November 16, 2018

Letters to the Editor: Sephardic Judaism, Gun Violence and Tribalism

Ashkefardic Column

I loved David Suissa’s March 9 piece “Living in Ashkefardic Times” (as I do everything he writes). I have always felt that we are all Jews with a common foundation, and that we can only stand to benefit from enjoying what we experience and learn from one another’s traditions.

David, I still remember singing “Dror Yikra” with you at your Shabbat dinner, your surprise that I, of Ashkenazi origin, knew the Sephardic melody, and my response that the beauty of the words and melody spoke for themselves irrespective of the origin.

Michael Rosove via email

Sephardic Sharing

It was with great pleasure that I read Kelly Hartog’s cover story last week on the heightened interest in the Sephardic tradition (“The Many Facets of the Sephardic Spirit,” March 9). Its flexibility, optimism and inclusiveness of the entire Jewish community are most heartening. Moreover, I found it interesting that its origins in Muslim countries may create the understanding necessary for greater potential in peacemaking initiatives by Israel with its neighbors.

I wanted to alert the public to the fact that Academy for Jewish Religion California (AJRCA) also offers an accredited master’s degree in Sephardic studies and held a sold-out Sephardic/Persian event just last week that included music, food and a prominent panel. The Sephardic community tradition holds great promise in addressing our current fragmented Jewish community. Congratulations to the great job the Sephardic Educational Center is doing to make its great tradition available to the public.

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, President, AJRCA via email

Talking Gun Violence

Given our gun culture, the number of firearms and the influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA), it may be impossible to completely eliminate mass shootings, which are occurring with increasing frequency. But there is a rational solution to preventing a good deal of the mayhem.

The common thread between all mass shooters is their acquisition of an inordinate amount of firearms and ammunition before committing a rampage. Creating a national registry of guns and ammo could provide an automatic warning when an individual is amassing a suspicious number of weapons and shells. Authorities could then further investigate whether that person poses a public threat.

The NRA is strongly opposed to gun registration, but its excuse that it is a slippery slope leading to the confiscation of all weapons is ridiculous. Registering cars has not led to eliminating automobiles. Moreover, registering guns and ammunition does not contradict even the most far-fetched interpretation of the Second Amendment.

Ted Carmely via email

Driving to the 90th Oscars brought home the reality of the Hollywood left’s absolute hypocrisy.

There were checkpoints for passes, bomb detectors, maneuverability. There were street barriers along a designated route. There were fences on the sidewalks, blimps in the air. There were SWAT armored vehicles, police cruisers and motorcycles. I have never seen so many armed officers!

Where were the gun-grabbers?

Where was security at the Parkland High School? The Pulse nightclub? Sandy Hook? Columbine?

Taking firearms from citizens to protect themselves from government overreach, corruption and abject failure … what a concept!

Ever gone through security at LAX? The IRS? A courthouse? The mayor’s office?

Let’s do away with “gun-free” zones, where good people are sitting ducks for aberrant individuals and terrorists.

Enriqué Gascon, Westside Village

Columnist Gets It Just Right

Karen Lehrman Bloch beautifully states where we are in 2018 (“Can We Please Start Over?” March 9).

Simply, she says we are all different, and when people try to make their point(s) by bullying, there can be no dialogue. Just screaming at each other.

Agree to disagree and everything can be discussed. Then, Bloch’s vision of respect for each other’s opinions can become the new norm. Our society requires this approach for effective communication.

Warren J. Potash, Moorpark

David Light’s View

I’d never heard of David Light before reading the “Just Asking” interview with him in the March 9 issue, but I applaud his courage. His statement that his rabbi wife’s group IKAR “was founded during the Bush [43] years, so we were forged in the fires of resistance” was especially stirring.

Chaim Sisman, Los Angeles

Harrell’s Humanity

Thank you for the story about about Lynn Harrell (“Cellist Lynn Harrell’s Meta Moment,” March 9). In an era of almost dystopian combativeness, it was uplifting to read about a fellow traveler whose hands and heart are much bigger than most, sharing his gifts generously with the world.  He is a mensch and it makes me proud to have him within our community. Well done and l’chaim.

