Elad Salomon with his wife, Michal, and three of their children. Elad, his father and his sister were stabbed to death on July 21 in a terrorist attack at Halamish.

Lessons from the house of mourning in Halamish

Three days after an Israeli father and two of his children were stabbed to death on Shabbat by a Palestinian in a West Bank settlement, I found myself with 16 other progressive rabbis sitting shivah for the deceased, the Salomons, in a Charedi neighborhood.

It was perhaps the hardest moment of a recent visit to Israel — sitting with the other Americans, our shoulders, heads and legs covered as we paid our respects to this grieving family. We stood out among the others and were stared at by many, and yet, we found many surprising similarities between us and were received by the family with such grace and warmth and real gratitude that it moves me deeply just to recall it.

I have been coming to Israel for more than 20 years, and these visits have never been picture perfect. I lived here as a rabbinical student in the 1990s, during the huge marches for peace, which then brought about the tragic assassination of Yitzhak Rabin after he signed the Oslo peace accords. Shortly after I arrived with a group from my congregation in 2006, the second Lebanon war broke out. And a few years ago, when I brought another group, our ice-breaker the first morning ended with the sound of sirens and instructions to head to shelters because missiles had been launched and Iron Dome activated.

I’m used to arriving in Israel and having things change dramatically within hours or days, but I was hoping this time would be different. It wasn’t.

As Tisha b’Av approaches — it begins the evening of July 31 — I am keenly aware of the dual realities that animate Israeli life. The destruction of the Temples in flames, the massacre of other Jews in so many other times and places, all of the hatred that has been and still is directed at us as a people is real and palpable here as Israel continues to fight for legitimacy and the safety of her people. It pervades every political conversation, every heated argument, every major decision. The pain of the past and the fear our people have internalized, coupled with the fact that this is the Middle East, makes this place a tinderbox ready to ignite at any moment.

It took no time for me to be reminded of all this when I came last week for the American Israel Education Foundation Rabbinic Seminar to travel across the country with colleagues and learn from experts about the complex issues at play here. We arrived hearing that the government had rescinded the agreement that took years to craft, granting egalitarian services at the Western Wall. Local people and delegations from the United States turned out and protested the government’s reversal of policy.

But that was just the beginning. The big news as we arrived was the government response to a challenge from the Israel Religious Action Center, opposing government discrimination against gay and lesbian couples wanting to adopt children. The government alleged that being raised by a same-sex couple would prove harmful to a child because it would “load extra baggage on the child.” As a social liberal and as a lesbian mother, this was particularly painful and disappointing for me, as it was for all of our delegation.

We stood out among the others and were stared at by many, and yet, we were received by the family with such grace and warmth and real gratitude.

Immediately, 90,000 people signed a petition against the decision, including professional organizations of psychologists, mental health professionals, social workers and others. They argued that all research proves that children are better off in a loving home with loving parents of any kind. What amazed me was that, in Tel Aviv, 15,000 people turned out to protest the government’s position. I was deeply moved by how far ahead of the government so much of the Israeli public is on issues like this.

But as soon as there is a march to further the cause of social justice, there is another mass gathering resulting from another kind of deep tension here. Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians we’ve met with all agree on one thing: Narratives and symbols have great power here in Jerusalem and go beyond reason to powerful emotion very quickly. Actions taken even for good reasons become flash points because they trigger a deeper struggle — the struggle between two peoples and the narratives that express their existential understandings of themselves and their place in the world. And this is what is at the heart of what’s been happening recently on the Temple Mount.

On July 14, two Israeli Arabs murdered two Israeli Druze police officers guarding the Temple Mount. As a result, the government decided to place metal detectors at the entrance to the area. The decision to physically put them in place just hours after the shooting prompted a heated reaction from Palestinians, who saw this as a breach of the status quo at their holy site. Protecting Israelis from those who would murder them makes sense, and the Israeli government has every right to take any action it deems necessary to protect its citizens. What is so sad and shortsighted is that the decision was implemented in a way that completely ignored how this action would be perceived and used by extreme elements within the Arab world.

And it was used: Extremists claimed that Jews were preventing Muslims from praying at Al-Aqsa and called on their faithful to protest in massive numbers. Clashes with police happened on a large scale hours after 15,000 Israelis marched for LGBT adoption rights in Tel Aviv.  

After incitement by Hamas and other radical groups, thousands of Palestinians clashed with police July 21 in the West Bank, and three Palestinians were killed. Later that night, a 19-year-old Palestinian climbed the fence of a Jewish settlement in the West Bank where three generations of the Salomons were celebrating Shabbat and the birth of a new baby. The suspect stabbed three people to death and wounded another, leaving a bloody scene in his wake.

In the same 24 hours, Israel moved from a place with an active debate that would be celebrated in any democracy about social policy to a place where one action that should have made sense tore apart society.

The scene of the Halamish attack. Photo courtesy of IDF

The deep divides between the secular and religious, Palestinians and Israelis, haves and have-nots, hawks and doves will not be bridged in our lifetimes — if ever. As a wise teacher told us on this trip, the oldest Hebrew texts talk about peace and justice in terms of seeking, not of achieving. We are not a people of arrival but of journey “toward.” If there is a people who can model for the world that humans can vigorously pursue ideals they know they never will see fully realized, it is the Jewish people. If there is any country that can make titanic struggles into creative new paradigms, it is Israel.

Our teacher also taught us that he does not view the glass as half full but believes it is important to celebrate that the opportunity exists to pour water into the glass. We break a glass at every Jewish wedding to symbolize what is still broken in our world.

Tisha b’Av reminds us of this so well. What I love about Israel and her people is that even with all that I’ve described, there is a spirit of innovation, creativity, lust for life and defiant hope that also is ingrained in our people. While biblical Israelite religion was destroyed when the Temple burned, Rabbinic Judaism was born at the same time. With every tragedy and act of brutality that happens here, something new and unanticipated is created.

May we have the continued strength to crush glass at our most joyful times so that we remain mindful of the shattered and broken world we live in, the world of conflicting and sometimes flammable confrontation with one another. May we also bless the fact that we are given a glass and the opportunity, as our wise teacher said, to pour water into it at all.

Amid all of the tension and all the misunderstanding and mistrust in Israel these days, our experience of sitting with the Salomons, people in such pain, as a sacred act is an example of the only solution — encountering one another as human beings. As someone very wise once said, “If our hearts must break, let them break open.”

Rabbi Amy Bernstein is senior rabbi at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.

Dan Freedman and his wife, Karen Macarah, with their children and stepchildren: In front, from left: Sam Macarah, 13; Lexi Freedman, 11; Cate Freedman, 8. In back, Abby Macarah, 12; Jake Freedman, 14. Photo courtesy of Dan Freedman

Dad steps into unexpected role after tragedy strikes

Nothing can prepare you for fatherhood. Sure, Amazon has an endless supply of books, and there are a million websites dedicated to the topic. Beyond all that, there is no shortage of friends and neighbors willing to lend an opinion.

And yet, despite all that, little could prepare me for the three versions of fatherhood I experienced before my first child became a teenager.

I went from your typical dad with two kids, to a single dad with three, to a stepdad with a blended family of five in a dizzying period of my life that challenged me in ways I never could have imagined, but ultimately shaped me to become a better, more patient man, and hopefully, a better, more patient dad.

But, as we dads know, when you first hold that baby, or when you first wake up to a plaintive wail, or when you play your first game of catch, there is no preparing for that.

Dads are, by and large, the butt of the joke, the bumbling father who can barely make it out the door with his briefcase and coffee, struggling to get to the recital without embarrassing his daughter or angering his wife. We try and we fail.  I was — and am — no different. 

During my first six years of parenthood, I had an amazing wife who booked the doctors’ appointments, enrolled in all the right classes, made sure our kids had sufficient “tummy time” and knew just when to start potty training.  It was as if she had memorized the entire “What to Expect” canon. Sure, she had her moments of insecurity and failure, but those paled compared with my daily entreaty: “Please don’t let me screw up.”

In hindsight, those were the easy years. I was the classic suburban dad — more useful on weekends, trying to be present during the week. I was never where I was supposed to be, whether at the office or at home, but I was muddling through, and my wife loved me enough to want a third child. So we decided to forgo the man-to-man defense; we were prepared to play zone with three kids.

But then, one day I woke up and found myself a single father of three. The painful details are not important, but 21 hours after our third child was born, my wife died. In an instant, it became a three-on-one fastbreak. This, I hadn’t signed up for.

I learned early on that life isn’t fair. But in my sadness, I was not afforded the opportunity to lament this injustice, or wallow in self-pity. I had a 6-year-old, a 2-year-old and a newborn. They needed their dad — not some shell of a man but someone who was present, available and accountable.

I was lucky. I had two sisters who were there at the drop of a hat; friends who could be counted on for any need; a temple community that rallied to the cause; a mother-in-law reeling in grief but up to the task; a father who lent a shoulder more times than can be counted; colleagues who acted like family; and a nanny who took on extra responsibility without gripe or groan. It was never “Why me?”; it was always “Why not me?” Add to that my preternatural son who internalized the loss of his mother and quickly moved into “this is my new reality” mode. My girls were too young to understand. In my darkest moments, I thought how much worse this would have been had it happened 10 years later.

The gravity of it all hit home a few weeks on when my son was home sick. I saw him on the couch, and I knew what he needed more than anything in the world — his mom’s cuddle. No matter what I did, I wasn’t her. But I adjusted; I adapted; and most important, I grew — as a father and as a man. I took on the dual role of father and mother and did what I could to provide my kids with what they needed. I failed. A lot. But I tried. And I was present.

My wife had instilled in me the importance of “being there,” and I made sure that I was. Some things, such as work and friendships, suffered — but people gave latitude, and I took full advantage.

Fast forward a few years, and I became a stepdad. Now I was really in the fire. I had met a wonderful woman with two kids; it was a package deal, and I was up for the challenge, or so I thought. To be candid, being a single dad of three was considerably easier than being a stepdad to two. The learning curve was — and remains — steep.

Stepdads are a dime a dozen; being one doesn’t make me special. What makes our situation unusual is that even though all five kids live with us, my stepkids still have two biological parents, and my kids have one. As stepparents, we try to fill the void, but you are, at best, a reasonable facsimile. That’s OK, but it means I retain the vestiges of being a single dad.

When my kids wake in the middle of the night, they come to my side of the bed. When it’s time for their annual physicals, I make the appointments and take them. When they give their biography presentation at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, they want me there. None of this is an indictment or even a judgment on my new wife — she is a terrific stepmom. It is just our reality. As a parent — as a father — you give your kids what they need, and my kids need me. And that couldn’t make me happier.

All of my three phases of fatherhood have been different, and yet all quite similar. The journey has been fraught, and it certainly hasn’t been what I envisioned when my first wife looked at me at the top of the Target escalator and said: “Let’s have a baby.”

Every dad celebrating Father’s Day has his own story, some more harrowing than others. But whether we are single dads, stepdads or just plain, ol’ garden-variety dads, we all have the same goals: provide for our kids, be there when they need us, guide them on their way and hope like hell they take care of us in old age.

Happy Father’s Day to all.

Dan Freedman runs business affairs for the independent film company Good Universe. In his free time, he writes a blog about his first love, baseball. When not trying to keep up with his five kids and their activities, he enjoys spending time with his wife, Karen.

Hundreds turn out for Israel funeral of ex-Hasid who apparently killed herself

Hundreds of mourners attended the funeral of a formerly haredi Orthodox Israeli woman who was found dead in what is believed to be a suicide.

Esti Weinstein, 50, was buried in Petach Tikvah on Tuesday, the Times of Israel reported.

Weinstein’s body and a suicide note were discovered in her car at a beach in Ashdod on Sunday, a week after she went missing.

“In this city I gave birth to my daughters, in this city I die because of my daughters,” Weinstein wrote.

Six of her seven daughters had refused contact with their mother after she left the Gur sect of Hasidic Judaism eight years ago.

Tami Montag, the daughter who stayed in touch with Weinstein and who also left the haredi Orthodox community, gave a eulogy at the funeral in which she said, “You were everything to me, a friend and mother.”

According to Haaretz, Weinstein wrote a short memoir titled “Doing His Will” about life in the Gur community, her decision to leave it and the pain she felt after her daughters severed their relationships with her.

Weinstein, who married at 17, also wrote about her unhappy marriage in which she was required to follow numerous strict marital guidelines that are unique to the Gur sect. According to her memoir, the guidelines restrict couples to having sexual relations only twice a month.

In the book, Weinstein wrote of her ongoing pain at being cut off from her daughters.

“I thought it was a temporary matter, but the years are passing and time isn’t healing, and the pain doesn’t stop,” she wrote.

Estranged family members also attended and spoke at the funeral, according to the Times of Israel.

“It’s hard for me to speak about you. For me, you will always be like your first 43 years, when you were pure,” said her father, Rabbi Menachem Orenstein, according to Ynet.

Weinstein’s boyfriend also spoke at the funeral, The Times of Israel reported, but did not identify him.

“At the heart of every religion is a kernel of unity, and that’s the source of life. But unfortunately it’s turned into ideology,” he said. “Don’t let any rabbi lead you to hatred and to alienation. The pain from being cut off by your kids is massive.”

A prayer of healing from tragedy

Our hearts are breaking, God,
As our nation buries the innocent and the brave.
The loss is overwhelming.
Send comfort and strength, God, to grieving parents,
To siblings, family and friends in this time of shock and mourning.
Shield them from despair.
Send healing to the schoolchildren who are lost and frightened
Whose eyes witnessed unfathomable horrors.
Ease their pain, God,
Let their fears give way to hope.
Let their cries give way once more to laughter.

