January 21, 2019

The Politics of Evil

A green two-way street sign pointing to Liberal and Conservative, representing the two dominant political parties and ideologies in national and global politics

We have entered a new era: the politicization of evil. Evil has been weaponized to score political points. Evil is only recognized if the “other side” can be blamed for it. 

Before we even knew what fully happened in Pittsburgh — while the bodies of 11 worshippers were still on the synagogue floor — leftists were blaming the massacre on President Trump. Even more hideously, many were blaming Jews who had voted for Trump. Writer Julia Ioffe took it a step further: moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem was the cause. 

But winner of the most despicable quote of all goes to Franklin Foer in The Atlantic: “Any strategy for enhancing the security of American Jewry should involve shunning Trump’s Jewish enablers. Their money should be refused, their presence in synagogues not welcome. They have placed their community in danger.” 

Ioffe’s and Foer’s remarks prompted this response from Rabbi David Wolpe in Tablet: “How do people think this message will fall on the ears of those who fled from Iran, to be told that they are in fact guilty in the death of Pittsburgh’s Jews? Or — even more shamefully — on the ears of Judah Samet. Mr. Samet, a Holocaust survivor, escaped death by 4 minutes because he was a little late to shul. He is also a strong supporter of Trump. Frank, Julia: Would you stand before this 80-year-old man, not in a tweet or online piece, but face to face, and tell him he is responsible for the death of his friends, the people with whom he prays each Shabbat? Would you bar him from the shul where he almost died, again, at the hands of Jew haters? Really? And that would make us the righteous ones?”

The irony of leftist Jews, many of whom rarely step foot in a synagogue, blaming Trump, whose grandchildren are in Jewish day schools, cannot be overstated. More to the point, when there are terrorist attacks in Israel or Europe, you never hear from leftists — except to blame Israel. When a Pakistani Muslim recently beat an elderly Jewish man in Brooklyn, I didn’t hear a word from leftists. The next day, a young Black man in Crown Heights chased a Jewish man with a stick. Leftists were silent.

“No one is born with hate in his or her heart. You are taught to hate — but you choose to be evil. You also choose to engage in the politics of evil.”

There were 7,000 anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. during the Obama era. Did you ever hear from leftists? But because the murderer this time was a white supremacist — because they think they can twist this against President Trump — leftists all of a sudden care about dead Jews. 

There is no question that some on the right have tried to downplay the alt-right. As we see, it doesn’t matter what the numbers are. It only takes one lunatic with a gun to slaughter 11 people. And if you are able to downplay this slaughter, if you are able to push out of your mind the fact that he fired an AR-15 at a 97-year-old woman, then you too are engaging in the politics of evil. 

No one is born evil. No one is born with hate in his or her heart. You are taught to hate — but you choose to be evil. You also choose to engage in the politics of evil. 

Right now, Jews have four sets of enemies: the alt-right, the alt-left, Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam and Islamists. With his incessant hate speech against Jews, Farrakhan is actively inciting evil, and Democrats who have been unable to criticize him are engaging in the politics of evil.

Jeremy Corbyn and his followers in the British Labour Party actively engage in the politics of evil. Professors who teach their students to hate Jews and Israel engage in the politics of evil. Reporters and editors who misrepresent what is happening in Israel engage in the politics of evil.

We all need to stop and look at this horror without the buffer of politics. We all need to feel the pain of the nine families whose lives have been tragically upended by hate.

All of Israel is responsible for one another, the Talmud says. But just as important, an attack on Jews has always meant an attack on the Western values of truth, justice and freedom.

That’s what our four enemies have in common: they all hate Western values. Now is the time to unite over those values, not defame them.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.

‘Avengers: Infinity War’ and the Power of Evil

One of the most endearing elements of superhero stories is that the good guy always wins, but in the real world, that’s not always the case.


That’s why the ending of “Avengers: Infinity War” is so shocking, because Thanos — the bad guy — wins. I keep thinking about sweet Peter Parker, moody teen Groot, and all the other casualties of the Infinity Gauntlet. But most of all, I find myself thinking about how Thanos — the embodiment of evil — could win. There has to be a mechanism within the Marvel Cinematic Universe that explains this.

I think the answer is in the Torah in the story of Korah’s rebellion. Moses and Aaron led the Israelites from Egypt to the Holy Land. Moses was the de facto king and Aaron the high priest. Korah, a Levite, led a rebellion challenging the authority of his cousins Moses and Aaron to exclude him from the priesthood.

A contest of competing sacrificial fire pans determined the victor. The moment of truth arrives and God commands Moses and Aaron to separate from the group. Then, a Godly fire consumes Korah and his rebellion forces. Adding insult to injury, the ground opens and swallows them whole.

Reb Tzadok of Lublin (1823-1900) writes that God commanded Moses and Aaron to leave the area because the rebels had a special power that could have defeated them. Had they stayed with the group, they, too, would have been consumed by the fire. The good guys would have lost.

One who has pure intentions and is willing to give everything he or she  has to a holy cause — even a cause that is not correct — is given this superpower.

What were the rebels special powers? Reb Tzadok says it was their pure intentions and willingness to sacrifice everything for a holy cause. Incredibly, the rebels wielded this power even though they were wrong. One who has pure intentions and is willing to give everything he or she has to a holy cause — even a cause that is not correct — is given this superpower.

That explains Thanos. He had to exchange the life of a true love for the Soul Stone. His adopted/kidnapped daughter Gamora laughs when she hears this condition because she believes that Thanos is so evil that he has no true love. But Thanos begins to cry and it quickly dawns on Gamora that she is going to be the sacrifice. Thanos throws her into the abyss and the stone appears.

Thanos is not purely genocidal. He is a utilitarian fundamentalist. He truly believes that it is best for the universe that he erase half the population. We call this a holy cause.

Thanos was willing to sacrifice his true love for the sake of his holy cause. There’s great power in these things. Thanos completes the Infinity Gauntlet and with a snap of his finger uses his power to murder fifty percent of all living things, leaving us to marvel and mourn the loss of several beloved superheroes. Such is the power of giving everything we have to a holy cause.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Why do Jews oppose wars against evil?

One of the deepest disappointments in my life has been Jews’ opposition to wars against evil. I had always assumed that, as the victims of so much evil throughout history, and as heirs to the great moral teachings of the Bible and Judaism, Jews, of all people, would support fighting on behalf of victims of the greatest evils.

Take fighting Communism, for example. Along with Nazism, Communism was the most genocidal movement in human history; it actually enslaved and murdered considerably more people than Nazism. Yet, most Jews didn’t support anti-Communism in general nor anti-Communist wars in particular. Even worse, Jews were disproportionately pro-Communist. In Stalin’s time, the Yiddish press was the most pro-Communist press in the Western world. And among those in the West who gave Stalin the secrets to the atomic bomb, nearly every one was a Jew.

How could that be? How could so many people who see themselves as bearers of a great moral legacy, or who simply see themselves as highly moral, have either been supportive of the greatest mass murder machine ever devised; or, as was more often the case, opposed fighting the greatest mass murder machine ever devised?

On what moral grounds did Jews oppose supplying the South Vietnamese government with arms to help save itself from being taken over by Communist North Vietnam? Most American Jews not only opposed fighting the Communist regime of North Vietnam, they even opposed merely supplying the South Vietnamese government with military hardware so that it could defend itself when, in violation of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, North Vietnam attacked South Vietnam. And in those very same accords, America had promised to replace every South Vietnamese bullet and tank lost in defending itself. 

After all, American Jews hadn’t opposed the Korean War, in which nearly 37,000 Americans and more than two million Koreans died. That war was a mirror of the Vietnam War. The southern half of the Korean peninsula — just like the southern half of Vietnam — was pro-West and anti-Communist; and the Communist North, backed by China and the Soviet Union, sought — in both Korea and Vietnam — to forcefully impose Communism on the south. 

Nothing has changed today. Most American Jews vigorously supported President Barack Obama’s plan to remove all American troops from Iraq. The consequences, which everyone who opposed this plan knew would happen, were that Iraq would go from relative stability to mayhem and bloodbath. Why hasn’t this mattered to most American Jews? 

The usual arguments are that America cannot be the world’s policeman, that we cannot stay in a country forever, and/or that it was all George W. Bush’s fault for invading Iraq in the first place.

Of course none of these answer the moral question: How could people who think of themselves as caring, compassionate, progressive, moral and preoccupied with tikkun olam not give a damn about what happens to a whole country the day after Americans leave?

Whatever one thinks of the original American invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, one of the cruelest tyrants of the late 20th century — and, it should be noted, one who paid $25,000 to families of Palestinian suicide bombers — what matters is that Iraq was relatively peaceful when American troops were removed. 

The takeover of much of Iraq by the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, was made possible by the withdrawal of all American troops from Iraq. The annihilation of every Christian community in Iraq was made possible by the withdrawal of American troops, as was the slaughter of Yazidis and the enslavement of women and even young girls under the control of ISIS. Yes, a continued American military presence might very well have been necessary for generations. So what? America has had troops in Germany and Japan since 1945 and in South Korea since the early 1950s. Thanks to American troops, those three countries have flourished as free and prosperous countries. 

Abandoning South Vietnam and Iraq — policies immensely popular among American Jews — vastly increased human suffering.

Blaming George W. Bush for invading Iraq in no way shifts the blame. Whether the invasion was a good or bad idea, the fact is that Iraq was far freer after the invasion and within five years of “the surge” increasingly at peace — thanks to the American and Iraqi sacrifices in the war against violent Islamism and thanks to American troops remaining in Iraq for as long as they did.

So why have so many Jews, who should be the first to want to fight evil, opposed aiding South Vietnam and opposed keeping American troops in Iraq?

The answer lies in what happened after the Korean War, which, as noted above, most American Jews supported. Beginning in the 1960s, the left’s influence on American Jews overwhelmed normative Jewish moral instincts. 

In short, as Judaism faded as the morally formative influence on Jews’ lives, another religion, secular progressivism, or leftism, became most American Jews’ moral compass. And for leftism, evil is not primarily defined as mass murder or totalitarian regimes. Evil is capitalism, economic inequality, big corporations, fundamentalist Christians, opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, fossil fuels and other things that preoccupy the left.

In the Psalms we read this command each Friday night: “Hate evil, those of you love God.” As Jews stopped loving God, they also stopped hating evil.

Dybbuks, demons and exorcism in Judaism

“Civilized people lose their religion easily, but rarely their superstitions.”
— Karl Goldmark

Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the greatest of Jewish mystics, would walk in the hills of 16th century Safed and point out to his students the souls of the dead, often standing on their graves. In the same city at the same time, the great legal scholar Joseph Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, the great code of Jewish Law, was composing another book dictated to him by an angel.

