Moti the Mafioso


By day, I slouched in the second-to-last row of AP Government and tried to make myself invisible. At night, I changed selves with a pair of black (p)leather pants that squeaked when I sat down. I smeared makeup all over my face, and if I avoided direct light, I was Monet pretty. A fog of hairspray, a flash flood of drugstore perfume and sticky lip gloss completed my disguise for Thursday night out at Tempo in Encino.

I heard Moti (not his real name) before I saw him — the throb of trance music smashed the quiet evening, and as the headlights of his BMW ripped through the curtains, his brakes squealed like piglets. He honked three times.

In the hallway, I heard my mom’s scurry-shuffle as she threw open my bedroom door: “Don’t go out there just because he honks! Let him come to the door like a person! And don’t you think that lip gloss is a bit much?”

“I look good baby, no?” Moti asked as soon as I opened the car door. “Of course you look good,” I answered, wishing he’d say the same of me. He didn’t.

Instead, Moti smiled and draped his arm across my bare shoulders, and that was just fine. I could smell his thick after-work smell — part Benson & Hedges, part Dolce & Gabbana and part something else that I couldn’t quite name. Smelling him made my mouth water.

“Did you miss me, baby?” he asked as we screeched out of the driveway, his right hand kneading my thigh. I nodded.

“Baby, do you love me?” he asked, without a question mark.

“Uhhh …”

Moti and I had been on a grand total of four and a half dates since we first met a few weeks earlier. I knew he liked Jack Daniel’s and falafel with harif. But I didn’t know his favorite book. Or if he even liked to read. I had never even seen him in daylight. 

But the thing was, I kind of did love him. He was addictive – and everyone loved Moti.

This was the first time we were alone together outside of his bedroom. There was always someone around – a cousin, a friend, a friend’s cousin, a cousin’s friend, riding shotgun while I would sit in the back pretending to follow the rapid-fire conversation in Hebrew. 

I thought about asking Moti if he loved me, but the words stuck in my throat, because I knew the answer already. I had watched the way my parents were together – the easy give-and-take, sometimes shouting, mostly laughing. They stood on common ground. And my mom always rode in the front seat.

But still, it was exhilarating to pretend. 

“Baby, you want to marry with me?” Moti asked, again more of a statement. I bit my lip hard. “Will I marry you?” I responded. “We just met …”

“Yeah, I know, but you’re going away to Berkeley and I think we should get married … besides, I’ll have to leave the country unless I get a green card …”

I just sat there and perhaps he understood my silence as acquiescence because he grabbed my head and pulled me into a rough kiss. I felt my kishkas collapse. 

“Stay with me tonight,” he whispered. “We can go to City Hall tomorrow.”

I thought about my mom, watching the clock, wondering when I’d be home. I never broke curfew, never broke trust, really.

But everyone broke rules for Moti – from the bartender who looked the other way when Moti would pour his friends free drinks, to the guy at the falafel stand just off Ventura Boulevard who would reach below the cash register and hand Moti a dank-smelling plastic bag in exchange for the promise, “I’ll pay you later, achi.”

All I had to do was pretend I hadn’t seen anything. He had never asked me to break the law. Until now.

We pulled into the parking lot at Tempo, the Israeli restaurant/bar in the Valley, where the air was swampy with cologne, cigarette smoke and the scent of shish kabob. As soon as we were inside, we were engulfed by a gaggle of Moti’s entourage.

Everyone knew Moti.

Even people you wouldn’t expect to know him knew him: The last time we had gone out, Moti had taken me to an apartment on the fringes of the Valley where a bunch of guys were sitting drinking cerveza in a heavy fog of weed. They had the number “18” tattooed up and down their arms, and at first I thought this was a nod to gematria.

But when Jose said that his car was shot up the night before, and someone had tagged “Hombre Muerto” in red across his windshield, it dawned on me that the parade of 18s had a different meaning: I was sitting in the den of the 18th Street Gang. 

And when Moti patted Jose’s shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll hook you up with a Semi,” it occurred to me that I was a long way from AP Government.

In the teeming fray of Tempo, Moti pulled me against him and we danced. He looked at me intently, and under his gaze, I glowed. For a moment, I wondered if maybe he could love me, maybe I could sit in the front seat forever and ever. The song ended and he touched my cheek and said, “You should cover your pimples better.”

A sob clogged my throat, and I ran to the bathroom.

My mom was right: The lip gloss was a little much. Pulling my stiff hair back into a scrunchy, I bent down over the cool water spray. I only meant to wash off the lip gloss, but once I felt the warm water touch my skin, I couldn’t stop, and I watched the makeup run in rivulets down the drain.

The light caught the sheen on the delicate gold chai necklace I had worn since my mom clasped it around my neck just before I went on the bimah for my bat mitzvah. 

