Financial mistakes can haunt estate executors


Two chores that most people will gladly put off are writing a will and keeping it up to date to reflect changed circumstances. However, when you do get around to writing and revising your will, consider carefully when you select or replace an executor—the legal term for the person who is the key figure in the settlement of your estate.

The executor’s job is a potentially time-consuming and demanding position that requires a lot more work than many people realize. An executor has to perform four major functions.

The first chore is to assemble and value assets. It can be a formidable task to put together records of such assets as bank accounts and automobiles; loans to family members or others; traditional and Roth IRAs, 401(k)s and other retirement plans at work; brokerage accounts; mutual funds; insurance policies; and other property like real estate, jewelry or artworks. Add to that list gathering information about mortgages and other debts, tax returns and the location of safe-deposit boxes.

The next responsibility for executors is to pay all bills and charges, a task that often requires professional help, as it includes the timely filing of returns for federal estate taxes and state inheritance taxes, final income taxes for the deceased and current income taxes for the estate, as well as payment of those levies.

After executors have valued assets and paid bills, they are able to distribute what is left of the property in accordance with the will.

Their final responsibility is to submit an accounting to the court (usually designated probate and sometimes called orphan’s or surrogate’s) for everything that they have done.

Many executors have learned the hard way that they are not off the hook for mistakes just because they rely on the counsel of attorneys, accountants or other professional advisers. When something goes wrong with, say, federal taxes, the IRS bills the executors, because they are personally responsible when assets are distributed and taxes remain unpaid or forms are filed late.

The need to obtain proper tax advice was made expensively clear to the son and daughter-in-law of Henry Lammerts, who had designated them as his executors. On Lammerts’  death, his son took over leadership in settling the estate. Although under the impression that a tax return had to be filed for his father, the son was unaware that it was also necessary to file an income-tax return for the estate. This is where matters stood until his accountant discovered that no return had been filed reporting income received by the estate. The filing was eventually made seven months after the due date.

The IRS assessed a sizable late-filing penalty and the usual interest charges. The executors argued that they were new at this sort of thing and had relied on their accountant and the estate’s lawyer to do whatever was necessary.

But the accountant, in his own defense, testified that there was nothing in his past services to the family to suggest that, on his own initiative, he would have to file an income-tax return for the estate. Similarly, the estate’s lawyer pointed out that neither of the executors had asked him for a rundown of the responsibilities attached to being an executor. Consequently, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld imposition of the penalty.

Julian Block is a syndicated columnist, attorney and former IRS investigator. He is on the Web at www.julianblocktaxexpert.com.

Cutting someone out of will can leave a legacy of pain


Steve Kaplan had just finished sitting shiva for his mother when he was dealt another blow: He had been written out of her will.

No written explanation. Not a word.

He was shocked, having believed his entire life that he and his mother were close. Kaplan (not his real name) was left to grapple with the implications of his exclusion.

Had he done something wrong? Did he offend her in some way she wouldn’t — and now couldn’t — reveal to him?

His mother’s estate passed exclusively to his brother, his mother’s sole caretaker, Kaplan said.

The betrayal left Kaplan with an open wound that would be difficult to heal. “It’s not the money,” said Kaplan, who is still haunted by his mother’s omission.

While some might find Kaplan’s experience shocking, it’s not entirely uncommon. A last will and testament often brings closure to familial points of contention. But when someone makes dramatic changes to a will or trust, like deleting mention of a person entirely, it can leave deep, lasting scars when the final document is officially read.

Often, such an alienated relative is befuddled, questioning past memories of good times. Families can be ripped apart by revived sibling rivalries and jealousies.

“These people feel immense hurt and rejection,” said Dr. David Falk, a clinical psychologist who specializes in bereavement issues. “It can create a sense of bitterness … and can hurt families for generations.”

Falk said that when a child is written out of a parent’s will, it implies either a lack of trust in that child or insinuates some other kind of personality problem in a person. That leaves someone vulnerable to be hurt even deeper, he said, generating shame and anger.

“To blindside somebody with a swipe at the end of life leaves a legacy of pain,” Falk said.

He urges families to work through disputes while everybody is still available to be angry about it, talk it out, reason with it and come to an understanding.

Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt of Schara Tzedeck Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Vancouver, Canada, pointed out that while it is not technically a violation of Jewish law to show favoritism to one child over another, it is considered unwise.

“The general principle is gadol hashalom, drawing from Yaakov, that ill fate awaits a family that favors one child,” said Rosenblatt, alluding to the story of Yaakov’s son, Joseph, who was favored by his father, thus causing great enmity between the brothers.

Rosenblatt believes that it is improper to write out a close family member from a will and urges people to heal their problems so that they don’t get passed on through legal documents.

“Those who have disputes with their children that are so intense as to want to disinherit the child that was fed and nursed from birth, might want to find a good counselor who can help them work through their dispute,” he said.

Rosenblatt added that when drawing up such documents, family relationships should be considered first, because relationships cannot be salvaged after death. Money, he said, should be secondary.

Kaplan said he’ll likely never know why his 62-year relationship with his mother ended without closure. Instead, he urges others who intend to write someone out of a will or trust to at least provide an explanation in the document.

“This way, the person understands why and isn’t just dangling with many different thoughts,” Kaplan said.

Soriya Daniels is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

Semper Fiber


I am a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, especially of the weight-loss variety. I’ve even been known to renew my vows on a weekly basis. Yet, I have learned
that any drastic promises, such as, “I will never eat another bowl of Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Crunch ice cream ever again,” never work.

Other sure-fail methods include eating “calorie-controlled” blueberry gelatin and promising that you will only eat three ounces of cold turkey (skinless, of course) for lunch every day. A coworker of mine ate this way until one day she opened her mouth to speak but started to gobble instead.
Last year, I also decided that I would only weigh myself on the summer and winter solstices.

Too-frequent weigh-ins can sabotage any diet efforts, because a woman’s weight is a mysterious, jumpy, undependable thing that does not follow any known laws of nature. Over-weighing would lead to stress. Stress would slow down my metabolism, which was already prone to sleeping in late.

When my scale realized it was being ignored, it had a digital breakdown. Now my husband and sons are perplexed why the scale registers a difference of 15 pounds from a Monday to a Wednesday. Finally, payback time.

This year, I looked for fresh ideas on reducing poundage. Fortunately, I found an article that uncovered facts never before revealed to the American public. For example, did you know that Krispy Kreme Doughnuts are full of saturated fats and sugar? Who knew?

Now that I am aware of this and other startling nutritional data, I don’t dare approach within 100 feet of a Krispy Kreme shop. (Frankly, they deserve a boycott for the spelling alone.) But I am going one better: I am also making a commitment to fiber. This inspiration came from my friend Helen, who went from a pleasingly feminine figure to a lean, mean marathon machine.

Each time I saw her, she had dropped another dress size, her skin glowed more radiantly than ever and the threat of middle-aged wattle under the chin had vanished. When she moved her arms, her biceps flexed insouciantly. Helen looked fantastic. If she didn’t knock it off, I would have no choice but to hate her.

“How have you done this?” I asked, faking wonderment instead of envy.

She took my arm and leaned in close. “It’s all about the fiber,” she said. “You’ve got to try it.”
“No thanks,” I said, holding my hands up in a “stop” gesture. “It may be ecologically friendly, but pure fibers are much too high maintenance for me. I bought a linen dress once, and the dry cleaning alone nearly killed me.”

“Not that fiber,” she said. “I’m talking bran cereal, garbanzo beans and broccoli.”

She whipped a small nutrition bar out of her pocket, where she apparently kept a stash. It was made of flaxseed, apricots and at least 25 percent recycled greeting cards.

“Try this. Fourteen grams of fiber in this little bar,” she said. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you,” she laughed.

It was a strange laugh, perhaps the kind of laugh you get after ingesting too much fiber.

“Great,” I said, dropping the bar into the vast black hole of my purse. “If it works, I’ll ask my doctor for a prescription.”

“Oh, no need,” she said. “These are over-the-counter, even the blueberry. But if you’re really serious about prescription fiber bars, I know where you can order them cheap from Canada.”

And so, desperately trying to become sinewy and taut like Helen, I put my trust in fiber. Scads of fiber. My main food groups became split peas, collard greens and psyllium husks. I tossed soy nuts and lentils on everything, even cereal. One night, I dreamed that I had fallen into an open barrel of barley at the local Whole Foods store. I developed indigestion.

After two weeks of uncompromising fidelity to fiber, I had not lost any weight, but my pantry was four pounds lighter, because I had used up most of the lentils and several cans of kidney and white beans.

Then I saw Helen again, who looked more buff than ever. My indigestion flared up immediately. Probably too many raw red peppers at lunch. Not a good idea.

“What gives?” I demanded. “You claimed that you looked so great because of fiber. I’ve eaten so much fiber I could be the poster child for the National Colon Health Foundation. You must be doing something else. Come on, spill it ”

“I’m working with a personal trainer three times a week,” Helen said. “I’m sure I told you.”

I knew there had to be a catch. Helen’s confession vindicated me. A diet of chickpeas and cantaloupe might get you poster child status for colon health but would not get you on the cover of Brawny Babe magazine. The green stuff of Helen’s success wasn’t only kale, it was cold, hard cash for the trainer.

Since then, I’ve gotten used to my more fibrous diet, but sometimes I pine for hours for an empty calorie. Overall, it’s not really that bad, if you don’t mind indigestion. I can’t afford Helen’s personal trainer, but at least I know the secret of her success. Commitment, self-discipline and money.

Who knew?

Judy Gruen writes the popular “Off My Noodle” column at judygruen.com. Her next book, “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement,” will be published in May.

Laura’s Smile


Laura Benichou was born on June 9, 1998, with a hole in her heart. This hole probably saved her life, because she was also born without her main pulmonary artery.

The blood had to go somewhere, so it went through the hole. Her condition would take too long to explain, but one result was the lowering of the oxygen level in her blood to 75 percent and below (normal is 99 percent to 100 percent), which meant that her body had to compensate by producing more red blood cells. This in turn thickened her blood and caused other complications, like periodic brain seizures.

The first major seizure happened before she was a year old. To save her life, the top cardiac team at a major hospital in Los Angeles performed an 11-hour operation that implanted small “pipes and faucets” to help normalize the blood flow between her heart and lungs. This didn’t get the results they wanted, so a few weeks later they went back in to implant larger devices. Laura was not responding well to post-surgery care, which created more complications and led to another operation. After six months and three major operations, Laura was a year and a half old when she returned home.

Laura has never spoken a word, but she can coo, laugh, sigh and cry. At her best, she has taken steps with the help of a walker. She has a thin body with a smallish, sweet face framed by dark-brown hair. She gets 24-hour home care, with three rotating nurses monitoring her breathing and other vital signs.

One of those nurses says that Laura expresses a wide range of “appropriate” emotions, from happiness to surprise to crying for attention. Her favorite movie is “Mary Poppins,” and her favorite TV show is “Hannah Montana.” She likes toys that move, and she has a fondness for anything slapstick.

Oh yeah, and she loves to smile.

It’s that spontaneous smile, which I saw firsthand on a recent visit to her family’s handsome high-ceilinged apartment in West Hollywood, that her mother says “hypnotizes everyone who meets her.”

I think the smile has also helped her family fight to keep her alive. While she was in the hospital for six months, her parents took turns to be with her at all times. Her brother, a very cool-looking 16-year-old who’s a starter on his high school basketball team, is very protective of her and seems to have a knack for making her laugh.

Her mother, Veronique, a thin and perfectly put-together French Moroccan Jew in her early 40s, has become a walking medical handbook. During my late-afternoon visit, while she was serving mint tea in elegant china, she took several hours to calmly answer all my questions regarding their ordeal, and Laura’s medical history, even drawing a diagram to explain one of the surgeries.

Veronique says she “stopped living” when the doctors told her the news about Laura. At the time, she had a thriving international trading business. Her husband Richard, an intense, darkly handsome, French Algerian Jew who is a member of the Pinto shul on Pico Boulevard, ran a successful garment business. They were also going through a major renovation of their home near the Sunset Strip, which they were preparing for the new baby.

It didn’t take long for the house (which they have since sold) and their businesses to take a back seat to Laura. Veronique herself was in a “coma of denial” for the first few months, but once she got out of it, she became quietly unstoppable — whether fighting in court against insurance companies (so far, she has prevailed at the key hearings) or doing constant research on the Internet to make sure that everything medically possible is being done for her daughter.

And God knows she’s done it all, medically and otherwise. She recalls now, with a tinge of disappointment, how vulnerable she was to faith healers of all kinds. She especially remembers the woman mystic from Israel, who spent three days rubbing different oils on her daughter while chanting special prayers. Veronique knew then that because they were people of means, there would be no shortage of miracle workers knocking on their door. But she was too vulnerable to turn them away.

Meanwhile, she was knocking on the doors of emergency rooms at all times of the day and night, whenever Laura had a seizure or some other complication. After a few years, she got so frustrated with the service and long waits that she started a company called SOS Medlink, which coordinates a network of doctors who make house calls (I’ve used the service myself, and if I had a say on the Messiah, I’d nominate a doctor who makes house calls). She is currently looking for partners to expand the business nationally, in the hope that it will help provide for Laura’s future care. Her husband has also gone back to work.

Right now, they’re both hoping for a medical success. They don’t like the option of doing nothing, because Laura’s condition hasn’t gotten any better, which leaves her at risk of another seizure (Veronique won’t elaborate). At the same time, though, an “out of the box” operation to repair Laura’s heart is also delicate. So they’re torn between two risky options.

Veronique and her husband will soon make a decision. In the last few days, they have met with a prominent surgeon, and they are exploring a “middle of the road” option that will hopefully do a little repair of the heart and buy them some more time.

In the meantime, they will continue to care for Laura around the clock, take her to parties and to visit family around town, and enjoy one thing that can always fill the hole in their own hearts.

Her smile.

Holy Doubt


This week’s Torah portion contains a story that most of us skipped in Hebrew school — the story of Dina.

Dina goes out to “see the daughters of the land.”

Shechem,
the eponymous local prince, sees her, sleeps with her and vaye’aneha — sexually forces or humiliates her.

His soul clings to her, he loves her, and he speaks tenderly to her.

This begins a protracted negotiation, in which Jacob remains silent and his sons, Dina’s brothers, maintain their outrage.

Shechem invites Jacob and the brothers to name any amount for a bride price.

The brothers answer with guile, seeming to accept Shechem’s proposal with the proviso that he and all his male subjects undergo circumcision to become “one people” with the Israelites.

Three days after all the males of Shechem are circumcised, while they are still in pain, Simon and Levi, two of Dina’s full brothers, enter the city, confident. They kill all the men and remove Dina from the house.