Bless us, God,
Work through us.
Turn our helplessness into action.
Teach us to believe that we can rise up from this tragedy
With a renewed faith in the goodness of our society.
Shield us from indifference
And from our tendency to forget.
Open our hearts, open our hands.
Innocent blood is calling out to us to act.
Remind us that we must commit ourselves to prevent further bloodshed
With all our hearts and souls.
Teach us perseverance and dedication.
Let us rise up as one in a time of soul-searching and repair
So that all children can go to school in peace, God,
Let them be safe.

God of the brokenhearted,
God of the living, God of the dead,
Gather the souls of the victims
Into Your eternal shelter.
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.
Their lives have ended
But their lights can never be extinguished.
May they shine on us always
And illuminate our way.

Rabbi Naomi Levy is the founder and spiritual leader of Nashuva: The Jewish Spiritual Outreach Center. Her books include Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration.

Netanyahu, Rivlin send condolence letters to Sassoon family

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a condolence letter to the father who lost seven of his children in a house fire in Brooklyn.

The children, ages 5 to 16, were buried in Jerusalem on Monday.

“Each one of your children was a world unto him or herself, unique and special,” Netanyahu said in a letter sent Monday to Gabriel Sassoon, who accompanied his children’s’ bodies for burial in Israel. “There is no greater sorrow than the loss of children and the pain is even greater because they were so young. The entire Jewish People feels your pain.

“May you find the inner strength to cope with the tragedy that has befallen your family. May the memories of your children be a source of strength and consolation.”

Netanyahu also wished a “full and quick recovery” to the children’s’ mother, Gayle, and to a surviving daughter, Tzipporah, who saved their lives by jumping from an upper-story window and are in critical condition at two New York hospitals. They reportedly are not aware of the deaths of their other family members.

Gabriel Sassoon was out of town at a religious conference when the fire consumed his Brooklyn home shortly after midnight Saturday. Officials have blamed an unattended hot plate warming Shabbat meals as the cause.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin also sent a letter of condolence to the family.

“The entire Jewish people and I stand by you and adopt you into our hearts during these terrible and difficult moments,” Rivlin wrote.

Hundreds of Israeli mourners attended Monday afternoon’s funeral at the Givat Shaul Cemetery in Jerusalem, including close friends of the family, who had lived in Israel until two years ago, and strangers moved by the tragedy.

A prayer of healing from the tragedy in Newtown

Our hearts are breaking, God,
As our nation buries innocent children and brave teachers.
The loss is overwhelming.
Send comfort and strength, God, to grieving parents,
To siblings, family and friends in this time of shock and mourning.
Shield them from despair.
Send healing to the schoolchildren who are lost and frightened
Whose eyes witnessed unfathomable horrors.
Ease their pain, God,
Let their fears give way to hope.
Let their cries give way once more to laughter.

Bless us, God,
Work through us.
Turn our helplessness into action.
Teach us to believe that we can rise up from this tragedy
With a renewed faith in the goodness of our society.
Shield us from indifference
And from our tendency to forget.
Open our hearts, open our hands.
Innocent blood is calling out to us to act.
Remind us that we must commit ourselves to prevent further bloodshed
With all our hearts and souls.
Teach us perseverance and dedication.
Let us rise up as one in a time of soul-searching and repair
So that all children can go to school in peace, God,
Let them be safe.

God of the brokenhearted,
God of the living, God of the dead,
Gather the souls of the victims
Into Your eternal shelter.
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.
Their lives have ended
But their lights can never be extinguished.
May they shine on us always
And illuminate our way.

Rabbi Naomi Levy is the founder and spiritual leader of Nashuva: The Jewish Spiritual Outreach Center. Her books include Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration.

Jewish parent power tools can help kids cope with the tragedy at Sandy Hook and beyond

There’s been a lot of talk in the news about what to say to children about the massacre at Sandy Hook.  A steady stream of experts attempting to provide some sort of parental protocol for addressing this unimaginable tragedy with our kids: Find out what our child knows before divulging too many details. Limit our kids’ exposure to scary news reports. Reassure them that they are safe and that the adults in their lives know how to keep them from harm’s way. But even the best advice seems to fall short in this case as it’s ultimately impossible for anyone – our children or ourselves – to make sense of that which doesn’t. 

Thankfully, our rich Jewish tradition offers a unique set of resources to help us find our way over this most daunting of parental hurdles.  The following Jewish Parent Power Tools – when embraced for all their worth – can help our children cope with the harsh realities of Sandy Hook while gearing them with strength, courage and compassion for the uncertain road ahead.

The Shema.  “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” The Shema is considered the most important prayer in the Jewish religion as it perfectly and succinctly reaffirms of our faith and connection with God twice a day. The news out of Newtown that our kids might have seen on the TV, Internet, and social media can make their world feel frightening and out of control.  By saying the Shema, this sense of powerless is replaced by spirituality and belief in a higher power that will help guide and sustain them through good times and bad.

The Haggadah.  The word haggadah means a storytelling.  Sharing tales of overcoming hardship is part of our religion by design.  The Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL) at Emory University has shown this premise on a more scientific level.  A long-term study by MARIAL’s found that children whose parents told family stories at the dinner table had significantly better coping skills than those whose parents did not.  From Passover to Purim and everything in between, our Jewish narrative reassures our children of the power of perseverance and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World).  Senseless acts of violence like that which occurred in Newtown confirm that our world is indeed in need of repair.  Joining forces with our children to pick up litter in a park, volunteer in a soup kitchen, or doing other acts of Tikkun Olam can feel like our own little triumph over evil – a tiny step toward restoring that which was broken and tilting the balance scales toward good.

Tzedakah and Gemilut Chasadim (Acts of Loving Kindness).   There’s no doubt that the school shootings in Newtown shake us to the core.  But rather than focusing on the horror of what’s transpired, we should encourage our children (and ourselves) to channel our energies into feeling compassion for the families that were affected by this tragedies. Collecting Tzedakah or making cards for the students at Sandy Hook school can help facilitate this cognitive shift from fear to a much healthier compassion.

Jewish Courage.  There is a beautiful Hebrew song based on the sage words of Rav Nachman of Breslov. Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od v’ha-ikkar lo l’fahed klal.  The world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to fear. “Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the overcoming of fear,” writes Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World.  This is not to suggest that we encourage our kids to throw caution to the wind altogether.  They should, of course, be sensible and vigilant. But then it’s time to move forward: Skipping into their classrooms, laughing with friends on the schoolyard, walking that inevitably narrow bridge with a zest for life and faith in the world’s ultimate goodness.  Enjoy the journey together.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an award-winning educator and author of “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?” (Random House). Her parenting articles appear in over 100 publications including Parents, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, Huffington Post and the Jerusalem Post. Her four children give her an endless supply of parenting fodder.

Let us reap wisdom sown by tragedy of Tisha B’Av

This week we observe the fast of Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Last year before Tisha B’Av, The Jewish Journal published an article that loosely and foolishly spoke of the destruction of the Temple as a good thing.  Those who offer such opinions do not, perhaps, fully grasp that it meant the death of sages, scholars and countless less-distinguished women, men and children of Israel. They may not recall that it was the end of sovereignty for thousands of years and left Jews at the mercy of others — the often cruel fates that scar our history.  Psychoanalysts tell us that it is the unremembered history that controls us; Jews have always sought to remember our catastrophes — not because they control us, but so that they will not. We do not pretend that tragedies were hidden triumphs or that our sadness is misplaced. 

Since the Temple burned and our people were exiled, however, we sought to understand how to absorb our history to change our destiny. A resigned fatalism is alien to the Jewish spiritual DNA. Our ancestors suffered, but that does not mean our children must suffer. 

In the Talmud, we are told that on the day the Temple was destroyed, nifseka homat habarzel — an iron wall separated Israel from God. Several years ago, Rabbi Gordon Tucker brought a teaching from the late scholar Baruch Bokser, who points out that nifseka can be interpreted to mean either that an iron wall came down and effected a separation between God and Israel — or that the iron wall ceased. In other words, the destruction also had a side that released certain energies in the Jewish people. We lost many ways of serving God and of being a people when the Temple was razed. But potential that was unknown before came to fruition.

This lesson is particularly potent in an apocalyptic age. There are preposterous uses of the “end time,” clear in coinages like “carmeggedon.” But we do have a natural tendency to urge the end. As Frank Kermode pointed out some time ago in his book “The Sense of an Ending,” we say that clocks go tick-tock. But they don’t. They go tick-tick. We supply the tock. Our craving for conclusions is deep within us. We can’t stand to listen to music without the final resolving chord; we don’t like movies that refuse to wrap up neatly. Voldemort must die, Dorothy must wake up in her Kansas bed, and Odysseus return home. We check how many pages are left in the book until we get to the ending. Tock.

So Harold Camping convinces scores of people that the end is near. People find eschatological portents in numbers, wars, constellations and ancient prophecies. In every generation there have been predictions of the imminent arrival of the Messiah, the end, the tock.  Such yearning for the drama to end often leads to what scholar Gershom Scholem called a life “lived in deferment.” Too easily are impatient souls waiting for that concluding note and missing the music as it plays.

Tisha B’Av instructs us on another attitude toward catastrophe and the sense of the ending. Our sages teach that every tragedy contains within it the seeds of redemption. The destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the people was also an opportunity. The Temple served for some as a wall, separating them from a more direct relationship with God. Therefore, the spread of synagogues to replace the lost center of worship introduced something vital and wonderful into Jewish life. We know that, historically, synagogues already existed while the Temple was still standing. Without a Temple, however, they proliferated. It is a legacy of monotheism: You can only raise synagogues all over the world if you recognize that God is everywhere. God is tied to no single land or clime. Exile emphasized the Torah’s truth, that no place is empty of the Divine. Instead of a coffin, wandering became a cradle; rather than end our people, it provided new beginnings.

Story continues after the jump.

On Tisha B’Av, Ashkenazim do not wear tefillin at the morning service; for the only time during the year, we put them on later, in the afternoon. It signals the move from tragedy to promise. Following the wisdom of Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” we understand that the key term is “walk.” We cannot stay in the valley. As we wrap the tefillin, we are reminded that they cannot, in the poet’s phrase, “rust unburnished” but rather must “shine in use.” So with each soul; mourning is a temporary condition, and one must carry its meaning into the daylight.

History is never univocal. Destruction and creation, loss and renewal are twined together like voices in harmony. The Psalmist cries out that he does not know if his people could sing in the new land of Babylon (Psalm 137). But on those strange shores, the Babylonian Talmud was born. We became creative in virtually every living literature in the world. Jews contributed to all the societies that alternately welcomed and scorned them. Still, the memory of destruction was never far from our minds. Corners of houses were left unpainted, to remind us that we were not fully home. In our prayers, as today, we prayed for rain not when it was needed in France, or Russia, or Los Angeles, but in Israel. We kept our clocks set on Jerusalem time. 

This dialectic of all we lost and all we wove out of our losses is the guiding thread of Jewish history. Only a callow disregard for suffering would see the Temple’s destruction as less than a monumental tragedy. “Eicha Yashva Badad” — how does the city, Jerusalem, sit solitary, cries the lamentation that we read on Tisha B’Av. The pain of the exiled Jews is enshrined in words echoing through the ages: Jerusalem in ashes. But how sad and dispirited to miss the exuberant creativity and genius unleashed in the world by an enforced Diaspora. 

On Tisha B’Av, we cry for all we have lost. We have lost, we Jews, so very much.  But mourning will end. The state has been restored. Though we are embattled, we are no longer helpless. We may not all agree, but the cacophony of Jewish voices is free and strong. The lessons of Tisha B’Av, its sadness, its song, endure.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.

Poland’s tragedy is our tragedy

When the plane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and dozens of other officials crashed in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia on Saturday, this immense disaster was also a personal tragedy.

I lost friends in the crash that killed key leaders from the Polish government, economy, and military.

These friends represented democratic Poland, the country that emerged after a decade of struggle led by Solidarity and KOR activists. And of all places for Polish leaders to meet their maker, why did it have to be Katyn, Poles ask, the site of the 1940 Soviet massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers?

Let me share brief recollections of three of them.

I first met Kaczynski when he was Warsaw’s mayor. Kaczynski was eager for the renewal of Jewish life in Poland. He felt a kinship to Jews, whom he saw as an integral part of Poland’s fabric. He said it was impossible to understand Poland without comprehending the Jewish role in its life. That’s why he was supportive of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and why he was instrumental in launching it.

I later met him many times as president, most recently in February. A man of passion and principle, he seldom minced words. He knew where he stood and he didn’t try to mask his views from others.

Kaczynski was a friend of the United States. He wasn’t always so certain, however, that the friendship was reciprocated. Indeed, he feared that at times Poland’s loyalty was taken for granted. But he saw the United States as the only real guarantor of global security—if, he said, Washington wouldn’t succumb to Russia’s siren song or Europe’s equivocation.

The president was a friend of Israel. He liked and understood it. He instinctively grasped its security predicaments because he could personally relate to a vulnerable country in a tough neighborhood. And he chastised those quick to judge Israel in order to curry favor with others, again seeing a parallel with Poland, whose own interests were sacrificed more than once on the altar of global power politics.

Rejecting Iran’s nuclear ambitions was a no-brainer for Kaczynski. Like many Poles, he and his family had witnessed man’s capacity for evil. In our meetings, he’d get right to the point: Isn’t it obvious what Iran is doing? Iran’s leaders can’t be trusted with a bomb. The world needs to get tougher with Tehran.

Mariusz Handzlik was another friend on the plane. A diplomat whom I first met in Washington years ago, he was serving as undersecretary of state in the office of Poland’s president.

