Yom Kippur Dilemma


Is it just me, or does Yom Kippur seem to arrive earlier and more frequently these days?

I feel like I’ve barely had time to recover from one when the next one’s announced, and then I have to toughen up and refrain from saying things like “oh no, not again,” in front of my kids, because I want to set a good example for them; be a good Jew at least a few days a year; and make sure they realize how important it is for them to observe the holidays now and later, when they have formed their own families.

The few friends in whom I confide — I’m sorry I know this is the holiest day of the year I don’t want to commit heresy but somehow, it leaves me feeling empty and dissatisfied, like I’ve been to the water’s edge and found I’m unable to drink, taken to the ball and forbidden to dance — always laugh when I make my confession. They ask if I mind fasting (I do, and I hate the caffeine withdrawal headache, but that’s not my problem), if I have bad memories of Yom Kippurs past and if I resent having to give up a workday.

None of the above, I tell them, but then I have a hard time saying more, because I know what they think — that I have no one to blame but myself for this failure to have a meaningful experience on Yom Kippur, that I can’t feel the spirit of this one day because I’m not a good enough Jew the rest of the year.

It’s true that I don’t go to temple every week, don’t keep kosher, drive on Shabbat (am I really saying this in The Jewish Journal? Could this be the last time you hear from me in this publication?).

But I do uphold faithfully and with genuine enthusiasm the values of family and friendship, of kindness to strangers and fairness with all, of honesty and truthfulness. I do try to examine my actions and thoughts all year, to understand where I’ve failed and how I can do better. And I do feel guilty every day, for the myriad mistakes I know I’ve made, the countless ways in which I’ve let the world down. I don’t need to go to shul every week to acknowledge my sins; I have a voice in my head reminding me of them all the time, a bad record on auto-play with no “off” switch in sight. What I do need, what I go to temple to look for every Yom Kippur and come back empty-handed, is a voice I can believe in, words that resonate beyond the ordinary, the awareness that I have, at long last, discovered not just what I do wrong but how to do it right.

Maybe I’m expecting too much of a holiday, but it seems to me there’s something different about Yom Kippur — an expectation of a spiritual voyage that is at once self-reflective and outward looking, calming and transformative, that I think one must feel and that evades me every year. When I was younger and lived in Iran, I thought it was the manner in which services were conducted that made the experience meaningless from a spiritual standpoint: our synagogue was in an old building, unadorned on the outside, unostentatious on the inside. The men sat in packed rows on the ground floor facing the bimah, trying hard to one-up each other by praying faster and more loudly than everyone else. The stage was crowded, the aisles were packed with people and, since there was no such thing as an annual membership with specific dues, much of the day’s activities focused on raising money for the synagogue.

Upstairs in the balcony, the women sat together in religious exile, excluded from the services by their distance from the bimah and the fact that they didn’t read Hebrew and we didn’t have prayer books in Farsi. They chased their mischievous kids and paraded their marriage-age daughters and flaunted news of their sons’ academic or financial achievements. It was all very nice and convivial, but not exactly fertile ground for spiritual contemplation and, anyway, ours was not the kind of individual, search-for-yourself-you-shall-find kind of spirituality that’s in vogue in the West. We were told — by our rabbis, our parents, our teachers and basically everyone above the age of 12 — that we must believe, and believe we did, or said we did, because the consequences of defiance were just too great to chance.

In America the first few years, I delighted in the ability to celebrate the holidays proudly and without the need to keep a low profile with the neighbors. I joined a temple, sent my kids to the day school and to bar mitzvah classes. On Yom Kippur, I went to shul eagerly, read the prayers in English and waited for the rabbis to say something of great depth or meaning. Everyone around me was quiet and respectful; the kids were safely tucked away in the temple’s day care; the elderly gentlemen who acted as the temple’s gatekeepers were characteristically impatient and abrasive. But (this being America where everything is bigger and bolder and more spectacular than elsewhere), our temple had about 1,500 congregants. On the High Holy Days, I sat among a thousand congregants packed into one enormous hall. The room was so big, you couldn’t see the bimah or the rabbis (they dressed in white robes that looked suspiciously like wanna-be-priest costumes) except on a couple of huge video screens. The choir broke in every three minutes, and it was all so much spectacle and so little substance that I got tired, and decided to move to a smaller, more quiet temple.