Jacob’s sons appropriate the property of the slain and take the women captive. Jacob objects: “You have stirred up trouble …[with my neighbors] while I am few in number, so if they band together against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.”

The sons answer: “Shall our sister be dealt with like a whore?”

The story raises many questions, particularly from Dina’s perspective.

Did she learn of her impending marriage? If so, from whom? What was it like for her in the three or four days after the rape and before the “rescue”?

How did she feel when her brothers stormed in, killing the men and taking the women who were to be her new family? Was this similar to the way she had been taken captive? What was she looking for when she “went out to see the daughters of the land”? Had she and the local women already forged the kind of friendship and alliance that the men were negotiating for?

Or could Dina have been a spy against the women? (“To see” and “to spy on” are the same verb in Hebrew.) Can we imagine her as a Mata Hari figure, conspiring with her brothers to conquer Shechem? Or did Dina’s soul cleave to Shechem’s as improbably and enduringly as his cleaved to hers?

The Torah focuses on the men’s motivations, yet these, too, are far from clear. Jacob’s political objection to his sons’ actions ignores the harm to Dina, the sons’ deception and violence, and the murder of innocents. Is Jacob cautiously protecting the clan after a traumatic loss, or has he ceded control and leadership? Is he indifferent to his daughter’s suffering, or so distraught that he becomes passive?

Are the brothers overzealous defenders of their sister’s honor (perhaps in response to Jacob’s passivity) and/or do they see an opportunity for a land grab?

On his deathbed, Jacob will condemn Simon and Levi’s excesses and bar the two tribes from owning land (Genesis 49:5-7). Is the crime that most troubles the brothers rape — or theft? The males of Dina’s family should have commanded a bride price for her in advance, and the brothers seem more interested in orchestrating revenge than in facilitating Dina’s release.

Is Shechem a rapist? It is certainly not typical of a rapist to love his victim, want to marry her, offer to pay any amount of money and undergo genital surgery to be with her. Shechem more than fulfills all the requirements later imposed on Israelites (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) who bed an unbetrothed girl without gaining permission first.

Perhaps Shechem, prince of the land, thought that Dina, visiting among the daughters of the land, was one of his subjects, and therefore legal and eligible to him.

Long before Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent,” the ancient rabbis wondered if Dina chose — before or after the fact — to be with Shechem.

One midrash suggests that Dina was enticed by his uncircumcised body, and had to be removed from his house because she would not leave voluntarily.

Other midrashim don’t attribute sexual volition to Dina, but posit instead her extraordinary spiritual power: she would have caused Esau to repent had she been paired with him; she was Job’s second wife and healed him. Dina was indeed raped, but she inspired a rapist to repent immediately and completely.

The verb vaye’aneha — usually translated as “he raped her” — comes from the root ayin-nun-hey, which has two meanings: to answer or respond; or to force, afflict or humiliate, especially sexually.

Translating according to the first definition, it is possible to read vaye’aneha as parallel to vayidaber al lev hane’ara, he spoke to the girl tenderly (Genesis 34:2-3). This supports the interpretation that Shechem seduced Dina, rather than raped her. Similarly, it is possible to reverse the usual translation in 34:13: the brothers didn’t just answer Shechem with guile, they afflicted him with it.

It surprises me how confident people sometimes are about exactly what the Bible intends. What is meant, literally and in context, by “frontlets between your eyes” or “a man lying with a man as with a woman” or even “your neighbor?”

The Bible is laconic, allusive, ambiguous, layered.

It is not always clear to me, after years of study, which stories are cautionary tales and which are examples to be emulated.

Torah urges us: read again, review again, and don’t be so sure.

Approach with holy doubt, and humility.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana. More of her writings can be found at makom.org.

There is God in this place


Jacob departed. Unlike his grandfather Abraham, who went forth, lech lecha, in response to God’s command, Jacob departs, vayetze, from everything he knows to
escape his angry brother and find a wife in Haran. He leaves a comfortable, established life to find himself in the chaos and confusion of exile. Jacob enters the void.

In November 1992, I departed from Santa Fe, N.M. I left my home of more than 20 years, and a network that included a job, family and friends, and stepped into the void. In response to a vague job offer and a stirring inside of me, I piled my most treasured books, plants and paintings into my aging Toyota and left New Mexico for the unknown reaches of Los Angeles.

As the sun rose outside of Needles, Calif., I reached back to cover the asparagus fern I had placed just behind the front seat. (At that time I was told no out-of-state plants were allowed.) The car swerved, ran over the embankment and careened down a ditch at top speed. I felt my world lose all boundaries as the car rolled over twice before landing on its side.

My angels were working overtime that day as I stumbled out of the car bruised but unharmed. Only now can I see the irony of the smashed poster that was hanging off of the back seat. It was Georgia O’Keefe’s “Ladder to the Moon,” which features a ladder hanging in space over New Mexican mountains.

My world had moved, but I was immobile, transfixed to the spot until rescued some hours later by the CHP. They never mentioned the plant.

Like Jacob, I had stopped in “a certain place” for at least the day, which was unfolding hot and cloudless before me.

Two miles outside of Needles, I was nowhere, lost in the void. I cried. I prayed, or at least begged God to rescue me. My world had turned upside down, which, it turns out, is integral to the process of truly leaving, or departing from one place to another.

Lost in the “no-place” on his first night way from the familiarity of home, Jacob prayed.

According to Midrash Rabbah, Jacob established that in the evening one should pray: “May it be thy will, O Lord My God, to bring me forth from darkness into light.”

Jacob prays in the gathering darkness of sunset, establishing evening prayer for all time.

The only difficulty with this is that it was not sunset at all, but closer to high noon, according to the Midrash. So God, who wants to speak to Jacob in the intimacy of darkness, changes the day into night.

According to rabbinic tradition, the certain space, hamakom, is synonymous with Mount Moriah, the future site of the Holy Temple. Rashi states that God wanted to show Jacob the place where prayers would ascend to heaven, the site of the earthly Temple, which stands opposite the Heavenly Temple on high. God wanted to reveal the entire future of the Jewish people to Jacob, their exile and their return to this very spot, the axis mundi of the world.

The problem — Jacob is not in Jerusalem, but on the road to Haran. Therefore, it is said, “the earth jumped beneath him” and Mount Moriah moved, for the moment, to where he was. Prayer, indeed, can move mountains.

But hamakom is much more than a specific site on earth or in the heavens above. Hamakom is another name for God, and God is not limited by time or space. In the words of the Baal Shem Tov, “There is no place without God.” Hamakom, God’s presence, is everywhere, surrounding us, infusing us, enveloping us with its essence.

When someone dies in our community we say, “May the Holy Place, The Divine One, bring you comfort and consolation.” We cry out, in the darkness of our loss and despair, and pray that God will bring us to the light. While the familiar place of our community provides comfort, only The Place of God can bring us true consolation.

God’s presence, however, is not limited to physical, grounded space. The Torah’s commentaries show us that time can change and mountains can move as long as we are connected to the Source. By returning to that place within, what the Gerer Rebbe, calls the inner space, we are able to connect with the presence of God, which is everywhere.

Although it may seem easier to access that connection in places that we hold sacred, such as the Wall in Jerusalem, or the mountains of New Mexico, the “place” is infinite and universal. Wherever I am, God is with me. I just need to be able to stop, breathe, rest, sleep, meditate and open my inner eyes.

We are now at the darkest time of the year, when the sun seems to set not long after noon.

“Please God,” we pray, “may it be Thy will to bring me forth from darkness into light.”

The month of Kislev, the month of Chanukah, is dedicated to prayers that bring the light. We reach out beyond time and space to the “place” of the Holy Temple, in order to bring its light into our homes, lighting our menorot against the darkness.

Angels, dressed as the CHP, came to rescue me. I was towed into California, and have found God at every step along the way during these past 14 years. My “place” is now here. Now, I can say, along with Jacob: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gateway to heaven!” (Genesis 28:17).

Judith HaLevy is rabbi of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue.

Single, 60, and invisible no more


I’m over 60, single, considered sexy by some and ignored by others.

My experience is that if you are over 60, single and a woman
you’re somewhat invisible. Unfortunately, we live in a youth-oriented society where emphasis is placed on the young. So I started to make mental notes comparing similarities or differences between the under-60 singles and the over-60 singles.

I’m one of the over 60 “frontier generation” singles, someone who didn’t want to stay in a broken marriage. Before I pursued my new career — acting — I was a domestic engineer and political activist; I’m better educated than my parents’ generation, youthful, independent, in good health, vivacious and financially in a good place. I have a busy and somewhat active life with a small circle of friends. I have some baggage — I’m divorced, have married children who don’t live near me, and grandkids I don’t see very often unless I get on a plane. My youngest son, daughter-in-law and two darling grandchildren will be going to Uganda for two years, leaving early next year, so there is travel in my future. I see myself as somewhat of a risk-taker and adventurous, but I did not know what was awaiting me when I ventured out into the singles world after a long-term marriage, having been taken care of for many years.

All age groups seem to want the same thing: a soulmate, a soft shoulder to lean on occasionally, companionship for dinner in or out, theater, movies, and travel. I still enjoy cooking (and I’m good at it). I’m not too old for cuddling and hugging, and I happen to enjoy it.

I kept hearing about people meeting and connecting online, so I signed up. Well, my experience was like a bad dream, perhaps even a nightmare. Most men live in fantasyland and haven’t looked in the mirror enough to realize they are no longer 30-something. They all seem to be looking for younger women and a lost youth. My question: If these divorced men think they are God’s gift to the world, why are they single now?

One man I spoke to said music was his whole life, and he was looking for someone with the exact same interest and level of knowledge. I appreciate classical music, but that wasn’t good enough. He also had been married four times. Then there was a pharmacist who took me to lunch; he had had four marriages, although he didn’t go into any details — he didn’t want to talk about it. Then there was a widower who’d had a long-term, happy marriage and now wanted to just go out to have fun. Nothing wrong with that. He took me to dinner, a movie and then kept hinting about coming back to my place. Never happened. We couldn’t go back to his place, even if I’d wanted to, because his daughter and family had moved in with him as his caretakers. He’d fallen a few times in his house. We agreed to stay in touch. I haven’t been sitting by the phone waiting.

A date took me to the movies at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and treated me to matzah ball soup at Canter’s. I arranged to meet him in Santa Monica, because he doesn’t like to drive at night. After the movie, we got back about midnight to where my car was parked, when he started to insist I come up to his place for soy ice-cream. Didn’t happen.

Then I met a friendly, interesting lawyer. We enjoyed walking, hiking and talking; occasionally he would take me to lunch. He would eat his lunch and half of my lunch. One evening I invited him to a theater event. He said he was going out of town. That evening he showed up at the event with another woman.
After reading many profiles, I got the impression that many men — and possibly women — are still looking for their Prince/Princess Charming and want to be swept off their feet. Love at first sight.

Realistically, I’m not sure it’s going to happen, since relationships consist of someone else’s mishegoss. I came to realize that I needed to find a nice person with a good heart and to look beneath the surface. Massage the friendship, allow it to grow and develop. I think all of us need to compromise.

I now have an ongoing friendship. The Internet didn’t bring us together. It was an interesting first meeting at Starbucks; he did a reading chart based on my handwriting. He was correct about many things. It certainly caught my attention. He calls me almost daily.

We e-mail, we date occasionally, share a lot about our lives and thoughts. He travels a good deal — it’s part of his job. Recently, his daughter went off to college, so now he’s home alone with his dog.

He’s a few years younger than me, but so what.

What can I say but the beat goes on.

He’s a nice person with a good heart.

Esther W. Hersh is an actress who lives in Los Angeles.

Book Review: Tools to fight terror: big dreams, good friends


“Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide,” by Jeff Goldberg (Knopf, $25).

The full title of Jeffrey Goldberg’s new book, “Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide,” immediately conjures up notions of a Pinteresque power struggle between two people. Yet “Prisoners” is far from the tale of sadomasochism and role reversal of Pinter plays like “The Night Porter” or screenplays like “The Servant.” Goldberg was a military policeman at Ketziot, an Israeli prison, where he and Rafiq, one of the inmates, developed a friendship that never truly revolved around power dynamics. Their relationship began because Goldberg recognized a “stillness” and a shared sense of irony in Rafiq.

Despite the tragedy of the Middle East and the moral dilemmas facing Goldberg as an Israeli soldier at a prison, Goldberg lightens the memoir with that irony and, at times, belly-chortling humor. For instance, in the wake of the massacre of two Israeli reservists, Goldberg describes being held captive by a terrorist cell in Gaza, where he defends his usage of the word “lynching” by saying to his captors, “Well, that was Ramallah…. What do you expect?”

He then writes, “Jokes at the expense of the West Bank usually go over well in Gaza. Not this one, however.”

Goldberg, who will appear in a public conversation with author and essayist Jack Miles on Oct. 18 at the Skirball Cultural Center, finds that, unlike American Jews, Israelis seem to lack a sense of humor.

That is not his only criticism of both Israelis and Palestinians.

After a bus explosion that killed three Jewish children, he says to a follower of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ founder, that the Sheik’s “preternaturally calm” statement that Israel “was created in defiance of God’s will” is “pathetic.” He also admits to being disillusioned by the kibbutzniks at Mishmar Ha Emek (where I must disclose I met the author many years ago), when they tell him not to clean three feet of coagulated hatchling droppings and blood in the chicken coop. They are saving that job for Arabs.

Goldberg has spent the past 15 years writing primarily about terrorists, yet in an interview from his home in Washington, D.C., where he is a correspondent for The New Yorker, Goldberg dismissed the notion that his work is so dangerous:

“The murder of Danny Pearl is the tragic, horrible exception, not the rule. All terrorists believe they’re doing something good and useful. Most of these groups are happy to explain themselves to people.”

In spite of his obvious courage, Goldberg writes in the book, “I am not brave, in the fuller meaning of the word.”

He says that, as a military policeman, “I should have done more to try to change things I didn’t like,” instead of being a “get-along, go-along kind of guy.”

Yet, more than once, he defied his fellow soldiers, as well as his commanding officer, whom he remembers as one of the dumbest Jews he ever met, by allowing the prisoners to shower in the kitchen and by restraining a guard from beating a helpless inmate.

Goldberg recently won the Anti-Defamation League’s Daniel Pearl Award and goes so far as to suggest that being Jewish has benefited him in his dealings with terrorists.

“I’ve always found it to my advantage. I use my Jewishness as a tool.”

He adds, “There’s an attraction-repulsion quality to these encounters.

Anti-Semites spend most of their time thinking about Jews; they spend more time thinking about Jews than Jews do.”

Goldberg’s interest in Zionism may have been sparked as a boy in the Long Island town of Malverne, where he was subjected to games of “Jew Penny.” Catholic boys, primarily Irish ones, would throw pennies at him and force him to pick them up.

