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

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday, July 1
In time for summertime, the Skirball has rekindled its weekly Café Z live music series. Take advantage today, and head down to groove to Elliott Caine Quintet’s Afro-Cuban jazz beats. According to Caine’s Web site, KCRW’s Bo Leibowitz described him as a “terrific trumpet player, bandleader and composer … deserving of wider recognition.”

Noon-2 p.m. Free. Zeidler’s Café, Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

 

Sunday, July 2
Miami City Ballet whoops it up for its 20th anniversary, with its tour of performances of signature pieces by Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. Included are Robbins’ classic “Fancy Free,” which was the inspiration for the musical, “On the Town,” and Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs,” accompanied, as you might’ve guessed, by songs by the blue-eyed crooner.

June 30-July 2. $25-$95. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500

Monday, July 3
Shaken or stirred, the martini is more than a drink today. It is a symbol. Sculptor Thomas Mann asked artists to riff on it, reinterpreting the conical glass’ shape and context. “The Martini Show” premiered in New Orleans as a benefit for Craft Emergency Relief Fund. It runs here at Altered Space Gallery, through July 24.

Contemporary art+craft+design, 1221 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. (310) 452-8121

Tuesday, July 4
What goes great with burgers and dogs? Your radio dial tuned to 89.9 KCRW-FM. Its special Independence Day programming features “a day of music by American artists who embrace the spirit of independence.” The lineup of musical patriots includes Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Roy Orbison, Patti Smith and the Dixie Chicks. The presentations feature music as well as interview clips and other materials.

89.9 KCRW-F, ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Wednesday, July 5
Collapsing just moments after a performance of his stirring trio, “In memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich,” at the Jewish Music Commission concert last month, professor Joseph Dorfman was unable to be revived. He died at age 65. In his memory, a concert will be held this evening at Valley Beth Shalom, to benefit the newly founded fund in his name.

7:30 p.m. Free (general), $15 (reserved seats). 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. R.S.V.P., (818) 788-6000.

Thursday, July 6
Gay lovers struggle to deal with their oppressive societies against the backdrop of World War II France in the case of “A Love to Hide (Un Amour à Taire),” and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the case of “Zero Degrees of Separation.” The two films are part of this year’s Outfest 24th Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which begins today.

Times, prices and screening venues vary by film. Abovementioned films screen at Directors Guild Theatre, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.

Friday, July 7
More lovers caught on opposite sides of the political fence emerge in the film, “Only Human.” Opening today, the Spanish production tells the farcical tale of Jewish Leni, who brings home her boyfriend, Rafi, to meet the folks. But madness ensues when they find out Rafi is Palestinian.

Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino. (818) 981-9811. Laemmle One Colorado, Pasadena. (626) 744-1244. www.laemmle.com” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Israel Launches First Underwater Museum


It was the largest, most impressive port in the Roman Empire when it was inaugurated in 10 B.C.E. And some 2,016 years later, the ancient port of Caesarea — along the Mediterranean coast of Israel — was inaugurated again last month, this time as the world’s first underwater museum.

Divers can now don their wetsuits and tour the sign-posted remains of the magnificent harbor built by King Herod to honor his Roman patron, Caesar Augustus. The site has been excavated over the last three decades by a team led by the late professor Avner Raban of the University of Haifa’s Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies.

It’s not your ordinary museum tour. Visitors float from one “exhibit” to the next, marveling in silence at the untouched remains of a once-glorious harbor: a Roman shipwreck, a ruined lighthouse, an ancient breakwater, the port’s original foundations, anchors, pedestals.

“It’s a truly unique site,” said Sarah Arenson, a University of Haifa maritime historian and participant in the project. “This port was built as the state-of-the-art port of the Roman Empire, and made the other ports of the time, including those of Rome, Alexandria and Piraeus, look small and out-of-date by comparison.”

Arenson notes that the port is also unique today: “There are no other ancient ports in the world that are accessible to ordinary divers,” she said.

Some such ports are restricted to authorized scientists. Others may be open to any diver, but would be meaningless to such visitors “because,” Arenson explained, “all you would see is a bunch of stones.”

At Caesarea, divers view some 28 different sign-posted sites along four marked trails in the sunken harbor covering an area of 87,000 square yards. Divers are given a waterproof map that describes in detail each of the numbered sites along the way (currently maps are in English and Hebrew; within a few months they will be available in six additional languages). One trail is also accessible to snorkelers; the others, less than eight yards below the surface, close to the beach, are appropriate for any beginner diver.

And what does the visitor see?

