Wanted: More women in Los Angeles City Hall


What Los Angeles City Hall needs is a strong Jewish woman.

Nothing against the three Jewish men who occupy citywide offices — Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Attorney Mike Feuer and Controller Ron Galperin. But they’re so quiet, so devoted to working behind the scenes that it’s easy to forget they hold such prominent and influential offices. If a strong Jewish woman were in their place, everyone would know she was there.

It’s true that Garcetti deserves some of the credit for the city’s new $15-an-hour minimum wage law, although the figure approved by the City Council is higher than the $13.25 Garcetti originally sought. Feuer has buried himself in the nuts-and-bolts task of setting up neighborhood branch offices to deal with local problems, such as prostitution and graffiti, as well as trying to enforce the city’s marijuana law. Galperin has taken the lead in the fight to decipher and audit the mysterious education and safety fund maintained by the Department of Water and Power and its powerful employee union.

But in doing these worthwhile tasks, they tend to avoid the spotlight as if it were radioactive. Feuer and Galperin immerse themselves in every detail of public policy, especially Galperin, who personifies the word wonk. It’s hard to write a news story about that. Garcetti is incredibly cautious, a huge contrast to his flamboyant predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa.

Critics thought Villaraigosa was an egomaniac, but he willingly took the heat when trying to reform public education or pushing through public transit projects that were unpopular in many areas. 

Mayor Richard Riordan loved the spotlight, beating up bureaucrats and the Los Angeles Times.  He didn’t mind when people were shocked at times by his off-the-wall comments.

Chutzpah, that’s what they had — and they weren’t even Jewish. Maybe there’s something about being a Jewish guy in the 21st century, some kind of a mindset that makes them more comfortable getting along than raising hell.

A Jewish friend who pays attention to civic matters recently asked me what happened to our Jewish trio of Garcetti, Feuer and Galperin. Why, he wondered, are they so invisible most of the time?

That’s when I started thinking about strong Jewish women in City Hall, particularly Laura Chick, who was a member of the City Council, representing District 3 in the San Fernando Valley from 1993 to 2001, and, more famously, city controller for eight years, beginning in 2001.

I called her in Berkeley, where she now lives, helping to care for a 3-year-old granddaughter, while engaging in various civic activities and enjoying the view of three bridges on the San Francisco Bay from her Kensington home.

“Kick some butt,” she said was her goal as controller, “shaking up the status quo.”

And she did, unconcerned about getting along with the City Hall establishment.  Her audits were important, frequent and hard hitting, and her blunt style made it impossible for the media to ignore them. She found out that the Los Angeles Police Department had a backlog of thousands of DNA rape kits. She exposed a planning department locked in the past, crippled by outdated practices. She blasted an ineffective housing department.

In 2003, Chick appointed me to a five-year term on the city ethics commission, which supervises enforcement of campaign contributions and conflict-of-interest law. “Raise hell,” she told me then. When I talked to her recently, she said, “I wanted you to go in there and shake things up. I knew you weren’t there for window dressing.

“If you are always trying to get along, nothing changes,” she said. “You settle down and settle in, and the problems persist. It’s like a big ‘kumbaya,’ but under the surface, it’s not so good.”

That’s not Chick’s idea of what a strong Jewish woman should be. “For me and all the strong Jewish women, life is full of problems and therefore life is all about solving problems,” she said. “The strong Jewish women I know solve problems. They confront them.”

I’m focusing more on citywide elected officials, but there is a tradition of such Jewish women on the City Council as well. The first was Rosalind Wyman, who was elected to the City Council as a young woman and became a power there. Among the others were Joy Picus, Chick’s predecessor on the council, from 1977 to 1993, an influential lawmaker, who even took on then-powerful police Chief Daryl Gates. Jackie Goldberg, also on the council, representing Hollywood from 1994 to 2000, was a strong fighter for liberal causes who didn’t take guff from anybody, even reporters such as me.

Now City Hall is almost without elected women; the one is Councilwoman Nury Martinez, who represents eastern portions of the San Fernando Valley. Women, with few exceptions, tend to avoid city campaigns, Chick said. “Women are very pragmatic,” she said, “They take a look at what happens at City Hall and don’t like the game.”

After we talked, I thought back to when I started covering the City Council, at a time when there were several powerful female members, Jewish and non-Jewish.  I thought of the strong women I know, African-American, Latino, Jewish, WASP, Asian-American — and one who could be classified as doubly strong, Jan Perry, an African-American-Jewish woman who served on the City Council and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in the last election.

I could see that the premise of this column opens itself up to argument. I started writing about Jewish women because this is the Jewish Journal, and I was dealing with the shortcomings of Jewish men.

I should have said that City Hall needs more strong women, period.


Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Jewish teen, woman lightly wounded in Paris-region anti-Semitic attacks


A Jewish boy and a woman were assaulted in separate anti-Semitic incidents in the Paris region.

The incident involving the woman occurred on May 13 on a street in Sarcelles, an impoverished northern suburb of the French capital where some 60,000 Jews live in close proximity to many Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and Africa.

The woman was lightly injured by three African women who assaulted her because she complained to them about the behavior of children, whom the Jewish woman thought belonged to at least one of the African women, the National Bureau for Vigilance Agaisnt Anti-Semitism, or BNVCA, wrote in a report published Friday. The children, the report said, had hurled a soccer ball at the daughter of the Jewish woman, identified in the report only as L.D.

As they were allegedly assaulting the woman, witnesses heard the African women shouting anti-Semitic remarks, including “Hitler didn’t finish the job” and a statement about Jews being “a filthy race,” according to the report. “You need some more beatings,” one of the women also said.

Police were called to the scene and the alleged victim filed a criminal complaint for assault. She was also treated in the hospital for her injuries, which required several days of recovery.

“Increasingly, banal conflicts involving Jews degenerate into anti-Semitic incidents and assaults,” BNVCA wrote in its statement, which urged police to “get to the bottom of what happened.”

Separately, on Friday, four unidentified young men assaulted a 16-year-old Jewish male who was wearing kippah as the alleged victim was leaving his home in central Paris, according to a BNVCA report. The perpetrators stole the teen’s cellphone and hit him in the eye.

The perpetrators, aged 17 to 20, had an Arab appearance, the report said. A fifth individual, also of Middle Eastern descent, approached the scene and encouraged the perpetrators to “break” the victim, whom he called a coward.

The beating stopped when an Asian woman intervened and threatened to call the police. The victim filed a complaint after being treated for minor to moderate injuries connected to his emergency eye surgery at Rothschild Hospital.

Israeli gov’t to fund abortions for women ages 20-33


Israeli women between the ages of 20 and 33 will be eligible to receive government-funded abortions in 2014.

The new eligibility is part of the country’s state-subsidized basket of health services for 2014, approved on Monday. Currently, the government only pays for abortions for medical reasons and for girls under 18.

Some 6,300 women between ages 20 and 33 are expected to have abortions in Israel in 2014. All the women still will be required to receive the approval of a government panel before undergoing the procedure; the panel approves nearly all cases.

The head of the health basket committee, Jonathan Halevy of Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, said the goal is eventually to raise the covered age to 40.

Contraception is not covered in the health basket.

The committee announced the approval of 83 new drugs and treatments for 2014.  The basket still must be approved by the Ministry of Health and the Cabinet.

Fed Chief Janet Yellen’s gender bigger deal than faith


Janet Yellen is soft-spoken, tough, methodological, flexible — and Jewish.

President Obama’s announcement last week that he had tapped Yellen, 67, to succeed Ben Bernanke as chair of the Federal Reserve made news in part because she would be the first woman in the top spot.

That very little was made of her Jewishness likely derives mostly from the fact that she would be not the first or second, but the sixth Jewish chair of the U.S. central bank and the third in a row, following Bernanke and Alan Greenspan.

For the first Jewish Fed chair, one has to go back to the 1930s, when the post was assumed by Eugene Meyer, better known perhaps as the patriarch of the family that ran the Washington Post for eight decades.

Yellen’s Wikipedia entry lists her as Jewish based on a reference to a 2001 profile of husband George Akerlof, then a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of California, Berkeley. The article noted that the couple attended the Reform Congregation Beth El in the Northern California city.

Beyond that, Yellen’s Jewish connections are not known. It’s not clear if she and her husband are attached to any Washington-area synagogue, and local Jewish religious leaders are unaware of any affiliation. The lone Jewish organization to note her nomination, the World Jewish Congress, made more of her gender than her faith.

Profiles quoting her classmates at Brown and Yale universities and at Fort Hamilton High School in her native Brooklyn, N.Y., depict her as a soft-spoken nerd.

Her parents were Jewish, but one classmate’s memory of her Brooklyn home evokes an upbringing focused on all-American traditions. Her mom, Anna Blumenthal, was a den mother to Cub Scouts, Rich Rubin told Reuters.

Yellen, who in the 1990s chaired President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, went on to become president of San Francisco’s Federal Reserve Bank from 2004 to 2010. Obama named her the vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve in 2010.

News reports about Yellen have focused on her similarities to Bernanke. According to a New York Times profile, Yellen intends to continue and expand his insistence on transparency in how the Fed arrives at its policies, and prizes precision in arriving at formulas to assess interest rates.

Yellen emphasizes unemployment over inflation and has said she is willing to adjust inflation rates above 2 percent to spur employment.

But some colleagues have noted her past embrace of “hawkish” policies. Peter Hooper of Deutsche Bank wrote in the Economist on Oct. 11 that in the 1990s, as a member of the Fed’s Open Market Committee, Yellen pushed to raise interest rates amid low unemployment.

“Ms. Yellen’s policy orientation has proven to be flexible and appropriate to the prevailing economic conditions,” wrote Hooper, who was a staffer with Yellen on the Fed’s Division of International Finance. “I have known her to be a straight shooter, someone whose views are governed by an objective assessment of the data within a reasonable analytical framework.”

Why Huma Abedin stands by her man


Many New Yorkers, as the New York Times notes, are “baffled by the loyalty shown by Huma Abedin” to her transgressing spouse, Anthony Weiner.  I suspect, however, that for many first generation immigrants such as myself, especially those of us with Asian and South Asian roots, she is much less of a puzzle.  I recently participated as a faculty member in a leadership seminar for Asian Pacific academics at Cal Poly Pomona, where we discussed the challenging cultural nexus at which many of us stand as we negotiate between our identities as independent career-minded individuals with a strong sense of self and habits that were a dominant part of our identity, growing up as we did with parents and family members for whom gendered social hierarchies were a given and permeated all aspects of daily life.

Huma’s cultural background may provide some clues to the behavior that many women in New York find baffling, especially because Huma is a woman who has had a notable career and held positions of political prominence nationally.

Though born in the US, Huma is a daughter of Muslim immigrants. Her father is of Indian origin, her mother Pakistani.  Both her parents are educators and holders of doctorates from the University of Pennsylvania. They moved, when Huma was young, to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where she grew up, though she returned to the USA for her college education. Certainly, this combination of religious, social, cultural, and international circumstances have made Huma who she is. Precisely which aspects of these fused identities and cultural contexts shaped her is hard to say, but my own experience growing up within a community diverse in its faith, class, caste, and language provides a partial context for understanding Huma’s behavior, though I too, like many New Yorkers, find myself reluctant to endorse or approve of it.

Lest anyone think that my invocation of Huma’s upbringing and background are attempts to see her as playing out a purely subservient role as a Muslim woman from a South Asian background, let me say that I am pointing to something a great deal more complex.  In fact, the line that separates dominance from subservience and authority from servitude is far harder to discern in Asian and South Asian cultures than one might think. And Huma is equally influenced, I am sure, by leaders such as Hillary Clinton.

[Related: The shandah factor: What makes Jewish sex scandals different?]

As a schoolgirl, when I visited my Muslim friend Nazra’s home, I interacted with her four mothers and thought nothing of it. The Muslim Marriage Act in India guides matrimonial practices among Muslims, and Muslim men are legally allowed four wives; the Christian Marriage Act and the Hindu Marriage Act does likewise for Christians and Hindus, respectively.  Even as a child, I understood this difference among religious groups as normal.  Even if Huma’s parents lived a married life such as Christians or Hindus might, could we perhaps understand Huma’s tolerance of her husband’s straying eye within this larger, deeply-held, and long-practiced cultural context that may not have dominated her upbringing but must surely have inflected it? Perhaps. 

The impact of contexts, even ones which one might have rejected decisively, can continue to shape one’s behavior, as I have discovered on many occasions, much to my chagrin.  As I watched Anthony Weiner’s news conference, I could neither take my eyes off Huma nor help but think that she was in a state of deep shock.  Confident, ambitious, and career-driven though she might be, perhaps in this moment of unexpected and unprecedented crisis in her life, the cultural impulse to stand behind her man was instinctive. 

As a woman who wishes to see my Asian and South Asian sisters break out of habits of automatic deference and subservience, I hope, like many New Yorkers, that time will allow Huma to see her husband’s serious problems as ones that she must not facilitate through repeated acts of forgiveness.  Unlike many New Yorkers, however, I think that her behavior might be understood within the context of her complex cultural identity as an independent-minded and American-educated Muslim woman who has led a global life and whose upbringing has been both complex and complicated.


