January 22, 2019

In a Secular Passover, Jews Are Nothing Special

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

There is a great crisis currently occurring in the American-Jewish community — a crisis of identity. What are Jews here to accomplish? Are Jews special? Or are Jews just a group of socially active members of the political left, with no specific religious inclination or mission beyond mirroring the priorities of the Democratic Party?

That debate takes center stage each year around Passover, when we hear revisionist lectures about the nature of the holiday. Each year, we hear from secular-leaning Jews that the story of the exodus from Egypt is more representational than real, that it is more universal than specific. “Let my people go!” has an admirably vague power to it; no one wants to be victimized by an arbitrary power structure. Thus, members of the Jewish left use that slogan from the Passover story to push for everything from transgenderism to same-sex marriage, from boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel to environmental regulation. The Passover story becomes a story about President Donald Trump or about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or about the restrictiveness of traditional lifestyles.

But the Passover story isn’t vague. And it carries a universal message — but that message doesn’t stop at freedom from tyranny. The question posed by the Passover story extends beyond mere absence of external force. It extends to another question: What’s the purpose of freedom? Does liberty have a rationale, beyond mere absence of force?

That question becomes more important day by day — because, as we’ve seen, there are widely disparate interpretations of the nonaggression principle in modern politics. The same people who invoke “Let my people go!” to push same-sex marriage have no problem coercing religious Americans into participating in ceremonies that they feel violate their religion. The same people who point to the exodus from Egypt as a sort of moral imprimatur for anti-Israel activity are perfectly fine with Jews being thrown from their land in the Gaza Strip.

The Passover story isn’t vague. And it carries a universal message — but that message doesn’t stop at freedom from tyranny.

Passover isn’t just a story of exit from. It’s a story of movement toward. The entire passage in Exodus carrying that famous slogan doesn’t end with Pharaoh’s release of the Jews, it explains why God cares whether Pharaoh releases the Jews. God tells Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Let My people go, that they may serve me.’ ” The story of Passover doesn’t end with the Jews leaving Egypt or with God parting the Red Sea or with the Egyptians perishing beneath the waves. It ends with the Jews standing before Sinai, saying the words “na’aseh v’nishmah” — we will do and we will hear. And it ends with the fulfillment of the promise God made to the ancestors of the Jews: to inhabit the land of Israel.

These dual promises are connected — and should inform how we view Passover. Judaism is not Christianity, nor is it secular humanism. Its goal is not abandonment of the particular for the universal. Judaism makes a specific and unique claim: In serving God in a land promised to the Jews by God, the Jews act as a beacon of light to the world. God doesn’t tell Moses that his mission ends in libertinism or self-defined morality — God says he’s freeing the Jews to serve Him.

Once Jews lose the particularism of their religion, there is no point to celebrating Passover. Passover becomes just another symbolic story that has nothing to do with Judaism per se; Israel becomes just another land; the morality of Judaism just becomes warmed-over Kantianism. Jews become secular humanists, with the added benefit or drawback of carrying ethnic minority status. And nobody is going to stay up two nights running to retell that story. The glory of the Jewish people and the glory of God are inseparable in the Exodus story. If we Jews define ourselves as free from God, we define ourselves out of the story of human history.

Ben Shapiro is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the most listened-to conservative podcast in the nation, “The Ben Shapiro Show,” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”

The Emotional Mission of ‘7 Days in Entebbe’

Operation Thunderbolt ranks as one of the most dramatic events in the brief history of the State of Israel. The miraculous story of Israeli commandos flying literally under the radar to liberate hostages in Entebbe, Uganda, on July 4, 1976, sounds more like a military fantasy than reality.

When I heard “7 Days in Entebbe” was opening in mid-March, I did some quick math and calculated the Hebrew date was on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Passover is in the month of Nisan and Nisan is affectionately called the Month of Redemption by the rabbis of the Talmud. There could be no better time to experience a new film about the rescue mission to liberate the captive hostages of the Air France flight. So, on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, I went to see the film with a friend whose father was an Israel Defense Forces commando in Operation Thunderbolt.

I was rooting for this movie but it is overwrought and its messages are unnecessarily ambiguous. Artistically, the film is dragged down by a strange recurring dance sequence punctuated by an even stranger selection of music. Politically, anti-Zionists may call it hasbara (public relations) and Zionists may call it pro-Palestinian propaganda. In fact, it is neither, and that is a very good thing. But I did not go to the theater for the film’s messages, artistry, or its politics. I was there to feel something.

Every Passover, we read the haggadah at the seder and we are reminded of the obligation to imagine ourselves being redeemed from Egypt. For my ancestors, this may have been possible. They were regularly oppressed and routinely persecuted for being Jews, and it was hardly a giant leap to imagine personal slavery in ancient Egypt. But to a proud American Jew, living with equality and freedom, it seems impossible.

I may not be able to imagine myself as a slave in ancient Egypt, but I do have some idea of what freedom feels like.

I think the section of the haggadah asking us to imagine being redeemed actually is teaching us a powerful secret. The point is not to imagine we were actually enslaved and redeemed but to approximate the feelings of redemption that our ancestors felt. The seder and all of its rituals are meant to evoke those feelings. If it doesn’t, we should seek alternate means of achieving this result.

Storytelling is one way to consciously create feelings. A good story connects us to its characters and we are able to experience a version of their feelings. Ideally, the haggadah tells a story that creates this kind of empathetic feeling of redemption for us. However, there are other forms of storytelling that can help us feel the freedom of liberation from slavery, like movies. It’s why I went to see “7 Days in Entebee.”

Toward the end of the film, Defense Minister Shimon Peres celebrates with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Peres and Rabin are the Moses and God of the Entebbe story — a dynamic duo working together to save lives. Peres turns to Rabin and says, “Congratulations, Mr. Prime Minister. You saved 100 Israeli lives today.” When I heard those words, I felt a strong tug on my heart. It was the emotional punch I’d been looking for. The joy of freedom. It was not my freedom, but I felt it anyway.

I will hold onto that spark of redemption and bring it to the seder. I may not be able to imagine myself as a slave in ancient Egypt, but I do have some idea of what freedom feels like thanks to “7 Days in Entebbe.”

Mission accomplished.

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

Thoughts on freedom

Freedom is one of those easy words that can put the mind to sleep. I mean, who doesn’t love freedom? Especially when you compare it to its polar opposite, physical slavery, what’s not to love?

This juxtaposition of opposites is most obvious at Passover, when we celebrate the extraordinary journey of our ancestors from slavery to freedom. The climax to the story is so epic, so intoxicating, it easily can make us forget that it is really a beginning, not an end; that after the redemption come the questions.

Because if any idea could use some questioning, it is freedom.

We’re not used to questioning freedom precisely because it feels so climactic — like the exclamation point to a civilized life. Indeed, if you’re languishing in jail in one those countries that oppresses gays, women and dissidents, freedom surely is the exclamation point you crave.

But most of us don’t live under such oppression. Here in America, if I write a column that offends our leaders, no one will jail me. If my synagogue wants to celebrate a new Torah scroll on a public sidewalk, our society allows it.

So, what is there to talk about? Why can’t we just use the Passover holiday to appreciate the incredible freedom we have and express our gratitude?

Because our tradition, especially at Passover, compels us to question, to go deeper. In fact, questioning is a way of expressing our gratitude for no longer being physically enslaved. We are free to consider the ways freedom itself can fail us. Like so many beautiful things, freedom can seduce us into gluttony, into overdosing on a good thing.

If I use my freedom to wallow in self-pity, or say hurtful things, or engage in soul-sapping pursuits, am I really free?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in “The Insecurity of Freedom,” touches on this dark side: “The danger begins when freedom is thought to consist of the fact that ‘I can act as I desire.’ This definition not only overlooks the compulsions which often lie behind our desires; it reveals the tragic truth that freedom may develop within itself the seed of its own destruction.”

Unbridled and misdirected freedom, in other words, can lead us right back to slavery. We all learn soon enough that inside the freedom to pursue happiness lurks the freedom to be miserable.

Even when we’re happy, what does freedom really mean? If I’m forced to miss the premiere of a great movie because my daughter needs to go to Office Depot, how free am I? But if it gives me great pleasure to fulfill my duty as a parent, is that sacrifice a supreme expression of my freedom?

It’s not the first time you hear that true freedom comes with responsibility. But responsibility for what? In our era of tikkun olam, there’s a tendency to look only at the macro dimension of freedom, not the personal, intimate one. Because we are personally free, we like to talk about liberating others and repairing the world.

But repairing the world does not preclude repairing ourselves. If anything, the latter is a prerequisite to the former. It is by repairing ourselves that we can best repair the world.

If I use my freedom to wallow in self-pity, or say hurtful things, or engage in soul-sapping pursuits, am I really free?

Yes, it’s easier to worry about how freedom can bring joy and liberation to others than to worry about how freedom can corrode our souls. It’s easier to worry about “the world we live in” than about how staring at our smartphones during family dinners can sap our humanity.

It’s when we use our freedom to service only our desires that we allow it to enslave us in our appetites.

Passover gives us a chance to confront the hidden slaveries of everyday life. We get to go deep, probe what it really means to be free and see the pain that is smuggled by liberation.

Because there is pain. Any harm we inflict on others or on ourselves, any emptiness we feel inside, is connected to how we use our freedom.

When our ancestors were paralyzed by physical enslavement, they didn’t have the luxury to consider the finer points of freedom. We do. We are blessed to be living at a time when we can engage in more sophisticated pursuits, such as the act of refining our characters.

The refined character understands that freedom is just an instrument. It’s a brush that can paint a masterpiece or an ugly blob, a pen that can write words of enlightenment or words that poison, a sharp knife that can create exquisite meals or pierce human flesh.

Passover reminds us to live free, go deep and, above all, choose wisely.

Chag sameach.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Passover and the freedom to laugh

Freedom is much on the mind of Jews around the world right now: Passover, the holiday which celebrates freedom itself, begins at sundown this evening. Freedom has many forms. There is freedom from slavery, exploitation, hunger, poverty. And freedom from willful ignorance of the world around us and from being unable to improve our lives, and the lives of others, and the life of our planet. Often overlooked, though, is freedom from lack of a sense of humor. Humor — a grace note in life – bestows levity, pleasure and a healthy perspective on the dreariness that can creep up on us.

Dreariness is inevitable, and we all have different ways of responding to it. Let’s consider two literary figures’ stance toward the drear. If Edgar Allen Poe, for example, was a stranger to dreariness, he wouldn’t have begun The Raven with: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary.” Poe’s problem was that he couldn’t extract himself from those dreary midnights, and hence died soon after he was found disoriented on the streets of Baltimore, possibly drunk, certainly disoriented and definitly scorned by the literary establishment of his day. On the other hand, William Makepeace Thackeray opined that “life without laughing is a dreary blank.” Back to dreariness, but this time accompanied by a push to depart from the lackluster-ness of life, and how better than with a grin, a guffaw, or a titter.

We don’t know if Moses laughed: he was probably too busy warning Pharaoh he’d suffer another plague if he didn’t release his slaves. And 40 years wandering in the desert wasn’t the sort of trek that would put anyone in a good mood. Moses’ massive accomplishment – liberating possibly as many as two million Hebrews from bondage – was sufficient to stoop his posture, furrow his brow and silence whatever small reservoir of humor he may have (improbably) possessed.

Freedom’s responsibilities and obligations often bury the pleasures that accompany it. Freedom is a wondrous state. Reflecting on it can be an act of full, unalloyed appreciation. Which is why many haggodot (the books used at seders that tell the Passover story) dutifully state, “Anyone who discusses the Exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy.” They are, indeed. These (and many other) discussions can be dense and pointed or light and exultant. True freedom – not the preachy, guilt-inducing kind, but the buoyant, elevating kind – comes with the opportunity to look at life from many sides. By loosening us from our moorings and our preconceptions, humor endows our life with variety, surprise and delight. So much, in fact, that while we never quite know what’s around the corner, we greet it with a smile and either embrace it as it is or welcome the opportunity to make it better. Indeed, this is precisely the gift of humor: the harmonious balance between what is, what was and what we hope will be. Poor Poe never had it, and overworked Moses maybe never missed it. We, the heirs of liberation, have the freedom to settle on our stance toward life. Let’s try to do it with some mirth. Otherwise, the joke is on us.

Arthur J. Magida’s last book is “The Nazi Séance: The True Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler’s Circle.” He is writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore.

Haters, meet Najia

“I wanted to become someone,” the young Afghani woman told me, matter-of-factly. “I wanted to grow.”

Najia Sarwari — intense dark eyes, flawless olive skin, long black hair — was standing in the lobby of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Five years earlier, she couldn’t leave her home in Kandahar without permission, or without covering her hair and face. But Najia had just become a U.S. citizen. Five minutes earlier, I’d watched Najia raise her right hand and swear allegiance to the United States of America. 

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty of whom or which I had heretofore been a subject or citizen,” were the words uttered first by Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “That I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” 

And Najia repeated after him. 

Thirteen more new Americans also took the oath at the same time. While my iPhone captured a video of Rodriguez — himself the grandson of Turkish Jews who fled to Cuba — I watched the immigrants’ faces. Some cried. Some smiled. Most paid careful attention, pronouncing every word like a magic spell.

“Congratulations,” Rodriguez said, “you are now Americans.”

The audience applauded. The new citizens waved little plastic Stars and Stripes flags. The ceremony was short and simple. It was also one of the most moving I have ever witnessed.