Eric Biren, Santa Monica

Reacting to the Rabbis

Reform Rabbi Sarah Bassin confronts Orthodox Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg over the issue of unequal representation of women in Orthodoxy (“Back and Forth,” March 9). She writes, “I literally do not count — in a minyan, as a witness or a rabbi.” Rabbi Schwarzberg responds that “gender and halachah is our community’s foremost issue.”

As a non-Orthodox convert of more than 50 years, who belongs to an Orthodox synagogue and attends daily minyan there, I would reply to Rabbi Schwarzberg’s fear by stating that, indeed, I feel those standards should be changed, which is part of the reason I go to Orthodox services daily. I personally know what it feels like to not count in an existential way that surpasses what Rabbi Bassin has experienced. While she may justifiably complain the she literally does not count as part of the minyan, the plight of the non-Orthodox converts trumps that invisibility by leaps and bounds; we not only don’t count for a minyan, we also don’t even count as being Jewish in Orthodox eyes, and should we happen to also be women converts, we get the double humiliation of not having our children and future generations count as being Jewish in their view.

The commandment that is listed more times in the Torah than any other is to remember and welcome the stranger and treat them with compassion, because we Jews were strangers in Egypt. =We Jews by Choice have transformed our lives for love of God, Torah and Am Israel. We deserve better treatment.

Peter Robinson, Woodland Hills

Trapped in Our Tribes

I love your sense of humor and your honesty, David Suissa! (“Trapped Inside of Our Tribes,” March 2). I read your column several times and really enjoyed it. It is such a truthful reflection of the American political reality.

That is what great journalism is all about: To show those trapped inside their powerful tribes what they look like in reality from outside. Similarly to what Suissa says, I can only pray that more of those in power read it.

Svetlozar Garmidolov, Los Angeles

Liking the New-Look Journal

Ending the stories on the same page (instead of having to search in the back pages for the last two paragraphs) is much appreciated in the Jewish Journal.

I wish you and the Journal a better future and am confident that you seem to have the energy and good sense to achieve that.  However it would be nice if you added some new blood, and let me suggest three Jewish writers I admire: Melanie Phillips, a very strong International woman’s voice; Joel Kotkin, a liberal Jew who is writing amazing pieces about California; and Daniel Greenfield, a religious Jew who writes amazing pieces about everything.

Shura Reininger via email

David Light’s View of Zombies, Being Married to a Rabbi and the Trump Era

ZOMBIES - David Light, screenwriter. (Disney Channel/Edward Herrera)

David Light, 44, is a Los Angeles-based comedy writer whose first produced feature — Disney Channel’s “Zombies” — premiered last month to an audience of more than 10 million. Co-written with partner Joseph Raso, the song-and-dance musical tells the story of star-crossed high-school freshmen (a zombie and a cheerleader) who learn to love each other despite their differences.

Outside of Hollywood, Light is best known as the “rebbetzin” at IKAR, the politically progressive activist community founded by his wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous. “When I was going around for meetings when I first got to town, the idea that I was a comedy writer was not particularly interesting, but the fact that I was married to a rabbi was — and still is,” Light said. We caught up with him last week to discuss the relationship between Jews and Zombies, how Camp Ramah inspired his writing career and why Hollywood could be a vehicle for decency.

Jewish Journal: The last time I interviewed you was in 2007, for a story about what it’s like to be married to a rabbi. Now you’re a big Hollywood writer. Which job is harder?

David Light: (laughs) Don’t you mean which job is more fun?

JJ: “Zombies” is about a zombie and a cheerleader who are both outsiders. How does being Jewish give you insight into the marginalized, especially since American Jews today are so well integrated?

DL: Being Jewish makes you both an insider and an outsider, and we’re constantly balancing between those worlds. I grew up the Jewiest kid in public school, so navigating that taught me a lot and gave me experiences to draw from.

