for the Orthodox, have caught on among the assimilated among us. But then perhaps I am discounting the relative accessibility, the pleasant sensuality, of those rituals. As far as practice goes, the colorful havdalah candle and the spice box are pretty groovy and easily understood ways to embrace religion which can look a lot less haimish experienced as an observer from the pews. After all, havdalah isn’t brit milah, a hard to watch if central tenet of our faith, or kapparot.

Non-Jewish friends of my sister on the Main Line outside of Philadelphia have attended so many bar and bat mitzvahs that they have adopted the concept. Recently they threw a big birthday party for their 13-year old, albeit without the religious aspects, “christening” their version, a basemitzvah. The simcha was held, of course, in their basement.

In my beit knesset, there is nothing wrong with people learning about Jewish ritual from popular culture. As with all cultural exploration, including food and art, our exposure to Jewish ritual need not stem from the synagogue or cheder. For some, discovering the lovely ritual of havdalah on Transparent will spark interest in learning more about the meaning of the ritual while for others, it will just be a quaint thing Jews do like eating kosher food and celebrating Passover.

Where it will lead is different in every case. All of my life, I have watched my father lay tefillin, fascinated by the arcane ritual of the boxes for the yad and the rosh, the wrapping of the arm before placing the phylacteries on the head. The practice intrigues me but I have never felt the calling to lay tefillin and I would be surprised if it found its way into my daily practice and that of my son, and daughters. How is the experience of seeing the Rabbi descend into the mikvah in Transparent different from what I see my father doing or young men being asked to lay tefillin by a Chabadnik on a college campus?

So many of us know so little about our religious ritual that even popular presentations of it can serve as the spark to more religious observance.

Is Transparent the gateway drug to torah, chuppah, ma'asim tovim? 

I don’t know. We will just have to wait till next season to find out.

Hebrew word of the week: Tefillin


The form is an Aramaic plural (the Hebrew plural would be tefillim), whose singular would be tefillah, “prayer,” similar to tehillim “Psalms, ” plural of tehillah “psalter.”* However, the plural tefillin is used for both, as in tefillin shel yad “tefillin of hand,” tfillin shel rosh “tefillin of the head.” The Jews of Baghdad had a double plural form: tefillimot to refer to more than one pair.

The English-Greek word phylactery means “guard-amulet,” just as tallit means “protecting-cover,” from the root T-L-L (Daniel 4:9; Nehemiah 3:15). Indeed, some anthropologists consider tefillin to allude to snake, a universal symbol of medicine and protection (Compare 2 Kings 18:4). The biblical name is ToTafot (Deuteronomy 6:8) “frontlet, pendant, amulet.”

*Or “song of praise (to God),” as in Psalms 145:1; from the root H-L-L, “ululate, cheer or praise.”  

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

Kirk Douglas, a poet at 98, gets personal

Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch, the son of an immigrant Russian-Jewish ragpicker, marked his 98th birthday on Dec. 9 by launching his 11th book.

The legendary star of 87 movies (who can forget “Spartacus”?) can look back, in happiness and grief, on countless one-night stands with filmdom’s most beautiful women, a helicopter crash in which he was the only survivor, a stroke, two bar mitzvahs and the death of a son.

He has written about this and many other parts of his life in his previous works, but there is something special about his latest, “Life Could Be Verse.”

“I have expressed my personal feelings and emotions more than in any other of my books,” Douglas, sitting in his art-filled Beverly Hills home, told the Jewish Journal.

In the slim volume of poems, photos and anecdotes, he is no longer the swaggering Hollywood star and serial philanderer of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

His trademark dimpled chin and bright blue eyes are still there, but his blond hair is now fastened in a gray ponytail; he walks carefully and speaks with a slur, a legacy of his stroke.

What he has not lost is his sharp sense of humor, his pride as a Jew and his love for Anne, his wife of 60 years.

Does 50 years together
Seem so long to you?
The older the violin, the sweeter the music
It is often said, and it’s true.
To me, it seems like yesterday
We met in gay Paree.
Now Paris is sad, but I am glad
You chose to marry me.

Another, lesser-known side of Douglas is expressed in “For Eric,” an elegy for the youngest of his four sons, whose drug-induced death haunts his father still:

I sit by your grave and weep,
Silently, not to disturb your sleep.
Rest in peace my beautiful son
It won’t be long before we are one,
While I lie down by your side.
And talk, no secrets to hide.
Tell me, Eric, what did I do wrong?
What should I have done to make you strong?
Now I sit here and cry,
Waiting to be with you when I die.

Neither Douglas’ first wife, actress Diana Dill, nor his second, Anne, are of Jewish descent, but 10 years ago, Anne converted to Judaism, explaining, “Kirk has been married to two shiksas,” she said. “It’s time he married a nice Jewish girl.”

The conversion did not change the couple’s relationship, except for one ritual. During the first 50 years, Douglas lit the Friday evening Shabbat candles, and now Anne has taken over.

During an hour’s conversation with the Journal, Douglas looked back on the lessons of a very full and long life.

On God and religion: “I grew up praying in the morning and laying tefillin. I gave up much of the formal aspect of religion … I don’t think God wants compliments. God wants you to do something with your life and to help others.”

Douglas celebrated his first bar mitzvah at the Sons of Israel congregation in his hometown of Amsterdam, N.Y., and his second, 70 years later, after the traditional biblical lifespan, at 83 at Sinai Temple in Westwood, with Rabbi David Wolpe.

He skipped his third bar mitzvah at 96, and plans to do the same at 109, when he would be entitled to his fourth bar mitzvah. “That would be showing off,” he said. “I’m an actor, so I have already been showing off all my life.”

