April 2, 2020

Engaging and Connecting to Covenant Neighbors

I don’t know my neighbors. We wave to one another on our way to work, but I can’t tell you their names, professions or anything about their families. Engrossed in our own lives with hectic schedules and important business, we neglect these potential sacred relationships.

Oct. 27, 2018, changed that attitude for the Jewish community, and it transformed my life as a rabbi. As 11 Jews were massacred during prayer, we asked, meayin yavo ezri, from where shall my help come?

On Oct. 28, hours after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, I met my neighbor.  Father Ed Benioff of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills wanted to join us at Sinai Temple, in support of the Jewish community. His office door is 1.6 miles from mine, yet we were strangers living parallel lives in parallel worlds.  That Shabbat, Benioff graced us with his presence and recited from our pulpit, the Prayer for Our Country. 

Each morning we recite yotzer hameorot, God is the creator of lights. While the blessing refers to the sun and stars in the sky, we must also recognize the lights that will illuminate our lives only if we choose to ignite them. This is Benioff; a friend and a partner in faith.

Each month, the Sinai Temple clergy leave our desks to engage in Torah study with our community members at their offices in Century City, Cedars-Sinai, Westwood and Beverly Hills. Just over a year ago, our Westwood host invited his employee to our learning. She isn’t Jewish but was enrolled in a religious studies class and had a desire to meet other faith leaders. After the session, titled, “Is There Religion in Your Workplace?” I received an invitation to visit her church to meet her priest, Father Ed Benioff. My response: “When I have time.”

My neighbor answered our prayer. Help came from a mile away.

After Oct. 27, I lit the match, and ignited the flame of our friendship.

I finally met my neighbor. We broke bread at a local restaurant and we learned about each other’s faith. But it was on our ride to Dodger Stadium several months later, stuck in hours of traffic, where we put our words into action.

I told him that my wife, Rabbi Nicole Guzik, created a monthly “Spoonful of Chesed,” where members cook soup and bake challah for those who are ill, new parents, and others who are grieving a loss. He countered, and told me that at 5 a.m. every Friday, there is a line out the door of his church, with more than 100 homeless waiting for food. Each week, church members prepare a lavish hot breakfast to hand out, prepared for hours the day before.

Today, the homeless line up at the doors of the church, receive soup, challah and other basic necessities, with help from their friends down the street at the shul. We quickly realized that we must help those inside, but those outside as well. 

It is such a simple act, yet such a deep message of brotherhood. The more this small miracle was proclaimed throughout our neighborhoods, the more people wished to participate. At one recent religious school kiddush, families packed bags to deliver to Benioff, which included a winter hat, socks, deodorant and a snack pack.

That fateful day of Oct. 27 was supposed to tear apart our people. I am grateful for Oct. 28, the minute I received the phone call from my neighbor. He answered our prayer. Help came from a mile away.

Thomas Cahill wrote in his 1998 book  “The Gifts of the Jews” that we gave the world the inside and the outside. What we do inside our buildings must be shown to the outside, and what we do outside must be brought in. Take time to meet our neighbors. Don’t just tell them what we believe. Show them that our beliefs shape the actions of our life. Be covenant neighbors, allow one another to bring the blessing of light into our world.

Rabbi Erez Sherman is a rabbi at Sinai Temple.

Everyone Needs a Friend Like Mike

I met Mike in second grade. Our family had just moved to San Jose, Calif., where my father was recruited to be the cantor at the only Modern Orthodox synagogue in the city. Mike’s father was the shul president. Our parents became close friends. Mike and I became best friends.

We shared the same classroom and sat next to each other. Mr. Wilson, our second-grade teacher, divided the class into three reading groups, each occupying a corner of the room. Mike was an avid reader, so he placed in the high group. I wasn’t, so I was in the middle group. Mike lobbied our teacher to move me into his group so we could still sit next to each other. 

The pressure was on and it forced me to work on my reading. I spent Sunday mornings at Mike’s house reading the newspaper, a habit I learned to love. He went on to get a degree in business. I got a degree in journalism. 

Mike was the smartest person I’ve ever met. He knew everything about everything. His brain was bursting with curiosity and creativity. He had solutions for every political and societal problem. Innovative business ideas flowed endlessly. But his primary business kept him busy, as he dreamed of new and exciting ways to change the world. 

I envied Mike’s optimism and love for life. His greatest passions were his wife and kids followed closely by his parents and brothers. He spoke often about his father, a World War II veteran who helped liberate the Nazi death camps. My parents were in those camps. In a strange way, our parents’ very different histories helped mold their friendships.

Mike’s family had great genes. His grandparents lived to over 100 and his parents were healthy and youthful as they aged. When we were growing up, we would joke that his family wasn’t human. They lived forever. 

There is no replacing a best friend. You get one and that’s it.

That’s why it was so shocking when he casually told me he had seen a doctor about a lump in his throat. Soon tests confirmed the news we all dreaded. An aggressive cancer. 

Oddly, Mike wasn’t fearful. At least he didn’t show it. To him it was just another challenge that he would undoubtedly beat. Over the next seven years, he underwent multiple surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy. 

While following his medical team’s treatment plan, he created one of his own. He researched his cancer down to its unique cellular structure. A believer in holistic healing, he formulated a plan of diet and natural supplements to augment modern medicine. As he would say, “it couldn’t hurt.”

His optimism gave him the strength to fight, but it was up and down. He kept me posted on his condition. I just listened because I knew that’s what he needed. One day, he called after receiving the results of what his doctors referred to as a “miracle” scan. He was in great spirits and we made plans to celebrate New Year’s Eve together with our wives. But as the holiday approached, he cancelled. He didn’t give a reason. He didn’t have to.  

Over the next nine months I watched my best friend slip away. Our conversations focused on remembering the good old days. 

And then he was gone. 

In this age of social media, friendships can be fleeting. But not best friends. You can disagree and argue. But if it is a true best friend, you always return to the place when you first met and remember that best friends are forever, in life and even after.

I miss my best friend. I miss reminiscing about our shared childhood. I miss hearing about his latest business ideas. I miss his weekly Friday calls when he would wish me and my family a “wonderful and blessed Shabbos.” 

But most of all I miss his sincerity. A regular friend will ask how you’re doing and hope you don’t tell them. A best friend will want to hear the answer because they care.

There is no replacing a best friend. You get one and that’s it. Hopefully yours is someone like Mike.

Harvey Farr runs a Los Angeles-based public relations firm specializing in nonprofit marketing.

How Gratitude Changed My Life

Photo from Pexels.

Patience can wear thin, even when one is in a fairly good mood. Minor things such as traffic jams and no clean socks might transform into reasons for irrational frustration. A few months ago, I found myself yelling and cursing because I had forgotten to pack a dress I’d wanted to wear when traveling. After my rant was over, I felt drained. As I analyzed this feeling, it dawned on me I hadn’t written in my daily gratitude journal in quite some time.

Over time, I learned to counteract negative thoughts with positive thoughts, actions and affirmations. One of the actions I do is list what I’m grateful for. Sometimes, I focus on life-giving sustenance I often take for granted (clean water, access to healthful food); other times, I focus on my friendships, the people I call when I’m having a low moment, who lend me their hands to help me climb up from the space into which my negative thoughts placed me. 

There is a noticeable improvement in my mood on the days I actively engage in a gratitude journaling practice. My physical and mental spaces are more organized; I have clarity and understand the work in front of me; I’m not nearly as bothered by life’s annoyances.

I wear a different dress. 

Small stuff seems huge on the days I don’t write in my gratitude journal. A single negative thought may lead to multiple negative thoughts. This propels me nowhere but down. It is not a fun place to be — and it’s not productive. 

Many of us observe gratitude in the Birkat ha-Mazon prayers on Shabbat. Many of us practice gratitude on Thanksgiving. These weekly and annual “thanks” are positive, but what if we are grateful for something each day? Find something to be grateful for — even on days that are not our finest. When we give daily thanks, even for the simplest thing, we build a habit that encourages a positive life.

My gratitude practice changed my life as other virtues became nearly impossible to ignore. After I began to use the power of gratitude on a daily basis, I became grateful for it all: the good, the bad, the ugly. 

Gratitude can be an antidote to many negative experiences. We’re human, and we have moments in our lives that are difficult, yet they may seem less difficult with a dose of gratitude and the adoption of the mantra “This, too, shall pass.” Gratitude is the gateway to other virtues.

My gratitude practice changed my life as other virtues became nearly impossible to ignore. After I began to use the power of gratitude on a daily basis, I became grateful for it all: the good, the bad, the ugly. All three are there to teach us lessons, and lessons often turn into blessings.

“Practice” is the key word here. Life ebbs and flows; some days, I’m on top of listing what I’m grateful for while on other days, I’m scattered (or worse, I’m airing my grievances). I try to use those scattered moments to bring myself back to my center. And what’s at the center is a simple “thank you.”

My life unfolds more ideally when I choose to think more positive thoughts, acknowledging my blessings on a daily basis. When negative thoughts creep in from a lack of daily gratitude … well, I yell about an inanimate piece of fabric.

The more reasons we find to give thanks, the more blessings we’ll have; the more blessings we have, the more beautiful our lives can be. This Thanksgiving, I invite you to show up to the table giving thanks for the abundant harvest of your life. I invite you to take away a gratitude practice that becomes an everyday feast.

Heather Colleen Reinhardt is an author, speaker, producer, entrepreneur and yogi. Her debut book, “Go Love Yourself,” was released earlier this year. You can follow her on Instagram @heathereinhardt. 

Holocaust Survivor Reflects on Childhood Friend Anne Frank in New Book

Laureen and Rudi Nussbaum’s wedding in 1947. Otto Frank, the best man, is pictured far left in the window. Photo courtesy of Laureen Nussbaum

Ninety-two-year-old shoah survivor Laureen Nussbaum is finally sharing her story of survival in “Shedding Our Stars: The Story of Hans Calmeyer and How He Saved Thousands of Families Like Mine.” 

In the book, Nussbaum paints a realistic picture of what life was like in Amsterdam for herself, her friend Anne Frank and their families. The story also focuses on how one young German lawyer helped thousands of Jews escape deportation from the Netherlands during the German occupation.

Born Hannelore Klein in 1927 in Frankfurt, Germany, Nussbaum and her family escaped to Amsterdam when she was 8 years old. They moved into a neighborhood with many refugee families including Anne Frank and her family, who were old friends from Frankfurt. 

Speaking with the Journal by phone, Nussbaum said, “My parents knew the Franks as they had been part of the same liberal synagogue in Frankfurt. But I don’t remember seeing the girls in Frankfurt. Margot (Anne Frank’s older sister) was a year and a half older than me and I was two years older than Anne so I was smack in between, and I did not model myself after a little talkative girl who was two years younger than I was. I modeled myself after her very dignified older sister.”

Over the years, Nussbaum saw more of Margot than of Anne, but in 1941 Anne acted in a play that Nussbaum directed in her parents’ apartment. “Beginning in 1941, we were not allowed to attend any cultural events so the Franks and my parents instituted a little reading circle to read German classics. It took place in different households and Margot, who was part of the book circle, would come to our house regularly. In the fall of 1941, we rehearsed a play, which I had brought from Frankfurt called ‘The Princess With the Nose.’ We did the play in our apartment and Anne was the lead so I would see her several times a week until we had the play under control. Anne was very lively, and she learned her lines very fast so she was very bright, clearly,” Nussbaum recalled.

In January 1942, the Nazis began the systematic roundup and deportation of Amsterdam’s Jews to the German death camps. “In the spring of 1942, it was quite obvious things were turning for the worse,” Nussbaum recalled. “We had to start wearing the yellow star. During that time, the Franks got busy building up their hiding place. And my parents got busy seeing whether they could let on to the fact that my grandmother was not Jewish and maybe conjure up a non-Jewish grandfather to match her, which meant that our family would not be fully Jewish anymore.” 

When Hans Calmeyer, the German official in charge of “dubious cases,” decided in favor of their petition to be considered non-Jews, Nussbaum’s mother and sisters were allowed to shed their yellow stars, and her father, living in a “privileged mixed marriage,” was not deported. As a result, Nussbaum’s family never went into hiding. 

We did a play in our apartment and Anne was the lead. She was very lively, and she learned her lines very fast so she was very bright, clearly.”

  Laureen Nussbaum

After the Franks went into hiding, the families did not see each other. “I did not think about these things. It was too dangerous,” Nussbaum said. “You did not want to know anything you didn’t have to know because there was always the danger that you would be apprehended and maybe tortured.”

Nussbaum, who now lives in Seattle, and her family did reconnect with Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father and the sole survivor of the Frank family, after the war. “We were overjoyed when Otto came back. He was sure that his two girls had survived because he had learned they were in Bergen-Belsen and it did not have gas chambers. My then-fiancé, Rudi, was also searching for his mother,” Nussbaum said. “So Otto and Rudi would go together every day to the railroad station with pictures of their loved ones. Otto eventually found out the fate of the girls in June of 1945, and Rudi that his mother had died after the war after being liberated by the British.”

It wasn’t until after the war that Nussbaum learned of Anne’s talent. “What surprised me was that Anne was such an excellent writer. The moment I read her diary, I knew it was exceptional,” she said.

In 1947, Nussbaum and Rudi married. Otto Frank was their best man. The Nussbaums moved to the United States with their three children in 1957, eventually settling in Portland, Ore. Rudi joined the faculty of Portland State University and Nussbaum went on to earn her doctorate in German language and literature from the University of Washington.

As the years went by, Nussbaum came to realize that not many people knew the story of Calmeyer and how he had saved at least 3,700 Jews. “There were several books in German and Dutch on Hans but there was nothing in English except for a four-page citation from Yad Vashem after they had made him a righteous among the nations. So I felt compelled to write about this outstanding man,” Nussbaum said. “The man never bragged about his anti-Nazi stance. He just kept it to himself and was very interested in helping Germany after the war. He is not your typical hero.” Calmeyer died in 1972 at the age of 69.

It was in 2013, while Nussbaum was researching the book, that close friends suggested that she should weave her own memoir with the biography of Calmeyer: “Writer Ursula Le Guin, a colleague of mine, Tony Wolk and my co-author Karen Kirtley, all felt that my own story would add to the human interest of the book,” she said.

For Nussbaum, one of the key points she wants readers to take away from the book is that “people have to take responsibility. You cannot be like the Germans who said, ‘Well, we were only following orders.’ And Hans Calmeyer is an example. He was right under the eyes of the German Reichskommissar and he still found little ways to help people in life-and-death situations. We have to resist. We have to look out for opportunities even if it is against our government and the ruling convictions.”

For now, Nussbaum is living life to the fullest. “I am busy as a beaver,” she said. “I have already given five book launches and have three more upcoming ones. I have been asked to write an essay again so I am very happy that people still want my input.  I am way too busy for a person of 92.”

The Importance of Finding a Good Couple

The writer’s wife, Nancy, left, and the writer flank Yosy and June Schames.

My wife and I spend time with many other couples and mostly find it very rewarding. I find it’s not always easy for a married couple to find another couple whose four members get along. We’re lucky to have many such friends. 

There are a million reasons why people do or don’t like one another. Here’s why we get along with one particular couple:  We all enjoy hanging out and doing things together. We never feel like they’re squeezing us in like we’re on the “we owe them dinner” list. It’s reminiscent of friendships of your childhood, not complicated, like many adult relationships. 

We’ve traveled with them to Israel, Canada, Europe, Alaska and Mexico and look forward to our next trip. One of their great qualities is they say yes to practically everything. If, during a trip, we say, “Let’s meet in the lobby at 9 a.m.,” they’re in the lobby five minutes early. 

Last year, the wife suggested we see a show called “Shen Yun.” It was $160 a ticket and was so bad that we left halfway through. Then I suggested we see a play called “Happy Days,” which was worse than “Shen Yun.” Guess what? We’re still going to plays together and still laughing about it. 

And like a lot of Jewish couples, the husband has no say in what event he’s attending or when. I used to ask the husband first if they wanted to join us. His answer was always, “Call my wife.” Then the day before the event, I’d say to him, “See you tomorrow at the play.” Like a 3-year-old, he’ll say, “Oh good. I’m going to a play. I didn’t know that.” 

I think this relationship works because the wives enjoy talking and doing things together with or without their husbands. Many nights they talk on the phone, which is 30 minutes when I won’t say something stupid and get into a fight. 

We like to laugh and make one another laugh. That really helps.

Also, my friend and I are proof that two men can get together and not utter the “S” word: “sports.” We never ever talk sports. We never sit down and watch a game. What we like to do is tell each other jokes but many times, we discuss deep subjects. We both love learning things. We never talk about other women, rarely gossip and enjoy discussing family and children.

We’re all passionate about Judaism. He likes to teach and I like to learn. When we travel together, we always bring a sefer (holy book) to learn with and discuss. The wives also are included in that, which thrills them to no end but we married good sports. 