JJ: Can you elaborate on how being Jewish informs your writing?

DL: I went to Camp Ramah in the Poconos (in Pennsylvania), [and] there was ‘mail day,’ when you’d send a letter home to prove you were alive and surviving at camp. But I figured out how to game the system, since [the counselors] weren’t checking content; they just wanted an envelope. So I started to address empty envelopes and send them home, week after week. After like, six weeks, I finally got a “package” slip — and [I] opened it up and it was empty. My mom totally one-upped me. When I got home, I was grounded until I could write a letter for each week of camp. Out of that moment, I fell in love with writing.

“What I love about zombies is that they’re this working-class monster.”

JJ: “Zombies” incorporates the timeless appeal of people from different backgrounds being attracted to each other. How do you reconcile that cultural trope with the fact that you’re part of a tradition that discourages intermarriage?

DL: Ugh. [laughs] So you’re asking me to answer why ‘star-crossed lovers’ and make the case for not marrying out of the tribe?

JJ: I’m just curious how you square “loving the other” as a broad cultural value with the fact that Judaism discourages the intermingling of difference when it comes to romance.

DL: Look, I think we’re living in a profoundly indecent time. It just feels like the world is so polarized right now and we wanted to do a movie that values open heartedness and decency. And in the Disney canon, a movie about humanity makes sense; but right now, it feels countercultural. So we thought if our cheerleader could find a way to open her heart to a monster, that there’s real humanity to that.

JJ: Even if the monster is, say, the NRA?

DL: Oh, gosh. That’s the Rorschach you’re putting on this?

Some of us might have different ideas about who the monster is. So are we talking about being open-hearted to all monsters or to a certain kind of monster?

I don’t think being a card-carrying NRA member makes you a monster. But I do think we should hear more voices coming from those members who are more moderate about gun control and sensible reform. I keep wondering, where’s the law enforcement that’s in the NRA? How can they possibly want more assault rifles on the streets?

JJ: Movie monsters have often been a political or cultural metaphor for the prevalent fear of the moment. What do your zombies represent?

DL: Are you asking me, “Are the Israelis or the Palestinians zombies?” (laughs) What I love about zombies is that they’re this working-class monster. They don’t have the sex appeal of a vampire or the cool powers of a witch. They’re just relentless; they keep coming. The [Centers for Disease Control] even did a whole zombie-preparedness campaign because it helped people think about, “What if it all goes wrong? What if the apocalypse really does come?”

JJ: IKAR, the community your wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous, founded, and which you helped build, has developed a national reputation for political activism. How are things going during the Trump era?

DL: IKAR was founded during the (George W.) Bush years, so we were forged in the fires of resistance. I think there was a lot of core value alignment during the (Barack) Obama years and now we’re back to a moment of resistance and opposition.

David Light: ‘It’s a tricky balancing act’

It’s Friday night at IKAR, and David Light can’t pray.

On this hot and sticky Shabbat, a few hundred people pack the Westside Jewish Community Center auditorium, davening with fierce intensity to the deep patter of drumbeats. Light sits in the second row, watching his wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous, welcome the Sabbath with a chant from Psalms.

“Lechu neranena l’Adonai, Naria letzur yisheinu (come let us sing to God, let us call out to the rock of our redemption)…” she sings.

Light scans the room, smiling and nodding in various degrees of delight to the inner circle who regularly come to pray here each Shabbat, a carefree contrast to his rabbi wife’s dignified solemnity.

By the third verse of the prayer, however, Light has disappeared. When he returns to his seat, he has his arm wrapped around his 2 year-old daughter, Sami, her blond, curly hair bobbing as she gently strokes his face. It’s an adorable post-feminist moment, but it makes davening difficult for him. Before he can say, “Amen,” the child wriggles from his grasp and runs up to the podium, where her mother is leading prayer. Light again abandons his prayer book, retrieves his daughter from the pulpit and carries her outside.

