The High Holy Days: Something meaningful, or just going through the motions?


Most of us who go to synagogue for the High Holy Days have no clue what’s going on.

We don’t speak or read Hebrew well enough to understand the prayers or the Torah portion. We don’t know why we say the prayers in the order we say them. We don’t like the stilted English translations. Many of us don’t even believe in God, or religion. It’s true: Jews are the least religious of all adherents. According to Gallup, only 38 percent of us consider ourselves religious, while 54 percent of us self-describe as nonreligious and 2 percent as atheist. Meanwhile, almost 80 percent attend synagogue on the High Holy Days.

To summarize: Most of us spend a dozen hours in synagogue and hundreds of dollars on tickets to pray in a language we don’t understand to a God we don’t believe in.  

Why? 

The answer is: For a lot of different reasons. Some Jews, of course, do understand and do believe, so that’s a lock. Many of us are groping our way toward understanding and belief. Others like the tradition, the feeling of community, the chance to hear a sermon, the feeling they get participating in a ritual. Many go out of guilt or habit or superstition. 

I suspect that it’s often a mix of these motivations that compel us, in varying amounts, depending on the year. Anyway, who said you have to understand what’s going on in order to be moved? Ritual is a human desire, like music. You don’t need to understand it, or play it, or “believe” in it to be changed by it.

My friend Jon Drucker  belongs to what I suspect is a large subset of Jews who know and understand a lot, but who are still deeply skeptical. I asked him why he bothers to go, then. He quoted back to me a joke that Woody Allen tells in Annie Hall to explain relationships: A guy tells his psychiatrist, “My brother’s crazy, he thinks he’s a chicken.” The doc says, “Why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would but I need the eggs.”

Jon said he goes to synagogue for the eggs.

There is something crazy, irrational and absurd about the Days of Awe in the City of Angels. Tens of thousands of people step outside the daily rhythms of their lives, leave behind their modern homes, their cars, their jobs and gather to hear the sound of a hollowed-out ram’s horn and the chanting of words written on a sheepskin scroll.  

Last year, I watched a man park his Tesla near the Venice Pier, walk to the seashore, throw old bread into the waves, then get back into his 21st-century technological miracle and drive away. There is no way the scene would have made sense to anyone who hadn’t heard of tashlich

But these scenes repeat themselves, all over the city. Dressed in our modern clothes, we re-create the most ancient of rituals. We have everything we need, but we still need this.

What is this?

Sigmund Freud was one of those Jews who didn’t speak Hebrew, who didn’t believe in the sacred texts, and who had no, as he called them, “nationalist impulses.” Why then, he wondered, did Judaism have such a claim on him? What remained? 

“A very great deal,” he wrote, “and probably its very essence.”

What Freud called the essence, what my friend Jon calls the eggs, I think it all circles around the same need, the same idea: teshuvah.

Teshuvah means returning. The High Holy Days are an elaborate extended ritual of return — to get us to turn back toward our true selves, toward what we know is right, toward what believers would call God and what the rest would call our essence.

“Our human longing to return to the Source is fully part of the natural order,” Rabbi Arthur Green writes. “We are born to be God seekers.”

This is not a Jewish thing; it’s a human thing. Judaism offers a way. That’s the reason so many of us find ourselves stepping into synagogues at this time of year — it’s our outward response to our inward call. Two thousand years later, not Leonardo, not Edison, not even Elon Musk, has improved on the design of the shofar. 

We go because we have a feeling that while it may not in and of itself work or even make much sense, it’s a step in the right direction. It helps. We live in a society whose every moment and every message tells us, “Get moving, go forward!” This time of year, something calls out to us from within and says, “Here’s a better idea: Stop, and go deep.”

Shanah tovah.

The making of a beloved ‘Tradition’ with Barbara Isenberg


Thanks to Barbara Isenberg and her effervescent and entertaining new book, “Tradition! The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, the World’s Most Beloved Musical” (St. Martin’s Press), the soundtrack to “Fiddler” is back on Spotify in my office.

Isenberg’s affectionate tribute to “Fiddler” joins last year’s “Wonder of Wonders,” by Alisa Solomon, a cultural history that was awarded the Jewish Journal Book Prize. Both of these books will please fans of “Fiddler,” although in different ways. 

Isenberg, who has reported and written expertly on the arts, architecture and the theater, now retells the remarkable saga of how a few beloved stories by Sholem Aleichem transcended his original audience of Yiddish readers and reached the exalted status of a global cultural icon. With her eye for detail and her exhaustive original research, Isenberg shows us how the making of “Fiddler” was, at moments, as thrilling as the experience of watching it on the live stage. Indeed, I suspect that you will never see the show in quite the same way after reading “Tradition!”

For example, she shows us the tool marks of librettist Joseph Stein, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, composer Jerry Bock and director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, who created the show — which opened on Broadway in 1964 — out of the raw material of Aleichem’s stories. “The playwright found that little of Aleichem’s dialogue was usable,” she explains, “and he also had to beef up his central character of Tevye as the ‘moving force’ in the plot.” 

Bock concedes that the music he composed for the American stage was “unashamedly sentimental.” When Harnick played “Sunrise, Sunset” for his sister, she was reduced to tears — the first of countless millions who have watched the various performances of the musical and the movie. 

And Isenberg shares lots of interesting trivia about the show, such as “Ten Songs That Weren’t Used in the Final Show,” including one called “Dear Sweet Sewing Machine,” and the fact that Bette Midler made her Broadway debut as an understudy for the role of Tzeitel in 1966. 

Isenberg credits Robbins with changing the script of “Fiddler” from “a simple folk tale,” as the musical’s eminent producer Harold Prince called it, into “an American classic.” Robbins fretted that the production, if reduced to a story “about this dairyman who has five daughters,” would end up as “the forerunner of ‘The Goldbergs.’ ” When pressed to summarize the core meaning of “Fiddler,” Harnick said: “It’s about tradition.” Robbins replied: “That’s it. Write that.” 

The rest, as they say, is history: “That opening number accounts for the show crossing ethnic and religious lines and becoming a huge success,” Prince said.

We are allowed to see some of the forgotten history of the original Broadway production.  Among the actors scheduled to audition for the role of Tevye were Rod Steiger, Eli Wallach and Tom Bosley, which suggests how differently the story of “Fiddler” might have turned out. But the fateful choice was Zero Mostel, a survivor of the Hollywood Blacklist. Prince takes the credit for it: “I shoved Zero down their throats,” he said. “Maybe I am exaggerating, but I know Zero wasn’t anyone’s first choice but mine.” 

Even the show’s title was a crucial act of invention. “Not So Long Ago, Not So Far Away” was one contender; “Where Poppa Came From” was another. But when Robbins saw the set designs of Boris Aronson, with their explicitly Chagall-esque motifs, he declared: “I’m going to make it like Chagall. In fact, I think I’ll call it ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ ” And yet, characteristically and to her credit, Isenberg points out that other participants in the show credit Prince for making the final choice: “That’s the one,” he said when presented with the list of prospective titles. 

Of course, acts of vision and invention prevailed from beginning to end of the Broadway staging of “Fiddler.” Memorably, the show began on a rotating circular stage where the audience met the denizens of Anatevka to the tune of “Tradition” and concluded on the same stage from which they step to seek refuge in various far-flung places. “It was,” according to journalist Frank Rich, “one of the most moving final curtains of the American musical theater.” 

And yet, during out-of-town tryouts, no one predicted that the show would be a hit, much less the enduring classic that it turned out to be. According to one of Isenberg’s sources, one of the children in the cast eavesdropped in the lobby during intermission. “The word on the street from the child actor mafia was thumbs-down,” according to Austin Pendleton, a member of the original cast. “They said, ‘It’s no “Sound of Music.” ’ ”

For those who find fault with the universalizing of “Fiddler,” the show is not wholly endearing, a fact that Isenberg readily acknowledges. Philip Roth dismissed “Fiddler” as “shtetl kitsch.” Cynthia Ozick described its book and lyrics as “emptied out, prettified romantic vulgarization.” More recently, according to Isenberg, the distinguished critic Ruth Franklin found one recent production of “Fiddler” to be “cartoonish, condescending and ‘pure Broadway.’ ”

But, then, the whole point of “Tradition!” is to show us that “Fiddler” is an artifact of American popular culture and, for that reason, we should not be surprised to discover that it comes with a heavy dose of kitsch. As if by way of example, Isenberg shares an anecdote about the Broadway opening, which was attended by Aleichem’s daughter and granddaughter. “That’s not Papa,” complained the great man’s daughter to her own daughter, Bel Kaufman, who responded: “Mama, that’s not Papa, but it’s a beautiful American musical play.”

To put it another way, “Fiddler” is not “Tevye and His Daughters,” and the transformation of Aleichem’s stories was not merely a matter of translating them from Yiddish to English. Rather, it was an act of invention by a team of savvy show-makers. In showing us how a Broadway hit is actually made, we see the arguments, the compromises, the failed experiments and the occasional acts of authentic genius that are now enshrined on stage and screen in a far more enduring way than the Yiddish stories that inspired
“Fiddler.” 

Israeli couples say ‘I don’t’ to Orthodox Jewish weddings


For most Israelis in the Jewish state, there is one legal way to get married – God's way.

Israeli law empowers only Orthodox rabbis to officiate at Jewish weddings, but popular opposition is growing to this restriction and to what some Israelis see as an Orthodox stranglehold on the most precious moments of their lives.

Some of Israel's most popular TV stars and models have come out this week in an advertisement supporting a new bill allowing civil marriage. A political storm is likely when it eventually comes up for a vote in parliament.

The Rabbinate, the Orthodox religious authority that issues marriage licences in Israel, says it is charged with a task vital for the survival of the Jewish people, and a recent poll showed more Israelis oppose civil unions than support them.

Nevertheless, many Israelis want either a secular wedding or a religious marriage conducted by a non-Orthodox rabbi. Facebook pages have been popping up, with defiant couples calling on others to boycott the Rabbinate.

In September, Stav Sharon, a 30-year-old Pilates instructor, married her husband in an alternative ceremony performed in Israel by a non-Orthodox rabbi.

“We wanted a Jewish wedding despite being secular. We feel connected to our Judaism, even if we are not religious. It is our people, our tradition,” Sharon said.

Weddings such as Sharon's fall into a legal no man's land. They are not against the law, but neither are they recognised as valid by the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for registering marital status on the national identity card every Israeli is required to carry.

In a twist in the law, the ministry will register as married any Israeli couple that weds abroad – even in a non-religious ceremony – outside the purview of the Israeli rabbinate.

Some couples hop on the short flight to Cyprus to marry. The Czech Republic is another popular destination for Israelis wanting a civil wedding.

Sharon and her husband decided against that option. “Marrying abroad means giving in. We wanted to marry in our own country,” she said.

No formal records are kept on the officially invalid alternative ceremonies held in Israel. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, nearly 39,000 Jewish couples married via the Rabbinate in 2011. About 9,000 couples registered that year as having married overseas.

Muslims, Druze and Christians in Israel are also required to marry through their own state-recognised religious authorities, making interfaith weddings possible only overseas.

WHO IS A JEW?

Secular-religious tensions have simmered in Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish and democratic state, since its establishment in 1948.

About 20 percent of Israeli Jews describe themselves as Orthodox while the majority of citizens are only occasional synagogue-goers. There are also non-Orthodox communities such as Reform and Conservative, but these are proportionately smaller than in Jewish populations abroad.

Ultra-Orthodox zealots have drawn anger in recent years for separating men and women on some public buses and harassing women and girls for what they see as immodest dress. Orthodox rabbis insist that brides take ritual baths to purify themselves before marriage, a practice to which some Israeli women object.

Immigrants to Israel, which since its inception has appealed to Jews around the world to live in the Jewish state, can find marriage through its Rabbinate a gruelling process.

Anyone wed by the Rabbinate is required to provide evidence of being Jewish, usually a simple and quick process.

But when it comes to new immigrants, the Rabbinate requires an affidavit, usually from an Orthodox rabbi in their home country, attesting they were born to a Jewish mother – the Orthodox criterion for determining if someone is a Jew.

And, Orthodox authorities in Israel can pile on more problems by digging even deeper into Jewish roots by requiring additional documentation proving that a bride or bridegroom's grandmother was Jewish.

“It took a year,” said a 34-year-old Argentinian immigrant to Israel, who asked not to be identified.

“They said the papers I had were not sufficient. They kept asking for more and more crazy documents. At one point they wanted me to provide a witness, from Argentina, who knew my grandparents and who had seen them, inside their home, celebrating a Jewish holiday,” he said.

His case was ultimately brought before the Chief Rabbi who ruled the man was Jewish and could marry his bride-to-be.

Israel's government is less strict in determining “who is a Jew” and therefore eligible to immigrate to Israel. Under its Law of Return, proof that someone has at least one Jewish grandparent is enough to receive automatic citizenship.

The Rabbinate says it is charged with preventing intermarriage and assimilation with non-Jewish communities which would endanger their people's survival.

Ziv Maor, the Rabbinate's spokesman, said strict adherence to Orthodox ritual law and practices had bonded Jews across the globe and set common rules for all.

“A Moroccan Jew knew he could marry a Jewish woman from Lithuania,” he said. “Rabbinical law guides us in a very clear way on who is Jewish and who is not … and we do not have permission from past or future generations to stray even a hair's breadth from those criteria,” Maor said.

According to the Rabbinate, only two percent of the men and women who apply to it for a marriage licence are turned down because they are found not to be Jewish.

GAY MARRIAGE

There are other groups to whom marriage is forbidden by rabbinical law.

Same-sex marriage, as in other religions, is out of the question as far as the Rabbinate is concerned. Israel's Interior Ministry recognises gay marriage – but only if it is conducted in a foreign country where it is legal.

Margot Madeson-Stern, a business consultant, was wed in Israel by a non-Orthodox rabbi at a celebration attended by more than 300 guests. The ceremony had no legal foundation in Israel.

“The (Rabbinate) would not marry me. The person I fell in love with was a woman,” said Madeson-Stern, 30. “I'm Jewish. I wanted a Jewish wedding. It's my family, my tradition, it's how I grew up.”

She later travelled with her wife to New York for another wedding ceremony. New York recognises gay marriages, so Israel's Interior Ministry did the same, registering them as a couple.

At least two parties in the coalition government are promoting a bill to allow civil marriage in Israel, including for same-sex couples. One of them is Yesh Atid, which tapped into anti-religious sentiment in last January's national election and finished in second place.

“It cannot be that people who do not believe or whose lifestyle does not suit the Rabbinate will be forced to get married by people whose way is not their own,” Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid told Israel Radio this month.

But tradition could die hard in Israel. A poll published in November in the Israeli newspaper, Maariv, showed that while 41 percent of Jewish Israelis supported Yesh Atid's Civil Union bill, 47 percent objected.

Such bills have been floated at Israel's parliament before. But for the first time in years, ultra-Orthodox parties, which oppose civil marriage, are not in the government.

Yesh Atid believes it has enough votes from lawmakers across the board to pass the law in the next few months. The Rabbinate says it will oppose the measure strongly.

“Matters of marriage, divorce and conversion are our most important fortress. It must not be touched and we will defend it fiercely,” said Maor.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and David Stamp

Israelis seeking alternatives to traditional wedding ceremonies


Anna Melman and Ari Bronstein are in the midst of planning their wedding, which will be held in January in Israel. They have a venue and a rabbi. But they want to find ways of making the traditional ceremony more egalitarian.

“In the wedding ceremony as it is now, the bride is inherently passive,” Melman told JTA. “We wanted to do something where it would be more egalitarian within the confines of a nonegalitarian ritual. I wanted to have more of a voice.”

They plan to modify the ceremony while staying within the confines of halachah, or Jewish law—something essential in a country where all Jewish weddings must be sanctioned by the Orthodox-controlled Rabbinate.

Melman and Bronstein are planning a joint “tisch”—the traditional bridegroom’s table, where the bridegroom signs the marriage contract and offers words of Torah. In their case, both the bride and groom will speak. The couple also will sign a “partnership agreement” in addition to the regular ketubah, or marriage contract.

“I wanted to be more involved than just sitting in a chair and looking pretty,” Melman said.

Increasingly, Israeli couples are seeking to create weddings that are more reflective of their own lifestyles. But because Israel has no civil marriage and the Rabbinate retains exclusive control over marriage and divorce, this puts many couples in Israel on a collision course with the Rabbinate.

“The area of marriage is one of the most bitter areas of tension between secular Israelis and the religious establishment,” said Nachman Rosenberg, the executive vice president of Tzohar, a Zionist rabbinic organization devoted to bridging gaps between secular and Orthodox Israelis.

In Israel, weddings must be performed by an Orthodox rabbi on the Rabbinate’s list. Most of these rabbis are haredi Orthodox, as are most of the 182 government-appointed regional rabbis in Israeli towns and cities who issue marriage licenses to couples who live in their cities.

Some Israeli couples are put off by the bureaucracy of the Rabbinate, others by mandatory “bride’s classes” in which critics say that brides often are told that if they don’t observe the laws of family purity and go to the mikvah regularly, they or their children will be plagued by disease.

Secular Israelis long have bypassed the Rabbinate entirely by obtaining marriage licenses overseas, which in turn are recognized by Israel. In 2008, for example, 5,028 Israeli couples married in nearby Cyprus, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, while 37,188 Jewish couples married in Israel through the Rabbinate. Many of those who married in Cyprus held their own non-official weddings in Israel without the rituals required by the Rabbinate.