We like to laugh and make one another laugh. That really helps. We have had some incredible belly laughs when  we thought we might have to call a medic if we kept howling much longer. While driving in Italy a few years ago, we arrived at a tollbooth and, for some reason, we were laughing so hard that the booth operator thought we were laughing at him and wouldn’t lift the arm to let us pass until we stopped laughing. That made us laugh even more. We sat there for almost five full minutes laughing while the tollbooth operator looked the other way. Every time someone said, “Stop laughing,” we’d laugh even more. 

And most important, we like being with good people, which they are. Twice a week for years, they have opened their home to whomever wants to come and learn Torah. They also supply dinner for anyone who comes. For years, they’ve delivered food with their children for Tomchei Shabbos, an organization that gives free food to people who might not have food for Shabbos. They moved the husband’s elderly mother into their home and treat her with the utmost respect and love.

And of course, trust. You have to know that if push comes to shove, your friends are there for you. 

When you find a couple like this, hang on to them. They are very rare. I hope you find that couple or you can borrow ours, but not for too long.

Mark Schiff is a comedian, actor and writer.

Israel On the Road: What I Learned from Israeli Taxi Drivers

Umbrella season on Yoel Solomon Street in Jerusalem. Photos by Sarah Tuttle-Singer

I love to take taxis in Israel.

I love to move from city to city, through the hills, across the plains, stuck in snarling traffic or flying down the highway. I love the winding roads through emerald green forests, and the long, flat stretches through the vast, white deserts.

And mostly, I love to take taxis because I love to talk to the drivers — like Gila, who wears turquoise rings, smells like coconuts and brays when she laughs; or Yossi, who knows all the words to every song by Tina Turner; or Ahmed, who prays five times a day facing Mecca and speaks fluent Yiddish.

I love that in an Israel that is often divided between religious and political differences, we get to share space.

I love how all the taxis smell the same — like cherry air freshener and cigarettes. I love how all the drivers complain about the cost of living, love their families and can’t wait for their next cup of coffee. And mostly I love how each person on the road has such different stories about who they are and what they’ve seen and where they want to go.

Above all, I love that I get to share some of these stories with you.

From Tel Aviv Central Bus Station to Jaffa Port 

“Taxi?” the man with the gold teeth asks.
“Yes. Jaffa Port, please.”
“Seventy shekels.”
“Nu. B’emet. Oh, come on. We’re 10 minutes away.”
“Fine. I’ll do it for 60.”
I roll my eyes and start to walk away.
“I’ll take you for 40,” another driver says. “I can see you aren’t a sucker.”
“Sagur. Deal.”
I get in the taxi.
“Where are you from? You look Swedish but you are too short to be Swedish,” he says.
“I’m from L.A.”

“I could fall for you,” he says. “Women bring down the world. Samson from your Bible, right? And the president of Israel, too. And Bill Clinton.” He sighs. “You look a little like the Swedish girl I saw in the Sinai many years ago when I was still too young to not know better. She was sitting there — without a shirt, without a bra, just … wow, wow, wow. I was staring and walking and staring and walking, and boom, I fell down the stairs and broke my leg. My friend laughed and said, ‘Well, you got something special, and now you pay for it.’ ”

I laugh.
We are close to the water now.
“Do you see that place?” he says. “That’s where the Dolphinarium was. Do you know it?”

I know it. I know about the kids blown to bits inside the nightclub in a horrific terror attack in June 2001.

“Those kids should have kids by now,” he yells out the window, shaking his fist. “They should have three kids each and be living in Ramat Gan. My God. Kids. They should be doctors and teachers and lawyers and maybe some would be getting divorced, but my God, they should be alive.”

“Yes, they should.”

“And now they’re tearing it down. Right. Left. It’s all bull—-. The government is bull—-.” He lights another cigarette. “Jew, Arab. It’s all bull—-.”

He takes a call and yells at someone.
“I’m sorry,” he says, hanging up. “It’s all bull—-.”
We curve around a hill. The old houses of Jaffa hug the terrain, the sky a deep blue.
“Look at this place,” he says. “It’s all bull—, but it’s my home.”
We get to the port and I hand him 50 shekels.
“Keep the change,” I say.
“Why? We said 40.”
I smile. “You gave me something special and I paid for it.” 

He laughs with all his teeth showing, and gives me a high-five. “Everything comes from above,” he says. “Even the bull—-. But especially mornings like this.”

A small road in central Israel.

From Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem to Kibbutz Gezer in central Israel

In the taxi with Raed, he says to me all the things I want to hear about peace and coexistence. “We all have to live together,” he says.

“You’re right,” I answer. 

“It isn’t easy in Jerusalem,” he says. “We don’t meet each other. Even if we are sitting at tables next to each other at the same restaurant.”

“Why is that?”
“Because the Jews are afraid to mix with us.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Because they’re afraid we’ll sleep with their women and marry them and have babies with them.”
I start to interrupt.

“Wait,” he says and holds up his hand. “I had a girlfriend — a beautiful Jewish Israeli girl. She was even in the army. I had no problem with this. I brought her home on some weekends and she would stay with me. My parents took it fine, even though she was working at a checkpoint near my cousin’s village. They didn’t care. She was nice. So it was OK. In our culture, it’s fine for me to marry someone who isn’t Muslim. OK, my sister can’t. She has to marry a Muslim, but men can marry Jews, Christians. It’s fine.”

“Because Islam is passed through the father, right?”
“Yeah. It isn’t that way for Jews, though.”
“I know. My dad isn’t Jewish. My mom is. So I’m Jewish.”

“Right. OK. So I go out with this girl and it’s fine with my family, but her family? Wow. They were so angry. We weren’t going to get married or anything. I liked her. She liked me. But they hated the idea that she went to sleep with me at night and woke up with me in the morning. And her family weren’t even those crazy extremists who beat up Arabs. They vote for the left: Avoda B.S. Meretz, Shmeretz. They’re all happy to be left wing and eat our hummus and talk about coexistence until their kids are playing with our kids or their daughter is dating one of us.”

“I guess they’re afraid.” 

“Yes. But why? I’m a nice guy. I met her father. I tried to shake his hand. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. Do you know how that feels?”

I do know. I’m Jewish and I’ve traveled in countries where it isn’t always comfortable to be a Jew, and I tell him that.

“It hurts,” Raed says. “It makes me not want to even try to talk to people from your side because you’ve drawn lines and you’ve made sides. OK. Not you, but most Israelis, when they look at me, they see a dirty Arab. I’m sorry but I have to say the truth. Don’t they remember what it was like to be a ‘dirty Jew’? ”

I don’t know what to say, except, “I’m sorry this is happening. I want it to be different.”

“Me, too. I saw something I’ll never forget. There was an attack by the Damascus Gate. A cop was stabbed and the guy who did it was shot. There was blood everywhere. Red blood. All over. And I couldn’t tell where the Jewish blood stopped and the Arab blood began. We all bleed the same color. So why does it matter so much where we come from? We all are born the same way and we die the same way, too.” 

David Street in the Old City of Jerusalem.

From Latrun Junction in  the Ayalon Valley to Jerusalem 

The driver is really, really happy. The radio is on. “Infected Mushroom.” He’s bopping along. “What’s today?” he asks me. “Sunday? Monday?”

“OK. So I still have to wait two days for my weed.”
I laugh.
“Do you smoke, kapara?”
“Not really.”
“Too bad. It’s great for parties, you know?”

He tells me about the desert, about dancing all night at raves, about this girl he loves with pink hair and tattoos all up and down her arms. He’s wearing a yarmulke, and there’s a sticker on the dashboard with a picture of the Rebbe.

I check the news. My stomach drops when I read the headline: 1 Israeli killed, 2 critically injured in a terror attack. 

“Oh, my God.”
“There was a terror attack.”
“This morning.”

He sighs. “This is why I don’t listen to the news. I don’t smoke weed because it’s fun. I mean, OK, it’s fun. But I smoke because I have to, I swear. I even have a doctor’s note. After what I went through in Gaza, I have to smoke.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“When I hear the news, I can’t function. I get so thin because I won’t eat. You wouldn’t believe it. I mean, I look good, but I feel like hell. I just stay in my house and turn off all the lights and I don’t watch TV and I just check the windows. No one can get near me. The only thing that helps is smoking.”

“That sounds so awful and I’m so sorry.”

“What a mess,” he says. “You know, when I was a kid, before Gaza became what it is, my dad used to take me there for shopping and for hummus and we would go to the beach. He would carry me on his shoulders and then he would put me down and sometimes I played with the Arab kids while he smoked cigarettes.”

“It was different, wasn’t it?”

I love to move from city to city, through the hills, across the plains, stuck in snarling traffic or flying down the highway. 

“Yeah, it was. It’s a mess now,” he says again in English. “And then when I was a soldier, I was a commando on the beach and we had to shoot and I remembered that I used to be there playing, and maybe I shot one of the kids I played with.”

He lights a cigarette. “What a mess. Now I smoke weed and I put on tefillin and I pray just to get by. I can’t listen to the news. It’s too much.”

“I understand.”

“But this is my country and I need to know what’s happening to my country.”

He fiddles with the dial and switches the station.

A dirt road on a moshav in central Israel.

From Herzl Boulevard in Rehovot to my home on the moshav in central Israel

The taxi driver calls me Saraleh because he can see my name is Sarah from the Get Taxi app. He also can see I used a profile picture where my hair is blown out all shiny, and he says, “It still looks like you in the picture but I can see you had a busy day today and didn’t do your hair. But thank God you’re busy. Being not busy is the worst. I retired 10 years ago and I almost lost my mind until I became a taxi driver, HaShem Yishmor — God protect you.”

My 9-year-old son coughs.
“Here, have a candy,” the driver says. “It’s a candy for coughs.”
“We don’t take candy from strangers,” my son replies.
“It isn’t really candy. It’s medicine for your cough.”
“We don’t take drugs from strangers, either,” my 11-year-old daughter says.
“I’m not a stranger. Right, Saraleh? Tell your kids. We are all Israeli. We are all family.”
We all take a candy. They’re sealed. I make a mental note to talk about this with my kids at home.

“Stay busy, Saraleh,” he says. “Remember, being busy is better than good hair.” He rubs his bald spot and laughs. “And don’t forget to give Uncle Pinchas 5 stars and a tip.”

From Ramle in central Israel to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem

The taxi driver has a tattoo on his right bicep of St. George slaying the dragon. His name is also George. And he also has an Israeli flag decal stuck on the dashboard.

I’m leaving the shuk in Ramle with my groceries, and the whole backseat of the taxi smells like mangos and fresh mint.

“I like your tattoo,” I say, and I show him the Coptic mermaid on my arm.
He asks if I’m Christian.
“No, I’m Jewish.”
“I’m a Christian. You’re lucky you’re Jewish.”
“How so?”
“This is your country. OK, I know outside of Israel it’s different but you can come here. This place will take you in no matter what.”
“That’s true,” I say. “This place is home.”

“You’re lucky,” he says again. “I wanted this place to be my home but it isn’t. I have no home. I was born here in Ramle and I am an Israeli but because I am not Jewish, Israelis look at me like I am an Arab and not a real Israeli. But most of the Arabs don’t accept me as a real Arab because they are Muslim and I am a Christian, so they call me a Zionist. Do you see? I want this place to be my home but it isn’t.”

“I’m sorry.” 

“You wouldn’t believe how hard I’ve tried to make it home. When I was in high school, I even begged the army to let me join. I sent letters. I even went to the offices in Tel Aviv. They said they have no record of me even applying. I wanted to join so badly to fight for this country and defend it but they don’t want me. Why? Because even though I am an Israeli, all they see is an Arab.” He sighs. “And now? I’ll tell you the truth. The first chance I get to leave this place, I am gone. Why should I stay where I’m not wanted? I would rather wander in the desert.”

We stop at a traffic light. He reaches over and peels the Israeli flag decal from his dashboard, crumples it, rolls down the window and throws it out.

A hot wind blows through the car. 

From Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv back home 

I think this must be the last taxi out of Tel Aviv on erev Yom Kippur. The streets have mostly emptied and already a few bicyclists are on the Ayalon freeway speeding toward the sunset.

That’s the thing about Israel. The whole country grinds to a halt on Yom Kippur. A stillness falls. Shops shutter, the radio goes silent. There’s nothing on TV unless you pay extra for satellite television. But the other thing about Israel is this place isn’t monolithic. There are people who fast. And people who don’t. There are people who pray. And people who won’t. Sometimes, people can’t.

And while the cars hold their parking spaces for 25 hours, in places like Tel Aviv, out come the bicycles. It’s amazing to see. From old men in neon orange short-shorts to little girls in pink helmets, to fathers and mothers chasing their kids who are riding three-wheelers, to teenage boys in Maccabi Tel Aviv jerseys trying to keep up with their pretty girlfriends, the highway becomes the Tour de France.

But that means we have to get off the road before sunset, before the holy day begins.

“Are you fasting?” the driver asks. “Eh,” he says, before I can answer. “Fast if you want. Don’t fast if you don’t want. Let me tell you a story. Every year on Yom Kippur, me and my army buddies would barbecue on the beach. Every single year. I brought the steaks. Sometimes chorizos after Yossi got back from Argentina. We drank beer and listened to music and smoked cigarettes from noon until three stars. Except one year, Yossi got a little religious on us and he said, ‘Halas, let’s go to synagogue this year.’ So we did. We all went.”

“How was it?” I ask.
“Ahh … first, ask me what year it was?”
“What year?”
“1973, kapara. 1973. Do you know what happened on Yom Kippur in 1973?”
Do I know what happened on Yom Kippur in 1973? 

While most of Jewish Israel — including these army buddies — were in synagogue on the holiest day of the year, Egypt and Syria launched a strike against Israel. 

Do I know what happened on Yom Kippur in 1973? 

There are men who held their friends in trenches and watched them die. There are women who never saw their husbands after their last kiss. There are babies who were born just a few months later with no fathers. 

Do I know what happened on Yom Kippur in 1973? 

We were almost brought to our knees. We almost lost that war. We almost lost everything. Even the right to fast on Yom Kippur. Or not fast. The right to stay in  synagogue or ride bikes down the Ayalon.

“Wow,” I say.

“So. You see? We never fasted again. We never went to synagogue on Yom Kippur. And every year since, we meet on the beach and barbecue like we did every year before that one terrible Yom Kippur when we went to synagogue like everybody else.” 

“Wow,” I say again.

“Eh,” the driver says as he slows for the exit. “That’s just how it is. Israel depends on our diversity. It’s why we keep surviving.”

Agripas Street outside Shuk Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem.

From Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem to the Jerusalem Central Bus Station 

“I went to high school in the Old City,” Mahmoud tells me in Hebrew when we pull out of the taxi stand by Damascus Gate. “It was the school just inside the gate, near Al Wad by the mosque.”

“What was the school like?” I ask.
“Just a school. It was closed half the week, though.”
“The army would come in and shut it down.”
“Why?” I ask again.
“Do the years 2000-2004 mean anything to you?”

“Oh.” The bloody, terrible years here when every siren was followed by another and another, when Jerusalem smelled like smoke and burning flesh. 

“Yeah,” he says. “It was the [Second] Intifada and the army would come in and just shut us down, and so, instead of sitting in the classroom and learning math and history, we would all go up on the roof and chuck stones off the sides; not little pebbles but real stones.” He shakes his head.

I feel my stomach twist. Stones thrown from that distance could pulverize your skull and turn you into pink and grey and red, sinew, bone and blood if you were underneath. They were children and the stones were the heaviest weapons they could find.

“It was messed up,” he says. “Stupid kids all of us, and we did stupid stuff. But I was angry. My big brother was shot in the back by soldiers and he couldn’t walk or eat and had to pee through a tube.”

I think of my kids and their childhood spent with no real uncertainty, no barbed wire, no forced closures, no anger, no reasons to climb a roof and throw things.

And then I also think of how we spent a summer sleeping in bomb shelters and running over parched earth, and how, like every Israeli, we all know someone who was killed or injured in a terror attack or war.

“It was hard,” he says. “The soldiers would also come into the classroom and just look at all our faces and, if they didn’t like one face, they’d pull the kid out even if he didn’t throw stones. Even if all he did was just sit there without blinking. That made them mad, when we would stare back at them with no fear.

“But I don’t blame the soldiers. They had their job and we had our job and I really just blame the school for letting them in and letting them shut us down, and letting us have all that free time to do stupid and terrible things. Someone should have been the grown-up and made us stop. But no one did.”

He takes a sip of coffee.

“How’s your brother now?” I ask.

“He’s still alive, but not really. He’s just a ghost in a dried-out husk with a tube for peeing.”

We sit in silence for a while and he offers me a sip of his coffee. I take it. It smells like earth.

