Israelis would get 6 Sundays off under bill to create ‘Western’ weekend


A Knesset committee has approved legislation that will mandate six long weekends each year — a step toward a possible Monday-to-Friday work week.

Providing the six Sundays off each year beginning in 2017 will start to transition the Israeli work week to that of most of the Western world, supporters argue. Kulanu lawmaker Eli Cohen, who proposed the legislation, argued that it would also increase work productivity in Israel, which lags other developed countries.

Israel has a Friday-and-Saturday weekend, though children in elementary school also attend school on Fridays. Many Israelis do not work on Friday, and Sunday is considered the start of the work week. The current weekend fits in with the Jewish Sabbath on Friday night and Saturday, and the Muslim day of prayer on Friday.

According to a 2016 report by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, Israeli productivity is low and getting lower compared to most of the relatively wealthy countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, even though Israelis also work about 4 hours more per week than residents of other OECD countries.

“The transition to a long weekend will dramatically change the character of work and offers many benefits by reducing the burden on workers, improve the balance between work and family life, improve individuals’ lives and contribute to business sectors like retail and tourism, and better synchronize work and school vacations,” Cohen said, according to Haaretz.

The bill, which was approved Sunday by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, must still be approved by the full Knesset. The legislation is aimed at leading to all Sundays off in the future.

Two of the six proposed long weekends would take place during the summer, and the other four would come during the Passover and Hanukkah vacations.

The first full Knesset vote is scheduled for Wednesday, where it is expected to pass.

Skip college — embrace Judaism and learn a trade


The conventional profile of American Jews is that they tend to be highly educated and work in professions like medicine, finance, law and the academy.

Jews, of course, “value education,” as the trope about the “People of the Book” goes. And American Jews, since they started arriving in the United States, have pushed for their kids to get the best education as a means of guaranteeing a successful life.

It isn’t a Jewish value to be a doctor, lawyer or neuroscientist, however. Professional achievement isn’t the measure of Jewish success. And the higher education prescribed by Jewish tradition is not of the variant offered at American colleges. In fact, what Judaism has to say on matters of education and profession are quite different than the current American Jewish norm.

Given the realities of the job market — 12.2 percent unemployment for young workers and slowing economic growth — Judaism’s 2,700-year-old position may be extraordinarily relevant for young Jews today.

The most famous rabbinic declaration on education can be found in the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a). The passage enjoins Jewish parents to teach their children Torah and a trade, along with getting first-born sons circumcised, finding them a spouse and teaching them to swim.

Of course, this is not all our sages had to say on the matter of parenting: There are discussions about corporal punishment (if you have to do it at all use only a shoelace) and the importance of modeling good behavior (because other forms of advice are likely to be rejected). But this accounting of what parents owe their children is the backbone of Jewish wisdom on parental responsibility.

Lifelong Torah study — and not, say, the pursuit of an M.D. or a J.D. — represents the higher education to which all Jews are meant to commit. But why is a trade so important? The rabbinic commentaries emphasize the idea that a trade, like swimming, builds independence and self-sufficiency.

Later in that same Talmudic passage, there is a warning to parents who fail to provide their children with such tools: “Anyone who does not teach his son a skill or profession may be regarded as if he is teaching him to rob.” This is an amazing degree of seriousness — the rabbis are essentially saying that without independence there is ruin.

Centuries later, in 1912, the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky took up the same cause, beating the drum for commerce and the trades, in large part because he believed the desire among young Russian Jews to move into the professions was contrary to Jewish tradition.

“For generations doing business was the pillar of Jewish life – why abandon it now?” says the main speaker in an article by Jabotinsky called “A Conversation.” “Back to the shop counter! Back to the stores, the banks, the stock exchange – not only to buying and selling, but to industry, to manufacture, to everything ‘practical.’”

In 2015, is such a message really relevant? After all, we hear a lot about how college has become indispensable. President Obama argues that everyone must have access to college, and presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have competing proposals for making public universities tuition-free.

Yet, a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report offers a surprising retort. The government says that currently there are 6 million more people with bachelor’s degrees than jobs available for them. So college today clearly isn’t the inexorable path to a good job that it once was.

Even those with jobs don’t have the type of employment that a college education once practically guaranteed. The Economic Policy Institute reports that among college graduates, the underemployment rate is 16.8 percent. (Underemployment means the “highly skilled…working in low paying [and low-skilled] jobs… and part-time workers that would prefer to be full-time.”)

Difficulty finding a job isn’t the only reason to consider skipping college in favor of the trades: The vast majority of graduates are leaving school with huge loans and no clear path to repaying the debt. As reported by USA Today earlier this year, there are “40 million people across the United States who have monumental student debt” for a total outstanding debt burden of $1.2 trillion. CNN reports that between 2008 and 2014 — the recession years — student loans increased by 84 percent, “and are the only type of consumer debt not decreasing,” according to a study from Experian over the same time period.

These are staggering numbers and the impact is not merely in the area of employment. College debt and a challenging environment in which to get hired have led to a whole generation of young Americans who are delaying adulthood. Couples are renting instead of buying their first house, getting married older and many women are delaying having children until they have established themselves in the workforce, which is taking a decade or longer.

Of course, training to be a welder, a carpenter, electrician, plumber, HVAC specialist or franchise owner is not everyone’s professional fantasy. But here’s something to consider: It takes two fewer years to complete a trade school degree than it does an undergraduate college degree. So while the college student is racking up debt, the trade school grad would be earning on average $71,440 in the same amount of time, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

We are not quite at the point where Jewish mothers across the land will proudly introduce their kid as “my son, the plumber!” But going to college, incurring massive debt and spending years toiling to pay back your loans isn’t necessarily the perfect trajectory – or a Jewish value – either.

(Abby W. Schachter is a Pittsburgh-based writer whose first book, “No Child Left Alone: Getting the Government out of Parenting,” will be published next year. Follow her on Twitter @abbyschachter and on Facebook.)

For Hasidic Jew who consults for Google, no college degree required


When Issamar Ginzberg enters his Jerusalem office on a sweltering summer day, he’s wearing a long black coat tied at the waist and a black hat. His long, scraggly beard and sidecurls, or payos, offer no relief from the heat.

The office — thank God — is air conditioned, and Ginzberg offers kosher candy from a bowl on his desk. Nearby sit his laptop and LG phone, complete with a “kosher” filter that restricts it from many websites. While some haredi Orthodox men do without any smartphone, Ginzberg has two. He also keeps a Blackberry handy for U.S. business trips.

On a nearby shelf sits a series of Yiddish audio CDs on how to succeed in business that Ginzberg produces and sells. The room, which has an interior that wouldn’t look out of place in a Tel Aviv office building, is on the parking level of his apartment building in a haredi neighborhood about where the building superintendent might sit.

A scion of a Hasidic rabbinic dynasty, Ginzberg lives in Jerusalem’s haredi world, attending synagogue daily and spending hours every morning learning Torah. But by afternoon, evening and night, he is a marketing consultant to more than 100 clients, among them Google and Oracle.

“My key clientele is the corporate world and entrepreneurs in the non-Jewish, non-Orthodox world,” said Ginzberg, 35, a father of four. “One of the reasons I’m trusted so much by the Orthodox community is because they know I’m legit, because I actually work in the real world.”

The Brooklyn native moved to Jerusalem five years ago, just as the movement in Israel to integrate haredim into the army and labor force was gaining attention. Labor force participation rates for haredi men have risen in recent years and now stand at 45 percent; many haredi men still opt to study Torah full time rather than work.

Many haredim see a contradiction between secular workplace culture and their own, but Ginzberg says his black hat and beard are a feature, not a bug. He emphasizes his religious background on his promotional materials, calling himself “Rabbi Issamar” and “a character who just stepped out of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.”’

“It’s harder to be taken seriously, but the novelty that you look different gives you 10 seconds of, ‘Let me see what this guy has to offer,’” he said. “If you meet 20 WASPs and one guy who looks like me, which one will you remember six months later?”

Ginzberg grew up speaking Yiddish and English in an Orthodox neighborhood of New York, and had an early appetite for business. As a teenager, he used classified ads and the early Internet to buy 386-model computers in bulk and resell them for profit. He became a mortgage broker 15 years ago and parlayed that into a consulting business. He now has 120 regular clients that pay $3,000 for 10-hour packages.

To accommodate his haredi lifestyle, Ginzberg begins his days at 7 a.m., responding to late emails from U.S. clients before attending morning prayers at 8 or 9 a.m. He then studies Torah with a partner until 1 p.m., when he moves back to consulting, generally switching between clients in one-hour shifts. Aside from spending two-and-a-half hours with his family in the evening, Ginzberg works well past midnight with West Coast businesses, getting five hours of sleep at most.

“He and I as well think it’s better to learn [Torah], but you can’t learn all day because there’s no salary,” said Moti Feldstein, director of Kemach, an organization that has helped 7,400 haredi men find work. “You have kids. You need to make a living. He says, ‘Look at me: I go around with my suit, with my hat, I learn Torah and I work.”

Clients say what makes Ginzberg valuable is his ability to quickly understand a diverse set of topics despite having no professional training in them. Ginzberg says that comes from being an autodidact with a work ethic formed by learning at yeshiva. He doesn’t have a college degree, but has taught himself, he says, by voraciously reading books and papers on business and psychology.

“I like that he can get to the point,” said Yael Sela-Shapiro, a Hebrew-English translator who consulted with Ginzberg and helped set up a seminar he gave to Google’s Israel office in 2013. “He talks for a few minutes and manages to pinpoint the exact question that can get the information he needs to give you the best advice.”

Since moving to Israel, Ginzberg has become involved in increasing the employment rates of haredi men. He interfaces between Kemach and potential employers like Google and Intel, helping bridge cultural gaps between the high-tech and haredi worlds. And he lectures at yeshivas in Israel and America, introducing students to the fundamentals of business.

“He explains what it is to work, professionalism,” Feldstein said. “You work with a staff, you have a manager, you have to come on time, how to work when there’s someone different next to you.”

Judging from Ginzberg’s Facebook page, he doesn’t just use the Internet to make a living — he also enjoys it. In addition to business advice, he posts links to articles on the Middle East, Shabbat and, in one case, being mistaken for an Amish man. Ginzberg maintains it’s all part of the effort to promote his work.

“You can’t run away from social media,” he said. “Business is three-dimensional. People are three-dimensional. When I say have a good Shabbos, I’m basically proud of the fact I’m a religious Jew. I’m reminding people, whether they’re religious or not, Shabbos is coming. I’m showing everyone that I’m lucky to be who I am and do what I do.”

High Holy Days: Working for happiness


Did you know that many people actually find free time more difficult to enjoy than work? Although many people also find their work stressful, boring or meaningless, success doesn’t make people happy either. 

“More than a decade of groundbreaking research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience has proven in no uncertain terms that the relationship between success and happiness works the other way around,” writes Shawn Achor, one of the designers and teachers of Harvard’s famous Happiness course, in “The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.” Research shows that happiness is the precursor to success, not the result, and that, together with optimism, it fuel success. This is what Achor means by the competitive edge he calls the “happiness advantage.” 

But can unhappy people – or even mildly content people – become happy? If so, how? And is it possible to be happy even at work?

Achor believes so. As the CEO of Good Think Inc., a global positive-psychology consulting company, Achor uses the latest in research to give practical steps to increase happiness in our daily lives. His TED talks on the subject have garnered millions of views. 

The Texan got a taste of happiness when he unexpectedly got into Harvard after applying on a dare. He then stayed in the dorms for the next 12 years, first as an undergraduate, then a graduate student and live-in resident to help students with academic and personal success. There he witnessed a pattern of students getting worried, overwhelmed, depressed and even failing. 

It was only after he went to visit a shantytown school in Soweto, South Africa, that he began to understand the answer. When he asked the kids if they like to do schoolwork,  most of the kids raised their hands. And they weren’t lying. A CEO from South Africa told him, “They see schoolwork as a privilege, one their parents did not have.”

When he returned to Harvard and saw people complaining about the very thing Soweto students saw as a privilege, “I started to realize just how much our interpretation of reality changes our experience of that reality.” Students who saw learning as a chore missed out on the opportunities in front of them, but those who saw Harvard as an opportunity shined.

The seven principles in “The Happiness Advantage” are not about putting on a happy face, Achor believes. It’s not about using positive thinking to pretend problems don’t exist, or that everything will always be great. It’s about harnessing our neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to change and rewire itself. 

“The hardest part about happiness is remembering that we can choose it,” he says. 

Achor talked about the seven principles of “The Happiness Advantage.”

Principle No. 1 The Happiness Advantage Happiness, Achor says, is “the joy we feel striving toward our potential.” This definition links positive emotion with a cognitive awareness of growth. Positive emotion without growth is pleasure, which is fleeting. Growth without positive emotion is equally short-lived and leads to depression.

“Your brain works significantly better at positive than it does when neutral or negative,” Achor says, noting that when positive, the brain has triple the creativity, 31 percent higher levels of productivity, 23 percent fewer fatigue-related symptoms, 37 percent higher levels of sales — all resulting in higher profit and lower burnout. 

Principle No. 2: The Fulcrum and the Lever Achor learned at an early age that our brain can be thought of as “single processors capable of devoting only a finite amount of resources to experiencing the world.” You can use those resources to see the world through a lens of negativity, stress, pain and uncertainty, he says, or through a lens of gratitude, hope, resilience and optimism. 

“Happiness is not about lying to ourselves, or turning a blind eye to the negative, but about adjusting our brain so that we see the ways to rise above our circumstances.”

According to Yale psychologist Amy Wrzeniewski, a crucial part in work satisfaction is whether you view your work as a job (a means to a paycheck), a career (necessary to advance and succeed) or a calling (work as an end in itself contributing to a greater good). It doesn’t matter the work one does, it can always  be connected to one’s higher calling, Achor says. 

Principle No. 3 The Tetris Effect 

The brains of people who repeatedly play video games (like Tetris, where blocks have to fit geometrically) became stuck in a ‘cognitive after-image,’ which causes them to see the game wherever they go. People can also get stuck that way, especially accountants, lawyers and other professionals trained to be critical. Lawyers depose their children while accountants make spreadsheets of their wives’ faults. 

But you can create a ‘Positive Tetris Effect,’ i.e. train your brain to get stuck in a positive afterimage using happiness, gratitude and optimism. Make a list of three positive things at the end of the day, and your brain will have to scan for positive events. 

“This trains the brain to become more skilled at noticing and focusing on possibilities for personal and professional growth, and seizing opportunities to act on them,” he says. 