But a growing number of Israeli couples want alternatives in Israel that are recognized by law yet bypass the Rabbinate’s rabbis. Organizations such as Tzohar have been offering such alternatives to Rabbinate-officiated weddings, allowing couples to add personal touches to their wedding ceremonies while staying within the confines of Jewish law.

Tzohar rabbis do not charge for their services. The rabbis from the Rabbinate are not supposed to charge, either, but many suggest a “tip” that is usually about $250, several officials in both the Rabbinate and Tzohar confirmed. Tzohar now handles some 3,000 couples annually.

“We try to make the wedding an uplifting and positive experience,” Rosenberg said.

A couple of weeks ago, tensions between the Rabbinate and Tzohar erupted when Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs announced that Tzohar rabbis would no longer be allowed to perform weddings. In a bit of a legal fiction, Tzohar was marrying couples throughout the country but registering them in towns whose official rabbis are sympathetic to Tzohar. The ministry said weddings must be registered in the town where they are performed.

“It is very important that the rabbi doing the wedding know the couple and know 100 percent that they are Jewish,” Rabbi Rasson Amrusi, the chief rabbi of the Israeli city of Kiryat Ono and the chairman of the Rabbinate’s Marriage Committee, told JTA. “That is why we want the registration to be where the couple lives.”

But Tzohar and its supporters saw the bid as a power play by the haredi-dominated Rabbinate to disenfranchise the more liberal Orthodox rabbis employed by Tzohar. Following a public outcry, the Religious Affairs Ministry backed down.

Irit Koren, author of a book about Orthodox Jewish marriage called “You Are Hereby Consecrated to Me,” says that many of those seeking alternatives are observant Jewish women looking for new rituals to make the marriage ceremony more egalitarian.

“As opposed to most secular women, who are concerned mainly with their dress and makeup, these women are very knowledgeable about Judaism and they put a lot of thought into what the ritual means,” Koren said. “They deal with the tension between halachah and ideology.”

For example, Koren cites the ritual of the bedecken, when the groom traditionally comes and veils the bride, who then remains veiled for the entire wedding ceremony.

“For some women, it was very romantic and they saw it as something that gives them some privacy,” Koren said. “But for some it felt like a burka. They felt that at the most important moment of their life they wanted to be uncovered and stand with their whole essence, like their husband.”

Amrusi says those sorts of changes are fine.

“We have many weddings where the bride shows her face,” he said. “But there are some things that we can’t allow, like when the bride gives the groom a ring. That’s one of the things that Reform Jews do.”

Amrusi says the Rabbinate’s rabbis try to be sensitive to the desires of the couple but they cannot violate Jewish law. He says exchanging rings during the traditional ceremony is forbidden because only the man’s ring can signify the “kinyan,” or acquisition, of a wife by her husband.

“The groom gives the ring, but he also takes on the obligation of taking care of the bride,” Amrusi said. “If she gave a ring, it would mean she is taking on the obligation to take care of the groom. Giving a ring is not a great honor, it’s a responsibility.”

Nevertheless, many couples want to find a way to exchange a token of their affection.

“One thing I suggest is to have the bride and groom give each other a tallit under the chupah,” said Rabbi Haviva Ner-David, founder of Reut, the Center for Modern Jewish Marriage.

Since the chupah symbolizes the groom’s home, Ner-David also suggests that instead of the groom waiting under the chupah for the bride to be led to him, he wait just below the chupah and they enter together. Together they can also break the glass, which symbolizes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Women also may read English translations of the Seven Blessings or add an eighth blessing. Many women also make their own chupah.

Koren says that efforts to change the wedding ceremony are only the first step in making Orthodox Jewish ritual more egalitarian.

“The change in the previous generation was that women began seriously learning Torah for the first time,” she said. “Reform in marriage will happen eventually, but I can’t tell you how long it will take.”

Report from London: Finding Tevye in the Abbey


Arriving in London this past Friday, April 29, I was immediately enveloped in a carnival-crazed country, a nation-wide block party made up of the tiniest Brits to those who had been alive at the 1926 birth of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth, and witnessed her marriage and ascension to the throne both of which took place in Westminster Abbey in 1947 and 1953 respectively. Here now was the latest event in the Abbey and it gripped not only the British themselves. One could feel the eyes of the world directed towards London. A veritable army of media some 8500 strong had taken up their posts along the Mall, sending images and reports through the globe. Riding the tube and making my way through Piccadilly Circus and out onto the mall leading to the palace I witnessed a country caught in a royal reverie. Living in California I regularly witness unusual and oft-times bizarre clothing but none held a candle to the lively regalia of mix and match costumes worn by countless merrymakers in the streets of London, many females donning hats so bejeweled and feathered one couldn’t help but fret for the British fowl population. Awash in wedding mania, the Union Jack billowing in the relatively balmy environs of Buckingham Palace, the streets were lined with giddy natives and visitors thrilled to be part of history in the marriage of the future King and Queen of England.

As I surveyed it all, I recalled the word spoken with a glint of pride by a British Airways official as I boarded my plane at Lax the day before, “We Brits do this kind of pomp and circumstance rather well.” Indeed. The air was thick with royal protocol and fanfare. As the bells of the Abbey rang out and I joined millions watching the giant screens erected around the city, I was surprised to find myself conjuring of all things the image of Tevye. For as thoroughly British as the day was, as rich with dreams and newfound hope, it all was set within the framework of tradition. All around me there were British cheers and the singing of G-d Save The Queen, I found that the revelers appeared to be dipping their collective spirits in the well of history and custom, drawing strength from re-identifying themselves with their roots. I heard myself repeating the words to Tradition, understanding that even as Tevye was drawn into the changing world he found both comfort and inspiration from the past.

The day after the wedding I was addressing the congregation of Westminster Synagogue and felt the palpable uplift of the Jews there. Like Jews in America they are part and parcel of their country and the pride went deep. It is with empathetic pleasure that one witnesses the joys of a nation. Yet, here I found a discordant note that was troubling and curious. Rabbi Thomas Salamon, the personable leader of this congregation whose leaders had rescued the Czech Scrolls following the Holocaust and where a Trust now repairs and distributes these ‘survivors’ throughout the world, had something to say about the televised event. While he wished the royal couple much naches, he indicated that amongst the many notables gathered within the Abbey at the wedding, the television cameras had found the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Salamon pointed out that he had no problem seeing the Chief Rabbi gathered in one of Christendom’s great churches. Nor, he noted, did Rabbi Sacks seem to be troubled by the setting where the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost were called on in prayer. What bemused and bewildered Salamon was the fact that of the many invitations he had proffered Rabbi Sacks to come to visit his shul, every one had been declined. Rabbi Sacks, he pointed out to me, will set foot in the church before the eyes of the world but he will not be found entering a synagogue that is associated with the Reform and Liberal movements in Britain.

Afterwards, as I walked through the streets of London back to my leased Bloomsbury flat, I couldn’t help but think once more of Tevye. The character had been pulled kicking and screaming into the modern world. He had taken his traditions and found a way to accommodate change (“It’s a new world, Golde.”) while staying true to himself and his beliefs.

All of the world could see the many changes the marriage of William and Kate would bring, a world drawn closer by Facebook and YouTube, where Kate could choose to alter the ancient wedding formula removing the words ”to obey” her husband, from her vows, a world where the day after the wedding I witnessed the newly married couple driving out of the gates of Buckingham Palace, driving themselves off down the road in a stunning personal statement that they would both follow tradition but do so in their own way. I looked at their passing car amid the cheers then gazed back at Buckingham from which they’d come. Was that a Fiddler I glimpsed atop the Palace?

Maybe Rabbi Sacks will seem him too.

A bestselling author and Rabbi of Bayit Shelanu (where he has led High Holy Days for the unaffiliated along with Debbie Friedman), Jan is in London researching his latest novel.

Tweaking tradition: Online project modernizing Jewish texts with today’s lingo


Morgan Friedman loves the way people talk. He wants others to love it, too.

The 35-year-old social media entrepreneur, formerly of Brooklyn, N.Y., and now living in Buenos Aires, launches new digital projects like marshmallows from an air gun.

Pow! Here’s Overheardinnewyork.com, a site for offbeat conversations that his team of eavesdroppers hears on the streets.

Pffft! Here’s Yiddishisms.com, Yiddish expressions culled from half-remembered witticisms of his grandmother.

He’s got a million of ‘em—or a few dozen, at least.

Now Friedman is taking that same love of lingo and combining it with his high-tech know-how to launch Urban Sefer, an online project aimed at producing crowd-sourced, slang-filled translations of traditional Jewish liturgy.

You know, Jewish texts written the way people talk.

“When these documents were written, they were written in the common language, the way people spoke,” Friedman told JTA. “But today when I read these ancient documents, I need to sit and think in order to translate it into my language. It requires intellectual work.”

And that, as everyone knows, is not what young people like to do.

“Let’s take these traditions handed down for thousands of years and make the same points, but do it in the language that’s part of our everyday life,” Friedman says.

The folks at the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund seem to agree.

In March, the group awarded Friedman one of its initial nine grants for new digital media projects aimed at engaging young Jews in Jewish life, learning and community.

“These projects share an ability to harness new digital media tools and technologies that are a large part of young people’s lives today and use them to enhance efforts to engage young people in Jewish life,” said Rachel Levin, associate director of the Righteous Persons Foundation, which joined the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation in sponsoring the new fund.

The nine finalists were chosen from more than 300 applicants vying for a total of $500,000 to be disbursed over the next 12 months, the fund’s first year.

Urban Sefer is Friedman’s first Jewish project. He was raised Orthodox in Great Neck, N.Y., so he knows his Jewish ritual, he says, though he fell away from religion after his bar mitzvah.

In college Friedman was an English major, and he says his idea of a good time is spending one weekend a month reading a Shakespeare work he doesn’t know well.

“I’m the least cool guy ever,” he says. “I like reading old books and listening to people tell jokes.”

The first text Friedman is tackling is the Passover Haggadah. Two years ago, he and his Argentinean girlfriend dashed off a version in Spanish slang as a sort of lark. It proved so popular among Jews in Argentina that last year he decided to do the same thing using English slang. But instead of sitting down and writing it himself, Friedman wants to involve lots of people.

So he’s taking the project online and inviting anyone who’s interested to sign up and take part—crowd sourcing, in modern vernacular.

“What’s a modern way to do this? Crowd sourcing,” he says in typical I’ll-answer-my-own-questions-thank-you Friedman style. “The epic stories in the Bible used classic methods of telling stories, but today we tell stories in film, on TV, online. If Moses were alive today, he’d be making movies.”

Urban Sefer isn’t the only open-source Jewish text project out there. The granddaddy of the genre is Open Source Haggadah, an online project launched in 2002 that allowed users to construct their own personalized Haggadahs using a variety of sources, including user-generated content.

That project folded in 2004 when funding ran out—its operation was more or less taken over by Jew It Yourself—but it paved the way for other similar initiatives including the Open Siddur Project and Build a Prayer, which allow users to construct personalized prayer books, and the newly launched Haggadot.com, another recipient of a Jewish New Media Innovation Fund grant for 2011-12.

Friedman says he doesn’t know the people working on the other projects. He’s pretty much alone in Buenos Aires, and says he’s just putting up his project on the Internet hoping it will attract a community of like-minded younger Jews eager to harness their creative energies together.

After the Haggadah, Friedman says he’d like to take on a rewrite of the Bible, starting with Ecclesiastes, and then move on to the Shabbat prayer book.

“If there was ever a biblical work made for modern slang, it’s Ecclesiastes,” he says. “It’s about a guy who has everything but is looking for meaning, so he goes out, gets drunk all the time, has sex with a lot of women—nothing works.

“Finally he realizes that enjoying little moments with friends, that’s the real meaning. This is timeless wisdom! The power of modern English vernacular is made for it.”

Just because he’s focusing on street talk doesn’t mean Friedman is taking his subject lightly. This is serious work, he insists, meant to draw young Jews back to connect with their tradition. He’s working with a rabbi “to make sure it’s kosher” and is investing a lot of his own money.

And because these translations are being crowd sourced, the outline he has in his mind may or may not pan out.

“I don’t know what the final version will be like,” he says, “but the website will be live in a month or two. We’ll see then.”

Jewish Money


Give Bernard Madoff credit for one good deed: As much as his self-confessed Ponzi scheme revealed weaknesses in the Jewish world, it also laid bare many ofour strengths.

Trials and tribulations tend to do just that — bring to light the good, the bad, the ugly. When some people behave at their worst, others are forced to, or revealed to, behave at their humanly best.

That’s what any fair look at the Madoff scandal shows. The standard worry is that Madoff’s actions will give rise to a vicious anti-Semitic backlash. But I don’t see it, despite the fact that all the cretinous Jew-haters have come forward online, using this scandal as proof of Jewish financial perfidy.

Complete Madoff CoverageEarlier this week, when I entered the search terms “Madoff” and “Jewish” into Google, the top responses included JewishJournal.com and stormfront.org, a neo-Nazi Web site. That should alarm no one: The only people more obsessed than neo-Nazis with a famous person’s specific degree of Jewishness are Jewish journalists.

But anti-Semites never need a reason to hate Jews. They were penning their poison before Madoff, and they’ll be spreading it long after he’s gone. Madoff doesn’t make anti-Semites more rational, just more topical.

But will their spew gain more traction in the wider community? I doubt it.

It’s not just that Madoff’s victims were disproportionately Jewish. (That fact alone should give pause to the idea that we possess some super-Spidey sense of financial acumen.)

It’s that the list of victims reveals something truly remarkable about the Jewish world: its deep and far-reaching philanthropy.

What, for instance, does this partial list of Madoff-afflicted charities have in common: Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, the Chais Family Foundation, the Wunderkinder Foundation, Carl & Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, The JEHT Foundation, Julian J. Levitt Foundation, Technion—The Israel Institute of Technology?

The answer is that they spend much, if not all, of their time and resources helping non-Jews.

Steven Spielberg’s Wunderkinder Foundation supports more than 75 diverse organizations and institutions, from the American Museum of Natural History to the Young Musicians Foundation. It gave generously to Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services and to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, two institutions founded by Los Angeles Jews that serve a largely non-Jewish population.

A much-loved anti-Semitic trope is that “tentacles” of Jewish power encircle Wall Street, the White House, the media. But the truth is that it is the tentacles of Jewish philanthropy that reach far beyond our small, numerically insignificant community.

Public radio? The Carl & Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation gave millions to WGBH in Boston. According to The Boston Globe, the Shapiro Foundation gave more than $80.3 million over the past decade to hundreds of schools, hospitals, arts groups and community-based nonprofits in the Boston area and beyond.

Human rights? The JEHT Foundation in Massachusetts gave millions to the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, among many other organizations.

The arts? The Arthur I. and Sydelle F. Meyer Charitable Foundation of West Palm Beach, Fla., wiped out by Madoff, supported the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, the Norton Museum of Art and a downtown Palm Beach amphitheater, among others. Tentacles indeed.

The list is much, much longer: The money that Madoff lost had done incalculable good, saving lives, advancing art and science, making the world a better place.

In his Sunday column, The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof wrote that liberal Americans are less generous than conservative Americans. “Liberals show tremendous compassion in pushing for generous government spending to help the neediest people at home and abroad,” Kristof wrote, “yet when it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are cheapskates.”

I don’t know if Jews, among the most liberal of voters, fall into the cheapskate category, or whether Jewish giving pushes up the liberal average. There is no comprehensive study of Jewish philanthropy to compare Jewish giving, whether to synagogues or for other purposes, to general American giving, according to Gary Tobin, director of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

But if you scroll through the list of Madoff’s philanthropic victims, you’ll find plenty of evidence that even Jews who have shed every vestige of their ancient practice short of circumcision still resonate to the prophetic call to heal the wider world.

In the second volume of his “Code of Jewish Ethics,” (Bell Tower, 2009), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin traces the textual roots for this precept back to the Talmud.

“The Talmud ruled that, ‘we provide financial support to the gentile poor as well as to the Jewish poor,'” recounts Telushkin. “This ruling was issued at a time when the non-Jews among whom the Jews lived were usually idolators with values antithetical and often hostile to Judaism.”

Telushkin concludes: “If we donate only to Jewish causes or to individual Jews in need, we may stop seeing everyone as being equally created in God’s image and therefore worthy of our help. After all, we are all members of one race, the human race.”

That’s something the Madoff scandal makes clear Jews haven’t forgotten.

The many miracles of the family menorah


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Alex, Ryan, Josh and Ellie Dubin light about 25 menorahs every night of Chanukah


From painted-clay preschool classics to sterling silver family heirlooms, the eight bright lights of the chanukiyah have a unique and artful way of revealing our values, holding our histories and telling our stories.

That’s a Big Ball of Wax

As a preschooler, Alex Dubin was always mesmerized by Chanukah candles. Every year, he would sit and stare as the flames danced over his growing collection of menorahs — the projects he created in school; or the ones he made with his grandmother, a ceramic artist; or with his mother, herself pretty crafty.

Today, Alex, 17, and his three younger siblings — Josh, 15, Ellie, 12 and Ryan, 6 — still love to stare into the candles, and they still make their own menorahs — and light all of them.

Every night of Chanukah, the Dubin kitchen turns into a glowing testament to art, family and nostalgia, with as many as 100 menorahs (fewer on the candle-heavy later nights) burning on a foil-covered island and table.

Most of their menorahs are displayed year-round in little cubbies in the living room, which fits well in their house, where every inch is covered in homemade art.

