Bibi’s back on Time list of 100 most influential


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made Time magazine’s 2012 list of the 100 most influential people in the world for the second year in a row.

Netanyahu is called an “iconic, strong and determined leader who has excelled during a lifetime of service to the state of Israel” in a profile written by U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the majority leader in the House of Representatives.

“At this perilous moment, Prime Minister Netanyahu is the right leader for Israel—and the right partner for America,” Cantor wrote.

Time’s list of those who “inspire us, entertain us, challenge us and change our world” features “breakouts, pioneers, moguls, leaders and icons.” It includes Harvey Weinstein, one of Hollywood’s most successful producers, who recently contributed to the documentary “Bully.” Anonymous, a hacker group that threatened a reign of terror against Israel and to systematically wipe the country off of the internet, also appears on the list.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are on the list, as are Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (the former Kate Middleton, who is married to Prince William), and her sister, Pippa Middleton, and athletes Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin.

Syrian President Bashar Assad appears on the list as a “rogue.”

Editorial cartoon: Syrian hourglass


Staying empathetic is a challenge during the race for college


I believe myself to be a compassionate person. I say this, of course, with an immense amount of supporting evidence. You know in Westerns, when the cowboys battle it out on the frontier, riding their horses? Well, when a man gets shot and both he and his horse tumble to the ground, I panic for the safety of the horse (I don’t wish the cowboy dead or anything, but he’s fighting of his own volition). The point is, I find myself inherently empathetic.

But there is a new tension between my inherent self, and my impacted self. I am referring to what is simply known as the college process.

My junior year just ended, and instead of experiencing an expected euphoric sense of relief, my summer seems to have been only interim between school sessions. I’ve been picking colleges to apply to and interning so much that even I’m starting to resent the idea of volunteering.

Meeting with private advisers and going to college fairs have provoked in me a desire to go far away and make a fortune in chocolate or something else that doesn’t need a degree. But it is in these panics that I’ve had these revelations: I realized that I have become so consumed by my own college process that I have forgotten about those kids who have absolutely no idea what they should be doing, not because they are apathetic or disinterested, not because they wouldn’t go the extra mile if they had the opportunity, but because they don’t have the opportunity.

Because school-hired college counselors are often overburdened, poorer students aren’t informed about the very basics of getting accepted into a university. Countless numbers of students simply print and fill out an application, not knowing they should have been on yearbook, or worked at a soup kitchen or taken two opposite subjects for the SAT subject tests.

What this ignites in me, these unfair expectations that so many are unaware of, is a new drive to succeed in my own college process. If I can get where I need to be, I can change the very process that got me there (my inherent self). But then again, can I afford to sympathize with other peers (my impacted self)?

In order to be decently competitive among the surplus of determined students — especially this year, when more college applications then ever before will be filed — I cannot think about others. It’s as if to function at all adequately in preparation for college, I must be ruthless, desensitized and immune to any kind of empathy I’m tempted to embrace.

Even if college is a place of unity and togetherness, it has turned high school into a vast arena of self-concern and self-involvement.

It’s even infiltrating my personal life. I go to a friend’s house, I lie on her bed and we take turns venting about why we won’t get accepted into where we’d like, but I listen only so I can be listened to; now the empathy that was once abundant isn’t even active for my friends. Then the next night, I go to MILK, and over sundaes — a perhaps most underrated distraction from all the academic turmoil of the times — I again reflect on newly received report cards that completely alter dreams and expectations. One day’s mail drastically shifts previously planned goals. But that’s just the way it works.

From day to day, from each score to the next score, I mold and bend to be practical and realistic as I try to avoid dimming any dreams that have been long lit by fantasies and college brochures. So even in the brief moments where I guilt-trip myself — because when I look at it relatively, I have it good — it doesn’t take long for me to jump back into the “but what about me?” boat. After all, everyone is competition.

It’s something strange to look down at a standardized answer sheet, and see you, what you have become over the last 17 years, as nothing more than little penciled-in bubbles. It’s something strange to be constantly scanned like a barcode when you’re trying to depart on what should be the most human and growing experience that is life.

Yet, I will not stray from the college process. I will not dismiss what I am beginning to so wholeheartedly resent, because even as I trek through this systematic and mechanical pilgrimage to the glowing beacon that is a university, I am learning something. I am learning what I can handle. I am learning my priorities and my limits and my self-expectations, and how I have trouble dealing with them all, but indeed, I do deal. And I think what I will take most from this process (aside from an acceptance letter), is the vow to never be so self-involved again.

So, here I come young steed, soon my empathy will again be yours for the taking.

Laura Donney this week became a senior at Hamilton High School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15; deadline for the October issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Full circle


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

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

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

I granted a stay of execution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short, it brings us full circle.

Chag sameach.

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

Scheduled Relaxation


Last Sunday afternoon I was standing in my shower scrubbing my tile. It suddenly occurred to me — in the midst of Ajax and scouring pads — that the man who was ruling my fantasies was on a plane coming back from a sure-it’s-professional junket in Las Vegas.

Something was wrong with this picture. I dropped my sponge and ran to call my girlfriend: “Hey. You gotta help me. All of this straight-and-narrow is getting to me. I need to have some fun.”

We met at a local restaurant reminiscent of the hip, urban San Francisco eateries of our 20s, had a drink, stayed late, and laughed as the waiter batted his lashes.

“Listen,” I told her over martinis. “I think I’ve forgotten how to play.”

She looked at me with the knowing eyes of a friend and said, “Me too. I feel like all I do is work on myself. Where’s the friggin’ fun part?”

What occurred to me as I started thinking about it is that I used to rely on my relationship life to have fun. I’d fly to New York, run around the city, eat passionately with my boyfriend for 10 days and come home. I’d rush home from work, throw all my clothes on the floor, don a slinky dress and feverishly drive to the beach for a drink date. I’d hike up Runyan Canyon in the middle of a storm with my dating man, laugh uproariously and kiss in the rain. It was flash and dash, delight and joy — and sometimes even love. What is was was fun.

I relied on my relationship life for downtime, too. It was the time I hung out in bed, took the slow walk around my neighborhood, had the morning-after breakfast made sloppily and slowly between intimacies.

But lately all of that has been different. I stopped dating for a while altogether (no need to go into the now-mercifully distant reason why), and in the wake of a more careful re-entry into dating life, I’ve become a project girl. Creative things that I’ve been longing to express my whole adult life I’ve taken on like a conquest. I write, I paint, I sing, I cook and I songwrite. It’s rich and it’s full and it’s fulfilling.

But what it also is is busy. And beyond my projects and an involved social life, there seems to be no genuine relaxation time. There are no goof-off, just-for-fun days where there’s nothing to do but play. I’m not sure I even remember what play-time looks like anymore.

Yet — to be totally honest — when I think back on some of those play-time, nostalgia-inducing boyfriend experiences, I have to admit that as sweet and easy as those encounters could be, they were just as often peppered by the nervous tension of “being together” when we weren’t all the way there, or by the dodging and ducking of using our intimate connection to mask other, bigger incompatibilities. That wasn’t relaxing.

As the years have gone by, I realize I’d just as soon be alone than continue to go through cycles of head-spinning effort with someone in exchange for a couple of moments of grace. So I don’t do that anymore. And though this kind of spiritual honesty has created an ease in my nervous system (and a welcome death to that horrible intimate uncertainty of giving myself where it’s not appreciated), I have to stop and wonder, have I become overworked and underplayed?

I don’t want to say that getting rid of the -isms has gotten rid of the fun part. That’s not it. But there’s something here about playing and free-falling joy that I’m missing. Something in the enjoyment of what is already here, versus the pregnant push of needing to create it. To observe, appreciate, enjoy, relax, and receive. That’s what I’m missing. And now that I’m officially dating, it seems kind of imperative to bring this ethic back onto the playing field.

I was on my cell with my wise girlfriend yesterday — the one who gives me that uncannily timed girl-advice that saves me from giving in to my idiotic post-second-date fears — and three times in row she cut out at a pivotal word.

“What?” I intoned. “On my cell. You cut out.”

She laughed outloud: “Receive, sweetheart. It kills me that you missed that. Relax and receive!”

Oh, that.

If I’ve forgotten how to have downtime, if I’ve joined the ranks of the over-diligent in my efforts to not fall into wary paths of love, then it’s time to loosen the reigns a bit. Underplaying means I have to let go of my project-queen, art-making cottage-industry, and just be done for a while.

So, with the grace of personal discovery, I’ll be amending that busy behavior, whether I’m accompanied or not. It’s time to enjoy whoever I’m seeing, and have fun on my own. It’s time to let go, go slow, play, hang out and take some time to do absolutely nothing.

Even if it means I have to schedule it.

JoAnneh Nagler is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She writes articles, philanthropic proposals and has recently been at work on Fox’s telenovellas “Table for Three” and “Fashion House.” Her newly completed folk-pop CD “I Burn” is online at

Disengagement Dashes, Spurs Dreams


The evacuation of Gaza Strip settlements is not just a struggle over the question of the future of the territories. At the very core, the pullout was the first big battle on the question of religion and state.

They [religious settlers opposed to the withdrawal] have their own dream. The first stage is the “whole land of Israel,” filled wall-to-wall with Jews-only towns. True, Palestinians and Thai workers can come in to do the dirty work but no more.

The second stage is to transform Israel into a halachic state, a country ruled by Jewish religious law. Elections, the Knesset, the government and the courts may continue to function, but settler rabbis will decide just what issues are appropriate for these bodies to decide and what issues are too “holy” and important to be left to the people and their elected officials.

In their dream world, there is no place for secular Israel: Its culture is not culture; its values are not values; its opinions are not opinions.

In the eyes of the settlers, we are all poor, underprivileged children who never had the chance for a Jewish education. In their dream, our task is to become religious and to join them or at least not to stand in the way while they bring the Messiah.

We must nullify ourselves, and in return, they will hug us, sweetly, of course, and with lots and lots of brotherly love. But if we refuse, the brotherly love and the hugs will go out the window, and we will become little more than traitorous leftists or Nazis.

But we nonreligious Israelis also have a dream. We want to live in an enlightened, open and just country, not in some messianic, rabbinic monarchy and not in the whole land of Israel. We came here to be a free people in our own land.

To be a free people means each person is entitled to choose which parts of Jewish tradition are important to him and which to leave behind. It means to have the freedom to run our country according to our free will, rather than rabbinic dictates.

It means recognizing we are not alone in this land — and demanding from the Palestinians that they do the same.

It means to free ourselves, once-and-for-all, from the nightmare of being an occupying, uprooting, exploiting, settling, expropriating, humiliating, discriminatory country.

For more than 30 years, the settlers’ dream has choked the dream of free Israelis. The dream of the whole land of Israel and a messianic kingship drains daily the hope of being a people free to build a just society.

For more than 30 years, the settlers’ dream has trampled my dreams and those of my friends. But because of this, I can understand the settlers’ pain and desperation as they watch their dream collapse before their eyes.

They are experiencing exactly what my friends and I have gone through because of them, all this time. I opposed their project from the onset, from the very first settlement.

I look into their eyes, and I see true desperation and true pain, and without the slightest joy, I can say: The pain you are going through today is very similar to the pain you have put free Israel friends through for more than 30 years.

I will respect your mourning by remaining silent, but I cannot share in your grief.

And what will be after all the grief? Israel, for all her faults, is all we’ve got. It’s easy to throw stones at her, but this is not the country we prayed for.

The floor is deep, the ceiling cracked, the lights go off three times a day.

It’s easy to come up with substitutes for this Israel, easy to build castles in the sky about messianic monarchies on one hand and post-Israelism on the other.

But Israel, for all its faults, is all we’ve got.

Perhaps instead of kicking her, the time has come to get up and start fixing a little bit: to free ourselves of the occupation that continues to corrupt us; to renew our social solidarity.

A bit less “brotherly love,” a bit more responsibility for others less fortunate than ourselves. A bit less holiness; a bit more justice. A bit less of the whole land of Israel, and a State of Israel a bit more whole with itself.

Through the murky cloud of poetic words and sobs, we can sometimes see during these very days the State of Israel’s quiet, beautiful face: [These are] the faces of youngsters in uniforms who chose, despite the pressure and violence, despite the curses and false hugs and emotional manipulation, to get up and protect with their body the dream of being a free people — to not rule over the Palestinians and to not be ruled over by rabbis.