Election 2016 has been fueled by anti-immigrant fervor — not just against illegal immigrants from Mexico, but against legal immigrants who happen to be Muslim, like Najia. The debate ignores three facts. First, net immigration from Mexico is down — there is no illegal immigration crisis. Second, there can be no religious test for citizenship. Third, immigration is not just what makes America great, it’s what makes America, period.

Every American should be required to watch a naturalization ceremony. I happened to witness Najia’s because Uri Herscher, founder and president of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, was being honored at the same ceremony, and I happened to be in Washington at the time. 

Herscher, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1941, received the Outstanding American by Choice Award, given to immigrants who have made an outstanding contribution to American society. Herscher, a board member of TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of the Jewish Journal, arrived in the United States on a cargo ship on March 24, 1954 at age 13. His parents, refugees from Nazi Germany, where his grandparents perished, went first to Israel, then came to the U.S. He went on to earn his rabbinic ordination and a doctorate. He later founded the Skirball, a cultural center dedicated to the common values of America and Judaism. One of the most important of those values, Herscher said, is welcoming the stranger.

“The warmth of that American embrace has never left me,” Herscher said in his acceptance speech. “Immigration is America’s greatest resource, and its greatest promise. America needs people to come from all over the globe, to make America flourish.”

I watched the faces of the immigrants as they listened to Herscher. They had come from Denmark, Israel, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Algeria, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and included a Private First Class in the United States Army, from Trinidad and Tobago. I wondered if they were visualizing themselves in Herscher’s shoes one day, surrounded by a large, loving family, on the far side of his immigrant journey. 

George Washington, Herscher reminded them, said America was open “not just to the opulent stranger, but to the oppressed of all nations and all religions.” 

Like, for instance, Najia.

Afterward, I stopped Najia on her way out to learn her story. She was standing beside her husband, who was dressed in an impeccable dark suit and tie for the occasion. Najia’s husband is an Afghani-born U.S. citizen who met Najia in Afghanistan and brought her stateside on Jan. 10, 2009. She couldn’t wait to come to America.

“After second grade, I couldn’t go to school,” she explained, because of the Taliban. “I wanted to read something.”

She arrived not knowing a word of English. Najia took English classes at night. During the day, she worked the makeup counter at  Macy’s in the Pentagon City Mall.  She said she became an expert in all things Chanel.

I asked her, now that she’s an American, what she wants to do.

“I want to be a makeup artist for actresses,” Najia said, with utter certainty. “I want to become someone — in freedom.”

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at #RobEshman. 

Alan Gross opens up about surviving Cuban prison, selfies

Since being imprisoned in Cuba six years ago, Alan Gross says his life has been “surreal.”

He feels disassociated from the causes of his five-year incarceration and from the resulting fame. He was locked up largely because of U.S.-Cuba relations, he says, and he is a public figure thanks to the people who followed his story in the news or advocated on his behalf.

“It never was about me,” Gross said in an interview in his Washington, D.C., condominium. “My life became surreal the night I became detained, and it still is today. I don’t quite understand the celebrity function.”

That doesn’t mean he isn’t grateful to the people who signed petitions or gave media interviews demanding his release. Gross credits them with bringing him back to the United States, via Andrews Air Force Base, on Dec. 17, 2014.

When he was arrested in 2009, Gross was working as a U.S. government subcontractor setting up Internet access for Cuban Jews.

“It is illegal to distribute anything in Cuba that is funded in full or in part by the U.S. government. That’s why they detained me initially,” he said, insisting that his Jewish background or work had nothing to do with it.

Gross says once the Cuban government realized he could be used as a bargaining chip in its diplomacy with the U.S., he was stuck. While he wasn’t physically tortured, he suffered in other ways.

“They threatened to hang me, pull out my fingernails,” he said. “They told me I would never see the light of day.”

Gross stayed busy by walking around the cell he was locked in 23 hours a day, drawing pictures and creating word puzzles. During his incarceration, he said, he often recalled a scene from the television show “M*A*S*H” in which one character taunts another, who was confined to his tent as a punishment, by stepping in and out of the tent.

“I thought about that almost every day, the ability to step in and out,” Gross said. “The freedom, that’s what I missed every day. Freedom is an incredible thing to lose.”

For the first several months, Gross wasn’t allowed reading materials. Later, visitors brought newspapers and his family sent books and the Economist magazine. He rarely saw fresh fruits and vegetables, eating a lot of chicken and rice – as well as potatoes, yucca and malanga. Due to poor nutrition, he lost several front teeth, which he keeps in a small container in his office.

“I think I lost about 70 pounds the first year, and the next three years, another 40 pounds,” Gross said.

He had limited contact with his family. His wife visited about every seven months. One daughter, who lives in Oregon, came about six months before his release. His other daughter, who lives in Jerusalem, he never saw.

For the first 3 1/2 years in jail, he didn’t know people were working for his release. He was amazed to learn of the Washington Jewish community’s weekly vigils for him during a visit from his wife and attorney.

When he was finally given access to a phone, Gross called Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. They didn’t know each other. But Gross was desperate, and Halber was willing to help.

Gross let it be known that he was in failing health, emotionally despondent and unwilling to see anyone but his wife. He went on a nine-day hunger strike in April 2014, which he said alarmed the Cubans. But it was a ploy, he reveals.

“I wanted to turn the heat up. I was never despondent. I never wanted to take my life,” he said.

Soon after his release, Gross met supporters at a homecoming party at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland. He described the evening as “very confusing.” When a young man came up and asked to take a selfie with him, Gross had no idea what he was talking about. He has since had selfies explained to him.

Now that the celebrations have dwindled, Gross says he does a lot of “walking, thanking people and smoking Cuban cigars.” No longer confined to a cell, he walks for miles, often around his neighborhood near the National Zoo. He also likes to play his collection of 10 mandolins and is excitedly awaiting the birth of his first grandchild.

Gross misses his work on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which took him around the globe, including to Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He’s happy to tell the stories behind the colorful weavings, tribal masks and other world art covering the walls of his home. But he’s afraid to leave America again.

Despite his ordeal in the Communist island nation, Gross still has special affection for the Cuban people, including the Jews he tried to serve, whose numbers he says have dwindled to about 1,000.

Recalling the largest synagogue, in Vedado, a Havana suburb, Gross said, “It’s just like many Jewish community centers around the world.” He says Shabbat dinners are well attended, partly because the meals supplement the little food people have.

Gross is working on a book about his experience in Cuban prison. The working title: “It was never about me.”

Remarks by Obama at afternoon Chanukah reception

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Happy Hanukkah, Mr. President!  

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, Happy Hanukkah to you!  You stole my line.   Happy Hanukkah, everybody. 

AUDIENCE:  Happy Hannukah.

MRS. OBAMA:  Welcome to the White House.  I want to welcome the members of Congress who are here today.  We’ve got some Bronfman Fellows who are here from the State of Israel.  Obviously, the bonds between our two countries are unbreakable, and with the help of young people, they’re only going to grow stronger in the years to come. 

THE PRESIDENT: Every year, Michelle and I like to invite just a few friends over for a little Hanukkah celebration. Nothing fancy.  Actually, this is the second year we’ve invited so many friends that we’re hosting two parties instead of one.  This is our first party — it is the best party. Don’t tell the others, though.

I want to begin with today’s wonderful news.  I’m told that in the Jewish tradition, one of the great mitzvahs is pidyon shvuyim.  My Hebrew is not perfect, but I get points for trying.  But it describes the redemption, the freeing, of captives.  And that’s what we’re celebrating today, because after being unjustly held in Cuba for more than five years, American Alan Gross is free.  

Alan has dedicated his life to others — to helping people around the world develop their communities and improve their lives, including Israelis and Palestinians.  He’s a man of deep faith who once worked for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.  Five years ago, he was arrested by Cuban authorities simply for helping ordinary Cubans, including Cuba’s small Jewish community, access information on the Internet.  And ever since, those who have loved and cared for Alan never stopped working to bring him home:  Judy, his wife of 44 years, and their daughters, including his oldest daughter who walked down the aisle without her dad on her wedding day.  His mother, who passed away this year without being able to see her son one last time.  His whole family, including his sister-in-law, Gwen Zuares, who joins us here today — where is Gwen?  Hey, Gwen.  His rabbi, his friends at his congregation in Maryland, Am Kolel, who kept him in their prayers every Shabbat.  Jewish and other faith leaders across the country and around the world, including His Holiness Pope Francis.  And members of Congress and those of us in the United States government. 

And Alan has fought back.  He spoke out from his cell, he went on a hunger strike.  With his health deteriorating, his family worried he might not be able to make it out alive.  But he never gave up, and we never gave up.      

As I explained earlier, after our many months of discussion with the Cuban government, Alan was finally released this morning on humanitarian grounds.  I spoke to him on his flight.  He said he was willing to interrupt his corned beef sandwich to talk to me. I told him he had mustard in his mustache; I couldn’t actually see it. But needless to say, he was thrilled.  And he landed at Andrews in a plane marked “The United States of America.”   

He’s going to be getting the medical attention that he needs.  He’s back where he belongs — in America, with his family, home for Hanukkah.  And I can’t think of a better way to mark this holiday, with its message that freedom is possible, than with the historic changes that I announced today in our Cuba policy. These are changes that are rooted in America’s commitment to freedom and democracy for all the Cuban people, including its small but proud Jewish community.  And Alan’s remarks about the need for these changes was extremely powerful.

So what brings us together is not just lox and latkes although I have heard the latkes here are outstanding. Am I wrong?  Not as good as your mom’s, but they're good. 

We’re here to celebrate a story that took place more than 2,000 years ago, when a small group of Maccabees rose up to defeat their far more powerful oppressors.  In the face of overwhelming odds, they reclaimed their city and the right to worship as they chose.  And in their victory, they found there wasn’t enough oil to keep the flame in their temple alive.  But they lit the oil they had and, miraculously, the flame that was supposed to burn for just one night burned for eight.  The Hanukkah story teaches us that our light can shine brighter than we could ever imagine with faith, and it’s up to us to provide that first spark. 

This is something that Inbar Vardi and Mouran Ibrahim know very well.  They are Israeli ninth-graders at Hand in Hand, which is a bilingual school in Jerusalem. For more than a decade, it’s brought Jewish and Arab children together. So Inbar is Jewish; Mouran is Muslim.   

Just two weeks ago, their school’s first-grade classroom was set on fire by arsonists.  In the weeks that followed, they and their classmates could have succumbed to anger or cynicism, but instead they built this menorah, one of four that we brought here from Israel this year.  Each of its branches are dedicated to one of the values their school is founded on — values like community and dignity and equality and peace.  Inbar and Mouran flew here from Israel along with Rebecca Bardach, the mother of a first-grader and second-grader at Hand in Hand, and in just a few minutes the three of them are going to join us in lighting the Hanukkah candles here at the White House. 

So Inbar and Mouran and their fellow students teach us a critical lesson for this time in our history:  The light of hope must outlast the fires of hate.  That’s what the Hanukkah story teaches us.  That’s what our young people can teach us — that one act of faith can make a miracle.  That love is stronger than hate.  That peace can triumph over conflict.  And during this Festival of Lights, let’s commit ourselves to making some small miracles ourselves and then sharing them with the world.   

I now want to invite Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson to the podium who can lead us in the blessings for the candle lighting.  Rabbi. 

Israel must export self-criticism

It was unsettling to hear Israeli President Reuven Rivlin say last week, “The time has come to admit that Israel is a sick society, with an illness that demands treatment.”

Rivlin was referring to the resurgence of animosity between Israeli Arabs and Jews in the wake of the Gaza war, but he could as easily have been referring to any number of Israeli “ills” that demand “treatment.”

I used to be really bothered by this kind of harsh self-criticism, especially when it came from Israelis themselves. Do our enemies really need more ammunition against us? Do we Jews really need to wash so much of our dirty laundry in public?

I still have sympathy for those sentiments, but only because Israel is the only country in the region engaging in such self-reflection and self-criticism. 

Imagine for a second the shockwaves throughout the world if we heard these words from the leader of Saudi Arabia: “The time has come to admit that Saudi Arabia is a sick society, with an illness that demands treatment.”

We would have to pinch ourselves if any Arab leader would declare, for example: “Decent societies depend on human rights, women’s rights and gay rights; on freedom of speech; freedom of religion; accountable government; an independent legal system and great universities.”

Imagine if the young people who risked their lives protesting during the long-gone Arab Spring would hear their Arab leaders say things like: “It’s time we stop blaming others for our problems and start taking responsibility for our own people and our own future.”

This kind of talk can only happen in cultures that encourage people to speak up and think for themselves. It can’t happen in a culture of fear, as we see now in Egypt, where political activist Sanaa Seif was sentenced last week to three years in prison simply for protesting what Amnesty International has called “Draconian” anti-protest laws.

As much as I admire the freedom to protest in Israel, it saddens me that of the 21 countries and territories in the Middle East and North Africa monitored by Freedom House, Israel is the only country classified as “free.” We seem to take for granted that Arab countries can’t catch up to Israel on the freedom front, but isn’t that the bigotry of low expectations?

Yes, Israel is paying a price for this imbalance. After all, if only one country in the region routinely points out its shortcomings — and much of the world picks on that country as well — how can one not conclude that Israel is deserving of the worst condemnations?

In the long run, though, it’s worth paying that price. It’s not a coincidence that Israel is a global leader in scientific and cultural innovation and that its economy is so far ahead of any other in the region. Behind this phenomenal success is a restless culture of self-criticism and responsibility that keeps the country on its toes and propels it forward. 