Mariusz and I shared a deep admiration for Jan Karski, the Polish wartime hero who later joined the faculty of Georgetown University. While serving in the United States, Mariusz befriended Karski, becoming his regular chess partner. They were playing chess when Karski suddenly felt ill and died shortly afterward. Together, Mariusz and I cried for this man who, at repeated risk to his own life, had tried to alert a largely deaf world to the Nazi’s Final Solution.

And when Mariusz was assigned to the Polish Mission to the United Nations, he proudly told me that now he would be in a position, together with his colleagues, to help Israel in the world body. He wanted the Israelis to know they had friends at the United Nations, which largely was seen as hostile territory for Israel.

Andrzej Przewoźnik was secretary-general of the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites.

I first met him when the Polish government and the American Jewish Committee joined together to demarcate, protect, and memorialize the site of the Nazi death camp in Belzec, located in southeastern Poland. In less than a year, more than 500,000 Jews were killed in an area barely the size of a few football fields. Only two Jews survived.

In June 2004, after years of planning and construction, the site was inaugurated. As the late Miles Lerman said at that solemn ceremony, “No place of martyrdom anywhere is today as well protected and memorialized as Belzec.”

That could not have occurred without Andrzej’s pivotal role. He helped make it happen, overcoming the multiple hurdles along the way. By doing so, he ensured that what took place at Belzec, long neglected by the Communists, would never be forgotten.

May the memories of Lech Kaczynski, Mariusz Handzlik, Andrzej Przewoźnik – and their fellow passengers – forever be for a blessing, as those of us privileged to have known them were ourselves blessed.

(David Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.)

Astronaut Ilan Ramon’s son dies in IAF crash

The son of the late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon was killed in the crash of an Israeli Air Force fighter plane.

Capt. Assaf Ramon, 20, died Sunday while flying the F-16 aircraft as part of advanced training. He had completed the training course for pilots with honors in June, receiving his wings from President Shimon Peres. He had escaped death in a training flight in March.

His father, Israel’s first astronaut, was killed aboard the U.S. space shuttle Columbia in 2003 when it broke apart upon its return to earth.

The Air Force ordered all F-16 training halted until further notice. The plane crashed in the Hebron Hills.

Ilan Ramon himself was a fighter pilot in the Air Force and participated in the 1981 strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor.

Assaf Ramon, the oldest of four children, was 15 when his father died. He had said he would like to become a pilot like his father and perhaps even an astronaut.

Beauty can arise from tragedy

In mid-July, our 26-year-old son, Micah, lost a lifelong friend, whom he had gone all through school with at Adat Ari El and Milken. On that day, Micah went to a birthday party for his friends Arash Khorsandi and Daniel Levian, two Persian Jews in his intimate circle of about 20 friends from his high school class. The bonds among these kids have only grown stronger since they all returned from college.

Micah left the party early because there was a reunion at Camp Alonim that evening that he did not want to miss. We spoke to him and asked about the party, “Lots of drinking, but I got to spend some good time with Daniel Levian, who kept kidding me, ‘Micah, I knew you’d be one of the white boys to show up.'”

Since the seventh grade, the Milken friends have always joked with one another about their Persian and Ashkenazic backgrounds. My son and all his Ashkenazic friends used to refer to the Persians as the Persian Posse. No one could have predicted the lifelong friendship that would flourish among all of them.

Late the next afternoon, Micah called sobbing: “Daniel Levian was killed in a car accident leaving the party last night. His brother is in critical condition.”

As the events unfolded, it was a story that could only be measured against the biblical account of Job. It was everyone’s worst nightmare. Daniel and his brother were passengers. They had taken a taxi to the party and intended to take one home. But as they were leaving, they accepted a ride home with another friend, who survived the accident with minor injuries. Daniel’s brother initially was given a 2 percent chance of survival; he has since come home and is expected to make a full recovery.

Arash and Daniel had been inseparable best friends since the seventh grade. I remember Daniel as an outgoing, engaging roly-poly kid and Arash as a talkative little guy with big, expressive eyes. They grew up to be two swarthy, handsome, successful young professionals with slick black hair raised to stylish points above their scalps — Daniel a real estate investor and Arash a lawyer.

Following Daniel’s death, Arash immediately began working through his sorrow. Just days after the accident, he gathered his friends to meet as a group with a psychotherapist. He followed up with a Friday night Shabbat dinner attended by those who had been at the party, because they all recognized that they needed to be together.

The conversations that ensued began with memories of Daniel, but then transitioned into why Daniel had died; what vulnerabilities they all could encounter; and for which actions could they take responsibility. Faced with Daniel’s death, they were forced to admit that the out-of-control consumption of alcohol among their generation was the fatal mistake. As they spoke further, they realized that many of their generation of young Jewish professionals, including themselves, were living in excess, not only with alcohol, but also through materialism. They spoke about their value system, which ultimately returned them to their Jewish roots.

Since July, about 30 young people, Persians and Ashkenazim, have begun to meet regularly to create the LEV Foundation, inspired by their love and their loss of Daniel Levian. Lev, which means “heart” in Hebrew, is what they often called Daniel.

Recently I sat in as Arash and another close friend, David Chasin, came to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to present the LEV Foundation to Federation President John Fishel and ask for guidance and infrastructure support. David is a participant in The Federation’s Geller Leadership Project. The two described Daniel’s personality and values, and through pictures and stories, they brought him right into the room with them. They proudly told Fishel they were not looking for money; the group, their friends and families would be the funders.

The LEV Foundation envisions itself as built upon multiple pillars. One of them would be social service projects designed to protect young Jews from driving drunk by offering free taxi service to pick them up and take them home. The group even worked out ways that kids’ cars could be driven home so no one would feel they had to drive in order to hide their behavior from their parents.

Another pillar would be advocacy, tackling the issues of excess so apparent in this generation.

Another would be about values, offering Shabbat dinners alternating between Ashkenazic and Persian traditions, Torah study, Israel travel and funding. During this phase of The Federation presentation, Arash and David commented that every one of the 40 young people involved in the creation of this foundation are either day school graduates or Birthright Israel alumni.

I thought about the millions of dollars the Jewish world has invested in day schools and Birthright. If there has ever been a return on the community’s dollars, this effort is the best demonstration. When the critical need arose to face this tragedy, these kids had the knowledge, the values, the tools and the path on which to place their sorrow, so that from it they could work to create a better world. These are our community’s children, of whom we can be very proud.

I thought about all the comments I had heard over the years in the kids’ day schools about the Persian, Israeli and Russian populations.

“Oh, the school is becoming so Persian! The school is becoming so Israeli!” Together, these kids prove that their parents were wrong. As they are showing us, the schools have turned out Jewish kids who can bridge the gaps between them themselves by celebrating one another’s cultures, knowing they are all deeply connected as Jews and friends who share many common experiences.

As Arash and David walked out, I could see Daniel Levian being carried on their shoulders: He wasn’t the tall, thin young man with slick black hair. He was the roly-poly, engaging kid I remembered, and I realized he belongs to all of us.

Gary Wexler, a former advertising agency creative director, owns Passion Marketing, a consulting firm to nonprofit organizations worldwide, including major Jewish organizations in the United States, Canada and Israel.

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‘Tragic Loss’ documents Israeli astronaut’s ill-fated flight

Space escapades have been filling the news of late, from the tale of a jealous NASA astronaut stalking her rival to Virgin Galactic’s 99-minute trek into space for $200,000. But it is all a far cry from the devastating turn space travel took four years ago, when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart midair over Texas just minutes from landing in Florida.

One of the astronauts on that ill-fated mission was Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. His journey on Columbia is documented in heart-breaking detail in “Columbia — The Tragic Loss,” an Israel-based TH production, which will be shown at UCLA Hillel on March 14.

A true Israeli hero, Ramon was the last of the eight pilots who bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. As the last in the formation, he held the most perilous position during a mission in which up to three of the pilots were thought likely to die. He did not hesitate to take that assignment, nor did he hesitate to serve as a member of the Columbia crew.

“I’m a very cynical guy. I don’t believe in human heroes,” director Naftaly Gliksberg said in a phone interview from Israel.

Gliksberg has made documentaries about searing political topics, ranging from the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin to global anti-Semitism to an upcoming film about Israel-Iran relations in the 1990s. When the filmmaker first met Ramon in Houston before the flight, he joked to the astronaut, “You are a nonstory; you have no prostitute sister; you are from a very well-off family.”

A clean-cut, handsome mensch, Ramon lacked the stereotypical cockiness of most combat pilots. As another astronaut says in “Columbia — The Tragic Loss,” Ramon was much “more of an artist” than the other crewmembers. The 60-minute documentary, which was released in Israel in 2004, shows a serene man, whose poetic sensibilities are revealed through his diary entries, which were retrieved from the wreckage.

This is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the story, the way that the individual scraps of charred, torn paper survived the disintegration of the space shuttle and were reconstituted like missing pieces of a puzzle. A forensic expert finds the letters kof, dalet and yod, which seem to form a word, but she later discovers missing letters that spell out the word kadima.

This diary entry refers not to Ehud Olmert’s political party, which did not even exist in 2003 at the time of the Columbia disaster, but rather to the launch of the shuttle. Ramon wrote those words on the first day in flight. He also headlined another diary entry, “Kiddush,” and we see him speak to his family from space while holding a Torah rescued from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Like that relic from the Holocaust, the footage of Ramon fills us with melancholy. No one is massacred in this film, but there is a tremendous sense of loss, made all the more poignant because of the beauty of Ramon’s letters to his family.

At one point in the flight, which lasted about two weeks, he wrote in Hebrew of “a halo of green light emanating from the earth.” He also wrote about how the Earth appeared from space as one “borderless” sphere where we can all “try to live as one, in peace,” quoting from John Lennon’s song, “Imagine,” one of the last tunes the former Beatle wrote before he was gunned down in 1980 by Mark David Chapman.

The documentary provides lengthy criticism of NASA for mismanagement of the shuttle program and its failure to rescue the astronauts when it became evident early on that foam on the exterior of the space shuttle had eroded and become debris.

Gliksberg said that NASA “lost many points [in Israel] after the crash and after the movie” came out. “I can not see that Israeli people will support a new pilot” in space.

He added that he was “shocked” that “two or three weeks after” the tragedy, NASA had already introduced literature with the tagline, “Focus on the Future.”

“Where are they running to?” Gliksberg asked. “Hold on! Look at the past!”

As valid as is the criticism of NASA, the strongest parts of the film come from hearing Ramon’s diary entries read aloud to his family and to us. When we see the reaction of his family and when we listen to this uncommonly modest and loving man write to each of his children and his wife about his devotion to them, we cannot help but be moved.

It doesn’t matter much that the opening credits run against the backdrop of an amateurish rendering of the solar system, nor that the melodramatic score accompanying those opening credits seems recycled from any Hollywood thriller of the past few decades. What matters in the end is, as Lennon said, the power of imagination, the power to move beyond individual hatred and to see the one unifying globe before us.

Tough neighborhoods, hard times feed cycle of poverty

Judith: The woman warrior who brought down a general

Arabian rugs and pillows are spread out in a tent as Holofernes, the general of the Assyrians, plots his victory over the Israelites. Wearing a tunic, he speaks lines of great beauty: “I am overcome with wonder, trembling with a terrible infatuation.”

He is speaking of war, yet he might be anticipating the woman who will take him to bed later in the evening.

That woman, the eponymous star of “Judith: A Parting From the Body,” resuming its run at the Theater of NOTE on Nov. 30, is the Jewish heroine known to readers of the Apocrypha. Though the Apocrypha was written at the time that the Greek tragedians were plying their trade, British playwright Howard Barker says from England that his play is not influenced by the Greeks.

“Where traditional tragedy operates in a strong moral climate, my tragedy breaks that down,” says Barker, who has been writing plays, primarily tragedies, since the late 1960s.

He adds, “I am not a political playwright. A political play is about informing. I don’t do that.”

He is surely right that his play makes no moral judgments about Judith, the Jewish warrior, nor about Holofernes, the Assyrian general who broods upon death. Yet it does have a servant, who, with her constant chattering and interference, may remind one of Pandarus stoking the fire while Troilus and Cressida try to be intimate.

When asked if he sees any trace of Medea in his Judith, Barker says, “In a word, ‘No.'”

Yet the lead, played by Julia Prud’homme, has a violent passion about her on the stage, all the more so after she has beheaded Holofernes, played by Mark McClain Wilson.

Prud’homme, who trained in London for one semester with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, spearheaded this production. She not only stars in it, she co-produced it. Eleven years ago, she played the servant in a festival up in Seattle, where she was an actress for nearly a decade.

“Throughout history, women have performed heroic deeds,” she says, pointing out that those deeds often go unnoticed.

That is one of the reasons she so desperately wanted to bring this production to Los Angeles and to play Judith.

“Part of what makes this story so epic is if Holofernes succeeds, that’s it for the Israelite race,” she says. “There’s so much weight attached to the fact that your people are on the verge of being exterminated.”

While Prud’homme was drawn to the play because of the heroism of its lead, Barker was inspired by a painting of Judith by Artemisia Gentileschi, a 17th century Italian painter, which he recalls seeing at Windsor Castle.

“Her way with the human body is really quite delicate yet savage.” He adds, “That’s unusual for a woman painter.”

When asked if he has ever written about a Jewish subject before, Barker quips, “Not knowingly.”

Barker, like Prud’homme, is not Jewish, but they both have uncovered one of the hidden secrets from history, that of a Jewish woman, who will make a tragic sacrifice that will haunt her for the rest of her life, yet will save her people. In some ways, that is a universal dilemma, one that speaks to people of all nations.

No doubt thinking of the Iraq War and all the other tragedies in the world right now, Prud’homme says, “Things happened then, and they are still happening now.”
“Judith” may indeed provide a parable for our present day. What warrior in Iraq wouldn’t want to have such an exchange with a clever woman:

“I have no equal in the field [that] I’ve made my specialty.”

