November 21, 2018

Celebrating the Jewish New Year in the majority-Muslim Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meeting with members of the country’s Jewish community in Red Town, which is one of the largest Jewish towns outside of Israel

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meeting with members of the country’s Jewish community in Red Town, which is one of the largest Jewish towns outside of Israel


Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – begins in two days, this Sunday evening. For us, the Jews in Azerbaijan, like for other Jews around the world, this holiday embodies benevolence, honesty, fresh start and unity. We ask and answer for what we have done and what we could do better. We take this time to face our prayers with an open and good heart, and to make a fresh start together.

Each year during the holiday we, the Mountain Jews living in Azerbaijan, attend services at our synagogues, sound the shofar and recite special liturgy, take care of those in need, gather around the table, eat honey-dipped Challah and apples, and pray for forgiveness. What is unique about Rosh Hashanah and other Jewish holidays in Azerbaijan is that our fellow Muslims and Christians come together with their Jewish brothers and sisters to share our joy and happiness. In Azerbaijan, a majority-Muslim country, people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds have been living together in peace, brotherhood and mutual respect for many centuries. There has always been a strong relationship between these ethnic and religious communities, and this exemplary harmony continues to this day.

Today in Azerbaijan the Jews have everything they want. We have peace, stability and prosperity. We have our flourishing synagogues, schools, kindergartens, and various cultural facilities. We have the support of the government, which is making tremendous effort towards maintaining and strengthening the harmony, mutual understanding and peace among religions. On every Rosh Hashanah, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev sends a congratulatory message addressed to the Jewish community of the country. This year was not an exception.

Here is the text of the congratulatory message by the President of Azerbaijan that I just received:

“Dear Compatriots!

I cordially congratulate you on the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and convey to you my heartfelt wishes.

We regard ethno-cultural diversity in the modern Azerbaijani society, where traditional relations of friendship and brotherhood, and tolerance and multicultural values ​​exist among people, as an indispensable achievement of our national statehood. People of different ethnic backgrounds living in our country, including the Jewish community, have always lived in peace in Azerbaijan, preserving their language and culture and traditions without any discrimination.

Today the independent state of Azerbaijan remains committed to its progressive historical traditions. In line with modern democratic principles, ensuring human rights in the country, protection and strengthening of ethnocultural values ​​of ethnic minorities is one of the priorities of our state policy.

The Jewish community, who have been living in Azerbaijan for hundreds of years, have become an integral part and full-fledged members of our society. I want to emphasize with satisfaction that our citizens of Jewish origin are closely involved in the socio-political life of our country, which is currently experiencing a period of great development and progress, and make valuable contributions to the process of democratic state building.

Dear Friends!

The Rosh Hashanah celebrated by you every year is the embodiment of renewal, spiritual purity, kindness and solidarity. Once again, I sincerely congratulate you on this beautiful day, wish happiness and continued prosperity to you and your families.

Happy Holidays!

Ilham Aliyev

President of the Republic of Azerbaijan

Baku, September 7, 2018.”

Together with our fellow Muslims and Christians, as the Jewish community of Azerbaijan we have to continue our work on a daily basis towards making sure that this togetherness, this solidarity and this harmony keeps blossoming and becoming stronger and stronger every day in the country, and that this unique model inspires many other nations in the region and beyond. That’s my Rosh Hashanah prayer this year!

L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem! May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

Eyewitness to History: Nov. 29, 1947, in Jerusalem

Crowds in Tel Aviv celebrate the U.N.’s vote for partition in 1947. Photo courtesy of the Government Press Office, Jerusalem. Photo by Hans Pinn

When the news broke in Jerusalem of the United Nations’ vote to partition Palestine, it was a Saturday night after sunset. I was 25 and a student at Hebrew University, taking a year off from my rabbinical program at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I was living with my grandfather, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, in Kerem Avraham, a highly religious neighborhood.

That night, all of Jerusalem erupted into joy. People ran into the streets, shouting, singing and dancing in a frenzy. Grocery stores opened to hand out free bottles of wine to the celebrators. Cars and trucks roamed the streets, offering rides to anyone who wanted to whoop it up.

The growing crowds all headed toward the Jewish Agency building on King George Street, the unofficial headquarters of the underground Jewish government. Hundreds of people danced the horah and sang Hebrew songs with wild enthusiasm.

Suddenly, Golda Meir stepped onto the balcony overlooking the crowd and asked for silence. She expressed our feeling of joy for the fulfillment of our 2,000-year-old dream of re-creating a Jewish state in Israel. But she warned us that dreams came at a price. The United Nations was not handing us a state. We would have to earn it with our lives. We would have to defend it from our enemies, and many Jewish lives would be lost before the state would be born.

Everyone became very somber as the realization of her message took hold. One could sense a powerful resolve settling in.

And then the singing and dancing resumed.

Joshua Stampfer is rabbi emeritus at Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Ore.

Happy birthday Mr. Mandela: World pays tribute as ‘improving’ former S. African president turns 95

South Africa and the world showered tributes on Nelson Mandela on Thursday as the anti-apartheid leader turned 95 in hospital and his doctors reported he was “steadily improving” from a six-week lung infection.

The country has been on edge since the former president and father of the multi-racial 'Rainbow Nation' established at the end of apartheid in 1994 was admitted to hospital on June 8 with recurring lung problems that kept him in a critical condition.

It was his fourth stay in hospital in six months and has reminded South Africans that the man who is globally admired as a moral beacon against injustice and a symbol of racial reconciliation will not be with them forever.

But the mood was of celebration on Thursday as thousands of South Africans sang “Happy Birthday” and took part in charitable initiatives in a global outpouring of support for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate on U.N.-designated 'Nelson Mandela Day'.

At a United Nations event in New York marking the day, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed Mandela as “a giant of our times”.

Throughout the day, crowds of well-wishers outside the Pretoria hospital where the retired statesman is being treated sang “Happy Birthday, Madiba” – using Mandela's traditional clan name – brought cakes and birthday cards and danced.

“Thank you for all that you have done for this country,” said one well-wisher, Margaret Chechie.

Many South Africans also commemorated the birthday with 67 minutes of public service to honour the 67 years Mandela served humanity by first fighting against white-minority rule and then consolidating racial harmony when he was president.

As part of the public service initiative, office workers, students, soldiers and ordinary citizens spruced up orphanages, painted walls at schools and delivered food to the poor.

President Jacob Zuma visited Mandela at the hospital and said he was making steady progress. “I was able to say 'Happy Birthday' to him and he was able to smile,” he told reporters.

Hours earlier, his office had cited Mandela's doctors saying “his health is steadily improving.”

Mandela's victory in the first multiracial elections in 1994 put an end to the apartheid system. Four years earlier, he was released from 27 years spent in prison under white minority rule, 18 of them at the notorious Robben Island penal colony.

His former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela called the 95th birthday “a gift to the nation”.

Family members had lunch together at the hospital where the revered patriarch is being treated and his daughter Zindzi said they gave him a collage of family photographs for a present.

“Tata (our father) is making this remarkable progress and we look forward to having him back home soon,” Zindzi said.

Grandson Ndaba Mandela was more cautious about Mandela's condition. “He's still critical … he's just a lot more alert now, a lot more aware of his surroundings,” he told CBS News.


Mandela Day celebrations in the United States included a special event at U.N. headquarters in New York, where figures such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton and the Reverend Jesse Jackson added their voices to the global tributes.

Clinton, a personal friend of Mandela, recalled the nearly three decades the nonagenarian spent in apartheid jails.

“Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years a greater man than he went in,” Clinton said. “Though he is old and frail and fighting for his life … what is in his heart still glows in his smile and lights up the room through his eyes.”

Volunteers in New York handed out South African oranges.

In South Africa, Ethiopian and Nigerian asylum seekers who had settled there fleeing persecution and conflict in their own countries cleaned streets in Johannesburg expressed their praise for the personality considered “a father of Africa”.

“In this country, Mandela is the reason all of us blacks are free, so that's why we love him as the first citizen,” said Kennedy Uzondu, 30, a Nigerian trader in South Africa.

Despite the adulation on his birthday, Mandela's post-apartheid 'Rainbow Nation' has not fulfilled all expectations.

Enormous gaps still persist in income, employment and access to education and these inequalities largely follow racial lines, according to the government's own data. White households in 2012 earn on average about six times more than black households.

Nevertheless, quality education and employment opportunities have also been opened up to tens of thousands of blacks.

Additional reporting by Reuters TV, Benon Okula and Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg, Michelle Nichols and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay at the United Nations; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Michael Roddy

Documentary filmmaker has a ‘Hava Nagila’ in her heart

“Hava Nagila” is one of those songs, like “Celebration” and “Auld Lang Syne,” that brings back memories and gets stuck in one’s head. In fact, “Hava Nagila” is so ingrained in American pop culture that many non-Jews can readily identify it, and high-profile non-Jewish recording artists, including Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis and Glen Campbell, count their renditions as a career highlight. 

As filmmaker Roberta Grossman discovered, the circumstances that brought “Hava Nagila” to such widespread recognition are complex. With wit and scholarly research, she takes viewers on “Hava Nagila’s” journey, from its semi-tragic origins in the 19th century Ukrainian village of Sadigora to its nearly worldwide renown as a Jewish anthem today, through “Hava Nagila (The Movie).” 

Opening in L.A.-area theaters on March 15, there will be a March 7 screening and question-and-answer session with Grossman presented by the L.A. Jewish Film Festival and the Jewish Journal at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills. 

[For tickets to the “Hava Nagila” screening, visit Director Roberta Grossman   Photo by Robert Zuckerman

But when Grossman’s young daughter asked her to “make a happy film next time,” that led the filmmaker to consider making a substantial but entertaining documentary about “Hava Nagila” as a Jewish cultural milestone.

“While we were making it, I realized those ‘Hava’ moments at events like weddings, bar mitzvahs and other family gatherings stamped my soul,” Grossman recalled. “I did not know what the words meant, or know if it was a written song or traditional hymn. While researching and shooting, we encountered fabulous scholars who studied the origins and impact of ‘Hava Nagila.’ This, in turn, made us realize that the song is a window into more than 150 years of Jewish history, culture and spirituality.”   

Grossman and her team found some of the best material for the film by accident. For instance, while shooting footage in Sadigora, Grossman ran into the great-great-great grandson of Rabbi Yisroel Friedman, the Ruzhiner rebbe, who is credited with originating the song as a Chasidic nigun, or wordless melody, in the mid-19th century. (The lyrics were added in 1915 by composer Abraham Zevi Idelsohn.) For more than a year prior to that chance meeting, Grossman had been searching doggedly for a descendant of Friedman to discuss the role of Chasidic life and how it shaped the song’s beginnings.  

“My grandmother said the meeting … was bashert, or mean to be,” Grossman said. “Besides the fact that he spoke eloquently about Jews in Sadigora in the 19th century, he had a foot in the non-Chasidic world and graciously allowed us to film and interview him and to use the footage.”

One of the most profound revelations Grossman experienced while making the film came from interviews with klezmer musicians. 

“At first, I could not understand why they expressed hostility toward the song,” she said. “I eventually realized ‘Hava Nagila,’ for some, represented the disenfranchisement of the old Yiddish klezmer tradition in the way the Hebrew language displaced Yiddish.” 

Although Grossman’s next project will focus on the more somber topic of the secret archives of the Warsaw Ghetto, she makes the point that the widespread embrace of “Hava Nagila” in the ’50s and ’60s was ultimately a direct response to the Holocaust along with the determination of a people to endure and carve out a better life.  

Even with the exploration of the Warsaw Ghetto in progress, Grossman insists she will return to a cheerful topic. In much the way she did with “Hava Nagila,” she plans to examine the cultural impact of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Norman Jewison’s 1971 film adaptation of the Broadway hit. 

Almost like the song that inspired it, “Hava Nagila (The Movie)” has already made a big splash on the film festival circuit both nationally and internationally, including opening the 2012 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. 

“From the first frames on, people were clapping, singing along and laughing,” Grossman said. “There were 1,400 people in the audience at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, as well as three more sold-out screenings. Between July 2012 and March 2013, 55 Jewish film festivals included ‘Hava Nagila (The Movie),’ and about half of these had it open or close their program.

“No pun intended, but this film is really hitting a chord with viewers.”  

Destination Bar Mitzvahs

Factor in the enormous guest lists, global cuisine and diversions such as high-tech interactive entertainment, and it is clear that bar and bat mitzvah celebrations have become more sophisticated than they were even a decade ago. 

But not every student wants to celebrate becoming a son or daughter of the commandment with a 300-strong guest list and bragging rights at school the following week. Some teens would like their coming-of-age celebrations to reflect a sense of belonging within the Jewish community. 

This is where destination bar and bat mitzvahs come in, offering families a wonderful alternative: a bonding experience that is both intimate and larger than life.

Jerusalem comes to mind as the ultimate destination for a bar or bat mitzvah, with other Israeli cities such as Haifa, Tel Aviv and Eilat nearly as popular. But there are less-obvious locations in the United States and abroad that offer a Jewish context. The locations can tap in to a teen’s personal interests and studies while enabling the entire family to explore other aspects of Jewish history and culture beyond the Holy Land.

The travel alternative has become so popular, in fact, that companies like Bar/Bat Mitzvah Vacations ( and Totally Jewish Travel ( offer bar/bat mitzvah trips suited for family groups with destination in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe and South America as well as cruises. 


Newport, R.I. 

Dating back to the colonial era, Touro Synagogue ( is the oldest surviving synagogue building in the United States.

Founded in 1658 as Yeshuat Israel, congregants Mordechai Campanal and Moses Israel Paeheco purchased a lot at what is now Kay and Touro streets to build a spiritual home for Jewish settlers in 1677. With the growth of Newport’s Jewish community, the congregation turned to architect Peter Harrison in 1759 to expand their home. For the building’s exterior, Harrison drew on his knowledge of and enthusiasm for Palladian architecture. For the interior, he relied upon the guidance of the congregation, notably Hazzan Isaac Touro, who had only recently arrived from Amsterdam. The Newport building was completed in 1763 and was dedicated during Chanukah of that year.

A Sephardic Orthodox congregation today, Touro Synagogue — renamed in honor of the hazzan’s sons, who bequeathed money for the synagogue property’s upkeep — is available to rent for bar mitzvahs and weddings. A must-see destination for Jewish-history buffs, Touro’s adjacent Loeb Visitors Center explores the history of religious freedom in the United States as well as the synagogue itself, which received visits from Presidents George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.