Israel’s shortcomings are legion — from social and economic injustices, to ethnic discrimination, to the high cost of living, to its failure to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians — but so are its armies of critics and activists who fight to expose these faults and to make the country a better place. This makes for a noisy and messy society, with much of the noise coming from the criticism itself.

Sometimes it’s tempting to look at this criticism — as when President Rivlin called Israel a “sick society” — and throw your hands up in disgust. But it’s the second part of Rivlin’s statement — the part where he said the illness “demands treatment” — that is really Israel’s secret sauce. The very conference at which Rivlin was speaking, “From Hatred of the Stranger to Acceptance of the Other,” is evidence of that secret sauce. Such efforts at self-correction happen throughout the country on every issue. It’s not always pretty, and it often fails, but that is Israel — an imperfect country in a continuous state of correction. 

Now, imagine if all the countries of the region had the chutzpah — from the top down — to openly admit that their societies are sick and demand treatment. Imagine if they emulated Israel’s messy system and created a social and legal culture with the power to tackle chronic problems like the oppression of women and the absence of economic opportunities. The freedom and power to make things better is the beginning of true hope. 

Israel may have a lot of good things to export to its Arab neighbors, but for my money, its most essential export should be its culture of relentless self-criticism.

A truly sick society is one that refuses to call itself sick. 

And the Oscar goes to … Israel?

There’s a good chance that when they announce the winner in the Best Documentary Feature category at the Academy Awards on Sunday night, it will be the Egyptian film “The Square.”

It’s one of my favorite movies this year. Throughout the film, which follows the uprisings in Tahrir Square since the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011, it’s as if you’re right there, on the streets, living and sweating with the demonstrators, feeling their pain, their joy, their frustrations, their exhilaration and, ultimately, their uncertainty about the future.

With documentaries, there’s always a risk that real people who can’t act will be dull — that filming a real drama in real time with real people can never be as dramatic as having a genius like Steven Spielberg orchestrate the whole production with star actors. And yet, the film pulls it off. The real people in “The Square” are as believable as Jack Nicholson or Meryl Streep on a good day.

What these people crave, above all, is human dignity. Tahrir Square is the source of their power, the place where they can gather in huge numbers, sing songs, drink coffee at midnight, fight the police and scream for what we in America often take for granted: freedom and opportunity.

But the real drama of the Egyptian story is that these revolutionaries’ only causes are to take things down. There’s nothing good to cheer for. There are only bad people to rebel against.

The people scream to take down the dictator Hosni Mubarak, and after he goes down, millions erupt in a frenzy of joy. A year and a half later, they scream to take down his successor, Mohamed Morsi — who turns out to be even worse than Mubarak — and after he goes down, millions erupt again in a frenzy of joy.

And so it goes. 

The tragedy in the film is when people realize the limits of their power. There is absolute clarity in what the people don’t want — oppression and poverty — but very little clarity about how the country can get to a better place.

That’s why “The Square” might be the very best hasbara film ever made for Israel.

As I watched the Arabs of Egypt scream for their rights, I couldn’t help thinking that they were screaming for precisely what the Arabs in Israel already have.

As I watched the demonstrators scream against corrupt Egyptian judges and politicians, I couldn’t help but recall that it was an Arab-Israeli judge, George Karra, who convicted a Jewish president accused of rape.

As I watched Egyptian demonstrators protest the jailing of innocents and bemoan the lack of opportunity in their crumbling society, I couldn’t help but think about an Arab-Israeli woman, Mais Ali Saleh, who recently graduated No. 1 in her class at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

There was no doubt in my mind that every Arab demonstrator in Tahrir Square would be better off living in Israel — that Christians would have more freedom to worship Jesus; that gays, women, minorities and people of all colors and religions would have more freedom to follow their dreams, get an education and benefit from a thriving economy and civil society.

And yet, you’d never know any of this if you see the latest clip going viral on YouTube promoting this year’s Israel Apartheid Week, where Jews like author Naomi Klein associate Israel with the apartheid regime of South Africa and make passionate appeals to boycott and punish the Jewish state.

The hypocrisy of these self-righteous agitators, who pick on the only democracy in the Middle East while millions of people  throughout the region live in misery, is mind-numbing.

As they support a high-profile BDS movement that aims to delegitimize all of Israel (and not just the occupation), they are doing a lot more than hurting Israel. They are drawing attention away from the suffering masses across the Middle East who would love nothing more than to have the same freedoms and human rights that their brethren have in Israel.

That is another reason I so love “The Square.” For once, the punching bag and the scapegoat is not Israel.

While the mainstream media is still obsessed with Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians, “The Square” cuts through this fog with a missile of truth: The misery across the Middle East has absolutely nothing to do with Israel.

In fact, for all its flaws, Israel is the antidote to this very misery. As Alan Dershowitz has written, “No country in the history of the world faced with threats comparable to those Israel faces has had a better record of human rights, a higher degree of compliance with the rule of law, a more demanding judiciary, more concern for the lives of enemy civilians, or more freedom to criticize the government, than the State of Israel.”

That is the unspoken context that hovers above “The Square.”

During Israel Apartheid Week, pro-Israel groups ought to organize showings of “The Square” and follow these screenings with panel discussions.

Even more, they ought to include on these panels Israeli Arabs who can explain how different their lives would be if they lived in any Middle East country besides Israel. Someone ought to make that documentary.  

Netanyahu, Peres hail U.S. friendship, leadership on Independence Day

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an Independence Day message that he “appreciate(s) deeply all that America has done for Israel.”

The taped video message was played Tuesday night at the Independence Day celebration at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Herzliya. Netanyahu did not attend the event, due to a leg injury sustained while playing soccer with Jewish and Arab children last month.

Referring to the Middle East, Netanyahu said real democracy is not just having popular elections.

“By ensuring both popular sovereignty and individual rights, the nations of the region can join America and Israel in being genuine democracies,” Netanyahu said, adding that “there is ample reason for skepticism.”

However, he continued, “In the long term I believe there is reason for hope,” because “the power of freedom is bound to prevail.”

Israeli President Shimon Peres was the main speaker at the Independence Day celebration, which featured hundreds of guests.

“There is a historic friendship between our two nations. America was, and remains, Israel’s greatest ally and its closest friend,” Peres declared.

He called President Obama’s decision to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom “a moving gesture of a great leader, a great friend, President Obama. It was an expression of the unshakeable bond between our countries, our two nations, our two peoples. I felt the commitment of President Obama to the peace and security of the State of Israel. It was an uncompromising pledge to the security and future of Israel followed by generous implementation.”

Peres also discussed the shared values between the two countries, saying “The United States and Israel were conceived as ideas, to better society, serving a greater good. Always dreaming and always looking forward. Never hating, never attacking and always seeking peace. We share similarities. We are both immigrant-based societies. We both share a pioneering culture. But even more importantly we share a moral compass; we champion freedom, cherish liberty and are committed to the pursuit of happiness. We both see science and technology as the route to a better world. We value the individual as an entrepreneur and the collective responsibility as a source of strength.”

Journey to freedom: Reflecting on the King memorial

Time affirms what heroism discerns. The dedication of a statue in memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is a belated yet significant tribute to a man who did so much to redefine the meaning of our democracy.

Make no mistake about it, there was a civil rights movement in the middle years of the 20th century, but King was the face of the movement, the pulse of it—one might even say the heart of it.

The memorial in Washington, D.C., about to be dedicated to his memory is made of solid stone, of granite. It will remain for the ages, solid and unmoving, a reminder of what dedication and courage are able to achieve.

Yet contemplating the statue, something seems to be missing. King was not one to sit transfixed for the ages. He was always in motion, always on the move. His travels led him on a heroic if ultimately fatal arc—Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma, Chicago, Memphis.

In Selma, Ala., and later in Chicago, I experienced no great moral revelation as I answered King’s invitation to join him, no great sense that destiny was inviting me to play a supporting role. Quite the contrary; the feeling was rather mundane. What was being done had to be done.

I had the privilege of spending several days in Chicago with King, who was there to protest a housing market that remained segregated. King’s presence shattered the illusion that discrimination was a southern disease, not a northern one.

We marched in the heart of the city, down Michigan Avenue. I was walking beside King when a small stone aimed at him hit me on the forehead. It was a glancing, harmless blow, but the scene was picked up by a television camera and broadcast all over the country. Friends in New York called: “Are you all right? Were you hurt?”

“No damage, I am fine,” I answered. And then, in a moment, I started to tremble.

“No, I am hurt—not by the stone but by the hatred, the bitterness, the rage,” I said.

It is the anger behind that stone that remains with me even now, so many years later. How easy it is to deplore hatred—even the political hatreds that still drive us away from our own humanity. Yet how difficult it is to understand the anguish of the poor and powerless. And how impossible it is to contemplate something that has begun to affect both blacks and whites—the steady evisceration of a struggling middle class.

So there he will sit for the ages, the man who for all too brief a span would never let us relax or sit smugly silent. The Martin Luther King Jr. memorial will become a tourist attraction. Facing as it does the Lincoln Memorial, it will serve as a reminder that our country’s moral force remains alive and potent.

King and Lincoln—neither led a simple life. Both were shot down by demented fanatics. Both tell us that the journey to freedom still requires wisdom, dedication and courage.

(Rabbi Robert J. Marx, the founder and a past president of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago and Alabama and fought for civil rights in Chicago and beyond.)

Friendship and freedom at Adat Chaverim

“What does it mean to be free and why is freedom so important?” was Karlo Silbiger’s first question to some 20 kids ranging from 3 years to early teens.

The youth and their parents were meeting on a recent Sunday morning to check out the offerings of Adat Chaverim (Community of Friends), especially its school and bar/bat mitzvah programs.

Adat Chaverim is a small congregation of secular, Humanistic Jews, whose brochure proposes that “reason rather than faith is the source of truth, and human intelligence and experience are capable of guiding our lives.”

Eight years after its was founded in the San Fernando Valley, Adat Chaverim is spreading its wings in concerted effort to attract like-minded Westsiders and broaden its services and educational programs.

The key to the congregation’s expansion from some 40 current families is its move to the American Jewish University (AJU), formerly the University of Judaism, on the exact border between the Valley and the Los Angeles basin.

The group attending the school orientation session consisted of young professional couples, averaging three kids apiece, just the kind of demographic for which any synagogue would give away half its building fund.

Mitchell and Susan Saltzman of Century City brought their three boys, ages 3, 7 and 10. The older kids had previously attended a Reform synagogue’s preschool and liked it.

But, said Mitchell Saltzman, “A friend told us that his children were getting a great education at Adat Chaverim, so we thought we’d check it out.”

John and Mara Glassner of Encino came with their three young daughters and said they hoped to find a Sunday school in line with their “skeptical” outlook.

Also working in Adat Chaverim’s favor are the much lower membership and school fees, as compared to almost all other synagogues.

To keep the youngest kids happy, education director Silbiger passed out crayons and coloring sheets, recounting the story of Moses and the Exodus, though the dialogue deviated somewhat from the biblical version. Moses tells the pre-liberated Israelites, “God said if you don’t like something, you can change it through collective action.”

Also innovative is the congregation’s bar/bat mitzvah program, which requires 13 preparatory projects.

These include writing reports on the work of two Jewish community organizations; attending services of the four main Jewish denominations; 15 hours of community work; planning and preparing a Jewish holiday meal; reading a Torah portion and explaining its cultural background; and writing a story using some Yiddish and Ladino words.

By the way, what does it mean to be free?

According to the bright and alert youngsters, it means that “Nobody can boss you around,” “You can go where you want to go.” “You have a sense of responsibility,” and “You can believe in what you want to believe.”

This year’s High Holy Day services at AJU’s Berman Chapel will be led on Rosh Hashanah by Harvard University Chaplain Greg Epstein. There will also be services on Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur. A Tashlich ceremony is set for 11 a.m. on Oct. 5 at Los Encinos State Historic Park in Encino. For more information, call (818) 346-5152.

VIDEO: History will be made in Beijing

Director Oren Kaplan (Miriam & Shoshana hardcore gangstas) offers this 60-second ‘commercial’ for the 2008 Beijing Olympics

AUDIO: Iranian American Jews — Jimmy Delshad, former Mayor of Beverly Hills

Interview with Jimmy Delshad, former Mayor of Beverly Hills


From Karmel Melamed’s Iranian American Jews blog.


Video: From slavery to freedom

Rabbi Irwin Kula video courtesy ‘ TARGET=’_blank’>


Teens can learn from Shoah survivors

Kids these days all have tsuris; everyone has stress. A computer breaking down, not having cell phone service, getting grounded, and not getting a new car for a 16th birthday are all things that upset teenagers and stress them out. Yet, these are probably the worst of their problems.

When a teenager gets a bad grade on a test or a parking ticket, he or she may think it’s the end of the world. For some of us, a “problem” is getting seven presents for Chanukah, not eight. However, 70 years ago, these so-called “problems” would have been luxuries for the millions of Jews and other minorities living, and dying, during the Holocaust.

I met one of those Jews, Dana Schwartz, through the Holocaust Memorial Project, a program sponsored by the California State Assembly. The goal of the project is to keep the stories of the Holocaust alive by having local high school students interview Holocaust survivors living in California.

At first, the project seemed like a good idea for community service. It was not until I sat down on a chair next to Schwartz in her Beverly Hills home and listened to her speak that I realized how much more I was getting out of this experience than just a few hours of community service.

In 1939, at the age of 4, Schwartz and her family were taken from their Polish home and sent to a ghetto. By the time the war ended, less than 1 percent of the Jews of the Lvov ghetto had survived. Each day there, when she wasn’t hiding from the Nazis, she watched Jew after Jew get tortured and killed. Soon, the Nazis started rounding up the Jews and took them to the railway.

