June 26, 2019

Two Nice Jewish Boys: Episode 134 – 24 Hours to Israeli Elections

The day after tomorrow, Tuesday the 9th of April, all of Israel will have the day off. Elections are upon us. About 4 million of us will be hitting the ballot boxes to determine who will lead this tiny Middle Eastern country in the upcoming years. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Master Campaigner, second only to Ben Gurion in duration as Prime Minister. Or Benny Gantz, an ex-IDF Chief of Staff, who has no experience in politics, and who’s running alongside Yair Lapid and two other ex-IDF chiefs.

The country is in turmoil. It’s heated. It’s dirty. It’s a close race and the polls just keep on changing. But one thing is for sure – for the first time in 10 years, Bibi’s reign is under a real and present threat.

Today we’re super excited to host one of our favorite past guests again. Danielle Berrin is one of the shining stars of Jewish Journalism in America. She was a senior columnist for the Jewish Journal. She also wrote for the New York Times, The Atlantic, Yedioth Ahronoth, The Guardian and British Esquire. She’s now visiting Israel and we’re thrilled to have her on the podcast again to talk politics.

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Should Jews Feel Guilty About Gaza?

A Palestinian demonstrator uses a slingshot to hurl stones as another takes cover during a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza City May 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Whatever your politics, the violence that unfolded last week on the border between Israel and Gaza should provoke a collective Jewish experience of soul-searching and empathy. That the maintenance of our precious homeland sometimes demands violence and death is something to lament and interrogate, not justify.

It is understood that Israel does what it must to defend itself. During a visit to Los Angeles last week, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak — who offered the Palestinians more than any other Israeli leader in history in the way of a two-state solution (which Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat rejected) — said the Israel Defense Forces had no other recourse to manage the recent border protests than the method they chose.

“We have extremely sophisticated means and tools to suppress and control riots when the riots are about the size of several hundred [people] and from distances of 10 to 30 yards,” Barak said. “But there are no effective means as of now to suppress riots when the audience is many thousands [of people] and the distance is 300 yards. It’s a pity we have not developed it.”

This pity left many of us helpless but to watch with deep concern and aching hearts as the Hamas-led suicide protest, intent on transgressing Israel’s border, forced Israeli soldiers to take up arms. The wrenching scene and misguided international outrage that followed placed many of us in an uncomfortable liminal space between defensiveness and empathy; blame and responsibility; justification for war and heartache in the face of tragedy.

But must we feel guilty? To what extent is the humanitarian crisis in Gaza the result of Israeli policy and how much responsibility should be laid at the feet of Hamas and its frenemy in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority (PA)?

For Palestinians and much of the world, the Jewish original “sin” is that Israel was born at all.

“There’s a joint responsibility for the current situation in Gaza,” Avi Issacharoff, an Israeli journalist and co-creator of the Netflix show “Fauda,” told me.

It’s no secret that Gaza is in dire straits, swiftly careening toward an iceberg of uninhabitability: Water quality is poor; food insecurity affects most of the population; unemployment is ferociously high; hospitals lack life-saving materials; and Gazans subsist on only a few hours of electricty per day. For stated security reasons, Israel restricts the flow of people and goods going into and out of Gaza through the Rafah and Kerem Shalom border crossings. But sometimes those restrictions do not relate to security at all, like the barring of apricots and avocados as “luxury” items, or Israel’s inexplicable and unconscionable refusal in 2008 to allow Gazan students awarded Fulbright scholarships to leave the Strip. That kind of policy ensures that an alternative to Hamas will never emerge. In more ways that I can elucidate here, Israel has contributed to Gaza’s worsening problems. But it is not responsible for them.

“The greatest responsibility falls on Hamas,” said Issacharoff, who has covered Gaza and the West Bank for many years. “If Hamas would stop building their military force and start building infrastructure, there wouldn’t be any humanitarian crisis. If Hamas would change its ideology and strategy, suddenly you’d see Gaza flourishing.”

That may be overstating things since the West Bank — which is not run by Hamas — is hardly flourishing under Israeli occupation. Still, by comparison, quality of life there is better. And even though there is cooperation between the PA and Israel, the leadership in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip share the same delusion that Israel will one day vanish and that the Palestinian right of return is a viable negotiating option.

“Hamas is not saying, ‘OK, give us two states,’ ” Issacharoff said. “Hamas is saying, ‘Without the right of return, we cannot even talk about a ceasefire; we cannot talk about anything.’ They know that the right of return is the end of the Israeli state, and this is their vision.”

One of the most worrying things about Hamas is that its existence has emboldened Israel’s one-state hardliners. “I think Israelis and Palestinians share the same fantasy,” Issacharoff said. “Make the other side disappear.”

For Palestinians and much of the world, the Jewish original “sin” is that Israel was born at all. Both by flight and by force, Palestinians were consequently displaced.

Should Jews feel bad about that? Of course. But should we undo what was necessary to reclaim our home?

Letters to the Editor: Reviving Judaism, Middle East and Diaspora

Reviving Judaism

For 30-plus years, the Conservative movement has not seriously addressed why younger Jews have left this branch and its philosophy.

As writer Steven Windmueller assesses the situation, one of his ways is to build from the bottom (“Reinventing Liberal Judaism,” May 11). I did this in the Philadelphia area 30 years ago, but the elders did not support it.

In less than nine months, we grew a 30-ish crowd from 10 to 60, including their families.

This is the only way to introduce Judaism to those who resist and to listen to the younger population so that the institution provides for their needs.

Baby boomers must give way to the needs of the millennials or Conservative Judaism will not be viable in the near future (10 years).

Warren J. Potash, Moorpark

Insight Into Torah Portion

I would like to thank the Journal for publishing Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ Table for Five commentary in the Journal’s May 11 issue. It provides deep insight into the parsha. However, the rabbi goes much further, enunciating simply and clearly God’s role and rights as the creator of the universe and in consequence, linking core principles of Judaism to these rights. It is, for me, an unforgettable “teaching moment,” beautiful in its simplicity, clarity and importance.

Hopefully, the Journal will provide more of Sacks’ commentaries and insights in the future. Table for Five is one avenue to accomplish this, but I am sure the Journal has others. We need them.

Edward Gomperts, Glendale

Complex Issues in the Mideast

I read the May 4 edition of the Jewish Journal with great interest. As a non-Jew, I was happy to read the Leon Wieseltier view that “the merit of a view owes nothing to the biography of the individual who holds it” (“Should American Jews Criticize Israel?”).

So here goes. I read in Rick Richman’s story (“The Second and Third Israeli Miracles”) that the Palestinian Arabs have rejected six offers of a state. My question is: How many of these offers would have stopped settlement in the West Bank and dismantled the settlements and removed the settlers?

And the other question: Suppose California were occupied by, say, Mexicans. How many Californians would have supported the “offer of a state” that would leave more than half a million Mexican settlers in hilltop strongholds and withheld a slew of powers over the economy, security and policing?

Christopher Ward via email

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed Iranian duplicity with respect to Iran’s nuclear program, he was preaching to the converted. This is much ado about nothing, since the P5+1 took Iranian mendacity into strict account when fashioning the inspection regime that is part of the Iran nuclear deal.

The nuclear agreement with Iran that slows its development of atomic weapons is a bad accord for many reasons. President Donald Trump is right to force the issue now. He does not need a primer on Iran and its penchant for lying. The president has decided it is better to scrap the agreement altogether and re-impose sanctions, or try to amend the agreement as our allies prefer.

Brian J. Goldenfeld, Woodland Hills

I would strongly encourage journalists to emulate the unflinchingly centrist style of Michael Berenbaum’s recent column (“Pity Mahmoud Abbas,” May 11). Most who criticize the Israeli government’s approach to the conflict with Palestinians tend to forget or ignore just how awful and intransigently anti-Semitic the leadership is on the other side. And most who decry the wrongs of Abbas or other Palestinian leaders tend to forget or ignore the suffering of the very people they lead.

If only we could stop being so one-sided in our rhetoric and attitudes, we might lessen the number of people so brainwashed by the “left” that they forsake the need to defend Israel from her truest enemies, or so brainwashed by the “right” that they forsake the need to prevent Israel from emulating said enemies.

Michael Feldman, Los Angeles

I am very confused. It feels like if I support Israel’s existence, then I am supposed to be pro-current administration (i.e., President Donald Trump), which I definitely am not! But if I support peace and freedom for everyone in the Middle East, I am supposed to do that by opposing the “occupation” of the West Bank and by supporting activities and groups that all lead to Hamas — a group defined as working to destroy the Jewish state.

All my left-wing friends support “anti-Zionism,” which translates to pro-Hamas, but they insist that they like Jews and will defend the rights of Jews. My right-wing friends (yes, I have some) support the idea of a Jewish homeland but they support many other things that I find odious.

Strange bedfellows, no? I want to find a place in the middle. I think maybe we should move the homeland to Antarctica but someone will surely accuse us of oppressing the penguins.

Lynne Bronstein, Van Nuys

Notwithstanding his fighting words in a recent mosque sermon that Tel Aviv and Haifa will be totally destroyed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami should sit down and shut up. Israel’s air force did serious damage to Iranian military installations in Syria last week in retaliation for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard assault, seemingly launched against the advice of Russia and their Syrian hosts, when it fired 20 rockets at Israel.

Sadly, the murderous threats emanating from imams in mosques all over the world, that Israel/America/Jews must be destroyed, have a “blowback” effect in making Muslims who are innocent of such hatred look like extremists. One might hope that the moderates would be able to suppress those imams who preach hatred from their pulpits.

Maybe they’re too afraid, or worse, maybe they don’t want to. It’s difficult to know which, but also easy to feel compelled to defend against vile religious leaders who can’t seem to be shut down by those who wail about Islamophobia.

Desmond Tuck, San Mateo

Less Shouting, More Listening

I read on the Journal website “Pro-Palestinian Protesters Attempt to Shut Down Israeli Speakers and Fail” by Aaron Bandler, and I agree totally with the reporter. I believe that the Palestinians’ chanting was unacceptable. I think it was great of UC Irvine’s Students Supporting Israel to point out that they would show their perspective and not keep silent. Also, they said that they will continue to make the voices of the pro-Israeli students heard. That shows peace, not hate, which is what the world needs.

Eliyaou Eshaghian, Tarzana

Israelis in the Diaspora

This is another in a long line of letters disputing wild, unsourced journalistic estimates of Israelis living in the Diaspora, which Danielle Berrin has repeated as “more than 1 million” (“Wandering Israelis,”  April 13).

The most trusted demographic estimate done by Pew Research in 2010 was 230,000 Jewish emigrants from Israel living in other countries, with the most, 110,000 in the U.S. This aligns with my 1982 published estimates for Israeli emigrants in the U.S. and about my estimate of 25,000 living in and around Los Angeles.

Fun fact: Using Berrin’s source data from the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics of about 2.2 million flying abroad in a six-month period, and the U.S. nonimmigrant Israeli entry estimates for roughly the same period, fewer than 1 in 10 Israeli tourist flyers eventually landed in the U.S. As we are all learning, visiting or immigrating to the U.S. is a pain.

While the Los Angeles Israeli community has become much more organized, now raising tens of millions of dollars yearly through the Israeli-American Council (IAC), in the 36 years since a realistic estimate of numbers has been published, I have not found any evidence that the number of Israelis has changed substantially from being about 1/20th of the Los Angeles Jewish community.

Pini Herman, Beverly Grove

(This letter originally appeared in the April 20 edition.)

Berrin responds: Pini Herman asserts that my column includes “wild, unsourced journalistic estimates” regarding the number of Israelis living in the Diaspora. This is untrue. While it is difficult to estimate the exact number of Israelis living in the Diaspora for a variety of reasons, the upward trend is clear. Estimates from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, the prime minister’s office and a Pew Study suggest the number could be as low 300,000 and as high as 1 million. Just last week, Newsweek reported that from 2006 to 2016, more than 87,000 Israelis became U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, according to data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This is up from 66,000 from the previous decade. For a long time now, rumors of a so-called Israeli “brain drain” have permeated public discourse. In 2011, Foreign Policy ran a story headlined “The Million Missing Israelis.” Last August, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency wondered, “Can Israel bring home its million U.S. expats?” Many of these articles examine the ways the Israeli government has tried to stanch the brain drain by enticing the best and brightest Israelis back home, sometimes through ad campaigns or initiatives like the 2011 I-CORE program, a $360 million initiative to lure Israeli scholars back to Israeli universities. According to Newsweek, “Results were so underwhelming that the program was ended after three years.”

None of these facts is wild or unsourced; we ought to pay attention to the trend suggested by even inexact statistics.


A story about the death of Rabbi Aaron Panken (“Remembering Rabbi Aaron Panken,” May 11) mistakenly reported the date of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion New York ordination ceremony as May 7, two days after Panken’s death. The ceremony was held May 6, one day after his death.

An item in the May 11 edition of Movers & Shakers incorrectly identified Tanya Waldman as the co-director of Witness Theater: Voices of History. Her name is Talya Waldman. Also, a photo caption accompanying the May 1 Israel Bonds luncheon mistakenly identified Marlene Kreitenberg as Ruth Low.

A headline on a Q-and-A with Rabba Sara Hurwitz failed to include her honorific (“An Orthodox Woman in the Time of #Metoo,” May 11). The Journal regrets the oversight.

Letters to the Editor: Iran Deal, North Korea and Natalie Portman

U.S. Scraps Iran Nuclear Agreement

Let’s start with the proposition that Iran is a very bad actor. Let us also agree that without vigorous monitoring, Iran will not strictly adhere to any agreement. That being said, it is a terrible mistake for President Donald Trump not to recertify the Iran nuclear accord.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent dog-and-pony show was long on accusations but short on specific evidence. The binders and computer discs onstage with him aren’t proof that Iran is failing to honor its responsibilities under the nuclear deal. What Netanyahu and the various authors of the commentaries and articles that support scrapping the accord conveniently overlook is that there is a large element in the Israeli intelligence/military establishment that while acknowledging it’s not a perfect accord, it is working and is good for Israel.

It is also interesting to note the other signatories to the Iran nuclear accord say Iran is honoring its obligations. The only naysayers are Netanyahu and Trump.

Andrew C. Sigal, Valley Village

Kudos to the Jewish Journal for exposing the secrets and lies of the Iranian nuclear deal. The cover story would be enough to tell it all (“What Happens Now?” May 4). Dayenu. Beyond that, the articles describe in detail the lies that were foisted on Americans that were particularly painful for American Jews.

David Suissa gave some Trump haters and, in particular, Jewish Trump haters something to think about (“Why Tyrants Must Hate Trump,” May 4). Admittedly, Trump is brash and a rude tweeter. When it comes to foreign tyrants, as Suissa stated, Trump is just what the doctor ordered. As much as we all value decency, for 16 years the United States got burned by two very decent presidents — first by George W. Bush’s trillion-dollar fiasco in Iraq, and then by Barack Obama’s naïve deal with Iran that empowered the world’s biggest sponsor of terror.

We need somebody like Trump to stare them down and back out of the disastrous Iran deal if Iran does not make further concessions.

Marshall Lerner, Beverly Hills

The North Korean Dilemma

I disagree with David Suissa’s assessment in his column “Why Tyrants Must Hate Trump.” If President Donald Trump’s bluster had worked with North Korea, then it would have stopped testing its long-range ICBMs right away. Instead, despite Trump’s threats, they continued testing until they had proven to themselves that they had a missile that could reach most of the United States. The North Koreans offered to talk only after they had tested enough missiles to prove that their missile program was ready. Listen to the speech that Kim Jong Un delivered to his own country. This was his original intent.

Rabbi Ahud Sela via email

The Natalie Portman Issue

In her column (“Portman’s the Messenger, Not the Problem,” April 27), Danielle Berrin introduces the premise that the effect of Portman’s rejection of the Genesis Prize will lead to increased Jewish disunity on congregational matters, including political problems. Berrin warns that one of the problems is the collapse of peace talks and the promise of a two-state solution.

I have three questions for Berrin.

Does Fatah want a two-state solution?

Does Hamas want a two-state solution?

Does Hezbollah want a two-state solution?

Bernard Schneier, Marina del Rey

How American Jews View Israel

Danielle Berrin claims to rely on, but fundamentally misunderstands, Leon Wieseltier’s advice that the merit of a view “owes nothing to the biography of the individual who holds it” (“Should American Jews Criticize Israel?” May 4).

Wieseltier did not invent this notion. It is his way of restating the classic fallacy of the ad hominem attack: A good argument can’t be refuted because the speaker is bad. Nor can a bad argument be improved because the speaker is good. I have no doubt Berrin has deep love for Israel. But that does not mean her opinion has any merit just because it comes from a good place.

No, what Wieseltier is saying is that an argument — and criticism — must be judged solely on its own merits. What nuanced and insightful advice does Berrin offer for the complex military and diplomatic conundrum Israel is faced with? What is the “truth” that Berrin claims her “holy chutzpah” impels her to tell Israel? I honestly would like to know, but I’ll gladly take the advice of someone who may not love Israel as much as Berrin but has answers to challenges such as: the military land-bridge Iran is constructing through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to threaten Israel; the tens of thousands of Hezbollah missiles aimed at Tel Aviv; the tunnels being burrowed under the desert to snatch Israelis in their sleep; and the diplomatic and propaganda war waged against Israel by the United Nations, the European Union and nearly every American university campus.

