Perils of the ‘Perfect’ Student

In New York, parents tell horror stories about the pressure to get their 5-year-old kids into the right kindergartens, the kind attended by Woody Allen’s kids. In Los Angeles, the social cachet may be even more skewed.

“So and so from the Lakers’ kid goes to some school,” says playwright David Levinson, whose play, “Early Decision,” at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica, has tapped into the Zeitgeist about the mania surrounding college admissions.

“I never really think of the Lakers as being emblematic of the world’s greatest scholars,” says Levinson, yet to some going to school with the child of a Laker or a big-time Hollywood director seems to suggest a bizarre status.

In “Early Decision,” Levinson shows the pathetic lengths to which parents will go to ensure that their child attends an Ivy League school — paying $4,000 for an SAT prep class, sending junior off on some resume-padding do-gooder mission, even writing junior’s college application essay.

The crazed quotidian lifestyle of these kids — rushing off to see their tutors, prepping for a starring role in the high school play, reading to a blind Holocaust survivor, as well as taking AP classes — leads one high school senior in “Early Decision” to have a nervous breakdown, while Claire, the central figure in the play, decides to forgo college.

Levinson, who has three children, says of the college and even middle-school application process that “it’s a nutty system,” pointing out that the parents are so much more involved in the lives of the kids than they used to be when he was a student at Milton Academy, a Boston-area prep school, in the 1970s.

While the characters in the play are primarily Westside Jews, Levinson contends that the phenomenon is not unique to any one race, ethnicity or religion. He notes that many Asian and South Asian parents and children go through a similar ritual of torment when the children are as young as 11.

“It’s a universal thing,” he said. “There’s tons of pressure to get into these schools. It’s corrupting; makes kids cynical. The burnout factor must be enormous.”

“Early Decision” plays at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 4; (310) 392-7327.


Skirball Celebrates Europe’s Best

A single album, inherited from his late father, led disc jockey Max Reinhardt to rediscover his Jewish musical roots. The recording was “Mish Mosh,” by comedian and klezmer clarinetist Mickey Katz: “He does a version of Dean Martin’s ‘That’s Amore’ as ‘That’s Morris,’ which my father, Morris, was forever playing for his Jewish friends,” Reinhardt, 52, recalled from London. “As a kid, I took in the jokes, but I couldn’t help but notice the stuff Katz played at lightning speed in the middle that had nothing to do with Dean Martin.”

As he spun the disc in ’93, Reinhardt — known for bringing world music to London’s club scene — was riveted by Katz’s wild but precise klezmer breaks. So began a journey that brings him to Los Angeles this month to perform with a Jewish world music band, Dis/Orient.

The group is among a dozen acts to appear in Zeitgeist: The Harry and Belle Krupnick International Jewish Arts Festival, which kicks off at the Skirball Cultural Center Aug. 10-28 and continues in winter 2004. Unprecedented in the United States, the festival spotlights Europeans who draw on Jewish tradition to create edgy, contemporary work. Artists include Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (see below), the jazz-infused Cracow Klezmer Band and the quirky Danish dance company, Rosenzweig.

The program — along with Los Angeles Yiddishkayt Festival — should help place Los Angeles in the forefront of a Jewish cultural Renaissance that began with the klezmer music revival of the 1970s.

Zeitgeist began in 2001 when Skirball program director Jordan Peimer set off on a series of research trips to find performers to bring back to the Skirball. In a Paris underground club, he discovered Les Yeux Noirs, a band that combines klezmer and Gypsy strains. In a theater in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, he encountered the Jewish director of the multicultural Ilkhom Theatre. In a London cafe, he met with Reinhardt, who described how Katz’s brilliant album ultimately led him to collaborate with a another kind of Jewish virtuoso, Sephardic grandmaster Maurice El Medioni.

An impressed Peimer raised approximately $1.2 million (including a $300,000 grant from the Harry and Belle Krupnick Endowment Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles) toward a festival dedicated to the cutting-edge European artists.

“Jews feel much more like ‘the other’ outside the United States, which is reflected in their work,” he said. “The attitude is, ‘I’ve got this interesting story to tell and chances are, you haven’t heard it.” Reinhardt and Dis/Orient do just that by blending El Medioni’s Algerian Rai music, Sephardic Andalusian sounds and hip-hop-infused klezmer.