These visions were not as exceptional as modern Jews like to believe. Dybbuks and demons, possession and magic are woven throughout Jewish history. Amulets to ward off the evil eye, spitting, touching a mezuzah for good luck and a thousand other practices attest to the deep current of folk belief in Judaism. The next time someone persuades you that everything about Judaism is rational, logical and clear, you do not even need to tell them the story in rabbinic literature about the town that beat the river until the blood of the unwelcome water demon appeared. Just ask them to stand in a congregation while everyone is waving a lulav and spinning the etrog; the explanation may be logical, but the atmosphere is redolent of magic.

And yes, we Jews performed exorcisms, too. Anyone who spends time with rabbinic literature (or, for that matter, with the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer) is familiar with demons. Jewish demons, like their counterparts in other traditions, like to inhabit people or simply upend them from time to time. Not only are there many discussions of demons in rabbinic literature, but also, as a result of demonic activity, there are many spells directed against them, as where there are demons, there must be defenses and antidotes. Some demons are granted names. (Ashmedai, from the book of Tobit, is among the most notable. He is the king of demons, and in the Talmud, King Solomon tricked him into helping with the construction of the Temple.) And there are endless discussions of their activities and depredations.

Exorcism reached a peak in the mystical community of 16th century Safed. The scholar J.H. Chajes has translated several accounts of spirit possession in Safed. One, in which a man named Samuel Zafrati entered a woman, involved Hayyim Vital, the principle disciple of the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria. He asked the spirit, “How can we be sure your name is Samuel Zafrati?” and the spirit, through the woman, accurately recounted all the details of the man’s life. “Then we recognized, all those present, that the spirit was the speaker.”

As the questioning and exorcism continued, the spirit was asked where he had been since his death three years before:

“I have gone from mountain to mountain, and from hill to hill. I did not find rest in any place, except that for a period I was in Shekhem, where I entered into one woman, and they removed me through the aforementioned and placed amulets upon her so that I was unable to return to her further.” The narrator then says that he knows all of this to be true from independent inquiries. The spirit continues: “After that I was roving through the city to enter synagogues [thinking that] perhaps I would find rest and comfort there for my soul, but they did not allow me to enter any synagogue.” The spirit then explained that the sages of the past did not permit him to enter, and so he wandered until he found this “kosher” woman to enter. And when asked if he thought it was legitimate to couple with a married woman, the spirit, with wonderful ethereal insouciance, answers, “What of it? Her husband is not here, but in Salonika!” 

With demons about, the consequences of a business trip could be dire.

The most eminent scholars of the time, Isaac Luria, Shlomo Alkabetz, Joseph Karo, Hayyim Vital and others were involved in exorcisms. Some were possessed themselves, like Karo, whose Maggid Mishna took hold of him and dictated, but such possession could on occasion be benevolent. The point is that this was not restricted to a fringe or the untutored; the world was rife with spirits.

Are such stories merely a quaint remnant of an earlier age? In 1999 in Dimona (a name whose origin is from Joshua 21, not from the seeming cognate “demon”), a widowed mother of eight claimed that her deceased husband had entered her body. Although several rabbis refused her an exorcism, one, Rabbi David Basri, head of the Shalom Yeshiva in Jerusalem, was equal to the task. Over the objections of many notable rabbis — and on Israeli national television — he performed the exorcism, apparently successfully.

For a while after this incident, there was a spate of claims of possession in Israel, but the wave abated. 

Some examples practically beg the listener to sneer. In his famous work Or Zarua, the 13th century rabbi Isaac ben Moses writes (recorded by Joshua Trachtenberg in his still valuable “Jewish Magic and Superstition”) of the married woman who had relations with a demon — who appeared once in the shape of her husband and once in the uniform of a local petty count. The question was — is she permitted to her husband after this demonic coupling? Was it adultery — was it voluntary? In the end, she was permitted to her husband by the rabbinic court. There is no report on the fate of the real petty count.

Jewish sources do at times distinguish mental illness from possession, although today we might be inclined to include all such stories in the category of mental disturbances. Recently I was teaching what might be reckoned the very first case of possession — the case of Saul:

“The spirit of God departed from Saul and an evil spirit of God tormented him. And Saul’s servants said to him, ‘Behold now, an evil spirit of God is tormenting you. Let our Lord command your servants, who are before you, to seek out a man, who knows how to play the lyre, and when the evil spirit of God is upon you, he will play with his hand and all will be well.” (I Samuel 16:14-16)

When David, who was then summoned, played music for Saul, it did indeed cure him, at least temporarily. So if this was an exorcism — a matter debated in the sources — then King David was the first recorded exorcist. It gives the profession a noble pedigree, at least.

What was notable in teaching this incident to my Torah class was that not a single member of the class was tempted to interpret this as anything but an internal event in Saul — that is, not an external spirit that afflicted him but a mental disturbance. Although exorcisms are a radical example, we have turned religious experience into a neurological datum: visions are hysteria, trances mania, and prophesies seizures. A desacralized world is more devastating to demons than any exorcist. Vampires make good television and zombies are a mainstay of horror lit, but in life a taste for blood or a lack of affect wrapped in masking tape lead us to grab the DSM and scissors, not a cross and silver bullet.

The meaning of exorcism is tied up for many in issues of gender (some believe this was a bursting forth of frustration from constraint for women or even of obtaining some public power, although plenty of men reported possessions as well) or of Christian influence (although scholars debate whether Jewish exorcisms were a result of the upsurge in the Christian world).  Most of all, it reflects the belief, deeply held and derived from the Talmud, that we were constantly surrounded by invisible forces. In a world of suffering, who could believe that such forces would never be malevolent?

It seems so reminiscent of an outgrown age. And yet … we retain some suspicion, evident in traces of our language, of an earlier world view: “I am not myself today.” “I don’t know what got into me.” Even splitting off selves from essence — “I don’t know who I am” — is a sign of the duality of nature we feel and the way in which boundaries of the self sometimes feel porous. We, too, seek shamans and rabbis and healers, though they often go by different names. And madness, true madness, seems still as though it was a grip from outside more than an internal malady.

Far as we have come, our knowledge is still a small homestead on the vast landscape of our ignorance.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.

Shalom Auslander is my failure

A review of Shalom Auslander’s new memoir caught my eye — was this author the curly-haired boy who had been my ninth-grade student at Yeshiva University High


Reading the review confirmed, first, that it was the same person, though now the curls had given way to a contemporary buzz cut, and second, that his writing was to Noah Feldman, another controversial former yeshiva student, what Junior Classics are to Shakespeare.

Then I saw his eponymous Web site, and realized that my initial estimate had been over generous. Self-promotion, biblical inaccuracies, shock value, uber alles. I have no admiration for what my former high school student has done. I can sympathize with his pain growing up, but abuse doesn’t produce pseudo-philosophy of this caliber. Neither does a school.

If Feldman wants acceptance, Auslander wants a book tour and a cheeseburger without the guilt. But shorn of the elaborate gyrations that don’t quite succeed in justifying a lifestyle of pot, pork and pater-bashing, Auslander has hit on a point that troubles every thinking religious person.

It’s a lot easier to believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God than a benevolent one. Bad things do happen to good people — all the time — and the believer spends a great deal of spiritual energy putting aside, and keeping aside, creeping doubts in God’s goodness. When I let it, my mind wanders to my first trip to Israel in 1983, when I was accompanied by my 22-year-old sister, and seriously dated a former classmate from Ramaz. A dozen years later, both women would be dead from cancer, and I would be a rabbi, teaching people that there is a good God and a reason for everything. They would forever be connected in my memory to Effi Chovers, my sister’s classmate at Ramaz, who was killed in 1982, in Operation Peace for the Galilee. But God has His reasons.

In my pastoral work, the instances of suffering are multiplied. A couple, long infertile, finally pregnant, struck with a miscarriage; a congregant’s child afflicted with illness; a wrecked marriage leaving both partners savaged — sometimes the emotional effect feels cumulative, and it is very tempting to point an accusing finger upward. I can walk into a wedding, and feel tears fill my eyes from the knowledge of the silent sorrow of so many families around me. And, of course, looming above my life is the spectre of the Holocaust, in which my father’s whole family perished, and whose icy grip accompanied me growing up.

Part of me wonders: Am I blinded by self-interest to take up the cause of God simply because He is not currently aiming his bow at me? Am I dishonest to preach belief in a good God, when so many around me are suffering? When I help comfort a mourner or ease the pain of another human being, am I God’s partner as I preach, and as I dearly want to believe, or am I cleaning up after Him, saving His creatures from His wrath?

But I am not the first to struggle with these questions. From Abraham to Aher, Jeremiah to Job, the Aish Kodesh to Elie Wiesel, those who have seen and understood more than I, have struggled to keep love in their lexicon. And one of the least-answerable post-Holocaust questions is how so many survivors succeeded in rebuilding not only their lives but their faith. My father (z”l) was one such survivor, but his formula was ineffable, nontransferable, to be emulated, but never duplicated, even by a son. And yet I remember the hours he spent, staring out our apartment window, murmuring niggunim, laden with unshed tears. I never asked him about the inner struggles of those moments. I didn’t have to.

In this area, like dieting, you can only adopt what works for you. For Sherlock Holmes it was the aroma of the rose, wholly unnecessary from an evolutionary point of view, that “proved” the existence of a benevolent God. For others it is a personal experience of miraculous salvation. For me it was a chocolate cake.

It was 1985, and I was back in Israel, at a yeshiva. It was my birthday, and I was unutterably lonely. My mother’s care package, having arrived early, was long-since dismembered, devoured and forgotten. It was my first birthday away from home, and nobody remembered. In my mind, I played the maudlin and the miserable to the hilt. I decided to visit married friends in a nearby neighborhood. Their door was open, but no one was home. On the table stood a homemade cake and a note — “Sorry we couldn’t be here in person. Happy Birthday and many happy returns.” That cake did more than sate my sweet tooth. People like that convince me that God is good.

So, too, does the rabbi whom I call upon to answer questions posed to me that I can’t handle myself. He has yet to tell me how inane my queries really are, or that if I cracked open a Shulchan Aruch, I could find the answers myself. And the people of my community who rallied around us when my wife was on bed rest during a difficult pregnancy, or when I sat shiva. From people like these, I extrapolate to God.

This doesn’t answer my questions. It doesn’t staunch my tears. I don’t sleep better. I don’t justify terrible things when they happen to others, and I don’t know why they don’t happen to me. But I know that just as surely as there is inexplicable evil in the world, there is inexplicable good, as well. It’s something to put on the other side of the scale, something to attribute to a good God.

And while I am awake at night I also ask myself: Should I have baked Auslander a chocolate cake?

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg serves as rav of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills, N.Y., and teaches at the SAR Academy.

TV: Shoah makes searing mark in Ken Burns WWII documentary

Ken Burns knew from the start that he didn’t want his seven-episode, 14 1/2-hour documentary on World War II to be associated with any notion of “The Good War.” And yet in its final episode, as now elderly ex-GIs recount the lessons learned from liberating German concentration camps, it illustrates exactly why wars sometimes can be noble causes.

But Burns wanted to get to that point without cloaking his documentary in the feel-good heritage of “The Good War” — a term originating with Studs Terkel’s 1984 oral history — or Tom Brokaw’s 1998 “The Greatest Generation,” about the GIs who fought in that war.