Perhaps Berrin’s Israeli friend really meant that Israel does not want for critics but that if you are going to criticize, don’t assume that your love substitutes for sound analysis. Contrary to Berrin’s claim, film critic Pauline Kael was not respected “because everyone knew she loved” movies. Many people love movies. Kael was respected because she was a true expert on movies.

But even Kael wasn’t good at making movies. What Israel really needs, more than well-intended critics, is smart, practical and realistic solutions to massively complicated problems.

What is the role of love in all of this? If Berrin’s love for Israel drove her to develop these kinds of solutions,

I’m sure everyone, especially her Israeli friend, would be very grateful. But love alone, Wieseltier teaches, does not a helpful opinion make.

Ben Orlanski, Beverly Hills

Leftism’s Misguided Values

Karen Lehrman Bloch’s compelling column “The Golden Calf of Leftism” (May 4) exposes a new crisis among American Jews.

We’ve all been shocked by the increase in Israel-bashing and anti-Semitism at Democratic rallies, leading to feminist organizers’ recent praise of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. But many Jewish Democrats still support former President Barack Obama’s white-washing of Palestinian rejectionism, terrorism and contempt for Israel. Some Jewish feminists support Linda Sarsour, despite her anti-Semitism and reported endorsement of Sharia law. Wealthy Jews, many in the Hollywood community, are bankrolling Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions promotion.

It’s a cruel irony that while thousands of French Jews make aliyah to escape rising Muslim terrorism, Jewish “progressives” are abetting the terrorists and condemning Israel, the victims’ only refuge.

Rueben Gordon via email

History Lessons in the Journal

Thank you, Jewish Journal and David Suissa for your excellent publication.

I know a “lot” about Israeli and Jewish history up until about 70 B.C.E. I knew very little after that. Therefore, a few years ago, I decided to learn more about Jews and Israel today. I’d like to be as familiar with you and your culture as I am with my own English-American culture.

Recently, I discovered the Journal: It’s like Christmas, my birthday and Yom HaAtzmaut (a term I learned in the Journal) rolled up into one. Every article I read — even the advertisements — is interesting, informative and educational.

The one major problem I have with the Journal is that I’m not finished reading it before the next issue comes out. Oy vey!

Jerald Brown, Sylmar

After #MeToo, an Orthodox Rabba confronts the limits – and possibilities – of her own power

In 2009, Rabba Sara Hurwitz made history when she became the first Orthodox woman to earn public ordination at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), an established modern Orthodox synagogue. Later that year, she and her teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss, then the spiritual leader of HIR, founded Yeshivat Maharat (YM), a New York seminary that ordains Orthodox women as “full spiritual and halakhic leaders.” In other words, as rabbis, but without challenging halachic limitations around what women can and cannot do.

Today, almost a decade later, there are 19 YM graduates working in clergy positions within and beyond the Orthodox community, and another seven will join them after ordination later this month. But for the 28 women currently enrolled in YM’s beit midrash, the year of the #metoo movement has unleashed new questions around the entrenched power structure of the Orthodox community and how it affects the growing number of women working to claim their place as leaders.

Hurwitz, 41, talked to the Journal about the “#metoo” effect on the modern Orthodox community, the power imbalance in traditional Judaism and how she squares the fact that even as a “rabba,” she doesn’t count in a minyan.

Jewish Journal: On May 9, you led an event at Yeshivat Maharat called “The complicated nature of power.” Why is the acquisition of power so complicated for Orthodox women?

Sara Hurwitz: As an institution that is training women to be authorities, we became very mindful during the #metoo movement [about] what our responsibility was in terms of helping our students know how to protect themselves, but also how to help them manage the dynamic between being authorities and protecting against authority. We realized this was a unique position for Orthodox women who, on one hand, are trying to protect [themselves] from harassment and power, and on the other hand, are trying to gain power.

JJ: What impact has the #metoo movement had on Orthodox women?

SH: The conversation has given women some language and confidence in speaking out about uncomfortable situations that they’ve been in. We all have had upsetting statements made about our bodies when we’re on display. [#Metoo] has given students and faculty a little bit more confidence in pushing all of us to come up with a more formal system of reporting and to explicitly create parameters around what’s appropriate.

JJ: Is the Orthodox community echoing the broader culture in terms of women coming forward to report sexual harassment and assault?

SH: I definitely think there’s more silence. We’re a traditional community that has used halachah as its guidepost and part of that system has been to be insular and to not have a system of reporting externally. That sentiment of not airing our dirty laundry still resonates for Orthodox people. But I certainly see a shift happening. It’s no longer possible to dust things under the rug.

Rather than throwing out the whole system, I’m really invested in trying to create change from within. I think about expanding the walls of the beit midrash rather than breaking down the whole building.

JJ: Do you see any connection between the power imbalance in Orthodox Judaism and the ability for a man to more easily abuse his power?

SH: It’s definitely a patriarchal system and men have held [the only] positions of authority for far too long. Our model is trying to ensure that women [be] seen as authorities in addition to men — not to usurp authority, but to create a system where both men and women are shaping communal conversation in partnership.

JJ: Earlier this year the Orthodox Union (OU) reaffirmed its opposition to ordaining women. How did you feel about a decision that essentially delegitimizes your work?

SH: The question about what to call women is just splitting hairs. We know there’s a tremendous need. In the last several months, we’ve [had] 20 phone calls asking to hire women or take an intern either in Hillels, schools or synagogues, so we haven’t felt a backlash in terms of placement. We’ve created a need, and the OU has put their imprimatur on the fact that there is a need.

JJ: As a spiritual leader, how do you reconcile your desire to share your gifts with the implicit limitations of a tradition that tells you you literally don’t count in a minyan?

SH: Rather than throwing out the whole system, I’m really invested in trying to create change from within. I think about expanding the walls of the beit midrash rather than breaking down the whole building. It’s true that I don’t count in a minyan, but I can create a certain experience for people davening in that space that resonates with my congregants.

JJ: Do you hope for an Orthodox Judaism that is inclusive of women in all aspects?

SH: I like to focus on all that women can do. I know it’s probably frustrating I’m not answering your question directly.

JJ: Are you careful because you think you’ll be deemed too radical or do you really not wish for that much change?

SH: Rabbi Yitz Greenberg always says that in order to be a really successful leader you have to be just a little bit ahead of your community, and make sure that you’re bringing them along; but if you’re too far ahead of your community, you’re just seen as a kook. I think about that statement often.

JJ: Where is the most glaring lack of power for Orthodox women right now?

SH: What I see more and more is that girls are choosing to opt out of having more of a religious experience because they don’t have any role models for what a serious religious female leader looks like. In school they’ll see a [woman] who leads tefillah in the morning, but there isn’t the more authoritative female leader. And I think girls are opting out of the religious community in droves because they’re becoming apathetic [about their possibilities within] religious life.

JJ: Do you think increasing openness to women within the Orthodox community will inevitably extend itself to other forms of openness like gay marriage, or more inclusion for intermarried couples?

SH: Obviously inclusion is always important and we always want to be thinking about and embracing those who don’t fit within our halachic system. What I really hope is that it will become very normal and natural to have women be equal partners in the communal conversation, and I think that when you have more wisdom and more perspectives, there is a tendency towards thinking about inclusion.

JJ: Why should you not be allowed to sign a ketubah as a witness to marriage when some guy in the congregation who may know half of what you know is allowed to be a witness?

SH: Look, there’s a system that me and others in the tradition buy into. It doesn’t mean we have to be happy about every aspect of the system. But for me, at least, there’s a willingness to fully embrace it and at the same time engage in the struggle. Being a witness is a halachic category that doesn’t have such good reasons for why it should be gendered, but it is. So we still have to struggle and contend with that.

Should American Jews Criticize Israel?

Photo from Pixabay.

Whenever I go on a tear about how much I love Israel, my Israeli best friend rolls his eyes and says, “You should live here.” While he appreciates my enthusiasm for the Jewish homeland, he’s convinced my zealotry would be moderated if I had to daily endure a range of challenging Israeli realities, from long lines to crazy drivers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But what he’s really saying is this: Because I do not live in Israel, my opinion of her isn’t wholly legitimate.

He’s entitled to his opinion.

Personally, I’ve always preferred the Leon Wieseltier view that “the merit of a view owes nothing to the biography of the individual who holds it” — meaning, a person is entitled to an opinion about anything he or she cares enough to consider despite the credentials of his or her resume. But to clarify, I asked my friend how he feels about my pronouncements on Israel.

“Are you saying my opinion is illegitimate or incomplete?” I asked. “Both,” he said. “You are not serving in the army; you are not contributing like the Israelis are contributing. You are not dealing with the daily struggles, the politics, Hamas, Lebanon. We live in this country and you are on the other side of the globe.

“I’m Israeli,” he continued. “You’re just Jewish.”

Ouch. And that’s for expressing my love of Israel.

“I’m Israeli,” my friend said. “You’re just Jewish.”

But this is also the conventional wisdom that has held for American Jews when it comes to criticizing Israel. We’re told there is a price we Diaspora Jews must pay for not living in the land, and that price is to exercise some humility and restraint in our public criticism of Israel. It is preferred, by some, that we not engage in it at all. Doesn’t Israel have enough enemies?

I thought about this a great deal last week in the aftermath of Natalie Portman’s dramatic snub of the Genesis Prize. In rejecting the award, Portman shared her (negative) opinion of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and condemned some of his policies. Does that make her an enemy of Israel or the Jewish people?

“Self-criticism is the hallmark of a mature community,” Wieseltier has taught.

In fact, the Bible clearly instructs us not to hate our neighbor, but instead, rebuke him when he does wrong (Leviticus 19:17).

It is therefore a fatal mistake to assume criticism makes an enemy of the critic. On the contrary, the art of criticism is to encourage improvement, to help the subject refine its sense of itself and to set the stage for an eternal striving — whether for one’s country or one’s character.

“We should be cultivating a kind of criticism that comes from love,” Tal Becker, senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute said during a panel discussion at UCLA Hillel last week. Becker explained why he doesn’t take personal offense when American Jews criticize Israel.

“American Jews who are criticizing are not telling you what to do, they’re telling you what they think,” he said. “Take a chill pill. Someone’s just telling you what they think.”

Still, no one likes to be on the receiving end of criticism. Even when it’s “constructive” it is almost always unpleasant to hear how you’ve fallen short or what you’ve done wrong. Moral criticism may be the hardest to bear, let alone accept. But it is nonetheless essential to the functioning of a healthy society, not least because it encourages the free exchange of ideas and promotes creative discourse. New ideas are rarely born of party-line agreements.

Consider the Talmud, a document of disputation. Why does its vitality stem from critique?Because stone sharpens stone, the rabbis say.

So many views are partial views and require other views in the attainment of truth. “Make for yourself a heart of many rooms,” the Talmud tells us.

To incorporate criticism is to grow and become better. Even heretical ideas lend themselves to expanded understanding: Monotheism was a heresy when the Jews introduced it.

But as Becker said, the trick to criticism is to do it with love. It is infinitely easier to hear if it comes from a wish for improvement and not from anger and desire for destruction. Pauline Kael could critique movies because everyone knew she loved them — even “great trash” was appreciated.

True, many of us don’t live in the land. But still, we love it. And it is sometimes the deepest act of love and holy chutzpah to tell your love the truth.

Don’t shoot the messenger: On Natalie Portman

When the Genesis Prize Foundation announced last November that the Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman would be the recipient of this year’s prize — often described as the “Jewish Nobel” — it offered Portman the highest praise:

“Without a doubt, she is a role model for millions of young Jews around the world.”

That compliment now seems both prescient and alarming.

Since Portman has decided to reject the prize and boycott the ceremony in protest of Israel government policies and practices — saying she did not wish to attend an event at which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be present — what must those millions of young Jews think now? And what does it mean that the most high-profile cultural censure of Israel to date has not come from the invidious Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, but from one of our own?

It is worse than a pity that Portman chose to rebuke Israel with her boycott. As Jane Eisner wrote in The Forward, couldn’t she have gone to the ceremony and given a killer human rights speech in Netanyahu’s face? If she wishes to protest Israeli policies, I wish she would say which ones. Or does she want us and the world to think the entire Israeli government, despite a robust democratic opposition, is a total disgrace?

But OK, I get it. Portman didn’t want her acceptance of the prize or her presence at the event to be seen as an endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. As a citizen of Israel, she’s entitled to her dissent. That’s what Israeli democracy is about. We can be proud that one of Israel’s democratic strengths is that it can tolerate criticism.

That problem is the collapse of peace talks and the idea and promise of a two-state solution.

At this point, I’m far less interested in whether Portman’s decision to refuse the Genesis Prize makes her a hero or a traitor. Scores of outspoken Jews in the opposing camps have issued their views over the past week, exacerbating an already painful situation. I don’t really care what your personal politics are, when an Israeli Jew rejects an Israeli honor, it should hurt. It signifies that the Jewish world has a big problem on its hands, far more disruptive than Jewish disunity. Portman isn’t the problem, she is a reflection of that problem and a harbinger of how much worse it could get.

That problem is the collapse of peace talks and the idea and promise of a two-state solution.

Yes, the two-state solution. Remember that old thing? You should, because it’s the only thing that could end the terrible occupation that has been a stain on Israeli and Jewish consciences for more than five decades. And, because the alternative to a two-state solution spells political and moral catastrophe for the Israel we love.

Maintaining the status quo — the current one-state solution — means more and more boycotts. It means international isolation. It means more and more Jews turning away from the Jewish homeland because they can’t conscience a triumphalist Israel over a virtuous one. The alternative to a two-state solution is personified by Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement and an enemy to the idea of a Jewish state, who said: “I can sense our South Africa moment coming closer.”

I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that South African apartheid didn’t end with a two-state solution. (Never mind that the comparison between Israel and South Africa is intellectually unsound; most people aren’t educated enough about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to know the difference, and as we all know, even fake news gets traction.)

Portman may not be the tipping point, but the tipping point may come if “millions of young Jews around the world” choose to follow in her footsteps and alienate the Jewish state when there are millions of reasons to love it. The tipping point is coming when the actions of those young Jews will be hard to distinguish from the actions of the BDS movement. Be angry about that outcome, but don’t dismiss it.

Whatever one feels about Portman’s decision or the “liberal American Jews” who might disappear in a generation, we should care about the reasons why they would want to distance themselves from Israel in the first place.

We should also want to find a way to get them back.

What’s Happening in Jewish L.A. April 21-25: L.A. Jewish Film Festival and Walk to End Genocide

"Seeing Allred."


Writers, poets, artists, musicians and filmmakers appear at the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a weekend celebration of the written word. Ed Asner discusses his 2017 book, “The Grouchy Historian”; religious scholar Reza Aslan appears in conversation with Jewish Journal Book Editor Jonathan Kirsch; actress, neuroscientist and author Mayim Bialik explores the nexus of science, geek culture and girl power; author Steven Ross (“Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America”) and Journal contributor Bill Boyarsky examine “History: Telling Hidden Stories”; Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky weighs in on “Our Endangered Constitution” and L.A. Times film critic Kenneth Turan participates on a panel titled “The Entertainment Industry.” Through April 22. Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. USC’s University Park Campus, Los Angeles. latimes.com/festivalofbooks.


Amanda Berman, co-founder and president of Zioness, a group that seeks to empower Jewish women to participate in progressive spaces, discusses “Jewish Feminism in the Face of Racialism.” Berman previously worked on Democratic campaigns, and in law school she served at the Bet Tzedek Legal Services Clinic. Her lecture follows a Saturday morning Shabbat service. 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Free. Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 276-4246. beverlyhillsjc.org.


Over lunch after Shabbat services, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) discusses the latest goings on in Washington, D.C. Schiff is the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees the nation’s intelligence agencies. Sponsored by IKAR. Free. 12:30 p.m. Shalhevet High School, 910 S. Fairfax, Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. ikar-la.org.


“Bad Jews.”

In Joshua Harmon’s scathingly funny play “Bad Jews,” two cousins clash ferociously over who has the right to inherit the chai necklace that belonged to their beloved grandfather, “Poppy,” which Poppy preserved during the Holocaust by hiding it under his tongue. Through June 17. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.; Wednesday, May 9 and May 30, 8 p.m.; Thursday, May 17 and June 14, 8 p.m. $25–$35. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 477-2055. odysseytheatre.com.


Seeking to influence the end of deadly conflicts in Syria, Sudan, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jewish World Watch stages its 12th annual Walk to End Genocide. The three-hour event brings together a broad range of advocates sending the message, “We will not stand idly by while genocide and mass atrocities occur.”  The walk raises funds to underwrite support programs in affected communities. 9 a.m.-noon. $36 adults; $28 students, ages 12-22; $18 children, ages 5-11; toddlers, free. Pan Pacific Park, 7600 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 501-1836. jww.org.


A 5,000-year-old board game that originated in the Middle East receives a fresh airing when JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) and Kahal Joseph Congregation co-host an all-ages backgammon tournament. Prizes will be awarded to the top players, and players who bring their own backgammon boards will receive a free raffle ticket. 10 a.m. Before April 20: tournament entry fee, $20; general admission, $10 adults, kids free. At the door: entry fee, $30; general admission, $10 adults, $5 kids. Kahal Joseph Congregation, 10505 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-0559. kahaljoseph.org.