Given that Philadelphia is a city resplendent with both American and Jewish-American history, the arrival of adulthood is well celebrated at the National Museum of American Jewish History ( While the Smithsonian-affiliated museum is a popular site among local Philadelphia families, this standard-bearer will appeal to families throughout the United States because of the way it captures the American-Jewish experience, exploring how Jews shape and are shaped by the United States. The collection displays more than 1,200 artifacts and documents dating back more than 350 years, 2,500 images and 30 original films, and provides visitors with an opportunity to share their own stories. Featuring a view of Independence Mall, the five-story glass-facade museum rents a variety of spaces for private events, accommodating groups as small as 15 to as large as 750. 

Litchfield Hills, Conn.

Although the heyday of the Catskills family escape is forever cemented in American pop culture in a variety of films and television shows (most notably “Dirty Dancing”), the private resort Winvian ( brings together old-school charm and modern conveniences. Granted, it is in Connecticut and not upstate New York, but it has the preppy East Coast vibe and small-town charm that will stir up nostalgia among parents and grandparents, perhaps inspiring lively evenings filled with stories about “the good old days.” Located two hours outside of New York City, Winvian offers event planning services as well as group buyout for special celebrations. It is also a good choice for those who have retained ties with extended family in the New York metro area.

The patio of the El Portal Sedona Hotel in Sedona, Ariz. Photo courtesy of El Portal Sedona Hotel

Sedona, Ariz.

Sedona is known for its Red Rocks, panoramic vistas and hip artists’ community vibe as well as plenty of Southwestern U.S. history and lore. However, the spiritual nature of its larger-than-life setting and the popularity of kabbalah among Jewish locals complete the picture. The area’s welcoming Jewish community has its home at the Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley (, an egalitarian and inclusive synagogue that marries various Jewish traditions in its services. 

Located in the heart of Sedona, El Portal Sedona Hotel ( can help coordinate an intimate celebration, accommodating a reception of up to 35 people comfortably in the great room or its private courtyard.


Marrakech, Morocco 

Although the historic city is best known for its souks (markets), fashionable riad-style hotels, and its role as an aesthetic muse for designer Yves Saint Laurent (parents of budding fashionistas, take note), Marrakech has Jewish roots that date back to biblical times, through the Spanish Inquisition and into the 20th century. Although many Moroccan Jews migrated to Los Angeles and other cities, Rabbi Jacky Kadoch (, president of Community Israelite de Marrakech-Essaouria, notes this exciting city still bears many stamps of its Jewish history, from the mellah (the former Jewish quarter) to booths at the main souk where you may just find your next family heirloom. If time allows, side trips to El Jadida and Essaouria are also worth the effort.

Willemstad, Curacao 

The oldest operating congregation in the Western hemisphere originated in 1651 when the Dutch West India Co. made an appeal on behalf of Jan de Illan, a successful Jewish-Portuguese businessman, to set up a trade post on the remote Caribbean island during the Spanish Inquisition.

In 1732, Curacao’s expanding Jewish community relocated its house of worship, Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue (, to a charming yellow Dutch colonial building, which is now also home to the island’s Jewish museum. The main sanctuary is beautifully outfitted with carved mahogany pews, bimah and ark; copper chandeliers; and beige sand, which covers the floor for symbolic reasons: a reminder of the great Exodus as well as a means to muffle footsteps of those who practiced their Jewish faith in secret during the Inquisition.

Budapest, Hungary

With many Ashkenazi American families tracing their family roots to Hungary, the Jewish Visitors’ Service ( has taken a proactive stance in promoting the regal European destination as a bar/bat mitzvah spot that combines Jewish cultural enlightenment with a dazzling immersion into the rich Eastern European urban society where past generations of Jewish families once thrived.


For families who embrace water sports and tropical settings, Tahiti is a great choice. The arrival point is capital Papeete, which boasts a surprisingly rich history in the Jewish community and has an operating synagogue (established in 1993). The community of 200 Jews passionately works toward preserving Judaism through such organizations as the Cultural Association for Israelites and Polynesian Friends, established in the 1960s. Two of the community’s Torah scrolls were gifts from the Egyptian-Jewish community of Paris, and a community in Los Angeles, respectively.

Celebrations and Simchas: Mazel Tov to our community

Rachel Mollie Slater and Samson Zvi Reznik

Samson Zvi Reznik, son of Janice and Ben Reznik of Encino, and Rachel Mollie Slater, daughter of Fran and Charney Slater of West Hempstead, N.Y., were married on July 23 in Woodbury, N.Y. 

The couple lives in Los Angeles.

Marnie Alexis Friedman and Steven Barnett Stiglitz

Marnie Alexis Friedman and Steven Barnett Stiglitz married on Sept. 2 at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am officiated, and Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills participated under the chuppah as well. 

Friedman graduated from Harvard in 1999 and earned a master’s degree in financial services from The American College in 2011. She is an actuary working as a product manager at Transamerica Life Insurance Co.  

The bride, a daughter of Irene and Ellis Friedman of Tucson, Ariz., is a native of Pennsylvania. 

The groom, son of Jane and Bruce Stiglitz of Los Angeles, graduated from Stanford in 1999 and from Harvard Law School in 2002.  He is an attorney at Freedman & Taitelman, LLP.

A Celebration of Dad

I called my 94-year-old father in Ohio on July 9. I told him how much I loved him, that he was the most wonderful father ever, that I would miss him, and that it was OK for him to let go.

All I could hear was his heavy breathing as the hospice nurse held the phone to his ear.

He died a few hours later.

During our last visit a few months ago, my father had said he wanted to get on with his death. He was feeling useless. He could no longer help people, which was his life’s purpose. And he was tired. I think Dad’s basic optimism and stubbornness combined to make him hang onto life a little longer. But he finally got his wish to move on.

I’m glad for him, and sad for me.

Losing a parent, even at my mature middle age, is a huge loss. My Daddy, my hero, my cheerleader, my advisor, my first love … is gone.

Even if it was anticipated, it’s a shock. How did this happen? Wait! I am not ready!

Since Dad died, I sometimes wake up crying, realizing that he’s really gone. I cry myself out, and then I remember a camping trip in the rain with Dad, and I have to smile. Then I remember I can’t call him about a new idea I have for a project, and I start to cry. Then I feel grateful, recalling how he encouraged me to be adventurous.

This transition is exhausting.

Yesterday, my friend Jeanie Cohen, a marriage and family therapist, said, “Grief is such an individual journey. One can feel fine one minute, and the next minute you’re sobbing and aching from the loss. Grieving involves acknowledging and feeling the loss, and also remembering the things you love and appreciate about your dad.”

To help me do both, I’ve been listening to my father.

When I became an oral historian 25 years ago, Dad was my first practice interview. Then, after his stroke at 83, I started recording him every time I visited. I have hours of conversations with him: about his parents and the values they taught him, about my love life, about his love life, about his pranks in high school, about his incredible experiences in India during World War II, about adopting my sister when she was a newborn, about why he divorced my mother, about the time his own mother’s car rolled into the produce section of the A & P, about his belief that people should love each other more, about how he hated being so dependent on others, and about how my sister and I are his best friends and how much he loves us.

My father was someone I could always talk with about anything. Sometimes his unsolicited advice was irritating, but his wisdom was intact right up to the last few months of his life. I wish I could talk with him now, about the other major transition in my life: My son is going 2,985 miles away, to study at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.

My father dies, and my son is leaving home. Oy.

I’m flying to Cleveland, Ohio, where I grew up, on Sept. 4. I’m meeting my sister Sue there. I’ll cry a bit about saying goodbye to my son and Sue will hug me. We’ll both cry about losing our father and we’ll hug some more.

Then we’ll have three days to visit all the places we associate with Dad.

We’ll hike in the park where he taught us to catch crayfish and climb cliffs; we’ll wander by Grandma’s apartment, where we had lunch every Sunday; we’ll go to the golf course where we learned to ski and the tennis court where Dad kept shouting at us, “Bend your knees!” And, we’ll drive by Hampshire Road, where I dropped the birthday cake that Sue and I had so lovingly baked for Dad.

Undoubtedly, we will no longer find the penny candy store we enthusiastically patronized, or Mawby’s, where they made the best unhealthy hamburgers, or the Cedar Lee Movie Theatre, where we spent every Saturday afternoon, sometimes sitting through the same movie twice if we liked it.

Our simple plan is to enjoy each other’s company while recalling and celebrating Dad’s life and our times with him. We’ll probably cry and laugh a lot.

And we’ll congratulate each other for having had such a loving, fun, devoted and fabulous father.

Dad and I lived an airplane trip apart for 40 years, so besides occasional visits, our primary contact was through Ma Bell. Dad always said to me, “No matter how far away you are, we’re always in each other’s hearts and we can feel the love. Do you feel it? Can you feel me hugging you right now?” And I did.

I still do.

Ellie Kahn is a licensed psychotherapist and oral historian. For information about her family and organizational history work, visit

At 60 for Zikna

The High Holy Day liturgy includes the poignant plea: “Do not cast me off b’eyt zikna,” which is usually translated as “when I get old.” It is a fear many of us have, but are often afraid to articulate. We live in a youth-intoxicated culture where older people are sometimes invisible.

I am concerned that this is also the case in the Jewish community. When the Jewish community speaks about ensuring the Jewish future, it focuses primarily on young people in their 20s and 30s. But surely, the Jewish future demands the active engagement of older people as well—people with the experience, perspective and resources needed to move our community forward.

Who are these older people? Pirke Avot says: “At 60 for zikna.” I’m 62. That makes me one of them, a baby boomer who has become … what? Old? An elder? A senior? I’m not even sure what to call myself, but I know there are a lot of others like me.

Approximately 29 percent of Jews in the United States are between 50 and 64, according to a recent study. In 2030, baby boomers will be between 66 and 84, representing 20 percent of the U.S. population and an even greater percentage of the Jewish population. The Jewish community can ill afford to cast us off. Rather, it should be facilitating a conversation on how to engage us or, more to the point, keep us engaged.

At Temple Emanuel, we have begun a “listening campaign” on growing older, modeled after the congregationally based community organizing that we have been doing over the years with OneLA. The goal of a listening campaign is not to leap to solutions or to design programs but, rather, simply to listen to what people are saying about matters that concern them. Over many conversations, common issues will emerge that we can work on together. The responses so far have been moving and illuminating.

Here are some of the responses:

  • “I worry about invisibility—sometimes I feel that my viewpoint is ignored at work or that I am simply not seen by a cyclist when I am walking on campus.”
  • “I feel fear. I have a real sense of the time going by; my awareness that it is not endless is profound.”
  • “I appreciate living in the moment. Time is speeding by. I am amazed at how vital I feel.”
  • “I serve on a number of boards. I love what I do. I don’t spend my time now raising kids. I know how to seize the moment.”
  • “How much time do I have left? I don’t want to think about the future and inevitable decline. But still, so much of my time is taken up with overseeing the care of my really old mother. We never imagined she would live this long or that caring for her would take all of her resources and much of ours.”
  • “I could have 40 years ahead of me. It used to be that at 50 you had 10 years of life to look forward to. Now, you need to plan.”
  • “The biggest surprises are the capacity to reinvent, the resiliency. I have aspirations of communicating this knowledge to people.”
  • “I am still working in the trenches, but now with much younger people. I am competing with them. I do the same thing they do. They think I’m just some guy with white hair, but eventually they see that I know more than they do. I’m still who I always was. I don’t suffer from the illusion that young people love us. They don’t.”
  • “What weighs on my mind is that I don’t feel like I’ve left this world a better place than it was when I came into it … that I haven’t done what I need to do to make things better.”
  • “When I was younger, I had mentors who helped me succeed as a professional. I need mentors to teach me about how to grow old.”

What does the Jewish community have to offer these thoughtful people? What gifts of talent, insight and resources can these people bring to the community? How can we create opportunities for mentoring across generations? What resources does Jewish tradition offer for this stage of life? And how might thinking about all of this together help us leave this world a better place than it was when we came into it?

It is time to deepen and expand the conversation. I encourage other congregations and organizations to develop their own listening campaigns. And I invite them to join with us in a network and a larger conversation.

Again, Pirke Avot: “At 60 for zikna.” A commentary on this text reads “zikna” as an acronym for ze s’koneh chochma, “one who has acquired wisdom.”

Let’s listen to what this wisdom is telling us and embrace it as a community. Then none of us need be afraid of being cast out in our old age.

Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (

Longer life, programs, care make Jewish Home’s wait list daunting

As bombs dropped over Germany, aerial photographer Arthur Oxenberg would lean out of a B-17 Flying Fortress with his camera to snap a photograph. His photos were a way the U.S. Army Air Forces could tell whether bombs hit their targets.

Based in Italy, Oxenberg flew 62 combat missions with the 301st Bombardment Group, 419th Squadron, bombing factories and military installations in Germany, Hungary and Austria. Seventy years later, he still has the log that recorded those missions.

On Nov. 4, 1944, Oxenberg wrote, “I hope that today’s mission was the ‘rough’ one. I don’t like to think of having another one like it. It was one of those days. Everything happened. … Twice I passed out for short periods because of lack of oxygen.”

“His big fear was that he would die over some country where no one would know him,” said Jan Oxenberg, his daughter. “When he came back to the United States after his final mission, he literally bent down and kissed the ground.”

After the war, he made a name for himself starting several of his own businesses. But today, Oxenberg, who turns 90 on Sept. 2, is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and requires 24-hour care.

Like many people his age, Oxenberg is seeking admittance to the only dedicated Jewish elderly assistance facility in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Jewish Home, in Reseda, is the largest multilevel senior living facility in the Western United States. But it is also the smallest Jewish senior living facility, based on Los Angeles’ per capita Jewish population, according to Jewish Home CEO and President Molly Forrest. The Jewish Home caters to the needs of more than 1,900 in-residence seniors each year, providing services that include independent living accommodations, residential care, skilled nursing care, short-term rehabilitative care, acute psychiatric care, and Alzheimer’s disease and dementia care.

Arthur Oxenberg as a photographer during World War II. Photo courtesy of Jan Oxenberg

Consequently, the Jewish Home has a wait list of up to two years. On any given day, there are about 400 people on the list, and only 100 to 200 of those are actually admitted each year, according to Forrest.

“Our promise to provide for the comprehensive needs of our residents means that current residents who require a change in the level of their care are the first in line for any newly available space at the Home—before new applicants,” she said. “While the Home does have a wait list, each person is considered on a case-by-case basis. We make accommodations when we can, but we can’t simply have one person move ahead of others on the wait list.”

Jan Oxenberg, a television writer, contacted the Jewish Home in February when she moved her father from Florida to Los Angeles, where two of his four children reside. Since then, Arthur Oxenberg has lived in private assisted living facilities and a VA-contracted nursing home.

“It is so painful to see him like this. He grabs his head and says, ‘Make me real again!’ ” Jan said. “The amazing thing is that he knows who we are. He is still very talkative, friendly and social.”

Because of his condition, Jan sought to admit her father to the Jewish Home’s Auerbach Geriatric Psychiatry Unit program. Like all other applicants, Oxenberg was faced with the daunting wait list.