Their destination was unknown to Schwartz at the time, and she did not want to find out. We now know these trains were, of course, taking the doomed Jews to concentration camps where almost all would die.

Schwartz and her parents hid in all kinds of places to stay away from the Nazis, most of the time under an apartment building. The days and weeks passed, but soon Schwartz and her mother were lucky enough to get false IDs, which allowed them to pass as Catholics. The two escaped and hid in another town, watching its Jewish population go from roughly 50 percent to zero. They ate mainly bread and water in that town until the war was over.

A few years later, they went back to their hometown and heard horrific stories about what happened to their friends and family, including Schwartz’s father, who was killed while she was in hiding. Schwartz couldn’t even go to school until years after that, due to her fears of Germans and her mental state from the horrors she had witnessed.

Soon thereafter, Schwartz and her mother were again fortunate enough to receive affidavits to come to Los Angeles, and she’s been living here ever since.
After interviewing Schwartz, I realized how fortunate I am to have freedom.

We’re fortunate to not go to bed each night unsure whether we will ever wake up. We’re lucky we don’t get scared each time a man walks in our direction, and we’re lucky we don’t live in fear that someone will find out we are Jewish and kill us.

What amazes me the most about Schwartz is how optimistic she is after going through the atrocities of the Holocaust. She still has pride in her Jewish heritage and won’t let anyone take that away.

“I want to survive in spite of Hitler and others who wanted to destroy us,” Schwartz said. She often speaks at schools. “I speak for those who can’t speak.”

The lessons that Schwartz, and the war itself, have taught me are to treasure each day and never take anything for granted. I feel as if I have much more of a Jewish identity now. Although we can never undo the Holocaust, we can still keep its story alive and keep the stories of the survivors alive too. It is especially important for my generation to know this history, for to most of us it is just history, not real people like Dana Schwartz.

Jonathan Kuperberg is a sophomore at Agoura High School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; Deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

God Was With Us That Night in the Negev

Our bus driver Boris had been navigating the roads of the Negev for at least an hour when the whole bus suddenly shook, rattled and rolled. As we gazed out the window, we saw that Boris had left the road. All we saw was rock, dust and a little more rock. It took about two more hours of off-road driving for us to reach our destination for the night.

I stepped off the bus and asked our counselor, “Where is the bathroom?”
“Follow me and I will demonstrate,” she said. “Girls to those rocks on the left, boys to the right.” Enough said.

I had just arrived in Israel that week for a four-week tour with 34 other California teens in Group Three of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) summer Israel program. And we were about to spend three nights in the middle of the Negev Desert with nothing but food and sleeping bags — definitely a sight to see.

Not only did we do it, but so did 12 other NFTY groups in Israel this summer, and we would soon find out that the experience of sleeping on our ancestors’ land would set the tone for our whole trip.

We unloaded the materials from the bus including dishes, food supplies, sleeping bags and our own personal bags. Once dinner was made and served, our group began to gather for Maariv, the evening prayer service.

This was by far the most spiritual moment in my life. I gazed up at the stars as I chanted the V’Ahavta prayer with amazing new friends, standing around the same rocks that our people had wandered past thousands of years before. My eyes couldn’t help but tear up as we moved on to the Mi Chamocha, the song of freedom. At that moment I felt as though God truly was with us.

We ended the night with our usual closing circle, where we sang Hashkiveinu and the Shema, with the words: “Keep us safe throughout the night, until we wake with morning’s light.” But that night, I felt as though we didn’t even need to ask for safety, that this ground and these mountains would keep us safe.

As morning woke us with its light, we found ourselves at the beginning of a long day of hiking in the Negev and then swimming in Eilat.

On our last day camping out, Boris took us to a Bedouin tent. We were warmly welcomed and introduced to the interesting Bedouin culture. We experienced their music, cultural food and hospitality — especially when they invited us to use the tent’s bathrooms, equipped with actual showers. I would have to say that the next task might have been even harder then the previous day’s four-hour hike. This was the situation: four showers, 20 girls, 30 minutes.

That night I was in a Bedouin tent celebrating Shabbat like I never had done before. This was our third and final night sleeping on the ground of the Negev, so we were both excited and upset.

The next day we arrived at Kibbutz Yahel near Eilat. Our tour guide, Sivan, took us on a very short hike on the outskirts of the Kibbutz. As we all sat in a circle in the middle of two mountains — a lot like our accommodations for the past three nights — Ellie Klein, our madrich, shared some words that I will never forget. She told us that by successfully making it through this Negev experience, whether we knew it our not, we had already changed and grown.

This campout was our chance to be with the land of Israel, nothing else. Just the land with all of its components. Through the tasks that we had completed and the experiences we had, we had assured ourselves that we could do it again.

Ellie asked us to grab a rock and gather them all in a pile in the center of our circle. I found a rock and felt the firmness of it and dropped it in the center, feeling as though I had just left a piece of myself in the desert. Not only a piece of myself, but a newly grown, solid and firm me. The words she said about us and the natural land still echoes in my mind because I really felt that for those few days, I was at my true quintessential state — and so was the Land of Israel.

We left the rocks in a clump on the ground as we made our way back to Kibbutz Yahel. This experience was the start of a treasured summer traveling with the most incredible people. I was finding my true Jewish identity not only among the historical sights, but among the millions of rocks that make up Eretz Yisrael.

Daniella Kaufman is an 11th grader at New Community Jewish High School.

Let There Be Yiddish

“Gut Shabbes.” Synagogue vice president Donna Groman stands at the door, warmly greeting each guest. Inside, a samovar sits on a white-clothed table alongside temptingly arranged platters of homemade kugel and apple cake for the oneg.

Tonight is a Yiddish service, Zol Zahn Shabbes — literally, we should have Shabbat — and it’s happening at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), founded in 1972 as the world’s first synagogue for lesbian and gay Jews.

It’s a meeting of two seemingly incongruous worlds — an almost extinct 1,000-year-old Eastern European language and culture and a progressive and now well-established congregation of 180 gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual families. And the Pico Boulevard synagogue is expecting a big crowd.

The sanctuary begins to fill. The congregants, young and old, male and female, are respectfully but comfortably attired. Many hug or kiss as they claim their chairs. All have varying allegiances to Yiddish.

Member Rebecca Weinreich, with daughters Shoshanah, 8, and Ashira, 4, is a celebrity this evening. Her grandfather, scholar Max Weinreich, founded the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Vilna, Poland, in 1925. Escaping from the Nazis in 1940, he re-established it in Manhattan.

“Do you speak Yiddish?” I ask Weinreich.

“Not in public. The expectations because of my name are too high,” she says.

“Shalom Aleycheim.” The lights dim as cantorial soloist Fran Magid Chalin welcomes everyone.

I peruse the 17-page booklet, which includes the evening’s program, a history of the Yiddish language and links to Yiddish resources. Even a nar (fool) could realize that this evening’s agenda is not just a kitschy visit to the alte velt (Old World).

Immediately the chorus begins singing, “O, Vee Gut un Vee Voyl Iz,” a Yiddish version of “Hiney Ma Tov.” They segue seamlessly into “Meer Viln Ale Nor Sholem,” which is “Heveynu Shalom Aleycheim.” People are clapping and singing along.

More people enter, and I count more than 100 guests.

After a break to greet one another, Chalin says, “Yiddish is the language that childproofed what parents said.”

Chalin herself studied German and, in her early 20s, sang in a Yiddish adult choir in Philadelphia. There, singing songs about the early labor movement, she felt electric, establishing a deep bond with the language. Later, after graduate school, she enrolled in a two-month Yiddish immersion class at Columbia University in New York.

“Many of us have this romantic relationship with Yiddish. It speaks to us about a time gone by,” she says. But she cautions that we can’t have a relationship if we relegate it to little pockets or little sayings.

The songs that Chalin has chosen for the choir quickly dispel any sense of romanticism. “Un Du Akerst, Un Du Zeyst” (“And You Plow and You Sow”), written in 1864 for the German Workingman’s Federation, taunts workers for how little they have to show for all their hard work. Others were written during the Shoah, giving comfort to the Jews in the same ways the Negro spirituals sustained the slaves.

Chalin introduces Lilke Majzner, Yiddishist and president of Los Angeles’ Yiddish Culture Club, founded in 1926. A native of Lodz, Poland, and a survivor of seven concentration camps, Majzner came to the United States in 1950 at age 17.

“I came without any script,” she says in a booming, confident voice. “I came to talk to you in English about Yiddish. That’s silly. That’s very silly.”

People laugh. But it’s clear that this diminutive figure, 84, professionally dressed in a beige suit and sensible shoes, isn’t here to entertain us.

She proves that further by reading a poem by Yiddish writer Malka Tussman. It begins, “You have a Jewish mouth, so speak Yiddish.” It ends, “Let there be Yiddish. That’s how I talk.”

How Majzner talks is even more emphatic: “I am shouting into your Jewish ears. Let there be Yiddish.”

And shouting she is. She educates us about the 1,000-year history of Yiddish — a history not just of words, of grammar and of curses but also of political parties, of freedom and of going on strike for Jewish and human rights.

And she exhorts us — passionately and convincingly — to take up the banner of her legacy, to learn Yiddish to make up for the 3.5 million Yiddish-speaking Jews who were murdered in the Shoah and to build a better world.

“And when you don’t feel the heaviness of the legacy, I will put some rocks in it,” she says.

She receives a standing ovation.

After services, a crowd gathers around Majzner, some speaking Yiddish.

I talk to Davi Cheng, a Chinese American Jew-by-choice. She grimaces as she describes the frustration of mastering the guttural sounds of Yiddish.

“There’s no ‘ch’ sound in Chinese,” she explains.

I also sit briefly with Chalin who tells me how, in her experience, she finds a disproportionate number of gays and lesbians studying Yiddish.

“In my classes at Columbia, we talked about how Yiddish doesn’t have a country and how often the GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender] community feels like a people without a country,” she says.

Chalin thinks many of those who desire to speak Yiddish fluently, like gays and lesbians, long for the notion of a secure community.

At evening’s end, as people leave, I notice the samovar is empty and the apple cake and kugel gone.

Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.


First Person – A Coming Out (of Egypt) Story

Sixteen years ago this month, I planned to take the Passover message of liberation to heart. I was going to come out of the closet to my sister and my parents and, in doing so, free myself from the bondage of keeping this huge and personal part of me from them. I was going to verbalize the secret I had feared revealing to them for more than 15 years since I first was able to put words to the feelings.

I grew up in a small, quaint New Jersey suburb of New York, a commuter town ideal for raising children. Since having moved to Los Angeles in 1987, at the age of 25, I generally visited my parents and sister back in New Jersey an average of once a year. That once a year was usually Passover time, since I had the time off from my work as a day school educator (and would enjoy the additional bonus of being able to lock up my home for the holiday and sell my chametz without having to go through the cleaning and other laborious pre-holiday preparations and rituals).

Perhaps my plan to come out during Passover was just practical, since that was when I typically returned home; or perhaps it was a flair for the dramatic or symbolic, since I had come to think of the emotional bondage of keeping my secret as a modern-day equivalent to the physical slavery of my ancestors. Either way, it was during Passover of 1990 that I had planned to come out to my parents and tell them I’m gay. I returned to my childhood home that year armed with several articles and a book titled, “Now That You Know: What Every Parent Should Know About Homosexuality,” all designed to prove how normal it was to be gay.

I had come out a year earlier (also at Passover) to Rob, one of my best friends from college on whom I had had a crush. We got in his car, and I asked him to pull over on the way to wherever it was we were going because I had something really important and serious to tell him. He pulled into a parking lot (my elementary school parking lot) and turned off the engine. I loosened my seatbelt, turned to face him, took a deep breath and said, “I’m gay.”

To which he responded, somewhat anticlimactically, “Is that all?”

I don’t know if I was more relieved or disappointed, but there was no rejection. My first coming out was successful.

It took an entire year after that to muster the courage to tell my sister — who responded, “I still love you, and of course I won’t tell anyone.” To this I said that I wasn’t telling her so that she would now have to keep the secret. Coming out to my sister was planned to precede the coming out to my parents by several days. It was my warmup, my practice. But anticipating these two experiences, as anxiety-filled as they were, was nothing compared to the immeasurable angst I felt as I practiced and replayed over and over how I would reveal my secret to my parents.

The day I was going to tell them, I went to New York City to visit friends. I took the commuter train back to our town and felt the rumbling in my stomach as I anticipated freeing myself from my personal Egypt. The train sped closer and closer to home. With each station the train pulled into I could feel the rumbling in my stomach increase, and as I walked to my parents’ home (my childhood home) my stomach was on the verge of exploding. I tried to eat normally, but my appetite was limited. The meal, the conversation were overshadowed as I got closer to the point of expelling my truth, all the while wondering whether I would actually be able to follow through on my plan.

After dinner, I told my parents that I had something I wanted to say. They sat down at the table, dishes already cleared. With the gasses in my stomach doing triple axels, I mustered the courage — more courage than I had ever needed to do anything to that point in my life — and I said the words that liberated me from the self-imposed oppression that I had endured since realizing years earlier (beginning in third grade, if not even before) that I felt different than what I thought others felt: “I have something that’s really hard to say … I’m gay.”