The beaten, humiliated, slapped-on-the-face soldier boy, the police officer who was spat in the face — at this time they are the brave defenders of the State of Israel in the face of the unruly wave of zealousness.

The young soldier girl, her throat choked by tears, barely 19 years old, already carries the burden of the 2,000-year hope to be a free nation in our country on her shoulders.

Not in Palestinian Gaza, but rather, in our country.

With assertiveness and silent courage, but also with restraint, wisdom and compassion, this female soldier is currently protecting our most vital border — the border between what is allowed and what is not.

This is the border without which we will have no state and without which there is no freedom, no society, nothing but fiery zealousness, messianic-hysterical extremism and complete destruction — a state of affairs the Jewish people has known more than once in the past.

Reprinted with permission www.ynetnews.com.

Amos Oz is one of Israel’s most celebrated authors. This essay originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on Aug. 21, 2005, following the disengagement. He will speak at Sabbath services on Friday, May 19, at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. The public is invited. For more information, call (310) 475-7311.

 

Seven-Year Switch


We want to have everything, and we want it better, bigger and more spectacular than everyone else. Gas-guzzlers roam the roads, and our oil dependency forces us to redefine values and ideals, like democracy and freedom. In Las Vegas and Palm Springs, we must have lusciously green golf courses and lawns watered generously, while other areas are pumped dry or threatened with drought. We demand constant availability of fruits and vegetables, regardless of the season.

As the sages write in Pirke Avot: “Greed, desire and arrogance drive people out of this world.” Indeed, if we don’t wake up, these traits will drive the world away from us.

The first role God designated for humankind is the one we most blatantly ignore. When God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, He ordered him to cultivate and protect the planet. And while we have cultivated the rich soils of planet Earth, in the last couple of decades it is achingly clear that if we do not do our best to keep the second part of the commandment — to guard the planet — we might lose it altogether.

This week’s parsha offers inspiration for re-establishing this much-needed balance. The Torah orders the Israelites to fallow the land every seventh year — the Shemita, or Sabbatical year. During that year, naturally grown crops are divided evenly among the whole population. There are no class differences. Even the animals are not prevented from taking their share. This idea must have been shocking and disturbing to agrarian societies in ancient times, and it is still revolutionary today.

The benefits of the seven-year cycle are immeasurable. First, the land recovers the trace minerals it needs without using ammonium-nitrate-based fertilizers, which endangers the aquatic ecosystems. Second, the social structure is corrected every seven years; the differences between the classes are eroded and a sense of unity and togetherness takes over. Lastly, the seventh year provides an opportunity to stop the insane race for provisions, power and glory. It allows people to reconnect to the precious gifts of their family and their inner self.

After seven cycles of Shemita, or 49 years, the Jubilee is to be celebrated. During the Jubilee year, not only would the land be fallowed but all slaves would be released and all nonresidential properties that were previously sold would return to the original owner.

The Jubilee made sure that there would be no lifetime slaves. Since absolute slavery was prevalent in biblical times, this system was a lesser evil that eventually paved the way to total abolishment of slavery in Judaism, long before slavery was relinquished in the rest of the world.

The Jubilee also guaranteed that shrewd businessmen and moneylenders would not be able to amass huge estates and create feudal societies. Instead, every 50 years, land distribution would go back to the beginning, when each household was granted land according to its size.

As urban dwellers, we are far removed from the daily reality of agrarian life, but the message of Shemita and Jubilee goes beyond the agrarian framework. Early mystics pointed out that the Shabbat, the Shemita and the Jubilee are part of the same seven-stroke cycle that extends to greater, cosmic cycles beyond our comprehension. Tuning in to this cycle, mentally and physically, blesses us with inner calm, with love and caring toward planet Earth and toward all humans. It teaches us the real values in life and pulls us away from greed, desire and arrogance.

And while modern life doesn’t permit many of us to take a sabbatical, we can turn our free time into quality time, helping ourselves and the planet. Spending more time with your kids, eating wisely and educating yourself about organic agriculture, global warming and air and water pollution are good beginnings.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at haimovadia@hotmail.com.

Bonding Over Torah


On a recent Sunday morning, a group of bat mitzvah-age girls and their mothers sit together reading and discussing the story of Chana, who, wretched and weeping because she is childless, prays to God for a son.

“Pay particular attention to the verses describing how Chana prayed,” educator Marcie Meier tells the group.

These 11- to 13-year-old girls and their mothers are learning about Chana and other female role models in a Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar held at Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills. There, in the book-lined beit midrash, for six Sunday mornings, the mitzvot (commandments) and midot (characteristics) of these ancient women come alive through exploring English and Hebrew texts and engaging in arts-related projects such as calligraphy and singing.

Now in its third year, the seminar is one of the most popular offerings of Netivot, an independent Torah study center for women founded six years ago whose name is Hebrew for “pathways.” And it is unique in the Orthodox community, where bat mitzvah is neither routine nor ritualized and where organized bat mitzvah classes, for the most part, are nonexistent.

“The seminar is filling in a niche for those who want to make the experience more meaningful,” said Irine Schweitzer, founding president of Netivot.

Generally taught once a year, with 10 to 20 girls enrolled per class, the program affords mothers and daughters special time together. It also introduces the girls to peers from other schools, allowing them to view bat mitzvah as a more universal experience.

Additionally, Schweitzer says, the seminar provides the girls with a historical connection between them and the women who came before them and with the knowledge that they are carrying on an important legacy.

“We learn from Shmuel’s mom [Chana] that you whisper when you daven and say the words to yourself. I didn’t know that,” says Nava Bendik, 11, who is taking the class with her mother, Alisa.

Meier adds that you are supposed to pray with kavanah (intention) and that these laws refer specifically to the Shemoneh Esreh prayers or Amidah.

During this class, the girls also learn how to write words of prayer in calligraphy, with the help of artist Rae Shagalov.

“Talent sometimes comes from interest rather than strength,” Shagalov tells them, explaining that her enthusiasm for calligraphy was sparked when she wanted to copy Torah.

In addition to Chana, the girls and mothers learn about Sarah, Miriam, Devorah and Ruth, and take part in candle making, dancing, singing and learning about tikkun olam (healing the world). Also, one Thursday evening they visit the nonprofit organization Tomchei Shabbos, where coordinator Steve Berger gives a warehouse tour and puts them to work assembling boxes of Shabbat food for needy Jewish families.

And for the last class, the girls select and interview a female role model — usually a teacher, mother or another relative — and present the findings to the class.

“You’re supposed to learn before your bat mitzvah and that’s happening,” says Jessica Gittler, 11, who is participating with her mother, Naomi.

These girls are all planning to have a bat mitzvah, but what constitutes that rite of passage varies greatly in the diversity of the Orthodox community. Many girls do nothing or have a small party. Others write and present a d’var Torah in synagogues such as Young Israel of Century City or at a family celebration. And a few actually lead a service and chant Torah, an option at Shirat Chana, the women’s monthly prayer group at B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

“While girls pretty much universally have some kind of celebration, I think the piece of it that’s become more prominent in the last couple of decades is the learning they bring to it and the public role in sharing it,” says Luisa Latham, an educator and Netivot board member.

Bat mitzvah preparation is traditionally done one-on-one with a rebbetzin or teacher (boys in the Orthodox world also learn individually with a rabbi or teacher), but supplementary learning programs, such as Netivot’s Seminar, are beginning to appear.

At Young Israel of Century City, now in its second year, Ruchama Muskin, educator and wife of Rabbi Elazar Muskin, teaches a two-part bat mitzvah workshop on laws and responsibilities pertaining to women. She also incorporates hands-on projects such as baking challah.

The girls in Netivot’s Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar plan on doing some additional learning with a rebbetzin or teacher and on preparing a d’var Torah. They also intend to do a chesed (lovingkindness) project for their bat mitzvah. Nava Bendik, for example, with the help of family and friends, is knitting scarves and donating them to an Israeli orphanage. She hopes to collect 70.

Schweitzer believes that the mothers who themselves enjoy and seriously engage in learning are the ones encouraging their daughters to have more meaningful b’not mitzvah. She hopes to see even more movement in this direction.

But what is unusual in this program is the opportunity for mothers and daughters to learn jointly.

“This was not around in my time,” Marcie Meier says. “The idea of mothers and daughters studying together and taking life a little bit deeper is a welcome part of growing up today.”

And it’s not only the mothers who appreciate it.

“It’s really cool learning with my mom,” says Leanne Bral, 13, the daughter of Evana. “Sometimes she knows more than I do and sometimes I know more.”

For more information on Netivot and the Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar, visit www.netivot.org or call (310) 226-6141.

 

Unhappy New Year!


OK, I’ll be absolutely honest — I spent this past New Year’s Eve alone. Sure, I could have salvaged the situation with a round of frantic last-minute calling, but I never got around to it because I had to go and get into a fight. Fortunately, I was the only one who got hurt. You see, I picked a fight with myself. And on New Year’s Eve day, no less. Almost out of nowhere and with virtually no warning, I started in on myself.

So, who’s your lucky date for New Year’s Eve?

Please. You know darn well I don’t have any date tonight.

What? The Duke of Dating flying solo on New Year’s? I’m stunned. How can it be?

I don’t want to talk about it. It just worked out that way.

It doesn’t “just work out that way.” You worked it out that way. How many coffee dates have you had this past year?

Too painfully many to remember.

And not one of them was available for New Year’s Eve?

You don’t just ask someone out on a date for New Year’s Eve. It’s a very meaningful night. A very expensive night. It’s not for “a” date; it’s for “the” date.”

So with all those coffee dates, how come none of them worked out into “the” date?

You want a reason for each? She wasn’t attracted to me. I wasn’t attracted to her. She wanted someone who made more money. I wanted someone who talked about something other than herself. She wanted to have more kids. I wasn’t communicative enough for her. She didn’t have a sense of humor. I didn’t have a passion for four cats. Shall I continue?

You know what you’re doing, don’t you?

What am I doing?

It’s so obvious. For every woman you meet, you’re finding some reason, any reason, to keep you from starting a relationship.

That’s ridiculous.

Is it? You mean to tell me you meet a woman who’s perfect in every way, except she has four cats, and that’s the deal-breaker?

Look, I never said she was perfect otherwise. And besides, if I didn’t want a relationship, what am I doing spending all this time and energy meeting women?

You really want to know?

I asked, didn’t I?

You’re addicted to dating.

Get out of here.

Exactly. That’s the message you’re giving these poor women: “Get out of here.” For you, it’s all about the thrill of the chase. Ms. Right’s just around the corner. The next one’s going to be flawless. Well, get this, oh Sultan of Singles: There is no Ms. Right; there is no flawless, and there is no satisfaction for you if you keep on this way. One day you’re going to wake up to find yourself 78 years old and on your way to your next coffee date. That what you want, Pops?

Of course not. But none of the ones I’ve met this year feel right. I’ve had coffee dates where everything just clicks, we start dating, and before long, we’re in a relationship.

Sounds lovely. And where are those “everything-clicks” women now?

They didn’t work out.

They didn’t work out? Or you subconsciously torpedoed the relationship so you could get back to your addiction?

I, uh…

You know, I’ve about had it with you. You disgust me. Get out of my sight.

I can’t. I’m you and you’re me.

What did I do to deserve this?

Well, come on, don’t give up on me. What do you suggest?

I don’t know. Since I am you, I’m somewhat limited in my perceptions and insights.

You don’t have to insult me.

I’m sorry. OK, look, let’s try something different this year. One word: “Stop.” Stop the coffee dates. Stop the singles Web sites. Stop the matchmaking services. Stop the personals ads. Stop the singles parties and dances. Just stop.

Are you heading for a celibacy thing? Because that’s not what…

I’m trying to keep you from a celibacy thing. Just live your life. Do your work. Be with your friends and family. Volunteer for something. Be out in the real world. She’s out there, but you’re trying too hard. Stop trying. Start living.

I don’t know. I’ll think about it.

That’s all I ask. Now let’s get some Thai food, and for the love of God, no “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.”

I was in no mood to fight with myself any more. I picked up some Thai food. I called a few loved ones. I watched a Marx Brothers movie. And I gave some serious thought to what I’d said to myself. It wasn’t so bad. Yes, I was alone, but not lonely, really. And maybe next New Year’s Eve, I’ll have a date. She can even bring her cats.