“We try to be responsive, but it’s hard when we are 98 percent filled at all times,” Forrest said.

The first priority for new admissions is those in unsafe living conditions.

“Preference may also be given to those who can benefit from the Home’s unique programs and services, including survivors of traumatic life events such as the Holocaust, violent crime or elder abuse,” she said.

“In reviewing applications, we do take hardships into consideration. However, each person is an individual who is considered on his or her particular and unique basis. We do give preference to those who have served the Jewish Home and Jewish community, including employees, volunteers, rabbis and Jewish communal workers,” Forrest said. “Making a donation is never a condition of admission to the Jewish Home. In fact, the vast majority of our residents are financially needy.”

For dementia care with skilled nursing, someone can be on the wait list for six months to two years.

This lengthy wait list is partially because the average age of Jewish Home residents is more than seven years above the national average and the average length of stay is more than eight years, compared with two to three years in similar settings, according to Forrest.

“Because of the quality of our home, we like to say that we add life to years and years to life,” she said. “Our statistics are unlike any other programs. We ask people why they want to come here. Half of the applicants on the wait list say because of the quality of our medical services, and the other half say that they are lonely and want to make friends.”

Reasons like this are why the Oxenbergs and other families are drawn to the Jewish Home.

Jan Oxenberg said that it’s important for her father to be able to socialize, something she knows the Jewish Home will provide. And so, Jan, and hundreds of other families, endure the wait in hopes of securing a spot in one of the Jewish Home’s facilities.

“One of the great things about the Jewish Home is that they honor our people,” Jan said. “It is very important for him to be in a place where he can be around people and socialize.”

Pro-Palestinian protests mar Israel celebration in Melbourne

A crowd of angry pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Melbourne marred the annual celebration of Israel’s independence.

Attendees at Tuesday night’s high-profile gathering of politicians, diplomats, bureaucrats and Jewish leaders were forced to walk past the 100-strong crowd that was held back by police, the Australian Jewish News reported.

Among the banners brandished by the protesters were “Israel – an apartheid state” and “Free Palestine.” At one point the protesters burned an effigy of Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu.

Inside the hotel, Baillieu defended the protesters’ right to express their views, but retorted by saying: “The wonderful thing in this country is that you can have your view. The even better thing is I can stand here and say, ‘You’re wrong.’”

BDS, which stands for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, should be re-named “Bigoted, Dangerous and Shameful,” the newspaper quoted Baillieu as saying.

His counterpart, Labor’s Daniel Andrews, said of the protests outside: “If we have to come through those scenes again [next year], then we’ll all do it with pride.”

In his address, Israeli Ambassador Yuval Rotem offered an olive branch to the Palestinians: “We want to live with you and not die with you,” he said. “We want to respect you as good neighbors and not fear you as a dreaded enemy.”

SHAVUOT: 10 ways to celebrate

Saturday, May 26

Rabbis Yonah Bookstein (Jewlicious) and Sharon Brous (IKAR) meet for a rabbinic head-to-head during a night of Shavuot celebration, which features TED-style learning, challah baking, meditation, tequila shots with the rabbis and more. Special guest speakers include Rabbis Shawn Fields-Meyer, Adam Greenwald, Rebecca Rosenthal, Shlomo Seidenfeld and Ronit Tsadok; David Myers, UCLA History Department chair; educators Batsheva Frankel and Becca Farber; filmmaker Tahlia Miller; Rachel Bookstein; and musician Hillel Tigay. Hosted by IKAR and Jewlicious, the celebration includes drinks, food, coffee, beer on tap and desserts throughout the night. Sat. 7 p.m. (dinner), 8 p.m.-1 a.m. (program). $10 (dinner), free (program). 1134 S. Crest Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870.

What did God say to the Israelites when they gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai? Answer: “Can you hear me now?” We’re called to answer the same question every Shavuot, when Jews traditionally gather to read the Ten Commandments and study all night in celebration and commemoration of receiving those commandments. In keeping with that, the LGBT synagogue remains open all night and invites the community to participate in learning, prayer, meditation and maybe even movement, starting with the chanting of the Ten Commandments, then a Yizkor service, followed by noshing and studying. Please bring something to share for the vegetarian/dairy potluck. Sat. 7 p.m. Free. Beth Chayim Chadashim, 6090 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023.

Valley Beth Shalom’s celebration features interactive text studies: “Removing the Slumber From Our Eyes: Religious Awakening in the Jewish Tradition,” led by Rabbi Joshua Hoffman; “Romancing the Torah: A Mystical Perspective,” led by Rabbi Paul Steinberg; and “The Hooker, the Spy, the Judge: Girls of the Bible,” led by Noah Zvi Farkas. Rabbis Ed Feinstein and Harold Schulweis discuss “Holy Heresy — Why God Loves Doubters,” followed by a blintz reception and late-night study with Rabbi Farkas.  On Sunday, May 27, Rabbi Schulweis officiates services (8:45 a.m.). On Monday, May 28, the second day of Shavuot, Rabbi Hoffman officiates services and Yizkor (8:45 a.m.). Sat. Through May 28. 7 p.m. (text studies), 8:30 p.m. (Ma’ariv and conversation), 10:30 p.m. (late-night study). Free. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000.

With many clergy come many opinions. Tonight at Stephen S. Wise Temple, learn how the values of our Jewish tradition inform clergy’s positions on relevant modern issues. A brief service includes the traditional reading of the Ten Commandments, followed by discussions “The Death Penalty: Moral Dilemma or Moral Insight?” led by Rabbis Spike Anderson and David Woznica; “What Is the Place of Taxes and Tzedakah in Creating a Moral Economy?” led by Rabbi Ron Stern and Cantor Nathan Lam; and “Judaism and Gay Marriage” led by Rabbis Eli Herscher and Lydia Medwin. Stick around for cheesecake. Sat. 7 p.m. Free. Stephen S. Wise Temple, 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 476-8561.

Author and educator Rabbi Yitzchak Blau travels from Israel to serve as scholar-in-residence during three days of celebration. Blau discusses “How Does the Prophet Differ From the Fortune Teller” during today’s Shabbat lecture. A full night of learning with Rabbis Blau, Elazar Muskin and Zeev Goldberg; chavruta learning and parent-child learning follow (11:45 p.m.-5 a.m.). On the afternoon of Sunday, May 27, Blau examines “Miracles and the Natural Order in Jewish Thought.” Finally on Monday, May 28, a women’s Shavuot lecture addresses “Fear, Anger and Arrogance,” and a special Shavuot party at the shul features food, singing and a presentation by Blau on “Excuses and the Meaning of Life.” Sat. Through May 28. 7:40 p.m. Free. Young Israel of Century City, 9317 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 273-6954.

In commemoration of mystics who began a tradition of studying late into the night as a commitment to receiving Torah anew each year, the independent congregation holds a night of learning led by Rabbi Naomi Levy. Please bring a dessert for the dairy potluck. Sat. 8 p.m. Free. Brentwood Presbyterian Church, Room 121, 1200 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles.

Experience the divine through the body and soul. Mincha, soulful singing by Minyan Kol Chai and Ma’ariv begin the celebration. A panel features body and soul professionals — including Taly Bar (Healing Body Work); Rabbi Sara Brandes, a certified yoga instructor; hypnotherapist Jesslyn Shani; and American Jewish University’s Rabbi Jay Strear — on “Experiencing the Divine Through Body and Soul,” followed by break-out sessions with individual panelists. Stick around for desert and late-night study sessions, going from 10:30 p.m. until midnight. Sat. 8 p.m. Free. Shomrei Torah Synagogue, 7353 Valley Circle Blvd., West Hills. (818) 346-0811.

Cantor Ila Bigeleisen, Rabbinic Intern Matt Rosenberg and Rabbi Deborah Silver conduct a carousel of learning over three sessions during “On One Foot,” seeking a modern response to the challenge posed to Hillel: “Teach me Torah while I stand on one foot.” Break for cheesecake at 10 p.m. At 10:45 p.m. Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard leads late-night session “The Original On One Foot Judaism.” Sat. 8:30 p.m. Free. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426.

Will the real Judaism please stand up? Temple Beth Am partners with Adat Shalom, Temple Emanuel, prayer group Pico Egal and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies for a joint Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Emanuel’s Rabbi Laura Geller and Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz of the Chai Center lead a midnight session. On Sunday, May 27, participate in combined services at Temple Beth Am at 9:30 a.m. Second-day services on Monday, May 28, include Shir Hadash in the synagogue’s sanctuary at 9:15 a.m., and the Library Minyan gathers in the synagogue’s Dorff Nelson Chapel at 9:30 a.m. Yizkor follows at both locations. Immediately after, join a shul-wide picnic at La Cienega Park (meet at the picnic table on the east side of La Cienega Boulevard, north of Olympic Boulevard). Bring a dairy picnic lunch, drinks and blankets. Child care provided. Sat. Through May 28. 9 p.m. Free. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7353.

“How is the Jewish community both a blessing and a burden?” Listen to personal stories, spoken-word pieces and music, and explore ancient and meaningful texts. Eat, drink, study, share, celebrate and stay up until midnight and beyond. Sat. 9 p.m. Free. Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 876-8330.

Amid security concerns in Tunisia, a smaller Hiloula celebration

Two thousand years ago, a mysterious woman who was unable to talk arrived on this island. Every sick person she touched was healed. Although she died when her wooden house caught fire, her body remained intact and did not burn.

That’s a local legend.

Another is that the miracle worker is buried beneath the foundation stone of the El Ghriba Synagogue, one of the oldest continuously used synagogues in the Diaspora and the site of an annual pilgrimage that typically brings thousands to Djerba seeking answers to their prayers.

This year, amid political uncertainty and security concerns, the two-day celebration held last week on Lag b’Omer drew more journalists and police than pilgrims.

“We have about 300 people here from abroad today, but most are locals,” said Rene Trabelsi, a Paris-based organizer of the celebration whose family oversees the synagogue. “What’s important is that we are having this event this year because last year it did not happen. I hope we can slowly increase the number of people attending each year.”

Last year, in the aftermath of Tunisia’s revolution that overthrew the country’s long time autocrat Zine El Abddine Ben Ali and killed more than 300 Tunisians, the Hiloula celebration was canceled.

Pilgrimages in previous years had attracted thousands of visitors to Djerba. After the El Ghriba Synagogue was attacked in 2002, the pilgrimage was vastly scaled back, but the number of pilgrims steadily increased until nearly 10,000 came in 2010.

Heavy security accompanied this year’s event, and those coming by car faced some dozen checkpoints en route.

Elias al-Fakhfakh, Tunisia’s minister of tourism and a member of the center-left Ettakatol political party, attended on the second day. The crowd, which had been singing kabbalistic tunes outside the synagogue, switched to the Tunisian national anthem as al-Fakhfakh approached.

Entering the El Ghriba sanctuary, al-Fakhfakh put on a kabbus, a red traditional Tunisian hat that many Tunisian Jewish men wear as a kippah.

Before cameras from almost every Tunisian television station, al-Fakhfakh viewed both the sefer Torah and holy area where the foundation stone is believed to be.

“It is great that Muslims and Jews can celebrate this occasion together,” he told a cheering crowd before heading off to a meal with local Jewish community leaders. “After the Tunisian revolution we adopted new democratic values. We have a new country with a deep heritage that accepts people with different cultures and religions.

“As a government,” he said, “we want to embrace good relations between Jews and Muslims in the new free Tunisia.”

During the pilgrimage, El Ghriba’s sanctuary becomes a holding place for people’s wishes, which are written on paper and placed inside cracks of the wall—similar to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Coins are placed inside oil lamps for tzedakah, charity.

Women seeking to marry or have children visit El Ghriba and write their wishes on boiled eggs, symbolizing life. Candles are lit for those asking for good health and a long life.

A door to the foundation stone, which is beneath the ark, is opened during the pilgrimage, so the candles and eggs may be placed on the stone.

Newlywed Vanessa Mamou, whose father is from Djerba, traveled from Paris for the celebration.

“I put an egg in the synagogue because I am married and want to have a baby,” she told JTA. “My sister is here because she wants to meet someone and get married.”

The El Ghriba legend is important not only for Tunisian Jews but for Muslims as well.

“This is a holy place for all Djerbians, not just the Jews,” a woman named Khalija said as she was leaving the sanctuary. “I came to light a candle with my Jewish friend.”

Unlike previous years, when the celebration attracted Tunisians and non-Tunisians from abroad, nearly all of this year’s pilgrims were Tunisian.

Many were local Djerbians; others came from Tunis. The remaining were Tunisians visiting from Europe, although the visitors included a couple of French pilgrims.

“My family left Tunisia when I was 10 years old, but I spent almost every summer growing up in Tunisia,” said Isabel, who came with her husband and daughter from Paris. “No one will scare me away from coming here because this is my country. I am Tunisian and will never be afraid of my country.”

Adjacent to the synagogue is a building that once served as an inn housing visitors, primarily Libyan Jews visiting El Ghriba. With the growth of the tourism industry and the establishment of vast hotels in recent years, the building is mostly abandoned year-round.

But during the two-day Hiloula, the inn becomes a center of celebration. Live traditional Tunisian music, in Hebrew and Arabic, is sung to the beat of the darbouka drum.

The smell of fried brik—a flour envelope of potatoes, Tunisian hot sauce known as harissa, parsley and egg—is present in the air. Families sit together on benches and munch on fresh almonds, apricots, oranges, cantaloupe and mulberries that are sold in nearby stands.

For some Tunisians who have been abroad for many years, the celebration is a chance to reconnect with Tunisia. On sale are CDs of famous Tunisian Jewish singers from the community’s past as well as DVD collections of recent Tunisian sitcoms.

Previous celebrations have attracted many Israeli pilgrims, but this year Israel issued a travel warning advising its people not to attend.

Perez Trabelsi, El Ghriba’s president, criticized the Israelis in the local French language Tunisian newspaper, Le Press, for not attending this year.

According to some foreign attendees, many foreign visitors canceled after the Islamist Tunisian party Ennahda invited Youssef Al Qaradawi, a Qatar-based Egyptian sheik well known for his endorsement of suicide bombings, on a multi-city speaking tour of Tunisia in the week leading up to the Hiloula.

The mirth of the Bar Mitzvah

Think of what might happen to the Jewish calendar if literary scholars got their hands on it.  Tisha B’Av would be classified as a tragedy, Tu B’Shevat would come under the heading of the pastoral, and Yom Kippur could serve as a soliloquy. But what would the bar mitzvah ceremony be? The answer is obvious: a comedy.