This one had a policy of ranking congregants by the level of membership at which they had joined. To be let into the main sanctuary on Yom Kippur, you had to come in at the highest level, and even then there was no guarantee that you would be assigned a seat anywhere close enough to the bimah to feel you were actually part of the services. If you paid only the basic dues, you were sent to one of the many satellite services, and then all your friends would know how little you had paid (only $5,000) and how much respect you actually deserved and, as long as we’re being honest here, you could have donated an elevator and built a classroom, spent countless hours volunteering at the temple’s day school, taken a dozen classes with the rabbi — and you still got sideway glances from the Ashkenazis members of the temple, still felt they saw a scarlet letter “I” every time they looked you in the eyes.

The third synagogue was smaller and less trendy, and maybe for this reason it didn’t have enough room for all its members, so services were held in a nearby church. The first year I joined, I took my mother with me. She’s an observant Jew, keeps kosher and believes in the importance of faith and tradition. She took one look at the 50-foot wooden cross behind the stage where the rabbi was starting the services and declared she had had enough. Let these Reform Jews pray where they want, she wasn’t going to sit and look at a cross all day long on Yom Kippur.

The Iranian temples in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood and the Valley still follow the my-way-or-the-highway tradition of the old country: You do as everyone else (including vote Republican) or you’re a degenerate mole serving the interests of Hezbollah.

We have more synagogues and more freedom to use them here in Los Angeles than we did in Iran, but that doesn’t mean we’re any closer to fulfilling the true purpose of gathering in a house of worship. For me, Yom Kippur in Los Angeles is still very much like Yom Kippur in Iran — a night when I can sit down to a small dinner with my husband and children, a second night when we gather with our extended families to break the fast, when we say thanks for the blessing of being loved by others and the good fortune of reuniting with those we love. When we are struck by the absence of those who had sat around the same table in earlier years and who are no longer with us, and we remember their favorite foods, their quirky habits, the certainty we all had that we would be together again next year.

And in between the two nights, a search for meaning and faith that somehow still manages to elude me.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Holiday Heartburn


I had this crazy dream the other night where all across my neighborhood, in all the Jewish homes and on all the dining tables, the only thing being served to celebrate the High Holy Days was brown rice and seaweed.

I’m not sure where this Spartan nightmare came from, but if I had to guess, it would be that I’ve been talking too much lately with a couple of religious Jewish women who want to start a mini-revolution on how Jews eat.

These culinary rebels believe that it’s difficult to connect with God and the spiritual demands of the Holy Days while we’re injecting 3,000 calories of eggplant salad, hummus, brisket, potatoes, sweet and sour chicken, honey cake and cookies — and then desperately reaching for the Zantac.

In other words, they believe that kosher and holy eating should reflect not just what we eat, but how — and how much — we eat.

This is a painful time for me to consider such notions, with my blessed mother cooking enough food for a Third World country as we prepare for the annual rite of nonstop holiday meals for 20 people. It’s fair to assume that my mother, and probably most of the mothers of her generation, wouldn’t know what to make of a movement that called for light eating and portion control.

It’s not just the old generation. Food, particularly large quantities of delicious food, is a traditional and accepted way of honoring guests and holidays. In my hometown of Montreal, you know how much someone is honoring you by the variety of protein they serve you. If they serve you, for example, brisket, chicken, meatballs and lamb, they probably want you to hire their daughter for a summer internship. If you only get chicken, you probably owe them money.

Here in Pico-Robertson, most of us have, I’m not kidding you, about 125 Thanksgiving-level meals a year. Do the math: Just the two Shabbat meals a week account for 104, and when you throw in all the annual holiday meals — which include, by the way, not one or two but eight elaborate meals for a holiday like Sukkot (four meals in the first two days and four more in the last two days) — well, that’s a lot of Zantac.

This injection of many millions of guest-honoring calories is one reason why people walk very slowly around here during the holidays.

But one observant Jew who never walks slowly is the trim and perky Deborah Rude (pronounced Ruday), one of the culinary rebels of the neighborhood. Rude, a mother of two, bills herself not as a dietician, but as a “livitician” (“Don’t diet, live it!” said the slogan on her business card).

I checked out her office the other day, and, as I pondered the display of flax seed oils, pumpkin seeds and other organic goodies, I couldn’t resist asking her if she remembered a specific moment when she snapped — when she knew that her future would be devoid of starch and protein overload.

It turns out that moment was six years ago, at a Shabbat lunch she was invited to in the Hancock Park area. As she recalls it now, all the food platters on the table had a variation of one color: brown. The overcooked potatoes, the kugel, the cholent, the chicken, even the green beans, she said, were “brownish.”

She promised herself that day that in the future, all her Shabbat meals would have lots of color, freshness and variety — and, most of all, be served in small portions. In fact, when she hosts her Shabbat guests today, she actually serves the portions herself and never leaves any tempting platters on the table.

“The less we eat,” she said, “the more energy we’ll devote to singing and speaking words of Torah.”