Principle No. 4 Falling Up 

The human brain has been wired to create mental maps to survive and navigate the world. After a failure, we create a map with three possible outcomes:  1. Circling in the same spot.  2.  Getting further lost (going down a more negative path).  3.  Getting to a place stronger than before.

The third way “is the difference between those who are crippled by failure and those who rise above it.” After repeated setbacks, some people learn helplessness and believe their actions are futile, while others have what psychologists call “adversarial growth” success after traumas or failures because of their positive mindset. 

Principle No. 5 The Zorro Circle 

Before he could become a hero, the fictional character Zorro had to learn to control his impulsiveness and master his skills one by one, first within a small circle. Often, Achor says, we feel out of control, especially when we try to tackle too many things at once. In a study of 7,400 employees published in The Lancet in 2007, people who felt they had little control over their deadlines had a 50 percent higher risk of heart disease. 

In times of stress, Achor says, it’s important to identify your feelings (whether in writing or in words), find out which parts of the situation you can control, then try to accomplish one small goal. Then another, and another. 

Principle No. 6: The 20-Second Rule

Neuroplasticity tells us that we can change our brains: bad habits wire them that way as do good habits. Achor works with people to replace a negative habit with a positive one “so that the brain’s resources are being allocated appropriately” toward change, he says. 

But to form a new habit, you have to create the path of least resistance (i.e., it needs to be easy). Achor found that committing to playing the guitar every day wasn’t enough when his guitar was stored in the closet. Once he moved it outside (“lower the barrier”), he incorporated guitar playing into his daily routine. 

Principle No. 7 Social Investment

In times of stress and crisis, many people retreat into their shells and cut off communication with their friends and loved ones. But happy, successful people do the opposite. “Instead of turning inward, they actually hold tighter to their social circle,” Achor says. Forming social bonds increases Oxytocin, reducing anxiety and improving concentration and focus.

In the end, Achor believes we can always be happy at work by creating positive habits and sticking with them. “But if you feel like you could grow more in another job, then optimism should fuel the belief that you can make that change successfully,” he says. But if change is not possible for some reason, “making the best of the current situation only makes good sense.”

Discussions under way on shortening Israel’s workweek


A proposal to make Sunday a day off from work and school advanced in Israel.

A political truce in recent weeks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposed the change, and Vice Premier Silvan Shalom, who has been pushing for a shorter workweek for years, has given new life to the proposal, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Representatives of a committee appointed by Netanyahu discussed ways of testing the initiative with Shalom's advisers on Wednesday and are due to meet again as early as Thursday, according to the paper. The committee is headed by Eugene Kandel, the chief of Israel's National Economic Council.

A pilot project giving off one Sunday a month might be implemented as a test.

A source close to Kandel told the Post that the committee would publish its findings immediately after the Jewish High Holidays season ends next month.

How to get paid what you want


Whether you’re looking for a new job or are a recent graduate, you might be so thrilled to get a job offer — any offer — that you settle for less than you should.  Here are five strategies to get paid what you really want:

Tip 1: Don’t provide salary history. Keep your salary information to yourself as long as possible because it can be used against you in the negotiation process. Instead, write “open” or “negotiable.”

Tip 2: Never discuss your salary requirements. If an interviewer asks what salary you want or what you made at your last job, simply redirect the question by asking about the salary range of the job you’re interviewing for. Say that you don’t know what would be acceptable until you fully understand the job requirements, benefits and potential for advancement.

Tip 3: Don’t negotiate during an interview. If you’re given a verbal offer, always ask for a complete offer in writing (including benefits) so you can evaluate it thoroughly. Let the interviewer know that you’re very interested in the job and will consider any offer they make.

Tip 4: Ask questions about an offer. Once you receive a written offer, ask whether the company can be flexible. Remember that first offer is typically a low one. You might be able to get more pay, more vacation days or a higher level of expense reimbursements if you negotiate.

Tip 5: Make a counter-offer.  Let the company know you want the job but would be much happier with X amount of additional annual salary or hourly pay. Remember: They offered you the position because they consider you the best candidate. Most companies are willing to shell out a little more money or perks to get the right person for the job.


Laura Adams, host of the “Money Girl” podcast on QuickandDirtyTips.com, is the author of “Money Girl’s Smart Moves to Deal With Your Debt” (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010)

For downtown’s Persian Jews, work plus worship equals success


Fast-paced techno dance music blasts through Chikas, a retail clothing store off Santee Street in the heart of downtown Los Angeles’ Fashion District, which many call the Garment District. Robert Mahgerefteh, the store’s owner, helps the dozen or so young women looking for great deals on the latest fashions.

“Many of us from the Iranian-Jewish community working in the Garment District have a very hard work ethic, sometimes working six or seven days a week,” he said. “People like myself grew up seeing our dads and uncles put the time and effort into making their businesses a success, so we’re following in their footsteps.”

Mahgerefteh, 29, is among the more than 300 Iranian Jews who work as retailers, wholesalers or importers of clothing, fabrics and fashion accessories in downtown’s Fashion District. Over the last 30 years, their businesses and Iranian-Jewish investment in downtown real estate have helped transform the district into one of the major business hubs in Southern California.

In addition to improving the area, Iranian-Jewish businessmen have brought their faith and practice with them, establishing synagogues in the area and supporting several downtown kosher restaurants. Rabbis even travel to the Fashion District to teach Torah and other topics during lunch-and-learn sessions.

And while the flood of cheaper clothing and fabrics from China has driven some Iranian Jews out of the business, others have remained downtown, finding their niche in the new marketplace.

Following their immigration to Los Angeles from Iran, hundreds of Iranian Jews flocked to the Fashion District in the late 1970s and early 1980s, either because of their familiarity with the garment trade or because it seemed the easiest way to earn a living.

Iranian-Jewish real estate developer Behrooz Neman, who has owned properties in downtown’s Fashion District since the mid-1980s, said the area was in dire economic conditions when Iranian Jews first arrived.

“It looked like South Central with only old buildings and empty warehouses,” Neman said. “I can honestly say that if the Iranian Jews had never come to Los Angeles, there would be no Garment District as you see it today.”

Those Iranian Jews who first worked the Fashion District didn’t have the higher overhead costs of the larger American fabric companies, said Amir “Aby” Emrani, co-owner of Emday Fabrics.

“And, we also gave ourselves smaller commissions,” he said.

Today, Emday Fabrics and a handful of other Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses are among downtown’s largest and most successful fabrics importers, selling to both a national and international clientele.

“In the early days, we worked very hard and long hours — it was just myself, my brother and my father. … Little by little, the hard work and our ability to give much lower pricing to our customers allowed us to grow,” Emrani said.

Among the businesses that found a niche early was Donna Vinci, a division of Brasseur Inc., which specializes in plus-size women’s suits, among its other high-end women’s clothing.

“It was very successful for us, and we have continued over the years to build on that idea with many different designs and brands for the same customers,” said Danny Golshan, Donna Vinci’s co-owner. “Our focus is on being unique and bringing up-to-date clothing to our customers.”

With Hollywood not too far away, Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses such as the Italian Fashion Group have also supported the needs of costume designers for major television shows and films. The company, run by three Iranian- Jewish siblings, has become a top manufacturer of high-end, custom-made Italian suits that attract entertainment industry designers and celebrities such as Al Pacino, Terrence Howard and James Belushi.

“Our custom line of suits, Di Stefano, has become the pearl of our company,” said Shahrouz Stefano Kalepari, co-owner of the Italian Fashion Group, adding that their suits have appeared on such televisions shows as “The Mentalist,” “Castle,” “Law & Order: Los Angeles” and “The Defenders.”

“Our suits and shirts are 100 percent hand made and the patterns are designed from scratch for each individual order, to create a very personalized and custom fit for our customers. We use the most precious accessories such as horsehair canvas inside our suits, pure silk linings and mother-of-pearl buttons,” Kalepari said.

But with cheaper labor and raw material in China and the Far East flooding the Fashion District, Iranian-Jewish businesses have found it increasingly difficult to compete with Chinese goods.

Businessmen like Kalepari say they have had to be more aggressive in marketing their products and educating their customers about the higher quality of their clothing in order to survive.

“Unfair competition with China, combined with the lack of knowledge from some customers, makes it very frustrating at times,” Kalepari said. “But in the end, a high-quality product speaks for itself, and when a famous designer of top-quality clothes in Beverly Hills uses our company’s line for his own personal use, this gives us the utmost satisfaction that we have done the right thing and can survive in this market.”

Aside from the district’s retail and wholesale businesses, nearly 40 Iranian-Jewish real estate developers have purchased or constructed buildings and other properties over the years to further solidify the community’s influence in the area.

These Iranian-Jewish developers have not only upgraded the appearance of the stores and buildings in the area, but were pivotal in the creation and growth of the widely popular “alley” shopping area within the heart of the district — a nearly three-block stretch along Santee Street that resembles a Middle Eastern-style open bazaar.

“In the early 1980s, there was no alley in existence,” Neman said. “The idea to use the space in the alley area came from mostly Iranian Jewish developers who wanted to get the maximum use of their properties in the area by making these smaller spaces behind their buildings available for retailers.”

Not only have Iranian-Jewish businesses thrived and prospered in the fabrics and clothing industry, but city officials have praised the community’s entrepreneurial efforts during the last three decades of the Fashion District’s revitalization.

“The Persian community has helped to reshape the district by partnering with stakeholders in the area to form business development districts to keep the area safe and clean for business to thrive,” L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel said. “This community has been at the forefront of growth in the Garment District, and I am confident that the future will bring greater prosperity as downtown continues its transformation.”

The financial growth over the last 25 years alone in Southern California’s garment business speaks for itself.

“In 1984, California Mart in downtown’s Garment District did about $50 million in sales annually, which was for all the U.S. sales of garments on the West Coast,” Neman said. “Today the annual sales for the garment business in Southern California alone is $150 billion — and without a doubt it is because of the hard work of Iranian-Jewish- and Korean-owned businesses in downtown.”

Many local Iranian Jews also credit Ezat Delijani, one of the community’s most prominent real estate developers, who died in late August, for having transformed the area by pioneering mixed-use developments in downtown Los Angeles as well as for purchasing and renovating four historic theaters on Broadway near the Fashion District.

“The investment Ezat Delijani made in the historic area of Broadway brought new life to an area that was stricken with graffiti and blight,” said David Rahimian, a former special assistant to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “The Delijani family led a preservation effort that brought the theater back to life, not only making it a jewel on Broadway but a proud site for all Angelenos to enjoy.”

With all of their financial success, Iranian- Jewish businessmen in the area have still maintained their strong Jewish bonds in the district, even establishing three synagogues in the area.

Ohr HaShalom, also called the Downtown Synagogue, is perhaps the most popular synagogue in the Fashion District. Located inside a 300-square-foot storefront, it attracts up to 30 Iranian-Jewish businessmen for daily prayers.

“It’s more convenient for businessmen from our community to come to the synagogue that is close to their businesses in the area in order to do their early morning prayers or to say the Kaddish prayers on the anniversary of the deaths of their loved ones,” said Abner Cohen, a fabrics businessman and co-founder of Ohr HaShalom.

The other two synagogues in the area are located within the offices of Iranian-Jewish businesses, housing Torahs as well as other prayer books. Yet the business owners operating these office synagogues would not grant The Jewish Journal entry out of concern that the publicity could attract unwanted security challenges.

In addition to the synagogues, a handful of local rabbis frequent the different Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses in the Fashion District, providing free lunchtime classes on Torah and religious practices.

“We love teaching Judaism, and we offer these businessmen insights on how they could benefit from Torah in their everyday lives to become better fathers, better partners and better community members,” said Rabbi Yosef Shemtov, executive director of the Yachad Outreach Center, which is affiliated with the Pico-Robertson-based Torat Hayim synagogue.

Over the course of each week, Shemtov and two other Iranian Jewish rabbis from his group visit more than 50 Iranian-Jewish businesses in downtown’s fashion and jewelry districts. Their group began the teaching program for Iranian Jews working in downtown Los Angeles eight years ago and, Shemtov said, it has gradually grown in popularity.

Kosher restaurants in recent years have also popped up the Fashion District, including Snack 26 deli, offering sandwiches to Iranian-Jewish businessmen on the run, and Afshan Restaurant, providing customers with kosher chicken and beef kebabs as well as popular Persian stews and rice dishes. Both eateries also deliver to their clients downtown.

With all of the ups and downs in their businesses, Iranian Jews working in the Fashion District said their strong sense of spirituality and Jewish values have enabled them to continue working hard to achieve success in the fashion industry.

Shervin Arastoozad, an Iranian-Jewish designer and owner of Cut n’ Paste Handbags, says the one thing he’s learned about business is that you must build a foundation to get anywhere.

“One very important foundation for me has been Judaism and the morality it brings into [my] business and everyday life,” he said.

For more interviews with Iranian-Jewish businessmen in downtown’s Fashion District, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

Israeli students protest yeshiva stipend


Thousands of Israeli university students gathered in Jerusalem to protest a bill that would provide stipends to yeshiva students.

As many as 10,000 students from universities throughout the country arrived by chartered buses to the capital Monday evening for the protest march from the prime minister’s official residence to Zion Square.

The protesters carried signs reading “We’re not suckers” and “Haredim—go to work” and chanted slogans such as “Students are worth more” and “We’re hungry for bread, too.”

The demonstration was protesting Knesset approval of the first reading of the 2011-12 state budget, which includes stipends for married full-time yeshiva students.

The amendment to the budget granting the stipends, proposed by Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism Party, comes after an Israeli Supreme Court ruling in June that paying stipends to yeshiva students and not to university students constitutes discrimination.

Create a new model to enhance work, self, family and community


Now is the time of year when we return to what matters most in our lives. We reflect on what we’ve done and we commit to making things better in the year ahead. What a great and powerful moment in the Jewish cycle. For without this annual taking stock, how can we evolve to become the person we want to be and build our legacy as a positive force during our precious time on earth?

Following the June publication of my book, “Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life” (Harvard Business School Press), I spent much of this summer traveling, speaking about work and how to make it fit with the rest of life in ways that are good both for companies and the people employed by them.

Here’s what I heard: There’s much pain. Too many people feel overwhelmed, disconnected, pessimistic and with no other purpose than to merely survive. Demand for change is the order of the day, as it has always been in our Jewish tradition. Now, as I step into my 25th year teaching at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, I’m struck by how different the work world is today and why a new approach to leadership — no matter where you are or what you do — makes sense.

This new approach is all the more necessary given the new demands on our time as well as our evolving aspirations. Throughout human history, the sun’s relationship to the Earth determined when people worked and rested. Thanks to the revolution in digital technology, this is no longer true for most people. New communication tools promise freedom from time and space, but it’s just dawning on us that we need to learn new psychological and social tools, too, to avoid drowning in the deluge of nonstop pressures that come at us through cell phones and BlackBerries.