Silence. Unbearable silence. To fill the silence I gave them the book and articles that I had brought. Perhaps I had brought them as much to help my parents through this new world as to prove to them that I was serious and that this was thought out. My father’s first words were: I’m shocked but I’m not shocked. (I had never really dated girls and though not effeminate, I fit some of the stereotypes.) My mother, tears filling her eyes, expressed her fears and her anxiety for me — I wouldn’t have a happy life, I would be alone — I did my best to assuage the concerns, but I had, after all, been working toward this moment for years and for them it was all new. And, frankly, I hadn’t thought through the post-liberation experience. The idea of telling my parents that I’m gay was so overwhelming that I hadn’t thought past anything but their initial reactions.

My father left to go to a meeting. My mother went to the sink to do the dishes. There was quiet again, but this quiet was the aftermath, the quiet that occurs when the truth and all of its realities, some becoming known and others not yet thought, become real, and we are trying to make sense of the implications. I felt a confusing mix of feelings – relief, anxiety, disappointment – and freedom from the mitzrayim, the narrow places, in which I had been stuck all those years.

On reflection, I wonder whether, thousands of years ago, the Israelites, too, didn’t experience the disappointment that the liberation wasn’t quite as easy and complete as expected. I suppose the fantasy was that I would come out of the closet and would be told, “Is that all?”

But my parents had more invested than my college friend. Their picture of my future, and by extension their future, would take longer to sort through, reimagine and come to terms with. The beginning of my liberation was now, in some ways, their new wilderness. It would be up to them whether they would turn it into a self-imposed bondage.

Due — in no small part — to my coming out, I have come to believe that our primary task in life is to know ourselves, accept ourselves and to love ourselves and to hope that those who love us will do the same. Each year we are to imagine ourselves as slaves in Egypt and to re-experience the bitterness of the oppression symbolically through retelling the story and through the sensory experiences of the seder. We are to think about the way we are enslaved and oppressed today, how we oppress ourselves and how we can help end the oppression of others. How we can take ourselves out from our personal house of bondage. How we can free ourselves and how we can come out.

Jeff Bernhardt is an educator, Jewish professional and writer living in Los Angeles.

Abortion Doc’s Son Weighs Thorny Past

“Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City and the Conflict That Divided America” by Eyal Press (Henry Holt and Co, $25).

Every father should be a hero to his child. But a child’s hero and an adult’s hero are often two different people, even when they inhabit the same body. Eyal Press, in his debut book, undergoes the difficult but riveting task of reconciling those two versions of his father, whom he clearly holds in heroic esteem. As the child of a Buffalo, N.Y. gynecologist who performs abortions, Press had a front-row seat for the abortion debate during its most tumultuous and violent years of the 1980s and ’90s, peaking with the 1998 assassination of Dr. Barnett Slepian, Press’s father’s colleague. Gunned down in his home by an anti-abortionist sniper’s bullet after attending Friday night services, Slepian became a symbol of the violent wing of the movement to oppose abortion.

The release of “Absolute Convictions” could not be more auspiciously timed, given the recent passage in South Dakota of the most far-reaching anti-abortion legislation nationwide. That law, and proposed bills in other states, has reignited debate over the future of Roe vs. Wade. The case, decided in 1973, “would turn tens of thousands of Americans, some of them housewives, others previously disengaged evangelical Christians, into full-fledged crusaders,” Press writes.

It would also deeply affect the career of Press’ father and the life of his family — who arrived in Buffalo in February 1973, just three weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision came down.

Over the next three decades, the Presses would find themselves at the center of an increasingly shrill and dangerous abortion debate, one that would lead to the death of their colleague and bring terms like “24-hour surveillance” and “death threats” into their own lives. Less than a decade after Slepian’s death, Press returned to his hometown to dive into the cavernous questions of “life,” “choice” and “freedom” that the abortion debate encapsulates. The book, a well-reported work of journalism with a personal heart, is not content to simply recount the fear and chaos that followed Slepian’s murder, but instead seeks to understand how such a violent act came to pass in the first place. The great strength of this fine book is that it successfully presents twin narratives: a clear-eyed journalistic look at the evolution of a movement — political and religious — to oppose legalized abortion, and the story of a son coming into an adult’s understanding of his father and the role he played in that larger drama. Press, a left-leaning investigative reporter who has published in The Nation, the American Prospect and The New York Times Magazine, adeptly mines his family’s history while never losing his journalistic passion for social policy issues.

Press writes of his admiration for his father, Israeli-born Dr. Shalom Press, in somewhat simple terms — the pride a child feels in the vague sense that his dad does something worthwhile for a living. Throughout “Absolute Convictions,” however, Press’s admiration graduates from that youthful feeling of “My dad does the right thing” into an adult appreciation that enables him to report and reflect more thoroughly on the history and meaning of the anti-abortion movement.

The moment in the book when Press embraces this mature and more complex view takes place in the Rev. Rob Schenck’s Washington, D.C. office. Schenck is the founder of the evangelical advocacy organization Faith and Action and a leader in the pro-life movement. Sitting in Schenck’s office, listening to him describe with exhilaration and passion why he felt that protesting abortion clinics — including Press’s father’s practice — was “one of the most spiritual exercises [he] had ever engaged in,” Press is forced to admit that there is genuine conviction behind the pro-life perspective.

“If I place myself in Schenck’s shoes, I can imagine his sense of exhilaration,” he writes. “At the time, I could not contemplate the idea that a noble impulse might be motivating the protesters — they were doing their best to make my father’s life miserable. But if I step into the moral universe Schenck described to me — a world where every unborn child represents God’s creation and life begins at conception, where this is not a matter of debate but of truth as handed down in Scripture — the ethical imperative is clear.”

At a moment when all eyes are cast forward, Press’ account is a wise attempt to look back, reminding ourselves of how this issue, which once attracted the attention mainly of Catholics, became the center of the moral and political universe for so many evangelical Protestants — some of whom demonstrated their convictions through violent means. Press’s complicated journey takes his readers to that murky crossroads where religion, politics, family and law all meet.

Article courtesy The Forward.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer who lives in Arlington, Mass.


PASSOVER: Don’t Be a Slave to Tradition

When I was growing up, I never had to ask my mother what she would be serving at the seder. It was essentially the same menu every year: dishes like homemade chopped liver, chicken soup with matzah balls, turkey with gravy, mom’s special “Shabbos potatoes” (first boiled then roasted with seasonings) and matzah farfel with mushrooms. All tasty foods, of course, but the predictability was not that exciting, to put it mildly, in deference to my mother, who surely worked hard.

Why is this night the same as every other seder night? I’d ask. “Because that’s what my mother made,” she’d reply.

As she talked about the seders she’d had with her parents and grandparents, her face glowed, as if they were there preparing the seder with her. She even used my grandmother’s cooking methods: She chopped the liver by hand, in a large wooden bowl, using a hockmesser — a sort of cleaver with a rounded blade. She cut up fresh horseradish for maror, instead of using milder romaine lettuce.

Here was my dilemma when I came of age and began making my own seders: Should I maintain tradition even though I didn’t have the same associations with these foods that my mother did? Since Passover celebrates freedom (another traditional name for the holiday is Zman Cheiruteinu, or The Time of Our Freedom), I wanted to express my freedom by making foods of my own choosing, rather than feeling bound by a menu that was “traditional” only due to its roots in Eastern European cuisine.

Over the years I’ve served at some nontraditional dishes at seders, including beanless chili, gazpacho, short ribs and bruschetta served on small pieces of matzah instead of the traditional toast. But my favorite dishes are those that tap back into the deep roots of this holiday. They allow me to create new traditions via foods that took on Passover-related significance.

Another name for the holiday is chag ha’aviv, or the spring holiday. So I focus on foods that are seasonal, whose flavors evoke the freshness of spring. Other dishes aim at connecting with the many ceremonies associated with Passover.

Ceviche is a fish dish of Peruvian origin, now served widely across South America. The fish is marinated in lime or lemon juice, with the citric acid actually cooking the fish without the use of heat. In this version, the two different kinds of fish present a nice mix of color and texture, while the vegetables also add color and flavor. The tangy freshness of this blend awakens the palate, as spring weather does to the body.

While Sephardim have it a bit easier on Passover, Ashkenazim have basically two starches to choose from: potatoes and matzah. Nearly every other starch falls under the category of kitniot, which are literally legumes, but include rice and corn, and are forbidden to Eastern European Jews.

There is, however, another choice that offers variety, along with taste and healthfulness. Quinoa. The grain was never classified as kitniot because it was unknown in Europe at the time the custom was established. It has a vaguely nutty taste, is extremely high in protein and low in carbohydrates. In this recipe, the lemon juice picks up on the ceviche’s citrus, and the dish is prepared almost like tabouli. But the key ingredient is certainly the fresh mint, which adds a perky crispness that clearly recalls spring.

A great centerpiece dish is lamb and Jerusalem artichoke stew. Lamb has particular Passover significance, connecting with the paschal lamb offering both in Egypt, and later in the Temple. And although Jerusalem artichokes are neither from Jerusalem nor artichokes (they are actually sunflower tubers with an artichoke-like flavor), the name still reminds us of our annual seder proclamation to celebrate “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Plus, they are fresh in season during March and April, as are many of the wild mushrooms in this hearty stew.

Of course, there are many other dishes that can tap into the seasonal and customary aspects of Passover. Express your freedom by cooking almost anything you’d typically make for a Sabbath meal, just leaving out certain ingredients!

Two-Fish Ceviche

1 1/4 pound tuna steak
1 1/4 pound firm white fish (tilapia, trout or sea bass work great)
2 medium jalapenos, seeds and membranes removed, diced
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 small red onion, diced
juice of five to 10 limes
lemon juice
1 avocado, sliced

Remove any skin from fish, using a sharp paring knife. Cut tuna into cubes about 1-inch wide. Slice white fish into strips, about 1/2 inch by 1 1/2 inches.

In a glass or plastic bowl, mix fish with jalapenos, cilantro and lime. Add juice of limes. If limes did not yield enough juice to cover all fish, add enough lemon juice to cover.

Refrigerate, covered, for 90 minutes to two hours, stirring mixture every 15-20 minutes.

Serve in small bowls or cups. Garnish each with a half-moon of avocado.

Serves eight.

Note: If made earlier in the day, remove most of the juice after two hours (or once all fish has darkened in color) to avoid over-marinating.

Quinoa Pilaf With Fresh Mint

2 cups raw quinoa (available in specialty markets)
4 cups water
1/2 medium red onion, diced
2 scallions, diced
1/2 cup pine nuts
3 ounces sun-dried tomatoes, julienned
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Mix quinoa and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce flame and simmer covered for 15 minutes, or until most of the water has been absorbed.

Remove quinoa to a large bowl and let cool.

Add all other ingredients and mix thoroughly. Serve at room temperature.

Serves eight.

Lamb and Jerusalem Artichoke Stew

2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces
4 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups dry light red wine (Chianti or Cote-du-Rhone, for example)
2 cups water
1 1/2 pounds Jerusalem artichokes, peeled, larger ones chopped to uniform size with smaller ones (available in specialty markets, sometimes sold as “sunchokes”)
2 pounds mixed wild mushrooms, chopped thick (cremini or shitake, for example)
2 medium yellow onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 carrots, chopped large
2 small turnips, chopped large
2 white or golden potatoes, chopped large
2 bay leaves
1 bunch fresh thyme

In a Dutch oven, brown lamb in 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat, approximately five minutes. Add Jerusalem artichokes, wine and water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and skim any excess fat from the top of the pot.

Meanwhile, in a frying pan, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add brown mushrooms, stirring, approximately five minutes. Remove to bowl. Heat remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, sweet onions and garlic for about three minutes. Add to mushrooms.

Add carrots, turnips and potatoes to lamb pot. Stir to cover vegetables, and cook for 15 minutes, or until vegetables are softened.

Add mushroom mixture, bay leaves and thyme. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook uncovered until liquid reduces by about one-third, then continue covered, 45 minutes to an hour in total.

Remove thyme and bay leaves, and serve on plates.

Serves eight.

Joel Haber (funjoel.blogspot.com) is a freelance writer and screenwriting consultant. He loves to cook because he loves to eat.

Pupils Vote Yes on Democratic School

Under a classroom’s fluorescent lights, students and teachers scramble to find seats. An important “Parliament session” is under way as together, they hammer out a plan for allocating the school’s activities budget.

The scene is the Hadera Democratic School in Israel, where students take an equal role in deciding not only how and what to study but how the school is run.

As they debate how to spend the $27,000 activities budget, one student writes in neat letters at the top of the blackboard, “order of speakers.” A debate soon breaks out over how much money to spend on the school’s music department, and whether it’s worth purchasing additional acoustic equipment.

Next, the drama teacher asks for additional funds to allow students to see professional theater productions.

One by one, everyone in the room is heard. After much wrangling, a budget is produced for the school year.

The Hadera Democratic School, which receives funding from both public and private sources, was the first of its kind in Israel. Since its founding in 1987 in this city about 60 kilometers north of Tel Aviv, 23 other schools have opened around the country based on its model of democratic education, in which student participation and choice is emphasized.

With its relatively large number of democratic schools, Israel is considered a groundbreaker and leader in the field internationally.

There is growing interest in alternative schools in Israel, where the public school system is mired in a crisis born of poor teaching and disciplinary problems. The Hadera Democratic School has 350 students, with hundreds more on a waiting list.

Most of the students are secular and come from a variety of economic backgrounds. Scholarships help students from poorer families pay the annual tuition of approximately $1,200.

Among the school’s most famous alumni is Gal Fridman, the windsurfer who won Israel’s first Olympic gold medal in 2004.

