July 15, 2019

Year in Review 2018: Top Videos

2018 was a busy year in the Jewish community and at the Jewish Journal. Take a look back at some of our favorite videos from this past year!

“Exotic Fruit Blind Taste Test” Jan. 30

Exotic Fruit Blind Taste Test

Tu B'Shvat is here. Come eat with us!

Posted by Jewish Journal on Tuesday, January 30, 2018


“A Very Special Love Story” Feb. 12

A Very Special Love Story

It’s been nearly four years since Danielle and Shlomo tied the knot. Both of them have special needs. This is their inspiring love story.Read more about their story here: http://jewishjournal.com/culture/230715/danielle-and-shlomo-meyers/Thank you to ETTA.org

Posted by Jewish Journal on Monday, February 12, 2018


“Open Temple Seder Crawl” April 4

Open Temple Seder Crawl

We joined Rabbi Lori Schneide Shapiro and Open Temple for an experiential Seder crawl in Venice Beach.

Posted by Jewish Journal on Wednesday, April 4, 2018


“Ari Fuld- I’m Always on Call” Sept. 16

Ari Fuld – I'm Always on Call

Ari Fuld, terror victim, in a 2018 video interview at Jewish Journal.JJ LINK: http://jewishjournal.com/news/israel/238991/im-always-call-ari-fuld-terror-victim-2018-video-interview-jewish-journal/

Posted by Jewish Journal on Sunday, September 16, 2018


“L.A. Vigil for Tree of Life” Oct. 29

L.A. Vigil for Tree of Life

The L.A. Community honors and remembers the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting.

Posted by Jewish Journal on Monday, October 29, 2018


“Pittsburgh Remembers the Victims” Oct. 31

Pittsburgh Remembers the Victims

Pittsburgh Remembers the Victims

Posted by Jewish Journal on Wednesday, October 31, 2018


“UCLA Campus: Protestors March Against National Students for Justice in Palestine Conference” Nov. 24 

On the UCLA campus: Protestors march against the National Students for Justice in Palestine Conference

On the UCLA campus – protestors march against the NSJP conference and hold a celebration of Israel

Posted by Jewish Journal on Saturday, November 24, 2018


“A Very Disney Hanukkah” Dec. 3 

A Very Disney Hanukkah

The Jewish Journal team explores the foods, music and fun of Hanukkah as the Disneyland Resort's Festival of Holidays at Disney California Adventure Park celebrates the Festival of Lights.

Posted by Jewish Journal on Monday, December 3, 2018


“A Sumptuous Tast of a Sephardic Hanukkah” Dec. 6

A Sumptuous Taste of a Sephardic Hanukkah

Posted by Jewish Journal on Thursday, December 6, 2018


“Hanukkah in Venice, CA” Dec. 10

Hanukkah in Venice, CA

Posted by Jewish Journal on Monday, December 10, 2018


See more from our Year in Review here.

Having a December Dilemma Is Better Than December Delusions

Editor’s note: This is an online exclusive piece.

Pop quiz: What do “White Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Let It Snow,” “Silver Bells,” and “The Christmas Song” (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire), all have in common? Jews wrote or popularized all of them: Irving Berlin, Johnny Marks, Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, and Mel Torme.

In the hands of a brilliant novelist like Philip Roth in “Operation Shylock,” this fact becomes Jews’ revenge on “the goyim.”

“God gave Moses the 10 Commandments,” Roth’s narrator observes, “and He gave to Irving Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas.’ The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ – the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity – and what does Irving Berlin do? Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow.”

In the hands of anti-Semites, this fact exposes “THE Jews” as Greedy Grinchsteins, who “stole” Christmas, turning this religious holiday into what the historian Daniel Boorstin called a “festival of consumption.” Blaming “THE Jews,” as if we act as one, is bigoted. Moreover, the watering down of Christmas in the West and religion in America goes far beyond the influence of one group – or a half-dozen talented song-smiths.

The story of how some Jews helped Americanize Christmas reveals three bigger phenomena: How Jews helped modernize America; How America Americanized Jews; and, ultimately, How America works – and should work.