If he didn’t stoop to retrieve the coins, they would throw nickels and dimes at him. Either way, he would be beaten. Goldberg felt that fighting wasn’t in his wiring, and he never actually defended himself until an African American friend told him to hit one Irish boy back. Even though his tormentor left him alone afterward, the wounds remained.

In “Prisoners,” he characterizes his upbringing this way: “I didn’t like the dog’s life of the Diaspora. We were a whipped and boneless people.”

By the end of the book, though, Goldberg, who immigrated to Israel in the late 1980s, has returned to America, a country he praises.

“If America had not taken in my ancestors three generations ago, we wouldn’t exist,” he says, pointing out, “Nothing makes you more patriotic as an American than spending three weeks in Pakistan. America with all its flaws is still a wonderful idea.”

Likewise, he found that though Israel may not be a utopia, its prisons, which he says “were not nice places, especially in the first uprising,” are far more humane than those in the rest of the world. At a time when prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have been tortured and denied habeas corpus, Goldberg argues that the prisons in the West Bank and Gaza “became worse for Palestinians when Palestinians were running them than when the Israelis were running them.”

He states without hesitation that the “baroque cruelty” and “sexually charged sadism” of Abu Ghraib did not and could not happen in Israeli prisons.

While Goldberg works on a book on Judah Maccabee for Schocken and Nextbook’s “Jewish Encounters” series, he remains hopeful about the Middle East. He bookends “Prisoners” with references to the story of Isaac and Ishmael, both sons of Abraham, who join hands in burying their father. As Goldberg writes, “This might be the single-most hopeful image in all the Bible, a palliative against the despair that has seeped into all of us.”

Jeffrey Goldberg will appear in a conversation with Jack Miles at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, on Wed., Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, call (866) 468-3399.

Life at 85: what a trip!


I was born in Chicago some 85 years ago. My home was Jewish Orthodox and consisted of my mother, her two brothers and their father, my grandfather. I specify
my grandfather because, in those days, nobody ever thought of placing their old father in an old folks’ home.

My closest friend while growing up was Alan, who lived across the street. Each evening, we would go for a walk — generally lasting about two hours. He and I really liked each other, but this walk was a very silent one, neither of us had much to say.

In 1943, I left Chicago and moved to Los Angeles. It was during the war, and I became a flight test engineer and copilot on the airplane known as the B-25. From then on, Alan and I spoke on the phone but also had personal visits during the years.

The other day, I got a call from Alan, who is now 87 and a widower.

Now, not as before, there was ongoing conversation. Not silent anymore. But what did we have to talk about? The talk ran easy. We spoke for a long time about his hip problems and my back and other health problems. The opening, “How are you?” was for one minute, and the health conversation lasted for one hour.

Now you may ask, why I am telling you the story of my friend? It has to do with my past. When he and I were growing up, how in the world would we ever know or think about hip problems at the age of 87? We would have asked: What do you mean by “the age of 87?” It was another world. A world of which we had no knowledge.
My reaction to our long conversation was very emotional. I was in tears when it was time to say goodbye. I said, “Alan, you have my love.”

BR>
But this is what the past does for you — it is really another life; it’s gone but never forgotten. That thought will always put a tear in your eye.

The goodbye was so different than our youthful, nonspeaking days.

The conversation with Alan opened the door of my brain. I suddenly realized I am 85 and part of another world: It’s called the present. I have gone through the youth time, the middle time when I was 40 to 60 and, now, I find myself in the third stage. What a trip! Really unbelievable.

We look back on the past because it was another era. In our youth and young years, life included activities you chose. Your responsibilities were minimal compared to those as you grew older. Being young and thinking young allowed you to exist in a world that is the start of the middle age.

Of course, there are exceptions, and some people are required to give more of themselves as required by family obligations. But those times somewhat establish the makeup you will carry the rest of your life.

From the middle age, we enter what is called the old-age era. Old age is intended to slow the flow of time so we can get back to the real “hopefully pleasant” moments of the past.

How do I handle belonging to the senior group? How do I accept the present? It is very, very hard to say to myself: “You are old.” Stepping into this stage is not easy; it’s difficult to accept the number 85.

At 85 I have given up driving. I just can’t see well enough. There are two other “loves of my life that also went by the wayside: tennis and jogging. My eyesight also contributes to hardship in reading the newspaper. I find it difficult to really accept the fact that I can no longer do all of the middle-life chores or continue with many of my chosen activities. I find myself thinking about the activities that came so easily in my middle life.

But in the “old age” category, one must force oneself to realize the here and now. Activities must conform to the present place you are in life, both physically and mentally. When you come to accept the present position, time wise, I think you can then enjoy what you have — and prosper with all the good things that are there.

You can take advantage of the knowledge of the past, an example of which is the seven-member men’s club I belong to. It used to be that each time we met, the opening welcome was a cordial handshake. The past brought me to ask this group of men, a gender that often refuses to show hidden emotions, “Are you glad to see each other?”

The answer was, of course, “Yes.”

So I suggested a hug in place of a handshake — and the hug has taken over.
I find others, friends not in their 80s, display emotional tenderness to me and my wife, who is 84. I detect my friends thinking that age brings great knowledge not present in the early years. Another great experience is having our family close by and the joy they exhibit at having us with them.

The past is very important; it contributes to the actions of the present. Look back and enjoy your thoughts, but the present is here and now. Live it up, take pleasure in your friends and do not feel bad thinking about who you are today. Tell your thoughts and become a charter member of “Senior Time.”


Red Lachman is a short-story writer.

Lebanon War: Mission Accomplished


Contrary to what is now the accepted wisdom in the media, Hezbollah, in its recent offensive against Israel, neither badly bloodied the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) nor fought it
to a standstill.

In fact, the opposite is the case.

By any legitimate measure, the IDF handed a resounding military defeat to Hezbollah, and while Israel’s soldiers did not cure the cancer that is Hezbollah, they did send it into remission.

From a military perspective, there can be absolutely no doubt as to the results of Hezbollah and Iran’s offensive against Israel. It was a defeat. Every part of their war plan, except the manipulation of the media, failed.

Hezbollah expected and planned for a massive charge of Israeli armor into Southern Lebanon. The amounts and types of anti-tank weapons they acquired and had operationally deployed in their forward positions, as well as their secondary and tertiary bands of fortresses and strongholds through southern Lebanon, attest to this fact. They intended to do in mountainous terrain what Egypt had so effectively done in the Sinai Desert in the Yom Kippur War.

In that war, Sinai indeed became a graveyard for Israeli armor. Egypt destroyed hundreds of Israeli tanks. Whole brigades were decimated in single battles by the Egyptians’ highly effective anti-tank missile ambushes. In that war, almost 3,000 Israeli soldiers were killed. That was Hezbollah’s plan. It was a good one. And it failed.

Just prior to the cease-fire, Israel suffered 29 tanks hit. Of those, 25 were back in service within 24 hours. Israel suffered 117 soldiers killed in four weeks of combat. As painful as those individual losses were to their families and to the Israeli collective psyche, which views all its soldiers as their biological sons and daughters, those numbers in fact represent the fewest casualties suffered by Israel in any of its major conflicts.

In 1948, Israel suffered 6,000 killed. In 1967, in what was regarded as its most decisive victory, Israel lost almost 700 killed in six days. In 1973, Israel lost 2,700 killed, and in the first week of the first war in Lebanon, Israel suffered 176 soldiers killed.

Why then the impression of massive Israeli casualties in clear contrast to the actual numbers of those killed? It is because the Israeli army is a citizen’s army. It is made up of everyone’s child, everyone’s brother or sister, aunt or uncle. The nation, as a whole, mourned the loss of its children quite literally, as if they were the sons and daughters of each and every family.

Were I, as an Israeli officer in the military spokesperson’s unit, to have made a statement to the Israeli press about the actual lightness of Israel’s casualties, I would, at the least, have been relieved of duties, if not also of rank.

Indeed, members of my unit volunteered to a man to go into Lebanon under fire to help retrieve the bodies of four fallen soldiers and make sure that reporters (who by that time were reported to be simply driving into Lebanon) could not broadcast pictures before the families were notified. We provided an additional covering force, as well, against Hezbollah, while medics and a rabbi safeguarded the sanctity of the remains of four kids, younger than my 22-year-old son. We did so not only not under orders but in violation of orders, because we were all of us fathers, as well as soldiers, and these were not only our comrades in arms but our sons. We were there to bring them home.

That is the emotion. But the numbers are different. They are the lightest casualties suffered by the IDF in all of its wars.

Military historians will spend years deciphering why exactly this was so. Was Israel’s government and its general staff, by its refusal to commit large numbers of forces for the first three weeks of combat, in fact making a highly intelligent strategic choice? Possibly.

Possibly it was dumb luck or divine intervention. Either way it meant three things:

  1. Hezbollah’s ambush never happened, because Israel didn’t take the bait. Instead, it used air power and then a series of probing raids, primarily by infantry, to methodically, slowly identify and root out the enemy positions.
  2. It meant that those small numbers of troops deployed into Lebanon in the first weeks of fighting had to do more with less than perhaps any other Israeli fighters in any other war. Certainly in other wars, there were many individual battles in which so much was expected of and accomplished by so few. But no war comes to mind in which so few soldiers were deployed across an entire front.

    They performed brilliantly and with uncommon courage in the face of withering fire from heavily fortified and prepared positions. These were draft-age soldiers: 18- and nineteen-year-olds, commanded on the platoon and company levels by 20-somethings, none of whom had ever faced anything remotely like the combat against Hezbollah’s terrorist army. In spite of what many see as the logistical and command failures of their superiors, they performed brilliantly and achieved their objectives.

  3. When the vast bulk of Israel’s force was finally deployed, made up primarily of its reservists, these soldiers achieved in 48 hours what many believe they should have been given weeks to accomplish. Despite logistical failures, some times fighting without food or water, Israel’s soldiers, regular army and reserves alike, handed Hezbollah a decisive military defeat.

All of Hezbollah’s Siegfried Line-like system of fortresses and strongholds, their network of command and control bunkers along Israel’s northern border were destroyed, abandoned or under the control of the IDF by the end of the hostilities. Hezbollah’s miniterrorist state within a state south of the Litani had been dismantled.

Its terrorist capital within a capital in Beirut, its command and control center and infrastructure were in ruins. In the end, it sought and accepted a cease-fire resolution in the United Nations that provided the framework for Israel to achieve all of its stated war aims. This last point is of no minor consequence both in terms of what Israel achieved and failed to achieve in the counteroffensive it waged against Hezbollah.

I can speak to this subject with some degree of expertise, since I was one of the people tasked with putting into a simple declarative sentence what the IDF’s mission was as handed down to it by Israel’s democratically elected political leaders. The sentence defining the IDF’s mission read as follows:

Skateboard Creator Builds Business on Performance


Don Tashman doesn’t look like a skater boy, not with his scraggly, brown hair and three-day-old unshaven stubble that’s yet to materialize into a beard.

This religious boy from Beverlywood doesn’t even look like a surfer boy — which he is, as these things usually go hand in hand, along with snowboarding. Tashman certainly doesn’t look like the creator and owner of Loaded Boards and Pigeons Inc., the hip skateboarding company that has brought performance boards back to the industry.

No, 31-year-old Tashman doesn’t look like a dude, not with his short-sleeved, button-down shirt, untucked over loose, brandless blue jeans, but that’s OK, because his co-workers do. The long, lean, sun-kissed blond boys stack skateboards according to styles (Fish, Hammerhead, Pintail, Vanguard) or sit on yoga stability balls at computers, looking like they’re playing video games or designing specs — something that makes them almost as happy as riding a board — any board: skate, surf, snow.

Tashman doesn’t need to look the part of the people he designs skateboards for, because he’s got the attitude, for sure — laid back, imperturbable, chill.
These are the qualities that have gotten Loaded a reputation for authenticity in a world clannishly obsessed with it. It’s been four years since he founded the company, and Tashman said he can’t keep up with demand (he declines to give actual figures) and will be forced to move offices soon from mid-Wilshire, where he shares space with his father and brothers, who work in real estate and futures exchange.

Skateboarding runs in the Tashman family, although not on the paternal side. His mother, who also grew up religious, skateboarded when she was a kid. She was sponsored by a local Velcro company. “She took her old roller skates and nailed them to a two-by-four for her first skateboards,” Tashman said. Since he was 3 years old, “she would attach me to my skateboard and pull me down hills and our neighbor’s empty swimming pool,” he said. “She always wanted me to be a cantor, though.”

Tashman didn’t become a cantor. He grew up Orthodox, attended Yeshiva University Los Angeles (YOLA) and then moved to New York to become an English major at Columbia University in 1994.

“I was short-boarding and couldn’t get around,” Tashman said, referring to the shorter boards in vogue then, which were hard to maneuver around the streets of Manhattan. He started developing his own boards for his own use. After he finished college in 1999, he went to study at a yeshiva in Israel. After a few months there, someone convinced him to work as a traveling salesman for an Israeli technology company. He spent a year at that, then, in his wise and quiet way, Tashman cashed out his stock options two weeks before the market crashed in April 2000.

With about $150,000, Tashman spent the next two years developing the boards he’d begun designing at Columbia. Performance was key but so was finding environmentally friendly materials, like bamboo instead of oak.

Tashman said that because he surfed here growing up, he became interested in making the environment better.

“Surfing in L.A. water is to feel the toxicity — people aren’t even aware of it,” he said. Although Tashman’s is a small company, he believes that if other small companies like his and big ones like GE are more environmentally conscious, “I think we can inspire people to be aware of what they consume, what they use and how they can live more sustainable lives.”

In the end, the company created longer, high-performance skateboards, tailored for hills or parks or streets or long distances. The skateboards were unlike the other black-topped, fancy logo boards.

“We had no graphics,” Tashman said. “It was the ride first and foremost. Most boards were driven by graphics, and we wanted to separate ourselves.”

Separate the company he has, with clean, bamboo long boards that appeal to 20- to 40-year-olds, as opposed to the “17-year-old male from the O.C.,” Tashman said. The boards sell for $215 to $300 and are sold in about 350 stores nationwide and have been featured in men’s magazines like FHM and Maxim. Loaded is looking into expanding into apparel as well as snowboards, and the prototypes are laying around the office. But the company will always focus on skateboards, Tashman said.

Now that he has established the company for performance-driven boards, Loaded is adding graphics in the form of a bird — a kite to be precise, a kind of a sparrow drawn sparingly in white and gold on the undercarriage of the Vanguard.
“We’re seeing what we can get away with, and where we can go with it,” Tashman said.