Mark Miller, a comedy writer and performer, can be reached at

The Hebrascope: Signs of the Jewdiac


Aries (March 21-April 20)

Notable Jewish Aries: Howard Cosell

It’s OK to be in a rut, just sit down, crack open a beer and kick your feet up on the ottoman, but don’t get too comfortable there. When you notice yourself stagnating this week, remember this: as an Aries, you need variety. Your life is best when it looks like the all-you-can-eat salad bar at the Sizzler. Sure, you have your regular salad stuff, but you’ve also got some odd pseudo-Mexican snack foods, frozen yogurt, clam chowder and eight kinds of medically contraindicated salad dressings. Right now, you are eyeballing the salad bar of life without a clue what you want, all of which is making you edgy. This one is so easy. Just pick an activity and dig in. You can always go back for seconds. 

 

Taurus (April 21-May 20)

Notable Jewish Taurus:
Joey Ramone

 

Single Taurus: Get ready. Love is in the stars for you this week. I’m not talking about some blah dinner with a guy from JDate. I’m talking about that magical, dynamic, magnetic connection that only happens once in awhile (and often ends in disaster, but let’s take things one week at a time). For now, get waxed, clean your apartment, wash the car, have your hair blown-out and enjoy the romantic ride. The weekend will be especially potent in the “sensual” arena. On a family note, beware that the value of a possession may cause some strife. Don’t let yourself get wrapped up in material things, after all, you’re going to be starring in your own romantic comedy and with any luck it won’t be as cloying and predictable as “Must Love Dogs.”

 

Gemini (May 21 — June 20)

Notable Jewish Gemini: Yasmine Bleeth

I could give you a lot of mumbo jumbo about your solar eighth house of finances being affected this week by planets visiting Capricorn, but Gemini bores easily so just take this in: if you have been needing a bank loan, home refinance or student loan, this is your week. I know, Smarty Pants Twins don’t fancy comparing boring loan rates and such, but why not use your quick mind for something other than shouting out the answers to “Jeopardy” questions? As for work, this is the week that crazy co-worker seems to go off her medication. Just ignore her, because once you react, the mishegoss can be traced right back to you.

 

Cancer (June 21-July 20)

Notable Jewish Cancer:
Neil Simon

When it comes to horoscopes and Cancers, there’s one major catch: you don’t like advice and you bristle at being told what to do. Fortunately, all I have to say this week is DO NOTHING. That’s right — avoid impetuous decisions, last minute trips and dicey business schemes. Don’t even go to the mall to return that tin of popcorn the size of Bill Maher’s head or digital travel clock you can’t figure out how to use. Stay home. Do laundry. Stick to a safe routine after running around socializing so much. Toward the end of the week, remember that if you control the cash in the family, you control the family, and very few people enjoy this if Oprah is to be believed. Trust and love is what Cancer has all around right now. So that’s your mantra. Say it: trust and love.

 

Leo (July 21 — August 21)

Notable Jewish Leo:
Debra Messing

Driving Leos, start your engines. Oh, what’s that? They won’t start. I don’t get it. You took your vehicle to the Jiffy Lube three years ago, what could be the problem? You know all that stuff they tell you to do — besides the oil change you asked for — that you ignored? Well, this is the week to take care of it. No more riding around with warning lights on, or pretending not to notice the fluid dripping under your tires. This is a time for preventive maintenance. As for your own health, if you want to drop a bad habit, this is the perfect time. Maybe you don’t need six packets of Splenda in your coffee or that fourth glass of wine or that sixth macaroon. Drop a bad habit like you used to drop those oil change reminders — right in the trash.

 

Virgo (August 22-September 22)

Notable Jewish Virgo:
Amy Irving

Some group environments are peaceful, say, yoga class. Others are stressful, say, a distant cousin’s bar mitzvah that’s in some horrible far away suburb and features stale rolls and even stiffer conversation. Here’s the thing, this week means any group activity is likely to bring you chaos. You may feel overly sensitive, or the unswerving need to throw a chair, Bobby Knight-style, into a crowd of people. Find your inner Phil Jackson and be diplomatic. What’s the pay-off for all that restraint? You may witness something extraordinary this week, something only an attentive Virgo would appreciate. Keep your eyes open, and your throwing hand closed.

 

Libra (September 23-October 22)

Notable Jewish Libra:
Barbara Walters

Occasionally, your family has so many feuds Richard Dawson would plotz. These are just minor skirmishes, a political discussion that went sour, a call unreturned, an invitation “lost in the mail.” For Libra, this is the week to reconcile with family members. Coincidentally, the stars also say it’s a perfect time to entertain in your home. So there you go, get out your Swiffer, pop some pre-made crab cakes in the oven, light a nice holiday candle someone gave you at the office and make the place comfortable. Once your home looks nice, it’s time to make nice and invite over any relatives you’ve alienated. On the work front, more responsibility may come your way this week. Don’t get all, “That’s not my job.” Just do what you do best, find a solution that suits everyone

 

Scorpio (October 23-November 22)

Notable Jewish Scorpio:
Winona Ryder

You want your partner or spouse to be happy, but does it have to reach perkiness proportions the likes of which are generally reserved for beauty pageants and morning news shows? This week, the enthusiasm level of someone close to you is downright exhausting, especially in your worn-down state. Here’s the thing, recalibrating someone else’s perk-o-meter is impossible and rude, so let it be. Speaking of rude, this is a time for Scorpio to embrace all forms of etiquette. I’m talking about thank-you notes, turning off your cell phone at the movies and speaking to everyone with respect. Friday the 13 happens to be a magical day for you. Dream big. Ask everyone you know their favorite travel destinations and stories and await inspiration.

 

Sagittarius (November 23-December 20)

Notable Jewish Sagittarius: Mandy Patinkin

There are times when your mind seems to function faster, like you’ve just upgraded your cerebral PC and the graphics are so sharp you can’t believe it. This week — there’s just no other way to say it — your thoughts are going to be intense, dude. You will have no trouble influencing people with your ideas and impressing them with your projects. Though your brain is both tenacious and focused right now, beware of one thing: Sagittarius is a great conversationalist, but don’t let it slip into gossip. Oh, and that domineering person in your life … could it be a mother figure? Anyway, you will have to stand up to her midweek. Luckily, your mind is so clear now, it will be no trouble “setting a boundary” rather than being a brat.

 

Capricorn (December 21-January 19)

Notable Jewish Capricorn: Howard Stern

You seem to embrace control more than Janet Jackson. Okay, that was a really old song lyric reference, but you know what I mean. On Tuesday, you will have to relinquish control with the service people in your life, be it the dry cleaner, maid, waitress or even doctor. Let people do their jobs and understand that chaos will creep it from time to time. Know that next week will run more smoothly. On a positive note, this week will bring a one-on-one interaction you won’t forget. Competition or cooperation will arise this week in a big way, but which one depends on you and the situation. After all, there’s a time to sing “Kumbaya” and a time to throw an elbow when the ref isn’t looking.

 

Aquarius (January 20-February 18)

Notable Jewish Aquarius:
Judy Blume

It’s usually annoying when folks throw around phrases like “Go big or go home,” but what can I say? You are going big this week. Big energy. Big changes. You know those times when you just want to stick to your routine, wear your favorite old jeans, watch your usual TV shows, drive the same routes and call the same friends? This isn’t one of those weeks. You are open to any and all new experiences. Oh, and single Aquarians should be happy with that new “something something” you’ve got going. Even if it’s just a mild flirtation, attraction and desire are strong this week. If an ex comes into the picture, crop him or her right out.

 

Pisces (February 19-March 20)

Notable Jewish Pisces:
Philip Roth

Don’t dole out warmth and affection like they give out slices of frozen pizza samples at Costco. I’m saying, don’t just create convenient bite-sized pieces of genuine humanity and place them on a platter for any passer-by to taste. This week, save your goodwill for the inner circle, the people in your daily life who have earned your trust. Speaking of those people, do you ever notice you interrupt a lot? Hear me out. Sure, it’s a cultural thing, talking, debating, leaping into furious discussion, but I encourage you to listen closely this week. You don’t even have to agree, just nod and smile. People love that.

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other


 

Look at Joyce Rabinowitz’s computer keyboard and you will see six blank keys in the middle row. They are actually the letters SDF and JKL, but the identifying marks have been worn off from use.

In fact, those are only keys Rabinowitz uses, with the exception of the space bar. And she uses them five or six hours a day, five or six days a week, often starting at 5 a.m., before breakfast. She has been doing this continuously for 30 years, though not always on a computer.

Rabinowitz, 76, is a volunteer Braille transcriber. She takes the printed word and, using a special computer program called Braille 2000, transforms it letter by letter into a prescribed set of dots that she saves to disk and gives to the Braille Institute. Each disk, with the help of an embossing machine, is used to produce a book written in raised dot text that a blind person can read with his or her fingers.

Rabinowitz herself doesn’t read Braille by touch.

“You have to have very sensitive fingers,” she said.

But she reads it with her eyes.

She’s transcribed many books over the years, recording the titles, date completed and number of Braille pages in a small notebook. (One average page of text translates into two to three Braille pages, 11 by 11.5 inches.) Her first book, in December 1975, was “Stories by Chekov,” clocking in at 310 Braille pages. Last year, she completed a total of 4,400 Braille pages.

Always an avid reader, she loves doing children’s books and currently is transcribing the young adult nonfiction book “Code Talker” by Joseph Bruchac. She reads each book twice, once while transcribing it and once while proofreading it. She also enjoys transcribing math books.

“I don’t have to work out the problem or know the answer,” she said.

Originally looking for new volunteer work, Rabinowitz began by taking a Braille class at Temple Beth Hillel in 1974, when transcribing was done on the much more labor-intensive Perkins Brailler. Of the 12 students in her class, she was one of only two who completed the course and the only one who became certified through the Library of Congress to transcribe literary works. Later she took additional classes to become certified in textbooks and math books.

She generally works from her Encino home, in one hour to one and a half hour time slots, but goes down to Los Angeles’ Braille Institute on Vermont Avenue every Wednesday and sometimes on Mondays. Her current task there is transcribing a set of complex math tests.

Carol Jimenez, the Braille Institute’s transcribing coordinator, has worked with Rabinowitz for the last 20 years and is impressed with her skill, especially in transcribing complicated math and science books.

“There’s a big need for people to do textbooks,” she said, pointing out that studies have shown that only blind children who read Braille, and not just listen to tapes, are considered literate.

“They’re the ones who grow up to be educated and go on to college and jobs,” she said.

As for Rabinowitz, she plans to keep doing this until she’s no longer able.

“I love it,” she said. “My only answer is I love it.”

Joyce Rabinowitz

MORE MENSCHES

Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets

Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting

Winning the Great Sponge Cake Battle


 

It’s that time again. With Pesach here, it’s time for my annual wrestling match with my nemesis, the dreaded sponge cake.

Aunt Estelle was famous for her mile-high sponge cakes. Years ago she sent me her recipe, outlining every step in exquisite detail. Yet every time I try it, mine comes up short.

It seems so simple. Whipped egg whites, trapping tiny air bubbles, expand to six or seven times their volume, creating an ethereal confection. But when I try it, the only thing that gets whipped is me — to a frazzle. This year I’m determined to reach new heights, but I need a little help from my friends. (And as they say, it’s not what you know, but who you know.)

“What am I doing wrong?” I asked Marcy Goldman, author of “The Best of Betterbaking.com” (Ten Speed Press, 2002).

“Are you using a strong, stationary mixer?” she asked.

Check.

“Are you using the size eggs called for in the recipe?” Goldman said.

Check again.

“Separate your eggs when they are cold, but whip the whites at room temperature,” she said. “And make sure your eggs are fresh. Stale whites will not whip up well.”
Hmm, maybe saving money on those five-dozen egg packs that languish forever in the fridge isn’t such a hot idea.

I asked Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of “The Cake Bible” (William Morrow, 1988), why sponge cake recipes always warn you to beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry.

“When egg whites are overbeaten,” she explained, “they start to lose their moisture, airiness and smoothness and break down when folded into other ingredients. And egg whites will never beat to stiff peaks if they come into contact with any grease, either from the bowl, beater or even a bit of broken egg yolk.”

Except on Passover, Beranbaum recommends adding 1/8 teaspoon of cream of tartar for every egg white when they start to get frothy. But, alas, kosher-for-Passover cream of tartar is hard to find and not all that effective.