There is something inherently amusing about the rite of passage by which a 13-year-old dares to assume the formal status of adulthood. There is something risible about that presumption, which is why novelists like Philip Roth, with “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1969), and Mordecai Richler, with “Joshua Then and Now” (1980), find such rituals irresistible. Satirists also seize an opening when this ceremony encourages the most extravagant and prosperous among us to exhibit excesses of spending and consumption.

Not that weddings have been spared the vulgarities of indulgence and ostentation. But the statistical possibility is high that nuptials may not inaugurate a happily-ever-after union. They might also be a prelude to divorce, acrimony, alimony, bitterness and pain. By contrast, the advantage of the bar mitzvah is its invitation to the pleasure of youthfulness and unimpeded promise, before frustration and failure will take their toll. The onset of adolescence offers parents a chance to demonstrate the lavishness of their love and their hopes. And the ceremony gives their sons and daughters a chance to demonstrate the learning — and maybe even the interpretive prowess, eloquence and wit — that a community famously devoted to education prizes. 

Nor has the exuberance marking such religious occasions escaped the rest of America. By the beginning of this century, about eight decades after the first bat mitzvah ceremony (1922), the Wall Street Journal reported that young non-Jews in Dallas wanted to have the parties their Jewish friends enjoyed. One girl even told her Methodist parents that she “wanted to be Jewish,” and was willing to study Hebrew, “so that I could have a bat mitzvah.”

Filmmakers have not been far behind. The plot of “Keeping Up With the Steins” (2006) is devoted entirely to the competitive yearning to provide a truly memorable, truly extravagant bar mitzvah celebration, with pop star Neil Diamond risking self-parody by providing the entertainment at the climax of Scott Marshall’s satiric film. In “A Serious Man” (2009), the Coen brothers made their Job-like protagonist — coming up for tenure even as his family is coming apart — pose existential problems for feckless rabbis even as his son prepares for his big day, which somehow proves a triumph after all. 

When “A Serious Man” was first screened at Brandeis University, both the leading actor (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Aaron Wolff, who plays his son, fielded questions afterward.  When asked about the cinematic choice of the Torah portion, Wolff revealed that it was what he actually recited in his own bar mitzvah ceremony.  The young actor did not want to learn a new portion. And in “Sixty Six” (2006), the British comedy directed by Paul Weiland, even Helena Bonham Carter got into the act, playing the mother of a bar mitzvah boy in London.

Sometimes the occasion prefigures the career of the adult. In 2008, obituary notices for Irvine Robbins, the co-founder of Baskin-Robbins, noted that, along with Burton Baskin, he started their spectacularly successful business with money he had saved from his bar mitzvah. At the party after his own bar mitzvah, Allan Stewart Konigsberg did a competent Al Jolson imitation.  Roughly a decade later, as Woody Allen, he would be launched on a multifaceted, multitalented show-biz career that would exemplify, even more than Jolson’s, the ambiguities of assimilation in American Jewish life.

Or take Norman Mailer’s bar mitzvah speech, which recorded its author’s ambition to stand in the line of “great Jews like Moses Maimonides and Karl Marx.” And while the future novelist and New Journalist famously resisted, as he wrote in “The Armies of the Night” (1968), the “fatal taint” of identity as “the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn,” Mailer certainly resembled those earlier heroes in his proclivity for making trouble. 

The parents of Carl Bernstein were politically so far to the left that the FBI copied down the license plate numbers of the guests at his bar mitzvah. So there is something fitting about the effectiveness of Bernstein’s reporting, while covering the Watergate crisis for the Washington Post with Bob Woodward, of the abuse of power. How apt as well that the first girl at the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York to be assertive and articulate enough to demand a bat mitzvah turns out to have been a future Supreme Court justice, Elena Kagan.

But the oddities and paradoxes from which comedy springs are most evident in the gap between the awkwardness of youth and the responsibilities of adulthood. Humor is often about discrepancy, because an erudite and solemn adult was once a pisher who stood on the bimah and pretended to be a grown-up. Those who manage to carve out lives of dignity and sobriety, of achievement and eminence, were once, after all, only 13 years old. Because oaks were once acorns, such differences can come across as funny. We know that Rabbi Leo Baeck spoke at the ceremony of the future Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann, and we know that Rabbi Max Kadushin officiated when the future Columbia critic Lionel Trilling became bar mitzvah. But to imagine what such academic luminaries were like as kids is to experience a shock of recognition — they, too, went through the same motions — that makes us all kin.

The late Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell went one better by telling a bar mitzvah joke on himself. Shortly before he underwent the ritual of assuming manhood, Bell confessed to the rabbi a disbelief in God. The rabbi is supposed to have replied: “Tell me something, Danny. Do you think God really cares?”

Chanukah in Israel: Sufganiyot on the streets, burning lights and family fun

They’re making sufganiyot on the streets of Israel; Chanukah must be near.

Actually it started feeling like Chanukah here about two days after Sukkot, when the first vendors started frying the delicious and caloric doughnuts in vats of oil in front of bakeries and on the street in towns throughout the country.

As malls in America rush the Christmas season by putting up decorations right after Halloween, some vendors in the heart of Jerusalem were making sufganiyot in the middle of Sukkot.

I spend the weeks until Chanukah checking out the sufganiyot offerings—jelly, chocolate, custard, you name it. At a rumored 1,000 calories each, I can only allow myself one or two throughout the whole season, so they had better be good.

One of the highlights of my family’s Chanukah is our annual venture to a fancy coffee shop for sufganiyot and hot cocoa (for the kids, coffee for me). Last year’s offerings included sufganiyot filling with flavors such as champagne, taffy and pistachio.

But Chanukah in Israel is not all about sufganiyot. With the kids out of school for a week, family fun rules. Workplaces mostly stay open, but stay-at-home moms and parents who manage to get some end-of-the-year time off do not want for kid-friendly activities during Chanukah.

Cities throughout Israel offer many cultural extravaganzas during the holiday. There are musicals and plays for children, often starring some of the best known old and new Israeli television and music personalities. Malls feature children’s programming like arts and crafts stations, or they set up stages with visits from jugglers, singers and often characters from beloved Israeli children’s shows such as “Yuval Mibubal” (“Yuval the Confused”) or “Kofiko” (a monkey with very human traits).

One of our favorite happenings in recent years featured candle dipping. Others included demonstrations of making olive oil and pita (and eating).

There are also plenty of Chanukah parties to attend in the evenings, either public or private. Like in America, synagogues, schools and other institutions host parties, and kindergartens put on pre-Chanukah extravaganzas with song-and-dance presentations for parents. Families get together to light candles and fry latkes in celebration of the miracle of the oil.

Our extended family gets together every year for Chanukah, though coordinating the event becomes more difficult each year as more of the nieces and nephews marry, move away from the community and have children of their own. One of the highlights of our party is the family sing-along, which begins with songs for Chanukah, moves on to well-loved national Israeli songs and finally moves into a different realm—Simon and Garfunkel and show tunes.

There are plenty of public lightings of the chanukiyah—in the Knesset, on army bases, at the Western Wall. The president and the prime minister travel to significant spots throughout the country, and sometimes the world, to kindle the Chanukah lights.

Also as in the United States, and throughout the world, Chabad is a palpable presence in Israel during Chanukah, with their chanukiyot sprouting in town squares, public parks and on the backs of cars. In our own community, the local Chabad lights a tall chanukiyah in the middle of our open-air mall, inviting children to come each night to sing the blessings and enjoy sufganiyot.

Perhaps the best part about being in Israel during Chanukah is walking down the streets of many cities and seeing Chanukah lights burning, often in special glass containers, outside next to the front door. With the mezuzah on one side and the Chanukah lights on the other, the home is surrounded by mitzvot, according to tradition. And since everyone lights their own chanukiyot, it is not uncommon to see a home with dozens of lights burning in the window.

It truly makes Chanukah feel like a national celebration.

Celebration to mark raising of Israeli flag at consulate

The blue and white flag with the Star of David will be raised for the first time in front of the Israeli Consulate on Sunday, Sept. 28, in a community-wide celebration of the Jewish state, its 60th anniversary and the beginning of Rosh Hashanah.

The flag-raising ceremony and celebration has been almost one year in the making, starting with the arrival in Los Angeles of the new Israeli consul general, Yaakov Dayan.

He was puzzled why there was no flag flying in front of the consulate, nor, as he has learned, at any other Israeli diplomatic mission in the United States. The most common reason given for the low profile was security, but Dayan didn’t buy it.

“There are Israeli flags flying in front of our missions in much more dangerous places throughout the world, including our embassy in Cairo,” he told The Journal.

“I remember walking with my father when I was a child in Tel Aviv, and when we saw foreign flags, he would tell me about each of the countries they represented,” Dayan recalled.

“When I came to Los Angeles, I thought of how many kids pass along Wilshire each day and might ask what the blue and white flag with the six-pointed star meant,” he added.

Dayan quickly learned that putting up three flagpoles on Wilshire Boulevard for the Israeli, U.S. and California flags required numerous permits and some political help from City Councilman Jack Weiss and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

The Israeli flag to be hoisted on Sept. 28 has a history of its own, having flown originally over the embattled town of Sderot, regularly exposed to hostile fire from the Gaza Strip.

When Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Dayan visited Israel last June, the flag was formally presented to the mayor by Shimon Peres, president of Israel.

At the same time that two Israeli soldiers raise their country’s colors, the Stars and Stripes will be hoisted by U.S. Marines and the California Bear flag by the National Guard in festivities starting at 1 p.m. in front of the consulate building at 6380 Wilshire Blvd.

Dayan and his staff are going all-out to make the one-hour event a joyous and memorable occasion for the Jewish and general communities of Los Angeles.

Among the highlights planned are:

Music by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, which will play the Israeli and U.S. national anthems.

Performances by various school choirs.

Short speeches by Villaraigosa and Dayan.

Some 60 rabbis will join in blowing shofars to welcome the Jewish New Year.

Schoolchildren will prepare and send New Year cards to Israeli kids in development towns and communities exposed to rocket fire. Students from the Milken Community High School will wear special T-shirts for the occasion.

Vera Cruz and other Latino bands will entertain after the ceremony.

Israeli and American pop stars, among them Macy Gray, Noa Tishby and Hedva Amrani, will sing.

In addition, two youngsters will win free flights to Israel, courtesy of El Al, where they will visit schools in various parts of the country.

Diplomats from Mexico and other countries, political leaders and representatives from Mormon and Christian evangelist churches will join the festivities.

While the focus of the celebration will be on Israel, Los Angeles will also benefit. A blood donation center will be on site to benefit the bone marrow transplant unit at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. Villaraigosa and Dayan will be the first donors to the blood drive initiated by Rabbi Hershy Ten, president of the Bikur Cholim Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

“This celebration will be an apt and enjoyable way for the community to show its solidarity with the people of Israel,” Dayan said.

Shahar Azani, Israeli consul for public affairs, added, “Too many times must we come together to protest attacks on Israel or mourn victims, so it’s time for a happy get-together.”

Wilshire Boulevard between San Vicente Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue will be closed during the celebration. Free or reduced-fee parking will be available within walking distance of the consulate. For more information, visit

Flag Day

What a weird week.

The presidential race, instead of focusing on the best energy policy, the best Mideast policy, the best health care policy, wasall about moose and pigs and pitbulls. The financial companies that once defined stability have teetered or collapsed. The stock market is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a hurricane ate our Gulf Coast refineries and, by the way, is anybody noticing that Pakistan is imploding?

Meanwhile, over at the Israeli Consulate, they’re planning a massive, pull-out-the-stops effort to … raise the Israeli flag?

That’s right. On Sunday, Sept. 28, thousands of people are expected to rally outside the Israeli Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard to watch as the blue and white national flag is raised permanently in front of the building.

You would think there are more important things to focus on right now. To be honest, when Consul General Jacob Dayan first told me his idea, that was my gut reaction — which I kept to myself. The world is going nuts, and that’s what you want us to do — raise a flag?

But I’ve let the idea percolate; I’ve turned it over in my head, and sure enough, I’ve changed my mind. It’s the perfect thing to do. It’s brilliant.

Neither Dayan nor the building’s owner, Jamison Services, will discuss why until now no Israeli flag has been allowed to stand in front of the otherwise nondescript office tower at 6380 Wilshire Blvd.

But let’s hazard a wild guess: security.

Building owners and Israeli ambassadors themselves regularly cite concerns over protests and terrorism as the primary reasons so few Israeli diplomatic stations display their country’s flag.

It’s not an unreasonable concern. From 1969 to the present there have been at least 30 attacks on Israeli embassies, according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (The ministry actually lists and details the attacks on its Web sites, which could not have made Dayan’s job convincing his landlord any easier). The most recent one occurred this past February, when a group calling itself “al Qaeda in the Magreb” fired shots at the Israeli Embassy in Mauritania, wounding three local residents.

It’s a fact of life: Israel’s blue and white is a red flag for the fanatics. Wave it, and they are likely to charge.

Sometimes, the reaction is horrific, as at the El Al ticket counter several years ago, when a man opened fire by the flag. Sometimes, it is boringly predictable, as at those Hezbollah rallies in Lebanon, where they actually have to make their own Israeli flag just to destroy it. Sometimes, it is pathetic: In the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem last spring, a 50-year-old Orthodox Israeli man waving his flag on Israel’s Independence Day was set upon and beaten by members of the anti-Zionist Naturei Karta Jewish sect.

Given these reactions, it’s only wise and natural to be cautious, to fear the fanatics and abide by their rule: Don’t you dare display your flag.

And now, Dayan is offering his response: tough.

In his book, “A Case for Democracy,” Natan Sharansky offers up a test to determine whether a society is truly free and democratic. He calls it his Town Square test:

“If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a ‘fear society’ has finally won their freedom.”

I suspect the default reflex of Jews is to rest inside a fear society. Centuries of persecution have conditioned us to cut our losses and accept a base level of fear and intimidation, so long as our families and livelihoods are not immediately threatened. Our mental public square has always been inhabited by thugs: We have grown comfortable with them.

The establishment of the State of Israel was supposed to have freed us from the physical ghettos in which Jews found themselves and from these psychic ones, as well. A free people in a free land could not be bullied, need not live in fear.

The physical and psychic shackles cracked in 1948, when the Israeli flag was first raised over the independent, sovereign Jewish state, and they broke in 1967, when the country swept to victory in the Six-Day War and the flag flew over a united Jerusalem.

But that was then. Now, with terror at our doorsteps and Israel still in peril, most of us are content to lay low. It turns out we are less butterfly than hermit crab. Survival teaches us that rather than float free, better to run from shell to shell.

But if we let our city fail the Town Square test, we delude ourselves in thinking we can forever be safe off the square, in our synagogues, at our schools. Whether we fly the flag or not, those who would do us harm will find us anyway.

In the Age of Google, there is no way to hide. We can be better or worse targets, but we are still targets.