Imagine standing on a high wire, suspended midair and bouncing on it. That’s the experience of being on the Vanguard, a long and flexible skateboard designed for stability. There’s a sensation of coiled-up energy, as if the rider is a spring ready to be sprung, an arrow ready to be shot — loaded, like the company name.
For Tashman and his five full-time employees, the key to the business is having fun.

“Stoke ’em,” is part of the company motto, which, Tashman explains, means, “We’re here to get people excited about the underlying excitement, to promote the visceral experience of the flow.”

The flow.

Some people talk about finding meaning in life, and others talk about religion, but for adrenaline junkies, flow is the buzzword. “There is a spiritual thing [about skateboarding] — the flow, the pure exhilaration of the experience.”
Tashman also finds inspiration in Los Angeles’ Jewish community.

“It’s an exciting time to be Jewish in L.A. Jewish culture seems very vibrant — people are excited about their heritage; it’s starting to filter out from New York, and it’s like it never was when I was growing up.”

Tashman admitted it’s unusual to be a religious skateboarder, but he finds similarities between the two worlds.

“My religiosity has existed synergistically with my skateboarding. The visceral sense of flow, the intense personal engagement and the stoke it has generated and allowed me to pass on are enriching. Skateboarding culture has historically exhibited a strong sense of community. Like Judaism, I find that it promotes personal development and environmental awareness,” he said.

Aren’t they so different, these two separate worlds of Jewish life and skateboarding?

“They go hand in hand — a big part of skateboarding is how you present yourself,” he said. In the skateboarding industry there’s always the question of authenticity, whether you’re a “core” company — the rap equivalent of street cred — or an outsider trying to make a buck.

“I’ve always skirted the issue. If I can make people excited, great; if not, OK, I don’t need to classify myself in a group to achieve that,” Tashman said.
And that’s how he feels about religion. He said he’s “traditional, shomer Shabbat” but doesn’t define himself as Orthodox. “I do the things I find meaning in, and I don’t do things I don’t.”

“Both worlds can be alienating, in that myopic, or xenophobic tendencies, tend to miss the broader universalist picture,” he said. “In my opinion, the need to promote in-group behavior at the expense of creativity and exploration is sad. I can’t really be bothered by those approaches — there’s too much fun to be had.”

American-Born Spokeswoman Big Asset to Israel


Tallying Success and Failure


As a U.N.-brokered cease-fire takes effect after 33 days of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, criticism is growing of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s handling of the war.

Some politicians and opinion-makers are calling for his resignation. Israelis are also asking more searching questions: Did Israel win or lose the war? And what are the regional ramifications likely to be?

The strongest attack on Olmert came from the influential journalist Ari Shavit. In a front-page Op-Ed in Ha’aretz titled “Olmert Must Go,” Shavit wrote, “You cannot bury 120 Israelis, keep a million in shelters for a month, erode our deterrent power, bring the next war very close, and then say, ‘Oops, I made a mistake. That’s not what I meant. Pass me a cigar, please.'”

The main arguments Shavit and others make against Olmert are that his decision to go to war was made hastily and without considering all the possible consequences; that he was persuaded into believing that air power alone could do the job; that he was late in ordering the large-scale entry of land forces into Lebanon and left the home front exposed to rocket fire far longer than necessary; and that he did little to alleviate the suffering of people in the North, who were forced to spend more than a month in bomb shelters.

Olmert’s perceived blunders have given the Israeli right a new lease on life. They believe the war has dealt a lethal blow to Olmert’s plans for a major unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.

Their argument is that both of Israel’s previous unilateral pullouts — from Lebanon in May 2000 and the Gaza Strip last summer — were perceived by Israel’s enemies as weakness and led to heavy rocket attacks on Israeli civilians from precisely those areas the Israel Defense Forces no longer controlled.

This pattern would be repeated with far worse consequences if Israel withdraws from the West Bank, the right-wingers say.

Some right-wingers believe that without its defining idea of unilateral withdrawal, Olmert’s Kadima Party may start to implode.

Likud Knesset member Yisrael Katz says he expects a sweeping shift in Israeli public opinion that could lead to a major shake-up in Parliament. To make the most of it, he’s urging the Likud to form a parliamentary bloc with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and to bring vote-catching outsiders like the former IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon — tipped as a possible candidate for defense minister — into the Likud.

Katz speaks about a possible reversal of the “big bang” in Israeli politics that led to the formation of Kadima last November and the Likud’s subsequent ouster from power.

“The Likud must take the lead in forming a strong, centrist Zionist alternative opposed to further unilateral moves,” Katz said.

Independent polls show that Olmert’s West Bank “realignment” plan is in trouble. Before the war, it had more than 60 percent support; now, according to a poll by the respected Dahaf Institute, 47 percent of Israelis are in favor and 47 percent against.

Moreover, other polls show that Olmert’s approval rating has plummeted from 75 percent at the start of war to under 50 percent. Worse: Less than 40 percent are satisfied with the way he handled the war, and some polls suggest that if elections were held today, Kadima would crash from 29 Knesset seats to around 16.

Looking at the bigger picture, there are two schools of thought in Israel on the probable regional fallout of the war. Pessimists maintain that the inconclusive fighting with Hezbollah has undermined Israeli deterrence and altered the regional balance of power in favor of Israel’s enemies in Iran and Syria, and that a wider outbreak of fighting is simply a matter of time.

In their view, Syria may be tempted into thinking that by following the Hezbollah model, it will be able to recapture the Golan Heights by force.
Optimists contend that the pounding taken by Hezbollah and Lebanon actually has enhanced Israel’s deterrent capacity, that the regional power balance has shifted in Israel’s favor and that it could create momentum for peace talks with Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinians.

What ends up happening could depend on the extent to which Hezbollah is able to rearm and whether Iran is able to produce a nuclear weapon. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, on which the cease-fire is based, calls for Hezbollah’s disarmament; Security Council Resolution 1696 urges Iran to stop enriching uranium by Aug. 31 or face possible sanctions.

So far, however, Hezbollah is refusing to hand over its weapons, and Iran’s leaders say they intend to go ahead with their nuclear program.

There are sharp differences of opinion among Israeli pundits over whether Israel won or lost. In a piece headlined “We did not win,” Yediot Achronot analyst Nahum Barnea writes: “Israel goes into the cease-fire bruised, divided and concerned. The question of what happened to Israel in this war deserves a searching debate. In this war Israel was battered, Lebanon was battered and Hezbollah was battered. We naturally focus on the blows we took. And they are not insubstantial. The number of dead, the paralysis of the home front, turning hundreds of thousands of Israelis into refugees, and perhaps the hardest blow of all: the realization that the IDF cannot meet our expectations.”

But on the same page, Barnea’s colleague Sever Plotsker takes a diametrically opposite view. Plotsker describes Resolution 1701 as a major political achievement for Israel, “perhaps one of the most important in its history. It can be summed up in a phrase: Israel and the world against the Hezbollah thugs.”
Winner or loser, it’s clear that Israel has been shaken, and there well could be a state commission of inquiry into the war and the way it was prosecuted, with tough questions for the political and military echelons.

If there is, Olmert — whose term of office began with such promise just more than 100 days ago — will be the main target.

Analysis

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

We’d All Rather Be in Venice


“What a bunch of shleppers,” my father remarks, his head doing a 180-degree pan as he takes in the view. “Not one of them has anything unique to say. Such
conformists. Just looking at them makes me nauseous.”

I turn to look, so that I, too, can take in the same view. Yes, we’re at the cemetery, looking at a hillside dotted with graves marked with headstones. It’s a quiet, pastoral setting. No one is saying much, except my father, who as usual can’t — or won’t — stop talking. This particular rant has been a perennial, ongoing drama in my family’s life, ever since my mother died.

It’s been two years this week since my mother, Betty Switkes, died, and we still haven’t had the unveiling. Jewish custom dictates that you unveil the headstone a year after the person dies, but my father has not found the right stone or the right words to inscribe on that stone, so she rests in this unmarked grave. People who pass by this spot might suspect the person buried here is a forgotten soul, but nothing could be further from the truth. She is the focus of his obsession.

He explains to me and anyone else who cares to listen: “The stone should tell the world what a unique person she was. Not just her name and her dates, but it should say something about her.”

“How about beloved wife and mother?” I offer.

“No! Every headstone says that. Look around you. Beloved wife and mother. Beloved wife and mother. Dime a dozen. Not at all unique.”

“She was uniquely your wife and my mother.”

“You don’t understand what I’m trying to do,” he stresses.

Actually I do. He doesn’t want to say goodbye. Once we have the unveiling, then what? As long as he can put this final ritual on hold, he can postpone that final farewell.

“When Betty died, half of me died,” he says.

He talks about her: “She did so much with her life. We threw the best parties. She was the greatest hostess. And her charity work. Always volunteering, always helping someone. And her exercise. She was a pioneer. She developed special exercises for the elderly. Seniorcize. I want to put all that on her headstone. So people know who they are dealing with.”

Note the present tense.

“Do you really want the headstone to look like a resume?” I ask. “Besides, everyone who knew her knows what she accomplished. And everyone who didn’t know her never will.”

He doesn’t hear me.

My father has decided on a double headstone, and that makes sense. They shared a bed for 56 years, so they should share a grave.

But that further complicates the problem of finding the appropriate inscription. If there’s a unique inscription on my mother’s side of the stone, then there must be a comparable inscription on my father’s side. It has to be balanced. Maybe the inscription should be about their life together.

“Write one inscription that applies to both of you. Perhaps something about your marriage,” I offer.

His face lights up. I suggest: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”
He rejects it: “Absolutely not. That’s on every ketubbah ever written. C’mon. Think outside the box.”

Here we come to the crux of the problem. Joe Switkes is loud, fun and eccentric. He’s brilliant, expressive and totally unreasonable, a man of action, bold action. And death is the state that has no verb. Talk about irreconcilable differences.

He’s thinking about their marriage and fondly recalls the days they spent at Venice Beach, playing in the sand with their granddaughter.

How about, “We’d rather be in Venice,” I offer.

He laughs.

“That’s good. It takes it away from all this depressing stuff you see around here. I want our headstone to be unique and fun,” he explains.
But then I have second thoughts. When I’m looking at my parents’ grave, I don’t want fun.

He takes another stab at it. How about, “Betty was beautiful and caring, and Joe was smart and humorous.”

I say, “Dad, don’t clutter up the headstone with a lot of adjectives, it’ll read like a profile on JDate.”

He comes back with, “Together they lived a life that was a joy, an adventure and lots of laughs.”

I don’t think so. “Keep it dignified and sparse. Think poetry, not prose.”
Valiantly, the whole family pitches in, making suggestions. My husband suggests, “Beauty and the Beast.” Mom was like Belle – beautiful, well read and independent. Dad is like the Beast, a true prince with a heart of gold, but one must first deal with his hideous temper.

We all howl with laughter. It seems perfect, but then Dad has second thoughts. Beauty and the Beast strikes him as juvenile, and he’s not convinced that all of their friends will “get it.”

I turn to Ecclesiastes and read this beautiful passage:

theellenloop@hotmail.com.

The IDF and Civilians: A Personal Account


To all those who feel that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers have no regard for civilians, and that they “do what they need to do” without regard for potential
civilian casualties, I offer no opinions on this matter.

Instead, I offer this personal experience for your consideration.

It was July 12, 1984, my first day on the Ketziot basic training base, my new “home” as an IDF soldier in the Givati Infantry Brigade. One by one, we were issued what was then the standard IDF infantry weapon, the Israeli-made Galil rifle. Here we were, 18-year-old kids who barely knew anything about life, suddenly holding in our hands a weapon that had the potential to save lives or to take lives.

Upon receiving these weapons, we were gathered into a large mess hall, where an officer was waiting to address us. We expected a lesson on the mechanics of the Galil rifle. Instead, the officer had come to speak to us about Tohar Ha-Neshek — the “Purity of the Weapon.”

He spoke at length about the moral use of the weapon vs. the immoral use of the weapon, and of the responsibility we had to uphold the value of Tohar Ha-Neshek no matter what the circumstances. He concluded his remarks by saying, “I am not a particularly religious person, but remember that to uphold the purity of your weapon is a Kiddush ha-Shem (sanctification of God’s name), and to violate it is a Chilul ha-Shem (desecration of God’s name).”

Six months later, my unit found itself in Southern Lebanon, fighting the same Hezbollah that the IDF fights today. The Galil that we were issued six months earlier had unfortunately gotten its fair share of real-life wear and tear, but it was not until Feb. 5, 1985, that we learned a real-life lesson in “Purity of the Weapon.”

Late in the afternoon that day, as our convoy was leaving our post in Borj el Jimali (two miles east of Tyre), a Hezbollah suicide bomber drove his car straight into our convoy, triggering a massive explosion in our faces. We responded like we were taught — jump out of the vehicle, take cover and return fire. In typical Hezbollah fashion, they carried out this attack in an area filled with civilians, which means that we were faced with the awful prospect of firing into the homes of civilian men, women and children caught in the crossfire.

After our initial barrage of fire, our officer instructed us to regroup into small teams that would enter buildings to search for any terrorists cooperating with the suicide bomber. His instructions still ring clearly in my ear, and took me back to the lecture I heard about “Purity of Weapons” just six months earlier: “This area is filled with civilians, and there is no need to injure or kill them. In our search for terrorists, please try to minimize any civilian casualties.”

These instructions came from an officer who, just a few minutes earlier, had 100 kilos of dynamite explode into his face and that of his troops, yet he was still able to keep a clear mind and remember that the IDF was in Lebanon to fight Hezbollah terrorists, not Lebanese civilians.

It was true then, and it is still true today.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

(Rob Eshman’s column will return next week.)

Israelis Bring Situation Close to Home for Campers


When news of Israel filters through to Camp Hess Kramer, the kids do what is only natural — they turn to the Israelis who are spending the summer with them to make sense of what they’re hearing, and to bring it home in a way that is intensely personal.

“Because my campers know actual Israelis, they can make that connection in a way that they can’t by just reading a news story or going through an intellectual exercise,” said Doug Lynn, director of Wilshire Boulevard Camps, which includes Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop, both in Malibu.

Like most camps, Hess Kramer, has a staff of Israelis who work as counselors and educators. This summer, 1,400 Israelis, most of them between the ages of 19 and 22, are staffing 200 Jewish day and sleep-away camps, according the Jewish Agency, which coordinates the stays.


Some Counselors Return to Israel

While no Israeli staffers have been called to active duty while already here for the summer, several who were close friends or family members of bombing victims went back to Israel.

In a normal summer, the Israeli staff’s mission is to bring Israel closer to the kids, and that has become more powerful this summer, as rockets rain down on Haifa in Israel’s north and pound Sderot in the south.

The Jewish Agency has been offering the shlichim, or Israel emissaries, programming ideas to help the kids understand the situation, and camps have modified and developed their own programs.