The Jewish tradition’s respect for meaningful and useful boundaries is clearly evident in the concept of Shabbat, which creates a natural separation in our lives. But just as there are boundaries, there is also a strong need for integrating the various parts of our life. When the different aspects of life fit together as one — perhaps the essential Jewish idea, to which the Shema calls our attention — then everything in life seems better.

The ago-old Jewish commitment to social justice and respect for the world around us is returning to favor in American business. Employers are learning that people perform better in their jobs when they bring passion into the workplace, when they are doing what they believe matters to the world and when they have a hand in figuring out how to get it done. Greed and competition were ’80s cool. Green and collaboration are ’08 cool.

As I wrote in my book, being a leader is not the same as being a middle manager or a top executive. Being a leader means inspiring committed action that engages people in taking intelligent steps, in a direction you have chosen, to achieve something that has significant meaning for all relevant parties.

Individuals can do this whether they are at the top, middle or bottom of an organization or group. And they can do this in business, families, friendship networks, communities and social associations.

This may be easy to say, maybe not so easy to do. There are a few simple principles that can help:

  • Be real, by acting with authenticity and clarifying what’s important in all parts of your life.
  • Be whole, by acting with integrity and respecting all aspects of life.
  • Be innovative, by acting with creativity and experimenting with what you do and how you do it.

Anyone can bring these principles to their lives and perform better in all aspects. You just have to make an effort to reflect and grow, bolstered by those you enlist to push and encourage you. This is just what our Jewish tradition challenges and inspires us to do, especially during the High Holy Days.

In the Total Leadership process, you begin by writing and talking about your core values and your vision of the kind of leader you want to become — how you want to affect the world around you and why. That’s what I mean by being real, and it’s akin to what we as Jews do in prayer — we contemplate what’s important and how to bring our lives in closer alignment with our values.

Next you explore how the different parts of your life fit together as one — whether your world has integrity — by thinking through the performance expectations of the most important people in each of the four different parts of your life: work, home, community and self.

Then you talk to these people, whom I call your “key stakeholders,” for they are essential to your future, as you see it, to verify and perhaps revise your grasp of these expectations. This activity is similar to what we do on Yom Kippur in talking about what we need to do to strengthen our most precious relationships.

Finally, the fun, inspiring part is being innovative. This involves trying new ways to get things done with the intent of improving performance in all four life domains — pursuing, in other words, what I call “four-way wins.”

We need to focus on what matters most and to consciously take small, realistic steps toward acting on it. You’ll spend your time more intelligently — better aligned with your values, using more of your natural talents to pursue passionately the goals to which you’re genuinely committed. As the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Life without commitment is not worth living.”

In these Days of Awe, as we reflect on the work of our lives, ask whether and how your “living” makes sense in the bigger picture of your life, your world. If it doesn’t, consider taking one small step toward making it so. Experiment with a change that aims to make things better for you — your mind, your body and your spirit — and for the people around you at work, at home and in your community.

Stewart D. Friedman (www.totalleadership.org) is on the faculty of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of the best-selling “Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader

Fran Rosenfield: All About the Children


Fran Rosenfield

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

Fran Rosenfield answers the door of her Northridge home a few moments after the musical doorbell has cycled through its tune. This 79-year-old grandmother was slowed by a recent spinal injury that has rendered her dependent on a cane or walker to get around. But her passion for a cause she championed 15 years ago is going strong.

Inside, her dining room has been transformed into a makeshift shipping department. On the table are wrapped gifts stacked three- and four-boxes deep that are waiting to go to children who are autistic, chronically ill, poor, abused or neglected. Hundreds of gifts were picked up the previous week, and now this batch has to be cleared out to make room for more that will soon arrive.

Welcome to Fran’s Project.

“I do what I do because it’s what I have to do,” said Rosenfield, who is known as Bubbe Fran at Northridge’s Temple Ahavat Shalom. “I can’t stand the thought that anywhere there is a child who is hungry or doing without.”

Her inspiration for the project came from the Adopt a Child Abuse Caseworker Program, which she helped a fellow congregant pitch to the Valley Interfaith Council in 1991.

“These caseworkers are overloaded, and they can’t keep track of everything,” she said.

Rosenfield started out collecting donations for one caseworker from the Department of Children and Family Service, and found she was so successful at motivating people to give that she adopted another caseworker a year later.

Before long the former personnel manager had adopted the entire North Hollywood office.

“You hear stories, like a mother and two kids who are living in a garage on $325 a month or a family whose gas was turned off,” she said. “How can you not want to help these people?”

For Rosenfield, the only December dilemma has been how to collect more gifts than the previous year. This former sisterhood president collected more than 1,000 gifts in 2005, which she donated to four different agencies, including Family Friends, a project of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. For 2006, she added Jay Nolan Autistic Services to her roster of groups that receive her gifts.

Every morning in the run-up to Christmas, Rosenfield gets on the computer and phone with her list of names and uses her “Jewish mother guilt like crazy, honey.”

The gifts donated to her program from synagogue members and others range in price from $20 to $100, and include toys, clothing, grocery scrip and gas cards. Rosenfield was hoping to break her 2005 record by collecting between 1,500 to 2,000 gifts to put under children’s trees.

Born in Minnesota, Rosenfield moved with her husband, Lenn, to Panorama City in 1950.

“We didn’t even have a phone for the first three years,” said her husband, a former advertising art director who designs the annual posters for Fran’s Project.

Rosenfield’s efforts reflect a family tradition of responding to a crisis. After Hitler came to power, her father rented a home in Minneapolis, declared it a synagogue and brought one or two family members over at a time to serve as its rabbi or cantor. Her father would then find work for the newly arrived relative and put in another request to fill the empty leadership position.

Building on her success with Fran’s Project, Rosenfield recently started a birthday twinning program at Temple Ahavat Shalom. A Hebrew school student is paired up with a child in need whose birthday is on or near the same day, and she provides them with a gift suggestion list.

“I tell them that there are kids who are not as lucky as they are whose parents can’t afford to give them birthday parties and gifts,” said Rosenfield, who serves as the synagogue’s social action chair.

While Rosenfield says she doesn’t know what drives her to do what she does, she counts herself as one of the luckiest people in the world.

“How many people can feel that they’ve made a difference in a child’s life, and then do that by thousands?” she said.

Mayor implores people of faith to fight homelessness


“Local communities have to provide services and supportive housing. We can’t be a city that grows in one part and leaves people destitute in another,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told a crowd of more than 300 at Leo Baeck Temple on Sunday.

Teachings from the Torah, as well as triumphs on the football field, set the tone for a conference on homelessness, which also included County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; Ed Edelman, retired county supervisor and special representative for homeless initiatives for the City of Santa Monica; L.A. City Council Member Bill Rosendahl; and a panel of agency leaders, ready to enlist the conference participants in a wide range of activities.

“Homelessness is curable and we must cure it,” Leo Baeck Senior Rabbi Kenneth Chasen said in his welcoming remarks. “Jews know too well the experience of being strangers and outsiders. We have lived in countless places where there were no homes for us.”

More than 90,000 homeless people live in Los Angeles County, about 15,000 of them in downtown’s skid row.

“Los Angeles has the dubious distinction of being America’s homeless capital,” the mayor said, adding that the city is also home to 262,500 millionaires.

The mayor emphasized that homelessness is pervasive throughout the county.

“We have 15 council districts and 87 neighborhood councils, and at the end of the day we have to articulate a common vision…. Every neighborhood has the responsibility to bear the challenge of homelessness,” Villaraigosa said, citing studies showing that contrary to residents’ fears, property values do not fall, nor does crime increase when supportive housing is provided for the previously homeless.

Rosendahl cited a recent survey that had found scores of homeless people in West Los Angeles as well as Venice. Yaroslavky, emphasized that religious communities, which share a vision and passion for social justice can play a key role.

“The county has allocated $100 million for homelessness,” he said. “At one point that was as unlikely as UCLA beating USC in football. For the first time in my career, the political landscape is right for tackling this issue.”

A panel of directors of programs that provide services for the homeless provided the audience with specific programs that could use their services.

Adlai Wertman, the CEO of Chrysalis, which finds jobs for as many as 2,000 homeless people each year, left a career on Wall Street to work with the homeless.

“Why?” he asks. “First and foremost because I’m a Jew. I’m a wannabe rabbi. I spend four or five hours a week studying Torah; it was hard for me to read about the duty of taking care of the poor and the hungry without taking action.”

The New Direction Choir, composed of previously homeless veterans who’ve worked with the New Directions orgainzaton, had earlier provided concrete evidence through song and testimonies to the successes of their programs.

“I am a member of this congregation,” said Toni Reinis, executive director of the New Directions. “So I have to cite something. Our tradition teaches us that the recognition of injustice is not sufficient. Awareness must be followed by action. Real tzedakah is only committed through our acts of righteousness.”

Reinis urged members of the audience to stop by the Veteran’s Village Diner on the grounds of the Veteran’s Administration in West Los Angeles, which serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday.

Joel Roberts, the CEO of PATH, People Assisting the Homeless, introduced Mary Erickson of Imagine LA, a group whose goal is to help every faith-based community in Los Angeles to “adopt” one of the city’s 8,000 homeless families for a two year period.

The conference was spearheaded by Ralph Fertig, a professor at the USC School of Social Work. Fertig, who has long been active in the struggle for human and civil rights, joined Leo Baeck two years ago because of its tradition of social justice programming. The ex-Freedom Rider and civil rights lawyer approached the temple’s rabbis in the hope of engaging the congregation in issues of homelessness.

“We decided a conference would be the perfect opportunity to get our members’ sleeves rolled up,” said Rabbi Leah Lewis, who was also a key organizer.

“We though this could be a launching pad for more involvement.”

After the presentations, Edelman and Fertig urged everyone to sign up as volunteers. Their exhortations were echoed by Lewis in her concluding remarks.

“The Chanukah season is our time to re-dedicate ourselves to stand up for what is right,” she said. “The Macabees were not deterred by the enormity of their task. Like the Macabees, we move forward one step at a time. For us at Leo Baeck, partnering with all these agencies is our congregational first step.”

“There is no community or city or region in the country that has dealt successfully with homelessness without the full participation from religious communities of all faiths standing up for community responsibility,” said Torie Osborn, Villaraigosa’s senior adviser on homelessness.

“I’m especially delighted about the religious community coming together with the city and county,” Chasen said as the congregants moved to an adjoining room where tables were covered with snacks, literature and sign-up sheets.

“The remarkable thing is that both Mayor Villaraigosa and Supervisor Yaroslavsky came,” he said. “The city and the county have not always worked together on homelessness. It’s a great sign of successes to come.”

Milken School head gets the surprise of her life


Rennie Wrubel had no reason to suspect.

The board members, the 800 students on bleachers, the officials from the Bureau of Jewish Education and private foundations — they had come to Milken Community High School to hear Gen. Shaul Mofaz, minster of transportation and deputy prime minister of the state of Israel.

Right?

Mofaz, as it turns out, was a decoy. The surprise honoree was Wrubel herself, who received the Milken Family Foundation’s Jewish Educator Award for her work as Milken’s head of school for the last 10 years.

“I just have one question,” a stunned but composed Wrubel asked when she was finally able to lift herself off her seat. “Is that really Mofaz?” (It was.)

The annual Jewish Educator Awards, with a $10,000 prize, is awarded in conjunction with the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) to five Los Angeles day school teachers or administrators annually.

“I want to recognize and celebrate a person whose intelligence, whose leadership, whose commitment and compassion have made a profound difference in our community, a person who has positively impacted thousands of young people’s lives,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the Milken Family Foundation, which gave the naming gift and maintains close ties to the high school.

As Milken stood at the dais to announce the award, Wrubel wondered why he was talking about appreciating excellence in education, when the assembly was about Israel. Colleagues whispered that perhaps the digression was to recognize the school as a whole, since Wrubel surmised that he couldn’t be presenting a Jewish Educator Award, because she would have been informed of that.

Then Milken asked for “the envelope.” The school orchestra went into a drum roll and an audible wave of anticipation passed among the students. When he announced that Dr. Rennie Wrubel was the recipient of a Jewish Educator Award, Wrubel slumped in her seat, open mouthed — and the gym exploded.

That kind of reaction, and its ripple effect through the wider community, is what Milken Foundation officials are going for with the dramatic presentation of the awards.

“The surprise element evolved as the best way to get everyone’s attention and to make it most memorable to the students and to other people in the room,” said Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken Family Foundation. “We’re trying to get the community behind teaching, behind educators, and trying to get kids to understand that educators are recognized and appreciated and that kids should consider this as a profession.”

Sandler and a caravan of BJE and Milken Foundation officials presented the four other awards in one packed day in late October. Videos of those emotional assemblies will form the centerpiece of an awards luncheon in Bel Air on Dec. 14.

At Beth Hillel Day School in Valley Village, second- and third-grade teacher Beverly Yachzel received her award in an intimate gathering of the student body and teachers at the small school.

Tami Rosenfeld, a fourth-grade Hebrew and Judaic studies teacher at Pressman Academy in Los Angeles, didn’t know her family was hiding out in the back of the sanctuary for the occasion.

Rabbi Simcha Frankel, a teacher at Cheder Menachem Elementary School in Los Angeles, at first demurred from coming to the stage, but the cheering boys coaxed him up.
Bluma Drebin, Bible department chair and teacher of mathematics at the YULA girls’ high school, elicited whoops and hollers from the girls.

But even by the Milken Foundation’s standards, the ruse around Wrubel’s ceremony was unusual.

The elaborate scheming behind the assembly was the work of Metuka Benjamin, director of education at Stephen S. Wise Temple, the parent organization for Milken Community High School.

Benjamin arranged for Consul General Ehud Danoch to come to the school, under the pretense of recognizing the school’s ambitious new Tiferet Israel Program, where 40 tenth graders will go to Israel for four months this winter and spring.

Then, three days before the assembly, Benjamin got a call from Mofaz saying he would be in town.

She jumped at the chance, and pulled off the last-minute schedule change for Mofaz to speak to the students.

Mofaz and Danoch both addressed the students, congratulating them on their continued commitment to fostering the bond between Israeli and American teens.

For several years, Milken Community High School has participated in an exchange program with its sister school in Tel Aviv, sending delegations each year to live with families.
This year a larger delegation will live in dorms, continue their Milken education and learn Jewish history and heritage both in the classroom and on field trips to the places they learn about.

In 11th and 12th grade, the same group of students will continue to have special classes aimed at teaching them to be advocates for Israel, and they will become part of the Israeli Consulate’s speaker’s bureau.