The vast majority of us want to live in a world where disagreements don’t demand violence. We don’t want the crazy few determining how we live our lives, demonstrate our loyalties, express our identity. We want a thousand flags to fly (including, yes, the Palestinian one). We want to be free.

That’s why I love Dayan’s vision. He saw reality and raised it — hell, he went all in. Once he received approval to fly the flag, he could have just quietly run it up one morning and left it at that. But no: He has arranged to close off Wilshire Boulevard between San Vicente Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. He has invited schools, synagogues and churches to come out and show their support. There will be a stage, speeches (short, he promises), dignitaries and performance by a recording artist Macy Gray.

The Israeli flag is going up on Wilshire Boulevard; attention will be paid, and I, for one, will be there.

Keep the youngest wedding guests happy — and keep your sanity

Some things go together like matzah balls and chicken soup; some don’t. And the wedding/kid combination traditionally falls into the latter category. After all, unlike the bar/bat mitzvah bash, which is generally a party designed with kids in mind, the wedding celebration has adult written all over it. Toss in a stressed-out bride, a drawn-out nuptial ceremony, imported caviar and free-flowing liquor, and you’ve got an event that’s about as kid-unfriendly as they come.

Nevertheless, the flower and ring bearer must march on. Not to mention that there are times when kids belong at the wedding. As in cases of second marriages and blended families (statistics show that in America alone, 1,300 new stepfamilies form daily), family obligations (it wouldn’t be nice to blow off your soon-to-be nieces and nephews, would it?) and out-of-town guest considerations (Cousin Howie and the gang came all the way from Florida to witness your big day. How could you ask him to deadbolt his kids in a claustrophobic hotel room with a rent-a-sitter for the night?).

Fortunately, it’s perfectly possible to welcome children at your wedding without compromising the sanctity of the event or the sanity of any involved parties. The following kid-friendly touches will help ensure your littlest guests remain happy and occupied throughout.

It’s in the Bag

Upon arrival, present children with a special wedding goody bag packed with items like crayons and coloring books and bride and groom paper dolls. Be sure to throw in some kid-friendly snacks like granola bars, raisins, and goldfish crackers to fend off any hunger-induced meltdowns during the ceremony.

Put Them to Work

Kids are amazingly capable of rising to the occasion — especially when they have an “important” job to do, like passing out wedding programs, manning the kippah station or ushering guests to their seats. And they needn’t clock out after the ceremony. At the beginning of the party, give each child a disposable camera labeled with his or her name and explain that they have been hired as a junior photographer. In doing so, you’ll not only keep little hands snapping and out of trouble, you’ll capture unique, child’s-eye-view imagery of your celebration that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

Make It a Happy Meal

Let’s face it. Your pint-sized guests have a bagel’s chance at a Passover seder of successfully sitting through a five-course meal made up of exclusively grown-up fare. So ask your caterer to set up a kiddie buffet line. Nothing extravagant — a no-frills table topped with carrot sticks and ranch dressing, chicken nuggets and french fries is all it will take to keep the younger set satisfied. (Happy Note: This strategy is liable to work in your favor from a cost-per-head standpoint, too.)

Set Up a Playspace

Off in the corner of the ballroom — or a nearby nook or cranny — create a makeshift kid-zone. Blocks, LEGOs, board games, Play-Doh, minimal-mess art supplies, even a couple of muted GameBoys will give jittery kiddies a welcome retreat from the adult-oriented wedding festivities.

Arrange a Mitzvah Station

Include in your playspace an area where kids can take part in an act of gemilut chasadim (lovingkindness). Put out papers, markers and stickers and let children make cheerful cards for patients at a local hospital, or have them pack care packages for American and Israeli troops. By orchestrating such mitzvoth you’ll cap the festive flair of the evening with some good old-fashioned Jewish values.

Work Magic

If you will have a significant number of children in attendance (and some extra funds in your budget), consider hiring a kid-friendly entertainer to work the crowd at the party. Magicians fit the bill nicely as they traditionally don black-tie attire that won’t clash with the decor while captivating the interest of children and adults alike.

Send Them Hunting

Keep kids constructively mingling with the crowd with a wedding guest scavenger hunt. Give each child a pencil and a list of descriptions, such as “a member of the bridal party” or “someone from Georgia,” and challenge them to collect signatures of guests who meet each criterion. Award prizes to successful searchers.

Hire “Camp Counselors”

Truth be told, even taking kid-friendly measures, such as those mentioned above, can’t ensure your littlest guests won’t stray into the lobby for a round of elevator races or — worse yet — into a crowded parking lot or hotel swimming pool. Keep your troops safe and under control, while giving their parents a welcome break, by hiring some trustworthy individuals to act as camp-style counselors at your event. These responsible parties should orchestrate games and activities in the kiddie corner, ensure children move smoothly through the buffet line and other child-friendly activities and put out fires caused by sibling spats and other munchkin meltdowns. (Hint: If you have a sizeable age span among children, assign one counselor to the older kids and another to the younger group.)

Wind Them Down With a Video

If your wedding celebration will last into the wee hours, arrange for your event facility to set up a television and DVD player in a nearby-but-out-of-earshot-of-the-party spot. As the bewitching hour draws near, have your counselors invite all of the children to watch a G-rated late-night flick. Supply pillows, blankets and a couple of bags of popcorn and — with a little luck and a well-chosen movie (nothing too peppy or scary) — your crowd will be crashed by the closing credits.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning educator and mother of four. Her Jewish parenting book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?” is now available everywhere.

Some retirees make aliyah to San Miguel de Allende

This coming week, Angelenos of all races and creeds will join in Cinco de Mayo celebrations that the local Mexican American community has adopted as its major holiday (even though it is different from Mexico’s actual Independence Day, which is Sept. 16; May 5 marks a victory of the Mexican army over French invaders during the U.S. Civil War).

Two weeks later, the Jewish community will celebrate Israel’s 60th birthday, which falls on May 14, according to the Gregorian calendar but is celebrated on 5 Iyar, or May 18, this year.

Although the history of Mexican-Israeli relations has sometimes been strained — while several Central American countries voted in favor of the U.N. partition plan creating the State of Israel, Mexico abstained — the two L.A. communities get along just fine. Moreover, a growing number of American Jews have chosen to retire to Mexico, creating a different kind of dual allegiance than the one usually associated with moving to Israel.

Two of the largest American expatriate communities are located in the charming city of San Miguel de Allende, three hours north of Mexico City, and Ajijic, a lakeside community near the city of Guadalajara. The latter has a retired Reform rabbi to lead the community, while the former has gone through some turbulent times while attempting to establish lay spiritual leadership.

Just like the proximity of the Mexican and Israeli celebrations this month, in the early fall, the Jews of San Miguel de Allende celebrate Sukkot, while the city as a whole celebrates its name day. Jews join in, as well, because unlike many of Mexico’s often religiously tinged fiestas, San Miguel de Allende’s autumn celebration is not marked by pilgrimages carrying crucifixes and religious images. Instead, native residents from the state of Guanajuato and beyond flood into the narrow, cobble-stone streets of historic San Miguel dressed in traditional Native American garb, typically wearing flamboyantly feathered headdresses and dancing with abandon to occasionally frenzied drumbeats.

It is a three-day spectacle that rivals the most famous of the world’s storied carnivals, and it is capped off by a spectacular display of fireworks, featuring whirling rockets that take off from temporary pillars erected in the city’s fabled central square.

The Jewish community of San Miguel de Allende is almost as unique as the city itself, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its distinctive beauty and history as a cradle of Mexican independence. Virtually all of its members are North American retirees: San Miguel de Allende is consistently ranked by American publications as one of the top retirement cities outside the United States for its affordable quality of life and pleasant year-round climate.

With but a few exceptions, no Jews lived in San Miguel de Allende prior to 30 years or so ago; nor has there ever been any more than the handful of Jewish children that are there today.

It is not surprising, therefore, that there is no synagogue in San Miguel de Allende. Organized Jewish life was never a priority for American Jewish retirees relocating here, compared to the city’s other attractions, including a vibrant arts community. For this reason, it is extremely difficult even to estimate the number of Jewish residents. The best guesstimates are several-hundred souls marginally identified as Jews. In the winter months, known as the “season,” the arrival of American and Canadian snowbirds multiplies this number several times over.

In recent years, an organized Jewish community of sorts has emerged. For several of the initial years, the community identified more or less with the Jewish Renewal movement. Then a traditional, egalitarian American Conservative-style minyan began operating on Shabbat mornings. For some reason, as tiny as the number of actively engaged Jews is, a serious schism developed, with the result that today, these two groups do not talk with one another.

The mantle of an organized Jewish community now rests on an entity called Shalom San Miguel, which itself has already seen splits and defections among its small board of directors. Nevertheless, Shalom San Miguel has managed to score some impressive accomplishments: It has secured a meeting place at the downtown Quinta Loreto Hotel, where services and adult education classes are held, and a sukkah is built in the courtyard.

Twice weekly classes in Talmud and Kabbalah are led by Shalom San Miguel President Larry Stone, formerly of Pittsburgh. He and his wife, Carole, also teach Hebrew to the community’s children. According to Stone, the crowning glory of Shalom San Miguel’s activities is the weekly Torah study shiur held at 11:15 a.m. every Saturday.

“In the season, we have been known to attract more than 50 people to Torah study,” he noted, adding that High Holy Days services drew similar numbers from residents in San Miguel de Allende and cities up to several hours’ drive away.

The star of High Holy Days services is clearly the Jewish community’s elder statesman, Sidney Yakerson. At 91, he blows the shofar effortlessly, sounding clear blasts whose length would be the envy of many a younger man.

Stone envisions Shalom San Miguel as an umbrella organization comprising secular individuals, as well as groups representing both Reform and Conservative services: “Ideally, we would like to see a Reform Friday night service that would complement nicely the Saturday morning Conservative service,” he said.

In the meantime, according to the organization’s weekly e-newsletter, several Shalom San Miguel families, including the few who drive to Mexico City from time to time to purchase kosher provisions, are planning to hold monthly Kabbalat Shabbat services and dinners in members’ homes. The community also occasionally invites visiting scholars-in-residence and receives visits from Chabad emissaries. .

Finally, San Miguel de Allende may not have a synagogue, but it does boast an interesting landmark building in the downtown area with the intriguing name of Casa Cohen. Adorned with a Magen David and a frieze referencing the Arca de Noe, Casa Cohen houses a decorative metalworking shop where a shopper may find a chanukiah or mezuzah for sale.

The building is owned by a Sephardic Jewish family with roots in the large Mexican city of Guadalajara. True to Mexican form, whether or not the local Cohens choose to travel to Guadalajara to celebrate the Jewish holidays, they would not be found worshipping with Ashkenazic Shalom San Miguel de Allende.

Buzzy Gordon is a travel writer who writes frequently about Jewish communities around the world.

Israelis build new traditions at L.A. seders

Nitzan and Shaul Barakan

Nitzan and Shaul Barakan had to come all the way from Israel to the United States to learn words like “afikoman” and “seder plate.”

The couple, both born and raised on Kibbutz Kinneret, didn’t have a clue that there is a haggadah that looks nothing like the one they used on the kibbutz.

“We had huge Passover seders every single year, with 1,000 participants in the kibbutz dinning hall” recalled Nitzan, a Hebrew teacher. “Every class performed a song, but those were not necessarily the songs from the haggadah, but spring songs. Even the songs from the original haggadah had a different melody. This holiday was all about nature, the beginning of spring and little to do with religion.”

The kibbutz, Nitzan admitted, never had much to do with religion. They were careful not to place a loaf of bread on the seder table, but bread was part of every meal in the days to follow.

It’s funny, they say, that they discovered their Jewish roots only after emigrating, but over the years, for the sake of their children and friends who came to their home to celebrate Passover, they have combined materials from the kibbutz haggadah with more traditional ones and created their own family version.

“We don’t have the traditional blessings, we created our own,” she said. “Our seder today is much more traditional than the one we had in our youth. We have the seder plate, and when the children were younger, we used to hide the afikoman.”

Another new discovery was the Elijah cup that is left on the table for the prophet.

“We decided to adopt this custom as well,” Nitzan said, “but instead of leaving the cup of wine and chair for Elijah, we leave it for our kidnapped soldier, Ron Arad, in the hope that one day soon, he’ll come back home.”

Shirly Brener

” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ align = ‘right’ hspace = ‘8’ alt=””>non- Jewish friends that we invite to the seder, so they can learn about our tradition” said Nazarian, founder of CECI (Citizen Empowerment Center in Israel).

In Iran, the family often invited guests who didn’t have anywhere to celebrate the seder. Here, the Nazarian family keeps up tradition and will celebrate both nights of Passover with dozens of guests.

A well-loved Iranian tradition at the Nazarians’ house comes when they get to the part of “Dayenu” in the haggadah.

Curacao shul offers venue with Caribbean flavor

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Buzzy Gordon is a travel writer who writes frequently about Jewish communities around the world.

No matter how you say it

Below are several ways to say “Happy New Year.” Match the expression to the language it comes from and dazzle your family with your knowledge. Here’s a hint: No. 9 is I

1) Afrikaans                a) Boldog Ooy Ayvet
2) Chinese                  b) Bonne Annee
3) French                   c) Felice anno nuovo
4) Hawaiian                 d) Feliz Ano Nuevo
5) Hebrew                   e) Gelukkige nuwe jaar
6) Hungarian                f) Godt Nyttar
7) Italian                  g) Hauoli Makahiki Hou
8) Norwegian                h) L'Shanah Tovah
9) Russian                  i) S Novim Godom
10) Spanish                 j) Xin Nian Kuai Le

The correct answers are at the bottom oh the page — scroll down!

Off The Page

There is an expression in the theater: “The show must go on.” Now that the Broadway stagehands are no longer on strike, the show is going on — thank goodness. But what is it a stagehand does? The new book, “How Does the Show Go On?” by Thomas Schumacher with Jeff Kurtti (Disney Enterprises, Inc., $19.95), gives kids an inside look at what happens behind the curtain of some of the biggest musicals on Broadway.

Schumacher, the producer of the Tony-winning “The Lion King,” organizes the chapters as a “How-To” guide to the theater. The Overture talks about the different kinds of shows and theaters; Act One gives insight into on-stage and off-stage happenings and includes a Playbill from “The Lion King”; Act Two features an interview with Henry Hodges, who played young Michael Banks in “Mary Poppins,” and talks about what it is like to be a performer; the last section, Encore, includes a rehearsal script from “Tarzan,” in case you want to try your hand at putting on your own show.

The pictures alone make this a great read for anyone who loves the theater — either from the stage or from the house (read the book and you’ll learn what that term means).