At Hess Kramer, kids took the opportunity to learn about the wider conflict in Israel and engage in informal conversations with Israeli staffers. At Camp Ramah in Ojai and at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, campers recited psalms and wrote letters to Israeli children in areas that were being attacked, an effort coordinated by The Jewish Federation. Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss will deliver the letters in Israel this week.

Younger campers can use the opportunity to talk about emergency preparedness, and in that way relate to Israeli children in bomb shelters, said Ariella Feldman, who coordinates Israeli volunteers for the Jewish Agency. Older children can dissect the intricacies of conflict resolution, on a personal level and on a magnified national level.


Anxiety Affects Campers, Too

But beyond these formal opportunities, it is simply feeling the anxiety and commitment of the young Israelis in camp that is affecting the campers.
At Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, the assistant director is from Haifa, and his mother flew in for the summer to be camp mom. The program director, a fighter pilot in the Israeli army, was supposed to arrive this week but was called up for duty. The camp has about 20 Israelis, including staff and some children.
The camps are all focused on providing comfort and support to the Israelis who are summering with them. Many are young and fresh off — or in the middle of — their own military duty, and have friends and siblings being called up to fight. Most know they will likely be called up when they get back to Israel.

Camps, normally stingy on allowing phone calls and access to electronic media, have allowed Israelis constant access to news and phone calls to Israel. Some camps have purchased phone cards for their Israeli staff.

Still, the Israeli counselors feel torn about where they are.

“Their families are under house arrest, they are stocking up on food, they are under attack — and they are here at camp,” said Feldman of the Jewish Agency.
Aside from the moral support they are getting from American campers, what is helping the Israelis is that this summer, the mission to educate and to personally touch American kids is even more vital.

“They are vacillating between feeling guilty about being here, and really understanding on a deep level why they are here,” Lynn said. “They are making these connections with Reform Jewish kids in a way that cannot be done unless they are here, so they are recognizing that at times likes these, their job here is even more important.”

Large-Scale Israel Solidarity Rally Planned for Sunday


In an effort to demonstrate solidarity with Israel, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and other Jewish groups are organizing a major community rally to take place in front of the Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters this Sunday, July 23 at 4 p.m.


RELATED LINKS

The Federation

Board of Rabbis

Wiesenthal Center Hosts 900+ for Pro-Israel Rally

Simon Wiesenthal Center

United Jewish Communities (UJC)

Planners hope to attract 10,000 supporters.

“This is an opportunity for a broad cross-section of our community to come together for the people of Israel at this difficult time,” Federation President John Fishel said.

The Federation and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California are coordinating the rally, which will include the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, among other organizations. Fischel said The Federation will work with public agencies to ensure participants’ safety.

First Federation Rally

Sunday’s event is the first major pro-Israel rally organized by the Federation since 2001, Fischel said. That year, the nonprofit organization held a rally in support of Israel just after the outbreak of the Second Intifada.

To publicize the rally, many local rabbis are emailing congregants and will speak from the pulpit on Shabbat about the demonstration’s importance, said Board of Rabbis Executive Vice President Mark Diamond.

“The rally will send a clear message to American politicians, the U.N. and to world leaders that the people of Los Angeles stand with Israel,” Diamond said. “I think the world needs to be reminded over and over again what started this war, and that Israel is a sovereign state that has a right to defend its people.”

The attacks on Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas represent nothing less than the latest step in radical Islam’s quest for world domination, said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Standing up to the threat, whether on the frontlines of Israel or the streets of Los Angeles, is a needed challenge to the forces of darkness.

“Their first step may be the state of Israel, but it is not the last stop in their international Jihadist journey,” Hier said. “This is an historical moment for the state of Israel. And Israel is doing what the world should be doing: confronting terrorists.”

Wiesenthal Center Plans Screenings

As part of its attempts to educate the public about the roots of the current crisis in the Middle East, the Wiesenthal Center has plans to screen three films, beginning July 25. “The Long Way Home,” discusses the story of Israel’s creation; “In Search of Peace” details the conflict from 1948 to 1967; and “Ever Again,” Hier said, spotlights the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile, the Federation has established an Israel in Crisis Fund. One hundred percent of all monies raised will go toward sending Israeli children living in northern communities under attack to summer camp in safer areas.

The Federation’s emergency campaign is part of an initiative among U.S. and Canadian federations to raise $1 million weekly for the summer camp program.

As a measure of its support, the L.A. Federation announced that it had donated $100,000 to the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for 155 Jewish federations and 400 independent Jewish communities across North America.
New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Toronto have had or will also hold rallies to show solidarity with the Jewish state.

The upcoming Los Angeles event comes less than a week after a Chabad-sponsored pray-in and two weeks after an emotional rally at the Wiesenthal Center.
On July 17, Chabad held a pro-Israel prayer rally at Rabbi Schneerson Square in Los Angeles. The lunchtime gathering attracted about 1,000 people, including 500 children from local Chabad camps and youth groups.

“Whenever the Jewish people are threatened, our special weapon is the prayers of our beautiful children who now cry to the Almighty for the safety of our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land,” said Rabbi Boruch S. Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad.

Four days earlier, about 500 supporters of Israel attended the last-minute gathering. The two-hour ceremony included speeches from Wiesenthal Rabbis Hier and Abraham Cooper, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yarsolavsky, L.A. Consul General to Israel Ehud Danoch, Judea Pearl (father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl) and The Federation’s Fishel.
“This operation will not end until we make an end to Hezbollah,” Danoch said. “Israel is strong. The government is strong. The Jewish people are strong, and we will last an eternity.”

Religion Editor Amy Klein contributed to this report.

Converts’ Hardships Expose Truth


“My father didn’t survive the Holocaust to have his grandson marry a shiksa.”

Alison, my classmate from the University of Pennsylvania who is currently in the process of converting to Judaism, gasped at the harshness of the words delivered stoically by her boyfriend’s mother.

He succumbed to intense pressure from his parents to end the relationship, while she was subjected to a cascade of accusations:

“Converts are not welcome in my family.” “No Jewish boy will ever want to marry you.” “You are inadequate to raise Jewish children.”

“I felt like someone was putting a knife through my heart,” she told me. “When you’re so passionate about something, and you know you will never be accepted…. I’ll always feel inadequate.”

As I had recently discovered, Alison’s case was not an isolated incident in Penn’s Jewish community. I vividly remember my first Friday night at Penn. It was a huge event organized by Hillel, and swarms of Jewish students were packed in.

Noticing that I was a freshman overwhelmed by the bombardment of new faces, a junior whom I had never met before took my hand and said, “Are you Laura? I’m Julie. I’ve heard so much about you! If you want, I saved you a seat on that table over there.”

We soon became friends and particularly bonded during our weekly swim in Penn’s pool. One day, as we sat chatting casually in the sauna, she confided to me that although she observes the law according to Orthodox traditions, she technically isn’t Jewish yet.

Julie hails from a small, white Christian town, and spurred by her own spiritual quest, she had found Judaism. We had been close for two months by this point, and I was shocked that she had kept this from me. She explained that she has learned to keep her conversion secret from her Jewish acquaintances, because the reactions have been so discouraging and unwelcoming: “The overwhelming sentiment was that converts are not wanted, and they are a burden. And that’s what I was.”

Intrigued and appalled, I tried to probe the issue. A torrent of emotions and stories poured out, reflecting her relief in expressing her feelings to a sympathetic ear.

“I was taunted, like the fat kid in third grade” Julie recalled. “It was always, ‘Well, you’re not Jewish, so you shouldn’t come to davening.’ Students wouldn’t hand me a bentscher, or they would tell me to step out of the line to wash [ritually], because I was just wasting everyone’s time. Just lots of constant, intentional reminders that I was not chosen to be part of this people as they were.”

Julie’s list of painful interactions went on and on, as I sat in numbed silence, hugging my knees to my chest and absorbing the oppressive heat of the room.

“I have been told not to touch the Torah and to go back to my own religion” she relayed to me matter-of-factly.

“Wasn’t there anyone you could confide in?” I asked.

“I could confide in some more than others, but when it came down to it, no one really cared whether I converted or not.”

“So … how did you cope?”

“I cried and wondered what I did wrong to merit not being born Jewish.”

Just then, someone entered the sauna, bringing in a chilling draft and an abrupt end to our conversation.

I was introduced to Alison several weeks after I met Julie. Again, I discovered she wasn’t born Jewish only after knowing her a couple of months. When I finally mustered the courage to approach her about her experiences converting, I found her surprisingly open as well.

“When I went to shul, people asked me why I was there,” she revealed. “People would ask me to press the elevator button for them on Saturday … to be their Shabbos goy. Why didn’t I just abide by the seven Noahide laws, they asked. There’s no reason for you to convert. They called me a shiksa…. That was very hurtful.”

In addition to justifying their change of faith to their families, friends and local communities, Julie and Alison absorb the added hardships inflicted by the intolerance of the Jewish world they seek to enter. As converts, they feel that they undergo constant scrutiny and consequently abide by the strictest interpretations of Jewish laws and customs.

“I feel like I have to prove myself” Alison told me. “Because I wasn’t born Jewish, I have to do more to make up for it.”

She noted the paradox that it is usually the people less comfortable with their religiosity that give her the hardest time; they feel “threatened” by a convert who is more religiously inclined.

My friendship with these girls has exposed me to what it feels like on the outside of the Jewish community, and it disturbs me how callous and cold we can be to those who sincerely find meaning in the Jewish faith.

“I am not going to fight for [my boyfriend] anymore,” she replied. “I don’t want to be a burden on him…. I love Judaism and have sacrificed so much for it. I really wish people could be more accepting.”

Laura Birnbaum is a student at the University of Pennsylvania and a freelance journalist.

 

Worst Fears Come to Pass for Foes of Gaza Pullout


Librarian Stephanie Wells so opposed Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza last summer that she moved to the disputed territory just three weeks before troops moved in. She stayed to the bitter end.

Among the most committed in the fight against the withdrawal, the Los Angeles resident said she flew halfway around the world and took a two-week leave of absence from her job to show her support for the settlers. She’d hoped that taking a stand, both literally and physically, would help derail the planned evacuation. She believed that pulling out of Gaza would embolden Palestinian terrorists and go down in history as one of Israel’s gravest mistakes.

Less than a year after Israel’s withdrawal, Wells and other Los Angeles-based disengagement opponents view what’s happening in Gaza as their worst fears coming to pass. Far from acting as a catalyst for peace, they say, Israel’s “abandonment” of Gaza has been greeted with Qassam rocket attacks, terrorism and the murder and abduction of Israeli soldiers. The Palestinians have elected a government headed by Hamas, a party committed to Israel’s destruction and classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Israel last week re-entered Gaza to quell violence emanating from a crowded and impoverished territory teeming with Islamic extremist and other terrorists.

“We had people who were willing to be the front line in Gush Katif, and now the front line has moved into Israel proper,” Wells said. “And what did Israel get for [the unilateral withdrawal]? Hamas is in charge, and Israel is being shelled daily.”

Disengagement proponents respond that terrorism has been an ongoing problem and did not suddenly appear after Israel’s evacuation. They also dispute the argument that Palestinians voted for Hamas as an endorsement of the group’s terror tactics. Instead, they say, Palestinians had tired of the then-ruling Palestinian Authority’s corruption and turned to Hamas to send a message of frustration and as a signal of the need for a government they believed would be more responsive and competent in serving their needs.

Leaving Gaza also made sense morally, said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

“For Israel to remain a democratic and Jewish state, it cannot occupy and control millions of Palestinians indefinitely,” he said.

The Israeli consulate in Los Angeles declined to comment for this article.

The majority of Israeli and American Jews believed that the occupation of Gaza came at an unsustainable political, economic and moral price. And despite the “I told you so implications” of some who opposed the move, there is no widespread public support for going back into Gaza.

Nevertheless, many opponents of the withdrawal here in Los Angeles and elsewhere look upon the unfolding events in Israel as a tragic consequence of last year’s pullout.

Jon Hambourger, founder of L.A.-based SaveGushKatif.org, at one time the biggest U.S. organization committed solely to keeping Gaza in Jewish hands, believes that nothing good has come from the withdrawal. He believes it has boosted the standing of Hamas and other terrorist groups in Palestinian society, which claim that suicide bombers and Qassam rockets forced the Jews to retreat in fear. With Israel out of Gaza, new terror groups have moved in to fill the vacuum, including Al Qaeda, Hambourger said.

“The unilateral withdrawal didn’t bring peace, it brought war,” he said.

Hambourger, like many of the mostly Orthodox Jewish members of his organization, believes God entrusted the Jews with stewardship over Gaza and the West Bank, which they call Judea and Samaria. As such, Hambourger largely opposes the concept of trading land for peace, especially since he so distrusts the Palestinians.

Still, he thinks Israel made a terrible strategic mistake by giving away Gaza without demanding anything in return. At the very least, Hambourger said, the Jewish state should have insisted that the Palestinians cease publishing officially sanctioned newspapers and school textbooks brimming with anti-Semitic invective.

Wells, the L.A. resident and SaveGushKatif member who moved to Gaza, believes an Israeli school where she spent some time during her stay in Gush Katif has since become a terrorist training camp.

For settler advocates, the aftermath of the Gaza pullout has only intensified their opposition to ceding another inch of Israeli territory — disputed or otherwise — to the Palestinians, whom they consider an implacable foe bent on Israel’s destruction.

“The lesson is obvious: A pullout from Judea and Samaria will result in another terrorist state within Israel,” said Larry Siegel, a SaveGushKatif member, who in 2003 raised $140,000 for Israeli terror victims.

“The Israeli government is basically in a state of war right now for having given away Gaza,” added Shifra Hastings, another SaveGushKatif partisan. “There is no justification for giving away any more.”

 

Spectator – The Woman Who Fought the Tigers


Helene Klodawsky remembers how her survivor mother and girlfriends stayed up all night, laughing and crying as they recounted their Holocaust experiences over cigarettes and coffee.

“I became consumed with questions about women and war,” the 50-year-old Canadian filmmaker said.

Her new documentary, “No More Tears Sister” — about the struggle of Sri Lankan human rights activist Rajani Thiranagama — reflects that lifelong obsession.

The film describes how the late Thiranagama, a physician, joined a militant group she believed would help her people amid brutal civil war in the 1980s. She eventually left that group, the Tamil Tigers, when she learned their murders and bombings tormented civilians, especially women. She founded the University Teachers for Human Rights to document and disseminate reports about atrocities perpetuated by Tigers and other factions.

Thiranagama wrote of women’s dead bodies — bloated, beaten, shot, raped and left to rot on the roadside. She helped expose how the Tigers convinced sexually assaulted teenagers, considered tainted by society, to become suicide bombers.