“Which field is that — murder or philosophy?”

Though Barker mixes in profanity of a modern idiom, his is primarily a sublime diction. Words like “aperture” and “interstices” effortlessly flow out of the mouth of Holofernes, who may be less like Jason or Oedipus and more like Hamlet. When Holofernes says of his battlefield exploits, “I am at these moments most like a God,” one is reminded of Hamlet’s, “What a piece of work is a man” speech when the Prince of Denmark says, “in apprehension, how like a God.”

Like Hamlet, Holofernes does not simply marvel at mankind; in fact, he exudes disgust at man and himself. One would not be surprised to hear him refer to us all as a “quintessence of dust.”

Holofernes, though, lacks Hamlet’s ability to read his enemies. One can’t imagine Hamlet being tempted by any woman, except perhaps Rosalind. But that would be a different play altogether, a comedy in the Forest of Arden. Instead, we have a tragedy in the Holy Land. Much like today.

“Judith: A Parting From the Body” plays Nov. 30 through Dec. 16, Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., at the Theater of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. For more information, call (323) 856-8611.

Jill Soloway says comedy and tragedy go together

In Jill Soloway’s collection of essays, “Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants,” the Emmy-nominated writer and co-executive producer of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” recalls the time she lost her virginity at 17 to a 36-year-old with a golden chai dangling from his neck.

“I was running from the bathroom back to his bed,” she writes, “leaving slivers of myself everywhere: The girl who wanted to be here; the girl who didn’t want to be here; the girl who thought the whole thing was exciting; that he was an idiot; that his apartment was tacky, yet sexy; that I was turned on; that I wasn’t; that this was fun; that it wasn’t.”

However traumatizing the experience was then, she jokes about it now.
“If you can laugh with your friends over something, you own it,” said Soloway, lounging in jeans and a T-shirt in her Silver Lake home. “I don’t think it’s a contradiction to find painfulness funny.”

On Sunday, Sept. 17, Soloway will explore the ways comedy and tragedy fit together by moderating a discussion, “Laughter in the Rain: Mining Humor from Pain,” at the West Hollywood Book Fair. She will lead a conversation with Tania Katan, author of “My One-Night Stand With Cancer: A Memoir”; Brett Paesel, author of “Mommies Who Drink: Sex, Drugs, and Other Distant Memories of an Ordinary Mom,” and Tom Reynolds, who wrote “I Hate Myself and Want to Die: The 52 Most Depressing Songs You’ve Ever Heard.”

Soloway said she would ask questions that plague her as a writer. “Has anyone [else] found themselves doing things they otherwise wouldn’t do because they’re writing a book?” Soloway wants to know.

“Years of my life were lived knowing that I’d get a book out of them one day,” Soloway confessed.

And what do these authors do when family and friends get upset at the way the book portrays them? Soloway used pseudonyms in her collection, and when people called her, irate or humiliated, she apologized.

Also, how do other writers deal with having spilled their innermost thoughts and secrets onto the page, for all to see? Soloway comforts herself in this regard by considering that readers may be shocked by some revelation — but only for a moment. Some other newsworthy item in this information age will surely distract them, she reasons.

Plus, the point of writing is to make oneself known, Soloway said. “All writing is propaganda for the self.”

One aspect of herself that Soloway reveals in her book, due out in paperback next month (published by Free Press), is that she, a self-described “Jewess,” feels a sisterly solidarity with Monica Lewinsky, as well as Chandra Levy, the murdered intern rumored to have had an affair with former California Rep. Gary Condit.

When Soloway wrote this chapter of the book – the book that critics and readers have called “hilarious,” “funny” and “fun-filled,” the chapter in which she contemplates why Jewish women are “so sexy” — she was crying. In fact, she cries whenever she reads the chapter.

“It’s this idea that Jewish women are sacrificed; that they can’t win,” she said, trying to explain what was so upsetting.

There it is: comedy and tragedy rolled into one. A story, perhaps, the way one should be told.

“If it’s just funny, who cares; if it’s just sad, who cares,” Soloway said. “But if it’s both,” she added, “then it’s about being human.”

Jill Soloway will moderate “Laughter in the Rain: Mining Humor from Pain” from 3:30 – 4:30 p.m. at The Mixed Bag Pavilion at the West Hollywood Book Fair.

Oops…Our 20th

The news these days is gruesome, so it’s difficult to feel celebratory. The brutal slaying of Ilan Halimi, a young Jew, by a gang of mostly Muslim anti-Semitic thugs in Paris; the fatal riots over a Danish cartoon; the death toll in Iraq — no wonder I overlooked a sort of milestone last week: The Jewish Journal turned 20.

Yes, honey, I forgot our anniversary — call it a guy thing.

Jewish Publications of Los Angeles, Inc. put out the first Journal on Feb. 28, 1986. We’ve produced a weekly paper for the Jewish community every week since. Many L.A. Jewish papers have come and gone; we’re by no means the longest-lived.

A Santa Ana printer named Lionel Edwards founded Los Angeles’ first English-language Jewish paper in 1897, the B’nai B’rith Messenger. It continued publishing in various forms for just over a century. Publisher Herb Brin founded the Heritage in 1954, and that paper lasted until 2002.

A group of men with ties to The Jewish Federation created The Jewish Journal to serve as an independent source of news and analysis for the community. Founding editor Gene Lichtenstein set a high standard for the paper’s coverage. At a time when it was economically dependent on its then-largest subscriber, The Jewish Federation, he fought for the paper’s editorial independence. (The Journal and Federation ended their subscription relationship last year.) Gene also sought out polished writers and thinkers, such as Yehuda Lev and the much-missed columnist Marlene Marks, and focused on stories that resonated beyond purely parochial concerns.

The first issue of The Journal featured a cover photograph of local anti-bussing activist Bobbi Fielder, and an accompanying story about the growing strength of the Jewish right, a story that, like a Hollywood action flick, we’ve been rewriting with different actors in the lead ever since.

The fact of our anniversary struck me as I was preparing remarks for a talk Saturday night at Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge. Frankly, it wasn’t an appearance I was looking forward to.

I had agreed to speak to congregants almost a year ago, at the invitation of the synagogue’s rabbi. Steve Tucker was an easy person to say yes to: witty and kind, and an unceasing fan of the paper.

Then, on Nov. 10, Rabbi Tucker’s car veered off a road near Yosemite National Park. Police ruled the fatal crash a suicide. Rabbi Tucker left behind a wife and three children, and a congregation in deep shock and mourning.

The Journal reported on this tragedy in two stories that recounted what happened, outlined the circumstances that preceded the suicide and summarized the life and contributions of a much-beloved man.

We received a lot of criticism for how we reported the story. Many of the rabbi’s admirers felt we stained the reputation of a good man by reporting the police department’s conclusion that Rabbi Tucker took his own life. They said we added to his family’s already unbearable burden. Influential people within the Jewish community tried to quash the story. The Los Angeles Times, after all, wrote nothing about what happened. When our reporters made calls, some hung up on them.

“The day after it happened,” a congregant told me last weekend, “I came here and everybody was really angry — they were angry at The Journal.”

In many ways, what happened during this sad time reflects the challenges of Jewish journalism.

“We see ourselves as professionals struggling to balance a commitment to both journalistic integrity and communal sensitivity,” Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt once wrote. “But we know that others see us either as troublemakers trying to stir and spread controversy, or shills for the Jewish establishment, papering over communal discord — or both.”

We are part of the community we report on, for good or for ill. And there is a natural tension between a community’s desire to spread good news and be seen in the best possible light, and journalism’s role as a watchdog and truth-teller. As journalists, we believe the community is best served by having access to accurate information. But tell that to a synagogue or organization in the midst of scandal, or tragedy.

A passage in the Torah goes to the heart of this tension. “Thou shalt not go about as a talebearer among thy people,” reads Leviticus. The proscription against slander and gossip, lashon hara, would seem to circumscribe a Jewish paper’s content to births, marriage and death announcements — what we call hatches, matches and dispatches.

But the same sentence continues: “Neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor: I am the Lord.”

In other words, this biblical admonition strongly suggests that sometimes we must reveal what we can when doing so will help those in trouble.

It is a delicate balance. It’s more pleasant to be the bearer of good news than bad, but we realize that to do our job well, we must print both.

When my invitation to speak at Temple Ramat Zion wasn’t rescinded, I expected congregants to excoriate The Journal for adding to their pain. Indeed, early on, a congregant expressed exactly that view in no uncertain terms.

I explained that, in the end, despite our own qualms, we chose to report on the circumstances surrounding Rabbi Tucker’s death in order to set the record straight, and to quell the ongoing spread of false rumors.

Imagine my relief when several people in the audience stood to praise us.

“You came through for us,” one man said. “You helped us understand.”

People in the audience applauded. Several more said that by reporting the truth, we shed light on an otherwise inexplicable act.

Twenty years ago, Jewish newspapers were often seen as an adjunct of communal boosterism, or as relics of a time when religion and ethnicity mattered more. Now the stories we cover — the Halimi tragedy, the riots in Denmark, the struggle against terror, democracy (or lack of it) in the Middle East, the rise of Hamas, a nuclear Iran — are crucial to Jews, and also vital to the wider community.

In other words, our work matters. Which means that more than ever, we have a responsibility to engage our task with seriousness and diligence.

We’ve begun our year of anniversary celebration with a cute stamp on the masthead — and we’ll continue it with a special issue in June and, we hope, some community-wide events as well. Most importantly, we’ll honor this year and this tradition by doing our jobs week by week.

I am grateful to those who had the vision to create and support this paper, the people who work so hard to produce it, and you, our readers, for sticking with us, in good times … and controversial ones.


Exhibit Links Shoah, Cambodia Genocide

Midway through Roland Joffé’s 1984 film, “The Killing Fields,” journalist Sidney Schanberg, played by Sam Waterston, visits the family of his friend, Dith Pran, who has been captured by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The scene takes place in New York City, where Schanberg tries to comfort Pran’s wife. As the action unfolds, the camera allows us to see in the background graffiti spray-painted on a wall — there is a Star of David and underneath it what appear to be the words, “I suck.”

The juxtaposition of a Jew (Schanberg) and a Cambodian with the defaced Star of David subtly links the Holocaust, a genocide of the past, to the more recent Cambodian tragedy.

It is the synchronicity between peoples who have been massacred that inspired the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust to exhibit “Encountering the Cambodian Genocide.” The exhibit features the photographs of Chantal Prunier, who visited Cambodia in the past year and came back with haunting images of mass graves, torture devices and survivors.

The 48-year-old Prunier, a native of France who has always been fascinated with Southeast Asia, devotes a number of photos to Tuol Seng, the infamous former prison. One image, a low-angle shot, is taken from beneath barbed wire that to this day surrounds the building. The low angle accentuates the menace of the spiked spirals.

The Tuol Seng photos also reveal a dilapidated structure whose interior and exterior brick and plaster walls have taken on faded pink and brown hues, earth-tone colors that blend in with the red traces of the land in other shots.

Beneath these color photos are black-and-white images, primarily archived photographs, accompanied by Prunier’s text. She uses the photos to narrate a brief history of the Cambodian people, quickly moving on to the genocide engineered by Pol Pot.

Pol Pot seized power in April 1975 and then liquidated more than 20 percent of his country, somewhere between 1.5 million and 2 million people, according to most accounts. Prunier estimates that the number may have been even higher if one factors in those who died of famine. She writes that “official sources indicate” more than 3 million people died from 1975 to 1979.

In an interview with The Journal, she noted that the Cambodian government claims the number of victims as 3.3 million. Even if that figure is inflated, the massacre approaches the unparalleled depravity of the Shoah.

Pol Pot especially targeted city dwellers and the educated, whom he believed had been corrupted by Western colonialists and imperialists. But he also targeted ethnic Vietnamese, exterminating thousands of them living as civilians in Cambodia, something Prunier does not mention other than in passing.

The exhibit’s thoughtful touches include floor lights surrounded with long twigs to evoke the Cambodian jungle, where so much of the suffering occurred. Dictator Pol Pot emptied cities to reshape his country through a forced agrarian revolution.

What was behind Pol Pot’s murderous madness?

A definitive answer is as unreachable as any attempted decoding of Hitler. One extreme view is that Pol Pot was provoked into his radicalism by the Nixon administration’s secret (to the American public) bombing of Cambodia beginning in 1969. The bombing was an outgrowth of the Vietnam War.

Cambodia was a neutral country, but its territory was being used for supply routes by the North Vietnamese. Prunier dismisses this blame-the-U.S. theory as the product of “some very devious people,” though she accepts that the bombing campaigns helped to energize Pol Pot.

Visitors to the museum might be shocked by photos of articles of clothing worn by the murdered that still float to the surface, some 30 years later, where water gathers after rainfall.

With some photos, the captions are curiously understated or even unnecessary. In one print, two Cambodians sit on a bench at Cheoung Ek, where many victims perished. More than the caption, their melancholy gaze tells the story.

Also on display is an iconic 1970s black-and-white photo, not taken by Prunier, of an unknown Cambodian woman with a disfiguring spot on her forehead and a tag with the number “27” clipped by baby pins to her black shirt. The numbered tags, the unmarked piles of skeletons, the unidentified clothes on the ground — all mirror the Holocaust and speak to the uniformly impersonal and dehumanizing nature of genocide.

Pol Pot was never brought to justice for these crimes against humanity. Just as the facts of his birth are disputed (some reports say he was born in 1925, others in 1928), his death in 1998 also remains shrouded in mystery. Reportedly, he suffered a fatal heart attack, even as he was being sought to stand trial at The Hague.