The fact that the assembly honoring Wrubel ended up being so focused on Israel was appropriate, Rabbi Eli Herscher of Stephen S. Wise, said, since one of Wrubel’s strongest passions is for connecting the kids to Israel.

For information on the awards visit www.mff.org.

Q&A With Rabbi Harold S. Kushner


Â
Twenty-five years ago, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner wrote a book that changed his life and the perspective of millions. “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” became an international bestseller that made Kushner a celebrity and gave many suffering people a sense of comfort.
Kushner wrote the book after grappling with the loss of his teenage son, who died from a rare condition that causes rapid aging.
Â
Now, Kushner, 71, has written another practical guide of spiritual wisdom. His 10th book, “Overcoming Life’s Disappointments,” uses Moses’ example to discuss ways of dealing with – and rising above – failure.
Â
“When we think of Moses, we think of his triumphs: leading the Israelites out of slavery, splitting the Red Sea, ascending Mount Sinai,” Kushner writes. “But Moses was a man who knew frustration and failure in his public and personal life at least as often and as deeply as he knew fulfillment.”
Â
Kushner is rabbi laureate of Temple Israel in the Boston suburb of Natick, Mass., where he lives with his wife of 46 years, Suzette.
Â
The Journal spoke with Kushner by phone, as he was preparing to leave on a trip to Florida to celebrate his grandson’s bar mitzvah.
Â

The Jewish Journal: Why did you focus on Moses?
Â
Harold S. Kushner: I meet a lot of people who can’t see the tremendous sources of gratification in their lives, because there are mountains of unfulfilled dreams blocking their view. I wanted to help these people. It occurred to me that Moses dealt with disappointment, and he would be the perfect figure, because people tend to think of Moses as a hero.

Â
JJ: Why did you write this book now?
Â
HK: I don’t find my subjects, my subjects find me. I hear a lot of people complaining about things. When I hear the same complaint coming up a lot, I’m going to think there’s a book there.
Â
I wrote the book when I turned 70, and there was this sense that I’m at a point in my life when I’m looking back and evaluating more than I’m looking forward and anticipating.

Â
JJ: Looking back, what has been your biggest disappointment?
Â
HK: We were not able to find a cure for our son’s disease, and he died when he was 14. We had another child, but we would have liked to have had a larger family.

Â
JJ: Have you had any dreams that you’ve had to let go?
Â
HK: Oh, sure. When I was a teenager I dreamt of being a professional athlete; I just wasn’t good enough. I dreamt of a spectacular college career. It was better than average but not spectacular. I got turned down for a couple of jobs that I applied for.

Â
JJ: I wonder whether people set themselves up for disappointment, because they have unrealistic dreams.
Â
HK: I want people to have unrealistic dreams. I want them to dream big. And then I want them to trust themselves, so that when those ambitions don’t come true, they won’t feel like failures. They’ll fall down, bounce back, dust themselves off and plug in a new dream.

Â
JJ: What’s the secret to failing but not feeling like a failure?
Â
HK: Look at all the other people who have failed and gone on to do wonderful things. Find another dream, a more realistic one. Realize that the first dream was probably worth having, but if you can’t have it, you have to let it go.

Â
JJ: You say God’s power is not the power to control events but the power to help people deal with events. How does that idea fit with the traditional Jewish and Christian belief in an omnipotent God?

Â
HK: It’s different. I grew up believing in an all-powerful God. But we have to tie ourselves in such knots to explain why an omnipotent God permitted the Holocaust, why an omnipotent God permits children to be born retarded, why an omnipotent God permits earthquakes and hurricanes. It just got so complicated, you ended up twisted in so many theological knots, that it became unsustainable.
Â
There are two things in life that God does not control: one is laws of nature and the other is human choice. This does not diminish God. I would rather worship a God who is completely good but not totally powerful than a God who is completely powerful but not completely good.

Â
JJ: In your book, you list the five elements of a complete life: family, friends, faith, work and “the satisfaction of making a difference.” You say Moses has four out of five, since he may have shortchanged his family by working so hard. You appear to have all five.
Â
HK: I don’t think anybody is going to be lucky enough to have all five simultaneously. There were times when I was working very hard to make a difference, and my family got cheated. And there were times when, because I gave a lot of myself to my family and my writing, I lost touch with friends. For me, that’s the one that falls to the bottom.
You have to decide your priorities at a particular juncture in life.

JJ: What are your priorities now?
Â
HK: My family and making a difference in the world.

JJ: Are you working on a new book yet?
Â
HK: That’s like asking a friend who just had a baby if she’s pregnant.

JJ: Maybe when you turn 80, you’ll write about mortality?
Â
HK: I don’t know if I can wait that long to write a book; 80 sounds awfully old.

Life in the ‘hood: Gino Tortorella, hairdresser to the Jews


After 30 days of spiritual feasting, repenting, praying and partying, I think this is a good time to head into the hood and meet my buddy Gino Tortorella.

I love Gino because he’s entertaining in a Martin Scorsese sort of way — he looks like a cross between Joe Pesci and Danny Devito, with that thick New Joisey accent — and because he’s a Catholic who’s had the chutzpah to spend most of his adult life surrounded by Jews. You see, Gino and his hair salon have been a fixture in the heart of the Pico strip (a few doors down from Pat’s restaurant) since the time Richard Nixon was president (1971), so you can imagine that this man has a few things to say.

And, thank God, he does love to talk.Gino TortorellaToday, he’s looking across the street, where Hymie’s Fish Market used to be, and he’s reminiscing. Apparently, Hymie’s used to be a real hot joint back in the late ’70s. According to Gino, the food was so good (alas, it included shrimp and lobster), and the Jewish owner/hostess (“Mama” Elaine) was so well liked, that “all the stars would show up,” even big Jewish stars like Barbra Streisand and Milton Berle.

There’s no question that Gino’s got a thing for Jews. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that for the better part of 40 years, Jewish women have accounted for 90 percent to 95 percent of his hairdressing business.

He didn’t always cut hair. After being raised in a Catholic orphanage on New York’s Lower East Side, where he was shining shoes on Delancey Street at the age of 8, he lucked into a cook’s job at an Italian restaurant when he was 15. As he recalls it: “I was a bus boy; the chef dropped dead one day, and they gave me the job because the head nun at the orphanage had taught me how to cook.”

But cooking was not to be his calling, because he wanted a “more normal life.” So at 19, he learned the art of hairdressing, and has never looked back.

For several years, Gino was one of Manhattan’s hairdressers par excellence, with salons uptown and downtown, and a wealthy Jewish clientele (“Jewish women like to look good”). But his first wife, a Chinese American from whom he recently divorced, wanted to move to Los Angeles with their daughter. So to “keep the peace” and stay close to his daughter, he followed along and moved to a place he knew nothing about.

Since he didn’t yet have his California hairdresser’s license when he arrived in 1971, he started off by cutting hair on a federal Army base in El Segundo. But one question kept nagging at him: Where are all the Jews?

A buddy from New York told him to “go look in Beverly Hills,” but he found the rents there too high. So one thing led to another, and next thing you know Gino’s on the phone with the owner of a tiny building on West Pico, an Orthodox Jew who ended up becoming his friend and landlord — for 35 years and counting.

A lot has changed in his neighborhood and for Gino over the years. In his heyday, when he used to advertise his salon in the local Jewish paper as “The Boys From New York,” he would have “seven cutters, three shampoo girls and three managers working all the time.”

He attributes his successful years to a discriminating clientele (“I gave them Beverly Hills service without the stuffiness”) and to an obsession with cleanliness (“My customers never walk on hair”).

He felt close enough to his Jewish clientele that he even remembers going on Friday nights to hear the sermons of Rabbi Edgar Magnin, who was related to one of his clients. Although this was a far cry from his working with Sister Rose Maria of Thousand Oaks to help with her Christian missionary work in Africa, he recalls fondly the rabbi’s universal message that “we should all get along.”

Today, it’s just Gino and his second wife, a Japanese American named Kay, who run the salon, where relics of his heyday — a mini disco ball, 1,000 pictures (including one of Pope John Paul II), tchotckies and an old TV — are everywhere. When you consider how quiet the business is these days, you wonder how Gino stays so upbeat. He realizes that the neighborhood has changed; he calls it more “ethnic,” but when pressed, he elaborates and says it’s “more religious.”

Obviously, the trend toward wigs among the newly religious has not been good for business. When I ask him why he thinks the business is down, he admits that it might have to do with him not getting any younger; that it’s not like the old days, when he could attract the hottest talent in town. But the “r” words (retirement and relocation) are both out of the question. In fact, having recovered from a recent stroke, the fit and trim Gino has been doing some strategizing.

A couple of hot-shot religious hairdressers recently approached him and told him that they would be willing to work there, and bring their clients with them, if he would close on Shabbat. This notion intrigues him, and as he walks past the empty hairdresser chairs to offer me another coffee, you can tell that he’s feeling an old fire light up.

When I tell him that I must leave because it’s almost Shabbat, he smiles, the kind of smile that must wonder what it would be like to not have to work on the hairdressers’ busiest day of the week, for someone who’s never had a Saturday off in his life.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Partners in Creation


Roger Gottlieb makes the case in his book, “A Greener Faith,” that we are in need of an ecotheology — to view the Earth in a more divine and holy way. He writes that
we have so separated ourselves from nature we don’t actually feel our interconnectedness with it; rather, we value the Earth only for what we can take from it. In order to have a meaningful teshuvah from the sins of taking the Earth’s resources for granted, we need a positive outlook with forward vision and hope.

Jews, it can be argued, already have an ecotheology. The Torah is clear when it discusses our relationship to the Earth.

This week, in Genesis, we are told, “God took the first human being, Adam, and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to watch it” (Genesis 2:15). Yet, a misinterpretation of an earlier verse has guided our human relationship to the Earth for too long. In the first chapter of the Torah, God says: “….Fill the Earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:27-28).

Dominion is too often read as “mastery over,” freedom to control and use at will, which easily leads to exploitation. However, there are many commentators who understand the word “dominion” as correlating to “uniqueness.” In this reading, humans have the unique responsibility to care for the Earth and its inhabitants. Rather than dominate, humans are called upon to make moral choices on behalf of the Earth, for we are the only creatures that God created with the capacity to reason and with the gift of free will; we alone have the capacity to destroy or protect the planet.

Gottlieb writes that we are not concerned by the signs of global warming, or in developing widespread renewable energy sources, or in how our progress has affected the planet’s ecosystem because we see ourselves as outside of nature, rather than integral to it. We substitute “environment” for “nature.”

Through semantics, nature has become an “issue,” something we can be involved in or not. Our sense of being unaffected by nature, as superior to nature, is a danger — indeed an idol — that the Torah warns us against. We must return to viewing ourselves as a part of nature.

Dr. Nathan Lewis, one of my congregants, a Caltech professor and expert in climate change, stated bluntly to me, “The next 10 years will determine what kind of planet we will live in; if we keep on this same path, we will leave our children a planet unlike the one we received.”

Lewis is most concerned about the irreversibility of our actions, even as he acknowledges that science cannot prove definitively what will happen. He argues that we shouldn’t be betting against the indicators that imply what can happen. Waiting to find out will be too late.

Many rabbinic texts detail our long tradition of ecotheology, explicitly supporting the idea that caring for the Earth is a distinctly religious imperative. Long before we started talking about fuel emissions, the rabbis of the Talmud prohibited inefficient use of fuels, saying: “Whoever covers an oil lamp [so that it burns less efficiently], transgresses the mitzvah of ba’al tashchit, do not destroy” (Shabbat 67a).

Long before recycling was the norm, the 16th century manual Sefer HaHinuch taught that “tzadikkim, righteous people, waste not even a mustard seed in this world; they use their strength to conserve everything possible.” These texts illustrate that our ancestors recognized our responsibility to nature, and that our actions must be directed by the holiness of mitzvot.

We created this problem, intentionally or unintentionally; we are responsible for fixing it.

Lewis told me that we get more energy from the sun in one hour than all the energy consumed in one year. Using God’s resources and our brains, we can solve the challenges we face.

California is poised to become the environmental leader in our country. And religious groups around the country are joining its efforts. The Reform movement has a nationwide campaign for “greening” its institutions. The Pacific Southwest Region of Conservative Judaism continues to back its Green Sanctuaries campaign, partnering with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California is expanding that campaign to all synagogues that wish to participate.

We each can make a difference. I challenge us to try some, if not all, of the following:

  • Raise or lower the thermostat in your homes by two degrees;
  • Use compact fluorescent light bulbs in your home;
  • Carpool, walk or ride a bike once weekly;
  • Invest in fuel-efficient transportation;
  • Reduce waste and recycle seriously;
  • Visit the COEJL Web site for more information and ideas.

Every change has an impact. We are called by God to live in consort with the Earth, as God gave us the awesome responsibility to be partners in creation. Let us strive to live up to that divine gift. As Pirke Avot teaches, “It is not up to us to finish the work, but neither are we free to ever stop trying.”

Now more than ever, we need this attitude toward our Earth.

This d’var Torah is an adaptation of Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater’s Yom Kippur sermon. To read the sermon in its entirety, visit ” target=”_blank”>www.coejl.org
Green Sanctuaries:

Winning Nobel Prizes seems to run in one family’s chemistry — and biology


You’ve heard of the nuclear family. But how about the deoxyribonucleic family?
Thirty-seven years after Arthur Kornberg won the Nobel Prize in medicine, his eldest son, Roger, took home this year’s prize in chemistry, receiving the call from Stockholm Oct. 3.

Not only are both Kornbergs biochemists, they also both work for Stanford Medical School. This is, amazingly, the sixth instance of a Nobel being awarded to the son of a previous winner.

“It was a family of science. My mother, who unfortunately passed away about 20 years ago, worked in the lab as a biochemist with my father. So biochemistry was a dinner table conversation,” recalled Roger Kornberg’s younger brother, Tom, himself a biochemist at UC San Francisco. The third Kornberg brother, Ken, is not a scientist but an architect — although he specializes in designing laboratories.

“Roger was uniquely focused on science from the time he was very, very young,” Tom Kornberg said. “He had no other ambition other than to be a scientist. He is notable even today for his single-minded dedication among scientists. His tenacity and determination is remarkable.”

Arthur Kornberg — who still has his own lab at Stanford Medical School at age 88 — grew up in an Orthodox Brooklyn household, where Yiddish was the first language. His future wife, Sylvy Levy, also grew up Orthodox, but the couple raised their children in a fairly secular environment.