“One day a bullet will silence me,” Thiranagama said of her work. Her premonition came true on Sept. 21, 1989 when a Tamil gunman assassinated her in her rural hometown of Jaffna. She was only 35.

“Sister” spotlights the legacy Thiranagama left Sri Lanka: “The idea that militarism does not benefit women, who are often caught in the crossfire between groups of armed men,” Klodawsky said.

The fear of such gunmen challenged “Sister’s” production in 2003 and 2004. Although Thiranagama’s relatives agreed to speak on camera, many potential subjects declined to be interviewed, even in shadow, and even when they lived as far away as Canada. Those who participated did so only when the director agreed to film them far from their homes. Because Kladowsky could not shoot in Thiranagama’s Tamil-controlled hometown, she decided to tell the story largely through staged recreations — a technique often frowned upon by cineastes.

“These flagrantly fictional images push the already elastic limits of documentary almost to the breaking point,” The New York Times said of “Sister” in a mixed review.

Other critics praised the film as powerful.

Kodlawsky said her goal was to tell Thiranagama’s story vividly; in a way, it reminded her of those late-night discussions over cigarettes and coffee. Her mother’s friends often spoke of how Kodlawsky’s mother risked death to smuggle food to others at Bergen-Belsen.

“Her courage came in very private, localized ways, not to say it was a lesser courage,” Kodlawsky said.

“No More Tears Sister” airs July 11, 10 p.m. on KCET.

 

Sderot’s Kids Living in Fear


Eleven-year-old Shir Lazmi says she loves going to school. Why? Because she’s not really allowed to go anywhere else.

That’s because Shir lives in Sderot, where months of intense rocket fire by Palestinians from the nearby Gaza Strip have all but confined schoolchildren like her to the few places where they have both adult supervision and close proximity to a room with a reinforced roof, strong enough to keep a Kassam rocket from breaking through.

“I’m less scared in school,” Shir says after a Bible competition marking the last week of the school year. “I can’t go out with friends. I can’t go to the pool anymore. But I can see my friends here at school.”

Years of Kassam rocket fire at Sderot have shattered the sense of normalcy in this desert town. The fire has become so intense in recent weeks — often three or four rockets a day — that daily life here has come to a virtual standstill. Real estate values in town have plummeted, businesses have closed, people are moving away and nearly everyone says they live in constant fear of sudden death from above.

Sderot’s schools have been particularly hard-hit, and not just by the Kassams that have fallen on kindergartens, classrooms and schoolyards. The schools also have been trying to cope with the challenges of maintaining the routine of education in a place that has become a veritable war zone — all the while trying to convey a sense of normalcy for Sderot’s children.

With summer vacation starting, many parents say they don’t know what they’re going to do with their kids all summer.

“Our job at school, that we’re trying to accomplish within all of this, is to maintain routine,” says Dina Hori, principal of Sderot’s Torani Madani elementary school. “You have to project security, community, the sense that everything is OK.”

Like most of Sderot’s schools, Torani Madani is sponsored and administered by AMIT, the Orthodox Zionist educational organization.

Hori confesses that it’s hard to project normalcy when the Red Dawn emergency system goes off and the kids have no more than a few seconds to rush into reinforced-roof classrooms before a rocket lands somewhere in town with a loud boom.

The children have learned to huddle under their desks and put their hands over their heads, in a scene reminiscent of the 1950s United States. The difference is that the feared Soviet nuclear attack against the Americans never came, while in Sderot, the rockets are raining down.

Just two weeks ago, a rocket hit AMIT’s yeshiva high school in town. Nobody was injured.

But the damage in Sderot has been far more than physical: The rockets have terrorized an entire city and, in the process, transformed life here.

“Everyone gets scared,” Shir says. “Sometimes I cry. I went to the psychologist together with my mother. They taught us how to deal with the Kassams. They told us when we’re afraid to count to three and take three deep breaths.”

Teachers at Hori’s elementary school often whip out guitars and try to get the kids singing after an attack, in a bid to distract them and revive their spirits.

Nevertheless, many students appear to be developing psychological problems, insisting on sleeping near their parents at night, experiencing frequent bouts of panic and easily bursting into tears.

The long-term psychological effects of the attacks, which have been a presence here since 2001 but have intensified since Israel’s Gaza Strip withdrawal last year, remain unknown.

“The nation of Israel is sick with a spiritual sickness,” laments Rabbi Yoel Bar-Chen, who teaches in one of Sderot’s centrist Orthodox schools. “The nation of Israel does not respond. It does not fight. When they fire upon us, we must respond.”

“This is the worst lesson to the kids: defeatism,” Bar-Chen says. “They learn that we’re weak. It’s a very deep wound that can’t be measured with simple psychology.”

Perhaps most difficult, teachers and students say, is that families are moving away. That means that those who remain are losing their friends, too.

“My best friend is moving to Rosh Ha’Ayin. I’m very sad he’s leaving. I blame only the Arabs,” Ben Harari, 11, says. “Even my uncles are scared to visit us.”

School officials here estimate that the student population has fallen by at least 15 percent over the past year. Some parents have sent their children to live with relatives in safer cities. Others have pulled their kids out of school and insisted on keeping them home. A few have moved away — even though there are practically no home-buyers to replace them.

“Life here has been completely overturned,” says Arie Maimon, representative of the AMIT network of schools in Sderot. On Sunday, Maimon met with a representative from the prime minister’s office to explain that Sderot schools need additional funding for reinforcing roofs and walls against rockets, additional psychological counseling for students and teachers and more field trips out of town.

But no amount of funding will stop the rocket attacks, he says.

“Money doesn’t solve everything,” Maimon says. “You sit here like a duck in a shooting gallery and wait for a miracle. That’s all.”

Since the rocket attacks intensified, Ben says he hasn’t been allowed to stay home alone, play outside or wander around on his own. Once, he says, when the Red Dawn siren sounded at 3:30 a.m., he tripped down the stairs and hurt himself trying to rush to his home’s safe room.

Still, children in town say they don’t want to leave.

“I don’t want to leave because my friends are here,” Shir says. “I love my house. I love my school. I love everything in Sderot.”

 

Healing Torah Makes Hospital Rounds


One day last year Rabbi Levi Meier, the Jewish chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was summoned to the room of an elderly Russian man in the ICU who had cancer.

He was in poor spirits, so Meier decided to bring in the Torah from the chaplaincy ark. The patient’s eyes lit up at the sight of the Torah that Meier, and volunteer Sandy Gordon, brought into a room.

“Can you please bring me some water to help me wash my hands?” the ailing man asked. He washed and said a blessing and asked the rabbi to place the Torah next to him. After a few silent moments, tears began to stream down the man’s face, which became much more animated. Finally he spoke.

“Today is my Simchat Torah,” he told the rabbi, referring to the long-passed October holiday that celebrates the joy of the Torah. And then the man began to sing: “Sisu V’simchu, V’simchat Torah, u tenu kavod La Torah!” (Rejoice and be merry on Simchat Torah and give glory to the Torah.)

“He went from not being able to raise a finger, to raising his arms and singing a childhood song in Hebrew,” said Gordon, who has been volunteering at Cedars since 1988, when she attended the University of Judaism’s two-year Wagner Human Services Training Program for paraprofessionals in psychological training. “His eyes became very clear, and his face seemed like he was a boy or a young man, and when he smiled, it really lit his face up.”

When Meier and Gordon left the room some 20 minutes later, Gordon asked the chaplain: “Why doesn’t a Jewish hospital have a Torah they can take around, if it’s so profound?”

Meier, who has served as the hospital’s Jewish chaplain for the last 28 years, quickly acknowledged the need. So Gordon set out to fill the gap by endowing a Torah in honor of her parents, Florence and Milton Slotkin. Meier commissioned scribes in Israel to create a special lightweight Torah that could easily be carried to patients’ rooms on a daily basis. The completed Torah arrived last January.

Much has been written about the role of spirituality and faith in benefiting health and healing, but the effects are difficult to prove. There is no question, though, that Cedars’ new Torah has been uplifting the spirits of Jewish patients. Meier hopes other chaplains will also adopt the idea.

“Since we got the Torah, we’ve been taking the Torah around to selected patients, and the experiences has been amazing. Unparalleled,” Meier told The Journal.

In his nearly three decades at Cedars, he said, “we’ve been doing very well with all the patients, but the response with the Torah has brought it to a new level.”

Meier, an Orthodox rabbi ordained at Yeshiva University with a doctorate in psychology from USC, is a soft-spoken man with a gentle demeanor, and when he uses words like “amazing” and “indescribable” about the Torah’s effect on patients, it seems more than hyperbole.

Indeed, it is difficult to portray in words the powerful emotional pull people exhibit toward the chaplain with the Torah.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, “Lisa,” a 30-something actress with cancer and other ailments, has been hospitalized for 10 days. She lies wan and listless on her side, her pale, bony arms poking awkwardly out of a checked green hospital gown. The radio blares in the background but she doesn’t move; had her eyes not been open, staring into space, she might be mistaken for sleeping.

“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,” the chaplain says as he walks into the room and turns off the radio. “I’m going to place the Torah next to you on the bed.”

He takes the blue-velvet-covered scroll and places it on the pillow within breath’s reach. With effort, Lisa slowly moves her hands to it. She closes her eyes and smiles, like a baby having a dream.

“Can you pray out loud? To me?” Lisa asks in a murmur after a few moments. “In Hebrew?”

Meier says she should repeat after him, and she does, inaudibly, her lips barely moving. “Shema. Yisrael. Hashem. Elokeinu. Hashem. Echad: Hear O’ Israel, The Eternal God is One.”

Meier recites a blessing that the holy angels and divine presence should surround her and give her a complete recovery. Lisa’s eyes are now closed again, her long fingers resting on the Torah. She breathes deeply, as if meditating.

Finally, the chaplain stands up to go, and reluctantly takes the Torah from her bedside.

“Tomorrow you will have an MRI,” he says on his way out, “so think about this, and this should give you some comfort.”

Down the hall, an 89-year-old Hancock Park rabbi awaits hip surgery.

“How nice, how nice,” says the ailing rabbi in a thick European accent upon seeing the Torah. After wiping his hands with a washcloth, he reaches to touch and kiss it, not expecting anything more. But the chaplain places the Torah at his bedside.

“Tonight we pray that the surgery will go well, but the best prayer is the one you say yourself,” the chaplain says and leaves the room as the old man’s voice, loud and cracking with emotion as he recites Tehillim, the Psalms, echoes in the hallway: “Eso eynay, el ha’harim, me’ayin yavot ezri….” (I raise mine eyes to the mountains/where will help come from/Help will come from God, creator of heaven and earth.)

After the chaplain has collected the Torah from the rabbi, he appears awed and shaken: “I don’t even know if King David said Tehillim like that.”

Unlike the old rabbi, most people the chaplain visits with the Torah are not particularly religious. Meier says the Torah rekindles the pintele (Yiddish for “spark” of Jewishness) in people, memories of Hebrew school or a bar mitzvah or a grandparent in the past and it helps them connect to the next generation as well.

For Meier, this work is not a “religious” mission, but a spiritual one that overrides distinctions of denominations and practice. “Although in the outside world, when people are healthy, they make a differentiation between Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, here there’s no distinction. There is the meaning of life, solitude, family, reconciliations — everyone is part of what we call “the experience of the human condition. It’s an experience that the Torah alleviates.”

As the Jewish chaplain at Cedars, Meier receives a list with the names of the all the Jewish patients in the hospital. Together with his assistant and a couple of volunteers, they visit the sick. The Torah, a holy object in itself, allows the chaplain to have immediate spiritual relationship with a patient that otherwise might take much longer to achieve.

The healing process is not always about getting better, Meier said.

“Healing means whole, and it also means holy, so we talk about the path of getting toward wholeness, even if a cure is not possible,” he said.

You can be whole in different ways, with yourself, with your family, with your children, with God, he said.

“It’s a common fallacy and myth that this job is very hard,” he said. “I find that when I don’t do this, it’s very difficult. I give meaning to people and they always to a little better. I don’t do miracles, but it’s beautiful to add meaning to a person’s life and to help them in the smallest way possible.”

 

Next Year in Cannes


It’s a tough thing trying to arrange a Shabbat dinner at the Cannes Film Festival.

My friend, Scott Einbinder, had gotten the idea two years ago, during my first trip to the festival. At first, I was hesitant. I was focused on business, a filmmaker obsessed with my career. Plus, I was perfectly happy to twiddle my thumbs alone in my hotel room all Shabbat.

Einbinder, who is less observant, had to convince me, a “Young Israel” Jew, that this was a good idea. What better way to escape the madness and deal-making of the festival, he argued, than by joining together with friends for a Shabbat Friday night dinner?

I stayed skeptical. Would people be willing to spend $90 to attend a dinner without music, when they could instead be dancing it up with Paris Hilton at the MTV party?

We sent out e-mails, hired a five-star party planner and lo and behold, 42 people showed up. Einbinder flew in Rabbi Mendel Schwartz and his wife, Esther, of the Chai Center for spiritual leadership, and we invited the local Chabad rabbi to welcome the crowd. Steve Kaplan, our co-host, arranged free use of a magnificent villa, and our inaugural event was a great success.

This year, we wanted to do it bigger and better. Our goal was to double the number of guests. The rabbis joined as hosts, as did Hollywood heavyweights Craig Emanuel and Joan Hyler.

Unfortunately, the villa was not available. Rumor had it that Lenny Kravitz was staying there, and although Jewish, Shabbat dinner was not on his itinerary. Our party planner spent several months trying to find an alternate venue and eventually found a quaint, beachfront restaurant a few minutes walk from the hustle and bustle of the festival. The Chabad rabbi worked his kosher magic, and we hired one of the best chefs in town.

The response was great, everything was set and we were on our way to Cannes — then the bad news came. The restaurant bailed. Seems it wasn’t thrilled with the sweetheart deal we had negotiated and was talking to another party with a fatter wallet. Welcome to Cannes.

Our dream dinner was turning into a disaster. Fortunately, Einbinder was already in Cannes. Along with the Chabad rabbi — who no doubt threatened the wrath of God — they convinced the restaurant owner to honor the negotiated price. We were back in production.

Cannes is hard to describe. Its beauty is unparalleled, its ambiance is magical, full of romance and excitement. Most of all, people who travel there have a sense of jubilation.

We spent Friday recruiting a few more guests to the Shabbat dinner. I bumped into veteran producer Arthur Cohn, who unfortunately couldn’t make the walk to the restaurant but was so excited, he wrote a check for two seats just so he could somehow participate.

On my way to the dinner, I pulled aside two eager, young British paparazzi who were hanging out in front of the Carlton Hotel. I told them that although Tom Hanks and Penelope Cruz would not be attending, our Shabbat dinner was a unique party not to be missed. For a nominal fee and the promise of delicious kosher food and wine, they agreed to shoot the event until sundown.