The Cambodian exhibit keeps with the museum’s mission, said Rachel Jagoda, the museum’s executive director. Jagoda, 32, has sought to broaden the scope of the Holocaust Museum since being hired three years ago. Her first major exhibit focused not on Jews, but on the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany.

Under Jagoda, the museum, which she says has the largest primary source archive of any Holocaust museum on the West Coast, has begun raising significant funds, more than $500,000 in the last year, compared to roughly $20,000 annually in the past.

She and board member Manfred Kuhnert also report that they have obtained more than $3 million in capital for a new permanent facility designed by architect Hagy Belzberg, which would be located in Pan Pacific Park in the Fairfax District. The new museum would be partially underground to simulate walking into a cemetery.

The current museum space on Wilshire Boulevard would never be confused with the Getty. The Cambodian genocide exhibit is small, shoehorned into the back of the first-floor museum, but the photos are powerful.

The most salient image may be the opening shot of the ruins of an Angkor temple. Superficially, it has nothing to do with the genocide. But flowing over the ruins are the multiple trunks of an ancient banyan tree whose roots, from a distance, resemble the bones of victims — of this genocide or any other. The people have vanished like the Easter Islanders, but the roots of their tragedy remain.

“Encountering the Cambodian Genocide” is at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 6435 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, Los Angeles. Free. Exhibit runs through Nov. 15. For information, call (323) 651-3704.


Remember Sept. 11 the Jewish Way

I’ve always had a difficult time assimilating tragedy, and although it hit much closer to home for me, Sept. 11 was not much different.

Even though it touched people all around me, and I was definitely affected, it still did not seem as intense or painful as it should have been.

I sought the solace of my friends, and gave it as much as possible, just like everyone else in New York City. And although I knew people who died in the Trade Center, and others who lost close relatives and friends, I still only understood the calamity in my mind. It didn’t really hit my heart the way it hit others’.

Then I found a uniquely Jewish way to relate, and was able to come to personal terms with this tragedy.

Many who died in the Trade Center were never found intact. Outside a hospital in the East 20s, a number of refrigerated containers were set up to hold the various body parts that had been recovered while they awaited DNA testing and proper burial.

Of the nearly 3,000 people who died the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a large number had to have been Jewish. Thus, it was assumed that many of the human pieces in those containers had come from Jewish bodies.

When a Jewish person dies, there is a tradition that someone stay up with the body all night before it is buried, watching over it and saying Tehilim — Psalms. Called shmirah (which literally means guarding), it is a sign of respect for the person who has died. As the days rolled on after Sept. 11, and body parts were recovered, a 24-hour rotation of people began to do shmirah in a tent (or trailer once it got colder) next to those refrigerated containers.

One benefit to freelancing is that I have a flexible schedule, so I often volunteered for a middle-of-the-night shift, from 2-6 a.m. For the bulk of that time, I was alone, saying Tehilim or silently meditating about the tragedy and the real people who had been lost.

Until then, I had mostly focused on the narrow escapes of the living. I had friends who should have been at work in the Trade Center, but weren’t that morning for some strangely miraculous reason or another. Others I know were chased through the streets of downtown by a cloud of smoke and debris as the buildings came tumbling down. Some had even been inside the second tower, or lower down in the first, but thankfully were able to get away safely.

I also knew a young woman, though not a close friend, who was among the Cantor Fitzgerald employees who never made it out. And after Sept. 11, I became friends with a woman who lost her brother that morning. The stories I heard about these people put a personal face on Sept. 11.

Still, despite these personal connections, I still felt less deeply affected by Sept. 11 than I should have, until I engaged in this Jewish ritual.

Jewish mourning practices are designed more for the living survivors than for those who have passed on. The process of moving from the intense seven days of shiva, to the less stringent 30 of shloshim, to the even more relaxed year of mourning following the loss of a parent, allow the survivor to accept the pain of loss and ease back into regular life.

The three weeks that lead up to Tisha B’Av, however, play out differently. As observant Jews approach this day of mourning for the loss of the two temples in Jerusalem, there’s an increase in the intensity of mourning. This allows us to acquire and assimilate a feeling of this loss, even though we never experienced it.

In much the same way, the shmirah I did after Sept. 11 allowed me to feel more compellingly the tragedy of that day. This year, on Sept. 11, I will again be saying Tehilim for the memory of those we lost. I invite you all to do the same.

May all of their neshomot (souls) have an aliyah (uplifting).

Joel Haber (

Israeli Artist Paints a Path to Healing

There is something raw about the rough brush strokes in the work of native Israeli artist Rhea Carmi, and about her textured materials, such as sand and stone. But then, there also was a rawness to the tragedy that originally informed and inspired her work.

Carmi lost her brother in the Yom Kippur War and needed a way to cope. When she turned to painting, friends and family told her that she had talent.

The result of this new life path will be on display this summer at the Lawrence Asher Gallery in the museum district of Wilshire Boulevard. Most of the exhibited works will be from Carmi’s “Humanity’s Struggle” series, but there also will be selected works from her “Humanity’s Resilience and Everlasting Spirit” series. The exhibition explores themes the 53-year-old artist has wrestled with throughout her life; the paintings themselves represent her work over the past 12 years.

Carmi’s artistic evolution quickly became about more than confronting the grief of her brother’s death: She’s also had to process warring sides of her personality — the scientist vs. the artist. Carmi studied physiology at Tel Aviv Open University before switching her major to art at Ramat-Gan Institute for the Arts, where she studied under artist Moti Mizrahi, an artist recognized for his conceptual art and use of space, and mixed-media artist Arie Aroch.

“In my work you can see a war between certain characteristics of mine,” Carmi said. “One side of me that wants everything to be in order [with a] vertical flow … like in science. The other is my wild side.”

The paintings in her “Humanity’s Resilience” series utilize Carmi’s chemistry background, tapping into her inner scientist. Jerusalem stone and other raw materials such as sand and rocks recreate the look of antiquity in this series. Through carving into the paint, painting on stone and using ancient Hebrew letters, Carmi creates a cave-painting look that symbolizes the resilience of the Jewish people throughout history. This series is as much about touch as sight; the textures Carmi uses let the viewer feel the layers of history.

Some of the paintings in “Humanity’s Struggle” deal with the universal emotions people experience after trauma or tragedy. Her mixed-media pieces with cookie-cutter figures illustrate the loss of identity that can occur after a tragedy.

One example is “Survivor’s Dance,” a red painting in which various uniform figures dance in a circle, like they are jumping on a trampoline. Carmi described it as a dance of life. The various figures illustrate diverse and individual reactions to tragedy.

An example of her wild side taking over is “Suspended: Humanity Struggles VIII,” with its vibrant primary colors and strong masculine lines, depicting the senseless violence and loss of life in the Middle East. The painting shows several figures being hung. The shock of the subject matter and the rough nature of her brush strokes had museum visitors mesmerized at her last exhibit.

In “Humanity Struggles XXIV,” there are Hebrew letters and a red tzitzit that Carmi said is supposed to look as though it has been soaked in blood. It juxtaposes the struggles occurring in Israel with the calmer constant of Judaism.

“Even though the struggles are very hard, most of the time we fix it. You become stronger and better if there is another disaster because of those struggles,” Carmi said.

Her works, with their vast range of styles, materials and symbols reflect her conflicting sensibilities: “Sometimes one side takes over the other. It depends on the mood…. I could separate my work into the one that comes from my guts and the one that comes from my head. I convey my feeling via the material and the colors and the texture.”

She expects and welcomes a broad swath of reactions to her work.

“People can relate their personal experience to my paintings,” she said, “even though I experience something different than them.”

Rhea Carmi discusses “Humanity Struggles” at the Lawrence Asher Gallery, June 23, at 7:30 p.m. The Humanity Struggles Series (1991-2003), will be on display through July 9 at the Lawrence Asher Gallery, 5820 Wilshire Blvd. Parking available behind 5858 Wilshire Blvd. For more information, call (323) 935-9100.

African Shoah Lives in ‘Hotel Rwanda’


When British actress Sophie Okonedo portrayed the wife of a hotel manager who saved more than 1,200 people during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, she worked with 10,000 extras — including Rwandan refugees living in Johannesburg. Some agreed to be in “Hotel Rwanda’s” harrowing scene showing Rwandan women naked, caged and cowering, waiting to be raped.

“Some of those women had been through that. You don’t quite think about your film in the same way,” said Okonedo, born in England to a Nigerian father and Jewish mother.

The two-hour, PG-13 film, which opened Wednesday in Los Angeles, tells the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a Rwandan hotel manager who, in April 1994, sheltered 1,268 ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus marked for death by Hutu extremists. The extremists were responsible for the machete murders of almost 1 million Rwandans, a slaughter that world leaders ignored.

A British-Italian-South African co-production, “Hotel Rwanda” earned a People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, plus three Golden Globe nominations. It was screened earlier this fall at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Financing for the film’s $20 million production budget came partly from Israel’s Bank Leumi, and one-third of the funds came from government financing in South Africa, where most of the film was shot.

As Rwanda’s genocide progressed, the United Nations and the Clinton administration downplayed the genocide, dismissing news reports of mass slaughter and delaying the dispatch of troops to stop it. Unlike the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide was broadcast worldwide, and “Hotel Rwanda” has re-ignited decade-old feelings of shame among European and U.S. film patrons over how their nations refused to intervene.

“We have seen this film before. It could have easily been Poland in 1940 with Jews,” said Rachel Jagoda, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust director who saw an advance screening of the film. “The faces, the ethnicities, the landscape change, but the story is the same.”

“The biggest difference, of course, is the rate at which the genocide occurred,” Jagoda said. “It took 12 years to murder 6 million Jews in Europe. It took 100 days to murder almost 1 million people in Rwanda.”

Okonedo agreed, saying, “It wouldn’t have taken very much to stop the genocide. These people were slaughtered with machetes.”

Character actor Don Cheadle plays Rusesabagina, a moderate Hutu whose compassion turns the elegant, Belgian-owned Hotel des Milles Collines into a rare Tutsi haven. His performance earned him a Golden Globe best actor nomination, alongside nominations for best dramatic picture and original song.

“Hotel Rwanda” executive producer Hal Sadoff, whose great-grandparents fled Ukrainian anti-Semitism, worked on the film’s financing with fellow executive producer Martin Katz, a Jewish Canadian.

“It’s a topic that has not really been publicized in the U.S.; people are ready today to look at it,” said Sadoff, who also handled financing for “House of Sand and Fog.” “There are a lot of Holocaust scripts around. But this script — it was so well written and so commercial and although it was set within this horrible tragedy — it was really about human relationships.”

Known to independent film audiences for her role in 2002’s “Dirty Pretty Things,” Okonedo’s prominent “Hotel Rwanda” part as Rusesabagina’s wife, Tatiana, is key. Her simple desire to save her family gives filmgoers a way to comprehend the seemingly superhuman compassion of her otherwise ordinary husband.

“The biggest leap for me was to become a Rwandan housewife, because it was completely opposite my upbringing,” Okonedo told The Journal in a telephone interview.

The real Paul Rusesabagina fled Rwanda with his wife, three children and two nieces and resettled in Belgium, where he runs a trucking company and served as the film’s consultant.

Okonedo, who researched her role at the Berlin Holocaust Museum, said meeting the couple was “quite overwhelming at first, and it was quite frightening. He’s almost a kind of an accidental hero. These people were still living and getting on with their lives. It’s always extraordinary when you see survivors.”

Despite the horrific subject matter, the film’s singular focus is on Rusesabagina, an ordinary hotel manager, trying to protect his family and 1,200-plus people. Because of this emphasis, Okonedo finished the film with some hope.

“These people, Paul and Tatiana, they just kept going through all this mayhem, and they didn’t fall apart,” she said. “So many of the films at the moment are about superpeople, superlawyers, superdetectives and spies. I’m just quite interested in the ordinary Joe, and the ordinary often has extraordinary tales to tell.”


Tragedy in Sudan Spurs Local Action


On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) gave a sermon on the tragedy of Sudan and what the Jewish community needs to do about it.

His proposed remedy: Start the Jewish World Watch (JWW), a commission of caring men and women that will monitor atrocities around the world by organizing educational evenings with international relations experts and raise money to help societies being ravaged by genocide.

“We wish to be educated, to know what atrocities lie out there and where they are,” Schulweis said in his sermon. “We wish to raise our voice, because we global Jews know that silence is lethal and meekness is inexcusable.”

After the sermon was publicized, clergy from different congregations, such as Sinai Temple, Kol Tikvah and Stephen S. Wise, contacted Schulweis and asked if they could get involved, too.

The result was the Inter-Synagogue World Watch Council, which is co-sponsoring JWW’s first event — a talk by Jerry Fowler, chair of the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., on “Genocide Emergency Sudan: Who Will Survive?” Fowler is an expert on Sudan who has traveled there several times.

In addition to the speech, JWW is also raising funds to build a medical clinic in Chad for Sudanese refugees. The clinic is expected to cost about $45,000 to build and will also serve as a rape counseling center and a food distribution center. After that, the JWW will raise money to dig a well in Chad, which is expected to cost about $3,000.

“The fact that it costs so little to build [the clinic] is probably a statement on the economy, as well as the medical conditions there,” said JWW Chair Janice Kaminer Reznik. “It’s a small amount of money for such a huge impact.”

Currently VBS has 100 of its members involved in JWW. In addition to raising funds and organizing functions, they have initiated letter-writing campaigns to the United Nations, which they say is ignoring the tragedy in Sudan; established a youth division that will provide speakers to youth groups; and started the sale of green ribbons to be worn as a symbol of solidarity with the people of Sudan. They are also planning a trip to Chad in 2005.