Whizin’s Stand-Up Comedy Showcase presents comedians Annie Korzen and Mark Schiff. Korzen played the recurring role of Doris Klompus on “Seinfeld.” Schiff, who recently opened for Jerry Seinfeld in Israel, appeared many times on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Night With David Letterman.” He has starred in HBO and Showtime specials, and written for “The Roseanne Show.” 4 p.m. $25. The David Alan Shapiro Memorial Synagogue Center, American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 476-9777. wcce.aju.edu.


Singer-songwriter Shelley Fisher performs her musical one-woman play, which chronicles her growing up Jewish in the Deep South with a flamboyant mother who frowned on her dating the local boys, and her dreams of bright lights and show business. 6:30 p.m. $20. Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica. (310) 394-9779. santamonicaplayhouse.com.


UnCabaret, the downtown Los Angeles home of original alternative comedy for nearly 25 years, holds an evening of laughter, featuring Kira Soltanovich, James Adomian, Lauren Weedman, Zach Sherwin, Paige Weldon and the Frogtown Serenaders. Beth Lapides, who appeared on the series “Sex and the City,” “Will & Grace” and “Politically Incorrect,” hosts this weekly program. 8 p.m. $10-$30. The Showroom at Au Lac, 701 W. First St., Los Angeles. (213) 706-3630. uncabaret.com


During this annual Yom Iyun evening of learning, two leaders of Ohr Samayach International explore “Belief: The Challenge of Our Times.” Rabbi Akiva Tatz speaks on “Faith in a Faithless World” and Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb identifies “Reasons to Believe.” For men and women. Refreshments served. 7:30-11:55 p.m. Advance, $10. After April 22, $15. Students free. Nessah Synagogue, 142 S. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. (718) 677-6200. nessah.org.


Abigail Pogrebin.

Abigail Pogrebin, author of “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew,” embarked on a year of research and writing about every Jewish ritual, fast and festival in one Jewish year. In a book infused with humorous details, Pogrebin imparts the wisdom of more than 60 rabbis she interviewed. In conversation with Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom. 7:30 p.m. $10. Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library, American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 476-9777. wcce.aju.edu


Investigative journalist Michael Isikoff, co-author of “Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump,” shares his conclusions about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. The book, which he wrote with journalist David Corn, argues that the attempted sabotage of American democracy brought Trump to the presidency. 7:30 p.m. $20, admission; $42, book and admission. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 288-3737. writersblocpresents.com.


The advent of Islam in the seventh century brought profound economic changes to Jews living in the Middle East. The Talmud, written in and for an agrarian society, was in many ways ill-equipped for the new economy. Not previously noticed, however, in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides made efforts to update the halachah to make it conform with Jewish merchant practices. Author Mark R. Cohen talk about his book, “Maimonides and the Merchants: Jewish Law and Society in the Medieval Islamic World.” Cohen is a professor emeritus at Princeton University. Sponsored by the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. Free and open to the public. 4-6 p.m. UCLA Royce Hall, Room 314, 10745 Dickson Court, Los Angeles. (310) 267-5327. cjsrsvp@humnet.ucla.edu.


Leonard Bernstein.

On the centennial of composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth, the Skirball Cultural Center presents an exhibition celebrating the life and work of the great American composer and conductor who dedicated his life to making classical music a vibrant part of American culture. The Grammy- and Tony Award-winning Bernstein (1918–1990) wrote landmark scores for musical theater (“West Side Story,” “Candide”) and film (“On the Waterfront”). Organized by the Grammy Museum and curated by its founding executive director and renowned music historian, Robert Santelli. Through Sept. 2. Included with museum admission. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.


Inspired and educated by her father, who headed a rabbinical court in the United Kingdom, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, a lifetime Torah scholar, discusses her book “Exodus: Narrative or Anti-Narrative?” The London-born former National Jewish Book Award winner has taught Torah in Jerusalem for 30 years. 6 p.m. dinner, 7:30 p.m. lecture. $15, lecture. $40, dinner and lecture. UCLA Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081, ext. 108. hillelatucla.wufoo.com.


Tal Becker, a renowned expert in Israeli political thought, delivers an informative, measured and scholarly lecture on “Israel as a Jewish Democracy: A Conversation Through Case Studies.” He discusses the idea of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, using case studies taken from the headlines, and explores the complex relationship between these two aspirations. 7:45 p.m. Shalhevet High School, 910 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 930-9333. shalhevet.org.


“Seeing Allred.”

From saluting the late entertainment giant Sammy Davis Jr., in “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” on opening night, to celebrating living icons past 90 years old in “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” on closing night, the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival celebrates the tapestry of Jewish experience. Old friends of Davis, including “Laugh-In” creator George Schlatter, actor Tom Dreesen and Davis’ son Manny appear onstage for the Los Angeles premiere of the opening film. Then, over eight days at Laemmle theaters across Los Angeles, the festival showcases films from around the world, including “Seeing Allred,” featuring an in-person appearance by Gloria Allred, and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the 1935 classic that captured two Academy Awards. On April 28, actor Hal Linden accepts the Marvin Paige Hollywood Legacy Award before the world premiere of his new film, “The Samuel Project,” at Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills. On April 29, David Suissa, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal, receives the Visionary Award ahead of the North American premiere of the Israeli television series “Commandments.” Through May 2. Opening night: 7:15 p.m., $40. Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (800) 838-3006. lajfilmfest.org.


Daylong conference “Israel and Diaspora: Peoplehood in Crisis?” marks Israel’s 70th birthday by exploring how to develop a compelling narrative that holds Jews from different backgrounds, beliefs and politics together in a meaningful way. Key speakers include Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America; Tal Becker, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and Jewish Journal Senior Writer Danielle Berrin. Light breakfast and lunch included. 9 a.m.-3 p.m. $36 general, $18 students. UCLA Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. shalomhartman.org/laiengage18.

Letters to the Editor: Poland Holocaust Law, Gaza Border, and Israelis in the Diaspora

Poland Holocaust Law

The letter to the editor about Poland’s recently passed Holocaust law could not have been written by a grown-up (Letters to the Editor, April 13).

It had to have been written by a child who was raised on lies and wrong information.

Claiming that the Polish underground was the largest anti-Nazi underground army in Europe is laughable.

There are still a few of us around, so you can’t make up history to suit you.

You need to be honest and speak the truth or don’t speak at all.

Ella Mandel, Polish Holocaust survivor, Los Angeles

Gaza Border Unrest

Kudos to David Suissa for exposing the hypocrisy of the Gaza “protests” (“When Truth Comes Marching In,” April 13). His most powerful point was quoting Ben-Dror Yemini’s observation that the Palestinian marchers chanted “Khaybar Khaybar ya yahud.”  This war cry relates not to the current State of Israel but to the seventh-century ethnic cleansing of the two Jewish tribes in Medina by Mohammad’s army. Those slaughtered Jews were not living in current-day Israel but in ancient Saudi Arabia — thus exposing the virulent anti-Jewish hatred from Islam’s earliest history. This same “Khaybar” chant was sung eight years ago in the Turkish flotilla as it approached Gaza.

Hamas made a fatal miscalculation more than a decade ago. Despite being offshoots of the Sunni/Wahabi, Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida and ISIS axis, Hamas switched allegiance to Shiite Iran, prompting Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Gulf states to abandon them. Recently Israel, with the assistance of its former enemy Egypt, destroyed much of Hamas’ tunnel infrastructure, leading inevitably to the violent protests we are witnessing today.

Richard Friedman, Culver City

Israelis in the Diaspora

This is another in a long line of letters disputing wild, unsourced journalistic estimates of Israelis living in the Diaspora, which Danielle Berrin has repeated as “more than 1 million” (“Wandering Israelis,” April 13).

The most trusted demographic estimate done by Pew Research in 2010 was 230,000 Jewish emigrants from Israel living in other countries, with the most, 110,000 in the U.S. This aligns with my 1982 published estimates for Israeli emigrants in the U.S. and about my estimate of 25,000 living in and around Los Angeles.

Fun fact: Using Berrin’s source data from the Israel Bureau of Central Statistics about 2.2 million flying abroad in a six-month period, and the U.S. nonimmigrant Israeli entry estimates for roughly the same period, fewer than 1 in 10 Israeli tourist flyers eventually landed in the U.S. As we are all learning, visiting or immigrating to the U.S. is a pain.

While the Los Angeles Israeli community has become much more organized, now raising tens of millions of dollars yearly through the Israeli-American Council (IAC), in the 36 years since a realistic estimate of numbers has been published, I have not found any evidence that the number of Israelis has changed substantially from being about 1/20th of the Los Angeles Jewish community.

Pini Herman, Beverly Grove

Israeli Salad Gets Thumbs Up

Loved the article about Israeli salad by Yamit Behar Wood (“Why I Will Eat an Israeli Salad on Yom HaAtzmaut,” April 13).

I love serving it at every Jewish affair. It just speaks to me and tells me to celebrate and be grateful to be able to celebrate and be grateful to be alive.

Phyllis Steinberg via email

What a delightful, wonderful essay. You took your readers right along on part of the wonderful ride your life has been (so far), and we enjoyed both cultures as you described them and their impact on your growing years.

Miriam Fishman via email

New, Improved Journal

First, allow me to add my praise to those of other readers who commend the Journal for avoiding the need to turn pages to continue reading your columns. It is a great convenience — and much appreciated. As we age (I am 91), our fingers become less dexterous and it is harder to turn the pages to continue reading a particular article.
More important, your articles are of much greater interest to me and, I am sure, other readers. This includes articles of a broad range of interests, such as (in the April 13  issue):

1) “Adam Milstein: Promoter of Israeliness.” I wept as I read it. He is a brilliant and great leader.

2) “Israeli Taekwondo Program Has Local Source.” As a result, I am going to ask the director of the JFS Freda Mohr Multipurpose Senior Center to provide our community with a special event to meet and talk to Lois and Richard Gunther, in honor of whom the new JFS three-story building will be named.

3) “How to Tie Shoelaces Into a Star of David.” I followed the steps on paper, and will now try it for real.

George Epstein via email

Memories of the Holocaust

Writer Thane Rosenbaum appears to hedge on the ultimate reason for remembering the Holocaust (“What’s Left to Say?” April 6). Is the continuing scourge of anti-Semitism or the “moral mystery” of the Holocaust the principal cause of its refusal to stop haunting our minds and hearts? A bit of both? If anti-Semitism disappeared forever, instead of just moving from dormancy to flare-up, the Holocaust would weigh even more heavily on the memory and conscience of mankind.

The Shoah was a catastrophe for the Jewish people, a cataclysm from which recovery is gradual at best. There are only 2 million more Jews in the world than existed in 1939, and this is despite the miraculous growth of Israel and the impressive birth rate of Orthodox Jewry in the United States.

The life force is with us, but the Holocaust is in our genes.

And as for the non-Jewish world, the eradication of anti-Semitism and the marginalization of the Jews would make the Holocaust such an embarrassment to the modern world’s sense of its humanity that all of its accomplishments in science, technology and medical cures would seem incidental to a fundamental flaw in its moral compass.

Peter Brier, Altadena

An essential part of what should be commemorated on Yom HaShoah is the extraordinary courage and dignity shown by Jews living in hopeless conditions in terrifying times. “Zog Nit Keinmol” (Song of the Partisans) should be part of any commemorative program, along with a few words about poet Hirsh Glick.

While imprisoned in the Vilna Ghetto, Glick was inspired to write these strong, deeply moving lyrics when he heard about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Glick escaped the Vilna ghetto when it was liquidated in October 1943, but was recaptured and sent to a concentration camp in Estonia, from which he escaped in 1944. He was 22 years old and was never heard from again.

Here are the words of the young poet’s masterpiece (unknown translator):

Never say that there is only death for you,
Though leaden skies may be concealing days of

Because the hour we have hungered for is near,
Beneath our tread the earth shall tremble: we
are here!

From lands so green with palms to lands all
white with snow.

We shall be coming with our anguish and our
And where a spurt of our blood fell on the earth,
There our courage and our spirit have rebirth!

The early morning sun will brighten our day,
And yesterday with our foe will fade away,
But if the sun delays and in the east remains,
This song as motto generations must remain.

This song was written with our blood and not
with lead,
It’s not a little tune that birds sing overhead,
This song a people sang amid collapsing walls,
With pistols in hand they heeded to the call.

So never say that there is only death for you,
Though leaden skies may be concealing days of
Because the hour we have hungered for is near,
Beneath our tread the earth shall tremble: we
are here!

Julia Lutch via email

The Wrong Kind of Jew

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, I was kicked out of a Jewish museum in Granada, Spain.

I wish I were being funny or ironic, but this unfortunate event actually happened. It was my first Jewish stop on a trip tracing the roots of Sephardic Jewry throughout southern Spain, when a friend and I visited a small family-run museum that fills the bottom floor of the family’s home.

In accordance with the diminished Jewish presence that is a fact of modern Spain, Granada’s Jewish museum is small and modest. There are a handful of rooms cluttered with Jewish symbols and memorabilia, clearly curated out of love but not, evidently, with much scholarship.

My friend, a rabbi and published author, quickly noticed a significant error in the museum literature: It claimed that Yehuda Ibn Tibbon, one of Granada’s most famous former residents (a monument of him appears in a public square) had translated Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed,” when in fact it was his son, Samuel Ibn Tibbon, who translated the work from Judeo-Arabic to Hebrew. My friend asked to speak to the museum owners and offered to help correct the error.

It certainly wasn’t the first time Jews have been at odds with one another.

Soon, a middle-aged woman and an older man descended the stairs and introduced themselves. Things went south quickly.

“You no respect museum. You get out of my house!” the woman yelled.

We tried to explain that we were deeply appreciative of the museum, but we simply wanted to help correct the error. But they wouldn’t hear it. None of us could really understand one another — I speak broken Spanish; the museum owners spoke broken English — and I’m sure the language barrier was responsible for the miscommunication that ensued.

But a language barrier does not explain what came out of the woman’s mouth next, which was very clear:

“You’re liberal,” she sneered at my friend, a Conservative rabbi who was wearing a kippah and tried to speak to her in Hebrew. “You’re Reform.”

I was raised in a Reform community, so I had never heard the word Reform uttered with such disdain.

“I’m Orthodox,” the woman said, stomping her foot.

Then she turned toward me, standing stunned and silent in gray jeans and a wool coat.

“Look how she’s dressed,” she sniped. “You’re liberal! You’re Reform!”

That’s when we headed for the exit.

Afterward, I wondered how the museum lady could possess such hostility toward liberal Jews when she devotes an entire wall to Jews like Sigmund Freud and Karl “Max” who I’m pretty sure were not as observant as she is.

A week later, I still can’t get this episode out of my mind. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been made to feel inferior for my status as a non-halachic liberal Jew, and it certainly wasn’t the first time Jews have been at odds with one another. The rabbis tell us that sinat hinam — “baseless hatred” among the Israelites — was the reason the Second Temple was destroyed. And although Maimonides commands tremendous reverence today, there were rabbis so disapproving of his “Guide for the Perplexed” when it was first published that the book was burned in Montpellier and Paris.

What I encountered last week wasn’t unprecedented, but it does reflect the dangerous and growing divide among Jews that is driven by political and ideological difference, and which has intensified during the Donald Trump era. Today, Jews of different persuasions are more likely to meet at the combustible intersection of religion and politics than around the Shabbat table. The idea of “am Yisra’el” seems almost quaint. And I fear we’re reaching an inflection point in the disruptive and demeaning way we relate to one another.

In Israel, the ongoing battle over who has the right to pray at the Kotel has driven a wedge between liberal American Jews and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Also, enduring tensions exist between secular Israelis and the Orthodox power structure.

More than any time in recent memory, our community seems perilously close to the atmosphere of sinat hinam that once wrought destruction and tragedy. On April 25 in Los Angeles, I’m moderating a panel for the Shalom Hartman Institute at a conference titled “Israel and Diaspora: Peoplehood in Crisis?”

I have a terrible feeling I know the answer.

Wandering Israelis

If you had asked me as a child what I’d always remember from Jewish Day School, I doubt I would have counted Larry Milder’s song “Wherever You Go” among the minutiae I’d retain.

But the combination of really corny lyrics (no offense, Mr. Milder) and corresponding hand gestures really stitched them into my memory bank:

“Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish  / You’re never alone ’cause God made you a Jew / So when you’re not home, and you’re somewhere kind of new-ish / The odds are, don’t look far — ’cause they’re Jewish, too.”

Not exactly a cultural highpoint of Judaism, and yet, I confess, I find myself singing this song all the time. Partly because the melody is one of those super-catchy, can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head melodies, but also because of something deeper: Whenever I travel, I always run into Jews. And I know they’re Jews not because of beards and payot, but because they’re speaking Hebrew — meaning, they’re Israelis. And they’re everywhere.

The Israeli presence abroad is, for me, a source of never-ending delight. There is something profound and poetic about Jews returning to places where Jewish life has been destroyed, dulled or lost. But I’ve come to recognize many reasons behind the Israeli impulse to explore the Diaspora — and what it reveals about the Jewish psyche.

The Israeli presence abroad is, for me, a source of never-ending delight.

I first noticed the phenomenon of Israelis abroad when backpacking in Southeast Asia during Passover. I signed up with Chabad for what I assumed would be a modest seder in Phuket, Thailand, and was stunned when I entered a huge banquet hall with some 500 Israelis. I found them again in Inle Lake, Myanmar, where hotels were full of discarded guidebooks in Hebrew. Or in the Yangon airport, where hearing the sound of “Yalla, kadima!” turned into a daylong caravan with Israelis around the sites of the city.