As a world-renowned expert on women, how does one go about attracting the other gender, Kirk was asked. He responded with an anecdote:

“When I was courting Anne in Paris, I couldn’t get through to her,” Douglas said. “One day she agreed to go to the circus with me, and when the circus performers recognized me, they insisted that I participate in the show.

“I had no idea what I was supposed to do, but as a string of circus elephants trotted out, I followed them in my tuxedo with a shovel and broom and started to clean up what the elephants had left behind.”

Anne was still laughing when he took her home, and she bestowed her first good-night kiss on him. The poet in him celebrated the triumph by noting:

“Anne thought I was a big hit,
As she saw me shoveling sh-t.”

After this reporter had left, Douglas sent him a final thought on a more serious subject.

“In the Jewish tradition, a birthday gives a person special power,” he wrote. “And if he issues a blessing, his blessing becomes true. So on my 98th birthday, I bless all people in the Land of Israel that the current conflict resolves itself, that no more people die or are hurt and that you can continue your lives in peace.”

Letters to the editor: Rob’s goodbye and connecting to Judaism

Not ‘Goodbye,’ Just ‘See You Later’

I was disappointed to read Rob Eshman’s last column (“Why We Write,” March 7). I will so miss it during the time you are away. It’s the first thing I read in the Journal. I am a home delivery subscriber and have been ever since I had back problems. I realized how the Journal kept me connected to the local Jewish community as well as the world Jewish community.

“Zei gezunt!”

Estelle Markowtiz via e-mail

Connectivity Key to Judaism

The symbolism of binding and of knots is at the core of Judaism (“Tefillin of the Heart,” March 7). We use the knots on the tallit to remind us of the commandments. When Jacob wrestles, he is wrapping himself around someone. The challah is intertwined dough. The havdalah candle is intertwined wax. Abraham binds his son Isaac. With tefillin, one can bind oneself.

We are stronger when we connect. Judaism wants us to connect with each other, with the next and previous generations, and with God.

Jeff Shulman, Granada Hills  

Tefillin of the heart

Tefillin — phylacteries — have become a source of contention in the Modern Orthodox world. Female high-schoolers, on both coasts of the United States, are seeking rabbinic permission to adorn tefillin publicly while participating in morning prayers. For centuries, tefillin, alongside Talmud studies, have been symbols of the male domain and practice. While Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik assisted in reclaiming Talmud studies for women, other public rituals, especially those reflected in all elements of public prayer, are continuously challenging the parameters of this community’s self-perception and definition. Partnership praying congregations and the ordination of women are two of the storms that have been weathered.  

I, myself, have been struggling with and self-defined by my relationship to this “Time-Bound Torah Imperative That Woman Are Exempt From” for the last 25 years. Somehow, more than other commandments that fall under this category that I have chosen over the years to obligate myself to and observe (such as sitting in a sukkah or owning my own set of the Four Species), tefillin seem to have a magnetic field around them that emotionally and intuitively keeps women away. Even when counseling Conservative female rabbinical students, I have found the emotional challenge of tefillin as carrying the weight of centuries of male dominance to be overwhelming.

My first personal draw to actually adorn tefillin awakened in my early 20s, while learning a prayer in Rebbe Nachman of Breslav’s book of prayers, “Likutei Tefillot.” Rebbe Nachman warns us of the dangers in surpassing the boundaries of our mind while studying and sitting in contemplation. He calls upon the tefillin to function as a visceral reminder every morning of what it means to bind your Keter (Divine Crown) and Da’at (Divine Knowledge) to God, when sensing the knot of the head tefilah (phylactery) on the stem of your brain and the phylactery itself resting on the top of your forehead. I told myself that when I would get married I would cover my hair, and my head covering would be my reminder. That made sense to me at 25 years of age. Orthodox men have tefillin, and Orthodox women have head coverings to function similarly. 

But then I found myself at 29 and still single and having to teach. I could not wait any longer to become the teacher I was meant to be. So I tell myself to always collect my hair when teaching; that I, too, need protection when teaching. My mind and imagination need to be confined to what is “mine” in the higher realms, as Rebbe Nachman explained. It is for this reason that, as I walk in the world as Reb Mimi, a female Orthodox rabbi, my hair is always covered when I teach in public, even though still single (and therefore not obligated to cover my hair), and because I still don’t adorn tefillin. No different than my male colleagues who teach alongside me, I, too, need this reminder.

Twice I have purchased tefillin. The first time was in Geula, one of the more ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, for my nephew, Ziv, weeks before his bar mitzvah. There was no expectation that he would use them, as he didn’t live his life as an observant person, but it was a given that bar mitzvah boys need to own a pair of tefillin. As the rabbi-aunt, it seemed simple that I would purchase them with him. We enter the store as always dressed — I’m with sleeves below my elbows; Ziv is in a tank top, short-shorts and spiked hair, with a ton of gel to keep the spikes standing as straight as I stand when praying in the morning. Although it was clear to the storekeeper that Ziv wouldn’t be using them often, he nonetheless smiled while commenting: “I’m not so sure that the gel is good for the leather.” I paid, wondering what would happen to those tefillin, and at times I still do.

The second pair I purchased was for a young man I had met while teaching in the greater community, here in Los Angeles. He came to my home to share with me the murmurs of his heart. I asked him when was the last time that he prayed. He said, “I don’t have tefillin.” I was caught off guard by his answer, as he was not living a halachically observant life. I responded, “I didn’t ask you if you recited the morning prayers, I asked if you prayed to God, if you talked to God.” He insisted, “You can’t pray if you don’t have tefillin.” His identity as a praying person was bound to his nonexistent tefillin and memories of being a Chasidic young man earlier in his life, while currently living as an observant-free person, astounded me. That morning, what I needed for him was to be in conversation with God, and if tefillin was his reason for not being in dialogue with God, then that was the easiest problem to solve. “Great! It’s a 10-minute walk to the closest tefillin store,” was my response. I entered the store, pondering, “What does it mean that I can earn the money to purchase them by virtue of teaching Torah; that half of my community can’t live without them, yet they aren’t accessible to me?”