“It was being smothered in this bloodless myth called ‘The Good War,’ when in fact it was the bloodiest of all wars,” Burns said by telephone, en route to an advance screening in Minnesota. He said the war cost 60 million lives — a fact too easily forgotten by history buffs coldly studying the various armies involved and their military campaigns.

“The War,” as his resultant documentary is simply titled, will begin airing on PBS stations on Sept. 23. It will be on for four nights the first week and three nights the second. Burns’ previous PBS films about the American experience include “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “Jazz.”

“We used the words ‘bearing witness’ for what we wanted to do,” he said of his initial proposal for the documentary. “We wanted to use four [American] towns as examples to get to know people — those who fought and those who stayed at home — and to get to their experiences as it happened.”

The result is Burns and co-director Lynn Novick seeing the war as it was unfolding through the eyes of soldiers from Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento; Waterbury, Conn., and Luverne, Minn., to show, in so many ways, the ongoing hellishness of even a necessary war.

Since World War II unfolds the way American soldiers — and friends and family at home — experienced it, the Holocaust is only cursorily brought up before the final episode, “A World Without War,” when the soldiers enter the camps. But it then becomes the center — “the beating heart,” in Burns’ words — of that episode.

That episode covers immense ground, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, the battle for Okinawa, the final collapse of Germany, the atomic bomb, Japan’s surrender and the end of the war. But its solemn, powerful concentration camp scenes, which involve his soldiers bearing witness against Nazi atrocities, are the ones with deepest impact.

Three of the hometown soldiers recall entering different concentration camps during the fall of Germany in 1945. And, as they still vividly remember, they saw something worse than war: the Holocaust.

In fact, they came to realize war could be good, if it could stop or punish those willing to commit such evil, organized mass murder. The episode pairs their recollections with often horrifyingly graphic footage from the actual camps they entered.

Also during this passage in the episode, war historian Paul Fussell, who fought in World War II when he was just 19, begins to quiver and cry when explaining how discovering those camps made it clear to the American soldiers the war “was conducted in defense of some noble idea.”

Burns called that a “searing, incredible emotional comment. I assumed Fussell would be an avuncular commentator. But the questions put him back in the moment.”

The episode begins with a black-and-white photo of a German SS soldier about to execute a Polish Jew at the edge of an open mass grave in Ukraine in 1942. Then one of the “The War’s” ongoing witnesses, former Marine pilot Sam Hynes, makes a comment that indirectly addresses the meaning of religion in a world where the Holocaust can happen.

If there were no evil, he says, people wouldn’t need to “construct” religions.

“No evil, no God,” he says. “Of course, no evil, no war. But there will always be evil. Human beings are aggressive animals.”

Burnett Miller from Sacramento recalls how starving survivors at Mauthausen in Austria, in their hunger for the GIs’ concentrated food, died from “overwhelming their systems.” He also describes, and accompanying footage shows, bodies in rigor mortis awaiting cremation in the furnaces. Miller’s comments also touch upon a key Holocaust theme — the complicity of nearby civilians and the church.

“They could smell the camp in town,” he says. “The villagers said they knew nothing about the camp; the priest said he knew nothing about the camp. I knew that was a lie.”

In another scene, Dwain Luce of Mobile, Ala., recalls forcing the presumably complicit German townspeople of Ludwigslust, near a liberated camp, to collect the bodies and give them proper Christian and Jewish burials in the park. “So they would never forget,” he says.

He also has this to say to Holocaust deniers: “These people in this country who say it didn’t happen, it did happen; I saw it.”

The third of the hometown soldiers who helped liberate the camps is Jewish, Ray Leopold of Waterbury, Conn. He was at Hadamar in Germany, where he found not only camp victims but also survivors of Nazi medical experiments inside an insane asylum.

“No apology will ever atone for what I saw,” he says.

“At the end of the day, nothing is more powerful in our film than Ray fixing the camera with a 92-year-old’s fury when he says that,” Burns said.

A narrator in the film provides voice-over context, as images of the bones and skulls of victims are shown, of the Holocaust’s scope. Some two-thirds of Europe’s 9 million Jews were murdered, along with 4 million Soviet prisoners of war, 2 million Poles and hundreds of thousands of homosexuals, Gypsies, political opponents, handicapped persons, slave laborers and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In this final episode, with death and destruction unfolding on a global scale virtually every minute, there is the question of how much time the Holocaust can command. After all, when the Americans enter the camps in 1945, there is still a long, difficult battle ahead in the Pacific.

In the end, it doesn’t get that much time — about 10 minutes. But it makes a long-lasting impact. “It sought its own length,” Burns said. “I always say the greatest speech ever made was the Gettysburg Address. That was two minutes long.”

Books: Mailer scrutinizes evil in form of young Hitler

“The Castle in the Forest,” by Norman Mailer (Random House, $27.95).

Of all the Jewish American writers who have shaped our culture these past 60 years, none has been so controversial or “outside” society as Norman Mailer, who recently published his 36th book, “The Castle in the Forest,” his first novel in a decade.

The Castle in the Forest
An immediate commercial and literary success at 25 with the publication of his war novel, “The Naked and the Dead,” in 1948, Mailer became famous overnight. He was nearly a decade younger than Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud but already better known. Philip Roth, who was 15 at the time, was not to win acclaim for another 11 years, when he published his first book, “Goodbye, Columbus.”

By 1959, Mailer had already written two other novels, “Barbary Shore” and “The Deer Park,” and had just come out with his first grand compendium, “Advertisements for Myself,” which consisted of fiction and nonfiction and included his sexually charged story, “The Time of Her Time.” There seemed little doubt then that of all the post-war American Jewish writers, he occupied center stage.

Nevertheless, it was Bellow, Malamud and Roth who became “our” Jewish American trio: The writers with whom the synagogues, Jewish organizations and readers identified, although not always with glee nor without complaint. They were “our” authors, like it or not, but all three resisted the identification, even though Jewish themes dominated much of their writing.

Mailer, however, with little effort, avoided the embrace. He seemed not part of the tribe.

“Is he Jewish?” a friend asked me at the time.

It was a logical question, for Mailer had barely written a word about the Jewish experience in America: not about growing up Jewish in an America where anti-Semitism was ubiquitous nor about attending Harvard (1939-1943) when it maintained an unofficial quota system.

Mailer, one of the accepted 10 percent, was naturally enough given two Jewish roommates his freshman year, for segregation was the assumed custom of the day. It is not difficult to imagine the riffs that Roth would have played on that life passage.

But none of this is present in Mailer’s fiction or his reportage, either.

When a Jewish voice surfaces briefly in “The Armies of the Night,” a third-person portrait of Mailer as guide-protagonist of the 1967 Washington protest march against the war in Vietnam, he flicks us a comedic account of his encounter with an anti-Semite.

Mailer, one of the leaders of the march, is arrested along with a young American Nazi protester. Mailer is delighted. The two men begin to eye one another in the police paddy wagon:

“‘You Jew bastard,’ he shouted. ‘Dirty Jew with kinky hair.’

“They didn’t speak that way. It was too corny. You could only answer.

‘You filthy kraut.’

“‘Dirty Jew.’

“‘Kraut pig….’

“‘Come here you, you coward,’ he said to Mailer, ‘I’ll kill you.’

“‘Throw the first punch, baby,’ said Mailer, ‘you’ll get it all.'”

That parody aside, Mailer’s books read as though all the autobiographical themes and experiences of his life, his journey from child to man, have been purged, as though he had succeeded in pole vaulting over his own life, landing on the other side, his imagination and literary sensibility rushing forward to engage with the present and future experiences of his life in America.

Part of this we know from his writing has to do both with his ambition and his narcissism. Mailer had written in “Advertisements for Myself” that he hoped to succeed Ernest Hemingway as the greatest writer of his generation and that his goal, above all, was to create a revolution of his time in the consciousness of his readers; it was America he wanted to capture, not the fractured experience of Jewish America, not the voice of a minority scratching at an open wound. That was too modest a dream for him, too provincial a pennant to capture. He had no time for being cosseted by a Jewish identity. That was irrelevant.

Thus he wrote in 1959, at age 36, “I have been running for president these last 10 years in the privacy of my mind, and it occurs to me that I am less close now than when I began…. The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time. Whether rightly or wrongly, it is then obvious that I would go so far as to think it is my present and future work which will have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years. I could be wrong, and if I am, then I’m the fool who will pay the bill….”

The consciousness of our time! What could be more grand or grandiose than to affect the revolutions in our century’s culture — sexual, political and popular; to be present and to bear witness to nearly everything — power, violence and the CIA; Hollywood, boxing and our national political conventions; the march on Washington and the execution of a mass murderer; Picasso and Marilyn Monroe?

But nothing about growing up Jewish in Brooklyn. No Jewish demons or humiliations. And nothing about Israel. Indeed, Mailer told an audience at The Writer’s Bloc last month in Los Angeles, that when he published “Harlot’s Ghost” in 1992, he had never visited Israel.

And yet Mailer appears to have maintained strong ties to family and roots. His was not a religious home, but it was decidedly a Jewish one. He was the adored son of a strong-willed Jewish mother, the Jewish prince named Norman Kingsley Mailer, who remained close and warm to parents, younger sister and relatives all his life. This included Friday night family dinners at his mother’s home, at times with several of his six wives, along with a mix-and-match collection of his nine children. And while he was not shy about his sexual exploits, love affairs and the explosive role of sex in his life’s theology, he also was determinedly a family man, though none of this finds its way into his books.

Power, politics and sex. War and violence. What more could he write about, you might well ask. Now, just turned 84, he has published “The Castle in the Forest,” which attempts to engage and scrutinize the nature of evil personified in the life of the young Adolf Hitler. He — Hitler as a youth — ostensibly is the subject of the novel.

Clergy abuse — the cover and the story; Anti-Semitic road rage — do the right thing?

Cover Choice

It is appalling to me that you should depict this dreadful image on your cover (“Don’t Kid Yourself,” Jan. 12)

I understand your exploring the topic in an article, but to put this image and headline on the cover of The Jewish Journal when you describe plenty of anti-Semitism incidents causing us problems already is really inappropriate. As a subscriber of several years, I am really disappointed in your choice of covers, to say the least. You could use some better editorial advisers.

Fleurette Hershman
Sherman Oaks

While The Jewish Journal should be commended for addressing this issue, the cover photo illustration was not necessary.

Harry Green
via E-mail

I wanted to personally thank The Jewish Journal for having the courage to publish the entire JTA series, “Reining in Abuse” (Jan. 12). You have helped to break the taboo of silence and secrecy. Awareness and education are the first steps in making changes in hopes of ending sexual violence and bringing healing to our communities.

In the article, “Awareness Center and Blogs Draw Praise, Criticism,” I wanted to point out a fact that was omitted. The Awareness Center has posted our polices for removing alleged and convicted offenders from our Web page (www.theawarenesscenter.org/policies.html).