In a sense, an abrogated history of this once prominent port town — from its entrance at sea (about 100 meters from the current shoreline) to the Roman shipwreck that signaled the demise of the port — probably due to an earthquake — about a century after its construction, researchers believe. And, in between, divers can view the remnants of the original foundations that made this harbor one of the wonders of the Roman Empire.

“This port was built using the knowledge and technology of Roman engineers,” said University of Haifa maritime historian Nadav Kashtan, a member of the team that excavated the site.

The port was built with a type of hydraulic cement, invented by the Romans, known as pozzolana.

“The Romans found that when they take the volcanic powder found around Mount Vesuvius and mix it with lime and rubble, the substance hardens in water,” Kashtan said. “This hydraulic concrete was imported to Casearea and used to fill wooden frames which were then lowered into the water to lay the foundations for the port.”

Two such frames were found, one almost perfectly intact, and are on view today.

Kashtan noted that thousands of men were recruited — both from Rome and locally — to build the port in the course of 12 years. Among them were many divers, who descended simply holding their breath, or possibly in a diving bell.

The Roman city of Caesarea was built on the ruins of a decaying Phoenician town called Straton’s Tower. Its builder, Herod, who also built the Second Temple of Jerusalem, was considered one of the most magnificent builders of the Roman era, Kashtan notes.

The Jewish king built the town — given to him as a present by Augustus — into a grand, fortified city that served as the capital of the Roman province of Judea for about 600 years.

The underwater park was developed with the financial support of the Caesarea Development Corporation.

Israel has long been known as a diver’s mecca because of the rainbow of corals and exotic fish found off the coast of the Red Sea resort of Eilat. But the country has more than two-dozen other diving sites along the Mediterranean coast — from the unique maze of chalky white caves of Rosh Hanikra in the north, to a collection of shipwrecks dotting the coast as far south as Ashkelon.

The sunken port of Caesarea — with its ancient sites and modern explanations — is sure to become one of the top underwater attractions.

Leora Eren Frucht is an associate editor of Israel21c.

 

Teens Find Peace On and Off Stage


“We don’t care about politics; we just like each other,” says Shira Ben Yaakov, a cheerful brunette who is an eighth-grade student at Tel Aviv’s A.D. Gordon Junior High School.

Ben Yaakov is referring to Israeli-Arab friends she has met through the Peace Child Israel drama group, which meets weekly, alternating between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. The group consists of 20 Arab and Jewish teens from Jaffa and Tel Aviv, proof that friendship between Jews and Arabs can exist, even in post-Intifada Israel.

“Even though Arabs live close to me, I have never had the chance to get to know them. I have always been afraid of Arabs as a group and now I know this fear has been unjustified,” Ben Yaakov says.

Maya Smolian, another member of the group, says she was “thrilled” to meet Arab kids her age. Having the opportunity to perform together is just another incentive to be a part of the group.

Peace Child Israel was founded in 1988 by the late Israeli actress Yael Drouyanoff and uses theater and other art forms to encourage dialogue between teens who might otherwise never meet. So far, seven groups have been formed, pairing Jewish and Arab towns throughout Israel, among them Misgav-Sakhnin, Raanana-Qalanswa, and East and West Jerusalem.

In January, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa group toured the United States, visiting Philadelphia and communities throughout New Jersey. Their hosts were Jewish families in each of the cities, as well as students from Changing Our World (COW), a teen drama and arts group with similar methods and objectives. Students from the two countries bonded quickly.

Deb Chamberlin, a singer, songwriter and co-director of COW, initiated the venture. She contacted Peace Child after two visits to Israel, where she was touched by the country and its people.

“I looked to cooperate with a group similar to my own. Once I heard about Peace Child, I knew this was the group I was looking for,” she says. “When I returned to the States, I looked to share my feelings with other people, [to] let them know what Israel is all about.”

Chamberlin wrote Peace Child’s new anthem “The Time Has Come for Peace,” which the group sang on a Philadelphia television morning show and then subsequently recorded with help from some local singers.

“We made a beautiful CD and now wish to promote this anthem as a song for global tolerance and peace,” Chamberlin says.

The group’s original musical, “On the Other Side,” was also adapted for American audiences and has been performed in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The play is inspired by the students’ personal experiences in their native Israel and addresses the sensitive issue of Israel’s security fence from the teens’ point of view. The two groups found they share many of the same challenges in overcoming barriers between cultures.

“The COW group brings together students from different backgrounds,” Chamberlin explains. “Our group consists of Latin, Afro-American and Jewish students; they study in a public school of 3,000 students, most of whom are white Christian Americans. Before meeting with Peace Child, the students would usually socialize with their ‘own kind.’ When they witnessed the beautiful friendships that exist between the Jewish and Arab members of Peace Child, they realized what they were missing. As a matter of fact, many stereotypes were broken on that tour.”

