Glorious Living


We are a product of our environment, we cannot change.  

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Our circumstances have been set in motion from the beginning.

We are failures.

We are stuck.

We are worthless.

These sentences are belief systems. They are only real by the conviction that our own minds have set for them. But they are figments of our imaginative minds that lack true imagination, yet ache for invention.

To change our made up voice that thinks these negatives, we must only look inside our own truths that exist underneath, that are drowning, that are aching to be seen.

Try hearing the self that speaks to you quietly, under the loud voice that screams these false beliefs and see how quickly your life becomes alive.

True courage comes from hearing the whisper of your own voice emerge through the sea of the negative rattle.

Today become alive.

See what happens.

It is glorious.

 

Chanukah models of courage


My 4-year-old son is obsessed with superheroes, dressing up at every opportunity as the superhero du jour to do battle with the bad guys lurking around the corner. (My 2-year-old daughter is just as enthusiastic, but at her age all she can really muster is a “meanie” face.)

From a developmental perspective, I know this fantasy play is his way of exercising control over a world he is learning is increasingly out of his control. But I also see other qualities — his desire to be strong, to stand up for the good guys — in short, to be courageous.

Becoming courageous doesn’t happen overnight. It develops when children have opportunities to stand up for what’s right and to take responsible risks. Through experiences my husband and I provide, and the stories we tell them, we can lay some groundwork.

As I think about a central message of the Chanukah story and the way I want to portray it to my kids, models of courage abound. From Judah Maccabee to Judith and Hannah and her seven sons, heroes and heroines fought for the right to be different, to be Jews who refused to assimilate into the prevailing Hellenistic culture.

When Antiochus Epiphanes came to power, and observance of the most basic mitzvot (circumcision, Shabbat celebration and kashrut) were turned into capital offenses, their acts of courage formed the basis of a central narrative of the Chanukah story that has been passed down through the generations.

Consider Judah Maccabee, whose army used guerrilla tactics and religious zeal to defeat the stronger Assyrian-Greek army. He forced the Assyrian Greeks to rescind the policies that forbade Jewish practice, and in 164 B.C.E. liberated the Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it as a place of Jewish worship.

Consider Judith, who did her part to prevent the siege of Jerusalem in her hometown of Bethulia by seducing Holfenes, the Assyrian-Greek army general, and then decapitating him. Her bravery is so highly esteemed by the rabbis that it is because of her act of courage that Jewish women are obligated to light Chanukah candles.

And consider Hannah and her seven sons, who refused to bow down to Zeus and Antiochus and eat nonkosher meat. The Book of Maccabees relates that each of her sons and then her mother were tortured to death.

These acts of courage seem extreme and even unpalatable to our modern era — what woman would sacrifice her son, not to mention all seven? And aren’t we a peace-loving people who should not extol brute force?

But they also lead us to a deeper question about the nature of courage. Are there values and beliefs for which we are willing to make great sacrifices, and if any of these values or beliefs were to be violated, would we be stirred to action?

While these figures present us with one narrative of the Chanukah story — of heroism in battle and martyrdom — a second narrative is favored by the ancient rabbis. The story begins with the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the faith that the Jews had that the small cruse of oil, which should have lasted for one day only, could last for eight (in time for others to travel and get more oil).

The second narrative downplays the military victory won by human hands and elevates the story to one in which our faith in God and God’s miracles are kindled. It reminds us that courage is born when we continue to have faith and hope even in our darkest time. Having faith in itself is an important kind of courage.

While the call to be courageous is central to the Chanukah story — spiritually or physically — it is also daunting. But the rabbis offered another way for us to understand how to live a courageous life and be our own heroes.

“Who is a hero?” the rabbis ask. “One who overcomes his urges?” (Mishna, Pirke Avot 4:1).

Overcoming our most natural desires and exercising personal restraint is another kind of heroism. This is a kind of everyday courage.

When we are present in a difficult conversation with someone we care about even though our impulse is to leave, we are a hero. When we resist the urge to say something that we know will offend another person, even if we think it is warranted, we are courageous. When we have vowed not to feed a habit that is destructive to us, and when tempted and resist (a smoke, an extra piece of chocolate cake), we are being our own heroes.

This Chanukah, celebrate all of the dimensions of courage by dedicating each night to one of them:

Candle 1 to the classic Chanukah heroes of Judah Maccabee, Judith and Hannah.

Candle 2 to the courageous acts of our children who welcome a new kid to the school, speak out against bullying or have faith that the next day at school might be a little better than today.

Candle 3 to someone in your community who took up a cause you believe in and fought for it.

Candle 4 to someone in your family — perhaps a parent or grandparent — and a courageous act they performed during their lives.

Candle 5 to American and Israeli soldiers who are fighting to protect values and ideals that are sacred to us.

Candle 6 to the courage that you have exercised by restraint — with a co-worker, spouse, child, friend or parent.

Candle 7 to a person in your life who exemplifies courage the most.

Candle 8 to that quality of courage in ourselves that enables us to bring light into dark places and for the energy to continue to stoke the embers of our own sense of courage.

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich: Soviet gulag survivor’s courage


It was standing room only at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, as a crowd packed the Hertz Theatre to hear Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, the celebrated Russian refusenik and author, stress the importance of standing up for one’s principles. 

The former prisoner of conscience, now 65, discussed the turbulent years in the former Soviet Union leading up to an attempt to hijack a Soviet plane to Sweden and his eventual 12-year imprisonment in a Soviet gulag. The Riga, Latvia-born Mendelevich, who had a nonreligious upbringing and became an Orthodox rabbi after his release, is touring following the English-language publication of his biography “Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage, and Survival” (Gefen Publishing House). 

The Oct. 28 evening discussion, followed by a Q-and-A session and book signing, likely will not be Mendelevich’s final visit to Los Angeles or to the Museum of Tolerance. In addition to helping to launch the West Coast leg of the “Unbroken Spirit” book tour, the museum is hoping to assemble an exhibition on the oppression of Soviet Jews that would prominently feature Mendelevich, according to the museum’s director, Liebe Geft. 

Museum officials and volunteers have a personal connection to Mendelevich and his story. While living in Israel in the 1970s, Geft helped Mendelevich’s sister petition for her brother’s release and bring attention to the plight of Soviet Jews, even meeting with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and doing a presentation for then-CIA Director George H. W. Bush. 

At that time, in Los Angeles, another future Museum of Tolerance volunteer, Myrtle Sitowitz, was among the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry. This group of housewives sent countless letters to the Soviet Union and, on one occasion, staged a silent protest at a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet.

“We were not getting a good name for ourselves,” said Sitowitz, “but when you fight for something with a purpose, you’re not going to get a good name.”

Geft called Mendelevich “a hero of the Jewish people and of freedom-loving people the world over.” The rabbi, who now lives in Israel and teaches at the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, said he had far more practical motives. 

 “My reason for publishing the book was to help all Jews, (including) new generations, to prevent assimilation, to teach them Jewish values,” Mendelevich told the gathering. “Everything needs sacrifice. If you buy the book, use it as a weapon to continue the fight.”

Fight, Mendelevich did and has done for most of his adult life.

“Unbroken Spirit” chronicles Mendelevich’s work with the Jewish underground (he edited a newsletter on Jewish issues). In the late 1960s, as anti-Israel sentiment increased in Russia, Mendelevich and his fellow dissidents began to seek out ways both to leave the country and to call attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. Along with former Soviet military pilot Mark Dymshits and several others — including non-Jews — Mendelevich hit upon the idea of taking a 12-seat civilian plane, diverting it to Sweden, holding a press conference and then ultimately returning the plane to the Soviet Union … with a full tank of gas, no less.

“We figured we certainly would be arrested, but it was the price to publicize our struggle,” said Mendelevich. “We were willing to pay the price, and we understood that we could be killed during this attempt. But if there is only even a 1 percent chance to succeed, I’m ready for that 1 percent. There was no life for me anymore in Soviet Russia.”

The group was arrested at the airport. At their 1970 trial, Dymshits received a death penalty sentence while Mendelevich received two 15-year sentences plus an additional seven years “for my Jewish activities.” The sentences were later reduced on appeal to a total of 12 years for Mendelevich and 15 for Dymshits. By the time Mendelevich got to his first labor camp, the restrictions on emigration from the Soviet Union had already begun to loosen. In 1971, 12,000 Soviet Jews were able to leave, followed by 30,000 the following year. 