“Those kids should have kids by now,” he yells out the window, shaking his fist. “They should have three kids each and be living in Ramat Gan. My God. Kids. They should be doctors and teachers and lawyers and maybe some would be getting divorced, but my God, they should be alive.”

From King George Street in Jerusalem back home 

I am sharing a taxi with this woman on a frigid, moonless night in Jerusalem.

She is on her way back from working late in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim. I am heading out of the city, exhausted. The last bus had come and gone, belching down King George Street, probably an hour before. We are stranded but I have enough for a taxi, and I ask if we can drop her off.

“No, it’s OK. I’ll walk,” she says.
“No way. It’s freezing and it’s late.”
A taxi pulls over and we get in. She gives him directions and I shut my eyes.

I had never met her before but we are both American, which means we’re landsmen, which is as close as family some days, and we talk about her work and about the friends we have in common and about the things she cares about.

“I just read a horrible article about the Yemenite kids who disappeared,” she says. “I want to believe it isn’t true, but …”

All those Yemenite babies who vanished when they were born. Their parents were told they were born blue, but there were no bodies and no graves, and a mother never forgets the cry her child makes when he is born pink and healthy.

This was years ago and Israel had a terrible track record of treating non-European Jews as less than human in the 1950s. Evidence is inconclusive. Maybe these babies really died. But many people believe these kids were taken away and adopted out to Ashkenazi families that couldn’t have children and would do anything to be parents. Some speculate that the babies went to grieving and childless Holocaust survivors. That’s the best-case scenario, and it’s still the worst.

“It’s awful. The worst,” I say. “I don’t even want to imagine.”

We drop her off.

The taxi driver doesn’t charge her for the ride. “And don’t worry,” he says. “I won’t charge extra for you. It was nice of you to make sure she got home.”

“It’s Israel. We take care of one another.”
I smile and close my eyes. The taxi driver clears his throat. “Pardon?” I ask.
“The girl we just took home. What she said about the babies. It’s true,” he says.
He looks at me in the rearview mirror.

“I’m a Yemenite,” he says. “And my aunt had two babies. Two beautiful little girl babies. And the doctors told her one of them died when she was born. She grieved for her dead child and she threw her whole heart into raising her living one. That girl — my cousin — got older and got her draft notice for the army and she went to the army and she saw a girl who had her exact same face. And they had the same birthday, too. But her name was Weiss or Gold or something Ashkenazi, not Yemenite like her name should have been.”

“What happened?”

“My cousin tried to talk to her but the girl pushed her away and told one of the officers that she was harassing her, and so they moved her to a different unit and we never knew what happened to her. Her twin sister.”

“That’s heartbreaking. I’m so sorry.”

“Sometimes the truth is too horrible to face. She couldn’t face it. My aunt never got over it. Neither will I. Please tell people so they know, too.”

I shiver. 

And it’s Israel, and we take care of one another. So I’m telling you, just like he asked.

From home to the Terem emergency clinic in Modi’in

It’s 6:30 a.m. and my son’s arm is red and swollen and tingly from a bug bite he got yesterday at a friend’s house. I call Uncle Pinchas the taxi driver, and as soon as he answers, he says, “What’s wrong?” because it’s 6:30 a.m.

I tell him I need to get to Terem Urgent Medical Care with my son, so he says, “I’m already on the way.” 

He rolls up 10 minutes later in his pajamas with his flag from Independence Day still waving from the window, and he drives us 15 minutes to Terem, and while my son and I wait for the doctor, he goes to get us coffee because everyone needs coffee, especially when your kid is in Terem, HaShem Yishmor — God protect you.

By the time we are finished with the doctor and everything is OK (except my son has That Kind of Jewish Mother who freaks out about bug bites), Uncle Pinchas the taxi driver is sitting in the waiting room still in his pajamas reading Israel Hayom and muttering to himself. 

He hands me the coffee and tells me to drink it in the waiting room because I shouldn’t spill on myself in the taxi — HaShem Yishmor.

My son wanders over to the vending machine and stares at it longingly.
Uncle Pinchas folds his newspaper, gets up and says, “What do you want me to buy you?”
“No, it’s cool,” my son says.
“But you are like a son to me,” Uncle Pinchas says, and he buys him a Snickers bar, the breakfast of champions.
“But don’t eat in the taxi because you could choke — HaShem Yishmor,” Uncle Pinchas says.

He drives 15 minutes back to the moshav through the sweet morning.
“Thank you for taking such good care of us,” I say when we arrive.
“Of course, you are like family to me,” Uncle Pinchas the taxi driver says.
“That’ll be 480 shekels.”

From Jerusalem back home 

It’s evening and the driver is laughing.

“What?” I ask, my one earbud still in an ear while I listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“That guy. Menachem.” He points to the driver in the taxi next to us. “He makes me laugh.”
He rolls down the window.
“Shalom! Ma koreh? How are you?” he shouts in Hebrew, his “k” hard and his “o” guttural.
Menachem in the other taxi, waves. “Kif Halak?” he replies in Arabic as he adjusts his black yarmulke.

We drive off.
“Do all the taxi drivers know each other?” I ask.
“Of course. We are family. We all look out for each other. When Menachem’s wife died, I came for shivah, and we break the fast together at least once every Ramadan.”

“Wow, that’s great.”

“La. It’s just reality. We have to be gentle with each other. At the end of the day, everyone just wants to get home.”

Sarah Tuttle-Singer is the new media editor at The Times of Israel and the author of “Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered: One Woman’s Year in the Heart of the Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish Quarters of Old Jerusalem.” She also speaks with audiences left, right and center through the Jewish Speakers Bureau. Sarah is a work in progress.

Gifts From Jerusalem

I arrived in Jerusalem on Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers. Despite the day’s somberness, little Israeli flags waved cheerfully from the side mirrors of thousands of cars and fluttered from thousands of apartment building windows in celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, which immediately follows Yom HaZikaron. 

I had jumped at the opportunity to return to Israel and teach at a writers’ seminar. Since my last visit with my husband two years earlier, Israel had claimed ever-growing space in my heart and mind. Rising anti-Semitism in the United States and abroad makes Israel feel, more than ever, the place that we should call home. 

The shuttle van driver from the airport fit a classic Israeli stereotype: reckless and rude. His sudden, screeching brake action kept me praying hard, my stomach lurching. Welcome back to Israel! I thought.

My relief upon arriving in one piece at the home of my friend Maya and her husband, Eliezer, was immense. Maya and I had been the best of friends at UC Berkeley, both active in Jewish campus leadership. After graduation, I cried as she left for a year’s stay in Israel. How would I get along without her? 

Her letters revealed her love of the land and the people. The friend I knew as Marcia became Maya, declared herself an olah chadasha (new Israeli citizen) and became a special education teacher. She and Eliezer, another oleh, have raised a beautiful family in Jerusalem. I always admired Maya’s decision, sometimes wishing I had shared her boldness and vision. Long gaps between our visits or other communication don’t matter. Whenever we reconnect, it’s as natural and dynamic as when we were young.

That first night, Maya and Eliezer took me to an outdoor prayer and song celebration for Yom Ha’atzmaut. I was swept up in the joyous spirit of more than 1,000 other Jews celebrating Israel’s birthday. Jet lag had no chance against such a soul-stirring experience, and Maya and I joined hands and danced and sang with other women. Despite the huge crowd, I even bumped into several friends from Los Angeles. Only in Israel!   

I also spent several days at the home of a woman I had met through an online Jewish writers’ network. With five of her nine children still at home, Libby’s daughters graciously slept on futons in the dining room while I commandeered their room. 

“Jet lag had no chance against such a soul-stirring experience, and Maya and I joined hands and danced and sang with other women. “

Libby made aliyah 17 years ago and became an accomplished writer. We carved out time to talk about our work and professional goals, identifying how our complementary skills could help each other. But our conversations transcended work and merged into the personal. We shared confidences. When I expressed some surprise at how much I found we had in common given that she is Charedi and speaks Yiddish much of the time with her children, she observed, “Beneath all the labels, categories and dress codes, we are all human beings, with hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows, struggles and triumphs. It was neither Orthodoxy or Chasidus that brought us together, but our shared humanity.”

Every day in Israel felt like a gift, an opportunity to breathe in the holiness of Jerusalem, to feel the imprint of Jewish history, the comfort of being among so many Jews. Israel, a land of miracles, offered up some for me. Plagued with chronic headaches, I never seem to get them there. And despite all the walking, even on hard stone surfaces, my finicky right knee always behaves. 

The evening I left, I was still packing in scattershot fashion when Libby called to me, “Come look at the sunset!” We gazed together from her fourth-floor apartment windows at the extraordinary beauty of Jerusalem’s twilight, bathing the Judean hills in pinkish-orange and then dusky purple as the sun eased itself below the horizon. 

“Jerusalem of gold,” I said, and Libby smiled and echoed the sentiment.  

On the street below, my heart was full and tears spilled from my eyes. Libby and I hugged each other tightly before I slid into the back seat of a taxi. I had come to Israel mainly for professional opportunities, but I left with so much more. I was nourished with the reassuring bond of a cherished and longstanding friendship, and discovered an unexpected channel for a brand-new and special friendship
to blossom.

Judy Gruen is the author of “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith.”

Politics Claims Another Friendship

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

My friendship with “Caroline” had been fading for years when, on a whim, I clicked on her Facebook page. When I landed there, I had a shock. She had replaced her previous personal photo — where she stands next to her husband, both of them smiling — with an illustration aiming daggers at political conservatives. It depicted a woman, seemingly Lady Justice, forcibly held down on a table. A man stands above her menacingly, his white hands projecting out of the sleeves of an expensive-looking suit. He gags the blindfolded woman with one hand as the other clamps down on her wrist, forcing her scales of justice to lay in disarray. 

The pièce de résistance? The bold red-white-and-blue Republican elephant logos burnishing the man’s shirt cuffs.

I gaped at the image, feeling a true sense of loss. Caroline and I had been close for more than 20 years, beginning in junior high school. In high school and college, we were both left of center. Wasn’t everybody? I loved and admired Caroline. She was delightful, adventurous, smart, warm and on a path to success despite a difficult family background. During college, I introduced her to a friend of mine, thinking they would make a great couple. I was honored to be a witness at their wedding more than 30 years ago.  

When I met my husband, I was introduced for the first time to conservative political and traditional Jewish teachings. I didn’t want them to make sense because, like so many Jews, I wore my liberal identity as a badge of honor. I resisted any paradigm shift in my self-perception or in how I perceived the world. But after long and careful consideration, I saw the value and wisdom in many conservative positions, both political and religious. My practices and beliefs drifted rightward, toward what I had previously considered “the dark side.” Caroline and I never talked politics after that shift but still found plenty of common ground in talking about our families, our jobs, books, music and more. 

Living on opposite sides of the country, we connected less and less often. In our politically polarized culture, I felt increasingly cut off from Caroline, and she stopped taking the initiative to call or email. This also was true of other old left-leaning friends. Several years ago, one of them unfriended me on Facebook after I posted a link to an article with evidence that tighter gun control laws do not necessarily correlate with lower rates of gun violence.

“The Judy I knew used to be more nuanced,” she typed, severing all ties. 

“It’s not healthy to live in a purist ideological bubble.”

Caroline’s choice to fuse her social media persona with her politics also felt like a final severing of our friendship. It demonized the left’s favorite target: white Republican men, and with its suggestion of sexual violence, it cheapened the experience of women who had endured such trauma. 

Ironies abounded: Haven’t the majority of men accused of such crimes in recent years been famous Democrats? And, far from conservatives stifling dissent or even the right to speak, aren’t conservatives the ones who are frequently banned from speaking at universities, and threatened with violence if they do? Don’t leftists dominate college campuses, the vast majority of news outlets and social media? Google and YouTube censor and restrict access to more than 80 videos produced by the conservative Prager University. Spotify and Twitter also refuse advertising from certain conservative organizations.  

Who exactly is gagging whom?

I have never regretted my decision to rethink my views, one that was scary at the time but one I know has provided a life of deeper meaning and joy. But I still miss the friendships with good, well-meaning people that had nourished me for so long, and which I knew would pay the price of my evolving viewpoints. I am blessed to have many longstanding, treasured friendships with like-minded individuals, but it’s not healthy to live in a purist ideological bubble. I would welcome respectful debate and discussion, but as many of my conservative friends have also found, liberal friends are usually unwilling to engage. 

 If meaningful engagement is too high a bar, maybe we can start by not demonizing those whose politics have strayed from our own.

Judy Gruen is the author of “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith.”

Giving Thanks for Relationships

Photo by Pexels

Amid the tragedies of the past few weeks that have engulfed us materially and spiritually, I remain amazed at the saving grace of human relationships. The heroism of the first responders to save the lives of complete strangers, even as they risk — and sometimes sacrifice — their own lives. The extraordinary outpouring of support for the Jewish people from other faith communities in the face of deadly anti-Semitism.

At the heart of these inspiring responses is the power of one-to-one relationships, what Jewish tradition calls bein adam l’chaveiro — the relationship between a person and a friend — the bedrock of community.

As we gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, it is worth pausing from the feasting and the football to reinforce the essential value of personal relationships and to celebrate the clarion call of our nation’s Founding Fathers: E pluribus unum — “from the many, one.” We Jews know the importance of “one.” Echad (“One”) is often the first Hebrew word we learn — and it is the last word of our most important prayer. More on that in a moment.

We are a people who love to talk. You know the old jokes. Two Jews, three opinions. Schwartz goes to synagogue to talk with God; Greenberg goes to synagogue to talk to Schwartz. My worry is that there is so much divisiveness in our discourse that, in fact, people are not talking to one another — in our shuls, in our organizations, in our friendship groups, even, I fear, in our families. Some of us have decided to ban any talk of politics when we gather together. That’s one solution, I suppose. But isn’t there a way to disagree without being disagreeable? I believe there is, and it is to remember that most important prayer, the Shema.

“Shema, Yisra- El! Adonai Eloheinu? Adonai Echad!”

A loose translation: “Listen, you God-wrestlers! Our God? Our God is One!”

“As we gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, it is worth pausing from the feasting and the football to reinforce the essential value of personal relationships.”

The key words are shema and echad — “listen” and “oneness.” May I suggest we use these imperatives as the ground rules for our family conversations. Stop talking and listen. Listen to the other, especially those who hold opposite views. Don’t interrupt. Don’t be aggressive or defensive. Just listen. When the other has said her/his piece, say your piece and insist on the same ground rules. Have a peace-full conversation. That’s the meaning of shema.

Then, remember echad. Not only is God One, we are One. That’s not just on old fundraising slogan; it is the fundamental value of monotheism, democracy and community. We need to protect our relationships with one another. There are far too many who would love to see us tear ourselves apart. Let’s not do it to one another.

We have so many blessings to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend — our loving families, our communities of belonging, our laden tables, our magnificent country. You can celebrate our gifts of freedom by checking out the “American Thanksgiving Seder” family celebration ritual the late Larry Neinstein and I initiated back in the ’90s, which was then fully realized by Lee Meyerhoff Hendler at freedomsfeast.us.

Here’s a radical idea: Share this column with those relatives and friends you find difficult to talk to these days, along with a sincere personal note giving thanks for your relationship with them, no matter what. Relationships are that precious.

Thanksgiving is a wonderful opportunity to reach across the table — and the aisle — to preserve the essence of our families, our friendships and our society committed to civility, the sacred relationships we share with one another.

Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and the author of “Relational Judaism.” 

The Blessing of Friends


It’s been a tough few years for friends. Friendships used to be about, well, friendship. But in the past few years, friends have been required to take a political test, just like everything else. And it’s pass or fail, no gray areas.

Like most people, the politicization of friendship has left me hurt, angry and ultimately baffled. My initial foray into this realm was over publicly defending Israel in its ongoing war with Hamas. For this crime, friends of 25 years stopped talking to me. Others were so fearful that associating with me would affect their status that they would only meet me on the sly.

Ultimately, I got to the point of believing, as I still do, that Israel is a mirror to one’s soul. If someone is willing to destroy a great friendship over my support of Israel — if someone could choose status in increasingly Stalinistic social circles over me — then he or she was never who I thought they were, and neither was our friendship.

My ability to let it go was aided to a large degree by the fact that these faux friends were fairly quickly replaced. I began to call my new friends “souls of beauty” because, truly, that’s what they were. United by a love for our heritage and homeland, our friendships became mirrors of our love for Israel. We could disagree about this or that, but our friendships would always spring back to the place where they had begun — in the heart.

My outlook changed this year, though, when I entered probably the most difficult period of my life. From my old friends — who I had helped through adultery, cancer and loss — I received nothing, not even a phone call. They were aware of what I was going through, but it seemingly meant little to them, or at least maintaining their status meant more.