Vicki Polin
Executive Director
The Awareness Center Inc.
(Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault)

I was so moved by the writings and revelations of clergy abuse within the Jewish community. Someone was finally telling the truth. Someone had managed to put into print what has been taboo for so long. This article brings to light that rabbis, cantors and Jewish religious educators are just as capable of committing this horrendous sin of abuse.

I feel it is [also] important that the Jewish community realize that one in three women and one in seven men have been sexually abused at some time during their childhood. Just as Jewish clergy are not immune from clergy abuse, the Jewish community as a whole is not immune to incest.

Rabbis, cantors and chaplains need to confront their own feelings and fears about incest in order to provide pastoral care to their congregants in need of being heard. This cannot be pushed aside any longer.

Bonnie Leopold
Via e-mail

Ride on Wild Side

While I truly empathize with Gary Wexler’s rude awakening to anti-Semitism, I cannot help but ask, what took him so long (“Ride on the Wild Side: Road-Rage Anti-Semitism,” Jan. 12, 2007)?

Richard Friedman
Los Angeles

I was shocked that in Gary Wexler’s column, “Ride on the Wild Side: Road-Rage Anti-Semitism,” there would even be a question about reporting the Jamaican car service driver who threatened his life and spewed anti-Semitic remarks on the way to the airport.

No mention was made of reporting this incident to the police or even contacting the car service that employs this driver.

Sometimes we meet evil incarnate, and we have a responsibility to confront it. It is very unsettling that someone could have this experience and not feel a responsibility to act.

Doesn’t Wexler realize that an irrational anti-Semite serving the public makes everyone who uses that service unsafe and that Wexler and his family’s safety is not increased by not reporting this incident to the police?

Pamela Abramovici

Gary Wexler reports on his brush with an insane anti-Semite and his dilemma about a proper reaction.How about reporting this lunatic to company management, then consider appropriate legal proceedings. The district attorney can decide on a proper course of action, especially if there is a pattern of such abuse.

I emigrated from France as a teenager, so I never got too used to the golden age of acceptance Wexler mentions. Most Jews outside the United States know anti-Semitism as a fact of life. No, they do not like it.

But, despite lacking a full embrace by much of the rest of the world, Jews throughout the ages have chosen to celebrate and perpetuate Judaism. This is what many of us continue to do today.

So, Wexler, do not feel afraid, guilty or ambivalent. Be proud. Defend yourself, your family and your people. As a Jew, you deserve as much respect as any other human being. Do not settle for less.

Stephan C. Schonbuch
Culver City

I read your article and would like to raise several issues with you (“Ride on the Wild Side: Road-Rage Anti-Semitism,” Jan. 12, 2007):

Why didn’t you use your cellphone to call the cab company and complain while riding? After all, I can guarantee you the driver would not have killed himself to kill you.

When you got out of the taxi, you should have told this fool that his table would be turning fast, when the authorities knock on his door.

Your apologetic and no-courage sentence: “You have no idea who I am or who my people are. All you did was spew hate,” was much redundant. Who cares what he knows. Could you educate and turn around a fool?

And, as this idiot asked, “Are you going to report me like the Jew did about Mel Gibson? Are you going to get all your Jewish organizations after me now?” you should have said: “You bet I will and more.”

I hope no tip was included!

And with the self-pity one reads in between these lines, you should have then turned around and asked yourself, “What am I going to do about the Mel Gibsons of the world; about people like Judith Regan; about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threats to have a world without Israel and the U.SA.; about the brutal torture and killing of Ilan Halimi in France and the like; about all the recent pronouncements of anti-Semitism throughout the world. What are you going to do about it all?

What is your contribution besides self-pity? I would like to know!

Movie on pedophile priest puts a face on evil

In October 2004, journalist Amy Berg cold-called a defrocked priest she has nicknamed the “Hannibal Lecter of pedophiles.” While serving Central California parishes in the 1970s and ’80s, the Rev. Oliver O’Grady allegedly molested dozens of children — boys and girls, infants and adolescents — according to Berg’s new documentary film, “Deliver Us From Evil.”

He did so with the knowledge of church officials — including Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony — who moved him from parish to parish when parents complained, O’Grady alleges.
After months of phone conversations, Berg persuaded the priest to appear in a documentary that “has heightened interest among law enforcement officials … in considering a criminal case against [Mahony],” The New York Times reported on Oct. 8.
In a Journal interview on Oct. 9, Tod M. Tamberg, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, called the movie “very heavily biased.”
“This film was heavily edited and weighed in favor of Amy Berg making the cardinal the culprit and completely ignoring … that O’Grady is a skilled liar and a master manipulator,” Tamberg added.
“Evil” — which won the nonfiction prize at the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival in July — presents for perhaps the first time a convicted pedophile speaking graphically about his actions on camera. O’Grady’s words provide “the backbone of a deeply disturbing documentary about the Roman Catholic clergy abuse crisis,” the Associated Press said.
When O’Grady first answered Berg’s call with a cheerful “Hello and good evening,” to her surprise he didn’t curtly dismiss her as had other pedophiles she had telephoned to be in her film. Berg believes he ultimately agreed to talk, in part, because he was angry with church officials.
“I should have been removed and attended to,” he says in the film.
O’Grady, who arrived in California in the early 1970s, remained a parish priest until he was convicted on four molestation counts in 1993. After seven years in prison, he was deported to his native Ireland.
In the movie, O’Grady describes having been molested by an older brother as a boy, and how he, in turn, abused a younger sister. As a priest, he says he sometimes started fondling children while sleeping over at their homes: He would often begin by hugging a child, then let his hand stray if they did not protest.
He recollects his crimes in a detached or avuncular tone that contrasts with anguished testimony from his victims. In the film, one father cries and screams as he blames himself for allowing O’Grady to abuse his daughter: “At 5 years old — for God’s sake, how could that happen?” the father says.
The film also includes never-before-seen taped depositions in which Mahony says he was unaware of the abuse and did not know O’Grady well when he served as bishop of Stockton from 1980 to 1985. But in the movie, excerpts from court documents, superimposed over Mahony’s testimony, suggest otherwise.
In response, Tamberg said Mahony’s testimony was heavily edited and facts omitted to make Berg’s points. Tamberg said Mahony did not know O’Grady had committed abuse until the former priest was arrested in 1993 and that “Evil” largely presents the opinions of plaintiffs’ attorneys, who stand to gain financially by suing the church.
Tamberg said he believes the documentary poignantly depicts the victims’ anguish, which is “its greatest strength but also its greatest failing. Because then we are asked to put all of O’Grady’s lying and manipulation aside and believe him…. [But] he lied to his bishop, he lied to the families, he lied to victims and I believe he even manipulated the filmmakers.”
Berg indignantly denied that she was ever manipulated, and that her documentary takes undue potshots at the church.
“If this is the best they can come up with, then let them respond to the allegations in the film, for once,” she said.
She wants church officials to answer questions such as “‘Why didn’t you take O’Grady Out?’ ‘What are you hiding?’ ‘[And] how many are still out there?'”Despite her bravado, Berg admitted she previously declined to tell reporters she is a Jewish, divorced single mother (she lives with her young son, Spencer, in an apartment in Santa Monica). She worried that the information might make her appear biased against the church and that the diocese might somehow interfere with the release of her film, since it successfully delayed the airing of some of her CNN pieces.
Tamberg said Berg’s news pieces were delayed because “we asked for fairness, and CNN management agreed.”
The 36-year-old filmmaker was raised Reform in Valley Glen; she attended Jewish Camp Swig in Saratoga and became a bat mitzvah at Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village. But when public high school proved too large and overwhelming for young Amy, her parents enrolled her in a Catholic school because it was affordable and many other Jewish students were enrolled there, as well. All students were required to attend religion class, but Berg said she used to ditch because she did not believe some of the teachings after having been raised Jewish. “Children were saying ‘Hail Marys’ to be forgiven for chewing gum or not brushing their hair,” she recalled of her school.
Years later, while producing for CBS and CNN, Berg was drawn to covering the church’s pedophilia crisis because victims exuded “this unbelievably raw, lonely, ‘Where do I turn?’ mentality.”
She convinced O’Grady to allow her to film him only after speaking to him every Sunday for five months. In December 2004, she flew to Dublin to meet with him in the city center (he would not tell her where he lived.) The eight-day shoot in April, 2005, was “brutal,” both physically and emotionally, she says. For example, O’Grady nonchalantly spoke of his attraction for children as kids were playing in a nearby park; in the film he even peers over the fence to look at them.
To keep herself calm during the process, Berg turned at the end of each day to meditation, including exercises from Melinda Ribner’s “Everyday Kabbalah: A Practical Guide to Jewish Meditation, Healing and Personal Growth.” After a week of listening to O’Grady describe his molestations of children, she said, “I was completely overwhelmed and exhausted.”

The Hebrascope: Signs of the Jewdiac


(February 19-March 20)
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Josh Groban

There’s a study that shows that lab rats don’t get as stressed from being shocked as they do from not knowing when the shocks will come. Put that rat on a regular shocking schedule, and it doesn’t freak out. How does this apply to the human Pisces? Some of your anxiety right now comes from a simple lack of knowledge. Get more information. The more you know, the less you will suffer from the fear of how and when that shock will arrive. This week, make a special effort to befriend casual business contacts. A stream of new work may be coming your way, and you never know whose friendship will yield rewards.

(March 21-April 20)
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Matthew Broderick

That whole “pay it forward” thing is pretty easy, as far as good deeds go. If someone is prompt, warm or even excellent in a service they provide, it’s all about referrals. Your generosity will come back to you. Aries employees may face a heavy workload this week to due the absence or illness of a co-worker. Still, if you start a project this week, it’s likely to come to fruition. Here’s the bad news: Mercury turns retrograde until March 25. That means details regarding travel, mail and technology may become frustrating. What’s an Aries to do? Back up all computer files and dip into your reserves of patience.



(April 21-May 20)
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Barbra Streisand

Business and pleasure – two great tastes that don’t always taste great together – may combine this week as someone from your social circle introduces a business proposition. The catch is that dastardly “hidden agenda” friends can have. You can’t play “hide and seek” with someone else’s agenda, but you can gently suggest that all parties show their cards and express their real desires. If you have any important messages to send, do so before Thursday. Be certain to be very clear in your communications; that funny, sarcastic e-mail that sounds hilarious in your head may be misunderstood.

(May 21 – June 20)
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Barry Levinson

Information you are getting this week is just a lot of blah blah blah until you confirm and clarify what you are hearing. Someone may be using verbal skills to manipulate your mind. Here’s where you throw down with your research skills and separate fact from fictions. Unattached Gemini may want to attend a social function with work colleagues. While it may not be the best idea for you to “dip your quill in the company ink,” don’t rule out the possibility of a co-worker bringing along a cute and appropriate-to-date friend.