“It was a real victory,” Mendelevich said. “Somehow it is ironical that the winner is being arrested, but I told myself that I felt comfortable in a prison and I am ready to serve as much as needed. Thanks to me being seated in prison, other people got freedom.”

The fight did not end there. Mendelevich talked about having privileges revoked for his refusal to remove his kippah or to work on Shabbat. For the former offense, Mendelevich lost his annual visit with his father — himself an agitator who demonstrated against Nazi anti-Semitism. Toward the end of his imprisonment, Mendelevich endured a 50-day hunger strike over the right to study Torah. 

When they finally released him, the Soviets promptly exiled Mendelevich, who immediately thanked God for the miracle of his deliverance. Rather than being forced to leave his “motherland,” Mendelevich saw his release as an opportunity to relocate to his true motherland — Israel.

“I don’t have a strong will. I am a normal man.” Mendelevich said, insisting that his principles rather than personal attributes gave him strength. “It was our common struggle, not specifically for Jews in America or people in the Soviet Union. Nothing can withstand our good will to bring freedom to the people. Through struggling for all Jewish rights, we brought freedom to other nations.

“So I suggest to everybody, including [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, not to start with us. We have a strong will.”

Glenn Beck praises Israeli courage at Jerusalem rally [VIDEO]


Hundreds gathered in Jerusalem’s Old City for broadcaster Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Courage” rally.

More than 1,000 people gathered at Wednesday’s rally in a Jewish Quarter archeological park near the southern side of the Temple Mount, The Jerusalem Post reported. Others attended more than 1,400 viewing parties around the world, Beck said.

“In Israel there is more courage in one small square mile than in all of Europe,” Beck said at the rally. “In Israel there is more courage in one soldier than in the combined cold hearts of all the bureaucrats in the United Nations. In Israel you can find people standing against incredible odds against the entire tide of world opinion just because it’s right, just because it’s just and just because it’s good.”

Media reports described the crowd at the event as in large part made up of American Christians. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Likud lawmaker Danny Danon were among the event’s speakers.

The highly promoted Old City event was the climax of a series of three rallies Beck has held in Israel over the past four days. The start time for the event was changed to 5 p.m. so that it would end before Muslims arrived at the Temple Mount for their Ramadan evening prayers, The Jerusalem Post reported.

The left-wing Israeli group Peace Now mounted a small demonstration nearby urging Beck to go home.

VIDEO: Virtual Rabbi David presents ‘The Jewish Olympics’


Virtual Rabbi (and Olympics fan) David Paskin presents a Shabbat message based on the determination and dedication of Olympic athletes.

David Paskin, or Rabbi David as he is known by his congregants, is an accomplished spiritual leader, singer/songwriter, entertainer and award-winning Jewish educator. For more than a decade, David has served as full-time Spiritual Leader of Temple Beth Abraham in Canton, Massachusetts

 

Courage Under Fire


Tziporah enjoyed extraordinary social status within her native land. But after Yitro, the priest of Midian, gave his precious daughter as a wife for Moshe, she was the
subject of gossip among a new people (Bamidbar 12:1). Hakodesh Barukh Hu intervened on Tziporah’s behalf, but there is no record that anyone else spoke up for her.

It is particularly painful to think that slander and other such defamation might arise, however infrequently, amid a people whose rituals call for covering the challah to spare its feelings when the wine is blessed first. Likewise, the Kohen is commanded not to ascend the altar on steps — rather, he must walk gingerly up a ramp — because his garment might expose some of his private parts, thus embarrassing the stones.

Notwithstanding these sensitivities, slander exists in the world, and our rabbis endeavored to confront its challenges long before defamation and libel cases like New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and its progeny wound its way through America’s secular courts.

The laws of lashon hara, or evil speech, are numerous. For example, within certain rubrics it is not necessarily lashon hara during an Israeli election to remind people of how Israel fared the last time a particular candidate unsuccessfully led the Jewish state. It is not lashon hara to denigrate Neturei Karta, the anti-Zionist Charedim who attended Fatah events and Holocaust denial conferences. It is not lashon hara to refer to former President Jimmy “Karta,” Holocaust denier David Irving or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with the utmost contempt.

When someone inquires whether someone is suitable as a pending wedding match or as a business partner, halacha permits and requires candor.

However, in a different context, a roll of the eyes, a smirk or a snicker can be a grave sin. When the intention is to reduce a person by conveying a negative meaning that has no independent halachic justification, the conveyor of the lashon hara can forfeit rewards in the world to come for all eternity.

Perhaps the challenge that is most difficult is how to respond when, unexpectedly — sometimes amid friends — we find ourselves caught in a lashon hara environment.

Lashon hara can sneak into a conversation at the Shabbat table, introduced cleverly and surreptitiously by someone whose agenda manipulates the discussion in that direction.

Suddenly, you’re caught off guard. What do you do? Make a scene? Ruin dessert? Emerge déclassé? To remain silent is tantamount to tacit agreement, which emboldens a character assassin to believe he or she is making inroads and winning allies.

“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies,” says professor Albus Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.” And that indeed is the only prescriptive: to show courage, even at the cost of friendship. To speak up — because silence is not an option. To risk losing a friend — because losing a portion of paradise is not an option. To realize that someone willing to stain your soul at his or her Shabbat table may not be the best friend in your Rolodex.

In a memorable scene in the Oscar-winning 1947 film, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” Dorothy McGuire’s Kathy Lacey recounts to John Garfield’s Dave Goldman her fury after encountering an anti-Semite at a dinner party.

He asks, “What did you do?”

She responds that she sat there silently, allowing the slurs to continue flowing unimpeded. She did not have the courage to speak out.

Lashon hara is the ultimate anti-Semitism, a violation of the essence of Torah values that, if our guard is lowered, could emanate against Jews even from within the Jewish community, derogating one or more Jewish souls, assassinating an innocent Jew’s character, causing pain and suffering to its victims and targets, to family and friends. It threatens to tarnish and stain bystanders drawn within its ambit, often innocent bystanders — or bysitters — caught unexpectedly in the oral terrorist’s crossfire.

The only way to respond when unexpectedly finding oneself caught in a lashon hara environment is to speak out with bravery. To say, “My spouse and I did not come here to listen to this. Nor do we want our children exposed to this poisonous environment. We reject what is being said. We are here to talk about ideas. If need be, perhaps we can abide discussions about things. But if the conversation turns again to people, we will leave this environment and not return.”

That is courage under fire, Jewish style.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine and is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School of Los Angeles.

Film Strips Glamour Off Wartime Deeds


Each nation has to come to terms with its past. For the Germans, it’s the Holocaust, and for the French, it’s their collaboration with the Nazi and Vichy regimes.

I remember when my infantry company landed in southern France in 1944, my mind was full of heroic newspaper and movie images of patriotic Frenchmen, all of them battling the hated Boche to the stirring background strains of the “La Marseillaise.”

So when I met a French girl (we’ll discuss that at another time), I expressed my admiration for her countrymen’s fearless resistance.

She looked at me pityingly and said something like, “What resistance? A few crazy Communists and Jews. Everyone else just tried to get along.”

I’ve been conflicted about the question of human courage and cowardice ever since. No one who has not lived under a brutal dictatorship, where the wrong word might mean loss of life or livelihood, is in a position of judgment or superior virtue.

After all, most Americans caved in quietly during the McCarthy period, when the most they risked were loss of a job or their neighbors’ opprobrium. Pretty much everyone, everywhere, just wants to get along and stay out of trouble.

And yet, was France more craven than other countries under the Nazi heel?

These musings were triggered by watching “Army of Shadows,” a 1969 film about the French underground, which has taken almost 40 years to reach the United States.

Its director-screenwriter was Jean-Pierre Melville, a French Jew born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, who expressed his admiration for the author of “Moby Dick” by changing his last name.

Melville, who fought in the underground and died in 1973, remains somewhat of an icon among cineastes, remembered for his reportorial-style gangster pictures, his strong influence on the French New Wave movies and the masterful, sparse creation of his pictures’ atmosphere. The latter talent is quite in evidence in “Shadows,” whose characters are not afraid of long silences or performing an action in real time.