Based on the idea that children are naturally curious and want to learn, the democratic schools focus on respecting the individual. There is close teacher-student interaction, and teachers — called “educators” by the students — mentor 15 students, in addition to their classroom duties.

With their elders’ help, students guide their own education. The goal is to instill in children the notion that they’re responsible for their choices.

There are no required classes, no grades or required tests. Staff and students are treated as equals and share in school decisions, sitting on a variety of committees that range from the school parliament to a teacher selection committee and a field trip committee.

Teachers say the committees are a key part of the education, teaching students how to analyze situations and make choices: “All these things they normally never have a chance to do,” said Aviva Golan, one of the teachers.

On the field trip committee, for example, it’s the students who hire the bus, organize the food and choose where to go.

Golan, who taught in a traditional school before coming to the Hadera Democratic School, no longer believes in conventional education.

“It’s bankrupt, and I believe children only learn from choice, not when they’re forced,” she said.

At traditional schools, she said, “I saw how I fought with kids instead of teaching them — the whole time telling them to be quiet. I believe kids need to move and play. It’s where the real things happen for them.”

The school itself hums with activity. Everywhere, students — from preschoolers to high school seniors — seem to be on the move. One girl reads a novel on a wooden bench. There are children juggling in the courtyard, while others bounce on pogo sticks.

On break, a group of boys plays soccer in the long sandy field in the center of the campus’ brightly painted buildings. Other students work in the computer lab, housed underground in a concrete bomb shelter.

Mike Moss, 17, came to the school as a disgruntled 11-year-old who was bored and restless in his regular school. He soon felt stimulated in the Hadera school and became active in the music and drama departments.

“I feel I would not be doing half the things I am doing here — preparing for matriculation, the music, the friendships — if I had stayed at regular school,” he said.

However, the Hadera school isn’t for everyone, Moss explained. He said students at the school need self-discipline and open minds.

Chen Shoham, 17, said the school has taught her to take responsibility for her education and her life.

“It’s about freedom as an individual and freedom of choice,” she said. “I do what I want and what I need to do. I’m responsible for my life.”

Shoham sits on the budget committee and helps oversee the budget requests each class submits.

“I’ve learned about priorities,” she said.

Traditional subjects such as math, English and history are taught, but it’s up to the students to decide if they’ll take them. Those who want to can study for the high school matriculation exam, which they need to pass with the highest possible marks to get into college.

The school’s principal, Rami Abramovich, said the students do well on the matriculation exam, but the school doesn’t keep data on how many students pass, because it doesn’t consider the matriculation exam a proper measure of whether a student has been educated well.

Students at the school speak of the value of learning outside of class — from philosophical conversations about the meaning of life to playing in a jazz band.

In contrast to the mainstream Israeli school system, there’s hardly any violence at the Hadera Democratic School.

“It’s because kids don’t feel the need to rebel against anything,” Shoham said.

Parents say they’re relieved to have found a setting where their children can thrive academically and socially.

“We think that regular public schools limit children,” said Hadass Gertman, a performance artist whose 8-year-old daughter attends the Hadera Democratic School. “We heard of children going through very bad experiences in public school, and we wanted her to enjoy learning, to enjoy school.”

Sitting outside the small, detached concrete building where he teaches 4- to 6-year-olds, Ron Vangrick spoke of being drawn to the job after growing disappointed with the mainstream educational framework.

“Education is going through a deep crisis because of a lack of relevance of what were once traditional goals,” such as treating others with respect, he said.

He believes that the unique atmosphere at the Hadera Democratic School contributes to the learning process.

“There’s a feeling of home here,” he explained. “It’s a relatively small place. There’s an atmosphere of living within a tribe. Kids of different ages are together and interact with respect and warmth. There is a feeling of childhood that is very powerful here.”

Abramovich, the principal, said the school works because it allows children to discover their own strengths. There’s learning in everything, he said — from the geometry of passing the ball on the soccer field to the negotiations behind staging a school play.

“Every child has his path and rhythm,” he stressed. “It’s a matter of finding it.”


Moses and King

This past week, we observed the birthday of a great leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was able to move his people from seeing and believing his great vision to acting, responding and persevering in the face of violent opposition. In this way, King was like Moses in this week’s parshah. It is also no coincidence that King couched his historical vision in the story of the Exodus, comparing his people’s plight to that of the Israelites in Egypt.

This week we meet Moses, our new leader and adviser. Moses is commanded to go to Egypt, gather the people and demand their freedom from Pharaoh. “And Moses and Aaron went and gathered the elders of the children of Israel. And Aaron told them all of the things that God had said to Moses; and he performed the signs in the eyes of the people. And the nation believed; for they heard that God was remembering them because God saw their plight, and they were humbled and they bowed low” (Exodus 4:29-31).

Nehama Leibowitz, the great modern Torah scholar, calls this “the spiritual height” of the people; they were imbued with “historic awareness.”

The language of the verse is so poignant: va’y’amen ha’am (the nation believed). Two unique words appear side by side: va’y’amen, from the root amen, to affirm, witness, believe in; and ha’am, the nation — no longer a band of brothers, but a group of children, a single family unit. On this day, the nation of Israel is born, as they realize, according to Ibn Ezra, that the “end of the [slavery] spoken to Abraham” is occurring.

Yet, just as quickly as their energy builds, it is crushed by Pharaoh’s denial. Pharaoh is a wise dictator, as he understands the manipulation tactic of internal disputes as a way of breaking the spirit of the unity that was felt just a few verses earlier.

King understood this tactic when he spoke to the sanitation workers the night before his assassination. In his famous “I See the Promised Land” speech, he says, “You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt…. He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. … When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.”

Faith and certainty fall into fear and rebellion. It is precisely this pattern that I see as the ultimate problem facing the Israelites in the attempt to free themselves. The words of inspiration, the signs and wonders performed, the quick fix — these rally the people and bring them together. However, the moment that anything goes wrong, or they face a difficult challenge, the people give up and begin to whine. It is very easy to be persuaded by fanciful language, a powerful message and an easy answer. However, the challenge of true leadership is the ability to guide people through the difficult, dangerous, painful, and sometimes-fatal situations that stand in the way of achieving a moral or spiritual victory. Moses was able to achieve this eventually, but it was not easy.

Today, we again live in challenging, and some would say, dangerous times. How would Moses and King respond to today’s reality?

King never cowered in the face of injustice, never bowed to pressure or intimidation. He spoke his mind from his particular religious, ethical and moral perspective.

What might he say about spending billions of dollars on a war of choice, which has turned out to be fought under false pretenses and cost the lives of thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and the security of our world? What might he say about the large number of children living in poverty, without access to healthcare and education, basic food and water? What might he say about the genocide in Darfur, happening with the world watching silently? And the global warming that is destroying our planet? AIDS and extreme poverty in Africa?

What would they say? But more importantly: What would they do?

I believe that King would be in the streets, standing with the poor and hungry, with the striking workers fighting for a decent wage, and speaking out for justice, righteousness and peace.

And so must we.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose yartzheit we observed this past week, taught us this when he said, “We must first peer into the darkness, feel strangled and entombed in the hopelessness of living without God, before we are ready to feel the presence of God’s living light.”

The lesson from the Torah this week is one that applies to all people fighting for freedom, struggling to make change in the world, or simply wanting to live with an active moral compass. Believing in change is easy. Making change happen is not. We all must have the willingness to be inspired, and the courage to turn that inspiration into reality. This is the message of King; this is the message of Moses; and this is the message of God.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He serves on the executive committee of the Southern California Board of Rabbis and is chair of its social action committee.


Alito Protects Minority Rights

It’s axiomatic that Jews tend to view all news through the lens of “but is it good for the Jews?” It’s therefore no surprise that this filter now is being brought to bear on my former boss and mentor, Judge Samuel Alito Jr., who has been nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Based on my experience working closely with Judge Alito, I can answer unequivocally that yes, Judge Alito will be good for the Jews — and, by extension, for all Americans.

I’m a pro-choice, registered Democrat who supports progressive candidates. I’m also a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary and an observant Jew who is active in my community. Notwithstanding numerous areas of commonality I have with the liberal groups opposing Judge Alito’s nomination, I wholeheartedly disagree with their position on the nomination.

First, while the Jewish community may be suspicious that certain statements made when Judge Alito worked in the Reagan-era Justice Department show him to be a dyed-in-the-wool conservative intent on enacting a conservative agenda, I believe such fears are misplaced.

Regardless of Judge Alito’s personal beliefs or positions that he advocated while a litigator with the Justice Department, he takes great pains to set aside his personal opinions when judging. To be frank, he did such a good job of setting aside his personal beliefs that I did not know what they were when I clerked for him.

In this era in which nearly everything is subject to partisan politicization, it is hard to understand that someone can put aside one’s personal views. Yet Judge Alito is so committed to the judicial process, including the principle of respecting prior precedent, that he succeeds in doing so.

Contrary to attempts to paint Judge Alito as a conservative ideologue, I can attest to the fact that Judge Alito is an open-minded judge who does not come to cases with preconceived notions. One time, while working on a criminal appeal, I made the mistake of commenting that the case should be fairly easy to decide in favor of the government, in light of the extremely slipshod brief submitted by defense counsel.

Even though he was a former federal prosecutor with considerable experience with criminal cases, Judge Alito rebuked me for my attitude, and made it known that we were to carefully read all briefs and the appellate record, and conduct any additional research needed to ensure that all parties received fair hearings before the court of appeals. Like Judge Alito, we were expected to keep an open mind and not prejudge any case.

Second, in areas of religious freedom, Judge Alito has a proven record of being sensitive to the needs of minority religions. It’s often said that Jews are the canaries in the mineshaft of civilization: One can tell how well a civilization is doing by the way it treats the Jews.

I would extend that metaphor to all minority religious groups. Judge Alito has considerably more sensitivity to members of minority religions than some of the conservative justices currently serving on the Supreme Court.

The current Supreme Court standard for determining religious discrimination cases under the First Amendment’s “Free Exercise” clause is Employment Division v. Smith, in which Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that a law that does not target religion does not violate the First Amendment. In other words, if the statute is not targeting a religious practice, it’s constitutional even if it has the effect of banning that practice.

Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism declared that the Smith line of cases would “go down in history with Dred Scott and Korematsu as among the worst mistakes this court has ever made” — Dred Scott was the case that held that slaves were not people and Korematsu was the case that allowed the U.S. government to intern Japanese-Americans without suspicion of wrongdoing during World War II.

By way of contrast, Judge Alito has written numerous opinions protecting the right of minority religious groups to be free from religious discrimination. One example of his greater sensitivity to religious discrimination cases is a case involving Muslim police officers in Newark, N.J. In that case, Judge Alito held that the city violated police officers’ Free Exercise rights by requiring them to shave their beards in violation of their Sunni Muslim religious beliefs.

In another case, Judge Alito wrote an opinion stating that a university could not discriminate against a Shabbat-observant professor, since “criticism of an employee’s effort to reconcile his or her schedule with the observance of Jewish holidays delivers the message that the religious observer is not welcome at the place of employment.”

In another case involving a member of a Native American religion, Judge Alito wrote that a civic ordinance may not “target religiously motivated conduct either on its face or as applied in practice.”

The American Jewish community owes its vibrancy and continued viability to the constitutional protections of the First Amendment. These cases clearly demonstrate that Judge Alito is more protective of the rights of members of minority religions than some justices currently on the court.

As someone who believes that the Jewish community is best served by judges who limit their roles to deciding specific cases and not enacting their personal agendas, I’m convinced that Judge Alito is by far the best person for this position. Is he good for the Jews? Absolutely.

Jeffrey Wasserstein was a law clerk for Judge Samuel Alito Jr. from 1997-1998. He currently is a principal in the law firm of Hyman, Phelps & McNamara, P.C., in Washington.


Rosa Parks’ Message for Today

There’s been considerable coverage these last days of Rosa Parks, whose death a full half-century after the brief episode that rendered her an “icon” calls to mind a long-ago time. But there’s been little evocation of the events and circumstances that earned Parks her iconic status, still less to the overriding moral of the story.

The year is 1955, the date is Dec. 1 and the place is Montgomery, Ala. On that day in that place, a 42-year-old black seamstress named Rosa Parks left the Montgomery Fair department store late in the afternoon for her regular bus ride home. There were 36 seats on the bus, and all of them were soon filled. Twenty-two black people took the rear seats and 14 white people sat in the front. When a 15th white passenger got onto the bus, the driver called for the four black people in the row just behind the 14 seated whites to move to the rear, where they would have to stand. That was not merely the custom in Montgomery; that was the law. And when Parks refused to give up her seat, the driver, exercising his emergency powers to enforce the segregation codes, arrested her. She was taken to the police station, where she was booked, fingerprinted and jailed.

Martin Luther King Jr. later would describe what Parks did that day in these words:

Mrs. Parks’ refusal to move back was her intrepid affirmation that she had had enough. It was an individual expression of a timeless longing for human dignity and freedom. She was not planted there by the NAACP, or any other organization; she was planted there by her personal sense of dignity and self-respect. She was anchored to that [bus] seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn.

When Parks’ mother learned of her daughter’s arrest, she immediately contacted E.D. Nixon, the long-time president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and perhaps the most politically potent black man in Montgomery. Nixon knew well that Parks was in immediate physical danger, because there was real risk to those who dared to violate the race laws. Nixon, in turn, called Clifford Durr, a white southern patrician lawyer, a Rhodes scholar and co-sponsor of the legendary Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Together they went to the jail and posted bond for Parks. And together they proposed to Parks that here, at last, were the makings of a case that could shatter the laws of segregation throughout the South. Soft-spoken but plainly not timid, Parks, then secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, consulted with her mother and with her husband, a barber who was terrified at the prospect of converting this isolated incident into a political cause. But Parks nonetheless decided to go forward, and late that Thursday evening, a black woman named Ann Robinson, a professor of English at Alabama State, the youngest of 12 siblings and the first to have gone to college, learned of what had happened and convened the Women’s Political Council, most of whose members were active in King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. That very night they mimeographed a leaflet that said, “The next time it may be you, or you or you. This woman’s case will come up Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses on Monday in protest of the arrest and trial.”