“Use salt instead,” advised Joan Kekst, author of “Passover Cookery” (Five Star Publications, 2001). “Add 1/8 teaspoon of salt to every four egg whites after 60 seconds of beating, when the whites are foamy and starting to softly peak. Adding salt first delays foaming, and if you add it after beating, it won’t incorporate. And use an absolutely clean, round-bottomed metal bowl, preferably copper.”

Note to self: buy copper bowl!

“Once you start beating the whites, do not stop,” she added. “They won’t mound properly if interrupted.”

Kekst also cautioned against using egg substitutes.

“These are whites with preservatives and color,” she said. “Pure egg whites are usually available for Passover and will work fine for cakes. I’ve even used them for meringue cookies.” When folding in the beaten whites, combine one-quarter into the base mixture first to lighten it and then fold in the remaining whites in three additions.

“Folding should take two to three minutes or the egg whites will deflate,” Kekst said.

“Don’t grease the pan,” said Elinor Klivans, author of “Fearless Baking: Over 100 Recipes That Anyone Can Make” (Simon & Schuster, 2001). “These cakes must climb slowly up the pan as they bake and stay put.”

But perhaps the best advice she gave me was to take your time when baking. Multi-tasking is a great idea in the office, but a bad idea in the kitchen.

“Whenever I try to hurry,” she said, “I find that I have made some sort of major mistake. That is when I see the cup of sugar on the counter that I forgot to put in my cake. Check to see that you have all of your ingredients on hand before you begin. And, most important, have a good time!”

Will my sponge cake reach new heights this Pesach? Oh, well, it’s only a cake. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If your sponge cake sinks, do as I do. Cut it in half and frost it!

Aunt Estelle’s Mile-High Sponge Cake

9 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar, sifted
Freshly grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
Freshly grated zest and juice of 1 orange
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon extract
1 tablespoon orange extract
1 heaping cup (packed) Passover potato starch

Preheat the oven to 325 F.
With an electric mixer at medium-high speed, beat the yolks, very gradually adding 1 cup of the sugar until the mixture is very thick and very light yellow, making sure the sugar is completely dissolved. This may take 15 minutes or more. Beat in the lemon and orange juices, lemon and orange zests and extracts. Reduce the speed to low and very gradually add the potato starch until blended. Set aside.
With clean, dry bowl and beaters, beat egg whites at medium-high speed until frothy, about 30 seconds. Gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until stiff, about 90 seconds more. Mix 1/4 of the beaten egg whites into the yolk mixture to lighten it. Carefully fold in the remaining beaten egg whites in 3 additions.
Transfer the batter to an ungreased 10-inch tube pan with a removable bottom. Sprinkle the top with a little sugar if you want a crust on top. (Eliminate this step if you prefer a soft top.) Bake until the cake springs back when lightly touched, about 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Strawberry Filling
1 pint fresh strawberries, rinsed and dried
1 pint Passover nondairy whipping cream

When cake has completely cooled, split in half horizontally. Whip nondairy topping according to the package directions and spread on the bottom layer. Distribute strawberries on top of the whipped topping, leaving some for garnish around the plate. Cover with top half of cake.

Chocolate Frosting
1 cup Passover semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup Passover non-dairy whipping cream
1 tablespoon margarine
1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted
Combine the chips, whipping cream and margarine in a 2-cup measuring cup or bowl. Heat in microwave on high power one to two minutes, stirring once until smooth and chocolate is melted. Frost top with chocolate and drizzle some down sides of cake. Sprinkle with toasted almonds. Let stand until chocolate is set.

 

Principal for a Day, Lesson for a Lifetime


 

This Wednesday dawns as another tough, typical grind for the principal of the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies (SOCES). There’s the 7:15 a.m. arrival and the 10 p.m. departure. Then there’s the picket line set up by half the teaching staff. And later, the little problem of not having eye washes in science classrooms in case experiments go dangerously wrong.

It’s a lot more than Kenn Phillips could have bargained for when he accepted this gig as principal. Lucky for him, he doesn’t have to come back tomorrow.

That’s because Phillips isn’t the real principal, but merely principal for a day. Phillips is among more than 200 professionals who arranged to shadow principals as part of a Los Angeles Unified School District effort to create alliances between businesses and schools. Phillips is getting an early start with his mid-March stint. Nearly all of the other short-timers are serving on Tuesday, March 29.

At the Center for Enriched Studies, the Principal-for-a-Day ritual has a distinctly Jewish cast. Phillips, a 46-year-old businessman, is Jewish, and so is the actual principal, 56-year-old Robert Weinberg. SOCES, as the school is called, has a sizable contingent of Jewish students, an estimated 20 percent. He considers character education, often expressed through religious traditions, to be at the core of developing responsible young adults. His sign-off after announcements wishes students a good day and reminds them “character counts.”

SOCES, in Tarzana, is not a district trouble spot by any measure. Its test scores are among Los Angeles’ best; its students almost universally attend college. But that doesn’t make the principal’s job easy, as Phillips learns.

Not that Weinberg is complaining. He’s entirely immersed in his role.

“Most people, when they come to this school,” Weinberg says, “find it’s a magical kind of place.”

OK, it’s not so magical to find 35 teachers picketing, but they’re not mad at the principal, only upset over several years without pay raises. And the cause of the 10 p.m. departure is a concert, a special event that Weinberg is pleased lose sleep for. As for the eye washes — Weinberg can handle that, too. By day’s end, he decides to spend grant money to buy them. He’s got plenty of other potential uses for those funds, but safety, he concludes, has to come first.

Phillips’ visit quickly becomes an exchange of ideas, a sharing of experiences. Phillips has shadowed a principal seven times: “It’s important that I understand what Bob, the teachers and students are thinking, because when I meet with people at a very high level, they don’t know the pulse of what’s going on,” said Phillips, a director at the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley.

So, at 10:15 a.m., when Weinberg grabs his walkie-talkie and heads outside, Phillips, mobile phone strapped to his belt, follows. Phillips is dressed smartly, sleekly, in a business suit and gleaming blue tie. Weinberg, by contrast, is large — 6-foot-8 — and more rumpled. He’s known for occasionally dressing up as “Bob the Builder.”

Weinberg leans against a railing at the center of campus, while teachers and many of the school’s 1,750 students stream by. SOCES is known for a student body that ranges in age from 10 to 18. Little girls, dressed in pink, snack on bagels, while a high school couple walks past with arms draped around one another. A teenage boy sitting on a bench plays guitar.

“What are we doing?” Phillips asks.

“We’re doing supervision,” Weinberg answers. “If kids want to talk to me, they have access.”

“Hey, Mr. Weinberg,” says a redheaded sprout. “Have a peanut M&M. I bought them, so you could have one.”

Weinberg obliges.

The bell sounds and students dart in every direction. Weinberg stays in place, issuing tardy slips.

But he’s not just giving a demonstration in school administration. He wants to hear Phillips’ ideas on education. Businesses need students with better communication and teamwork skills, Phillips says, and with a stronger commitment to ethics. During part of the day, he will share these beliefs with a class of high schoolers.

Weinberg leads Phillips down a hallway, explaining that advanced students can take classes at Pierce College in Woodland Hills.

“Have you thought about adding a bungalow here, so that instead of kids going to Pierce, you’d have [the instructors] come here?” Phillips asks.

“No, but that’d be great,” Weinberg says.

As they walk through an outdoor cafeteria, Phillips asks, “Do you have an active PTA?”

Weinberg, in his fifth year here, says the school has no PTA at all, but he’d like to establish one.

“If you need help, I’ll see if we can make that work for you,” Phillips says.

He explains that a president of the association sits on his company’s board.

The two step into an auditorium blaring with music, where orchestra students rehearse for the evening’s concert. Weinberg points out how he renovated the place with contributions from corporate sponsors.

When it’s time for the two to part, Weinberg lumbers through one door to “do supervision,” while Phillips glides through a different one to return to his world of business.

Before he leaves, Phillips asked: “If you had all the money in the world, what would you do?”

Weinberg says he would reduce class sizes, add more time to the school year and get every teacher to believe that any student can learn.

If Phillips and his corporate associates could help accomplish those things, he’d be welcome to stand in as principal any day.

 

The Good, the Bad and the Confusing


 

I am a senior citizen. I’m 82, look 65 and feel like 40. It is a very confusing time of life. People assume that you are over the hill. You know that you are still vital and have the ability to contribute to society.

At the age of 50, I classified myself as lower-middle age. As the years rushed by, I accepted middle, middle-age and then upper-middle age.

At 82, I can no longer fool myself with artificial classifications. I am old. I am a senior citizen. So what?

Senior citizenship is not necessarily bad. Nice people rise to give you their seats on buses and in public places. I always refuse the seat but will accept it for my more fragile wife.

Theaters offer me a discount on tickets. Financially, I don’t need a discount, but I gladly accept it. There are some small feelings of guilt as I observe younger, and perhaps poorer, couples paying full price.

Guilt also appears for me in restaurants as I timidly display my two-for-one coupon. The guilt is not deeply seated.

My family loves to chide me about my preference for restaurants that offer these coupons. I just can’t escape my memories of childhood poverty. Who ate at restaurants in Chicago’s West Side ghetto?

Joining other seniors at a restaurant can be a harrowing experience. There are always a few seniors who lag way behind the cute gal leading us to our seats. Some seniors reject seats that face a wall. Others in the same party demand a window seat. Of course, the restaurant temperature is too cold or too hot.

Some seniors have as much difficulty deciding what to eat as Eisenhower had deciding when to land at Normandy. We always have food left over to take home. We mark the cartons to be sure we take home our own leftovers.

You do not want to be present when the owner comes around at the end of the meal to declare our coupons invalid. We seniors are confident. We have seen too much of life to give up without a fight. Meek and mild we are not.

There is a sad aspect to dining with a senior who has lost a spouse. You want to pay their bill as a gesture of love. They insist on paying their fair share. You have to accept that pride demands that they pay for what they ate. Sometimes you adjust their share so they pay less than normal. They rarely know what you have done.

Dining brings up cruising. On a recent cruise, they asked what couple had been married the longest. The winning couple was to get a bottle of champagne.

The wife and I won with our 58 years. The champagne we gave away. But winning brought up many wistful memories.

I am very happily married. Yet I can’t explain where the years went. What happened to the skinny kid who was discharged from the Army on March 1 of 1946 and married two days later on March 3? Was it 58 years since we had that fabulous wedding attended by 10 people? How could it be that we have a daughter who is 55 years old?

You cannot spend time and energy wondering where the years went. They are finished.

Seniors must concentrate on now. Enjoy life now. Do what you can within your abilities. Life is precious and good. Tomorrow will come at its own speed.

 

A Challenge to Cowards


 

In the play “2 Across,” a man and a woman — who have nothing in common but their crossword puzzles — are on a 4:15 a.m. train leaving San Francisco International Airport for the East Bay. She takes crosswords (and life) very seriously; he treats everything like a game. By the time they reach East Bay 80 minutes later, their lives have changed. And it all starts with the man taking the first step: making a light comment to her.

It got me thinking about the times in my life when I failed, for various reasons, to take that first step of reaching out to someone I wanted to meet. Coming back from college one day, I struck up a conversation with an attractive woman my age at the bus station. We had a nice rapport but when it came time to part, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for her number. So our brief relationship ended there — and, of course, I’ve never seen her again.

This was back when I was still shy. I’ve since gotten over my shyness. These days, I’m perfectly comfortable crossing the room to ask for a supermodel’s phone number while she’s chatting with Hugh Grant. After all, she can meet wealthy and famous movie stars any day. How refreshing would it be for her to hang out with a struggling Jewish writer. I’d even let her use my apartment’s parking space and access to the building’s washer and dryer. I’m a giver.

But say I had reached out to that woman at the bus station that day, asked for her number and called her. There might have been one of many responses. She could have said, “Thanks but I’m already in a relationship.” She might have said, “Thanks but I’m not interested.” She might have offered her phone number but when I called it, I find I’m connected to her local police department.

Of course, something positive might have resulted, as well. We could have gone out, hit it off, entered into a long-term relationship, gotten married, had kids, lived happily every after.