As the sun started to set, guests trickled into the party. Twilight in Cannes is always beautiful, the calm waters adding to the tranquility of the Shabbat. About 15 guests huddled for a quick prayer service, while others circled the hors d’oéuvres and posed for photos. Shabbat candles were lit and Kiddush recited. Then it was off to the requisite buffet.

More than 80 studio executives, producers, directors, lawyers, agents, distributors and rabbis all enjoyed a Shabbat dinner together in the south of France. For some, Shabbat was a new experience. For others, a weekly ritual. Still for others, it was simply another networking event.

But amid all the business talk, I couldn’t help but notice that this Shabbat experience was transforming business acquaintances into friends, strangers into family — from all over the globe, Jew or non-Jew, Reform or Orthodox, Sephardic or Ashkenazi, it didn’t matter. In a town that evokes images of Bridget Bardot in a bikini and Pamela Anderson in “Barb Wire” leather, we were infusing Cannes with Kiddush, conversation and tranquility — the very essence of Shabbat.

After a few short speeches and probably a few too many l’chaims, the delicious dinner was over. Everyone was happy and vowing to bring more friends next year. One woman came up to me and proclaimed that she would return to Cannes next year “if only to experience such a Shabbat again.”

One guest was so moved that he said he was making plans to throw his son a bar mitzvah party so he can share with him the experience of his Jewish tradition.

The next few days were very gratifying for all of us. We were the talk of Cannes. As we walked the Croisette, familiar Hollywood faces stopped us and promised they’d come next year

I even found myself next to Paris Hilton at a party. She’d heard all about the dinner. “I’ll attend if I have a Jewish boyfriend next year,” she told me.

I’m available!

I got into the movie business because I thought movies could change the world. I’m not sure if my movies will ever change the world, but I know that our Shabbat dinner certainly affected a few people.

There may be a lot of stress and aggravation in planning a Shabbat dinner in Cannes, but I know it was biggest Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name, I had ever been involved with. Next year, we plan to have an even more spectacular event. Who knows? Maybe Lenny Kravitz will sing with us.

Max Gottlieb is a film producer living in Los Angeles. If you would like to be placed on the invitation list, e-mail snowmax@comcast.net.

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Perfectly Imperfect


Jewish kids all get A’s. It’s a fact. They’re all well above average. Jewish kids always star in the show, play first violin in the orchestra, win the debate championship. This week the last of the college acceptance letters went out. They all got into Stanford, Berkeley and Brown. Their admissions process began years ago when they stood out in the city’s best nursery programs, excelled in the top elementary schools and shined in the most demanding high schools. And now they will attend the finest colleges. At every stage they were relentlessly tested, measured, evaluated and graded. They wear their scores and grades like a merit badge. My nephew has a 5.2 grade average — on a 4-point scale.

But what happens when they don’t excel? Are we still proud of them? Is there room in the Jewish family for the average or the not-quite-average child? Is there place for C’s and D’s and even F’s? Is there love and acceptance for the child who can’t fulfill our dreams of Harvard? My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, once observed that we Jews practice a particularly cruel form of child abuse. It’s called disappointment.

I worry about children who are told they must get every answer correct. I worry about kids told there’s no room for second best. I worry about the child who must always be the star. If we demand success each time, and leave no room for failure, our children’s dreams will shrink to fit their certainties. They will play it safe and never try too hard, never reach too far, never put too much of themselves into any pursuit. It is entirely possible to exalt the mind while crushing the soul.

If it doesn’t break us, failure can be life’s greatest teacher. What can we learn from failure? That we can start again. That we can ask for help. That we can be forgiven. What does failure teach? That we are limited, finite, fallible, vulnerable, but still worthy of love. Do we really want doctors, lawyers and leaders who only got As in school, and never failed at anything? Do we really expect care or justice or leadership from people who never learned to recognize and confess their own mistakes? From people who never experienced failure as a beginning and not an end? Does a 5.2 grade average give us people of healing, compassion and wisdom?

This week’s Torah portion describes the rites of priestly expiation. Each year on Yom Kippur, the holy place, the priests and, finally, the entire people were cleansed of sin. Arcane and intricate, this rite of expiation is a wonderful gift. Expiation bespeaks a unique kind of divine love. Despite all the reverence and precision of the priests and the Levites in following God’s laws of holiness, the Torah recognizes that the altar and the shrine are subject to inevitable mistakes. Failure finds its way into all human endeavors. But God doesn’t withdraw when we err or when we fail. God offers a process of repair and renewal and return.

It is no accident that this Torah reading is often paired with the following one, as it is this year. Having recognized and wrestled with our imperfection, we are ready to hear the Torah’s most stirring announcement: Kedoshim ti-hiyu ki kadosh ani (You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy) (Leviticus 19:2). God doesn’t ask for high SAT scores or Ivy League degrees. God asks for kedushah, holiness. Kedushah is a unique quality. It includes ethics and ritual and communal loyalty, and yet is broader. Kedoshim tihiyu is God’s invitation to return to the oneness, wholeness and peace of Eden, one act at a time. The pursuit of kedusha is the way we bond ourselves to God, to Creation and to one another. Kedoshim tihiyu demands of us to be godly and care for the world as God does.

The parent proudly relates to me the list of distinguished colleges his kid got into. And I nod and smile and share his nachas. But every now and again a parent will come and tell me, not of a kid’s scores and grades and acceptance letters, but of acts of compassion, generosity and depth. Those moments bring tears of joy.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.

 

Wandering Jew – We Shall Pursue


As I drove my children home after school last week, how many men, women and children were fleeing from their homes in Darfur? As I tucked my children snuggly into their beds, how many mothers crept out of their refugee camps at night to gather firewood to keep their children warm in Darfur? As I flew to our nation’s capital to rally for our government’s commitment to justice in Sudan, how many villages were burned to the ground by the Sudanese government-backed militia, the Janjaweed, in Darfur?

On Saturday evening, in the shadow of the Jefferson Memorial and with the Washington Memorial just across the Basin, we ended Shabbat. Bimheira v’yameinu yavo eileinu, im mashiach ben David — speedily in our days, may (Elijah the prophet) come with the messiah, son of David.

These are the words we always sing as we usher in the new week. Hoping, praying that this will be the week that will see the coming of the messianic time. This week is different. We, who stand more than 200 strong, are thinking of a people thousands of miles away who truly need that peace and need it right now. The victims of the genocide in Darfur are so very present in our hearts as we pray together.

A military helicopter flies directly over us and we pay no attention. If I were a woman in Darfur, that very same helicopter would strike fear within me. A military helicopter in Darfur signifies not safety, but the beginning of a raid by the Janjaweed. How fortunate I am, O God, to be 1,000 worlds away. And how ashamed I feel to even utter those words.

I sleep fitfully. What am I doing here? What real impact will this gathering really have? Even thousands of people gathering on the Mall cannot end the suffering (see story on page 17). Our tradition gives us only two instances where we are actively commanded to seek out opportunities to fulfill a particular commandment. They are “Seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15) and “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Rodef. To pursue. To be one who pursues peace. One who pursues justice. Pursue — it is such an active word. During the restless night, I realize that my presence here is not merely a symbolic act nor should I view it as an act of passivity. Rather, by being here and joining my voice with many others, I have become a rodefet. I have become one who pursues.

This is to be a family reunion of sorts. I am joined by my mother, my brothers, my sister, one of my sisters-in-law and her cousin. Completing the Amado-Einstein-Schorr group is my young cousin whose mother introduced me to activism two decades ago by encouraging me to write letters on behalf of the Refuseniks, Jews not permitted to leave the Soviet Union. How proud I am to stand with more than 100 Jews from Los Angeles, an effort coordinated by Jewish World Watch and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. And our group stands among groups from congregations, day schools, Hillel students, Jewish Community Centers and other Jewish groups from all across North America. More than 15,000 people. Young and old, we have come together with a unified purpose.

Jews marching for Jews. Self-explanatory. But Jews marching for African Muslims? Why? Why stand up for a group of people whose lives have no impact on mine?

Because my faith demands it of me. Because I cannot be angry at the world for allowing 6 million of my people to be slaughtered if I am not willing to raise my voice in protest for the Darfuris.

The association of Darfur with the Shoah is a natural one for us. When we hear phrases such as “ethnic cleansing” and “relocation,” we know all too well what these euphemisms are concealing; the organized destruction of a people.

Many of the signs at the rally reflect our natural instinct to draw connections between the realities of Darfur and the memories of our recent past. Signs bearing the slogans “Never Again,” “Never Forget” and “Save Darfur” are in English and Hebrew. And there are others. A refugee from Liberia, with the Texas flag draped over his shoulders, carries a sign declaring “I saw it, I escaped it, stop it now!” Three coeds from the University of Iowa drove all night to hold signs that say “To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.” A high school student from Boston wrote the words “Schindler’s List, The Killing Fields, Hotel Rwanda. Don’t wait for the movie.”

Now what? What do I do now that the March is over? I don’t have the international respect of Elie Wiesel whose mere presence here is a reminder of what can happen when the world remains silent in the face of evil. I don’t have the political clout of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) whose impassioned words elicited great cheers from the crowd. Nor do I have the celebrity of George Clooney, whose recent visit to Darfur will do more to forward this cause than a dozen marches.

What I do have is the desire to see the genocide brought to an end. I can write to President Bush. I can make responsible choices in the voting booth. I can stand in front of the consulates of NATO and African Union nations, Russia and China between now and June 2, a day that corresponds this year with Shavuot, the day we celebrate God’s revelation at Mount Sinai.

How fitting that these visits, as suggested by Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, will “be taking place during the counting of the Omer, in which we move from the freedom given us at Passover to the responsibility that came with accepting God’s laws at Sinai.”

I can receive regular e-mail updates from the Save Darfur Coalition and American Jewish World Service. I can encourage my colleagues to join with the more than forty Southern Californian congregations who have already become active members of Jewish World Watch. And I can continue to talk about Darfur with my friends, congregants and neighbors.

Speedily in our days, O God, speedily in our days may this nightmare end and may our brothers and sisters in Darfur know enduring peace. May this be Your will.

Rebecca Yael Schorr is a rabbi at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley.

 

Invitation to a Ritual


My hair is starting to go. I sent out a notice to the friends who have banded together to support me since I received my cancer diagnosis:

To: All recipients
From: anejenzmom@aol.com
Subject: Upfsherin

Peter, who has been cutting my hair since 1981, will be coming over at 7 p.m. this Sunday night to give me a buzz cut. Since strands of hair have been lingering in my brush and on my sweaters and tickling my face, the time has come to celebrate the fact that the elixirs are doing their job.

An upfsherin is traditionally a ceremony for 3-year-old boys getting their first haircut, but I will be renewing this tradition to mark the progress of my healing journey. You are invited to join me and be a witness for this rite-of-passage. Please bring goodies or musical instruments. I will be providing the hair.

Over the last weeks, I have received gifts of head coverings. A friend, who is both a rabbi and a cancer survivor, brought the beautifully embroidered crown kippah that graced her shining dome during her treatment. A student sent three hand-knit “comfort caps” made by women in her synagogue to cover cancer-tender heads like mine. Several friends have suggested sheitl (wig) shopping.

I don’t think I’m the sheitl type. While I am tempted to see what I would look like with perfect hair and make no judgments about those who choose to cover chemo-induced baldness with manufactured manes, I’m not sure it’s for me. I fidget a lot. My fingers fiddle and scratch at irregularities in fabric and skin. I can’t see me keeping my hands off the hairpiece or wearing it with grace. Also there is a tendency for things around me to be askew — paintings, mirrors, papers. My eyeglasses are always lopsided. I suspect that my wig would reflect this cockeyed balance. I’m not sure I could pull the wig thing off.

Moreover, I’m not sure I want to wear a wig. I don’t want to sugar coat the fact of my cancer. While there is no telling what caused my disease, I think that the fact of cancer –so much cancer — is something we need to look in the face. Cancer, like the devastation that I witnessed in the post-Katrina Gulf South, reveals the diseased infrastructure that riddles our ailing planet. Cover-up and denial exacerbate deterioration.

I don’t feel like an individual singled out to get this rare and nasty cancer. I feel like an envoy sent on behalf of planet earth.

“Look at me,” I want to say. “I am the face of the planet we share. I am your face. Look at me and take healing action. I am not going away. I become more toxic with every gallon of gas, every paper plate, and every soda bottle not recycled You have a choice. You can cover me over with a veneer and deny the future or you can meet my gaze and enlist to save the earth.”

I have spent my career making visible things that are often carried silently inside. To wear a wig, so that the world would not know that I have cancer and to protect those who see me from the reality of my illness, would betray my work and my values.

I am the ribbon lady. I give out rainbows of ribbons to mark what’s really happening with people. My ribbons mark mourning (black) and other life changes (blue), such as divorce, ending a relationship, relocation, loss or change of job, illness or becoming a caretaker for someone else who is ill. I have ribbons for yahrzeits (green) and ribbons for those who have dealt with any of these challenges in the past and have found them to be their teachers (purple). These categories actually reflect the Talmud’s description of those who walked the mourners’ path in the Temple: “mourners, those with someone sick at home, those who have lost a significant object, and excommunicants.” Inevitably, when I offer ribbons, most everyone takes one or more. It appears that just about everyone is in the midst of some sort of personal challenge. The assumption that “normal” means “good” is shattered.

Being marked with the ribbons makes it easier for people to feel more authentic. Visibility brings relief from the incongruity felt when inner experience is masked by the persona they felt obliged to present to a community unaware of their challenges or committed to the myth of normalcy.

When those who suffer do not have to mask, their energy is diverted from hiding to healing. Without the burden of covering up brokenness, people are able to attend to their deeper needs. Without veneers, people are given the comfort of authenticity. When we encounter them, we look honestly into the face of human experience. We surrender the illusions about what normal looks like. Hopefully with eyes opened, we will not avert our gaze and respond with compassion.

The season of masking is past. Both Mardi Gras and Purim are behind us. It’s time for being visible. I guess it is no wig for me.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

 

I’m Going to Jail Over Darfur Genocide


(Editor’s note: This article was written and published prior to Rabbi Steve Gutow’s planned arrest.)

I’m going to jail.

Along with interfaith religious leaders, members of Congress and others, I am being arrested in Washington,

D.C., Friday, April 28, outside the Embassy of Sudan in a public protest of the continuing genocide in Darfur.

The aim is to focus attention on Darfur and to add stronger voices to help the Bush administration force the international community to take action to halt the tragedy. Our act is a prelude to the “Save Darfur” mass rally scheduled for Sunday on the National Mall.