The Jewish Journal is giving away one copy of “How Does the Show Go On?” Just send an e-mail to with your name, age, school and either 1) What it is you love most about the theater, or 2) What your favorite musical or play is and why. We’ll select one person, and the winning essay will run on our Jan. 25 yeLAdim page (so please use spell-check). Deadline is Jan. 15. Good luck and happy writing!

Holidays NOT on the Calendar

In addition to the Jan. 22 celebration of Tu B’Shevat (the new year for trees; more of that in next week’s Jewish Journal), there are a few television events taking place in January that, although observed by many in the United States, aren’t quite big enough to make it on the calendar.

  • Tournament of Roses Parade — On Jan. 1, millions will gather around their TVs, and thousands will gather on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, to watch this New Year’s Day ritual that’s been going on annually since 1890. The parade was originally created to rub the beautiful Southern California weather (and flowers) in the face of East Coasters and Midwesterners who have to deal with winter snow. FYI: It has only rained once during the parade — a downpour in 2006.
  • “American Idol” Returns — On Tuesday, Jan. 15 and Wednesday, Jan. 16, Ryan, Simon, Paula and Randy are back for a seventh season of one of the most-watched shows on TV. While the best singers are few and far between, for two nights America gets to enjoy some of the worst (which probably makes for more entertaining television). Who will be the next Carrie or Kelly, and who will be the next William Hung? Stay tuned!

Answers: 1e, 2j, 3b, 4g, 5e, 6a, 7c, 8f, 9i, 10d

Brotherly Love

With Chanukah recent history, I came across a fascinating review of a new book, “The Business of Holidays.” The book’s editor, Maud Lavin, notes that 81 percent of U.S. households celebrate Christmas with a tree in their homes, and not everybody is Christian. The line between Christmas and Chanukah has become very blurry in recent years, according to Lavin.

“I’m Jewish myself, and I didn’t even know that Purim was more the gift-giving holiday on the Jewish calendar,” Lavin writes. “But, Purim is in the spring, and so ‘no good,’ because it doesn’t participate in the Christmas season, and Jewish Americans especially turned Hanukah from a tiny holiday into a big consumerist holiday.”

I don’t think that these comments are any longer shocking, or for that matter, revealing. Even without Lavin’s book we knew this to be true. What interested me most, however, was the “Seinfeld” holiday Festivus:

“Festivus, an invention of Frank, George’s father on Seinfeld, had various rituals including the family sitting around the dining room table together criticizing each other. Then Ben & Jerry’s piggybacked on that and had, for a while, a Festivus ice cream. And, there really are people who continue to celebrate Festivus, especially on college campuses.”

I found all of this utterly fascinating because I compared it to this week’s Torah reading, which describes the amazing family reunion of Joseph with his brothers. Twenty-two years have passed since they sold him, and now Joseph finally reveals his true identity. He tells his brothers not to be sad and not to reproach themselves because God Himself had arranged the cycle of events that led to his eventually becoming viceroy of Egypt.

But this story has another side. A close examination of the biblical text reveals that the brothers’ feelings were neither forgotten nor forgiven, according to British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Consider what happens while Joseph is telling the brothers not to fret over the past. They remain totally silent. Only after Joseph has spoken for 13 verses and well more than 150 words are we told: “He then kissed all his brothers and wept upon them and afterward his brothers conversed with him” (Genesis 45:15). What the brothers said is conspicuously absent. Could this be the silence of indifference?

Estrangement also appears elsewhere. For example, what relationship did Joseph establish with his father? Was there any contact during the 17 years that Jacob and Joseph lived together in Egypt? Could it be they saw each other so infrequently that not once, but twice Joseph had to be called and told that his father was on his deathbed?

“Behold — your father is ill” (Genesis 48:1). Why did Jacob not trust Joseph when he promised that he would not bury him in Egypt? Was it really necessary to make Joseph take an oath?

What does all of this mean? Some suggest it is a realistic depiction of life. Life is such that despite the best efforts when there is a schism between family members, or for that matter between friends, the past cannot just be undone. Joseph, who left home at age 17 and rose to the top of the most powerful nation of the world, no longer speaks the same language. The innocence of youth, the closeness of father and son, the familial bond was lost forever. They had truly gone their separate ways.

Yet the Torah implies a different view of this story. True, it is hard to forget the hurt and hatred that once existed between Joseph and his brothers. But consider the length Joseph travels to reunite with them. Certainly he is hurt, yet he tries intensely to recreate the family bond. He is the one who single-handedly supports them. He doesn’t mend fences by holding a Festivus celebration, where each one criticizes the other. Just imagine, if he did, what that family gathering would have sounded like!

The lesson we can learn from this story is that in families, as in friendships, no room exists for Festivus gatherings. Unfortunately, American society today thinks that such gatherings not only are productive but even necessary. We are the generation of “tell it all.” But that presents a prescription for disaster. Instead of feeding criticism in our relationships, we must offer positive reinforcement with lots of love and understanding, or the relationships will fail. We can find enough criticism to go around, but can we find enough love?

So how did the Torah’s tale of sibling rivalry ultimately end? This week’s Haftorah from the Book of Ezekiel (37:19) captures a beautiful answer — “the tree of Joseph … and the tree of Judah will become one tree.” That only happens when kindness rather than criticism reigns supreme.

Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Chanukah and adult faith

A lot of people have trouble with Chanukah. I did, for years. I’d go to parties and nibble on my latke or sufganiyot while grumbling under my breath about how there was nothing here to celebrate. I’d light my Chanukiyah, but I’d only do the bare minimum needed to fulfill the mitzvah and I’d do my best not to enjoy it.

My problem then, and the problem of the people who this year have already informed me that they’re all but going to boycott the holiday, is that the history of this particular celebration is, well … complicated.

The war through which we celebrate Chanukah was, in part, a Jew-on-Jew civil war, in which zealous traditionalists attacked and killed the more assimilationist Hellenized Jews. The catalyst for the violent revolution was the reigning Syrian Greek king, Antiochus IV, who demanded that Jews worship false gods and violate the Sabbath, or die. The Jews who refused to do this were not very pleased with the ones who did.

Historically speaking, the miracle of Chanukah is that this small, bandit guerrilla army (the zealots) triumphed over Antiochus’ large army and formidable weapons, against all odds, not only taking back the desecrated Temple, but re-dedicating it as well.

The “Chanukah miracle” with which most kids are raised was apparently invented by rabbinic sages living 300-600 years after the Maccabean events took place — the first time we hear the story of oil that was meant to last for one day but instead burned for eight is in the Talmud. It’s not clear exactly when the story originated, but some scholars posit that the tradition originated when some of the rabbis still living under Roman rule figured it wouldn’t be that clever to publicly celebrate a holiday marking the violent overthrow of a foreign government, particularly (possibly) in light of the failed Bar Kochba rebellion. Instead, they came up with the much more kid-friendly version about the oil which, conveniently, lends itself much more to spiritualized interpretations of Chanukah.

Why was it eight days originally? There are a few theories. One suggests that the Maccabees were too busy waging war to celebrate Sukkot on time, so they did so later — but that doesn’t explain why Chanukah became a separate holiday in subsequent years. Two others offer a little more irony: one suggests that an eight-day winter festival of lights was widespread in Greek, Roman and Babylonian antiquity, and another notes that that’s how long the Greeks celebrated their military victories.

All this, frankly, wasn’t even enough to bother me — not even the Jew vs. Jew part. That’s nothing new as Jewish history goes. What happened afterwards, however, was really disturbing. After the Hasmoneans-Maccabees-zealots-heroes of our story won, once Israel was reclaimed and the Temple restored, Judah, the Hasmonean leader, and his brothers set to making a mighty Hebrew nation — by force. First they attacked the non-Jews on their own Hasmonean turf. As it says in the Book of Maccabees, “they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel” (I Maccabees 2:46) as a way of Juda-izing them — making them all Judean-like. (Again, note the irony — they had been upset when the Hellenizers imposed their own cultural signifiers as a way of denoting allegiance.)

It got worse after that. Judah “Maccabee” “took [a non-Jewish filled] town, and killed every male by the edge of his sword, then he seized all its spoils and burned it with fire” (I Maccabees 5:28). He then did the same thing to the innocent people in Maapha, Chaspho, Maked, Bosor, other towns in the region of Gilead, Hebron, Marisa, Azotus and other places in the land of the Philistines. There are a lot of stories: when the army “saw a tumultuous [wedding] procession with a great amount of baggage, they rushed on them from the ambush and began killing them … the wedding was turned into mourning and the voice of their musicians into a funeral dirge” (I Maccabees 9:39-41).

The people that were killed or circumcised here were innocent. I don’t feel any more OK that it was “our guys” doing the unprovoked attacking and killing; that makes me feel worse, more uncomfortable, more upset, and I feel compelled to take some sort of responsibility for it.

One can, perhaps, understand why this holiday made me so angry for so long — why I’d go to synagogue and blurt uncomfortable facts about military history while everybody else was trying to enjoy a nice game of dreidel. It wasn’t really a fun place to be.

Then something shifted. I don’t know what, or why. One year, though, I started sitting and meditating in front of my Chanukiyah every night, sitting and breathing with the candles as they burned, thinking about renewal, rededication, how to make something from what seems to be the utter desolation of nothing. It’s not that I had forgotten the atrocities committed at the end of the Hasmonean war, it’s that … they didn’t block me anymore.

A mature adult faith demands that we take in difficult, painful facts and allow them to become part of our understandings of God, our language of faith and connection. Chanukah is not a holiday about innocence. Neither is Purim, actually — Jews did some slaughtering there, too.

Part of adult faith is being able to look truth in the eye, to take responsibility for it, and to not get stuck by the fact that it’s not an easy story. It certainly requires us not to take out our frustrations on God. I know too many people whose faith was seriously shaken by biblical criticism — as though God changes just because our understanding of history might. As though God weren’t bigger and far more expansive than that. As though it’s God’s fault that we’re just getting some new information. As if it’s God’s fault that human beings sometimes behave in ways that are unforgivable. As though God’s Divinity might not shine through texts written at different times and places, for different reasons.

An adult relationship to this stuff has to include the facts of, in this case, bad human behavior and Jewish culpability, and yet also maintain the awe and reverence that God deserves. Is there any reason that I can’t be grateful for the survival of the Jewish religion while condemning the actions of those who were involved in its (miraculous) survival?

‘Tent’ meeting showcases new spirit of synagogues

A crowd of 4,500 gathered recently at the ornate Fox Theater in Atlanta for a celebration of Jewish spirit and synagogue life that can accurately be described as a Jewish tent meeting.

“Hallelu Atlanta” was an extraordinary moment in the history of one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in North America. The afternoon gathering held significance, meaning and purpose far beyond what may have appeared to be simply a concert featuring a who’s who of Jewish music.

One of the greatest cantors of our generation, Alberto Mizrahi, opened the program with a Sephardic version of “L’cha Dodi” and a Yiddish lullaby. Theodore Bikel, a sprightly 80-something, transfixed the crowd with his set, while a 20-something Joshua Nelson led a 200-voice community youth choir in a song about the Jewish future.

Actress Mare Winningham stunned the crowd when she shared the tradition’s teaching that all converts to Judaism are to be considered as if they, too, were present at Sinai, as she launched into a country music “Convert’s Jig.”

Nelson, a third-generation black Jew from New Jersey who teaches Hebrew school when not performing, sang a gospel-infused “Adon Olam” that raised the roof. Neshama Carlebach channeled the legacy of her late father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

Rounding out the roster were Debbie Friedman and Craig Taubman, perhaps the two most influential composers of contemporary Jewish music. Taubman, the producer, assembled an array of talent reflecting the diversity of age, gender, race and background of the audience, itself a mirror of the current demography of the American Jewish community.

So what?

It was the purpose of the event that made the difference between a Jewish hootenanny and a celebration of synagogue and spirit. It was the culmination of a yearlong series of Synagogue 3000 workshops on membership outreach and inreach for the clergy and lay leadership teams of 20 Atlanta-area congregations from across the denominations.

Virtually all 4,500 tickets were sold exclusively in blocks of seats by the congregations themselves to enable synagogue members to sit together, much like a political convention. This created a “community of communities” in the hall.

The transliterated words of all the songs were projected onto a huge screen to facilitate the “congregation” to sing along. The themes of the songs — “From Generation to Generation,” “Return Again, “Sing a New Song” and “One People” — were carefully chosen.

A live blogger, Yo Yenta ( documented her reactions to what was transpiring on the stage. A tribute to Yitzhak Rabin on the anniversary of his assassination, which included the singing of “Hatikvah,” left many in tears.

Videos of congregants sharing their often hilarious reflections on synagogue life tickled the audience of mostly synagogue members.

The climax was the honoring of professionals who serve synagogues and the blessing of those who support synagogues, led by the combined choirs of the Atlanta congregations and their cantors and soloists.

Certainly, when 4,500 Jews experience something together, there are bound to be at least that many opinions about what happened. Some complained about their seats; others worried about security. One critic thought there was too much “1980s music,” while some wanted more nostalgia. Others could not believe that the artists sang only two songs, when each could easily carry a full concert.

They didn’t get it.

But many of the leaders of the community did. They stood among the core memberships of Atlanta synagogues who had assembled to celebrate the joy of being Jewish — not to commemorate past tragedies, not to debate why our numbers are declining, not to evaluate responses to a crisis, not to demonstrate for a cause, but to celebrate.

They witnessed hundreds of children and adults from individual choirs join their voices in a communal choir. They gathered in a popular and venerated public venue, not in a sanctuary. They brought their friends and prospective new members to witness the new spirit that animates many synagogues today.

They left the event elated, uplifted, honored and energized to continue the important work of transforming our synagogues into sacred communities of spirituality, committed to deepening the relationships between the members and their congregations and between each individual and God.

“The workshops and ‘Hallelu Atlanta’ celebration were truly a gift to our community,” said Mark Jacobson, executive director of The Temple. “Moreover, the project has challenged and stimulated a conversation at all levels of communal leadership about how to sustain the ‘Hallelu’ spirit in the synagogues and community.”

Something else is at work here. In our study of the evangelical megachurches, we have observed the power of large-scale gatherings. While a congregation, such as Saddleback Church in Orange County, holds six religious services on the weekend — attracting 5,000 people at each — our congregations rarely have more than several-hundred people at a service.

The exception, of course, is the High Holy Days, when we offer many hours of worship to large crowds. Even then, we hardly ever sit together in one “tent,” experiencing the thrill of feeling part of a larger community of communities.

I commend the synagogue leadership in Atlanta for having the courage and vision to create a more welcoming community. And for those communal leaders and funders who ask why we cannot develop ways to emphasize the joys of Judaism, the meaning and value of community engagement and the new spirit animating those congregations who are working hard at becoming welcoming sacred communities, the experience in Atlanta is worthy of consideration and emulation.