“This whole project was born out of the notion that ‘never again’ is supposed to mean ‘never again,'” Kaminer Reznik said. “But there have been other genocides since [the Holocaust], and it seems it just went over our heads. One of the main objectives of JWW is educating people in our position that there is this terrible thing happening that we can’t separate ourselves from, and that is what being Jewish is all about.”

Fowler will speak on Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Skirball Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 440-4500.

For more information about Jewish World Watch visit www.vbs.org or e-mail jkreznik@aol.com.


Rites to Mark Argentine Terror Attack

At 9:53 a.m. this Sunday in Buenos Aires, a loud siren will sound in front of 633 Pasteur St., where the AMIA Jewish community center is located.

The siren will mark the moment 10 years ago when a bomb went off, killing 85 people in the most devastating terrorist attack in modern Latin American history. Hundreds of Argentines are expected to be standing on Pasteur and in nearby streets to commemorate the anniversary of the tragedy.

The DAIA political umbrella group, together with AMIA and Familiaris de Las Victims — the biggest group of victims’ relatives — jointly organized the commemoration ceremony in Buenos Aires.

The following day, DAIA President Gilbert Lei will be in New York to take part in a commemoration there of the AMIA attack.

The American Jewish Committee, which recently gave an award to Argentine President Nestor Kirchner for his friendliness to Jews and Jewish interests, is sending a delegation to Buenos Aires to take part in the ceremony.

Kirchner said he’ll attend the July 18 commemoration at the AMIA center, and the day will be declared a national day of mourning. The president attended last year’s commemoration a few weeks after taking office, and he has been praised for his commitment to investigating the attack.

Because of infighting in the community, Familiaris at first opposed co-sponsoring the demonstration with local Jewish leaders.

“We finally decided not to show our differences to the world on such a day,” explained Sergio Bernstein, a prominent Familiaris member. “We’re privileged to honor the victims.”

Barely a week before the commemoration, Familiaris still hadn’t chosen a speaker. “We need to make sure we have someone that won’t break down,” Bernstein said.

The Familiaris speech will come after speeches by representatives of AMIA and DAIA. AMIA President Abraham Kabul said he will speak on the 10-year investigation of the attack, focusing on how the case has lost its focus.

Ten days before the ceremony, DAIA leaders also had not chosen a speaker.

“No matter who talks, he’ll express the will for truth, justice and unity that DAIA feels,” said Jorge Kirszenbaum, DAIA vice president.

Many Jews are concerned that DAIA officials — aside from Lei — are still linked to the organization’s former president, Ruben Barrage. Barrage has been criticized by local Jews, because of his ties to former Argentine President Carlos Menem and the former investigative judge on the AMIA case. Menem has been implicated in media reports of hindering the AMIA investigation, because of his ties to Iran, which is believed to have been behind the 1994 attack.

When many Argentine Jews were furious about the slow pace of the investigation into the AMIA bombing, Barrage refused to criticize the authorities. Barrage currently is in prison for developments related to a bank bankruptcy.

DAIA is considering having a victim’s relative speak to avoid public criticism, according to local press reports.

Two other organizations of victims’ relatives, Memorial Active and Anemia, are not taking part in the main celebration. Memorial Active, which for years has been harshly critical of the investigation, will hold a ceremony Saturday night in front of the city’s central courthouse and will then hold an overnight demonstration with the Youth in Guard group.

A Solemn Day in Santa Monica

Santa Monicans call it "the accident." Upon further reflection, some residents also concede that while this word is accurate, it does not capture the enormity of what happened on July 16, 2003. That day, an 86-year-old man’s foot pressed down on the accelerator of his 1992 Buick, sending the large car crashing through the Santa Monica Farmers Market at 60 mph killing 10 people, injuring dozens and shattering a communal calm.

The Santa Monica farmers market tragedy shocked the politcally conscious city where the homeless crowd and the Humvee set maintain a reasonable peace.

Twelve months later, there is a life-goes-on feel to the Farmers Market on Arizona Avenue near the Third Street Promenade. On Saturday of the July 4 weekend, farmers market business was solid with tourists, young couples with small children, some aging hippies, plus two clusters of 20-somethings seeking audiences to test-market movie screenings and environmentalists pigeonholing people to sign a Ballona Wetlands petition.

"We made a conscious effort after the accident to carry on with the market," said Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom, a lawyer whose office staff includes a woman who was walking through the market at 1:47 p.m., when the Buick careened down Arizona.

The Santa Monica Bay Interfaith Council will hold a one-year memorial service on July 14.

The tragedy also has spawned extensive civil litigation against Santa Monica. A California Highway Patrol team of crash investigators has written a 914-page report on the accident. However, its public release has been blocked by a judge concerned about pretrial publicity for the October criminal trial against the Buick’s driver, George Russell Weller, who has stated that he mistakenly thought the accelerator was the brake.

Santa Monica has seven Jewish congregations. At the Reform Beth Shir Shalom, where Bloom worships, cantorial soloist David Shukiar believes that the crash has prompted deeper reflection among himself and his congregants.

"It’s changed how I look at things in the world," he said. "I had a similar feeling, on a much larger scale, with Sept. 11. I hug my daughter tighter now."

At the Wednesday farmers market, Izzy Levitansky runs the Chabad of Montana outreach table with free candles, phylacteries and cards. Last year, he made it across the street to safety as the Buick hit his table. At Shabbat services two days after the crash, he was joyous that God had saved his life.

"There were people on the windshield and the Buick was trucking through and I said, ‘I’m outta here,’" Levitansky said as he stood at Arizona Avenue, pointing to the center of the intersection where he was standing. "He hit the table."

And after watching those 10 to 15 seconds of horror, he said, "You wake up the next morning and say, ‘I got no problems. I can breathe.’"

Farmers market manager Mort Bernstein also is not interested in assigning blame. "People come up and talk about it and try to assign blame because it’s something that’s hard to comprehend," said Bernstein, sitting under a tent amid the market’s stalls. "Blame the city. Blame the lack of barricades. If they can assign blame, they can compartmentalize it."

The tragedy’s oldest victim was Movsha Hoffman, a 78-year-old Jewish immigrant from Lithuania. His wife, Esther, survived but was seriously injured. Months after the accident, her son moved her out of the apartment where his parents would reminisce about Soviet socialism with their landlord.

Since Esther moved "I haven’t heard a word from her," said landlord Jay Johnson, who is also a city planning commissioner.

After the tragedy, Johnson spoke about possible safety improvements like wider medians on Wilshire Boulevard and more aid for senior citizen drivers like Weller. A year later, such altruistic notions appear to have been the coping mechanisms that Johnson knew they were even as he spoke of them. There are now barriers on both sides of the farmers market’s Arizona Avenue entrances, but Santa Monica officials have not radically altered their relations with the 20 percent of the city’s population composed of senior citizens.

At Sinai Temple in Westwood, Rabbi David Wolpe draws strength from Shamsi Khani, a Persian American in her late 80s who endured the speeding Buick breaking her neck in three places and breaking both her legs.

"They did not hold any chance for her to survive when I saw her the first time in the hospital," Wolpe said. "In fact, she survives and comes to synagogue on Shabbat. Although there are many tragedies, we also have to be grateful for any small miracles we can wrest from this calamity."

The Soldier I Could Have Saved

Thirty-three years ago an Israeli soldier was killed during the War of Attrition in Fort Kantara on the Suez Canal. The soldier’s name was Kobi; he was 19. I think about Kobi every day, and sometimes I don’t sleep at night. Thirty-three years have passed, and I still live with it like it happened recently.

Do you think I am insane? Disturbed? Suffering from post-war trauma?

I don’t know, I was never treated by a doctor for it.

During the war I was a staff sergeant at Fort Kantara. I was there for more than a year. I saw young Israeli soldiers come and go. In Hebrew we called them “cannon meat.” They came to us from boot camp, 18 years old. Wanting to see the blue water of the Suez Canal, they raised their heads above the sandbags and were killed instantly by Russian snipers. The next day they were sent back home in caskets. Just like that, within seconds, they were alive and suddenly gone. We told you not to raise your heads. You didn’t listen to us. By then it was too late.

But this is not what happened to Kobi. Kobi could have been saved, but something else happened. A short time after Kobi arrived at Fort Kantara, a new officer joined us — Lt. Moti. Moti came directly from officers school, with a lot of energy, and let us feel that he was the new boss of the place. We didn’t make a big deal of it at first. He seemed to be a nice guy from from a good family. He was from the town of Hadera, wanted to go up the ranks fast and acted a little like an oyber chuchem (smart ass).

Time passed, and except for a few disputes Moti got along with most of us, including myself — until the horrible day came. It was Kobi’s shift to watch the Egyptians on the other side of the canal from the observation post. Moti and I were in the war room below. The phone from Kobi’s post rang.

“The Egyptians are looking at me with binoculars and aiming a bazooka at me,” Kobi said.

“Get off your post right now,” I yelled to him. I knew what was going to happen, and a gush of fear went though me.

Moti yelled, “Stay there and keep looking. Do not get off your post.”

I yelled again, “Get off right now, let’s go, now, now, now. There is no time.”

Moti yelled, “If you get off, you are going straight go jail.”

I yelled, “Kobi, please come down. Moti doesn’t know what’s happening here, I’ve been there before. Do me and yourself a favor, come down now.”

Moti kept going: “If you come down now, you will be in trouble for the rest of your service, I am the officer in charge, do not listen to Yoram.”

It was too late. The bazooka from the other side was launched. Kobi was dead. Another 19-year-old kid was gone. Moti and I looked at each other for five solid minutes and did not say a word. We froze. Afterward I told Moti, “You will pay for this someday.”

I went to the post and collected what was left from this cute kid from Ashkelon who wanted to be a doctor.

The newspaper wrote that Kobi was killed by heavy Egyptian artillery. His grandfather was killed in the Warsaw Ghetto. His parents were Holocaust survivors. His uncle was killed in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948.

Kobi’s parents didn’t know the truth of how he died. Maybe it’s better that way.

Moti completed his service in the army after three years. He did not want to be a big shot in the army anymore. He attended the Technion. I saw him a few times in Haifa. We never talked about what happened. It was more like “Hi” and “Bye.”

Thirty-three years have passed since then. Even today I say to myself “Why didn’t I go to his post and drag him down?”

I could have called him today in Israel and say “Doctor, how are ya? How’s the family? Remember that day on the Suez Canal? Wow, what a mess. You almost got killed. Luckily you got off the post.”

I heard that the Israeli Department of Defense decided to give the soldiers who served during the War of Attrition a new medal of courage.

Suddenly, just like that, they want to give a medal to the “cannon meat?”

We served there from 1967 to 1973, and every day 20 to 40 soldiers, just kids, were killed. My medal will arrive at my last address in Israel — Kiryat Tivon. Maybe I should ask Jojo, the mail carrier, to forward it to Moti’s family in Ashkelon.

Yoram Samuel lives in Los Angeles.

A Friendly Drink in a Time of War

A friend leaned across a bar and said, "You call the war in Iraq an anti-fascist war. You even call it a left-wing war — a war of liberation. That language of yours. And yet, on the left, not too many people agree with you."

"Not true," I said. "Apart from X, Y and Z, whose left-wing names you know very well, what do you think of Adam Michnik in Poland? And doesn’t Vaclav Havel count for something in your eyes? These are among the heroes of our time. Anyway, who is fighting in Iraq right now? The coalition is led by a Texas right-winger, which is a pity; but in the second rank, by the prime minister of Britain, who is a socialist, sort of, and, in the third rank, by the president of Poland, a communist — an ex-communist, anyway. One Texas right-winger and two Europeans who are more or less on the left. Anyway, these categories, right and left, are disintegrating by the minute. And who do you regard as the leader of the worldwide left? Jacques Chirac? A conservative, I hate to tell you."

My friend persisted.

"Still, most people don’t seem to agree with you. You do have to see that. And why do you suppose that is?"

That was an aggressive question. And I answered in kind.

"Why don’t people on the left see it my way? Except for the ones who do? I’ll give you six reasons. People on the left have been unable to see the anti-fascist nature of the war because…." My hand hovered over the bar, ready to thump six times, demonstrating the powerful force of my argument.

"The left doesn’t see because" — thump! — "George W. Bush is an unusually repulsive politician, except to his own followers, and people are blinded by the revulsion they feel. And, in their blindness, they cannot identify the main contours of reality right now. They peer at Iraq and see the smirking face of George W. Bush. They even feel a kind of schadenfreude, or satisfaction at his errors and failures. This is a modern, television-age example of what used to be called ‘false consciousness.’"

Thump! "The left doesn’t see because a lot of otherwise intelligent people have decided, a priori, that all the big problems around the world stem from America — even the problems that don’t. This is an attitude that, 60 years ago, would have prevented those same people from making sense of the fascists of Europe, too."

Thump! "Another reason: a lot of people suppose that any sort of anti-colonial movement must be admirable or, at least, acceptable. Or they think that, at minimum, we shouldn’t do more than tut-tut — even in the case of a movement that, like the Baath Party, was founded under a Nazi influence. In 1943, no less!"

Thump! "The left doesn’t see because a lot of people, in their good-hearted effort to respect cultural differences, have concluded that Arabs must, for inscrutable reasons of their own, like to live under grotesque dictatorships and are not really capable of anything else, or won’t be ready to do so for another 500 years, and Arab liberals should be regarded as somehow inauthentic. Which is to say, a lot of people, swept along by their own high-minded principles of cultural tolerance, have ended up clinging to attitudes that can only be regarded as racist against Arabs.

"The old-fashioned left used to be universalist, used to think that everyone, all over the world, would some day want to live according to the same fundamental values, and ought to be helped to do so. They thought this was especially true for people in reasonably modern societies with universities, industries and a sophisticated bureaucracy — societies like the one in Iraq. But no more. Today, people say, out of a spirit of egalitarian tolerance, Social democracy for Swedes! Tyranny for Arabs!, And this is supposed to be a left-wing attitude? By the way, you don’t hear much from the left about the non-Arabs in countries like Iraq, do you? The left, the real left, used to be the champion of minority populations, of people like the Kurds. No more. The left, my friend, has abandoned the values of the left — except for a few of us, of course."