“I’m so proud of you,” she had whispered. “You are the most wonderful daughter I could ever ask for.”

No one looked at me when I walked out of the bathroom. I passed Moti, who was standing near the door. And as I walked out alone into the night, I was invisible again.

An answer to cancer


My mother, who for years dreamt of holding her own baby in her arms, beamed as she held me, her firstborn. My beloved late grandmother, whose diplomatic skills were on par with Muammar Gadhafi’s, took one look at me and proclaimed, “Now you have a daughter, so now you can worry.”

When we sign up to be mothers, we know that we are waiving our right to perky boobs and uninterrupted sleep. We implicitly consent to a wardrobe stained with spit-up, tantrums in the middle of Nordstrom, ear infections, backtalk, maybe a broken bone here and there, certainly broken hearts, mean girls, new-driver angst, and after all that, the heartbreak of an empty nest.

But my grandmother, who somehow overcame losing her son when his Allied jet caught fire and then plunged to the ground at the end of World War II, wasn’t referring to these generic parental concerns when she made her pronouncement. She was referring to the ultimate parental worry: that one day a mutated cell, or a disease that has a telethon, or a drunk driver, or a war, or a drug will take our child from us. 

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about sick kids because suddenly it seems like they are everywhere. There was news of a teenager at Chaminade High School who died suddenly from a rare cancer, and a girl at Calabasas High who died, possibly from meningitis.

My best friend from elementary school recently posted on Facebook: “Please pray for Sophie. She is having her surgery today.” Her daughter, previously a ridiculously healthy 6-year-old, was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

And then there is Kevin, who lives in Calabasas and has a type of cancer that is so rare that I can’t remember its name. I met his family briefly at a community blood drive and am kept apprised of Kevin’s medical drama (there is no other word for it) via a monthly e-mail blast his father sends to a long list of the concerned. I haven’t gotten through one without crying.

A few weeks ago, there was yet another. A Northridge boy with leukemia, who inherited his mother’s artistic talent, was selling drawings he made while in the hospital. I clicked on his Web site and there he was: bald, beautiful second-grader Nathan Lev. Nathan’s drawings were way beyond his years. The Web site included a plea to help Nathan’s electrician father find work. The combination of the recession and the time spent at his son’s bedside has made it difficult for him to earn a living. I called Ziva, Nathan’s mother, and asked if I could meet her family and share their story.

Nathan’s story began with a fever. Just a fever. After several weeks of hospitalization, numerous tests and a couple of brushes with death, it was finally confirmed that Nathan had cancer of the blood: leukemia. So this 7-year-old future helicopter pilot, who is “already married in [his] head to Salina Gomez,” is facing three-plus years of chemotherapy. A large drawer in the kitchen that once presumably held pots and pans is now a cancer bunker packed with syringes and medications.

But here’s the thing that struck me most about the Lev home. Considering that I was in a home afflicted with cancer, it felt like anything but. In fact, it felt like a home afflicted with life. Yes, an adorable tutor sent by a cancer support group was helping Nathan with his homework, and yes, Nathan has “cancer hair,” and yes, his sister carefully flushed out the PICC line that was installed in his forearm for treatments, and yes, his two older sisters dote on him beyond what would be normal. But Nathan himself is a powerhouse, a tornado of action and conversation. There was no “why me?” no “why us?” from anyone in the family.

So how does a mother cope with nearly losing a son? How does a mother cope with a future, once taken for granted, that now feels fragile?

“In the beginning, I was angry with God,” Ziva said. “But then I realized that it doesn’t help to be bitter. God doesn’t give cancer. It is man that pollutes the air and the water. It is man that needs cell phones and all sorts of electronics that emit radiation.”

“The reason that I got Nathan involved in making and selling his art,” Ziva said, “is because I wanted him to feel like he is part of the solution. It doesn’t raise a lot of money, but it makes him feel empowered. I want him to understand that he is not cancer and that cancer is not him.”

I asked Ziva how cancer has changed Nathan. “There is a major change in his personality. He is a lot brighter, smilier and appreciates things that you wouldn’t expect a 7-year-old to appreciate. He really appreciates life.”

The experience has had a similar effect on her: “I feel blessed every day. My kid is alive. I can’t ask for anything more than that. He is alive. He smiles. He is alive. He is at school. He is alive. He had a friend come over. My kid is alive.”

My grandmother turned out to be right, of course. My mother got the daughter that she always wanted, but she also got a lifetime of worry. And then I had a daughter, and then I had a son, and of course I worry now, too. But when my grandmother issued her prophecy, she should have finished the sentence: “Now you have a daughter, so you can worry. But when you are not worrying, don’t forget to rejoice, because you have a daughter and she is alive.” 

