Embracing the Rachmones Challenge

worry that I don’t think about my father enough. He died 20 years ago and his presence doesn’t haunt me. I don’t talk to him when I’m stuck in traffic.

But a picture of him sits on my desk, taken at the beach circa 1975. His hairy chest is fully exposed, the gold chai he always wore embedded in the hair.

He’s looking right into the camera. “You can do it, sweetheart,” I’ve decided he’s saying from behind those tinted lenses set in aviator frames.

It’s not an accident that this picture sits on the desk where I write.

Victor, given this name by my grandmother because he was born on Armistice Day 1918, thought I could do anything. He once left me in the driver’s seat of his car at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 38th Street in New York, a month after I passed my driving test.

“Go park,” he said, getting out and slamming the door.

I guess I’m lucky this was his legacy to me, the sense that if I put my mind to something, I can figure it out. It’s in times when my confidence is flailing that I beckon his memory. And also whenever someone orders a bagel “with the insides taken out.”

I also hear his voice clearly whenever anyone uses the word rachmones, which, granted, is almost never. But sometimes, when I am feeling particularly intolerant, “judgy,” if you will, I don’t even have to hear a person say the word for an old Jewish man to whisper in my ear, “Sweetheart, have a little rachmones.”

For those for whom Yiddish is not a second language, or even a third or fourth, rachmones is defined by essentially four words: mercy, compassion, forgiveness and empathy. Looking back on my youth, the fact that my father said this to me repeatedly suggests that I wasn’t the warmest child on the block.

In my defense, I was not a golden-haired Cinderella, was not particularly athletic, and very few children played the flute as badly as I did. What I did have was smarts. Maybe it was spending my formative years in New York City, with its you-snooze-you-lose pace, but I was very quick. And I didn’t understand if you weren’t. I was impatient, intolerant and intense. Rachmones was for suckers.

What’s great about life, or my life anyway, is how little my superior brain did to make me happy; to build meaningful relationships, to listen, to help me connect with people in a way that made me feel less lonely at the end of the day. You know what does this better than getting A’s? Rachmones.

Vic never went to college, a fact that always embarrassed him. According to family lore, he sold apples during the Great Depression; after that, he sold clothes, then finally real estate. He wasn’t a book-smart man. Given the absence of wealth in his early life, his parents’ divorce, his Eastern European bouts of depression, I’ll admit no one ever accused my father of being happy. But he cared deeply for his family and friends, who gave him great joy, and that caring nature most definitely enabled him to practice what he preached to me.

The other night, I saw a terrible show; I had paid a babysitter so I could see it; and I got stuck in parking lot traffic going home. That’s the holy trinity of misery for me. I was out with my husband, and I was fuming. He turned up the radio. Listening to KDAY-FM was far more enjoyable than my stewing in silence.

Somehow, above the din of the blaring rhymes on the radio, I heard that little, old Jewish man voice. “Sweetheart … ” And something in my mind shifted. These people in the show had an idea and they saw it through and it wasn’t perfect, but where was my compassion, my empathy for how hard it is to create anything?

I took a deep breath and relaxed a little. My husband turned down the music and we found something to laugh about. Shon fartik. Translation: “pretty ending,” another of my father’s favorite Yiddish expressions.

Here’s what I’m suggesting, and not in a Pollyanna or Rifka-Anna kind of way: Why don’t we all take “The Rachmones Challenge”?

I know we can all think of at least 10 million to 59.8 million people who should do this first, but, unfortunately, we have no control over them. For the sake of finding a little more peace in our days, against very serious odds, maybe we can try to find one or two interactions during which we take a second to breathe and think about mercy, compassion, forgiveness and empathy.

The Rachmones Challenge will not raise money. It will not clean out your colon. But if you commit to it, it may just deliver to you, and the people around you, something neither of these goals can: a soul-nurturing dose of humanity.

Dani Klein Modisett is a comic and writer, most recently of the book “Take My Spouse, Please.”

A student and teacher play the violin during a presentation on child victims of the Holocaust at the Midtown Workmen’s Circle School in Manhattan, April 23, 2017. (Ben Sales via JTA)

This New York City Sunday school teaches Jewish kids Yiddish — and socialism

NEW YORK — The Jewish Sunday school teacher, a black accordion strapped to her shoulders, stands before a photo of a 1927 Jewish protest in Warsaw and introduces her students to an important holiday observed by their ancestors.

It isn’t Passover, which has just ended, but another that is approaching in a couple weeks: May Day, the unofficial May 1 holiday celebrating workers’ rights.

“Socialism is the idea that everyone should have what they need,” says the teacher, Hannah Temple, as a projector flashes images of a protest sign and Jewish immigrants marching in a labor demonstration. On the walls, multicolored signs declare “Jewish communities fight for $15” — a minimum wage campaign — “We are all workers” and “Remember the Triangle Fire,” a reference to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that killed 146 garment workers at a factory and galvanized the labor movement.

Temple teaches the children words to a Yiddish May Day anthem and offers a short primer on early 20th century labor activism.

“We need to sleep some, we need to work some, but we need some time that’s for us,” she says, describing the campaign for an eight-hour workday. She invites the few dozen students and parents in the room to a May Day protest in downtown Manhattan. A few hands go up.

“Maybe?” she asks. “Maybe is great.”

The Yiddish sing-along-cum-socialist teach-in is the morning meeting of the Midtown Workmen’s Circle School, a secular Jewish Sunday school that combines Yiddish language and culture education with progressive social justice organizing. It’s one of eight such schools, called “shules,” in four states serving a total of 300 students aged 5 to 13 — teaching them everything from an Eastern European melody for the Four Questions to how to protest on behalf of underpaid fast-food workers. The curriculum ends with a joint bar/bat mitzvah ceremony for the seventh-graders.

Students at the Midtown Workmen’s Circle School in Manhattan read through a play in Yiddish, April 23, 2017. (Ben Sales via JTA)

Though it’s more than a century old, the Workmen’s Circle, a left-wing Eastern European Jewish culture and social justice group, has seen its fundraising and school enrollment grow in recent years. Part of the boost, leaders say, was due to the diametrically opposed presidential campaigns of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Donald Trump.

Sanders, says executive director Ann Toback, awakened American Jews to secular, progressive Jewish culture conveyed with a heavy Brooklyn accent. Trump, she adds, sparked Jews on the left to organize in protest.

Workmen’s Circle made a lapel pin bearing the faces of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump accompanied by the words “mensch” and “putz,” respectively. (Josefin Dolsten via JTA)

Workmen’s Circle isn’t shy about its political leanings. Following the presidential election, it made a lapel pin bearing the faces of Sanders and Trump accompanied by the words “mensch” and “putz,” respectively.

“Before there was Bernie, there was the Workmen’s Circle,” Toback says. “Is there a way we can connect to so many of his followers? The values that he based his campaign on are really the inherent values of the Workmen’s Circle and our movement.”

In the five-month period after the election, the group saw its donations double over the same stretch the previous year. It has opened five of its eight Sunday schools in the past three years. The biggest, in Boston, has more than 100 students. In May, the Manhattan school will be hosting a spring open house for the first time.

“More people are coming to us looking for — ‘I want to engage in social justice activism,’” says Beth Zasloff, director of the Midtown school. “I know that for me, after the election, having a community, having a place to go where I know we can address these issues with our children, felt extremely important.”

The Midtown school, like its counterparts, eschews traditional Jewish Sunday school mainstays like learning Hebrew or studying ritual and prayer. Israel isn’t a focus. Workmen’s Circle has partnered in the past both with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a left-wing group that focuses on domestic issues, and Habonim Dror, the left-wing Labor Zionist movement.

Instead, kids take three types of classes: arts and crafts, Yiddish language and history, and culture and social justice. Last Sunday, the three students in the Yiddish class were reading a play, in transliteration, about a robot. The teacher would read a line in Yiddish and translate, which a student repeated.

The arts and crafts class was making banners for an immigrant rights protest. In the history and culture class, four students prepared for their bar and bat mitzvahs next year. For the ceremony, they’ll do a research project on their family history and interview an elderly relative. Later that Sunday, this year’s bar mitzvah class made presentations on children who were killed in the Holocaust.

Beth Zasloff, director of the Midtown Workmen’s Circle School (Courtesy of Zasloff via JTA)

One student said knowing Yiddish made her feel like her friends at school who hail each other in the hallways in Bengali. Another said her favorite Workmen’s Circle experience was participating in the Jan. 21 Women’s March in New York City. And for some, the appeal lies in attending a Sunday school that avoids the standard memorization of Hebrew prayers.

“This is secular, and I’m not super religious in terms of my beliefs about God,” says Moxie Strom. “So it’s nice to have something that doesn’t focus so much on ‘God said this and God said that.’”

The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring was founded in 1900 in large part to help Jewish immigrants from Europe succeed in America. Along with advocating for better working conditions, it offered members services like health care and loans. It supported socialism at a time when Jews on the Lower East Side of Manhattan helped elected a Socialist Party candidate, Meyer London, to Congress.

No longer socialist but still left wing, the Workmen’s Circle fights for those issues largely on behalf of non-Jewish workers, leading campaigns for immigrant rights or better pay.

And instead of helping Yiddish speakers integrate into America, the organization’s cultural mission has flipped, preserving and promoting an old world culture for American Jews. It runs Yiddish language classes for adults and a summer camp for kids, and hosts culinary and holiday events.

“There’s so much culture they’re missing,” says Kolya Borodulin, the group’s associate director for Yiddish programming, who grew up in Birobidzhan, the Soviet Union’s Jewish Autonomous Region. “Jewish holidays, traditions described by famous Yiddish authors — any contemporary issues you name — are reflected in the Yiddish language. So you can see this parallel universe in Yiddish.”

Even if they go to eight years of Sunday school, Borodulin says, the students are unlikely to come out speaking proficient Yiddish, or even reading a page in the language’s Hebrew script. The school’s aim, rather, is to reinforce a cultural and ideological Jewish identity in its students. The aspiration is that years after they leave, they will be able to connect to their Judaism on holidays, in song and on the picket line.

“What resonates most with them is the social justice and having a sense of what we believe in,” says Debbie Feiner, whose two sons, ages 9 and 12, attend the Midtown school. The older one, she says, understands that “when you see some injustice, you need to take action. He can’t be a passive bystander, and he’ll connect that with his Judaism.”

A conversational Yiddish class is held every Monday at the Workmen’s Circle, where about 15 students, most of them age 80 and older, gather. Photo by Tess Cutler

No talking in class! (Unless it’s in Yiddish)

On any given Monday afternoon, the most likely place to find Ben Silver is the Yiddish conversation class at the SoCal Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish cultural and social justice organization near Robertson and Pico boulevards. He’s easy to spot: At 97, he’s usually the oldest student in the room.

At one recent class, Silver was the first to arrive, wearing a “World War II Veteran” baseball cap and carrying a bag of snacks to share with the class. Silver said he grew up speaking Yiddish, but, after years of not using it, “I lost the language.” That is, until a few years ago, when he first found out about the conversational class.

“There was a yearning in me to go back to my roots and to learn all of the goodness that I learned from my family,” he told the Journal. “This brings back a beautiful time in my life.”

Silver sits in a room with a long wooden table at the center and a green chalkboard at the side. He’s one of about 15 students, most of them age 80 or older whose childhood memories of Yiddish have faded over years and assimilation. The weekly 75-minute sessions, taught by Hadasa Cytrynowicz, 82, become a time capsule, with bookcases of dog-eared Yiddish classics lining the walls.

Cytrynowicz fled Poland with her parents in 1939 when Germany invaded their small town. Later, she lived in the Soviet Union, a German displacement camp, a newly formed Israel, Brazil (where she was the first professor at Sao Paulo University to teach Yiddish), and now Los Angeles. She told the Journal that she’s always felt like an outsider. “But I’m at home in the classroom,” she added.

It’s a “home” for her students, as well.

“My parents were both Yiddish speakers, especially when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were talking about, which I think was very common,” said Irving Lehrer. Born in 1938, he noted, “I’m probably one of the youngest students in this class.”

Ruth Judkowitz, who serves in the volunteer position of “chairmentsch” at Workmen’s Circle, often brings along an accordion for when the class breaks out into Yiddish folksong.

“I’m just here, keeping the doors open,” she said. Judkowitz first heard about the Arbeter Ring in 1990, when she joined the Yiddish chorus (which no longer exists) and has since devoted much of her time to the nonprofit.

“We’ve all become friends because we’re just happy to speak Yiddish and be with each other,” she said.

Workmen’s Circle started in 1900 as a mutual aid society in New York, helping Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe adapt to American society. It operated summer camps, ran credit unions, published books, offered medical services and bought tracts of land for cemeteries. Today, it runs social justice and cultural events and schools throughout the New York metropolitan area and in large cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit and San Francisco.

In Los Angeles, the Circle occupies a modest building, with a splay of overgrown weeds taking over the sidewalk. But inside is a treasure trove. Sure, the fixtures are outdated and the walls could use a fresh coat of paint. Yet this simple edifice is a portal, a snapshot into Los Angeles’ once thriving Yiddishkeit community.

The Yiddish class has an informal layout, open to all Yiddish levels, spurring more discussion than one might expect from a typical language class. For one exercise, Cytrynowicz calls out Yiddish words that students, in turn, use in a sentence.

Chutzpah,” Cytrynowicz called out.

Silver was first to respond, “Ikh hob dos nisht,” meaning, “I don’t have that.” To which, a woman immediately wise-cracked, “He has a lot of chutzpah saying that.”