As my new friends saw this, they stepped up even more. They were amazing, truly angels of the heart. But given the depth of what I was going through, it still hurt.

Ironically, my 9-year-old son, Alexander, known more for alpha traits than empathy, has helped me put it all in perspective. He, too, has been having issues with some of his friends. When I learned what was going on — at school every day an entire lunch table was bad-mouthing him, and his good friends weren’t standing up for him — I was livid.

He shrugged. Thinking maybe I wasn’t seeing the whole picture, I tried casually asking him, “So, when they all said this about you, and X and Y said nothing, that didn’t bother you?” He shrugged again.

“Some people stand up for you; most people don’t,” he said, suddenly sounding like Freud. “That’s not who they are.”

“I do hope this politicization of friendship passes, that my old friends eventually understand that the bonds we had are far more important than status or politics.”

I was speechless. He’s never sounded this mature about, well, anything. Moreover, he was displaying more maturity than me. The first buds of responsible, emotionally intelligent manhood were right there before me. Even though some of his friends took their cues from what others were doing, not what was right, he would continue to stand up for them, no matter what.

In the days that followed, I thought about this as it related to my longtime friends who had chosen status over friendship. Yes, I guess I could see this as a weakness on their part. I took it one step further: if any of them needed me — called me from a hospital bed or some other desperate situation — would I be there for them? Of course. In a heartbeat. With all else forgotten.

I do hope this politicization of friendship passes, that my old friends eventually understand that the bonds we had are far more important than status or politics. But do I regret for a second standing up for Israel when she needs us the most? Not in the least. And I will continue to do so because my bond with Israel — with God — is only matched by my bond with my son.

Someday I’ll tell Alexander what happened during this difficult period in my life. I feel blessed to know that he will most certainly understand.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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

Israel and Azerbaijan: Yes, Jews and Muslims can be friends!

Flags of Azerbaijan and Israel

Flags of Azerbaijan and Israel


I have talked a lot and have written many articles about how strong the Azerbaijan-Israel relations are and how these countries are important to each other. Last week marked another important milestone in the development of our bilateral relationship and was special for the Jewish community of the majority-Muslim Azerbaijan. On September 13-17, the Defense Minister of Israel Avigdor Lieberman visited Azerbaijan, as part of his visit to the region, which also included a trip to neighboring Georgia. Lieberman had visited our country before on several occasions, but only as a Foreign Minister. What makes the recent visit special is that it was his first visit to Azerbaijan in his capacity as Israel’s Defense Minister, and compared to his one-day stay in Georgia, he spent full five days in Azerbaijan, holding many high-level meetings. This alone is a striking example of how Israel attaches a great importance to its relationship with Azerbaijan.

A major highlight of Lieberman’s visit was his meeting with the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, under whose visionary leadership the strategic partnership with Israel has been elevated to the current level. He also met the Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Foreign Minister, Interior Minister and other high ranking officials, as well as the country’s Jewish community leaders. At all meetings, successful cooperation between the two countries in various fields was commended. Azerbaijan’s unique model of multifaith tolerance, harmony and multiculturalism was also hailed during the meetings.

As the Head of the Community of the Mountain Jews of Baku, I was honored to meet with Mr. Lieberman to discuss the current status of the Jewish community, as well as the fruitful cooperation between our two nations. I was delighted to present Lieberman with Albert Agarunov Award on behalf of our community. Newly established by the Community of the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan, this award is presented to Azerbaijani and foreign nationals, who strongly contribute to the strengthening of Azerbaijan’s defense capabilities. It is no coincidence that the award is named after Albert Agarunov. Hailing from “Qırmızı Qəsəbə” (Red Town), which is today one of the largest all-Jewish towns outside of Israel, Albert Agarunov was a Jewish warrior and tank commander. He voluntarily enlisted in the Azerbaijani Army in 1991 and fought in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, defending the territorial integrity of his homeland – Azerbaijan against invasion and aggression by Armenia. Albert was killed in 1992 on the battlefield near the Azerbaijani town of Shusha by an Armenian sniper. He was posthumously awarded the title of National Hero of Azerbaijan and was buried at the sacred Martyrs’ Lane in Baku. The extraordinary and unique story and devotion of this 23-year old Azerbaijani-Jewish hero to his homeland is not only fondly remembered by the people of Azerbaijan, but also by many Jews worldwide. During his stay in Azerbaijan, the Israeli Defense Minister also paid tribute to Agarunov, by visiting his grave and laying flowers.

Azerbaijan and Israel share a unique, time-tested and special relationship, which is based on mutual trust and understanding at all levels. Over the years, a number of Israeli leaders have visited our country, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (1997 and 2016) and President Shimon Peres (2009).

Israel is one of the first countries in the world, which formally recognized and established diplomatic relations with the newly independent Azerbaijan in the beginning of the 1990s, opening an embassy in Baku.

Today Israel and Azerbaijan enjoy an advanced cooperation in the fields of energy, defense, national security, medicine, agriculture, IT, tourism, etc. Many Israeli companies operate in the country. Trade turnover between the two countries is growing each year, and some years ago it even was much bigger than Israel’s trade with France. Israel receives around 40% of its oil from Azerbaijan. Furthermore, the two countries are working closely to fight international terrorism and extremism and to achieve peace in their respective neighborhoods. This, in fact is very important in terms of regional and international security.

Another crucial aspect of Azerbaijan-Israel relations is the Jewish community of Azerbaijan. For over two thousand years, Azerbaijan has been a safe haven and homeland for Jews, where they have lived and continue to do so in an environment marked by zero anti-Semitism. It is because in Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shiite-Muslim country located between Iran and Russia, people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, including Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and representatives of other faiths, have been living together in peace, brotherhood and mutual respect for many centuries. There has always been a strong relationship between ethnic and religious communities in the country and ethnic, religious or racial discrimination has never existed in Azerbaijan. Today Jews are represented and take an active part in almost all spheres of life in Azerbaijan, including politics, medicine, education, science and culture. Moreover, seven synagogues, two Jewish elementary schools, three kindergartens and one Yeshiva are operating in Azerbaijan.

This unique bond and partnership between Azerbaijan and Israel and the peoples of the two countries is a clear message for everyone who doesn’t or doesn’t want to believe in the possibility of peaceful coexistence, cooperation and mutual respect between Muslims and Jews. As a Jewish community leader, I will continue to contribute to the further development of this friendship between our nations and promote this heroic model of togetherness for the whole world.

Israel and Azerbaijan: Celebrating 25 Years of Friendship

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December, 2016


On April 8, 2017, Azerbaijan and Israel will celebrate 25 years of friendship. As it says in the Talmud, friendship is a “critical element to our lives as Jews and for all mankind.”

On December 25, 1991 Israel became one of the first countries in the world to formally recognize the newly independent Republic of Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and on April 8, 1992, the two nations established formal diplomatic ties, which have only grown closer over the 25 years since. As an Azerbaijani Jew, I have an intimate knowledge of how important and inspiring this friendship is. As a leader of my community, who has traveled across the world to many Jewish communities, I know this anniversary has profound meaning for us all.  

Israel and Azerbaijan are both exceptional countries that share much in common. They are both leaders in finding innovations in technology, energy, emergency management and international security. They are both home to diverse communities, where Christians, Muslims and Jews live as one. Israel stands alone as a progressive democracy in a region deeply embroiled in conflict and strife, and Azerbaijan stands alone in an equally unstable region; the world’s only nation to border both Iran and Russia and the only secular majority-Muslim democracy of its kind in quite a turbulent part of the world.

Israel and Azerbaijan have worked together closely over the years to establish deep and lasting trade, and today, approximately 50 percent of Israelis’ cars drive around each day with Azerbaijani oil in their gas tanks. Azerbaijan enjoys a close cooperation with Israel in the fields of technology and expertise, especially when it comes to defense, national security, medicine, IT and agriculture. President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both visited Azerbaijan several times, and on his most recent visit in late 2016, Prime Minister Netanyahu said of Azerbaijan that “Here is an example of what relations can be and should be between Muslims and Jews everywhere.”

The relationship goes beyond trade and mutual goals of safety and fighting extremism.  There is a tremendous understanding of mutual respect between the two nations. To demonstrate how far this goes, I remember when one of Azerbaijan’s lead imams stated that “There is nothing in Islamic law to prevent Jews from ascending the Temple Mount and the ones who claim otherwise are considered heretics in Islam.” I remember only 2 years ago, when the European World Games successfully took place in Baku, and the largest delegation of Israeli athletes in history had flown into Baku to participate in the games, and how the crowds cheered so beautifully as they graced the arena. And last year, Azerbaijan hosted the joint exhibit of Simon Wiesenthal Center and UNESCO, titled “The People, the Book, the Land”, which tells the story of us, the Jewish people, as we trace 3,500 years back to the land of Israel. It is no small statement for a majority-Muslim nation to make. It was the undoubtable act of friendship and respect.

When i was growing up in the Soviet Union, I never imagined that I would one day celebrate the 25th anniversary of Azerbaijan and Israel as diplomatic partners and allies. Such a notion to a Jew of this region was practically unimaginable. But like so many things in this life that are wonderful and inspiring, this friendship was a dream that came true.

As we come next week to Passover, I believe it is important to celebrate this anniversary and recognize that we are partners in peace across every continent. May the friendship shared between the Jewish state and the majority-Muslim ally of the Caucasus stand as a heroic model for the friendship that is possible between nations of any and every faith. My prayers and heart are looking forward to another 25 years of growing and fortunate friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan.


Camp: With social media, campers now stay connected through an endless summer

For 12-year-old Sophie Golden, camp is “kind of like a different world,” where electronics are a no-go and her bunkmates feel more like sisters than friends. When she misses that feeling during the year, there’s an easy way to get it back, even if just for a fleeting moment — by checking her phone.

That camp feeling “is coming back a little bit, but the second I stop texting, it goes away,” said Golden, who attends Beber Camp, a Jewish summer camp in Mukwonago, Wis. She said she never worries at the end of the summers about losing touch because she and most of her camp friends stay in constant contact in group chats and on Snapchat, the photo messaging application.

Though camp has traditionally been a summer-only experience, the increased use of social media and technology by kids is changing that — and camps are catching on.

“For our campers, that camp experience of being connected to your camp friends never ends, it doesn’t just last eight weeks of the summer anymore,” said Jamie Lake, who serves as marketing manager for the Jewish Community Centers of Chicago’s two overnight camps and nine day camps.

That’s a positive as Lake sees it.

“I think it’s fantastic,” she said. “Anything that we can do to keep the positive feeling of Jewish overnight camp going longer than just the summer is a benefit, not only to our camp programs, but really to our campers and their families.”

And the JCC Chicago camps rely on social media, too, in keeping campers connected, such as using Facebook’s live streaming service in order to broadcast reunions to campers who cannot attend.

Social media also provide a way for campers to hang out — virtually, that is.

Camps Airy & Louise, Jewish brother-sister overnight camps in Thurmont and Cascade, Md., organize year-round events that campers can attend by logging onto Facebook and Instagram. During Chanukah, the camps ran a scavenger hunt in which campers were asked to photograph themselves wearing their camp shirts in various locations, and submit the pictures to the camps’ social media pages. Camps Airy & Louise also run online fantasy football leagues and NCAA men’s basketball March Madness brackets.

“If they’re going to be in a fantasy football league — some of them are probably already in three or four — why not be in a fantasy football league with camp?” said Jonathan Gerstl, the executive director at Camps Airy & Louise.

Golden’s Beber Camp organizes virtual events once a month during the year, such as “Where in the World is Beber?” when campers on winter break post photos of themselves around the world.

Brad Robinson, manager of customer experience and marketing at Beber Camp, said that anywhere from a few dozen to 200 kids — the latter representing nearly a third of all campers — participate in the events.

Although Golden communicates with her camp friends on her smartphone at least once every other day, she makes time for in-person meet-ups. Still, asked to imagine a world without cellphones, Golden said her relationships with camp friends would probably suffer.

“I think we wouldn’t be as close in the summer and have as much to connect to,” she said.

Robinson of Beber Camp echoed Golden’s experience.

“I think [social media] definitely allows for deeper relationship building, because they are just a few finger taps away from communicating with their friends,” he said. “It has allowed campers and staff to really further build those relationships, where in the past, it was only when they saw each other in person, or they were maybe writing some slower mail or emails back and forth.”

And parents are catching on too, using group chats to share letters they received from their children or to ask one another questions.

“Parents find out who’s in their child’s bunk and they exchange phone numbers and they start a group text to everybody,” Rabbi Joel Seltzer, executive director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Conservative Jewish camp in Lakewood, Pa., said.

For other parents, social media provides not only a way to connect with their children’s camp experiences but also to the camps they attended in their youth.

This summer, Sophie Golden’s mother, Davina, will be attending a reunion for Herzl Camp in Webster, Wis. — her first reunion since she worked there as a counselor 25 years ago. Davina Golden said she probably would not be attending were it not for having connected with old camp friends on social media.

“I lost touch with a lot of my friends,” she said, “but then, since Facebook, we all got in touch with each other.”

See how teen pals found each other some 50 years later

As a librarian, Oren Kaplan researches obscure facts and utilizes databases to track down information.

So when the Haifa resident read a recent “Seeking Kin” column about someone in his city, Menahem Orenstein, who hoped to locate a long-lost childhood buddy, Kaplan decided to put his experience to work.

Within a week, Kaplan had located Orenstein’s old friend, David Bak, living in Stockton, California, about 70 miles east of Oakland. That’s Bak, not Beck (remember the names).

Orenstein and Bak, who worked together at a Haifa auto repair shop in the late 1960s while attending technical high schools, expressed delight at reconnecting and hope to meet within a year.

Much to the delight of Kaplan, a Maryland native who works at the central library at the Technion: Israel Institute of Technology. He described the gratification he feels: “a combination of solving a crossword puzzle, winning at Bingo, inventing the light bulb and watching someone taste ice cream for the first time.”

When Orenstein called, Bak admitted to being “shocked and surprised.”

“I said, ‘Is that you, Menahem?’” Bak recalled.

Orenstein would telephone Bak nearly every day for a week, and between conversations they corresponded and exchanged pictures through Facebook.

On a 2011 visit to Haifa, Bak said he searched for Orenstein, but couldn’t remember his surname – the consequence of more than 40 years’ passage.

Since his parents moved the family to the United States in 1968 – not 1969, as Orenstein had recalled – Bak has retained a passion for cars, and not just those he repaired for a living.

In the early 1970s, he bought a 1966 Chevrolet El Camino and over the years redid its chassis, souped up the engine and repainted it several times. Eventually Bak gave the car to his son, Daniel, who lives in Sacramento and drives it most Sundays. Still, at age 50, the El Camino has traveled only 66,000 miles.

Bak also repaired and enjoyed driving a 1932 Chevrolet Model A before selling it four years ago. And he’s bought, repaired and sold many other cars.

Most of Bak’s career, though, was spent working in warehouses and being a heavy-equipment operator. Now, at 64, he’s retired. In addition to his son, he has a daughter, Rachel, who lives in Los Angeles, and a granddaughter. Later this year he’ll visit the Philippines, the homeland of his second wife. The trip after he’ll go to Israel.

He recalled his family leaving Israel because his father, Benzion, was concerned by Bak’s approaching draft age. But in America, Bak learned he also could be drafted and possibly sent to Vietnam.

Bak thought then, “Forget this – I’d rather fight [for Israel].” He nearly returned, until his U.S. military draft lottery number wasn’t called.

His family settled in Oakland because Bak’s paternal uncle, Boris, had moved there several years earlier. Natives of Poland, Benzion and Boris made it to Israel after spending 10 years in a Russian prison, where the brothers were incarcerated for fighting for the partisans. Seven of their brothers and sisters were murdered in the Holocaust. Three other siblings survived, settling in Uruguay, Israel and America.

Bak’s mother, Susanna, a native of Germany who survived the Holocaust, is now 88 and lives with Bak’s sister, Sara Horn, near Los Angeles.

Now back to Bak and Beck.

In searching for Bak, the key stumbling block for Orenstein and “Seeking Kin” was misspelling his surname Beck.

But when Kaplan tried the unconventional spelling, the dominoes fell. He searched on the websites of various public-records database aggregators, such as Intelius.com and Radaris.com, where the information matched some of what had appeared in the “Seeking Kin” column, such as the names of Benzion, who died in 2005 and is buried near Oakland; and of Susanna. Kaplan even turned up a contemporary photograph of Bak that bears a striking resemblance to the one appearing in the “Seeking Kin” article.

That image, showing the teenage Bak sitting in a 1962 Bonneville, was snapped on Oakland’s Walker Avenue, in front of an apartment building where the family lived. Bak recalled with delight that he smuggled 12 high school friends who crammed into the Bonneville’s trunk into the since-razed Union City Drive-In to watch a movie.

For Orenstein, finding Bak is a climax equaling any film.