I have been questioning and longing when contemplating tefillin. I live a life that is halachically, spiritually and emotionally bound to God, but what does it mean to be physically bound to God? How does this daily experience alter one’s connection, devotion and commitment to our Creator? When you live with something that is present daily as part of your obligatory life, I could see how one could wonder what it is like to not be obligated to adorn tefillin. But, for me, it is a haunting and daunting question that meets me every morning and every Shabbat. I ask myself, “What does it mean that there is a D’Oraita (Torah) imperative commandment that 50 percent of my community observes daily that I am alien to?”

You see, this isn’t a theoretical question about “women and tefillin”; it isn’t only a halachic question about “women and tefillin.” It is a question that challenges me daily as I stand in God’s presence. 

The truth is that I do own a pair of tefillin. I believe a Jewish home needs to have tefillin in it, and I can’t be a rabbi without tefillin to lend someone in need. They travel with me when going home to Jerusalem to be with my family. They sit in a special tefillin bag that I was gifted not long ago. They rest on a shelf next to where I pray every morning, staring at me, conversing from a distance. I mumble words similar to  Rav Rechumei’s wife, in the Talmud, as she waits for him to come home once a year from his learning with Rav in Mechoza: “Hashta atei, hashta atei” — “now he’s coming, now he’s coming.” I say to them, “Maybe tomorrow, maybe tomorrow.” Rav Rechumei’s wife and I share a longing for what / who we think we are wed to, what is ours by right. We share a tear that comes from the pain of the distancing and rejection as a woman. Rav Rechumei never made it home, but my “tomorrow” may still come. How long will it be till I can no longer long for my tefillin, fearing the intimacy of union with the Divine as wrapping them on my head and arm? How long will it be and what will it take till I hear myself saying the two blessings recited when laying tefillin? Till I hear myself saying in the presence of God, “V’erastikh li l’olam … v’ya’daat et HaShem” — “I will betroth you to Me forever, and I will betroth you to Me in righteousness, justice, kindness and mercy. I will betroth you to Me with fidelity, and you shall know God”?

Reb Mimi Feigelson and Rabbi Marc D. Angel will discuss “The Battle for the Soul of Judaism: How Open Can Orthodoxy Be?” at Sinai Temple on March 10, 7:30 to 9 p.m. To RSVP or for more information, visit this story at

Why Orthodoxy is growing

As almost every Jew knows by now, according to major reports on American Jewry — such as the most recent and most highly regarded Pew report — Orthodoxy is growing, while Conservative and Reform Judaism are shrinking. 

Before presenting my explanations, I think it important to note that I have no denominational ax to grind. I was raised Orthodox, and went to yeshivas through the end of high school. But I left Orthodoxy early in life and have always been involved in Jewish life — Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Chabad, Jewish federations and writing for Jewish publications.

In a nutshell, I wish all Jewish endeavors well.

I believe that Orthodoxy is prevailing and that the non-Orthodox denominations are diminishing for the following reasons:

First, Orthodoxy makes more religious demands on its followers (and they are demands, not suggestions). Orthodoxy demands strict religious ritual observance — at the very least, Shabbat, kashrut, daily prayers with tefillin (for men), and regular attendance at synagogue on Shabbat and all the holidays (how many non-Orthodox Jews can even identify Shemini Atzeret, as much a Torah holy day as Passover?). 

I can cite a personal example to prove this point. Non-Orthodox Jews nearly always assume that I am an Orthodox Jew when they learn that I do not broadcast on Shabbat or on any of the Torah holidays. If many Reform and Conservative Jews took all those days off from work — as the Torah demands — few Jews would make that assumption. (I do broadcast on yom tov sheni, the rabbinically added day for Jews outside of Israel.)

Like all other religions (with the prominent exception of Protestant Christianity), Judaism has not been able to survive without ritual observance. 

Second, the more Orthodox one is, the more he or she is likely to live among Orthodox Jews. One’s entire social life (outside of work) revolves around fellow Orthodox Jews. That makes it, to put it gently, very difficult to leave Orthodoxy. If you do, you are likely to lose your whole support system and probably most of your friends, as well. You may even risk alienating your family.

Third, the great majority of Orthodox Jews send their children to Orthodox Jewish day schools — usually through high school. The Orthodox child rarely has close non-Orthodox, let alone non-Jewish, friends, thereby reinforcing Orthodoxy both experientially and socially from the earliest age.

Fourth, more Orthodox Jews marry; they marry younger, and they have more children than non-Orthodox Jews. Among other reasons, many non-Orthodox Jews bought the nihilistic nonsense — and the Jewish dead end — of the zero population growth movement. And fewer and fewer of them believe that marriage and children are mandatory. On the contrary, many consider a successful career at least as fulfilling as marriage and family. It would be instructive to conduct a poll among non-Orthodox young Jewish women, asking them this question: “Would you rather have a great marriage and family or a great career?” 

I have asked this of many young Jewish women, and at least half have responded that they would choose the great career. Just this week the Huffington Post published a column titled, “6 Reasons Never to Get Married.” The author? A woman named Leah Cohen.

It is hard to get further from Judaism and imperil Jewish survival than having Jewish women value career more than, or even as much as, marriage and children.

Fifth, as if all of the above were not enough, Orthodox Jews believe God chose the Jews and is the ultimate author of the Torah. Very few non-Orthodox Jews believe God is the author of the Torah; but it is inconceivable that Judaism can long survive among Jews who do not believe that God created the world, took the Jews out of Egypt and gave the Torah.