“There’s a lot of humor that goes on. We learn and make jokes. It’s just a good time,” said Judkowitz.

There’s a robust back-and-forth between teacher and students. Often, current events are discussed in Yinglish, a Yiddish-English hybrid. When a student speaks too much English, Cytrynowicz is quick to reprimand, “Yiddish! Yiddish!”

Speaking Yiddish is not the only reminder of the past. Days after President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country, many in the class found the order an eerie example of history being repeated.

Some discussed the ban with outrage, recalling the MS St. Louis, the shifl (boat) that was turned away by the U.S. in 1939, a decision that bore tragic results when those passengers were sent back to Europe — many to their deaths. “I was a kinder (kid) then,” a woman remembered.

It’s strange to hear about World War II in Yiddish. It’s always the elephant in the room, the reason for the extinction of this language, this voice. When someone mentioned the Third Reich, a student uttered under her breath, “Yimakh shemo” — May his name be erased — turning the room from a Yiddish class to a yahrzeit candle, a flame of something ancient, through their resurrected language, a lost world remembered.

Klezmatics bringing a healthy dose of heresy on tour

Grab your children and your grandparents! A band of Yiddish heretics are zingen their way to Southern California!

Not that you should worry. These heretics, the Klezmatics, are happy and coming to share their zest for Eastern European Ashkenazi-inspired music.

What is so heretical about a long-established Grammy-winning group setting out on its 30th anniversary tour with December stops in Los Angeles and Costa Mesa? Along with the usual Yiddishe party music — which also includes songs by Woodie Guthrie — the band will perform songs from its new album, provocatively titled “Apikorsim/Heretics.”

For many Jews, the Yiddish word apikorsim — used as a cutting term by one Jewish denomination to describe the perceived religious deficits of another — is mostly familiar through its use in Chaim Potok’s best-seller from the mid-1960s, “The Chosen.” But Lorin Sklamberg, the Klezmatics’ longtime lead vocalist and accordion, guitar and piano player, doesn’t see it that way. For him, the word’s meaning moves beyond a Jewish showing of disrespect to representing one of the joys of the Jewish world.

“It’s not unusual for us to take things that have a stereotypically negative connotation and turn them around,” Sklamberg said in a recent phone interview the morning after he had flown to New York following a Klezmatics performance in Poland. 

As Sklamberg explained, the band likes to find a “positive aspect of something that might be somewhat controversial.” For instance, the title track of the new album, “Apikorsim,” represents the coming together of a traditional Yiddish dance tune by Klezmatics co-founder, vocalist, and horn and saxophone player Frank London with lyrics by contemporary Yiddish linguist Yuri Vedenyapin, who the band asked to write on the topic. “They just completely went to town on it,” Sklamberg said. And with lyrics like “Happy heretics don’t think about God … Happy heretics have no rabbi … Happy heretics don’t get circumcised,” it’s clear the writers not only had “gone to town,” they had left the shtetl

“You could take it literally or you could take it metaphorically,” Sklamberg said when asked about the song’s provocative lyrics. For him, the song invokes the thoughts that “you don’t need to have all those strictures in your life to enjoy life” and that “you don’t have to abide by Orthodoxy,” he said. 

“One of the nice things about the Jewish world,” he added, “is that there is a tacit acceptance that people allow everyone else to be Jewish in their own way.”

Sklamberg described the band’s following as comprising “everything from religious Jews with yarmulkes and beards to hipsters with tattoos and beards.”

“All of these Jewish worlds have been allowed to co-exist. I think that’s one of the delights of being Jewish,” said the musician, who had a Conservative upbringing at Temple Beth Torah in Alhambra.

Another song on the “Apikorsim/Heretics” album shows the group’s knack for turning around meaning. “Ver Firt Di Ale Shifn?” (Who Guides the Ships?) — with Yiddish lyrics by Zishe Landau (1889-1937) and music by Chava Alberstein — asks, in the form of a riddle, “Who plays with the children, and takes some of them away?”

Sklamberg said initially he was puzzled by the song’s lyrics. “As it turns out, Landau had lost a child, an infant when he was young,” and the poem “was kind of a lullaby for the child,” Sklamberg explained. But he sings the song with a broader meaning. It’s “for all parents who have had the tragedy of losing a child,” he said. “It’s one of the most well-received songs in our concerts.”

Growing up in Monterey Park, Sklamberg was in high school when he began playing accordion in a band called Rimonim that performed Israeli folk-dance music at weddings and bar and bat mitzvah parties.

“I didn’t know how the music was connected to my heritage and how the music I was hearing in shul was related to what we were playing,” he recalled. “There were people around I could have asked, but I didn’t think to do it.

“When I moved to New York and started studying Yiddish and getting involved with the Klezmatics, I started to see how all these things that I had grown up with were interconnected,” said Sklamberg, who as an original member has been with the band for 30 years.

His experience with listening to Chasidic music in shul and studying Hebrew at his synagogue’s school and Los Angeles
Hebrew High School helped ease his evolution to klezmer. “All these tools were really helpful in becoming proficient in Yiddish instrumental and vocal music,” he said, voicing a conclusion he laughingly acknowledged would make his Hebrew school teachers happy.

One of the ways the Klezmatics keep their audiences happy is when they conclude each show with “Mazel Tov,” a “little lullaby waltz” written by Yiddish singer, actor and impresario Boris Thomashefsky. The group plays it at the end to “wish everyone well and off into the night,” said Sklamberg, who sings it sweetly and innocently — without a heretical note.

“Every star that shines above us,” it begins, “should always shine on our future.” 

The Klezmatics will perform Dec. 19 at the Pico Union Project in Los Angeles and Dec. 22 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. For more information, visit Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa or Pico Union Project.

Why scientists are fighting about the origins of Yiddish – and the Jews

Science has finally provided evidence of what Jewish “Star Wars” fans long suspected: Yoda is a member of the tribe — or at least he speaks like one.

The bad news is the science has been widely dismissed as junk.

The Yoda reference appears in a video in which a a 36-year-old Israeli linguist at Sheffield University in England argues that Ashkenazi Jews and the Yiddish language originated in Turkey.

The study joins a number of others published in the past 15 years that challenge the prevailing theory that Jews originated in the Mediterranean Middle East and that Yiddish was developed among Jews in Europe. The research is controversial not only because its critics say it is scientifically weak, but also because it is seen by some to weaken Jews’ claim to the Land of Israel — and is used to this end by some who oppose the Jewish state.

In  a video released in April, geneticist Eran Elhaik explains that Yoda, like Yiddish speakers, uses words from one language, but follows the grammar rules of another. The little green guru speaks strangely constructed English the same way that Yiddish uses German and Hebrew words, but Slavic grammar.

The video is an effort by Elhaik to explain and publicize his study on the origins of Yiddish and Ashkenazi Jews, coauthored by Tel Aviv University linguist Paul Wexler and others and published in March in Oxford University Press’ prestigious journal Genome Biology and Evolution.

According to their theory, the original Ashkenazi Jews lived in a “Slavo-Iranian confederation” and over time developed Yiddish as a secret language to “gain an advantage in trade.” Though they used German and Hebrew words, they kept the Slavic grammar.

As evidence, Elhaik’s study cites a genetic analysis tracing Ashkenazi Jewish lineage to ancient trade routes in northeastern Turkey.

Along the routes  were villages with names that “may be derived from [the word] ‘Ashkenaz,'” according to the study.

The findings made headlines around the world, including in The Independent, Language Magazine and Science Daily.

But some of the world’s most prominent scholars in the fields of both Yiddish and on Jewish genetics quickly rejected the study and condemned its outsized claims as reflective of deteriorating scientific standards and the politicization of research questions about Jewish history.

Shaul Stampfer, a professor of Soviet and East European Jewry at the Hebrew University, said of Elhaik’s research in an email to JTA: “It is basically nonsense.”

Prof. Dovid Katz, founder of Vilnius University’s Yiddish Institute and an author of several books on the language, savaged the study’s linguistic analysis.

“The authors have melded accurate but contextually meaningless genetic correlations with laughable linguistic theories that now proliferate, sadly, as a consequence of a much weakened Yiddish academic environment internationally,” he told JTA. “There is not a single word or sound in Yiddish that comes from Iranian or Turkish.”

A dialect of Yiddish “thrived before there even was a single Slavic-derived word in the language,” he added. “The paper is a fine example of genetics as smokescreen for off-the-wall linguistics.”

In response, Wexler called Katz’s criticism “totally false” and ignorant — and “more of an emotional tirade than a scholarly statement” by someone he said made research breakthroughs in the 1980s “but did not live up to his promise.” Yiddish features “hundreds and maybe even thousands of covert and overt Iranianisms,” Wexler said.

Sergio DellaPergola, a Hebrew University professor who is among the most prominent demographers of the Jewish people, called the study a “falsification” and “one of the big canards of the 21st century.” He criticized its “exceedingly small” sample size and non-inclusion of Sephardi Jewish genes, which he said would have undermined the findings.

A 2014 analysis by Bennett Greenspan, the American founder of a genetic testing company, compared the profiles of nearly 15,000 Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish men to non-Jews in the Middle East and Europe. He found a “nearly perfect genetic match” between 75 percent of the Jews and the non-Jewish Middle Easterners.

Had a Sephardic-Ashkenazi analysis been included in Elhaik’s study, it would have shown greater similarity between the two groups of Jews than between Ashkenazi Jews and Turkish non-Jews, DellaPergola predicted. Like most scholars, DellaPergola believes Ashkenazi Jews descend from those who migrated from the Middle East to Europe hundreds of years ago.

“Studying the DNA of non-Ashkenazic Jews would not change the DNA of Ashkenazic Jews nor the predicted origin of their DNA,” Elhaik told JTA. He said his study is “the largest genomic study on Ashkenazic Jews tovdate and the first of its kind on Yiddish speakers.”

Elhaik has ruffled academic feathers before by challenging the accepted notion that Jews originated in the Middle East. In 2013, he published another poorly received study in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution that supported the theory that the Ashkenazi Jews are descended from Khazars — an extinct multi-ethnic kingdom of Iranians, Turks, Slavs and Circassians — who converted en masse in the eighth century.

Popularized in the 1970s by Hungarian-British author Arthur Koestler in his book “The Thirteenth Tribe,” the Khazari theory was championed again in 2008 by Shlomo Sand, a Tel Aviv University historian specializing in cinema, in “The Invention of the Jewish People.”

The theory has little genetic evidence to support it and is regarded as a myth by most scholars.

Whereas Sand and Koestler’s use of science to sell books hardly required a rebuttal, Elhaik is a geneticist being published in prestigious journals, DellaPergola said. He accused Genome Biology and Evolution of failing to critically review the study ahead of publication.

The journal’s editor-in-chief, William Martin, said he “cannot agree to any allegations that the authors … approached the data or the analysis with any element of dishonesty.”

The last word, it turns out, may belong to Yoda. “Many of the truths that we cling to depend on our point of view,” the Jedi master said  — in perfect English.

In political attack on Clinton, Trump uses Yiddish vulgarity

Donald Trump used a vulgar Yiddishism to describe Hillary Rodham Clinton’s loss to Barack Obama in 2008 for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

Speaking Monday at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Trump, who is polling as the front-runner among Republicans in the race for the presidency, said his likely rival in the general election was a loser.

“Even her race to Obama, she was going to beat Obama — I don’t know who would be worse, I don’t know, how does it get worse? — but she was going to beat, she was favored to win, and she got schlonged, she lost!” the real estate billionaire and reality TV star said.

“Schlong” is one of an array of vulgar Yiddish terms for penis; its use as a verb is not new. The Washington Post noted in an analysis Tuesday of Trump’s use of the term that Trump himself used it in 2011 describing a Republican congressional defeat.

A classic Yiddish operetta, revived for a new generation

“For a German Jew, Yiddish is beneath contempt,” musicologist Michael Ochs told JTA. “German Jews tend to think of Yiddish as bad German. The only use we had in our family for it was to make fun of it.”

So it is more than a tad ironic that it was Ochs, whose family fled Nazi Germany for New York in 1939, who rediscovered the “Di Goldene Kale” (“The Golden Bride”), the 1923 Joseph Rumshinsky operetta that spoke to the hopes and dreams of immigrants. It’s the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s latest offering — and its first production in its new home here at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, adjacent to Battery Park.

How this brilliant but virtually forgotten musical went from obscurity to full-scale production is the result of several coincidences combined with some diligent detective work.

“The Golden Bride” originally played at the Second Avenue Theater, filling its 2,000 seats for 18 weeks before touring the country (including places like Omaha, Nebraska) and overseas (Buenos Aires and Manchester, England). It was one of 14 Yiddish productions at the time on Second Avenue, known as the Jewish Broadway.

The title character, Goldele — a presumed orphan raised by the local innkeepers in a Russian village — discovers she had a rich father who passed away and left her a sizable inheritance. This makes her a sought-after bride. Though secretly in love with Misha, the innkeepers’ son, she promises several suitors she will marry the one who finds her long-lost mother. Goldele then departs for the United States to live with a wealthy uncle and quickly acclimates.

It’s easy to see why this story — even though Ochs describes it as “typically implausible” — resonated with audiences at the time. Many were from Russia themselves, and almost to a person they were immigrants who were getting used to a new land and language. The time frame of the production is shortly after the Russian Revolution, when many hoped a new Russia would be a more tolerant place.

Last revived in 1948, the show likely would have stayed hidden thereafter in the mist of Yiddish history were it not for a 1984 meeting in Boston of the Society for American Music. At the time, Ochs was the Richard F. French Music Librarian at Harvard’s prestigious Loeb Music Library. He found a large but incomplete manuscript of “The Golden Bride” score while scouring the stacks for material he might use in an exhibit tied to the meeting.