In one striking scene, resistance leader Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) has just escaped from the Nazis and runs endlessly down a darkened street. He sees an open barbershop and tells the monosyllabic proprietor that he wants a shave.

For the next five minutes, the barber goes through the minutiae of his craft, stroke by stroke, never exchanging a word with his customer. Yet, the scene holds immense tension. Does the barber realize that his client is a fugitive? Will he slit his throat or call the police?

For a movie pitting patriots against collaborators and occupiers, there is surprisingly little action. No blown bridges, sabotaged railroads or pitched gun battles.

Granted, there are indications that the resistance group is rescuing downed Allied pilots, and we see the disfigured faces of Nazi torture victims. But most of the time, Gerbier and his small band is busy simply surviving, escaping from SS pursuit, finding safe houses and trying to rescue comrades from German prisons.

Clearly, the coolest and smartest among the underground fighters is Mathilde, a middle-aged woman, memorably portrayed by onetime sex bomb Simone Signoret. But even Mathilde has a weakness — she cannot bear to discard a photo of her 17-year-old daughter — and the one slip proves fatal.

In its slow, methodical way, the Melville film strips the glamour and derring-do from his depiction of wartime resistance, surely a more honest portrayal than Hollywood’s triumphant wartime epics.

“Army of Shadows” opens May 12 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. For more information, go to www.laemmle.com and www.rialtopictures.com.

 

First Person – A Coming Out (of Egypt) Story


Sixteen years ago this month, I planned to take the Passover message of liberation to heart. I was going to come out of the closet to my sister and my parents and, in doing so, free myself from the bondage of keeping this huge and personal part of me from them. I was going to verbalize the secret I had feared revealing to them for more than 15 years since I first was able to put words to the feelings.

I grew up in a small, quaint New Jersey suburb of New York, a commuter town ideal for raising children. Since having moved to Los Angeles in 1987, at the age of 25, I generally visited my parents and sister back in New Jersey an average of once a year. That once a year was usually Passover time, since I had the time off from my work as a day school educator (and would enjoy the additional bonus of being able to lock up my home for the holiday and sell my chametz without having to go through the cleaning and other laborious pre-holiday preparations and rituals).

Perhaps my plan to come out during Passover was just practical, since that was when I typically returned home; or perhaps it was a flair for the dramatic or symbolic, since I had come to think of the emotional bondage of keeping my secret as a modern-day equivalent to the physical slavery of my ancestors. Either way, it was during Passover of 1990 that I had planned to come out to my parents and tell them I’m gay. I returned to my childhood home that year armed with several articles and a book titled, “Now That You Know: What Every Parent Should Know About Homosexuality,” all designed to prove how normal it was to be gay.

I had come out a year earlier (also at Passover) to Rob, one of my best friends from college on whom I had had a crush. We got in his car, and I asked him to pull over on the way to wherever it was we were going because I had something really important and serious to tell him. He pulled into a parking lot (my elementary school parking lot) and turned off the engine. I loosened my seatbelt, turned to face him, took a deep breath and said, “I’m gay.”

To which he responded, somewhat anticlimactically, “Is that all?”

I don’t know if I was more relieved or disappointed, but there was no rejection. My first coming out was successful.

It took an entire year after that to muster the courage to tell my sister — who responded, “I still love you, and of course I won’t tell anyone.” To this I said that I wasn’t telling her so that she would now have to keep the secret. Coming out to my sister was planned to precede the coming out to my parents by several days. It was my warmup, my practice. But anticipating these two experiences, as anxiety-filled as they were, was nothing compared to the immeasurable angst I felt as I practiced and replayed over and over how I would reveal my secret to my parents.

The day I was going to tell them, I went to New York City to visit friends. I took the commuter train back to our town and felt the rumbling in my stomach as I anticipated freeing myself from my personal Egypt. The train sped closer and closer to home. With each station the train pulled into I could feel the rumbling in my stomach increase, and as I walked to my parents’ home (my childhood home) my stomach was on the verge of exploding. I tried to eat normally, but my appetite was limited. The meal, the conversation were overshadowed as I got closer to the point of expelling my truth, all the while wondering whether I would actually be able to follow through on my plan.

After dinner, I told my parents that I had something I wanted to say. They sat down at the table, dishes already cleared. With the gasses in my stomach doing triple axels, I mustered the courage — more courage than I had ever needed to do anything to that point in my life — and I said the words that liberated me from the self-imposed oppression that I had endured since realizing years earlier (beginning in third grade, if not even before) that I felt different than what I thought others felt: “I have something that’s really hard to say … I’m gay.”

Silence. Unbearable silence. To fill the silence I gave them the book and articles that I had brought. Perhaps I had brought them as much to help my parents through this new world as to prove to them that I was serious and that this was thought out. My father’s first words were: I’m shocked but I’m not shocked. (I had never really dated girls and though not effeminate, I fit some of the stereotypes.) My mother, tears filling her eyes, expressed her fears and her anxiety for me — I wouldn’t have a happy life, I would be alone — I did my best to assuage the concerns, but I had, after all, been working toward this moment for years and for them it was all new. And, frankly, I hadn’t thought through the post-liberation experience. The idea of telling my parents that I’m gay was so overwhelming that I hadn’t thought past anything but their initial reactions.

My father left to go to a meeting. My mother went to the sink to do the dishes. There was quiet again, but this quiet was the aftermath, the quiet that occurs when the truth and all of its realities, some becoming known and others not yet thought, become real, and we are trying to make sense of the implications. I felt a confusing mix of feelings – relief, anxiety, disappointment – and freedom from the mitzrayim, the narrow places, in which I had been stuck all those years.

On reflection, I wonder whether, thousands of years ago, the Israelites, too, didn’t experience the disappointment that the liberation wasn’t quite as easy and complete as expected. I suppose the fantasy was that I would come out of the closet and would be told, “Is that all?”

But my parents had more invested than my college friend. Their picture of my future, and by extension their future, would take longer to sort through, reimagine and come to terms with. The beginning of my liberation was now, in some ways, their new wilderness. It would be up to them whether they would turn it into a self-imposed bondage.

Due — in no small part — to my coming out, I have come to believe that our primary task in life is to know ourselves, accept ourselves and to love ourselves and to hope that those who love us will do the same. Each year we are to imagine ourselves as slaves in Egypt and to re-experience the bitterness of the oppression symbolically through retelling the story and through the sensory experiences of the seder. We are to think about the way we are enslaved and oppressed today, how we oppress ourselves and how we can help end the oppression of others. How we can take ourselves out from our personal house of bondage. How we can free ourselves and how we can come out.

Jeff Bernhardt is an educator, Jewish professional and writer living in Los Angeles.

A Big Impression


I’m too old to have heroes. But for those who live their lives with courage, I can make an exception. Like the Impressionists, for instance, whose lives of self-sacrifice I was trying to share with my class of older adults.

“OK, everyone,” I say, “whoever’s not here, raise your hand.”

Naturally, Saul raises his hand. Maybe I should explain.

My senior students suffer from short-term memory loss, a condition less severe than Alzheimer’s and dementia but nonetheless frightening. They can recall exact moments from decades past, but in the present, from one moment to the next, many don’t remember who or where they are. Sort of like elected officials.

“Are you saying you’re not here, Saul?”

“Are you?” he asks, a sour look on his face.

“Good question,” I say. “Now let’s look at an amazing movement in art called Impressionism. First, we’ll watch a video to appreciate the magnificent works of Renoir, Manet, Monet and Pissarro, because this class is art appreciation, right?”

Nothing. No response. Twenty-five people and not a whisper, not a murmur, not a peep.

“Which art movement are we learning about this morning?” I ask. “Anyone?”

Louise takes a stab at it.

“Art.”

“Yes, but which movement?”

Silence. You can hear a pacemaker ticking. Imagine being able to remember the color of your socks when you were 3, but you can’t remember where you put your shoes five minutes before.

“OK,” I press on, “aren’t these just wonderful, these paintings of nature and the human form? What do you think Saul?”

He shrugs. He sighs. A big, burly man in his late 80s, he sits week after week collapsed in his chair, with his head in his chest, and I can’t get a word out of him.

I continue. “Now in the late 1860s….”

Suddenly, here’s Marla.