Darfur is a remote region of western Sudan bordering Chad. The Arab-dominated Sudanese government has engaged in a genocidal policy in Darfur designed to ethnically cleanse the region of the mainly black African tribal people from whose ranks come rebel groups fighting the central government.

The situation is extraordinarily complicated. Human rights groups say the rebels are also responsible for abuses, including looting humanitarian aid convoys. Chadian bandits encouraged by Sudan’s actions also prey on the tribal population. Still, if the Sudanese government could be taken to task and forced to stop the abuses, most would stop.

It is not the combatants on either side but the unarmed civilians, the dirt-poor families who struggle for survival in the best of times, that suffer most. They are the victims of government-backed Arab militias known as the Janajweed, a group of poor, nomadic tribesman who are guns-for-hire in the conflict. Some 200,000 civilians have died and another 2 million have been forced from their villages and are refugees living their lives in sparely equipped camps beset by starvation and disease.

The situation could get worse in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s purported call for Islamic militants to head to Sudan to confront those involved in African Union and U.N. peace efforts. How ironic, given that both the Sudanese government and Darfur’s tribes are Muslim.

Given the difficulties of the situation, what good can come from my arrest?

In truth, the arrest is a little political theater designed to garner media attention in advance of Sunday’s mass demonstration. Such actions are commonplace in Washington. Law enforcement officials sanction in advance where and when they will take place. Protesters in violation of trespass laws are peaceably arrested and after a few hours in custody pay a small fine and are released.

There is no real sacrifice on my part. So again, what’s the point?

In a moment of exquisite — some would say divine timing, Haftarah Shemini, read in synagogue just last Shabbat, helps make my point.

The reading from II Samuel refers to the death of Uzzah. Uzzah is slain by God after he tries to keep the Ark of the Covenant from toppling from a cart pulled by oxen that lose their balance. The traditional explanation for Uzzah’s death is that despite his good intention, his touching the Ark was an act of irreverence for which he had to pay dearly.

As extreme, even outrageous, as this repercussion seems, I much prefer a more a contemporary explanation — one that sheds a moral light on Darfur: Uzzah’s offense was not that he dared touch the Ark, but that he allowed others, including no less a revered figure than King David, to arrange inappropriate transportation for the Ark, when Uzzah knew, or should have known, that the arrangement was lacking.

In short, Uzzah’s greater offense was his failure to act before it was too late, before disaster struck.

As Jews, we are directed to be proactive rather than merely reactive. Our responsibility is to question the actions of those in power and, when necessary, to draw public attention to their failings. We cannot simply sit back and blame outcomes on others. Uzzah’s death can show us that we bear the consequences of our inaction as well as our action.

The West’s reaction to Darfur until now is yet another example of how easy it is to wash our hands of a situation we believe does not affect us directly. We tell ourselves that we have issues closer to home and closer to our heart that must take priority, and we divert our gaze.

This week, we also commemorate Yom HaShoah, our own genocide of the Holocaust, and we say, “Never Again.” Well, it’s happening again.

As 21st century Jews, as citizens of a world made smaller by globalization, we do not have the luxury to look the other way. We are called to speak up and to do what we can. Too little, too late no longer cuts it. In this light, to be arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy is the very least one can do to bring attention to Darfur.

We must demand action on Darfur — from our government and from the world. And we must do all we can to ensure that this demand is heard.

Article provided courtesy of Washington Jewish Week.

Rabbi Steve Gutow is executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and a member of the executive committee of the Save Darfur Coalition.

 

Defender of France


Jean David Levitte, France’s ambassador to the United States, is arguably its most effective defender against charges of anti-Semitism, in no small part because he himself is Jewish.

I met Levitte at the Beverly Hills residence of the French consul general, Phillipe Larrieu. It’s a sprawling, modernist home near the Beverly Hills Hotel, the walls lined with contemporary art, the small streetside drawing room furnished in … French Regency. Silver coffee service and a plate of petits fours appear.

Levitte, 60, is youthful, patient and polished. He is used to contradicting accusations that France is anti-Semitic, in no small part because of all the anti-Semitism French Jews have suffered over the past few years.

The worst incident occurred just last February, when kidnappers tortured and killed 23-year-old Ilan Halimi, taunting his parents with anti-Semitic slurs during phone calls. The heinous crime led to an uptick in French Jewish immigration to Israel, according to the Jewish Agency, and renewed concern that French Jewry’s days were numbered.

I began my interview by mentioning that exactly a year ago, I traveled to Paris to interview French officials and Jewish leaders, all of whom agreed the government had been taking anti-Semitic attacks seriously and that the frequency and severity were in decline. This is what I reported, so my first question to the ambassador was, in so many words: Am I a chump?

Levitte said no. French anti-Semitism continues to be a problem among a disaffected Muslim population egged on by extremist imans, exposed to anti-Israel Arab media and frustrated by its status at the fringes of French society. “If we have a problem with racism,” he said, “it is not anti-Semitism, it is anti-Arab.”

Anti-Semitic attacks, he said — reinforcing what the philosopher and author Bernard-Henri Lévy told our reporter Marc Ballon (see Page 16) — are the smoke from the Israeli-Palestinian fire. “The problem is the connection to the Middle East,” Levitte told me.

Levitte reiterated what I learned last year. The French government has responded to anti-Semitic acts with forthrightness: harsher penalties, better coordination with prosecutors, widespread educational reforms, a crackdown on hate-spewing Iranian and Arab media and ongoing public statements from the president on down.

“When a Jew is attacked in France,” said President Jacques Chirac on Nov. 17, 2003, “it is an attack against the whole of France.”

These steps all contributed to a 48 percent decline in anti-Semitic acts in the first six months of 2005.

Then came the brutal Halimi murder, which obliterated these achievements in the public eye.

Halimi’s parents claimed the French police botched the investigation by, in part, refusing to see it as anti-Semitic in nature. Initial statements by government officials downplayed the role Jew-hatred might have played.

But to Levitte, the official and popular reaction only supports his contention that France is intolerant of intolerance. Tens of thousands of citoyens took to the streets of Paris to express their outrage at the murder. French officials quickly identified 21 suspects. Fourteen are under arrest and 11 are being charged with kidnapping and murder with the aggravating circumstance of anti-Semitism.

The perpetrators, Levitte pointed out, were not all Muslim. They were inhabitants of the often lawless, neglected neighborhoods surrounding Paris and other large cities. (In the French movie, “La Haine,” (“Hate”), the youthful criminal gang from one Parisian slum includes a Jew. “Hate,” in fact, released in 1995, is a cinematic tarot card of what would be in store for France).

Many of France’s 10 percent Muslim population live in these banlieux. Most are law-abiding and loyal.

“The problem is the 10 percent who are not well-integrated,” Levitte said.

He pointed out that the racial unrest that broke out in Paris this winter (not to be confused with the anti-labor law reform riots of the spring) were not in the “new cities” with large Muslim populations, There were no riots in Marseilles, for example, whose Algerian population is second only to that of Algiers.

The rioters also did not take to the streets waving Algerian flags. What they wanted was not separation but belonging.

“Islam is not the demand of these teenagers,” said the ambassador. “They feel excluded.”

Levitte reiterated his government’s approach to the problem: better schools, stricter law enforcement, more work incentives and the creation of tax exempt zones to spur business investment in the worst areas.

Nevertheless, Levitte acknowledged, isolated attacks against Jews have, “triggered feelings of insecurity” among the country’s 600,000 Jews.

But Levitte said the claims of a French Jewish exodus to Israel are overstated. Many Jews will buy apartments or homes in Israel, but they remain in France. Those who go for good, he said, often come back.

Meanwhile, Israelis themselves seem to harbor less ill will toward the French than American Jews. France is the No. 1 tourist destination among Israelis.

And the feeling appears to be mutual. Levitte quoted (correctly) a 2005 poll by the Israeli newspaper, Ma’ariv, which asked citizens in more than 12 countries their feelings about Jews. The Dutch came in first, at 85 percent, and France placed second, with 82 percent of French citizens checking off “positive feelings” about Jews. (The United States scored fifth at 77 percent, and Jordan and Lebanon tied for last, at 0 percent).

Indeed, for Levitte, the (wine) glass of French Jewry is perennially half full: The Dreyfuss Affair? It showed how the republic stood up to an insidious cabal of anti-Semitic army officers.

“Today it is Dreyfuss who is our hero, not them,” Levitte said.

The Holocaust? Seventy-five percent of the nation’s Jews were saved, and many Frenchmen risked their lives to save them. The government of Israel has recognized 2,500 of them with the distinction of “Righteous Among the Nations.”

Levitte’s own grandparents were sent to Auschwitz. His father and uncle joined the resistance, and his father later became the leader of the American Jewish Committee in France for 30 years.

“We will not accept anti-Semitism in France,” the ambassador said, with finality. “We will fight this disease.”

 

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.

Competing Moments of Truth on Schools


On Tuesday April 18, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to lay the groundwork for the most defining initiative of his term in office: his attempt to take control of Los Angeles’ schools. But the day before he does, opponents of his plan will beat him to the microphone. The L.A. teachers union has scheduled a Monday press conference, hoping, they said, to push Villaraigosa in a different direction.

Villaraigosa’s first state-of-the-city speech is likely to put bone and muscle on his school takeover pitch which, up till now, nearly a year into his term, has been theoretical and short on specifics. If Villaraigosa delivers what people all over town have been waiting for, a slew of interest groups will know where they stand and will begin to respond accordingly.

“Mayor Villaraigosa has made a major commitment to take on the reform of the school district, and the civil, political and media hierarchy of the city have taken up that commitment as a serious benchmark of his performance as mayor,” said David Abel, a publisher who founded New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, an organization that works to shape schools as centers of community revitalization.

Unless Villaraigosa holds off — and further delay might be seen as retreat or indecision — the mayor will set the city on a path toward mayoral control within about two years. That would put Villaraigosa on a timetable to win control in a first term as mayor and wield that power in a second term, if he is reelected.

“Getting this to happen,” said Abel, who supports mayoral control but is not directly involved in the effort, “will be a delicate balance between the doable, the clock and the mayor’s own strategic goals and political ambitions.”

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union, hasn’t been content to wait for the unveiling. Over the past several weeks, union leaders have met with community groups and other key players, trying to set up a parallel juggernaut. The effort is planned to culminate the day before Villaraigosa’s speech, at a news conference during which the union will unveil its own “Call to Action” on school reform.

Early this week, the union was putting its reform declaration in final form, trying to settle on wording that will attract as many allies as possible. The stated goals will have much in common with what anyone would like to see in Los Angeles’ schools: It will call for quality instruction by fully trained teachers, a rigorous, diverse and engaging curriculum and adequate (meaning increased) funding.

“I think Mayor Villaraigosa will agree with almost all of it,” said UTLA spokesperson Steve Weingarten. “This vision of ours does not stop and start with mayoral control. We will be proposing the most dramatic changes at the school site. If you have people at that ground level making decisions, then it’s secondary who’s controlling things at the top.”

Of course, until now, the teachers union has been the most consistently powerful political force in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The mayor’s intervention could change that.

A recent version of the union’s draft declaration didn’t take on mayoral control directly, but spoke generally of more representation, which for the union has meant an elected school board at one end and a switch to community-governed schools at the other. Union officials also have talked about expanding the school board and “professionalizing” it. Which means making school board service a full-time job and increasing a board member’s salary and staff. That agenda is hardly compatible with putting Villaraigosa in charge.

Specific wording on who would call the shots is tricky for the union, because potential members of the union’s hoped-for coalition are not themselves settled on the issue.

“Some are a little more opposed to mayoral control than others,” said one teachers union stalwart, joking that “some are atheists and some are agnostics.”

Groups at the table with UTLA have included ACORN, a national social justice organization with deep Los Angeles roots; CARACEN, an L.A.-based organization that focuses on the needs of Central American immigrants and Latinos; and One L.A., the local affiliate of the national Industrial Areas Foundation. The union also would like to bring on board officials from smaller cities, such as Carson, South Gate and Cudahy, that are served by the LAUSD.

“The new leadership of UTLA prefers to work in concert with community organizations as part of a real alliance for change,” said Joel Jordan, the union’s director of special projects.

The union desperately wants to avoid being the bogeyman of school reform. A hint of that worst-case scenario played out during a late-March panel discussion at the Latino-Jewish Roundtable, held at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League.

“Nobody ever gets fired,” said Marcus Castain, the mayor’s point man for developing a reform plan, while enumerating the district’s ills. “Fifty-three teachers were let got out of 37,000 in a school system where 75 percent of students are not making the grade.”

At the forum, Castain was supposed to have gone head to head with school board President Marlene Canter, who, like other board members, has evinced no desire to turn over authority to the mayor. But Canter couldn’t attend because a school board meeting ran late, and Canter’s pinch hitter avoided a verbal confrontation with Castain.

Instead, Lucy Okumu, an aide to Superintendent Roy Romer, suggested that Romer could find some common ground with the mayor if the goals included making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

The union failed to burnish its own image recently when it backed a school board candidate, Christopher Arellano, who works for the union as an organizer. His candidacy collapsed after The Journal and other media outlets reported that he’d exaggerated his academic credentials and failed to disclose two theft convictions. UTLA spent more than $200,000 on his behalf and Arellano limped into a runoff, but he and the union have abandoned his candidacy.

The union would prefer to be one of many groups supporting its Call to Action. But each invited participant has interests that don’t perfectly coincide with the union’s. One such group is the Community Coalition, a black-brown social justice organization of South Los Angeles. Its focus has been getting the school district to make a full college-prep curriculum available to every student, said Sheilagh Polk, the coalition’s communications adviser. That goal appears in the Call to Action.

Nonetheless, the Community Coalition and other groups also are meeting with the mayor’s office. It’s clear that the mayor, too, would like to line up as many allies as possible.

The union leadership considered staging a competing event on the day of the mayor’s address, but that idea was dismissed as unnecessarily confrontational, said UTLA’s Jordan. Besides, on the charisma scale, “You’re not going upstage Antonio.”

Jordan spent most of his career in the teaching trenches, one of a legion of Jewish educators devoted to serving communities of poor black and brown students. It was another Jewish educator, Herman Katz, who helped turn around a teenage Villaraigosa when he was in danger of becoming a dropout.

Jordan remains on a first-name basis with the mayor after having worked with Villaraigosa during the future mayor’s days as a UTLA organizer: “He’s one of ours,” said Jordan.

Or so he seemed when UTLA broke with much of organized labor and backed Villaraigosa for mayor last year instead of incumbent James Hahn. Jordan and recently elected teachers’ union president A.J. Duffy met with Villaraigosa earlier this year.

“If we could show him there might be another way to have an effect on schools…” said Jordan wistfully, adding, “he left that door open.”

Jordan also conceded: “He appears to be set on his course. I wouldn’t bet against that.”