And that is what happened on Monday, from the early morning buses that were normally full of black maids on their way to work through the day — throughout the whole day.

That same afternoon, the Montgomery Improvement Association was founded, and King was elected its president. That Monday evening, a crowd of perhaps 10,000 blacks gathered at the Holt Street Baptist Church, and King, 26, delivered his very first political address.

“There comes a time,” he said, “when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression…. We are here because we are tired now.”

And his tired congregation, swollen to nearly 40,000 former bus riders, walked to work or stayed home or rode in one of the 150 cars whose owners lent them to the boycott. Through the cold months of winter, they persisted. When the police harassed them, they persisted; when King was arrested, they persisted; when his house was bombed, they persisted — and they did not stop even when the entire leadership of the boycott was arrested.

Through the winter, through that spring and summer, through the fall and on into a second winter, for 381 days, the blacks of Montgomery prayed with their feet, miles each way, each day. And finally, on Dec. 20, 1956, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the judgment of the U.S. District Court declaring the laws requiring segregation of the buses unconstitutional.

The moral — these many years later — is not immediately obvious. Yes, it’s about what one person can do, but it is about much more than that. It’s about leadership and about community organization. King without Parks might not have become who he became, but Parks without Nixon and Durr and Robinson would not have become an “icon,” and none of these would have so powerfully entered the American story were it not for 40,000 tired blacks, ordinary heroes who conquered their fear and ignored their fatigue and did not break.

So, what shall we do about the persistent, grinding poverty that still exists in our country, that came into view so emphatically in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? What in the world does Rosa Parks lying in the Capitol Rotunda mean unless we organize to address that question?

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).


We Must Heal Divide Over Life Views

The first half of the 20th century saw Americans locked in a fierce ideological debate surrounding economic class and the distribution of wealth.

In the second half of the century, the cultural wars addressed issues of race and gender.

As we stand at the dawn of the 21st century, a perhaps even more fundamental issue divides the American body politic. From stem cells, abortion and human cloning to the Schiavo case and physician-assisted suicides, the question of life has become this generation’s great ideological battle ground.

Jewish tradition certainly sees life as a primary value. Rosh Hashanah is so significant in the Jewish calendar precisely because it celebrates the birth of the world. Life is God’s first gift to humanity.

The liturgy of the High Holidays constantly celebrates life, and as Rabbi Irving Greenberg has suggested, in the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, God tells Abraham that Divine service does not mean sacrificing human life for the Divine but rather living a life devoted to bringing the Divine into the world.

However, Judaism’s emphasis on life is matched by its emphasis on choice. Human freedom to choose is incorporated within Maimonides’ 13 primary theological principles. Maimonides in his Mishnah Torah (Laws of Repentance 2:1) suggests that the essence of repentance is rooted in choice.

“What is complete repentance?” he asks. “It is the case of someone who has the opportunity to commit a sin he or she has committed, and has the ability to commit it [again], and yet separates from it and does not commit it, because of having done repentance, not because of fear or because of lack of power … such a man is a master of complete repentance.”

Such a conception of law highlights the unique choice-centered nature of Jewish law and repentance.

But in today’s American society, the complementary qualities of life and choice have come to represent opposing worldviews. Both sides have taken absolute positions, demanding that human beings live either by the credo “the sanctity of life” or the motto “life without choice is not worth living.” So blinded are those who express such ideologies that in their talk radio extremes, they refer to the other position as the equivalent of communism or Nazism.

Both these noisy sides ignore the silent majority who stand in the very gray, murky and complex terrain called living. Those who stand in the world of the living realize each of us chooses life: “ubacharta b’achaim.”

Living means recognizing that though dogmatic, absolutist and all-encompassing worldviews might make for good media headlines, tenure at a university or electablity at the voting booth, they fail to make any sense in the real world. In the real world, people are not rational computers who make every decision based on a priori theoretical doctrines.

In some cases, we are more open to the pain and suffering of the present. In other cases, we feel more the weight of history and text.

Jewish tradition recognizes that each decision involving human life is a world unto itself. To be sure, the Jewish tradition is not unprincipled. It states unambiguously that never one, but a number of competing factors exist in every bioethical decision. It stands in opposition to both extremes of the debate and offers a sober worldview that gives dignity to the often conflicting rhythms of life.

While the tradition worries about partial-birth or late-term abortions, there are times that even under such circumstances the most stringent of rabbis would allow for terminating a pregnancy. Likewise, almost all rabbinic authorities acknowledge the importance of stem cell research, and while the vast majority of the tradition opposes physician-assisted suicide, much debate and legal room exists around the status of those who are brain dead.

These rulings might seem contradictory, but on closer examination, they give testimony to a theology not of life or choice per se, but rather a theology of the living. The word repentance, teshuvah, so commonly heard over the High Holidays, has many meanings. Among them is reconciliation.

As we sit and watch the political and religious absolutism infecting the American body politic threaten to irreversibly rend our national soul, we as Americans and Jews must become baalei teshuvah, masters of reconciliation. We need to help in healing and reconciling this divided country and remind our fellow citizens there is more to living than life or choice.

Rabbi Eliyahu Stern is scholar-in-residence at Park East Synagogue and is finishing a Ph.D. in Jewish studies at UC Berkeley.


Iranian Community Mourns Its ‘Anchor’

More than 2,000 mourners packed the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills this summer to bid farewell to Hacham Yedidia Shofet. During the funeral, the powerful sound of the shofar blended with the recorded voice of Shofet, who at his own request, led a prayer at his funeral. His seeming presence made it seem all the more difficult to believe that he was gone — after being the anchor of the community for so long.

This High Holiday season marks a milestone for the Iranian Jewish community in Southern California, which numbers nearly 30,000. For the first time since Iranian Jews began to settle here in large numbers, Shofet will not be present as either their actual or symbolic leader. Shofet had been a spiritual force for more than seven decades — most of that time in Iran, where he’d played a powerful political role, as well.

Shofet died early this summer at 96, after several years of declining health. His passing leaves behind a community in transition, one that revered him, but also one that relied less and less on his influence and direction. It’s a community that had begun to see him more with a sense of nostalgia than as a leader.

However, he always commanded respect, and when he called for unity in the community, the Iranian Jewish diaspora took the injunction seriously. With his passing, tensions and factionalism that had been roiling behind the scenes could become more open and intense.

“So long as Hacham Yedidia Shofet was alive, the deep respect and feeling of reverence that the community held for him prevented the younger rabbis from wandering too far from the mainstream on either side,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general for the Iranian American Jewish Federation, a community umbrella organization.

Now the mantle of spiritual leadership falls to Rabbi David Shofet, the middle-age son of the late leader. Like his father, he practices an Iranian style of Judaism, developed over more than 2,500 years, that balances elements of Conservative and Orthodox traditions.

However, he’s inherited a restive flock. The offspring of the immigrant generation is pulling in different directions. Some are shedding much or all of their religious practice or even exploring other religions; many others are turning to Orthodoxy.

None of this internal disintegration seemed possible in Iran, where Jews struggled against frequent oppression to hold onto their religion and culture. In many ways, they succeeded spectacularly. For more than 2,500 years, Iranian Jews lived in relative isolation from the rest of the Jewish world, but they remained Jews, held together by leaders such as Shofet.

The community understands the debt they owe to Shofet and his predecessors.

Following the funeral services, a motorcade and five rented buses were necessary to transport all those who wanted to attend the burial at Groman Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills. Even that wasn’t enough of a goodbye for the 96-year-old patriarch. Approximately 5,000 mourners attended a later memorial.

Shofet served in a quasi-political capacity as representative of the nearly 100,000 Jews in Iran. He spoke for Jews and protected their interests during the reign of the shah, and also for two years under the Islamic regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini that followed.

He immigrated to Southern California in 1981, where he tended to religious and social issues within the Iranian Jewish community here. The issues in the United States were not as immediately perilous as those in Iran, but Shofet soon found he had to deal with fractiousness and assimilation that threatened to erase an Iranian Jewish identity thousands of years in the making.

While many Iranian Jews have been saddened by the loss of Shofet, they’ve had to shift their focus to the future. Community feuding, which had been kept in check out of respect for Shofet and by Shofet’s delicate diplomacy and voice of moderation, are likely to re-emerge.

A serious rift became apparent nearly 10 years ago between those practicing traditional Iranian Judaism and Iranian Jews who adopted a more religiously observant Eastern European form of Orthodox Judaism. Young Iranian Jews have been drawn to more than two dozen Orthodox synagogues in the Pico-Robertson area and along Ventura Boulevard in Encino.

Critics of the new Orthodoxy say that it has broken up families, because the young adult proselytes frequently reject their parents’ generation for not being religious enough.

“It’s just ridiculous, [Orthodox rabbis] have used religious issues of the bedroom and food as weapons that [have] been given to our children to be used against us,” said Pouran Mogahvem Cohen, a West Los Angeles resident.

She organized a support group for families in conflict because of religious differences between the older and younger generations.

“Everyone involved in our group has the main goal of bringing unity in the community by not creating divisions in families or brainwashing our children to drop their university studies and careers, only to go off to some yeshiva across the country,” she said.

A different perspective comes from leaders of the Orthodox shuls. They insist they are addressing the community’s true spiritual needs, which were suppressed in Iran but can achieve full expression given the religious freedom of the United States.

“In Los Angeles, there are hundreds and hundreds of fully observant Persian families, and this past Passover, just through me, we had 1,000 families that sold their chametz, which shows that definitely a good portion of our community is becoming more observant,” said Rabbi David Zargari of the Torat Hayim Center in the Pico-Robertson area.

To reduce the tensions of these religious differences, Cohen’s group in late 2003 organized three question-and-answer seminars held at the Nessah Center, Beverly Hills High School and the Eretz Cultural Center in Tarzana, respectively. She said each seminar was attended by nearly 2,000 Iranian Jews. Also attending were various social and religious leaders, including those from Orthodox synagogues, whose leaders participated as panelists. It was the sort of unity-building exercise that Shofet approved of — except that nothing was settled, Cohen said.

“Their rabbis had no answers for us, and there was nothing resolved,” Cohen said. “Our main achievement was in making people in the community more aware of this problem to protect their children from this type of fanaticism.”

But efforts at peacemaking continue. Last year, the Iranian American Jewish Federation passed a resolution calling on all religious factions in the Iranian Jewish community to accept each other and respect the rights of community members to practice Judaism as they wish.

The intervention was “meant to calm everyone down and to promote the social unity of the community,” Kermanian said. “In essence, what it meant was that any attempt by any single faction to dictate religious policy to the entire community was unacceptable, and the only solution was for all to be free to pursue their own ways of practice.”

This goal doesn’t get any easier in the absence of Shofet.

“The community was his family, and he believed in the well-being of all people, not just Jews,” said David Shofet of his father. “He loved every Jew no matter who he was unconditionally, and his tremendous spirituality is why old and young people were drawn to him.”

Which means that David Shofet, who looks to be in his mid- to late 50s, has big shoes to fill, though he, too, is well regarded after working alongside his father for more than 25 years.

The community is never likely to have another figure as revered and influential in the United States as the elder Shofet was in Iran.

According to Shofet’s 2001 memoirs, written in Persian by Manucher Cohan, he was born in the central Iranian city of Kashan into a family with 12 generations of rabbis. Over the years, Shofet gradually gained prominence among Iran’s Jews and non-Jews for his eloquent speeches and his ability to connect easily with all who approached him for help. Ultimately, he became a liaison and spokesperson for Iranian Jews before the shah, government officials and even Islamic clerics. There’s no such equivalent position for an Iranian Jewish leader in the United States.

However, in Iran, Shofet commanded enough respect to intervene when Jews were in dire trouble, for example, with the Iranian government. He was instrumental in persuading the shah and other government officials in the early 1950s to allow Iraqi Jews, who had illegally left Iraq, to find temporary refuge in Iran before eventually immigrating to Israel, said Ebrahim Yahid, a close colleague of Shofet.

“We had many rabbis, teachers and hachamim in Iran, but he was the most open minded and most beloved of them all,” Yahid said. “He was even respected by the most fanatic Islamic clerics in Iran who did not have friendships with Jews — all because of his gentleness and humility.”

Following the 1979 Iranian revolution, Shofet, along with thousands of other Iranian Jews, eventually immigrated to Southern California. While no longer working as a liaison for Iranian Jews, he continued to serve as a symbolic religious figure, urging Iranian Jewish families to preserve their Jewish traditions. In the United States, Shofet, with his son and other community leaders, helped establish the Nessah Center, first in Santa Monica and then in Beverly Hills.

Over the last five years, Shofet was gradually forced to retire from community work due to failing health. His son took over day-to-day leadership duties.

“Replacing Hacham Yedidia is impossible. The closest we can come to him is his very able son, Rav David Shofet, who has dedicated his life to Iranian Jewry like his father did,” said Andy Abrishami, a Nessah board member and the elder Shofet’s son-in-law. “It’s hard to be a rabbi under any circumstances, especially when you’re a rabbi for Iranian Jews, because their expectations are much higher, but he [David Shofet], with his humility and dedication, has captured the Iranian Jews’ favor.”