(June 21-July 20)
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Sydney Pollack

Intuition has many faces. Sometimes it’s a gut feeling, or a voice whispering in your head (not the kind that happens when you forget your meds), or a nagging thought. Sometimes, intuition is just a flash. However it shows itself, this is not the week to second-guess it but to act on it. Whatever feels right is right. It’s that simple. In career matters, this is a week to embrace the old cliché about “it’s not what you know but who you know.” Information gathered privately from inside sources will help you make bold moves in your career. Who do you press for information? It’s gut check time.

(July 21 – August 21)
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Monica Lewinsky

Money may not be the root of all evil, but it is certainly the root of many a trivial argument. This week, you may find yourself at odds with a personal or professional partner about just how the cash is getting doled out. Fortunately, when it comes to dealing with banks, creditors or outstanding debts, this is an excellent week for these kinds of financial dealings. Also, this week may find you daydreaming more than usual. One second you’re getting on the freeway, the next, you’re already at your exit and have no idea how you got there. Harness your daydreams; they are filled with creative ideas. And try not to get too lost.

(August 22-September 22)
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Adam Sandler

Any Virgo who is studying, learning or composing simply must have privacy. Annoying roommates? Get away from them, sling the laptop in a bag and get to a coffee shop. If the family is around, hole away in a separate room for a couple of hours and get the alone time you need to focus. As for your emotional life, think of it this way. Why do athletes stretch before a big game or event? So they don’t break. Flexibility is key to your emotional health this week. Bend, stretch and don’t jump into an emotional situation ice cold. You don’t want to pull a mental hamstring and end up on the injured list. 

(September 23-October 22)
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Michael Douglas

Going to the gym and starting a fancy new workout regime in January is for suckers; that’s when everyone is trying to act on their secular New Year’s resolutions and the line for the treadmill is worse than the IKEA checkout line on a Saturday afternoon. Good thing for Libra, now is the time to start a routine with the stars supporting your efforts. Normally indecisive Libra may have a more difficult time making decisions. Should you have the mint chip or the rocky road? It all seems so critical and hard to maneuver. Just remember, all the flavors taste good – not to mention giving you extra encouragement to stick to your new workout plan.

(October 23-November 22)
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Jonas Salk

Welcome to a cosmic carnival of amusements. This week will be a delight for the senses, some cotton candy, a few rides and lots of pinball in your brain. There’s nothing to do but enjoy the frenetic energy and all the bright lights and colors. Oh, there is one thing to do: start up a romantic affair. If you’re in a relationship, this is a good time to win her a stuffed animal or buy him a stupid t-shirt. Basically, anyone you love or would like to love into your world, invite them to your carnival and show them a good time. If it’s unexpected or bizarre, embrace it.

(November 23-December 20)
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Harpo Marx

Watch out for savvy salespeople. You know the type; they tell you to get the timing belt changed when you just needed an oil change. They encourage you to buy the foundation primer when all you needed was the $10 makeup sponge. You may be especially susceptible to buying things you don’t need. Do not be “upsold.” This is also a good time to watch your money in other ways. Keep your purse on your lap instead of on the floor and keep your wallet safe. You may have big, inspiring dreams filled with metaphors and ideas. Keep a journal by the bed and write them down.

(December 21-January 19)
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Dave Attell

Don’t dismiss the oldsters in your world. Someone with far more experience than you do may have wisdom to impart this week. When it comes to work, you may have been coasting and it’s time to roll up your sleeves and dig into it. Are you working as hard as you can, or breezing out at exactly 5 p.m. after a solid half hour of checking e-mails and reshuffling papers? If you leave late and get to work early, your superiors will notice. What’s more, you want get that icky feeling that comes from wasting time on someone else’s dollar.

Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 18)
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Ted Koppell

Tuesday is the day if you are planning a small celebration for a loved one. I don’t mean a gigantic surprise party with a piñata or girl jumping out of a cake. If it just means ordering a pizza and renting a favorite movie, make it happen. Take care of the little details so a special person in your life can feel valued. As for the rest of week, you will feel more comfortable and aligned if you make sure you household chores are complete. Wash those last couple of dishes, take in the dry cleaning, wash the bath mat and all will be slightly better with the world.


The Evil Stepmother Dies

What do you do when you lose someone? Someone you really hated?

It’s a little awkward, I’ll tell you that much. Last month, my stepmother of more than 25 years died at age 67 of lung cancer. It was a terrible death, one I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, which, incidentally, she was.

What was my grudge? I hadn’t seen her since I was 17, the day I vowed I’d never see her again — dead or alive. That was the day she hid a piece of her jewelry, a brooch shaped like a bumblebee, and tracked me down at a crowded Santa Rosa public tennis court to accuse me of stealing it while my brother and father looked on.

But that is just the end of the story. The beginning is this: She never spoke to me directly, only in the third person, as in “Teresa is getting fat. Teresa looks dirty today. Has she been playing outside? Teresa has no table manners.”

It’s difficult to exaggerate her malevolence. The woman repeatedly suggested I was adopted when we were alone together, which she denied doing in front of other people. She was the Great Santini in a denim wrap skirt and espadrilles.

Better yet: She was the fairy-tale evil stepmother.

The question is: What happens to the story when the villain dies?

Once when I was 8 years old, I caught the flu and couldn’t get out of bed. She didn’t feed me for two days while my dad was at work, oblivious. I was so scared of her, I didn’t even tell him. This is a woman who once told me, “You should never wear your seatbelt. They don’t work.”

There are other stepparents who suck, I’m sure; mine was just one of them.

She didn’t want me around since the day she met me at age 3, and she made sure I knew it. In turn, I fantasized she would step off a curb and be hit by a Mack truck.

I only saw her when I visited my dad once a month, taking the bus from San Francisco, where I lived with my mom. But that visit was more than enough to coat my childhood with a gummy film of dread.

Why did she hide that brooch? My guess is that she was angry my dad took us kids to play tennis that Sunday morning. She felt excluded and restless. So, she made a move that seemed logical to a jealous wacko, hiding jewelry to accuse her stepchild of stealing it. This was her pattern. If fun was being had — my dad and I listening to poetry records from the library, my brother and I watching an especially funny “Gomer Pyle” — she would find a way to stop the amusement.

Judaism tells us to “honor thy father and mother.” But where does that leave someone in my shoes? Trying to think this through, I began speed dialing local rabbis.

“Tradition teaches you have to respect a stepparent, as part of honoring your parent. However, you needed to self-preserve, ” Rabbi Sherre Zwelling Hirsch, of Temple Sinai, told me over the phone. “God doesn’t want us to be violently damaged, not our physical selves, not our souls.”

This underlines what I already believed: Shaking my stepmother loose was the best thing I ever did.

As for my dad, I wish he had defended me that day or any other day. But to believe me over her would have meant kicking her out, overhauling his life, cooking his own meals, being alone. It also would have meant admitting that his mate was cruel to his kids, had always been, and that he’d allowed it.

Easier to look the other way and hope for the best.

My dad and I remained close all those years I never spoke to her, and that always surprises people. He was generous in letting me have my grudge. He may well have known my stepmother richly deserved it. He would drive hours to see me because I wouldn’t go over to his house. My stepmother hated everyone in our family, so I never ran into her at gatherings. She was easy to avoid.

Now that she’s gone, my dad calls me in Los Angeles almost every day, and he doesn’t back down from his support of his wife.

“She was the smartest woman,” he told me over the phone. “Life was never boring with her. I was just a dumb kid and she taught me everything.”

She was 8 years older than my dad and had bookcases full of psychology books from all the community college classes she took. She never earned a degree, but she was happy to diagnose all of our mental problems. Maybe he found that helpful. And maybe she was intelligent — odious and diabolical — but intelligent.

In a sense, my stepmother was a good influence. Shame and the hunch that you are internally mangled really can give you a strong work ethic. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to prove how wrong she was about me — my lack of talent, my lack of beauty and manners, even my kleptomania, which she invented.

During almost every conversation, my dad now says, “Teresa, I’m not going to be with any more crazy women.”

Because of my stepmother’s unfortunate spending-to-earning ratio, and her yearlong illness, my dad now rents out a room in his house and drives a bicycle. Still, he wasn’t a victim. He was a volunteer.

Whatever his reasons for staying with my stepmother, none of them will ever be good enough for me. But after hours on the couches of nurturing women with amber beads and hyphenated names and advanced degrees, I stopped being mad at my dad for failing to protect me. The feeling was just gone one day, like an ache in your shoulder or a crick in your neck you barely remember having once it goes.

I can lather up resentment for a long line at Starbucks, but I’m all done being pissed off at my dad, or trying to figure him out.

When my stepmother died, it was redundant. To me, she was already gone. Still for my dad, it was a devastating loss. Which makes this a complicated situation. The graceful thing is to listen, be supportive, tell him he’ll be OK, give him books about grief and even copy edit his JDate profile, all of which I’ve done. “My wife recently died [cancer]” is just not what chicks dig in an Internet profile and I was there to correct it.

While I might be tempted to blurt out, “Ding dong the witch is dead!” I don’t. To me, there is no sense in respecting the dead just because they happen to be dead, but there is something sacred in respecting the living, in this case my dad, who needs me and whom I couldn’t love more, despite his questionable taste in partners.

“You are obligated to honor your father,” Rabbi Brad Shavit Artson, head of the University of Judaism’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, told me, reassuringly. “But you’re not obligated to lie, or to be a doormat, just to be a grown-up. This isn’t the time to unburden yourself of your true feelings about your stepmother, but to shut up and be his help, make sure he eats and sleeps, be compassionate. That’s all Judaism requires of you.”

Because keeping my mouth shut is the most mature thing I’ve ever done, I want to follow Artson’s directive. To that end, I’ve asked my dad not to read this particular piece.

As it happens, I had two stepparents. My mother also had remarried. Earlier this year, my stepfather died, which was like losing a parent, because he was good to me and I admired him. I figure when it comes to losing stepparents, this year I broke even.

Although we offered, neither my brother nor I attended our stepmother’s funeral. Dad insisted he didn’t want us to fly all that way.

A few weeks later, when the commotion ebbed and the grief set in, my dad invited us for a weekend visit. Our plan was to cheer my dad up, take him hiking and to the movies.

That’s how I ended up back in Santa Rosa, just north of San Francisco, in the damp house I hadn’t seen for years. I stayed in the old utility room where I used to sleep with whatever hunkering golden retriever they had at the time. Just being there reminded me of how terrified I had been of her. I still had the sense that at any moment she was going to barge in and shout, “Teresa left crumbs on the counter! She needs to get out here now!”

My stepmother never worked at a paying job a day in her life, and had the tawny, crinkled skin of a woman who gardens a lot. As mean and squinty as her eyes were when directed my way, they were green and pretty, homecoming-queen eyes. Although my stepmother was always gaining and losing the same 40 pounds, to me she was all beefy shoulders and sinister stockiness. I have no idea how tall she really was, because in my mind, she was as fearful and looming as a defensive tackle, leaning her elbow in my doorway, impassable.

My stepmonster may be incinerated, but she still gives me the stone-cold willies.