“We’re showing that Jewish culture belongs not just at bar mitzvahs, but within the burgeoning roots and world music market,” he said.

Zeitgeist begins with a family festival Aug. 10. For information, call (310) 440-4500; for tickets call (323) 655-8587.

Take 12 Steps

It would be hard to exaggerate the significance of The Jewish Federation’s Addiction Conference held Monday at the Skirball Cultural Center. But to compare, think back to the Shechinah Conference held 20 years ago at Hebrew Union College, which helped consolidate and shape Jewish feminism. In its willingness to creatively address perhaps the biggest social issue of our time, the Skirball program is that big a deal.

In truth, it was not the "first" West Coast conference on the subject of addiction and the Jewish community. More than two decades ago, L’Chaim, an Alcoholics Anonymous-style organization for Jews, made a similar effort to bring a dirty secret of Jewish life out into the open at its conference. There have been alcoholics and drug addicts ever since Noah, just as there have been Jewish professionals trying to help us face our demons.

Nevertheless, the larger American zeitgeist of "recovery" makes this event historic. The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, formalized more than 65 years ago by Bill W., are now the common parlance of millions, who gather together to share their experience, strength and hope to overcome personal obsessions deemed out of control. To nail the point, last year, California voters passed Prop. 36, allowing some drug offenders to participate in treatment programs including those using the 12 Steps, rather than jail.

Thousands of Jews consider themselves members of the "anonymous fellowships," including Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and Al-Anon, for relatives and friends of the addicted. These Jews speak the language of "powerlessness" and "Higher Power" and say the "Serenity Prayer" as often and as easily as they do the "Shema."

Until now, these Jews in recovery have met with their fellows, mostly in churches, often with twinges of guilt that they were somehow committing treason, if not embarking on a course of spiritual schizophrenia.

But on Monday, a host of community authorities, including many addicts themselves, rose to assert that the language of recovery is congruent with Judaism.

"All the principles of the 12 Steps were in Judaism 2,000 years ago," declared Dr. Abraham Twerski in a keynote speech titled, "Twelve Steps and Torah — Is there a Fit?" Twerski, a white-bearded Orthodox rabbi who might have popped out of a Sholom Aleichem story, is a national authority on chemical dependency. He shocked many in the audience with his matter-of-fact quoting of 12-Step principles side by side with Talmud.

The day was an enormous breakthrough.

First, Jews can now feel free to walk the 12 Steps without thinking they are on the road with Jesus. These programs may not be exclusively Jewish in tone (the language of the program is a mix of Carl Jung, Buddhism and 1950s Christianity), but they are decidedly focused on Jewish purpose: overcoming the "evil inclination" and finding God’s will.

Second, the Jewish community, by this conference, is admitting that it, too, is powerless over addictions. We can’t hide from them, nor feel confident that our community alone can solve them. Drugs are everywhere, as the morning’s keynote speaker, Ethan A. Nadelmann, insisted. And we can no longer pretend that the consequences of obsession with drugs, alcohol, sex and whatever are limited to an aberrant few, most of whom end up in jail.

Scoffing at Jewish addiction is an age-old sadistic tradition, represented at the conference by UCLA’s professor Mark Kleiman."Jewish addiction is like Jewish basketball," Kleiman said. "There’s not much of it, and it’s not very good."

But this trivialization of individual and family crisis is, thankfully, no longer going to hold. Playing the numbers game to disprove a Jewish problem didn’t stop divorce or homosexuality from becoming a reality. When the community is ready to accept a social condition, it does so.

Third, the Jewish community admits that it has something to learn from another spiritual discipline. Rabbi Paul Kipnes from Congregation Or Ami suggested that synagogues open their doors to 12 Step programs. He has created a six-congregation ad hoc Rabbinic Coalition to Support Jewish 12 Step Programming. This had to be an enormous first step.

In a day filled with mind-blowers, here is my favorite, from Twerski:

"I feel sorry for those who don’t have addictions," he said. "They don’t hit rock bottom. So they’re missing out on some of the greatest ideas in life."