“It’s exciting – no doubt about it. It’s the closing of a loop after 45 years. It’s nostalgia,” he said. “The decades passed – the first, second, third and fourth – and the curiosity increased. We can’t return to the days of yore, but [now] we can visit each other and share our experiences.”

Orenstein said he’ll arrange a reunion of those who once worked at Garage Express, now called Hyundai Garage. The shop’s former owner, Zeev Solomon, has pledged to attend, as has the current owner, Danny Finkelstein — his late father, Baruch, owned the shop when Orenstein and Bak worked there as teens.

Coming back, too, are several long-ago mechanics with whom Orenstein has maintained contact: Uzi Balila, Yossi Itzkovitch, Yaakov Bichacho and David Kuba.

The one who’ll make the gathering complete, Orenstein said, is Bak.

Savoring life in Tel Aviv under the rockets

I walk six blocks each morning through the Florentine neighborhood of Tel Aviv to the bus stop for the 51. At block number five, in the shade off to the right of the sidewalk, I spot the familiar sight of the old man sitting in a folding chair. We don’t know anything about each other, yet a friendship has somehow blossomed between us: a 20-year-old American girl and an elderly Israeli man. It started five weeks ago with simple pleasantries, me eager to use my rusty Hebrew and interact with real locals. Our daily “boker tov” pleasantries soon turned into a routine, the face of the aged gentleman breaking out into a smile as I walked by. He often asked with genuine concern why I wasn’t eating breakfast, as if eating a hearty Israeli style meal was exactly what I should be doing on my brisk walk to work.

One humid Tel Aviv morning as I walked by, the old man reached under his chair, offering me an unopened bottle of orange juice he had purchased. I fervently declined, but after he insisted in typical borderline-aggressive Israeli fashion, I relented, taking a sip but claiming “ani lo rotzah et ha kol”, giving him back the rest. A week later he asked me why I was always in a hurry, telling me to slow down, to enjoy. Since then, I have.

Somehow, throughout my time here, a war has emerged. Somehow, between the nights out in Tel Aviv with friends, World Cup viewings on the beach, sunset runs along the boardwalk, and afternoons spent in cafes on Rothschild, countless rockets have sailed through the air above my head, causing terror in their wake. Running into bomb shelters has become a reality I could have never foreseen.

I experienced first hand the horror of the kidnapping, the hope and the support of the community as we gathered in Rabin Square with the victim’s parents to pray for their sons’ return. The shock that reverberated throughout the country when less than 24 hours later the devastating news of their slaughter that had occurred almost a week before became known. The fear and utter disbelief when the first sirens sounded in Tel Aviv, the surreal act of running to bomb shelters to seek protection, and the resignation when the sirens and rockets did not stop for fifteen days straight. But the resilient nature of the country and its citizens immediately showed through, visible in the collective pride for the soldiers who fight so bravely, in the smiles of the faces of Israeli’s in #bombshelterselfies, and in Israeli innovation and technology, specifically the strength of the Iron Dome. The feeling of loss is still there, the overwhelming sadness inflicted by each death, each Israeli soldier killed and really the loss of lives on each side of the conflict. Blows to the soul that are felt personally, that sometimes cast a dark shadow over the day and cause a heavy heart that is inevitably experienced when living here, with only a few degrees of separation from soldiers killed on the battlefront.

But here, life goes on. Throughout it all, I have learned to appreciate. Just like the advice the old man extended to me as I powerwalked to my bus stop, I have slowed down, I have become aware of the beauty of life, of all there is to be thankful for and enjoy. Gorgeous sunsets still draw crowds, the cafes are still bustling, and the nightclubs are still packed with swaying, sweaty bodies. The Israeli mentality to live each moment to the fullest, to embrace one another and live with vibrancy is a lifestyle that I have begun to embody.

This morning I walked by the old man, sitting in the shade of the sidewalk, and extended my daily “boker tov” greeting with a warm smile. He motioned for me to wait, slowly rose from his chair, and handed me a Bueno chocolate bar. I’m not sure if I would have accepted a candy bar from essentially a stranger in the streets a month ago- I certainly would not have even glanced twice at this elderly man back home in America. But this act of generosity, the genuine kindness this man exudes, the care that he has expressed for me despite me just being a stranger who passes by for merely 5 seconds every day, caused me to accept this small gift, embracing our friendship.

It has been a true adventure to live here amidst the chaos, but the irrepresible nature of the Israeli people, the fierce unity that has emerged between friends and strangers alike, have allowed me to feel safer and more united with the country I love so much than ever before. I return back to America not just cherishing the time I spent here and the bonds I’ve made with friends and Israelis, only possible from sharing these extreme circumstances. I leave knowing in my heart that I have an insatiable need to return. And I know for a fact that I will. 

Five doubting dudes and the holy relics of Mount Mortality

“Protestant,” I lied, not for the first time, when the Holy Mount Athos Pilgrims Bureau officer asked me my religion.

In January, when my friend Sandy, who was born Greek Orthodox, applied to the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs to allow five of us to set foot on the Mount Athos peninsula in June, I’d agreed that putting “Protestant” on the form was a safer answer than the truth – “It’s complicated” – and less likely to be a deal-breaker than “Jewish.”  Even so, my surname was enough to trigger a “Really?” from the ministry and gum up the paperwork.  And though our written reassurance that this Kaplan was indeed ΠΡΟΤΕΣΤΑΝΤΗΣ resulted in a message that permission would be granted, when the permit official was face-to-face with me at the Pilgrims Bureau in Ouranoupoli, something – maybe my nose – didn’t pass his smell test.  So I was asked the question again, and I nonchalantly replied “Protestant,” casually adding “Episcopal,” in the hope that such a detail would somehow make it more plausible, and silently wondering if my ethnic treachery would send me to hell – if I’d actually believed in hell – or whether it was really no more grave a transgression than adding a couple of inches of height to my JDate profile.

For more than a thousand years, Mount Athos, a forested peninsula jutting 40 miles into the northeast Aegean, has been the center of monastic life in the Greek Orthodox faith.  Twenty monasteries, and little else, are scattered along its wild coastline.  Some are as large as colleges; some rise from the rocks like the Potala Palace in Tibet.  Inside their walls there is an astonishing abundance of medieval icons, mosaics, illuminated manuscripts, jeweled reliquaries, precious metalwork and ancient marble. The Byzantine frescoes in just one of Mount Athos’s chapels would be more than enough art to fill a major exhibition in any of the world’s museums.

Four days is the longest visit that pilgrims – not tourists – may make.  One hundred and twenty are granted permission to enter per day, and all but 10 of them must be Greek Orthodox.  There are no hotels, and a maximum of a single night’s stay per monastery – arranged through a separate application process – is permitted.  No women are allowed to set foot on Mount Athos, a prohibition that the bearded, black-robed monks, some 1,500 of them on the peninsula, say honors the Virgin Mary, who visited there when her ship was blown off course on her way from the Holy Land to Cyprus.  Shorts, bare toes and pierced ears are also forbidden.

The trip was Sandy’s idea.  His 95-year-old father is Greek, and though Sandy was baptized in the Orthodox faith, he would be the first to call himself an atheist.  Two of us – Tim, an Englishman, and Adam, half English and half Swedish – are Christian, but only nominally.  Geza, whose parents were Hungarian Catholics, is also an unbeliever, and vocally appalled by the historic carnage committed in God’s name. I’m Jewish.  Though Adam dubbed us five the Mount Atheists, I hesitate to call myself that because of my ineluctable awe at the ineffable, at what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “the inconceivable surprise of living” – my amazement and gratitude that there is something rather than nothing, an improvised mysticism that nevertheless leaves me religiously way closer to my four secular bros than to someone whose Savior is Christ or whose God is the God of Scripture.

During our visit we were meticulously respectful of the monks’ practices, but we still stuck out among the other visitors.  I was the only American, and we were the only native English-speakers that we encountered, but I think it was the monks’ radar for apostasy, not for nationality, that marked us.  At each monastery where we stayed, a monk approached us, looking for spiritual embers to blow on.  Father Savvas urged us to reflect on the deeper reasons we had chosen to come to Mount Athos rather than hitting one of Greece’s beach-ringed pleasure islands.  Father George wrote out a list of books for us to read, memoirs of Protestants and Catholics and lapsed Orthodox who had found their way back to the one true religion.  Father Gregory told us of the doubter struck dead on the spot for disbelieving that an icon of the Virgin Mary in the monastery’s possession had spouted blood when struck by a knife. Father Vasilios told us of the miraculous power of one of his monastery’s holy relics, Saint Marina’s hand – still at body temperature after 1,700 years – to raise believers from the dead.  He also urged us to turn our backs on the rotten, homosexuality-accepting Sodom and Gomorrah we came from.

All this left us unmoved.  If anything, the relics and the miracles and the culture war talk made it more difficult for us to discover the highest common denominator between the faith of the monks and our own ad hoc spirituality.  So why, if not for worship and conversion, had we gone there?  There was aesthetic pleasure galore, of course, and spectacular natural beauty, and the coolness of parachuting across 10 centuries into “The Name of the Rose,” and the thrill of being among the few to get in.  But the real reason we went, I think, was to wrestle with our own mortality.    

The five of us have been friends since college.  Four of us were roommates.  Sandy’s brother George was also our roommate, but we lost him three years ago, after a bruising battle with leukemia.  In a way, this pilgrimage was a tribute to George, an effort to keep him alive by keeping the bonds among us alive, a sentimental but inevitably futile attempt to transcend his ending by denying our own.  The miracle we bore witness to turned out to be the earthly wonder of enduring friendship.  The relics we accepted turned out to be ourselves, a handful of 60-somethings, killer backpacking from one monastery to the next and sleeping five to a cell with a bathroom down the hall.  If this understanding of holiness was a humanistic heresy, we were glad to be guilty of it. 

Sailing to Byzantium – literally enacting the title of Yeats’s poem – had been our original plan; we were going to make our way to Mount Athos in the beautiful wooden caïque owned by George and Sandy’s family. But a storm registering eight on the Beaufort scale made us rethink our course.  Herodotus tells of 300 Persian ships destroyed by a northerly gale at Mount Athos, and we were in no rush to join them, so Plan B for getting to Byzantium was 24 hours by ferry and car.  Despite the change of route, Yeats’s words still apply. 

“That is no country for old men,” it begins.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing…

We traveled to Mount Athos to revel in one another’s company, to savor each moment left to us, to testify to the sanctity of being.  We went to Byzantium so our souls could clap hands and sing.  If that’s not where God is, I don’t know where else to look.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Beauty can arise from tragedy

In mid-July, our 26-year-old son, Micah, lost a lifelong friend, whom he had gone all through school with at Adat Ari El and Milken. On that day, Micah went to a birthday party for his friends Arash Khorsandi and Daniel Levian, two Persian Jews in his intimate circle of about 20 friends from his high school class. The bonds among these kids have only grown stronger since they all returned from college.

Micah left the party early because there was a reunion at Camp Alonim that evening that he did not want to miss. We spoke to him and asked about the party, “Lots of drinking, but I got to spend some good time with Daniel Levian, who kept kidding me, ‘Micah, I knew you’d be one of the white boys to show up.'”

Since the seventh grade, the Milken friends have always joked with one another about their Persian and Ashkenazic backgrounds. My son and all his Ashkenazic friends used to refer to the Persians as the Persian Posse. No one could have predicted the lifelong friendship that would flourish among all of them.

Late the next afternoon, Micah called sobbing: “Daniel Levian was killed in a car accident leaving the party last night. His brother is in critical condition.”

As the events unfolded, it was a story that could only be measured against the biblical account of Job. It was everyone’s worst nightmare. Daniel and his brother were passengers. They had taken a taxi to the party and intended to take one home. But as they were leaving, they accepted a ride home with another friend, who survived the accident with minor injuries. Daniel’s brother initially was given a 2 percent chance of survival; he has since come home and is expected to make a full recovery.

Arash and Daniel had been inseparable best friends since the seventh grade. I remember Daniel as an outgoing, engaging roly-poly kid and Arash as a talkative little guy with big, expressive eyes. They grew up to be two swarthy, handsome, successful young professionals with slick black hair raised to stylish points above their scalps — Daniel a real estate investor and Arash a lawyer.

Following Daniel’s death, Arash immediately began working through his sorrow. Just days after the accident, he gathered his friends to meet as a group with a psychotherapist. He followed up with a Friday night Shabbat dinner attended by those who had been at the party, because they all recognized that they needed to be together.

The conversations that ensued began with memories of Daniel, but then transitioned into why Daniel had died; what vulnerabilities they all could encounter; and for which actions could they take responsibility. Faced with Daniel’s death, they were forced to admit that the out-of-control consumption of alcohol among their generation was the fatal mistake. As they spoke further, they realized that many of their generation of young Jewish professionals, including themselves, were living in excess, not only with alcohol, but also through materialism. They spoke about their value system, which ultimately returned them to their Jewish roots.

Since July, about 30 young people, Persians and Ashkenazim, have begun to meet regularly to create the LEV Foundation, inspired by their love and their loss of Daniel Levian. Lev, which means “heart” in Hebrew, is what they often called Daniel.

Recently I sat in as Arash and another close friend, David Chasin, came to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to present the LEV Foundation to Federation President John Fishel and ask for guidance and infrastructure support. David is a participant in The Federation’s Geller Leadership Project. The two described Daniel’s personality and values, and through pictures and stories, they brought him right into the room with them. They proudly told Fishel they were not looking for money; the group, their friends and families would be the funders.

The LEV Foundation envisions itself as built upon multiple pillars. One of them would be social service projects designed to protect young Jews from driving drunk by offering free taxi service to pick them up and take them home. The group even worked out ways that kids’ cars could be driven home so no one would feel they had to drive in order to hide their behavior from their parents.

Another pillar would be advocacy, tackling the issues of excess so apparent in this generation.

Another would be about values, offering Shabbat dinners alternating between Ashkenazic and Persian traditions, Torah study, Israel travel and funding. During this phase of The Federation presentation, Arash and David commented that every one of the 40 young people involved in the creation of this foundation are either day school graduates or Birthright Israel alumni.

I thought about the millions of dollars the Jewish world has invested in day schools and Birthright. If there has ever been a return on the community’s dollars, this effort is the best demonstration. When the critical need arose to face this tragedy, these kids had the knowledge, the values, the tools and the path on which to place their sorrow, so that from it they could work to create a better world. These are our community’s children, of whom we can be very proud.

I thought about all the comments I had heard over the years in the kids’ day schools about the Persian, Israeli and Russian populations.

“Oh, the school is becoming so Persian! The school is becoming so Israeli!” Together, these kids prove that their parents were wrong. As they are showing us, the schools have turned out Jewish kids who can bridge the gaps between them themselves by celebrating one another’s cultures, knowing they are all deeply connected as Jews and friends who share many common experiences.

As Arash and David walked out, I could see Daniel Levian being carried on their shoulders: He wasn’t the tall, thin young man with slick black hair. He was the roly-poly, engaging kid I remembered, and I realized he belongs to all of us.

Gary Wexler, a former advertising agency creative director, owns Passion Marketing, a consulting firm to nonprofit organizations worldwide, including major Jewish organizations in the United States, Canada and Israel.

Status symbol

Status used to be about social hierarchy — whether you made a good living or were born into the right family or had achieved prominence in your community. But these days, if you say the word “status” to Generation Single-and-Facebooking, you may be understood very differently.

For the novices, Facebook is a social media utility, commonly called “social networking.” This is basically an online community where the youngish and technology-loving assemble, sharing their friend lists, interests and activities with each other toward the creation of a greater social entity — a network. One of the most popular features of Facebook is a “status feed,” a running list of what your friends are up to, updated whenever anyone makes a change to his or her profile. “Tiffany Jewstein joined the ‘All Jews on Facebook’ group.” “Rachel Goldberg is engaged to Shmuley Greenberg.” “David Bernowitz is sooo glad finals are over.”

For Facebookers in their 20s and 30s, one of the trickiest status areas is the “relationships” line. In your profile, you choose how to identify yourself. Are you “single,” “married,” “engaged” or “in a relationship,” or would you say you’re “in an open marriage”? Or are you an “it’s complicated”? What are you looking for: “friendship,” “dating,” “networking,” “a relationship” or “whatever I can get”? You can choose multiple identifiers, since this is a generation of multiple identities, but this can refract the message. You might think “whatever I can get” is funny and shows how open and casual you are, but someone who’s looking for something special might see you as desperate or not serious.

Once you’ve started dating, other minefields await. Back in the day, if you met someone on JDate and you started dating each other exclusively, the big conversation was about taking down your online profile — this meant you were serious and weren’t going to be online during off hours, cruising for someone “better.” This was commitment.