Still, the family had a strong Jewish and pro-Israel identity, and Roger Kornberg is a consistent donor to the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation. Roger married an Israeli scientist, Yahli Lorch, a Stanford professor of structural biology, and they live almost half the year in their Jerusalem flat, where he leads his research team remotely via the Internet. He returned from Israel just before winning the prize, having delivered a lecture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Sept. 26.

Roger Kornberg was honored for his study of transcription, a process of DNA replication. Instead of creating proteins directly from DNA, the DNA recreates itself in the form of RNA, which traverses from the nucleus to other cell locations where it kicks off protein production.

Kornberg has studied the vast intricacies of transcription since the early 1970s, fitting together the more than 30,000 atoms present in RNA polymerase, the enzyme that allows DNA to remake itself into RNA. Kornberg’s lab created the world’s first images of polymerase in action, enabling the zipperlike undoing and redoing of the double helix.

“We were astonished by the intricacy of the complex, the elegance of the architecture, and the way that such an extraordinary machine evolved to accomplish these important purposes,” Kornberg told a Stanford publication of the images he and his colleagues created. “RNA polymerase gives a voice to genetic information that, on its own, is silent.”

That voice doesn’t automatically make itself heard. Transcription occurs on a selective basis, and transcription among a cell’s tens of thousands of genes decrees whether it develops into a liver cell, a stem cell or a neuron. It also determines whether it develops healthily or cancerously.

Creating the groundbreaking images of RNA polymerase was a backbreaking task, requiring an expertise in an esoteric field combining chemistry, biology and physics called crystallography (the same technique that Francis Crick and James Watson utilized to discover the double helix).

To greatly simplify the work of Kornberg’s lab, a concentrated solution of a molecule was evaporated until all that was left behind were highly structured crystals reminiscent of the salt deposits left behind by vaporized seawater. Via intensely bright X-rays, scientists were then able to identify the exact location of individual atoms and generate a computer model of the molecule.

Kornberg’s tenacious feat of illustrating the 10 subunits of RNA polymerase in action was a task two decades in the making.

“It was a technical tour de force that took about 20 years of work to accomplish,” professor Joseph Puglisi, chair of the department of structural biology at the Stanford School of Medicine, told a Stanford publication.
“Like other great scientists, Roger doesn’t quit. He’s stubborn. A lot of scientists would have given up after five years.”

Each Nobel Prize includes a check for $1.4 million, a diploma and a medal, which will be awarded by Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf at a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

Defying Nazis? Sure! It’s all in a days work


Of all the books written on German militarism, “The Captain From Koepenick,” by German playwright Carl Zuckmayer, is not only one of the great all-time satires, but penetrates to the heart of the matter more pointedly than a dozen treatises.
 
The play premiered in 1930 and immediately earned its author a place on the Nazis’ enemy list. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Zuckmayer was a marked man, more for his political views than for his mother’s descent from an assimilated Jewish family.
 
The title character, Wilhelm Voigt, is a petty criminal who tries to go straight as a shoemaker after his release from prison. Every attempt to get a job is foiled by the German bureaucracy and by employers who will only hire men who show proof of army service.
 
In desperation, the middle-aged Voigt buys a second-hand captain’s uniform from a pawnbroker, puts it on and, suddenly, every good German stands at attention and obeys his every command.Though the time and setting are pre-World War I, during the Kaiser’s reign, the mentality it skewers was sadly confirmed during the Nazi regime.
 
After returning from wartime exile, Zuckmayer wrote the movie version, starring Heinz Ruehmann, the comic German everyman.
 
Rarely shown in the West, the film is part of a 12-week retrospective of works by German director Helmut Kaeutner, now under way at the Goethe Institut in Los Angeles.
 
Also part of the series is Kaeutner’s second major hit, “The Devil’s General,” starring the great German actor Curt Juergens. The 1955 movie was one of the first post-war attempts to examine the recent Nazi past. At its center is a popular World War II Luftwaffe general, torn between loyalty to his country and his disgust with the Nazi regime.
 
Kaeutner wrote the 1929 screenplay for the classic “The Blue Angel,” starring Marlene Dietrich, and made his directorial debut in 1939 with the film, “Kitty and the World Conference.” It was immediately banned by propaganda minister Josef Goebbels for its allegedly pro-British attitude.
 
Nevertheless, the director stayed active during World War II with pictures that largely ignored war and ideology, and he reached his artistic peak in the 1950s.
 
Also scheduled are films dealing with the post-war East-West German divide, as well as a number of nonpolitical romance movies.
 
Weekly screenings, through Nov. 28, start at 7 p.m. at the Goethe Institut, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., No. 100 “The Devil’s General” will be shown Oct. 5, and “The Captain From Koepenick” on Nov. 28. Admission is $5.

Russian Singer Goes From Defector to Cantor


“I was born in the 1960s into a typical Soviet Jewish family,” says Svetlana Portnyansky. “We never went to synagogue, never were religious. At family events at home, we sang Jewish songs sometimes, but we’d close all the doors to make sure no one heard us.”

Given Portnyansky’s non-Jewish upbringing, it’s odd that this interview is taking place at Newport Beach’s Temple Isaiah, where she’s the cantor. How did she go from being a popular singer in the Soviet Union to a defector who had to leave her family behind, to a cantor at a shul in Orange County?

Like just about everything else in Portnyansky’s life, the answer has to do with music. Her father was “a musician at heart” who made a living as an industrial engineer in Moscow. “He taught me piano,” she says. “I grew up with music and absorbed it in my soul. I knew that I was born to be a professional singer. So I went to the Moscow Conservatory of Music, graduated with honors and became a singer who specializes in Jewish songs.”

After graduating, she was invited to sing at the Moscow Jewish Theater. This was in the late 1980s, during Perestroika, and it was the theater’s grand reopening after having been closed for 40 years.

“I sang a solo concert,” Portnyansky says, “and my musical career took off. I became a public figure, sang on nationwide radio and television. It was wonderful to be popular, but it was also dangerous: I received threatening letters saying things like, ‘Jews are supposed to be in Israel. Go home! This is our country!'”

Portnyansky felt it was time to leave. “I didn’t see any future for myself in the Soviet Union. I couldn’t see how I was going to live that way, being threatened. Besides, I’d always wanted to go to America.”

Ever since she was a little girl, she says, she dreamed of coming to the United States. “My parents used to get a magazine called Amerika. It had photos and articles about the U.S. In my mind I was already there, from the first grade.”
The opportunity came in 1991, during the last throes of the Soviet Union: She received an invitation from the U.S government to do a concert tour.

“My musicians and I got theatrical exchange visas. I knew I was going to defect. I talked it over with my family. I said to them, ‘It’s our only chance. I have to take it now.’ They understood. They blessed me.” Portnyansky was in her mid-20s then, with a 4-year-old son who stayed in Moscow with her husband and her parents.

“In the U.S. we had some very successful concerts, East Coast to West Coast. The tour lasted two months. When it was over, I told my musicians I would go back [to the Soviet Union], but not just yet. Of course, I knew I wasn’t going back.”

She defected, and during those first few months in New York it was very difficult not being with her family. But she had some money, and she had friends who let her stay in their place. “That was the hardest time of my life,” she says. “I called my family very often. It was also a period of concern, whether I would make the right choices. I was determined not to do certain things, like wash dishes or sing at a restaurant.”

After much thought, she decided to pursue a second Jewish musical track, one that paralleled her pop singing career: She would study to become a cantor at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

In order to become a legal resident of the United States, she contacted the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and told them that she could not go back to the Soviet Union. She showed them the threatening letters she’d received. HIAS took up her case.

During the months she was in New York without her family, Portnyansky got word that her father had died in Moscow. She couldn’t risk going to the funeral. “I didn’t have the green card,” she says. “I was afraid I might not be permitted to come back to the United States.”

But in early 1992, Portnyansky’s family found a way to join her: Her husband, son and mother came to the United States on tourist visas. They moved to Southern California, where Portnyansky gave birth to a second son and continued her cantorial studies.

During the early 1990s, though she was not yet a legal resident, HIAS’s advocacy bore results: She was permitted to work in the U.S. She gave “jazzy, cabaret-style” concerts; and, after completing her liturgical training, she started to work as a cantor. “I was busy at that time,” she says. “My only problem was that I couldn’t leave the United States.”

Getting her green card took more than five years. She later found out that the process had been delayed because her file had been lost. After Portnyansky became a legal resident in 1996, her first trip was to Israel. Since then she’s continued her dual career: cantor in Newport Beach … and

Beverly Hills TV Agent Casts Himself in Reality Show: Lebanon War


Most American Jews were upset when the conflict broke out between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon this summer. Many felt frustrated and helpless watching the news from so far away, wondering what they could do about it.
Matt Altman knew what he had to do: He had to get on a plane to Israel to volunteer up north.

The 30-year-old Angeleno was not the only American to volunteer during the war — there were a few emergency missions from synagogues and young professional groups, such as Care for Israel, which organized a weeklong trip of 80 people. But Altman went on his own, and he was also not your typical rabbi or synagogue member on a mission: A television agent at Creative Artists Agency, he just took off, using his vacation time from work, despite protests from family and friends.

“A couple of people said, ‘It’s crazy, don’t do this,’ but I had had enough of people saying they were giving money and not knowing where the money goes, and I thought it was important to go there.”

Go there he did, leaving abruptly on Aug. 6 on an airplane that was practically empty and arriving at an airport that was practically empty — especially of arriving tourists — for a 12-day trip.

“I always told my parents that I would have fought if I were in the Holocaust, I wouldn’t have just stood there,” he said. “For me, this was something that was like the Holocaust of my time, and I had to go.”

Altman is not a child of survivors. He grew up Conservative in Newton, Mass., attended Solomon Schechter Day School, became bar mitzvahed in Israel and, until this trip, had only visited the country two other times with his family.
“I think that any Jew is a survivor,” he said in the impassioned tones he uses when talking about Israel.

“I must write to tell you all what is happening right now in Haifa … it is horrible and Hezbollah MUST BE STOPPED!!!!” Altman said on a blog he wrote from Israel, which originally started as a letter to friends and family and then was posted on The Jewish Journal’s blog site, along with his photos of bombed-out buildings, empty cities and attractions, soldiers and people he met and spoke with in the north.

Looking at Altman in his Beverly Hills regalia — a shimmery silver pinstriped suit and thin azure tie perfectly matched to bring out the subtle stripes, his power hair supergelled and spiky short — it’s hard to believe this is the same scruffy guy that appears in the Israel photos wearing jeans and a T-shirt, which was sometimes filthy from his work.

Altman got down and dirty in the trenches, volunteering at a different place each day of his trip, which was coordinated by Dani Neuman, executive director of the Haifa Foundation.

“He was amazing,” Altman said. “He was able to take me to many different places — I was able to work at hospitals, a food shelter, help make packages for the army and help make packages for children. I was able to see a lot of things that I wouldn’t have been able to see,” Altman said, including a visit to a city hall meeting in Haifa and a meeting with the city’s mayor, Yona Yahav.

Altman rented a studio apartment in Haifa — paying the rent of a student there who couldn’t afford it because of the war’s economic devastation — from where he could hear the sound of war.

“A lot of the missiles were hitting north of where I was staying; you’d hear boom, boom, boom in the distance,” he said.

Like many people on the missions, Altman toured the sites of the devastation — the shelled, caved-in buildings; the cement walls riddled with ball bearings from the rockets. “The whole cement looked like it was torn off. It was a frightening thing.”

But he wasn’t exactly frightened, at first. He visited with soldiers who hadn’t seen their families for weeks, delivered meals to people in shelters who had evacuated their homes and sat with soldiers and civilians hurt in the conflict.
“There was an old Russian woman who went to the post office and her leg got blown up. She was in the hospital and only spoke Russian — no Hebrew or English — and to me that was the most horrible thing, seeing this woman who was already incredibly poor, how her life had changed. She had her leg [amputated], and yet she was still very sweet. I couldn’t imagine being in that situation,” Altman said.

Before he went, Altman also couldn’t imagine being in a situation of war, and many of his postings read like they were from a naive, earnest foreigner.

“Please tell everyone you know that they must get behind Israel now, as Israel is fighting the worst terrorists in the world, and if Israel doesn’t destroy them, we are about to enter World War III. The news media is INSANE, and the fact that they report anything positive about these murders is asinine! [sic] ….Israel NEEDS YOUR SUPPORT NOW MORE THAN EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Altman is not all ideologue, however. Some of his postings are quite funny, such as one from Aug. 11, when he worked at the Koenig Soldiers Center, where the navy puts together boxes for every soldier.

“On this particular day, I happened to be helping when we received a virtual mountain of men’s dress socks with little cartoon characters on them. I joked with the soldiers that if we ran out of bullets, we could always scare them away with the horrible looking socks,” he wrote.

But his humor is mixed with the realities of war.

“One soldier and I went out to take a break, and he told me about his uncle who was driving home from work last week and was killed by a direct hit on his car. It is so maddening to me, as well as him, that nothing was said on TV.”

Most days didn’t turn out as expected. One day he was at B’nai Zion Medical center thinking he was going to visit with the patients but ended up in the kitchen, preparing food because they were short-staffed.

“After meeting the crew of 15 chefs, the crazy Russian chef took a special liking to me. If you’ve seen the movie ‘Armageddon,’ he was exactly like that crazy Russian cosmonaut, except he didn’t speak a lick of English. He was the clown of the group, and he spoke to me the whole time, knowing I didn’t know what the hell he was saying…. I should have listened to my parents when they told me to study at Hebrew school; it would have been very handy in this situation.”

Handy is not really the word for something that could help you in a life-threatening situation.

Altman couldn’t hear anything over the clang of the pots and pans. So when the Russian chef motioned Altman should follow him upstairs, Altman thought they were going to get food.

“The next thing I knew, we were on the roof, overlooking the entire coastline. Sirens were going off, and while everyone in the building was running to the opposite side, we ran up a stairwell.” Alone on the roof, the chef looked at him and said one Russian word Altman did understand: “Katyusha.”

What Altman saw next changed his life forever: “FOURTEEN rockets were flying in the air…. To say it was scary was an understatement. He had wanted to show them to me, and that’s why we were running. I was paralyzed. My heart was in my throat, and I nearly sh — myself. It was unreal; I watched rockets come at me, not being able to even move.”

Altman could not stop shaking for the next two hours. “Try serving soup while shaking; most of it lands on the ground,” he writes jokingly.

But the sight of the Katyushas was not all that shook him to the bone. So did the barrage of rockets on Haifa on Sunday, Aug. 6, killing three and wounding dozens and hitting near his apartment.

“When the missiles hit six doors down, I thought I was going to die,” Altman recalls. “It was the largest, scariest noise I ever heard.”