Usually, although we chronicle individual Jewish successes in detail, “American Jewry” is painted with broad brush strokes. While every American Jewish superstar moves and shakes, American Jews collectively are treated as objects, not subjects, passively being Americanized, assimilated, wooed, seduced – even intermarriage is discussed as a force, not an individual expression of love.

Acknowledging American Jews’ creativity challenges us to retell American Jewish history with more active verbs, noting not just how American changed Jewry, but how American Jews helped America grow. It was a match made in the New World’s fields of dreams, gardens of tolerance and plains of plenty — which America’s unique political culture nurtured.

The American Jewish experience, like all immigrant experiences, was a two-way process. American Jews helped America become more diverse, open, cosmopolitan, while America helped Jews become more comfortable, confident and culturally accommodating.

But the Jews weren’t just another immigrant group. There was a particular click between American and Jewish culture. Many of the People of the Book came with skills that helped America become Facebook Nation. The Eastern European Jewish experience cultivated a wordiness and a worldliness that suited modern America. Far beyond “White Christmas,” the result was an explosion of creativity spawned by this soothing flowerbed of rights, freedoms, opportunities.

Simultaneously, America “Americanized” Jews. Most American Jews did to Judaism what the Jewish songwriters did to Christmas. They exiled God and any heavy-handedness from their cavernous suburban temples. They made the holidays user-friendly and red-white-and-blue not just blue-and-white. At many Passover seders, Martin Luther King Jr. now competes with Moses, Betty Friedan with Miriam; the holiday of Jewish national liberation has become the holiday of universal civil rights.

Amid this December Delusion, all holidays, especially Christmas and Hanukkah, have been so dumbed down and so politically corrected, that, in late December, people say “Happy Holidays.” Everyone knows this national day off celebrates Christmas, marking Jesus’ birth in the desert of Bethlehem, not Rudolph the big-nosed, er, red-nosed reindeer roasting chestnuts in snow-covered New York.

America remains a majority Christian nation. Three-quarters of the population has the right to celebrate its holidays in authentic ways in the public square. I prefer a culture of Christmas trees and Hanukkah menorahs proliferating in December, broadcasting the excitement and meaning of various Americans experiences when preserving ancient traditions. It beats a sterilized town square, with generic snowflakes abounding. That nakedness evokes the stripped-down modern, lonely Westerner; Emile Durkheim’s lost, abandoned, sufferers of “anomie.”

Instead of spreading December Delusions that we’re all the same, let’s confront our December Dilemmas. The majority should worry about how the minority feels. Minorities should enjoy watching the majority celebrate publicly and privately.

Let’s debate, yet again, how we strike that all-American balance, granting everyone equal political rights and expansive liberties. We should beorging politics that includes us all, while nurturing private spaces and public respect for Jews who want to remain Jewish (ethnically and religiously), Christians who want to remain Christian and Americans perpetuating many faiths, ethnicities, nationalities and identities. Let’s appreciate the spiritual grounding, cultural sparks and frameworks for meaning these traditions provide. They propel us beyond the generic pop culture of Hollywood, Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley that so mass produce and generalize experiences, that our personal voices, our more intimate communities, our most interesting selves, our richest traditions, aren’t banned — but simply wither away.

Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.   

We Wish You a Jewish Christmas

REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

It’s another day of sun here in the United Socialist Republic of Southern California. Free speech is alive and well, as long as you agree with the loudest people in the room.

Because many voters perceived the 2016 presidential election as a choice between a stab in the back and a kick in the nuts, I’m willing to cut a deal for the 2020 election: You reincorporate the United States into the British Crown, and everyone can unite against an agreed form of oppression by the British government. The British are looking for a happy new bedfellow after “Brexiting” the bossy Germans in the future. Americans love a good simcha, so we will guarantee you one royal wedding per year to replace “America’s Got Talent” with “Britain’s Got Royal Weddings.”