“Who does those clown paintings?” she yells.

“Clown paintings?”

“Yeah,” she hollers. “I saw a painting with a clown, and there was a tear on his cheek. Who does them? They’re great!”

Clown paintings? We’re talking Renoir here. It’s Monday morning; the class is five minutes in, and I’m wondering if it’s not too late to get my real estate license.

“Red Skelton,” I say with scorn.

“Oh,” says Marla, now softly. “That’s right. Red Skelton. Was he an Impressionist?”

“Yes,” answers Bob. “He did impressions of clowns. He was funny.”

“I used to be funny,” says Jake. “Then I got married.”

“Your wife doesn’t know you’re funny Jake?” I ask.

He makes a face. “My wife doesn’t know I’m living.”

“How about you, Saul?” I ask. “Are you married?”

Slowly, Saul raises his head, waves me off and drops his head back to his chest.

“Saul,” I say, “if you don’t take part in the class, I’m going to have to ask you to bring your parents to school.”

“You’ll have to dig them up,” he replies.

I throw my hands in the air. “Oy!” I exclaim.

“You’re Yiddish?” asks Jake.

“The world’s Yiddish,” I tell him. “Who knows the difference between a shlemiel and a shlimazel?”

“The shlemiel spills the coffee on the shlimazel,” says Jake.

“OK,” I say, “now how many of you know that one of the leading Impressionists — Pissarro — was a Jew?”

No response. Nothing. Nada. Bubkes. Maybe I could become a plumber. I already have a wrench. I know I saw one somewhere in the garage, I think, a month ago.

Two hours later, I’m exhausted. One last time, I explain how much the Impressionists believed in themselves and what they were trying to accomplish.

“OK,” I say, “what have we learned today? Nellie?”

“Nothing,” she says, cheerfully.

“Nothing? I’m up here talking for two hours, and you’ve learned nothing?”

“We remember nothing,” says Molly.

“Yeah,” says Ray. “Don’t take it so personal.”

Oh. OK. Surely, the West Valley could absorb one more real estate agent.

“What about you, Vivian?” I ask. “Tell me one thing you’ve learned about the Impressionists.”

“Stick to your guns,” she says.

“Thank you,” I cry.

On the TV monitor, the video is now showing breathtaking paintings of the French countryside. One last try.

“Has anyone here ever been to France?” I ask.

“France would be a great place without the French,” says Jake.

“Anyone else?” I ask.

Like an ancient tortoise, Saul lifts his head, and staring off into the beyond, mutters under his breath, “I’ve been to France.”

“Hallelujah! Tell us about it, Saul. Did you go to the museums?”

“I was on the beach,” he says to his feet.

“The Riviera, Saul? Girls? Bikinis? Ooh-La-La?”

“We landed in the water,” he says. “All my friends around me were shot. The water was blood. I was on the beach.”

The room goes extra silent, the only sound the air conditioning. My hero lowers his head back to his chest, but not before my eyes meet his. I am 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, and I think I am going to cry.

Wildman Weiner is a credentialed teacher of older adults.

Out of the Shadows


It is the middle of the night. I hear a strange sound in the living room.

Heart pounding, I get out of bed, grope awkwardly through darkness for the light switch … push up … nothing happens. I try another switch. No light. I feel desperately alone. My surroundings remain one shadowed mass of space … my terror grows…. Then I wake up.

I’ve been having this same, vivid nightmare for months.

Once fully conscious, I turn on the light and sigh relief into the illumination. Safe again in “reality,” I tour my apartment — gratefully able to see that all my stuff is in place. I return to bed and muster up the courage to turn off the lamp and re-enter the obscurity. I wish I still had my childhood nightlight — back when it was acceptable to be afraid of the dark.

Darkness is frightening. It is the realm of uncertainty, with everything enveloped in a state of unified oblivion. The world we call “real” — based on substance, physical existence and visible actuality — is nullified by the blackness of night. In this domain of the unknown, boundaries blur, imagination stirs and possibilities of reality broaden beyond confines of fact. Separate materials and individuals distinguishable with light mesh together into nothing, and when they do, we become insecure. When the possessions and relationships by which we define our selves disappear, we become unsure of who we are. As did Jacob.

“Vayira Ya’akov meod vayetzer lo.” Upon sending forth all his possessions in hopes of placating his estranged brother Esav, “Jacob was very afraid and distressed.” In other words, without his stuff around to define him, Jake freaked. He suffered a hard blow to his ego, throwing him into identity crisis.

See, the ego exists in material reality, where physical boundaries separate one thing from another. It believes that “I” exists independently from “you” — with both of us distinct from every thing else. As the product of our transition from infancy (where we feel interconnection and wholeness) into adulthood, it is based on our capacity to name: to define parts from the whole. Its identity is defined in opposition to and in relationship with an “other,” and it thrives on its control and possession over any thing distinct from its limited sense of self.

Jacob’s distress came from his enormous ego. It inspired his betrayal of his brother — for the prestige of a birthright — and a life prioritized by the accumulation of property. When forced to give it up, he began the struggle that always results from an ego-based existence: Jacob’s separate sense of self confronted the fear and loneliness at its source. He had tried (as we do today … with VIP passes and Ferraris rather than birthrights and oxen) to compensate for his sense of lacking by accumulating more material; now he had to confront his motivating force: the terror of isolation from living in a reality of separation.

Suddenly, he had nothing. He sent all his possessions and relations away; in the middle of the night, he was “left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed … he wrenched Jacob’s hip.”

In the dark domain of the unknown; of imagination and blurry boundaries, where definitions of separation that encourage the ego to call “reality” real blend back together into one space of nothing, a nameless man attacked Jacob’s exposed ego.

He fought as we all fight: against illusions of nothing that we make into “somethings” of value — to be possessed by our individual selves as compensation for insecurity and loneliness. Within the limitless blackness he struggled with his attachments to the world of limited materials; he battled his definitions of self as opposed to, and seeking ownership over, everything else. He wrestled the fear; the fallacies of scarcity and disconnection — dislodging his hip in the process. In the depths of shadow, he contested the very idea of separation, for there must be an “other” to fight against.

He combated the nightmare of isolation…. Then he woke up.

His spiritual self became conscious. His ego weakened, and he began to remember the Oneness. The realities of abundance and sustenance; the wholeness (shleimut — that allows for peaceful being. The Source, whose first act of creation was to bring forth light from darkness, again made Itself manifest in that most fundamental way. Dawn broke; the light switch worked; and his nameless adversary affirmed that Jacob had prevailed over “beings Divine and human” before Jacob returned him to the nothingness of night. The identity crisis was over, and he was renamed: Israel.

Last week I had the nightmare again, but rather than becoming fearful when the lights would not work, I walked into the darkness. I realized I could make my way just fine. I was free: to dance in it; to laugh; to disappear into the primordial unity of darkness, from where I could — in the image of my Creator — recreate. As He did in the beginning. From out of shadows: the light and love of a reality I choose to live. A reality where nothing is more valuable than any thing I feel separate from.

Then I asked my parents to buy me a nightlight for Chanukah … just in case.

Karen Dietsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.

 

The Legacy of a Folk Hero


As fate would have it, back in 1961, while at Columbia Records making my third folk music album, I invited my friend, Bob Dylan, to play harmonica on the LP. It was I who introduced Dylan to John Hammond. The influential Columbia Records executive produced albums for legendary jazz artists, among them Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman.

At this point, Hammond was turning the spotlight on folk music at Columbia, signing Pete Seeger and myself; the Clancy Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel were to come. Dylan has remained with Columbia for more than 40 years, certainly a remarkable partnership.

Bob and I had an unusual bond. We were both folk singers, but as friends, each knew the other had a weakness for the music of Buddy Holly. I was from Texas and knew Buddy, so Bob and I had lots to talk about. Our other passion was this new musical adventure.

Folk music came with lots of “structure,” both musical and moral. There was plenty of gospel music — which accounts for the early evidence of Christian musical influence noted by writer Andrew Muchin. Our heroes in folk were Woody Guthrie and Seeger. And, as Dylan’s autobiography, “Chronicles,” points out, we were armed with Woody and Pete’s “take no prisoners” ethic:

1 — Tell it like it is.

2 — Use few if any production frills.