Parents Cindy and Mark host a yearly Chanukah celebration, when friends and family come over to do art projects, eat and, of course, light the candles.

While the guests are content to light and then go eat dinner, the Dubin kids stay in the kitchen, staring into the flames and at the colorful wax stalagmites. For the past six or seven years, they have let the wax drippings build up — Alex has one with a square-foot mass of wax.

Some of the menorahs are favorites: the one crafted from pottery from an Israeli archaeological site, preschool clay ones, the double-glazed ceramics they made with grandma, and any number made from pipes, coffee cans, bolts, metal address numbers, old loaf pans and any other inflammable hardware they can spot.

Grandma Marlene Zimmerman, whose work is exhibited at the Skirball Cultural Center, has one menorah that didn’t make it onto the Dubin family display: Her replica of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights is in President Bill Clinton’s museum in Arkansas. When Clinton was in office, his wife, Hillary, chose Zimmerman’s Breed Street Menorah for the National Treasures Collection, and in 1999 Hillary lit that menorah at the White House Chanukah reception.

The Promise Menorah

Isaac Bialik and Shawna Brynjegard were high school sweethearts and inseparable at UCLA in the early 1990s.

So when Bialik traveled to Israel in 1992 — without Brynjegard — he was thinking about her much of the time. When he spotted a blue-and-purple ceramic-pomegranate menorah made by the Israeli artist Avram Gofer in a shop on Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, he knew he had to get it for her.

He came home a couple of weeks later, and gave her the menorah on the first night of Chanukah.

“I told her that from now on we would use this every Chanukah together, and that we would never be apart again,” said Bialik, who works on communications for Deloitte, an auditing and financial consulting firm. Bialik didn’t officially propose to Brynjegard for another year, but today Isaac and Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik (or B2) still light that chanukiyah.

Isaac is himself a Judaic artist (www.nicejewishartist.com), and Shawna is a rabbi who performs lifecycle events for those not affiliated with synagogues. By now, their pomegranate menorah has been joined by others in their Santa Clarita-area home. Their daughters, Mira (9), Yael (7) and Aviva (5), have added their own signature pieces and the family has bought a few more menorahs. Each night of Chanukah they light about five menorahs from their ever-growing collection, and while the other menorahs rotate in and out of the ritual, the Brynjegard-Bialiks always light their “Promise Menorah” together.

The Uncle’s Menorah

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Sheldon Ginns doesn’t even know the name of the great-great-uncle who gave him his brass menorah more than 60 years ago. He was known simply as The Uncle, the first of the family to come to the United States from Berdichev, Ukraine, around 1900. The Uncle was in his late 90s when he died, and just before then he divvied up his belongings between his closest relatives (his only child had died). The Uncle gave his chanukiyah, which he had held onto through years of poverty, to Ginns’ grandfather, who immediately passed it along to Sheldon, then 8 years old.

The cast-brass menorah, whose edges are worn down form years of polishing, features two lions holding up a heart inscribed with the blessing for the candles, topped by an ornate crown.

Ginns, who grew up in Detroit and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., is a retired architect, and he remembers lighting the brass menorah every Chanukah and playing with it as a toy the rest of the year.

The menorah took on a place of honor in his own home, as he and his wife and two sons lit it every Chanukah.

Today, the brass menorah is the only family heirloom Ginns has. His grandfather was the eldest of 12 siblings, and the only one to come to the United States before World War II; no one else survived the Holocaust. His grandmother was the eldest of 10, and also the only survivor in her family. Both looked for their family for years.

When Ginns took the menorah to the Los Angeles-based Lower East Side Restoration Project to have it cleaned and repaired a few years ago, he learned that the menorah dated back to the 18th century and was probably from Poland. He also learned that the reason the menorah had two shamashes — candle cups set higher than the rest — was because it was also used weekly for Shabbat candles, a sign that the family who first owned it was poor and couldn’t afford both a chanukiyah and Shabbat candelabra.

He found out that the chanukiyah was originally an oil lamp and had been converted to hold candles. The Restoration Project restored it to its original state for Ginns.

He lights the menorah every two or three years, and he plans to pass it along to one of his five grandchildren some day to continue the tradition of the Ginns family menorah.

A Blessing by Any Other Name

When Judy Stern (not her real name) was a kid, her mother always made sure to pull out the menorah in December, and she recited the Hebrew blessing. Stern’s father wasn’t Jewish — they had a Christmas tree, too — and aside from that little menorah, not much else Jewish happened in their lives.

Then Stern landed at Hamilton High School near the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, and she made friends with some Jewish kids who invited her to the Jewish Student Union at school, and then to a youth group — where she made a disturbing discovery.

At a Chanukah celebration, the teens recited the blessing over the candles — and it was different from the one her mother had always said.

That evening, Stern realized that her mother, who herself grew up with little Jewish education, had been reciting the only blessing she knew — the Hamotzi, the blessing over bread.

Stern began saying the correct blessing, which she still does to this day. She married a rabbi (ironically, so did her brother), and has four kids. Now, every Chanukah, as they say the brachot over the candles, her mother is there to celebrate with them, and to say, Amen.

Blessings From Bullets

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Zane Buzby has restored many menorahs at her Lower East Side Restoration Project, but one of her favorites is what she calls the Palestine Menorah.

The owner, Rivka Greensteen, brought it to Buzby badly in need of repairs and restoration. The dented and dirty silver-plated brass rectangle was shaped like a wall of Jerusalem and engraved with lions and a Jerusalem scene. The candleholders fronting the wall needed care.

Greensteen told Buzby what she knew about the menorah. It had been brought from Russia to America by her grandfather, and was passed down to Greensteen’s father, and then to Greensteen. The family always used this menorah, and always had a family gathering on the fifth night of Chanukah — but they didn’t know why.

When Buzby got the menorah, she immediately recognized it as one from Palestine — pre-state Israel. The candle cups, she told Greensteen, were made from bullet casings. Greensteen put the rest together. Her grandfather’s brother was an early pioneer in Palestine, and must have sent the family the chanukiyah. He was killed in the 1930s in an Arab uprising.

This brother was the fifth son in his family, and it is probably no coincidence, Greensteen guessed, that it is his menorah that brings the family together each year on the fifth night of Chanukah.

Confessions of a Christmas carol addict


I’ve decided it’s finally time to come out of the closet — the Christmas Carol Closet: “Hello, my name is Andrea, and I am Jewish woman who keeps a kosher home, went to Jewish summer camp, lived in Israel and is utterly, completely, hopelessly addicted to Christmas carols.”

And as anyone driving in the car next to mine these past few weeks can attest, I know the lyrics to nearly every Christmas carol and sing along to them with yuletide abandon (though I tend to mumble over the “Christ the savior” parts)! Am I the only one, or is this something that happens after too many Christmases in Los Angeles, stuck in traffic with the car radio tuned to KOST-FM 103.5, a station that plays nonstop Christmas music from Thanksgiving to Christmas?

No, my love of Christmas carols began many years ago. In fact, I’ve traced its genesis to a young girl’s crush on the eternally handsome and vocally gifted Andy Williams and his yearly TV holiday specials. He had it all — the perfect hair, the velvety voice, the sweaters (the pretty French wife who subsequently shot that skier). And no one sang “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” like he did. My parents also had an album of Christmas classics featuring Williams, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, etc., and every December I listened to that record over and over.

And now I can’t stop listening. It’s not that I have Christmas envy — I don’t celebrate Christmas, and I love, honor and embrace Jewish holiday traditions — but there’s just something about those Christmas carols that gets to me. And my addiction has gotten worse — I’ve moved from listening in the car, to listening at home. Yes, Virginia, I’ve been secretly buying Christmas CDs.

A few years ago, when James Taylor came out with a holiday CD sold only at Hallmark stores, I spent hours on the phone trying in vain to find the sold-out disc, which I eventually had to buy on eBay. But it was worth it — what’s better than JT’s soothing voice singing “Winter Wonderland”? Maybe only Sweet Baby James singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on his follow-up Christmas album. Or what about Amy Grant’s heartbreaking “Oh, Holy Night,” The Bare Naked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan’s folk/rock spin on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” Whitney Houston belting out “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Or Stevie Nick’s amazingly beautiful “Silent Night” (from one of the excellent “Very Special Christmas” CDs that benefit the Special Olympics)?

Now, with iTunes, I don’t even have to buy a CD. I can just purchase my favorite songs — classics by crooners like Frank Sinatra’s jazzy “Jingle Bells,” Johnny Mathis’ “The Christmas Song” or Nat King Cole’s “The First Noel.” And nobody swings “Silver Bells” better than Tony Bennett. The re-mixed Dean Martin/Martina McBride duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has become a favorite, and Stevie Wonders’ “Someday at Christmas” just plain rocks.

Many of the season’s most beloved songs were composed by Jews — “White Christmas” (Irving Berlin), “The Christmas Song” (Mel Torme), “We Need a Little Christmas” (Jerry Herman), “Rudolph” and “Holly, Jolly Christmas” (Johnny Marks), “Let it Snow” (Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne) and many others. And I have to admit that the cumulative song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” always reminded me of “Chad Gadya” — but with partridges in pear trees, leaping lords and milking maids instead of goats bought for two zuzim and dogs beaten by sticks.

And yes, I know there are Chanukah songs … seven to be exact. Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Light One Candle” is good and Craig Taubman does a rousing “Mi Yimalel.” But it’s really only “Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages)” that has that sweeping, soul-stirring melody (which it turns out is an adaptation of a German folksong). Taubman does a beautiful version of it as does Marc Cohn — perhaps their own version of a Chanukah carol. But truthfully, I don’t really want Jewish songs to sound like Christmas carols any more than I want kugel to taste like fruitcake.

The other day, as I, a nice Jewish girl, left Nate ‘n Al, a nice Jewish deli, after a meal there with my friend who I’ve known since summers at Camp Tel Yehudah, it was not the Christmas decorations that made me smile, or the shoppers rushing to and fro, but a particularly fabulous and fairly recent Beverly Hills holiday tradition — palm trees, trunks wrapped with lights, now sport speakers that blare holiday music. And as I walked along, I sang along. And for once, the absurdity and incongruity of life in Los Angeles seemed downright tailor-made for me. If the palm trees can sing Christmas carols, then so can I! “Fa la la la la la la la la.”

Balancing resources and lives — being Jewish and ‘green’


I entered the classroom, where more than 30 Jewish adults who had been studying together for the past semester buzzed in conversation. I began class by asking my students a simple question: “Are you concerned about what is happening to our environment and worried about what the future will be for your children and grandchildren?”

Without a single exception, everyone in the room said yes.

Read any newspaper today and you will find stories about the problems that are being created by global warming: water, air and soil pollution; destruction of ecosystems and rain forests, and, of course, our dependency on oil. However, human abuse of our earth is not a new issue or one that has developed solely as a result of technology. Sadly, man’s instinct to destroy the natural world dates back to biblical times.

It seems that we have always needed guidance in how to treat the earth. In Deuteronomy 20:19-20, we are commanded not to cut down fruit-bearing trees during a siege against a city, although we can cut down nonfruit-bearing ones for building materials. This prohibition on destroying (bal tashchit) teaches us two very important lessons: restraint in how we act upon the earth and the value of humility.

What better time could there be to limit the human tendency to act without concern for the earth than in a time of conquest, when we are easily carried away by our own sense of power? Even more significant is the idea of our responsibility for and to future generations. Bal tashchit prohibits us from destroying a source of food that will one day feed the people who survived the battles that are being fought.

Judaism has a lot to say about how to create a balance between using the resources we have and abusing or destroying them. The rabbis and sages greatly expanded the concept of bal tashchit to prohibit the wasting of everyday goods and materials, as well as clogging of wells, release of toxic fumes and chemicals and killing of animals for convenience.

The basic principle they established bears repeating today: While man may use the earth for his needs, he may not use any resource needlessly. But how do we weigh our needs against our excesses? Who decides what is a legitimate use and what is wasteful?

In attempting to answer these questions, we need to look at the purposes for which man was created in the first place. Our first answers are found in Genesis 1: 28, where we learn that man was put on the earth to “fill it and conquer/subdue it,” and in Genesis 2:15, where our Divine purpose is “to work it [the Garden of Eden] and to guard it.” Our marching orders seem clear, or do they?

From the beginning of time, we have had to face the challenge of balancing our obligation to use the environment for our own needs with the responsibility to preserve and protect it. Jewish tradition is rich with ideas, rituals and holidays that enable us to develop a sound Jewish environmental ethic keeping this tension in mind.

Every day, each time we eat, the Jewish menu of kashrut reminds us that the world is ours to use, but that there are limitations on how we can use it. The concept of restricted foods is incrementally introduced in the Torah — first, when God permits Adam to eat only fruits and vegetables and then, later in the Torah, when the Israelites are given a long list of animals, birds and fish that they are no longer permitted to eat — reinforcing the idea that we do not have unrestricted use of the world in which we live.

Jews have a special weekly reminder to help us balance our need to control the environment with caring for it. Shabbat is the original Earth Day: It celebrates the majesty of creation and tells us in no uncertain terms that the earth is for us to enjoy, but that we have a weekly obligation to let it rest, just as we are commanded to rest. On Shabbat, we relinquish our own work in order to pause and reflect on the wonder of creation, rather than to dominate and control it.

The concept of the sabbatical year, or shmita in Hebrew, also helps us develop a continuing environmental awareness by requiring us to refrain from agricultural activity, such as planting, plowing and harvesting during the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated in the Torah. Once again, we are required to limit our use of the earth, which is on loan to us, in order to fulfill our role as stewards.

Recently, much has been written about the concept of ecokashrut, which is the practice of using environmentally friendly, ecocertified kosher foods, goods and materials as a way of sanctifying individual use and consumption. Ecokashrut looks for Jewish solutions to contemporary environmental problems in traditional texts and ideas like tikkun olam (repairing the world), chesed (compassion) and tzedek (justice). It encompasses more than just the food we eat, but the clothing we wear, the cars we drive and the products we use to sustain us.

A Web site sponsored by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (

A long time ago, in a kibbutz far away . . .


Yoav was my kibbutz brother, secular and an ardent Zionist. He had an encyclopedic mind that could recite in detail kibbutz history, lore and socialist ideology. Today, Yoav is an equally intense, knowledgeable and ideological Charedi guy living in the Midwest. He recently offered to pay me money for introducing him to the woman he married more than 25 years ago.

I refused to accept it.

Our friendship dates back to the summer of 1970, when I was 19 years old. He was 17. It was my first trip to Israel.

I was standing in the chaotic Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, with no idea where I was going. While deciphering the schedules, I met some other American students, who told me they were spending the summer on a kibbutz where there were plenty of extra beds, a beautiful pool, free food and lots of beautiful German volunteers. I remembered my mother’s last admonishment before I got on the plane in Los Angeles: “Don’t end up on one of those communist kibbutzes and become a socialist having nonstop sex with all the other communists who want to live communally.”

There was no way I was going to resist this kibbutz invitation.

A few hours later when we arrived at our destination, I asked my American hosts many questions about the place. They said, “Let’s introduce you to Yoav. He loves to tell the Americans about the kibbutz.”

As Yoav led me through the grounds, we bonded instantly. He was a brilliant, deep, complicated thinker. That afternoon he invited me to his parents’ house for the 4 p.m. tea, where I met his entire family.

They became my Israeli family. I returned to the kibbutz for several summers. His parents were like my own parents, quenching and stimulating the thirst I had for understanding Israel and the Jewish people. They embraced me and scolded me. Yoav and I spent hours, late into the night, in ideological discussions, challenging one another’s views. When I returned to Los Angeles, we wrote long letters continuing on the summer’s debates.

Two years after he went into the army, he evaporated. He stopped writing. My last summer at the kibbutz, he never appeared. His parents did not know what to tell me.

I married. I began a profession. Five, maybe six years later, I received a phone call one day in Los Angeles. “This is Yoav.”

During our first meeting, he was icy cold. We met again, and he warmed up a bit. We met a third time, and the ice melted and the river began to rush with explanations and admissions. His army years were terrible. He was now questioning the legitimacy of kibbutz life and the entire Zionist enterprise. He was angry and cynical. He hated anything having to do with Judaism.

He knew two people in Los Angeles — me and a young lady named Suzie, who had lived on the kibbutz for several years. Suzie and I were both in advertising and sometimes did business together. She had an employee, a young Jewish woman who had moved to Los Angeles from a small town in the Midwest. We determined to fix her up with Yoav.

They eventually married. I was the best man at their wedding.

They began their married life in Los Angeles. Yoav left his cynicism behind and in Torah and Jewish learning found a path to funnel his questioning and his depth. The couple moved to a big city in the Midwest, near the town where they got married. I went once to visit, and then he again disappeared — into a world of yeshiva life, with little time to see me.

My wife and I had three children. We began to take regular trips to Israel. On each trip, we made certain to go to the kibbutz. Yoav’s family embraced me, my wife and our children as part of their family. We have remained very close until this day. Yoav’s ultra-orthodoxy has not been easy for them.

Over the last 16 years, since my visit to see Yoav, he and I have spoken about three times, mainly in my phone calls when his father died.

I’ve waited to tell this story, because I didn’t know what its ending would be.

Two years ago, my assistant announced, “There’s a guy named Yoav on the phone. He said he must speak with you.”

I picked up.

“Gary, can you tell me the story of how you introduced me to Cheryl?” No small talk. No exchange of pleasantries.