The only perspective being an adult gives me is that she must have been really screwed up. Miserable and screwed up. Conventional wisdom and pop psychology suggest I suck it up and forgive her, but Judaism does not, Artson said.

The need to categorically forgive, he said, “is a lie we get from a weird, watered-down Christianity. It’s not a Jewish teaching. In Judaism, we’re only obligated to forgive someone who seriously apologizes and repents.”

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but during her last weeks of life, I really thought she was going to make amends. Every day, I waited for that “sorry call,” but it never came. She still owes me an apology and it’s going to be pretty hard to collect now. Being in her dwelling without unleashing the full force of my resentment was like making a fist and digging my nails into my palms for three days.

The hallway was painted a sort of art deco dusty pink. That has to be one of her colors, I thought, and even though her belongings were mostly gone, her handprints were everywhere.

At one point, I noticed a Chupa Chups-brand canister decorated in a cow pattern, which looked like it could contain a large number of gourmet lollipops. It was propped against the wall by the front door. I figured it must be something a friend dropped by, because my dad doesn’t have a sweet tooth. Every time we went in or out the door, there it was, this bizarrely cheerful candy tin on the floor.

As I was brushing my teeth one night, I suddenly recalled my dad telling me about my stepmother’s cremation, how he hadn’t scattered her ashes yet, that they both agreed not to waste money on a formal funeral or an urn. I distinctly recalled my dad saying how pricey urns are and how cruel the funeral industry is to prey on the mourning. I flashed back to the big cow-colored canister in the corner. Those weren’t lollipops. Those were evil stepmommipops.

What happens to the story when the villain dies?

For me, it’s been about my dad, about biting my tongue in his presence while still holding on to one unswerving truth; I didn’t want her to suffer, but I don’t miss her. And that’s just going to have to be fine.

The Talmud says, “The world is like an inn; the world to come a home.” Although I wish we hadn’t been checked into the same inn, I hope she is home. I notice the Talmud says nothing about spending the hereafter in a gourmet lollipop tin, but I’m sure she’ll eventually be scattered, ashes gusting up off some mountain as my dad and his latest golden retriever look on.

Here’s the thing about villains; no matter how far they scatter, they also stick.

All of the rabbis I spoke with said the same thing. We don’t have to forgive, but for our own good, we should try.

But what about that temptation I feel to do a happy dance instead of mourn? That can’t be appropriate.

“Mourn the relationship that should have been,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom. “Sit down with a glass of wine and ask yourself, how nice would it have been if she had been supportive, protective, fun to be with?”

“Rabbi,” I said, “that’s what I did all of my 20s.”

He paused and said, “Do it again.”

Teresa Strasser is an Emmy Award and L.A. Press Club-winning writer. She’s on the Web at teresastrasser.com


Carlyle Discusses Dangers of ‘Hitler’

Robert Carlyle, of "The Full Monty" and "Angela’s Ashes" fame, gives a striking performance in the title role of the CBS miniseries "Hitler: The Rise of Evil." The film, which airs Sunday and Tuesday (May 18 and 20) at 9 p.m., focuses on Hitler’s life from Munich beer hall orator in 1920, through his political machinations within the Nazi party and against the Weimar Republic, ending in 1934 with the consolidation of all state power in his hands. Speaking with a pronounced Scottish burr (which he suppresses in the film) from his home in his native Glasgow, the 42-year-old actor discussed the challenges and rewards of his role with The Jewish Journal.

Jewish Journal: What were your thoughts when you decided to take the role of Hitler?

Robert Carlyle: At first I was frightened because I realized the potential dangers and pitfalls. But I decided I wouldn’t do a carbon copy of Hitler. I would do my own interpretation, that I could explore him like any other character. Then a window opened up and I wasn’t frightened any more.

JJ: One of your fellow cast members, Peter Stormare, said, "I can’t imagine being Bobby [Carlyle] and having to look at himself as Hitler every day because of all the images that flash before your eyes, all the time." What were your feelings?

RC: Once shooting began, in my quiet moments, I tried to empty myself of the character on a daily basis, rather than store it up for four months. Also, as Hitler, I didn’t look at all like myself. I had the mustache, a false nose, cheek pieces and more weight as Hitler got older.

JJ: What was your working day like when you were shooting the film in and around Prague?

RC: It took around one-and-a-half hours for the makeup and I worked 14-15 hours on an average day. As we went further along, the days got even longer.

JJ: I understand that you were offered the role of Hitler three times before you took this one.

RC:Yes, the first time was about three years ago but it didn’t come to anything. Another time was for the film "Max" [in which Hitler was played by Noah Taylor]. Five months before I started the CBS job, I worked for three months on a BBC television production which started with Hitler in the bunker and we flashed back to his earlier life. So I had already learned a good deal about the character.

JJ: I believe the BBC project was canceled, partly due to strong Jewish protests.

RC: I’m not sure. I heard that there were funding problems because the American studio partner backed out. I don’t know about Jewish protests, but if there were any I would understand that.

JJ: One of the concerns raised when CBS announced the project was that any good actor would try to find the human elements in Hitler and therefore make him more sympathetic.

RC: It wasn’t a question of searching for the human traits. I didn’t have to find that to get close to the character. I thought Hitler was very cunning and had a belief of you’re-either-for-me-or-against-me. I tried to focus on these things.

JJ: Were you aware of the objections raised by some Jewish spokesmen and organizations in the early stages of the CBS project?

RC: Not at all. I didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. But I knew from the beginning that if I gave as honest a portrayal as I could, it would be all right. I didn’t want to upset anyone.

JJ: After you finished shooting, did you go through a decompression stage?

RC: Yes, I took off and spent a month in the country. A few weeks ago, I went back to London for some final dubbing and suddenly saw "my" Hitler on the monitor. And I said to myself, "Jesus, what a pompous little prick" and then, "You’ve done your job."

The Necessary Fight

With all the discussion, confusion and controversy about the Bush administration’s planned actions against Saddam Hussein, it’s ironic that President Bush, a born-again Bible reader, appears to have rejected the Christian position and adopted instead the Jewish stance on self-defense and responding to evil people.

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, instructs: "If anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other one as well," adding: "Offer the wicked man no resistance."

One shudders to think of the consequences of such behavior in the face of the Hitlers of the world.

Moses, by contrast, in his first act as an adult, kills an Egyptian taskmaster who is beating a Jewish slave. His response to violence is not pacifism but defending the innocent, an approach taught clearly in the Talmud: "If someone comes to kill you, kill him first" (Sanhedrin 72a).

That blunt instruction, in turn, is based on a passage in the Torah noting that if a thief is killed while attempting to rob your house at night, "there is no blood guilt" (Exodus 22:1).

These ancient lessons are all too relevant today. When Islamic fundamentalists struck against America last Sept. 11, killing thousands of innocents, the United States responded by declaring war on the perpetrators and all those who seek to destroy this country through terror. Clearly, the notion of defending one’s self — be it a person or a nation — is accepted most widely, as is the understanding that as tragic as wars can be, they are necessary at times, and even moral.

Jewish law distinguishes between two types of war, one waged to conquer territory and one fought in self-defense. The latter, milchemet mitzvah, is literally considered to be a mitzvah.

The question today is whether the United States-planned invasion of Iraq to oust Hussein is a war of aggression or self-defense. Bush, given to seeing the world in black and white and articulating policy along those lines has come to believe that Hussein represents a clear threat to regional, and perhaps international, stability and must be removed. Bush has argued that Hussein’s race to develop biological, chemical and nuclear warfare — and the fact that he has used chemicals for the mass killing of his own people — are reason enough to act against him before he employs these instruments of mass destruction, as threatened, particularly against Israel.

Opposition to that position is mounting, though, even among the Republicans and close Bush allies. At first it was Egypt, Jordan and other Arab countries that warned against a U.S. invasion, soon joined by the Europeans. They argued against America as Bully, trying to rearrange the world as it would like, not mentioning they do business with Iraq. Here at home, the Democrats have been calling for a debate on the planned war, given its profound importance. Fair enough, but their arguments seem to be more about the need for "a national dialogue" rather than specific reasons why a war would be wrong.

Most attention has gone to the opinion piece written by Brent Scowcroft in the Aug. 15 Wall Street Journal, warning that a war against Iraq would undermine Washington’s war on terror. Scowcroft, national security adviser for the first President Bush and a close family friend of the Bushes, argues that Hussein has not been tied to the Sept. 11 terrorists, poses no real threat to the United States itself, and that attacking him would not only be costly in terms of American dollars and soldiers’ lives but could unleash a more wide-scale war. Saddam, under attack, would strike at Israel, Scowcroft says, perhaps with weapons of mass destruction, prompting Israel to hit back, possibly with its own nuclear arsenal, setting off "an Armageddon in the Middle East."

Scowcroft says the key is for the United States to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or face the wrath of the Arab world.

Certainly, there is reason for Washington to exercise great caution and careful planning before setting out to take on Hussein, as it has said it will. (One wonders what happened to the element of surprise in warfare, but that’s another story.) Going it alone, without the active help of Arab or European countries, would make such an effort all the more difficult. But Scowcroft, who opposed ousting Hussein in the Gulf War a decade ago, errs when he reasons that Hussein and the terrorist network are separate issues or that the United States must quell the Israeli-Palestinian violence before taking on Iraq.

This is all about confronting and defeating terror, not appeasing it or ignoring it, pretending it won’t hurt us. One lesson we should have learned from Hitler is that when a despot shows his willingness to murder civilians and proclaims his intentions to destroy a people, or a nation, take him at his word. Believe him, and the fact that he won’t stop until he is defeated.

The issue for the United States should not be whether to oust Saddam, but how. Turning the other cheek is suicide; what is called for is the moral imperative of destroying evil before it destroys you.

Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached by e-mail at Gary@Jewishweek.org.

Understanding and Responding to Evil

The subject of evil is something that has entered my mind often this past year. Since Sept. 11, and also from the ongoing news

coverage from Israel, I have had many questions and have engaged in frequent discussions about this subject.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis is a theologian and scholar who has thought very profoundly about the subject of evil. He is a spiritual leader whose influence goes well beyond the walls of his synagogue, Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. When he earned a Ph.D. in theology from the Pacific School of Religion, the title of Schulweis’s dissertation, which later became a published book, was “Evil and the Morality of God.”

I recently drove up to his office to see if Schulweis could help me in my struggle. I was not disappointed.

The following is some of what he shared.

Elliot Fein: Encino is located right next to Northridge. You lived through the Northridge Earthquake. Where was God in this event?

Harold Schulweis: We do not give enough attention to a question like this. Unfortunately, theology and philosophy are considered to be extraneous to Judaism and to everyday life, something that is of interest to only intellectuals, rabbis and other clergy. It is important for everyone to develop a theology or philosophy on life that is honest, something that one can actually believe.