“I’d never heard of Rumshinsky,” Ochs said. “The music was excellent. What struck me was that this composer nobody ever heard of outside of people familiar with Jewish music had composed 90 to 100 operettas. Who knew?”

“The librettist was a woman [Frieda Freiman] who gave credit to her husband [Louis] to get her work produced,” he added. “There is no question she wrote the original libretto.”

After the meeting, the score returned to the library stacks and presumable anonymity. Ochs left Harvard in 1992 to become a music editor at W.W. Norton, from where he retired in 2002. But “The Golden Bride” wouldn’t let go. He’d made a copy of the score and now, in retirement, “wondered if I can translate this,” he said. “It started out really as a language project.” 

“I was never thinking in terms of a full-scale production,” Ochs added. “I was just thinking of getting this published, and that alone would have been pretty nice.”

So he sent a proposal to the American Musicological Association to see if they would be interested in a paper or book on the operetta as part of its Music of the United States of America series. When the association expressed enthusiasm, Ochs started additional research.

His first stop was YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research in New York, which housed the librettist Freiman’s papers. As luck would have it, there he met the late Chana Mlotek, doyenne of the Mlotek family of Yiddish music experts and the organization’s musical archivist. The moment she heard about the project, the Yiddishe mama suggested Ochs call her son Zalmen, the Folksbiene’s artistic director.

Ochs didn’t have an opportunity to initiate the call — Zalmen Mlotek rang the next day, presumably ordered by mama.

“I wasn’t aware of the existence of the material,” Mlotek said in a separate phone interview. “But I was very familiar with a couple of the songs, the famous duet ‘Mayn Goldele.’ It was a big hit and sung in every generation since then.”

Mlotek was interested immediately; he and Ochs went into research mode. Scraps and bits of the original were scattered at Harvard, YIVO and UCLA, where heirs of Rumshinsky donated his papers. Ochs and Mlotek gathered the pieces and reconstructed the play.

“Our intention was to present it in a way that was as close to what we imagined it would have looked and sounded like in 1923,” Mlotek said.

At the same time, however, the pair realized “The Golden Bride” dealt with very contemporary themes.

“While the purpose of our presenting it was to show an example of one of the mainstays of the Yiddish Theater in its heyday, the fact that it deals with the idea of immigration, of coming to a new country and believing in the dream that one can make it — yeah, that’s a universal theme,” Mlotek said.

The show is artfully co-directed by the Folksbiene’s Bryan Wasserman and Motl Didner. Given the size and limitations of the set, Merte Muenter’s choreography and staging are superb. The cast is extraordinarily talented — Goldele, played by the opera-trained Rachel Policar, is a standout — and infectiously enthusiastic.

The wonderful songs also reveal the very Jewish roots of the American Songbook.

“Rumshinsky, in his autobiography, writes about how he went to visit a friend and he heard someone next door playing something from one of his operettas,” Ochs said. “Who was it? A young George Gershwin. He regularly attended Yiddish theater and of course it influenced him. When he wrote ‘Summertime,’ he even asked if it sounds too Jewish.”

The Golden Bride runs through Jan. 3, but it may soon come to an opera company near you. “The Golden Bride” has been “curated in a way it can easily be used by an opera company, whether you have a Jewish audience or not,” Mlotek said.

“Super titles make it irrelevant that it’s in Yiddish; in fact, it makes it more interesting,” he said. “There is interest from young people and cultured people to examine and taste what this culture was and is.”

Hebrew word of the week: Kippah

Kippah is from the root  k-f-f, which means “to bend,” as in zoqef kfufim, “(God) raises those who are bent” (Psalms 145:14,  and prayer), closely related to k-f-y “to compel, force, invert, subdue.” So, kippah is “a bent shape, dome,” as in kippat shamayim “celestial sphere.”

Other related words: kaf  “palm / hollow of the hand/foot,”  the letter kaf (sofit), “(table)spoon”; kappit “teaspoon”;  kappah “palm branch”; kfafot “gloves”; kaffiyyah “(Arab) headdress.”

The Yiddish word yarmulke seems to be from the Turkish (via Polish, Ukrainian) yagmurluk, meaning “rain cover.”

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

Singer Tony Orlando, longtime friend of Israel, to receive Chabad’s Voice of Courage Award

Tony Orlando is not Jewish. Not even a little. 

So why, then, is the half-Greek, half-Puerto Rican Christian who rose to prominence in the 1970s with the group Tony Orlando and Dawn — producing a string of smash hits like “Knock Three Times,” “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” and “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)” — receiving the inaugural Voice of Courage Award from Chabad of the Conejo at a special evening headlined by Israeli performer Dudu Fisher on June 10?

The answer has a lot to do with his support for Israel and the families of the three teens whose kidnappings and murders last year sparked a war in Gaza. But it starts long ago in New York City with his father.

“My father spoke perfect Yiddish,” the 71-year-old Orlando (born Michael Anthony Orlando Cassavitis) said during a recent phone interview from his home in Branson, Mo. “My father was Greek — my father, Leo. But I never called him Leo. I called him Leibel all my life.”  

Leo Cassavitis was a furrier, and the garment business was so heavily Jewish that his son remembers going to work and hearing people call out, “Leibel, is that your son?” His dad explained that Leibel was the Yiddish version of Leo, and the name stuck.

The family’s ties to the Jewish faith grew with Cassavitis’ second marriage.

“He married a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn and stayed married to her for 40 years,” Orlando said. 

When Orlando’s younger half-brother from that marriage, David, who now plays keyboards in his band, had a bar mitzvah, it was a great source of joy for their father. 

“When my brother got bar mitzvahed and my father received an aliyah … it was a higher honor to him than anything you could have ever done for him,” Orlando said. 

Although Cassavitis never converted, he remained fond of Judaism until the day he died. 

It was from this beginning that Orlando’s first feelings for Judaism and Israel were forged. They were only strengthened when he became a more devout Christian later in life.

“The first anti-Semitic act I ever read about in my lifetime was the Crucifixion, because, let’s face it, on the top of that cross it said, ‘The King of the Jews,’ so the audience saw a Jew being put up on that cross,” Orlando said. “Every single Christian, in my opinion, who commits an anti-Semitic act or word puts another nail in the hands of the man on that cross.” 

Orlando’s Christian faith brought him into contact with others in Branson who share his strong support for Israel and the Jewish people, including Sherry Herschend, of the Dollywood and Silver Dollar City theme parks. 

“She has donated I don’t even know how many millions of dollars to Israel,” Orlando said of Herschend, who took him on a life-changing trip to Israel. “She took me through every city … north, south, east and west.”

While in Israel last summer on a pilgrimage with his wife and daughter, Orlando said he was moved by the story of the three Israeli teens who were kidnapped from the Nof Ayalon settlement and later found murdered. 

“People were constantly asking me to go to the families and visit them,” said Orlando, who was hesitant at first. “I said, ‘I don’t even know where to go. … Finally I got in touch with some of the authorities there, in government, and they said, ‘Please do this.’ ”  

A government car picked Orlando up at his hotel and took him to the home of one of the families. It turned out the parents knew his music well and were happy to see him. 

Orlando said the message he delivered was: “I couldn’t sit here anymore and watch this. Is there anything I can do?” They asked him to ask people to tie a yellow ribbon for their sons — a symbol that in the past has welcomed home prisoners of war, hostages and soldiers — and spread the message of his support for Israel.  

Orlando went before the press and made a passionate request. 

“I plead in the name of God to the person who held these boys, to please return them to their families,” he said. “Children should be off the list. … To the captors, please, bring the children home!”

Orlando’s message reverberated around the globe, including in the Conejo Valley. That’s where Chabad Rabbi Moshe Bryski instantly knew that he wanted to do something to honor Orlando’s courage. 

“While many in Hollywood chose to remain silent … and others condemned Israel, this righteous gentile took the time to bring comfort to three families in pain,” Bryski said. 

“I spoke about him the next Shabbos in shul,” the rabbi continued. “One of my congregants mentioned to me after the sermon that he knows Tony Orlando personally. … After Shabbos, I called him to thank him on behalf of the Jewish community … a friendship developed. … Little did I know, and little do many in the Jewish community know, how much Tony Orlando has supported Israel and Jewish causes all through his life.”

Bryski, who said he’s given out many awards over the years, decided to create a special one in honor of Orlando. It will be given during a special concert at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza by Fisher, an Israeli legend who happens to be a friend of Orlando’s.

“He’s a dear friend and a wonderful entertainer,” Orlando said of Fisher, famous for performing Chasidic and Yiddish music as well as for starring in “Les Miserables” on Broadway. “He’s one of my favorite performers. He’s amazing. He knows what he’s doing up there, let me tell you. I’ve been doing this 54 years, you know. I know a little bit about the stage.”

The two met when Fisher came to perform in Branson, of all places, and was a hit despite the Bible Belt locale — or maybe because of it.

“He represents Israel when he gets on that stage,” Orlando said. “You should see it — they come in with Israeli flags! It blew me away how the Evangelicals spend so much time in support of Israel. It’s a beautiful thing to see, really.”

Orlando said he is extremely excited about the prospect of receiving the award from Chabad because it’s so close to his heart. His friends Bob Book, chairman of Book Capital Enterprises, and Jay Schottenstein, chairman of DSW, are co-chairs of the evening, which will see Fisher and Orlando collaborate on a Yiddish-English version of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.”

“I hold Israel very high in my heart,” Orlando said. “I really believe that [the United States] should be grateful that we have a friend like
Israel in the Middle East.  And I really believe that, as a Christian, I would not fulfill my Christian faith if I wasn’t willing to die for Israel.” 

For tickets to “Dudu Fisher in Concert: An Evening of Jewish Song & Solidarity,” including an appearance by Tony Orlando, visit

Preserving Yiddish in the seder

Nowadays, it’s rare to find a Passover seder that doesn’t deviate from the traditional haggadah. But the Erev Shabbos Discussion Group, formed in the San Fernando Valley about 50 years ago, has been doing it its own way for decades — keeping the story secular, social justice-oriented, and drawing from Yiddish and other traditions. 

On March 29, 76* people gathered for a seder at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley. The seder combined Yiddish, Hebrew and English poems and songs, and paid tribute to the founders of the community.

Erev Shabbos grew out of the Valley Kindershule and Valley Mittelshule, a Jewish school founded around 1960 by Yiddish-speaking Jews who had recently moved to the area. The school met on Saturday mornings, mainly at the former Valley Cities Jewish Community Center. The Valley shules (Yiddish for schools) were an outgrowth of the existing shule movement that dates back to the 1930s in Los Angeles. While the Valley shules ended around 1980, the former students continue to stay in touch, and several graduates reunited at the seder to sing Yiddish songs from their childhood, such as “In Dem Land Fun Piramidn.”

The kids’ parents wanted to pursue their own formal Jewish education, and so began a Friday night study group in around 1967. Decades later, they continue to meet, now on Sunday mornings. They began hosting seders for their children, with Torah stories geared toward young people. Children would sit on tablecloths on the floor and draw with crayons. Over time, as those children became parents themselves, the seders became more adult-centered. 

“Because we are secular, we don’t include any prayers. We include a lot of songs about justice and freedom and world peace. Certainly the themes might be the same that are included in a religious sense, but it’s from a different perspective,” said Sylvia Brown, 90, a Valley Village resident and founding member of Erev Shabbos along with her late husband, Murray. She also served as the principal of the Kindershule.

Members of Erev Shabbos created their own haggadah, a process that took several months. The group incorporated segments of several haggadot, while adding Yiddish and English poems that were meaningful to the group. It’s been revised every few years. “It’s an enormous amount of work,” Brown said.

Near the beginning of Sunday’s seder, Barbara Bickel read from the haggadah, “Whoever enlarges upon the telling of the Exodus from Egypt, those persons are praiseworthy.”

The Erev Shabbos seder focused on the Holocaust and the resistance movement. The group lit six candles in honor of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis in World War II. They also recited “Peysakh Has Come to the Ghetto Again,” excerpted from a Yiddish poem by Inem Heller and translated by Max Rosenfield. One part of the poem reads: 

In face of the Nazi — no fear, no subjection!
In face of the Nazi — no weeping, no wincing!
Only the hatred, the wild satisfaction
Of standing against him and madly resisting.

Also included was the Yiddish poem “Zog Nit Keynmol,” written in 1943 by poet Hirsh Glik in the Vilna Ghetto, which became the anthem of the Jewish partisan movement. One refrain reads:

Never say that there is only death for you.
Though leaden skies may be concealing days of blue.
Because the hour that we have hungered for is near.
Beneath our tread the earth shall tremble: “We are here!”

The haggadah also nodded to other peoples’ struggles for freedom. The group sang the African-American spiritual “Go Down Moses,” itself inspired by the Exodus story. Following the second cup of wine for Elijah the Prophet, the group filled a goblet of water for Miriam, Moses’ sister, who lead the Israelites in singing and dancing after crossing the Red Sea. The Erev Shabbos group brought out tambourines and maracas and sang Debbie Friedman’s “Miriam’s Song,” as the women held hands and circled the room in a line dance.

“Miriam’s Song” was added to the haggadah by Cindy Paley, a Kindershule graduate and music educator, and one of the main organizers of the seder. She said her fellow students received an unusual education, studying Yiddish as well as workers’ rights. 

“It’s a very socialist, left-leaning group. [The tradition] came from the Bund in Eastern Europe. When we were in Kindershule in 1967, we went up to the peace march in San Francisco against the Vietnam War. I remember it was a very political group in those days,” Paley said.