3 — Be a “stand-up-on-your-own” artist.

“Artist” is the word. After interpreting traditional music and its connection to gospel, bluegrass and country music, Dylan and others of our acquaintance in New York City’s Greenwich Village began to create contemporary “new folk.” Tom Paxton, Eric Anderson, Phil Ochs, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joni Mitchell and the rest of us threw in our two cents, as well. The most successful of these was Dylan, acoustic or electric.

Dylan’s work was both spellbinding and consequential. He helped to inspire a generation to march into the South in the name of civil rights. Many young men listened to his words and then burned their draft cards, putting themselves at some risk.

The term “generation gap” was born, fueled by the rift within families. Draft-age males left home and fled to Canada to avoid going as soldiers to a foreign war that they believed our nation was fighting without provocation.

Dylan asked moral questions that had never before been asked in popular music, turning his smoldering gaze on congressmen, senators, warlords, lawmen, professors — in other words, the establishment.

With so direct a message and so revolutionary a reach, Dylan rattled cages. And, he laid down the gauntlet to these citizens of the future to dismiss the easy answers of the past.

“Don’t trust anyone over 30” not only entered the vernacular; it also became words to live by. Dylan was gifted with the courage and skill to ask profound questions and the ability, through his popular music, to get others to hear those questions.

And it seemed proper, even inevitable, to fans and admirers that Dylan the philosopher, the voice of a generation, also would become Dylan the leader. It seemed like the natural progression for those whose consciousness was so recently raised.

They wanted the questioner to answer the questions. They summoned Dylan to attend their marches, write articles and, verily, to run for president. Dylan did not see things that way. He envisioned no role for himself along those lines. Besides, Dylan had a young wife and a stepdaughter — and soon would add his own sons (and eventually another daughter) to a burgeoning family.

But what he preferred not to be doesn’t diminish what he was. Dylan’s great creativity, strength and resolve — his artistic powers — were never wasted; his opportunities never lost. He spoke to our souls with every bit as much depth as the ancient philosophers.

Nearly three generations after his celebrity burned so brightly, the essence of his ongoing musical contribution still shines strongly, though perhaps more sporadically, and sometimes more ironically, more wistfully. He’s still doing concert tours; he writes books; and he remains a subject of public fascination, as the spate of articles, biographies and documentaries demonstrate.

I don’t see him fading from musical prominence any more than Frank Sinatra became irrelevant after his own early glory period. And the ongoing Dylan legacy was never just about music, but also about social justice.

He has never ceased to be a spiritual and musical seeker. And thankfully, here in 5766 and 2005, Dylan and his muse are alive and well.

We can be proud that he was so well grounded in Judaism, as well as folk music tradition. Both have served him well. And (I believe) he has served both traditions faithfully in return.

Carolyn Hester, a leading performer in the ’60s folk-music scene, has, like Bob Dylan, continued to write, perform and record music. With her husband and musical collaborator, Dave Blume, the Los Angeles resident also has raised two daughters and managed Cafe Danssa, a longtime Israeli folk-dancing venue.

 

Life at a Standstill


The recent tragic hurricanes in the South have been difficult to watch. One of the more difficult chapters of this saga was when the mayor of New Orleans, in his zeal to rebuild the city as quickly as possible, called upon the residents to return to certain sections of the city. But then Hurricane Rita came, and all the plans to rebuild were put on hold. With the new storm, all the dreams for a brighter future were quickly dashed and deflated, and the good citizens of New Orleans were only demoralized further.

This is a metaphor for life. Sometimes, especially after a major setback, we so desperately want to pick up the pieces and go on to the next episode, we fail to properly repair all the levees that broke and caused the tragedy in the first place. Unless we properly fortify and repair the breaches that caused failure, we are only setting ourselves up for further failure and disaster.

The parsha we read on the last Shabbat of the year is Nitzavim. It means “standing still.” It describes how Moses addressed the standing and attentive crowd of Jews who came to hear him and enter into a new covenant with God before entering the land of Israel.

By contrast, the very next parsha, the one we will read on the first Shabbat of the new Jewish year, is called Vayelech, which means “moving.” It describes how Moses took it upon himself to travel to all the Israelite camps, so that he could address them one more time before his death.

Life is filled with “standing still” and “moving.” The key is to know when to apply each one.

If we study the respective themes of Nitzavim and Vayelech, we find they are completely different. The main theme of Nitzavim is teshuvah, repentance: “And it shall be, that when all these things — the blessing and curse — befall you, then you will turn into your heart … and you will return to God and listen to His voice….”

By contrast, the theme of Vayelech is Moses giving charge to Joshua and the rest of Israel to “Hazak Ve’Ematz!” — “Be strong and courageous!” Go out and conquer Eretz Israel, carry the Torah scroll with you wherever you go. Write it and spread the word of Torah throughout Israel.

If we were to categorize these themes, we could say that Nitzavim is all about rectifying the bad, and that Vayelech is all about doing good in the world. Before we can be strong and courageous and conquer the brave new world, we must first rectify the flaws within ourselves through teshuvah. The only way to succeed in moving forward is to first make sure that the breaches have been repaired.

Man’s normal mode of operation is to get caught up in the daily routines of life. Most of us don’t leave ourselves any time in the day to make a heshbon hanefesh — a serious and honest reckoning of who we are and what we need to do in life to become more Godly. That’s why Moses said to the Jews, “Stand still!” — stop whatever you’re doing and think for a minute about the real purpose of life. This pause for reflection is a necessary component of teshuvah.

Only after we’ve properly stood still — Nitzavim — can we pick up and start

really moving — Vayelech — toward a productive end of being strong and courageous like Moses and conquering the world at our feet.

Before we rush into the New Year and the High Holidays, it’s a good idea to pause and take spiritual inventory of this past year. Let’s remember all that has befallen us, all the decisions we’ve made and the differences between where we were a year ago and where we are today. It’s hard work, because an honest assessment of our lives can be painful — the picture isn’t always pretty. But only after careful contemplation, will we be ready to move forward and tackle the new year and all its challenges.

Daniel Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park, and is director of synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.

Fear and Loathing on the Left


 

It has only been in recent months that I’ve found the courage to speak to some of my Jewish and non-Jewish friends within the Palestinian solidarity community, and the broader anti-globalization/anti-war movement, about the difficulties I have experienced as a Jew within that movement. And to name that experience: anti-Jewish racism, or Judeophobia.

The first time I joined the struggle for Palestinian rights was at a rally in Trafalgar Square in 2002. Here was a place where I could be anonymous yet stand up in solidarity for what I believed in. I watched in horror, however, as the reactions unfolded to an Israeli Jewish peace activist who took the platform.

“The occupation is terror!” she said. “It breeds despair in the hearts of young Palestinian boys and girls. But the suicide bombings are not helping the Palestinian struggle. Whoever is sending these kids — Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or Tanzim — plays into the hands of Sharon.”

At this, a group of young Muslim fundamentalists, some of them with empty toilet rolls strapped around their stomachs like dynamite, surged forward throwing bottles at the podium and chanting, “Scud, Scud, Israel! Gas, Gas, Tel Aviv!” — and in Arabic: “Death to Jews.” I was even more horrified to see that woman struggle on with her speech, unsupported. No one sitting on the platform raised a finger to challenge such blatant racism. When she stepped down, the chair took the microphone from her, commenting: “Well not all of us agree with the last speaker.”

The overwhelming feeling that I got from the mainstream British left that day was not so much solidarity with the Palestinians as virulent hostility toward Israel, and, by extension, toward anyone who didn’t express shame to be Jewish or utterly reject a Jewish state.

The notion of racism against the Jewish people has been so exclusively linked to the Holocaust that its more subtle and everyday manifestations often pass people by. Of course, Jews are not being carted off to the gas chambers and, thankfully, in Britain actual racist attacks on people and buildings are rare. However, there are instances, especially around the Israeli-Palestinian issue, where attitudes and expressions of Judeophobia often surface. Criticism of Israel’s policies is not Judeophobic. The way in which it is conducted, however, sometimes is. Judeophobia is present in careless and inflammatory language; in black-and-white attitudes that polarize the debate; in gross insensitivities to Jewish concerns and collective memory; in the level of hatred expressed toward Jews and Israelis; and, on top of it all, in a blanket denial that the problem of anti-Jewish racism exists.