I found them again in Budapest. And in Paris. And in Spain. When I told a friend I was interested in the “El Camino de Santiago” pilgrimage, he got me a book written by an Israeli about foraging for food along the way.

The Israeli draw to the world is deep and strong, propelled in part by the archetypal Jewish condition of wandering, which characterized Jewish life for thousands of years. But it’s also motivated by varying degrees of restlessness and dissatisfaction with the status quo that has inspired Jewish innovation and philosophy throughout the ages.

After completing their army service, the Israeli Student Travel Association estimates that from 30,000 and 40,000 young Israelis go backpacking every year. It’s their way of escaping the chaos and life in a war zone and reclaiming individual freedom. And they’re not alone: Last year, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics announced that more than 2.2 million Israelis had flown abroad in just a six-month period, leading one travel agent to declare, “The people of Israel are simply going on vacation at a rate not seen anywhere else in the world.”

Into the cities where synagogues and Jewish quarters are today exoskeletons of a vibrant past, come the vivacious, boisterous, beautiful citizens of Israel, each bearing the gifts of Jewish statehood. From the sonorous sounds of the Hebrew language to the country’s economic successes that made leisure travel possible, Israelis are the roving satellite sparks of a reinvigorated Jewish nation.

We are both rooted and worldly. From the Jews who built the shtetl to those who ushered the Spanish Golden Age, Jewishness has existed and flourished on almost every continent throughout time. Note that the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, does not celebrate the birthday of the Jews but the birthday of the world. We are tribal, but we have also always been universal.

Beyond Israeli tourism abroad, it is estimated that more than 1 million Israelis now live in the Diaspora — most of them in the United States. While it has undoubtedly expanded the reach and impact of Israeli culture, and been a significant political asset, it also may be compromising Israeli innovation, contributing to a so-called “brain drain,” and diminishing the Israeli census.

From 2012 and 2015, Israel lost more people to the United States (18,000) than it gained through American aliyah (13,000), according to the Department of Homeland Security. This prompted Israel’s Immigrant Absorption Ministry to launch the campaign “Returning at 70,” to draw Israeli expats back home. Their presence is needed.

But, of course, it’s the security of having a homeland that allows Israelis to wander and still feel safe.

Our Better Angels

Let’s give Mark Zuckerberg the benefit of the doubt and assume that when he created Facebook, he intended to contribute to the progress of humankind.

In the years since its 2004 launch, the imperturbable Zuck stuck to Facebook’s raison d’etre like President Donald Trump to Twitter: Facebook’s mission is to “make the world more open and connected”; “give the most voice to the most people”; and confer “the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

I’d sing “Kumbaya,” but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to square Facebook’s ideal with Facebook’s reality.

Zuckerberg’s stubborn aversion to criticism is troubling enough. But his company’s total capitulation to capitalism has punished the very people he intended to elevate — compromising user privacy and turning attention spans into ad revenue, even if the advertiser is a Russian hacker selling fake news. Last week, things got even darker in Zuckerberg’s open, connected world when we learned that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica exploited user data to create “psychographic” profiles of Americans in order to manipulate them.

Facebook shares plummeted, sending the company’s valuation down by nearly $50 billion, proving how easy it is to plunge a utopian vision into a dystopian beast. And it’s a cautionary tale of how even the best intentions can be compromised by sinister forces. Pharaohs, we’re reminded, are still out there.

Even if trends suggest reduced violence, the human inclination toward evil — what the Torah calls yetzer harah— remains.

How ironic that Silicon Valley’s arbiter of human progress — who built a community of more than 2 billion “friends” — is so naïve about human nature. Because anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows: The more open and connected, the more vulnerable you are.

Still, by some measures, humankind is better off than it was a few hundred years ago. Harvard professor and psychologist Steven Pinker wrote in his 2011 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” that the world today is demonstrably less violent and more peaceful than at any other time in human history. Science and medicine have eradicated diseases that once amounted to a death sentence; and extreme poverty has declined at unprecedented levels in recent decades, from afflicting 80 percent of the world population in 1820 to not more than 10 percent in 2013.

Today, we have great art, we can send Teslas beyond the stratosphere, and if you’re as wealthy and weird as Barbra Streisand, you can clone your dog.

But I’m not sure that we’re kinder, more tolerant of difference, or less selfish. Even if trends suggest reduced violence, the human inclination toward evil — what the Torah calls yetzer harah — remains.

Because here’s what I see:

Journalist Peter Maass fretting over “how to make people remember or care that 15 years ago the United States invaded Iraq, setting off a war that continues to this day, with several hundred thousand Iraqis dead, millions turned into refugees.”

And yet, onto the scene walks our new national security adviser, John Bolton, who has built his career on bellicosity. Bolton has made the case for military action against Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khamenei and, most recently, Kim Jong Un, asserting in a Wall Street Journal editorial that a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program is “perfectly legitimate.” To agree with this position is to accept that hundreds of thousands or even millions of people could die, and that Pinker’s promising argument would be rendered obsolete with the touch of a button.

It’s enough to prove that although human progress has made us healthier, wealthier and smarter, it hasn’t made us less cruel. Just look to Syria or South Sudan for proof that some people can only solve problems with war.

And let us not discount the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which persists because too many people on both sides think intransigence and intolerance is preferable to flexibility and friendship.

Every year Pesach comes along to remind us that we do not live in an ideal world. God gave us Torah because even a chosen people need laws to keep their good nature in check; because even a slave people, once liberated, can repeat the destructive patterns of their Pharaoh.

In Facebook’s world, it’s called regulation.

Moderating forces are necessary because no person — and no technology — is immune to the corrosive nature of power.

This is the blessing and the curse of human agency: Power is necessary for survival and progress, but we must guard against wielding it as a triumph over others. From the Exodus to the State of Israel, the Torah’s lesson is this: Power, once vested, is something to wrestle with, but never rest or revel in.

Chag sameach.

Letters to the Editor: Gun Violence Debate, Phil Rosenthal and More

Gun Violence Debate

The underlying argument of gun law reform: Public safety will be achieved through legislature (“When Will It End?” Feb. 23). In light of the Florida school shooting, this argument is shaping the modern U.S. political and sociocultural landscape. However, the dialogue on gun control has diverted the public from the underlying cause of shootings: pathology.

In Europe, multiple acts of terror have taken place through the use of cars. By driving through crowds of people, terrorist attacks have killed people in masses. Even in the absence of legal gun purchases, assuming black market sales are somehow nonexistent, pathological individuals can find means to fulfill their destructive motivations.

While empathizing with the victims of this tragedy, this conversation lacks this simple empirical observation: Pathology is a problem of being; it is not a problem of legislature.

Mahmut Alp Yuksel, Los Angeles

Former President Barack Obama and the left are partly responsible for the Parkland, Fla., shooting. Obama’s Promise Program lowered Parkland’s juvenile arrest numbers from 3,000 to 600. Then it lowered the number of children disciplined and expelled; it reduced the treatment of problem children; it lowered the number of children arrested. So when the killer attacked, the police did nothing because they were part of the Promise Program.

Robin Rosenblatt, Sebastopol

What a great column by Danielle Berrin (“In America, Life Should Come Before Total Liberty,” Feb.  23)! Thank you so much for bringing up the essence of the prophetic words of Isaiah Berlin. Having lived for 33 years in a society that believed in the absolute ideal of socialism, I experienced firsthand the truthfulness of his words: Everything is justified by the goal of attaining an ideal society. I would add only this: The more noble the ideal is, the more paranoid and fanatic the society becomes. Total liberty is possible only if a single person lives on an isolated island. If two or more people are to live together as a family, society, etc., then total liberty must be replaced by other values that put life at the center of everything.

Svetlozar Garmidolov, Los Angles

It seems to me that Ben Shapiro is a tad defensive about his hardline interpretation of the Second Amendment (“The Parkland Dilemma,” March 2). He harshly criticizes the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD) for becoming strong advocates for gun safety. How dare they criticize Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for his support of lax gun safety measures? In the very next sentence, he comes to the defense of NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch, arguing that she cares “deeply about their (students’) safety.”

These MSD students experienced a horrific massacre. If some of them spoke in hyperbole, it is understandable. What is Loesch’s excuse for her screed at CPAC? She accused those of us who support strong gun safety laws of being ill-informed, ignorant of the Constitution and anti-American. Yet, Shapiro does not chastise her for these comments.

Andrew C. Sigal, Valley Village

In his opposition to gun regulations, Ben Shapiro says he refuses to give up his guns to “browbeating gun control advocates.” We’re not asking him to give up his guns if he feels that they truly give him a sense of security. What we are asking is for improved background checks, introduction of “smart” guns to reduce the likelihood of accidental shootings, and restrictions on assault weapons. If people like Shapiro would listen and consider such reasonable proposals, then we wouldn’t have to shout at one another.

John Beckmann, Sherman Oaks

The “tribalism” David Suissa describes arises from a failure to develop “team skills” (Trapped Inside of Our Tribes,” March 2).

The deepening political divisions and increase in violence, such as the murder of schoolchildren in Florida, have cultural and interpersonal roots. As our culture has become increasingly technological, individuals have become focused on their smartphones and video games at a young age rather than being encouraged to develop relationships with others. Developing and maintaining relationships with others is a skill that is becoming increasingly difficult for some growing children and increasingly difficult for many adults. Violence and primitive tribalism are the consequence of deep personal isolation.

William E. Baumzweiger, Studio City

Phil Rosenthal’s Modesty

Phil Rosenthal significantly understated the level of his and Monica’s generous philanthropy to Jewish and Israel-based causes (“Phil Rosenthal’s 3 Desires,” March 2).

Just a sampling: They supported the production of the award-winning 2008 documentary about the life and death of Hannah Senesh; Monica received the JNF’s Tree of Life Award; and the couple made a significant gift to underwrite the Department of Religious Services, in memory of Phil’s uncle, Rev. A. Asher Hirsch, at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Paul Jeser via email

There is at least a third trait that “Italians and Jews share”: We talk with our hands. Hence the Yiddish joke: “How do you keep a Jew from talking? Tie his hands behind his back.”

Warren Scheinin, Redondo Beach

The Truth of Deir Yassin

The deceitful and perverse Deir Yassin “massacre” fraud was a deliberate, manipulative propaganda effort by Palestinian leadership (“The Truth of Deir Yassin,” March 2).

Perhaps anticipating the sacrosanct status of the Palestinian narrative, Jonathan Swift wrote that “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” This would explain why professor Eliezer Tauber is still looking for an American publisher among those affiliated with the apparently now moribund “marketplace of ideas.”

Julia Lutch via emaill

What Protests Mean

Thank you, David Suissa, for writing “Obama and #IranianWomenToo,” Feb. 16).

Most of us are not brave enough to do what these women (and men) did, openly protesting an evil power —a real one, not from a movie or a novel.

I know this because I used to live in the evil empire, and I knew what an open protest would lead to. We did listen to Voice of America and Free Europe and knew of protests going on in front of the Soviet embassy, United Nations, etc. These people fought for our rights to leave, and for “refusniks” it meant a lot.

In light of this, the pretentious marches, resist movements, demands to remove old statues, and other political demonstrations seem meaningless compared with real issues of liberty (including women’s rights) that some societies face. It is very easy to participate in some march, feel good about it, then go home, knowing that there will be no consequences.

Andy Grinberg via email

A Rabbi’s Spiritual Journey

Thank you, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, for poetically sharing your experience integrating yogic and Buddhist meditation practices with Judaism (“My Sabbatical Journey: Feeling the Drumbeat of Life,” March 2). In addition to spotlighting the enormous need for tikkun olam, meditation helps me to discern how best to use my God-given gifts to serve our world. None of us is expected to do it all, but each one of us is expected, even commanded, to do what we can. Whatever comes easily and naturally to us is exactly how to help, so go ahead, pick the low hanging fruit! What comes easily for you is difficult for others. Paralyzing guilt has no function in Jewish life.

Cathy Okrent via email

Listen and Learn

I strongly recommend to your readers a recent edition of “Two Nice Jewish Boys,” a Journal-associated podcast. It features Einat Wilf, a former Labor Party MK, who grew up supporting the two-state solution, but has since changed her mind.

It wasn’t just the failure of the Oslo Accords, the atrocities of the Second Intifada, ceaseless terrorism and repeated Palestinian rejection of good-faith offers that prompted her to “get real,” but her conversations with Palestinians themselves. She now believes, sadly, the Palestinian mindset makes a peaceful solution impossible.

Rueben Gordon, Encino

Inclusion at Sundance

Very glad to read about the Shabbat Tent at Sundance (“Sharing Some Light,” Feb. 2). I attended Sundance for 10 years — from 1998 to 2007— first as a programmer for another festival, and then as a filmmaker with a short that played Sundance in 2004. The only year I ever managed to participate in anything remotely Jewish was the year that “Trembling Before God” was an official documentary selection at the festival (in 2001). Very glad to hear that now there’s so much more, and that it is so welcoming and accessible.

Paul Gutrecht via email

The Power of Poetry

Thank you, Hannah Arin, for providing the lovely poetic parameters for wishing upon a star.

Charles Berdiansky, Culver City

New-Look Journal

Your new design format for stories is more conducive to reading all the material than the old design of presenting a starting story and continuing it on the back pages. Thank you for the change.

Ruth Merritt via email

In America, Life Should Come Before Total Liberty

Students from Western High School carrying placards, take part in a protest in support of the gun control, following a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Davie, Florida, U.S., February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

“I get through every day by focusing totally on my work, to the point of distraction. And especially when milestones come up — Dylan’s birthday, 12/14; when school gets out, when school starts; seeing buses. I push all my emotion down and distract myself with work. I’ve been doing that for five years now, and it’s not healthy.”

Those are the words of Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was killed in 2012 in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., when he was 6 years old. He died in the arms of his special-education teacher, Anne Marie Murphy, who also was killed. Hockley spoke those words to two teens from Parkland, Fla., when they met last week in front of CBS cameras. Hockley’s face was etched with grief; the visible wound of endless emptiness, of persistent and permanent loss.

The reason we must tell and retell the stories of murdered children is because we must be reminded what is at stake in the gun control debate. It is not American liberty; it is American life. It is your child, your sibling, your teacher, your neighbor, your fellow citizen. And the lives at stake are not just the victims of gun violence — those who succumb to their wounds and never see another day — but the bereft survivors they leave behind.

We can argue endlessly about the means and measures necessary to protect and preserve American life, but we must at least start with a shared premise: Preservation of American life is paramount. This is the most fundamental expression of our decency and humanity as a society.

This shouldn’t be a radical idea. As Americans, we are promised much more. The Declaration of Independence states that we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But too many of us don’t appreciate what that means.

Almost 25 years ago, philosopher Isaiah Berlin delivered a prophetic commencement address at the University of Toronto, in which he distilled a lifetime of wisdom into “A Message to the 21st Century.” He began with the premise that, although human history has been riddled with violence and tragedy, the horrors of the 20th century carried out by Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot were “unparalleled.”

“Compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen.” — Isaiah Berlin

“They were not natural disasters,” Berlin said, “but preventable human crimes [and] they could have been averted.”

The calamities of history, Berlin said, are products of a belief in absolute ideals, even the noblest ones. Once a society commits entirely to any ideal — let’s say the Second Amendment or even democracy itself — it will do almost anything to preserve that ideal, even if it means resorting to coercion or violence. Everything is justified by the goal of attaining the ideal.

What Berlin understood is this: “The central values by which most men have lived are not always harmonious with each other. … Men have always craved for liberty, security, equality, happiness, justice, knowledge, and so on. But complete liberty is not compatible with complete equality — if men were wholly free, the wolves would be free to eat the sheep.”

Instead, Berlin counsels, we must compromise.

“Compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen. So much liberty for so much equality, so much individual self-expression for so much security, so much justice for so much compassion … [because] values clash.”

All Americans are entitled to liberty, but the preservation of the “total liberty” that the National Rifle Association preaches comes at the cost of others’ lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness. If we want to live in a decent society, individual liberties must sometimes be moderated to make room for additional cherished values — like the value of life itself.

Does Nicole Hockley have any less right to the pursuit of happiness than another American? The tragic reality is that the effort to preserve someone else’s total liberty denied Hockley her right to happiness and her son Dylan’s right to live.

Male Hysteria

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

At a recent Shabbat dinner, my host launched into a diatribe over a “two-page story” in The New York Times which allegedly argues that Picasso’s art should be ripped from museum walls due to his treatment of women.

“That’s censorship!” my host declaimed.

He mixed in other metaphors to describe his feelings about the #MeToo movement, equating it to “burning down forests and cities.”

I’m not sure how a few men losing their jobs is the same thing as a forest fire, but I got the subtext of his symbolism: He’s panicked.

We’re only a few months into probably the most significant public reckoning over sexual misconduct in history and already we’ve heard alarms bells ring over a female-driven “sex panic.” More and more we hear people cautioning that the #MeToo movement has gone too far, even though few of the predatory and powerful men who have been outed and ousted from their positions of public honor have actually been charged with a crime.

Nevertheless, all these angry, vengeful women are steering society into very dangerous waters: I mean, censor Picasso?