“The shule network in L.A. — which was the most attended Jewish educational system in the city from the 1930s unil the early 1950s — spanned the political spectrum from socialist to communist-affiliated working Jews in the city,” said Yiddishkayt director  Rob Adler Peckerar.

Many of the Kindershule graduates credit that school and their liberal secular upbringing for shaping who they are today.

“It defined how I was Jewish,” said Robin Share, an instructional coach for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Going to Kindershule and Mittelshule formalized and put a sort of stamp of approval on that experience and the way we understood our role in the world as Jews and as progressives.”

“I think it was my really early introduction to liberal politics,” said Avital Aboody, a community organizer and social justice activist working in San Diego, who attended these seders as a child, when she and her friends would act out the Passover story with costumes and props.

Many of the group’s founding members have died. “We started with about 14 couples. There are only two [of those] men left, and seven women,” Brown said. “This year, we lost two members.”

Another former Kindershule student is Aaron Paley (founder of Yiddishkayt and a co-founder of the popular CicLAvia bicycling events held regularly throughout Los Angeles). He announced to Sunday’s group that he is currently working on “The Shtetl in L.A.,” a documentary about the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center and the Erev Shabbos Discussion Group. He asked the guests at the seder to record interviews with the elders of the community, and to digitize and submit their archival photos and videos, as well as to contribute financially to the project.

“We’ve lost so many people. It’s really something that we’re still here,” said Sabell Bender, 88, a West Hollywood resident and one of the original Erev Shabbos members.

But with the now-grown children and grandchildren attending the annual meal and keeping the community intact, there’s new life to the group. “We hope it’s going to continue with the same spirit that it’s had before,” Brown said.

*We originally reported the number as 60.

In Lithuania, Yiddish teacher becomes unlikely bulwark against far right

Dovid Katz isn’t typically a hard man to miss. With his bushy charcoal beard, heavy physique and trademark all-black outfits, Katz, a New York-born scholar of Yiddish, resembles a character from a Harry Potter film.

But at one of Europe’s more unusual neo-Nazi marches, complete with ultranationalists clad in medieval armor and smoke blowing in the colors of the Lithuanian flag, even he could blend in temporarily with the crowd.

But halfway through the Feb. 16 procession traversing Lithuania’s second largest city, Katz was spotted. One marcher walked up to him and blew a horn in his direction as others began chanting “Out with Katz.” Undeterred, he continued to flank the procession.

For Katz, 58, who moved to Lithuania in 1999 to take a professorship at Vilnius University, the incident was just the latest expression of hate he has endured since 2008, when he began to speak out against the country’s creeping legitimization of fascism.

“I came here in the euphoric post-independence years, when world peace was around the corner,” Katz said. “My own euphoria diminished with every neo-Nazi march after 2008 and attempt to justify and explain away the Holocaust, events that are becoming even more common and acceptable responses to Russian aggression.”

Lithuania has a long history of conflict with its Russian neighbor. The Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, which until 2011 did not even mention the more than 200,000 Lithuanian Jews who died in the Nazi Holocaust, was established in 1992 to memorialize Lithuanians killed by the Nazi, but mostly Soviet, occupiers.

Lithuania is also one of the few countries where neo-Nazis are free to brandish swastikas on the street. Its northern neighbor, Latvia, is the only European country where veterans of the Waffen SS are allowed each year to march on main streets and commemorate their comrades, who are venerated as freedom fighters against Russia.

Since 2008, Latvia and Lithuania have played host to three neo-Nazi marches annually. A fourth event began last year in the third Baltic nation, Estonia.

The Baltic nations, which have clashed frequently with Slavic peoples, share bitter memories from Soviet domination that have made them natural allies of Germany, according to Efraim Zuroff, a Nazi hunter and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office. The historic conflict led thousands of Lithuanians and Latvians to volunteer for armed Nazi groups.

“Now, Russian expansionism under Vladimir Putin is serving as the perfect pretext to push forward a false historical account that accuses the Russians of genocide, and at the same time conveniently portrays the local Baltic populations as victims instead of perpetrators,” said Zuroff, who shadowed the Kaunas march with Katz.

Those tendencies were in plain sight at the Kaunas march, where dozens carried banners of Ukrainian nationalists alongside Nazi symbols. Tomas Skorupskis, a march organizer from the Lithuanian Nationalist Youth Union, said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year has helped swell the ranks of Lithuanian nationalists.

“Many Lithuanians find it hard to forgive Jews who, during communism, killed nationalist freedom fighters,” Skorupsis said. “But I think we should leave it in the past and look ahead.”

Since he began denouncing these phenomena, Katz, the author of numerous books in the field of Yiddish, lost his position at the Yiddish institute he founded at Vilnius University. He says it was political retribution, but his former bosses deny the claim.

Far-right activists often denounce Katz as a Russian agent. Some have published insulting caricatures of him and posted photographs of Katz at a cafe with a woman to the Facebook page of a far-right activist. Katz understands the latter move to be a reminder that he is being watched.

“I found out that anyone who will speak out against the legitimization of Nazism will be marginalized or threatened, or both,” said Katz, who now makes a living by lecturing internationally and from seminars in Vilnius for visiting groups from around the world. “Especially if they are single, a bit eccentric and of a certain weight and appearance.”

Katz is not the only anti-fascist activist complaining about persecution in the Baltics. In Latvia, authorities last year refused to renew the residency permit of Valery Engel, a Russian Jew with dual Israeli citizenship who lives in Riga with his Latvian wife and child. Earlier this month, Latvian officials considering his appeal to remain in the country demanded Engel prove that he informed Russian authorities of his Israeli citizenship.

“Since when does Latvia enforce Russia’s laws on nationality?” asked Joseph Koren, a Latvia-born Jew who with Engel runs the Latvian branch of the World Without Nazism group. “It’s an attempt to harass and to silence our opposition to the far right and the government’s support of it.”

Both Koren and Engel are mentioned several times in a 2013 report by the Latvia Security Police as having “played a great role in the discrediting campaign against Latvia” through actions “carried out in accordance with Russian foreign policy.”

To Koren, a businessmen who says he is routinely detained at Riga’s airport and lives under constant surveillance, this shows that Baltic nations “may have ended Soviet rule, but the Soviet techniques and mindset remain.” Katz’s case, Koren says, “is classic silencing in academia, just like in Soviet times.”

The Latvian Foreign Ministry did not respond to questions about Engel and Koren.

For his first nine years in Lithuania, Katz largely avoided speaking out about politics. That changed in 2008, when Lithuanian prosecutors began probing three Jews who were declared suspects of war crimes allegedly committed during World War II. The investigation was abandoned amid an international outcry that Katz helped generate by lobbying Western embassies and founding his website But it came at a price.

“I was thrust into the spotlight of political activism at the expense of my reputation as a scholar,” Katz said in an interview in his Vilnius apartment, which he shares with thousands of 19th-century Yiddish books that he rescued from across Eastern Europe. “I could no longer remain silent.”

Katz says he was warned by his bosses at the Yiddish institute to cease lobbying in defense of the three Jews — Yitzhak Arad, Fania Brantsovsky and Rachel Margolis — who had fought as partisans against the Nazis.

But the institute’s director, Sarunas Liekis, a member of the state’s commission on Nazi and Soviet crimes, denies Katz’s politics factored into the decision not to renew his contract.

“Mr. Katz is prone to conspiracy theories,” Liekis said. “The truth is he hardly showed up for work from 2007 to 2010.”

Katz says he never missed a class during his time at the institute.

Ferguson is Yiddish for forget

Judaism frequently demands that we remember. The Torah tells us to remember the Sabbath Day; that we were slaves in Egypt; and that the Amalekites attacked us. Once a year, those who have lost a close relative say Yizkor, the prayer of remembrance. Remembering is one of the three themes of the main New Year’s prayer on Rosh Hashanah. And, of course, those murdered by the Nazis constantly call upon us to remember them.

But must everything be remembered? Interestingly, the word Ferguson (פאַרגעסן) is Yiddish for “forget.” Unlike many people, I don’t think recent events are a good “teaching moment” for much of anything; by contrast, L’affaire Ferguson is best put behind us, even as we continue to discuss race in other contexts.

Americans will never agree on the factual details of the confrontation between Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. Who did what when? Which one, if any, was justified to behave as he did? When we can’t agree on what happened – at all – we can hardly use the episode as an object lesson on race or police conduct or both in American society.

Further, neither side is really interested in actual dialogue. Dialogue means conversation on an equal basis between people with different perspectives who really listen to each other with the possibility of changing their own minds. Would Wilson’s defenders be open to understanding what’s so legitimately hurtful about American racism that people actually feel they have to say “Black lives matter?” And does anyone seriously believe Brown’s defenders could ever assign blame for most African-American communal problems to beliefs and actions of blacks themselves?

I do think such discourse is necessary, or else we’ll have Fergusons every few years ad nauseam. But let’s not have that conversation during an emotionally charged news event when, for example, many of Wilson’s defenders have been cowed into keeping their opinions quiet – either because they don’t want to be called a racist; or worse because they fear for their physical safety. And right now, Brown’s defenders are in the uncomfortable position of having “allies” who just expressed precisely the same opinions and feelings in unconscionable ways: demanding police disarmament, burning down buildings, and more.

So sure, let’s talk about race relations in America. But Ferguson? That’s something best פאַרגעסן.

David Benkof constructs the Jerusalem Post crossword puzzle, which appears weekly in the Jewish Journal. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof); or E-mail him at David

Jewish NBA owner’s ‘Yiddish’ snafu

Talk about auto-correct fails.

In an email to team employees, the Jewish owner of a pro basketball team said he wanted to learn “hoodish.” He apparently meant to write “Yiddish.”

Golden State Warriors co-owner Peter Guber sent out a follow-up email clarifying that the use of “hoodish” (which this writer’s auto-correct keeps trying to change to “goodish”) was not intended as a slur, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

The original email, responding to news that several new players are from foreign countries, said, ”I’m taking rosetta stone to learn Hungarian Serbian Australian swahili and hoodish This year. But it’s nice.”

As the Mercury News noted, the emails come on the heels of controversies in which Jewish NBA owners (Bruce Levenson and Donald Sterling) made racially offensive statements.

Sadly, if Guber is serious about wanting to learn Yiddish, he’ll have to use some resource other than Rosetta Stone. The company offers computerized lessons in 29 languages and dialects, including Hebrew, but no Yiddish. Nor, for that matter, are Hungarian or Serbian included.

In addition, we’re hoping Guber is aware not only that there is no “hoodish” language (on Rosetta Stone or elsewhere), but that Australians speak English (albeit with their own distinctive accent) and not “Australian.”

Who wants to become a Yiddish maven?

2 authors, 2 takes on Jewish humor and theology

Jewish humor and Jewish theology share something in common. I can think of any number of jokes whose punch lines say something profound about God (“Work with me here — buy a ticket!”). And we need only consult the Torah to discover how the matriarch Sarah responded when God revealed that she would bear a child in advanced old age: “Sarah laughed …” (Genesis 18:12).

The point is made by Ruth R. Wisse, professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, in “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor” (Princeton University Press, $24.95), a rare work of cultural scholarship that is also laugh-out-loud-funny. “Jewish humor rolls cheerfully off the tongue,” she quips, “like French cuisine and Turkish baths.” She quotes no less an authority on the workings of the human mind than Sigmund Freud on the Jewish genius for jokes: “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”

“No Joke,” in other words, is full of jokes. Wisse declares her intention “to offer a descriptive map of some of the centers where Jewish humor thrived and where it still prospers,” and she insists that pondering (and laughing at) these jokes reveals something vital and important about Jewish identity: “I cheerfully confess that theories about humor interest me less than the evidence they offer of folk creativity,” she writes; “jokes offer the only surviving form of ‘folklore’ that is not protectable by copyright.”

She traces the distinctive folk culture of Eastern Europe, which she calls “an incubator of modern Jewish humor,” to such traditions as the Purim skit and the antics of the masters of ceremonies at weddings. She traces these influences into the work of Sholem Aleichem, although she points out that once the Jews of the Diaspora abandoned Yiddish, “they could no more understand the intricacies of his humor than could any Gentile.” But she also considers less familiar sources, including both the modernizers who embraced the Haskalah and the traditionalists of Hasidism: “We may not customarily associate Hasidic ecstasy with laughter, but we should consider how, like ecstasy, laughter too overcomes indignities through an altered state of mind.”

As deep as these roots go, the art of Jewish comedy still flourishes, as anyone who turns on a television knows well. “Jewish humor remains, as it has always been, merely one of many possible responses to the anomalous experience of the Jews,” Wisse concludes. “But as long as it does remain one of those responses, suppliers will arise to meet the demand.” And she shows how more recent exemplars, ranging from the Marx Brothers to Larry David to the Broadway hit “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” fit into the rich tapestry of Jewish humor.

Ruth R. Wisse will discuss and sign copies of “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor” at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, visit the Stephen S. Wise Web site at ” target=”_blank”>

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His new book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Liveright).

A tale of love and loss and the Holocaust, in Yiddish

When Naomi Jaye, who has been making short films in her native Canada for the past 10 years, told friends she was embarking on her first feature film, they cheered.

When she added that the project would be the first Canadian movie in Yiddish, which neither she nor her lead actors knew, the friends questioned her sanity.

Five years later, the result of her perseverance is “The Pin,” a story of love and loss during the Holocaust, of faithfulness to a promise and the question of whether a sense of humanity can survive in a world transformed into a slaughterhouse.