Perhaps, predictably, a lot of the tensions revolve around the Holocaust, and the failure to realize how deep and unresolved a pain it is for my community. My grandfather tells vivid stories of how, as a young Jewish British sailor transporting Holocaust survivors from Odessa to Marseilles, he gave his coat to the starving and penniless Otto Frank, Auschwitz survivor and father of Anne Frank. Her diary was my companion in my own adolescence. This bright young Jewish woman, so enchanted by and prescient about the world around her, died horribly of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at 15. I grew up conscious of the possibility that if I had been born 40 years earlier in Europe, that would have been me. Of course I get emotional when I feel disrespect around this very real pain.

In certain circles on the left, talking about the Holocaust elicits nothing but groans and sighs — it’s called “Holocaust fatigue.” There are various stock responses that seem to dismiss the whole experience out of hand: “Yes it was terrible, but it was used by Zionist leaders as an excuse for the foundation of the illegitimate Jewish state of Israel on land stolen from the Palestinians.”

Yet, within those same circles, very deliberate comparisons are made between the current situation in the Palestinian areas and the Holocaust: a banner equating a Star of David with a swastika and cartoons of Israeli soldiers in SS uniforms. I have been to the Palestinian areas several times over the last couple of years and seen the appalling situation with my own eyes. It is a massive over-simplification to say that the Israelis are repeating history and have “become the Nazis,” yet some Palestine solidarity activists constantly make that comparison. It is as though Jews must be collectively punished for the behavior of the Israeli state by the use of inflammatory symbols and language, and a widespread denial of our experience of persecution. It taps into a profound trauma that immediately and inevitably puts me on the defensive — which is ironic because I don’t support Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

Five million Jews live in Israel today; many have a deep emotional connection to the place they were born in and call home. This connection to the Land of Israel has been a profound part of our consciousness throughout history; a connection that I too have felt through my upbringing as a Reform Jew. I remember, as a 16-year-old, feeling the weight of what it means to be Jewish, and my responsibility for the continuity of the Jewish people, when for the first time I put my palm on the cool stones of the Western Wall, all that remains of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

Does this mean I’m a Zionist? Many Jews who disagree with Sharon’s policies are Zionists. They disagree with the occupation and believe in a workable and just two-state solution. The term “Zionist” has become so confused and contested on the left, that it’s sometimes hard to know what others mean when they use it. For me, Zionism has always meant Jewish nationalism — the belief that the only way in which Jews can ensure their survival in a hostile world is through a Jewish homeland, essentially a Jewish state. In this sense, I am not a Zionist. While I feel a historical and emotional connection to the land where the Israeli state exists, I want to see a world in which Jews and all peoples can live securely anywhere and be celebrated for their culture without recourse to states. In a world full of states, however, Jews surely have as much right to self-determination as any other people.

That’s why I find it extraordinary that for many on the left the term “Zionism” drips from their lips like venom while they embrace the Palestinian flag. It seems that Zionism has become synonymous with arch-imperialism. If you are a Zionist (and “all Jews are Zionists”), it is implied that you are clearly a supporter of President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair and have some global imperialist agenda to control the world on behalf of the Jews. Not only is this untrue, but it implies that Zionists are worse than any other nationalist. Surely, if you believe that nationalism is problematic because it must be inherently racist, then we should be challenging all forms of nationalism and all colonial projects, not just singling out Zionism for special attention.

British Jews don’t look like a typical oppressed minority, so it is easy to miss the genuine fear that we feel about our safety and security as Jews in this country. I grew up with parents standing guard whenever our synagogue was in use and today many Jewish institutions are guarded by police, barbed wire, closed-circuit television and intercoms. I know also that I am not the only Jew to have walked through the predominantly Jewish London neighborhood of Golders Green and suddenly felt that flash of fear — “We are so vulnerable here to a hate attack.” I know that the racism experienced by asylum-seekers and Muslims in this country is much more acute. But does this mean that my feelings and experiences of racism should be belittled or ignored?

Yet for some groups on the left, any talk of anti-Semitism is automatically dismissed as a convenient and manipulative strategy to deflect criticism away from Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza. Other times, when Jews claim they have experienced anti-Semitism, there follows the predictable semantic debate about the term “anti-Semitism”‘ excluding Arabs (which is why I prefer to talk about “Judeophobia” to begin with), or a lecture about how the Jews are not the only victims of war and oppression. The only time I challenged someone directly for an anti-Jewish comment, she looked at me incredulously and said: “What are you talking about? You’re the racist here!'”

Being stuck in the middle of this complex debate is not an easy place to be, yet you begin to see that both “sides,” the pro-occupation Jews and the anti-Zionists operate in exactly the same way: not listening to each other; using emotive language; belittling each other’s pain; dehumanizing each other; learning stock responses; being highly selective in the use of facts; and making huge generalizations about “the Jews” or “the Palestinians.”

I hear that at one point in Belfast, Catholic neighborhoods sported Palestinian flags, and Protestant ones hung up Israeli flags. Some people use the imagery of a conflict that they know so little about in order to polarize their own. Somewhere in there you forget you are talking about real people and that calling into question a people’s religion, history or identity is bound to cause deep pain, liable to result in a closing off and defensiveness rather than an openness to your ideas.

As Jews we have been left with deep patterns of behavior as a result of centuries of oppression including its most recent terrible manifestation in the Shoah. These patterns include fear, defensiveness, anger and a determination not to be victims again. If we feel attacked for having these patterns, we will just retreat into them. If the left fails to take Judeophobia seriously then the opportunity for countless potential allies in the fight for justice for the Palestinian people will be lost. What’s more, it will push us into the arms of false friends such as the Christian Zionists.

On the other hand, it’s surprising how far a small act of solidarity can go. I felt immense trust and relief on the anti-war march of Feb. 15, 2003, when a non-Jew took down a Judeophobic banner. Suddenly fighting anti-Jewish racism wasn’t just my struggle anymore.

There is so much more to being Jewish than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When I hear people celebrating Jewish culture, my heart sings. For me, and for many other Jews, campaigning for a just peace in the Middle East has reawakened our Jewishness and our pride in our religion and the diversity of the Jewish identity: our music, food, art, literature, symbols and language. I look forward to the time when the society I live in also celebrates my Jewishness and doesn’t merely consider me a “good” Jew for challenging the occupation.

 

Jehovah’s Witness Recalls Nazi Capture


A 99-year-old Jehovah’s Witness who survived Nazi persecution has been touring the United States and giving people a face to put on the usually obscure story of the estimated 2,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses killed in the Holocaust.

Once an Austrian farmhand persecuted in World War II after being arrested at a Bible study group, Leopold Engleitner spoke very little at an Oct. 12 Museum of Tolerance evening event, where he shook many hands as he signed copies of a book about his Nazi persecution.

Despite his frailty and advanced aged, he was sharp. During the audience Q and A, the first question was what Bible scripture did he draw strength from while imprisoned.

Engleitner instantly said, in German; “Psalms 35:1.”

Several Jehovah’s Witnesses in the museum theater pulled out Bibles and found the passage, which reads, “Strive thou, O Jehovah, with them that strive with me: Fight thou against them that fight against me.”

Despite Nazi offers of freedom if he renounced his faith, Engleitner refused and remained imprisoned with other Jehovah’s Witnesses at three concentration camps, including Buchenwald. His saga is the subject of a book and DVD documentary by fellow Austrian Bernhard Rammerstorfer, both titled, “Unbroken Will: The Extraordinary Courage of an Ordinary Man.”

Although he was almost executed twice, Engleitner held fast to his faith. After being freed by the Nazis from the concentration camps, he was called up in 1945 for German military service. Being a religious conscientious objector, he fled to the Austrian Alps. It was only when he saw Allied planes flying overhead that Engleitner realized the war was over.

He remained in rural Austria and got married, raised a family, worked more in farming and tended to his dying wife. Since her passing, he has taken care of himself and only recently required a wheelchair while traveling.

His fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses were deeply moved. Unlike Europe’s Jews who had virtually no options to leave concentration camps, “he had choices,” said David Goldfarb, a Jehovah’s Witness church leader in Beverly Hills who grew up Jewish and became a Jehovah’s Witness at age 15. “He had choices — to stand up to the entire Hitler regime by choice.”