If I want to find out what caused the earthquake, I will go to the physicist, not the theologian. In explaining the event, he will not use terms like sin and punishment but rather cause and consequences. His explanation is not a judgment. If a lion and a lamb meet, the lion will eat the lamb. That is just the way lions are. It is not a judgment on the lamb. The lamb has not sinned, nor has the lion transgressed.

There are two complementary conceptions of God in the Hebrew Bible that are reflected in the two most commonly used Hebrew names for God: Elohim and Adonai.

Elohim is the God who creates nature. This is the name for God that is used almost exclusively in the first chapter of Genesis. This is the God that creates everything: lions and lambs, anthrax and Cipro. Nature is metaphysically “good,” as God observes in the first chapter in the book of Genesis, but nature is morally neutral.

In response to nature, when bad things happen, people (often based on religious teachings in which they were raised) ask misleading questions. Where is God? How could God allow this to happen? Why doesn’t God intervene? These questions imply that the lamb, the one who suffers, deserves punishment. If I have a heart attack, if my child gets cancer, there must be a divine reason. This leaves people with guilt and anger. This encourages people’s masochism and God’s sadism.

To accept this reality is necessary but not sufficient. That is why I can not believe only in Elohim. That is why I have to balance the Elohim aspect of God with a complementary concept: Adonai.

Adonai is a response of human beings to nature. Adonai is the God of moral principle. What do you do in an imperfect world? Humans are blessed with capacities of freedom, intellect, and moral sensibilities. A person, by him or herself, will not find a cure for cancer, but one can do something in response to cancer. One can seek to ensure that research is done, that autopsies are permitted, that transplants are encouraged. Our response to the amoral aspect of nature, our attempt to make an imperfect world not perfect but a better more righteous place gives meaning to life. It is what it means to live in the image of God.

When Jews pray, they always use both names of the Divine, Adonai and Elohim. A fully mature religious person must acknowledge the world of facts, the world of reality, the world that is. That is why Elohim is used. At the same time, it is critical for a person to assert what ought to be, what is normative. That is why Adonai is used. The central affirmation of faith in Judaism is the “Shema.” This prayer includes both names for the divine. The line of this prayer ends with the Hebrew word echad. This word means one. Two complementary concepts, Elohim and Adonai, that are part of Divine oneness.

One can ask where was God in the earthquake? A much better question is where am I? What have I done, in response to an act of nature, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to support those who suffer? What am I doing to live a life in the image of Adonai?

EF: Where was God on Sept. 11?

HS: Terrorists are part of the amoral energy and freedom that is given to every human being. That energy and freedom, though, is also given to the defenders of justice and freedom, to people that try to prevent evil. Our response to people who perform evil is the same, in theory, as our response to a natural disaster…. I do not mean to oversimplify the situation, but if we are going to live in this world, it is our responsibility to somehow figure out ways of educating people who hate not to hate.

EF: How do you explain the events of Sept. 11 to children?

HS: I think children understand Sept. 11. Children are more mature and better able to handle an event like Sept. 11 than are parents who want to protect them. It was a big mistake when parents [after] Sept. 11 did not send their children to school. What helped children was being with other kids, being in their community. We had an assembly at our synagogue, we sang together, we prayed together. We had a question-and-answer session on what happened. We gave very direct simple but honest answers to their questions. We talked about people who hate. We talked about envy. We talked about how we need to protect ourselves living in the world. The discussion was not very different from what it would have been like with adults.

When a child loses a loved one, he or she expresses one concern. Who is going to care for me? Grandpa has just died. Are my mom and my dad going to die too? It is important for parents to acknowledge death as death. We do not need to talk about grandpa going on a long trip. This only causes anxiety in the child. We do not need to talk about grandpa going to sleep forever. This causes insomnia. We need to re-assure the child in an honest way that they are secure and will be taken care of. A parent needs to say that I am healthy, I am taking care of myself and I plan on being with you for a long, long time.

When parents ask me what do I say to my child, I always answer their question with a question. What do you yourself believe? It is difficult, if not impossible, to teach what one does not believe.

In the modern world, we have witnessed unprecedented levels of human evil. In addition to striving to live a life in the image of Adonai, how do you maintain a positive outlook on life?

There is a story in the Talmud. After the destruction of Temple in Jerusalem, there was a group of ascetics who said we are no longer going to drink wine because there was a wine libation in the sacrificial cult of the Temple. A rabbi responded to them. If that is the case, then you should not drink water because water was used in Temple ceremonies. You should not eat bread because bread was also used.

Not to mourn is impossible, but to mourn excessively is harmful. Therefore, there must be a sense of balance and proportion on how we mourn, on how we live our lives. I gain a balance and sense of proportion in what I believe and how I live my life from Judaism. I gain this balance and sense of proportion from having a religious outlook on life. Science is wonderful. Its benefits to our lives are tremendous. It answers many questions but I can’t live only in a world of science. Judaism balances my outlook on life. It helps me to maintain a positive outlook.

EF: The subject of evil was the theme topic at a recent weekend retreat for members of your synagogue. What questions did you raise in discussions at this retreat? What points did you emphasize in answering these questions?

HS: My talk on this weekend retreat was more of a confession than a lecture. I shared a problem that I am struggling with. An adolescent child in our congregation died in a car accident. The other driver was drunk. I tried to comfort the father. I put my arm on his shoulder. He knocked it off. He says “God is cruel and you as a rabbi just apologize for a cruel God.” His wife tells me to not take it personally but I do. More than psychology is needed. The father is calling out for a realistic and moral theology.

How do we as a congregation respond to this man? Part of the answer I know is being there for him and his family, making sure that people are at the funeral and visitors are at his home listening and doing what ever is necessary. Part of the answer is getting him in a communal environment where the joys of life are celebrated. But there is more to it. We explored in our discussion what else we, as synagogue, can do in a situation like this to help this man and strive to live in the image of Adonai.

EF: In fighting its war on terrorism, the United States is forming alliances with many countries that are not exactly friends with Israel. What are your concerns, as an American and as a Jew about our country’s foreign policy and about the present political predicament in which the United States finds itself today?

HS: One has to be alert. One also has to have empathy. The strategy right now makes sense. Politics is not logic. The world is not a clean place. Not every ally is going to be a democracy like Britain or Canada. There is definitely concern about our country forming alliances with corrupt and unstable governments but there is a Machiavelian strategy to what is happening.

Israel, in its own war on terrorism, has had to play this game. At one time, it was revealed that Israel actually backed Hezbollah against other Palestinians factions. I am confident that Israel will never be betrayed by the United States.

Never the Same

Danny, 10, can recite the Five Pillars of Islam: faith, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage.

Jeremy, 12, understands the difference between Predator armed drones and Global Hawk surveillance drones; between 500-pound "dumb" gravity bombs and 2,000-pound "smart" precision-guided bombs.

Gabe, 14, knows that Pastun and Dari are the spoken languages of Afghanistan while Pastuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks make up the main ethnic groups.

Zack, 18, can locate most of the "stans" — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Since Sept. 11, on a practical and comprehensible level, my sons have learned about the religion of Islam, the military capability of the United States, the ethnicity of Afghanistan and the geography of Central Asia.

On an impractical and incomprehensible level, they have learned that their world can change horrifically and irreversibly in a split second.

They have learned that evil exists.

"Your lives will never be the same," I told them on Sept. 11. Even more than Dec. 7, 1941, altered the lives of their grandparents and Nov. 22, 1963, altered the lives of my husband, Larry, and myself.

Some changes happened immediately. I put a halt to Zack’s early decision application to an East Coast school. I forbid visits to theme parks, stadiums and venues with large gatherings. And I replenished and expanded the emergency supplies.

In the following few weeks, in a warranted and comforting burst of patriotism, we adorned our car windows, garage and boys’ bedroom walls with American flags. My younger sons replaced pop singers and athletes with firefighters and police officers as their heroes. And we mourned the victims, crying as we read their encapsulated biographies in The New York Times "Portraits of Grief."

Six months later, our lives are still not the same.

Yes, the fear of immediate danger is less palpable.

Larry and I have let Zack apply to three East Coast colleges. We have allowed Jeremy to visit Magic Mountain and Gabe to visit CityWalk and Century City. We have resumed going out to dinner, though less frequently, and supporting our faltering economy, though less enthusiastically. We have taken down all the flags except for a child-made felt flag that hangs in the front hall.

But I still nervously await the next terrorist attack on United States territory.

I still cry easily, this last time when journalist Daniel Pearl was first kidnapped and then viciously murdered.

And I find myself agreeing with Dr. Chris Giannou, head surgeon of the International Red Cross, who has spent 20 years in war-ravaged countries, including six weeks in Afghanistan last fall. He said, "For me, the world is divided between the bad and the worst, not the good and the bad."

But my sons, at least outwardly, are more optimistic.

"It’s not as if I walk into Dad’s office [on the 40th floor] and think, ‘Oh no, an airplane’s going to fly into the building.’ You can’t worry about that stuff," Gabe says.

"I can’t think about the terrorists all the time. It’s too sad. It’s what Osama wants us to do," Jeremy adds.

Perhaps their youth affords them more resiliency. Or affords them no basis for comparison, unlike their grandparents who witnessed World War II, or Larry and me who lived through the assassinations and upheavals of the late ’60s and ’70s. Or perhaps they’re repressing fear is too painful to surface.

I see their anxiety, however, when they talk about Israel, when they read about yet another suicide bomber in this increasingly volatile and seemingly insolvable conflict.

"It seems so unfair," Zack says, "that I get to plan for college while my Israeli friends have to go into the army."

These friends include our beloved "adopted" son, Ya’ir Cohen, who lived with us two years ago for three months and visited last October, as well as the other Israeli teens from Tichon Chadash High School who participated in Milken Community High School’s Israel Exchange Program.

They also include Gabe’s friends from the A.D. Gordon school in Tel Aviv, who visited Heschel Day School last year as part of The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership 2000.

My sons’ concerns are heightened by having experienced Sept. 11. By knowing how it feels to have their own country unexpectedly and brutally attacked.

But despite the world situation, which he reads about in detail in the newspapers, Danny is enthusiastically making plans for his birthday party in April.

Jeremy, as Cantor Jay Frailich of University Synagogue says, "is really cooking" as he learns his prayers and aliyot for his bar mitzvah in June.

Gabe is engrossed in rehearsing his lines for Milken’s spring production of "Comedy of Errors," in which he’s playing Dromio of Syracuse.

And Zack is enmeshed in the final semester of his senior year.

Yes, their lives will never be the same. They have permanently lost their naiveté and sense of invincibility. But perhaps, despite the sadness and the uncertainty, I could benefit from their forward-looking attitudes.

As Robert Frost said, "In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It goes on."

Are You There, God?

While the pain of the Sept. 11 attacks still churns like the smoke and dust that continue to rise out of Ground Zero, eight weeks has done something to begin our healing process.

Some of the rawness of our national wound is beginning to abate, allowing us to use the clarity and insight of the still-sharp lens of grief to encounter the big questions about God and humanity that the terrorists threw into our faces.