The movie’s first scene shows Jacob, somewhere between adolescence and manhood, emerging from a hole in a forest, glancing around warily, and then running as if escaping an unseen enemy.

In the second scene, set in a morgue, an elderly Shomer, who guards the body and soul of the dead until burial, reads psalms from a prayer book while occasionally glancing at a body resting on a gurney, covered by a white sheet.

In a long flashback, the Shomer recalls his youth. The year is 1941, Nazi armies have overrun his hometown somewhere in Eastern Europe and have killed his entire family.

He finds shelter in a barn that seems empty, but soon encounters a young Jewish girl, Leah, whose family has met the same fate and who has also gone into hiding.

After initial suspicion and confrontation, the two orphans move toward each other, emotionally and physically, fall in love, and eventually conduct their own impromptu wedding ceremony.

When Leah hears of an empty train that travels “across the border,” she and Jacob plan their escape and a happy life together. But fate and a quarrel interfere, and the young lovers are separated, neither knowing what happened to the other.

What about “the pin” of the title?

Jaye says the inspiration for the story and title came from her grandmother, who throughout her long life had an obsessive fear of being buried alive.

As she aged, she made her son, Jaye’s father, promise that when she died, he would prick her hand with a pin, to make absolutely certain that she was actually dead before placing her body in a coffin.

This story, Jaye said, “always fascinated me, because it required an act of true love that was also an act of violence.”

Decades later, when Jacob, now the aged Shomer, lifts the sheet and looks at the body beneath, he realizes that lying before him is his youthful love, Leah. He remembers her fear of being buried alive, his promise to her, and he starts looking for a pin.

It would be an unpardonable spoiler to reveal the end of the story, but, to Jaye, the tale, and the movie, represents the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.

In an interview, she explained this assertion by noting that the chief protagonists, “caught in a terrible situation, are able to find beauty and love.”

Some viewers may find it difficult to accept this hopeful evaluation, or appreciate the extremely slow pace of the movie, marked by long, wordless pauses in semi-dark settings.

Jaye has a cogent explanation for using this technique. “The lives of people in hiding, as for soldiers in war, are marked by long periods of waiting,” between occasional bursts of extreme action, and, the director said, this was the mood she was trying to convey.

Her main problem in casting the movie was the lack of any young actors in Canada who knew Yiddish.

She solved the problem, quite effectively, by putting Grisha Pasternak, who plays Jacob, and Milda Gecaite, as Leah, through a six-month Yiddish course, and the results are quite satisfying.

Both actors arrived in Canada as children, Pasternak from Ukraine and Gecaite from Lithuania. Neither is Jewish, and both show considerable talent.

Veteran character actor David Fox, as the Shomer, has few lines but lets his expressive face do most of the talking.

“The Pin” will have a local benefit premiere on Oct. 24, 7 p.m. at the Laemmle Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles. Jaye and the cast will be on hand for a Q-and-A and to share refreshments with the audience. Tickets, at $25 each for this evening, can be ordered at Unsold seats will be available at the box office.

Starting Oct. 25, “The Pin” will continue at the Royal Theatre at regular prices, and at the Sundance Sunset Cinema in West Hollywood. On Nov. 1, the film will start screening at Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, Town Center in Encino and South Coast Village 3 in Santa Ana.

Can liberal Judaism survive?

As an old Yiddish saying has it, Jews are like other people, only more so. The Pew study of Judaism in America reminds us of this truth. Although startling to some, the rise of orthodoxy is to be expected.  In a world in which traditionalism/fundamentalism is growing in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other faiths, Jews do what others do and turn forcefully to more orthodox modes of faith and worship. This is not a phenomenon peculiar to Jews, but a worldwide wave.

As with all great social trends, it will change.  When and in what way, we cannot know. There are many things to be cheered about in the rise of orthodoxy and some that cause serious concern.  As a Conservative Rabbi however, my focus is on non-orthodox Judaism and its fate.

Over half of American Jews identify as Conservative and Reform (53 percent while Orthodoxy is 10 percent) but the trends are discouraging for Conservative and Reform Judaism.  Long term, can the more liberal branches survive?  The answer will lie in the quality of the core and whether it can expand.   Reform and Conservative Jews who go to Jewish day school and summer camps have very high rates of retention.  But the investment in Jewish life is America is costly in both time and money, and requires powerful motivation.  For many non-Orthodox Jews, it proves too much.

As a countercultural tradition in America, Judaism asks a great deal of its adherents.  Judaism is a behavior-centered tradition.  It is primarily enacted in a language strange to most American Jews (Hebrew) and requires an extensive education to understand its fundamentals. Americans are not distinguished by diligence in acquiring cultural literacy.  That which is continually diluted will eventually disappear.

‘Being an ethical person’ while central to Judaism, is not uniquely Jewish.  ’Fighting for social justice’ while central to Judaism, is not uniquely Jewish.  Wearing Tefillin, praying in Hebrew, Torah study, Kashrut, Jewish communal adherence and activities — these things (while not necessarily limited only to Jews) are activities that keep the core of the tradition alive. As Jews have left the latter and profess the former, adherence weakens.  It requires a massive, sustained and serious effort to move the etiolated Jews of good conscience to the passionate Jews of ritual involvement.

Extrapolations are dangerous; when Israel was founded people assumed orthodoxy would disappear and now it is thriving.  We cannot know from trends today what will happen tomorrow. Equally however, it is dangerous to ignore the clear and urgent warning signs.  An intensive Jewish education and embracing communities with genuine standards can both save and revivify liberal Judaism.  The question is whether an argument can be made sufficiently compelling for those who no longer accept “Because God wants you to.” The past decades offer little in the way of encouragement.   Liberal Jews have sustained powerful, wonderful institutions, built schools and camps and federations and boards and a giant infrastructure of social and communal aid.  What they — what we — have not yet done is prove to ourselves and our children that all this mandates a lifelong investment of time, energy, money and devotion.  I believe that we can and we must. At the risk of sounding quaint, God wants us to.

This story originally appeared on

Songs of hope at Auschwitz

When Judith Schneiderman was 14, she was taken from Hungary and sent to Auschwitz. It seemed that all hope was lost — that is, until she opened her mouth.

A naturally talented vocalist who was never formally trained, she began to sing, and it probably saved her life. The wife of an SS commander overheard her, then taught her German songs and how to entertain Nazi soldiers, who would give her food. 

Her story was self-published in the book “I Sang to Survive.” Co-authored by Jennifer Schulz, Schneiderman’s granddaughter, the German version was presented in May by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, located in Berlin. 

Schulz, an acting teacher in Los Angeles who is credited in the book by her maiden name, Jennifer Schneiderman, said that although there are many Holocaust books out there, her grandmother’s is unique because it’s “about hope and human kindness and that there is more good than evil in the world. Even though there are a lot of terrible things in the book, it’s a small aspect of what the story is about. It’s a love story more than anything else.”

Instead of placing emphasis on the tragedies that befell Schneiderman — who turns 85 this month and now lives in Columbus, Ohio — the book aims to be uplifting. It takes a look at her life before the war, her time in America, her family and her 66-year romance with Paul, a fellow survivor she met at a displaced persons camp who died earlier this year. They settled in New Jersey and had four children together.

Schulz said that the theme of “I Sang to Survive” is how “we really can survive anything if we believe in our hearts that there is goodness in the world.”

In her book, Schneiderman wrote that her time in the camp taught her about human nature and changed her perspective forever. 

“During the Holocaust, I learned the most important lesson of my life: that nothing is purely good or evil, and that both reside in the best and worst of us and our intentions.”

The book begins in Rachov (part of Czechoslovakia at the time), where Schneiderman was born in 1928. She was one of eight children in a very religious family. They lived in the back of the grocery store that they owned on the main street of their town. However, Rachov was economically depressed and, despite her vocal talents, she was never able to afford lessons.

“We were not poor, but we didn’t have enough money for such luxuries,” she said via a phone interview. “My father had a beautiful voice, and that’s where I got it. But I was the star in the house.” 

One of her daughters, Helene, was more fortunate in taking the next step in musical training. When she turned 18, Helene Schneiderman started taking voice lessons at Westminster Choir College in New Jersey. There, she excelled, and eventually got into the renowned Stuttgart State Opera in Germany. When the mezzo-soprano told her parents, however, both had mixed feelings, Schneiderman said. 

“We decided for her future that she would go,” she said. “It was a little difficult visiting the first time [in Germany], but the second visit was much easier. We supported her 100 percent. She is very special girl not only as a singer, but she’s an unusual human being.”

Although Helene Schneiderman also had her hesitations about going to Germany, she knew it was the best decision for her future. 

“There is a very good system for young opera singers, where you get paid by the month and you perform often, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to be in one place for years at a time,” she said. “My parents struggled with the thought of my coming over, but they love me more than they could hate anyone, and so things went smoothly.”

Recently, Helene Schneiderman, who has performed in Austria, France and Italy, put out a CD of Yiddish songs, “Makh Tsu Di Eygelekh” (“Close Your Little Eyes”). It includes four tracks of her parents singing together.

“I always enjoyed singing Yiddish songs because my mother taught them to me as a child,” Helene Schneiderman said. “The lullabies were especially beautiful.”

Although Judith Schneiderman never got the chance to sing professionally, to this day, she still does it for fun, especially with her family. Her favorite tunes are, of course, in Yiddish. 

“Sometimes when I’m alone and I’m in a fairly good mood, I feel like singing them in my room,” she said. “My daughter Helene and I sing duets. I still have a voice. I’m very surprised at my age, 85, I’m not wobbly, not yet.”

Lessons in Vilnius

Robin Solomon stood in the Ponary Forest in Lithuania, surrounded by fellow educators who wore white and sang Yiddish songs, accompanied by a violinist.

It was a captivating and stunning experience this summer, a stark contrast to the fact that Nazis viciously executed tens of thousands of Jews, Poles and Russians there during World War II.  

The forest is a fitting metaphor for the Jews of Lithuania and the surrounding Baltic states today. Despite the pain and suffering people there have gone through, they’ve flourished into a vibrant and growing community, said Solomon, a teacher at Adat Ari El Day School in Valley Village. 

“Jewish life exists there. People survived, and now the Baltic state has a desire for Jewish life and an attachment to the history and Israel. We saw evidence of this.” 

Solomon learned about this as part of “From Memory to Identity: Reclaiming Jewish History in Vilnius,” a program that took her and 47 other teachers from Los Angeles and Tel Aviv to Lithuania and Latvia from July 2 to 9. 

Participants learned about what the area was like before World War II and took a walking tour of the ghettos, visited the elderly and helped to restore a Jewish cemetery. They also went to the Ponary Memorial and Forest, traveled to a Jewish children’s summer camp and school, and toured the Latvian capital of Riga. 

The trip was part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ school twinning program, an initiative that connects teachers and students in Tel Aviv with those in Los Angeles. It has been active for 12 years and sends middle- and high-schoolers from one country to the other, according to the Federation’s Web site. There are 19 schools from each country that participate. 

Two years ago, Shalom Aleichem, a school in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, joined the initiative. It led to a three-way partnership with Kehillat Israel in Los Angeles and a school in Tel Aviv. In 2013, Kehillat Israel left the program, and Stephen S. Wise Temple took its place. 

The three-way partnership is what led Federation officials to take educators from throughout the broader program to the Baltics as part of the Twinning Seminar’s annual joint teachers’ seminar trip, according to Ahuva Ron, Federation’s senior education director. 

Ron said that one goal is for teachers to focus on the revival of that particular Jewish community with their students, who may deepen their Jewish identity through it.

Andrew Cushnir, executive vice president and chief program officer at Federation, added, “We hope that as a result of the experience, the educators have a fresh eye view of the way Judaism is flourishing and facing challenges in the rest of the world.”

The L.A. Federation has been financially supporting the Jewish communities in the Baltics region for years, and, according to Cushnir, it has encouraged the exchange of students in summer camps, found families in Los Angeles to sponsor children and expanded medical care at Jewish community centers.

Shari Davis, Los Angeles representative from the twinning program, and Tel Aviv director Lior Sibony led the eight-day seminar. The Joint Distribution Committee, a worldwide Jewish humanitarian organization, played a big part in putting together the trip, Ron said. 

Rabbi Bruce Raff, head of the religious school at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said he had anticipated a completely different view of Jewish life in the Baltics than what he actually saw. 

“While I went on the trip expecting to see the skeletal remains of Lithuanian Jewry and what was left of the Holocaust, what I saw was a group of Jews who are striving to live Jewish lives there,” he said. “Latvia was very contemporary and modern. They weren’t living in the past, but trying to create a future.”

One of the most poignant aspects of the trip, Raff said, was when the group ventured to a camp called Olameinu, which hosts summer sessions for Jewish children (ages 7 to 12) and teenagers (ages 12 to 18) from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The group participated in the younger children’s session. 

“If you’d change the language … to English, it was very much an American summer camp,” Raff said. “It was full of life, Jewish learning, and Israeli song and dance.”

Solomon said, “To hear the children singing Hebrew and chanting a mantra, ‘I am Jewish and I know it,’ you could close your eyes and think you’re in Ojai, Calif., at Camp Ramah. It was really unbelievable.”

Participant Andrea Gardenhour, Center for Youth Engagement director at Stephen S. Wise, wrote in an e-mail that at Olameinu, the counselors “were so inspirational and dedicated, it filled me with a beautiful sense of Jewish hope for the future of the Baltics.”

The rebuilding of Jewish life in these countries, which was thriving before the war, is occurring against all odds, according to those on the trip. 