“That’s what the worst communist and fascist regimes in history did to the art of their day,” my host said. “Is that what you want?”

When a newspaper article about one of the prevalent social issues of the decade provokes comparisons to Stalinist communism, I’d say such a reaction is a sign of male panic.

After dinner, I tried to look up the article in question, but couldn’t find it. “Picasso + New York Times” yielded a story about the portraitist Chuck Close, whose show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington was recently postponed due to sexual harassment allegations. That piece explored the question of what to do about the artwork of artists who have behaved badly — including Caravaggio, who was accused of murder.

But the article my friend was referring to —  “Shock of the Nude” by Holland Cotter — wasn’t an article about Picasso at all (which explains why I couldn’t find it) but an art review of the career retrospective of artist Carolee Schneemann.

In it, there are about five lines relevant to Picasso (his name is mentioned only once) in which Cotter muses:

“Which modern misogynist will be yanked from museums next? Gauguin? Picasso? I say, sure, why not? Let’s set them aside for awhile, give them a rest, make room for what we never see, which means art by almost any woman you can name.”

The rest of the article is devoted solely to Schneemann’s work, but let’s discuss that first paragraph: “Set them aside for awhile” is hardly a declaration of censorship. Rather, Cotter is suggesting we take a break from the artists we’ve worshipped for forever in order to make room for artists we’ve been unable or unwilling to see.

Without having read the article, I suggested as much at dinner but my host couldn’t hear it. His hysteria over the changing tide caused by the #MeToo movement blinds him to the truths being revealed.

The only reason there isn’t a female Picasso is because she was ignored, spurned, ridiculed, marginalized, not given the opportunities of her peers and relegated to the dust bin of (art) history. As Amanda Hess wrote in a different article for the Times, “[Male artists’] offenses have affected the paths of other artists, determining which rise to prominence and which are harassed or shamed out of work.”

While it is true some outstanding female artists managed to break through in that man’s world — including Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt, Louise Bourgeois, Marlene Dumas and, indeed, Carolee Schneemann — far too many more lived, and continue to live, in obscurity.

It is mostly the art of men that adorns the walls of the world’s great museums — from the Louvre to the Prado to the Uffizi — even as the bodies of women are splashed onto their canvases and offered for the viewer’s pleasure.

These realizations don’t have to be threatening. No one is saying, “Burn Picasso’s paintings.” They’re saying, let’s use this unique moment to take a break from our patriarchal myopia to see and celebrate something new.

And I say, sure, why not?

Letters to the Editor: Trump, Marriage, Partisan Divide on Israel and Women’s March

Trump and the Cycle of Violence in Israel

In the Jan. 19 cover story, “The Trump Gap,” Shmuel Rosner asserts that a “Trump-friendly” Israel “becomes an outlier” in the view of Israel and the Europeans — as evidenced in the U.N. actions of late. Is Rosner not aware that Israel’s existence has been as an outlier in the U.N. and Europe since long before the Oslo Accord? Or the U.N. Security Council’s continuous focus on destroying Israel? All of this predates the latest U.S. election by far.

Worse, in “Jerusalem, What Comes Next?” (Jan. 19), Joel Braunold argues that asserting Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem has surrendered the United States’ ability to broker peace, and that building grass-roots peace movements is the answer. What deluded bubble must one occupy to think that building communities “of collective humanity” will magically create an atmosphere of peace while our purported peace partners teach their children to become martyrs for the “holy” cause of killing Jewish women and children, and Arab supporters of peace are executed as collaborators?

David Zuckerman, Phoenix

Alternative Secrets to a Happy Marriage

Rabbi Benjamin Blech’s story was great, but I have my own three secrets to a happy and long-lasting relationship/marriage (“Three Secrets to a Long and Happy Marriage,” Jan. 19).

They are: 1) Always hold hands when walking; 2) Sit next to each other in a restaurant, not across; 3) Never watch TV after a date or after an evening out.

Robert Geminder, Palos Verdes

Nature and God

I read with interest “Why I Don’t Worship Trees” by David Suissa (Jan. 26).

He says that there is a difference between loving nature and worshipping God. This is interesting to me because, according to Spinoza, God and Nature are one and the same.

So, it depends on which philosopher you are reading, as to what is “true and correct” — or rather, “an adequate idea” in the words of Spinoza. I love and worship Nature, which to me is synonymous with God.

Debora Gillman, Los Angeles

I have great respect for, though not agreement with, David Suissa’s argument that Jewish tradition calls for transcending Nature and aiming for a higher place. It was such an argument that propelled the Amsterdam Jewish community to excommunicate Spinoza, who saw divinity in all of Nature, thereby incurring the anathema of being a “polytheist.”

The relevancy in our world today is that such a separation must now become anathema in order to preserve the only place in the universe we have to live. We must see nature and divinity as indivisible or risk continuing on the path that in an accelerating manner threatens to leave us as the “masters of nothing.”

Sheldon H. Kardener via email

Republicans, Too, Must Widen Their Views

Ben Shapiro, in his column “Partisan Divide Over Israel” (Jan. 26), only exacerbates that divide by insisting that only the Democratic Party has to “re-evaluate its moral worldview in the Middle East.” In fact, there are many Democrats, myself included, who strive to enhance the long-term security and prosperity of Israel by desperately working (sometimes it’s more like “hoping”) to leave the door open for a workable two-state solution. Additionally, we struggle to encourage Israel’s democratic institutions and pluralism, to reverse the increasing rejection felt by liberal Jews. Conservatives talk a good game when it comes to supporting Israel, but in reality their strategies have done more harm than good — none more so than President George W. Bush’s removal of Saddam Hussein’s counterbalance to Iranian expansion followed by his encouragement of an independent entity and “free” elections in Gaza, which led to the ascendancy of Hamas and the ensuing conflicts. It’s time for the Republicans to take off their blinders and widen their views of what will and won’t work in the Middle East.

John F. Beckmann, Sherman Oaks

The Women’s March

Thanks to Karen Lehrman Bloch for her brave piece “Why I Didn’t March” (Jan. 26). I hope her writing will open the eyes of many women who do not recognize the manipulative, anti-Zionist agenda behind the progressive movement. We can fight for human rights without allowing ourselves to become robotic pawns in a crowd led by the likes of the hateful Linda Sarsour. Let’s march for acceptance of thought and speech and let’s celebrate individual choice.

Alice Greenfield via email

I think mostly everyone can agree that our country is extremely polarized on issues concerning Israel, immigration, education, taxes, trade policies, health care, the environment, women’s rights and abortion. Very often, it’s only one issue that is paramount to the individual and it is so powerful that they will overlook positions on all the other important issues facing us. That’s why the Women’s March is so important. To assert that women were following the leaders of this march and were told what to think is absurd and demeaning. I never heard of Linda Sarsour before reading Karen Lehrman Bloch’s column and learned that she is anti-Israel and an anti-Semite. I marched with the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in Los Angeles who are concerned about a multiplicity of issues and, like me, have no knowledge of Linda Sarsour’s political views.

Frima Telerant, Westwood

Parties Split Over Support of Israel

Danielle Berrin, who appears to be left-leaning, and Ben Shapiro, who is right-leaning, seem to agree on something: There is a lot of partisan division in politics in the United States and in Israel which affects support for Israel. According to recent Pew research data, 79 percent of Republicans say they sympathize with Israel and just 27 percent of Democrats say they identify with Israel. That should not be surprising given the fact that at the 2012 Democratic National Convention there was booing when the platform was amended to identify Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Now the No. 2 person in the DNC, Keith Ellison, is an avowed Israel-hating Jew hater.

Marshall Lerner via email

Tablets Belong in Our Schools

It was sad to read the uninformed opinion of Abigail Shrier on getting iPads out of our schools (“Smash the Tablets: Get iPads Out of Our Schools,” Jan 19). Hardly any student goes to college without a laptop or iPad these days. Not too long ago, the Yale School of Medicine gave each of its students an Apple iPad 2 for use in the classroom and their clinical responsibilities.

Litigators create their deposition outlines on iPads, and during depositions they typically have a separate iPad that’s linked to the court reporter. The use of this technology simply makes sense unless Shrier also thinks that attorneys’ brains are being compromised because of these technology tools.

The correlations she cites are just that — correlations — unproven statistical comparisons that may turn out to be false. The explicit intention of using iPads in the schools was to reach a rainbow of learners, which it accomplished, with or without the agreement of Shrier.

Joel Greenman, Woodland Hills


The founder of Netiya was misidentified in a Jan. 26 story (“A Tu B’Shevat Question”). Rabbi Noah Farkas founded Netiya, a Los Angeles-based food justice organization; Devorah Brous was hired as its founding executive director in 2011.

The former name of de Toledo High School was misreported in the Jan. 26 edition (“De Toledo Goes Green”). It formerly was called New Community Jewish High School.

Episode 72 – #metoo and the Power to Forgive

On October 5, 2017, only a few months ago, a report published in The New York Times shook the foundations at the epicenter of America’s film and television industry – Hollywood. More than a dozen women accused the hugely successful film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, abuse and rape.

These allegations brought about a wave of accusations against prominent male figures in film and TV. It gave birth to a movement named #metoo and recently another movement named Times Up both aimed at empowering women to speak up against sexual violence and misconduct.

One year before this seismic report, there was a warning tremor. A tremor that was nonetheless seismic for the person reporting. A journalist from the Los Angeles Jewish Journal published an essay titled: “My Sexual Assault and Yours, Every Woman’s Story.” That journalist’s name is Danielle Berrin. Danielle refrained from naming names and instead conveyed her experience, her trauma and the devastation she felt from this once idolized man.

Soon it became clear that this man was the prominent Israeli journalist, Ari Shavit. Shavit apologized, begrudgingly, and stepped down from the public stage. Israel’s media world was shaken to its roots.

Danielle Berrin joins us today to talk about her story, the #metoo campaign and how, after the ashes settle, we might be able to build a better future.

Danielle Berrin on the Jewish Journal and Twitter

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UN Watch Leader Faces a World of Challenges While Defending Israel

Photo courtesy of U.N. Watch

Hillel Neuer considers it a badge of honor that he is a “feared and dreaded” figure at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), as the European newspaper Tribune de Genève once described him.

“There are people who cross the street in Geneva to avoid me,” Neuer said. As executive director of UN Watch, a nonprofit that monitors United Nations activities, Neuer is both watchdog and whistleblower, holding world powers to account when it comes to their human rights records. A lawyer, activist and humanitarian, Neuer spoke with the Journal from Geneva, where he lives and works.

Jewish Journal: As head of UN Watch, you define yourself as “the voice of conscience at the United Nations.” What’s it like to be the guy defending democratic ideals in a room full of non-democratic countries?

Hillel Neuer: It often feels surreal. You ask yourself how bizarre is it that you need to state basic truths in an arena that is often Orwellian, where the worst criminals are often the prosecutors and the judges.

JJ: The U.N. Human Rights Council notoriously singles out Israel for violations even as far worse offenders go unchallenged. Where is this discrimination most evident?

HN: During a given meeting, you’ll have resolutions — maybe one on Iran, one on Myanmar, one on North Korea and then five on Israel. And it’s not just the numbers: When there is a resolution criticizing a country, the practice at the U.N. is to recognize and acknowledge various positive things [a country has done], whether they are justified or not. But when it comes to Israel, even though Israel has done many positive things, none of this ever appears in the resolutions. This is part of an attempt to portray Israel as so evil, nothing good can be said of it.

“I’m the most hated man at the United Nations. I get looks of death from a vast array of people.”

JJ: What is the motive for a non-Arab, non-Islamic country with no history of anti-Semitism to vote against Israel?

HN: The U.N. is a political body and many resolutions and elections are decided by vote trading. ‘You vote for me, I vote for you.’ So the Islamic states number 56 and they will go to some island state and say, ‘We will give you 56 votes for your issues and all you have to do is vote for our resolutions against Israel.’ … It’s realpolitik.

JJ: It sounds like the Arab and Islamic states have outsized power at the U.N.

HN: Since the 1973 war [when the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, better known as OPEC] imposed an oil embargo, the Arab world has been clear that if you don’t do things they like, your country won’t have oil. Sovereign wealth funds from countries like Qatar have tens of billions of dollars they could invest in your country if you vote the way they want you to. There is also fear of terrorism. Some countries perceive that if they are too friendly to Israel, they will risk making themselves into a target for terrorist groups.

JJ: U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley has won many fans in the Jewish world for standing up for Israel at the U.N. What difference has she made?

HN: There’s been a moral clarity. She’s been forthright in calling out what she sees as plain bigotry and things that make no sense. Seeing her hand raised to veto [the recent Jerusalem resolution] was a very powerful moment. An iconic picture, I would say.

JJ: Is your credibility ever challenged because you’re Jewish?

HN: I’m the most hated man at the United Nations. I get looks of death from a vast array of people — dictatorships like China, Russia and Cuba because we bring their victims [to testify] very effectively and ambush them. But at the end of day, I don’t walk through life worrying what my handicaps are. We all have them.

JJ: As a human rights organization sworn to defend Israel, how do you address Israel’s offenses against the Palestinians?

HN: Even if I’m aware Israel has blots on its record, I’m going to speak out against human rights abuses in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Venezuela. That’s our role. We’re there to deal with the subjects not being dealt with. Israel has dozens of NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] that hold the [government and] IDF [Israel Defense Forces] to account. We fill the void in Geneva.

JJ: What could Israel do to help your work combatting the prejudice against it?

HN: On the day of [Israeli] elections a few years ago, I had given a speech telling the world to look at Israeli democracy in action, explaining that more Arabs than ever had been elected to the Knesset, etc. … And then [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu made that xenophobic statement, ‘Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,’ which was unhelpful to me. And I told his government that immediately.

Oh, Lorde

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

It’s a good thing Jews don’t celebrate Christmas, because this last one would have been thoroughly spoiled.

’Twas the night before said holiday when 21-year-old New Zealand-born pop star Lorde, a Grammy-winning artist, succumbed to pressure from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and canceled her Tel Aviv concert planned for later this year.

“I pride myself on being an informed young citizen, and I had done a lot of reading and sought a lot of opinions before deciding to book a show in Tel Aviv, but I’m not too proud to admit I didn’t make the right call on this one,” the singer said in a statement.

Lorde’s acquiescence to the forceful politics of BDS was a blow to Jewish and Israeli morale, prompting defenders of Israel to respond with rebuke.

Instead of lobbing attacks and insults, what if defenders of Israel encouraged Lorde to perform for her fans to
promote reconciliation and peace?

Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev offered a slyly mocking appeal to the young musician, urging her to reverse her decision. “I’m hoping you can be a ‘pure heroine,’ like the title of your first album,” Regev said in a statement. “[B]e a heroine of pure culture, free from any foreign — and ridiculous — political considerations.”

But asking an artist to be free of political considerations when it comes to the most loaded conflict in the world is naïve and shortsighted. The current generation of young people is the most interconnected in human history, and as a result, deeply socially conscious. Many of them are eager to integrate their values into the decisions they make. Besides, how can you insist a celebrity with a worldwide following divest herself of what happens in the world?

You can’t.

Regev’s statement isn’t the worst offense committed by a lover of Israel in defending the Jewish state. That accolade belongs to The World Values Network, led by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who on New Year’s Day took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post shaming and defaming Lorde for bowing to BDS pressure.

The ad states, “21 is young to become a bigot.” At the center of the ad is Lorde, superimposed on a split-screen background that features two contrasting images: In one, men clutch babies to their chests as they run from a scene of total destruction. In the other, beautiful buildings of Jerusalem stone stand tall and proud, topped by Israeli flags. “Lorde and New Zealand ignore Syria to attack Israel,” the ad declares.

Lorde certainly doesn’t deserve any credit for heroism. As the ad suggests, she schmeissed Israel while proceeding to perform in countries with far worse records. If her aim is to take a stand against countries with stained human rights histories, she’d best cancel other stops on her tour, starting with Russia. President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea was a strutting display of anti-democratic expansionism and his autocratic tactics at home are equally treacherous. According to Human Rights Watch, “Today, Russia is more repressive than it has ever been in the post-Soviet era.”

Because she is young and inexperienced, Lorde is not worthy of our scorn.

But if Boteach and others think politicized assaults on a global superstar are the way to “win” against BDS, they’re mistaken. The language of Boteach’s ad is mean-spirited and offensive, and will only further alienate the pop star and her millions of fans. How does that serve Israel?

Instead of lobbing attacks and insults, what if defenders of Israel encouraged Lorde to perform for her fans, and perhaps use her platform, to promote reconciliation and peace? What if Regev had offered to help facilitate an additional concert in the West Bank for Palestinian fans? What if the message was inviting and encouraging instead of angry and denigrating?

BDS has failed to intimidate musicians into not performing in Israel far more than it has succeeded. Fighting the nasty fight only makes Israel — and us — look foolish, spiteful and, worst of all, guilty.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Jason Youdeem: Empowering the Next Generation of Jewish Leaders

Jason Youdeem

Jason Youdeem doesn’t sell himself very well, citing, you know, “a typical Persian story”: that of a first-generation American whose immigrant parents left Iran and had to work doubly hard in the United States not only to rebuild their own lives, but to give their children better ones.

Yet, within that community paradigm, Youdeem, 28, has made some unconventional choices. While many of his peers have become lawyers, doctors and real estate owners, Youdeem went to work for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where he is currently the only person of Iranian descent working in the Los Angeles office.