I decided to go with the flow. “Yoav, is it your 25th anniversary, or something?”

“Yes,” he answered tentatively.

I began to jog my memory, jumping into the conversation as if it was natural. I didn’t want to do anything to make it difficult.

“Were you the actual person who introduced us, or was it Suzie? I need to know the exact details.”

As I began to think back, something about the question did not feel right. I asked, “Yoav, what is this really about?”

He hesitated. “It is not really about our anniversary. It’s time for us to find a shiddach for our son, and my rabbi asked if I had paid the shadchan who set up my marriage to Cheryl. When I told him that I didn’t, he said I must, otherwise our son’s shiddach may be visited with some unfortunate circumstances. And I am pretty sure that you, Gary, not Suzie, were the actual shadchan.”

I was taken aback, understanding he wanted to pay me for an act of friendship that happened 25 years ago. But, I thought quickly. “Yoav, is the payment only to be in the form of money?”

“What?” he asked, equally taken aback by my question.

I repeated the question.

“My rabbi said I have to pay the shadchan. I am sure it must be in the form of money.”

“Did he actually mention money, or did he just mention ‘payment’?”

He fumbled his words. We went back and forth. We were once again into the ideological discussion rhythm that we had established for ourselves 30 years before. It was familiar, and it was frustrating. Yet, there was none of the warmth that used to lace every volley.

As men in our 50s, we were getting nowhere with the discussion. Finally, I stopped the bouncing ball.

“Yoav, why am I asking you this question?”

“I know, Gary, why you are asking me this question.”

“Why, Yoav? Why did I introduce you to Cheryl?” I wasn’t going to let it slide.

He hesitated for a long time. I could feel his angst. But I didn’t intervene to create any comfort. “Because you were my very good friend. You saw I was lonely. You loved me like a brother.”

I could tell he hated to have to admit it. But I know this man. He had no choice, when it came to his soul, but to tell the truth.

“And 25 years later, you’re now going to offer to pay me money for that act?”

“I did not mean to offend you. I am not trying to insult you. That is not my intention. It is what we do in my community.”

“I don’t believe you are trying to insult me at all. But if you must pay because of your community’s belief system, I suggest that money is the wrong payment in exchange for being a good friend and loving you like a brother. There is something wrong with this equation, Yoav. If this is now a business conversation, what if the ‘seller of the service’ is saying that money is the wrong payment?”

I heard him take a deep breath. “Gary, our lives are very different from one another.”

“How would you know anything about my life and that it may be different from yours? How do you know what I believe and think, what my experiences have been and what my Jewish involvements are?”

He again hesitated. “You are right. I don’t know.”

I waited. There was a very long silence. “Gary, I think there needs to be some more conversation between us at another point.”

Two months later, I received a kiddush cup in the mail. It’s now been two years. I’ve never heard from him.

Gary Wexler is founder and president of Los Angeles-based Passion Marketing, consulting with Jewish and general nonprofit organizations throughout the world.

We were intended by God — we’re not afterthoughts


The magician succeeds by misdirection — look here and you will not notice everything that I am doing with my left hand.

Part of Christopher Hitchens’ magic in his essay is misdirection: He would have us ignore ourselves. How do human beings know? If we are, as scientific materialists tell us, nothing more than an accident of ancient chemistry, haphazardly evolved with no thought, no design, no intelligence behind the universe, then how do our minds draw correct conclusions about the origin of things? In Hitchens’ article he makes numerous assertions about the way the world began and will end and what God would or would not do, without wondering if it is wonderful that he can know this at all.

Minds evolved to survive on the savannah do not need to invent, much less master, nuclear physics. “I am awesomely, wonderfully made” sings the psalmist. The addition of evolutionary mechanisms to our stock of knowledge makes that declaration more potent, not less.

Evolution tells us that random mutations followed by adaptations to environment account for who we are. If we are adapted to fit an ecological niche, and our minds are as random and limited as our legs, ears and eyes, why can we understand truths about the world? Even more powerfully, where would free will enter this story? Products of heredity and environment do not get free will: No one picks his or her environment or his or her genes, so where do we get this glorious ability to choose?

It is possible that we are determined and all of our conclusions are limited or simple illusions. I cannot argue against the certainty that people are robots. But if you believe that what we know about the world has some relationship to truth, and that we are free agents, then you are driven to the conclusion that materialism may be too simple a conclusion. Perhaps God has something to do with this remarkable pageant.

The improbability of human existence can be seen from two different directions. Hitchens writes that given the ages Earth was without us, the close brush we had with extinction and the universe’s constant threat to wipe out life on our planet, we are clearly a wild card in the deck, products of happenstance.

There is another way to view the same set of facts: Given how long the Earth prepared for our appearance, however, (the midrash actually talks about how God set everything like a table for the guest of honor) and the unlikelihood of our being here and surviving, we could equally argue it is clear that we were intended. Once again, what Hitchens writes as conclusive — we were afterthoughts — can be seen in a very different light.



Rabbi David Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens will debate religion and faith on Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills as part of the Celebration of Jewish Books



Physicist Robert Jastrow famously remarked, “At this moment, it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Faith is not a cowering born of fear, to be discarded when a vaccine proves more efficacious than a prayer. Two thousand years ago the rabbis taught us that faith from love is more powerful and lasting than faith from fear. They understood the uncertainty of reward and punishment in this world, teaching explicitly that there is no reward for mitzvot in this world (B.T. kidd. 39b).

There are religious people who are credulous and narrow. To set up these straw men is one way of disputing, but there are religious people who both contribute to and learn from the intellectual advances in the world. For we believe that God intends us to learn, to grow, to discover and to create. These things are not contradicted by a tradition that pictures God as a creator; rather creativity is one of the ways of imitateo Dei — becoming more like God in our conduct in this world.

Hitchens does not mention that people who are religious give more to charity, have more stable lives, are less addicted to drugs and alcohol and form more cohesive communities. None of this proves religion is true, of course. Things can be false and still good for us.

What it suggests, however, is that faith is far more complex than a simple ancient illusion. Only a narrow antagonism assumes religion can be replaced with the Hubble telescope.

Disdain is an ugly quality on either side of the debate. Humility and goodness are a prerequisite if one wants not merely to score points but to touch souls. Belief is not a static illusion to be knocked down at the introduction of a new scientific hypothesis or discovery. Faith is an orientation of soul, a posture toward God’s universe that finds expression in many religious traditions. God is not a magic dispenser of favors in the sky but a creator whose presence is a challenge to create goodness and a call to humility.

Those who value religious traditions should value thoughtful opposition, because it forces us to re-examine our own lives. In the end, however, I believe that questions honestly asked lead us back to the Source of all.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple.

Personalize your ketubah without breaking the law


For many brides and grooms, the ketubah signing that precedes the veiled walk down the aisle has a bit of mystery about it. They may not be sure exactly what the ancient Aramaic text says, but the signing ceremony sets just the right air of solemnity as a prelude to the veiled walk down the aisle.

Some couples who read the text carefully encounter a document that seems at least mildly chauvinist, with the husband taking an active role and the wife only consenting to become his wife. Although some couples decide to write their own egalitarian ketubah and forego the traditional document, many decide to also have a standard ketubah.

Donna Frieze, a convert to Judaism, had an additional kosher ketubah to ensure the legality of her marriage.

“Later in life,” she said, “we don’t know if we or our children would want to go to Israel and if there would be any question about our marriage.”

Despite concerns by feminists with the male-oriented language of the ketubah, the document originally developed as an insurance policy to protect the bride if the marriage ends — either through divorce or death of the husband.

The most fundamental role of the ketubah, said Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual adviser at Yeshiva University, is to elucidate the responsibilities and obligations a husband accepts in a marriage. According to Maurice Lamm’s the “Jewish Way in Love and Marriage,” the ketubah specifies that the husband is setting aside 200 silver zuzim, called a mohar, that will be paid to the bride in the event of his death or a divorce.

The husband also agrees in the ketubah to support his wife with food, clothing and “other necessary benefits,” which the Talmud defines as satisfactory conjugal relations.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a Conservative rabbi who was ordained in 2003, maintained that a ketubah can express greater mutuality and still be in consonance with Jewish law. Using a document created by Rabbi Gordon Tucker as a basis for her ketubah, Jacobs and her husband Guy Austrian expressed mutual responsibility for each other in their ketubah: “The groom and bride also agreed of their own free will to work for one another, to honor, support, and nurture one another, to live together as a family, and to create their home in love, companionship, peace, and friendship as befits the sons and daughters of Israel.”

The traditional ketubah also lists two additional transfers of property. One is the bride’s dowry, or nedunya, of silver, gold, valuables, clothing and household furnishings, which the groom accepts in the sum of 100 zuzim. The second is an additional 100 zuzim, called tosefet ketubah, that the groom provides as a wedding gift to the bride. In the Sephardic world, the tosefet ketubah is often a negotiated sum that is specified in the currency of the land.

The groom must secure these monetary obligations with a lien on his property: “I take upon myself and my heirs after me,” reads the ketubah, “the surety of this ketubah, of the dowry, and of the additional sum, so that all this shall be paid from the best part of my property, real and personal, that I now possess or may hereafter acquire.”

In the notes to Tucker’s ketubah, which Jacobs described as “the bare minimum of what you need halachically,” he claims that the only obligatory elements of the ketubah are the mohar and the lien it engenders. Concerning these monetary payments, added Jacobs, “they are part of a ketubah, but it is not necessary to specify how much.”

Tucker included language to allude to both the mohar and the lien on property: “The groom and the bride also accepted full legal responsibility for the obligations specified here, as well as for the various property entering the marriage from their respective homes and families, and agreed that the obligations of this ketubah may be satisfied even from movable property.”

The standard ketubah, despite its formulaic nature, is required for every Orthodox marriage. Because the standard ketubah does not require a husband to grant his wife a religious divorce and a get, Blau supported the idea of a bride and groom signing, in addition to the ketubah, a separate prenuptial agreement — also to protect the bride in case of a divorce.

Although the Orthodox community is committed to the existing ketubah document, whose language comes from the Mishnah, Blau said he has no problem with a bride and a groom making additional agreements and commitments, as long as they do not controvert Jewish law.

When Rabbi Jacobs and her husband got married, they did not want to have two ketubbot, but rather one ketubah that satisfied both Jewish law and their own values. “We wanted something that to our standards was halakhically acceptable,” she explained, but also egalitarian.

Using Tucker’s ketubah and adding to it three additional paragraphs of a more personal nature enabled Jacobs and her husband to have a single ketubah, something that is often not true for couples Jacobs has married. If they have written their own ketubah, but not in a way that satisfies Jewish law, she requires them to have an additional kosher ketubah — even if it is a computer printout that will go in a safe deposit box after the ceremony.

They also serve: Rabbis’ spouses prove as diverse as roles they fill


Just before the High Holy Days last year, I was sitting in synagogue when I was struck by the star power of its rabbi. When he spoke, everyone listened, transfixed, as if the words he offered were revelations — inspiring, challenging and healing all at the same time.

At the end of his sermon, the congregants erupted in applause. I could hear them whispering about him all at once.

“He’s amazing,” several said.

“Brilliant.”

“I love him!”

That’s when the cantor’s wife, who was sitting next to me, tapped me on the shoulder.

“You know,” she whispered under the din of temple chatter. “I’m waiting for the story about what it’s like to be married to someone in the clergy.”

That’s when I began wondering about the people rabbis go home to at night, the people who don’t just love the rabbi, but who also know the rabbi.

For as long as rabbis have been arguing Talmud, their wives have been at home preparing Shabbat dinner.

Yet that image, along with expectations for clergy spouses, has evolved. For one, they’re no longer all women. They’re no longer always hovering in the background; they’re not even always a different gender from their partner.

Modern rabbis’ spouses don’t fit into any single mold.

” title=”David Light”>David Light balances comedy writing with care of his two daughters; ” title=”Bruce Ellman”>Bruce Ellman brings his psychology training to benefit his temple; Marjorie Pressman served as a fiery force throughout her now-retired husband’s pulpit career; and ” title=”Marjorie Pressman”>Marjorie Pressman put it, “I didn’t marry a rabbi. I married the man I fell in love with.”

And that’s the thread that binds these seven people together.

At the heart of all these stories and all their struggles, are simple, powerful love stories.



All the

The dream of a beautiful bat mitzvah — but whose dream would it fulfill?


For my daughter to have a bat mitzvah would be a dream come true — but for whom, for her or for me? Throughout my life, people have told me that I am only half Jewish, as my father is Jewish and mother is Japanese Buddhist, although Reform Jews now recognize children of Jewish fathers as Jews. I remember my own childhood as a series of colorful feasts of Jewish and Japanese tastes. But I still hunger for more meaningful cultural and religious traditions, as I had no formal rites of passage, no opportunity to study for a bat mitzvah or a tea ceremony.

Growing up with a Jewish father and Japanese mother did not mean I visited double the number of temples during holidays, like some special at your favorite restaurant. Instead I watched longingly as Jewish kids celebrated Chanukah and Japanese kids celebrated the Shichi-go-san, a festival for girls and boys that celebrates the 3rd, 5th and 7th birthday. At my house we celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday.

While life in my family was always amusing and entertaining as a multicultural and interfaith family, we sacrificed both cultures and faiths in the interest of supposed peace and avoidance of cultural conflict and disharmony. As a result, the absence of religious and ethnic identity has left me longing for a personal identity I am just now beginning to find.

When I look at my daughters, I see their faces as both azoy shayne and uruwashii, “so beautiful” in Yiddish and in Japanese. I hope they never have to share my experience of being shunned and shamed for not belonging truly to either one culture or another. As a child I found it laborious and dispiriting to explain to Jewish and Japanese kids why I did not look just like them with either perfectly straight or wavy hair.

We celebrated holidays with few customs except culinary ones, with both miso and chicken soup served at the celebratory table. Growing up with Jewish and Japanese parents meant I lived among two distinct cultures, with an identity that was less secure and more obscure. As I did back then, I continue to long for a stronger sense of my Jewish culture, as well as to be considered simply Jewish rather than half.

Since my parents were artists who believed individual faith was a personal decision, even for small children, there are no marked passages to remember. Except if you count the afternoon I wore my grandmother’s silk kimono with my best friend’s prayer shawl to a Jewish deli in Hollywood. OK, I concede, there were no ceremonies — but that was certainly a rite of passage!

I suppose I should listen to sympathetic friends who attempt to console me.

“Saying you’re only half-Jewish is like saying you’re only half-pregnant,” says one. “Even a bit Jewish means you’re one of the tribe!” he continues, as he passes me a piece of bacon.

Remind me not to consult him should I decide to make a kosher home.

Or there is my friend who lists all the “cool” famous people who are half-Jewish, like Sean Penn, Harrison Ford and Gloria Steinem. Even Geraldo Rivera got to have a bar mitzvah, although his mother was Jewish.

My middle daughter looked at me the other day and said, “Mommy, I think I am a Jewish girl. Can I attend Hebrew school like Daddy did?”

“Yes,” I answered, as I kissed her tan, cool forehead. “You are a Jewish girl, and you will know all of the traditions I never did.”

As my daughter will soon turn 10, my husband laments that she has not received any formal Jewish education. Dancing the hora at weddings, watching the Marx Brothers and trying on his yarmulke for laughs does not count.

Unlike me, my husband had a bar mitzvah when most ceremonies were still respectable, unlike a bat mitzvah I attended in which I couldn’t figure out which person on stage was the rapper for hire or rabbi for hire. Maybe they were the same person.

I can think of no parent who does not wish more for their children than they had, but I remain in a quandary: Do I wish my girls to have a bat mitzvah celebration because I missed out, or for more honorable reasons? Many American Jewish families consider having a bar or bat mitzvah to be the sole experience of their children’s Jewish education, a symbolic occasion securing them in the Jewish tradition.

Indeed, I have decided this is a gift I will give to our daughters, who are confident that they are Jewish and deserve to study in the traditional way all the more. Perhaps I am no different than my Jewish sisters and brothers, as I too want to ensure that my daughters feel secure in their Jewish identity, with this celebration a testament to their strong cultural history. The worst that might happen might be that they would study for a few years, receive a little more gelt than guilt and experience a valuable celebration they would neither be able to forget, nor wish to.

In the meantime, I have dreams of what my own bat mitzvah might have been like in laid-back, lackadaisical 1970s Southern California, when many expectations and traditions for children were abandoned, leaving many members of my generation feeling abandonment.

I see myself in a proper but pretty dress from my favorite Sears catalog I used to keep in a drawer by my bed. I am in a beautiful L.A. temple near my father’s Beverly Hills boyhood home and I begin to chant from the Torah in my songbird voice, while both my Jewish and Japanese relatives are verklempt and tokui — overcome with emotion and pride in two languages.

Too many mazel tovs and kisses are given to count, and my lyrical mother gently fixes a velvet ribbon in my hair while my father tells me how proud he is.

After that, my dream is not so clear, although there is some blurry vision of overeating knishes and California rolls simultaneously until I have to lie down, something I am still guilty of today.

Somebody please call the doctor.

Francesca Biller-Safran is an investigative print and broadcast journalist and recipient of The Edward R. Murrow Award. She specializes in political and social inequalities and is currently working on a book about her background. She is married with three daughters, lives in the Bay Area and can be reached at fsafran@hotmail.com.

Reprinted with permission from InterfaithFamily.com.

An incomplete guide to Jewish funerals and burial


When Eileen Isenberg thinks about her own funeral, she has a very clear picture in her mind.