“When you actually meet a person, you connect more; you can see that he’s not a superman,” said Claybourne Roberts, a 43-year-old Gulfstream executive and one of almost 200 Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to the museum that night.

At Buchenwald, Engleitner was told by a camp officer to write a final letter to his parents, and when the letter was finished he held a gun to Engleitner’s temple and asked if he was ready to die.

“Yes, I am,” Engleitner said, according to the documentary.

Then the officer removed the pistol and said, “You’re too stupid for me to shoot,” and walked away.

The evening drew working-class Latinos and African Americans from Jehovah’s Witness churches, known as kingdom halls, in the San Gabriel Valley and Inland Empire. Many were familiar with the purple triangle, which the Nazis used to identify Jehovah’s Witnesses prisoners. The audience was struck by how the documentary noted that because Jehovah’s Witnesses were pure pacifists, they were the only inmates in concentration camps trusted enough to be assigned to shave and give haircuts to Nazis.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the museum and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, praised Engleitner and other devoutly religious people for, “the tremendous spirit that people of faith bring to the table.”

“No, he is not a survivor of the Holocaust,” Cooper said. “But he is a survivor of Nazi tyranny, targeted because he made a decision about how he was going to pray to God.”

Another audience question was if Engleitner feels bitter toward his tormentors. Through a translator, the longtime farmhand said, “I would have only hurt myself if I had dwelled on this.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was born and raised in Austria, sent a letter of greetings to Engleitner read at the museum by Michelle Kleinert, his Jewish community liaison. Also present was the Austrian consul general of Los Angeles.

At 99, Engleitner’s California trip allowed him to make his first visit to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

Engleitner laughed when he heard Cooper, in translation, gave an old Jewish saying a new twist.

“You should live to be 120 years old and one week,” said Cooper, explaining that Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz added the extra week because, “Why should you die on your birthday?”

The Pacifist Who Fought Hitler


Early in the Nazi regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a rising young Protestant minister and theologian, was asked by his twin sister to speak at the funeral of her Jewish husband.

Bonhoeffer consulted his church superiors and refused. Later, tormented by his decision, he asked himself, “How could I have been so afraid? I should have behaved differently.”

It was perhaps the only time that Bonhoeffer’s natural human fear trumped his moral courage in fighting the Nazi ideology, a stand for which he finally paid with his life.

The acts and religious beliefs of perhaps the most principled German Protestant voice during the Hitler era are woven together in the 90-minute documentary, “Bonhoeffer,” opening Oct. 10 at two Laemmle theaters.

His complex theological thoughts, which emphasized the interconnectedness between traditional Christianity and secular action, might give some viewers pause, but the path leading to his martyrdom is marked by astounding feats of conviction and daring.

Bonhoeffer took the ultimate step by joining the 1944 plot to kill Hitler. But unlike his fellow conspirators in the army officers corps, whose chief aim was to save German honor and lives, the theologian made the persecution of the Jews the main spur for his resistance.

As early as 1932, Bonhoeffer, 26 at the time and a lecturer at the University of Berlin, became one of the first churchmen to criticize Hitler as a “misleader” who “mocked God.”

Bonhoeffer was profoundly influenced by a year spent at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, during which time he befriended the Rev. Clayton Powell Sr. of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and absorbed some of the black congregation’s emotional faith and social and political activism.

Despite his Nazi opposition, Bonhoeffer largely escaped Gestapo detection until the spring of 1943, when he helped 14 Jews flee to Switzerland and was subsequently linked to a resistance cell embedded in the Abwehr, the German army’s intelligence bureau.

One month before the end of World War II, Bonhoeffer was led naked to the gallows at the Flossberg prison and hanged. Devout to his last breath, his last words were, “This is the end of me, but the beginning of life.”

“Bonhoeffer” opens Oct. 10 at Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; and Fallbrook 7, 6731 Fallbrook Ave., West Hills, (818) 340-8710.

Sharon Loses Some Influence With Bush


After President Bush’s late July meetings with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers, one thing is clear: Ariel Sharon no longer will have things all his own way in Washington.

Bush pointedly expressed admiration and respect for Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, whom he called "a leader of vision and courage and determination."

Still, Sharon was able to deflect U.S. pressure on Israel over the security fence it is building along the border with the West Bank and to underline Israel’s insistence that the Palestinians must crack down on terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The fact that Bush was effusive in his praise of Abbas — despite Abbas’ refusal to dismantle terrorist groups — worries the Israelis.

In his meetings with Bush and Condoleezza Rice, the White House national security adviser, Sharon made it clear that unless the Palestinians dismantle terrorist groups — as they are obliged to do in the first phase of the "road map" peace plan — Israel will not move on to the second phase. Sharon added that he doubts that the Palestinians will act without considerable U.S. pressure.

So far, such pressure has not been forthcoming. Israeli analysts believe that Bush went easy on Abbas, because, having invested so much in Middle East peacemaking, he wants to show the Palestinians that the United States is an "honest broker" that can deliver a fair deal.

Bush also hopes his overt show of support will shore up Abbas’ shaky status among the Palestinian public, analysts say. Ironically, Abbas’ weakness on the Palestinian street is proving to be his strength: Against the backdrop of that weakness, he has been able press for U.S. support and Israeli gestures of compromise.

Nowhere has the new U.S. "even-handedness" been more apparent than on the issue of the security fence. After his meeting with Abbas, Bush even adopted Palestinian terminology, calling the fence a "wall" and saying he would speak to Sharon about the route, urging changes wherever it causes hardship for Palestinians or cuts too deeply into the West Bank.

Sharon went to his meeting with Bush armed with aerial photographs showing that only 10 percent of the security barrier actually is a wall, in areas where snipers in Palestinian cities along the West Bank border could fire at drivers on a major Israeli highway. The rest of the barrier consists of an electronic fence, barbed wire obstacles and patrol roads, like the security fences along Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Jordan.

For weeks, Israeli officials at all levels have been trying to convince their U.S. counterparts of the need for a barrier to stop terrorists from infiltrating Israeli cities. In almost three years of the terrorist intifada, they note, not a single suicide bomber has successfully infiltrated from the Gaza Strip — which is fenced off — while more than 250 have entered Israel from the West Bank.

In their meetings with Sharon, Bush and Rice raised two concerns: That the fence creates political facts on the ground in advance of a territorial settlement with the Palestinians, and that it encompasses too much Palestinian land.

Sharon has said that the fence is not meant to have any political significance, and in the future, it could be moved, depending on where the final borders are drawn. Moreover, he said, the most controversial segment — a sizable bulge into the West Bank to include the city of Ariel, one of Israel’s largest in the West Bank — is not scheduled for construction until early next year, leaving time for disagreements to be resolved.

Bush did not pressure Sharon to stop construction of the fence or move it back to the Green Line — the pre- 1967 border between Israel and Jordan’s West Bank — but the two sides agreed to hold further consultations on the route, with the aim of minimizing hardship to Palestinians.

The U.S. intervention on the fence may not have stopped its construction, but it certainly ended any notion Sharon might have entertained of building a second fence along the Jordan Valley to protect Jewish settlements there.

The fear of being left with a minuscule Palestine, enclosed by fences on all sides, was one reason Abbas sought an American-led peace process. Preempting a two-fence plan is the first major achievement of the new Abbas strategy — though Sharon also can claim that the fence galvanized the Palestinians into choosing diplomacy over war.

For Sharon, though, it’s not the fence or its route that is likely to undermine the peace process. It is the Palestinians’ failure to disband terrorist groups. Getting that point across was the main objective of Sharon’s Washington visit. He told Bush that he believed the peace process would collapse in a matter of months if Abbas failed to act against the terrorist groups.

"We are concerned that this welcome quiet will be shattered any minute as a result of the continued existence of terror organizations, which the Palestinian Authority is doing nothing to eliminate or dismantle," Sharon said at a news conference.

In the news conference, Bush demanded that the Palestinian Authority undertake "sustained, targeted and effective operations to confront those engaged in terror and to dismantle terrorist capabilities and infrastructure."

However, Israeli analysts point out that, in his meeting with Abbas, Bush did not lay down a timetable for such action, nor did he specify how the terrorists should be confronted.