Thump! "Another reason: A lot of people honestly believe that Israel’s problems with the Palestinians represent something more than a miserable dispute over borders and recognition — that Israel’s problems represent something huger, a uniquely diabolical aspect of Zionism, which explains the rage and humiliation felt by Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia. Which is to say, a lot of people have succumbed to anti-Semitic fantasies about the cosmic quality of Jewish crime and cannot get their minds to think about anything else.

"I mean, look at the discussions that go on even among people who call themselves the democratic left, the good left — a relentless harping on the sins of Israel, an obsessive harping, with very little said about the fascist-influenced movements that have caused hundreds of thousands and even millions of deaths in other parts of the Muslim world. The distortions are wild, if you stop to think about them. Look at some of our big, influential liberal magazines — one article after another about Israeli crimes and stupidities, and even a few statements in favor of abolishing Israel, and hardly anything about the sufferings of the Arabs in the rest of the world. And even less is said about the Arab liberals — our own comrades, who have been pretty much abandoned. What do you make of that, my friend? There’s a name for that, a systematic distortion — what we Marxists, when we were Marxists, used to call ideology."

Thump! "The left doesn’t see because a lot of people are, in any case, willfully blind to anti-Semitism in other cultures. They cannot get themselves to recognize the degree to which Nazi-like doctrines about the supernatural quality of Jewish evil have influenced mass political movements across large swaths of the world. It is 1943 right now in huge portions of the world, and people don’t see it. And so, people simply cannot detect the fascist nature of all kinds of mass movements and political parties. In the Muslim world, especially."

Six thumps. I was done. My friend looked incredulous. His incredulity drove me to continue.

"And yet," I insisted, "if good-hearted people like you would only open your left-wing eyes, you would see clearly enough that the Baath Party is very nearly a classic fascist movement, and so is the radical Islamist movement, in a somewhat different fashion — two strands of a single impulse, which happens to be Europe’s fascist and totalitarian legacy to the modern Muslim world. If only people like you would wake up, you would see that war against the radical Islamist and Baathist movements, in Afghanistan exactly as in Iraq, is war against fascism."

I grew still more heated.

"What a tragedy that you don’t see this! It’s a tragedy for the Afghanis and the Iraqis, who need more help than they are receiving. A tragedy for the genuine liberals all over the Muslim world! A tragedy for the American soldiers, the British, the Poles and everyone else who has gone to Iraq lately, the nongovernmental organization volunteers and the occupying forces from abroad, who have to struggle on bitterly against the worst kind of nihilists, and have been getting damn little support or even moral solidarity from people who describe themselves as anti-fascists in the world’s richest and fattest neighborhoods.

"What a tragedy for the left, the worldwide left. This left of ours which, in failing to play much of a role in the anti-fascism of our own era, is right now committing a gigantic historic error. Not for the first time, my friend! And yet, if the left all over the world took up this particular struggle as its own, the whole nature of events in Iraq and throughout the region could be influenced in a very useful way, and Bush’s many blunders could be rectified, and the struggle could be advanced."

My friend’s eyes widened, maybe in astonishment, maybe in pity.

He said, "And so, the United Nations and international law mean nothing to you, not a thing? You think it’s alright for America to go do whatever it wants, and ignore the rest of the world?"

I answered, "The United Nations and international law are fine by me, and more than fine. I am their supporter. Or, rather, would like to support them. It would be better to fight an anti-fascist war with more than a begrudging U.N. approval. It would be better to fight with the approving sanction of international law — better in a million ways. Better politically, therefore militarily. Better for the precedents that would be set. Better for the purpose of expressing the liberal principles at stake. If I had my druthers, that is how we would have gone about fighting the war. But my druthers don’t count for much. We have had to choose between supporting the war, or opposing it — supporting the war in the name of anti-fascism, or opposing it in the name of some kind of concept of international law. Anti-fascism without international law, or international law without anti-fascism. A miserable choice, but one does have to choose, unfortunately."

My friend said, "I’m for the U.N. and international law, and I think you’ve become a traitor to the left. A neocon!"

I said, "I’m for overthrowing tyrants, and since when did overthrowing fascism become treason to the left?"

"But isn’t George Bush himself a fascist, more or less? I mean, admit it!"

My own eyes widened. "You haven’t the foggiest idea what fascism is," I said. "I always figured that a keen awareness of extreme oppression was the deepest trait of a left-wing heart. Mass graves, 300,000 missing Iraqis, a population crushed by 35 years of Baathist boots stomping on their faces — that is what fascism means! And you think that a few corrupt insider contracts with Bush’s cronies at Halliburton and a bit of retrograde Bible-thumping and Bush’s ridiculous tax cuts and his bonanzas for the super-rich are indistinguishable from that? Indistinguishable from fascism? From a politics of slaughter? Leftism is supposed to be a reality principle. Leftism is supposed to embody an ability to take in the big picture. The traitor to the left is you, my friend…."

But this made not the slightest sense to him, and there was nothing left to do but to hit each other over the head with our respective drinks.

Paul Berman is the author of “Terror and
Liberalism.” His book “The Passion of Joschka Fischer” will come out in the
spring. Reprinted with permission from the winter 2004 issue of Dissent

Teen Victims Tell Their Stories

On June 1, 2001, Larisa Azyaski stood with her best friend Irina Nepomnyaschy among a sea of teenagers clamoring to get into the Dolphinarium, a popular Tel Aviv club. Suddenly, the place exploded. A suicide bomber detonated himself, and Azyaski saw only darkness in front of her. She felt like her head was on fire. Disoriented and separated from her friends, she walked past dozens of motionless bodies and managed to escape the chaos.

The then-16-year-old hailed a cab and rushed to the nearest hospital, where she underwent a six-hour operation to remove pieces of shrapnel lodged in her back, legs and ears. When Azyaski awoke from her surgery, her parents informed her that her best friend was dead.

Unlike Irina, Azyaski, now 18, was among the so-called lucky ones of the Dolphinarium bombing, where 21 people — mostly teenagers — were killed. And while the families of those who died in the blast are left with memories of their loved ones, Azyaski and six other young survivors who visited Los Angeles in early November are still learning to cope and move beyond the impact of that tragedy.

The seven girls, most of whom are Jewish Russian immigrants living in Israel, and a mother who lost her only child in the attack, spent more than a week in Los Angeles as part of the 10 Days of Hope project. The trip was sponsored by StandWithUs, a Los Angeles-based grass-roots organization that supports Israel, and Green Dog Films, a local production company. Staying with host families, the girls and the mother, who came in her daughter’s place, flew to Los Angeles to share their stories with local schools and other community groups. With limited access to medical care in Israel, the girls secured appointments with Los Angeles doctors and dentists who helped to treat some of their injuries free of charge. In addition, they spent time at Universal Studios, Disneyland and in Hollywood — and even had a day of beauty. But even exciting activities and the support of their new surrogate families couldn’t suppress the girls’ thoughts of their troubled past.

"I used to be very happy and full of life," Azyaski told The Journal through a Russian translator while eating at Pat’s in Pico-Robertson. A mixture of sadness and anger filled her pretty blue eyes. "Now I feel like an old, sick antique that nobody wants."

Pain is an everyday reality for Azyaski, who takes Advil every three hours to relieve the pressure of the sharp pieces of metal lodged mostly in her legs and back. The metal is actually nickel, which is difficult to remove. Instead, her body has to naturally expel the material, which can take years. Besides extensive nerve damage, constant pain and hearing loss, Azyaski has a six-inch scar on her left calf, as well as several scars on her lower back where sharp pieces constantly and painfully make their way to the skin’s surface.

Clad in an oversize gray turtleneck sweater, Azyaski seemed self-protective, but it’s clear that the bulk of her suffering is of the emotional kind.

For Karina Krasnopolnaski, 17, who was out celebrating her 15th birthday on the night of explosion, unsightly scars have made the attractive teenager doubt her self-worth when it comes to the opposite sex. Krasnopolnaski was recently devastated when a potential suitor made a negative comment about a large scar on her thigh. Since then, she intentionally chooses clothing that covers her upper legs.

Low self-esteem was a common thread among the young victims. With an abundance of physical and emotional scars, they see themselves as defective, cheated and unwanted. As such, getting back to "normal" means reinventing a sense of normalcy. After the attack, Azyaski’s dreams of joining the Israeli army with Irina and opening a home for abandoned children were destroyed. Her back and leg injuries prevent her from standing or sitting for more than 20 minutes at a time, which makes it hard for her to secure any kind of a job — even part-time work as a waitress or a clerk.

Her options greatly narrowed, Azyaski is currently pursuing the equivalent of a community college degree in accounting, a subject she hates. She is also working through a deep depression that followed her mother’s death from breast cancer last summer. Azyaski’s new life consists of completing her studies and desperately searching for a job to help support her father, her older sister and her sister’s husband, with whom she shares a small apartment in Rishon LeZion. Moving on means trying to let go of the guilt she feels for the deaths of Irina and her mother.

But the teenagers react differently to the bombings.

Unlike Azyaski, Tanya Weiz, 20, says that the tragedy made her stronger. Weiz was standing in line with three friends the night the explosion occurred. The first thing she remembered was touching her neck and finding that four of her fingers slid inside a gaping wound there. A passerby helped her get to the hospital where she endured an eight-hour operation to remove three iron balls that were lodged in the delicate tissues of her neck.

There is an air of proud defiance when she moves her shirt aside to display her scar.

"Before, I used to hang out with people who had no interest in real life," said Weiz, who was not expected to speak again; she is currently studying to be a hair stylist. Since the incident, Weiz, whose jet-black hair and black clothing give her a "goth" appearance, has re-evaluated her friendships.

"My whole perspective changed," said Weiz, who also lost her best friend in the attack. "I believe I was born on June 1."

"In order [for them to have] a fully normal life, we’d have to make sure nothing happens in Israel," said Yan Fisher Romanovsky, a Los Angeles independent producer who served as the trip coordinator, chaperone, translator and personal confidant to the girls during their stay. "Every time they hear about an explosion, [the memories] come back. Also, by living there, you have an everyday chance of getting into the same situation again."

At the age of 18, most Israelis enter the army, but physical limitations force these girls must find a different path. They’re the newest unwitting warriors in Israel’s battle with terrorism, but they are voices that are rarely heard.

One person who wants to help them is Jason Gurvitz, the founder of Green Dog Films. While filming "Internal Exile," an upcoming documentary about young Israelis and Palestinians, Gurvitz and his crew met representatives from several Israeli philanthropic organizations, including the Mikhail Chernoy Foundation, who asked them to make a second documentary about the teenage victims of the Dolphinarium bombing. The project involved bringing the girls to the United States to talk about their experiences and treat them to 10 days of hope and healing. Gurvitz recruited StandWithUs for additional support and hopes that the program will continue for years to come.

"I think that young people’s voices are severely underrepresented," Gurvitz said. "The American public hasn’t heard the personal stories from the people who were involved directly." With the "10 Days of Hope" documentary, Gurvitz wants to inform young Americans about the tragedies in Israel.

"Most young people in the U.S. became aware of the conflict in Israel with the Dolphinarium attack because they hear the word ‘discotheque’ and that’s something they’re familiar with," he said, adding that most public schools don’t even teach students about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For StandWithUs, educating the community at large about terrorism in Israel was one of the goals of the girls’ visit.

"People don’t talk about the pain and suffering for the survivors," said Roz Rothstein, the organization’s executive director. While the girls shared their stories with Shalhevet High School, Milken Community High School, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Temple Beth Am, Rothstein believes that it’s the larger American community that desperately needs this education.

"The Jewish community performs a duty of loving [these victims]. They’re the family," Rothstein said. "But, the broader community needs to learn about it."

Rothstein felt that part of the mission was realized when KTLA broadcast the girls’ story during a recent news segment.

Playing the role of the dutiful family, 200 members of the Jewish community gathered inside the Temple Beth Am ballroom on Nov. 12, the eve of the girls’ departure from Los Angeles. StandWithUs board members, UCLA students from Bruins for Israel, local high school students, representatives from the local Israeli consulate and concerned members of the community at large crammed inside the large room to support the young survivors. Like proud parents, the crowd cheered as each girl made her way to the microphone to thank the host families and other benefactors. The mood grew solemn when Faina Yaakovlev, 16, sang a moving song that she wrote about her memories of the attack. Ma’ayan Friedman and Natalie Naor, seniors at Shalhevet, were so moved by the girls’ visit to their school that they came to see them one last time.

"Your strength invigorates us," Shiran Zohar from Bruins for Israel told the girls. "You are our heroes."

The applause was deafening.

While all the girls commented on how safe they felt during their stay in Los Angeles, none wants to leave Israel and give in to terrorism. "Everywhere is scary," Victoria Aguerenko, an 18-year-old victim, told The Journal in Russian. "There is no 100 percent anywhere."

During her last night in Los Angeles, Azyaski was in high spirits. Clad in a black, sparkling evening gown with her blond hair styled, there was a marked change in her demeanor.

"Being here has changed my life," she said with a smile, clutching her new Kabbalah pendant necklace, a gift from her host family to symbolize their unconditional love. "Here I found a different world and it gave me a lot of strength and power to continue living, and prove to everyone that no matter what, life will go on."

For more information on the 10 Days of Hope program, contact StandWithUs at (310) 836-6140.

Sept. 11 From the D.C. Perspective

When Lionel Chetwynd called the White House Press Office to request an interview with the president, he got lucky.

Very lucky.