That noble sentiment is shared by another health rebel of our neighborhood: Susan Fink, a mother of four and a member of B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

Fink is hip to the dangers of caloric overload under the cover of religious celebration, but her big thing is the spiritual and physical value of exercise. She’s a personal trainer whose goal is “to promote a healthy lifestyle for mind, body and spirit.”

Many of her clients, she said, are fellow observant Jews who see exercise as a way to enable their continued indulgence of those neverending festive meals.

Fink tries to set them straight — “two bites of kreplach can be the equivalent of 30 minutes on the treadmill,” she warns them — but it’s not easy.

“We the Jews are very attached to our food,” she said, in a sharp burst of understatement.

It is this deep attachment to food that my friend Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller reflected on when I asked him for his thoughts on the subject.

First, he quoted a rabbinic scholar and ethicist of the 19th century who connected the Hebrew root for eating with the Hebrew root for destruction, suggesting a dark side of culinary indulgence.

Then he got more spiritual.

“Not eating is not suffering,” he said, “it’s elevating ourselves to a state of transcendence. The fast, on Yom Kippur, reminds us how little material we really need; that we can do with less meat, with less bread, with less of everything. It makes us soar away from our animal side toward our holy and spiritual side.”

Of course, this is the same guy who once served me about five courses when he had me over for dinner, and who made a special announcement at a recent Hillel retreat that “all of you must try these amazing desserts!”

I guess you can call it the disconnect between our intellectual instinct and our primitive urges; between knowing the value of moderation and succumbing to that extra helping of noodle kugel; between understanding the benefits of high-fiber nutrition and surrendering to our grandmothers’ mouthwatering tradition.

If Judaism is about negotiating the tension between opposite impulses, this is surely a very Jewish subject.

Have an easy fast.

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


Transcendence: Jacob Artson’s eloquence and spirit defy his severe autism diagnosis


Jacob Artson needs a break. He’s expended a huge effort keeping his movements and tics under control for the past 45 minutes, and he’s ready to release some energy.

As I talk about Jacob’s journey through severe autism with his parents, Rabbi Brad and Elana Artson, Jacob takes a noisy stomp around the house, upstairs and down, banging, singing, letting out some guttural vocals.

It’s hard to reconcile this outward behavior with the lucidity of the ideas he’s been sharing with me.

“You hear so much from autism organizations about what a horrible disease this is and how the parents have been robbed of their children, yada, yada, yada, and I suppose on a certain level that is true,” Jacob told me, typing the words on a special keyboard that allows him to fully express his ideas. “But I refuse to live the rest of my life believing I am a defective human being. I have gifts and talents and challenges just like everyone else, and I have the same desire for connection and a need to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Words like these coming from an autistic boy are moving and stunning on their own, but when Jacob comes back from his break, he astonishes again: First he smothers his mother and father in hugs and kisses and then offers commentary on the things they’ve been saying while he was gone.

Jacob can hear through walls.

In fact, Jacob Artson, who just turned 16, has spent his life facing down walls — working through them, over them, around them, or sitting right on top of them with his feet dangling over the edge.

Jacob is considered severely autistic — it takes great effort for him to regulate his movement and his behavior, and he has very little spontaneous, relevant speech.

At the same time, he is intelligent, optimistic, spiritual, witty and more emotionally attuned than most people.

He conveys his thoughts through a method called “facilitated communication,” which means Elana, or another facilitator, holds a hard plastic card the size of a take-out menu with the standard QWERTY keyboard printed on it. As we talk, Elana supports Jacob’s wrist and helps keep him focused and calm. She reads aloud as his finger skims over the board.

In this High Holy Day season of cheshbon hanefesh — accounting of the soul —Jacob puts into stark relief the notion that the outer self is not always a reflection of the inner. His reality challenges us: Do we judge people by what we see? Do negative myths become self-fulfilling prophecies, or do we summon all our resources to shatter those myths, as Jacob and his family do every day? Do we define ourselves by our limitations, or do we forgive our own shortcomings? And are we capable, like Jacob, of transcending obstacles? Of listening through walls?

ALTTEXT
The family visited the White House during the “Opening the Gates of Torah” conference in Washington, D.C., December 2007

Transcendence — a true story for Yom Kippur


Phil and Laura both look a lot like their mom, in different ways,” remarks Abby Leibman, Philip and Laura Donney’s legal guardian.

Abby was trying to explain that for her, Phil and Laura evoke the presence of her twin sister, Nina Leibman, who 11 years ago was murdered by her husband, the pair’s father.

But Philip, 19, and Laura, 16, can’t resist the perfect set-up for one of their frequent humorous jousts.