“If all we do is keep to ourselves, then how can we write the second chapter of our immigration story?” Youdeem said.

For the past several years, Youdeem has focused his efforts on developing communal resources to help young Iranian-American Jews integrate into the leadership structures of the organized Jewish community. It’s not enough, he says, to contribute financial resources; Youdeem wants to see more Persian Jews on more Jewish boards.

“I’ve benefited a great deal from the institutions and community I’m a part of and I want others to have that opportunity as well,” Youdeem said. “And not only to participate, but to lead.”

As one of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ 2013 PresenTense fellows, he incubated the idea for a leadership development organization that would educate and train the next generation of Iranian-American Jewish leaders. A year later, he shepherded the first cohort of young Persian-Jewish leaders through the Maher Fellowship, which he founded with the backing of real estate businessman Oron Maher under the auspices of 30 Years After (Maher was featured as a Jewish Journal mensch in 2014). Designed for Iranian-American Jews ages 21 to 35, the nine-month program focuses on Israel advocacy, community leadership and public speaking, and includes a subsidized trip to the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.

“I feel a real sense of responsibility to provide for others what has been so meaningful for me.”

Now a community staple, the Maher Fellowship is about to initiate its fifth cohort of leaders and boasts an alumni network of 74 people. Youdeem said Maher graduates have gone on to join 30 boards in the Los Angeles Jewish community and six have become Jewish communal professionals.

“The forces of American assimilation are very strong and the Persian-Jewish community is not immune to that,” Youdeem said, explaining why every area of his involvement is focused on the Jewish future.

“It sounds cliché,” he said, “but I feel a real sense of responsibility to provide for others what has been so meaningful for me.”

In addition to his work at AIPAC, where he trains young fellows to fundraise for the organization, Youdeem serves on the board of 30 Years After and sits on Federation’s Young Adult Engagement & Leadership Development Committee, which oversees Federation’s work with young adults. He also recently was accepted into the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s ROI Community, which connects young Jewish leaders from around the globe.

The other obvious through-line in his work is Israel advocacy, a passion born out of history and necessity.

“I can’t visit Iran,” Youdeem said. “I can’t see where my parents or grandparents grew up; I cannot visit my community. I cannot walk into their homes or touch their doors; I can’t smell the smells or walk on the streets. That part of my heritage, for now, is lost. But there is still a large part of my heritage and identity that is tied to Israel. My community really adopted Israel as our homeland.”

Letters to the Editor: Jerusalem, Hanukkah, Gun Control and ‘Wonder’


Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital

This article attributes wisdom to a president who does not deserve it. Donald Trump’s statements are not about what is good for Israel, or what is good for the peace process, or even what is good for the U.S. In some way, these statements serve only one purpose — Trump. It’s a shame so many Jews miss this critical point. And while we may clamor for the recognition of an empire, in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

Brian Lichtman

Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. We Israelis never doubted it. Even if someone argues that it was meant to be an international city, we know that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that can keep it as free and international while it’s also its capital.

Ora Cooper

The truth needs to be repeated that President Donald Trump’s speech contained much wisdom. He acknowledged the reality of Israel’s capital city being Jerusalem while stating that the final borders would be left up to negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. That the Palestinians’ response was to declare multiple “days of rage” and their refusal of further meetings with U.S. representatives speaks volumes about their true desire for peace.

Bill Bender

How Jerusalem Decision May Impact Jews

David Suissa’s column “Can Jerusalem Be Good for All Religions?” (Dec. 15) was great! However, I believe this event creates an urgent need to ask a second (and more important) question: Can Judaism be good for most Jews? Obviously, to answer this question we must first define “Judaism” — so that most Jews (and especially, most young Jews and old rabbis) actually can agree about Judaism in 2018.

Aaron H. Shovers, Long Beach 

David Suissa’s Editor’s Note about Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel is outstanding. I was so impressed that I took it with me today to read to my daughter while she drove me to the Veterans Affairs/West Los Angeles Medical Center. He is an excellent writer and a brilliant man. And I have noticed a distinct improvement in the type and quality of the articles now being published for our community.

Keep up the good work.

George Epstein via email

Fond Memories of Hanukkah on the Go

The Hanukkah story by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, “Stronger Together” (Dec. 8), is a heartwarming reminder that Jewish life and many of our holiday customs are both joyful and portable.

And they’re even better when we manage to share them with others, wherever and whenever possible.

I’ll add three of our Hanukkah travel tales: First, at California’s Yosemite National Park lodge when my children were young, the desk clerk allowed me to post my hand-drawn sign with an eight-branched menorah plus candles along with an open invitation for hotel guests to join us in our room to light and sing Hanukkah brachot/prayers together.

Among several couples and families who arrived, one couple turned out to be formerly unknown distant family relatives with roots in Western Europe, visiting from the American Midwest.

On another occasion, we managed to light Hanukkah candles at Los Angeles International Airport (not likely permitted today) while en route to Argentina to visit my wife’s family.

Another memorable time I lit a hanukkiah while traveling was while en route to Israel on a stopover at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport on an American Professors for Peace in the Middle East faculty group study mission (an important U.S. and Canada faculty Israel support group founded in 1967). The two-hour layover before boarding our El Al flight was enough to allow the minimum half-hour needed for the candles to burn, per Jewish custom and law.

With permission from nearby boarding gate staff, I set up a menorah and three candles on the counter to light them, readily visible in the area. Others approached and while singing the prayers, together we recalled the living yet ancient “ages-old victory and miracle” (nes gadol hayah sham) while awaiting our flight to depart.

Again, as airport travelers en route to Israel, we joined in prayerful melodies and lights in a public reminder and joyful Hanukkah celebration of the Maccabees’ victory and our enemies’ defeat with God’s help — to restore the Temple in Jerusalem and enabling us to honor Jewish values and practices, thanks to this wonderful and supportive country, the United States, in which we have the privilege to live!

Allan Levine via email 

Gun Laws and Gun Violence in the U.S.

I read Danielle Berrin’s column about the need for gun control in this country (“The Great Gun Debate,” Dec. 15). First of all, homicides have gone way down from a high of nearly 20,000 over 10 years ago to around 12,000 to 14,000 thousand now. Of course, mass murders have increased, though.

The city of Chicago had very weak gun control laws years ago and had about 250 homicides a year. Now, with among with the strictest gun control laws in this country, the city has recorded more than 600 homicides this  year.

Gun control has never been effective in reducing homicides in this country and never will. Homicides may go up or down regardless of stricter gun control laws.

Lynda Wadkins, North Hollywood

Did Columnist See the Same Movie as Letter Writer?

How in the world could one possibly see the movie “Wonder” as “one big smack in the face at President Donald Trump and his politics of hate”? (“ ‘Wonder’: A Call to Our Better Angels,” Dec. 1.)

You not only printed a piece contending that protecting America is hatred personified, you made sure the whole point of Karen Lehrman Bloch’s column was mainly about that.

You’ve bought (and are now selling) the craziness of MSNBC journalist Rachel Maddow, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, comedian Kathy Griffin and the rest of the people who claim that all of the Trump supporters are a “basket of deplorables.”

Hasn’t that gotten a little old by now?

Steve Klein, Encino

Letter About Rohingya Was Misinterpreted

I am saddened by Usman Madha’s letter (“Muslim Wants to Dispel Distortions About Rohingya,” Dec. 15) misinterpreting the facts contained in my original letter regarding the Buddhist-Muslim strife in Myannmar (“Plight of the Rohingya Has Many Facets,” Dec. 8). I was clear in expressing sympathy for the innocent Rohingya at the outset of my letter, which focused primarily on the years of jihadist wars that have left indelible scars on the people of the Indian subcontinent.

This reality sheds light on the reactive behavior of Myanmar’s Buddhists to the Muslim Rohingya today. Madha admits he is well aware of the Jihadist problem in Islam when he proclaims he is a “practicing pluralist, non-jihadist Muslim.” Moreover, my letter did not focus on Jewish-Muslim relations but rather on Islamic-Buddhist relations, which lie at the heart of the Myanmar dispute.

I am a fan of moderate Muslim thinkers such as Zuhdi Jasser, who has called for a reform of Islam’s jihadist roots in a post-9/11 world. The recent rapprochement of Saudi Arabia and the moderate Arab countries with Israel, as well as the tone of Madha’s welcoming letter, give me hope for a better future.

Richard Friedman, Culver City

The Great Gun Debate

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

It’s been almost a year since I drove to the Los Angeles Gun Club and shot a gun for the first time. I remember how I trembled at the awesome power of the little weapon I could hold with one hand: What if I made a mistake? What if the gun backfired? What if the person next to me was careless?

It was my first time near a gun, and I was terrified.

Although the only real risk that day was posed to paper targets, it made me aware of how vulnerable human bodies are to bullets. Because accidents happen. In fact, “unintentional gun deaths” is a statistical category of its own, which accounts for hundreds of deaths in the United States each year. But who wants to talk about that?

Independent of a major mass-shooting catastrophe, gun violence is a neglected topic. For some bizarre reason, it requires a dreadful calamity in which scores of people are bloodied and murdered for the news cycle to pick up on gun violence and for American citizens to vent outrage and demand change.

But indeed we do, each time it happens, for about a week — longer, if children are involved. Then, absent the enduring trauma of surviving a shooting incident or the eternal tragedy of losing someone we love, we simply forget and move on.

We were lucky, weren’t we? We dodged a bullet.

Way too many Americans die needlessly each year from gun violence and not enough of us care.

Since that dark night on Oct. 1 when a deranged gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers on the Las Vegas strip, killing 58 other people and injuring hundreds more, there have been an additional 55 mass shootings in the U.S.

I’m not talking homicides — I’m talking mass shootings, which, according to the FBI, is when four or more people are shot and/or killed in a single incident, not including the shooter. You want homicide stats? On average, about 30,000 people die every year from gun violence. Something like 12,000 of those deaths are “conventional” homicides, where one person shoots and kills another, but the majority are suicides.

The statistics are dizzying. And the bottom line is this: Way too many Americans die needlessly each year from gun violence and not enough of us care. Instead of marshaling the will to pressure our elected officials every single day until sensible gun control laws are passed, we surrender to a stupor of cynicism and apathy.

“Looking back, I’m embarrassed about the fact that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the issue of gun violence until Sandy Hook,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said during an interview last week about the shooting in his home state five years ago that claimed the lives of 20 children.

On Dec. 17, Murphy will join Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer at Temple Emanuel for a discussion on gun violence sponsored by the literary salon Writers Bloc.

Feuer also had an “aha moment” regarding guns.

“I was on City Council in the 1990s when there was a bank robbery in North Hollywood where the police were outgunned by the robbers,” Feuer told me.

That was a Dayenu moment, as well, alerting Feuer to the ease with which criminals could access guns. “Then, the North Valley JCC shooting happened.” That was 1999. Dayenu. Again.

Feuer has spent the better part of his career advocating for tougher gun laws in California, helping to write legislation requiring background checks, banning high-capacity magazines and requiring gun microstamping to help law enforcement identify gun purchasers.

“This is becoming a more and more important issue for voters every single day … but it’s going to take the modern anti-violence movement a long time to become as powerful as the gun lobby,” Murphy said.

The Nation Rifle Association has ensured that there is no issue more intractable in current American politics than gun control. Despite the fact that 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks, the NRA’s relentless fearmongering about infringement on Second Amendment rights and concomitant personal liberties handicaps lawmakers.

Some argue that the specifics of potential gun legislation wouldn’t do enough to curb gun violence since there already are hundreds of millions of weapons on the streets of America. Banning assault rifles or high-capacity magazines would have a negligible effect on total gun homicides — saving hundreds of people per year, not thousands.

But that’s hundreds of people! We can throw around all kinds of numbers and statistics, but in Judaism, all we need is one: If you save a single life, you save the world.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Spiritual, Not Religious

Photo from Good Free Photos.

On a family trip to Mexico City last week, we decided to spend Shabbat doing one of the most unrestful activities I can think of — we hiked up a pyramid.

There is absolutely nothing Jewish about the Teotihuacan pyramids, although they once functioned as a kind of religious site, built in honor of sun and moon, and were used over the millennia for various unseemly rituals, including human sacrifice. The Aztecs stumbled upon the pyramids built by an unknown ancient civilization and named them Teotihuacan, meaning “birthplace of the gods.”

Between the polytheism and the barbarism, it was an unconventional choice for the Sabbath. Go figure, then, that we bumped into a group of yogis from Los Angeles who turned our secular exercise into a spiritual imperative.

“It’s meant to be that we’re meeting you here today,” a woman with curly hair and an Australian accent exclaimed.

Spirituality ultimately fails in its aims if limited to personal

The yogis were in Mexico City for a public meditation “superclass” to be held the following morning, led by their African-born, L.A.-based guru, Joseph Michael Levry, founder of Naam Yoga in Santa Monica. Levry is an internationally known author, speaker and teacher who draws on various wisdom traditions — including kabbalah — to teach a mind-body healing practice. On Sunday, he was scheduled to lead his fifth superclass in Mexico City, in downtown’s Zócalo central square. Thousands were expected to attend.

“You have to come!” a blonde from Belarus said.

As they offered my father chewable hydration pills for the uphill climb, they extolled the virtues of Levry’s practice and how it heals ailments, decreases crime and manifests your dreams. Sensing my innate skepticism, one of them asked, “Are you a journalist?”

“I’m a Jew,” I said.

“So am I!” the Australian said. “I mean, I wasn’t born Jewish, but I am Jewish. I’m in love with Israel. Jerusalem is the most amazing, holy place I’ve ever been.”

Turns out, Levry took his disciples to Israel for a “Divine Spiritual Alchemy Retreat,” where they meditated at sunrise by the Dead Sea and chanted for peace at the Kotel.

Maybe this is bashert, I thought.

So I set my alarm for Sunday morning and rallied the troops for meditation con Los Mexicanos. If Levry’s superclass was really capable of supernal healing power, I had a lifetime of Jewish neuroses to drain from my system.

Here’s what I didn’t expect: 10,000 people gathered in one of the world’s largest and oldest public squares, waving their hands in the air chanting, “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh Adonai Tz’vaot M’lo Khol Ha’aretz K’vodo.”

Imagine if the Aztecs had met Joseph Michael Levry.

For the next hour, my family and I stood, sat, sang and laughed; we stretched, we danced, we chanted familiar words in dialects I’d never heard. Levry told a story about Moses, followed by a chant of “I am / I am / I am that I am.”

A few rows in front of me, a young woman wore a headscarf imprinted with shimmering Hebrew letters that glinted in the sunlight. It felt as if the universe had conspired to bring a group of American Jews to spiritual enlightenment via Mexican ruins and an African-born yoga master.

As beautiful as the moment was, though, I couldn’t shed my skepticism. The Jewish aspects only reinforced my worry that this experience might belong in the category of “spiritual, but not religious,” drawing wisdom from religious tradition while draining it of religious obligation.

Because while prayer and meditation can pry open our hearts and bring us into contact with the Divine, we make a mockery of spirituality if we spend our lives soothing our own souls and meditating on mountaintops. Jewish tradition tells us that the test of an enlightened spirit is not found in meditative bliss, but in contact with the world and other human beings.

Devotion to God can be beautiful, meaningful — even fun — but the religious life teaches us that the best way to love God is to demonstrate that love through moral action.

In a busy, crazy, tragic, broken world, it was inspiring and reassuring to see so many people engaged in the spiritual quest — the precursor to a better world. But spirituality ultimately fails in its aims if limited to personal satisfaction. Self-healing is not enough.

The religious life intentionally pairs spirituality and service, because without obligation, spiritual ecstasy is just an exercise in narcissism.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

The Partisan

via Flickr

“I don’t vote.”

That was Politico senior writer Jake Sherman’s answer to a question I asked during a panel on politics at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly about how journalists can maintain objectivity in our hyperpartisan age.

He was joined on stage at the Nov. 12 session in downtown Los Angeles by New York Times’ L.A. bureau chief Adam Nagourney, Los Angeles Times Assistant Managing Editor Christina Bellantoni and conservative commentator and radio host Hugh Hewitt — though none of the others, nor I, copped to taking such a measure for our craft.

Sherman is surely not the only journalist willing to sacrifice a civil right for an ideal, and his ruthless pursuit of fairness and balance in journalism is admirable. But I confess I’m skeptical of what his forfeiture costs.

“So, does that mean you consider yourself a journalist before a citizen?” I asked.

Sherman batted away that question, essentially saying no. But surrendering his most fundamental right as a citizen in order not to appear partisan in his vocation is an alarming solution.

To give up one’s vote is a dereliction of duty.

My knee-jerk reaction to his declaration was mild disturbance. To give up one’s vote — the most essential unit in a democratic system, the axis around which everything else spins — is a dereliction of duty, and takes for granted the principal privilege of living in a free society.

On the other hand, Sherman spends most waking hours of his life contributing to the cause of a free press, upholding one of the essential institutions of democracy. His willingness to guard the integrity of the enterprise is an inspired choice, especially in an age of partisanship and rampant media bias, when almost every major journalistic institution in the country is associated with one political bent or another. “Free press is as fundamental a responsibility as voting,” Sherman told me. “And I can’t do it responsibly while expressing private or public preference for a candidate.”

Can journalists do their jobs if biased towards particular political outcomes? At the very least, should they disclose their bias in the interest of transparency?