Molly Smith was born in Chenna, India. She earned her undergraduate and master’s degree in English from Madras Christian College, University of Madras, and her doctorate from Auburn University. She has held tenured faculty and administrative posts at St. Louis University, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, Seton Hall University and Wheaton College, and served as the 11th president of Manhattanville College. Smith also serves on the board of trustees at Fairleigh Dickinson University and on the executive committee of the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP), where she leads an initiative to develop women as academic leaders globally; she is a representative to the United Nations from IAUP.

A questionable woman in the synagogue?


Ah!  How authors wax poetic about the allure of a vulnerable woman!  How tempting it is for that mensch in shining armor to whisk that vulnerable waif off her delicate feet and carry her away on his white horse, how tempting to rescue her from unnamed perils, and especially from her own demons.  When that mensch happens to be the just-engaged 28-year-old Adam Newman, who lives in the close-knit Jewish community of Temple Fortune in the suburb of London, where tradition rules and everyone’s nose is in everyone else’s business, that mensch is in deep trouble.

Francesca Segal’s wonderfully nuanced debut novel, “The Innocents” (Hyperion, 289pp), is the winner of the 2012 Costa First Novel Awards, the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction and the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize.  It was also longlisted for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction (The Orange Prize).  The novel, we are told, is loosely based on Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence.”  But to this reviewer, Segal’s portrait of the social manners of today’s Jewish community in Temple Fortune was so absorbingly familiar that any similarities or differences to Wharton’s aloof New York 19th-century community was soon forgotten and “The Innocents” took off on its own.

Adam Newman and Rachel Gilbert have been sweethearts for 12 years, and their  much anticipated wedding date is fast approaching.  The entire community is abuzz with the news and preparing for the big day.  Adam is enamored of Rachel, of her beguiling innocence and her deep respect for the traditions of their community—not a rebellious bone in her body.  The only difference they are having is that Adam wants to move the wedding date closer, even if that means there won’t be enough time to prepare for a lavish party.  But Rachel will not hear of it.  She has to consider the wishes of her mother, Jaffa, and grandmother, Ziva, in addition to an entire community that expects nothing less than a grand affair.  Adam can only insist that much.  He owes much to his future father-in-law, Lawrence.  Not only is he employed as a barrister in Lawrence’s firm, but Lawrence has replaced the father Adam lost in childhood.

The story opens on Yom Kippur in synagogue, the “congregation is fasting until sunset tomorrow night; in the meantime they were meant to be atoning.”  But that becomes increasingly difficult when Rachel’s cousin, Ellie Schneider, who lived in New York for years, appears unexpectedly in the women’s balcony.  The scandalous Ellie is a model who presumably acted in a pornographic movie.  Segal brings Ellie to life with all her charming qualities as well as her faults—the clear inquisitive green eyes, the dark circles around them, the chutzpah to wear revealing clothes and to smoke outside of synagogue on Yom Kippur.  She is tall and frail-looking and free-spirited, a tortured soul in dire need of rescuing.  In short, she is everything Rachel is not.  Adam’s first reaction is that “whatever other rumors might be circulating about her, he did not want the congregation thinking his fiancée’s cousin was a porn star.” 

But it will not take long before Adam finds Elllie’s otherness, her independence, her disregard for tradition and especially her vulnerability, hard to resist.  To Segal’s credit, the drama unfolds slowly, realistically and against the backdrop of fully-developed characters.  Adam’s inner conflict is rendered with wisdom and believable poignancy as he grapples with unfamiliar emotions and struggles to break away from a culture and a love that suddenly feels suffocating.

I sped through the pages and across a richly rendered tapestry of Jewish life to discover where Adam is headed.  In the process, Ellie’s shady past is further revealed, the Gilberts experience a financial crisis,  Shabbat dinners, Rosh Hashanah, and “Christmakah party,” come and go, and the wedding date is here.

Is Adam so naïve and unable to weigh the consequences that he might risk all, whisk Ellie off her feet and gallop away to join her tempting world?  Will he conclude that since his father would disapprove of the man he has become, “Now he would make it right only with honesty” and that “he would have to leave Rachel, would have to leave Lawrence, and that he was losing this beautiful, precious family that he and his first love had brought into being and that would be broken by his betrayal.”

Jewish and Arab American woman suing airline for racial profiling


A Jewish-Arab American woman is suing a U.S. airline and the federal Transportation Security Administration for removing her from an airplane and strip-searching her.

Shoshana Hebshi, whose mother is Jewish and father is Saudi Arabian, is suing Frontier Airlines and law enforcement for ethnically targeting her.

A SWAT team forcibly removed Hebshi, 36, an American citizen who lives in Ohio, and two Indian men in handcuffs from Frontier Airline flight 623 after it landed on Sept. 11, 2011 at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. She was held for hours, questioned and strip searched.

A fellow passenger had accused the three of acting suspiciously. Hebshi did not know the Indian men, who reportedly were sitting in her row.

The lawsuit was filed Jan. 22 in a federal court in Detroit. Also named in the lawsuit are the Wayne County Airport Authority, Detroit Metro Airport Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol.

Hebshi said in a statement that she was” frightened and humiliated,” and that she believes she was singled out due to her ethnicity.

“The illegal arrest and strip search of Ms. Hebshi is not simply a mistake made by an airline employee or government agency, but a predictable consequence of institutionalizing racial stereotypes and mass suspicion as law enforcement tactics,” Sarah Mehta, an attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, said in a statement issued Jan. 22. “Racial profiling is unconstitutional and counterproductive. No one is safer because an innocent mother of two was dragged off a flight, strip searched and held for several hours.”

The TSA would not comment to media on pending litigation.

Anat Hoffman’s arrest at Western Wall galvanizing liberal Jewish groups


Last week’s episode was hardly the first time Israeli police stopped activist Anat Hoffman while she was leading a women’s prayer service at the Western Wall in violation of Israeli law.

But this time, police actually arrested Hoffman — a first, she says — and the incident appears to be galvanizing liberal Jewish groups in the United States and Israel.

In the United States, the Union for Reform Judaism called for a police investigation and expressed its dismay to Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador in Washington. The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism announced a global “Shema flash mob” for Monday — a nod to the prayer Hoffman was reciting when she was arrested.

In Israel, the Israel Religious Action Center, which Hoffman leads, launched a petition to the Supreme Court requesting that the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which runs the holy site also known as the Kotel, change its decision-making process to include non-Orthodox Jews.

“There is no voice around that table for women, for the paratroopers who liberated the Wall, for the variety of pluralist voices,” Hoffman, who is also chairwoman of Women of the Wall, told JTA. “We want to dismantle this body. If the Wall belongs to the Jewish people, where are the Reform, Conservative, secular?”

For now, however, there is no grand coordinated strategy to challenge the laws governing Israel’s holy site, which bar women from praying while wearing a tallit prayer shawl or tefillin, or from reading aloud from the Torah. In a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court decision, those rules were upheld on the ground that “local custom” at the Wall did not allow for such practices.

So with Women of the Wall intent on continuing its practice of organizing a women’s prayer service at the site every Rosh Chodesh — the beginning of the Hebrew month — another incident likely is not far off.

Hoffman’s arrest during last week’s Rosh Chodesh service on the evening of Oct. 16 garnered more attention than previous incidents in which Hoffman was detained but not arrested. Hadassah, which was holding its centennial celebrations in Jerusalem, had sent some 200 women to pray with Hoffman, giving a significant boost in numbers to the service, which totaled about 250 women.

After Hoffman was arrested, she claims Israeli police chained her legs and dragged her across the floor of a police station, leaving bruises. She also claims that police ordered her to strip naked, and that she spent the night in a cell without a bed. She was released the following morning after agreeing to stay away from the Kotel for 30 days.

Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said Hoffman’s claims about her treatment are “not accurate and not right.”

As the incident received wide coverage in the American Jewish media, the condemnations of Hoffman’s arrest poured in, particularly from women’s groups such as the Women’s Rabbinic Network and the National Council for Jewish Women. Hadassah’s national president, Marcie Natan, told JTA that Hadassah “strongly supports the right of women to pray at the Wall.”

Yizhar Hess, executive director of Israel’s Conservative movement, said that if Hoffman actually is charged with a crime, it would force a reexamination of the rules governing the Western Wall.

“It’s not an easy experience to be accused in criminal law, but it will take this debate to a different phase: What can be done and what cannot be done in the Western Wall plaza,” Hess said.

Hoffman says she wants the courts to allow her group to pray for one hour per month at the Wall, and ideally wants the Wall’s council to allocate some time for prayers without mechitzah — the divider that separates men and women. She sees an opening in the Supreme Court’s reliance on “local custom” as the basis for upholding the current rules. The The Israel Religious Action Center's petition aims to change who defines “local custom.”

Shari Eshet, director of the National Council of Jewish Women’s Israel office, said legal initiatives are the best way to effect change on the issue.

“With all of the screaming and yelling and American Jews banging on the table, at the end of the day this is a land with a court system,” Eshet said. “We need to find another way to bring this back into the court system.”

Leaders of some religiously pluralistic American Jewish groups admit that their efforts to date on this issue have not worked. Some hope that Hoffman’s arrest will galvanize their constituents anew.

“This is a moment for us to think differently,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. He said his organization was considering an array of options and that more details would be forthcoming in a matter of weeks.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said a new strategy is needed.

“We’ve been very reactive thus far to these circumstances when they come,” he said. “Whatever strategies that we’ve been doing previously are not enough because this issue in recent years is getting progressively more difficult and troublesome.”

In Israel, groups working for religious pluralism face a dual challenge: They are fighting legal and legislative battles on a range of issues, and most Israelis are not motivated to join the fights — especially when it comes to the Western Wall.

“Israelis view the Wall as something not relevant to day-to-day life,” Hess said. “What could have been a national symbol to connect Jews from all over the world is now only an Orthodox synagogue.”

Women of the Wall could attract more of an Israeli following if it linked its cause to other religious freedom issues, said Rabbi Uri Regev, president and CEO of the Israeli pluralism organization Hiddush. “As emotionally attractive and justified as Women of the Wall is, there are bigger and more compelling issues,” like legalizing non-Orthodox Jewish marriage in Israel or funding non-Orthodox Jewish rabbis, he said.

Hoffman says she hopes Diaspora Jews will push the issue with Israeli leaders. Wernick says he wants the Jewish Agency for Israel’s board of governors to put the issue of women praying at the Western Wall on its agenda. He also is pushing for a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about it. USCJ, however, will not press for a new Israeli law on the matter, he said.

“We’re not Israeli citizens and we respect Israel’s right to determine its own course,” Wernick said.

Hoffman says, “The Western Wall is way too important to be left to the Israelis.”

Women of the Wall head arrested for singing at Western Wall


Jerusalem police arrested the leader of Women of the Wall for singing at the Western Wall.

Anat Hoffman was arrested Tuesday evening for “disturbing public order.” The organization posted on its Facebook page Wednesday afternoon that Hoffman was in court. “She is being accused of singing out loud at the kotel, disturbing peace,” the post read.

Two other members of the organization, Director Lesley Sachs and board member Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, were detained Wednesday morning by police for the same offense. They were released after being interrogated and fingerprinted at the police station in the Old City. According to the organization, the women admitted to wearing a prayer shawl at the Western Wall but not to disturbing public order.

Women of the Wall has held a special prayer service at the Western Wall each month for Rosh Chodesh, or the beginning of new month, at the back of the women's section at the Western Wall for the last 20 years. Tuesday night and Wednesday morning's prayer services for the month of Cheshvan were scheduled to be held together with delegates to the conference marking Hadassah's 100th birthday.

Hoffman was arrested Tuesday night after she had begun singing the “Shema” prayer, according to Haaretz.

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallitot, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall.

In August, Jerusalem police arrested four women for “behavior that endangers the public peace” and wearing prayer shawls. They were forbidden to enter the Western Wall Plaza for the next 50 days, according to the organization.

In June, Israeli police detained a woman wearing a tallit at the Western Wall and later questioned her for four hours after asking her to wear her prayer shawl as a scarf. In May, three women from Women of the Wall were stopped for questioning after praying at the Wall in prayer shawls. They also had been asked to wear the tallitot as scarves rather than shawls.

I am the woman who used to annoy me


To all the elderly women who have tried my patience over the years: Retribution is yours for the asking, for as you have known all along, I am becoming you. I’ve stood behind you in the supermarket line, tapping my foot and pretending to be absorbed in the details of Jennifer Aniston’s love life splayed across the magazine covers, but really I was a roiling tsunami of frustration that could boil over at any moment. 

I stood silently as some of you fumbled with your wallets, then swiped your credit cards through the readers with the magnetic strip facing up instead of down and then had to swipe again. I’ve bitten my tongue as those of you with fingers felled by arthritis took, oh let’s say, a whole minute, to pluck a nickel from your change purse. And I’ve smiled insincerely when it took another whole minute of my precious time to neatly stack your bills, fit them into your wallet, snap the darn thing, place it neatly in your purse, fold your receipt into a neat bundle, reopen your wallet to nestle the receipt in with your bills, re-snap the wallet — which is no easy task for you — place the wallet in your purse, search for your keys because why should you wait until you are at your car to find your keys, fit your groceries into your cart just the way you like them, and finally, transaction completed, walk away, leaving your sunglasses or cell phone or roasted chicken behind. Jennifer Aniston went through three boyfriends in the time it took you to buy bread, milk and Oreos. I smiled, but little did you know my closed-lip grin hid teeth so gritted, air couldn’t pass through my molars.