“During one of our workshops, Hiba Salila an Arab student, admitted that before coming on the tour, she was convinced the Americans would prefer the Jewish students to the Arab ones,” Chamberlain says. “It surprised her when they didn’t. Another Jewish student says COW students form a bridge between Arab and Jewish students with their love for us.”

Language was not a barrier. “Though the Jewish kids had better English, the Arab students compensated with their Spanish, so they could all communicate,” Chamberlin says. “On the bus from Washington to northern New Jersey, the students cried because it was their last journey together. We promised to keep in touch and start making arrangements for our visit to Israel. The hosting families intend to help me found ‘The American Friends of Peace Child’. Knowing there are more people willing to work for the success of this project was quite a relief for me. I delivered this baby but now a whole new future awaits it.”

The 10-day tour culminated at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where groups of American teens joined Peace Child along with an appreciative audience of 500.

“People were deeply touched by the show,” says Melisse Lewine-Boskowich, director of Peace Child, who noted that North Star, an African American teen group, and Intellectual Journey, a band of Jewish and Arab musicians working in the U.S., joined them on stage. “The tour opened many … opportunities for us and now the sky’s our limit.”

” target=”_blank”>http://www.thecowproject.com/

Sima Borkovski is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

 

Vienna Glories in Past and Present


Sixty years after the end of World War II, Vienna has reclaimed its roots as a city of culture. Not the culture of stoic monuments to faded glory or landmarks illuminated by historical plaques, but in a living, breathing, heart-still-pumping way. Grand-yet-graceful music, art and architecture are the lifeblood of this city and those fortunate enough to live here.

Strolling along the wide pedestrian mall of the Kartnerstrasse, you cannot help but feel swept up in the art and culture of this elegant city. The impressive architecture rises up and surrounds you as the beauty of the city embraces you.

As the sun sets on the Kartnerstrasse, Viennese girls window shop Euro chain stores for platform shoes and designer scruff denim, shadowed by elegant palaces that line the cobbled street. A girl plays Strauss on a grand piano. Down the street, a man plays a symphony on crystal glasses of water, as students in black tie and spiked hair saunter past with cellos. The street comes to life with people who seem to not be in a hurry to go anywhere in particular.

Music is at the heart of Vienna, and since 2006 is being celebrated as the Mozart Year in Austria, the most rewarding Mozart experience is the city that inspired him. By all means, visit Mozart’s statue and the house he lived in, but to really experience Mozart’s Vienna, wander the cobbled lanes like the Blutgasse, where Mozart lived and worked. While away a morning by lingering over café and strudel in a plush coffee house (complete with charmingly polite tuxedoed waiters).

The best way to discover Mozart here might be a night at the Vienna Opera. I was lucky enough to attend a performance of “The Magic Flute” during my visit, which was sponsored by Austria Tourism. This was classical Mozart through and through in terms of the music, but the performance was strikingly modern.

A minimalist industrial set was the backdrop for bearded ladies painted blue and dressed in 18th-century industrial corsetry, while the priests of Sarastro were done up in white, minimalist hazmat suits. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I’ll concede, but that completely sums up a city that glories in its past but revels in its modernity.

Lets remember that Mozart was cutting-edge cool in his day. It’s fitting that this city still pushes the artistic envelope while embracing its artistic history. Vienna is a place where the elegant Hofburg Palace can stand alongside stunning Hundertwasser House.

Vienna’s influence as a cultural center also drew such Jewish composers as Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander Zelimsky, in addition to numerous Jewish writers, actors, artists and doctors. And while the city’s Jewish history has been a tumultuous one — only 2,000 of the city’s pre-World War II population of 183,000 Jews survived the Shoah — Vienna today boasts a very active community of about 7,000 Jews.

The city features 15 synagogues (including a Sephardic congregation), a yeshiva, a Jewish museum and an office of Jewish Welcome Service. Most of Vienna’s Jews live in the city’s Second District, where you’ll find kosher supermarkets, butchers and restaurants.

The other must-see on any Austrian Mozart tour is the quaint city of his birth, Salzburg, where the Hohensalzberg fortress looms over the Salzach River, and the pastel shades of the shops in the Aldstadt are undeniably photogenic.

In Salzburg, you’ll have the opportunity to see the house where Mozart was born and visit the Mozart museum, which struggles to understand the composer’s genius. Both are worth a look, but the truly hot ticket in Salzburg is the Marionetten Theater, which regularly stages Mozart’s operas.

Appreciating the preservation of a centuries-old art is the key to enjoying Salzburg, a town that seems content to linger in its past. And provided that a look into a time capsule is all you expect, you may not be disappointed.