Prior to World War II, there were more than 100 synagogues in Vilnius and 200,000 Jews, accounting for 45 percent of the city’s population, Ron said. Ninety percent of them were murdered in the Holocaust. 

Despite this, Raff said, the community there now, which is composed of 3,500 Jews, is determined to find itself. 

“They say, ‘We are going to live meaningful Jewish lives here in Lithuania.’ I thought it was amazing.”

Each educator brought back his or her own lessons from the visit. When school begins again this fall, Solomon is going to share the details of her trip with her students and talk about Jewish memories. Gardenhour said that because her school is involved with Shalom Aleichem, she hopes to raise funds to send children to Olameinu and perhaps “send our students over to work in the camp as counselors.” 

And that’s just the beginning. Roles will be reversed later this year when, from Nov. 21 to Dec. 2, students from Tel Aviv and Vilnius come to Los Angeles. They will go to the Center for Youth Engagement, stay with local families, learn about the Los Angeles community and visit the Museum of Tolerance and Federation. Cushnir stated that his overall vision is to incorporate the Baltic states from here on out in the twinning program. 

Raff said that the whole experience proved once again that Jews, no matter where they are located, have to look out for one another. 

“The Los Angeles community recognizes their responsibility to world Jewry,” he said. “To say that we care about Jews but only in Los Angeles is not really indicative of what we want to do or be as a Jewish community. We need to recognize the needs of Jewish kids all over the world. Each Jew is responsible for one another in the world. It gave us a firsthand look into that.”

Mayor Garcetti calls on fellow Jews to help

Mayor Eric Garcetti said his close ties to the Jewish community will not only enable him to respond better to communal concerns, but also spur him to draw on the community for its help in addressing some of the city’s pressing needs.

The new mayor spoke to about 150 invited guests at an Aug.4 reception in his honor, sponsored by the Jewish Federation.  Representatives of numerous synagogues and Jewish institutions, as well as Israel Consul General David Siegel, greeted the mayor at the sprawling Brentwood estate of Bill and Cece Feiler.

In her opening benediction, Rabbi Sharon Brous of the IKAR congregation, which Garcetti attends, urged Garcetti to continue his focus on the poor and underserved in the city.

“I want to bless you with urgency. We are here to help you, and to utz you,” Brous said, using the Yiddish word for “push.”

Garcetti opened his remarks with a humorous take on his place in L.A. Jewish history.

“I’m not the first Jewish mayor of this city,” he said.  “There was a guy named Bernard Cohn in the 1800s, who was appointed mayor and promptly died.  So I’ve already outlasted him.  I am the longest serving, elected Jewish mayor in L.A. history.”

Garcetti’s mother, Suky Roth, is the daughter of Harry Roth, a successful clothing merchant.  His father Gil Garcetti’s family is of Italian, Mexican-Catholic background. 

The rebirth of the original Sinai Temple in Pico-Union as a multi-faith community center, and the Jewish community’s revival of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights are emblematic of the way he—and the Jewish community—can use history to shape the future,  Garcetti said.  He said his maternal grandparents used to pray at Breed Street Shul, while his Latino paternal grandparents lived in the neighborhood.

“It’s our roots that somehow guide our future,” the mayor said.  “When we reconnect with where we come from we become not only more fully realized in terms of who we are as human beings, but as Jews as well,” Garcetti said.

Garcetti urged the Jewish community to help him address all of L.A.’s issues. “How many of you, if I just fixed traffic on Sunset, dayenu?” Garcetti said, using the Hebrew expression for “that would be enough.”

The crowd laughed—and many raised their hands.  But Garcetti continued to speak about a broader agenda.

“We’re the Jewish mayor,” said Garcetti, “what sort of opportunity do we have first for folks to come and let me know what we need as a community, but secondly for me as a mayor to say this is what I need from the community, on immigration, poverty, literacy, schools, on traffic.  We can lead the way.”

Cuba: Land of my Bubbe

I was alone in a small town in central Cuba, and I had lost the only person I knew. 

The town was Santo Domingo, and it had taken a full morning of driving to get there. It’s a sleepy, slow-moving place, where American cars from the 1950s share the road with horse-drawn carts — and many of those carts act as taxis. Produce vendors wheel their fruits and vegetables down the street while wearing necklaces of garlic slung around their necks, and locals on bicycles ride with live chickens casually perched on their laps. The town has a couple of street-front pizza shops, as well as several makeshift stores — folding tables set up in front of houses that sell an odd assortment of faucets, spoons, thread and record albums. On a Friday this past March, I was there, too, wandering down Independence Street.

My driver, Yudelbi, had said he’d wait for me across from the town plaza, but when I got there, he was nowhere to be found. I didn’t have a working phone, nor did I know Yudelbi’s phone number.

I felt strangely calm. I was alone, yes, and I was isolated and incommunicado in a country completely foreign to my New York-Los Angeles existence. But it was hard to feel completely lost in the face of a major find. I knew exactly where I was: the street where my grandmother and great-uncle grew up. 

In the early decades of the 20th century, my family, like many other Ashkenazi Jews, fled the old country and its onslaught of pogroms in search of a better life. My paternal grandmother, Fay, and her brother, my great-uncle Joe, were born in a shtetl near Chernobyl, and their father, my great-grandfather, died during a pogrom. They dreamed of moving to the United States, but newly imposed immigration limits made that impossible. They applied for entry to various other countries — South Africa, Canada, China — and were summarily denied entry permits. Finally, they heard of a little island near the United States that had an open-door immigration policy. In 1921, knowing no more about the country than its location and the all-important fact that its government would not turn them away, my family set sail for Cuba.

Cuba had become an increasingly popular destination — or stopping-off point — for Eastern European Jews fleeing persecution. Few of these Jews planned to settle in Cuba permanently — a number had been told that after a year of living in Cuba they would be able to qualify more easily for entry to the United States. As anthropologist Ruth Behar has recounted, many Jews began referring to Cuba as Akhsanie Kuba in Yiddish: Hotel Cuba.

But this nickname had to be reconsidered when, in the early 1920s, the United States further restricted immigration, and a year residing in Cuba was no longer enough to earn entry. Thousands of Jews had their hopes dashed and were forced to extend their reservations at Hotel Cuba indefinitely and turn what they had thought of as a hotel into a home — or something like it. 

My grandmother and great-uncle grew up in Cuba, first in Havana and then in Santo Domingo. When they were teenagers, the family managed to finagle tickets on a cruise ship that traveled between New York and Havana. When the ship docked for its weekly eight-hour stopover in New York, they slipped off the boat and never returned. They made it to the United States in the fall of 1930, a decade later than anticipated.

Left: The author’s grandmother, Fay Katz (later Kaplan), bottom right, with family and friends in Cuba, circa 1925.
Right: The author’s great-uncle, Joe Katz, on his bar mitzvah day.

I did not know almost any of this until recently. Until last summer, all I knew was that my family on my father’s side was from the shtetl in the old country — the Ashkenazic equivalent of saying that you come from planet Earth. I did know that the family had traveled to the United States via Cuba, but I had no concept of how long they were there or where they lived or what the experience was like.

I didn’t see my relatives often when I was growing up — ours was the branch of the family tree that had moved farthest away, across the country to Los Angeles. In spite of — or perhaps because of — this, I’ve long been curious about my family history. It has figured into my literary imagination as a fiction writer, as well as, increasingly, into my real-life activities.

Although I longed to know more about my family history, I didn’t quite believe or realize that I could. Maybe that’s why I instinctively found myself writing fiction about the subject — I didn’t think that I could obtain facts. It all felt sort of mythical to me: the lost world of the shtetl, the old country and Cuba — enigmatic, isolated and vague.

Then, last summer, shortly after I graduated from college, I paid a visit to my great-uncle Joe, 96, and his wife, my great-aunt Ceil, 91, in Providence, R.I. I had not seen them in years, and this was my first time visiting on my own, as a “grownup.” I regretted that I had not had the opportunities to spend more time with them in previous years, but I was grateful to have the chance to rectify that and to forge my own direct bonds of connection.

I had called Uncle Joe a year earlier from Ukraine, where I was teaching English to Jewish elementary school students. Standing outside a synagogue with my Kyivstar rental cell phone pressed to my ear, I told Uncle Joe I was in the old country, and I was hoping to visit the shtetl where he and Grandma Fay were born, except first I was wondering if he might be able to tell me what region of the country it was in. Obtaining the name of the shtetl felt like a profound triumph.

When I visited Uncle Joe and Aunt Ceil in Providence the next summer, I brought with me photos of the shtetl and a deep hunger for information of any sort. What I came away with that day exceeded my wildest hopes and dreams. Uncle Joe shared with me the four spiral-bound notebooks that contained his memoirs-in-progress. He told me he had been working on them for a long time but was having trouble finishing and pulling the stories together. I eagerly offered to provide any help I could. I left Joe and Ceil’s apartment that day clutching the four spiral-bound notebooks protectively as if they were a treasure map. 

I eagerly immersed myself in my great-uncle’s past, overwhelmed by the wealth of information. I set to work on transcribing his vignettes, and Uncle Joe and I talked frequently during the next few weeks: I would call as I read, and we would discuss; I would ask questions, and he would expand on and clarify certain stories.

Then, barely a month after my visit, Uncle Joe passed away. The timing was painful. I was grateful to have had the chance to reconnect with him but devastated by the sudden loss. 

And that is why, this spring, I traveled to Cuba, hoping to see the streets where Uncle Joe and my grandmother lived, the places they learned, played and prayed, and the country of their childhood — or what it had become.

A horse-drawn carriage remains common on Calle Independencia (Independence Street) at the center of Santo Domingo, the small village where the author’s grandmother and great-uncle grew up. Photo by Isabel Kaplan

Like my family, I started my journey through Cuba in Havana. With my uncle’s memoirs and a Lonely Planet city map to guide me, I set off through the bright, grimy, narrow and crumbling streets of Central Havana toward the harbor and the city’s most historic section, Habana Vieja.

When my family first arrived in Havana, they rented a single room for the seven of them on the third floor of a building on Calle Oficios, just a few blocks from Havana Bay Harbor.

In his memoirs, my uncle recalled, “The house where we lived must have been a beautiful palace in its day. The walls of the building were about 3 feet in thickness. The staircases and floors were marble and every room had a huge balcony. … From the flat roof we could watch the beautiful cruise ships come in from overseas. Here on the roof I spent countless hours in pleasant reveries.” He continued, “I understand that in later years, the neighborhood became a depressing slum area, but for me, it still holds wonderful memories.”

I walked down Calle Oficios a number of times during my week in Havana, each time trying to catch a glimpse of a lost time, a lost place and a lost person. 

Today the neighborhood is a striking study in contrasts. In 1982, Habana Vieja was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the city has since embarked on an ambitious project to restore the crumbling and mildewed colonial mansions, repave the narrow cobblestone streets, refresh and invigorate the public squares and restore the historic majesty of the city.

Most of this restoration has centered on buildings and areas with tourist potential, and, unfortunately, Cubans themselves have reaped few benefits of the money being poured into these projects. Dilapidated buildings that have been left to languish, where impoverished Cubans continue to struggle, surround the restored pockets of Habana Vieja. Even the blocks that have been restored are still works in progress. Fresh, brightly painted renovated building facades strike a sharp contrast with mountains of bricks and dusty, newly dug-up streets.

When they first arrived in Cuba, my family relied upon financial support from relatives who had already managed to reach the elusive United States. But these installments of cash were not enough to support a family of seven — and certainly not for an indefinite period of time. My step-great-grandfather could not find work in Havana, so he departed for the interior of the island in search of possible business opportunities. He ultimately set up a dry goods store in the little town of Santo Domingo.

I saved my pilgrimage to Santo Domingo for the end of my two weeks in Cuba — partly because it felt like something to build up to, something to anticipate and savor, and partly because I had no idea how to get to Santo Domingo.

Uncle Joe wrote that Santo Domingo was located on the Carretera Central, the country’s main thoroughfare, in the province of Santa Clara, and I was pleased to find its name as a dot on the country’s map, but nobody I spoke to in Cuba had ever been to Santo Domingo or knew what it was like today. I ended up traveling farther east first, taking a six-hour bus ride from Havana to the city of Trinidad, on the southern coast. From there, the owner of the casa particular — private house — where I was staying helped me hire a driver to take me on a daytrip to Santo Domingo.

The night before I visited Santo Domingo, before I went to sleep, I reread Uncle Joe’s reminiscences about the town and his time there: 

“The dry goods store was on Calle Independencia number 52, next to the post office. The store was on the main street, which later became part of the Carretera Central. … Our living quarters were behind the store. There were several rooms we used as bedrooms. The house was roofed by red tiles. These were used to collect rainwater in barrels. We had to buy drinking water from a campesino who called every few days driving a cart and little tank pulled by a donkey. 

“We were the only Jews in Santo Domingo. The natives had never met many strangers. Cuba had sympathized with Germany in World War I because Germany was a good customer for their sugar and also because of antipathy toward the Big Bully to the north — the United States. And so when we came to live in town, everybody assumed we were from ‘Alemania’ — Germany. We knew that Catholics had little love for Jews, and we did not try to enlighten them. In fact, as children we helped them sing a little Spanish ditty — ‘Aleman, prepara tu cañón’ (German, prepare your cannon).

“Here in Santo Domingo, we children went to elementary school like the other Cubans. For some reason, I was considered a superior student and was always selected to give patriotic orations whenever there was a holiday or school event. We were liked by everybody and made many friends. …

“Near the center of town, there was a square plaza with trees and benches on each border. In the center of the plaza was a gazebo with a stage. Every Sunday evening, local musicians played as people walked round and round. The concert was delightful. These Sunday nights were the highlight of my week.