Take delight, Dear Ladies, that I am getting my comeuppance now. The young girl behind me at the Acme yesterday perused two Katy Perry/John Mayer breakup articles while I searched for my debit card in the bottomless pit that is my handbag. I could tell she was seething as I organized and reorganized my bags so none would be too heavy for my tennis elbow to bear. The tension in her brow signaled that I was keeping her from very important appointments, appointments that must have been far more substantive than anything I had lined up that day. I almost implored her to chill out until I recognized my younger self in her bridled impatience.

I send you my apologies for any bad vibes my highly metabolized being sent your way. I spent decades in a hurry, and unfortunately sometimes you were in my way. I decorated my house from top to bottom in a week and a half. I can make it from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Greenwich Village on foot in a half hour. A few years of my life have been wasted waiting for movies to begin or planes to board because I am always the first one at the theater or airport. Please don’t ask me what roses smell like. 

I’m sorry, ladies, and I want you to know I’m eating my just desserts. I’ve left my phone or my sunglasses in restaurants and shops all over town. I vividly remember the lasagna I served at my sweet 16 party, but can’t recall what I ate for dinner last night. I maintain the speed limit on highways these days and people honk at me. Recently, a restaurant hostess asked if I’d like to have my seat moved because many older people don’t like to sit near the air conditioner. I loathed hearing that but much preferred my new seat away from the vent. And I still needed my sweater. 

Intellectually I knew all along you had no control over the deceleration of your everyday activities, so I did not judge or condescend. But I had little control (or chose not to control) the brisk rhythm of my days. When our paths crossed, one of us was bound to feel off-kilter. Invariably, it was I.

I suppose you and I had a tacit agreement between us. I respected you by allowing you your time and space and by keeping my annoyance under wraps, and you respected me by restraining yourselves from mentioning that I would become you much sooner than I could possibly imagine. Thank you for that.


Karin Kasdin is an award-winning playwright, author and essayist whose articles have appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Family Fun Magazine, New York City Parents and others. Her book “Oh Boy, Oh Boy, Oh Boy: Confronting Motherhood, Womanhood and Selfhood in a Household of Boys” was named Best Parenting Book in 1997 by the Parent Council Ltd.

Woman attacked for immodest dress


Haredi Orthodox men threw stones at a woman and her baby who were shopping in Beit Shemesh.

The men shouted that the woman was not dressed modestly enough, Haaretz reported. The incident occurred on Wednesday.

Two Haredi Orthodox women helped the woman and her baby escape the attack by ushering them to a nearby store.

The woman’s care was damaged by the stones.

Palestinian terror cell indicted for American woman’s murder


Members of a Palestinian terror cell were indicted for the murder of an American tourist in a forest near Jerusalem.

Four Palestinians from villages near Hebron were indicted Wednesday in Jerusalem District Court for the murder of Christine Logan, 40, also identified by some media outlets as Christine Luken, and for the attempted murder of her hiking partner Susan Kaye Wilson. The two women were attacked Dec. 18, 2010, while hiking at Khirbet Hanut, an archaeological site near Beit Shemesh. Wilson pretended to be dead and survived the ordeal and provided descriptions of the attackers. The suspects reportedly have confessed to the attack.

They are also accused in the murder of Netta Blatt-Sorek, 53, of Zichron Ya’akov, whose body was found last February near the Jerusalem-area monastery of Beit Jamal. At least one of the indicted men reportedly has confessed to that murder.

In all, 13 members of the terror cell were arrested following a joint investigation conducted by the Shin Bet, border police, special army units, and police, Jerusalem District Police chief Aharon Franco said Wednesday. Indictments against the other cell members are being prepared, according to reports.

The suspects are also accused of two cases of attempted murder, one count of rape, another of attempted rape, seven incidents of robbery, seven cases of breaking-and-entering, and for shooting at an Israeli military jeep.

The cell’s motivation was at first criminal, according to police, but became terrorist after the January 2010 assassination of senior Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, which is widely believed to have been executed by Israel’s Mossad.

Community Rallies for Woman’s Divorce, UCLA Acquires Jewish Artifacts


Community Rallies for Woman’s Jewish Divorce

Chanting “Stop Abuse” and “Free Your Wife,” 200 people rallied on the eve of Purim in front of the Fairfax-area home of a man who refuses to grant his wife a Jewish divorce.

Meir Kin and his wife, Lonna, who have one child, have been separated for four years, and though a civil divorce has already been granted, he has refused to appear before a recognized rabbinic court to grant her a Jewish writ of divorce, or get. Without a get, she cannot remarry and is considered an agunah, Hebrew for chained woman.

The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) issued a seiruv, or letter of contempt, against Kin in March 2007 for refusing to appear before the beit din, a rabbinic judicial panel.

The New York-based Organization for the Resolution for Agunot (ORA) organized the rally to apply communal pressure on Kin. Because Jewish law does not allow a beit din to force a man to issue his wife a divorce, communities have historically used religious ostracization and social embarrassment to pressure recalcitrant husbands into giving in.

“We feel it is important for a community to take a stand against this kind of abuse, and say we will not tolerate it,” ORA’s assistant director Jeremy Stern said. “If someone is emotionally abusing his wife, abusing halacha and making a mockery of the rabbinic system, it will not be tolerated.”

ORA works with couples from across the religious spectrum — from fervently Orthodox to loosely traditional — to help resolve tough divorce cases, Stern said. The organization tries to facilitate conversation between the parties to help bring them to an acceptable resolution with a beit din or other mediator. If that fails, ORA uses threats of protest and then actual protests at the home or workplace of a husband who refuses to give a get, or a wife who refuses to accept one. Since it was founded in 2002, ORA has helped resolve 97 cases and still has 60 cases open — just a small percentage of the problem divorce cases out there, Stern says. Several of ORA’s cases are in Los Angeles, including an Israeli man in Tarzana who has refused his wife a get for 31 years.

ORA has been working on the Kin case for three years. The case has a long and complicated history in civil courts in New York and Los Angeles, and several rabbinic courts. Kin said a get is waiting for his wife at the beit din of Rabbi Tzvi Dov Abraham in Monsey, N.Y. But that beit din is universally reviled as extortionist, and divorces from Abraham’s beit din are not recognized by the RCC, the chief rabbinate in Israel or the Beth Din of America, Stern said.

Kin comes from a prominent Los Angeles Orthodox family — both his parents are longtime educators in the Beverly-La Brea area, and his brother, Rabbi Elyahu Kin, is a leader at the outreach organization Torah Ohr. Another brother is president of an Orthodox congregation.

The protest was held outside the parents’ home. Stern has been slowly publicizing the case for two years, sending fliers and information packets to local rabbis, hoping to avoid a rally, he said. While some rabbis showed up to the rally and publicized it among their congregants, many stayed away.

Stern said the group also works on preventative measures. It supports a 10-year-old effort to make prenuptial agreements, which make withholding or refusing a get financially painful, a standard part of Orthodox wedding ceremonies. Stern flew to Los Angeles for the rally, and spent some time in local Orthodox high schools teaching students about the need for prenups.

“We see this as way of making social change from the bottom up, so everyone does it as a matter of course,” Stern said.

— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer

UCLA Acquires Western Jewish History Artifacts

UCLA last week celebrated the acquisition of a treasure trove of Jewish history in the American West, the legacy of four dedicated amateurs turned skilled historians.

The ceremony in the UCLA Library’s special collections department culminated decades of work by the late Dr. Norton Stern and Rabbi William Kramer, both Los Angeles residents.

When they died, they left behind some 400 boxes crammed with documents, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, memoirs, photos and assorted memorabilia.

Much of the hoard was accumulated by Stern, an optometrist, who scoured the small towns of the Western states, looking, as he put it, “through hundreds of haystacks for dozens of needles,” hidden in abandoned cemeteries and faded newspapers.

His and Kramer’s immense accumulation of history in the raw was rescued after their deaths by two Valley residents, David W. Epstein and Gladys Sturman, who went about cataloging, indexing and archiving the material.

They were aided by 11 members of Congregation Shir Ami in Woodland Hills, an $18,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation and $10,000 from Sturman’s own pocket.

A major part of the Stern-Kramer legacy was trucked to UCLA last year and, over the months, Caroline Luce, a doctoral candidate in history, has digitized the archive, which is expected to go online in May.

In the process, Luce has become an expert on the arcane history of bagels, and the audience of some 70 invited guests was left to ponder whether the Jewish gustatory icon had originated in Austria, Poland, or China.

Epstein noted that Kramer and Stern had defined rather broad boundaries for the “American West,” claiming all the land west of the Mississippi River, Hawaii and parts of Mexico.

Jews played a disproportionally large role in the development of the West, because they were often the only residents who were literate, knew about business affairs, and were trusted by both gold prospectors and native Indians.

David Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, lauded the professional standards and work by Sturman, Epstein and the Shir Ami volunteers as a prime example of collaboration between town and gown.

Additional parts of the original Kramer-Stern collection have been donated to other institutions, such as 1,000 books to the American Jewish University, 2,000 photos to the Autry National Center, and ephemera to the Huntington Research Library, in partnership with USC.

For additional information, call the UCLA department of special collections at (310) 825-4988 or Genie Guerard at (310) 206-0521.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Candidate Adeena


If you want to really annoy Adeena Bleich, just ask her what it feels like to be a young Orthodox woman running for City Council. I know, because when we satdown recently for lunch at Shiloh’s, the first thing I asked her is what it felt like to be a young Orthodox woman running for City Council.

She rolled her eyes like my teenage daughter Shanni does when I show off my knowledge of the latest music.

It’s clear that Bleich is leery of being stereotyped, or worse, becoming some kind of political curiosity whose main calling card is her youth (she just turned 31), gender and Orthodox religion.

What she is, she says, is something a lot less dramatic: A hard-working individual who knows how local politics work and who wants to bring a new, practical attitude to serving the people.

All the people, of course.

Although she estimates that nearly half of the registered voters in her 5th District (which cuts a wide swath from West Los Angeles through Westwood, Pico-Robertson, the Fairfax area and right up to Sherman Oaks) are Jewish, she’s savvy enough to realize that Jews alone won’t carry her to victory. So Bleich, who is single and belongs to three Modern Orthodox shuls in Pico-Robertson (Young Israel of Century City, Beth Jacob Congregation and B’nai David Judea) wants to reach out.

She’s not exactly a novice at this game. She spent years as City Council Deputy to Councilman Jack Weiss— and was knee-deep in the local dramas of neighborhood groups, pro-business groups and the maze of City Hall politics. She was also in the trenches with former Speaker of the California Assembly Bob Hertzberg when he ran for mayor of Los Angeles.

So she knows the lingo, and she also knows that she’s up against some serious competition — from, among others, former city councilman Paul Koretz and neighborhood activist Ron Galperin. But she has no qualms about asking for your vote, because, as she says, she’s got some great things cooking for your district and your neighborhood.

But wait. Haven’t we seen this movie before? Isn’t that what they all say?

The truth is, I’m probably the worst guy to do a story on politicians, because as a rule, I can’t stand them. Politicians remind me of one of my least favorite traits in people: When someone over-promises and under-delivers. (I once consulted with a politician in the heat of an election race, and I recommended that he be upfront with the voters and tell them what they should not expect from either him or the government. I never heard back from him.)

Candidate Adeena Bleich, earnest charm and all, overflows with promises. She says the Council Office should be the “Nordstrom of customer service” for the city — nothing should be “too big or too small to do, or to help find the resource to redirect to”.

She believes the council staff should be more proactive in the community and less reactive (“engage the community before they even call”); they should create public safety and community programs (example: free self-defense classes for teenagers and women with local karate studios), and education eco-programs in the schools where “volunteers teach and lead recycling and gardening and create clean-up and tree-planting teams for the neighborhood from both public and private school kids in the district.”

She wants to set up an online community service guide, which includes “nonprofit, government and other local organization resources all in one place”; a mentoring/intern program between the local schools and local business people; innovative solutions “to get people out of their cars and increase public transportation”; a program to engage business owners to “make business corridors more vibrant and neighborhood friendly”; and so on.

As I listened, over three long sessions, to this litany of perfectly balanced promises, I was torn between admiration for the idealism of an aspiring young politician and my innate cynicism about politicians getting anything done.

I admit, however, that one thing cracked some of that cynicism: In the thousands of words Bleich shared with me about her dream political journey, she never dwelled on the notion of actually winning. In fact, there was hardly any talk of strategy or tactics. Instead, she talked mostly about ideas — the ideas she wanted to implement as Council member.

Her campaign strategy seems to be embedded in those very ideas, which she plans to disseminate on her Web site (Adeena2009.com), and as she knocks on 10,000 neighborhood doors (not an exaggeration, she says) over the next several months.

When I asked her mother (a lifelong Orthodox Jew who lives in Connecticut) whether she could remember a story from her daughter’s childhood that would give us a sense of what kind of politician she might be, she told me several, but one stood out.