Sixth, Israel is central to almost all Orthodox Jews. Incredibly, and tragically, it is increasingly peripheral to many other Jews. 

Seventh, the further from Orthodox Judaism one gets, the more one is likely to adopt leftism/progressivism as one’s moral code and worldview. Just as the Orthodox Jew is steeped in Judaism from the earliest years, most non-Orthodox Jews are steeped in leftism at home and in school from elementary through graduate school. How else to explain the phenomenon of young women thinking career will give their lives as much or more meaning than marriage and family? How else to explain the alienation from Israel among so many non-Orthodox Jews?

I write none of this to make the case for Orthodoxy. I find most of the reasons admirable and a few disturbing. But truth is truth. Any one of the seven reasons would suffice to explain why Orthodoxy is increasing and non-Orthodoxy isn’t. All seven make the case incontrovertible.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Yom Kippur in Afghanistan

Every other morning, Army Capt. Nathan Brooks wakes up between 4 and 4:30 a.m. to go for a three-mile run before the intense heat of the Afghan desert sets in. 

Following his daily exercise at Bagram Airfield, Brooks does two things that he said have most helped him feel connected to God since he deployed for Afghanistan in April — he wraps tefillin and davens Shacharit, the morning prayer service.

“That’s my thing that I hold onto,” said Brooks, a 33-year-old, single Orthodox Jew from Los Angeles. 

Serving abroad, Brooks hasn’t been able to maintain the same level of religious observance that he did back home, where he regularly attended two Orthodox synagogues, B’nai David-Judea Congregation and Beth Jacob.

On Shabbat, because the military cannot take a day of rest in a war zone, Brooks still must complete his daily tasks for the Army. And for Yom Kippur this year, Brooks does not anticipate that he will be able to entirely fast.

“This is a war going on,” he said. “You do what you can.”

Sitting in his quarters in Afghanistan on a recent evening — morning in Los Angeles — Brooks spoke with the Journal via videoconference about his experience as an officer and an observant Jew serving the United States military for 16 years. (He joined when he was 17.)

In his role in charge of the 1106th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group (TASMG) unit, Brooks has numerous responsibilities. He flies a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter during maintenance test flights and manages “depot level maintenance” activities, which refers to the issue and repair of Army cargo and helicopters.

In terms of fasting, Brooks said that although he would be unable to perform his duties if he did not eat or drink on fast days such as Yom Kippur or Tisha b’Av, he makes sure to restrict himself to water and bland foods. 

“As a pilot, particularly in the heat of Kandahar [where he was previously stationed] for Tisha b’Av, it was maybe 114 degrees, and I still had to perform and function as a soldier,” he said. “When you are an officer in charge, sometimes the needs of your unit and your troops have to come before your own personal needs.”

Despite the impossibility of remaining strictly observant in Afghanistan, while Brooks was in Kandahar he and two other Orthodox Jews met regularly on Friday evenings without the benefit of a Jewish chaplain to pray, study Torah and make the best Shabbat dinner that kosher ready-to-eat meals (MREs) can provide. 

MREs, even the kosher ones, are not exactly traditional Shabbat fare. The modest meals include dried cranberries, cereal, sunflower seeds and either a vegetarian dish, a beef stew or chicken with noodles. Not much variety — on Shabbat or any other day of the week. 

“You eat those over and over again; it gets kind of old,” Brooks said.

Although the Army usually only provides Brooks and his fellow Jewish soldiers with matzah for religious meals, organizations like Project MOT often send challah in care packages for Jewish soldiers. In fact, sometimes there are so many packages from Jewish organizations — as many as five or six per week — that non-Jewish soldiers have asked incredulously if he knows the people sending him so many packages.

Since Brooks moved to Bagram Airfield a couple of weeks ago, he has spent Friday nights in the company of Rabbi David Goldstrom, an Orthodox chaplain who will be serving in Bagram for a few more weeks, returning to his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., shortly after the end of the High Holy Days.

A 47-year-old New Jersey native, Goldstrom leads Friday night services every week. He organized services for Rosh Hashanah, and will do the same on Yom Kippur, for which he hopes to have a minyan

Goldstrom’s description of Shabbat and holidays at Bagram has little in common with how they are celebrated in America. For one, even though Goldstrom is able to observe Shabbat in Afghanistan, his attire remains a standard Army uniform. And attacks from the Taliban remain an almost daily disturbance.

“I may have to go to a bunker because of indirect fire, mortar attacks or rocket attacks,” Goldstrom said. “They do attack us almost daily.” 

Goldstrom said that when an alarm on the base rings, he and other soldiers have to scramble quickly. It can happen during weekly drills, and it can happen during Shabbat services.

“An alarm goes off, and you hit the ground or head for a bunker as quickly as possible and wait for the all clear,” he said.

While serving as a chaplain in Afghanistan — away from his wife and two sons — is certainly a challenge, Goldstrom said that one of his favorite recurring moments is when he first meets a Jewish soldier.

“When they do see a Jewish chaplain, when they see the tablet and Star of David on my helmet, on my uniform, their faces light up.”

Come January, when Brooks likely will be back in Los Angeles, he plans to either continue flying Black Hawk helicopters as part of the California Army National Guard or return to school to further pursue a graduate degree in either geographic information science or in emergency planning.

Despite all the challenges involved with being an observant Jew in the military — especially when serving abroad — Brooks believes it’s all worth it.

“I think it’s really important that we have ourselves represented in the military,” he said. “As soldiers, we have a lot to give.”