But on Facebook, relationships are not about the vanishing of profiles, because the function of the community is not supposed to end when couplehood is achieved; relationships mean the public declaration of a change in status. And there are levels of such declaration. You can change your status from single to “in a relationship.” You can declare publicly the name of the person with whom you’re in the relationship or, if you’re afraid of tempting the evil eye, you can leave it anonymous for friends to guess or know.

A friend of mine who recently started dating someone changed his status from “single” to “in a relationship.” But his girlfriend hadn’t yet changed hers, so he wasn’t sure whether the relationship meant more to him than to her. And neither of them was sure that they were ready to declare to the world that they were in a relationship with each other — that’s a huge commitment, to go public, because if, God forbid, the relationship doesn’t work out, that failure and loss is also public.

Status is yours to claim, or in the case of one sister-single friend of mine, reclaim. When she first joined Facebook, her status was set to “single.” But this week I got a notification that she “is no longer listed as single.” I assumed this meant that she had met someone.

No, she told me, she was still single, but had decided to reclaim her status. She didn’t like the fact that everyone looking at her page saw her as single, because she was so much more than that. She wasn’t announcing a relationship; she was announcing her reclamation of how she presented herself to the online world.

If only we all gave as much time and consideration to how we present ourselves offline — not in terms of physical appearance, but in how we define ourselves in relation to others, in how we determine our goals professionally and personally and in how we relate to the community at large. Are we conveying that we’re open to new relationships? Are we being honest about our availability? Are we publicly declaring our intentions toward others?

While many of us live online, we shouldn’t forget that even if we spend days chained to our computers and the online representations of ourselves, life is about human — and humane — interaction. Whether online or off, we should learn to present ourselves clearly, identify ourselves truthfully and with an understanding that status is about half in its declaration, and half in how it is perceived by others.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is currently “in an open relationship” with her Facebook Status Feed. Don’t ask; “it’s complicated.” You can reach her at jdatersanonymous@gmail.com. This column originally appeared in The Jewish Week.

JJ LA asks you to be a

Experience at international camp broadens perspective

As I look at a picture from the summer of 2007, I wish with all of my heart that I could go back and relive it. This picture contains a group of campers, each with a big smile on his or her face, glowing with happiness to be surrounded by their new best friends.

From a distance, these children look so different, as if they were each cut out of a separate magazine to form one colorful collage. Each child comes from a different ethnic background and speaks a different language at home. But here at this camp with their new friends, they have created a temporary home, where it is not necessary to speak a common language.

As a counselor at Camp Kimama in Michmoret, Israel, I learned that the only connection these children from all over the world need is their passion and love for Israel. Camp Kimama is Israel’s first international camp, where Jewish children spend two weeks forming a multicultural group of friends and exploring the different worlds that these friends come from. I spent one month of my summer working at Kimama, every day discovering more about myself and my fellow Israelis, Jews and Zionists.

The first day of the first session of camp can be summed up in one word: overwhelming. I had never been more confused in my life. The camp was full of nervous campers, overprotective mothers and a feeling of pure chaos.

I quickly realized that in order to communicate with all of my new campers, I would have to repeat everything I said in Hebrew and in English and make sure that every camper who didn’t speak those languages would have someone to translate for them. Can you imagine having to teach camp cheers to 60 energetic 10-year-olds in more than three different languages?

By the end of the day, my legs felt like Jell-O, my voice was nonexistent and if I had not fallen asleep within seconds of getting into my bed, I would have questioned myself about why in the world I gave up part of the freedom of my summer vacation to work at this seemingly crazy job.

Throughout the next few days, I began to learn the ropes of working at Camp Kimama and soon grew to love the environment, the campers (who I already cared and worried about as if they were my own children) and my fellow staff members. Somehow as a camp we managed to form a beautiful family and create a home away from home for the campers as well as for the counselors.

I began to realize this during the first Shabbat evening of the first session. Shabbat at Camp Kimama was one of the most unique and relaxing Shabbats I had ever experienced. Throughout the week, the entire camp is bustling with excitement and energy, as each age group runs from one activity to the next. I remember being so busy that by the time each day ended, it felt as if the day had lasted an entire month.

Once Shabbat finally came, everybody cleaned up, put on their best clothes and gathered on the grass overlooking the beautiful beach at Michmoret to welcome the much-needed resting day of Shabbat. As I looked around, I took a few moments to myself to absorb the faces surrounding me, because I knew that seeing such a diverse group of people come together for a Jewish holiday was not something I would see many times in my life.

Working at this camp was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. I am used to seeing Zionism from the perspective of either the Israeli community or of the Jewish American community, however, this time I saw it from a completely different standpoint.

In United Synagogue Youth (USY) we are sheltered by the limitations of a variety of people. Last summer, after I came back from my trip to Israel with USY, I was sure that having friends from New York, Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey meant that I had expanded my horizons as much as I possibly could.

Never would I have thought that a group of Jewish friends — my campers — could consist of children from China, Thailand, California, France, Israel, Florida and the Philippines. I can truthfully say that working at Camp Kimama this summer has changed my outlook on life as a Jew, as an Israeli and as a teenager.

Sivan Ron is a senior at Beverly Hills High School. She plans to join the Israeli army next year.

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.

Lessons of gratitude

In the course of a lifetime, we encounter any number of friends.

Some are friends by happenstance — friends who happen to attend school with us, happen to work where we do or reside near us. When we graduate from school, change careers or relocate, most such friends slowly disappear from our lives — and we from theirs.

But there are others, fewer, whose friendship lasts a lifetime. They are the friends we invite to our child’s bar mitzvah or wedding, even though we have not seen each other, or perhaps even spoken, for years.

In the soul of the permanent friendships that account for such deeper love, we very often find rooted some unspoken aspect of gratitude — a friendship built within the trenches and foxholes when we faced unremitting attack, the friend who opened a door and welcomed us when we were alone, the person who was “there” when others were not.

In this week’s Torah portion, we see glimpses of the phenomena that lie beneath the love and gratitude. As so often happens, gratitude is not always consciously expressed. But in deeds and life behavior, the importance of gratitude — hakarat hatov — is a Jewish value that is at the core of our societal being.

Moshe is born into a world that has condemned him to death. In desperation, his mother instructs Miriam, Moshe’s sister, to place him in the river and to stand watch. Miriam stands guard faithfully. When Moshe is received and effectively adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter, Miriam rapidly reports to her mother, and Yocheved appears at the palace to nurse and rear Moshe in the ways and values of the Hebrews (Exodus 2:2-8).

In time, Moshe becomes a young man at the palace — some midrashic sources say he is 20, some say 40 — when he sees a horrible persecution. As discussed in Midrash Tanchuma, an Egyptian taskmaster has raped a Hebrew woman in her home and now is torturing the life out of her enslaved husband, who has learned the secret.

Moshe looks both ways — some say that he simply is assuring that there are no witnesses; some say he is desperately looking for someone else to stand up and do what must be done, but “he saw there is no man. And he smote the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:12). Soon after, at the first of many unpleasant encounters he will endure with Datan and Aviram, he is compelled to flee Egypt for his life.

He reaches the wilderness of Midian, where he will remain in relative solitude for the next 40 or 60 years. In that wilderness, as Rav Avigdor Miller has observed, he will have time to contemplate his life’s purpose and to weigh the meaning of his extended isolation from his persecuted people, continuing to withhold the unique life gifts and skills he gained while he was reared amid nobility and power.

At a well in that wilderness, he meets a shepherdess, Tzipporah, whom he first protects from attackers, then marries at the behest of a grateful father-in-law, Yitro, the high priest of Midian (Exodus 2:15-21). In so doing, he perhaps unknowingly continues the nascent Hebrew tradition that saw two of our patriarchs marry women found at the wells — Rivkah and Rachel. All’s well that ends well.

Soon, Hashem will reveal to his brother, Aharon, that Moshe will lead the nation to freedom, and Aharon — rejoicing in his heart (Exodus 4:14) — will come to draw Moshe back to Egypt.

And thus the background. Here is how the Torah value of gratitude will play out over the next 40 years. Moshe will never forget that Miriam stood by his basket floating in the water.

When she later will speak adversely about him and his relationship with his wife, eliciting on her Hashem’s punishment of biblical leprosy, Moshe patiently and lovingly will pray for her recovery and then will do as she did, waiting patiently with the nation he is leading until her status is restored (Numbers 12:11-16).

Aharon, who responded with joy to news of Moshe’s elevation over him, will be rewarded with the crown of the kehunah (priesthood) for all his generations. Unlike the contretemps that so gravely prevailed amid the jealousies of older Yishmael toward younger Yitzchak, older Esav toward younger Yaakov, and the older brothers toward Yosef, Aharon’s unilateral love and joy for Moshe’s elevation will seal the bond for a lifetime’s fraternity, transcending genetic brotherhood.

Hashem will repay Yitro for hosting and feeding Moshe, just as He did Lavan, who hosted and fed Yaakov — notwithstanding that each conferred hospitality for their own particular reasons — with sons who will continue their dynasties (Genesis 30:35, 31:1; Judges 1:16). Moshe will honor Yitro repeatedly, first demonstratively asking his permission to return to Egypt, even though Hashem has commanded Moshe to depart from Midian (Exodus 4:18). And later Moshe will welcome Yitro into the Hebrew nation’s midst, even adopting counsel Yitro offers.

Moshe, too, will demonstrate a fascinating gratitude toward the water that saved his life in infancy and the sand that hid the Egyptian tormentor whom he slew. Years later, when the first plagues hit Egypt in its water and earth, Moshe will not use his staff to strike those inanimate resources but instead will delegate that task to Aharon (Exodus 7:19, 8:2, 8:12).

These are the lessons of gratitude — and the wonderful impact with which this Torah value enriches the lives of those who perform great acts of friendship — and those who know how to carry hakarat hatov within their souls.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California and Rabbinical Council of America, is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rabbi of an Orthodox Union congregation in Orange County.

My friend, Norman Mailer

No writer on the American literary scene could get people steamed up the way that Norman Mailer could. Nearly every special interest group, none more than feminists, had a gripe against him. Literary aficionados treated him as a sort of writer’s Richard Burton, someone who squandered his talent in futile projects or never quite fulfilled the promise of his first novel, “The Naked and the Dead,” written at the age of 24. Jews have never considered him one of their own, as they have Bellow, Malamud, the once-pariah Roth or even the skeptical Woody Allen. I think they are mistaken on all counts.

Mailer was a deeply religious writer. Like Hawthorne and Faulkner, he was concerned with God and the Devil, Good and Evil. While not particularly concerned with matters Jewish, he obsessed over the implications of the Holocaust. It plays a prominent role in “Advertisements for Myself,” written in the mid 1950s, and in his final novel, published earlier this year, “The Castle in the Forest,” which deals with the Devil’s machinations in the birth of Hitler. This novel probed the world almost the way a medieval mystic might. Not only that, writing it seemed to bring Mailer back to his Jewish roots. Mailer encapsulates his own attitude to Judaism very succinctly in an interview he gave earlier this year.

When asked, “What role has your being Jewish played in your being a writer?” Mailer replied emphatically, “an enormous role.”

He picked two aspects of the Jewish experience that influenced him — the sense of history that makes it “impossible to take anything for granted” and also the Jewish mind: “We’re here to do all sorts of outrageous thinking, if you will … certainly incisive thinking. If the Jews brought anything to human nature, it’s that they developed the mind more than other people did.” Not surprisingly, Mailer continues in the interview to bemoan the loss of this ability due to what he terms “cheap religious patriotism.” None of these ideas surprise me nor will they any reader of Mailer’s work, as they have always been part of the core of his philosophy.

Mailer’s ideology as an American writer and social commentator stems from the activist or prophetic side of Judaism. Despite the sometimes-outrageous subject matter and highly charged sexual content, Mailer’s novel and essays reflect a highly moral approach to life. His concerns for the individual override all else. Like a Jeremiah, he rails against the capitulation of modern man to the demands of the mediocre.

I first met Mailer in the spring of 1978. I began reading him in earnest while preparing for my doctorate at UC Santa Barbara. My field was American-Jewish literature, in which Mailer plays a very small part, but soon I was so enthralled that his work took over my thesis. Through a friend, I got Mailer’s home address and wrote a note to him about my ideas. He replied almost by return mail, and so began our correspondence. Mailer did not like writing letters, and although they were brief, they encouraged further contact. Eventually, we met in New York. Ironically, we looked a little like each other: stocky Jewish types, about the same height with curly hair — his a grizzly version of mine. He greeted me warmly, and I discovered that, contrary to newspaper reports, he had an ingratiating personality, was quick to laugh and did not hold himself with any airs. The rapport was instant. We spoke of many things, including his Jewish upbringing, his grandfather who was a rabbi and his distance from the faith — though he had never written anything negative about Judaism, as he had promised his mother he would not. He was at heart “the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn.”

When the time came to part, Mailer told me that he had gotten a good feeling from me from my letters and now our conversation and that “we would be friends for life.”

He was true to his word.

Our friendship lasted from that day till his death last week. Over the years, whenever I got to New York or he to Los Angeles, we met. There are wonderful memories: a seder I conducted in his then-home in Brooklyn Heights (his first since his childhood) where he still remembered enough Hebrew to read a few words. Seeing him with his children (eight from six different marriages) was to see a person so different from the public persona. He was truly a family man, and his marriage to his sixth wife (artist Norris Church) — they were married by a rabbi — which lasted 27 years, till his death, was an unending love affair. Nor was I the acolyte at the feet of the master; his friendship was a two-way street. He encouraged my literary pursuits, got me an agent, read my manuscripts and put me in touch with several of his literary and non-literary friends. Mailer told me that I was his unofficial rabbi. He even initiated a correspondence between myself and murderer Jack Abbott, who, for a time, considered converting to Judaism. (Mailer always regretted the debacle of the Abbott release.)

As happens over the years, when he moved to Provincetown and I got to the East Coast less frequently, our contact dissipated, though at my birthday I always received one of his hand-drawn self-portraits. Knowing that time was short, I went down to Los Angeles in March when he came to discuss “The Castle in the Forest.” Mailer by then was weak, he walked with two canes, was hard of hearing and could not see well — but his mind was as astute as ever. He spoke like he wrote — in ornate, somewhat opaque sentences, the ideas probing deep into the psyche of America. He kept us enthralled for over an hour. After he finished, I went up to greet him.

“Hello Norman,” I said.

Stop ostracizing the intermarried

This column would not have been written had its subject not first described himself and his predicament in this week’s New York Times magazine.

Noah Feldman was a brilliant Orthodox Jewish Rhodes scholar who arrived in Oxford in my fourth year as rabbi there in 1992. We quickly hit it off. For one thing, there was scarcely a subject — Jewish or secular — upon which Noah did not have some profound knowledge. We studied Talmud together several times a week, and I made Noah a kind of secondary rabbi at our L’Chaim Society, such was the range of his Jewish erudition and his phenomenal capacity for teaching.

Noah was one of the most accomplished young students I had ever met. He was valedictorian of Harvard, a Rhodes and Truman scholar, and completed his Oxford doctorate in about 18 months, which may or may not be a university record. It was a source of great pride for me that Noah was observant and wore a kippah. We all marveled every Shabbat at Noah’s incredible ability to read any section of the Torah at our student synagogue.

After graduating from Oxford, Noah went to Yale, where his observance began to wane. I heard from some of his classmates that he was dating a non-Jewish girl. Hearing that he was quite serious about her, when his girlfriend in turn came to Oxford as a Marshall scholar, I made a point of reaching out to her and inviting her to our Shabbat dinner.

My thinking was that Noah was far too precious to me and to the Jewish people to lose. If he was dating a woman whom he wished to marry, then it was our duty to try and expose her to the friendliness of the Jewish community with a view toward her exploring whether a serious commitment to our tradition was something that would suit her.

Sadly, others took a far different view. A mutual friend of ours, who was a rabbi in Noah’s life, essentially told him that if he married outside the faith he would have to sever his relationship with him. Apparently, many of Noah’s Orthodox friends made the same decision. The net result was that one of the brightest young Jews in the entire world was made to feel that the Jewish community was his family only if he made choices with which we agreed.

Of course I had wanted Noah to marry Jewish, and I took pride in the fact that I had helped to sustain his observance during his two years at Oxford. But the choice of whom he would marry was not mine to make. Before his wedding I wrote him a note that said, in essence, that we were friends and my affection for him would never change.

I told him that he was a prince of the Jewish nation, that his obligations to his people were eternal and unchanging, that whether or not his wife, or indeed his children, were Jewish, he would never change his own personal status as a Jew. I added that I knew he would do great things with his life as a scholar of world standing, and that he would always put the needs of the Jewish people first.

We remain good friends today. I admire and respect Noah, and my wish is that perhaps, some day, his brilliant wife might see, of her own volition, the beauties of our tradition and how family life is enhanced by husband and wife being of the same faith and practicing the same religious rituals.