In her early teens, Bleich was on her school’s relay swim team. During one race against another school, the other team was way ahead of Bleich’s team. By the time Bleich, who was swimming the last leg, got her turn, something improbable —and embarrassing — had happened: The other team had already finished the race. Oblivious to any humiliation, Bleich dove in and eagerly swam the last leg. Without any second thoughts, her mother adds.

It appears, then, that Bleich’s passion is in the doing. You start a job and you finish it. You make a promise and you keep it. You don’t shy away from details. You knock on 10,000 doors if you have to. You keep your head on at all times. You fight for the little guy. And then, when your work is done, you let God worry about the winning and the losing.

If you ask me, it all sounds very Jewish. But shhhh, don’t tell anyone.

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

Diversity lost


Forgive me for going on about this. I keep promising myself I’ll stop being outraged, turn off the radio and stop reading the papers. But if you’ll permit me one more question here:

Whatever happened to the Democrats being the party of tolerance and diversity?

These days, it’s gotten so people are afraid to say they still support Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y). They wait till they know if you’re a comrade before they say anything at all, and even then, they lower their voice and lean closer, as if confessing to some tell-tale mark of moral depravity, some innate but previously undetected propensity for corruption and vice and — God forbid — ambition.

She’s shameless she’ll stop at nothing to win she’s destroying the party Bill has lost it he’s playing the race card she should just go away and let Obama win.

All this from fellow Democrats, and I’m standing there thinking, Al Sharpton is threatening marches and demonstrations throughout the country if Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) doesn’t get the nomination. African American superdelegates who had pledged support to Hillary months ago and haven’t changed their mind are getting threatening messages from anonymous Obama supporters, something like 90 percent of the African American vote is for Obama and we blame Bill and Hillary — up until recently embraced by the African American community, Bill having been called “our first black president” by Toni Morrison — for bringing race into the equation?

Something like 14 million Democrats have voted for Hillary, given her their time and money, placed in her candidacy so many of their hopes and aspirations, and yet we blame her for the fact that the primaries have taken as long as they have?

If we have to find someone to blame, why not blame the Democratic Party’s proportional system? Michigan and Florida for breaking rules and being made to sit in a corner? Hell, why not blame Obama for getting into the race in the first place? Or the superdelegates who won’t declare themselves until they’re good and sure which side their bread is buttered on?

The notion that Hillary (or anyone else, for that matter, who still has the resources and the stamina and the faith to stay in the race) should just “go away” so that another candidate can coast to victory smacks of a sense of entitlement that, I dare say, is more suitable to a monarchical system than a democratic one. So does the argument that Obama’s record or abilities should not be scrutinized, held to the same high or low standards as those of other candidates throughout history. He’s been called a “unifier” and a “post-racial” candidate, and whatever little chink has appeared in his glossy image is being blamed on the fact that Hillary “just won’t go away.”

Are we electing a candidate based on his or her ability to lead the country, or are we crowning a king who looks good in pictures and who is above criticism, examination and challenge?

But the questions that have been raised about Obama in the past few weeks are ones that would have surfaced with time — during the primaries or the general elections. The fact that he became a phenomenon as quickly and unexpectedly as he did perhaps delayed the kind of scrutiny that other candidates are subjected to. But it seems to me that Obama supporters are doing exactly what Bush voters did in the last two elections: back him because he’s raised the most money; is likable and charming (I cringe when I say that, but there’s no accounting for taste); and promises them the world — No Child Left Behind, democracy in the Middle East, a permanent Republican majority.

True, there is a sense among young Democrats that Obama represents them better than an establishment candidate like Hillary. There’s equally a sense within the African American community that “our time has come.” Fair enough. They’re all entitled to their sentiments and entitled to support Obama as much as they want.

But by the same token, there is a sense among some of us woman folk in our 40s and 50s that our time has come, as well — that Hillary is the one female candidate with the brawn and the brain and the money and whatever else it takes to have a realistic chance at the presidency. That were she to lose — and I grant you, that seems more and more likely — there won’t be a female president in our lifetime. This may not seem like a big deal to our daughters’ generation, for whom women’s rights’ issues seem quaint. They’re energized by Obama’s message and the rock-star rallies. Fair enough. Go ahead and vote for him if you want, I say. Just don’t tell me that it’s OK to pick your candidate because he’s African American or young or a good speaker, but that it’s a betrayal of the party and a ruinous choice to pick her because she’s a woman who we believe is qualified.

Call me cynical, but I like Hillary in spite of the fact that she’s not Florence Nightingale. I think she’s as ethical or unethical as anyone else who has managed to navigate the treacherous waters leading to candidacy. On one level, I believe Gore Vidal when he said: “Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so.” I think that applies as much to Hillary as it does to Obama or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), that, again in the words of Vidal, “By the time a man gets to be presidential material, he’s been bought 10 times over.”

Yet, every time she’s attacked by the other Democrats in the media, every time a superdelegate previously pledged to her switches sides, every time New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson smirks into the camera and bashes Hillary in order to ride on Obama’s coattails (sorry, Bill, we all know the benefits of betting on a winner), anytime she digs her heels in and promises to keep going, I feel a sense of pride.

Here’s a woman who fights for what she wants to the bitter end; who doesn’t abandon her own dreams and the faith of people who have voted for her; who has the daring and the ambition to do what no other woman has been able to do in this country. And if that inconveniences anyone else — superdelegates, party bosses or Mr. Obama — it’s nothing that hasn’t been done, every election cycle in memory, by men.

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

I am not a fixer-upper!


Do I have a sign on my forehead that says, “Fix me up”?

I hope not, because then I’d really have a hard time meeting guys.

But every so often I get a phone call from a friend or relative, or my mom’s friend or co-worker, and even from people I meet on the street: “Orit, I want to fix you up with someone.”

Hello? Did I ask to be fixed up? Did I shout on a loud speakerphone that I’m looking to date or get married right now?

For them, it’s enough to know that I’m 30 and single, and that the potential match is in his 30s (sometimes 40s) and single. Most of the time these amateur matchmakers hardly know anything about me, at least anything that really matters for a successful relationship, such as my interests, values, preferences — and the creative work that expresses those: the novel I’m writing.

At first I used to indulge these fixer-uppers — I don’t know if it was for their sake, my sake or the guy’s sake.

Like that time my mother’s co-worker wanted to set me up with her cousin. He’s smart, good-looking, put together, she assured me. So I agreed to meet him for coffee. I should have taken the first phone call as a sign that he wasn’t right for me. He was sweet yet clumsy, clearly lacking a confidence and suaveness that would have accompanied a guy who was smart (at least socially smart), good looking and put together.

We met, and the date ended, at least in my mind, after the first sip of coffee I didn’t really care to drink. He was exactly what I had imagined he would be: socially awkward around women, balding, two inches shorter than me — and the schnoz was huge. Don’t get me wrong, I have gone out with balding men who have imaginative noses, but they had other balancing intellectual and physical merits. This guy had a desk job at a cellphone company — not one to understand the life of an adventurous writer and artist.

Note to matchmakers: I don’t do charity dates.

After a few more close encounters of the dull kind, I decided to conduct rigorous advanced screening, asking very specific questions about the person and requesting a picture over e-mail. Does “smart” mean he is book smart? Socially aware? Emotionally intelligent? Does “good looking” mean that his mother thinks he’s good looking? Would a girl who sees him walk down the street say: “That is an above-average looking man”?

But there was only so much interrogating I could do without sounding overly picky. So I went out with a few more dates after at least getting the basics down, but the dates generally didn’t lead anywhere. Usually we did not have enough in common, and when we did, the guy wasn’t interested. Go figure.

Finally, I decided to tell these hopeful matchmakers I’m not interested in meeting anyone. And maybe, when it comes down to it, that’s the real reason behind the dating failures. At this, they were shocked.

“I’m dating the novel I’m writing,” I told one newly married fixer-upper. She replied: “It doesn’t matter. You should still be open to meeting people, because you never know.”

I wondered why she cared so much. Does she need me to marry someone to validate her own decision?

“I like being independent, exploring the world on my own. Once I get married, I won’t have this opportunity,” I told a single potential fixer-upper who was actually taking a course on “how to date.”

She replied by psychoanalyzing me: “You’re just saying that to comfort yourself in your loneliness.”

Then, with self-pity, I racked my brain wondering if I am rationalizing my singlehood.

“I’m not ready for marriage right now,” I recently told a married acquaintance.

She replied by lecturing me: “You’re too picky. You should consider guys you wouldn’t normally consider. You know how many people get married from the Internet?”

Huh? Did she even listen to me, and did I ask for advice? Just because she’s married with two kids at 31 doesn’t mean I should be too.

People can’t seem to fathom that a single, 30-year-old woman doesn’t necessarily define success in life by her mate. They think by definition a 30-year-old woman must be hungry for a boyfriend or husband, and if not, there is something wrong with her.

I’m enjoying every minute of my single life and all its advantages: getting to know myself deeply, being free to travel on my own, having significant mental and physical space to finish my novel. Sometimes I think I’ll only meet the “one” once I have actualized myself in a way that implicitly broadcasts the kind of guy who would suit my needs.

Women are living longer these days; technology has improved fertility. We can wait until the mid-30s before our biological alarm clock starts ringing. In the meantime, thank God for “snooze”!

Yes, there are the moments when I think, “God, how great would it be to have a boyfriend.” Like a few weeks ago when I enjoyed, as a travel writer, an all-expense paid vacation in a romantic bungalow in northern Israel. It would have been wonderful to have a traveling — and sleeping — companion.

I recognize the phenomenal values of relationships, which unfortunately I don’t see in enough couples. I would enjoy a trusted, intimate support system; sex on a regular basis; a social companion; sperm (for when I’m ready); hopefully someone handy around the house, and, most of all, people will stop bugging me!

But I’m holding out for the best for me. I’m going to work on myself — happily — finish my novel and continue to become the woman worthy of the man I seek.

I know people have good intentions, and I don’t oppose fixer-uppers altogether, but they should at least be mindful and set me up with men whom I would consider for friendship regardless of my single status — not just another man they assume to be desperate as well. And why not introduce us at a party or social gathering? I’m sick of coffee.

Otherwise, stop bugging me. I’m busy being single right now.

Orit Arfa is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She can be reached via her Web site: www.oritarfa.net.

An open letter to the rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary


I want to share with you an email I wrote to Chancellor Elect Eisen as well as Rabbi Joel Roth on the JTS board to support allowing gays to marry and become rabbis:

Dear Mr. Eisen,

I am a 46-year-old woman born and raised in Los Angeles. I am writing to ask that the Conservative movement support gay marriage. As a child, my family was members of the Conservative Temple Beth Am with Rabbi Jacob Pressman at the helm. I am a private person but I wanted to share a bit of my story with you as I know mine is the story of many.

In elementary school I realized I was different. I had no vocabulary for it, but all the books, movies and relationships I saw led me to believe that my feelings were not normal and needed to be suppressed.

I began hiding what was to me a dark and terrible secret that I could not admit even to myself until my 20s. I did not want to be different. In fact, I went to sleep every night for years and years praying that I would wake up and be straight. Of course, that never happened. The thought of coming out and hurting my beloved parents or having them feel ashamed of me was more than I could bear and I thought my only options were either to commit suicide, which gay teens do three times more than their straight counterparts, or move to another city and hide my true self from my family forever.

I stayed in the closet until I was 28-years-old, dating men and sacrificing my youth and happiness trying in vain to fit in. I started having terrible panic attacks and actually thought I was going crazy. I realized one day that it was suddenly more painful to hide who I was than to admit the truth. I tried to prepare myself to lose my family. There were hints all my life that I was gay that my parents either ignored or denied hoping, like myself it wasn’t true or it would simply go away, or perhaps I would grow out of it. Their reactions let me know this would break their hearts.

Mr. Eisen, how different my life would have been had in my early years my temple and temple community openly welcomed gay people or if there were openly gay rabbis to demonstrate that everyone has value.

As Jews we especially understand the pain of being an outsider and of doors being closed to us simply because we were born Jewish. How terrible to think that we ourselves would ever make a fellow Jew an outsider.

By locking gay people out of the rabbinate or of the sacrament of marriage is to send a very strong message that gay people are flawed and not entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as those who happen to be straight.

The reality is that 10 percent of society is gay. With an estimated 14 million Jews worldwide, that’s 1.4 million Jews that happen to be gay. With our numbers dwindling, we cannot afford to lose even one person or make any Jew feel not welcome. I have always felt great pride in being Jewish.

This year I became a bat mitzvah after two years of study. I love Jews and Israel as much as anybody. I do not think it is fair that I am excluded from being a full member of the community I love so much because of the way I was born. It’s like saying people with blue eyes can never marry.

Mr. Eisen, whether we have blue or brown eyes, straight or gay most of us grow up dreaming of the day we will stand beneath a chuppah with our family and friends surrounding us with a rabbi to bless our union.

It is my deep hope that the Conservative movement will make a strong and courageous decision to embrace all of our members so that someday no Jew will ever again feel like an outsider in our own community.

Sincerely,
Pamela Witt

Pamela Witt is a business owner in Los Angeles. She can be reached at pamwittla@aol.com.