Jewishly speaking, Salzburg never fully recovered following the Holocaust. Only about 100 Jews inhabit the city, which features a single synagogue at Lasserstrasse 8. But despite its anti-Semitic reputation, the city was host to such Jewish luminaries as dramatists Max Reinhardt and Carl Zuckmayer, who were drawn to its Salzburg Festival and its cultural scene.

However, Mozart himself preferred the energy and vibrancy of cosmopolitan Vienna. Like a deep breath of fresh air, it’s a city that will make you sigh.

 

Israel Serves Up a Star


When the U.S. Open swings into New York Aug. 30, you’ll have to squint to find Israel’s tiniest tennis player.

It’ll be easier to catch her on the scoreboard. She’s the one with the muscular name — Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi — and the big game.

Generating power with her 5-foot-2, 117-pound frame, Smashnova-Pistolesi has smashed her way to No. 19 in the Women’s Tennis Association rankings.

You can simply count on Smashnova-Pistolesi. This is her third straight year ranked in the top 20. She’s 9-0 in WTA tournament finals. That makes her one of Israel’s most effective athletes.

Smashnova-Pistolesi has done it on the go. She was born 28 years ago in Minsk, Belarus. Her family moved to Israel when she was 14. She stays at her parents’ home in Herzelia when she’s in the country. She has her own home in Italy, where she lives with her husband, the former pro Claudio Pistolesi.

You can call Smashnova-Pistolesi a walking United Nations. But she knows her loyalty.

“I always play under the Israeli flag and represent my country at every tournament,” she said. “I am always happy by the widespread support that I receive from Israeli fans throughout the world.”

Even though Smashnova-Pistolesi stands tall in Israeli sports, her Italian shift makes it tough for her to connect with some Jews. She keeps trying to win points well after serving in the Israeli army in the mid-1990s.

“If there are people who don’t appreciate what I have done,” she said, “I can only say that I am sorry that I cannot reach out to everyone, but with so many tour events, the rigorous training necessary and the constant traveling, tennis is really a demanding sport.”

She also waves the flag for other Israeli players: “Shahar Peer has a lot of potential. She is ranked No. 17 in the juniors and has a very good attitude. She could become quite good, and there are also some good boys; Dudi Sela got to the semis of the U.S. Open junior boys event last year.”

Smashnova-Pistolesi has had an active summer. She entered all the California tournaments and the Olympics. She didn’t win a trophy or medal, but in Los Angeles she picked on someone much bigger, Daniela Hantuchova, and cut down the once-rising Slovakian.

The next day, Smashnova-Pistolesi wilted under a sizzling sun and against a hot Svetlana Kuznetsova. The fullbacklike Russian proved too strong.

“She didn’t give me many chances,” Smashnova-Pistolesi conceded after getting cooked.

Smashnova-Pistolesi hopes to bounce back at the U.S. Open. She certainly has the strokes, especially one mean backhand. It could be the third best one-hander among women pros after Belgium’s Justine Henin-Hardenne and France’s Emelie Mauresmo.

If Smashnova-Pistolesi beats top pros such as those, her name will grow. Even if her body doesn’t. — Bucky Fox, Contributing Writer

World Briefs


Israel Asks U.S. Egypt Help in Gaza

The United States and Egypt want to know more about Israel’s proposal for Egypt to help secure Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal.

Dov Weisglass, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s chief of staff, and Giora Eiland, Sharon’s national security adviser, discussed the idea Monday in meetings with Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The Israelis are ready for a total withdrawal, but say they need Egyptian help to keep arms smugglers from crossing the Gaza-Egypt border.

U.S. State Department official said the proposal was not fully worked out and that the Americans are waiting for further details. If the Egyptians are willing, the official said, the United States could help them with incentives.

Nadil Fahmy, Egypt’s ambassador to Washington, said his country was interested in the proposal but needed to know more. Egypt would participate if the withdrawal were part of negotiations with the Palestinians, Fahmy told JTA.

“It has to be in the context of resolving the conflict on the basis of a two-state solution and ending the occupation,” he said. Israel has suggested that its withdrawal could be unilateral unless the Palestinians crack down on terrorism.

E.U. Presses Libya

The European Union called on Libya to join a free trade zone it has boycotted because of Israeli membership in the group. The European Commission said Monday that Tripoli immediately should send officials to Brussels to prepare its application to the group, whose purpose ultimately is to create a free-trade zone bringing together all the countries of North Africa and the Middle East. Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi recently expressed a desire to join the process, but he cannot take part unless he agrees to recognize Israel.