To read more about Nathan Lev, go to nathanlev.com. To purchase Nathan’s artwork, go to nathanlev.etsy.com. Wendy Jaffe welcomes comments at {encode=”wjaffewrite@aol.com” title=”wjaffewrite@aol.com”}.

Thrown For A Loop


“Avi we’re doing some looping for a movie called, ‘The Mount of Olives.’ It was filmed in Israel and we’re looking for Hebrew and Arabic speakers.”
Being an actor and comic in Los Angeles, you run into some interesting gigs. When my friend, Joey, himself a Christian Arab from Lebanon, called me about this one, I couldn’t resist.

Looping is plugging in background sound for movies after they are shot so they sound more realistic. I had done some looping sessions before, but they were all in English. While this movie was also in English, there were plenty of scenes with Hebrew and Arabic in them. My Hebrew is far from perfect, but I can still pull off the Israeli accent so I was pretty sure I could do the job.

I got to the soundstage early in the morning, and the first person I met was a really nice guy named Sayid from Egypt. He was an accomplished actor, and I even recognized him from the movie, “The Insider,” with Al Pacino.

As everyone else arrived for the looping and we filled out paperwork, we began schmoozing a little. (I’m guessing the Arabs would use a different word to describe it.) There were people from Egypt, Sudan, a really sweet girl from Iraq, a Druze from Lebanon whose family lived in Haifa, and four other Israelis beside me. There were Christians, Muslims, and Jews with all different levels of religious observance. I myself had to leave a little early because the session was on Friday, as I observe Shabbat.

The first few scenes were harmless enough — we covered small background conversations, mostly in Hebrew. I immediately noticed that while we were all very friendly with one another, when it came to where we all sat, all the Israelis were on one side, and the Arabs on another. I didn’t read too much into it and figured it was just out of convenience as most scenes were in either one language or another.

“OK guys, I need all five Hebrew speakers. This is right after a bus bombing, and I need as much sound as possible. You’ll notice paramedics, victims, etc.”
All five of us approached the microphone. We watched the scene with no sound and it was pretty gory. There was blood everywhere. We each decided who we would cover on the screen and got started. When the cue came, we all immediately started screaming our parts. You heard shouts in Hebrew of “My leg, my leg!” “I’m bleeding help me!” “Where’s my father!” “Out of the way, move, move!”

The one Hebrew-speaking woman was doing a great job crying in agony. When the sound cue was over we all stopped, and Joey chimed in, “I don’t know what you guys were saying but … man. Really intense guys.”

I looked over toward the Arab speakers, and I noticed them all staring back and forth at each other. The Iraqi girl named Yasmin Hannaney, who couldn’t have been nicer, finally just looked at us all and said, “Wow guys.”

I could tell they were affected by it, but oddly enough we sort of weren’t. It just seemed like we were almost too used to seeing it.

Shortly after there was a scene at a gravesite where Kaddish was being said. Two women displayed prominently in the shot were answering “amen,” and they needed to be dubbed. The only two female voices we had were Yasmin and the other Israeli woman. Yasmin smiled as she asked us, “How do I say it, aymen or amen?” As we told her the right way she just smiled and thanked us.

The next few scenes shifted to shots of Palestinians at various rallies, and Joey asked if he could get as many guys up as possible: “OK guys, we need a lot of volume to cover the chanting. Sayid, why don’t you lead.”

I suddenly found myself, along with all the other Israeli men, chanting “Allah Akbar,” and various other chants about God’s glory in Arabic. I couldn’t help but grin as I was doing it. Here I was, an Israeli-born Jew raised in a hugely Zionistic family, chanting at a Palestinian rally. I’d even spent the last three years leading a group of comics to Israel to perform to help support the state. I was at least hoping I would get a good joke out of all of this.

I’m not sure how I would have felt had I had to do some scenes where the chants were “Death to Israel” or something similar. Luckily it never came up. The time just seemed to fly by. Before I knew it I had to leave, and Joey told me it was fine. He completely understood, as opposed to most Jews I deal with in Hollywood who seem to always give me problems over my observance.

I felt badly that I had to sneak out so quickly, not having said goodbye to everyone, but I’ve kept in contact with some of the people from the session. Yasmin and I have e-mailed back and forth, and she’s started an organization dealing with making films in the Middle East.

I was honored when she asked me if I wanted to be involved and immediately accepted. I invited her and some of the other guys to some of my upcoming shows.

It seems ironic that if you want to make a movie about Arabs and Jews fighting with each other, the only way you can make it work is if you have them getting along.

Alan King a Model for Seinfeld, Crystal


Many young Americans know comedian Alan King’s work — they just don’t realize it.

The observational style of King, who died this week of lung cancer at age 76, was a model for younger comedians such as Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld.