Jewish Woman Is European Beauty Queen; Katsav Urged to Temporarily Quit


Jewish Woman Is European Beauty Queen

Alexandra Rosenfeld, 19, won the Miss Europe 2006 title in Kiev last Friday. Rosenfeld, a student who is also Miss France, walked away with $130,000 in prize money and a diamond-studded crown. According to media reports, the Web sites covering the pageant were flooded with anti-Semitic messages after Rosenfeld’s win.

Katsav Urged to Temporarily Quit

Israel’s attorney general recommended that President Moshe Katsav temporarily resign. Attorney General Menachem Mazuz issued his advisory Sunday in response to a High Court petition lodged by a lawyer who wants Katsav to resign in light of the rape allegations against him. Mazuz noted that the High Court is not the forum for deciding Katsav’s fate, but said the president should consider having the Knesset declare him “temporarily incapacitated” until the investigation against him runs its course. Mazuz, who holds ultimate responsibility on deciding whether to prosecute Katsav, said that should there be a trial the president would have no choice but to step down. Katsav, who is suspected of raping more than one former female employee, has denied wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Elie Wiesel has said he is not interested in becoming Israel’s president in response to reports that he has been named as a possible successor to Katsav.

One-Third Favor Clemency for Rabin Assassin

Almost one in three Israelis would support seeing Yitzhak Rabin’s jailed assassin go free one day, a poll found. According to the survey published over the weekend by Yediot Achronot, 5 percent of Israelis would like Yigal Amir to be granted clemency now, while another 25 percent would favor him being freed in 25 years. Support for clemency was stronger among right-wingers and religious Jews. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they want Amir, who shot Rabin, Israel’s prime minister, at a 1995 peace rally, to stay behind bars for life. A 2001 bill passed by the Knesset ruled out clemency for anybody who assassinates an Israeli prime minister.

Foundation Funds Day School Scholarships

A U.S. foundation will offer scholarships worth $11 million for students to attend Jewish day schools in Baltimore. The multiyear grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation will be managed by the Associated, Baltimore’s Jewish federation. The Associated, which already provides more than $3 million a year to Jewish schools in the Baltimore area, committed an additional $1 million for each year of the partnership. Studies have shown that many Jewish parents say they are unable to send their children to Jewish schools because of the cost.”This fund will not only enable more children to attend Jewish day schools, it will centralize the scholarship process and ensure that the moneys are being disbursed as efficiently and effectively as possible,” said Shale Stiller, president of the Weinberg foundation.

Blair Attends Day School Launch

British Prime Minister Tony Blair attended the opening of an ultra-Orthodox day school. The Yesodai Hatorah Girls School was launched Oct. 26 at an event in London’s Stamford Hill. Blair called himself a proud friend of the Jewish people and praised the school for promoting the kind of “values that in the end must motivate and govern the whole of our country and society.”

Hours earlier, Education Secretary Alan Johnson reversed a government decision that would have required state-funded faith schools to reserve at least 25 percent of their spots for students of other faiths or no faith.

Auerbach, Legendary Celtics Coach, Dies

Legendary basketball coach Arnold “Red” Auerbach died over the weekend at age 89. Auerbach led the Boston Celtics to nine NBA titles between 1956 and 1966. Born to Jewish parents in Brooklyn, Auerbach was an innovator on both offense and defense. In 1954, the NBA introduced the 24-second shot clock to counter Auerbach’s tactic of having point guard Bob Cousy dribble out the game clock if the Celtics had a lead with under three minutes left.

Berlin Community Returns to Historic Quarters

Berlin’s Jewish community moved back into its historical headquarters. The community on Saturday celebrated its full return to a synagogue in the city’s east where both communal administration and board will be under one roof. Previously, some communal offices were located in the former West Berlin. The synagogue, which once could hold some 3,000 worshippers, largely was destroyed by allied bombing raids in World War II, but a new chapel and offices were constructed after reunification. The city’s Jewish population has quadrupled to more than 12,000 in the years since unification, particularly due to the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

— Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

New commentary looks at Torah from woman’s point of view


How many people know that when the Torah describes Abraham mourning the death of Sarah, it’s the only time in the entire text that a man mourns a woman? Or that Adam and Eve were equal partners in crime? Or that women most likely were instrumental in constructing the Temple?

Too few. That’s why the Reform movement will soon publish a commentary on the Torah that gives the woman’s perspective.

“The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” a project of Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), the movement’s women’s division, is a collaboration of 80 biblical scholars, archaeologists, rabbis, cantors, theologians and poets from across the religious spectrum — all of them women who came together to present a new perspective on the Bible.

“The goal of this is to bring women’s voices to the forefront,” said Shelley Lindauer, WRJ’s executive director. “History has been written by men; men were the ones who wrote the history of the Torah, and women’s voices got pushed to the background. We want to hear more about what the matriarchs said, some more about the women characters in the Torah.”

The volume won’t be released until the WRJ Assembly and the Union of Reform Judiasm (URJ) Biennial conferences in San Diego in December 2007. However, the Reform movement will introduce a chapter from the book next month. During the week of Nov. 18, when Parshat Chayei Sarah is read, about 250 Reform congregations — approximately 5,000 people in all — will participate in a study program based on the “Women’s Commentary.”

WRJ and URJ Press, which is publishing the book, have released the chapter from the 1,500-page volume for congregations to use during Shabbat services or other study sessions, along with a list of suggested talking points, to give a taste of what the commentary will offer, said Rabbi Hara Person, URJ Press’ managing editor.

The commentary will be laid out differently than many others. Each chapter will offer an overview, followed by Hebrew text and a linear translation, along with a central commentary from one of the 80 contributors.

After the central commentary, another woman will give a short countercommentary, offering a different viewpoint on each chapter. Then another woman will give a post-biblical interpretation and another a contemporary reflection on the parshah or weekly portion. Each parshah also will be followed by a selection of creative writing, most often poetry, that reflects the themes that were just read.

More than traditional commentaries, the new volume will focus on women when they’re in the text of the Torah — and also when they’re glaringly absent, editor Tamara Cohn Eskenazi said.

For instance, Chayei Sarah deals with the death of Sarah and the courting of Rebecca. Abraham’s slave finds Rebecca at a well, where she offers him water, and he asks her family if he can take her back to Canaan to wed Abraham’s son.

The women’s commentary is careful to point out that Rebecca gives her consent. Rebecca is an active, not passive, character from her very introduction in the Torah, the commentary says.

Though he hasn’t seen excerpts of the book, the notion of a women’s commentary garnered praise from Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

“Commentators have traditionally been male, so I think the women’s voice and perspective certainly can help to add and interpret and bring the message of the Torah in a way that may be different than a male’s voice,” Epstein said.

But he was a little wary of an exclusively female commentary, just as he said he would be wary of an exclusively male commentary in this day and age.

“We need commentaries that speak to all people and that have male and female voices blended together,” he said.

Differences between the women’s commentary and traditional commentaries start at the very beginning, with the story of creation.

The creation of woman is one of the most misinterpreted passages in the Bible and is fraught with cultural bias, Eskenazi explains in her interpretation, which will be published in the “Women’s Commentary.”

While the description of Eve being created from Adam’s rib is commonly taken as a sign of Eve’s inferiority, it’s more a statement of their equality, she says. They’re described in Genesis 1:26-28 as being of the same flesh, both “created in God’s image and blessed with fertility and power.”

They later are described as partners. And when they sin by eating the apple, they do so together — yet it is Eve who often is perceived as the evildoer and the one who was the impetus for the expulsion from Eden.

An essay by Elizabeth Bloch-Smith in the volume discusses Parshat Trumah, which describes the building of the Mishkan, the portable temple the Jews built in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Although the gender of the artisans who built the Mishkan isn’t clear, it’s often assumed that they were male.

But based on archaeological evidence from the time that shows women heavily involved in weaving and spinning, Bloch-Smith suggests it was women who provided the yarn for the temple’s Tent of Meeting, according to Rabbi Andrea Weiss, the commentary’s associate editor.

Weiss, an assistant professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, said she’s now teaching a class based on the “Women’s Commentary.”

The volume has been in the works for 13 years, since Sarah Sager, a cantor, challenged the movement to undertake the project in a speech to the WRJ assembly in 1993.

“We’re not trying to make this midrash. We’re not trying to make the text say something that it didn’t say,” Weiss said. “We’re trying to read it closely and to pay more attention to parts not found in other texts.”

First Person – God Laughs?


This column first ran on July 26, 2002, and is one of a series that the beloved former managing editor of The Journal wrote about her life and her battle with cancer. She died on Sept. 5, 2002. She was 54.

My girlfriend “E” was the first to declare what others had been observing for a while.

“God sure is having a good laugh,” she said. “You write a column called ‘A Woman’s Voice.’ And yet you have no voice.”

The irony had crossed my mind.

Lance Armstrong, the bicyclist, had testicular cancer. Beverly Sills, the opera singer, has two daughters who are deaf. Is there “meaning” in the fact that I, who have for some years traveled the country public speaking, and whose professional identity is hung up on the moniker of this column, cannot be heard?

I haven’t had a speaking voice in more than a month. I whisper, a frog croaking through the bulrushes.

My right vocal cord is paralyzed. While speaking, which I assure you doesn’t hurt, I puff like I’m running a marathon. I take an hour to eat scrambled eggs.

Still, if you ask me, God has nothing to do with it.

The loss of a voice carries a surprising spiritual threat: friends act as if some crucial part of me were gone. Inside my head, I still yammer away, brilliant on the topics of WorldCom, ImClone and Israel. But when I open my mouth, I become like Hannah before the Tabernacle. My every chortle and grimace is subject to misinterpretation.

The phone rings. The caller is disoriented: Who am I? I rush to reassure them: I’m OK. I feel fine. When I had chemotherapy, I continued to sound like myself. I would call my parents in New York right after treatment ended. Sitting tall, I was convincingly strong and congruent.

These days, without a voice, identity is not so much gone as taken on faith. I have faith that the situation is only temporary. My community has faith that I’ll be restored to myself, New York accent and all.

We are known by how we sound. Sound — our laugh, our cry, the song we hum — is the beginning of identity.

We know that God stands watch at night by the natural and unnatural sounds of the universe: the roar of the wind, the bray of the ass, the bark of a dog, the sound of a baby’s cry.

I listen for God’s comfort at night, and offer the silence of praise.

But is God laughing?

Judaism has struggled since the Holocaust to remove God from the nation’s “Most Wanted” list — the “intervening punisher God” with a wicked sense of humor.

As for you and me, the good people that bad things happen to, we’re our own worst enemy: We keep asking “Why?” as if there’s an answer. We remain committed to a God who can’t wait to pull the tablecloth out from under us.

We seek out “God the sadistic entertainer” when all other explanations fail. Lacking all other reasons, we fall back to a punitive concept, that we deserve punishment; that perhaps God never liked us to begin with.

But illness has shown me another God, one of comfort. The “loathsome trickster God” offers nothing, not even to say, “I don’t know.”

There is no reason why this has happened. Life is inherently unpredictable. Diseases, like lung cancer, have more ups and downs than a soap opera. Like “Anna Karenina” you laugh or cry, and sometimes both.

It’s funny, at least to me, that since losing my voice, I can’t interrupt anyone, not even to tell a joke. I have learned to listen to news reports rather than comment on the haircut of the newscaster. Now that I listen to conversation, I’m no longer the smartest person in any room, so far as you could tell.

The condition won’t last forever. Soon, I’ll have a silicon implant that has nothing to do with breast enhancement. I’m told it will smooth out my vocal cord and will restore my voice to normal. I’m saving my best repartee until then.

“Man plans and God laughs,” is what we say in difficult times, as if God were Henny Youngman.

If so, God can find me right here.

 

‘Hybrid’ Actor Crafts ‘Everyman’ Show


Is it possible for an everyman to be a leader? Can an everyman be a woman?

Ameenah Kaplan, who calls herself a “hybrid” — the product of an African American mother who converted to Judaism and a Jewish father — is directing, choreographing and co-producing “Everyman for Himself.” Appearing weekends at the Unknown Theatre in Hollywood, the show is a hybrid itself, in that it blends music, dance, theater and capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian dance form that incorporates self-defense maneuvers. Kaplan also wrote and conceived the production and, indeed, thinks of herself as an everyman.

Shaped by Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Kaplan, 31, grew up in Atlanta, where she was bat mitzvahed and confirmed and where, she says, she would “float into different communities and never really fit into any of them.” As the only non-Christian among blacks, the only black among Jews, she says, “you’d be in a room and nobody sees you.”

Everyman, the title character in her show, played by Michael Gallagher, is both invisible and conspicuously visible. Where the other ensemble players paint their faces and wear togs like members of an African or Indian tribe, Everyman looks like a stiff businessman, donning a tie, starched shirt and long pants.

“Go with the flow,” is one of the adages he reads from a book, yet Everyman never quite fits in. He is singled out by one female character, who engages in a kind of martial arts match with him that is equal parts seduction and boxing.

None of Kaplan’s characters have traditional names; instead, they sport generic titles like Ball Girl, Judge, Bee and Boss. With the beat of African drums playing in the background as the ensemble characters teach Everyman to dance, there is the sense that we are witnessing an ancient ritual among primal beings.

In the production notes, Everyman is billed as a Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin “genius/fool”; he appears awkward, a modern man, exposed as if for the first time to the world of conformity that dates back to our days as early Homo sapiens in the Horn of Africa.