The questions, of course, are hardly new: How can we square the lethal expression of mass evil with our notion of a compassionate God? Were the attacks the hand of God, God’s withdrawal from humanity, or simply the nature of God’s universe?

Certainly Holocaust theology has dealt with these questions, and as a people the Jews have a too-long record that has enabled us to retain faith in God in the face of unspeakable evil.

"The questions are perennial, but each new instance of evil makes them poignant and powerful," says Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple.

Our grappling with the universe is augmented by the fact that Sept. 11’s ties to religion and God are manifold — some overt, some subtle. The terrorists were acting in the name of God. The Sept. 11 anthem has become "God Bless America." Hundreds of thousands turned to houses of worship in the immediate aftermath, and whether they did so for God or for the comfort of community, what they found was God.

For Jews especially, the timing of the events brought the theological questions into immediate and sharp focus. Within days of Sept. 11, many of us recited the words "Who shall live and who shall die … who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented." Many of us proclaimed our trust in the universe by sitting in flimsy sukkahs with the image of crumbling concrete icons of power still fresh in our minds.

Rabbis and community leaders across the ideological spectrum report that people seem to be yearning for a crystallization of what might have been, until now, a murky lay theology.

"When you are a rabbi, you think you are talking about God all the time, and I assume that my congregation knows what I believe about God because I feel I speak about it often," says Reform Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. But after she addressed theology directly in her Rosh Hashana sermon, the reaction was intense.

"I think that people just listened differently this year," Geller says.

Her High Holy Day sermon and the private conversations she has had with congregants reflect her personal theology and understanding of God.

"God is not in control of what we do to each other. We are responsible," she said in her Rosh Hashana sermon. "The God I believe in doesn’t write in a book of life or death, doesn’t decree who will live and who will die. No, the God I believe in animates a material universe where everything that lives eventually dies…. But the God I believe in has given human beings a way to make meaning out of lives that are finite."

That crashing airplanes into buildings was a result of human free will is a widely accepted belief. The questions arise when we examine the interaction between free will and God’s role in the universe.

"God has set up the world in such a way that people are asked to be good, even though in the end it might not save them," Wolpe says. "If you say, ‘I’ll be good, and don’t let anything bad happen,’ what kind of goodness is that? That’s not goodness, it’s prudence."

Evil acts, then, are a necessary result of God’s letting the universe function as it must.

The outcome of human free will might indeed further the Divine will, says Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

"Human freedom is one of the building blocks for God’s plan," Artson says. "We make choices, and God uses those choices to achieve a certain outcome."

In this case, perhaps God’s hand can be seen in the overwhelming outpouring of goodness.

"There were four evil acts, and then there have been hundreds of thousands of acts of goodness," Artson says. "That is where I tell students to look for the hand of God."

Rabbi Nachum Braverman of Aish HaTorah in Los Angeles takes it a step further, saying that the national and international introspection that has followed Sept. 11 was not only a byproduct of the terror, but perhaps its very purpose — and a sign of God’s love for humanity.

"We live very drowsy and comfortable lives, and the Almighty comes along and blows the shofar and says, ‘You’ve got to wake up,’" says Braverman, noting that the event touched every human being on the planet. "God acts through events in the world to move us to live lives that matter, that take account of the covenant and take account of the meaning of Jewish life. That seems to me consistent with a God who loves us…. I think it’s an expression of God’s love that he calls us to accounting. To permit us to sleep our lives away would be indifference, not love."

While Braverman says he cannot answer whether God had pegged each person who died to meet his or her end that way on that day, he does think it was part of a Divine plan.

"In my own life, the most important discoveries, the most important growth as a human being has come through the greatest pain and terror," he says.

About 10 years ago, his now healthy 11-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer.

"I believe if I make of my life something that matters, it will be because of the door opened through my daughter’s illness," he says.

But other Orthodox rabbis — who share Braverman’s belief that God acts through history and that everything that happens on Earth is part of a Divine plan — are reluctant to ascribe universal meaning to any event.

"I think it’s OK in a small setting for a person to say, ‘This is what it’s done for me,’ and everyone has an obligation to take the events of Sept. 11 and internalize them," says Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, community leader for Yeshivat Yavneh. "But to dictate a specific message can become burdensome and onerous. It is counterproductive to speculate."

In fact, Korobkin is uncomfortable with humans trying to ascribe purpose to God, because God is by definition unknowable.

"We will never truly be able to understand how God works, because the human mind is confined to thinking in a four-dimensional universe [three dimensions plus time], but God works outside that box," says Korobkin.

It is that acknowledgment that allows Korobkin to live with seemingly irreconcilable contradictions in the human understanding of God.

Orthodox theologians have spent centuries grappling with the notion that human free choice coexists with a God who is omniscient, who approves of everything and intends everything that occurs in the world.

Likewise have theologians tried to explain evil in a belief system where it is taken as axiomatic that God is compassionate and just.

So how to explain not only terror attacks but birth defects and natural disasters?

"This world is the corridor to the next world. When something happens here, we only see the tip of the iceberg," Korobkin says, offering one of several classical explanations. "So if a person has a short life in this world, or a tragic life, that is really a small portion of the totality of that person’s existence."

Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom, associate director of Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says even our limited vision of events in this world hampers our ability to judge.

"We are horrified at what happened, but how many others might there have been?" he asks, pointing to other terrorist attempts that were foiled. "Relative to the apparent security in which we live, we were shocked out of the blue. But relative to what people might want to do, maybe it’s a miracle that more things don’t happen," Etshalom says.

Rabbi Stephen Robbins of Congregation N’vay Shalom in Beverly Hills says that in Kabbalistic thinking, evil — the Sitra Achra — is a necessary and Godly part of the continuing process of creation.

"Everything in this world is an expression of God and the will of the Holy One, including darkness and evil," he says. "But evil has an intent, has a purpose, and that purpose is to challenge us to take care of and to protect the presence of the Holy One in this world."

Too much evil blocks the light of the presence of God, he says, eclipsing God. Nonetheless, God has built in a remedy for an evil that results from judging each other harshly.

"The principal of judgment, of strictness, is always mitigated in Kaballah by that of rachamim, of compassion," he says. "If you cannot see that everyone has been created in the image of God, you can’t see that you are in the image of God either, and then we are all separate and all alone, all struggling for survival instead of working to fulfill a purpose and a goal. And when we are locked in survival mentality — as the world is now — nobody survives."

That balance of judgment and compassion cannot just be internal, Robbins says, but must be worldwide.

"It’s so easy to demonize people and create devils who are separate from the Divine human reality in which we live," he says. But we must not let our instinct for compassion be quashed.

"Compassion is not forgiveness, compassion is understanding — understanding how sick these people are, how profoundly twisted in their own rage and pain and darkness they are," he says. "It doesn’t in any way excuse or mitigate what they have done, nor does it distance them from judgment and punishment. But it teaches us that the very thing that twisted them is alive and well and working on others in the world, and those we must heal before they do it again and again," Robbins says.

Wolpe agrees that Judaism has a "very palatable sense that there is evil in the world and that … it has be fought," he says. "We should be very grateful that we are in a powerful nation and that we have the capacity to fight evil now."

While individuals can use this opportunity to examine their role in this world, Wolpe says, we should not let the existence of evil imperil our sense of Divine mercy, whether we attribute it to humanity gone bad or to our limited scope of understanding the Divine, or to a larger picture that includes an afterlife.

"I’m convinced this world is both random and unfair; about that I have no question," he says. "But I also believe that God is compassionate and just, and how that gets sorted out is, fortunately, not my responsibility to figure out — because I can’t."

Don’t Win the Battle

A professor in seminary once asked us to find themost important section in all the Torah. We offered Creation, theShma, the Exodus, the revelation at Mount Sinai. No, he argued, it’ski teze l’milchama (Deuteronomy 21): “When you go out to war against yourenemies, and the Lord God delivers them into your power and you takesome of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautifulwoman, and you desire her, and would have her. You shall first bringher into your house, and she shall cut her hair and her nails, anddiscard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in yourhouse, mourning her father and mother…and then you may come to her,and marry her, and she shall be your wife. And if not, you mustrelease her.”


“L’Amour,” by William Mortensen,1936.


Why would anyone think this the most importantsection of the Torah?

In my den, over my breakfast table, or in mydeepest thoughts, I can be a moral hero. It’s easy to be a tzadik intheory. Deep in the heart, everyone thinks of himself as a goodperson. But to moralize in the abstract is the height ofsuperficiality. Morality is what happens in the real world, in themarketplace, in the world of conflict and competition. And thechallenge of morality is not to recite pithy rules but to look deeplyat the darker parts of our own souls; to examine and know the drivesand desires that distract our moral vision; to appreciate ourinfinite capacity to rationalize, compromise and excuse our own moralfailures.

What is real morality? The Torah offers us a studyof the moral worst-case scenario: the most amoral of settings, themost unrestrained of moral actors, the most vulnerable of victims. Hesees her on the field of battle and desires her with all the lustsand passions of battle. With rape, looting and wanton acts ofviolence all around him, no one would know, no one would care. Afterall, what is she? A captive, an enemy, the spoils of battle. He wantsher. And just at that moment, in that most unrestrained and amoral ofall circumstances, amid the smoke and screams and confusion of war,the Torah says, Stop. She is not an object. She is a human being. Andyou must uphold her humanity and protect her dignity. All is not fairin love and war!

The genius of the Torah’s ethic, argued myprofessor, is found in this unique combination of realism andidealism. The Torah does not reproach him for his drives. It does notcondemn his desire. Desire is natural; it is not evil. But neitherwill Torah allow its untamed, savage explosion.

“Who is a hero?” asks Pirke Avot. “One whoconquers his yetzer, his drives.” One does not uproot the yetzer. Itis part of us. But neither is it given raw expression. Torah permitsthe expression of drives and desire only in the proper relationshipto human dignity. So this ingenious rite is followed by allowing thecaptive woman to mourn and heal, and by allowing our soldier’s ardorto cool and his judgment to return. She is actually made ugly — herhead shaved, her nails pared — and she lives untouched in hishousehold for 30 days. If, after that, he still wants her, he maymarry her and afford her all the protection of his household.Otherwise, she goes free. He may not sell her as a slave — thenormal fate of captives.

On all the battlefields we find ourselves — incorporate offices, in community politics, in the marketplace, inpersonal relationships — when passions are high and indiscretionsoverlooked, when anything goes, the Torah demands reverence for thehumanity and dignity of the other. What’s at stake, after all, is notjust the other but your humanity as well. Ki teze l’milchama, whenyou go out to war, don’t win the battle and lose your soul.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.

Read a previous week’s Torah Portion byRabbi Feinstein

SEPTEMBER 5, 1997 So Where Are You?

AUGUST 29, 1997 What’s Wrong with aCheeseburger?

AUGUST 22, 1997 Finding the AdultWithin

AUGUST 15, 1997 Make the Time Count

AUGUST 8, 1997 ‘What’s the Meaning ofLife

AUGUST 1, 1997 A Warning toRevolutionaries