Bush Sends $20 Million to UNRWA

President Bush is sending $20 million to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. The new allocation, authorized Thursday, is from the U.S. Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund, and will be distributed through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. The request is a response to an appeal for $193 million for humanitarian needs for the Palestinian people, the State Department said.

Group Collects Money for Haitians

A Jewish group is collecting money for humanitarian aid
in Haiti. Donations can be sent to the American Jewish World Service at: AJWS,
Haiti Relief, 45 W. 36th St., 10th Floor, New York, NY, 10018, or online at

Sound of Silence


"So, maybe we should get to know each other."

My husband Glenn’s voice cracked like an adolescent as he broke the hour-long quiet inside the car. Glenn looked expectantly toward Jacek, a partner at a Warsaw-based software company and Glenn’s business contact.

When I had decided to tag along with my husband on his business trip to Poland, I had been surprised when his colleague volunteered to drive us during the three-day vacation portion of our trip.

Now Glenn’s suggestion lingered in the air, as did most of our attempts at chatting with our new acquaintance over the last few hours. I felt bad for my loquacious husband, who rarely struggled for conversation. Funny, I always thought I’d enjoyed silence. As an only child until my teen years, I often relished quiet moments to myself. This week, it felt like I had a few too many. As our time with Jacek progressed, I noticed a parallel between our host’s behavior and the history of his country.

A few days earlier, I had gone sightseeing in Warsaw. Unable to secure a tour from a local Jewish organization, I joined a regular bus and walking tour. I was baffled when the guide took us to the grounds of a historic palace and rattled on about government buildings for over an hour, but simply skimmed over the Jewish parts of the city. I was in total disbelief when we merely stopped by the Warsaw Ghetto. The other passengers agreed that since it was drizzling, we would view the Monument of the Ghetto Heroes through the cloudy bus windows rather than getting out to see it up close. Luckily, Jacek had taken us to the ghetto and the Nozyk Synagogue, Warsaw’s only shul that survived World War II, the night before. During the visit, I’d assumed that his silence was a sign of respect.

After six of the quietest hours of my life, we arrived at Auschwitz. Before we got out of the car, Jacek reminded us that we still had a few hours of driving to get to our final destination, a mountain resort called Zakopane. I felt pressured as we entered the concentration camp I’d heard about since my Hebrew school days. Every time Glenn and I exited one of the exhibits, Jacek was waiting for us, having finished moments before. While I did my best to take everything in — most memorably, a display containing a huge pile of human hair, a bin filled with confiscated children’s clothing, suitcases marked with handwritten family names and rows of mug shot-like pictures of the prisoners — I could swear that I felt Jacek’s mounting impatience. My unease continued as we headed for Birkenau, the larger camp.

The gravel crunched under our feet as we made our way up the railroad tracks leading to the entrance. The sheer size of the facility was startling. Even though birds chirped and the grass sparkled green, I had the same sick feeling I get when I visit a cemetery. I became conscious of my furrowed brow. Glenn was contemplating whether it was wrong to take pictures. I assumed Jacek was thinking that we needed to hit the road. But this time, I was wrong.

"My father was Jewish," Jacek revealed quietly as we walked along the same tracks where more than a million Jews were sent to die. "Some of his family was killed here."

This time I couldn’t speak. Why hadn’t Jacek mentioned his half-Jewishness earlier? We mentioned our religion at least of dozen times in (attempted) conversation. Was he ashamed of it? Disconnected from it? Or did he, like me, feel hollow visiting the site where family members were killed?

It suddenly occurred to me that the Holocaust was an attempted silencing of the Jews. While World War II was decades ago — and the camps were liberated — the quiet lingers. We’re so far away from it all in the United States. In Poland, the wounds are still raw and it isn’t something that the locals are comfortable talking about.

I wondered if we reminded Jacek of his Jewish roots and brought up issues he didn’t want to think about. Maybe he wanted to put history behind him. Or maybe we’re simply very annoying guests.

Whatever the reason, Jacek’s silence gave me the time to reflect and feel connected to my long-gone relatives in Poland. I hope our presence helped him feel more comfortable with his Jewish identity.

A Short Escape to Prewar Italy


Even when it’s 40 F out and a freezing wind sweeps through the narrow streets of Florence, it is good to be in Italy.

No, it’s great to be in Italy.

My wife, Naomi, and I spent 10 days in Rome and Florence in the dead of winter, bundled like Aleuts in the Mediterranean cold. I’ve read that of all the world’s art treasures, 70 percent reside in Italy — the sacking of Baghdad has probably upped that number to 75 percent — and a chance to see beauty we had only read about was one reason for our long-planned vacation.

What better place to visit as civilization teetered at the brink than the repository of much of civilization’s bounty?