Now is the time for the ultimate Jewish invention: Christmas. Can we ditch “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”? I didn’t move to L.A. for snow. Last week, I visited my parents in Florida, who were snowbirding to escape the European Union (EU) winter, which hopefully will improve after the U.K. separates from German EU control (“if in doubt, blame the kraut”).

Florida was freezing. To add insult to frigidity, the public menorah lighting in Palm Beach was beneath an artificial snow machine with realistically cold snow. “What the fakakta?” I thought in Yiddish.

I’m dreaming of a Jewish Christmas. The song’s composer and lyricist Irving Berlin was the son of a Russian cantor. The original “White Christmas” lyrics include:

“There’s never been such a day In Beverly Hills, L.A.
but it’s December the 24th
And I am longing to be up north.”

Was Berlin dreaming of NorCal or Northern Russia? I suspect he didn’t write it at all. The proof is his surname, Berlin, capital of Deutschland. Ze Germans!

My jibes at Germany merely demonstrate a love for English values rather than Germanophobia.

This ’tude isn’t even my fault. I was brought up with the song British football fans chant when playing Germany: “Two world wars and one world cup, doo-dah, doo-dah.”

(For clarification, that is football you play with only your feet rather than American “football” where you can use  your hands).

I was brought up in a Church of England country, where Her Majesty Queen Liz is head of church, state, Parliament, the Bank of England and probably secret head judge on “Britain’s Got Talent.”

As a child, I loved Christmas, except for prejudice displayed by teachers. Every year, students staged a nativity play, and I got cast as “Third Shepherd.” Always the sheep-tender, never the messiah. It wasn’t much better at Easter, when I played Pontius Pilate, realizing 20 years later that it wasn’t a good move playing the man most associated with the crucifixion. I shall bear this cross.

My most meaningful Christmas was when I was in yeshiva. I was in for a year of full-time Torah study but got out after 10 months for good behavior.

Our yeshiva was in the beautiful city of Efrat, which is near Bethlehem, so the obvious thing to do was to arrange a group trip on Dec. 24 to Nativity Square. We had golden crowns from my birthday party the previous week at Jerusalem’s kosher Burger King, although that evening ended badly when the manager threw us out for making a human pyramid.

Torah study is forbidden on Christmas Eve, known as “Nittelnacht.” So wearing our golden crowns and hitchhiking to Bethlehem seemed like the natural thing to do. Manger Square was packed, so we headed back and broke yeshiva rules by learning Torah. Rebels with a cause.

Ideally, I would spend this Christmas in Germany. Europe’s largest menorah recently was erected at the Brandenburg Gate on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Winters in central Europe are even colder than in Palm Beach, Fla. Drinking German beer in a Bierkeller is fun, and Hamburg was a great crucible for the Beatles. Some Germans love Jews, and my British passport is good there for 93 days and I’ll have a very Jewish Christmas, just like rabbis intended.

Marcus J Freed is a Los Angeles-based actor. His website is marcusjfreed.com.

Haley: Trump Wanted to Cut Funding to Those That Voted Down UN Hamas Resolution

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to the media on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington before his departure for the annual Army-Navy college football game in Philadelphia, U.S., December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said in a Dec. 6 speech that President Donald Trump wanted to cut funding to countries that voted against a United Nations that condemned Hamas as a terror group.

The resolution received 87 votes in favor, 57 against and 33 abstentions on Dec. 6, falling short of the two-thirds threshold needed for it to pass.

According to the Times of Israel, Haley said at the Israel U.N. mission’s menorah lighting that Trump called her after the vote and said, “Who do we need to get upset at? Who do you want me to yell at? Who do we take their money away?”

“I’m not gonna tell you what I told him,” Haley added.

Haley praised the 87 countries that voted for the resolution as a sign of “a new day at the UN.”

According to the Gatestone Institute’s Bassam Tawil, the fact that Hamas viewed the resolution’s failure as an indicator that “the resistance is a legitimate right guaranteed by all international laws and conventions,” including the use of “armed struggle,” shows that Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups have been emboldened by the failed resolution.