Women praying to be heard at the Western Wall

We approached the entrance to the Kotel Plaza a little before 7 a.m. on Rosh Hodesh Tevet. In my bag was my tallit, the beautiful purple-and-blue one that was hand woven as a gift from the students and faculty at USC more than 20 years ago, when I completed my time there as the Hillel rabbi. Several women were in line in front of me; the security guards checking bags told them they couldn’t bring their tallitot into the Kotel Plaza. As of 6 that morning, a new decree had been issued by the “Rabbi of the Wall” forbidding women from entering the plaza with Jewish holy articles like tallit and tefillin. 

This week’s Torah portion continues the story of Joseph. It begins: “Vayigash eilav Yehuda …” “And Judah approached him (Joseph) …” The midrash (Bereshit Rabba 93:6) asks what “approach” means, what are the different strategies one might use to approach those who hold power. It offers three options: One is to approach in conciliation, the second is to approach in battle, and the third is to approach in prayer.

I wanted to approach in prayer. I learned long ago of the power of tallit and kippah to help me move from the secular to the sacred, spiritual tools that begin the transformation that opens my heart to prayer. I took my tallit out and wrapped it around my neck like a scarf. When it was my turn to go through security, a guard pointed to my neck. “Does that scarf have tzitzit? Take it off. You must leave it here.” I tried to explain: “But I am coming to pray. In the mornings, I pray with a tallit. This tallit is very symbolic to me — it was a gift from the students I taught that there is more than one way to be a Jew.” But as he was going through my purse and holding my kippah in his hand, he didn’t seem interested in a conversation. “You can take this,” handing me the kippah, “but not that tallit.”

I unwrapped the tallit and left it in the pile of tallitot other women had been forced to leave behind. Four women who wore their tallitot under their coats were able to pass through security. When they reached the women’s section of the Kotel and our prayer began, they put on and wore their tallitot and were soon summoned by the police and told they must take them off or leave. Subsequently, they were arrested. 

There is no halachic prohibition against a woman wearing a tallit. At most, the prohibition is against saying a bracha that indicates she is fulfilling a commandment. We actually have evidence in rabbinic tradition that some daughters of certain prominent rabbis wore tallit and tefillin. So why is my wanting to approach the Kotel in prayer, the way I pray, a problem for the authorities who control the Kotel? If I can’t approach in prayer, in what for me is real and authentic prayer, the only options left are to approach in conciliation or in battle.

I could approach in conciliation. I could argue that Women of the Wall have been given what we need — we are “allowed” to convene 11 times a year in the women’s sections for public prayer, as long as we move to Robinson’s Arch for the Torah service. There we can wear tallitot and tefillin; there it is possible to have women and men pray together. But Robinson’s Arch, while technically part of the Western Wall, is not the “main” Kotel, not the iconic symbol that so many Jews consider sacred. The Kotel is sacred space that should belong to all Jews. It is, in fact, a national monument. The problem is that government legislation has turned it into an Orthodox synagogue where public prayer can only be led by men. It disenfranchises me, along with the vast majority of Jews in the world. It says that my expression of Judaism is not authentic. Conciliation means giving up my own voice and my own truth. 

So the only approach that is left is battle. Women of the Wall will continue to fight, not only for reclaiming the Kotel as public space, but also for all the other issues of religious pluralism that are so important. The women and men who support Women of the Wall will continue to speak truth to power, raising our voices and our prayers to challenge the Orthodox monopoly on issues of personal status —marriage, divorce, burial and conversion — and to work for parity in government funding for non-Orthodox religious and educational institutions, and for recognition of liberal rabbis. And we will continue to act on our conviction that there is more than one way to be a Jew.

Rabbi Laura Geller is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Missing Florida millionaire left tefillin on abandoned boat

Guma Aguiar, a Florida businessman and philanthropist who went missing in June, left his tefillin on his abandoned boat.

All of the life jackets also were accounted for, the Coast Guard reported, according to the Sun-Sentinel, after getting the records through a Freedom of Information Act request. His wedding ring and watch were left at home.

Aguiar, the CEO of Leor Energy who lived in Fort Lauderdale, left his home on June 19. His empty 31-foot boat washed ashore in Fort Lauderdale the following morning.

Aguiar's wife reportedly had asked for a divorce just before he left the house. Aguiar had a history of ill mental health, according to reports citing family members.
The disappearance remains an open missing persons case.

In 2009, Aguiar gave $8 million to the pro-aliyah group Nefesh B’Nefesh and $500,000 to March of the Living, which takes high school-aged Jews to Poland to see Holocaust sites. He also became a fixture of Israeli sports pages when he became the main sponsor of the Israeli Premier League soccer team Beitar Jerusalem.

While Aguiar, who has a Jewish mother, did not grow up with much of a Jewish background, he later returned to Judaism and has made large gifts to Jewish and Israeli causes. He made his fortune when he discovered huge natural gas reserves in Texas.

Alaska Airlines detains passengers over tefillin

An Alaska Airlines flight crew issued a security alert after three Mexican Orthodox Jews began praying with tefillin.

The flight attendants, who were concerned by the prayers being said aloud in Hebrew and the unfamiliar boxes with leather straps hanging from them, locked down the cockpit and radioed a security alert ahead to Los Angeles International Airport.

The flight originated Sunday in Mexico City. It was met at the Los Angeles airport by fire crews, foam trucks, FBI agents, Transportation Security Administration personnel and police, according to Reuters.

The men were escorted from the plane and questioned, then released to catch connecting flights with no charges filed.

The mistake follows an incident in the United States in January 2010, when a US Airways flight from New York to Louisville was diverted to Philadelphia after a 17-year-old passenger’s tefillin were mistaken for a bomb.

In December, the captain of an interisland ferry in New Zealand radioed to security personnel that a passenger was carrying an object that looked like a bomb. Police detained an Israeli and three other passengers in that incident.

Tefillin cause bomb scare on New Zealand ferry

An Israeli putting on tefillin set off a bomb scare on a New Zealand ferry.