“First I want 20 minutes of sad,” she said, to allow people to remember her, with the second movement of Mozart's 21st Piano Concerto playing in the background.

“Then I want people to bring out the klezmer music and platters of all different kinds of rugelach and chat about the good stuff and the fun.”

When it's time to push the casket down the aisle, she wants a band she's already picked one to break into “When the Saints Go Marching In,” New Orleans-style, and the mourners to step in line and escort the casket to graveside.

“I want to leave my dear friends with a sweet taste in their mouths and a twinkle in their hearts,” said Isenberg, 77, a Reform Jew who isn't planning to die anytime soon.

This is definitely not what a Jewish funeral used to be. At least not in the non-Orthodox world.

When it comes to thinking about the end of life, be it in the business of funeral homes or in the minds of Jews everywhere, the world is changing.

“It's not about mourning the death anymore. People want to celebrate life,” said Isenberg's daughter, Lynn, a Marina del Rey resident who launched a customized funeral planning business, “Lights Out Enterprises,” after penning the novel, “The Funeral Planner” (Red Dress Ink, 2005). Lynn Isenberg believes mourners can celebrate without compromising the life and integrity of the deceased.

Blame it on the baby boomers. One outgrowth of the aging of 78 million largely nontraditional Americans born between 1946 and 1964 is that they are revolutionizing the final frontier with personalized send-offs, both for themselves and their parents.

You can also blame it on our death-denying, death-defying culture. Why fall back on those morose, antiquated and tiresome rituals when we can put some “fun” back into the $11 billion funeral service industry?

And you can blame it on the high cost of dying. And the lower cost of cremation. Along with the opportunity to have our ashes mixed with cement and forged into an artificial reef ball, to rest eternally on the ocean floor.

Or blame it on ignorance of Jewish burial and funeral customs. The fact that we don't know a grave from a crypt. Or what to do if we happen to be unaffiliated, intermarried or tattooed.

Still, while not everyone is jumping on the “I gotta be me” funeral bandwagon, a funny thing is happening on the way to the mortuary.

These days, more and more Jews are breathing new life into Judaism's age-old approach to death and dying. They're also sometimes discovering that the rituals the ones that have always been followed by the Torah-observant world can speak to them as well in fresh and personal ways.

For traditional Jews, this is no surprise.

“It's been done this way for 3,600 years,” said Moe Goldsman, who has served as funeral director and mortuary manager at Sholom Chapels Mortuaries and Sholom Memorial Park in Sylmar since 1989. “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”

As with most things Jewish, the practices governing burials are based on Torah: “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19), as well as, “As we come forth, so shall we return” (Ecclesiastes 5:14).

They also operate on the principles of respect, speed and simplicity, rendering everyone equal in death, with these key components:

  • Nothing should be done to prohibit the natural decomposition of the body. Embalming or cosmetic enhancement is prohibited.
     
  • The body is accompanied or watched from the time of death until burial. It is ritually cleansed and dressed in white linen shrouds.
     
  • Burial is in a plain wooden casket, with no metal parts. The casket remains closed.
     
  • Burial takes place in the ground, as soon as possible.
     
  • Flowers are discouraged. Charitable contributions are instead suggested.

 


Historically, each community's holy society, or chevra kadisha (not to be confused with the Los Angeles for-profit mortuary by the same name), took on the responsibility of caring for the deceased, considered the most sacred task in Judaism because it's a mitzvah that cannot be repaid. Over the years, the non-Orthodox community has relinquished this obligation to the care of strangers.

 

 

 


 

 


Jon Kalish of NPR's 'All Things Considered' recorded a chevra kadisha preparing a body



 


“Someone passes away, you call the mortuary and they pick up the body. You're totally removed,” said Sinai Temple's Cantor Joseph Gole. “It wasn't too many generations ago that you did taharah (the ritual cleansing and purification of the body) right on the kitchen table, in the house.”

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Tachrichim or shrouds, Hillside Mortuary

The high cost of dying


A traditional Jewish funeral is simple and not ostentatious good news for people concerned about the high cost of dying. But while Jewish law doesn’t require embalming, elaborate floral displays or 16-gauge metal caskets with tufted crepe interiors, it does require Jews to be buried in the ground. And that costs money.

“You have to be realistic. We happen to live in an area where even a small piece of real estate is expensive,” said Mark Hyman, senior rabbi at Tikvat Jacob in Manhattan Beach, who also serves as chair of the Funeral Practices Committee of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

But many Jews don’t want to be realistic when it comes to paying for funerals.

Perhaps it’s denial, a sign of reluctance to accept death, let alone finance it. Never mind that other lifecycle observances b’nai mitzvah and weddings, for instance come with concomitant costs.

Or perhaps it’s a fear of the potential ruses and abuses we’ve heard about in the funeral industry, many of them exposed in Jessica Mitford’s 1964 groundbreaking book titled, “The American Way of Death.”

Today, however, the funeral industry is highly regulated by both the federal and state governments many say as a result of Mitford’s book.

The “Funeral Rule,” stipulating how funeral professionals deal with consumers, was enacted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and put into effect in 1984. This has brought transparency to practices previously shrouded in secrecy; “Funerals: A Consumer’s Guide” is available online.

The Funeral Rule also requires funeral homes to give consumers who appear in person a detailed, printed list of merchandise and services, known as the “general price list.” If requested, a funeral home director must also quote prices over the phone. This allows consumers to more easily and accurately compare prices among funeral homes so they can select only those goods and services they want. Caskets and other items also must be allowed to be purchased from outside sources without incurring a handling fee.

The California Department of Consumer Affairs’ Cemetery and Funeral Bureau’s “Consumer Guide to Funeral & Cemetery Purchase,” spells out state law. Although those laws are applicable to all mortuaries, they do not pertain to cemeteries operated by religious organizations. That booklet, too, is available online.

In Southern California, the Board of Rabbis’ Funeral Practices Committee works with clergy, funeral industry representatives and the Jewish community to set standards, address issues and, as best as possible, nurture “a sacred and positive spirit of cooperation,” according the committee’s mission statement.

To that end, the committee has set a standard honorarium of $500 for unaffiliated families to pay ordained rabbis for officiating at Jewish funerals. Hyman said it is meant to represent the “time, energy and commitment that a rabbi should be giving to a family.”

The committee is also looking into the status and condition of various distressed or closed local Jewish cemeteries, among other priorities.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know what funerals generally cost. The national average cost of a Jewish funeral is not available, as the Jewish Funeral Directors of America keeps no records, according to executive director Florence Pressman.

And the national median cost of a funeral in America which according to the National Funeral Directors Association totaled $7,323 in 2006, without including the cost of a plot is not relevant, as it encompasses nontraditional Jewish items, such as embalming, viewing and metal caskets.

In Los Angeles, estimated costs for a traditional Jewish funeral range roughly from $3,500 to $4,500, including the casket but not the plot or the rabbi’s services. The price can be less, with package deals available through some mortuaries. But higher costs can also be easily incurred.

For example, a plain pine casket costs $700 to $900, while some all-wood caskets still considered traditional can exceed $12,000. And a customized nonkosher casket can top $30,000.

As for land, the price for a single plot can range from around $2,000 in some cemeteries to as high as $35,000. And the price of a large estate, depending on the number of spaces allotted, can go as high as a family wishes to spend, commanding as much as half a million dollars.

“It’s location, location, location,” Mount Sinai’s general manager Len Lawrence said.

Despite the familiar real estate refrain, however, it’s worth noting that what you’re buying is the right to inter not actual property. Plot prices do not fluctuate with downturns in the real estate market.

The cost of a plot, by law, also includes a certain percentage mandated for endowment care to ensure cemetery upkeep in perpetuity. That amount for ground plots a minimum of $2.25 a square foot, according to California’s Cemetery & Funeral Bureau, though cemeteries can collect more is monitored by the state, and only its earned interest can be spent on maintenance.

Some cemeteries, such as those owned by Chevra Kadisha Mortuary, are nonendowment care entities.

“Our cemeteries are older and more Orthodox,” said Yossi Manela, a Chevra Kadisha funeral director. “They’re more affordable, but they’re not for everyone.”

A burial vault is another expense that is often questioned. The container, which is usually made of cement and encloses a coffin, is not mandated by California law, but is required by many cemeteries to prevent the ground from settling and forming sinkholes and to facilitate maintenance. “Most cemeteries are referred to as memorial parks and have beautiful grounds. The vault allows for the park-like atmosphere,” said Ira Polisky, Eden’s family service manager.

To save money, some people buy plots from third-party sources. Plots offered for sale can be found in the newspaper classified ads including this newspaper as well as online, on sites like Craigslist and eBay. People sell plots because they decide to move, for example, or divorce and no longer want to share eternity. Or sometimes financial concerns force them to cash out.

Caskets also are sold through online distributors or retail stores. ABC Caskets Factory, for example, located in downtown Los Angeles, is a casket manufacturer and not merely an online store. The company offers same-day delivery to mortuaries within a 30-mile radius, accommodating families who are arranging next-day funerals in accordance with Jewish tradition.

“Our Jewish caskets are all ready. It’s no big deal,” said Isabelle Conzevoy, wife of owner Joey Conzevoy.

Online and retail sellers, however, are not regulated by the same federal and state laws that govern funeral establishments, though they are subject to state and local business laws.

However, a concern was voiced about third-party purchases. “But what do you do if the casket arrives dented or damaged?” asked Moe Goldsman, funeral director and mortuary manager at Sholom Chapels Mortuaries and Sholom Memorial Park.

For the indigent, the Jewish Community Burial Program, offered through Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, provides a traditional Jewish burial at no cost, with participating Jewish mortuaries and cemeteries donating many of their services. (The toll-free contact number is (887) 275-4537.)

“No one should have to make an un-Jewish and undignified choice because of cost,” Funeral Practices Committee chair Hyman said.

Additionally, some cemeteries, including Hillside and Mount Sinai, do not charge for the burial of a child. “The family has enough tzuris (trouble). They don’t need any more,” Mount Sinai’s Lawrence said.

Still, the fact is, sooner or later, all of us are going to deal with the reality and the expense of death.

“It’s part of our life experience. Death is really another chapter in our life and is to be treated with the utmost sanctity,” Hyman said.



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Caves of Abraham, Mount Sinai Memorial Park, Simi Valley

Planning Ahead

Rabbis and Jewish community professionals have long trumpeted the advantages of preplanning for end-of-life exigencies.
It’s not always an easy sell.

“We live in psychological denial that we are going to die someday, although we mentally understand,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and philosophy professor at American Jewish University, who also serves as halachic consultant at Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries.

“That’s perfectly healthy, but not OK if it prevents us from making preparations for death,” he added.

The Funeral Practices Committee of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which acts as a liaison among clergy, families in need and the Jewish funeral industry, takes a strong stance on this issue.

“For parents, [planning ahead] is a gift of love for your family, not just financially, but also spiritually and emotionally,” said Mark Hyman, senior rabbi at Tikvat Jacob in Manhattan Beach and Funeral Practices Committee chair.

Ron Sobol, 54, took action after his mother’s death, soon after which he also received a flyer from Adat Ari El announcing a sale of cemetery plots the synagogue had purchased at Eden Memorial Park.

“When a parent dies, you feel a little bit more mortal,” Sobol said.

Sobol met an Adat Ari El representative at the cemetery, viewed plots in three locations and purchased companion side-by-side plots for himself and his wife, Leah.

“It seemed like the right thing to do,” Sobol said.

For people who want a traditional burial, selecting a cemetery is usually the first step. Choosing a particular plot or crypt, which is a space in a mausoleum or other building, follows.

Those set on Hillside Memorial Park or Mount Sinai Memorial Park’s Hollywood Hills location might not want to drag their feet. In 25 years or more, both expect to be out of room.

“Sold out, not filled,” Mount Sinai general manager Len Lawrence specified.

But the situation isn’t dire.

Mount Sinai opened its 160-acre Simi Valley location in 2002, giving it space for the next two centuries, according to Lawrence. Hillside is actively looking for new property, CEO Mark Friedman reported. And Eden Memorial Park, which was purchased by Service Corporation International in 1985, is “good for 100 years-plus,” said general manager Anthony Lempe.

No national statistics are available concerning the number of Jews who make advance burial preparations, but according to representatives at Mount Sinai, Hillside and Eden, the three largest cemeteries that serve the multidenominational Los Angeles community, it’s a clear majority.

“This is going to happen to all of us, and if you do your thinking and decision making at a time when you can all be open and rational and truly together, you make much better decisions,” Hillside’s Friedman said.

In addition to the plot, preplanning can include selecting the casket and, if desired, a shroud. Plus, certain services, such as taharah (the ritual cleansing) and shmira (guarding the body) can be prearranged. Even flowers can be ordered in advance.

Mortuaries generally take care of the casket and additional services. Certain cemeteries, including Hillside, Mount Sinai and Sholom, have their own mortuaries. Others are independent but work cooperatively with all cemeteries.

Fewer people, however, prepay the mortuary expenses.

“It’s really a personal decision based on a family’s current financial position,” said Helaine Cohen, a certified public accountant.

She explained that families struggling with mortgages, college tuitions and other day-to-day expenses may be better off waiting until the children leave home. Other families, with one or both spouses working, may be better positioned to pay for these expenses when their income is more substantial, before they retire.

Cohen herself admits that she and her husband have not discussed buying plots. “We just turned 50,” she said. “That’s the age to address long-term health insurance.”

But people can make many end-of-life decisions without actually prepaying for them. Most mortuaries, in fact, will

keep these preferences on record. Additionally, writing wills and creating other financial and health care directives are really part of the preplanning process, with some of these documents not subject to delay.

“I frankly think and people look at me cross-eyed when I say this that as soon as a person gets a driver’s license that person should fill out a durable power of attorney of health care,” Dorff said. He believes it’s important that parents know their teenager’s wishes in the rare case of a debilitating accident.

Dorff also recommends that parents, as they get older, write an ethical will, essentially a letter to their children specifying their life values. Additionally, he advises compiling a family history.

But people can’t preplan in a vacuum.

“It’s interesting. We encourage people to preplan, but first you have to do education,” said David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, the national nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring Jewish death and bereavement practices.

Generally, end-of-life education takes place in the synagogue, encompassing a session or two in a Jewish life-cycle curriculum. It’s also a popular sermon topic during the Yom Kippur Yizkor (memorial) service.

Kavod v’Nichum itself sponsors an annual conference on chevra kadisha (a holy society that prepares the body of the deceased for burial) and related topics such as chaplaincy. The organization’s next conference, in June 2009, is targeted for the West Coast, possibly Los Angeles, according to Zinner.

Moe Goldsman, funeral director and mortuary manager at Sholom Chapels Mortuaries and Sholom Memorial Park, holds a seminar annually after the High Holy Days to educate people about preneed. This year it’s scheduled for Oct. 26 at Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City.

And Sinai Temple is hosting a one-day seminar on death and dying on Feb. 22, 2009, open to the community. “We hope to help people begin a discussion,” said Terry Wohlberg, co-founder of the synagogue’s chevra kadisha.

A conversation about these issues, whether people actually make advance arrangements or not, can do more than ease future burdens on the survivors. It can have real-time and unexpected benefits for the people themselves.

Producer Cathee Weiss works with individuals who want to create film biographies, sitting down with them to discuss the life lessons they wish to impart to their progeny.

“There’s always reflection on the big values,” Weiss said. “The notion of what we’re going to leave behind makes all of us a little more conscious of living a life of worth, of value, of integrity.”

Obituaries


June Walker, Presidents Conference Chair and Hadassah Leader, Dies at 74

June Walker was in working mode two weeks ago.

On July 21, she presided over a farewell reception for outgoing Israeli U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman. Two days later she led a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which she chairs.

Late in the week, however, tests revealed the cancer she had fought for seven years had advanced too far to allow for a new round of treatment. Walker, of Rockaway, N.J., died Tuesday at 74.

“She was such a remarkable fighter,” said Walker’s rabbi, Amy Joy Small. “She did not let it stop her. She had things to do.”

Walker, a former president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, became only the second female to lead the conference last year when she replaced investment banker Harold Tanner as chairperson.

“Leaders of the United States and Israel held her in high regard and respected the person even more than the positions she held,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the Presidents Conference’s executive vice chairman, in a statement. “They, as we, recognized immediately her integrity, her intelligence and the sincerity of her advocacy. I am personally, as is the conference collectively, devastated by her passing.”

Walker’s nomination in April 2007 as chairperson was something of a departure for the Presidents Conference, the main communal umbrella body on foreign policy, which in recent years has been headed by prominent businessmen.

A respiratory therapist, former college professor and health-care administrator, Walker was a longtime community activist whose involvement with Hadassah began as a teenager.

In June, Walker was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa in recognition of her years of work on behalf of Israel, and in particular her devotion to health care in the Jewish state. Walker was one of seven honorees, including a former director of the Mossad intelligence agency and three university professors, but was chosen to deliver remarks on behalf of the group.

“She told me that she was determined she was going to be strong and healthy to get to Haifa and receive this award because it was for her symbolic of her lifetime achievement, something that represented for her a culmination of her accomplishments,” said Small, who accompanied Walker to Israel for the ceremony.

Small recalled that the honorees were to walk across a balcony and down a flight of stairs, a feat that she knew would be challenging for Walker, who was suffering back and leg pain as a result of her disease.

“She held herself with such dignity and such honor you would never have known that she was suffering,” Small recalled. “And she was beaming.”