“What Hamas is telling the UN and the rest of the world is: ‘Now that you have refused to brand us terrorists, we have the right to launch all forms of terrorist attacks and kill as many Jews as possible,’” Tawil wrote. “Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders are, in fact, threatening not only to continue, but also to step up, their terrorist attacks on Israel.”

Hanukkah Illumination Rocked by Darkness of Hate

The National Menorah Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Our age seems to be addicted to what Mark Twain called “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But when it comes to the upsurge of anti-Semitism in the United States, especially on our campuses and on our streets since Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue slaughter of 11 innocents by a white supremacist Jew hater on Oct. 27, you don’t need statistics — just the litany of shameful specifics — to bring home the alarming truth.

Here are but a few recent campus “incidents” across the U.S. during Hanukkah:

Now, to top it off, at Harvard University — which rolled out the golden carpet in 1934 for high Nazi official Ernst Hanfstaengl (a Harvard alum) who used the occasion for anti-Semitic incitement — the Chabad House menorah was knocked over on the first night of Hanukkah, an incident being investigated as a hate crime.

Statistics released by the FBI confirm that the Hanukkah attacks were no aberration.  Hate crimes rose an astounding 17 percent last year, yet crimes targeting Jews, who represent only 2 percent of the population, soared 37 percent. 

Not all anti-Semitism emanates from neo-Nazis. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) raised a Palestinian flag above the University of Vermont’s Davis Center, surrounded by handmade signs (put up in violation of university policy) calling for an end to United Nations Resolution 181, which recognized Israel’s right to exist as a U.N. member state.

The SJP and at least initially, its ally, J Street University of Vermont, repudiated an earlier Israeli flag-raising as allegedly symbolizing “the moral  bankruptcy of Zionist ideology … [and the] ethnic cleansing of Palestinian civilians” as well as Israel’s “racist and oppressive … sexist, homophobic, and transphobic policies.”

Campus campaigns demonizing Jews and other Zionists as racists and supporting ethnic cleansing along with demands that the lone Jewish state, home to world’s largest Jewish population cease to exist, open the door wide for more attacks against American Jews.

And reaction by some university officials to anti-Semitism has been nothing short of outrageous.

For example, the initial statement issued the day after the Pittsburgh synagogue bloodbath from Columbia University’s Student Life Office, was mute about exactly who was slaughtered and why. Only after indignant protests, many from Jewish Columbia alumni, was a revised statement issued condemning “horrific anti-Semitic violence.” The hemming-and-hawing was similar at Dartmouth College.

Denial by euphemism is awful. But could anything be worse than the UCLA administration’s decision, a few weeks after the 80th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht pogrom, to give its go-ahead on specious free speech grounds to the national conference of Students for Justice in Palestine, whose ranks include leaders who have tweeted: “LOL let’s stuff some Jews in the oven” and “We need to put Zionists in concentration camps. Now that would be a life experience for them” and “Every time I read about Hitler, I fall in love all over again.”

What is to be done?

American-Jewish students inclined to visit or study in Israel — or just speak up for the Jewish state — are often subject to intimidation and ridicule, sometimes by the professors who teach them. The Jewish community and national organizations must ensure that no Jewish student is left alone to fight back. Timidity in the face of anti-Semitic bullying must end. And fight back they must! When it came to mobilizing for Soviet Jewry in 1960s and ’70s, students led and adults followed. Now the legitimacy of the Jewish state, Jewish history and Jewish values are under assault. We need to nurture young Jews who want to fight back, not become invisible.

Beyond the campus, American Jews must recalibrate our interactions with neighbors, believers and nonbelievers, to forge new alliances to confront and defeat history’s oldest hatred, a hatred that seems to grow stronger every day.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean and director of global social action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Historian Harold Brackman is a long-time consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Hanukkah at Disneyland: The Good, The Katz and The Spicy

A Very Disney Hanukkah

The Jewish Journal team explores the foods, music and fun of Hanukkah as the Disneyland Resort's Festival of Holidays at Disney California Adventure Park celebrates the Festival of Lights.