Crystal, a close friend, was one of those who paid tribute to King at his funeral Tuesday.

Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, co-editor of the “The Big Book of Jewish Humor,” said King was “someone who brought a sense of indignance about the travails of life.”

King, who usually was seen with a cigar in his mouth, was among the first to lampoon airline food and other irritants of airline travel, as well as doctors’ bills and traffic.

“That was considered kind of cutting edge in that period, where most people were just telling jokes about their mother-in-law,” said Gerald Nachman, author of “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s,” according to New York Newsday.

King adopted the comedic voice of someone hard to please, cantankerous and impatient.

As drama critic Kenneth Tynan once put it, “If a sawed-off shotgun could talk, it would sound like Alan King.”

In comparison to his contemporaries, King was less raunchy than Lenny Bruce, less schmaltzy than Buddy Hackett and didn’t talk in dialect like Sid Caesar, Waldoks observed.

But like these others geniuses of American Jewish comedy, King was quick with the zingers.

In one of his better-known lines, King said, “As life’s pleasures go, food is second only to sex. Except for salami and eggs. Now that’s better than sex, but only if the salami is thickly sliced.”

After performing for Queen Elizabeth II, he was introduced to the queen. When she asked, “How do you do, Mr. King?” he told audiences he replied, “How do you do, Mrs. Queen?”

“She stared at me, and then Prince Philip laughed,” he recalled. “Thank God Prince Philip laughed.”

Born in Brooklyn as Irwin Alan Kinberg to Jewish immigrants from Poland, King quit school at age 14.

Through his appearances on the “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the 1950s and 1960s, and for his guest-host appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” King brought the edgier, Catskills style of humor to the American masses.

But he put his own personal stamp on the Borscht Belt joke.

King has said he was inspired to change his style after watching a performance by another young comedian, Danny Thomas, in the early 1950s.

“Danny actually talked to his audience,” he recalled in a 1991 interview. “And I realized I never talked to my audience. I talked at ’em, around ’em and over ’em, but not to ’em. I felt the response they had for him. I said to myself, ‘This guy is doing something, and I better start doing it.’ ”

That sometimes meant a turn to topical humor.

“Why is everybody carrying on about Woolworth’s?” he asked a black audience at a rally after the first lunch-counter sit-ins of the civil rights era. “Have you ever eaten at the counter at Woolworth’s? If you wanted to sit in the Colony Club I could understand.”

King said he didn’t want to slow down in his later years — and he didn’t, performing a few years ago as film mogul Samuel Goldwyn in “Mr. Goldwyn.”

“You only live once,” he once said, “except for Shirley MacLaine.”

He plied his trade well enough that he was named the first recipient of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s award in American Jewish humor. The award now is named after him.

King also showed the younger generation of comics how to be a successful businessman.

He appeared in film and on stage, produced Broadway plays and wrote five books. He was the master of ceremonies for part of President Kennedy’s inaugural party in 1961, and for the 1972 Academy Awards.

His collection of reminiscences, “Matzo Balls for Breakfast and Other Memories of Growing Up Jewish,” will be published next year by Simon & Schuster.

He also was involved in Jewish philanthropy. He founded the Alan King Diagnostic Medical Center in Jerusalem, established a scholarship fund for American students at Hebrew University and created a chair in dramatic arts at Brandeis University.

Soulful Sounds


The sounds of heaven and earth merge when David De’or and Shlomo Bar, two internationally acclaimed Israeli artists, combine their musical talents.

De’or captivates his listeners with an astounding vocal range that covers 3 1/2 octaves. His voice, which plunges to the depths of a rich baritone only to ascend to the celestial melody of a contra-tenor, has captured the attention of music critics, the media and state leaders the world over, including the Vatican, the Italian press, the King and Queen of Sweden, various symphony orchestras and the Library of Congress — where he will perform on Oct. 22 together with Bar and his band, Habrera Hativ’it (Natural Band).

Bar lends a different yet complimentary musical flavor to De’or’s signature sounds. Influenced by the Sephardic and Middle Eastern musical heritage, Bar and his band create earthy and ethnic rhythms by combining Eastern and Western instruments such as the conga, bongo, tambura (a classical Indian string instrument) and flute. Bar weaves within the music, lyrics taken from a variety of sources such as the Bible, Israeli poets and hymns from Spain’s golden age.

De’or and Bar offer more than just technical mastery of their musical genres. Their performances evoke a sense of prayer, soul and expression that stir the heart. Audiences who do know Hebrew understand the importance of the lyrics by watching and hearing the artists’ soulful expressions.

De’or and Bar, who have also performed and produced albums individually, will tour the United States this October and November. They will perform at the University of Judaism’s Gindi Auditorium on Nov. 1. For more information and tickets, contact Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble, the tour’s producer, at (818) 784-0344.