On his blog he wrote, “The first few hits sounded like normal … but then think what the loudest firework you can ever imagine sounds like … one hit outside where I am staying. Then another! Then another! It is complete and utter chaos right now! Sirens are going off everywhere!”

“It’s very real. You could die,” he explained later. Altman cut his trip short — which was a good thing, he said, considering the terrorist plot thwarted in Britain the following weekend. He decided he’d be more use talking about his trip than packing more food for soldiers and families. “I had been there; I had experienced it; I could be more helpful telling people what happened there from a first-person view,” he said.

Altman left Israel on Aug. 16, and he plans to speak to groups at friends’ homes and synagogues to discuss what he saw and learned there, and to raise money for the Haifa Foundation.

“I think it’s something that no one understands. The bomb sirens go off, and you have to go into a bomb shelter and get into between two buildings, it’s pretty scary. It’s amazing and frightening to me. I don’t know how I could do that every day. I don’t know how they could go outside — to me it’s a very hard way to live. That’s why we need peace. These people should not have to live like this. Nobody should have to live like this.”

On Sept. 13, Altman will be at the Israel in Crisis Fund’s winetasting fundraiser in Santa Monica.

During his time in Israel, Altman saw the remnants of war, such as these ball bearings that killed Israelis and inflicted damage on homes.

On Sept. 13, from 7:30-10:30 p.m., Israel in Crisis Fund will be holding a wine tasting fundraiser with an auction and live music at Hamilton Galleries, 1431 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica. $25 (in advance), $36 (at the door). For more information, contact (310) 963-5674.

A ‘Nice’ Idea Blossoms Into a Group of ‘Niceaholics’


Debbie Tenzer was having lunch with several girlfriends when the conversation got heated. “We all had such different views on where the country was headed. There was so much anger and so much scary news in the post-Sept. 11 world,” she says, recalling the devastation from hurricanes and the tsunami, terrorism threats, difficulties facing Israel and escalating deaths in Iraq. “I wished I could pull my head in and hide like a turtle.”

But that’s hardly what Tenzer, a mother of three and marketing consultant, decided to do.

She thought to herself: “I can’t single-handedly end world hunger, but I can donate some cans to a food bank. I can’t fix the entire school system, but I can donate my kids’ old books to the library.”

So she did, and her kindness was empowering.

“I realized that if you have the ability to help other people, you’re in a pretty good place,” says Tenzer, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband of 29 years. “It’s not always easy, because basically, we’re selfish creatures, many of us struggling every day. We have to make a choice, and it starts by doing just one nice thing.”

Tenzer decided that every Monday, she’d do something nice for others.

“It’s the hardest day of the week,” she explains, “so I wanted to start off with something I could feel good about, a personal victory,” even if it was only a five-minute gesture like making a card for senior citizens in nursing homes.
Her friends were inspired by her idea, so she sent an e-mail to 60 of them with her suggestions for kind acts they could easily do, too.

One year later, her idea has evolved into a Web site, DoOneNiceThing.com, with thousands of visitors and a weekly e-mail that reaches people in more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Israel, Japan and Slovakia. Her self-funded site reinforces the idea that small acts of kindness can create lasting results and suggests simple deeds that appeal to both adults and children without usually asking for money.

She credits them with cheering up hundreds of hospitalized children, donating countless books to schools, libraries and hospitals, as well as backpacks to foster children who were literally carrying their belongings from home to home in a garbage bag.

“What kind of message does that send to them?” Tenzer asks rhetorically.
The ideas are often sent to Tenzer in the more than 200 weekly e-mails she receives from the site’s members, whom she calls “Niceaholics” because, Tenzer cautions, “you get hooked.”

Operation Feel Better, for example, encourages people to make or buy cards that she then sends to hospitalized children. “So far I’ve gotten 1,000 cards from all over the United States and as far away as China, and they’re still trickling in,” she says. The figure includes about 20 from her 14-year-old daughter.
“I brought some to UCLA Children’s Hospital and sent others to St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis.”

Pulling out a big batch in a manila envelope, she adds, “These are on their way to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where sick children of all faiths lie side by side.”

Pointing to a wall in her home office that’s covered with pictures, Tenzer says, “These are some of the heroes who are making life better.”

She begins to cry as she talks about Mallory Lewis, with whom she spent the day at Fort Irwin near Barstow, the last stop before many of the soldiers are deployed to Iraq. “Some of the people we met were killed in the war. Maybe the last smile they had or their last taste of childhood was because of Mallory,” she sobs, noting that Lewis, the daughter of puppeteer Shari Lewis, performed with Lamp Chop for no fee.

“I’m not usually so emotional, but these people remind me of a higher purpose in life,” she adds. Getting teary-eyed again, she points to a picture of a young man who quit his job at a law firm to teach at an inner-city school, where he spent his free time helping students fill out college applications.

“Every one of them went to college because of him,” she said.

While some of the “nice people” Tenzer has recognized are spearheading grass-roots efforts or starting nonprofits to help the homeless, disadvantaged children, AIDS patients, abused animals or drug addicts, others are honored for simply making people smile. Bob Mortenson, for example, a retired man in his 70s, takes a walk every morning carrying a bag of cookies so that he can share something sweet with workers in his neighborhood. And on her way home from work as a gynecologist, Karen Gross has a daily ritual of dropping off treats at her local LAPD and Fire Department stations.

The one thing all the honorees have in common, Tenzer says, is their reaction to being praised.

“Every single one of them says something like, ‘Oh no, not me. Other people do so much more than I do,'” Tenzer says. “This is the sign of a truly kind person.”

When the kindness hits close to home, she’s especially grateful and pleasantly surprised.

“You won’t believe this,” she says, explaining that her younger son, Ben, a college junior who’s spending the semester in Barcelona, was recently pickpocketed. But within days, a taxi driver had found what remained of Ben’s wallet, including his credit cards and ID, and called his university in the United States so that he could arrange to return it.

“There really are a lot of nice people out there,” Tenzer says with a smile.
She attributes her sense of tikkun olam, healing the world, to her Conservative Jewish and Zionist upbringing in the Bay Area, values that she and her husband, an agent at Creative Artists Agency, have instilled in their children.
“I was always taught that we have a responsibility to other Jews and to the whole community,” she says, praising her parents for being role models. “Tikkun olam is in my soul. It’s just a reflex. It’s what’s expected of us.”
But she’s careful to point out that her site embraces people of all denominations and backgrounds.

“My goal is to unite people, not point out our differences,” she says. “I never ask people their faith, but it often comes out.”

Still, she admits that about half of all the people featured on the site are Jewish: “And I’m proud of that.”

Like her honorees, she’s also proud of her accomplishments, but won’t take all the credit. “It’s not all me by any means,” says Tenzer, who’s now working on a related book. “I just lit a match to get some light going out there. It’s the people all over the world who are keeping it going.”

Thrown For A Loop


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letters to the Editor 07-07-06


Converts
As a convert to Judaism, I was reassured to read your series of articles on those like me who chose to become Jews (“Did It Stick?” June 2). A lapsed Catholic with many Jewish friends growing up on Long Island, early on I was attracted to the ethics and worldly focus of Judaism. Following a course of study at Temple Emanuel in New York City, I converted in 1967, and my first wife and I raised our three children in the Jewish tradition.

In 1992, on the eve of her bat mitzvah, my youngest daughter asked if I would be bar mitzvahed with her. That glorious day came to pass at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, with Rabbi Harvey Fields observing that in the 130-year history of the temple, there was no record of a father and daughter having a b’nai mitzvah. At the party afterward, when Tessa and I greeted everyone, I said that I had checked around the room, and I was the only person who had had a first holy communion and a bar mitzvah.

In my life in Los Angeles with my wife, Wendy, inspired by Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller at UCLA and through my work with the Progressive Jewish Alliance, enriched by interfaith activities, Judaism has strengthened and complemented my struggle for civil liberties, human rights, peace and justice.

Stephen F. Rohde
Los Angeles

Kosher
From reputation and general veneration, I had always believed Rabbi Jacob Pressman to be an intelligent and reliable community leader. Reading his foolish letter June 16 convinced me I was wrong on all counts (“But Is It Kosher?” June 9).

Pressman would have us believe that there is some Orthodox cabal controlling the purse strings of the literally hundreds of kashrut supervising agencies; that a group of black-hatted, white-bearded rebbes control the bank accounts and policies of these “for profit” groups — this is America after all — shades of the protocols! And all that has to be done to properly fund day schools is to divert these funds to cover the schools’ budgets, how simple and how asinine and misleading. Shame on you Rabbi Pressman. You do know better!

Growing up in Los Angeles I know that neither Pressman nor his Conservative (and Reform) colleagues contributed one whit to kashrut observance in this city. There were no restaurants or widespread bakery products available while he was in his prime, so he has nothing to say.

As regards high and truly unbearable tuition rates in our city, there is a simple solution, one that both the secular rabbinate and The Jewish Journal oppose — vouchers. I and my fellow community members pay thousands in taxes to fund a public school system that we choose not to use. Can’t we get some credit?

Howard Weiss
Los Angeles

I enjoyed reading Rob Eshman’s article that detailed the controversy that followed People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) with the Orthodox Union over kosher slaughter practices, and AgriProcessors’ questionable treatment of its own workers. Most interesting to me was the latter part of the article, which tried to discuss the nature of kashrut.

The article quotes scholar Meir Soloveichik as calling the nature of kashrut “mysterious and obvious … the Bible insists that it be perfectly clear to the non-Jew that the Torah-observant Israelite lives a life that reminds him constantly of his unique relationship with God.” In other words, it is to let the non-Jew know that we are special and follow laws meant to “set us apart and elevate our souls.”

Then in the last breath of the article, Eshman recommends that “the kosher label should not just imply the humane, responsible treatment of animals and the just treatment of food industry workers, it should certify it.”

In other words, kosher should mean that universal standards of humane treatment are being met, standards that any reasonable person would want.

So, which is it? Do we follow kashrut to set ourselves apart from the rest of the world or to encourage the rest of the world to join with us? It can’t be both.

Les Amer
Los Angeles

Finkelstein Syndrome
Roz Rothstein’s article on the anti-Semitic Jew, [Norman] Finkelstein, highlights a major lapse in common knowledge about Jewish history (“Beware the Finklestein Syndrome,” June 9). While every effort is made to inform the world about the Holocaust, very little information is disseminated about the history of lies and hate against the Jews, or its relationship to the Holocaust. I have seen history books that devote two pages to Anne Frank but fail to mention that Jews were patriotic Germans and no threat to Germany.

Theobald of Cambridge, a 12th century apostate to Catholicism, created the “blood libel” which has lasted to this day and caused thousands of Jewish deaths. If there was general awareness of the history of hatred against the Jews, then when people hear a Finkelstein, they can wonder, is he a whistleblower or a modern-day Theobald?

Those who wish to spread vicious lies against Jews today do not convert to another religion; their venom is more credible when they remain Jews, especially if they can claim to be from a family of survivors.

Ronnie Lampert
Los Angeles

DaVinci Code
Enjoyed your articles on “The DaVinci Code,” (May 19), but only the first three gospels of the New Testament (Mathew, Mark and Luke) are synoptic gospels. They are synoptic because they are similar to each other and different from the writings of the fourth gospel of John.

Brett Thompson
via e-mail

John Fishel
While the article titled, “A Private Man,” about John Fishel that ran May 26 was informative, it did not highlight one of Fishel’s key strengths.

Expert after expert has declared that a vital dynamic causing growth and change in 21st century Jewish life is directly proportional to the successful rise of entrepreneurial, Jewish, social venture startups. Jewish Los Angeles has spawned more of these new and creative organizations that address the myriad interests and needs such a diverse population requires than any other area outside of New York.

A great deal of these initiatives are being adapted and re-created in cities across the country, such as new spiritual communities, organizations that decry global genocide and serve the special needs of Jewish children among many others. Fishel has consistently taken the position that new organizations can and should arise and that their existence alone adds immeasurable value.

This is not true in most places. I believe the prolific number of creative ventures attest to the success of this position and must be noted.

Rhoda Uziel
Executive Director
Professional Leaders Project

 

Artists Dream in a Golden Age


Sam Erenberg spends most of the day, nearly every day, alone in a 1,000-square-foot box.

“It’s like a temple,” the painter says of his artist’s studio.

A lonely temple, that is.

“I’m the rabbi and congregation all in one,” he says with a laugh.

Working as an artist can be isolating, especially in the sprawling city of Los Angeles. And what good is inspiration without community?

The Jewish Artists Initiative of Southern California exists for artists like Erenberg. The group, consisting of about 30 members, constitutes one of the nation’s first organized networks of Jewish artists. Its aims are twofold: to create a support system for local artists and to transform the way the Jewish community relates to art.

On a recent evening, Erenberg sat among other artists in a garage-turned-studio in Larchmont Village. He, for one, was happy for the company.

“This is my ad-hoc family,” he said to the painters, photographers and sculptors who had gathered there for the group’s monthly meeting.

The Artists Initiative emerged three years ago, when Amelia Xann of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles approached USC’s Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life. Xann wanted to create a program to promote visual art by Jewish artists.

The organizations decided to found a group that would put on exhibitions, host a lecture series and provide a space for artists to explore the relationship between their Jewish identities and their art.

So, the Artists Initiative launched, with $40,000 in foundation grants for a speaker series and Web site.

The group staged its first exhibition in 2004 at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “Too Jewish — Not Jewish Enough” showcased paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints, ceramics and digital work that incorporated Jewish themes or adhered to “a Jewish sensibility.” (Art with a “Jewish sensibility,” Erenberg explained, exhibits “a kind of longing, a feeling that you’re connected to a long history.”)

The second exhibition, “Makor/Source,” concentrated on the sources of the artists’ inspiration. The exhibit opened this year at the Hillel: Centers for Jewish Life, at USC and UCLA.

Members are planning a third exhibition, which will likely have a California theme, to open in the next year or so at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Art historian Matthew Baigell will curate the show.

Ruth Weisberg, a nationally recognized artist and the de facto leader of the group, said the initiative has ambitious goals.

“We really want to be another porthole, another entrance into Judaism,” said Weisberg, who is dean of USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts. “Younger people, especially, are often more at ease entering the Jewish community through cultural events than any other way.”

Weisberg, who illustrated the Reform movement’s new haggadah, said she hoped the group would also encourage Jewish artists to treat Jewish themes in their work.

“Many Jews who are involved in the art world keep their Judaism in one part of their life, and their cultural [expression] in another,” she said. Jews may fear being categorized — or even dismissed — as Jewish, rather than mainstream, artists. But keeping art and religious identity separate “is, I think, unnecessary and not that productive.”

Not all of the group’s members agree.

“I’m here protesting,” Channa Horwitz announced at the last meeting.