The point is, I’ll never know what might have happened with that woman who could have turned out to be the love of my life — simply because I was too chicken to ask for her number. And when you think about it, my cowardice doesn’t make sense, because in a situation like that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It’s all about taking that leap of faith and reaching out.

OK, so if you’re rejected, perhaps your self-esteem takes a little hit. If you’re rejected a lot, perhaps it gets bruised. And if you experience nothing but rejection, maybe your self-esteem ends up in the trauma ward of Love General Hospital. But enough about my pain.

Eventually someone is going to open her arms and her heart.

Let’s get back to that supermodel. How many times have we read interviews with supermodels, gorgeous actresses and other high-profile beauties, in which they complain that they sit home alone, because for whatever reasons — fear, intimidation, assuming women that lovely must already have boyfriends — they’re just not asked out on dates?

Well, I say to my fellow male daters — let’s end that fear here and now. Whether she’s an average woman doing a crossword puzzle on a commuter train, or Gisele Bundchen doing a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue shoot on a Jamaican beach — reach out. Put those insecurities on hold.

The Talmud states: “To facilitate a union between man and woman is as difficult a task as parting the Red Sea.” Granted. But if you don’t take that first step, the union is downright impossible.

“2 Across” is on stage at the Santa Monica Playhouse through Dec. 19. $25. 8 p.m. (Fridays), 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. (Saturdays), 6 p.m. (Sundays). $25. 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. For tickets, call (800) 863-7785.

Mark Miller has written for TV, movies and celebrities, been a professional stand-up comedian and a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. He can be reached at markmiller2000@comcast.net.

 

No Rush


Lately it seems as if everyone I know is interested in me getting married. In fact, the person pressuring me the least is my girlfriend,

Carrie. She’s still working on her independence, having recently moved out of her parents’ house for the first time.

Like many women, Carrie looks forward to wearing a wedding gown, but she needs more time to work on her growth as a woman. At least that’s what I’ve been telling her in the hopes it buys me some more time.

Recently, I had Shabbat dinner at a couple’s house — Chasidic friends in their early 20s with a newborn. While the wife was burping her baby, she asked when Carrie and I were going to get married. Her husband quickly joined in.

“Why?” I asked. “What’s so great about being married?”

The baby spit up onto her shirt as her husband fielded the question; only he did so in a very Chasidic fashion — no answers, just more questions: “What are you waiting for? Why are you so scared? Will you pass the gefilte fish?”

“What does marriage offer me?” I asked him. I tried to explain to him the difference between our situations. He is a Chasid who avoids shaking hands with a woman in order to avoid getting excited. When he met his wife, he was expected to avoid touching until marriage. So, marriage came fast. I, on the other hand, am dating Carrie, who, being the woman of loose morals she is, allowed me to not only kiss her within the first week of dating, but also to hold her hand. Three years later, we’ve gone so far I can now hold the hands of other women. “So what’s the rush?” I asked him.

My friend looked at me pensively, sat quiet for a moment and then said, “Seriously, I’m still hungry. Will you pass the gefilte fish?”

One day, Carrie’s grandmother pulled me aside. “Do you planning on marrying Carrie?”

“I don’t know, lady” I answered. “We’re not really up to that.”

“Well you better get up to it, funny guy. I want to see great-grandkids before I die.”

“And I want you to live a long time, so for you I’m going to hold off,” I said.

She shook her head and walked away muttering to herself.

Why would anyone in Carrie’s family want her to marry me? I look decent enough and am occasionally funny but I’m a 30-year-old struggling actor, getting by on the bare minimum, and living in a rent-controlled apartment in Silver Lake. On paper, I sure don’t sound that great. I don’t think I’d do too well on JDate, where women decide whom to date based on a picture, career choice, yearly income and a list of my hobbies, which oddly enough include going to restaurants and listening in on other people’s conversations.

Carrie spends three to four nights a week at my apartment. We have a great relationship. Sometimes we bicker too much, but I love her and I’m pretty sure she loves me. The thing is, the nights she isn’t with me I don’t really mind. In fact, I enjoy having the nights off. It’s not that I’m unhappy in the relationship — I just like my freedom. I don’t have other women sneaking over in the middle of the night, but I like the feeling that I could if I wanted to. I’ll probably never act on it, but I want the option. Even though I have no interest in dating anyone else, I’m still a little frightened by the idea of dating one person for the rest of my life. So, maybe I need a little more time. Is that bad? Is there something wrong with me because I’m not ready to be married? I feel like I’ll know when it’s time. I’ll be a little more settled in my career and hopefully be ready to have children — or at least a houseplant.

So if Carrie and I are both not ready to buy into marriage, why is everyone else so interested in selling? Are they getting commission?

I once knew a woman who got wrapped up in some cult-like business seminars — Anthony Robbins kind of stuff where she kept paying more and more for these seminars and then would hold meetings where she would try to recruit other people to join. She invited me to one and I went there already knowing there was no chance they were getting me to sign up. But she begged me and I gave in out of respect for her. Midway through the introductory course I realized something. These people, who were charting their happiness with multicolored markers on gigantic pieces of paper that sat on easels, were not trying to convince me to join because their lives were now so enriched. They were convincing me to join because they needed to convince themselves.

My married friends are all newly married and, therefore, are still getting used to the idea. By convincing me, and others like me, to go down the same road as quickly as possible, it validates their decision. And it’s not necessarily a bad decision — just one I’m not ready to make. I’m sure as they grow more comfortable with their decision the less they will feel the need to convince others to do likewise. And who knows — by then I might be ready to go down that road with them. As for Carrie’s grandmother, well, she just wants to see a baby. I can get one for her on the black market within a week.

I picked up the phone and called Carrie. “I just wanted to say I love you and I’m glad we both agree on how things are going. We care deeply about each other but aren’t in a rush to get married. We have plenty of time and can take things as they come.”

“Well,” she said. “Don’t get too comfortable.”

Seth Menachem is an actor living in Los Angeles. You can currently see him on TV hawking such fine luxuries as fast food, beer and cellular service.

Smarty Pants


Albert Einstein was a very smart man — probably one of smartest people of all time. In 1905, when he was 26, he had a “miracle year,” in which he proved the existence and sizes of molecules, explained light as both particles and waves and created the Special Theory of Relativity. You can learn more about his life at the Skirball Cultural Center, which coincides with the 100th anniversary of that miracle year.

Where Would You Go?

Einstein proved that it is possible to travel though time. Where you would go in time and space if you could climb into a time machine? Write an essay, story or poem, telling us about your adventure. Send entries by Nov. 4 to abbygilad@yahoo.com.

Remember to include your full name, age, address, school and grade.

We will publish your essay in the Kids’ Pages and send you a ticket to the family-friendly movie destination of your choice.

Pico’s Familiar Slice


The balabus is back.

Howard Weiss, who opened Los Angeles’s first kosher pizza shop in the mid 1970s, has reopened his famed Kosher Nostra, and he’s looking to reclaim the glory days of over-sized slices and relentless puns that made the first Kosher Nostra a community institution.

The new Nostra is a tiny storefront on Pico Boulevard east of La Cienega Boulevard, just a block or two outside the beaten path of kosher establishments on Pico.

Since he opened a couple months ago, Weiss said, he’s been living in something of a time warp. The kids whose fingers he used to slap off the counters come in with their own little ones. Teenagers who bore the brunt of Weiss’ temper when they piled into the place after a Saturday night YULA basketball game now come in as staid 30-somethings, awash in nostalgia (and with more money in their wallets).

But Weiss will need more than nostalgia to succeed in today’s kosher market.

When he opened 25 years ago, there were maybe five or six kosher restaurants around, including Pico Kosher Deli (est. 1968), Nosh N’ Rye and a couple of others, according to the Southern California Jewish Historical Society. By 1982, there were 15 kosher restaurants, marking the beginning of the growth spurt that would bring us to close 100 kosher eateries in Los Angeles and the Valley today.

At 71, Weiss, a Tevye lookalike with tired blue eyes and a bushy beard encroaching on his face, says he’s ready to work hard to compete, but the heavy sigh and the slow shrug that accompany his determination say otherwise.

His decade in Israel in the 1990’s hasn’t fully erased the pain of the collapse of his original kosher empire, which included Peking Tam, Pepe Tam and China on Rye, with branches in the city and the Valley. That expansion and an accompanying partnership went sour in 1990. The site of the old Kosher Nostra at Fairfax Avenue near Third Street became Pizza World, owned by Darren Melamed, Weiss’ longtime manager.

The new locale is decidedly more cramped, and Weiss is still working on the décor, but some things haven’t changed. As always, Weiss has staked out a corner table where he does crosswords and assaults diners with deadpan humor, although he’s taken "Marijuana Pizza: $45" off the new menu. Above him hangs the beaten-copper miniature storefront with the "Mikveh in Rear" sign and just to the right of the counter hangs Weiss’ own answers to FAQs — the original framed poster which he printed not on a computer long before there was such a thing as FAQs (and before the words "Kosher Nostra" Googled up an anti-Semitic email-propagated rumor).

It’s too early to say whether he’ll make it. This incarnation of Kosher Nostra might turn out to be just a historical hiccup. But in a kosher community that after 25 years of growth is just now reaching an age of maturity, there might be room for a bit of nostalgia, a bad Jewish mother joke and a slice of pizza that, even with all the competition, still holds its own.

Fate With a Frummie


A funny thing happened on the way to the Old City. Well, technically, it happened in the Old City. My friend, Matt, invited me to Shabbat lunch at his rabbi’s house. I covered my cleavage and accepted the invite. Packed with kids and black hats, this third meal was standing-room only. I was balancing a Kiddush cup in one hand and the rabbi’s baby in the other, when Matt introduced me to Yakov. Yakov was a tall drink of Manischevitz. A bearded yeshiva student about my age, he took one look at me and said: "Carin, are you from Chicago?"

Confident my Chicago accent didn’t come out during ‘da Hamotzi, I wondered how he knew.

"I went to high school with you. My name back then was Jake."

Of all the Jew joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I walk into his. The artist formerly known as Jake didn’t just go to my high school. I was a freshman cheerleader in a sophomore geometry class and Jake was the hot football player who sat next to me. He barely noticed me. But every Friday, game day, he’d wear his jersey, I’d wear my cheerleading skirt, and we’d talk through morning announcements about how Deerfield High School football rules. I had a major crush on Jake, I passed notes about Jake, I dreamed he’d ask me to homecoming. Then I learned he was dating Risa Rosen — a sophomore. I cried, I sulked, I couldn’t eat for days. And today I’m eating lunch with him in Israel. Someone call VH1, I know where he is now.

After each of my high school heartbreaks, my mom would say, "Ten years from now you won’t remember this boy. Who knows where you’ll be by then? Who knows where he’ll be by then? Forget about looking back on this and laughing. You won’t even look back."

She’s right, I’m not looking back. I’m looking across the table — at Jake, his sweet religious wife and their adorable baby. Talk about a high school reunion. What are the chances? I try to figure out the probability of our random meeting, but can’t run the numbers in my head. I should have paid attention to something in math class besides Jake’s profile.

I have a million questions for my hometown hottie. When did he become observant? When did he move to Israel? Does he still play football? Can frummies play football? When did he get married? How did he pick this yeshiva? How many licks do talumudic scholars say it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?

I can’t ask him that. I can’t even hug him. I can’t even shake his hand. If I don’t know the hummus fork from the salad fork, how am I supposed to know how to greet a long-lost, now deeply observant friend? I should have brushed up on my Shabbat etiquette. Where’s Martha Schwartz when I need her? Do I sit next to him or next to his wife? Do I bring up old times? Should I bust out a DHS cheer? Of course, the rabbi would see doing the splits as working on Shabbat, so I settle on a smile and say, "What have you been up to since grunge was in style?"

We exchange a decade of Cliffs Notes over cucumber salad. We’ve got a lot in common. He’s married, has a son, lives in Jerusalem. I’m single, have a plant, live in a studio. OK, not so much in common. Except that we’re both happy. As the great sage Peter "Pinchas" Brady once said, "When it’s time to change you’ve got to rearrange who you are and what you’re gonna be."

Jake is an Orthodox yeshiva student in Israel. I’m, well — I’m still figuring things out. But I have figured out we weren’t meant to be together. I couldn’t have known that in high school. I didn’t even know it an hour ago. Actually, I’d forgotten about Jake until an hour ago. But seeing him made me realize that things happen — or don’t happen — for a reason. Even running into Jake had a purpose, if only to hear him say, "Wow, you look just like you did in high school."