Later, Small wrote that Walker was “this generation’s Golda Meir” in an article published on the Web site of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.

Walker rose through a succession of positions at Hadassah before assuming the presidency in 2003, a post she held for four years. Under her leadership, the organization raised $75 million for a $210 million inpatient tower at its hospital at Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, and completed a $48 million emergency medicine facility in Jerusalem.

She also grew the student body at the Hadassah College of Technology in Jerusalem from 600 to 2,000 students.

“It is with a very heavy heart that we begin to mourn June Walker, a unique leader and a wonderful friend to many,” said Walker’s successor as Hadassah president, Nancy Falchuk. “June once said that Hadassah embodied everything she was interested in: Israel, women’s empowerment, Judaism, education, medicine and Zionism. But June personified values that Hadassah stands for: pride, dedication, and spirit enhanced by her own personal grit.”

Walker is the first Presidents Conference chairperson to die in office. The group says it has no succession plan.

“We’ve never had it,” Hoenlein said, adding that when top officials have become incapacitated in the past, former chairmen have temporarily stepped in.

Walker taught at Passaic County Community College in New Jersey and was the director of inservice education for pulmonary medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. She is also a member of the Citizens Committee for Bio-Medical Ethics, the American Lung Association and the Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Hatikvah of Summit, N.J., according to her official Hadassah biography.

She is survived by her husband, Barrett; son, Davi; daughters, Julie Richman and Ellen; and six grandchildren. The funeral was held Aug. 31.

— Ben Harris, Jewish Telegraphic Agency



Oluwaninse Abhay Charan Adeyemi died July 8 at 11. He is survived by his father, Ayodele; mother, Adrienne Liberman; sister, Parama Liberman; and brothers, Manjari and Daniel Liberman. Hillside

Jacob Barad died July 12 at 75. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; and sons, David and Glenn. Hillside

Irene Barton died July 15 at 85. She is survived by her sons, Fred and Mark. Hillside

Mervyn Max Becker died July 21 at 78. He is survived by his wife, Yetta; son, Aaron; daughter, Carla; one grandchild; and sister, Elaine. Groman

Lynda Belasco died July 21 at 61. She is survived by her husband, Steven; son, Joshua; and uncle, Irving (Charlotte) Nudell. Malinow and Silverman

Dr. Murray Gill Boobar died July 7 at 85. He is survived by his wife, Helen; and daughters, Robin Lappen and Mindy Cahan. Hillside

Larry Chalfin died July 20 at 68. He is survived by his wife, Vicki; son, Charles; and daughter, Leah Gordon. Hillside

Edward Chersky died July 17 at 83. He is survived by his wife, Evelyn; and sons, Robert, Barry and Stewart. Hillside

Mania Sara Cymer died died July 12 at 97. She is survived by her sons, Harry and Max. Hillside

Ilse Erlanger died July 13 at 97. She is survived by her daughter, Susan (David) Leveton; and grandchildren, Steven Leveton and Stephanie Kinedale. Hillside

Frances Gordon died July 15 at 97. She is survived by her nephew, Peter Spring. Hillside

Dr. Lawrence Gosenfeld died July 19 at 67. He is survived by his friends. Hillside

Victoria Harris died July 21 at 100. She is survived by her sons, Godfrey (Barbara), Micheal and David. Hillside

Philip Kozin died July 20 at 96. He is survived by his daughter, Gail (Stan) Holander; and son Howard. Hillside

Anna Landsberg died July 12 at 92. She is survived by her sons, Abe and Raymond. Hillside

Charles Robert Lever died July 16 at 78. He is survived by his wife, Pamela; and stepson, Mark Neilson. Hillside

Diane Rita Mehlman died July 17 at 75. She is survived by her son, Lon; and daughter, Dina. Hillside

Emily Bell Miller dies July 14 at 93. She is survived by her daughter, Joyce (Stephen) Ranger; and granddaughter, Courtney Ranger. Hillside

Terry Lee Miller died July 12 at 69. She is survived by her daughters, Allison and Julie; four grandchildren; and companion, Norman Lieberman. Hillside

Gerald David Novorr died July 13 at 91. He is survived by his wife, Pearl; son, James; and daughter, JoAnn. Hillside

Bernard Rumack died July 21 at 87. He is survived by his daughter, Robin; and sister, Vella Bass. Hillside

Lillian Schafer died July 13 at 86. She is survived by her daughters, Sue Sanders, Lyn Caron and Elaine Thomassian. Hillside

Rubin Schieren died July 21 at 93. He is survived by his daughter, Phyllis (Ben) Berkley; son, George (Ellen); and seven grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Ira Schulman died July 20 at 81. He is survived by his sons, Alan and Russell; daughter, Leslie Mendoza; sisters, Davida Racine and Diane Friend; and partner, Nora Graham. Hillside

Mike Simon died July 10 at 75. He is survived by his wife, Angela; sister, Billie Evenas; and stepdaughter, Patricia Garza.

Harry Talsky died July 17 at 93. He is survived by his children, Leland and Martha. Hillside

Marla Lynn Waldman died July 20 at 51. She is survived by her father, Gerald; mother, Barbara; and brothers, Ron and Craig. Hillside

Hilda Weiner died July 15 at 93. She is survived by her sons, Arnold (Elaine) and Edward (Susan). Hillside

Mom’s final resting places — a cremation story


If you are offended either by the idea of cremation or humor about the dead, you may want to stop reading. It's OK.

Maybe you weren't raised (as I was) by a woman who had no short-term memory for several years before she died, but retained a sharp and sick sense of humor — including about her death.

Mom passed away June 13, 2006.

Over the years, Mom made sure my sister Sue and I knew that she didn't want to be kept alive by artificial means or buried in a casket.

“Make sure I'm cremated,” she'd say.

And then the three of us would brainstorm about where to scatter her ashes. We'd get silly and think of ridiculous places and we'd laugh together, not completely accepting the reality of Mom someday being gone.

Mom was, indeed, cremated, and the company that did so divided her ashes into two urns, so that Sue could have Mom there, in North Carolina, and I could have Mom here.

I was going to visit Sue in a few months, so I just took her share of the ashes with me. Although the plane was delayed and the suitcase with Mom's urn almost didn't make it, I finally handed my sister her share of our mother's remains. I think the container is still in Sue's closet, along with the ashes of five beloved dogs.

Back home, I thought about scattering Mom's ashes along a trail where I hike regularly, thinking that she would have loved the trees. My hiking friends and I laughed about attaching bags of the ashes inside our pants' legs and slowly letting the dust pour out while we hiked, hoping not to be caught performing this illegal act.

Although I always thought it was odd when people selected a cemetery plot, saying, “Oh, Grandma will love the view from here,” once my mother died, I understood the idea of finding a place she would enjoy. None of my ideas for Mom's ashes seemed quite right, and they remained in the plastic urn for a year.

The following June, I was swimming laps in our pool and I thought about Mom, who was a great swimmer. I missed her. And I suddenly had an urge to talk with her.

How to start?

I just dove in, so to speak: “Mom, are you there?”

There was a pause and then I heard that familiar voice. “Ellie-bell, I've been waiting to hear from you! How are you, darling?”

Although I was definitely astonished, it also seemed completely natural to talk with my invisible mother — almost like the many years of long-distance phone calls between Ohio and California.

I kept swimming, and my mother asked her usual questions — “How's Ben?” “How are the dogs?” and “How's that lovely man of yours?”

Mom offered her consistently sound, albeit unsolicited, advice: “Don't you think Ben should….?” “Why don't you try….?” “You're not working too hard, are you?”

We laughed about her worrying.

We were silent for a few moments, and then I heard myself asking, “Where exactly are you, Mom?”

She answered immediately: “Oh, I'm every place I've ever loved!”

It's hard to describe how I felt hearing this: Relieved. Elated. Hopeful.

She apparently had something else to do, because she said we'd talk again and was gone. I felt a mixture of sadness and contentment.

That afternoon, I finally opened the urn, took out some of Mom's ashes and scattered them in my garden. Mom, who was quite the gardener, would have loved it among the pansies and geraniums, her favorite flowers.

A few months later, I was going to Ohio to visit my father with my 16-year-old son, Ben, and my boyfriend, Vince. I poured half of Mom's remaining ashes into several Ziplock bags to take with me, since Cleveland was Mom's birthplace.

My father was delighted to accompany us on our expedition to visit all of Mom's homes and leave some of her ashes at each. Dad served as tour guide, reminiscing about his family and growing up in Cleveland.

Mom's favorite home was the house where Sue and I had spent many happy hours and nights, visiting my grandparents. The home sat on a tiny lake where my mother skated in the winter and canoed in the summer. I recalled Mom's favorite story about canoeing there with a boyfriend when she was 16: the canoe suddenly tipped over, the young man swam for his life to the shore, and Mom stood up in knee-deep water and pulled the canoe in. Mom couldn't get through the story, even in later years, without laughing hysterically.

Dad showed us where, in 1943, he and my mother had their first home — a tiny shack in the woods. Dad barely had time to build a shower, before leaving to serve in the army.

Our last stop was the house where I'd lived until I was 9, when my parents divorced. In that driveway, Mom had used a shovel to remove snow piled on top of her Chevy convertible. We couldn't use the car for the rest of the winter because of the rip she made in the soft-top roof.

The day was wonderful — showing Ben where I grew up, recalling my own childhood and listening to Dad's stories. It was also another chance to remember and celebrate my mother as I left her ashes in gardens and curbside lawns.

My mother's favorite place in the world was Italy. After her first visit there in 1964, she surrounded herself with all things Italian — playing the operas over and over, taking Italian lessons and arranging for an Italian exchange student.

As it happened, last October, Vince and I went to Italy. And Mom went with us.

We stayed in Rome for five days, and at the Forum, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, I had a little conversation with Mom about the sights and deposited some of her ashes.

We rented a car and drove to Assisi, one of Mom's favorite Italian cities. She always had a statue of Saint Francis in her garden, to protect the birds and squirrels — and now Saint Francis has Mom's ashes in the garden outside his church.

Our last stop was Venice, which Mom adored. Near the apartment we rented, I sat on a tiny dock overlooking the Grand Canal. I thought about my mother, about her singing — loudly and off-key– “La Donna e Mobile” from “Rigoletto.” I watched the gondolas go by, and thought also about our very complex relationship — the love, the challenges, the laughter, and the years when our roles were reversed, as she became more dependent and less aware of the world around her. She still remembered me, thank goodness, and still loved Italian operas.

Then I took out the last bag of my mother's remains, turned it upside down between the wooden planks, and let the ashes fall to the water below. I sat for a moment, just breathing, listening to the birds, and looking out over the water, thinking about Mom.

Suddenly, from under the dock, came a large gray film of ash, floating on top of the water, out into the canal, alarmingly visible against the dark water.

I held my breath, waiting for someone to notice how I'd polluted the Grand Canal with the last of my dear mother.

Then a gondola approached the gray film, and the singing gondolier, eyes focused on his passengers and vice versa, scattered my mother's ashes to the fish below.

And my mother was, indeed, in all of the places she most loved.

Ellie Kahn is an oral historian, founder of Living Legacies, at www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com, and president of the nonprofit Living Legacies Historical Foundation. She can be reached at ekzmail@gmail.com.

Lebhar’s Dream


If you wanted to start a worldwide revival of Moroccan Jewish customs, where would you base your operations? Probably where there’s already a high concentration of Moroccan Jews, like, say, Israel, Montreal or France. But right in the heart of trendy Westwood?

Maybe there’s a disconnect there, but don’t say that to Rabbi Mordechai Lebhar. He’s very happy in Westwood.

For one thing, he’s happy wherever his books are. On a recent Sunday afternoon in his cozy Westwood apartment, he showed me some of these books, arranged in high piles on his dining room table. He picked up each one like a watchmaker with a fragile watch. The books contain teachings of the great Moroccan sages going back several centuries.

They are rare books seen by few people, fragile and precious.

But there’s one book in those piles that is not so rare. This is a book the rabbi himself wrote three years ago, “Magen Avot” (“Shield of our Fathers”). The book distilled many of the Moroccan customs discussed by the sages, and it has caused a mini-stir in Moroccan circles around the world because it challenges Moroccan Jews everywhere to reclaim their long-forgotten traditions.

Lebhar’s got this mad love affair with tradition. At one point, he choked up as he spoke of a certain Moroccan custom which I also recall from childhood: Before the final evening prayers of Shabbat, and in front of the congregation, the best voices of the shul would sing these beautiful Tehilim melodies. Why did they do that?

Our Moroccan ancestors, the rabbi explained, were Torah romantics. They were so in love with Shabbat that they didn’t want it to end. So they sang these soulful melodies at the twilight of the holy day, as a way of soaking up and deepening the Shabbat experience, longing against all odds that it would never end.

The rabbi thinks that if Moroccan Jews would become more aware of the reasons behind their traditions, they would be more likely to honor them.

And those reasons are not always romantic. For example, at Shabbat meals, Moroccans have a tradition of saying certain brachas over food, between the Kiddush and the blessing on the bread. Why? Not because our salads are so amazing that we can’t stand to wait another minute, but because Torah-observant Jews have an obligation to recite 100 brachas a day. Since Shabbat prayers have fewer brachas than weekday prayers, our ancestors used the Shabbat meal to help them fulfill that obligation.

Lebhar’s got hundreds of those customs. He can go on for hours on even silly customs, like, say, why Moroccan Jews kiss each other in shul. A few years ago, the great Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who hails from Iraq and often makes rulings that differ from Moroccan customs, ruled that kissing was not allowed in synagogue. He interpreted a talmudic teaching differently than the Moroccan sages, who allowed this traditional greeting between men, based on their own talmudic interpretation.

The point that Lebhar keeps making is that all those Moroccan traditions, silly or not, have good reasons behind them, many of them talmudic reasons driven by a deep respect for Jewish law.

“A lot of Moroccans treat these customs like grandmothers’ folktales,” he told me. “They don’t take them seriously. But you can’t just throw 500 years out the window.”

Since he published his book, he says he’s been getting calls from Moroccan Jews around the world who are gaining a new appreciation for their own customs. That’s why he’s planning to write three more volumes.

Still, for someone so obsessed with reviving his ancestors’ customs, Lebhar has some explaining to do.

Like, for starters, why did he leave his Moroccan community in Montreal when he was in his early 20s to study for more than 10 years in some of the world’s most hard-core Lithuanian yeshivas? And then become fluent in Yiddish?

And why did he become a key player in a whole other Torah revival, one run by Ashkenazi Jews out of Westwood Kehilla, where Lebhar heads a busy outreach kollel?

He doesn’t get defensive when I confront him with these contradictions. He wanted to learn in the best yeshivas, he says, and immerse himself in Talmud. As far as his role with Westwood Kehilla and their program LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel), he loves that they’re creating another “Torah hood” on the Westside.

The person who brought him out here a few years ago, Rabbi Asher Brander, who runs Westwood Kehilla and LINK, has built a portable center of Torah outreach where, Lebhar says, “there’s always serious learning going on.”

That’s the word, I think, that might explain Lebhar’s seeming contradictions: Serious. He takes his Torah seriously, and so do the rabbis and students at Westwood Kehilla and LINK. Lebhar’s a funny guy, but get him going on a piece of Talmud, and he’s in another world.

Seriousness might also explain the bond he feels with his Moroccan ancestors those holy men of Fez, Meknes, Marakkesh and Casablanca who took their traditions very seriously, and whose words live on in the books on Lebhar’s dining room table.

When I asked him what compels him to continue working on this dream of a Sephardi Moroccan revival while immersed in an Ashkenazi community he told me that when he lived in Jerusalem, and studied at the Litvish Yeshiva, he would visit this holy man every week.

The man was the former chief rabbi of Morocco, Rabbi Chalom Essas. After a few years, Lebhar was so impressed with the chief rabbi’s knowledge of Moroccan tradition that he suggested to Rabbi Essas that he should write a book on the subject.

In true Jewish fashion, the chief rabbi, probably having no clue that Lebhar would soon be living in trendy Westwood, replied: “That’s a great idea. Why don’t you do it?”

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Torah Judaism has no concept of ‘ex-gay’


Since 2002, when I started becoming open about my personal religious choice to stop having sex with men, liberals on gay issues have repeatedly accused me of being a Jewish “ex-gay.” But I am no such thing, because Torah Judaism doesn’t have a concept of an ex-gay.

I have no doubt that some people’s sexualities change. I have met many people who say it has happened to them. But I’m skeptical of the ones who credit their “reorientation” therapists. I just don’t see the evidence that it works.

Can prayer change one’s sexuality? I don’t see why not. As an Orthodox Jew, I certainly support people praying for any change they want, from a new sexuality to more patience.

If I didn’t believe God listens to prayers (although not always responding like a genie), I wouldn’t see the point in praying at all. And anyone struggling to bring his behaviors in line with his values could benefit from a good therapist.

But that’s not the focus of the “reparative therapy” promoted to many Jews struggling with same-sex attractions. People pay hundreds of dollars to people like Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, who tell them their homosexuality stems from problematic parenting, but that they can release their inner-heterosexual self through resolving trauma; hypermasculine or hyperfeminine role-playing; “gender-appropriate” activities, like baseball and sewing; and other things I don’t have the stomach to describe.

If the Jewish ex-gay advocates knew anything about Judaism and homosexuality, they wouldn’t endorse Christian psychoanalytic ideas, such as “healing same-sex attractions” and “becoming heterosexual” and the “false identity of homosexuality.” Their offer to help gays “recover their heterosexual potential” has much in common with Nicolosi’s Catholic natural law philosophy.