“Sometime during our stay in Santo Domingo, the leader of the music band approached me and asked if I could sing for him the German national anthem, which he wanted to play next week. All I knew were a few bars of ‘Hatikvah,’ which I hummed for him. Several weeks later he told me that he was surprised at me for not knowing the German national anthem which he had found somewhere. Every Cuban knew the Cuban national anthem, and he could not understand why a German kid did not know the anthem of his country. Could it be because I was not a real Aleman???”

Partially renovated, Calle Oficios in Habana Vieja is the street where the author’s family lived when they first moved from the Soviet Union to Cuba in 1921. Photo by Isabel Kaplan

I tried not to have too many expectations for Santo Domingo. The fact that it existed and I was going to be able to visit it was enough. I couldn’t help but hope that I might be able to track down some of the sites of Uncle Joe’s memories, but I told myself not to expect much. Uncle Joe had been writing about the 1920s, and here I was, almost a century later. There was no way of knowing what had or had not been preserved. 

My driver, Yudelbi, picked me up early in the morning in his car — small, red, Russian and years older than me — and we set off along the Carretera Central. The car had no seatbelts, and a falling mango had caused an impressive web of cracks in the windshield.

The journey began with an hour of driving over the live crabs that perpetually cover the highway leading out of Trinidad. It was good we left in the morning, Yudelbi told me, because the number of crabs — and, in turn, the risk of major tire damage — increases throughout the day. We drove slowly, and I tried not to dwell on the crunching sounds coming from beneath the tires.

We made it to Santo Domingo three hours later, our arrival greeted by a large wire sign on the side of the road that read SANTO DOMINGO: SIEMPRE EN 26, a reference to the 26th of July Movement, which marked the start of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s revolutionary movement to overthrow the Batista government. 

The main street is still called Independencia — although the implications of the name have shifted to suit the times: In my Uncle Joe’s years there, it referred to Cuba’s independence from Spain. Today, like nearly everything else in the country, it is yet another reminder of the communist revolution. 

I walked down Calle Independencia and found No. 52, which is still the site of a general store today, although one that has clearly been remodeled since Uncle Joe’s time. The building is new, and there are spray-painted slogans on the windows: Trabajamos para usted! one reads: We work for you. Another: 54 razones para celebrar, in reference to the 54th anniversary of the revolution. I found the post office, a chess club, a little bookstore, a cathedral and the central town plaza, with its large pathways and trees and dark green benches angled perfectly for people watching.

And along the way, I lost Yudelbi, for the first time that day. As I waited for him, hoping and assuming that he would return, I sat on one of the benches lining the walkway in the plaza and tried to imagine my great-uncle sitting there on Sunday nights.

A Cuban man strolling through the plaza stopped to chat with me. He sat down next to me on the bench. “De que país?” he asked me. What country are you from? And then, before I had a chance to respond, he ventured a guess: “Alemania?”

I smiled. For a moment, for the sake of symmetry, I was tempted to say yes.

My family concealed their Judaism in Santo Domingo out of fear of persecution. Uncle Joe would likely have been shocked — as I was — to hear that there is no anti-Semitism in Cuba. 

It was a difficult idea to wrap my head around. One of the most enduring lessons I learned from years of Hebrew school is that for as long as there have been Jews and non-Jews, there has been anti-Semitism. 

And here I was, in a country famous for its oppressive restrictions on its citizens.

So how could there be no anti-Semitism in Cuba?

Maybe part of it is that, for decades after Castro took power, all religions were considered enemies of the state, and there was no domination by one religious group. 

It’s not that there was no freedom of religion, exactly. You were free to be a Jew or, for example, a Catholic. But if you were, and if you publicly identified as such, then you could not be a member of the Communist Party. And if you were not a member of the Communist Party, you were free to accept the consequences of that.

Needless to say, Cuba was left with few Jews.

Ninety-five percent of Cuba’s Jewish community fled after Castro took power in 1959, and religious life of all stripes languished during the following decades. But then, in the early 1990s, the government removed its religious restrictions, and public religious practices slowly and cautiously returned. Jewish charities stepped in, sending support, material goods and missions to help revive and rebuild the Jewish community in Cuba. Today, there are somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 Jews on the island, most of them concentrated in Havana. Havana has three synagogues: El Patronato, El Centro Sefardi and Adath Israel. There is a Sunday school, youth groups, a senior citizens center, a pharmacy well-stocked entirely with donated medicines at El Patronato, an exhibit on the Holocaust as well as the history of Cuban Jewry at El Centro Sefardi, and even a mikveh at Adath Israel, the one Orthodox synagogue. There is, however, no permanent rabbi — and this is no small issue. The Cuban Jews must wait for visits paid by foreign rabbis on Jewish missions to have religious ceremonies performed.

But there is energy, and there is hope, and there are donations, and there is, I have been told, no anti-Semitism.

Maybe part of it is that, for Cubans, the Jewish narrative is a familiar, sympathetic one: They identify with the underdog story of oppression and perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. 

Many Cubans, as well as Cuban exiles, think of and refer to themselves as los judios del caribe: the Jews of the Caribbean. 

Even Fidel Castro has a soft spot for the Jews. He has visited El Patronato multiple times, and in 2010, he told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, “I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews. … The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours.” 

Rafael Campo, a Cuban-American, wrote a poem titled “The Jews of the Caribbean,” which opens:

“My people, of a solitary star, 
who wander, searching for a home someplace …”

I went to Cuba not in search of a home, but in search of a narrative. In search of an understanding of my uncle, my family and, in turn, myself and my own identity, during a period of major geographic, professional and personal transitions.

Today, I sit at my desk in my new apartment in New York, almost exactly a year after my visit with Uncle Joe, and I look up at a painting I brought back from Cuba and have hung above my desk. The painting is of a wooden door, and there are two flags on it: on top, the Cuban flag, and on the bottom, the Israeli flag. In between the flags, a single word is printed on a sheet of paper, painted to look like it has been affixed to the door with masking tape: SHALOM.

I think of Campo’s poem, and his urging, “My people, save the grains of golden sand / from beaches where your footprints were erased, / save postcards, recipes, the ranch laid waste, / save even what your son can’t understand …”

And I think of Joan Didion, who famously wrote, “We tell stories in order to live. … We interpret what we see, select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

The working title of my great-uncle’s memoirs is “The Nine Lives of Katz.” 

I’ve found myself trying to squeeze out at least nine more. Uncle Joe may no longer be alive, but his story lives on and will continue to guide me — as I wander, as I tell stories, and as I search for and put down roots of my own.

The Sinagoga Bet Shalom (aka El Patronato) in Havana, is the largest synagogue in Cuba. Photo by Isabel Kaplan

Age just a number at Maccabiah Games

Being an alter-kacker — Yiddish for someone who’s an “old fart” — is relative. 

Many of the species, stereotypically, while away summer days at the beach cabana, sporting white shorts and knee-high dark-checkered socks, playing cards with the boys and grumbling about surgeries or high blood pressure medication.

Their opposites flash some speed on the tennis court, basketball court or in the swimming pool, such as the athletes competing in the 19th Maccabiah Games, which held its opening ceremonies here in Jerusalem on July 18.

The Maccabiah, like most athletic events, trends young. The nearly 1,200-member American delegation to what is sometimes called the “Jewish Olympics” includes only about 270 competing in the masters division, which is for those over age 35. In that group are about 20 Los Angeles-area athletes at least 50 years old competing in basketball, half-marathon, soccer, softball, squash, swimming, table tennis and tennis. 

A few other tennis and golf players are entered in the grand masters division for those over 65, while Jon Levin, 55, of Huntington Beach even earned a spot on the open golf team, where he is more than double the age of all but one teammate. The oldest L.A. competitor listed on the U.S. roster is a 78-year-old tennis player.

Like their younger cohort, the masters and grand masters athletes faced tough tryouts to earn roster sports, and, once selected, trained seriously. There were aches and pains and, in some cases, even special training with Israel in mind.

Because of their station in life, masters participants are required by Maccabi USA, the Philadelphia-based national federation, to subsidize the expenses of coaches and athletes throughout the American delegation. Aside from their own travel and lodging expenses and Maccabiah registration fees, each masters athlete pays $6,000 to Maccabi USA to cover such subsidies, said the federation’s chairman, Bob Spivak.

“The masters athlete is a high level of sportsman, but we need their financial help to make it operative,” Spivak said.

Some of the L.A. athletes already have strong ties to Israel. 

One — Steven Davis, a lawyer from Beverly Hills — bought a second home in north Tel Aviv, a product of his wife Julie Shuer’s infectious love for the country that rubbed off on him. The family’s bond with the Holy Land goes deeper, with son Benji and daughter Gaby having made aliyah; the latter recently completed her military service.

Davis, 60, a member of his University High School and Dartmouth College tennis teams, tried out for the Maccabiah at his wife’s urging. After being selected, Davis adopted a daily training routine that included riding an exercise bike and doing yoga. He also played tennis three to five times a week. When he strained his back in early June, Davis got massage therapy three times a week and pronounced himself good to go.

Davis said his approach heading into the Maccabiah had been simple: “trying not to get injured.”

“In this age group, if you’re not injured, you’re ahead of the game,” he said.

Steven Davis, a lawyer from Beverly Hills, said his approach has been “trying not to get injured.” Photo courtesy of Julie Shure

While Davis already had a foothold in Israel, it’s Gary Berner’s first visit here. Berner, a financial adviser from Oak Park, heard about the Maccabiah from a colleague, who happened to be organizing the tennis tryouts.

Because his wife’s and children’s schedules would prevent their attending the Games, Berner was inclined to wait until the next Maccabiah Games in 2017 — but his physical therapist set him straight.

“He really advocated that I go,” said Berner, 56. “He said, ‘You could wait, but [in the meantime] you could blow out your knee or you could die.’ ”

Berner hired a trainer early this year to design workouts. They included what Berner complained were “the most awful exercises,” including squats, skipping laterally with his hands behind him, jumping onto tables and stretching resistance bands. In the process, Berner dropped 20 pounds and lowered his cholesterol count 30 points without meaning to.

A propitious encounter also led Jonathan McHugh to the Maccabiah. Last September, McHugh ran into a friend, who told him that tennis tryouts would be held the next day. McHugh, 51, didn’t make the cut in the 50-54 age bracket but was offered a spot in the more challenging 45-49 grouping. He accepted.

In the 10 months since, McHugh, a Santa Monica film producer, did a great deal of aerobic cross-training and lost 15 pounds. He also scheduled singles and doubles matches in the midday sun to prepare for the intense Israeli summer, joined a United States Tennis Association league and played several tournaments.

Meanwhile, West Los Angeles resident Peter Lowy, 54, is in Israel competing in the Maccabiah, too — just not for the United States. He’s playing basketball for his native Australia. 

Lowy, co-chief executive officer of Westfield Group and chairman of TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of the Jewish Journal, previously competed for Australia in the 1997 Games, for the masters soccer team. 

His first game this year, on July 22, was — appropriately enough — against the United States. Australia lost, but, Lowy said, the game was “fun and really competitive,” made better by his facing a hometown player, Richard Farber, 52, of Pacific Palisades.  

Another local connection is the coach Lowy recruited for the Australian team — ex-Lakers guard Norm Nixon, with whom he’d played plenty of pickup ball in preparation for the Maccabiah.

“They come here to compete and have fun,” Nixon said of his players, although he could have been speaking of Maccabiah athletes — young and not-so-young — in general. “Guys who might not have made the Olympics have an opportunity to compete against guys from all over the world.”

A poem by Emily Kagan Trenchard

My Bubbie mumbles a Yiddish invective every time I mention

getting some new item for the baby not yet born:

the crib, a blanket, a book case.

I can’t argue her out of the world she knows.

There is no word in Yiddish for the small

whooshing sound of a heartbeat on a sonogram.

And her logic is simple:

A child isn’t a child until it has proved itself in blood and strength.

I think of the noise my heart will make if I regret cutting the tags

off the tiny green jumper,  or washing the new sheets.

How my Bubbie will hear that wail all the way from Brooklyn

and return it in kind. How ashamed I would be

to hand this woman anything other than fat, warm, gurgling life.

She feels better when I tell her

everything is still in its box.

Emily Kagan Trenchard holds a master’s in science writing from MIT. She was the recipient of an honorable mention in Rattle’s 2009 Poetry Prize, and received a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2011. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies.

On a roll with CicLAvia

In late April, some 200,000 people on foot and on cycles — most with two wheels, some with three or four and even one jerry-rigged to be two stories high — swarmed Venice Boulevard, clogging the roadway from downtown Los Angeles to the beach. They came from throughout the city, and they shared the road with grace, even under worse-than-rush-hour conditions. In its seventh incarnation, CicLAvia has truly come of age, its popularity reaching a level that defied even the highest of expectations.  

And so, it will happen again this Sunday, June 23, when the next CicLAvia takes place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., on a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard closed to cars to allow for pedestrians and cyclists to appreciate the shops, vendors and scenery of Los Angeles. Dubbed “Iconic Wilshire Boulevard,” the route will run from One Wilshire, at Wilshire and Grand Avenue downtown, to Fairfax, passing through Koreatown and MacArthur Park. Visitors interested in the history of the boulevard as they pass by can use a guide prepared by Catherine Gudis, an associate history professor at UC Riverside, which be available for free at the various “hubs” along the route. They can also download free podcasts by Edward Lifson, a senior lecturer at the USC School of Architecture, from Pedestrian areas at the beginning and end of the route will offer food trucks and activities sponsored by community partners and museums.

