Strange Fire


The Chasidic Reb Nachman of Bratslav tells of a king’s son who goes mad: he believes he is a turkey.

The boy removes all his clothes, spends all his time under a table and refuses to eat normal food. Distraught and alarmed, his father summons in all manner of experts, but none can cure the boy.

His tale of disappointment turns into a tale of revisioning and change: After a long time, a wise man arrives at the palace, and asks to see the prince. The wise man joins the boy under the table, and declares himself to be a turkey. Little by little, the two become comfortable with one another, and gradually the man encourages the turkey-prince to put on his clothes, then eat human food and finally to join the rest of the family. In this manner, the Chasidic master says, the wise man cures the prince.

I think of this story often as I meet with parents of children with special needs. Once a month, we gather to study Torah and offer each other support in the challenges of raising children with a wide variety of disorders, from autism to bipolar disorder to Tourette’s syndrome to ADD (my own middle son is a 9-year-old with autism). Parenting such children, one can easily empathize with Rabbi Nachman’s king, who is confused, saddened and desperate to help his son.

By joining the child in his world, the sage first transforms himself, ultimately paving the way for the transformation of the child. For many parents of special-needs children — often highly unusual children whose neurological, emotional or physical makeup prevent them from relating to the world in typical ways — this painstaking, exhausting approach is sometimes the only effective one. Parents who want to reach their children journey — for days, months, years — out of typical life and into their child’s orbit. They join them under the table — a powerful way to reach one’s child. But it is also difficult and often terribly isolating.

In this week’s Torah portion, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, themselves act in an unusual way. They enter the sanctuary and — as the Torah describes it — “offer strange fire” to God. (It might have been an isolated incident, but could have been the final act of years of this kind of behavior.) As a result, the two young men are punished and wiped out by God. But what was their “strange fire”? Some interpreters suggest that it was something impure, a sign of arrogance, rude behavior and crossed forbidden boundaries. But others, sympathetic to the two, argue that it was their overflowing passion for God — their uncontrollable desire to be close to the divine — that ultimately burned them.

Fire can be dangerous and harmful. But it is also the source of light and heat. The parsha is silent on the community’s response to the strange fire. What was their communal response? What if the community had seen the boys’ fire in a different way? What if they had been seen by parents, mentors and peers as warm and inspiring, instead of treacherous and out of bounds? What if their fire had been taken not as destructive to others but enlightening? A strange fire, perhaps, but an acceptable one? Different, but not deplorable?

The strange fire alight in my son is called autism. And we are not alone: One child in every 166 nationwide is now diagnosed with autism. The Jewish community is not immune to this epidemic. The children affected by autism and other disorders are challenging, unusual and, sometimes, distracting. But they are also beautiful, creative, loving and bright, and — as Jewish tradition teaches — made in God’s image.

And they are ours.

Was the turkey-prince really cured by the wise man? Probably not. He probably always retained his unusual disposition, probably always felt a little odd and might have even yearned to slide back under the table. But the sage reached the child, and this allowed the child to find his place in the community.

Perhaps, instead of seeing a dangerous, uncontrolled combustion, we can begin to perceive the holy fire of these children as precious; something divinely given and burning with a holy passion. Something for our entire community — our synagogues, schools, youth groups, camps and social circles — to warm ourselves by. Something not to for us to transform, but to transform us.

Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer is founder and facilitator of Ozreinu, a spiritual support group for parents of special-needs children. She can be reached by e-mail at



Adolph and Sam Frankel are the official poster boys for "Jewish Life in the American West: Generation to Generation," one of the most ambitious exhibitions ever mounted by the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. The exhibit opens to the public on Sunday, June 23.

Derived from a photo, taken around 1915 in Cushing, Okla., it shows the Frankel brothers posing, somewhat self-consciously, for the camera.

Sam is dressed in a three-piece suit, stiff collar shirt, necktie and fedora. Adolph, by contrast, is the complete cowboy, sporting a rakishly tilted Stetson, kerchief, woolly chaps, pistol and lasso.

The single picture captures the transformation of the European Jew from shtetl, city-bred greenhorn or urban Easterner, to proud Westerner and American, a century-long process (roughly 1820-1920) richly illustrated and documented in the Autry exhibit.

Contrary to popular notion, not all Jewish immigrants to the land of unlimited opportunities settled in New York or other cities along the Eastern seaboard.

Many of the more adventurous sought their fortunes along the ever-moving frontier of the American West, stretching from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.

While the first Jews arrived in the West with the early Spanish expeditions of the 16th century, perhaps the true prototype of the Jewish pioneer of the 19th century was Solomon Nunes Carvalho.

Carvalho served as the official artist and photographer in the Fremont expeditions that explored vast areas of the West, and then became one of the founding fathers of the Los Angeles Jewish community.

Carvalho’s photos and writings occupy one small corner of the 5,400-square- foot exhibit, which has been four years in the making at a cost of well over $1 million.

Technicians and artists were still working feverishly on preparations in the Autry’s workshops a month before the opening, when managing curator Michael Duchemin and assistant curator Meredith Blake Hackleman gave The Jewish Journal a preview tour.

By way of introduction, Duchemin noted that "Jewish history in the West tends to be compartmentalized by states, with a separate Utah history, an Arizona history, and so forth. This is the first time that an exhibit has tried to pull together all the regional histories into one."

The configuration and schematics for turning vision into reality are outlined on 30 storyboards stretching along one wall. They show four different sections, starting with "Exhibit Introduction and Orientation."

Included in this section are displays illustrating the diverse backgrounds and traditions of the immigrant Jews, ranging from Turkish Sephardic Jews to Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe.