There was a subtext to the voyage as well, inevitable when a rabbi and a Jewish journalist disembark anywhere. The war in Iraq was a few weeks away, and the conflict in Israel blared over CNN International and in the Italian headlines. We would inevitably seek out Jews, Jewish sites and opinions on the international situation, finding plenty of all three along our way. But this was primarily a vacation, and we had no qualms about a brief encounter with Italy’s seemingly unlimited array of pleasures.

Rome was first. Although it was cool in the capital city, we found ourselves walking everywhere from the new and charming Hotel Ottocento, near Piazza Barberini. Nicola, the concierge, just about threw his arms around us when he discovered we were Jewish and from Los Angeles. He was convinced we knew the lyrics to every Barbra Streisand song ever sung. “Peace, war, Bush yes, Bush no” he waved off all talk of the impending conflict. “Do you know, ‘Stony End?'”

Laden with maps Nicola marked up for us, we set off.

If all roads lead to Rome, all Roman streets lead to surprises. Turn a corner and there before you is the Spanish Steps. Tourists dawdle, lovers snuggle and poets linger in the shadow of the building where Byron and Shelley once wrote (and where Shelley, at age 24, died). More walking that first evening led to the sites we had read about but never visited — the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona. Even in February, even before a war, tourists crowded into Rome, but the atmosphere was festive and the people relaxed. If the world was coming to an end tomorrow, why not enjoy tonight?

If the looming war was hurting tourism among Americans, it didn’t seem to faze thousands of others. The next day, when we set off by subway for the Vatican, we emerged to find a line for the Vatican Museums that was at least a mile long. Instead, we headed for the synagogue.

Rome’s grand synagogue sits on the banks of the Tiber River at the edge of the ghetto, or Jewish quarter. Security is tight, and has been ever since a PLO attack in 1982 that left a child dead. Italian soldiers stand guard with machine guns, and visitors pass an armored door to get inside. The interior is stunning, and an exhibit of congregational artifacts, including Nazi-era deportation orders, provides yet more evidence that Jewish life is both adaptable and immutable.

Many Israelis joined us in one of the many daily tours of the synagogue, and over the next 10 days we’d meet several more Israelis taking a break from their country’s tensions by making the four-hour hop from Lod airport to Rome or Milan. Several carriers, including El Al, offer the flights, which run about $500 round trip, making Italy a perfect stop to or from Israel. Perhaps not what Moses Hess had in mind when he penned the Zionist manifesto “Rome and Jerusalem,” but the makings of a great trip nevertheless.

The ghetto is home to several busy kosher butchers, bakeries and a handful of restaurants specializing in Roman Jewish cuisine. To eat this food is to understand, in a bite, much about Italian and Jewish history. As early as the second century B.C.E., Jews traded and settled in Rome. Thousands more were marched off as slaves to the city after the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. forming, by some estimates, a quarter of the ancient city’s population.

“Perhaps the greatest single force in maintaining culinary tradition over the city’s 2,800-year history,” writes David Downie in the indispensable “Cooking the Roman Way” (HarperCollins, 2002) “has been the Roman Jewish community.”

The 16,000 Jews of Rome (about half of Italy’s Jewish population) are scattered about the city now, but the ghetto still provides Rome’s best glimpse into the Italian Jewish past.

At La Taverna del Ghetto, just behind the synagogue, you can sample excellent renditions of these contributions to Italian cuisine, including deep-fried carciofi alla giudia (literally, “Jewish artichokes”) and sweet-and-sour salt cod.

Working backward in history, we visited the ruins of ancient Rome next, stopping to see the frieze on the Arch of Titus depicting the destruction of the Temple. The image looms large in books on Jewish history. In reality, it is tucked away inside the arch. One people’s tragedy is another’s interior decoration.

At the Coliseum, we joined up with a local tour group. The guide, Paulo, tells us it is Jewish slaves who built much of the structure, which was adorned with gold and silver from the sacked Temple. History books are less certain on this point, but in itself it seems a mere footnote to the tens of thousands of people murdered there in the name of sport. The worst reality TV is the pinnacle of civilization compared to what the emperors watched, and our own bloody times seem reassuringly tame in comparison.

When we finally joined the line at the Vatican, it was down to a half-mile, and it went surprisingly fast. The Vatican Museums are built partly on the conquest of bodies — plundered treasures from around the world — and partly from the winning of souls — wondrous artworks from devoted, or at least well-paid, masters. In any case, the assembly is mind-boggling. By the time we reached the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s revived frescoes, we doubted any art could further impress us.