“I’m Jewish, and I’m an artist, but I’m not a Jewish artist,” said Horwitz, who uses complex patterns and bright colors in her work. “I don’t think art has anything to do with religion.”

Horwitz’s response reflects the diversity of the group, which includes Jews across the religious spectrum, from around the world, including the United States, Israel and Russia.

Despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, members find value in the group.

“It’s really great to sit in a room with people who get it,” said Laurel Paley, whose use of Hebrew text in her art has been criticized as “obfuscation.”

Members hope their network will become a model for communities across the country. To increase membership and public awareness, the group is updating its Web site. It has also applied for another foundation grant.

Should funding arrive in the fall, the artists hope to launch new projects. One idea they bandied about involves creating a Jewish community center for the arts, where the public can come not only to view art but also to create it.

As the artists speculated about the future, a sense of what could be — if only they had the world as their canvas — invigorated the group.

Exciting things happen when artists get together, said Bruria Finkel, a sculptor with works on display at the New Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

The Dadaists and Cubists of the 20th century began by meeting in groups, Finkel said. Now, with Jewish artists flourishing in the United States, especially on the West Coast, who knows what this group can accomplish?

“It’s a golden age,” she said.

 

Spectator – ‘Devil’ Is in the Details


The film adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 New York Times best-selling novel, “The Devil Wears Prada,” which hits theaters on June 30, follows recent college grad Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) as she takes on the dubious job of assistant to the editor-in-chief of the most prominent fashion magazine in New York: Runway. Her job, as it turns out, is not at all about journalism, but rather catering to the boss from hell, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), who makes absurdly vague demands and expects immediate results. After nearly a year, Andy must decide whether succeeding at her career trumps keeping her sanity.

An enjoyable chick-lit book, “The Devil Wears Prada,” in movie form follows the novel’s storyline, with slight modifications to the plot that only enhance our understanding of Andy’s dilemma. And for the fashion buff, the insider’s view of the inner workings of a haute couture, albeit fictional, fashion magazine are amusing.

One dramatic difference, however, is that in the film, Andy is no longer identified as Jewish. Ditto for the Miranda Priestly character, rumored to be based on legendary Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who was born Miriam Princhek into an Orthodox Jewish family. Despite the importance of Judaism to the main characters in the book version, Fox 2000 opted to exclude any religious references.

Hollywood is actually quite adept at changing Jewish literary characters into generic, unaffiliated characters on screen. “In Her Shoes,” for example, a 2005 film based on the book of the same title by author Jennifer Weiner, successfully glossed over the fact that the protagonist and her sister were Jewish. The only glimpse of explicitly Jewish content was the kippot worn at a wedding.

Although unavailable for comment at press time, in a 2005 interview with the Jerusalem Post, Weisberger noted how Jewish characters are a necessary element to her work.

“I can’t imagine constructing a single’s life and her family’s life without them being Jewish,” Weisberger explained.

And despite the producers’ efforts, the on-screen character of Andy Sachs remains true to her roots and comes across as a Jewish girl all the same.

“The Devil Wears Prada” opens this week in theaters.

 

Jesus’ Man Has a Plan


Are there any Jewish Rick Warrens?

That’s not a fair question.

There are few people of any faith like Warren.

As I sat listening to him speak at Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live Shabbat services last week, I thought of the only other person I’d met with Warren’s eloquence, charisma, and passion — but Bill Clinton carries a certain amount of baggage that Warren doesn’t.

Warren spoke at Sinai as part of the Synagogue 3000 program, which aims to revitalize Jewish worship.




Rick Warren’s speech at Sinai Temple. Audio added 8/14/2008


The program’s leader, Rabbi Ron Wolfson, met Warren a decade ago and was influenced by the pastor’s first book, “The Purpose-Driven Church” (Zondervan, 1995). And to demonstrate what such a church looked like in action, Wolfson brought two busloads of synagogue leaders to Warren’s Saddleback Church in South Orange County to experience firsthand the pastor’s success. The church has 87,000 members. Its Sunday service draws 22,000 worshippers to a 145-acre campus in the midst of affluent, unaffiliated exurbia. Clearly, Warren has reached the kind of demographic synagogues had all but given up on.

There are two aspects to Warren’s success, and both were on display Friday night. First, he is an organizational genius. His mentor was management guru Peter Drucker.

“I spoke with him constantly,” Warren said, right up until Drucker died last year at age 95.

It is Drucker’s theory of “management by objectives” that Warren replicates in every endeavor — translating long-term objectives into more immediate goals. Here let’s pause to consider that Jews are learning to reorganize thier faith from a Christian who was mentored by a Jew.

In his church, Warren serves as pastor to five subordinate pastors, who in turn serve 300 full-time staff, who administer to 9,000 lay volunteers, who pastor 82,000 members spread out among 83 Southern California cities.

“It’s the individual cells that make the body,” he told the Sinai crowd. All his church’s endeavors — from working to cure diseases in African villages to reinventing houses of worship — work according to a model that parcels larger goals into smaller ones, empowering believers to take action along the way.

The other secret to his success is his passion for God and Jesus. Warren managed to speak for the entire evening without once mentioning Jesus — a testament to his savvy message-tailoring. But make no mistake, the driving purpose of an evangelical church is to evangelize, and it is Warren’s devotion to spreading the words of the Christian Bible that drive his ministry.

Good for him and his flock — and not so bad for us either. His teachings apply to 95 percent of all people, regardless of religious belief. As he put it to a group of rabbis at a conference last year — using a metaphor that might be described as a Paulian slip: “Eat the fish and throw away the bones.”

Warren told Wolfson his interest is in helping all houses of worship, not in converting Jews. He said there are more than enough Christian souls to deal with for starters.

The success of Warren’s second book, “The Purpose-Driven Life” (Zondervan, 2002), demonstrates his ability to turn a particular gospel into a universal one. As Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe told the capacity audience of some 1,500, “The Purpose-Driven Life”turned the self-help model on its head by asserting that the answer to personal fulfillment does not reside with the self.

“Looking within yourself for your purpose doesn’t work,” the book begins. “If it did, we’d know it by now. As with any complex invention, to figure out your purpose, you need to talk to the inventor and read the owner’s manual — in this case, God and the Bible.” “The Purpose-Driven Life” has sold 25 million copies in 57 languages.

As Warren pointed out — with an odd ability to be humble and matter of fact about it — it is reportedly the biggest-selling nonfiction book in American history. It brought him fame and fortune. Warren spent much of his sermon describing how he dealt with his new-found money and influence, turning his personal solutions into lessons on confronting the spiritual emptiness and materialism that all comfortable Americans face.

The pastor said he practices an inverse tithe — giving away 90 percent and keeping 10 percent of his income. He takes no salary from the church and returned the 20 years of income he received from it.

I haven’t checked his portfolio to verify this, but the message is an impressive and important one.

“We do not go into this line of work to get rich,” he said. “If you give it to God, he will bring you to life.”

Similarly, Warren has leveraged his fame to bring attention to AIDS in Africa and other global problems. He said he’d just come from a photo shoot at Sony Studios with Brad Pitt and was about to meet overseas with the leaders of 11 countries in 37 days. While he was at Sinai Temple, his wife, Kay, was at the White House.

“The purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have none,” he said.

Warren wore a kippah made by the Abuyudaya tribe of Uganda and gifted to him by the country’s president. Before his sermon, he sang enthusiastically with musician Craig Taubman, who performed along with Saddleback Church music director Richard Muchow.

“This is my kind of service!” he said when he took the stage to deliver his remarks.

Afterward, as one Friday Night Live contingent repaired to a ballroom to carry on the hard work of scoping out other singles, another filled Barad Hall to get more time with Warren in a Q-and-A.

Along the way, he described in detail how he organized a national Purpose Driven Church campaign to get some 30,000 houses of worship across the world to define and implement their mission. He also punctuated his anecdotes with simple statements about God’s role in our lives: “God created you to love you,” he said, “and to love him back.”

I have no doubt the people who turned to Warren to help them reinvent synagogues for the 21st century can and will learn a lot from the man’s organizational skills. But the deeper message he conveys, his unstintingly devoted and enthusiastic faith — how in the world can we Jews learn that?

Scheduled Relaxation


Last Sunday afternoon I was standing in my shower scrubbing my tile. It suddenly occurred to me — in the midst of Ajax and scouring pads — that the man who was ruling my fantasies was on a plane coming back from a sure-it’s-professional junket in Las Vegas.

Something was wrong with this picture. I dropped my sponge and ran to call my girlfriend: “Hey. You gotta help me. All of this straight-and-narrow is getting to me. I need to have some fun.”

We met at a local restaurant reminiscent of the hip, urban San Francisco eateries of our 20s, had a drink, stayed late, and laughed as the waiter batted his lashes.

“Listen,” I told her over martinis. “I think I’ve forgotten how to play.”

She looked at me with the knowing eyes of a friend and said, “Me too. I feel like all I do is work on myself. Where’s the friggin’ fun part?”

What occurred to me as I started thinking about it is that I used to rely on my relationship life to have fun. I’d fly to New York, run around the city, eat passionately with my boyfriend for 10 days and come home. I’d rush home from work, throw all my clothes on the floor, don a slinky dress and feverishly drive to the beach for a drink date. I’d hike up Runyan Canyon in the middle of a storm with my dating man, laugh uproariously and kiss in the rain. It was flash and dash, delight and joy — and sometimes even love. What is was was fun.

I relied on my relationship life for downtime, too. It was the time I hung out in bed, took the slow walk around my neighborhood, had the morning-after breakfast made sloppily and slowly between intimacies.

But lately all of that has been different. I stopped dating for a while altogether (no need to go into the now-mercifully distant reason why), and in the wake of a more careful re-entry into dating life, I’ve become a project girl. Creative things that I’ve been longing to express my whole adult life I’ve taken on like a conquest. I write, I paint, I sing, I cook and I songwrite. It’s rich and it’s full and it’s fulfilling.

But what it also is is busy. And beyond my projects and an involved social life, there seems to be no genuine relaxation time. There are no goof-off, just-for-fun days where there’s nothing to do but play. I’m not sure I even remember what play-time looks like anymore.

Yet — to be totally honest — when I think back on some of those play-time, nostalgia-inducing boyfriend experiences, I have to admit that as sweet and easy as those encounters could be, they were just as often peppered by the nervous tension of “being together” when we weren’t all the way there, or by the dodging and ducking of using our intimate connection to mask other, bigger incompatibilities. That wasn’t relaxing.

As the years have gone by, I realize I’d just as soon be alone than continue to go through cycles of head-spinning effort with someone in exchange for a couple of moments of grace. So I don’t do that anymore. And though this kind of spiritual honesty has created an ease in my nervous system (and a welcome death to that horrible intimate uncertainty of giving myself where it’s not appreciated), I have to stop and wonder, have I become overworked and underplayed?

I don’t want to say that getting rid of the -isms has gotten rid of the fun part. That’s not it. But there’s something here about playing and free-falling joy that I’m missing. Something in the enjoyment of what is already here, versus the pregnant push of needing to create it. To observe, appreciate, enjoy, relax, and receive. That’s what I’m missing. And now that I’m officially dating, it seems kind of imperative to bring this ethic back onto the playing field.

I was on my cell with my wise girlfriend yesterday — the one who gives me that uncannily timed girl-advice that saves me from giving in to my idiotic post-second-date fears — and three times in row she cut out at a pivotal word.

“What?” I intoned. “On my cell. You cut out.”

She laughed outloud: “Receive, sweetheart. It kills me that you missed that. Relax and receive!”

Oh, that.

If I’ve forgotten how to have downtime, if I’ve joined the ranks of the over-diligent in my efforts to not fall into wary paths of love, then it’s time to loosen the reigns a bit. Underplaying means I have to let go of my project-queen, art-making cottage-industry, and just be done for a while.

So, with the grace of personal discovery, I’ll be amending that busy behavior, whether I’m accompanied or not. It’s time to enjoy whoever I’m seeing, and have fun on my own. It’s time to let go, go slow, play, hang out and take some time to do absolutely nothing.

Even if it means I have to schedule it.

JoAnneh Nagler is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She writes articles, philanthropic proposals and has recently been at work on Fox’s telenovellas “Table for Three” and “Fashion House.” Her newly completed folk-pop CD “I Burn” is online at

We Must Treat Others With Kindness


I often give young people advice on dating, occasionally without their asking. I tell young women not to judge a man by his car, since you will not end up living with the car but with the man who drives it. I advise men, when they take a woman to a restaurant, to sit facing the wall, so their attention will be fixed upon the woman, not everyone who walks into the room.

But my most common bit of advice to men and women alike is this: Don’t pay attention to how your date treats you alone — see how he treats the waiter, how she acts toward the busboy, the valet who brings you car. That is the test of character: How do you act toward the one who is not connected to you. How do you treat those whom you do not have to treat well?

Rabbi Reuven Kimmelman told me a wonderful story about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Apparently, the Rebbe once had a meeting with Sen. [Daniel] Moynihan. After the senator asked him for his support, the Rebbe said, “Now I have something to ask you.”

Moynihan, used to the requests of constituents, smiled and asked the Rebbe what he could do for him.

“Well” he said, “there is a population of people in New York who are good people, law abiding, good families, who do not really understand the system. I think they are not being treated as well as they should be. I want you, senator,” concluded the Rebbe, “to make sure you take care of the Chinese.”

That story illustrates a central part of the Exodus lesson — that when someone is oppressed, there is a Jewish responsibility to care. This is true in society and in our own lives.

The Haggadah tells us “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Here is the interesting thing — because we were strangers, we are supposed to learn not how the Israelites should have acted, but — how the Egyptians should have acted. We are supposed to learn how not to oppress others. Don’t treat others the way we were treated.

The term stranger is mentioned some 36 times in the Torah. It is a central category. The Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen beautifully wrote that in the idea of the stranger, Judaism was born. We are to care for those who are in our power. When you have power over another, you also have responsibility toward them.

Rabbi Israel Salanter saw a serving maid carrying two pails of water on her shoulders to provide water for the ritual washing before dinner. When dinner was ready, he performed ritual washing with a tiny sprinkling of water. When asked why he was so sparse, Rabbi Salanter explained: “One must not be generous with a mitzvah on another person’s shoulders.”

We know what it is to be a stranger: the insecurity, the fear. The stranger is on a tightrope and does not control the wind. So there is a question about Passover that we must, as Jews, ask ourselves:

What if you were an Egyptian? How would you have treated the Israelites? Would you have been cruel because you could be? Or would you have been kind, even though you did not need to?

For at the seder, many of us were the Egyptians.

Of course, we did not enslave someone else. But most of us were served. We had “help.”