The captain of the interisland ferry, who believed the boxes and leather straps looked like a bomb, reported his concerns to police during Sunday’s voyage between Wellington and Picton, New Zealand’s two main islands.

Police detained the Israeli and his three fellow travelers when the ferry docked in Picton, where they were questioned and released.

The mistake follows an incident in the United States in January, when a US Airways flight from New York to Louisville was diverted to Philadelphia after a 17-year-old passenger’s tefillin were mistaken for a bomb.

Comedian Joel Chasnoff on tefillin

Head games: Jordanians tell Israelis to keep out kipot

Israelis have been asked to leave their yarmulkes at the border when entering Jordan, an Israeli news site reported.

An Israeli businessman told Ynet that his yarmulkes were taken and put in a safe upon his entry into Jordan, with a Jordanian policeman telling him that it was for his own good.

Tefillin and other religious articles also are not allowed into the country.

Yossi Levy, the director of communications at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told Ynet that there were “disagreements with our Jordanian counterparts in regards to Jewish religious objects” entering the country.

“We receive a growing number of complaints by Israeli visitors who report of religious items being confiscated at the border crossing ‘for security reasons,’ ” Levy told Ynet. “They explain this by the need to protect visitors carrying ‘obvious Israeli identification means.’ “

Bar/Bat Mitzvah – A Postmodern Coming-of-Age Guide

“Bar Mitzvah: A Guide to Spiritual Growth” by Marc-Alain Ouaknin (Assouline, $24.95)

When a book on bar mitzvah opens with a poem by Rudyard Kipling and a quote from French ethical philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, it’s clearly not your usual bar mitzvah book, of which there are many.

“Bar Mitzvah: A Guide to Spiritual Growth” by Marc-Alain Ouaknin is thoughtful, poetic, challenging, mystical, sometimes puzzling, stylishly designed — maybe the first postmodern book on the subject. It could be a model for how to write an introductory work: A French philosopher and a rabbi, Ouaknin assumes a certain sophistication on the part of readers and gently raises them up, rather than talking down, and at the same time, provides perspectives that will enlighten readers at all levels.

Young men and women approaching bar and bat mitzvah, their parents and those who teach them will find much of interest. In addition, readers seeking a portal to understanding Judaism and a fine teacher will also be drawn to this work, which covers Jewish identity, prayer, tallit, tefillin, reading from the Torah, the speech and more — each subject opening up to wider issues — with brief notes on the party and bar mitzvah celebrations around the world. Ouaknin opens each section with a quote drawn from philosophers, poets and Chasidic masters.

Ouaknin’s field is the ethics of interpretation. His previous books include “The Burnt Book: Reading the Talmud” (1995), “Mysteries of the Kabbalah” (2000) and “Symbols of Judaism” (1996). He divides his time between Jerusalem and Paris, where he directs the Aleph Center for Jewish Studies in Paris. In Israel, he teaches comparative studies at Bar Ilan University.

In a telephone interview from his home in Jerusalem, where he spends three weeks per month, he apologizes repeatedly for his French-accented English, which needs no apologies. To speak with him is to experience the depth and playfulness of his mind, and the width of his vision.

For Ouaknin, the principal act of the bar mitzvah, the essence of Judaism, is not putting on tefillin or a tallit, but reading the Torah — and not simply reading but interpreting. He speaks of a dialectic between text and interpretation, that to grow involves understanding and reading and creating, following tradition but not repeating the ways and words of one’s parents.

“To innovate, to create, is to be free,” he said.

“After reading this book, I hope the child will be open to Talmud, Midrash, kabbalah, philosophy and literature, and to make the book a friend — to understand or feel when seeing a book that he’s also receiving a smile, not just the letters,” he said.

But he cautions against being enclosed with books.

“The most important thing in life is to meet the other,” he said. “I have said that love is the meeting between two questions. The man is for the book, the book is for the man. The link is the true aim — to meet the other, and also to meet God, to be able to enter in the way of transcendence, to be better and higher.”

Born in 1957, the author grew up in Paris, the son of a rabbi and a professor. His father’s family is from Morocco; his mother’s from Alsace and Luxembourg. He says that these two different traditions, Africa and Europe, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, inform the way he thinks and lives. His father still serves as a rabbi, and his mother is a professor. That work is more of a passion than a job is something he inherited from them.

Ouaknin studied at yeshivas in France and spent two years in Gateshead Yeshiva in England, where he thought he would pick up English, but instead learned Yiddish and tennis. He went to medical school for two years before shifting to the study of philosophy at the Sorbonne while attending rabbinical school.

In the section on prayer, he discusses structure, time of prayer, the siddur, how prayers are gathered as they rise from human lips, prayer as an outpouring of the heart, prayer and meditation, prayer and psychoanalysis. He quotes Kafka, whom he teaches at Bar Ilan: “Art, like prayer, is a hand stretched out in to the dark, seeking to catch something from grace in order to transform itself into a giving hand.”

In writing about tefillin and tallit, he draws on kabbalistic and other teachings. He explains that the fringes on the tallit “compose a text made by the knotting of the threads, by a process of weaving and twisting which cannot fail to evoke a form of intelligence not satisfied simply to perceive, understand, and analyze things, but which must connect, weave and twist them together, to offer a complex texture of thought.”

The idea that this French philosopher would turn his attention to the subject of bar mitzvah was initiated by Prosper and Martine Assouline, the husband-and-wife team who run the French publishing company, known for their finely designed illustrated books, with offices in New York and Paris. Prosper Assouline was grappling with questions of how to transmit ethics, values and meaning, as his own son, Alexandre, was approaching his bar mitzvah. The book, intended as a gift for the young man, was to be a heavily illustrated volume in the publisher’s “Symbols” series. But as Ouaknin began the project, he realized that the subject required a more text-centered approach. And, he felt that he didn’t want to draw only on the world of books, but wanted to have direct contact with teenagers.