Seeing Jake also gave me a fresh perspective on my boyfriend shortage. I used to blame myself for my single condition. Why am I alone? What’s wrong with me? What does Risa Rosen have that I don’t have?

But now, I’ve kicked the habit. Instead of crying into my kugel, I think of Jake. I can’t get down on myself every time some guy doesn’t want to date, commit or ask me to a semi-formal, buy me a corsage and take awkward photos under a balloon arch. I can’t get my fringes in a knot over every unrequited crush.

Maybe we just aren’t meant to be together. Maybe life has a different path for me — or him — that I just can’t see yet. And maybe, like Jake, our paths will cross again sometime.

As for Jake, well, we’ll always have geometry.


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

Balance Paramount to UPN Head Ostroff


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

Determine what is important.

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

Focus and compartmentalize.

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

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

Balance your schedule to work for you.

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

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

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

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

Passion, patience and persistence.

Ostroff has a motto for her success.

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

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

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

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

Fine-tune your interests.

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

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

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

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

Develop your skills

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

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

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

Take intermediate steps

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

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

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

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

Work well with others.

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

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

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

Keep up the stride.

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

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

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

Always evaluate where you are at.

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

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

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

Remember, you can have it all.

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

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

C’mon, a Bat Mitzvah Is, Like, So Uncool


Everything was going wrong. First, her best friend moved. Not just to another town, she moved to another state.

Also, she was starting a new school this year. Middle school was scary to think about, though she would never admit it out loud. She was too cool for that.

And now her parents were talking about moving to another town, with a better school district. She, of course, saw nothing wrong with this one. And what was worse, they would probably move after she had become used to the new middle school.

OK, now add to all of this: her bat mitzvah.

"I don’t want a bat mitzvah," she told her parents. "It’s just for you and your relatives. You don’t even need me there. So why don’t you just throw your own party?"

"Don’t be silly," they answered. "This is for you, it’s about you."

So how come no one would listen to her?

Lessons with the cantor were OK, but then the cantor is a cool guy. He never lies, never says you did a good job when you know you stank.

But what goes over well in the cantor’s study isn’t likely to go over well in front of a whole mess of people.

"I’ll be a bat mitzvah automatically at 12 anyway," she said. "Why do we need the fancy ceremony?"

"We’ll keep it simple."

"Why can’t we just go to Israel for my bat mitzvah?" she asked.

"Would you like that? We could have the ceremony on Masada."

"Oh," she responded. "I thought we would just go and, y’know, kinda sightsee."

"That’s not what this is about," they answered.

"Then what is it about?" she replied.

"If you don’t know that, you’ve wasted all your years in Hebrew school."

Well, no duh! She had slept through most of it.

She asked the cantor, "So what is it all about?"

"L’dor v’dor," he said.

From generation to generation?

"Tov me’od," he said. Very good.

From generation to generation. From your parents generation to yours. From your grandparents to your parents. From your great-grandparents to your grandparents. All the way back, and all the way forward.

Throughout history, as long as there are Jews on earth, we will all be connected through things like the bar or bat mitzvah, Shabbat, brit milah, lighting candles, fasting on Yom Kippur, eating matzah and retelling the Passover story.

Sharing the stories of our ancestors with our children, as you will do someday, God willing, with yours. That’s what it’s all about.

That’s why she liked the cantor. He answered her in words she could understand.

So she entered middle school, and did just fine. She studied her parshah and learned the prayers.

She thought about what the cantor had said, and pictured herself listening to her own son practice. She imagined her grandfather, now in his 70s, as he must have looked up on the bimah.

And then it was time.

She sat on the bimah, a demure young lady with ankles crossed and tissues in hand. She read her parshah, sang the blessings, led the service and gave a dvar Torah.

As she stood behind the pulpit, she looked into some of the faces in the sanctuary. And when she led the congregation in the prayer, "L’dor v’dor," she sang it with feeling.

She imagined the family members she had never met, going back generations. She thought about those who could not have a bar or bat mitzvah before they were sent to the concentration camps. She thought about those who would have one after her.

Then she looked at her younger brother sitting in the first row, with her parents.

"I wonder if he’ll feel the same way I did," she thought.

"Well, at least he’ll have me to help him."

Good Timing Lands Luck in Director’s Lap


I’m sure that when Greg Pritikin made his first feature film, "Dummy," now in theaters, he had no inkling that he had inadvertently grabbed an indie-film brass ring. But when he cast Adrien Brody as a maladroit but sweet schlemiel who is obsessed with ventriloquism as the way to win a woman’s heart, Pritikin really lucked out. Up to that point in his career, Brody was a well-regarded young actor who had displayed a wide range in American independent films. Then came "The Pianist," the Oscar, the Kiss and, suddenly, Brody is a movie star. Which means that "Dummy," a film that would have otherwise slipped through the cracks, is making its way into theaters, and that is not at all a bad thing.

Pritikin’s film takes place in a sort of every-suburb America of tract houses with manicured lawns and two-car garages, and is utterly devoid of anything to place it in historical time. Even the cars and the music — whether punk, show tunes or klez-punk — could be 20 years old, and the film’s story of a hapless schmo trying to find a way to express himself despite his suffocating Jewish family is a Philip Roth retread from the 1970s.

And yet, on a certain unadventurous level, it works. Steven (Brody) is fired from his job when he tries to give notice after deciding to surrender to a lifelong ambition to take up ventriloquism. He lives at home with his overbearing mother (Jessica Walter), omni-absent father (Ron Liebman) and chronically depressed sister, a failed singer-turned-wedding planner (Illeana Douglas). When he meets his unemployment counselor, Lorraina (Vera Farmiga), he immediately falls madly in love. With his deranged punk-rocker friend Fanny (Milla Jovovich) in a splendid against-the-grain performanc as his wildly inept guide, he tries to woo her, with disastrous results. Only when he begins to express himself through his dummy does the real, warm, sweet Steven emerge.

Although Pritikin seems to be laboring to tie up plot ends almost from the film’s opening shot, the film has a cheerfully dopey quality that can be quite winning. You know that Steven and his dummy are fated to bring happiness to Lorraina, his sister, Fanny and her cataleptic band and everyone else in the state of New Jersey (although Pritikin manages one hilarious and unexpected surprise during the final credits).

But for all its obviousness and the mechanical working-out of plot, "Dummy" has a certain tenderness towards its characters that is satisfying for its sheer unexpectedness. Pritikin starts out unpromisingly with a shrill, cartoonish tone, but once he gets the worst of the exposition out of the way, there is a warmth here that is quite pleasant. Moreover, "Dummy" has at least one really lovely moment of pure silence, a two-shot, held for nearly a minute, of a painfully awkward silence between the perpetually uncertain Steven and an expectant Lorraina; the discomfort in the air is palpable and moving.

It’s pretty hard to tell where a new director will go from the evidence of only one film, but Pritikin bears watching. After all, who could have guessed where Brody would land?

"Dummy" is in theaters now.

When Intelligence Falls Short


Intelligence errors usually are associated with military disasters like Pearl Harbor or the 1973 Yom Kippur War, not with diplomacy.

Yet the last decade of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process may involve such an error of assessment. Looking back now, 10 years after the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords, it’s clear that the failure to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement cannot be attributed to a lack of political will on the Israeli side or the failure of the United States to deal more forcibly with noncompliance.

Rather, it has to do with the more fundamental question of whether the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) really was prepared for reconciliation and peace with Israel.

The overwhelming evidence from statements by the PLO leadership was that it viewed the Oslo process as a tactical necessity to realize its ultimate strategic goal of recovering the entire territory of British Mandatory Palestine — including the area of Israel.

It would be a mistake to assign this intention to PLO leader Yasser Arafat alone. After all, it was the PLO’s top official for Jerusalem, Faisal Husseini, who on two separate occasions in 2001 described Oslo as a “Trojan Horse” that served the realization of “the strategic goal — namely, Palestine from the river to the sea.”

Similarly, the leader of the Fatah movement in the West Bank, Marwan Barghouti, told The New Yorker that even if Israel withdrew from 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not end. What was needed, he said, was “one state for all the peoples.”

Arafat, who after Oslo became head of the Palestinian Authority, usually was more careful about concealing his true intentions, but they nonetheless could be discerned. Right from 1994, he disclosed his view of Oslo as a temporary Islamic truce. But he generally would speak so forthrightly only in closed-door meetings in places like South Africa or Sweden. More recently, he frequently sent messengers to Palestinian cities to speak on his behalf.

Thus, the official Palestinian daily, Al-Hayat al-Jadida, on Jan. 30, 2001, carried an address in Arafat’s name by an ideologue affiliated with Arafat’s Fatah movement, Sakher Habash, that asserted: “Experience proves that without the establishment of the democratic state on all the land, peace will not be realized…. The Jews must get rid of Zionism…. They must be citizens in the state of the future, the state of democratic Palestine.”

The big question raised by these recent quotations is: Why did the Israeli and U.S. governments invest so much in the Oslo process if it was so clear that the PLO had no intention of making peace? Didn’t they consult with their intelligence establishments before investing presidential time at the failed Camp David summit of 2000? Where was the Central Intelligence Agency?

To its credit, Israeli military intelligence flatly warned about the security problems emanating from Oslo. The then-intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, told the Israeli daily, Ma’ariv, in 1998, “I cannot say at any point since it entered the territory in May 1994 that the Palestinian Authority acted decisively against the terrorist operational capability of Hamas, as well as the Islamic Jihad.”

But there were no public warnings about the PLO’s political intentions in the Oslo peace process. Henry Kissinger warned in his seminal work, “Diplomacy”: “What political leaders decide, intelligence services tend to seek to justify.”

Perhaps the U.S. and Israeli intelligence establishments were intimidated by their political echelons.

If there is a lesson from all this, it is that governments must allow their intelligence communities the freedom to express themselves and promote intellectual pluralism, if disasters in the Middle East are to be avoided. For diplomatic errors can be even more costly than military blunders — even if they were originally undertaken with the best of intentions.


Dore Gold is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. From 1997 to 1999, he served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. He is the author of “Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism.”

Remembering Dad During Days of Awe


This Rosh Hashanah brings to a close the year in which my father died. For this reason, and many others, I am grateful that the Jewish New Year is marked not by parties, but by days and weeks preceding and following of self-evaluation, quiet contemplation and prayers for blessings in the coming year.

In English, Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, are known as the High Holidays; in Hebrew, they are known as Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe). This year, more then any other, I understand those words.

When I try to think of planning a Rosh Hashanah meal — any meal — I think of my father and his joyful appetite for food and for life, and I want to stop. But the days do not stop, and the holidays roll around, and in the Jewish concept of these never-ending rituals, I found some comfort.

While looking up the dates for Rosh Hashanah, I noticed that in the Hebrew calendar, the New Year is placed in Tishrei, the seventh month of the year, instead of Nisan, the Hebrew equivalent of our January.

According to the "The Jewish Holidays, A Guide and Commentary" by Michael Strassfeld, "the presence of two New Years is not accidental, rather it grows out of a notion underlying the Jewish calendar, the notion of two kinds of time, historical and cyclic."

Historical time, Strassfeld explains, is linear movement, created by man, and set arbitrarily by clocks, calendars and our drive for progress, needs for change. Cyclical time, on the other hand, is set by nature, the timeless comfort of her seasons, and its symbol is the reoccurring phases of the moon. Strassfeld says we need both because "if historical time teaches us that to be alive is to move, cyclical time teaches us that sometimes to wait in place is more important then moving on."

And I observe in my family, through the phases of this special year, the gentle wisdom of both.

My brother, Mark, found a new job and started a vegetable garden where he grows cucumbers, pole beans, watermelons, and, my father’s favorites, brandy wine tomatoes. My sister, Susan, took to eating her meals outside, covering a corner of her yard with small white gravel and stringing white lights from the trees above, sure to reflect the moon. My brother, Jonathan, traveled to a business seminar in Boston that reminded him why he takes the overwhelming risks he does, following his entrepreneurial path like our father, but for him and his wife, Robin, so far away from home in London. My sister, Wendy, filled her yard with friends and food for her husband Yaron’s 40th birthday, and she made sure the most important people were there — his parents all the way from Israel. My mother started playing the piano at night, and in the days she created a rock garden from stones she unearthed herself.