Posted by Jewish Journal on Monday, December 3, 2018

The miracle of Hanukkah is one of the most well-known in Judaism. This year, why not celebrate the miracle with a little bit of magic at the Happiest Place on Earth?

The Disneyland Resort’s Festival of Holidays has been a seasonal favorite since 2016. This year’s celebration — which in addition to Hanukkah, has festive food, drink, music, merchandise and crafts for Christmas, Navidad, Diwali, Kwanzaa and Three Kings Day — takes place at Disney California Adventure Park.

Both parks get a dusting of winter magic and evening snowfall and are very festive and, of course, you can’t miss the explosion of Christmas decor around the park. However, Disney added handfuls of Jewish and Hanukkah elements to make members of the tribe feel at home during the holidays.

The Jewish Journal team explored the park to see if the Festival of Holidays is worthy of an extra helping of latkes. This is what we found.

Sights to See
Disney is known for their amazing window displays, and you can expect nothing less during the holiday season. If you head to Buena Vista Street, you can find the Hanukkah-themed window outside Julius Katz’ store. Even though Julius Katz is not a real person, he is based on Julius the Cat from the early Alice Comedies that Walt Disney created prior to Mickey Mouse.

The storefront is loaded with latkes, sufganiyot and Hanukkah merchandise you can purchase in the park. Each year Disney releases a limited edition Hanukkah pin that you can also purchase at both parks, as well as at Downtown Disney. The themed Festival of Holidays merchandise also proudly rocks a lot of dreidels and menorahs.

Dr. Benjamin Silverstein, yet another fictional Jewish persona, has a “storefront” on Main Street USA where you can find a mezuzah on the doorpost, as well as a giant menorah in the window above that is lit all eight nights of Hanukkah — to best see that, just cross the street and look up. (There are several real Jewish Disney animators and creators who could have been showcased, but it is nice to see the representation at both parks. Look around Main Street and you will find the door of the Sherman Brothers — the music makers behind “Mary Poppins” and “it’s a small world,” as well).

Games to Play
Inside the Festival of Holidays, you’ll find an array of activities. One arts and crafts station includes D.I.Y. dreidels and hanukkah cards. This craft is fun for all ages and surprisingly harder than it looks. If made correctly, the blue and white paper dreidels — which are correctly labeled in Hebrew– spin. Pair it with a nice Hanukkah card it makes a cute takeaway for kids and an easy gift for Bubbe, Zayde, Ema or Aba.

Let’s Nosh Already
“What better way is there to celebrate different cultures and holiday traditions than with a unique blending of great food?” Disneyland Resort Chef Jimmy Weita asks. “Many of our items are classic holiday tastes, with a distinctive Disney twist.”

He’s not wrong. Food is a great way to learn and understand a culture and it’s impossible to miss the seemingly limitless food options at Festival of Holidays since they border the park as you stroll along.

If your kids are picky eaters or have an allergy, Disney is already one step ahead in this department offering kid-friendly, vegan, vegetarian and allergy-friendly options so that no matter what a family eats, there’s something everyone can nosh on.  

The only caveat? The food, including the Hanukkah-themed options, are not kosher. However, kosher meals are available for purchase at the sit-down restaurants in the park, just call ahead to reserve.

Jalapeño latkes with chipotle crema.

Here are the following Jewish-themed bites you can try and where to find them:

  • Favorite Things—Reuben potato tots with Russian dressing and rye toast
  • Merry Mashups— Lox & everything bagel nachos
  • Spicy Celebrations— Jalapeño latkes with chipotle crema featuring Horizon organic sour cream

The Reuben tots and lox and everything nachos were real winners and though maybe not the healthiest options, the shareables were well worth the $6. Plus each recipe is easy to recreate at home, so the fun can continue after leaving Disneyland. We even snagged the recipe for the Reuben potato tots that you can view here. If spice isn’t your style, we suggest you steer clear of the jalapeno latkes but for $6, the portion size is filling and topped with a dried apple to remind you of the sweet applesauce your burning mouth desperately wished it had. For a full listing of the Festive Food Marketplace click here.