He then began working on the book with Francoise Anne Menager, a history and literature teacher in a vocational high school with whom he had worked on projects related to the culture of the written word and its transmission. When he had spoken earlier about Jewish literature at her school, to a group of girls mostly of Muslim and African backgrounds, he experienced true encounter, the essence of literature.

After the manuscript was complete, he would meet with Alexandre Assouline to discuss the work and measure its pertinence, and they’d engage in sincere dialogues about theological and psychological questions. As Ouaknin, the father of two sons and two daughters who all read Torah at their bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, writes in the book’s preface: “I was no longer writing a book about bar mitzvah, I was actually experiencing the responsibility of passing on, not words, but a power which gives the other the possibility of growing.”

Divine Protection


As the train pulled into the Iraqi border police station, the lanky Jewish boy at the window became more and more nervous. The bulging

package under his robes felt heavy like lead. As the train came to a full stop and the passengers were ordered to line up on the platform, he moved automatically with them, dragging his feet. His fingers wanted to touch his precious and dangerous cargo, but he knew he should not make any suspicious move.

He worried the officers might find out that he was running away from Baghdad and the Iraqi army in order to go to Israel; the mere thought of the consequences of being discovered sent a shudder down his spine.

His friends and relatives warned him not to take his tefillin. “So you’ll skip a couple of days. You’ll find tefillin in Israel,” they said. They kept reminding him that he had to blend in.

He looked just like any other native Iraqi, except for the incriminating tefillin hidden in his garments. The familiar soothing words of the ancient psalms sprang to his lips and he chanted them in a silent prayer.

He thought back to a time in Baghdad when he managed to outwit a group of Muslim teenagers, shabbab, who challenged him to recite the shuhadda, the Muslim declaration of faith, to prove he was a Muslim. A smile passed his lips as he recalled how he slightly altered the Arabic words so as not to denounce his faith.

He knew he might not be so lucky next time, so he left for Israel to escape the persecution and discrimination.

His line of thought returned to the platform when he noticed an officer, who was frisking the passengers, getting closer and closer. Four more people, three, two….

“Mustafa, telephone,” a yell came from within the station.

“Wait here and do not move until I come back,” Mustafa ordered as he hurried to answer his call.

Moments later he returned from the station and resumed his inspection, skipping three people and starting one passenger after the tense boy who could not believe his luck.

“I have no doubt,” my father said, “that the Divine providence was there with me because I was faithful to my Judaism and Zionism.”

The personal exodus story of my father, who after spending several months in transition camp in Tehran, came to Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces with pride for many decades, is for me a story that is closely connected to this week’s parsha.

The Israelites’ ultimate test of faith, the test that will determine their eligibility for redemption, was the Pesach sacrifice.

According to the Bible, the lamb was an Egyptian idol. Slaughtering and roasting it was enough of a provocative act, but the Israelites were asked to go one step further. They were asked to mark their doorposts and their thresholds with the lamb’s blood as if declaring, “Here lives an Israelite. I do not believe in your idols, come and get me.”

There was a great danger that the grief-stricken and frustrated Egyptians would turn their rage against the Israelites instead of addressing the real source of the problem: their own ruthless dictator. However, the Israelites did not shy away from fulfilling the commandment and, as was promised, God protected and did not let anyone take revenge on them. This is the real meaning of the word Pesach — protection (Isaiah 31:5).

God promised the Hebrew slaves that if they would trust him as their redeemer and protector and proudly display that faith, they would be saved from the wrath of human beings.

Although this kind of direct connection is less evident today, it is still our duty that when we remember the national and personal exodus and its message, we inculcate in our children the love and pride of their values and faith, and teach them to strive for a world of peace and harmony.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation.


Community Briefs

Workers Owe Win to Bet Tzedek

Bet Tzedek has won a significant victory for low-paid Latino and Asian garment workers, successors to the Jewish immigrants who labored in sweatshops a century ago. The settlement, reached by the free legal counseling service, is somewhat technical, but is likely to have a major impact on California’s $22 billion apparel industry, employing 140,000 workers.

In essence, a large-scale retailer agreed in the settlement that it bears a responsibility if one of its contractors, who actually make the clothing, underpays its workers.

The case pitted four Latina workers, represented by Bet Tzedek, against Wet Seal, an Orange County-based company with 619 stores in 47 states selling so-called private label apparel aimed at the hip preteen and teen girls market. The workers were employed by one of the 800 small sewing and manufacturing contractors used by Wet Seal around the country. For several years, the women charged, they worked about 68 hours a week for D.T. Sewing and were never paid more for regular and overtime work than $4 an hour. The California minimum hourly wage is $6.75.

After the workers filed claims, under a new state law, against D.T. Sewing and Wet Seal, the state labor commissioner awarded the workers $240,000 for back pay and damages, of which Wet Seal’s liability was $90,000. D.T. Sewing promptly went out of business without paying the workers, not an unusual tactic of the small shops, which typically employ 30-50 workers and are often undercapitalized and fly-by-night, said attorney Cassy Stubbs, who led the case as head of Bet Tzedek’s employment rights project.

Wet Seal first appealed its $90,000 assessment to the courts, but last week decided to settle. In addition to the money for the workers, the company pledged to contribute $40,000 to Bet Tzedek’s ongoing efforts on behalf of garment industry workers. From now on, “Wet Seal will not do business with manufacturers that treat their workers unfairly and unlawfully,” said Peter D. Whitford, Wet Seal’s recently appointed CEO.

“I think Wet Seal’s action will make other retailers quite nervous and that they will fall in line,” said Stubbs, who was joined by pro bono co-counsel Paul Chan.