True to my prediction, Noah went on, in his 30s, to become one of the youngest-ever tenured law professors, first at NYU and then at Harvard, and was chosen by the American government to serve as the consultant to the Iraqi provisional government in drawing up their constitution. Today he ranks, arguably, as one of the youngest academic superstars in the United States.

How tragic, therefore, that Noah’s article in The New York Times magazine is a lengthy detailing of the alienation he has experienced from his former Orthodox Jewish day school and friends, who even cut him out of a class reunion photograph in which he participated.

For more than two centuries now, since the Emancipation, Jews have been debating how to deal with those who marry outside the community. The conventional response has been to treat them as traitors to the Jewish cause. We are all familiar with the old practice of sitting shiva for a child who marries out, as if he or she were dead, made famous in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The extreme practice of ostracization was justified by the belief that only by completely cutting off those who married out would we be making a sufficiently strong statement as to the extent of their betrayal, thereby dissuading those who might follow suit.

There is one problem with this practice. Aside from the ethical and humanitarian considerations, it does not work. We have been practicing this alienation for decades, and yet intermarriage has grown to approximately 50 percent of the Jewish population! Worse, the practice is a lie insofar as it propagates the false notion that our Jewishness is measured only in terms of our being a link in a higher chain of existence, and that our Jewish identities have meaning only through our children. This absurd notion would deny the idea of Jewish individualism and how we are Jews in our own right.

I am well aware of the fact that intermarriage is a direct threat to the very continuity of the Jewish people. But that does not change the fact that those who have chosen to marry out are still Jewish, should still be encouraged to go to synagogue, should still be encouraged to put on tefillin and keep Shabbat, should still have mezuzot on their doors, and should still be encouraged to devote their lives and resources to the welfare of the Jewish people and the security of the State of Israel.

And as far as their non-Jewish spouses are concerned, do we really believe that by showing the most unfriendly behavior we are living up to our biblically mandated role of serving as a light unto the nations? Is there any possibility that a non-Jew married to a Jew will look favorably at the possibility of becoming halachically Jewish if he or she witnesses Orthodox Jews treating their husbands or wives as pariahs?

What makes a ‘real’ Jew?

After being alive for 16 years, I would think it would be easy to classify myself into a certain category, and that by now I would know what, who and why I am what I am. But as I grow older, it has become more complicated for me to label myself — secular, religious, Jewish American Mexican, Mexican American Jew.

This is probably a result of the fact that the older I get, the more in-depth I learn about my religion and the more I begin to formulate my own thoughts and opinions about it and about myself. While for a long time I have been able to articulate thoughts on certain religious matters, I have to admit that those opinions were, for the most part, strongly or loosely based on those of my parents and teachers. For example, I was a secular Jew because my mother told me that she was a secular Jew. I considered myself to be a Mexican American teenage girl, who happened to be Jewish, as well, because that was the way I was raised. We would celebrate Shabbat when it was convenient to, and would observe only the “famous” Jewish holidays — Chanukah, Pesach, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.

I considered a Jew to be a person who knew about the Torah, kept kosher, celebrated Shabbat and who went to temple every Friday night — and anyone who did not, was, in my eyes, not a “real” Jew. This consequently meant that I was not a “real” Jew. The thought of this not only made me hate the religion’s standards — which I myself had set — but it caused me to feel very confused about myself. I wasn’t sure which temple I liked, how to celebrate each holiday, and even how to eat. Everyone I met seemed to have different views than I did, and no one was able to help me understand where I fit in best.

When I started Milken Community High School’s middle school after finishing the sixth grade at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, I further realized how unacquainted I was with my own feelings toward my religion. Although we had Judaic studies every year, I felt unable to drift away from my parents’ beliefs and create my own.

Then, in 10th grade this past year, I was accepted into the Tiferet Israel Program, for which I left the comfort of my parents’ home and lived in Israel on my own for four months, along with 38 other Milken 10th- graders.

I was relieved to find that one of my friends, Tali, happened to be in Israel at the same time, on a separate school program. Tali, a girl I met at tennis camp, was one of the only people I knew who shared my beliefs — we both agreed that it was not necessary to follow all of the rituals of the Jewish religion. It was not until we reconnected in Israel that I found out her father is an Orthodox rabbi who works at Chabad. This immediately made me wonder how a rabbi, an Orthodox rabbi, a “real” Jew, could raise a “fake” one. I asked Tali what she considered herself to be, and whether or not she felt comfortable with her decision of moving away from her family’s opinions and creating her own. She answered that she respected her parents’ beliefs but did not completely agree with what they stood for. When I asked her if she felt as Jewish as her father, she responded without any hesitation, “I am just as Jewish as my father and mother and you are just as Jewish as them as well.” Hearing those words finally come out of someone’s mouth besides my own was like lifting the world off my shoulders. From that point on I no longer felt uncomfortable with my beliefs, and I no longer felt out of place.

Every day it became clearer to me that there was not one specific way to define a “real” Jew. By observing the amount of pride and devotion that all the Jewish Israelis felt toward their religion, I began to understand that simply believing in God and being proud of the fact that you are Jewish automatically makes you as Jewish as you can get. I was able to see on many different occasions the variety of Jews, and how I did not have to fit into any one of them in order to be Jewish. When our group went to the Kotel, for example, I was able to see ultra-Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, Modern Orthodox Jews, and Jews that don’t fit into any of the categories praying toward the Wall, and every one of them accepts the other as a member of the Jewish faith.

All of my experiences in Israel made me able to officially classify myself under a category that I fit into. I now consider myself to be a Jewish Mexican American teenage girl, and I am proud to have it be in that order. I no longer feel disconnected from the rest of the Jewish people, and for the first time in my life, I feel as Jewish as any rabbi who works at Chabad — or any Jew in the world.

Rebecca Suchov just completed the 10th grade at Milken Community High School.<BR>

I heart Hollywood endings

I met “Mr. Nice Guy” more than three years ago, and I cherish our special connection — he’s affectionate, understanding, a good listener, open-minded, practical …

I could go on and on. I felt fortunate that we found each other, and he indicated the same. We both want the best things life has to offer. At this time in my life he’s the kind of partner I’m looking for. With his work schedule and other commitments, I knew from the get-go I would have to be kind and very flexible. That’s not an issue for me.

“Mr. Nice Guy” said more than once, “I’ll always be your friend.” Now I’m puzzled and confused because I’ve received an e-mail from him saying, “I met someone.” What does that mean? Does it mean what I think it means? He seems to have an odd definition of friendship. I thought I misinterpreted the message, so I asked him to meet me for a face-to-face conversation. I received a reply that he had no problem with that idea and would e-mail me when he got back from his business trip. Well, I’m still waiting.

Our friendship has been somewhat nontraditional and had a life of its own. I’m guessing that this could be the end of “Mr. Nice Guy.” I cannot tell a lie; I’m very hurt — devastated. I feel as if I have been pushed off a cliff (while he was proclaiming friendship), landed on jagged rocks and broken glass and got bruised from head to toe. I lost 10 pounds (not from dieting). You may be asking what his issues are. I really don’t know. I feel I had a secret trial, was found guilty, convicted and sentenced.

In hindsight, I feel I was used and discarded like an old Costco catalogue. Apparently, I’m still naive and too trusting of people when they act sincere. I take people at their word. I don’t take friendship lightly; it’s serious to me. Friendship is a long-term commitment that has meaning; it’s being loyal and accepting the other person as is, the good parts along with the blemishes. Occasionally he mentioned our differences, but when I asked for specifics, I never got a direct response. I pointed out that differences add spice to a friendship.

The other side of it is, we both know we have many things in common. I suggested we focus on the things in common. Over the years, we have shared many things about ourselves and our families. We have traditional values, and family is important to both of us. However, I now have learned a lot about “Mr. Nice Guy’s” character. He’s good at hiding behind e-mail.

I believe our paths crossed for a reason — to bring both of us joy and happiness, not to bring me heartbreak and grief. Like everyone else, we both need to be needed and want to be wanted. Yet I think now it may be time for me to take the advice of a close friend: “Walk away. He’s not worth it.” However, my emotional side is a little slow at catching up with my intellectual side.

These days I’m getting my accolades from doing stand-up comedy. All my tears and pain provide lots of comic material. I’m definitely unique and have a niche. If someone had told me a few years ago that I would be doing stand-up, writing my own material and enjoying it, I never would have believed it. I’m starting to pinch myself occasionally — just to be sure this is really happening. I’m enjoying my new-found skin; however, inside I’m still the same down-to-earth, sensitive, friendly and generous person I’ve always been. I’m playful, fun to be with and funny — that’s all part of my charm and likeability.

And I’m an equal-opportunity offender: people I meet never know when they might become a one-liner in my routine. My friends think this is great — spunky and gutsy of me. They admit they couldn’t do it, and they are supportive.

I love the attention that the laughs and the applause bring. All friends (new and old) are welcome to come along on my journey — it’s an E-ticket ride, an unpredictable adventure, and I know my sons, their families, and my other relatives are proud of me and my many accomplishments. But in private I’m still a romantic, a daydreamer — and I still believe in the old notion of boy chases girl, boy catches girl. I guess that, despite the fact that I’m making my way in the modern world, I still want the old-fashioned, happy Hollywood ending.

Esther W. Hersh can be reached at EWH1121@aol.com

Remembering Shiri

I never thought my life would change during my freshmen year. I was in study hall when this tiny, skinny girl came in, pushed in a wheelchair. She hopped out of the chair and sat at the desk right next to mine.

“Hi, my name is Fred; what’s your name?” I introduced myself with a smile. I always try to be friendly.

“My name is Shiri; nice to meet you Fred.” She had a kooky high voice, and pretty eyes with a mixture of green and gray. We started talking, and within minutes we had plans to see a movie.

Before the movie, Shiri told me everything about her life. She had osteosarcoma, which is bone cancer. She had been sick since she was 11. Not only that, her mother had died of a heart attack not long after her diagnosis. While she was talking, I was speechless. I told her I was really sorry, and if she ever needed anything, I would be there. She thanked me.

I started wheeling her between classes, and soon we became best friends. Many people told me I was doing a great thing in being friends with Shiri, and I always told them that it wasn’t community service, and even if it was, she should be getting the hours for tolerating my lame jokes.

Later that fall, when Shiri was hospitalized for chemotherapy, I visited her frequently. She spent most of December in the hospital. I spent every holiday with her, including Chanukah. Each holiday we would stay up, exchange presents, watch TV and take photos.

She soon came out of the hospital, but she wasn’t well. The tumor in her knee was shrunken, but the tumors in her lungs and pelvis were growing. Her family didn’t tell her about the growing tumors because they didn’t want her to worry.

The hospital also found out that there were 12 tumors in her lungs. It was harder to have hope, but I always thought that the new medicine might help.

Soon Shiri seemed to get worse. Sometimes she was really hazy from the medication, and didn’t know who everyone was. The most conversation she could manage was “Hi.” Heartbreaking isn’t even a word to describe how painful it was to see my best friend like this.

One day last August the doctor said that she only had 48 hours left. The next morning I was told that Shiri had died during the night. I didn’t believe it. I walked back home, and when I got home I couldn’t stop crying. The thing that was so devastating was that I never got to say goodbye to her.

Within a week, the funeral was held at Forest Lawn in Glendale. As I looked at the photos of Shiri set up near the podium and listened to the slow, peaceful sounds of the harp player nearby, it suddenly hit me that Shiri wasn’t here anymore. I felt really empty, like I was dead too.

After we all were seated, the rabbi went up to the podium and said, “Our first speaker will be Fred Scarf.”

When I approached the podium, I looked out at the sad people dressed in black.

Some were actually sobbing. It was hard to explain how I was feeling, but I knew I didn’t ever want to feel this way again. I knew I had to do something.

In honor of Shiri, I have started the Shiri Foundation, which is dedicated to raising money and awareness to support research for the cancer that killed her. Osteosarcoma is a rare disease, affecting fewer than 1,000 children per year.

Because it receives very little funding, it is known as an “orphan disease.”
I have never shied away from a challenge and never faced one more important. The Shiri Foundation is a nonprofit that demonstrates a drive and ambition to find a cure for osteosarcoma. Our goal is to raise $60,000 before Dec. 1, 2007.

We recently started selling shirts that say “I’m fighting bone cancer by wearing this shirt.” One hundred percent of the proceeds from donations and T-shirts goes directly to research to find a cure for osteosarcoma. We have sold and given away more than 1,000 T-shirts across the nation and high schools throughout Southern California have requested donation boxes for the Shiri Foundation. The foundation also has a MySpace account to educate youth and provide a forum for discussion.

The Foundation and its mission are my passion. Words could never describe the pain that Shiri and her loved ones suffered. My dream is to prevent others from suffering that kind of pain.

Frederick Scarf is a junior at Birmingham Senior High School in Lake Balboa. You can visit The Shiri Foundation at www.shiri.org; the myspace page can be found at julief@jewishjournal.com.

Book Review: Tools to fight terror: big dreams, good friends

“Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide,” by Jeff Goldberg (Knopf, $25).

The full title of Jeffrey Goldberg’s new book, “Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide,” immediately conjures up notions of a Pinteresque power struggle between two people. Yet “Prisoners” is far from the tale of sadomasochism and role reversal of Pinter plays like “The Night Porter” or screenplays like “The Servant.” Goldberg was a military policeman at Ketziot, an Israeli prison, where he and Rafiq, one of the inmates, developed a friendship that never truly revolved around power dynamics. Their relationship began because Goldberg recognized a “stillness” and a shared sense of irony in Rafiq.

Despite the tragedy of the Middle East and the moral dilemmas facing Goldberg as an Israeli soldier at a prison, Goldberg lightens the memoir with that irony and, at times, belly-chortling humor. For instance, in the wake of the massacre of two Israeli reservists, Goldberg describes being held captive by a terrorist cell in Gaza, where he defends his usage of the word “lynching” by saying to his captors, “Well, that was Ramallah…. What do you expect?”

He then writes, “Jokes at the expense of the West Bank usually go over well in Gaza. Not this one, however.”

Goldberg, who will appear in a public conversation with author and essayist Jack Miles on Oct. 18 at the Skirball Cultural Center, finds that, unlike American Jews, Israelis seem to lack a sense of humor.

That is not his only criticism of both Israelis and Palestinians.

After a bus explosion that killed three Jewish children, he says to a follower of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ founder, that the Sheik’s “preternaturally calm” statement that Israel “was created in defiance of God’s will” is “pathetic.” He also admits to being disillusioned by the kibbutzniks at Mishmar Ha Emek (where I must disclose I met the author many years ago), when they tell him not to clean three feet of coagulated hatchling droppings and blood in the chicken coop. They are saving that job for Arabs.

Goldberg has spent the past 15 years writing primarily about terrorists, yet in an interview from his home in Washington, D.C., where he is a correspondent for The New Yorker, Goldberg dismissed the notion that his work is so dangerous:

“The murder of Danny Pearl is the tragic, horrible exception, not the rule. All terrorists believe they’re doing something good and useful. Most of these groups are happy to explain themselves to people.”

In spite of his obvious courage, Goldberg writes in the book, “I am not brave, in the fuller meaning of the word.”

He says that, as a military policeman, “I should have done more to try to change things I didn’t like,” instead of being a “get-along, go-along kind of guy.”

Yet, more than once, he defied his fellow soldiers, as well as his commanding officer, whom he remembers as one of the dumbest Jews he ever met, by allowing the prisoners to shower in the kitchen and by restraining a guard from beating a helpless inmate.

Goldberg recently won the Anti-Defamation League’s Daniel Pearl Award and goes so far as to suggest that being Jewish has benefited him in his dealings with terrorists.

“I’ve always found it to my advantage. I use my Jewishness as a tool.”

He adds, “There’s an attraction-repulsion quality to these encounters.

Anti-Semites spend most of their time thinking about Jews; they spend more time thinking about Jews than Jews do.”

Goldberg’s interest in Zionism may have been sparked as a boy in the Long Island town of Malverne, where he was subjected to games of “Jew Penny.” Catholic boys, primarily Irish ones, would throw pennies at him and force him to pick them up.

If he didn’t stoop to retrieve the coins, they would throw nickels and dimes at him. Either way, he would be beaten. Goldberg felt that fighting wasn’t in his wiring, and he never actually defended himself until an African American friend told him to hit one Irish boy back. Even though his tormentor left him alone afterward, the wounds remained.

In “Prisoners,” he characterizes his upbringing this way: “I didn’t like the dog’s life of the Diaspora. We were a whipped and boneless people.”

By the end of the book, though, Goldberg, who immigrated to Israel in the late 1980s, has returned to America, a country he praises.

“If America had not taken in my ancestors three generations ago, we wouldn’t exist,” he says, pointing out, “Nothing makes you more patriotic as an American than spending three weeks in Pakistan. America with all its flaws is still a wonderful idea.”