The Los Angeles-based writer-producer had hit a brick wall on his script about how President Bush and his Cabinet acted hours following the catastrophic events of Sept. 11, 2001.

To commemorate the second anniversary of the national tragedy, Showtime had commissioned the British-born, Canadian-reared veteran writer for their fact-based dramatization of the days immediately following the disaster, titled, “DC 9/11: Time of Crisis,” which airs Sept. 7.

While Chetwynd is considered a master of the art of turning real-life drama into movies for TV (“Nixon and Kissinger,” “The Man Who Captured Eichman,” “The Hanoi Hilton” and “Ruby Ridge: An American Tragedy”), the Sept. 11 script had him struggling.

“I’d hit a brick wall,” he told The Journal, “because I hadn’t really thought in advance about the complexities of writing about a sitting administration and about what might or might not be going on.”

But then he decided to call the White House to make sure he was on the right track. Right away, he made contact with Bush’s influential key strategist Karl Rove, who proved to be the main conduit to the Oval Office and members of Bush’s Cabinet.

While the Bush administration and the liberal-leaning Hollywood establishment make strange bedfellows, Chetwynd has always danced to his own political drummer. Chetwynd, 63, who has made more than 20 documentaries, is a staunch Republican who has accumulated some IOU’s from the GOP by way of campaigning for and donating to the Bush cause. (“Not a big donor — just the legal limit of $1,000,” he said. )

“I tried to persuade others in Hollywood to support his campaign because there was a lot of hostility there toward his candidacy,” he said. “There was nothing dark to be read into it, although there was a preexisting relationship. They knew I’d always been enthusiastic about Bush’s presidential ambitions since the days he was governor of Texas.”

When Chetwynd finally got the call to fly to Washington, D.C., he was told, “Stand by — we’ll try to squeeze you in for five or 10 minutes.”

He ended up spending almost an hour alone with the 43rd president of the United States — much to the chagrin, he recalls, of all the president’s men. He says that crucial meeting helped him break the back of his troubled script.

“I told the president I was close to abandoning the script because I couldn’t sort out three guys: the president, the commander in chief and the man — George W. Bush — who has a wife, kids, feelings and emotions,” he recalled. “For the film to be effective, I told him I needed to be able to distinguish between those three people and how they work together.”

Chetwynd had previously screened his film, “Varian’s War,” for Bush, and said the president commented first on the weight Chetwynd had recently lost and quickly put him at ease.

“He told me, ‘Let me see if I can help you,'” he recalled. “And he took me through those crucial nine days. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life to sit in the Oval Office and listen to him explain what it was like to have ‘the wall come down around him,’ as he put it.”

Chetwynd said that during their chat, Bush also conceded that his wife had admonished him over his public statement that he wanted Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.”

“He was able to recall with great specificity moments when his three roles came into conflict, when he had to switch from president to commander in chief to husband and father. At the National Cathedral service [which is seen in the movie with film footage intercut with the real news reports] he told me he was deeply moved when he heard a woman weeping.”

What Chetwynd has wrought — an exhaustive study of exactly what happened in the corridors of power immediately following Sept. 11 — can be seen in the movie.

Chetwynd said he was sensitive about not making his movie a “valentine to Bush.” And the film does show Bush stumbling at first, inarticulate in the extreme as his aides look on pained. But gradually he paints a portrait of a “take-charge” executive who, as the hours progress, gains confidence in himself and his job as he takes in complex briefings from the CIA, FBI and State Department chiefs at Cabinet-level meetings in the White House and at Camp David.

There is one scene with Bush on the phone in the Oval Office urging Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to agree to show restraint –“We will hold our hand,” Sharon promises — as the United States plans its strategy.

Chetwynd said what impressed him while he was conducting interviews in Washington, D.C., was that at no time did anyone in the White House even ask, “Which channel are you doing this for?”

“For all they know I could have been doing it for Comedy Central,” he said.

“DC 9/11: Time of Crisis” airs on Showtime, Sun, Sept. 7
at 5 p.m. For additional airings, visit www.sho.com .

Ivor Davis writes for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times syndicates.

A Mitzvah for Ayelet

Last year on the seventh of Av, my cousin, Ayelet, was traveling on bus No. 189 from B’nei B’rak to Emanuel with her 10-month-old twin daughters, her 2-year-old son and her mother. The bus came under terrorist attack killing nine and injuring 20. Her daughter, Sara Tiferet, and mother, Zilpa, were killed. When Gal, Ayelet’s husband, rushed to the scene to find out what had happened to his loved ones, terrorists murdered him, too. While Ayelet and her son were injured, her other daughter, Galia Esther, didn’t have a scratch.

My aunt Zilpa had won a battle with cancer four years before. There is only one word to describe her: angel. Gal was a wealthy, good-looking pilot who gave tzedakah. Running on the freeway to the murder scene, he had to ask for a ride from a stranger since he sold his own car to help a friend. The sight of a 10-month-old corpse being laid into a fresh grave — well, there’s no way to eulogize someone so young.

Last year, my husband and I had the privilege of hosting a group of terror victims from Israel. While we tried to keep a cheerful spirit, we could not ignore the painful experiences each one of them carried. A young woman, Shiri Shefi, told me the heart-wrenching story of how her 5-year-old daughter, Danielle, was murdered in her arms. I cried for Shiri, for Ayelet and for all the suffering we have to endure.

I take great pride in my ability to base my belief in God beyond reason. I do not question Ayelet’s tragedy more than I question the death of little Danielle. A death is a death is a death. Every death is painful; we should ponder death and question it.

However, it is more important to question life. We tend to question the painful and take for granted the essential. I do not think God is in a need of a public defender. It is we who need a reality check.

Six months ago, Ayelet gave birth to a beautiful healthy baby girl. She named her Chaya Nechama (a living counsel). Ayelet was three months pregnant when her loved ones were murdered. By the time the paramedics were able to cut through the bulletproof bus, Ayelet lost a lot of blood and an eye. Just before losing consciousness, she whispered to the surgeons: “I am pregnant. Please, save my baby.”

Is Ayelet lucky? I believe she is. Sometimes it is difficult for me to see why. Ayelet lost her child, her mother, her husband and her eye. But being lucky is a matter of perception.

“We are so lucky, Vered!” Ayelet told me in a phone conversation after the attack. “We get to hold these precious gifts in our hands, to hug them and to kiss them. There are so many people trying for many years to conceive and we take it for granted.”

A year later, Ayelet’s perception cannot be mistaken for a state of “shock” or “denial.” In our weekly conversations, Ayelet always makes sure to make me laugh. If her courageous words could have been put into capsules, she could have put Prozac out of business.

Out sages tell us that the time of the redemption is analogized to labor — it is a difficult time, full of pain and frustration, but as we get closer to our redemption, the contractions are getting longer and closer together. Judging from the situation in the world, I think it is time to push. Sure, we can philosophize and ask, “Why? Why me?” — or we can do something.

In order to cheer Ayelet up, I launched a mitzvah campaign called GAZIT (an acronym for Gal, Zilpa and Sara Tiferet). Gazit were also the stones used to build the Temple in Jerusalem. I ask people to perform one of the 613 mitzvot in honor of Ayelet’s loved ones and write her about it. It can be binding tefillin, affixing a mezuzah, lighting Shabbat candles or honoring family purity (Ayelet’s favorite).

God is a socialist: He gave his mitzvot to the poor and rich, the Reform, Orthodox, Conservative and nonaffiliated. I urge you to do a mitzvah and write to Ayelet about it. You will get the mitzvah of making Ayelet happy.

For more information about GAZIT, contact now.moshiach@verizon.net .

Vered Kashani is a mother of five, studies philosophy at UCLA and is married to Rabbi Shimon Kashani of the Southern California Jewish Center.

Movsha Hoffman

For the past two and a half years, I have been the facilitator of a Yiddish reading class at Santa Monica Emeritus College. We are currently completing the reading in the Sholom Aleichem’s classic, "Motl, Peyse dem Khazn’s" ("Motl, Peyse the Cantor’s Son").

The class resembles, at times, a cheder (classroom) of days gone by, as students follow, make penciled notations and take their turn reading, some more skilled than others, but all very patient and accepting. The atmosphere and camaraderie is simply a joy to experience — mishpacha (family).

We lost our very best reader in the terrible tragedy at the Santa Monica Market on Wednesday afternoon, July 16. Movsha Hoffman is gone.

On Friday morning, when all the victims’ names and accompanying photos were made public, our class, on summer hiatus, was reunited in grief. The phone rang incessantly and tears along with reminiscences followed.

Here was a man who fled Stalin, lived simply through difficult times and never lost an ounce of his effervescence and optimism. His perpetual smile and good nature led everyone to "love the guy" and his bubbly, effusive greetings were something very special. To help someone was pretty much his mantra.

He was my resident expert for Russian terminology that often crept into Aleichem’s narrative. These words were not to be found in any Yiddish dictionary, old or new.

A warm and wonderful person has left us, a true example of menschlichkayt (decency). He will long be remembered — and may that memory be a blessing.

Santa Monica Tragedy Mirrors Israel Terror

Last week at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, I got a taste of what it is like to be an Israeli. Going about the ordinary tasks of life one moment, standing next to a corpse the next.

My day started out ordinarily enough. In pursuit of the perfect tile for my new barbecue center, I headed out of the scorching San Fernando Valley to the mid-70s of Santa Monica.

Thanks to the constant traffic that consumes the 101, I was half an hour late for my 11:30 a.m. appointment at Mission Tile West on Fourth Street. I spent nearly an hour with the general manager, Tom, on what seemed like the important task of selecting the perfect tile and then an additional 15 minutes discussing Tom’s upcoming wedding.

Hungry and dreading my return to the Valley, I headed toward the Farmers’ Market.

I browsed the booths and then walked over to the Third Street Promenade for a quick lunch. The line at Subway was the shortest, so I joined it. I gobbled my sandwich on the patio and returned to the rows of white kiosks that form the Farmers’ Market each week.

A woman carrying flowers passed me, and I considered looking for the flower kiosk but changed my mind when I remembered that I had recently purchased flowers. Instead, I surveyed the various jams and jellies available at another stall.

Perhaps if the women manning the booth had engaged me in a discussion about the jam business, I would have been standing at that stall when 86-year-old George Russell Weller accelerated his way past her stand. As luck would have it, I left the stand and moved to the sidewalk that could have been, but was not, in the driver’s path.

I was in Santa Monica, but the next sights and sounds were ones that more often are found in Israel. The quiet hum of shoppers was interrupted by the crash of a barricade being smashed, bodies being slammed onto the pavement, screams of victims and near victims forming a haunting chorus. Names of missing friends were called out; ashen faces pushed against cell phones, begging 911 operators to send help.

It was impossible to imagine that so much destruction and terror had been caused by a mere automobile, so I, like many of the other witnesses, assumed a terrorist act was in progress. I held my breath and waited to see if there was more to come.

When the crashing sounds diminished, I walked the 10 feet to the street that had been hidden from my view, thanks to a kiosk that had escaped the speeding car. My goal was to see if someone needed help. The sight before me was not what I expected.

A man was lying in the street perhaps five yards from the spot that I had been standing moments before — or was it the exact spot that I had been standing? I’ll never know.

His head was cracked open, and his dark, sticky blood poured out onto the payment. Seconds before, he had been buying a vegetable, innocently presuming that he would have life left to enjoy it. Across from him was another man, also dead, whose body was contorted into a shape that barely resembled a human silhouette.

Screaming and crying, I returned to the visual security of the sidewalk. Other screams joined mine, until they were drowned out by sirens from dozens of police cars, ambulances and fire trucks.

Hysterical, I called my husband as I made my way to my car. Shaking, I started the engine of the convertible and headed home to pick up my son from day camp. As I left Santa Monica, rain fell, but I did not close the roof. I was afraid to stop moving.

As I drove, I thought of how brave Israelis are to go about their daily life, knowing that they may not come home; how they can dance freely at a disco, knowing that any shimmy could be their last; shop at local markets for goods that they might not have a chance to eat, and get on city buses, wondering if they will ever reach their destination.

I was able to pick up my children from camp on July 16 only because Tom at Mission Tile West ended our conversation exactly when he did, the women who made my Subway sandwich made it quickly, I remembered that I didn’t need flowers after all and the women selling jam were too tired to talk me into a jar of homemade plum jelly.

The dead and injured weren’t able to pick up their children that day. And the mother of the dead 3-year-old won’t have a child to send to camp.

When this happens in Israel, what do we do? We watch the aftermath, the cleanup, seeing sanitized pictures of burnt-out buses and dead bodies covered in sheets.

We don’t hear the screams or see the mangled bodies of ordinary people who did nothing more extraordinary than board a bus or walk into a pizza place. We aren’t privy to the Israeli child waiting at school for a mother who never comes. So we shake our heads, say what a shame and go about our day.

People complain the news is too graphic. Now I think the news is not graphic enough. Maybe a close-up in the Los Angeles Times of a young man lying in the street in Santa Monica, with blood gushing from his head, or a photo of a broken 3-year-old, with her mother screaming over her dead body, would cause people to be outraged that Weller was permitted by the Department of Motor Vehicles — and presumably his family — to drive a car.

And maybe some close-ups of Israeli children blown apart by a suicide bomber would awaken us all to the real horror of the terrorist attacks that have rocked Israel the last few years. If the world actually experienced the innocence of the "before" and the visual carnage of the "after," it would certainly be outraged. But then I guess that is why terrorists don’t make videotapes.

I was lucky. I came home. But the next time a suicide bomber kills innocents in Israel — or Bali or Kenya or here — I will not just shake my head.

Wendy Jaffe is a freelance writer based in Bell
Canyon. Her e-mail address is: Wjaffewrite@aol.com