“People are essentially primal anyway,” says Kaplan, sitting on a couch in a lounge down the hall from her actors’ rehearsal hall. Wearing a head wrap that conceals her afro, Kaplan says, “We’re all simple and alike at the bottom. My acting training taught us that. Come into the room, get your shoes off and build the actor from the ground up.”

We share more than not, she says, pointing out “the visceral body connections celebrating those things that bring us together — sound, energy, drums, heartbeat, blood flowing.”

Kaplan has the slim, athletic body of a dancer; she has played numerous TV and legitimate theater roles, and sees herself first as an actor. She smiles when asked if she was somewhat conflicted over not playing the lead role herself, but she says that Gallagher embodies Everyman. She also stresses that every actor in the show contributes as much as the others. All of the actors play multiple roles: “The ensemble is the show. There are no supporting roles. No one’s playing crossword puzzles backstage. There are no cigarette breaks.”

One scene flows into the next, each one carrying totemic significance. The smallest prop — whether it’s a book, a jacket, a ball or a handkerchief (a nod perhaps to “Othello”) — becomes a talisman in this primordial landscape, where the characters speak very few words and those they do are often monosyllabic.

Everyman may be more Jesus than Adam. He must choose whether to fight or kill another man. Unlike the others, he is consumed with grief.

“What he’s going through is the human condition,” says Kaplan, whose work ethic really comes through in person. Reluctant to leave her actors for an interview, Kaplan never loses her graciousness and generosity; she has the maturity and seriousness of one who knows that, without her, the play will not proceed. Even during the brief interview, she wants to make sure that the actors are OK. At one point, she tells the stage manager that the actors will need her to be there for the next scene, involving some dance routines that they have not tried before.

As the interview ends, Kaplan, the everyman, springs to her feet with the physicality of Keaton. She will direct her cast without any crossword puzzle or cigarette breaks. She is anything but invisible.

“Everyman for Himself” plays Friday and Saturday nights at Unknown Theater, 1110 Seward St., near Santa Monica Boulevard, through April 29. For tickets and information, call (323) 466-7781.

 

Dating Creeds


Believe it or not, I’ve never felt quite as valuable, attractive and desirable as the times I’ve gotten dumped. Well, sort of.

According to some once-doting men, I’m terrific. I’m also beautiful, talented, smart, sassy, funny, dynamic, cute and sweet. To make matters worse, I’d make a fantastic mother. And the final blow? Apparently … I’m a catch.

I listen intently to my lover-gone-evil dumper’s compliments — and cringe. Somehow my fairy tale has gone awry.

See, trailing the flattery describing my laundry list of potential partner credentials — the same saccharine methods that wooed me into that first kiss — lay an inevitable “but,” and some rambling, seemingly canned, statements.

In reiterating his appreciation for me, his desire to spare me pain and reasons why we — theoretically — should be together, suddenly my dumper’s not good enough, (“it’s not you, it’s me”), and reeeeeeally wants me to be happy (and move on). “I’m amazing, but [insert canned line here].”

Now clearly not everyone is a match. But instead of feeling empowered and desirable by my heartbreaker’s sweet lines, I am condemned to doubt not only him, but also our time together and, regrettably, my wonderful self. If I were a complete loser, I’d understand. But if I’m so swell, well … seems like I’ve been dating some — literally.

Take “Bob,” the professional with political aspirations. He fell quickly for me; we enjoyed each other, shared similar values and a distinct joie de vivre. He claimed I was everything he looked for in a woman. We talked about the future. And, importantly — we both loved sushi.

When I sought more “us” time to determine our true compatibility, Bob, the great orator, eloquently expressed his feelings for me: He relayed my wonderful attributes, my incomparable spunk and wished upon me the greatest happiness (without him). Apparently, he didn’t want to waste more of my (or his) very precious time (with me).

Guess my joie didn’t match his vivre.

“George,” a younger man (and baseball enthusiast) said I was the most beautiful, hilarious woman he had ever met. He’d gaze lovingly at me over dinner, swoon when we danced and high-five my ball-tossing ability. He reinforced my goodness and thought I’d make a beautiful bride.

Six months into it, when gazing, swooning and high-fiving left me out of a family gathering, I questioned my ranking. George stumbled to the plate, uttered something witty and reinforced my beauty. After two weeks of overtime? He was still charming and I was still “gorgeous” — just not for him.

I suppose even a great lineup can’t win a series without chemistry.

While a canned phrase certainly trumps a “fizzle,” where phone calls stop or rumors start, what if — instead of this PR-driven, cautious fantasy — we just said it: “You’re attractive, but I’ve found someone more so,” “Your neuroses were endearing; now, they’re just annoying,” “I wanted someone motivated and sassy; turns out I’d rather have a trophy wife who’ll focus more on me, ” “You’re incredible, sexy and I just don’t want to marry you.”

It may hurt, but you’ll at least have something to work with (and keep some shrinks in business). And after building your “qualifications,” seeking the “perfect” match (when perfection simply doesn’t exist), you’ve paid your dues. There’s got to be a takeaway. Otherwise, the faux-ex-fan club seems vacuous and wasteful, which simply seems frivolous.

So post-George, I reflected on men I passed up: “Jim” was great (but I wasn’t attracted to him), and “Josh” was terrific (but too goofy for me); “Brian” was really unique (but too scattered for me); “Ian,” while just OK, had amazing potential (just hadn’t gotten there yet); “Dan,” was the entire package — I just hadn’t reached the right place in my life.

So in full disclosure, I complimented my soon-to-be-ex-beaus like heck, and then dumped them. Not in a swift, clear way, but in some rambling, incoherent way. I explained issues as I saw them: “It’s not you, it’s me,” “You’re terrific, but I’m not in that place.” “I just don’t think it will work out. I can’t say why.”

Oh, no. Am I just as bad as Bob and George? Yikes.

I (and many like me) probably won’t and maybe shouldn’t ever know the whole story. But we should know something: Heartbreakers, while sometimes a fairy tale’s villain, were indeed “good” credentials. And with them, I not only learned to enjoy good food, follow baseball, work a room, and to appreciate cl-ar-it-y, I also learned “what I do/don’t want” and, importantly, to care.

I’ll absolutely take those lessons and since it’s ultimately (supposedly) worth it, I’ll tirelessly plug along in pursuit of my perfectly imperfect match. As for my ever-growing list of selling points? I’ll happily add “strong” and “wise” to my register of attributes. It’s — and here’s the hard part — adding “frustrated” and “cynical” that I’d like to avoid.

After all, I’m a catch. As-Is. At least that’s what I’ve been told.

Dara Lehon, a freelance writer living in New York City, can be reached at dlehon@yahoo.com.

 

Spectator – Assimilation and a Blonde Doll


Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain laughs when asked where she gets her finely honed sense of ironic humor. It comes with being Jewish, she explains — a group whose number constitutes just one-quarter of 1 percent of the human race and thus makes getting along with others paramount.

“You got to keep them laughing, or else they’ll kill you,” she says by phone from her San Francisco home. “Jews are always making fun of themselves — it’s a strategy, I think.”

Her new short film is a funny, often self-deprecating and dazzlingly collage-style documentary called “The Tribe: An Unorthodox, Unauthorized History of the Jewish People and the Barbie Doll … in About 15 Minutes.” Co-written with her Jewish husband, UC Berkeley robotics professor Ken Goldberg, and narrated by Peter Coyote, the film, an official selection at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, screens on March 30 at the Egyptian Theater — followed by a discussion with Shlain and Goldberg.

Shlain grew up culturally Jewish in the Bay Area and was interested in learning about her grandfather’s origins in Odessa, Ukraine. With time, she became increasingly concerned with her Jewish heritage. She and her husband, for instance, named their daughter “Odessa.”

The film’s specific origins began when Shlain learned that the creator of the “WASPy-looking” Barbie Doll was a Jewish woman, Ruth Handler.

“I thought that was one of the great ironies of popular culture,” she said.

Subsequently, when Shlain noticed that Handler’s 2002 obituaries didn’t mention her religion, she got peeved.

“I thought that’s the lead part of the story,” she said. “Then it hit me that Barbie would be the perfect metaphor for exploring assimilation. It’s a complicated subject, but she’s a funny way in. People have strong feelings about Barbie.”

Using archival footage, animated graphics, Barbie dioramas, direct-camera addresses and even a spoken-word “slam poetry” performance, the film seriously explores Judaism even while irreverently spoofing its intentions.

This is the eighth film for the 35-year-old Shlain, who also works with computers and who founded the Webbie Awards honoring Internet achievements. Her last short, “Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness,” was about the erosion of reproductive rights.

“I’m very interested in taking difficult subjects and infusing them with humor,” she said. “I think with complicated issues, you have to use humor to open people up to talking about them.”

“The Tribe” has its Los Angeles premiere at 8 p.m. on March 30 at the Egyptian Theater, presented by the American Cinematheque, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. $9. Tickets can be purchased at fandango.com. For more information, visit

A Woman’s Touch


The stereotypical Jewish woman is strong, supportive, receptive and respected. Growing up, she is showered with love,

pampered by objects and experiences of beauty and quality. She keeps a welcoming home. She attends to detail, wants what she wants and is unapologetically “high maintenance.” She is wise, and capable of keen manipulation. She is emotional — following her heart more than her mind. She is nurturing, loyal, generous and willing to sacrifice. She finds total fulfillment only when she has balanced her work with marriage (preferably to a doctor or lawyer) and children. Most significantly, she loves receiving beautiful clothing, fine perfume and dazzling jewelry.

She might (stereotypically) become annoyed reading such generalizations, and seek out those attributes that do not apply to her. Her annoyance may also rise around the seeming male dominance of her religion: the subordinate roles of women, the deficiency of female voice and presence in Torah. She might question where the goddess part of the One Divinity is in Judaism; why parshot such as this week’s Vayakhel-Pekudey speak only of male priests and male builders creating a space within which to worship a male god.

That’s what I have wanted to know, anyway — Jewish American Princess/rabbi that I am. As wonderful as Judaism is, the apparent disregard for the feminine side of things really bugged me. More than that, I didn’t understand how Judaism had survived with this kind of imbalance. Be it a battery or a plant: Both the male and female aspect to its makeup must engage in equal and opposite reactions in order to maintain homeostasis. If the positive charge is stronger than the negative, if there’s too much water and not enough sun, too many carbs and not enough protein, more yang than yin, more tonic than gin…. OK, I’ll stop.

Disproportion in something’s receptive and aggressive qualities quickly destroys it. In accord with these irrefutable physical laws, it seemed impossible that Judaism could have subsisted with such dominant chauvinism.

I sought out the ancient hidden femininity within Judaism, knowing that the goddess had to be there somewhere — deep, concealed and receptive: as her feminine nature would dictate. The Divine aspect representing the stereotypical Jewish woman must have existed as consort to the father/ruler/protector/provider in equal but opposite strength. But where? As it turns out: everywhere!

As with the laws of homeostasis, kabbalah also acknowledged that both masculine and feminine elements exist equally within the emanations of the one God. They diagramed this: with the Ain Sof — the infinite, active, masculine, source of all — flowing down into existence until he is finally received by his woman: the Shechinah. This goddess aspect of the One is Its in-dwelling, the part that accepts, conceives and makes manifest what flows toward her. She is Mother Earth. The bearer of all that is: trees, buildings, humans; the finite that is married to the infinite in sacred communion. She is around us, within us, and certainly in Torah. Vayakhel-Pekudey, I have come to realize, is a description of goddess worship as much as adoration of god.

For in building the tabernacle and dressing the priests, homage is paid to the ultimate Jewish woman. In helping her to properly accommodate the presence of her man, her wood is measured in uncompromising detail to assure strength and support. Her people respect strict rules for manipulating the materials in their building. They follow their hearts rather than intellects in offering her objects of beauty. With loyal adoration they bring her perfumed oils and incense; flowery carvings, precious metals to be shaped into womb — like rings.

From the rings hang curtains and veils — such as those worn by the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Greek Penelope. Their cloth is from threads of fine linen, thread being the symbol of fate, woven by Aphrodite and the Cretan goddess Ariadne. So, too, the priests’ “robes of woven work” reflect ancient rites of women’s magic — weaving and knotting have been since time immemorial methods by which to control fates (example: marriage is “tying the knot”). They gather gemstones once connected to acts of female divination for the breastplate, such as sapphire — the stone of destiny, invoking the triple goddess of fate. And upon the hem of the priest’s robe, bells are intertwined with pomegranates — apples of many seeds (in Hebrew rimon, from rim: to bear a child) with their universal symbolism as the fertile womb.

With every material and every action, the congregation of Israel celebrates the goddess in her endless manifestations. And while her husband may not be a doctor, his capacity to co-exist with her as the ultimate equal and opposite partner explains how Judaism has maintained its glorious presence throughout history. The stereotypical Jewish woman is connected with, and ever empowered by, the sweet-smelling, jewel-wearing, high-maintenance Mother Earth goddess Shechinah. And she reflects a universal femininity that is powerfully, albeit subtly existent throughout the Bible. Through her partnership with the masculine, she calls to us to love what is along with what could be, and to celebrate the faces of woman in balance with the gender that is our equal, opposite partner in the Divine gift of recreation.