Were we kind? How many of us kept housekeepers, maids, others up very late at our seders with no consideration for them, their children, their schedule?

How many of us paid them extra for that work? How many pay less than minimum wage because the person we are employing is an illegal and therefore has no choice? How many of us, in fact, performed the mitzvah on somebody else’s shoulders?

After all, we can do what we like; if we are angry, we can yell. If we are annoyed, we can be snappish, abusive, angry.

When a housekeeper has a sick child, do we encourage her to go take care of her child or is taking care of my child more important than taking care of her own? The Talmud teaches that Israel is “rachamim b’nei rachamim” — merciful people, and the children of merciful people. So at the seder, at our dinner tables, are we Israelites or are we Egyptians?

In the past month, I have asked around, spoken with nannies, housekeepers and people who run placement agencies. I have heard of terrible doings in our community, of Jews — Jews! — who have taken workers’ passports so they cannot leave the country, of those who have hit their employees, screamed at them mercilessly, refused to give them vacations — in other words, acted like Egyptians.

Remember, we have been strangers. We know the fear, the anguish, the impotence. We know what it is to be subject to other people’s emotions, customs, moods. The callous person exploits that fear; the Israelite calms it.

We know that being rich doesn’t make you good. Being rich just makes you rich. In some ways it is harder — because wealth gives one latitude to be unkind. A rich person can speak to employees in ways one would never otherwise speak to another. But to do so stains our souls and dishonors God. And to do so in our home is that much worse.

In 1966, an 11-year-old black boy moved with his family to a white neighborhood in Washington. Sitting with his two brothers and sisters on the front step of his house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not greeted. All the fearful stories this boy had heard about whites hating blacks seemed to be coming true.

He thought, “I knew we would not be welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here.”

As he was thinking those thoughts, a white woman coming home from work passed by on the other side of the road. She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, “Welcome!” Disappearing into the house, she emerged minutes later with a tray laden with drinks and cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, which she brought over to the children, making them feel at home. That moment — the young man wrote later — changed his life. It made him realize that some Americans could be blind to racial and class differences.

The young man was Stephen Carter, now a law professor at Yale, and he recounts this story in his book, “Civility.” The tale is retold in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ new book, “To Heal a Fractured World.” The woman was named Sara Kestenbaum, and she was a religious Jew.

What Sara Kestenbaum did was what our tradition calls a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name. The opposite is a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

The children of the people who work in our homes and in our streets will be the professors, the doctors, the teachers, the mayors. What will they learn about the Jewish community? What will they remember of how we treated their mothers and fathers at a vulnerable time? Will they remember our conduct as a Kiddush Hashem? Will they understand that the Jewish community remembers what it is to be a stranger?

Kiddush Hashem is when we act in such a way as to reflect credit on the Jewish community among non-Jews. It is a Hillul Hashem to be unkind to someone in your power.

We were strangers in a strange land — not once, not twice, but hundreds, thousands of times. Often we met with cruelty — but sometimes we met with kindness. We remember those who were kind.

Others will remember if we were kind to them. It is not enough to observe the ritual of Passover and not embody the spirit. It is not enough to have a Shabbat table laden with the work of others. When we open the door, we should open the heart to those who are already in our community and in our homes. Let us demonstrate that we indeed are merciful people, the children of merciful people.

The Talmud insists that one who is not merciful does not deserve the name of Israel. In our homes and in our lives, let us deserve the name of Israel and the blessings of God.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. This article is adapted from a sermon delivered on the first day of Passover, April 13, 2006. You may hear this sermon, as well as Rabbi Wolpe’s other sermons, online at sinaitemple.org. For a story on the 100th anniversary of Sinai Temple, please click here.

 

Three Madelehs of the Written Word


Jewish women have prominent roles in several new novels this season, penned by young Jewish writers with impressive track records — Ayelet Waldman, Allegra Goodman and Lara Vapnyar. The three have written urban stories, focused on relationships, and the books are closely observed slices of life.

The Jewish background and sensibility of these writers comes across on the page, although with varying degrees of transparency. Both Waldman and Vapnyar were born abroad: Vapnyar grew up in the former Soviet Union and came here as a young woman, while Waldman was born in Israel, came here as a child and grew up in New Jersey, although she lived in Israel again in high school and college and returns there often. Goodman may be the only well-known Jewish writer to hail from Hawaii.

“Love and Other Possible Pursuits” by Ayelet Waldman (Doubleday), who will be appearing at the L.A. Times Festival of Books this weekend, is a novel of marriage and motherhood that is also a love story and a New York story. Emilia Greenleaf, the narrator, is a Harvard Law School graduate who meets her soul mate, Jack, at her first job. He is a Syrian Jew, a partner in the firm and he’s married with a young son. He leaves his wife for Emilia, and they live in elegant comfort, but all is not happily-ever-after.

They lose a newborn daughter — the reader learns this early on, as the novel skips back and forth in time — and Emilia struggles with her new stepson, William, a precocious preschooler. She finds the boy to be insufferable, even as she tells herself that as an adult she should be able to love this innocent 5-year-old who corrects her pronunciation and rebuffs with a smirk her attempts to please him. Emilia also has to deal with the child’s overprotective mother and the mother’s friends who watch her every step, even as she picks him up from his high-achievers’ nursery school. But in small ways, Emilia and William find their way toward bonding.

The novel is funny and a quick read, and although it might look like chick-lit, Waldman goes deeper, conveying emotional complexity. Even though Emilia has the profile of the kind of woman others sometimes can’t abide, she is likeable in her imperfections and growing self-awareness.

The author, who also graduated from Harvard Law School, keenly portrays the life of well-to-do professionals who strive for the best for their children, unable to see the downside of their single-minded pursuits.

A resident of Berkeley, where she lives with her husband Michael Chabon and their four children, she captures New York in its splendid beauty, particularly the charms of Central Park in all seasons. Waldman, author of “Daughter’s Keeper” and the Mommy Track mystery series, takes on in this novel many of the themes of romance, relationships and parenting that she writes about in her essays on Salon.com and in The New York Times, Child Magazine, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

For years, Allegra Goodman was the poster child for the youngest generation of Jewish writers. She published her first story in Commentary during her freshman year at Harvard and her first book of stories on the day she graduated in 1989, and she has had a string of successes since then. She’s been applauded for her luminous style and originality, her humor, and her embrace of Judaism in her fiction. Now 38, she’s no longer the child at the literary table and has just published her most ambitious book to date, “Intuition” (The Dial Press).

Named by the New Yorker as one of the 20 best writers under 40, Goodman is the author of two collections of stories and two novels, “Paradise Park” and “Kaaterskill Falls,” a National Book Award finalist. She has also won a Whiting Writers Award, National Jewish Book Award and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Jewish Cultural Achievement Award.

Goodman was born in Brooklyn, lived briefly in Los Angeles as a toddler and grew up in Hawaii, where she sets many stories and her novel “Paradise Park.” Her parents, who taught at the University of Hawaii, lived there for 25 years and, although the Jewish community was limited, they consciously chose a Jewish lifestyle — they attended synagogue and imported kosher meat from California. As a child, Goodman often would visit Los Angeles, where her father grew up and her grandfather still lives. “Intuition” is, in fact, dedicated to her grandparents, Calvin and Florence Goodman (her grandmother died recently).

While her previous novels involved Jewish communities, “Intuition” is about a professional community, although several characters are Jewish. Compellingly told from several points of view, the novel is set at a prestigious research institute in Cambridge, Mass., where a team of scientists does sophisticated cancer investigations. Goodman shows readers the inside workings of a lab, from how projects are assigned to how mice are sac’ed — or sacrificed — to how scientists compete for funds. The cast of the novel is something of an ensemble, functioning in certain ways as a family, with relationships based on power, love, ambition and shared interests.

The novel has elements of mystery, as one postdoc raises questions about whether a colleague, her former boyfriend, may be falsifying his data. She acts based on intuition, which, in the lab, as Goodman writes, “was a restricted substance. Like imagination and emotion, intuition misled researchers, leading to willful interpretations.”

In a telephone interview from her home in Cambridge, Goodman explains that although the subject of this novel may be different, she remains interested in themes of “ritual, hierarchy, closed communities, questions of doubt and belief, who you believe in, what you put your faith in.”

This book is less comic than her others, but the distinctive Goodman voice — attentive to all details, wise, inventive, strong on characters’ inner and outer lives — is recognizable.

“I’ve been surrounded by scientists all my life,” she says, referring to her mother, sister, brother-in-law and husband.

She also spent time observing in an actual lab to understand its rhythms and mindset. As a writer who works in solitude, she is envious of the close collaborative nature of scientific work and sought to explore that. As a writer, she seeks truth, as scientists do — but she recognizes that she gets to make things up.

Goodman never shies away from writing about religious themes or religious people and sees this as “a very Jewish book. My subject in all my books is the American Jewish community, which is huge.”

In the book, both lab directors, Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn, are Jewish. While Glass (who shortened his name from Glazeroff “not just to forget that his grandparents were Eastern European Jews, but for aesthetic reasons. He could not countenance living and working in such a Russian bear-coat of a last name, and so he’d distilled Glazeroff to its purer form”) is intermarried and assimilated, Mendelssohn is neither, but Glass tries to use his Judaism when questions are raised about lab results. For several characters, their religion is science.

In conversation, Goodman, the mother of four children who range in age from 3 to 13, is upbeat — with a personality that matches her writing. She seems easygoing, likes to laugh and is drawn to the philosophical side of things. She has a doctorate in English and as a reader, she favors writers like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Eliot, as well as Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty. Among the contemporary writers she cites are Marilynne Robinson and Kazuro Ishiguro.

She’s not a confessional sort of writer; her novels aren’t memoiristic: She’s more interested in writing about other people. About her own writing, she thinks she’s getting better, having matured as a craftsman: “I’ve grown more patient, more willing to spend time to get things right. That comes with age.”

Lara Vapnyar, a Russian American Jewish writer, is at the forefront of a new generation of immigrant Jewish writers. Like Goodman, she has published stories in The New Yorker. Her first book, “There Are Jews in My House” a collection of short stores set in the former Soviet Union and in New York, won awards and much praise.

In her first novel, “Memoirs of a Muse” (Pantheon), Vapnyar again turns to the world of immigrants. With the understated humor characteristic of her stories, she portrays a young immigrant woman named Tanya who as a child in the Soviet Union developed an obsession with Dostoevsky and the woman who was his muse. In New York, she is determined to become the muse of a great American writer. When she meets a novelist at an Upper West Side reading, she becomes his live-in girlfriend, earnestly trying to help him. But she finds that while he goes to book parties and the gym and visits his analyst, he does little writing. As she learns English, she comes to understand all sides of her new world, and she learns about genuine artistic inspiration.

Published in 2003, “There Are Jews in My House,” received the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers. The novel, like her stories, touches on issues of alienation, identity, contrasts between East and West.

From her well-tuned prose, it’s hard to believe that English is not her first language. Vapnyar went through the Moscow school system and earned a master’s degree in Russian language and literature before moving to New York, where she largely taught herself English through reading.

Ayelet Waldman will be a panelist on the “Fiction: Reinventing the Family” event at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 29.

 

Life More Ordinary


I recently visited a congregant in the hospital and was surprised to find a doctor crying in the hallway. I told her I was a rabbi and asked if I could help. The doctor immediately apologized for her tears.

“It’s been a hard week,” she said, “I’ll be OK.”

She told me she had just presented a terminal cancer diagnosis to a woman in her early 40s. I felt for this doctor, and for her patient, but I also felt pleased at what I saw — a doctor who cries.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of the books “Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal” (Riverhead, 1996) and “My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging” (Riverhead, 2000) tells the story of how, as a young intern, she had been reprimanded by her chief resident for crying with a young couple whose baby had just died. Her supervisor told her she had let them down.

“They needed you to be strong,” he told her.

Now a teacher of physicians herself, Remen remains true to her initial impulse and teaches that crying with patients can be an appropriate response, saying, “You can burn out doing ‘meaningful’ work, if you lose the meaning.”

In this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzorah (Leviticus 13, in particular), God instructs Moses and Aaron on the role of priests when people take ill. The priests play diagnostician. They do not try to cure the sick, but they do examine people stricken with strange skin eruptions. The text — with more than enough description of skin ailments — is a little too graphic for some people. It also often seems irrelevant, as it describes practices no longer done by a priesthood that has long since faded from Jewish life.

But this portion also focuses attention on people who are not well. In order for the priest to evaluate what ails the people who are ill, he must get near to them, probably even touch them. And the priests see those who are ill more than once; they return days later to determine whether the person has recovered.

The daily tasks of the priests described elsewhere in the Torah consist primarily of animal sacrifice and temple caretaking, suggesting that priests are usually apart from the rest of the Israelites. So it is remarkable, and instructive, to imagine the priests — a part of the community — attending to the ill, taking note of those in need. Imagine Aaron, the high priest, coming to see the weak in the midst of the Israelites. Imagine a priest taking the time to speak with the afflicted among the people. Imagine the priest being the one to escort an afflicted person back into the community, declaring them free from contagion and assisting them in offering a sacrifice to God upon their recovery. Simple gestures perhaps, but imagine how welcome they would be to someone who had suffered physical pain and the worry that they might bring illness to others. Imagine how they might have restored someone’s sense of self-worth or desire to remain alive.

This past week saw another Yom HaShoah V’HaGevurah, the day of commemoration for the Holocaust and for Acts of Courage. When the Israeli Knesset years ago chose the 27th of Nissan for this annual day of commemoration, they did so amid controversy. Some would have preferred the anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but that landed (by Nazi plan) on the first day of Passover. Still, the Warsaw Ghetto and its heroes surely figured in the minds of those who selected the week following Passover for this memorial day – the uprising itself lasted almost a month.

Irena Klepfisz, whose parents managed to get her out of the ghetto and whose father died a hero in the Warsaw Ghetto, said in 1988, on the 45th anniversary of the uprising: “What we grieve for is not the loss of a grand vision, but rather the loss of common things, events and gestures…. Ordinariness is the most precious thing we struggle for, what the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto fought for. Not noble causes or abstract theories. But the right to go on living with a sense of purpose and a sense of self-worth — an ordinary life.”

How poignant to read her words this week as we read of the priests tending to the ill — not focused on the grander work of the Temple or the sacrifices that took place at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.

As we read in Leviticus of the extraordinary lives of the priests, tenders of the sacred flame, preservers of the religion as it was then, I like to think also about the sense of purpose God gave them in commanding them to offer simple gestures of concern and care; I like to think about the meaningfulness they might have found in their ordinariness and in their tears.

Lisa A. Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, and is also currently teaching Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

 

‘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.