While Jewish law certainly calls for sexuality to be channeled into opposite-sex relationships, no notion that we’re all inherently straight appears in any Jewish text. The Torah knows no sexual orientations which is the point of Rabbi Joel Beasley’s important 1998 Jewish Spectator article, “Why Neither Homosexuality nor Heterosexuality Exist in Judaism.”

Many outspoken Jewish supporters of the ex-gay movement are nonobservant Jews. One Jewish woman who wanted to encourage me to become ex-gay sent me an e-mail on Shabbat to suggest some reparative therapy Web sites.

I wrote her back to let her know that (and I confirmed this with an Orthodox rabbi) if she had to violate one commandment, it would have been better for her to engage in lesbian sex than for her to e-mail me on Shabbat.

The main Jewish ex-gay group is Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH). JONAH’s confusion about Judaism and homosexuality is most evident in its promotion of Christianity.

Disturbingly, eight times JONAH’s Web site recommends a book titled, “Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth,” by Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, a Jewish psychiatrist. I read that book in 2002 when my rabbi told me it was JONAH-endorsed.

Satinover quotes the New Testament far more than any Jewish source. The views of the Apostle Paul (the founder of Christianity, who Satinover told me in an e-mail had “remarkably many deeply Jewish characteristics”) appear on more than a dozen pages.

JONAH’s Web site even quotes Jesus’ thoughts about conversion to Christianity as expressed in the Gospel of Luke. The executive vice president of one organization JONAH has promoted used to have a policy (until I demanded its reversal) of refusing to talk to any Jews, no matter how observant, unless he was allowed to evangelize them for Christ.

Why is JONAH so intent on introducing Jewish strugglers to Christian ideas about homosexuality? Surely it’s not advocating the path of ex-gay Richard Cohen, a man highlighted by JONAH’s Web site more than a dozen times, who left Judaism in the 1970s to become a Moonie and now claims to be a more mainstream Christian. Committed Jews should challenge such apostasy, not admire it.

I would love to see a Torah-true organization for same-sex-attracted Jews, who on their own seek help in following Judaism’s guidelines for family and bedroom life. Alas, such an organization does not yet exist.

David Benkof is a doctoral student in American Jewish history at New York University. He can be reached at davidbenkof@aol.com.

Ancient sources yield health and diet wisdom


Many diet books promise a better, thinner you in a ridiculously short amount of time, but conventional wisdom holds that many diets stop working by about 6 p.m.

Two recent books — “The Life-Transforming Diet” (Feldheim, 2007) and “The Jerusalem Diet” (Gefen, 2007) — offer approaches intended to help Jewish dieters make changes in eating styles that would work in the evening as well as during the day.

Diet books don’t often include approbations from rabbis, but they’re appropriate for “The Life-Transforming Diet,” a structured eating plan based on the writings of physician and Torah scholar Maimonides.

Adapting this 800-year-old diet, author David J. Zulberg presents a plan for long-term changes using the scholar’s prescriptions for self-improvement.

Maimonides was uncannily accurate in many of his suggestions, including a focus on preventive medicine, reducing salt and red meat and adding daily exercise.

“Overeating is like poison to the body and it is the main cause of all illness,” he wrote.

In addition to practical diet considerations during Sabbath meals, “The Life-Transforming Diet” offers useful information on nutrition, fat choices and Maimonides’ views on red meat. (“Only eat meat if you are bored with chicken.”)

His list of bad foods, from aged meat to moldy food, is remarkably similar to the American Institute for Cancer Research’s list of foods to avoid. But some of the ancient advice doesn’t always translate to a modern audience: “Sometimes I drink soup made from young roosters and then go to sleep.”

And then there’s the difference in lifestyle. In Maimonides’ time, “daily life included physical labor which required a greater caloric intake. Today, people need to eat less to balance the energy equation. Unless you are a professional athlete, you just cannot eat that much,” said Jodi Newson, director of nutrition services for Tower Hematology Oncology Medical Group in Beverly Hills.

Newson suggests that a book can help people make a change, but says that studies have borne out that it’s also important for dieters to seek guidance from registered dietitians or support groups.

“A book cannot encourage you when you hit a plateau,” she said.

Still, one can’t go wrong with Maimonides’ advice that “a person should eat only when he is hungry and he should drink only when he is thirsty.”

“The Jerusalem Diet” doesn’t address how to eat so much as “why” we eat.

ALTTEXTJudith Besserman and Emily Budick refer to their plan as an “appetite for life” and employ guided imagery to unearth the reasons behind overeating.

Besserman, a practicing psychotherapist in Jerusalem and New York City, runs weight-loss groups based on guided imagery techniques adapted from Colette Aboulker-Muscat, a Jerusalem psychotherapist. Emily Budick is a professor of English at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The authors note that most people already use imagery in some form when trying to lose weight (i.e., visualizing a new outfit for an event). Besserman and Budick suggest using such imagery to understand our relationship to food, and then change habits to feed the “slimmer, healthier self” instead.

Simple exercises that involve breathing are used to identify the roots of eating patterns and to visualize your plate to determine whether the food is there for you to gain, maintain or lose weight.

Guided imagery “translates the stories of our life back into a language we can understand” so that dieters can take steps toward weight loss, according to the authors.

But turning to a book to learn guided visualization techniques might be a tall order.

One exercise, “The Moment After,” is supposed to give the reader the feeling of satiety, as if you’ve eaten a chocolate bar. Even after the exercise, I still want the real thing.

“Visualization is not easy to do on your own. You may want to start with someone who can guide you,” said Shelly R. Cohen, a Los Angeles psychotherapist in private practice.

Cohen says that visualization of a healthier self can lead to hopefulness, an important element to ensure effective change.

“It’s always important to identify and address underlying problems that create an obstacle to weight loss, whether they be physical or psychological,” Cohen said, adding: “Weight loss is tricky, and different things work for different people. Just find whatever works for you.”

Tamar Sofer lives in Los Angeles and writes about nutrition and disease prevention.

AUDIO: Iranian American Jews — Death and violence in the community (taboo?)


Local Iranian Jewish community leaders on recent incidents of violence in the community and the traditional taboo on discussing the topic.

http://jewishjournal.com/audio/IAJPodCast20080429.mp3

From Karmel Melamed’s Iranian American Jews blog.

Glass ceiling


Can we talk about gender? Again? Or maybe not.

We have been having a conversation in the Jewish community about gender for more than three decades.

During that time there have been some remarkable changes: the ordination of women rabbis, the proliferation of egalitarian prayer services and bat mitzvah as a rite of passage.

In addition, at least six major organizations and institutions have elected women as board presidents for the first time, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Women philanthropists and entrepreneurs are launching new organizations. More women are featured on panels and publications as intellectuals, academics and writers.

So why do we still need to talk about gender?

Because in a critical aspect, the gender gap still persists in the Jewish community.

Jewish women professionals have done better outside of Jewish organizational life than inside. Jewish women are making laws in the U.S. Senate, deciding great issues on the U.S. Supreme Court, presiding over Ivy League universities and directing some of the nation’s largest philanthropies.

Yet major Jewish organizations, though staffed predominantly by women, are still led professionally by men — from the 20 largest Jewish federations to the national institutions focused on Jewish education, community relations, social service, public policy and Israel advocacy.

With the exception of some local agencies, Jewish women’s groups and a sprinkling of general organizations, including the American Jewish World Service, the Foundation for Jewish Culture and the Israel Project, every national Jewish organization and every religious institution is directed by a man.

Jewish community organizations have resisted tackling gender-related issues that are on the agenda in the corporate world, academia and other professions: equitable salary and compensation, parental leave, policies that promote flexible work arrangements and professional development that supports women’s advancement throughout their careers.

For many years, the strategy for closing the gender gap was to keep talking. Talk to the CEOs. Talk to board members to convince them to champion change. The message was the same one that applied to every other field and profession: Organizations need to become true meritocracies and take full advantage of the talent pool. Diversity in leadership contributes to an organization’s effectiveness — externally by connecting to more segments of the community, and internally by generating a broader set of perspectives and ideas.

While a few exceptional, forward-thinking CEOs and board chairs have engaged these issues, most of them prefer to provide stability and order rather than manage the disruption that would be generated by throwing over the deeply held tradition of male dominance in Jewish organizational life.

Systemic change will not come with talk. It requires action, individual steps by committed people in and outside of those organizations and at different levels to close the gap between the espoused values of gender equity and the current reality. But taking those steps, catalyzing deep change, requires skill and courage.

Changing traditions and values that have been in place for generations will take a long time. That’s why it is so important to start now.

The time for talk is past. If everyone who espouses a commitment to gender equity in Jewish life continues to do what they have been doing, nothing will change.

Let’s move to action now, make more progress than we have in the past toward a future Jewish community in which people from every generation and corner of the organization will join the conversation about the Jewish future — a Jewish community where women truly share leadership with men.

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The writers are the authors of a new book, “Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life,” a resource guide aimed at Jewish organizations that are ready to launch gender equity initiatives.

On the tricky question of ‘who is a Jew[ish writer]?’


I do not know who qualifies as a Jewish writer.

If you wish to count the non-Jewish John Updike because he created a Jewish protagonist (Henry Bech) or if you include genetically Jewish Muriel Spark (who converted to Catholicism and wouldn’t know a box of tefillin or a bag of knishes if it bit her on her now late, lamented nose) it is OK with me.

You may choose to call William Styron a Jewish writer for penning “Sophie’s Choice,” and not Harold Pinter, because his Judaism consists in reviling anything Jewish.

There are some clear cases — I. B. Singer in, David Foster Wallace out — but otherwise, I’m going to leave canonization to the anthologists.

Having avoided writing an essay that has been written too many times, I am free to create my own categories. I hope I can convince you that if Judaism and literature are close to your heart, you should engage in the same exercise.

First category, hosannas for a new and wonderful group: Jewishly literate women. They are very different in feel, but writers like Dara Horn, Tova Mirvis, Allegra Goodman, Nicole Krauss, Ruchama King, Rebecca Goldstein and many others share a knowledge of Judaism without an apparent resentment of it. They are not uncritical, but they are also not beleaguered. This is a relatively new combination in most American Jewish literature, excepting the wondrous Cynthia Ozick. These women are not pushing against the tradition because they do not live in a society where the tradition is pushing against them. Their prose can be coolly witty (Goodman), mystically charged (Horn), elegantly cerebral (Goldstein), and all the while their stories weave in and out of Jewish contexts. I note the parallel, more finicky and double-edged development in England of whom Naomi Alderman and Charlotte Mendelson are the outstanding examples.

Not only are the books unangry (why is that not a word?) but the Judaism in them points beyond itself. Myla Goldberg’s popular “Bee Season” used kabbalah to suggest something that would not be easily earned without the propulsion of tradition. Here is a phenomenon that the Chaim Potok generation never knew — Judaism as liberation. Danny Saunders, the haunted Chasidic progeny of “The Chosen,” had to see a sculpture to know rapture. Today his sister would get an aliyah.

There is a certain liberation in writing as a Jewish woman because the tradition is not so imposing. When you read a modern male counterpart, gesturing rudely behind his back are Saul Bellow, the Roths (Philip and Henry), Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud and on and on. Augie March, Bellow’s wide-eyed lover of the close and far, explorer of his fresh-faced country, is a marvelous creation, but you cannot recreate him. March’s eagle’s feathers have long since molted and turned into Art Speigelman’s “Maus.” Too much pain, too much historical experience and too little societal friction against the artist. The novelist with an immigrant voice, like Gary Shteyngart, can also use the excess of wonderment that Bellow shares with earlier Jewish writers like Stanley Elkin and Mordecai Richler and, for that matter, S.J. Perelman. But that is the prose of exhalation, hard to create if your breathing was never confined in the first place.

A lot of writing has turned intensely personal and memoiristic because with such an open country, the only unfair chafing that the artist receives is at the hands of parents when young. Tales of abuse have little larger message. What constrains the Jew in America? During the Cold War, Philip Roth quipped that in the West everything goes and nothing matters, while in the East nothing goes and everything matters. Perhaps the intense solipsism of much of Roth’s writing is explicable not as a character defect, or not that alone, but also as a reaction to a world in which he cannot struggle against the bonds that would limit him as an artist.

A result of this damnable freedom, some major Jewish writers, as Sylvia Barack Fishman has pointed out, choose other settings to create the story. Michael Chabon creates a fictional Alaska where constraints still apply. Nathan Englander goes to Argentina, where threats are still real. Jonathan Safran Foer goes to an Eastern Europe where the ghosts still reign. For many writers, perhaps for all, the Houdini principle applies: In order for one’s art to reach maximum potency, it has to begin in chains.

So modern Jewish literature is afflicted by category confusion, following the pattern of Ring Lardner’s horseman, who jumped on his steed and rode off in all directions. Much of it draws on the power of the past; Nicole Krauss’ “History of Love” is a palmipsest, where the modern love story is charged with the electricity of what came before. Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” uses the immigrant experience and so does Ozick’s “Heir to the Glimmering World.” The writing of Thane Rosenbaum and Melvin Bukiet reprises Holocaust themes, often to powerful effect. But who brings news of today? Is there news to bring? Sept. 11 looms increasingly as a modern catastrophe with ever unfolding consequences, and the turn to Sept. 11 novels is an indication of how powerful the need for a scaffolding of historical consequence to build an enduring novel.

When Allegra Goodman writes about scientific fraud in “Intuition” we witness a talented novelist writing a competent novel about material she has mastered but which is not her own. (To see an instructive contrast, read C.P. Snow’s “The Affair” on the same question a generation before. Snow was a scientist, but paradoxically, although there is less science in the novel, the psychology is more subtle and acute.) When Goodman writes “Kaaterskill Falls” there is something at stake and the result is incrementally more moving. Goodman’s passion for things Jewish lights up her characters and enlivens the story. The question is: Where and when does the Jewish novelist still have something at stake?

Long ago, the doyenne of American Jewish letters, Ozick, issued a call for a “new Yiddish.” There is still a playful, buoyant and exuberant strain in many Jewish writers that recalls a sort of highbrow Borsht Belt. Safran Foer’s Alex would sneer at a sentence by Raymond Carver or Anne Beattie if it tiptoed up to him all well-behaved and full of WASP-like angst; the result would be like having Mork visit Walton’s Mountain. Still, style is not enough. And with the prosperity of American Jews, the post-idealized age of Israel and the ironic flippancy that rides sidesaddle on any statement of commitment, what is an American Jewish writer supposed to love?

The sweet rewards of Rosh Hashanah rituals


The change was subtle but undeniable. A slightly deeper shade of brown; carrots cut lengthwise rather than sliced; some scattered sprigs of rosemary. Any other day of the year, such a discrete rift in recipe might have gone unnoticed. But this was not any other day of the year — this was Rosh Hashanah.

“What’s up with the brisket, Grandma?” my preteen son asked, echoing my suspicions that bubbe’s famous brisket — the eternal pillar of my family’s High Holy Day feasts — had undergone an unprecedented facelift.

“I thought I’d try something a little different this year,” answered my mother (who had recently been possessed by Rachael Ray).

“But I like the old brisket,” said my younger son.

“Me, too!” agreed my daughter.

“Oh, no. Not the brisket!” added the eldest of my grumbling foursome.

“Shh, I’m sure it’s delicious,” I said, trying to mask my own disappointment in the demise of the dish of honor.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that my kids and I didn’t appreciate the wonderful meal my mother had prepared. (We did.) And it’s not that the updated version of bubbe’s famous recipe wasn’t a legitimate improvement over the original. (It was.) It’s just that it didn’t matter whether Ray herself had prepared that brisket — it wasn’t about taste at all.

In fact, prior to that particular evening, my children had scarcely given our traditional Rosh Hashanah brisket a second thought. It was not until it went MIA — and was suddenly replaced with a swankier roast — that my kids came to appreciate its significance in their lives.

Please! You may be thinking. How can you possibly suggest that a brisket could have a significant impact on someone’s life?

But it wasn’t just any old brisket; it was bubbe’s famous brisket. The same unwavering recipe that had accompanied my family’s Jewish New Year for as long as my children could remember — for as long as I could remember. In the predictable presence of bubbe’s brisket on our Rosh Hashanah table, my children found steady ground; a sturdy link between their past, present and future; and a safety net woven out of knowing where they have been and where they are going.

No, I’m not being melodramatic. Oodles of experts believe that it is in the simple repetitions of life — not in the grand black-tie affairs — that our children find the stability and continuity they need to thrive in an unpredictable world. That it is ritual and tradition — not kiddie stress management seminars or pint-sized yoga classes — that build a vital sense of emotional security in our kids.

Of course, if you asked Tevyeh the Milkman of “Fiddler on the Roof” fame, the power of tradition is not breaking news. Yet, in our rocket-paced, technology-based, achievement-driven, media-ridden society, the presence of family rituals in our children’s lives may be more integral to their emotional well-being than ever before.

Fortunately, Jewish life is positively bursting at the seams with ritual opportunity for modern parents: lighting the Chanukah candles, welcoming Elijah to our seder table, eating challah on Shabbat — all these experiences fill our children’s lives with spirituality, security and predictability. Yet the defining rituals of the Jewish New Year play an especially vital role in our children’s overall well-being, as they also carry meaningful symbolism and essential life lessons. What follows are a few of our rich Rosh Hashanah traditions and the ways they strengthen and prepare our children for the coming year — and far beyond.