Dr. Ron Wolfson is president of Synagogue 3000, a national institute for congregational leadership and synagogue studies research. He is the best-selling author of “The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation Into a Sacred Community” and “God’s To-Do List” (Jewish Lights Publishing).

The sweet rewards of Rosh Hashanah rituals

The change was subtle but undeniable. A slightly deeper shade of brown; carrots cut lengthwise rather than sliced; some scattered sprigs of rosemary. Any other day of the year, such a discrete rift in recipe might have gone unnoticed. But this was not any other day of the year — this was Rosh Hashanah.

“What’s up with the brisket, Grandma?” my preteen son asked, echoing my suspicions that bubbe’s famous brisket — the eternal pillar of my family’s High Holy Day feasts — had undergone an unprecedented facelift.

“I thought I’d try something a little different this year,” answered my mother (who had recently been possessed by Rachael Ray).

“But I like the old brisket,” said my younger son.

“Me, too!” agreed my daughter.

“Oh, no. Not the brisket!” added the eldest of my grumbling foursome.

“Shh, I’m sure it’s delicious,” I said, trying to mask my own disappointment in the demise of the dish of honor.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that my kids and I didn’t appreciate the wonderful meal my mother had prepared. (We did.) And it’s not that the updated version of bubbe’s famous recipe wasn’t a legitimate improvement over the original. (It was.) It’s just that it didn’t matter whether Ray herself had prepared that brisket — it wasn’t about taste at all.

In fact, prior to that particular evening, my children had scarcely given our traditional Rosh Hashanah brisket a second thought. It was not until it went MIA — and was suddenly replaced with a swankier roast — that my kids came to appreciate its significance in their lives.

Please! You may be thinking. How can you possibly suggest that a brisket could have a significant impact on someone’s life?

But it wasn’t just any old brisket; it was bubbe’s famous brisket. The same unwavering recipe that had accompanied my family’s Jewish New Year for as long as my children could remember — for as long as I could remember. In the predictable presence of bubbe’s brisket on our Rosh Hashanah table, my children found steady ground; a sturdy link between their past, present and future; and a safety net woven out of knowing where they have been and where they are going.

No, I’m not being melodramatic. Oodles of experts believe that it is in the simple repetitions of life — not in the grand black-tie affairs — that our children find the stability and continuity they need to thrive in an unpredictable world. That it is ritual and tradition — not kiddie stress management seminars or pint-sized yoga classes — that build a vital sense of emotional security in our kids.

Of course, if you asked Tevyeh the Milkman of “Fiddler on the Roof” fame, the power of tradition is not breaking news. Yet, in our rocket-paced, technology-based, achievement-driven, media-ridden society, the presence of family rituals in our children’s lives may be more integral to their emotional well-being than ever before.

Fortunately, Jewish life is positively bursting at the seams with ritual opportunity for modern parents: lighting the Chanukah candles, welcoming Elijah to our seder table, eating challah on Shabbat — all these experiences fill our children’s lives with spirituality, security and predictability. Yet the defining rituals of the Jewish New Year play an especially vital role in our children’s overall well-being, as they also carry meaningful symbolism and essential life lessons. What follows are a few of our rich Rosh Hashanah traditions and the ways they strengthen and prepare our children for the coming year — and far beyond.

10 New Traditions for the New Year

To help ensure your family enjoys all the sweet rewards of the Jewish New Year (while simultaneously taking advantage of the bountiful benefits of family rituals), here are some outside-of-the-box, ripe-for-the-picking Rosh Hashanah traditions:

  1. Visit a paint-it-yourself ceramic shop and decorate Kiddush cups, apple plates or honey bowls together.
  2. Put together baskets of apples, honey, raisins and other sweet treats, and deliver them as a family to a hospital or nursing home.
  3. Give the world a birthday present by planting a tree. (You’ll have a whole Rosh Hashanah grove before long!)
  4. Let your kids design your Rosh Hashanah tablecloths, placemats and challah covers using fabric crayons or markers. (Hint: for younger children, try cutting an apple on its side to reveal a star in the middle, dip the fruit in fabric paint and let your little stars stamp away.)
  5. Take a Rosh Hashanah family nature hike. Sit down in a shady spot and have everyone share what he or she appreciates about one another.
  6. Go apple picking. Use your haul to make Rosh Hashanah apple cakes, kugels and other goodies.
  7. Have a shofar-blowing showdown.
  8. Gather family pictures from the past year and work together to create a “year-in-review” collage.
  9. After lighting the Rosh Hashanah candles, join hands and let everyone share hopes and dreams for the coming year.
  10. Leave Hershey Kisses on your children’s pillows every erev Rosh Hashanah along with a note wishing them a sweet New Year.

This article originally appeared in the World Jewish Digest.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? is now available for preorder on and will be released by Broadway Books this October.

Oy Caramba! Serve a Simcha Fiesta

Your special family simcha (celebration) is just around the corner and you aren’t feeling enthusiastic — the caterer’s offerings feel predictable, and the room you’ve rented seems impersonal.

Whether you’re organizing a bris, congratulating a bar or bat mitzvah, welcoming a new son-in-law or daughter-in-law into the family or celebrating a birthday or anniversary, honoring the people we love in an inviting, intimate setting with exquisite food is one of the best gifts someone can give. Choosing to hold your celebration at home is to select the warmest venue of all.

Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, chefs and co-owners of Border Grill and Ciudad restaurants, are big advocates of entertaining at home.

“If you want to have a really special party, where everyone will feel not only loved and appreciated but comfortable and relaxed, decorate the house with bright, happy colors and serve them Mexican food,” Milliken said. “It puts people in the mood for a party.”

South-of-the-border cuisine is the perfect fit for at-home celebrations — it’s colorful and conducive to being shared.

Dress your dining room in oranges, greens, reds, blues and yellows. Cover the table with a bright tablecloth and add an earthenware tureen of pimento red, richly flavored tortilla soup; a cast-iron kettle of glistening black beans; piping hot, multiflavored tortillas nestled in a hand-painted tortilla warmer; twin bowls of red and green rice; a brightly colored platter of halibut Veracruzana; an assortment of red, yellow and green salsas; and handmade reed baskets of quinoa fritters, with a bowl of Mexican red Romesco sauce. Also, don’t forget the different fillings, toppings and stacks of tortillas clumped together at a special interactive taco-making table.

Olvera Street or local Mexican art stores, such as Artesanias Oaxaquenas in Santa Monica, have authentic paper flowers and ethnic accessories.

“Orchestrate your party. When guests arrive, serve them cool drinks and hot and cold appetizers. Guests are more forgiving if they have a drink in one hand and an appetizer in the other,” Milliken said.

Welcome them with refreshing watermelon lemonade, horchata and margaritas — alcoholic and nonalcoholic versions. Pass trays of appetizers and scatter additional offerings about the room — miniature tacos and tamales, guacamole and salsas.

Halibut Veracruzana

1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless fillets of halibut, sea bass, snapper or other firm-fleshed fish, cut in four portions

Salt and pepper to taste

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 serrano chilis, stemmed and sliced in 1/4-inch disks

1/2 cup lime juice

1 tomato, cored, seeded and cut in strips

1/2 bunch (1/4 cup) fresh oregano leaves, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup Spanish green olives, sliced

1/2 cup white wine

3/4 cup fish stock

Season fish fillets evenly with salt and pepper. Heat one very large skillet or two medium skillets over medium-high heat for a minute; coat pans with olive oil.

Add fillets and turn heat to very high. Sear until golden brown, about two minutes, then flip to sear the other side, about one minute. Transfer fillets to a rack over a plate to catch the juices; reserve.

Return the pan (or pans) to high heat. Add onion and sauté, stirring frequently for one minute or until it starts to brown. Add garlic, chili slices, lime juice, tomatoes, oregano and olives and sauté briskly for an additional minute. Add wine and boil until reduced by half.

Pour in fish stock, bring to boil and reduce to a simmer. Return fish fillets, along with their juices, to the pan. Cover and cook gently for two minutes or longer, depending on thickness of fillets. Taste broth and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Serve with a generous puddle of broth and garnish of vegetables.

Makes four servings.

Tortilla Soup

5 garlic cloves, peeled

10 Roma tomatoes, cored and quartered

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large yellow onion, diced

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 cups vegetable stock

1 dried chipotle chili, stemmed and seeded (optional)

3/4 pound tortilla chips

Garnishes: 1 bunch (1/2 cup) cilantro leaves; 1 avocado, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped; 1/2 cup Crema; 2 limes, cut in wedges

Puree garlic and tomatoes in a blender until smooth. Heat olive oil in a large stockpot over low heat. Add the onion, salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until pale brown and caramelized, about 10 minutes. Stir in tomato puree and cook 10 minutes longer, stirring frequently.

Pour in vegetable stock and add chipotle chili (if desired). Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook uncovered for 20 minutes. Stir in tortilla chips and cook 10 minutes longer, until chips soften. Remove and discard chili.

Serve hot, with cilantro, avocado, Crema, lime wedges and some extra-crisp fried tortilla chips for adding at the table.

Makes six servings.

Quinoa Fritters with Romesco Sauce

These delicious fritters may be made ahead, frozen and reheated.

2/3 cup quinoa, preferably organic

1 1/3 cups water

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup grated Spanish manchego, romano or parmesan cheese

3/4 teaspoon salt

Pinch freshly ground black pepper

4 scallions, white and light green parts, finely chopped

1/2 cup basil leaves, chopped

1 egg

1 egg yolk

3/4 cup vegetable oil

Lemon wedges for juice

Wash the quinoa and drain well. Place a small, dry saucepan over high heat. Add the quinoa and toast, shaking and stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to prevent scorching, about five minutes. Transfer to a large saucepan and add water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook covered until water is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, combine quinoa, flour, cheese and salt. Add scallions, basil, egg and yolk. Blend thoroughly with a mixing spoon until mixture has consistency of soft dough.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. With your hands, roll dough into walnut-sized balls and press to form small cakes.

Fry until the bottoms are golden brown, less than a minute. Turn and fry the second side until golden. Drain on paper towels. Drizzle with a lemon juice; serve with Romesco for dipping.

Makes 18 pieces.

Romesco Sauce

2 large, thick slices of country bread, crusts removed and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1/3 cup red-wine vinegar

1/3 cup blanched almonds, toasted to golden

1 1/2 red peppers, roasted and peeled

6 cloves garlic, peeled

1 tomato, cored, seeded and chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/3 cup olive oil

Soak bread with red-wine vinegar for 10 minutes, pressing to moisten thoroughly, and transfer to a food processor. Add almonds, red pepper, garlic, tomato, salt and pepper and puree until smooth. With the motor running, add olive oil in a thin stream, until mixture is the consistency of a thick creamy sauce. Thin with warm water as necessary.

Serve at room temperature.

Capirotada (Mexican Bread Pudding)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter

1/2 loaf French bread or baguette with crust cut into small cubes

1 pound brown sugar

1 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and chopped

1 cup walnuts, chopped

1/2 pound tofu or regular cream cheese, chilled and chopped

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 13-by-9-inch glass casserole or lasagna pan. Melt butter in a medium saucepan, add bread cubes and stir to coat evenly.

Spread cubes on a baking sheet and bake 15 minutes or until lightly brown and crisp. Remove bread and turn oven temperature up to 400 F.

Combine sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Stir in cinnamon and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the chopped apples, walnuts, cream cheese and toasted bread cubes. Drizzle with the reserved sugar syrup and mix to evenly distribute. Transfer mixture to the prepared pan.

Bake uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Then bake an additional five minutes without stirring, until the top is golden brown and crusty and liquid is almost gone. Drizzle with powdered sugar. Serve warm. If desired, plop a dollop of nondairy ice cream on top.

Makes eight to 10 servings.

Watermelon Lemonade

What could be cooler than a nice, tall glass of iced watermelon lemonade? Serve sandia (Spanish for watermelon) in a clear pitcher to highlight its brilliant color. A garnish of thin lemon slices looks nice against the pink of the juice.

4 cups watermelon chunks, seeded

2-3 tablespoons sugar (to taste)

1/2 cup cold water

5 ice cubes

Juice of 1-2 lemons (to taste)

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Serve over additional ice.

Makes four servings.

All recipes courtesy of Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken.

Generations of comics salute Mort Sahl on his 80th

“Mort Sahl changed the face of comedy. Before his, that face was Marty Allen’s.”
— Jack Riley

And if you get that reference, you would have loved the Mort Sahl 80th birthday celebration at the Wadsworth Theatre on June 28. What’s not to like? Shelley Berman in a seersucker suit and saddle shoes doing his famous rotary phone call bit. Jonathan Winters playing slugger Leland Buckhorn: “Had four wives … one liked hockey, another liked tennis, one woman just strayed in bars….”

“We are lucky to live in a time when Jonathan Winters was around,” emcee Jack Riley says.

No kidding. That goes for the rest of this cockeyed caravan, too: George Carlin, Woody Allen, Drew Carey, Norm Crosby, Jay Leno, Bill Maher and other standout stand-ups offering “Sahl-utationals” to the pioneer in political satire. Sahl was the first with an LP, first on the cover of Time, and first to understand the Hollywood-D.C. axis as a comedy act.

Once called “the fourth branch of government,” “Sahl was the revolution,” wrote Gerald Nachman in his book, “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s.” “The mere idea of a stand-up talking about the real world was in itself revolutionary.”

I remember my father putting on Sahl’s “1960, or Look Forward in Anger” LP and how I didn’t understand a single thing. References to Bobby Baker and Estes Kefauver? I was too young to get how great this guy was.

But now I’m here among all kinds of comedic all-stars who appreciate him. The Wadsworth event is a benefit for Sahl’s Heartland Foundation, and what Harry Shearer calls, with his finest satirical twang: “Aside from Jay and Drew and Jonathan … a tribute to a time when Jews did run comedy.”

It’s like a comedy theme park, with Tommy Chong on the red carpet with Kevin Nealon, Hugh Hefner, Dick Van Patten and Rob Reiner, and Paula Poundstone stands schmoozing the founder of the first Mort Sahl Fan Club (1956). Septuagenarian Jack Riley, who played Mr. Carlin, the depressed hypochondriac on “The Bob Newhart Show” says he’s here “because I need a credit from this century.”

Waiting for a urinal in the packed men’s room, you can tell which comics have prostate problems.

Richard Lewis turns 60 today and George Carlin made 70 a day before Mort’s birthday. Lewis kvetches brilliantly about the billing tonight: “I thought it would be Jay, then Christ, then me.”

In his black Nehru shirt, Lewis says he looks “like Capt. Kirk’s cantor.”

His tribute?

“If not for Mort and Lenny [Bruce], I wouldn’t have had 25 years of drug abuse and whoring.”