We were wrong. The chapel, a vast room with the soul of a warehouse, is home to a creation that somehow magnifies the power of all creation. We lingered, refusing to be shooed away, as the guards emptied the vast crowd for closing time. Our stiff-necked refusal paid off as we stood almost entirely alone beneath God and Adam.

Somehow it was fitting, not jarring, to be surrounded by so much beauty even as the world was poised on the brink of a war which, if you remember, threatened to doom the Middle East, Europe and America. Flags calling for PACE were hung from hundreds of windows, groups gathered in St. Peters Square singing hymns of peace, the headlines inveighed against President Bush and the Italian prime minister, who had joined the coalition of the willing. In my college Italian, I followed café arguments about how America, with Israel behind her, was pushing the world into a war no one wanted. But whatever doubts Italians had about our country’s policies, they were warm and effusive toward us.

In Florence, the people were just as warm, the air colder.

The lush Tuscan countryside was taking the winter off, but the city itself was full of life and tourists. And art.

Neither of us had ever been to Florence, and we walked the narrow streets unashamedly clutching maps, camera and guidebooks. You get giddy from the quantity and quality of the masterpieces — the light and shadow of Il Duomo; the work of the young Leonardo in just one of the endless galleries of the Uffizi; Ghiberti’s bronze doors at the Baptistery; and, of course, Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia di Belle Arte.

For nearly five days, we explored Florence and Sienna. Sienna’s main square, or campo, proved a perfect place to soak up the sun’s rays on an otherwise cold day, and the small city is a marvel of well-preserved tradition.

The synagogue in Sienna — one of Europe’s best-preserved — was shuttered (we had neglected to call ahead), but the Florence synagogue became a trip highlight.

A friend of mine from Israel, Shulamit, met and married the man who would eventually become the chief rabbi of Florence, Yossi Levi. Shulamit showed us the beautiful interior, painted in Tuscany’s muted reds and greens, and the preschool, where the din of children matched that at any busy L.A. synagogue. Florentines, in general, are private and tolerant of other people’s privacy, and despite the fears of Jews in France and other parts of Europe, Shulamit said the community in Florence felt generally secure.

But Shulamit did say the congregation in Florence could benefit from the participation and energy of long-term non-Italian residents, Jews on study or work visits to Florence, and she was eager to get that word out.

On our last day in Florence, with about 500 museums left unseen and only 2 percent of Italy’s masterpieces under our belts, we made one last stop to see David. Nothing in picture books had prepared us for the power of that sculpture, and we knew, back in Los Angeles, back in our lives, we would miss it. So back we went, and the line was magically nonexistent. You stare and stare at David, and end up feeling that we humans, with our petty arguments and massive wars, are capable of a much grander world. Maybe a world more like … Italy. N

Italian Travel Tips

Kosher establishments are so noted.

ROME

Hotel

Albergo Ottocento

Via dei Cappuccini 19

info@albergottocento.it

011-39-06-42011900

Food

La Taverna del Ghetto (Kosher)

Via del Portico d’Ottavia

011-39-06-68809771

Kosher Bistrot (Kosher)

Via S. Maria del Pianto, 68-69

011-39-06-6864398

Gusto

Piazza Augusto Imperatore, 9

011-39-06-3226273

La Tamerici

Vicolo Scavolini, 79

(Fontana di Trevi)

011-39-06-69200700

La Toretta

Piazza della Torretta, 38

011-39-06-6833494

At this family-run restaurant specializing in fish, the owners forbid smoking — a fact which makes it a rarity in Italy. It’s also quite good and reasonably priced.

Caffe Sant’ Eustachio

Piazza Sant’ Eustachio, 82

(Near the Pantheon)

011-39-06-6861309

The be-all and end-all of coffee. Roasted over oak wood and prepared by dedicated barristas following a secret method. Stand in line, order a gran’ caffe, and you’ll weep the next time you set foot in a Starbucks.

Gelateria San Crispino

Via Della Panetteria 4

011-39-06-6793924

Long ago discovered by The New York Times, still superior to all other gelatos we tried in Italy — 45 F weather be damned.

Other

Kadima

Murano Glass Judaica

Via del Lavatore, 33

(Fontana di Trevi)

011-39-06-6789860

FLORENCE

Hotel

Hotel Galileo

Via nazionale 22/a

011-39-055-496645

A very reasonably priced three-star hotel in a city known for high-priced accommodations. Clean rooms, friendly and helpful staff, and a convenient location near the train and bus stations.

Food

Buzzino

Via dei Leoni, 8r

011-39-055-2398013

Zibibbo

Via di Terzollina, 3

011-39-055-433383

www.zibibbonline.com

Garga

Via Del Moro, 48r

011-39-055-2398898

Now famous and deservedly so.