A panel chronicles the adventures of another larger-than-life pioneer, Adolphus Sterne, a crypto-Jew who smuggled arms to Sam Houston, fighting for the independence of Texas from Mexican rule.

Next the visitor enters the "Journey West" section, which celebrates the Jewish immigrant trader and peddler, "who was as much of the frontier experience as the cowboy and mountain man," says Duchemin.

With the 1848 Gold Rush and the simultaneous revolutionary upheavals sweeping Europe, adventurous Jews headed for California. Among them was Joseph Newmark, who, after organizing congregations in New York and St. Louis, arrived in the dusty village of Los Angeles in 1854 and helped found the Hebrew Benevolent Society as the cornerstone of the evolving Jewish community.

The third section, labeled "Community and Diversity," shows the separate developments of the nascent Jewish communities of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states, San Francisco, Los Angeles/Boyle Heights and Seattle.

Throughout the exhibit, the general evolution of the Jewish West is exemplified through the histories of individual participants, including the Nudelman family, among whose descendants is Rabbi Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

The creation of Hollywood as a Jewish "empire" is illustrated through the making of the 1914 six-reeler "The Squaw Man" by Cecil B. DeMille, Sam Goldwyn and Jesse Lasky, arguable the movie capital’s first blockbuster.

Videos will focus on other aspects of L.A.’s Jewish history, such as the pioneer Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights, Hackleman said.

The final section, "Contemporary Reflections," includes explanations of Jewish holidays, as well as a large quilt canvas by Santa Fe artist Andrea Kalinowski, portraying the struggles of Jewish pioneer women.

In addition, one room is devoted to genealogy and family histories, and another to Western Jewish history resources.

Among financial supporters of the "Jewish Life in the West" exhibit are foundations endowed by Steven Spielberg, Walter and Elise Haas, Maurice Amado, David and Fela Shapell and the Jewish Community Foundation. Additional support came from Wells Fargo, Jay Grodin, John Sussman, Steven Gunther and the Western States Historical Quarterly.

The Autry Museum was inaugurated in 1988 and endowed by Hollywood’s popular "Singing Cowboy," Gene Autry, and his wife, Jackie. It includes galleries, archives, a discovery center and a collection of 51,000 objects.

Judaism From the Bottom Up

One of the most exciting experiments in Jewish transformation is taking place right here in Los Angeles.

Beit T’Shuvah is one of the nation’s only homes for rehabilitation and return that integrates the 12 steps and Judaism. To hear Rabbi Mark Borovitz’s interpretation of the Torah portion on a Friday evening is to understand what Abraham Joshua Heschel meant by "Judaism from the bottom up" — the crucial reconfiguration of our people that must take place, Heschel said, if Judaism is to answer the redemptive call of the next generation.

Judaism asks the essential questions, if only we’d listen, wrote Heschel in "Pikuach Neshama: To Save a Soul." "For what purpose am I alive? Does my life have a meaning, a reason? Is there a need for my existence? Will anything on Earth be impaired by my disappearance?"

Each Shabbat, Borovitz asks these questions of a packed crowd of 300 addicts, convicts, malcontents and their families at the House, on Venice Boulevard near Robertson. Usually, he quotes Heschel along the way. Sixty men and 40 women live at the complex, in three programs that constitute a life-skills training school more than a typical rehab. That ‘s because Borovitz and Harriet Rossetto, Beit T’Shuvah’s founder and CEO (and Borovitz ‘s wife) do not think of addiction as a terminal Jewish abomination, a shanda. They understand, as so many others are coming to know in their own lives, that addiction itself is only a symptom, (as Borovitz repeatedly says), an indication that we are in our "wrong skin" and have work to do.

Emblazoned on the Beit T’Shuvah stained glass window is the Talmudic challenge: "In the place where a penitent stands, even the perfectly righteous cannot reach." At a time when the standards of Jewish financial and spiritual ambition have reached excessive new heights, Beit T’Shuvah asks: do we mean this?

"Each of us has a Moses in our lives, leading us to freedom," Borovitz told the crowd last Friday. He spent 17 years in assorted criminal activities leading to jail and prison — as he says, stealing everything that wasn ‘t nailed down. His own Moses was a prison chaplain, Mel Silverman. Today Borovitz, who received ordination two years ago from the University of Judaism, is a chaplain at Los Angeles County Jail.

"We all have to make teshuvah," he told me. "If we each made amends and expressed gratitude around our Shabbat table — as we do here each Friday — the amount of addiction would be lessened. We would break the myth of the perfect family."

Recently, I wrote about the Addictions Conference held at the Skirball Cultural Center by our own Jewish Federation. It was a good first step for the so-called "rest" of us, the Jews who would rather not have 12-step programs in their synagogues for fear of offending the upscale gentry. (Another option in town is the Chabad Drug Rehabilitation Program, which treats dozens of addicts each year.)

But the battle is fought day after day. It begins with teshuvah, the radical notion that we are both imperfect and capable of change.

This is heavy stuff, but at Beit T’Shuvah, life itself is no parlor game. Borovitz and Rossetto are making it safe for Jews to say the unthinkable: that Judaism is for the lost, not only the found; for the wanderer, not the self-satisfied; that God will not lose faith with me, even if I have temporarily lost my way.

Borovitz, along with Rabbi Ed Feinstein, is revising the 12 steps used universally by Alcoholics Anonymous, and recasting them as 10 Jewish steps, beginning with "I am a holy soul. I have chosen paths that have led to separation and destruction."

Meanwhile, I am rising to applaud them on the eve of their annual fundraising dinner, to be held this Sunday, honoring community activist Annette Shapiro. After 15 years with Gateways Hospital, Beit T’Shuvah is on its own now, dependent on community support. You can’t get into the sold-out dinner, but you can visit any Friday night and see what ‘s coming down.