10 New Traditions for the New Year

To help ensure your family enjoys all the sweet rewards of the Jewish New Year (while simultaneously taking advantage of the bountiful benefits of family rituals), here are some outside-of-the-box, ripe-for-the-picking Rosh Hashanah traditions:

  1. Visit a paint-it-yourself ceramic shop and decorate Kiddush cups, apple plates or honey bowls together.
  2. Put together baskets of apples, honey, raisins and other sweet treats, and deliver them as a family to a hospital or nursing home.
  3. Give the world a birthday present by planting a tree. (You’ll have a whole Rosh Hashanah grove before long!)
  4. Let your kids design your Rosh Hashanah tablecloths, placemats and challah covers using fabric crayons or markers. (Hint: for younger children, try cutting an apple on its side to reveal a star in the middle, dip the fruit in fabric paint and let your little stars stamp away.)
  5. Take a Rosh Hashanah family nature hike. Sit down in a shady spot and have everyone share what he or she appreciates about one another.
  6. Go apple picking. Use your haul to make Rosh Hashanah apple cakes, kugels and other goodies.
  7. Have a shofar-blowing showdown.
  8. Gather family pictures from the past year and work together to create a “year-in-review” collage.
  9. After lighting the Rosh Hashanah candles, join hands and let everyone share hopes and dreams for the coming year.
  10. Leave Hershey Kisses on your children’s pillows every erev Rosh Hashanah along with a note wishing them a sweet New Year.

This article originally appeared in the World Jewish Digest.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? is now available for preorder on www.Amazon.com and will be released by Broadway Books this October. www.sharonestroff.com.

This book can help kick off successful year of study


Each week, children around the world partake in the b’nai mitzvah, a life-altering event that normally paves the way for greater Jewish participation. But how many of them actually know the meaning and origin of the simcha?

Given my own experience as a b’nai mitzvah instructor, I would expect it to be a relatively small number.

And before Bert Metter’s three sons went through their respective bar mitzvahs, he said he knew very little as well. Metter never had a bar mitzvah of his own, but he said after going through the experience with his children, he emerged a bit of an expert.

In 1984, Metter wrote “Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah: How Jewish Boys and Girls Come of Age,” a guide specifically geared toward the b’nai mitzvah student. But more than two decades later, Metter said the book deserved an update, because it no longer reflects contemporary ceremonies, especially since practices and celebrations have evolved.

“The whole position of the ceremony and cultural life has changed over the last 25 years,” said Metter, a 79-year-old Connecticut resident. “Many more non-Jewish people attend the ceremony, there’s more diversity now and the meaning of the ceremony has grown in importance.”

With the August release of his revised, “Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah: The Ceremony, the Party, and How the Day Came to Be” (Clarion Books), Metter hopes to impart some timely clarity before young adults take to the bimah, by providing a “concise background” for those with a vague understanding of the b’nai mitzvah.

“Most books are too complicated,” said Metter, who has written the book at a fourth-grade level. Instead, he wants “to bridge the gap between kids that are going through the ceremony and the more secular kids without the religious training.”

Framing the b’nai mitzvah as similar to coming-of-age rites the world over and throughout history, Metter explores the evolution of the Jewish ceremony. Less physical and more spiritual than its counterparts, the age for b’nai mitzvah was set at 13 for boys and 12 more recently for girls, because these were considered turning-point ages. He writes that this stands in contrast to Jewish law, which put draft and tax ages at 20.

And while the bar mitzvah has been a tradition for boys since the Middle Ages, Metter devoted equal time to the more recent active roles women have taken in synagogue life, from Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, daughter of Reconstructionist movement founder Mordecai Kaplan, the first female to become bat mitzvah, to passages about Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first female rabbi.

In an effort to inspire students, Metter includes celebrity b’nai mitzvah testimonials from stars like Jamie Gertz, Jake Gyllenhaal, Marlee Matlin, Jeremy Piven, Ben Stiller and Zoe Weizenbaum.

Metter writes that Gyllenhaal’s party was in a homeless shelter, because his parents wanted him to appreciate how good his life was. But for Gertz, her bat mitzvah day was one disaster after another. She ran a 103-degree temperature, and a snowstorm kept half of her relatives from attending the ceremony. “I enjoyed my son’s bar mitzvah much more,” she says.

Covering ceremony basics, from the Torah scrolls and tallit to prayers, the book also provides insight as to what the student may be thinking on the nights prior to the ceremony.

“You lie in bed, and in your mind you go over the prayers that you are to read tomorrow. And you recite lines from your speech you will have to give,” wrote Metter, who spent several months researching the topic and interviewed one Reform and two Conservative rabbis to ensure the guide’s accuracy.

And besides the traditional reasons for the b’nai mitzvah — among them, publicly affirming one’s faith — Metter introduces young readers to the concept that preparation for the ceremony is helpful in that it helps them face “moral questions.” “The religious study encouraged by and required for the ceremony helps prepare them for facing these questions,” he writes.

Helpful to students, parents and tutors, “Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah” provides an excellent overview of what the b’nai mitzvah is about. in addition to getting them excited about the whole process.

In addition to discussing the different b’nai mitzvah traditions and practices from cultures throughout the world, Metter also covers the growing practice of celebrating a b’nai mitzvah in Israel or in a congregation in the United States or abroad that has specific historical significance.

Although he’s more in favor of standard ceremonies and modest parties, Metter remains moderately balanced when explaining the different customs and styles of celebration. For every extravagant party that might feature Ja Rule or Ashanti, there is a modest small-town celebration, he writes, and yet both students will likely enjoy their simchas.

Written with a more religiously liberal crowd in mind, this book is one that can help kick off a successful year of b’nai mitzvah study.

Metter, an advertising executive, is currently at work on a book about helping kids improve their SAT scores. Expanding on the Jewish celebrations theme, he is also mulling over a book about the Passover seder.

As far as an adult bar mitzvah, another topic covered in his 80-page “Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah,” Metter isn’t ruling out the possibility of studying to become a son of the commandment.

“I plan on doing one in near future,” he said.

There is more going on than just a ceremony and a party


I have a confession to make.

I punched out my brother at his bar mitzvah. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true.

I was sitting at a table with him and a couple of cousins, and he told this joke I didn’t find very funny. I looked at this smirk on his face, and I just couldn’t stand it. When he did it again, I lost it.

It was strange and very unlike me. It’s not as if I was getting into fights all the time. I was a pretty mellow kid.

Now, compare that to a story a friend relayed to me recently. He told me about the first time his son put on tefillin. The bar mitzvah boy said that he felt as if God was standing right next to him. Deep stuff.

So while my brother got punched out at his bar mitzvah — by me — this other kid met God. Of course, some kids start getting into trouble at this age, while others really start to excel as students.

Why are people so prone to intense experiences at or around this right of passage? Is it just a coincidence, or is there something deeper going on?

Albert Einstein, no dummy himself, once asserted that God does not play dice with the universe. I think he was right.

Most rabbis, when talking or writing about b’nai mitzvah, mention becoming a grown-up, gaining a higher ability to discern between good and evil, becoming responsible for one’s own actions, being counted in a minyan, etc. While all these things may be true technically, they are a little counterintuitive.

Why is a 12- or 13-year-old kid suddenly an adult? They sure don’t look grown up; most aren’t even done growing yet.

It turns out that all Jewish rules, holidays and mitzvahs are actually a reflection of a kabbalistic cosmic reality. For example, Shabbat corresponds to the day of the week most opportune for spiritual renewal, the time when all the energy for the next six days comes in.

Men put tefillin on their heads and left arms to influence their hearts and minds in a more positive direction. Most people probably assume that their soul is with them entirely at birth, but Kabbalah disagrees. In the 15th century, Rabbi Issac Luria, known as The Ari, explained how a person’s neshama, or soul, comes down from heaven in stages, and that 12 or 13 is when one of the largest pieces finally comes down.

Sounds odd, I know. But check this out for yourself. Pick a memory from your childhood, any memory will do. Focus on it. Most people will find it kind of fuzzy and dreamlike.

Now, think of an event a few years later, during your teen years. Suddenly, those memories become as crisp as HD.

The Zohar, the principal kabbalistic text written in the first century C.E. by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, teaches that your soul is actually your intellect. Taken one step further, your brain is simply a processor that your soul uses, much like a computer. So, before b’nai mitzvah age, you are simply “not all there.”

Ever had a conversation with a 5-year-old? Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

So, once a person is “all there,” it makes sense that he or she can be held accountable for his or her actions. And of course, this is also where the roller-coaster of teen years begins.

Soul newly complete, we are bombarded with new thoughts, intellect and desires. It’s a wild, sometimes confusing ride.

But becoming responsible for one’s actions is not the only change. We also become responsible for our tikkun, the rectification a person is supposed to go through during his life.

Rabbi Luria wrote about this in detail in his ground-breaking Shaar HaGilgulim (Gates of Reincarnation). Apparently, a person is responsible for fixing his character flaws, learning certain lessons and paying back debts from prior lifetimes.

Everyone has their own challenges in life regarding career, relationships, parents, substance abuse, you name it. According to Luria, all these challenges are heaven-sent to allow a person to iron themselves out, so to speak. And it all begins at b’nai mitzvah time.

Most Jews would probably be surprised to learn that reincarnation is a Jewish concept, but it is. In the Midrash and in the Zohar, it is explained that Abel was reincarnated into Noah, then later into Moses, and that the 10 martyrs killed by the Romans were being punished for slandering Israel when they “spied out the Land” in their incarnations as the tribal heads.

So, when a kid turns b’nai mitzvah age, there is a lot more going on than just a religious ceremony and a good party. According to the sources quoted, the ceremony is an acknowledgement of much deeper things taking place in one’s soul, when one’s true self is present for the first time, along with all the things that go along with that.

Of course, none of this excuses me for hitting my brother during his big moment. Stewart, if you’re reading this, I really am sorry.

Matt Lipeles is a nice guy and doesn’t hit anyone these days — even if they really deserve it. He can be reached at malipeles@earthlink.net.

An inconvenient voice


Moses buries him.

Literally – he opens up the earth, and Korah and his followers are swallowed alive.

The rabbis of the Midrash were more graceful. They only buried him literarily and morally – projecting upon him every evil motive and base intention.

For the rabbis, Korah becomes the personification of manipulative demagoguery, personal greed, vicious envy of power and position, exploitation, arrogance and rebelliousness; a rebel he is.

After the people Israel are condemned to wander the desert 40 years, Korah raises a revolt against Moses and Aaron: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3).

It is too easy to label Korah evil and dismiss his claims. There is nothing in the pshat, the simple reading of the biblical text, to castigate Korah as the embodiment of evil. In fact, it is suspicious how ready everyone is to get rid of him. What are we covering up? What truth does Korah know?

At Mount Sinai, God proclaimed, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).

Korah asks: If we are all a kingdom of priests, what is the special prerogative of one who proclaims himself “spiritual leader”? Instructing the building of the Mishkan shrine, God announced, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).

Korah wonders: If God already dwells among the people, who needs intermediaries and functionaries to reach God? In Leviticus, God commanded: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

Korah points out: Holiness, the quality we share with God, is within our reach. Not an elite, but holiness is within us all. Moses himself offered: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them” (Numbers 11:29).

Korah responds: Shouldn’t this be our goal? Not to elevate another Moses, but to elevate the entire community to his prophetic vision?

Korah is a rebel, no doubt. But he is a holy rebel. He rebels in obedience to God. And Moses’ impulse to bury him represents a serious failure of leadership.

A healthy community needs holy dissent. A healthy community needs voices demanding a renewed commitment to ideals. A healthy community needs to be reminded that its moral compromises are just that, compromises – the best we could do under the circumstances, not the best we could do. Korah is an irritant, a source of aggravation, a challenge to authority and to accepted practice. It’s no wonder we want to bury him. But a living community of conscience and spirit needs a Korah.

Another great spiritual dissident, Martin Buber, taught that a spiritual community swings between poles of “religion” and “religiosity.” “Religiosity” refers to those rare ecstatic moments when the Absolute breaks into our experience and reorients our vision and values. These are moments of passion and insight. But they are fleeting. “Religion” is born when these moments are captured, organized and preserved in symbols, texts and rites. At the heart of spiritual life lives this tension: As “religion” settles into holy tradition, it loses touch with these original moments of ecstasy and revelation. It loses its creative energy. Religion needs religiosity.

“Religion is true so long as it is creative,” Buber wrote, “but it is creative so long as religiosity is able to imbue [it] with new and incandescent meaning. Once religious rites and dogmas have become so rigid that religiosity cannot move them, religion becomes uncreative and therefore untrue.”

One of the wonders of Jewish history is our continuing capacity to welcome and absorb holy dissent. We are a living community, held together by deep bonds of family and communal solidarity, and not just a church bound by dogma. Therefore, there has always been room to embrace dissent and rebellion without destroying the Jewish people. Prophets challenged Priests, and they were included in the Bible. The rabbis disagreed about almost everything, and the Talmud proclaimed: “These and these are the words of the living God.”

Mystics and Chasidim challenged rabbinical authorities, and their voices were added to the symphony of Jewish wisdom. The greatest Jewish rebellion in Modernity was Zionism. And today, we are all Zionists. We are a creative people because the voice of Korah lives.

We are committed to teach our children the Torah of Moses – Jewish continuity, faithfulness to the Jewish past, loyalty to tradition and ancestors. Their curriculum must also include the Torah of Korah – holy rebellion, spiritual dissent.

Alongside continuity, let us celebrate the creative overturning and reinvention of Jewish life and vision.

That, too, is our holy tradition.

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

Fiery holiday lights up Lag B’Omer spirit





The wind blew cold and fierce and the waves crashed onto the beach as the sun set pink behind the craggy Santa Monica Mountains and bonfires battled for their lives in pits carved into the sand.

It’s a scene that might well seem like any weekend at Dockweiler Beach in El Segundo, the only Los Angeles public shorefront where bonfires are legal. But last weekend, there was a different type of crowd, for a special type of celebration: Lag B’Omer.

Never heard of it?

Don’t worry, many Jews haven’t. Lag B’Omer, literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer — the period between Passover and Shavuot — is a relatively minor Jewish holiday that in recent years has become more popular among spiritually seeking Jews.

It marks the day that the plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students ended; it also marks the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who some think wrote the primary Kabbalistic text, the Zohar.

The holiday has always been observed by the Orthodox, and in Israel, it’s celebrated nationally and is a school holiday, but these days, some non-Orthodox synagogues, Jewish youth and singles groups and others have also taken to the beach to build fires, sing and revel in the fun.

“I’m really into how a lot more Jewish events have spread to non-Orthodox communities, like tashlich,” said Donna Bojarsky, a political consultant. On Tashlich, as part of the Rosh Hashana celebration, people throw bread into a body of water to symbolically wash away sins.

Like Lag B’Omer, the ritual often involves a trip to the beach and has become a festive community event, a way for Jews of all stripes to find new meaning and connections to Judaism outside the typical American “three-day-a-year” traditions.

“I think that’s a cool thing, and I wanted to support it,” said Bojarsky, one of 60 or so people who came to the bonfire of Nashuva, the spiritual community led by Rabbi Naomi Levy. A half-dozen or so bonfires from various Jewish organizations and groups of friends peppered the beach on both Saturday and Sunday nights this year. Many postponed the event from its actual night until Sunday because of the late hour of the Shabbat sunset.

The spirit of the holiday can be as different as the people celebrating it. At the Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard, Saturday was an all-night learning, singing and dancing affair celebrating Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. In Israel, tens of thousands of people visit his grave to say special prayers, and upsherin, the first haircuts for 3-year-old boys, are also done there, and around the world, on this holiday. Picnics, outings, concerts and all types of celebrations mark the day, which breaks up the mourning period of the Omer.

“Legend has it that Shimon Bar Yochai hid in a cave for 12 years,” Rabbi Levy explained to the Nashuva participants. They were sitting bundled up against the wind on beach chairs and blankets, surrounding an array of drums about to be played. Levy told how a freshwater spring and a carob tree appeared near the rabbi’s cave, and he survived on those while he studied inside the cave. When he emerged, he could no longer understand regular life, because he was on such a high plane, and so Lag B’Omer became a celebration of the mystical Torah, the way that Shavuot is a celebration of the physical Torah. “Tonight, in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, we’re asking ourselves to take ourselves into a another world, a mystical world, and enter into a place of joy and insight,” Levy said.

Some groups had bonfires to celebrate Bar Yochai — and their identity.

“He’s Sephardic, a hero to Jews,” said Sandy Benchimol, director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an organization with branches around the United States, Canada and Israel. By the time the sun went down, SEC had the biggest bonfire on the beach and some 60 twenty-somethings.

For others, Lag B’Omer is not about anything religious at all.

“We’re here to pass on the tradition,” said Ayelet Sason, who sat at another bonfire with some 20 other Israelis. Like most of their countrymen, they mark holidays with barbecues and had brought supplies to make hot dogs and hamburgers to accompany the chips and marshmallows that were at every one of the Lag B’Omer tables. They also brought guitars and songbooks to sing traditional Hebrew songs like “Tumbalalaika” and “How Good It Is to Come Home.”

And for those involved in kiruv, or outreach bringing Jews closer to Judaism, Lag B’Omer is a way to bring it all together — identity, community, spirituality, religion and fun.

“They get Jewish identity by getting together for a Jewish festival,” said Rabbi Chaim Brooke, head of CSUN Hillel, at the fire for students from Chabad at Santa Monica College, Pierce and CSUN. “It inspires them to be better Jews and better people.”