Karen Dietsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.

 

Friedan: Universal Woman, Particular Jew


Betty Friedan was, like most ordinary mortals, a mass of contradictions.

She was loud and sometimes imperious, yet she could be charming, funny, gentle, kind and winsome. A public persona, at times her ego needed massaging, but she remained surprisingly unassuming and unpretentious.

Though she exuded self-confidence, her vulnerabilities were right out there for all to see. She could fix her eyes and set her jaw in a ‘take no prisoners’ position, but she could also listen to opposite views, change her mind, and soften at the distress of others.

Friedan, who died last weekend at age 85 at her home in Washington, D.C., was both universal woman and particular Jew. The word Jewish does not appear at all in “The Feminine Mystique,” her seminal work, yet every heartbeat was a Jewish one. Once, in her 50s, after fame, fortune and independence had filled her life, she asked one favor of friends — to find her a nice Jewish husband.

She wrote about the drudgery and mindlessness of family work, yet her family was the sustained love of her life. She was totally invested in her children and longed for grandchildren well before they came.

This complicated, complex woman changed all of our lives, even those who never read “The Feminine Mystique” or never heard of NOW, the National Organization for Women.

She spawned perhaps the most profound social revolution of the last few centuries without a drop of blood being shed. She will go down in history as one of the great change agents of modern history; and for us, she will be a continuing source of Jewish pride, characterized in our own history books as one of the contributions we made to the world.

How and why was her impact so great? For that matter, how was it that she changed my own life as a Jewish feminist — for I came from a very different place in the 1960s, from a community that offered women great satisfaction and sense of value in their roles as wives and mothers?

Her book seemed to be anti-family, anti-men. Though her chapter “Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available” carried some truths, mostly she managed to put down so many of the great women I knew, full-time homemakers and mothers. Moreover, as the women’s movement got off the ground in the ’60s, building on her book’s steam, it quickly became more radicalized. The rhetoric of family as locus of abuse and man as exploiter grew more shrill. I’d have none of that!

Yet along with the excesses of early feminism was the underlying idea Betty Friedan offered the world: gender equality. This meant much more than the women’s vote. It meant equal access, equal talent and brains, equal dignity of women — and all of it a matter of justice.

For me, she did not adequately answer the question of equal careers and who would make lunch for hungry toddlers, prepare for Shabbat dinner with guests or meet the school bus each afternoon. She could not, because someone had to do the drudgework that accompanied the peaks and joys of raising children and running a Jewish household — and society was not yet organized to split these roles. But once she implanted in our minds and hearts the idea of equality of genders, once she posited this as ethics rather than as a battle between the sexes, each of us would try to work out the details in our own lives.

More than that, she opened the door to broader application of the idea of equal access and dignity to other spheres of life. In 1963, I made no connection between feminism and Jewish religious life, the imbalances in traditional Judaism created by gendered religious roles, the prevailing limitations on women studying Talmud or even the real disabilities in Jewish divorce.

But others did. These were a handful of Jewish women of the 1960s, women of Ezrat Nashim, women of other denominations who were writing about or modeling the new values, women who mediated secular feminism into Jewish feminism. Once these pioneering Jewish feminists established the connections, I could apply them to my own community — not out of a sense of abuse for I still felt none, but out of a sense of ethics, of meeting the original biblical paradigm — male and female created as equals in the image of God.

Friedan taught us several other important lessons. Not content to rest with the mighty power of her pen, she understood the covenantal nature of organizational life: For a job to be done and the work to continue, one needed more than an idea, more than cohorts. One needed organizational structures that would allow others to find an address and to take up the work. Friedan went on to found or co-found NOW, the National Women’s Political Caucus and the First Women’s Bank and Trust Company. She co-organized the first protest march and the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970. In 1969, though already beleaguered by opposition to feminism, she was unafraid to publicly take on the abortion issue, founding NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League.

These organizational models and her writings spawned hundreds of others. A spate of books and periodicals followed hers, and many hundreds of independent feminist organizations were created on these shores and far distant ones. Thus, her work in the world was multiplied in the arenas of politics, domestic life, religion, economics, education and all of the professions. It was, I believe, more than some of her sisters in the movement would acknowledge in later years.

As for her Jewishness, Friedan wore it proudly. In 1975, Rabbi Isaac Trainin and I invited her to join a New York Federation Task force, then called Jewish Women in a Changing Society. She joined in an instant, as if she’d just been waiting for the Jewish community to invite her in.

At her first meeting, she spoke of how Jewish values of justice had influenced her feminism, indeed her entire outlook on life. Later, we would learn that being a smart, Jewish girl growing up in Peoria, Ill., would shape her sensitivities as an outsider and sharpen her abilities to engage confrontation, both of which helped her in the early feminist battles.

She also was concerned specifically about the Jewish family. Once, in the early 1980s, as she, Susan Weidman Schneider and I shared a panel in Chicago on “Feminism and the Jewish Family.” I quipped that I was a slow learner for I had read “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963 while pregnant with my second child but went on to have three more children. (In the book, she caricatures the woman with a vision of five children). Friends though we were by then, she took considerable umbrage at my comment for she disliked being associated with a decline in the Jewish birth rate.

She saw Jewish feminism as a logical extension of secular feminism; the same rubrics applied: access and education; the need for ‘outside’ or public roles as well as inside ones defined as women’s primary space; freedom to control one’s destiny in marriage and divorce.

In those years, the Task Force held conferences on the agunah (the problem of women who have trouble obtaining a Jewish divorce), on infertility, on the Jewish family. Though peripherally involved in those conferences, she remained curious and interested in their outcomes.

Friedan’s greatness also lay in her ability to rethink matters. In publishing “The Second Stage,” she recognized that she had gone too far in “The Feminine Mystique” in denigrating women’s roles in the home. She wrote of transcending the false polarization between feminism and family, between men and women. She addressed the realities of work in the home and the satisfactions of women who chose that as their primary role. She was criticized by some of her more radical counterparts for selling out the original vision, but then, as earlier, she held her ground.

She once acknowledged that some of her writing in “Second Stage” was influenced by her contact with Jewish women of the federation world who successfully put together family and service and who made sequential choices in their lives regarding family and career.

Jewish history is full of flawed models, sometimes more powerful because of their flaws, and certainly more accessible. Betty was straight as a narrow, totally transparent, nothing behind a veil. What you saw was what you got, including anger or bruised ego. But that made the love, the caring, the creative mind, the generous spirit and the passion for justice all the more precious.

Blu Greenberg is founding president of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and founding chair of One Voice: Jewish Women for Israel.

 

Capturing Chasidim


As a street photographer, Maya Dreilinger echoes the sentiments of the 1982 “Missing Persons” song “Walking in LA.” Driving around the city, “you don’t see a lot of people walking,” she said. “But the Chasidism are always out on the streets and not just on Saturdays.”

With her camera, Dreilinger spent about two months documenting the streets of the Chasidic community bordering La Brea Avenue. Her exhibition, “La Brea on Robertson,” currently on display at the Workmen’s Circle, presents an intriguing mix of photographs and paintings that in some ways reveal more about the artist than the subject matter.

Born in Israel and raised in Los Angeles, the 30-year-old Dreilinger admits to having pre-conceived judgments about Chasidic Jews before she embarked on her project.

“I believed that their culture was restrictive, that women were always patronized,” she said. “But being around them for two months, I was humbled. Now I have no more anger or resentment, only respect.”

While other photographers have sought to document Chasidism from more of an insider’s perspective, Dreilinger purposefully maintained her distance as an outsider. She wandered around the La Brea area dressed as she normally does and refused the occasional invitation to dinner at someone’s home.

“I didn’t want to go in that direction,” she said. “I wanted to be only the respectful observer.”

Upon viewing Dreilinger’s work, Eric Gordon, director of the Workmen’s Circle, immediately thought of Roman Vishniac’s photographs of pre-war Poland.

“Maya has a discerning eye, and I love the humor in her work,” he said. “As for her subject matter, we may not be a religious-centered organization, but we are devoted to Yiddish culture. A socialist from the 1930s might have condemned this exhibit, but we’ve evolved since then. They [Chasidim] are part of our Yiddish community.”

The majority of Dreilinger’s photographs clearly show her outsider’s perspective. Several depict rear-view shots of Chasidic men and boys walking down the street and radiating inscrutability. A Chasidic boy, shown in the midst of prayer in an unidentifiable interior, seems completely absorbed in his own world. In “Kosher by Kehilla,” two women walking toward a street sign for a kosher bakery appear partially visible. Only their skirts and the top of a hat can be glimpsed.

In contrast, other photos subtly reveal the intrusion of the modern world. “Grandfather’s Touch” shows a little girl, with her father and grandfather, who carries the kind of plastic backpack desired by most trendy kindergartners. In “The Alley,” a group of black-garbed men pass an alleyway near the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Beverly Boulevard. Three men who appear to be Hispanic laborers inhabit the alleyway. One of them looks at the Chasidim, wide-eyed curiosity written across his face.

Often, Dreilinger succeeds in capturing the community’s varying attitudes in being photographed by an outsider. Some of her subjects smile broadly and pose for the camera. Some regard the camera as an alien interloper.

In some portraits, a sly humor can be found. A striking juxtaposition, for example, appears in “Trio,” where through the illusion of a reflection two young men look as if they stand next to the bust of a mannequin while they peer into the window of a clothing store. At first glance, the headless mannequin bears some resemblance to a Torah scroll.

Dreilinger took 14 of her black-and-white photographs and painted over their surfaces, sometimes leaving only a portion of the original image intact. These are hung situated across from the originals, and many a viewer will be tempted to keep traveling back and forth to cross reference the works. These paintings explode with vibrant color and whimsicality and, for the most part, do not evoke the sense of restraint and limitation found in many of the original photographs.

Take the Chasidic women walking toward the bakery sign. In the painted version, they wear bright red suits. The dress of an elderly woman standing outside the Westside Jewish Community Center on Olympic Boulevard has been colored in with bright flowers suggestive of a Hawaiian lei. In “Close-up,” a young, handsome Chasidic man posing against a wall has been colored and shaded so that he resembles an urban nightlife character from a Toulouse-Lautrec painting.

In other paintings, Dreilinger has added natural landscapes that sometimes enhance and other times completely obfuscate the original photograph. One of these paintings depicts two Chasidic girls with their hands over their mouths wandering amidst a rural, mountainous backdrop. In the original photograph titled “Contemplating Girls,” they stand on a city street with other schoolchildren.

Dreilinger says the paintings brought her “emotional release.”

“I hope I captured what is mysterious about these people and at the same time, beautiful. I wasn’t interested in showing ugliness,” she said. “But I did want to open people’s eyes.”

“La Brea on Roberston: Paintings and Photographs by Maya Dreilinger,” Jan. 22-March 5, Shenere Velt Gallery, Workmen’s Circle, 1525 S. Roberston Blvd. For more information, call (310) 552-2007.

 

Letters


Inner Sanctum

Being a Mormon, I really liked your article “The Inner Sanctum” (Sept. 2), however, there is some information you received, that I am not sure you understood correctly. It’s the question of “literal truth.” While we do believe that the Book of Mormon is historically true (that is, it talks about events that really took place and people who really lived — we don’t take it as mythopoeia), we don’t think that it is inerrant true.

The title page of the Book itself says that there could be errors of men in it.

As Mormons, we do not believe that man can be infallible, and therefore we cannot understand something inerrant. As soon as God communicates with us, he has to speak in a way we understand. Hence, the church’s second prophet, Brigham Young, said that he doesn’t know of an inerrant revelation, nor does he believe that such could be possible.

René A. Krywult
Vienna, Austria

Armed and President

Let’s see … you rarely feature a woman in a Jewish Journal cover story, but this week you managed to do so and you pick one who is an NRA president (“She’s Armed and President,” Sept. 2). I presume none of the women in the community who work for positive, socially responsible, peaceful, meaningful and enriching causes were available for an interview. (The exception being, Roberta Schiller, quoted in the article in opposition to Sandra Froman’s advocacy of private gun ownership.) Maybe it’s just me; perhaps there just aren’t enough firearms lying around out there — or armed individuals, with or without a permit to carry.

J. Levitt
North Hollywood

Sandra Froman opposes restrictions on gun sales and makes a strong case for women’s need to have guns for protection against predatory men. OK, let’s require gun shops to demand every customer present an ID, plus a doctor’s certification that the applicant is female.

Macy Baum
via e-mail

In your cover story about Sandra Froman, your writers quote Roberta Shiller saying, “The idea that just because you have a gun, it will make you safe is just untrue.” Runyan and Ivri should check the validity of statements before allowing someone to use their story to misrepresent the truth.

According to The Department of Justice’s own National Institute of Justice study, titled “Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms,” it is estimated that 1.5 million Americans use guns for defensive purposes every year.

The article cites further misstatements by “gun control” advocates and presents a totally different perspective than Schiller.

Phil Blum
Los Angeles

Christian Zionists

In the Sept. 2 issue of The Jewish Journal, James D. Besser wrote a very negatively biased and short-sighted article regarding Christian Zionists (“Links to Christian Zionists Pose Peril”). Besser’s polarized commentary, replete with many unfounded statements, sought to influence the readers to view Christian Zionists as an element that threatens the life blood of Israel.