If David Shofet can’t bring the often-divided community together, it isn’t clear who can.

“The crucial test for our community now is whether it can hold the center together,” Kermanian said. “At this point, this seems like an extremely tall order, which only Rabbi David Shofet, Hacham Yedidia’s son and our community’s preeminent rabbi, has the chance to fulfill.”

Cohen, the critic of the new Orthodoxy, expressed similar hopes, saying, “We have no expectations from [Orthodox rabbi] Zargari or the others, but we are looking to David Shofet for real, true leadership. This community wants him to truly be a father figure to us. [And] we want him to be as open-minded as his father was.”

Zargari, for one, said he’s open to dialogue with Jews who don’t practice his Orthodoxy: “They are my brothers and sisters. I don’t look down on them or think that I’m better than them in anyway. And it must be mutual. We have to learn to be tolerant and respect each other.”

There’s hope for the future in such sentiments, said Dr. Shirzad Abrams, co-founder of the Graduate Society Foundation, a local organization that promotes the continuity of Iranian Jewish history and Judaism among young Jews.

“The fact that there is contact between [different factions] is positive,” he said. “I’d be very afraid and totally frustrated if they stopped talking to each other.”

Formula Could Combat Campus Racism

In the past three months, I have visited four “troubled” campuses — Duke, York (Canada), Columbia and UC Irvine — where tensions between Jewish and anti-Zionist students and professors have attracted national attention. In these visits, I have spoken to students, faculty and administrators, and I have obtained a fairly gloomy picture of the situation on those and other campuses.

Jewish students are currently subjected to an unprecedented assault on their identity as Jews. And we, the Jewish faculty on campus, have let those students down. We have failed to equip them with effective tools to fight back this assault.

We can reverse this trend.

Many condemn anti-Zionism for being a flimsy cover for anti-Semitism. I disagree. The order is wrong. I condemn anti-Semitism for being an instrument for a worse form of racism: anti-Zionism.

In other words, I submit that anti-Zionism is a form of racism more dangerous than classical anti-Semitism. Framing anti-Zionism as racism is precisely the weapon that our students need for survival on campus.

Anti-Zionism earns its racist character from denying the Jewish people what it grants to other collectives (e.g. Spanish, Palestinians), namely, the right to nationhood and self-determination.

Are Jews a nation? A collective is entitled to nationhood when its members identify with a common history and wish to share a common destiny. Palestinians have earned nationhood status by virtue of thinking like a nation, not by residing where their ancestors did (many of them are only three or four generations in Palestine). Jews, likewise, are bonded by nationhood (i.e., common history and destiny) more than they are bonded by religion.

The appeal to Jewish nationhood is necessary when we consider Israel’s insistence on remaining a “Jewish state.” By “Jewish state” Israelis mean, of course, “national Jewish state,” not “religious Jewish state” — theocratic states (like Pakistan and Iran) are incompatible with modern standards of democracy and pluralism. Anti-Zionist racists use this anti-theocracy argument repeatedly to delegitimize Israel, and I have found our students unable to defend their position with conventional ideology that views Jewishness as a religion.

Jewishness is more than just a religion. It is an intricate and intertwined mixture of ancestry, religion, history, country, culture, tradition, attitude, nationhood and ethnicity, and we need not apologize for not fitting neatly into the standard molds of textbook taxonomies — we did not choose our turbulent history.

As a form of racism, anti-Zionism is worse than anti-Semitism. It targets the most vulnerable part of the Jewish people, namely, the people of Israel, who rely on the sovereignty of their state for physical safety, national identity and personal dignity. To put it more bluntly, anti-Zionism condemns 5 million human beings, mostly refugees or children of refugees, to eternal statelessness, traumatized by historical images of persecution and genocide.

Anti-Zionism also attacks the pivotal component of our identity, the glue that bonds us together — our nationhood, our history. And while people of conscience reject anti-Semitism, anti-Zionist rhetoric has become a mark of academic sophistication and social acceptance in Europe and in some U.S. campuses.

Moreover, anti-Zionism disguises itself in the cloak of political debate, exempt from sensitivities and rules of civility that govern interreligious discourse. Religion is ferociously protected in our society — political views are not.

Just last month, a student organization on a UC campus hosted a meeting on “A World Without Israel.” Imagine the international furor that a meeting called, “A World Without Mecca,” would provoke.

So, in the name of “open political debate,” administrators would not think twice about inviting MIT linguist Noam Chomsky to speak on campus, though his anti-Zionist utterances offend the fabric of my Jewish identity deeper than any of the ugly religious insults currently shocking the media. He should be labeled for what he is: a racist.

Strategically, while accusations of anti-Semitism are worn out and have lost their punch, charging someone with racism makes people ask why anyone would deny people the right of self-determination in a sliver of land in the birthplace of their history. It shifts the frame of discourse from debating Israel’s policies to the root cause of the conflict — denying Israelis their basic rights as a nation.

Charges of “racism” highlight the inherent asymmetry between the Zionist and anti-Zionist positions. The former grants both Israelis and Palestinians the right for statehood, the latter denies that right to one, and only one side. This asymmetry is the most effective weapon our students should use in campus debates, for it puts them back on the high moral grounds of “fair and balanced” and forces their opponents to defend an ideology of one-sidedness.

For example, I have found it effective, when confronting an anti-Zionist speaker, to ask: “Are you willing to go on record and state that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a conflict between two legitimate national movements?” Western audiences adore even-handedness and abhor bias. The question above forces the racist to unveil and defend his uneven treatment of the two sides.

America prides itself on academic freedom, and academic freedom entails freedom to teach hatred and racism — we graciously accept this fact of life. However, academic freedom also entails the freedom of students to expose racism, be it white-supremacy, women-inferiority, Islamophobia or Zionophobia wherever it is spotted. Not to censor, but to expose — racists stew in their own words.

In summary, I believe the formula “Anti-Zionism = Racism” should give Jewish students the courage to both defend their identity and expose those who abuse it.

This opinion piece appeared in The New York Jewish Week.

Judea Pearl is a professor of computer science at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, named after his son. He is co-editor of “I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.


Moving Forward Passover


I was sitting at lunch with my best friend the other day discussing life. This is her tsuris at the moment: she is involved with a guy who loves her very much, accepts her unconditionally, is cute, bright, Jewish, healthy, loyal. But she knows that he is not the one. She is so afraid to leave him — because she doesn’t want to hurt him, because she doesn’t want to deal with the pain of loss, because she dreads the feeling of loneliness, because she hates to be single, because she doesn’t know where she will meet someone else, because he is “good on paper” and she is afraid if she leaves him she will end up alone forever — doomed to become a spinster.
Then there is her job. She is headed upward in her field; in three years time, she will be at the top of the totem pole. Yet she finishes every day wishing she didn’t have to go back. She feels disconnected from her peers, tied down to obligations and expectations imposed on her by the higher-ups, creatively unfulfilled. But she is so afraid to quit — because she dreads the feeling of being unemployed, because she has no idea what her true calling is, because she hates the idea of being out of work, because the job will pay off in the long run, because she is afraid if she leaves it will be a mistake — leaving her doomed to become an unemployed spinster.
The list goes on: living situation, health, social life.
I can identify with her kvetching. Let’s face it: life can get pretty unsatisfying at times. The dissatisfaction comes from being stuck, from perceiving ourselves as limited to certain parameters of existence — enslaved by these limitations and by the fear of making a change.
Enter Passover.
Just when we were ready to stuff down our feelings with another double chocolate chip cookie in bed with the TV on, wondering why everyone on “Friends” seems so fulfilled and happy, comes a holiday that says: “Stop! Put down that leavened cookie immediately. Wake up!” It is time to face our circumstances of limitation, entrapment and enslavement and clear them out. Just as we physically left Egypt, so, too, must we emotionally, intellectually and spiritually leave behind us the situation of servitude that we have made our reality. From a place of servitude — of being stuck — we are never going to reach the Promised Land.
Egypt exists beyond its place in the folklore of our history. It also represents any outside force to which we give the power of enslaving us and directing our lives. It is the element that shapes our realities in every moment that we succumb to fear, doubt, laziness and unconsciousness in our daily existences. It is our addictions, our unexpressed emotions, our vanities, our prejudices, our materialism.
As long as we remain constrained in our lives, we only pretend to be living. We choose to exist half-asleep in a futile effort to have stable and safe lives. We define stability by not moving, changing or confronting things that will in any way shake up the tenuous circumstances of our servitude. Eventually, we find ourselves totally stuck: immovable and subjugated by our fear of the unknown. As Rabbi Ted Falcon of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Seattle explains, “The paradox of slavery is that we are safe; there is security in being able to blame the external world for the problems we experience.”
It demands our greatest courage and our strongest faith to choose freedom. With freedom comes true life — a moveable, powerful, transformational state of being. It is freedom from the conviction of our limitations.
Were my friend to give up her enslavement, she would find herself truly alive again. She would exist from a space of courage and power rather than fear, and in this state of freedom, she would have the possibility of creating the perfect relationship and livelihood for herself.
On Passover, we relive the story of our physical liberation. We tell of the gathering of our ancestors in an act of courage and commitment in defiance of the limitations imposed on their lives. We remember how they left their comforts and their attachments behind and marched forth, with the fierce Egyptian army following them, into the Sea of Reeds.
Filled with panic and remorse at the shores of the water, they finally recognize that they will not live if they do not continue to move forward. And so, in the face of a seemingly impossible obstacle, they finally relinquish their hold on the past and the fear of their future and step into the ocean. With the sounds of the Egyptian army quickly approaching, they immerse themselves in courage and faith and nothing else and wade deeper in the water. Washed away of the pretenses of life that defined their servitude, they feel the exhilarating, magical feeling of being truly alive; with the water up to their nostrils they smile in total faith in life, and the waters part. A miracle to greet a miracle.
And while my friend may kvetch and moan on her journey toward completing her limitations, I know that, in the end, she will also walk into the water — with faith and courage and joy — to greet her true life.
May you all be blessed with courage, faith, empowerment and clarity; may you be blessed with freedom.

Karen Dieth is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.


Why Scapegoat?


On March 31, The New York Times ran an astonishing page: a photo showing Christian, Jewish and Muslim clerics gathered in what the newspaper called “a rare show of unity.” What brought these sometime enemies together? The headline told the story: “Religious Chiefs Decry Gay Pride Fest in Jerusalem.”

Lorri L. Jean, executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, sent the article out to many of us in the community with a short introduction:

“Finally, the way to peace in the Middle East. Uniting against us!”

Do we laugh or cry? The people in the photo would have us hang our heads in shame, but instead we shake our heads in disbelief. When I read further, I realized why they are afraid — the people they imagine us to be are not the people we are. They envision a scary “other,” a kind of “terrorist” actively seeking to destroy their way of life, while I picture people I actually know, people like me and my partner and my congregants — Jews who take Judaism seriously, living Jewish lives in a caring community. Like many who journey to Israel, we look forward to visiting Jerusalem in the company of others who would gather to study, to pray, to celebrate respect and appreciation for one another, earnest in our belief that we too are created in God’s image, and charged with the responsibility of making our world a better one.

This week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot, gives us the first of two verses in Torah that have been understood for generations as prohibiting men from having sex with other men: “You shall not lie with a male like lying with a woman: it is an offensive thing” (Leviticus 18:22). Along with Leviticus 20:13, the verse continues to be the source of much agony in our time as gay men and lesbians struggle for civil rights and for a place in religious communities. During discussions of marriage equality or who can be a rabbi, it is still the verse most commonly quoted.

In response to the three clerics who made the front page of The New York Times, in just one week several hundred clergy, mostly from the United States, signed on to a letter of support for WorldPride in Jerusalem, saying, among other things, that “Jerusalem, a living, holy city, a pilgrimage site for people of many faiths and many beliefs, increases in holiness when all are welcome within her walls.”

I am grateful to be hearing voices of other clergy speaking out. But I’m also saddened by the necessity of pitting ourselves one against another, spending our time and energies fighting each other instead of looking for common ground.

Acharei Mot begins with a different set of instructions before arriving at the litany of sexual prohibitions. God instructs Moses to instruct Aaron on the sacrifices of expiation to be offered on Yom Kippur. Therein we find the original scapegoat — an actual goat on whose head “Aaron shall lay both his hands … and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites” (16:21) before sending it off into the wilderness. Ever since this practice ended (or maybe before it began), individuals and groups have served as scapegoats — the declared cause of this, that and another ill that has befallen society or that prevents people or nations from being all they could be. Having invented the idea of scapegoat, Jews ironically are no strangers to serving as one. So we know the unfairness and inaccuracy of the practice, yet we ourselves also often manage to engage in scapegoating. Liberal Jews scapegoat Orthodox Jews and vice versa, to name but one example.

But as Aaron did with the original scapegoat, when we scapegoat human beings we also send them away into the wilderness. We banish them from our lives by describing them as enemies, by imagining we have nothing in common, by deciding to fear each other, by condemning or dismissing or blaming one another. All of which, of course, makes it increasingly unlikely that we will ever instead get to know one another, ever look for our common humanity, ever discover our shared respect for the values and ethics of our shared religions or our shared God.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Pesach begins, a time to ready ourselves for this z’man kheruteinu — the “season of our freedom.” Wouldn’t it be a wonder if “this year in Jerusalem” we found both freedom of religion and the freedom that comes to each of us when we feel true respect for one another?

Chag Pesach sameach.

Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim — House of New Life — in Los Angeles.