“Yeah, I have her legs,” boasts Phil, unfolding from under him a long, tanned leg, bony all the way to the barefoot end.

“Excuse me, I do,” Laura responds theatrically, pointing her toes and modeling her leg above the couch, her short shorts showing off long appendages that haven’t quite yet reached the proportions of her mother, who was a leggy 5-foot-7.

What is striking is that Phil and Laura are able to tenderly joke about the mother they so tragically lost. That rather than becoming a sacred and somber memory, not to be mentioned except in hushed tones, their mother remains a natural and everyday part of their lives.

The atmosphere of openness that Abby has established for her family is one of several elements that have allowed Phil and Laura to become, by all indications, not just well-adjusted and happy kids, but in many ways exceptional — socially, academically, artistically — despite a past that could have understandably lead them to dysfunction.

Phil was 7 and Laura 4 when their father, Ken Donney, stabbed their mother more than 20 times while the children were in bed down the hall. Phil heard his mother’s screams and saw his father covered in blood, holding a knife. Laura has vague memory snapshots from that night. Their father is now in prison, serving a sentence of 16 years to life.

The family was dealt another heavy blow less than four years ago, when Marjorie, Abby’s younger sister, who Phil describes as sort of the noncustodial parent, died of malignant melanoma.

And yet, despite this extraordinary load of loss and trauma, it takes only a few minutes to be pulled in by Phil and Laura’s charisma and candor, and by Abby’s astute forthrightness. Phil was voted class clown and prom king when he graduated from Hamilton High School in 2006. Laura, an exceptional student with an interest in drama, like her mother, draws people into her warmth.

Both kids immediately impress as articulate, genuine, fun and mature, sharing a huge store of gratitude where one might expect to find bitterness.

Three Sisters
Abby, left, says the two people she was closest to were her sisters Nina, center, and Marjorie, right

How is that possible?

What is it that allowed this family to stay whole and renew the life in themselves when fate, or God, or a violent man, dealt them unimaginable grief? In this season of renewal and introspection, of fate and faith, what can others facing obstacles of any degree learn from this family’s remarkable ability to transcend the unthinkable?

Abby, Phil and Laura don’t claim to have all the answers, but they know what worked for them — what is still working for them. From the beginning, Abby made sure their family would remain communicative with each other and with others, so that no topic is taboo. She set a precedent of drawing on all the resources available to them — psychological help, strong friendships, communal support. And each of the three seem to have an inner strength and a positive outlook that those resources and openness have helped keep alive.

“I just always felt like I was really appreciative of everything,” says Phil, draped over a comfy chair in the den of their Beverly Center home, where family photos, many with his mother and Aunt Marjorie, smile from shelves and walls. “This might sound corny, but after losing so much and having everything change and everything in my life just completely fall away, I grew this appreciation of everything else that I have…. I think when you give those feelings off, those feelings are returned to you.”

With sun-bleached curls falling in long ringlets around his sharply defined face, he looks and talks every bit the California guy, easy and relaxed, looking forward to an evening out with old friends before he returns as a sophomore to UC Santa Barbara — his mother’s alma mater.

What he doesn’t possess is the mumbling nonchalance of his cohorts.

“By no means am I glad that all this stuff happened to me in my past, but if I hadn’t moved to L.A., I wouldn’t be living in the best neighborhood, I wouldn’t have the best friends in the world, I couldn’t have gone to the best high school in the world,” Phil says. “A lot of me misses what is gone … but I love my life. I really do.”

‘I Don’t Want to Die’

Phil’s sentiments are words Abby thought she might never hear when she brought Phil and Laura from their brick home in Santa Cruz to her two-bedroom Wilshire District condo two days after her fraternal twin was murdered.

“I remember saying to Phil’s therapist, right in the beginning, ‘I just want them to have a happy, normal childhood.’ And she looked at them and she said, ‘It’s too late for that.’ And I said ‘Oh my God.’ It was just a breathtaking moment for me,” says Abby, who is a consultant focusing on leadership and organizational development, particularly with regard to discrimination issues.

The day after her sister died, Abby took temporary custody of the kids, and later permanent guardianship. Nina Leibman had been an up-and-coming professor of communications who taught at UC Santa Cruz and at Santa Clara University; her specialty was how female characters were depicted in the early days of television. She had published a book on the drama that underlies the happy veneer of sitcom families, and was finally ready to get out of the harsh reality of her own family.

Ken graduated from UCLA Law School and worked as a prosecutor at the Federal Trade Commission. But for most of their 10-year marriage, he bounced around between jobs and writing a novel, before he ended up in an administrative position at the University of Santa Clara Law School.