The question is whether, in the wake of the meetings, Bush will find ways to persuade both sides to do what is needed to advance the diplomatic process and rebuild mutual trust.

Marlene Marks’ Spirit on the Web


Being treated for cancer is no one’s idea of fun. But a new Web site, www.chemochicks.com, is bringing moral support and an irreverent sense of humor to women undergoing chemotherapy. The colorful, breezy site gives female cancer patients a place to gripe, share inspiring stories and purchase products that will make life easier when their hair falls out and their self-esteem is nil.

Chemochicks.com is the brainchild of Jana Rosenblatt, a theatrical costumer and interior designer who has spent the past year fighting ovarian cancer. Much of the Chemo Chick product line comes from her own search for stylish headwraps and for eye makeup that will stay put on a hairless face.

“It’s amazing,” Rosenblatt said, “how expressionless you are without your eyebrows.”

The site also reflects Rosenblatt’s feisty spirit. When first facing chemotherapy, she dreamed up a fearless alter ego, Super Chemo Chick, who was tough enough to handle whatever might come. Now this personal coping mechanism helps empower others.

Rosenblatt’s founding partners in Five Chicks Unlimited are four local businesswomen who have been touched by cancer. They bring expertise in finance, product research, Web design and customer service to the site. But its guiding spirit is someone who did not live to see its launch: Marlene Adler Marks.

Rosenblatt had redecorated Marks’ Malibu home in 2000, shortly before The Jewish Journal’s longtime columnist and former managing editor was stricken with lung cancer. When Rosenblatt herself fell ill in June 2002, a visibly ailing Marks came to call. Marks’ courage in the face of her own mortality inspired Rosenblatt to battle back with similar grit. Two months after Marks’ death last September, the idea for chemochicks.com was hatched.

Another major morale boost came from Rosenblatt’s synagogue, Or Ami of Calabasas. Though she was relatively new to Southern California, members showered her with food baskets and friendly visits. Several, in fact, have joined the Chemo Chick team.

“I didn’t realize I was so much a part of any community, let alone a Jewish community,” Rosenblatt marveled.

Which shows that even a cancer diagnosis can lead to good things. “I like the person I am now better than the person I was before I got sick,” Rosenblatt said.

Georgian Life


What is the meaning of courage?

In Hollywood, it is often the brave, handsome soldier who risks his life, or the enterprising businesswoman who succeeds against all odds. The triumph of the individual: that’s the American Way.

But not all cultures glorify that path, and when faced with a character that chooses a different path, we may be hard-pressed to deem that choice "courageous."

But that’s exactly what Israeli writer-director Dover Kosashvili says of Zaza, the main character in his film "Late Marriage," the winner of nine Israeli academy awards and other world festival awards, which will be shown at the Israel film festival here this week.

Zaza (Lior Loui Ashkenazi) is a 31-year-old Tel Avivian bachelor who humors his parents as they fix him up with "suitable" girls. Zaza is handsome, intelligent and successful, so why are they are so worried about him? They’re Georgian.

Sometimes we forget that the term Israelis includes as great a variety of people and cultures as exists in America. There are the oldtimeAshkenazim and the Sephardim, the religious, the secular, the settlers, then there are also the new immigrants: the Ethiopians, the Russians — and each have their own subculture and traditions. In Hebrew and Georgian, "Marriage," Kosashvili’s first feature film, portrays one of those subcultures, the Georgian community — though certainly not at its best.

Zaza’s parents — his mother is actually played by the director’s mother ("I couldn’t find an actress who could do a convincing Georgian accent," he says) — live across the street from their prized son, and ship him on many interviews of other young Georgian woman of good families. (Ashkenazi studied for five months with the director to learn the language.) But Zaza doesn’t take their concerns seriously, because he is in love with Judith, a divorced mother who is more typically "Tel Avivian."

Zaza’s entire extended family gets involved and forces Zaza to make a choice, one they themselves once had to make, and their fathers before them. But how he chooses isn’t exactly the point; for a foreign audience (and probably most audiences seeing this French-Israeli co-production will be outsiders) it’s the otherworldly values inherent in the relationships in the movie: family loyalty, respect, tradition, community.

Kosashvili, 35, views the world and his film philosophically. "I don’t believe that Zaza even has a choice," he told The Journal in Hebrew from his home in Israel. A Georgian immigrant himself who came to Israel at age 6, Kosashvili says the characters are a composite of his community, though the story is something he heard from a friend. "On the whole, I don’t believe in choice. The freedom to choose is nonexistent in this world," he said. Kosashvili’s worldview is definitely not an American one of manifest destiny.

"Zaza is not seeking the moment when he is supposed to decide. He is searching for the point to which he is suppose to arrive," the director said, noting that his character is not a coward, but one who acts within his own constraints.

But what about love conquering all?

"Zaza is investigating the nature of his great love," Kosashvili explains. "He discovers that his great love is for his parents."

A Hero


A Hero

As The Journal went to press last week, word came that terrorist kidnappers in Pakistan had brutally murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

The news broke upon us with a special sting. Even as I write this, almost a week later, the sadness is acute, intransigent.

I didn’t know Pearl. But contributing editor Tom Tugend, who reports on his death inside, has long been an acquaintance of Pearl’s parents. The world lost a much-respected journalist, his family lost a loving son and brother, his wife Marianne lost a husband and father-to-be.

Having grown up in the San Fernando Valley, as Pearl did, and having attended Birmingham High School in the class three years before him, I do know that it is no stretch to see Pearl as a product of this community.

The L.A. Jewish community has produced many men and women like him: successful, passionate, committed not to an ideal lifestyle, but to ideals.

In Los Angeles, Pearl experienced a world enriched by the differences of its inhabitants. The particular community Pearl arose from, the Jewish one, was a part of that mosaic. Pearl dedicated his life to closing the distances between peoples by increasing their understanding of one another. Ultimately, he gave his life for this.

Since Pearl’s death, most of the media commentary has rightly praised his courage as a foreign correspondent. Indeed, his determination to shed light on a culture different from our own led to his capture.

But what led to his murder was something else.

We may never know what part his being Jewish played in his death. The war in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of eight journalists, Jewish and not. And the cowards who killed Pearl have vowed to kill any and all Americans.

But the fact is that according to a recently released videotape, Pearl looked into his captors’ camera and said, “My name is Daniel Pearl. I’m a Jewish American. My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am a Jew.” Then they killed him.

That makes Pearl more than just a journalistic hero. He died not just in seeking the truth, but in telling the truth about who he was and what he believed in. What Pearl’s killers took as an admission of his guilt was really an affirmation of his faith.

Daniel Pearl was an astonishingly brave and good man. His memory will be a light not only to his family, but to us all.

A Way to Help

The 200,000-strong Argentine Jewish community is weak to the point of collapse. As reported in these pages last week, the currency devaluation that followed an economic meltdown in that country this winter has left a thriving, mostly middle-class community destitute.

Hit particularly hard are the banks and small businesses that formed the core of the Jewish community’s prosperity. Now, with the poverty rate approaching 25 percent, food and shelter are no longer certainties. Around 20,000 Argentine Jewish families are on welfare and need assistance.

The Dec. 20 riots that led to the downfall of President Fernando de la Rua and the increase in post-collapse crime have added a sense of physical peril to the community’s economic woes.

For some Argentine Jews, the answer is immigration, either to Israel, which expects an influx of between 5,000-20,000 Argentines, or to other countries, especially the United States. For those who choose to remain in Argentina, the answer is economic assistance now, and for the foreseeable future.

How can we help? The Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee have turned to the North American Jewish communities to raise approximately $42.5 million to support aliyah and relief efforts that could eventually total more than three times that. Los Angeles, the second largest Jewish community, has been asked for $2.125 million of that sum.

The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles has been through troubled and often controversial times over this past year. But, as it demonstrated in its emergency fundraising for the victims of Sept. 11, The Federation is an ideal vehicle through which we can help Jews and others facing immediate danger. The Federation board has committed to provide Argentine Jewry with Los Angeles’ fair share — $2.12 million.

This Sunday, Federation phone volunteers will call seeking donations as part of the annual Super Sunday phone-a-thon. You can direct your donations toward Argentine relief, or give toward the overall campaign, which serves dozens of agencies and needs here, in Israel and elsewhere — including Argentina.