The conservative commentator Hewitt said he’d like to see this happen, but I’m not convinced that more partisan declarations would repair what’s broken in our media. Maybe Sherman is on to something.

It’s no secret that hyperpartisanship has paralyzed our politics and produced a brutal political warfare that has resulted in government stasis and inefficiency.

Right now, a majority of Americans view our nation’s government with varying degrees of rage, disillusionment or utter disbelief. According to a recent Gallup report, American confidence in government remains abysmally low, with slightly more than a quarter of Americans (28 percent) saying they’re satisfied with national governance. That number is better than the historic low of 2013, when the government approval rating was 18 percent, but it is well below the 38 percent average since 1971.

“Most U.S. adults are dissatisfied with how the executive and legislative branches are doing their jobs, and majorities hold unfavorable views of both major political parties,” the report stated.

Even Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, disapprove of the way it operates. In fact, “The federal government has the least positive image of any business or industry sector measured; Congress engenders the lowest confidence of any institution that Gallup tests; and Americans rate the honesty and ethics of members of Congress as the lowest among 22 professions in Gallup’s most recent update.”

Under these circumstances, it’s easy to see how a vote might offer validation to a fractured political system — or worse, serve as an exercise in obsolescence. Because when Americans were surveyed about the biggest problems facing our nation, our government came out on top.

Think about it: What bothers Americans most is not North Korean or Iranian nuclear aggression, not China’s growing economy or rampant domestic mass shootings, it’s the unremitting bickering, obstructionism and partisanship that characterizes 21st century American democracy.

During a Shabbat lecture at Sinai Temple in Westwood on Nov. 10, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens suggested that what America needs more than anything is a restoration of citizenship over partisanship. He called for rededication to the values we share as citizens of this nation — not least among them, the beloved right to exercise our moral and political will at the polls.

Not every American citizen is a journalist, but every American journalist is a citizen. It would be a shame to forsake the thing we have in common in order to stand apart. For citizens, voting is an act independent of any result. It is not a partisan exercise but an expression of belonging.

Just do it.

Change? Not So Fast

Harvey Weinstein attending the 'Can A Song Save Your Life?' premiere at the 38th Toronto International Film Festival on September 07, 2013 | usage worldwide (Newscom TagID: dpaphotosthree087710.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

There is great excitement among feminists in America that our culture finally is heeding the voices of women.

Over the last several weeks, hundreds of women — millions, if you count Twitter — have come forward with their tales of alleged sexual harassment, assault and rape, mostly against men who have wielded their power to extort sexual acts. Throughout the media, this was heralded as a watershed moment, and we have since been inundated with grandiose declarations that a “sea change” has occurred in the way we understand and acknowledge sexual predation in the workplace and elsewhere.

The only sea change I detected at this gathering was the fish of the day.

A handful of accused men even faced consequences, albeit not legal ones: Harvey Weinstein was fired from his own company, expelled from the motion picture academy and abandoned by his wife. Journalist Mark Halperin was dismissed by NBC News. Leon Wieseltier, weeks from launching a new publication, was dumped by his financial backer, Laurene Powell Jobs. All this after Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly already had been fired from Fox News, though not without multimillion-dollar compensation packages.

“Our consciousness has been raised,” declared journalist Rebecca Traister.

But I say: Not so fast.

Last week, I had dinner with two high-level film producers, both male, and two women who worked for one of them. The only thing we discussed for three hours was Harvey Weinstein and the sexual politics of the entertainment industry.

And let me tell you something: The only sea change I detected at this gathering was the fish of the day.

Both male producers agreed that Harvey Weinstein is an “ugly, pock-marked, smelly bully.” But a rapist? Not so much.

“Most of the women accusing Harvey made a deal with the devil,” one of them said. “If you go to a man’s room at 11 at night, you know what you’re in for. And believe me, I stayed down the hall from him at the Hotel du Cap in Cannes, so I saw the processional of actresses who knocked on his door at all hours.”

So, I guess sexual assault is permissible if it occurs after 11 p.m.?

Next, I was told “the vast majority” of women accusing Weinstein of sexual impropriety really were trading sex for career advancement.

If that’s true, I asked, shouldn’t more of his accusers be movie stars?

When I puzzled over the fact that so many women would claim abuse if they had made “deals” with Weinstein, I was told their confessionals were born of shame for having prostituted themselves early on.

I brought up the actress Annabella Sciorra, who told The New Yorker that Weinstein violently raped her in the early 1990s.

“I’ve known Annabella Sciorra for many years,” one of the producers said, going on to offer a preposterous claim intended to disparage her.

“If you don’t want sex,” the other admonished, “why would you open the door to a man in the middle of the night?”

Actually, “It wasn’t that late,” Sciorra told The New Yorker. “Like, it wasn’t the middle of the night, so I opened the door a crack to see who it was. And [Weinstein] pushed the door open.”

I also asked about Rose McGowan, who suggested Weinstein raped her in 1997. She, too, was callously dismissed.

And when the subject turned to other infamous Hollywood abusers, I was lectured on how “each year, 2,000 young actresses come to L.A. and they will do anything — anything — to be famous.”

I got the feeling these producers feel like victims themselves, since so many young women must use them for parts.

“It’s called ambition,” one of them said.

“Decades ago, I was desperate to sell a TV show and I slept with the female executive who could give it the green light. So I closed my eyes during the act and fantasized about someone else. We do what we must.”

Consensual sex is the sort of ordeal that afflicts men in power.

But when it comes to women, any objections I made about gender inequity, discrimination, intimidation, subjugation, threats, lawyers and hush money were batted away. Even the women at the table referred to one known Hollywood predator as “sweet.” When I suggested he, too, soon would be outed, one producer got so “sad” he skipped his appetizer.

“It’s a witch hunt,” one of them declared.

And he is scared. Because, just like Weinstein, these two are old guard “dinosaurs” whose era serving as gatekeepers to the entertainment industry, with its attendant sexual perks, will soon become extinct.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

A conversation with God before Yom Kippur

writer sits at her desk, hands limp at the keyboard. After several minutes of silence, she leans back, closes her laptop and speaks aloud.

ME: God, I confess I’m reaching out to you because I’m having severe writer’s block over what I should write for Yom Kippur.

GOD: [silence]

ME: It feels strange to talk to you like this. Outside of shul, I mean. We haven’t really done this in a long time. I’m not even sure you’re listening.

GOD: [silence]

ME: Right. You’re probably busy with more important crises than writer’s block. I’ve been reading about the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar … the African famine … the hurricane damage … far-right parties in Europe … North Korea. You’ve got a lot on your plate. I don’t envy you. I think I’ll just update my journal.

GOD: [clearing throat] I’m sorry I’m late, Danielle.

ME: Holy shhh…!

GOD: This time of year is … [makes exasperated sound]. But I’m here now. In fact, I’m everywhere.

ME: Wow, I didn’t expect you to answer.

GOD: It has been a while, Danielle. You were much more expressive to me during your year of Kaddish.

ME: I’m sorry. I’ve been a little checked out. I guess I had more to say back then. It’s easier to pray when you have a purpose.

GOD: There is always a purpose to prayer.

ME: I get that in theory. But, you know, that was such a unique time, losing my Mom. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come every year. It’s hard to just switch it on. I’m having a hard time making the whole holiday drama feel new.

GOD: What is old you will make new, and what is new you will make holy…

ME: Are you giving me a commandment? An 11th? Wait. Didn’t Rav Kook say that?

GOD: Yes, but I whispered the idea to him. We work in partnership, Danielle. He was a smart one, that Kook. One of my best. Very good listener. So were Moses, Buddha, Muhammad, Einstein, Beethoven….  The list goes on.

ME: Well, if you want to implant genius ideas in me, I can be a good listener.

GOD: I’ve been trying.

ME: Oh. Do you think you could try a little louder?

GOD: I don’t grant wishes, Danielle.

ME: Not even if it’s good for the world? Like, maybe you could “disappear” Kim Jong Un the way Mexican drug traffickers do with journalists?

GOD: Those journalists did my work well. I was proud.

ME: Why would you reward people doing “your work” with death?

GOD: Why do you think so negatively about death? It’s all part of my plan. I haven’t told you what happens after this.

ME: After life?

GOD: My ways are a mystery.

ME: That’s right. God works in mysterious ways. I’ll bet you whispered that one, too.

GOD: Indeed. It got shortened and sloganeered over the years, but it was best expressed through the German author Novalis: “We dream of traveling through the universe — but is not the universe within ourselves? The depths of our spirit are unknown to us — the mysterious way leads inwards.”

ME: Again, if you want to whisper things like that to me, I’m game.

GOD: Danielle, everything you need is already inside you.

ME: Then why doesn’t it feel that way? Why do I always focus on what’s missing, what’s unrealized and undone in my life? I don’t mean to seem ungrateful. You’ve given me so many gifts and blessings. But, still. Life is a lot harder than I imagined it would be.

GOD: If it were easy, you wouldn’t strive. My world needs strivers.

ME: I want to do your will, God. But the problems of the world are so overwhelming. To be honest, a lot of the time I get bogged down with the problems of my own life. How do I know what to focus on? Do you want me to heal the world or heal myself?

GOD: You have a beautiful soul, Danielle.

ME: Thank you for the compliment. And, for my soul.

GOD: You’re welcome.

ME: God?

GOD: Yes?

ME: I don’t want you to go away. This is kinda nice. I think I might need you.

GOD: Do you remember learning to ride a bike, Danielle? You didn’t ride on your own until your father let go. Sometimes I hide my face in order for you to grow.

ME: Wait! Before you go, I still need you to tell me what you want of me.

GOD: It’s in the Talmud, Danielle. Rahmana liba bayeh — I want your heart.

ME: But you already have it. I promise.

GOD: One thing I’ve never been able to figure out is why my children make so many promises they can’t keep. I even give you an out: Kol Nidre. Every year, all oaths are annulled.

ME: That doesn’t make any sense, though. Why wouldn’t you want me to keep this promise? How will we ever heal the world if every year you allow us to cancel our obligations?

GOD: Because there’s wisdom in annulling a promise.

ME: That doesn’t bode well for matrimony.

GOD: A promise, by definition, depends on certainty, and few things in this life are certain. I made it that way. I guarantee you life — but not an amount. Who shall live and who shall die is known only to me.

ME: And yet, you expect us to just go on — with courage, with purpose, in goodness — without knowing what’s in store for us?

GOD: Danielle, the human condition is one of uncertainty. If you can weather, with more peace of mind, the unknowns of your life — and your writing — you will live better. Life will unfold regardless of your needs or wishes. The spiritual task is how to bear the mystery, and how to help others bear it too.

ME: Bear the mystery. What does that mean? What does that look like? Should I give up writing and go help the Rohingya?

GOD: [silence]

ME: God? Are you still there?

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Top 15 Jewish Los Angeles stories of 5777

The Jewish year 5777 wasn’t eventful only on the national stage. Here in Los Angeles, the Jewish community had its share of notable controversies and causes for celebration.

The following are 15 local stories that had L.A. Jews talking this year.

Danielle Berrin recalls her assault by Ari Shavit (October 2016)

In a courageous cover story, Jewish Journal senior writer Danielle Berrin detailed how a prominent Israeli journalist, later named as Ari Shavit, groped and propositioned her during a professional interview. Berrin related her experience to the universal prevalence of sexual assault, an issue that emerged in the public spotlight when a video surfaced of then-presidential nominee Donald Trump making lewd comments about women to Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood.” Shavit admitted he was the subject of Berrin’s story several days after it was published, apologized and resigned from his positions at Israel’s Haaretz newspaper and Channel 10 TV.

In highlighting the gendered endemic of sexual assault and the stigma of speaking out, Berrin, who later was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club, began the Jewish New Year with a timely call for justice.

Jewish Family Service CEO Paul Castro announces retirement (October 2016)

Paul Castro

Paul Castro, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS), announced Oct. 13 that he would leave his post in December 2017 after 35 years at the nonprofit. Castro is not Jewish, but that never interfered with his leadership on JFS projects like the SOVA Community Food and Resource Program, the Israel Levin Senior Adult Center and the Westside Jewish Community Center’s Social Day Care Center for seniors and people with disabilities. During his tenure as CEO, Castro raised $17 million of the $25 million needed to rebuild the JFS Lois and Richard Gunther Center, the future hub of JFS outreach.

On Sep. 12, 2017, another prominent Jewish community leader announced his retirement: American Jewish University President Robert Wexler will step down at the end of the academic term, after 25 years at the school. Under his stewardship, the university opened the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 1996 and merged with Brandeis-Bardin. Wexler is credited with overseeing numerous campus construction projects and growing the university’s endowment from $5 million to more than $100 million.

Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Marvin Hier delivers benediction at Trump inauguration (January 2017)

Rabbi Marvin Hier


Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, stirred controversy when he offered an original prayer and a blessing to President Donald Trump at his Jan. 20 inauguration. Hier, who performed the invocation alongside various faith leaders, defended his decision by stating a peaceful transition of power is “the trademark of democracy.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous

IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous speaks at D.C. Women’s March (January 2017)

The day after the inauguration, 3.3 million women in 500 American cities marched in protest of Trump’s presidency and in favor of universal human rights. Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR delivered a speech at the Washington, D.C., Women’s March that referenced the Exodus story of Shifrah and Puah, two rebellious Egyptian midwives who defied Pharaoh’s orders to kill Hebrew firstborns. On the largest single-day protest in American history, Brous appealed to spiritual unity and shared humanity.

Photo by Rob Eshman

Jews join immigration ban protests at LAX (January 2017)

Following Trump’s executive order that shut the United States’ doors on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, Jews joined thousands of Los Angeles natives who gathered at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in protest. A number of signs at the protest highlighted harmony between Muslims and Jews, or drew comparisons between the refugee ban and Hitler’s early strategies.

B’nai David-Judea disobeys OU ban on female clergy (February 2017)

In the face of a Feb. 3 Orthodox Union (OU) policy statement that opposed the inclusion of women in Orthodox clergy, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Orthodox Pico-Robertson synagogue B’nai David-Judea issued a defiant response: Clergy member Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn would be offering the drasha that Shabbat. Kanefsky referred to the ways “women have vastly increased the amount of Torah study, Mitzvah observance and spiritual sensitivity within their respective Orthodox congregations,” and criticized the OU for “imposing one perspective on all of its member synagogues.”

Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz

Colorful L.A. rabbi known as ‘Schwartzie’ dies at 71 (February 2017)

The red-bearded rabbi who wore rainbow suspenders and set up Jewish astrology readings on the Venice Boardwalk died on Feb. 8. Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz was the founder and director of Chai Center, a Jewish nonprofit outreach organization in Los Angeles that engages Jews through weekly Shabbat dinners, free High Holy Days services and other events.

Cartoon in UCLA student newspaper denounced as anti-Semitic (February 2017)

UCLA cartoon

Outrage erupted on UCLA’s campus when the Daily Bruin published a cartoon that struck many as anti-Semitic. The cartoon depicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing in front of the Ten Commandments, with one caption stating, “Israel passes law seizing any Palestinian land,” and another suggesting Israel would follow its “stealing” with murder. The Daily Bruin issued an apology for the cartoon, which even drew a denunciation from a pro-Palestine group on campus.

Leah Adler, restaurateur and mother of Steven Spielberg, dies at 97 (February 2017)

Leah Adler

Leah Adler might have been best known as film director Steven Spielberg’s mother, but she earned her own renown in the Los Angeles Jewish community as the owner of kosher restaurant The Milky Way on Pico Boulevard Adler, who died Feb. 21, was a former concert pianist from Cincinnati who enjoyed chatting with restaurant patrons about kosher cuisine and providing life advice. Some might recognize her from the 1994 Academy Awards, when Spielberg kissed her and described her as his lucky charm while accepting the best director Oscar for “Schindler’s List.”

JCCs receive bomb threats amid national scare (February 2017)

Westside JCC


The Westside Jewish Community Center (JCC) became one of more than 100 JCCs and Jewish day schools across the country to receive bomb threats over the phone in 2017. Among the other targets was the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach, which received a hoax threat Jan. 31 that prompted the evacuation of approximately 300 seniors, parents and children. The Los Angeles Police Department evacuated the Westside JCC and searched the premises, but the threat was a false alarm. Four months later, University Synagogue of Brentwood and both Wilshire Boulevard Temple campuses also were shut down due to online bomb threats, none of which materialized.

Stephen Miller

Exploring Jewish Trump aide Stephen Miller’s L.A. roots (March 2017)

Stephen Miller began his work with the Trump campaign in 2016 as a “warmup act” before the presidential candidate took the stage at rallies. Later, as senior adviser to the president, Miller worked closely with Stephen Bannon to craft the executive order banning refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. Given Miller’s zealously nationalistic political rhetoric, it surprised many to discover he is the great-grandson of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. The Jewish Journal profiled Miller’s youth as a congregant of liberal-leaning Los Angeles synagogues and a graduate of Santa Monica High School.

Politicizing the pulpit (June 2017)

When Sinai Temple Senior Rabbi David Wolpe argued in a Jewish Journal article that rabbis should refrain from expressing political opinions in their sermons, he ignited a debate that engaged rabbis and community members from every corner of Los Angeles. Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom, Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs and IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous all penned responses in the Journal challenging Wolpe’s apolitical position and questioning the possibility of drawing a line between politics and Torah. Wolpe’s article gave rise to a sort of symposium that considered a rabbi’s moral responsibility amid a politically turbulent year.