Ruth’s Kosher Vegetarian Food (Kosher)

Via Farini, 27a

011-39-055-2480888

Next to the synagogue, Ruth’s focuses on Middle Eastern specialties.

Osteria Ganino

Piazza dei Cimitori, 4

011-39-055-214125

Know Before You Go:

www.FaithWillinger.com is a wondeful site by an expert on Italian food and restaurants.

www.Jewishitaly.org has all the names and addresses of the country’s Jewish sites.

CulturalItaly.com is an L.A.-based firm through which you can make museum reservations before you leave. It costs a bit more, but unless your idea of a vacation is standing in line for a half day, do it.

Israelis Shun Terror as Sole Issue of Life


Even in the face of terrorist attacks and the likely falloutfrom a war in Iraq, Israelis refuse to become a “single-issue society.”

“We continue to care passionately about religious pluralismand equality,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the World Union forProgressive Judaism, who visited Los Angeles recently.

As the top professional of one of the largest Jewishreligious organization in the world, the Jerusalem-based Regev conducted aglobal tour of issues facing the liberal wing of Judaism during a wide-ranginginterview in Los Angeles. During his visit, he addressed a meeting at StephenS. Wise Temple.

The World Union is the umbrella organization for 1,500Reform, Reconstructionist, Liberal and Progressive congregations in 44countries and, Regev estimated, touches the religious, educational and sociallives of approximately 2 million Jews.

In Israel, the astonishing recent electoral success of theShinui Party, which advocates the separation of religion and state, hasheartened Jews opposed to ultra-Orthodox influence and strictures in the JewishState.

Because of the vagaries of Israeli coalition politics, Regevdoes not believe that Shinui will be able to realize such goals as civilmarriage and army service for yeshiva students through changes in the laws.

However, by heading the Interior and Justice ministries, hesaid Shinui can effect changes through administrative rulings, such as thelegal acceptance of Conservative and Reform converts and the appointment ofsympathetic judges.

He added that Israeli society is now in a position to decidewhether its wants to exist as a theocracy or a democracy.

The World Union has not taken a stand supporting or opposingthe use of U.S. military force in Iraq.

“In recent years, we have not addressed international policyissues, and the Iraq question has not come before us,” said Regev, who took uphis post in January 2002. “But I plan to upgrade our involvement ininternational advocacy issues.”

As the World Union approaches its 75th anniversary, whichwill be celebrated July 10 in its birthplace, Berlin, it faces changes andchallenges throughout the world.

Much has been written about the Reform movement’s perceivedshift to the right, but Regev sees this as an oversimplification. Reform ritualand observances have always been more traditional in Israel than in the UnitedStates, he said, but it is true that there is a growing interest among U.S.Reform Jews in kashrut (dietary laws), mikvah (ritual bath) use and the wearingof a kippah and tallit.

However, in social and moral issues, including the recentacceptance of a transgender student for rabbinical training at Hebrew UnionCollege-Jewish Institute of Religion, “We are committed to moving forward andto stretching the margins,” he declared.

In the former Soviet Union, there are now approximately 100Reform/Progressive synagogues and groups, with strong concentrations in Moscow,Kiev and Minsk. There are shortages of both rabbis and funds, but a two-yearprogram is underway to train congregational paraprofessionals, supported by theReform rabbinate in Southern California.

In Germany, as in other Central European countries, wherereligious congregations are supported by public taxes, Regev is fighting forrecognition and a share of the government money from the Orthodox-dominated”Einheitsgemeinde.” Under this concept of the “unified community,” its CentralCouncil is supposed to represent the Jewish community as a whole, but, inpractice, discriminates against Reform and Conservative denominations, Regevcharged.

As a native-born Israeli, and a lawyer as well as a rabbi,the 51-year-old Regev has a message of both encouragement and disappointmentfor the U.S. Jewish community.

On the upside, despite the intifada, “we haven’t put ourlives on hold, and they are imbued with beauty and song,” he said. While hisson, Jonathan, serves in the army, his 16-year-old daughter, Liron, “is atypical teenager, who hangs out at the mall and takes public buses to her musicrehearsals.”

As representatives of the U.S. Reform movement, 44rabbinical and cantorial students and 33 high school students are spending ayear in Israel and “having the time of their lives,” Regev said.

On the down side, the absence of American tourists induces”a painful sense of abandonment,” he said. Not only the hotels, but the WorldUnion’s hostel at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem stands practically empty.

Added to the emotional impact of such isolation is thefinancial drain, compounded by hard times in the U.S. economy. The drop infinancial support “weighs me down,” Regev admitted, especially at a time “whenthere are great new opportunities and an expanded vision for Progressive Judaismthroughout the world.”