Likewise, he found that though Israel may not be a utopia, its prisons, which he says “were not nice places, especially in the first uprising,” are far more humane than those in the rest of the world. At a time when prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have been tortured and denied habeas corpus, Goldberg argues that the prisons in the West Bank and Gaza “became worse for Palestinians when Palestinians were running them than when the Israelis were running them.”

He states without hesitation that the “baroque cruelty” and “sexually charged sadism” of Abu Ghraib did not and could not happen in Israeli prisons.

While Goldberg works on a book on Judah Maccabee for Schocken and Nextbook’s “Jewish Encounters” series, he remains hopeful about the Middle East. He bookends “Prisoners” with references to the story of Isaac and Ishmael, both sons of Abraham, who join hands in burying their father. As Goldberg writes, “This might be the single-most hopeful image in all the Bible, a palliative against the despair that has seeped into all of us.”

Jeffrey Goldberg will appear in a conversation with Jack Miles at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, on Wed., Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, call (866) 468-3399.

Building Homes, Building Hope

The prophet Isaiah asks: “What is the house which you would build for Me, and what is the place of My rest?” (Isaiah 66:1). In the days following the Easter and Passover holidays, 41 Angelenos traveled to the Gulf Coast to translate their faith into action. We were rabbis and pastors, African Americans and Jewish Americans, high school seniors and senior adults, synagogue and church members from 12 Los Angeles congregations who rebuilt homes in Gulfport, Miss.

We spent our days building and rebuilding roofs — separated into teams of eager “rookie roofers” under the patient supervision of AmeriCorps volunteers. In short order we were on the rooftop tearing off old shingles and tar paper, and replacing them with new materials. The work was hard, the heat and humidity intense. Few of us had prior construction experience, and many of us had never even been on the roofs of our own homes. But we were determined to finish “our roofs” before we left Gulfport. By week’s end, our volunteers had built six new roofs valued at $30,000 for uninsured or underinsured homeowners in the region.

The individuals and families we helped shared their moving stories of struggle and survival during and after Katrina. “Bob” described his 12-hour ordeal as the hurricane battered his house, and vowed never again to ignore evacuation orders. He lost his job at a federal facility that was destroyed in the hurricane and has no other job prospects. Bob lives day by day as he contemplates an uncertain future.

“Cheryl” is a single mom who has a job but lacks the funds to fix her leaky roof. The night before our site visit, a powerful thunderstorm blew through Gulfport and water crashed through the ceiling of Cheryl’s modest home. Our crew rebuilt her roof in one day, preventing further damage to the interior of the house. However, it will take years to heal the psychological and emotional scars borne by Cheryl and her family.

Everywhere we traveled along the coast, we witnessed heartbreaking scenes of devastation. We passed gutted churches that are now mere shells of formerly majestic houses of worship; twisted and dangling signs identifying businesses that are heaps of rubble; ruins of mansions and homes that are reminiscent of a war zone; front yards adorned with trailers whose occupants worry about how they will survive the next storm.

Through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the people of the Gulf Coast have met with tragic circumstances. The storm robbed them of homes and livelihoods, battered their dignity and in many cases left them for dead. The people we met have lost faith in FEMA, their insurance companies, their government, and so many others who have let them down over and over again. But the Jewish and African Methodist Episcopal Church communities of Los Angeles — two diverse groups working together — had compassion on the people of Gulfport and worked together to make a difference.

By repairing roofs, we helped to bandage their stricken community. Beyond the financial contributions our groups have previously made to the relief effort, by shouldering our neighbors’ burdens, we offered something equally as important: hope. That hope was seen in the eyes of the homeowners that we served and felt through the prayers and tears they offered as thanks for our assistance.

This journey was a lesson in faith and partnership. Our partners in Mississippi included the amazing young men and women of AmeriCorps, who devote one to two years of their lives in volunteer service for their fellow Americans. Our hosts were the staff and congregants of Westminster Presbyterian Church, which has transformed itself into a 24/7 center for volunteer relief groups. One of the church elders told us that he is especially pleased to welcome Jewish groups to the church, since he is a leader in ongoing efforts to overturn the divestment resolutions of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

This mission was a lesson in spirit and fellowship. The region’s sole Jewish congregation and B’nai B’rith chapter warmly welcomed us to their annual Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) commemoration, held in a Methodist church while the synagogue awaits repair. As the multifaith, multiracial congregation read the names of Holocaust victims, we prayed that we honor their memories by building bonds of faith and friendship between Los Angeles and the Gulf Coast.

We also built strong and sure bonds within our L.A. delegation — between African Americans and Jewish Americans; between Jews and Christians and their congregations; among Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Jews and their synagogues. Too often it takes a crisis or disaster for people of diverse races, religions and cultures to draw closer to God and to one another. Sometimes it takes a trip away from home to remind neighbors to celebrate their differences and their shared destiny as God’s children.

We returned home with a pledge to work together to meet the needs of our community in Los Angeles, even as we remember the needs of the Gulf Coast. The lives and struggles of the people we met are daily reminders of the sacred mandate to rebuild our broken world. We will not rest until the community has healed.

On June 4, the first Sunday of the 2006 hurricane season, churches and synagogues throughout Louisiana and in all cities with major concentrations of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita evacuees will join together in remembrance of those who were lost and to raise awareness of those still missing from the storms. For more information, e-mail findfamilypio@dhh.la.gov.

The Rev. Kevin Taylor is associate minister of Grant AME Church in Los Angeles. Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. The Mississippi trip was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee and the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Ministerial Association.


A Circle of Friends

For several weeks, I had been visiting Nathan, a 6-year-old boy diagnosed with autism. We had been brought together through the Conejo Valley Friendship Circle, an organization that extends warmth to families in the community that have children with special needs.

Nathan was unable to verbally communicate any of his ideas, wishes or thoughts, despite numerous psychiatrists, speech therapists and trained counselors who tried to improve his speaking abilities.

At our weekly play dates, I began to mimic and articulate many words to Nathan, even though I felt that it would have a minimal impact on him. For instance, when he wished to continue jumping on the trampoline, I would repeat the words “more” and “again” to him. After several weeks, and to my great surprise and satisfaction, Nathan said his first word … “more.”

One could imagine what raced through my mind. Here, a naive and sometimes foolish 15-year-old boy was able to accomplish in a few short weeks what dozens of therapists and psychologists could not accomplish in six years.

But even more fun and gratifying was the friendship we began to develop. Never in my life had I witnessed anything as pure as watching Nathan ride a bike or the joy he would express while jumping on a trampoline. He became more than a friend … he became my companion. I felt that he was the only individual that didn’t judge me. All he asked was that I come to his house once a week and play with him.

The Friendship Circle has changed, and in a way, rewritten the way I view my life. Like many other teenagers, before I joined the Friendship Circle, I found my life to be ordinary, tedious and mundane. I found that my soul was constantly yearning for a more meaningful existence. In the beginning, I joined the organization in order to acquire community service hours and perhaps impress some college that I planned to apply to in the future. Unknown to me at the time, I would soon fall in love with the organization.

The Conejo Valley Friendship Circle began in 2003 to offer volunteers services, events and support to special-needs families: 125 families with special-needs kids throughout the Conejo and West San Fernando valleys participate, and 250 teenagers are volunteers. On March 26, 600 people gathered at Agoura High School for a walk-a-thon and family fun day to benefit the Friendship Circle. The special-needs kids and their families walked the first lap of the 5K walk, and then the rest of us joined. We raised $80,000 for Friendship Circle programs.

Every Friendship Circle event is special in its own way; whether it is the weekly Fitness Center program or the annual Purim Carnival, each event brings a distinctive dimension to the program. Children, parents and volunteers together unite and form a bond unlike any other friendship or companionship. Within our own communities, we form a small neighborhood of trustworthy friends that care not only for the benefit of themselves but also take the time to realize the good that they can bring to the world.

The core program, Friends at Home, is the one that brought us together. Every member within the organization is assigned to a particular family, whom he or she befriends and visits once a week. At the outset, I was impressed with the professionalism the organization allowed me to acquire. “Friends at Home” and meeting Nathan helped me understand how one person can have a deep and significant impact.

The Friendship Circle puts individuals in a situation where they can and will make a difference. Although every situation cannot be as intense and gratifying as my own, I am certain that each individual the organization touches is affected in a deep, momentous manner. Each volunteer becomes a part of their child’s life — an important part, a part that cannot be replaced by any trained guide or psychologist. Every kid needs a friend; the Friendship Circle strives to give each child that is in need a friend; and teenage volunteers have their soul touched in a sentimental, life-changing way.

As much as every child needs a friend, it is evident that teenagers need a friend, too. I’m not referring to the friend that you take to the mall or go to a party with, but everyone needs a real friend. A friend that will not judge will not hate and will not disappoint … a friend that will not ask anything of you but your friendship. Everyone needs a “Friendship Circle” friend.

For more information about the Friendship Circle of the Conejo Valley, call (818) 865-2233 or visit


Israeli Superstars Rock the Diaspora

Lo Ozev At Hair Avur Af Echad Anachnu Shnayim Tamid, Beneynu

(“I won’t leave the city/not for anyone/we are two, always/between us, one God.”)

— Shlomo Artzi and Shalom Chanoch, “Live at Caesaria”

Don’t believe everything you hear. Two of Israel’s greatest rockers — Shlomo Artzi and Shalom Chanoch — are leaving Israel, albeit briefly, pairing up for a joint three-concert tour to promote their new album, “Live at Caesaria,” in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, homes to Israel’s largest expat communities.

Although Israeli stars have toured America for years — consider Idan Reichl’s recent popularity at the Kodak Theatre — this tour will be the Israeli equivalent of say, Billy Joel and Elton John touring together. These two Israeli mega-singer/songwriters have produced hundreds of pop songs over more than four decades, and they continue to sell out concerts despite their advancing ages — both are nearing 60.

But unlike Joel and John, who are increasingly relegated to “soft rock” and appeal primarily to their original Gen-X and Baby Boomer fans, the Israeli rockers still enthrall their original fans from the 1960s and 1970s, even as they have captured the hearts of later generations. (This is particularly true of the blue-eyed, dimpled Artzi, who still draws a bevy of screaming, belly-shirted young things rushing the stage at his concerts.)

Part of the pair’s cross-generational appeal is, of course, due to the fact that Israel is a small country, without much room for niche markets: Rock is rock. (Not like America, with its hundreds of Grammy categories). But it’s also because the two men, in a way, are Israeli rock. No, they are Israel: Chanoch was born in 1946, and Artzi was born in 1948.

Chanoch jumped to fame when he teamed up with that other great Israeli star, Arik Einstein, in 1967. In the 1970s Chanoch became a star in his own right, but for the next years continued to write songs performed by other Israeli artists.

Artzi got his start in the army band and in 1975 was chosen to represent Israel at Eurovision. He lost the competition, and soon after recorded “He Lost His Way,” which was meant as a last hurrah, but instead reignited his career.

Each of the artists’ songs have flooded the radio waves for nearly five decades, a soundtrack, of sorts, to Israel’s many wars, casualties, celebrations, assassinations, and shifting moods — from hopeful to cynical and hopeful again.

“There has not ever been another man/like that man,” Artzi sang on the tribute album made following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, a song that became a mantra for the mourning peace camp.

In 1985 Chanoch came out with his humorous “Mashiach Lo Bah” — which became a pop sensation and later entered the lexicon, with its typically Israeli cynical chorus: “The Messiah isn’t coming — and he isn’t phoning, either.”

Neither artist’s lyrics seem particularly religious: (Consider Artzi’s song, “Here and There”: “Here and there the Messiah’s plane flits about/when will it land near us on the shore? She says: He who believes in lies will be disappointed.”) But their ironic faith reflects the tone of much Israeli culture. Many of their songs are about love, about friendship, about wars, and always with a little politics thrown in.

Last summer, Artzi and Chanoch performed together in the amphitheater in Caesaria, in Northern Israel. There, Chanoch played one of Artzi’s most popular songs. “Suddenly when you didn’t come/I felt like this.” Artzi later said it was best performance ever of the song. In turn, Artzi sang one of Chanoch’s songs, and a joint performance was born. After 42 performances in Israel, the duo comes to America (New York’s Beacon Theater on March 5; Miami on March 8; and Los Angeles’ Kodak Theatre on March 11).

One problem with tribute albums, where artists sing another artist’s song, is that a fan has to be able to let go of the original version to appreciate strangers singing the familiar song. (Does one really want to hear Kate Bush singing “Rocket Man,” on the Elton John tribute album “Two Rooms”?)

It can be disconcerting to hear the two singing each other’s top hits on the album.

And yet, after five decades on the Israeli scene, their songs have become such a fabric of Israeli society, their fans overlapping, their voices sounding increasingly similar as age takes its toll (let’s not forget the smoking) that it seems somehow only fitting for Israel’s two great icons to merge their playlists.

And besides, in concert, they’re singing all the songs together.

Like this one, written by Chanoch, performed first by Einstein.

Kama Tov Shebata Habayta/Kama Tov Li’rot Otcha Shuv …

“How good it is that you’ve come home/How good it is to see you….”

The March 11 concert at the Kodak Theatre starts at 8:30 p.m. $47-$147. 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. For tickets, call (213) 480-3232.


Director Pays Price in Making ‘Capote’

Truman Capote, the legendary writer and subject of the eponymous Sony Pictures Classics release that has been nominated for five Academy Awards, spent six years writing “In Cold Blood,” the book that would cement his literary legacy while also leading to his spiritual downfall.

If the writing of “In Cold Blood” proved a Faustian bargain for Capote, the making of “Capote” has not left its principals unscathed. Bennett Miller, 39, who has received an Oscar nomination for best director, speaks over the phone with the world weariness of a much older man, one who has weathered many crises.

“I can’t imagine anything that’s going to prove as difficult,” he said about directing “Capote.” “It took everything out of me, and it took everything out of Phil [actor Philip Seymour Hoffman], as well.”

Caroline Baron, the film’s producer who worked with Hoffman on “Flawless” and has known screenwriter Dan Futterman and Miller for a number of years, said that all films present challenges, but that from the outset, she had “100 percent confidence in Bennett as a director and Phil as an actor.”

Hoffman’s presence in the project helped her convince investors to pony up $7.5 million for a movie to be directed by a first-time feature filmmaker.

Where Capote never forgave himself for betraying, or at least manipulating, Perry Smith, the murderer with whom he had bonded in writing “In Cold Blood,” Miller said that collaborating on “Capote” brought him, Futterman and Hoffman, who have known each other since they were teenagers, “even closer. Something like this challenges you.

“In the natural course of a friendship,” he continued, “it doesn’t always happen that one’s wants are up against another’s. Not just any wants. Deeply felt wants.”

Miller, who like Futterman is Jewish, met the latter in junior high in Westchester County, N.Y. He spent much time at Futterman’s house, even occasionally celebrating Passover together. If Miller is not very religious, he has been obsessed with filmmaking since he got his first camera, a Super-8, when he was 11.

He got some strong reviews but little recognition for “The Cruise,” a 1998 documentary that follows the quirky life of a homeless Manhattan tour guide who rattles off statistics about the Big Apple while riding a double-decker bus. “Capote” marks his entree into the A-list, just as “In Cold Blood” made Capote an international literary phenomenon.

Capote was already a darling of cafe society, renowned since the late 1940s for his short stories and later novels like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” when he saw the potential for creating a nonfiction narrative using techniques traditionally associated with fiction writing — interior monologue, differing points of view and voice. He wanted to get the reader so deeply into the heads of two murderers that the reader would not only be chilled but also feel a modicum of empathy for Dick Hickock and particularly Smith.

Miller, Futterman and Hoffman have honored the man some view as the greatest postwar writer by making a film that, like the best of Capote’s prose, has both a spareness and beauty. One of the frequent images in the film is a shot of barren trees in the early Kansas morning; they stand alone like sentinels that have failed to protect the Clutter family from violence.

Without a word of dialogue, these shots tell us what we have to know about Kansas, that it is a lonely part of the country with a lot of open space, and that there is something austere, even a little sinister, that could be lurking in this land.

If Capote disarmed people with his self-deprecating wit, his effeminate mannerisms and above all his bizarre voice, he also disarmed them with his surprising toughness, the kind that allowed him to brave a foray into Middle America, where few had encountered an eccentric like him before.

Still, it took its toll on him, just as it has on Miller, who relates a story from kindergarten. All the kids were asked to take those colorful, big blocks, known to all kindergarteners, and to construct “a kind of needle, a pyramid.” Miller hid underneath a desk and watched as the other kids assembled their structures.

“Finally, I ventured out to do it. I did it deliberately upside down.” With characteristic fatigue in his voice, he said, “That is how this movie feels to me.”