Mitch Kamin, executive director of Bet Tzedek, said that “We will continue to be firmly committed to help the most vulnerable members of our population, who make our economy function and are so often exploited.” — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Spreading Local Activism

Some 200 young Jewish professionals filled five meeting rooms and one ballroom at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles New Leaders Project (NLP) on Jan. 25.

“I met a lot of smart, talented, engaged people who know that the best of Jewish tradition means that you don’t just look out for your comfort and well-being, but you try to transform the community around you,” said NLP 2004 graduate Eric Greene, also a vice president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. “Even in communities that are not predominantly Jewish, we still have a stake in caring about those communities and our collective futures.”

The daylong event attempted to inspire interest in local activism, and was sponsored by the New Leaders Project Class of 2004, an adjunct program of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. With money from the Saban Family Foundation and Jewish Community Foundation, the Sunday event included 10 panel discussions and a short graduation ceremony with certificates given to NLP graduates.

Jews make up only 6 percent of the City of Los Angeles’ population, panelists said, but usually cast 18 percent of total votes in city elections. Yet faced with a general indifference to local politics, said Bruce Bialosky, Southern California of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Jewish voters instead will keep gravitating to larger issues such as Israel.

“We are now focusing back on our own self-interest,” he said. “Without Israel, the Jewish people will not exist in the future.”

“Life is more complicated for Jews now than it has ever been,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. “There really is a distinctive Jewish political vision of American society and it’s not captured entirely by either party.”

The conference attracted six first- and second-generation Iranian Americans who are less tethered than their parents to distinctly Persian local Jewish life. “People our age, the younger ones who are just starting our leadership activity in the Jewish community, we’re more likely to integrate,” said Lida Tabibian, 26, a computer consultant.

Panel discussions on social services, transportation and race relations were less crowded than a well-attended dialogue on civil liberties. There, Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson and University of Southern California law professor Erwin Chemerinsky criticized the federal anti-terrorist Patriot Act, which was defended by Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and Luis Flores, chief division counsel for the Los Angeles FBI office.

Many panelists shared their inspiration to activism. Writer David Levinson created Temple Israel of Hollywood’s “Big Sunday” volunteer day with 300 people in 1999; about 2,500 people are expected to volunteers this year at 70 local nonprofit agencies for this year’s Big Sunday on May 2.

“Everybody has something to offer somebody else,” he said. — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

It’s a Wrap, Kid

Conservative men will be wrapped up a little more than usual this Sunday.

The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs is putting out posters and ads with slogans like “Get Into Leather” in hope of enticing men who don’t usually wrap tefillin, let alone make it to morning minyan, to attend the fourth annual World Wide Wrap at participating Conservative synagogues on Feb. 1. This year the group has emphasized its youth outreach program, Dor V’Dor, and expanded its twining program, which links American Conservative synagogues with congregations in other countries to share ideas about making the mitzvah of tefillin more appealing.

At least 10 Southern California Conservative congregations have registered to participate in the Wrap, but more are expected to jump on board in the days leading up to the event. The Dor V’Dor program encourages Hebrew school students to attend the Wrap and asks that they bring along their parents, who may not have put on tefillin themselves in 20 or 30 years.

“What we’re trying to do is to show that it’s not that complex or uncomfortable,” said Myles Simpson, Wrap committee member for the federation’s western region and a member of Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks. “And by encouraging someone to do it once, then maybe he’ll do it again. And maybe if he does it, then he’ll get his kids involved.”

For information about the World Wide Wrap in your area,visit  or call (800) 288-3562. — Adam Wills, Associate Editor

Super Bowl Wrap

You know that strange window of time Sunday morning before the Super Bowl starts, when you don’t want to start anything that won’t be finished by kickoff, but you’ve still got to find something to do?
Sinai Temple, nearly a dozen other local Conservative men’s clubs and the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs have an idea: try joining 10,000 others who will be wrapping tefillin.

Sinai’s Men’s Club, along with men’s clubs and temple brotherhoods across the world, will hold a breakfast at which it will air “The Ties that Bind,” a 20-minute video produced by the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and Mark Rothman of Ness Productions.

Rothman wrote and directed the film, and he artfully interweaves the history, how-to and spiritual significance of tefillin. The video is educational and entertaining without being didactic or simplistic. And since it comes in two versions — egalitarian and all male — it can be meaningful across denominational lines for anyone interested in the mitzvah of winding around the arms and head the leather straps and black boxes containing the Shema during morning prayers.

“The number one goal of the film is to give people a tool to move closer to God,” says Rothman.

Rothman captures the power of tefillin through personal testimonials offered by men and women of all ages. One student likens it to wearing a satellite dish that opens up all channels to God. A women tells us it transforms her into a mezuzah. Someone else calls the leather straps healing bandages, while most recognize the symbolism of binding oneself — betrothing oneself — to God.

“It’s like God is grabbing my arm saying ‘You can do this, I’m with you,'” says Joel Grishaver, a local writer and educator.

Grishaver is one of many familiar faces that show up in the film, since Rothman is based in Los Angeles. The video is narrated by Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood, and Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Temple Beth Am on the Westside gives a detailed demonstration of laying tefillin.

Sid Katz, former president of Sinai’s men club and of the national federation, was instrumental in mobilizing the organization and clubs around the world to raise the $50,000 to produce the video.

“The federation has made a commitment to improving and increasing Conservative men’s Judaic actions,” Rothman says. “They want more Jewish men to do more Jewish things, and this was a great opportunity.”
“Ties that Bind” will be run Sunday, Jan. 28, at 8 a.m. at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd. For more information call (310) 474-1518. To find other locations in Southern California or to purchase the video ($28, $18 for members) call the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs at (800) 288-FJMC, (212) 749-8100, or visit