As the husband of a groundbreaking female rabbi who earlier this year was named among the most influential rabbis in the country by Newsweek, Light isn’t threatened by reverse gender roles. His wife is the primary breadwinner, and he the primary caregiver. On any given Shabbat, he is never far from a stroller or a child. And while his wife waxes poetic on social justice, he can be found kibitzing at the back of the room. But he’s also an aspiring Hollywood writer, with a sense of humor about his unusual circumstances. As he puts it, “Sharon was going to save the soul of the Jewish world, and I was bent on corrupting it.”

They weren’t always on such divergent paths. Light was admitted to the rabbinic program at the Jewish Theological Seminary alongside his wife — “the one girl in college who found my knowing all the words to the kiddush incredibly sexy,” he said — but he chose not to go when he realized he’d been more excited by the process of applying to the school than by becoming a rabbi, or even marrying one, though he said it wasn’t that she would become a rabbi that bothered him: “My real doubts were that I didn’t plan on falling in love with the woman I would marry so young.”

Because Brous and her community have created IKAR from the ground up, she had to invest her rabbinate with just about everything she had to give. Her husband, however, despite his strong Judaic background, opted to stay somewhat out of the fray. Present, but not a presence.

“My success or failure as a rebbetzin all rests on whether my kids can break free of my iron-clad grasp and run up to Sharon and yell something inappropriate into the microphone,” he said wryly.

It’s true that their two daughters, Eva, 4, and Sami, are fond of approaching their mother when she’s on the pulpit. And although Brous has fostered a kid-friendly community and welcomes the affection, she has a role that won’t allow for many such distractions. So Light is responsible for making sure they’re disciplined.

“Really truly for me, as a male, we’re lucky that what we do is viewed as additive. We don’t have as many pressures,” he said, extolling the virtue of IKAR as a place that is less rigid and formal than many synagogues. He celebrates the fact that his daughters can pray next to their mother at the podium, but said, “There’s always that moment in services when one of my kids is throwing a tantrum, and I have to eject them from the service.”

Throughout IKAR’s four-year history, Brous has rarely taken a day off.

“It was hard for Sharon when she started,” Light said of the tug between work and family. “It’s a thoroughly exhausting job, and it never ends. There’s always more to do.”

As he talks about it, he vacillates between showing pride at what she’s accomplished and regret at the challenges they face as a result of her successes. Especially when, even after selling a few pilot scripts to major networks, Light is still waiting to see his own career come to fruition on screen.

“I feel like I’m at the beginning of [my career], and Sharon is closer to realizing her goals,” he said.

He gushes over Brous’ achievements and lauds her for creating the kind of community he wants to be a part of. But still, “It’s hard in terms of self-actualization. I love what I do,” he says “but would like to be doing it on a high level.”

As do many writers, Light likes to draw on personal experience, but he has to temper that urge to protect the public side of his family’s position. “I’m drawing on my personal experience and some of the randomness and quirky things that happen in our lives. And I have to be conscious more and more that we’re no longer just a scrappy start-up, and my most inappropriate stories are not appropriate anymore. There has to be a filter.”

As his wife’s accomplishments continue to rise, Light says it has also become more and more difficult to carve out private family time. It’s harder still to nurture their marriage. There’s no “date night” yet, he said, not to mention Brous’s strict adherence to kashrut prohibits much dining out. At least for now, it’s once-a-year vacations and Shabbat afternoons.

“It’s hard — it’s a tricky balancing act. Shabbat is amazing time with family. It’s just that Sharon is also working so it’s not…” he stops himself. “Because we love IKAR, it makes the longing less desperate, I guess.”

And he says that every now and then they enjoy a “sabbatical Shabbat.”

“We wish we had more time with Sharon, and yet we know she’s doing great work, bringing more people to Judaism and making their Jewish lives more meaningful,” he said. “People find my being a comedy writer infinitely boring, but the fact that I’m married to a rabbi — that’s juicy — that has legs to it.”

All the rabbi spouse stories on one page