Carlin tells us Sahl saw him in 1960 doing a Mort Sahl impression in a Hollywood coffeehouse between Cosmo Street and Ivar Avenue. Sahl recommended him to the “hungry i” (for “intellectual”) in San Francisco, and “onward!”(a Sahl catchword) climbed Carlin.

“I was 21 when I first saw him,” says Allen in a taped greeting. “And the minute I saw him, I just thought that there was nothing else that could be done in comedy, and he was just the best thing that I had ever seen.”

But one comedian, Albert Brooks, takes the stage somberly. “I’m embarrassed tonight,” he says. “And angry. I was told that Mort Sahl passed away.”

So Brooks reads a eulogy.

“I remember the last time I saw Mort alive,” he says, the laughter building now like something on a classic comedy LP: helpless, extended, tear-filled. “It was at a Starbucks near where I live. And now I wish I’d said the things that I really felt — how much he influenced all of us here, while he was here. But I didn’t. All that I think I said that day was: ‘Are you gonna finish that latte?’ This should be a lesson to all of us…. And I say, rest in peace my funny man. Rest in peace.”

All around the Jerry’s Deli spread afterward, are wonderful comedians who can’t get smiles off their faces: Fred Willard, Mark Schiff, Rick Overton, Darryl Henriques, Wendy Kamenoff, Paul Krassner, Edie McClurg, Larry Hankin and Barry Diamond.

It was Bart Simpson, quoting the Talmud, who asked: “Who shall bring redemption if not the jesters?” I think of Jan Murray’s and Morey Amsterdam’s funerals and how fine it is that friends did this while Sahl — who once said, “You haven’t lived until you’ve died in California” — is still alive.

“I’ve been very moved by everybody tonight,” Mort told us finally. “I want you to know it really did knock me out. I also want you to know that I’ll do it as long as they let me…. When I started this act, although I was just lonesome and looking for a family, in a larger sense I saw it as a rescue mission for America…. But I believe it more than ever, in spite of the odds, that the good guys’ll win.”


Mort Sahl will teach a course in critical thinking at Claremont McKenna College in September.

Hank Rosenfeld assistant teaches at Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Monica and has written a book with Irving Brecher — who wrote for Milton Berle, Jack Benny, and the Marx Brothers — coming from Ben Yehuda Press in 2008.


Mort Sahl fan tribute

There is more going on than just a ceremony and a party

I have a confession to make.

I punched out my brother at his bar mitzvah. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true.

I was sitting at a table with him and a couple of cousins, and he told this joke I didn’t find very funny. I looked at this smirk on his face, and I just couldn’t stand it. When he did it again, I lost it.

It was strange and very unlike me. It’s not as if I was getting into fights all the time. I was a pretty mellow kid.

Now, compare that to a story a friend relayed to me recently. He told me about the first time his son put on tefillin. The bar mitzvah boy said that he felt as if God was standing right next to him. Deep stuff.

So while my brother got punched out at his bar mitzvah — by me — this other kid met God. Of course, some kids start getting into trouble at this age, while others really start to excel as students.

Why are people so prone to intense experiences at or around this right of passage? Is it just a coincidence, or is there something deeper going on?

Albert Einstein, no dummy himself, once asserted that God does not play dice with the universe. I think he was right.

Most rabbis, when talking or writing about b’nai mitzvah, mention becoming a grown-up, gaining a higher ability to discern between good and evil, becoming responsible for one’s own actions, being counted in a minyan, etc. While all these things may be true technically, they are a little counterintuitive.

Why is a 12- or 13-year-old kid suddenly an adult? They sure don’t look grown up; most aren’t even done growing yet.

It turns out that all Jewish rules, holidays and mitzvahs are actually a reflection of a kabbalistic cosmic reality. For example, Shabbat corresponds to the day of the week most opportune for spiritual renewal, the time when all the energy for the next six days comes in.

Men put tefillin on their heads and left arms to influence their hearts and minds in a more positive direction. Most people probably assume that their soul is with them entirely at birth, but Kabbalah disagrees. In the 15th century, Rabbi Issac Luria, known as The Ari, explained how a person’s neshama, or soul, comes down from heaven in stages, and that 12 or 13 is when one of the largest pieces finally comes down.

Sounds odd, I know. But check this out for yourself. Pick a memory from your childhood, any memory will do. Focus on it. Most people will find it kind of fuzzy and dreamlike.

Now, think of an event a few years later, during your teen years. Suddenly, those memories become as crisp as HD.

The Zohar, the principal kabbalistic text written in the first century C.E. by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, teaches that your soul is actually your intellect. Taken one step further, your brain is simply a processor that your soul uses, much like a computer. So, before b’nai mitzvah age, you are simply “not all there.”

Ever had a conversation with a 5-year-old? Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

So, once a person is “all there,” it makes sense that he or she can be held accountable for his or her actions. And of course, this is also where the roller-coaster of teen years begins.

Soul newly complete, we are bombarded with new thoughts, intellect and desires. It’s a wild, sometimes confusing ride.

But becoming responsible for one’s actions is not the only change. We also become responsible for our tikkun, the rectification a person is supposed to go through during his life.

Rabbi Luria wrote about this in detail in his ground-breaking Shaar HaGilgulim (Gates of Reincarnation). Apparently, a person is responsible for fixing his character flaws, learning certain lessons and paying back debts from prior lifetimes.

Everyone has their own challenges in life regarding career, relationships, parents, substance abuse, you name it. According to Luria, all these challenges are heaven-sent to allow a person to iron themselves out, so to speak. And it all begins at b’nai mitzvah time.

Most Jews would probably be surprised to learn that reincarnation is a Jewish concept, but it is. In the Midrash and in the Zohar, it is explained that Abel was reincarnated into Noah, then later into Moses, and that the 10 martyrs killed by the Romans were being punished for slandering Israel when they “spied out the Land” in their incarnations as the tribal heads.

So, when a kid turns b’nai mitzvah age, there is a lot more going on than just a religious ceremony and a good party. According to the sources quoted, the ceremony is an acknowledgement of much deeper things taking place in one’s soul, when one’s true self is present for the first time, along with all the things that go along with that.

Of course, none of this excuses me for hitting my brother during his big moment. Stewart, if you’re reading this, I really am sorry.

Matt Lipeles is a nice guy and doesn’t hit anyone these days — even if they really deserve it. He can be reached at

The best of the kosher bubblies

When Champagne producers first marketed their product with enthusiasm in the late 19th century, they avoided the intentionally staid campaigns for Bordeaux’s red wines, which were represented as distinctively male.

The Champagne manufacturers targeted men and women alike through a variety of methods, including posters and labels featuring images of sporting events and leisure as well as scenes of romantic love.

Appeals to the middle class as well as the aristocracy helped Champagne become a mainstay of toasting at almost any occasion, from launching ships to celebrating a marriage. And with the June wedding season upon us, there is little time to waste in selecting the perfect bottle of bubbly to toast your nuptials.

When I recently put in a call to the distributor of some kosher wines, I told him that we were planning to launch a ship and were in need of some kosher Champagne. Happily, the samples arrived after Pesach, and the great Jewish seafaring tradition can continue into the new millennium.

Contrary to popular belief, Dom Pérignon, the 17th century Benedictine monk who was the cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvilliers, in the rolling hills above Épernay in the Champagne district of southeastern France, did not invent the drink we now know as Champagne. He did, however, make many refinements to the winemaking process, including the introduction of heavier English glass to support the pressure of the carbonation created by a secondary fermentation in the bottle.

For the record, the Champagne region has a trademark on the use of the terms “Champagne” and “methode Champenois,” which is very strictly enforced. Only 12 percent of the sparkling wine sold across the globe is technically Champagne from Champagne; the rest is grouped under the category of sparkling wine. In general, the best sparkling wines are from Champagne.

If the so-called Champagne you see at the market was made in Bayonne, N.J., run as if you were being chased by a mob of angry, pitchfork-wielding, trademark-enforcing French farmers.

I put together a crack team of Jewish “Fizzicists” — including Napa Valley winemaker Robert Sinskey, and Laurent Masliah, proprietor of A Cow Jumped Over the Moon, a kosher wine, cheese and chocolate shop in Beverly Hills — to taste some kosher and non-kosher sparklers. This was by no means a comprehensive tasting, but there are presently so few kosher Champagnes that the 11 bottles we had on ice represented a good sampling of what is available. You might have to be Jewish to love some of these bubblies, but there were a few that truly stood out.

We started off by tasting some inexpensive bottles and it was immediately clear that you get what you pay for. I am a firm believer that one can find great values in all kinds of wines, but one should never, ever try to get away with something and drink cheap bubblies. Some of these wines were truly awful. I can only imagine what kind of celebration they might denote: “The market crashed! Let’s open some fizzy swill to mark the occasion, honey!” If you served this at a wedding, the message would be: “mazel tov, but not too much.”

We tried a range of styles, from Bartenura’s Italian Proseco ($15), which was deemed “light and nice,” to an Israeli sparkler by Carmel called “President” ($12), which had all the charm of drinking effervescent haberdashery cologne. A Napa Blanc de Blancs from Baron Herzog ($20) was passable if you weren’t too discriminating, but the Pommery ($60) was possibly corked (though no one could recall another bottle of corked Champagne), surprisingly tannic and bitter on the finish. It would have been bitterly disappointing, too, but we still had low expectations — and the wines were doing little to dissuade us from this opinion.

That changed when we opened a bottle of Laurent-Perrier nonvintage Brut ($65) that was noticeably softer and more developed than the others. “This is Champagne!” declared my mother-in-law, getting into the spirit of the thing at bottle No. 9. We opened a comparable bottle of nonkosher Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut ($45) to serve side by side, and our group unanimously preferred the kosher selection. Laurent-Perrier also makes a big-ticket rose Champagne ($100), which is widely considered the top of the line, but again my panel liked the Brut best.

Our last wine of the night was an Asti, also by Bartenura ($15), which showed good typicity. That means that if you’re inclined to like light, sweet sparkling wines, you’ll probably like this, and if not, by all means, stay away.
In the same way that the greatest praise one can bestow upon a California Chardonnay or Pinot Noir is that it is “Burgundian,” the highest compliment one can offer a kosher wine is that you’d never know it was kosher.

The history of kosher Champagne is one of the shortest chapters in the Jewish wine canon. Nicholas Feuillate, one of my favorite producers, used to make a kosher Champagne but gave up the enterprise because it was too much work to maintain two parallel operations for such a small production. We’ve come a long way in a short time, and you can expect more producers moving into the market as demand grows, with resulting higher quality.

J.D. Smith is the author of “The Best Cellar,” and a regular contributor to The Jewish Journal.

Got Shavuot?

The hottest word in marketing today is “interactive.” After decades of treating consumers like passive targets, marketers have learned that the best way to get people excited about your product is to create some kind of interaction — to make consumers feel and experience the uniqueness of your product.

It’s also called “high-touch” or “relationship” marketing. I’ve seen this evolution with all kinds of clients, from baby food to luxury cars. But what I find fascinating is that based on this new trend, Judaism is bursting with marketing potential.

Look at some of our holidays. In the middle of winter, while most of the world sits around a little tree lit with electricity, we go old school and harness the iconic power of candles — beautiful, flickering, magical candles. We don’t just look at light, we create it.

At springtime, God comes to us with one of life’s most satisfying experiences: He instructs us to clean up every little corner of our homes. Not only do we end up finding loose change in the sofas, but we feel like we’re back in control of our messy lives. And when our homes are nice and orderly, what do we do? We have an elaborate meal full of interactive rituals to celebrate that most valuable of consumer products — human freedom.

To make sure we take none of our comforts for granted, Judaism doesn’t settle for charismatic preaching or simple prayer. Like they say in marketing, that would be “me too-ish,” and certainly not very interactive. So come fall, Judaism instructs us to build a frail, little hut in our backyards — and eat there for eight days.

This instinct for high-touch marketing never ends. We are the People of the Book, so what do we do at the very end of our religious year, when we’ve just finished reading that Book? We take it out, raise it high, dance, drink and have a huge party around it. Talk about interactive.

Marketers know the importance of kids, and so does Judaism. You could fill a 24-hour cable channel with news of interactive games and art projects for kids that flow out of Jewish holidays.

You wonder sometimes if God and his helpers hired an ad agency to help them come up with all these super-creative, interactive holidays. I guess when you have 613 commandments, it’s not like you can’t use a little marketing help.

One of my favorite high-touch holidays on the Jewish calendar is the one that tells us to chill for one day a week — no cell phones, no “Grey’s Anatomy,” no Beverly Center — so that we can recharge our batteries for the coming week. That’s some foresight they must have had at Sinai, to anticipate that 3,300 years later, we’d all be sleeping with our BlackBerries — desperate for a weekly dose of unplugged bliss.

And just when you think you’ve hit a lull in the Jewish holiday calendar, you get hit with a happening like a bonfire on the beach to celebrate a great mystic, or the planting of trees to celebrate the biblical imperative to renew and protect the earth. This is interactive marketing at its finest: high consumer involvement, with hardly ever a dull moment.

Which brings me to what may arguably be the dullest moment in the Jewish calendar: the holiday of Shavuot, which is now upon us.

It pains me to think that God’s ad agency might have taken the day off on this one. What a blunder! On the one holiday that the People of the Book celebrate the receipt of that very book, what do they come up with? Cheese blintzes? A dairy festival? Didn’t they anticipate all those news reports of the mucus-inducing properties of milk and other dairy products?

It’s not fair. More attention must be paid to this holiday. Of course, here in the hood, as in all observant communities, the two days of Shavuot are as important as the two days of Rosh Hashanah — the kids are off school and everybody’s in shul. It’s holiday business as usual.

But unlike Rosh Hashanah — which has the irresistible attraction of a new year and a new beginning — and other holidays that have their own attractions, Shavuot seems to miss that special sizzle that could engage mainstream Judaism.

We can change that. The truth is, some of our most creative customs and ideas have evolved over the centuries. So why not find creative ways to get more Jews to “interact” with Shavuot?

If Judaism were my client, here’s what I would recommend: Make Shavuot the coolest holiday of the year by playing up the little-known Shavuot custom of staying up all night — just like the ancient mystics.

Think about the times in your life — except for final exams — when you’ve stayed up all night. Isn’t there something a little rebellious and bohemian about this idea of the night that never ends? OK, you won’t be in a jazz bar or partying on a beach in Bali, but you’ll be breaking the boundaries of your everyday routine, and isn’t that worth something?

The observant Jews who stay up all night on Shavuot usually do a lot of learning, with some Sephardic Jews doing certain prayers of rectification. But get creative. Bring out your favorite Jewish books, read Jewish poetry, tell Jewish stories, sing a few songs, meditate — in other words, create your own all-night Shavuot salon, and make sure you have plenty of Turkish coffee.

That’s my idea. Now get interactive and e-mail me your own ideas. Winning entry gets a free cheesecake.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at