Now, around the front corner of their home, brown earth supports sculptures of granite, like a prayer. And my brother, Harold, and his wife, Lori, are expecting their second child, bringing a new life into the New Year.

I hold my daughter even more than usual. I walk as often as I can to a park near our apartment and sit on a large flat stone near a creek, where I listen to water run over, around and under time-smoothed rocks; its flow reminding me that the cycles of days, years, death, then life, never end.

One of my father’s shining qualities was courage, so my Rosh Hashanah meal will be full of hearty foods reflecting what I’ve learned. I’ll make my mom’s delicious Stuffed Cabbage, remembering her rolling perfectly seasoned meat inside moist, pale green leaves as my father looked on, talking of how his mother also made wondrous stuffed meat dishes.

I’ll bake a round Honey Raisin Whole-Wheat Challah, because it is earthy and a little sweet. And for dessert, I will try an Apple Meringue Pie, a recipe from my sister’s mother-in-law, Eliza Kornreich. Because when my father was ill, she sent her love through baked goods express mailed from Haifa, and because I want to try something new.

Kay’s Honey Raisin Whole-Wheat Challah (Pareve)

Kay Levenson’s whole-wheat challah is divine. And this honey-raisin version, wrapped into a smiling circle, gives it an extra textured, sweet taste that is perfect for the holidays.

3 tablespoons (or three packages) fresh yeast

3/4 cup warm water

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup sugar

1 cup honey

6 eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon salt

2 cups old fashioned oats

4 cups white unbleached flour

1 cup warm water

5-6 cups whole-wheat flour

1 1/2 cups raisins

Glaze

1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon warm water

Oats

Oil two 10-inch round baking pans and sprinkle with oatmeal (to prevent sticking and add extra flavor to bottom crust). In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water (between 105 F-115 F) with teaspoon of sugar and set aside to proof (or expand), approximately eight to 10 minutes.

In a large bowl mix oil, sugar, honey, beaten eggs, salt, oats, white flour and cup of warm water. Mix thoroughly. (Using a dough hook in the electric mixer on lower speed works well.) Add yeast mixture. Pour in raisins. Then gradually add whole-wheat flour, a 1/2 cup at a time, mixing as much as possible in the bowl. Knead on countertop approximately 5-10 minutes until dough is elastic and springs back to touch. You may need more or less of whole-wheat flour, so watch consistency of dough as you work, and sprinkle on flour sparingly and knead until dough loses sticky texture but doesn’t get dry. Place in oiled bowl, turning it to oil all sides. Cover and let it rise in a warm place until approximately doubled in size, about one to two hours. Punch down, knead a few more minutes, and shape into two large (or four small) loaves. Let the loaves rise one hour.

To shape the large loaves, roll half of dough into a long strip approximately 18-inches long and 3-inches wide, with one end slightly thinner then the other. Placer the thicker end in the center of oiled round pan and tightly coil strip around itself, tucking ends underneath. Let rise as instructed.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Brush the loaves with glaze and sprinkle with oats, if desired. Bake until golden brown, approximately 35 to 45 minutes (less for smaller loaves). Check the loaf after 30 minutes as oven timing varies. Remove from the pans and cool on a wire rack.

Mom’s Stuffed Cabbage

This dish is fun and therapeutic to make, what with the hearty mixing of meat by hand followed by the arranging and filling and rolling of a table full of soft leaves. It does, however, require some preparation ahead of time, like making the rice and freezing the cabbage for ease of use. But the taste of this delicately seasoned meat rolled in a thin layer of cabbage is refreshing and cozy all at once.

30-34 large cabbage leaves (two heads of cabbage)

2 pounds lean ground beef

2 cups cooked white rice

2 large eggs, beaten

1/2 large onion, diced

1/4 teaspoon sage

1/4 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon salt, to taste

1/2 teaspoon pepper, to taste

1 15 ounce can tomato sauce

1 7 ounce can mushroom slices

1/2 cup water

Four days in advance, freeze the cabbages whole in tightly closed plastic bags. A day and a half in advance, remove the cabbages from the freezer and keep in a bag in the refrigerator to thaw.

Cook rice as specified on the package.

Cut out the core of the defrosted cabbage and gently peel out the leaves and spread on wax paper. It’s fine to use some of the small leaves as well as the larger ones. If the cabbage is still a little frozen and its leaves hard to remove, run them under warm water.

In a large bowl, soften the ground beef with your hands. Add well-beaten eggs, diced onion, sage, thyme, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Mix well. Add cooked rice and mix again.

Place a heaping tablespoon of meat on the center of a cabbage leaf, nearer the tougher core side. Fold the core area just over the meat, then fold in from each side over the meat and role up tightly, placing fold side down.

Pour tomato sauce, mushrooms with liquid and water into a large, heavy skillet. Cover and simmer on medium-low and slowly arrange the stuffed cabbage, fold side down, in sauce. Layering, if necessary, is fine. Add enough water — about a cup depending on the size of your pan — to come half way up sides of the top cabbage rolls. Bring to a boil, cover, turn heat to low and simmer approximately 1 1/2 hours, basting occasionally.

Remove stuffed cabbage from sauce with slotted spoon and arrange on a serving platter. Pour sauce over and serve. Extra sauce can be served on this side.

Serves 15

Eliza’s Apple Meringue Pie (Pareve)

I was nervous to attempt this dessert because of the meringue. But it is worth it. As my mother said, the taste is elegant. And with the three distinct layers, each slice looks as beautiful, fresh and light as a new day.

Dough

1 1/4 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup margarine

2 tablespoon sugar

2 egg yolks

1 tablespoon cold water

Filling

5 large Granny Smith apples

3/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon margarine

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Meringue

2 egg whites

1/3 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon vanilla

Dough: In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder and sliced margarine with your fingers until crumbly texture. Add egg yolks, sugar and cold water and mix with fork or hands into a creamy dough that will be slightly sticky but light. Press into 9-inch pie plate along bottom and sides and refrigerate covered in plastic wrap.

Filling: Peel and slice apples into approximately eight slices each. In a heavy pot, combine apples, margarine and sugar. Cook on a low heat with top on for approximately 15 minutes or until apples are soft but not falling apart. Watch carefully so apples do not overcook and lose their shape. Remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Remove pie dough from refrigerator and pierce dough all over bottom with a fork. Blind bake for 15 minutes or until dough is golden. Remove from the oven and arrange the apple slices, overlapping in concentric circles, without liquid, on the dough. Sprinkle cinnamon over the apples.

Lower oven temperature to 325 F.

Meringue: In large bowl of an electric mixer, beat egg whites on medium until foamy. Gradually add sugar, a few tablespoons at a time, and vanilla, beating on high, until mixture stands in glossy white peaks when beaters are lifted. Gently spread over apples and bake for 20 minutes. Meringue will be browned. Cool to room temperature before serving.

Serves 10

A Sparkling Life


When Anthony Kantor was orphaned on Russia’s streets a century ago, narrowly escaping the pogroms that killed his family, he couldn’t have imagined that he would one day make his living trading diamonds and other precious stones in downtown Los Angeles.

Nor did the late Kantor, a founding member of Hollywood Temple Beth El and an underwriter of Bais Yaakov High School for Girls, dream of the impact his success in the diamond industry would have for Jews in Los Angeles.

Kantor’s daughter, Irene, son-in-law, Conrad Furlong, and grandson, Aaron Henry Furlong, expanded the business begun by the Russian street child, who closed deals with a handshake and a mazel und brucha (luck and blessing), the traditional closing of a deal in the diamond trade. For the past 35 years, the Furlongs have designed and manufactured high-end jewelry in their Hill Street office tower, located in the heart of Los Angeles’ Diamond District. They are one of many third- and fourth-generation Jewish families who have had a profound impact on the enigmatic and tightly knit jewelry industry.

"Back in my grandfather’s time, the diamond business was almost entirely Jewish," Aaron Furlong said, as he graded small stones. "Mazel was your word, and if you went against it, you were ostracized from the business."

Today, estimates put the number of Jews in the diamond trade at roughly 50 percent. Immigrants from countries like Armenia, Lebanon, Turkey and India have poured into Los Angeles’ diamond center, much like the wave of Eastern European Jews did after World War II.

"Despite the changes," Furlong said, "this industry is still mostly family run. There’s a long-standing code of ethics, and reputation is the only thing that separates the different firms."

The mazel code that Furlong cited — mazal u’bracha in Hebrew, mabruk in Arabic — has guided generations of Jewish diamond families. Accounts date it back to Maimonides, the medieval philosopher who purportedly asked his brother, a precious stones trader, to conclude all of his business dealings with a mazal u’bracha.

Furlong’s father, Conrad, was raised Episcopalian, but converted to Judaism five years before hanging out a shingle in the storeroom of Kantor’s building. Initially spurred on by his marriage to Kantor’s daughter, Irene, his conversion ultimately found a spiritual pitch within his daily life.

Today, Conrad Furlong, one of Los Angeles’ premiere diamond setters, dons his pale blue smock each morning to work at a bench just a few feet from his son. The two employ tools as small and precise as those used in the dental field.

Diamond setters — Jewish or otherwise — only teach the business to their sons and sons-in-law. Conrad Furlong was an exception.

Furlong was able to learn the trade by virtue of Kantor’s industry friendships. During his apprenticeship, he was only allowed to look over a setter’s shoulder and could not say or touch anything. To develop his skills, Furlong built a workbench in his apartment and with fake stones and silver mountings, reproduced everything he saw — from memory.

"When my son was born, I went into business for myself," Conrad Furlong said. "Later, I took my six best employees and moved to Hill Street to do only high line [setting, building and designing high-quality jewelry]." His wife still takes care of the bookkeeping.

Aaron Furlong, who also creates jewelry under the name Aaron Henry Designs, received his graduate gemologist degree at the Gemological Institute of America in Los Angeles. He fabricates intricate gold and platinum mountings with torch and solder.

His love for colored stones — emeralds, sapphires and rubies — has earned him design and manufacturing awards from the American Gem Trade Association, De Beers and other industry organizations.

"I first began separating burrs [tiny texture grinders] in my grandfather’s store when I was 7," Furlong recalled. "That was when the industry was only about five or six buildings on Broadway, not the two dozen on and around Hill Street it is today. The diamond dealers would join together after work to drink whiskey," he said. "They’d walk around with parcels of stones worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and do deals in the elevators."

The grandson, who was raised Conservative, takes pride in the Jewish legacy his industry has fostered and in the reputation his family has achieved.

"Things like ‘blood diamonds’ [stones Angolan rebels sold to the diamond trade to finance their terror campaigns] and the harsh checks De Beers imposed on miners years ago to prevent smuggling have made the industry police itself," Furlong explained. "We do background checks on all our suppliers" he said. "And I’ve visited one of our dealer’s cutting centers in India to affirm the working conditions with my own eyes."

To ensure their stones are "clean" or legitimate, the Furlongs belong to the American Gem Society and the Jewelers Vigilance Committee, groups devoted to upholding industry ethics. "Anyone running afoul of watchdogs like the Diamond Council will have a hard time surviving in this business," the grandson stressed.

A diamond’s journey from mine to showroom is a convoluted one. Global conglomerates own the mines and offer site-holders, of which there are about 80 to 120 worldwide, the ability to purchase raw stones, called "roughs."

Site-holders transport the roughs to cutting centers. Manufacturers like the Furlongs buy parcels of cut stones directly from site holders and sell the finished pieces they’ve created from them to wholesalers and retailers. Because the mines for colored stones are less controlled and scattered throughout the globe, supplies come directly from the mines or the cutters.

"If there is a cornerstone of Judaism in this business," Furlong said, "it’s the diamond cutters and brokers. They come from Tel Aviv, New York and South Africa and meet at the Diamond Club down the hall. That group speaks with a unified voice for L.A.’s Diamond District."

Irene Furlong, now in her mid-50s, hasn’t known any other life but gems and diamonds. Her childhood was spent in her father’s showroom, "shooting marbles" with his inventory of pearls.

"Everything is done with memos [written receipts for loose stones] these days, and we’ve lost many of the old traditions," she said wistfully.

"I remember one client we had who had a three-band Pavee ring and was stung by a bee," she recalled. "The paramedics couldn’t cut the ring off through the diamonds, so they called Conrad, who takes the jobs no one else can do. He went to the ER and removed each stone from its setting. The whole time, the client’s husband was yelling: ‘Be careful. Don’t damage the diamonds!’"