Christians who believe in a Jewish Israel have, many times, sacrificed their own livelihoods in the communities in which they lived/live and given of their own life blood to help Jews escape certain annihilation not only during the Holocaust, but during the times in which we now live, waiting the coming of Moshiach.

Chana Leah Mendelsohn
Los Angeles

The ‘Other’

David Myers exhorts us to have sympathy for various other people besides those whom we saw evicted from their homes in Gaza (“Show Gaza Sympathies to the Other,” Aug. 26).

Unfortunately, at this point in time, this goal is entirely unreachable and totally unrealistic. Judaism does not teach us to “Love your enemy” and until proven otherwise, the Arabs must be considered our enemies.

A neighbor is someone with whom you live, if not in harmony, then at least in civility. When will we be able to consider the possibility that that we can engage the “other” in the manner Myers would like?

Dr. George Lebovitz
Los Angeles

Honest Reporting

I was intrigued by the remark made by Walid Al-Saqaf in the Aug. 26 Jewish Journal editorial by Rob Eshman (“Honest Reporting”). The Yemeni journalist said that journalists can pressure Arab and Muslim leaders to “level with their people” and confront the region’s real problems — the lack of development and the dearth of democracy and accountability. What interested me was the idea that journalists had the power to influence leaders.

But journalism is no longer the proud profession that it was, dedicated to the truth. Just as in Nazi Germany, it has become the tool of a country’s leaders, whether the leader be a sheik or a Texas rancher, and I doubt any journalists today are ever going to try to pressure any leaders or even to devote themselves to the truth again.

Mal Cohen
Woodland Hills

THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail: letters@jewishjournal.com; or fax: (213) 368-1684

 

Spectator – Hard Truths of ‘Hamburg’


Polish journalist Hanna Krall’s “The Woman From Hamburg: And Other True Stories” (Other Press, $19) is based on interviews she did that in some way involved the Holocaust. But when one of the 12 stories was recently featured in The New Yorker’s fiction issue, an accompanying note explained that her writing is indeed factual.

The 60-something Krall was a reporter for Polityka from 1957 to 1981 when martial law was imposed and her publications were banned. Her award-winning books have been translated into 15 languages, (the English version is by Madeline G. Levine). Yet the boundary between fact and fiction can seem blurred in her work, for Krall writes in an unadorned but intimate style, moving in fractured time, creating a rhythm that might resemble contemporary fiction.

“My work as a reporter has taught me that logical stories without riddles and holes in them, in which everything is obvious, tend to be untrue,” Krall wrote in one of the “Hamburg” stories. “And things that cannot be explained in any fashion really do happen.”

In “Portrait With a Bullet in the Jaw,” Blatt is a survivor living in California. Krall accompanies him back to his village, where they try to meet up with the Polish man who had agreed to hide him and two friends and then ordered them killed. Blatt was the only one to escape; the bullet intended to kill him has remained lodged in his jaw for more than 50 years.

When a man asks him why he holds onto the bullet. Blatt realizes that without it, he would “lose everything. If I had it removed, I would lose it, and this way it sits in my jaw and I know that it’s there.”

In another story, a Jewish woman finds refuge with a childless Polish couple in 1943, hiding out in their closet. She becomes pregnant; the wife begins to go out with pillows under her clothing, and then takes the baby out as though it were her own. The Jewish woman slips away, and the couple raise the child. As a young woman, she finds out the truth of her parents and then travels to meet “the woman from Hamburg” who tells her, “I had to agree to everything. I wanted to live.” And then she says, “Don’t ever come here again.”

Krall pays great attention to detail — the ribbons sewn onto a pillow used to create the look of pregnancy, for example.

As she once explained in an interview, “We know the world through details. We never see it in its entirety, only its fragments. And that’s how you should write about the world, making sure you select the fragments that really matter.”

 

Kosher Stylin’


If we are what we eat, then at this moment I’m a big fat Gordo’s burrito with extra cheese. But I’m a veggie burrito because for the past several years, I’ve been cultivating my own brand of kosher. I like to call myself “kosher style.”

It’s a phrase that’s apt to confuse, so let me explain. No pork. No shellfish. No conscious mixing of meat and dairy. I’ll eat meat out, and though I pass on cheeseburgers at Barney’s, I wouldn’t ask Alice Waters to hold the butter in preparing my filet of beef ? la ficelle (assuming ficelle isn’t bacon). My theory: Unless I see dairy, it’s kosher enough.

I have plenty of friends who keep more strictly kosher than I do, but even some of them make exceptions — like bouillabaisse in France or lobster in Maine. I deviate when I’m the guest in someone’s home, and the options are slim — my rationale being that it’s better to not shame a host than to stick to my half-baked rules.

There are those who may cringe at my interpretation of Jewish dietary laws, but it’s not like I eat this way because the Bible tells me to. Nor do I see it as a mitzvah commanded by the God I’m not always sure I believe in. And it certainly isn’t because I grew up this way.

It began with a request from a Holocaust survivor who once advised, “Order kosher meals on airplanes, because the day you stop ordering them is the day they’ll stop making them.”

Forgoing regular airplane food was a sacrifice I could make.

I remember the first time a flight attendant called out, “Ravitz, kosher meal?” Heads of passengers whipped around to look at “the Jew,” and there I sat, donning my jeans, fleece and baseball cap, looking like any other 20-something American.

I didn’t want the attention, but when it came, I kind of liked it. That nasty little packet of excessively wrapped, overcooked — and yet simultaneously frozen — meat sparked conversation. People would ask me about my kosher meals: “I’ve always wondered what this is all about.”

I even got confessions: “You know, I recently found out my grandfather was Jewish.”

I felt like an ambassador for my people, called forth to enlighten flight passengers over stale rolls.

Soon I was changing the way I ate on the ground, pork products being the first to go. Then I struggled to relinquish shrimp, New England clam chowder, steamed mussels. California rolls were missed, until I found salvation in “imitation crab.” Then came the meat-and-dairy conundrum, which wasn’t that bad, barring the loss of chicken Caesar salads and my mom’s grilled bleu cheese steak. The mere thought of it still makes me drool.

At a crawfish boil I attended in Alabama this summer, people around me snapped off heads, slurping the prawns’ insides, while taking turns asking me questions.

“What, you don’t like this stuff?” “You allergic?” “What’s wrong with you?”

I stammered, embarrassed by the repeated calls of attention. “Well, you see, I sort of keep kosher.”

“What’s that?”

I blathered about split hooves and chewed cuds before someone interrupted, “But why do you keep kosher?”

I gave the best answer I could come up with: “Because it reminds me of who I am.”

In September, Sophia Café, a new kosher restaurant, opened on Solano Avenue in Albany, walking distance from my home. When I first spotted it, I was floored. How could a glatt kosher restaurant survive in a place like this? It’s not like the Bay Area is a bastion of religious observance.

I walked inside and got my answer.

There was the visitor from Los Angeles who said her son passed up going to Cal because kosher food was so hard to come by. There was the woman planning for observant houseguests from the East who will need places to eat. There was the father in an Orthodox family who kept thanking the owner for his restaurant’s presence.

The mashgiach, who oversees kosher practices in the kitchen, said it’s the only glatt kosher restaurant in the East Bay. He also said it wouldn’t survive on kosher eaters alone.

I have a feeling that a certain Holocaust survivor would have something to say about that. Lucky for me, the restaurant’s meat was served hot and without wrapping.

Jessica Ravitz completed her masters in journalism at UC Berkeley and currently is a staff writer at The Salt Lake Tribune. She can be reached at jessica_ravitz@yahoo.com.

Jewish Ethical Views Differ on Schiavo


 

As a federal court considers whether to reconnect Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, Jewish scholars are turning to halacha, or Jewish religious law, for guidance on the issue.

Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged Florida woman whose parents and husband have been battling in state and now federal courts for more than a decade, is the insensate center of a swirl of emotion and legal action.

Religious leaders have been involved as well. Schiavo and her parents, Mary and Robert Schindler, are Roman Catholic, and many of their most fervent supporters are fundamentalist Protestants.

The Schindlers want to keep their daughter’s feeding tube in; Michael Schiavo, her husband, wants it removed so his wife can die a natural death.

Jews, like others caught up in the debate, have a range of beliefs, and their understanding of how to apply halacha varies accordingly. Virtually all the rabbis interviewed, though, told JTA that they did not agree with attempts by some conservative Christians to tie Schiavo’s case to the public debate about abortion.

At the traditional end of the spectrum, Rabbi Avi Shafran of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America said the Schiavo case is “straightforward from a Jewish perspective: The most important point from a halachic standpoint is that a compromised life is still a life.”

“In the Schiavo case, you’re not dealing with a patient in extremis,” he said, noting that until her feeding tube was removed, Schiavo was not dying.

In halacha, there is a category for a person at the edge of death; the rules for such a person, called a goses, are complicated.

“There are times when certain medical intervention is halachically contraindicated,” Shafran said. “There may be times when it’s OK not to shock a heart back into beating, not to administer certain drugs. You do not prolong the act of dying.”

However, Schiavo was not a goses, Shafran said. Instead, he added, before the tube was removed, she “had the exact same halachic status as a baby or a demented person. Like a baby, she was helpless, could not feed herself and was not able to communicate in any meaningful way. But a life is a life.”

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, the central arm of modern Orthodoxy, agreed that from a halachic perspective, the Schiavo case is straightforward.

“It’s not permitted to do anything actively that would stop the process of a person’s staying alive,” he said. “In this case, that would be withdrawing a feeding tube, which is tantamount to starving a person to death.”

Like Shafran, Weinreb said the wishes of the patient or the family are not relevant.

“It might have a bearing on whether new measures are undertaken, but once a person is on a support system, removing it is not possible,” Weinreb said.

“Doing something to actively interfere with a person’s ability to continue to live technically is murder,” he said. “I can’t imagine a scenario that would make removing the feeding tube permissible.”

Rabbi David Feldman, who had an Orthodox ordination and defines himself as “traditional,” is rabbi emeritus of the Conservadox Jewish Center of Teaneck, N.J.

“There’s a dispute here between a husband and parents, but none of that makes any difference as far as halacha is concerned,” said Feldman, author of “Marital Relations, Birth Control and Abortion in Jewish Law” (Schocken, 1975) and the dean of the Jewish Institute of Bioethics. “You can’t hasten death yourself, with your own hands. If death comes, you can thank God because it’s a relief, but you can’t decide yourself that it has to be done.”

The only time it would be acceptable to remove a medical device, Feldman said, would be if “something worse would happen — if leaving it in would cause infection or more pain.

“You can kill someone pursuing you, you can kill the soldier in the enemy army, maybe very cautiously you can kill if there is a death penalty, but you can’t kill an innocent person because of illness,” he said.

Rabbi Joel Roth is a member of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly’s Law Committee. In 1990, when he was the committee’s chair, the group studied end-stage medical care and accepted two opposing positions on artificial nutrition and hydration.

One, by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, “would permit withholding and withdrawing” the tube; the other, by Rabbi Avraham Reisner, would not.

The divide comes from how the tube that provides food and water is defined. If it is seen as a medical device, as Dorff does, it may be removed, Roth said. If it is seen as a feeding device, as Reisner does, it may not be removed.

Dorff puts a person dependent on a feeding tube “in the halachic category of ‘treifah,’ which, he argues, is a life that does not require our full protection — an animal that is treifah is one that has some kind of physical defect that will prohibit it from having a prolonged life. So he argues that a treifah is a life that does not require our full protection,” Roth said.

Reisner, on the other hand, “treats these people as goses,” Roth said.

“And even in the end stage,” he noted, “there is the value of ‘chaya sha’ah,’ the life of the hour.” In other words, Roth said, even when there is very little life left, that life still matters.

The Conservative movement accepts both decisions, but Roth, a professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, sides with Reisner, and with Schiavo’s parents.

“She should be kept on the feeding tube,” he said. “She’s not being medicated, and she’s breathing on her own.”

Rabbi Mark Washofsky teaches rabbinics at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, and he sits on the movement’s responsa committee.

The movement does not speak with one voice on the issue, Washofsky said, but in 1994 it issued a responsa on the treatment of terminally ill patients.

Like the Conservative decisions, the Reform rabbis base their view of whether a feeding tube can be removed on their understanding of the tube’s function.

“We cannot claim that Jewish tradition categorically prohibits the removal of food and water from dying patients,” Washofsky said. “But we consider food and water, no matter how they are delivered, the staff of life. So what we ultimately do is express deep reservations about their withdrawal, but in the end, we say, nonetheless, that because we cannot declare that the cessation of artificial nutrition and hydration is categorically forbidden by Jewish moral thought, the patient and the family must ultimately let their consciences guide them.”

Rabbi David Teutsch, director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, agrees that the question is how a feeding tube is defined.

“If it were a form of eating, a position held by a number of more traditional halachic authorities, then you’re required to feed those who are hungry,” Teutsch said. “But if it’s medicine –a position held by Conservative authorities like Rabbi Elliott Dorff, and by me as well — then you serve the interests of the patient, which may involve not providing medicine.”

He believes that a feeding tube is a medical device, and so it can be removed, Teutsch said.

“It’s pretty clear that it’s closer to regular intervention than to eating,” he said.