CicLAvia is modeled after a similar festival, Ciclovia, in Bogota, Colombia; both are intended to address the problems of traffic congestion and pollution that make it difficult for citizens to fully enjoy their home cities. In the spirit of promoting public space, participation in CicLAvia is free.

At least 100,000 people are expected to attend this weekend’s event, and Aaron Paley, executive director of CicLAvia, says he no longer worries about attracting a minimum number of people to the event, as it is the “largest event of its kind in terms of numbers in the U.S. and Canada.” He did not realize upon starting the project just how great the demand would be. CicLAvia’s success has allowed him to schedule two just two months apart, and he currently is working to make CicLAvia a monthly event, with new locations for in such places as Claremont, West Los Angeles, and the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.

“Iconic Wilshire Boulevard” will cost $400,000 to $500,000. According to its Web site,, the nonprofit organization CicLAvia provides 40 percent of the resources for the event through donations from individuals, grants and corporate sponsorships. The city covers the rest of the cost, including such services as police, fire, traffic regulation and sanitation. 

Paley has devoted much of his life to creating and utilizing public space. He is the founder of Yiddishkayt, an organization that attempts to infuse modern life in Los Angeles with Yiddish culture, both to enrich Jewish life in L.A. and to keep Yiddish alive outside of academia. He is also the president of Community Arts Resources, which uses marketing expertise, a database and other outreach methods to assist cultural and arts organizations in attracting a greater number of people to events and festivals. 

“For me … what they have in common is how we as people deal with this city, and how we as Angelenos treat each other and think about each other. Those values are all based on how I was raised as a secular, left-wing, Yiddish-ist Jew in L.A.,” Paley said. “I was raised with a very strong sense of social engagement and a very strong sense that it is important to understand ourselves as Jews within the context of the society we live in.”

This time, he is especially excited for people to experience “the absolute beauty” of Wilshire Boulevard, which he calls “the spine of the city.” And he points to the Jewish architecture along the route, including the iconic Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the Dunes Inn, the latter designed by Jewish architect Sam Reisbord. 

“A great Jewish outing in Los Angeles is to enjoy your city and your neighbors and to fall in love with this city all over again,” Paley said.

For more information on the upcoming CicLAvia, visit

Hertzberg to run for valley district senate seat

Like a veteran warhorse galloping back into the fray, Robert M. (Bob) Hertzberg has announced he is running for a State Senate seat in a district encompassing most of the San Fernando Valley.

One of the more colorful California politicians and a skilled coalition builder, Hertzberg, 58, has served twice as Assembly speaker, the second-most influential political office in the state. Moreover, he was elected both times by the unanimous vote of the usually fractious chamber.

Besides running the Assembly, he printed out a 36-page dictionary to explain the use of such Yiddish words as oy vay, farblondjet, haimish and loch in kop to his Anglo, Latino and African-American colleagues.

Hertzberg retired as speaker in 2002, but three years later made a run for Los Angeles mayor. He lost to Antonio Villaraigosa, his longtime friend, with whom she shared an apartment when both were serving in Sacramento.

In a phone interview, Hertzberg projected an old-fashioned campaign for the Senate seat, going door-to-door and “talking to as many folks as I can possibly meet.” That’ll be quite a job in a district of almost 1 million residents, equivalent to the 10th-largest city in the United States.

During the decade he has been out of office, Hertzberg noted, he has been engaged in public policy issues, with emphasis on green energy projects, as a private but peripatetic citizen, visiting some 100 countries. He found that foreign leaders still look at California as the Golden State, where innovation prospers and things get done.

Twice divorced, Hertzberg also let it be known that he is now a “free agent,” should any Jewish ladies be interested.

In his new political career, Hertzberg will be vying for the 20th District seat, now held by Alex Padilla, who will be running for California secretary of state in 2014 and is supporting Hertzberg as his successor. (In the immediate future, it was announced on Tuesday that he will also co-chair City Attorney-elect Mike Feuer’s transition team.)

In his days in the Assembly, Hertzberg was known as a nonstop hugger, to the point that Villaraigosa generally referred to him as “Bobby Hugsberg.” Asked whether he was still in form for this kind of exercise, Hertzberg responded, “I am worse than ever. Now I hug three people at the same time.”

Over the past 25 years, the number of Jewish officeholders on the local and state levels has declined, a trend accelerated by the retirement of Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

However, with the election of Eric Garcetti as mayor of Los Angeles, and his own run and anticipated election, Hertzberg pledges, “We will return.”

How do you spell knaidel?

An Indian-American boy won a national spelling contest after correctly spelling a Yiddish-derived word.

Arvind Mahankali, 13, of Bayside Hills, N.Y., won the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday by spelling the word “knaidel,” a traditional Jewish dumpling. Mahankali beat out ten other finalists in the competition, held in Oxon Hill, Md.

He won $30,000 in cash, a $2,500 U.S. savings bond from Merriam-Webster and $2,000 worth of reference works from Encyclopedia Britannica, as well as a shiny engraved trophy and the title of “champion.”

German words have led Mahankali to his spelling bee demise for the past two years, when he twice placed third at the bee., which covered the bee, described knaidel as coming from “German-derived Yiddish.” It quoted Mahankali as telling ESPN, “the German curse has turned into the German blessing.”

The finals featured another word of Jewish origin. Hannah Citsay, a student at St. Anne Catholic School in Lancaster, Pa., correctly spelled “hesped,” the Hebrew word for eulogy, in the sixth round.

Despite correctly spelling “hesped,” Citsay was eliminated in a new portion of the contest, where contestants had to provide the definition of a word.

A suit and a story from a Holocaust survivor

It had been a tough week. The more news I read about the Boston bombing, the less I understood. Who were these young men, full of grievance, using a fresh start in America to maim and kill innocents?

In the midst of the mess, I decided to finally buy myself a new suit. I have just one, which I bought 10 years ago from an elderly Jewish man downtown.

I had a vivid memory of him, but I didn’t know his name. So I called Roger Stuart Clothes on Los Angeles Street and asked if the elderly man with the accent still worked there.

“Max?” the man on the phone said. “No, I’m sorry.”

“I guess I waited too long,” I said. Charming little old men don’t live forever, I thought.

“Just come tomorrow,” the man went on. “Max only works Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.”

Before the man hung up, I just had to ask him: How old was my salesman? Where was the accent from? What’s his story? 

“Max? He’s 94. A Holocaust survivor. From the camps.”

I told him I’d be in that week — for a suit and a story.

“Should we talk, or do you want to first look at suits?” Max Leigh was just like I remembered him: maybe 5-foot-4, sturdy, with a good head of graying hair, a crisp blue dress shirt, gray slacks and a flowered tie. His face was kindly, bespectacled — like a doctor who makes house calls. A Yiddish accent.

Max looked at me: “42 long. What color? Every man should have a navy blue, a black and a gray.”

He handed me a black suit; I tried it on. Perfect. I had him pick me out a shirt, a tie — and I was good for another 10 years. I paid, then Max took me to the back, to a couple of chairs near a dressing room.

I pulled out my notebook and digital recorder.

“Oh, my story,” Max sighed. “I told it to Steven Spielberg. Can you get it from him?”

He was talking, I assumed, about testimony he must have given to the USC Shoah Foundation, which the film director established. I couldn’t understand Max without listening to those testimonial tapes — which I later did — but the tapes, and their sad, brutal memories, only tell part of his story.

Max was born Max Leschgold in Dresden, Germany. When Max was a child, his parents moved with him and his two younger sisters back to their native Warsaw to be with relatives. 

Max was 19 when the Nazis came to Warsaw. He was taken to a series of camps, including Auschwitz. After the war, he learned that his parents had starved to death in the Warsaw Ghetto. One sister died fighting in the ghetto. Another was shot dead in the arms of her boyfriend after their hiding place was discovered.

Max’s Shoah testimony is a recitation of horrors — starvation, mock executions, beatings. On the tapes, he tells the story with distant matter-of-factness. The only time he chokes up is when the interviewer asks whether he ever had children.

“My wife had a child killed by the Nazis,” he finally said. “We have the picture in the other room.” 

With the help of Jewish organizations, Max came to Los Angeles after the war as a penniless refugee who spoke four languages, but not English.

They put him in a hotel in Boyle Heights. He didn’t want to be on welfare, so he took the first job he could, at a fishing line factory. His hopes of a professional education destroyed by the war, he became a machinist, working in the aerospace and computer industries. When he was downsized at the age of 52, he and a friend opened a suit store downtown. 

“I didn’t even know what size suit I wore,” he said. “But I went into business, and I started a company, and I was successful, and here I am.”

Max travelled around the world, including five visits to Israel. He said he has paid back in donations “a thousand times over” whatever money the Jewish organizations donated to help him get on his feet.

After he sold his company, he began working at Roger Stuart, in 1981 — that’s 32 years.

“I don’t need the money,” Max said. “If I wouldn’t like it, I wouldn’t work. I like people.”

Max was married to his first wife, Rosaline, for 54 years — they met just after the war, and she died not long after he made his video testimony in 1997. His second wife, Inna, is 66. Inna’s son and grandchildren are like his own, he said.

“I have family now, I didn’t have any before. I lost my whole family.”

I asked Max how he managed to deal with such terrible memories. Did faith help, I asked, a belief in God?

Max shook his head.

“I saw too much to believe in all that bulls—,” he said. “I had these discussions with rabbis, and they couldn’t give me an answer. You explain to me why 1 1/2 million children got killed without sins. I lost whatever faith I had, and I didn’t have much to start with.”

Yet, Max moved forward. He didn’t lash out. He didn’t stay bitter at having his family and his dreams destroyed. He was 19 when his life fell apart — the same age as one of those Boston bombers — and he rebuilt his life; he stitched it back together like a suit.

“Am I bitter?” Max said. “Yes, however, you can’t live that way all your life. If you’re going to live with it all your life, then you don’t have a life at all.”

There are a million stories in the naked city — and in the fully clothed city, too. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

‘I’m a Jew’

My father’s Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, I’m Jewish.” Those are the words uttered by American journalist Daniel Pearl in the moment before he was murdered by jihadis in 2002. Those same words were recalled last week by Judea Pearl as he lit a flame in his son’s honor in Jerusalem.

As I read Daniel Pearl’s words, I thought back to a story I’d heard a few days earlier from 95-year-old Edna Weiss.

In the living room of her high-rise apartment in Westwood, Weiss told me something that happened 85 years ago in the multiethnic Angeleno Heights neighborhood where she grew up in the 1930s.

She remembered every detail of the story, from the sugar sack that held the baseball bats to the faces of two Dutch children who tricked her into going up a hill.

“We never went to a synagogue or did anything religious,” Weiss told me when I asked about her Jewish connection. “But we spoke a lot of Yiddish. My mother was from the Warsaw Ghetto, and she always told me that if anyone ever called me a dirty Jew, I should stand up straight and say, ‘I’m a Jew and I’m proud of it.’ ”

That advice would come into play one summer when she was about 10. It was an ordinary hot day, and Weiss was on the street looking for her friends to play their regular game of baseball. Before she could find any of them, she was invited by two other kids to “come play baseball with us.”

Weiss, who was carrying baseball bats and balls in a sugar sack her grocer dad had given her, said “Sure, why not?” 

When they got over the hill, out of view from her street, the two children took the baseball bats out of the bag and began hitting Weiss.

They hit her all over her body, yelling, “You dirty Jew.”

Weiss tried to protect her head as she rolled on the ground. The blows kept coming, and the cries of “dirty Jew” pierced her ears.

Sobbing and in terrible pain, she managed to escape and started running back toward her house to see her mother. Then, as if a force overtook her, she stopped, turned around, and, still sobbing, looked at the two kids and said: “I’m a Jew and I’m proud of it.”

The story froze for me with that one image: A 10-year-old Jewish girl sobbing and in pain saying: “I’m a Jew and I’m proud of it.”

At that point, the mood in the living room got uncomfortable. The memory was still so fresh to Weiss that she was about to start sobbing again, and she didn’t want to do that in front of me. 

She quickly recovered her composure and said: “The truth is, I was very lucky. They hit me everywhere except for my head. Had they hit me in the head, I probably wouldn’t be here now.”

As my friend Rabbi Benjamin Blech wrote recently on, “What has always marked anti-Semitism throughout the ages was its fundamental resistance to reason.”

What good reason was there to hate sweet souls like Daniel Pearl and Edna Weiss?

“We are hated not because we are bad,” Blech writes, “but because we persist in reminding the world of what it means to be good.

“The Talmud perceived this idea in the very name of the mountain on which the Torah was given. Sinai in Hebrew is similar to the word sinah — hatred. It was the Jews’ acceptance of a higher law of morality and ethics that was responsible for the world’s enmity.

“Anti-Semitism stands in opposition to the very idea of civilization. It detests Jews because it acknowledges that Jews are the conscience of humanity and the lawgivers of ethical and moral behavior.”

The truth is, no matter how we try to understand it, anti-Semitism is a complicated, irrational evil. Its defining characteristic seems to be that it will always find a reason to exist.

Perhaps the best response, then, to this irrational evil, is to follow the leads of Daniel Pearl and Edna Weiss and simply continue being good Jews.

Daniel Pearl embodied this simplicity when he said, “I am Jewish,” just before being murdered.

Edna Weiss embodied it when she remembered to express her Jewish pride, even though she was sobbing and in deep physical pain.

We often talk about great Jewish values like tikkun olam, observing the commandments and living an ethical life.

Pearl and Weiss showed us another value that’s essential to being a good Jew: not being afraid to say who you are.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at