In a luxury industry that generated more than $42 billion in jewelry and watch sales in the U.S. last year and $54 billion in worldwide diamond sales alone, the Furlongs, like many other diamond industry families, are reluctant to draw too much attention. In Los Angeles’ Diamond District, uniformed and undercover police patrols keep a close watch on area.

"The Jewish immigrants who built this business came from very harsh backgrounds, and were attracted to the beauty of precious stones and gems," Aaron Furlong said.

"They were multifaceted people," he said, smiling at the pun. "As it was in my grandfather’s time, 50 years ago, this business is a blend of instinct, engineering and art."

"It doesn’t matter if it’s diamonds or colored stones," he continued. "The challenge is to build a luxury piece that’s timeless and beautiful. And to conduct your business in an honorable way" — with a mazel und brucha, as Kantor would say.


David Geffner can be contacted
at liturkfilm@earthlink.net

.

Big Screen, Bigger Picture


Rabbi Ari Hier doesn’t like to just watch nonfiction films, he likes to ask questions about them — usually Jewish questions.

"My motivation has always been, ‘What questions would I ask the filmmaker at my own dinner table, no holds barred?’" said Hier, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jewish Studies Institute (JSI).

Presuming that others share in his curiosity, Hier has launched "Take Two," a free discussion series sponsored by the JSI, featuring films produced by "Point of View," which, according to the PBS Web site is "public television’s premiere showcase for independent, nonfiction films."

From films on the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia and civil war in Sudan to mental illness and homelessness in America, the series will allow viewers to take a second look from a Jewish perspective.

"We felt that we wanted to be very diverse," Hier said. "We will show a Jewish film now and then, but I believe that the world interfaces with Judaism all the time. We live in a world, not just a Jewish community."

"Take Two" began on July 20 with Joscelyn Glatzer’s "The Flute Player," a new documentary about Arn Chorn-Pond, a Cambodian musician who survived during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime by playing propaganda songs on the flute for his captors. Hier and two Cambodian guests led an audience discussion examining issues such as what Judaism says about life-and-death decisions, and whether Judaism has a monopoly on the term "Holocaust."

The discussion was heated. "Some [Cambodians] said that God went out the window," Hier said, noting that it bothered a number of the religious audience members.

But he hopes the series in general will cause people to think about things in a new light.

"My goal isn’t necessarily to move people to be involved in that particular cause," Hier said, "but to articulate and sharpen their own thinking."

The series continues on Aug. 17 with "West 47th Street," a portrait of four people struggling to recover from serious mental illness; and on Sept. 14 with "The Lost Boys of Sudan," which follows two young refugees of the Dinka tribe, who were forced to flee and resettle in the United States. To R.S.V.P., call (310) 552-4595 ext .21.

A Biblical ‘Song’ and Dance


Two years ago, Aileen Passloff stumbled across a long-lost rehearsal tape from her 1967 dance/opera, "The Song of Songs," inspired by the Bible’s "Song of Solomon." The New York choreographer promptly telephoned her friend, Deborah Lawlor, co-founder of Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre, who had performed in the lyrically erotic show.

"This music had lived so vividly in our hearts all these years … [but] having never been written down, [it] had subsequently been lost," Lawlor, 63, said. When Passloff called, they decided to restore the tape digitallly to give the music "a new production and a new life."

Al Carmines’ lush score provides the backdrop for "The Song of Songs," now at the Fountain, in which five dancers pair off while singers chant biblical text. Its creators hope to convey the essence of the ancient poetry, which describes God’s love for the Israelites as the passion between a man and a woman. "The chief metaphor is that of a woman’s body as a garden," Passloff, 71, said. "It’s unexpected stuff for the Bible."

The acclaimed choreographer — the granddaughter of Russian Jews — was herself surprised by the sensual text when her first boyfriend gave her a copy in high school. Years later, she jumped at the chance to turn "Song" into dance at Carmine’s Judson Memorial Church, a Greenwich Village artist’s hangout.

While recreating the work in Hollywood a quarter century later, Passloff didn’t remember a single step of the original. But the music she had discovered on that dusty reel-to-reel tape helped her remain true to its romantic spirit, she said. If she and Lawlor relied on musical archeology to revive the piece, they feel it’s as relevant post-Sept. 11 as it was in ’67.

"There’s so much ugliness in the world, it’s important to think about the qualities that make us human rather than beasts," Lawlor told The Journal.

"At a time when it’s scary to be vulnerable, the ‘Song’ is about daring to open up and to love," Passloff said.

The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (323) 663-1525.

Tough Answers


A week before his bar mitzvah, Ed Feinstein recalls in his
new book “Tough Questions Jews Ask: A Young Adult’s Guide to Building a Jewish
Life” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003), he was in a panic. “I was scheduled to
stand up in front of the rabbi, my family and the congregation and tell
everyone how proud I was to be Jewish. But I was so full of questions: ‘Why am
I Jewish? Do I really believe in all this? Do I really believe in God?'”

The teenage Feinstein expressed his concerns to his Uncle
Mottel, a rabbi at an Orthodox college in Chicago, and he was relieved when his
uncle responded by saying, “Every day, I wonder why I’m a Jew. But that’s part
of being Jewish. Wrestling, asking, wondering, searching is just what God wants
us to do. God loves good questions.”

More than three decades later, Feinstein continues to be
inspired by that long-ago conversation. Spending the last 10 years at Valley
Beth Shalom in Encino, he has embraced and encouraged his own congregants —
particularly children — to ask him “the questions that won’t go away.”

Feinstein compiled the questions youngsters ask most
frequently, along with his responses, in “Tough Questions.”

“When you’re respectful of their questions, [children] open
up,” the new author said. “If you make a kid feel embarrassed to ask, you end
up with a person who has a sour feeling about being a Jew.”

Without realizing his ideas would culminate in a book,
Feinstein began writing down his thoughts more than six years ago. He collected
the most common questions children asked him — most having to do with why bad
things happen to good people.

With a note of sadness in his voice, Feinstein remembers
youngsters questioning God when dealing with a parent’s battle with cancer.
“Who do you go to [when that happens]?” the rabbi said. “[A child might
wonder], ‘How does my life have any order now?'”

In response, Feinstein handed each distraught child a packet
containing his thoughts on the topic. Soon, his collection of tentative answers
had grown to the point that it was clear to him that he had the beginnings of a
book.

While the book is targeted at children and teenagers, it is
also relevant for adults, who may have the same questions — or may be called
upon by their children to provide answers.

With the current political climate of the world, Feinstein’s
book comes at a time when spiritual quests are growing. While books such as
“When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Harold S. Kushner (Avon Books, 1981)
address theological questions for adults, Feinstein’s has created a primer that
is accessible to teenage and adult readers, who might be seeking a simpler approach
to questions.

“The secret of the book is that you don’t answer theological
questions, but you provide a framework for helping people think about them,”
Feinstein said.

In a chapter titled, “Why Are There So Many Different
Religions? Aren’t They All the Same?” a student asks the question after
attending church with a non-Jewish friend. In response, Feinstein gives the
analogy of his childhood experiences of eating dinner at different friends’
houses and noticing the differences between each family, including the variety
of conversations, jokes, foods and attitudes toward table manners.

“Religions are like families,” the rabbi explains in his
book. “Each religion has its own stories, its own ways of celebrating special
days and its own ways of talking to God.”

Feinstein, who sets aside time each Tuesday morning to
answer questions raised by Valley Beth Shalom Day School students, admitted
that he continues to ask questions, as encouraged by Uncle Mottel.

“There are questions built into the human condition that we
never stop asking,” he explained. “You find that thinking helps you pursue
tentative answers to the great questions, and my goal is to engage [people] in
the ability to think deeply and to give them resources.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein will offer his insights at a book signing
at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventural Blvd., Encino on Tues., April 1, at 7:30
p.m. “Tough Questions Jews Ask: A Young Adult’s Guide to Building a Jewish
Life,” now available in bookstores, will also be available for purchase at the
book signing. For more information about the event, call (818) 788-6000. 

Material Instincts


Every day before Dina Goldstein (not her real name) leaves
the house to take her two young children to day care and herself to work, she
grabs two bagels and two boxes of orange juice. After buckling the kids into
the car, she gives them the bagels and the juice, and they eat breakfast in the
car on the way to school.

“I just don’t have time to get them ready, myself ready and
feed everyone before I leave the house,” said Goldstein, who works as a
religious day school teacher.

Like Goldstein, many women find maintaining a family and a
job overwhelming. With over 75 percent of women in the United States between
the ages of 25 and 54 working outside the home (according the International
Labor Organization), it is very likely that at some point most women will have
to do both things concurrently. While women choose to work for a variety of
reasons, for many in the Jewish community, a woman’s employment is not a matter
of personal fulfillment but of financial necessity.

With high tuition fees, synagogue dues and mortgages in the
Jewish neighborhoods, maintaining a presence in the community is difficult to
do on one income alone — meaning that the husband is no longer the sole
breadwinner in the family.

But many women find that their careers give them not one job
but two — their paid employment and their nonpaid work inside the house, which
seldom diminishes with the onset of employment. Few will say that the feminist
ideal of “having it all” is viable unless certain sacrifices are made. Finding
ways to produce calm out of the chaos requires innovation, skill, organization
and lots and lots of help.

“The ‘superwoman’ is a myth,” said Tova Hinda Siegal, a
Pico-Robertson midwife who is on-call seven days a week while raising her six
children. “It’s tremendously tricky to try to do everything.”

One of the ways that some women try to balance both job and
family is by finding careers that allow them to work from home, which gives
them close access to their family while still enabling them to bring in some
extra money. While there is not necessarily the same kind of career advancement
available to those who do not work in an office, many say that the sacrifice is
worth it.

“It’s a hugely satisfying feeling to know that I can be
there for my kids when they need me, because I know how stressful it is for a
mother in an office when her kids have an odd day off,” said Judy Gruen, a
mother of four, Journal contributor and  Pico-Robertson writer on domesticity.

Other women make sure that their husbands are picking up the
slack, and that paid help in the house is not a luxury, but a necessity. “I
think it’s more important to have part-time help in your house than to buy new
clothes,” Siegal said. “People who are working should not be fighting with each
other over who does the laundry.”

Siegal also said that it’s up to a woman to train her
husband to do his share of the work.

“I think you have to tell your husband, ‘No, it’s not a good
idea to sit while I’m in the kitchen cleaning up,'”she said.

“In our house we made a rule that whoever cooks does not
have to clean up,” she continued. “That is an equitable division of labor. I
also think it’s fine that a mother gets up in the middle of the night to nurse
her babies, but in the morning, the father should get up and take the baby out
for a few hours and let her sleep. The husband should not feel that when he
does something he is doing his wife a favor. Both need to feel that they are
contributing to the family’s welfare.”

Even with a spouse’s help, keeping your household together
requires careful organization for it to run efficiently. Esther Simon, a Santa
Monica mother of seven and a professional home organizer, said that there are a
number of things one can do to help this process.

“You need to create a clutter-free home, where everything
has a place,” she said. “You should also have a family calendar day planner
where you write down what you want to do each day and what things need to be
done during the week, and then you work out what things can only be done by you
and what things can be done by someone else. Only you can give love to your
child; someone else can wash the floor.”

Simon also suggests laying out all your children’s clothes,
preparing breakfast and putting backpacks by the door the night before to
minimize the rush in the morning.

There is one upside to trying to do everything. “Working and
taking care of a family definitely keeps you out of trouble,” Siegal said. “You
just don’t have the time for anything else.”  

Time to Go


This week we start a new book of the Torah — Shemot or Exodus. The word shemot means names, because we start out by naming all the descendants of Jacob who came down to Egypt. But the word exodus means going out (just like the word exit). In this book we will learn about how the Israelites leave Egypt and spend 40 years in the desert before entering the Land of Israel.

Why must they spend 40 years wandering, you may ask? Why couldn’t God just take them straight to Israel? The answer is this: Sometimes you are not ready to go on to the next level. If you try to take a fifth grade math test when you’re in fourth grade, you may fail. In the same way, the Israelites had a great deal of growing up to do. They were used to being slaves. They needed to learn how to become responsible citizens before they could be allowed to possess their land.