Marilyn Hall

Marilyn Hall, wife of Monty Hall, dies at 90 (June 2017)

Actress, writer, producer and philanthropist Marilyn Hall died June 5 at the age of 90. Hall, wife of game show host Monty Hall, produced documentaries for Jewish institutions such as Brandeis University, the United Jewish Welfare Fund and Tel Aviv University. Her roster of accomplishments also includes producing  two Emmy-winning TV movies and co-writing “The Celebrity Kosher Cookbook.”

Westwood flyers warn of new Hezbollah-inspired group (July 2017)

Iranian Jews were on edge when they discovered flyers in Westwood’s Persian Square district announcing the inception of a group calling itself the “Army of Hezbollah in America.” The handbill, written in Farsi, vowed to avenge any U.S. military action in the Persian Gulf with terrorist attacks on American soil. It also denounced the influence of the “Zionist media.” The Los Angeles Police Department said it turned over information about the flyer to the FBI for investigation.

Izak Parviz Nazarian

Iranian-Jewish philanthropist Izak Parviz Nazarian dies at 88 (August 2017)

Izak Parviz Nazarian, co-founder of investment firm Omninet and former board member of technology company Qualcomm, died on Aug. 23 at age 88. After a difficult childhood in Iran, Nazarian fought with the Haganah in Italy and joined Israeli troops in the War of Independence. Nazarian immigrated to Los Angeles after the Iranian Revolution, where he built a successful technology empire with his brother, Younes. A passionately pro-Israel philanthropist, Nazarian founded the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel, a nonprofit dedicated to reforming Israel’s electoral system.

After Nazis: Sex, art and Israelis

It was not inevitable that Berlin would recover.

The thought occurred to me as I stood in the doorway of a massive Berlin building with walls 6 1/2-feet thick in one of the strangest and most brilliant examples of the city’s postwar reinvention: a Nazi bunker turned private art museum.

Since it launched in 2008, the Boros Collection — Sammlung Boros in German — has become one of the hottest tickets in town. Reservations for guided tours of no more than 12 people at a time book months in advance and remain the only way to see the carefully curated exhibition of contemporary art, which includes sculpture, painting, photography, film and installation.

The eccentric and amusing collection is a worthy enough draw, but for some, not as enticing as the building itself: a five-story, above-ground bunker built in 1942 by Nazi architect Karl Bonatz that has undergone more reinventions than Madonna.

The Berlin bunker, like the city itself, has been transformed from its hideous history into something almost beautiful, a trend fueled by a growing economy that is attracting emigrants from all over Europe — and Israel. Berlin has become the America of Europe, a multicultural melting pot.

But its history still shows. Outside, slabs of stark, gray concrete are riddled with bullet holes and shrapnel gashes. Inside, black paint from the bunker’s days as a fetish club are splashed beneath an artist’s methodical brushstrokes.

The symbolism is self-evident: You can reinvent the past, but you cannot erase it.

The harsh exterior of the bunker suggests the conditions in which it was built. Assembled by forced laborers (these were the Nazis, after all), it was designed as a civilian air-raid shelter. Later, the Red Army took it over for use as a prisoner-of-war camp. During the years of Communist East Berlin, its weather-impervious interior made it a suitable storage facility for imported produce, earning it the nickname “the banana bunker.”

Imagine telling Hitler that the city in which he preached ethnic cleansing and racial superiority would one day
become a multicultural melting pot.

By the 1990s, it fell into disrepair and entered a phase as a hardcore sex club — replete with techno music and fetish parties — before Christian Boros, a Polish-born advertising mogul, purchased it in 2003. Boros commissioned a major renovation of the building, which included a glassy, fifth-floor penthouse for him and his family. Nazi bunker, meet McMansion.

“This building isn’t meant for art,” Boros told The New Yorker in 2015. “How the art fights against the ugly building is very interesting to me.”

Boros offers an apt metaphor for Berlin itself: perhaps not meant for art, but determined to fight its ugly past with tools of transformation.

Modern Berlin may have bullet holes and Holocaust museums, but it also hums with the currency of the times: art, architecture, fashion, food and young people. To walk its streets is to witness a city redefining itself as a place of refuge, open borders and progressive policies. Today it is Berlin, not Paris, its overindulgent neighbor to the west, that can claim the mantle of most dynamic avant-garde culture on the continent.

Imagine telling Hitler that the city in which he preached ethnic cleansing and racial superiority would one day become a multicultural melting pot. How it must roil him in his burnt grave that the progenitor of Jewish extermination now hosts a thriving community of Israelis who have decamped from their mother nation, the Jewish state.

But Berlin’s reasserting itself as the cultural and economic capital of Europe does not come without political scrapes or scars. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy to admit 1 million refugees from war-torn states in the Middle East remains a divisive issue. Some wonder whether migrants will integrate; others worry if integration will steal jobs.

Despite the rise of multiculturalism, I met young Muslims who report discriminatory treatment at jobs and schools. Anti-Semitism is denounced in public but persists in private. And there’s no telling if or when a terrorist attack could plunge the country into cultural and political regression. As one young Muslim representative in the Bundesrat — Germany’s upper house — put it, “Merkel is praying every single night that a terrorist attack doesn’t happen here.”

A Berlin on the brink has existed before. And yet, as Christopher Isherwood captured in his 1945 book, “Berlin Stories,” which spawned the play on which the musical “Cabaret” is based, the young, idealistic intellectuals and artists of the time pressed on in the face of moral and political collapse. Today, young Berliners press on despite the shame of their history and the millions of ghosts that haunt their streets.

It makes sense that a place that massacred so much human potential would later strive through every means possible to re-create meaning and beauty after brokenness.

German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno famously wrote, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”

No one really knows exactly what he meant; Adorno’s words still are the subject of much dispute and debate. But it’s clear he perceived a powerful relationship between suffering and creation.

It’s possible he meant that there was no point to art after Auschwitz because humankind had proved itself irredeemably evil and human striving was, therefore, meaningless.

I prefer to see his words as a call to arms: That there can never be enough poetry after Auschwitz. No amount of art or reinvention will ever be adequate to the task of portraying the horrors of the Holocaust, or atoning for it.

Sorry, Berlin.

But that doesn’t mean art should be surrendered. On the contrary, I admire today’s Berliners for making so much more of it.

Letters to the editor: Talking Trump, Shapiro, and worthy award winners

Talking Trump

I don’t often read Marty Kaplan’s column, but this week I did, and how glad I am to have done so (“Roget’s Trumpasaurus,” July 7). Regardless of one’s political views, it is a beautifully envisioned, constructed and written piece. Thank you, Marty, for writing it and thank you, Jewish Journal, for printing it.

Immanuel “Manny” Spira
Los Angeles

Marty Kaplan is a blessed thinker and writer. His column on Roget’s and our vocabulary was terrific. Just what I needed as I sat here wondering when Congress would impeach the man before someone took him out permanently.

Government under Donald Trump is like watching democracy die. The CNN wrestling video was the last straw from this indecent, inelegant, crude, revolting hack.  If only the GOP had the backbone to admit he is their mistake and get him out of the White House.

Rev. Emmalou Kirchmeier
Bradenton, Fla.

Shmuel Rosner uses some of the text from President Donald Trump’s speech in Poland to conclude “How Trump’s Sentiments Are Israel’s Sentiments” (July 14). I think this is a mistake. It’s a mistake to believe that Trump has any sentiments or deeply held beliefs regarding Israel, or any other group, or nation, or principle (aside from what is good for Trump’s ego is good).

Sometimes, as has now been noted on several occasions, Trump comes across as “presidential” when reading from a teleprompter, words written by someone else. Actors come across as presidential on the stage.
Sadly, the closest we can come to what is going on in the dark mind of the president is to read his tweets. And even these sentiments change frequently. To read into a prepared text read by Trump any depth of feeling or conviction is a mistake.

Coleman Colla
via email

I would like to know why Donald Trump has a favorable rating only in Russia and Israel. I’ve seen polls where Barack Obama and John Kerry rated less than 10 percent in Israel. We American Jews will always be totally supportive of Israel but, with such divergent conclusions, it really makes it harder and harder.

I’ll point to only one issue out of hundreds. When Trump gave the go-ahead for Saudi Arabia to get more than $100 billion in military aid, do people think that somehow that is good for Israel?

Mark Haskin
Marina del Rey

Based on Ben Shapiro’s assertion, as “fact,” that “Trump is the most moderate Republican president since Richard Nixon” (“How the Dems Can Lose 2018,” July 14) and that Republicans have moved to the political center while Democrats have slid to the far left, I say, for one, Nixon presided over the creation of the EPA, which Trump is tragically dismantling. Ronald Reagan, who fought for gun control laws and who granted amnesty to illegal immigrants, would be considered a liberal by today’s GOP, ever since an extremist, uncompromising group of congressmen and women known as the Tea Party gained control of the House of Representatives in 2010. Not even after 9/11 did George W. Bush react so extremely against Muslims as Trump has demonstrated.

Likewise, Shapiro’s take on Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who currently polls as the most popular politician in the U.S., is stereotypically reduced to the archaic notion of “socialism,” as applied to the USSR during the Cold War, which has no relation to the “democratic socialism” Sanders espouses. If anything, Sanders champions policies supportive of the working and middle class that got Franklin D. Roosevelt elected president four times, and others, such as nonprofit health care, which is the norm worldwide. 

Frederick Abrams
Los Angeles

The Lessons of Hiroshima

I share Rob Eshman’s reluctant doubt that “Never Again” is dependable. As the generation that experienced the horror passes, so, too, does the horror itself. We wanted to slam the door on it forever but slamming the door isn’t always the same as slamming it shut. Actually, our holocausts aren’t remarkably original long-term (I’m Armenian).
When I look clear-eyed toward the Jews’ current refuge in Israel, I admit to the same doubt as toward future holocausts as Eshman.

David Morgan
Los Angeles

Separation of Church, State

While the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Orthodox Union (OU) share common ground on many issues, we believe the OU’s position on government funding of religious institutions is shortsighted, and not in the long-term best interest of the Jewish community (“Jewish Groups Differ Over Ruling About Public Funds for Religious Institutions,” July 14). Jewish history is pretty clear on this point: With the king’s purse comes the king — and all his meddling and regulations.

For more than a century, the ADL has steadfastly promoted the idea that the separation principle has been a key to religious freedom for Jews and other religious minorities in America. It protects religion from government oversight and interference, and keeps the government from favoring or promoting certain religious faiths or doctrines. When the government provides funding to religious institutions in any capacity, it has the effect of promoting religion. 

The Trinity Lutheran decision raises more questions than answers on the scope of government funding now available to religious institutions. We are concerned it will be read as leaving the door wide open to such funding. Requiring taxpayers to fund religious institutions is not wise policy.

Amanda Susskind
Pacific Southwest Regional Director, Anti-Defamation League

What to Do About the Wall

I support Shmuel Rosner’s call that we American Jews demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu honor the original January 2016 decision to give Conservative and Reform congregations official recognition at the Kotel (“Fight or Flee? American Jews Face Post-Kotel Dilemma,” June 30). Orthodox Judaism does not speak for me. But Judaism does. I believe in a broad construction of Jewish law and culture. For me, Judaism is a great religion because it was the first religion to center on ethics, not on ritual practices that could ensure a good harvest, etc. If Reform and Conservative Judaism have no official status in Israel, then America soon will be recognized as the true home of world Jewry.

Barbara Judson

The July 7 edition of the Jewish Journal contains a remarkable story by David Benkof (“Diaspora Jews Cannot Expect Veto Power Over Jewish State”). Besides the incredibly arrogant tone, it is intellectually dishonest. To call the “Kotel architecture” issue a kerfuffle is demeaning. As is ignoring the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government reneged on an agreed-upon compromise. Finally, while Benkof has a legitimate point in stating that Diaspora Jews cannot expect veto power over the Jewish state, then I assume that he also agrees that Israel has no legitimate case against the United States when it takes positions in the United Nations General Assembly with which Israel vehemently disagrees.

Tom Fleishman
Valley Glen

Kudos to Berrin

Lately, I’ve been thinking what a fine journalist Danielle Berrin has become, and when I read “When the Dream of Israel Clashes With Reality”  (July 7), I realized each story is better than the last. Several pages later, I learned she has been named journalist of the year by the Los Angeles Press Club. So very well deserved.

Marilyn Russell
Los Angeles

After surviving the Holocaust in Poland, I was sure that for the rest of my life, all Jews, including women, are equal. Berrin’s story, so well done, points out that I am wrong.  Women, of all places in the “free” country in Israel, are not equal to men. How can that be? The country that rose on the ashes of 6 million because of great bigotry and inequality. Wake up, Israeli leaders: All of us, we love Israel, and we want to continue to love it!

Bob Geminder
Rancho Palos Verdes

Politicians can’t solve every problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

President Donald Trump Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Journalists and pundits are having a field day with the ironies swirling around President Donald Trump’s dialectic on ending terrorism, delivered last week to the leaders of nearly 50 Muslim nations during his visit to Saudi Arabia.

Not least was his effort to single out Iran as the primary funder and fueler of terror while ignoring Saudi support for a vast network of madrasas teaching Wahhabism, an extremist sect of Islam. Also unmentioned by Trump was a reminder that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers — plus mastermind Osama bin Laden — were from Saudi Arabia, a country one former U.S. ambassador described as the “ideological and financial epicenter” of “theofascism.”  

But there was another more significant omission in Trump’s prescription for combating terror. You can drive out terrorists from a country physically, but how do you drive hatred from their heart? What do you replace it with? 

“Starving terrorists of their territory, their funding and the false allure of their craven ideology will be the basis for defeating them,” Trump said.

The president deployed his vision for combating terrorism mostly through the prism of  “hard power”: a top-down leadership approach that ostensibly involves international diplomacy, military might, policy-making, spying and the international banking system. He’s the American president, after all, and that is his purview.   

But is there an alternative?

Perhaps Trump didn’t want to get too specific about a more grass-roots approach because that would creep too eerily into Saudi funding of madrasas and offend his “gracious hosts.”

But hard power can go only so far. The pursuit of violent conflict and economic warfare does not lay the foundation for a profound cultural shift that would offer viable alternatives to would-be terrorists. Trump himself said he does not wish to “impose our way of life” on any other nation. But in one sense, our way of life — upheld by a liberal education — is exactly what is needed.

When it comes to the world’s most intractable conflicts — and Trump’s framing of the fight against terrorism as a “battle between good and evil” certainly qualifies — hard power must be met with partners in social change.

So let’s pivot to another seemingly insurmountable conflict, the one between Israel and Palestine. Last week, while Trump was en route to the Middle East, a group of scholars and teachers from that region headed to Los Angeles for the conference “Learning the Other’s Past,” organized by Professor David N. Myers, chair in Jewish History at UCLA.

The focus of the conference was an Israeli-Palestinian educational partnership, PRIME (Peace Research Institute in the Middle East), which produced a “dual-narrative” textbook teaching Israeli and Palestinian histories “Side by Side,” as the volume is titled.

At a certain point, the creators of the project reasoned, the only way to bridge the chasm that divides Israelis and Palestinians is to expand educational possibilities. Palestinians need to understand the Jewish imperative for statehood in their ancestral land and learn about the Holocaust. Likewise, Israelis need to recognize Palestinian claims to the land and understand how Jewish statehood triggered a Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe.” 

Hard power can go only so far. The pursuit of violent conflict and economic warfare does not lay the foundation for a profound cultural shift that would offer viable alternatives to would-be terrorists.

“For me, the theory of change that really resonates most powerfully is bottom-up, people to people, community by community, school to school,” Myers told me. “That’s the kind of work that culture and education and the arts and history can promote in advance, [and which] seems to stitch together the fabric of a meaningful nonviolent coexistence.”

Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can negotiate borders, sovereignty, holy sites and settlements. But no amount of dealmaking can undo the fear, hatred, distrust and resentment that have built up between two peoples for more than a century. Only individual contact with the other side — and The Other’s story — can do that.

It is a shame and a disgrace to “hard power” that both the Israeli Ministry of Education as well as the Palestinian Ministry have banned the dual-narrative textbook from public school curriculums. A daring few are teaching it anyway, as are several other countries. The overwhelming resistance within Israel and Palestine to teaching this broader narrative, one that encompasses multiple perspectives, is a cynical attempt to entrench future generations in a protracted conflict.

It also proves that education is just as threatening as violence: Knowledge can inculcate one-sided, nationalistic ideology or it can unlock human empathy and understanding. A madrasa can be a gateway to God — or hell.   

The process of unraveling a narrow worldview, especially if one’s identity depends upon it, is always fraught.

I asked Myers, an observant Jew and a lover of Israel, what it’s like to sit in conference rooms listening to Palestinians tell stories of Israeli-inflicted pain. How does he hold his love for Israel in the same heart that aches for the suffering on the other side?

“It’s the great challenge of my life,” Myers said. “I wake up in the morning obsessed with the question, and I go to bed at night obsessed with the question. I have a deep, searing, powerful, emotional connection to [Israel], the people, the culture, the language. And yet, it often tortures my soul.”

The only solution is reconciliation, empowering people through knowledge.

The writer Adam Thirlwell teaches that power is “always an assault on individual integrity” and thrives when there is “communal blur.”

If that’s the case, Trump’s words in Saudi Arabia were sadly out of focus.