It’s Time to Horah

Members of Mostly Kosher performing at the Festival of Holidays. (Scott Brinegar/Disneyland Resort)

Easily the most enjoyable moment of Disney’s Hanukkah festivities is the performance by Gypsy-rock Klezmer group Mostly Kosher. The multiperson band literally dances their way onto the stage and has been performing at Festival of Holidays for three years in a row. Their production and popularity have continued to grow each year.

Multiple 30-minute shows filled with a variety of Jewish influenced music shake up the park daily at the Sonoma Terrace, erasing the stereotypical idea of what Jewish music is.

Band leader Leeav Sofer told the Journal that they are using the numerous performance slots as a way to grow the band. Because of this, every performance is different and still maintains the rich sound and vibrant personality of Mostly Kosher.

There is something special and even emotional about hearing “Ma’oz Tsur/Rock of Ages” and “Al Hanisim” at a park that is usually Christmas dominated. It’ll make any Jewish person feel right at home and maybe even a little ferklempt.

“Singing and music is the greatest equalizer and cultural music, at the end of the day, is just a platform to connect cultures and people together,” Sofer said.

By the end of each performance, the large crowd of Jewish and non-Jewish participants are “ay-dy-dying” and dancing the horah around the stage. It’s a beautiful moment of unity brought together through Jewish music.

“You take this music that is not very common to everyone that not many people know and put it in front of them,” Sofer said. “We are laying down the bridge to invite everybody in and give them a little gift-wrapped goodie bag to take home with them so they can have ownership of this music.”

The Festival of Holidays runs through January 8 at Disney California Adventure Park. For ticket information please click here.

Shoshana Lewin is the Digital Director at the Journal and Erin Ben-Moche is the Digital Content Manager at the Journal. 

Picture Frame Gift Wrapping For the Holidays

When it comes to giving gifts, whether for Hanukkah, birthdays or whatever occasion, I like to be creative with the wrapping rather than just plunking the present in a gift bag from the 99 Cents Only Store. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) On the other hand, I also don’t like to spend too much time with it, since I’m a last-minute shopper and wrapper. 

Here’s a gift-wrapping idea that personalizes the gift with a frame for a photo, and it’s super easy to boot. (You can tell by how short the tutorial is.) You can insert the recipient’s photo in the frame, or a picture of a pet or loved one. It’s a heartfelt way to jazz up any gift.

What you’ll need:
Wrapping paper
Coordinating paper

1. Wrap your present as you normally would with the gift wrap of your choice.

2. Cut out a rectangle from paper or cardstock of a coordinating color. Then cut out an opening inside that rectangle for the photo. Glue the frame to the gift, but don’t glue the top edge because that’s where the photo is inserted.

3. Insert a photo, and write the recipient’s name on the frame if you wish.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at jonathanfongstyle.com.

The Miracle of Light: Happy Hanukkah from Azerbaijan

Jewish children celebrating Hanukkah in Baku, Azerbaijan

Jewish children celebrating Hanukkah in Baku, Azerbaijan


Hanukkah is such a special time of year. It is a reminder of so much, and although as a Muslim it is not my holiday to celebrate, it is a special 8 days that I hold dear to my heart. For me, the most powerful part of the Hanukkah story is the idea that with righteousness, courage and faith, something that seems small and powerless can actually become heroic and transcendent. Like the Maccabees, a small army that defeated a large empire, or the small vile of oil that somehow miraculously lit the Jewish Temple for those 8 nights.


I have certainly felt small before in my life. As a survivor of the Khojaly massacre, once left by the side of the road for dead, I remember a tragic time in my life when I felt as small and vulnerable as one could ever feel. Yet over time, with immense support and kindness from so many around me and from my own country, I began to feel strong again, and eventually strong enough to stand up and fight against the occupation of my country and against criminal warfare taking place across the world. In my own small way, I became like a Maccabee soldier, filled with the miraculous light of faith and courage.


Hanukkah is celebrated across the nation here in Azerbaijan, from the bustling streets of our capital city Baku to the all-Jewish Red Village in the Quba region, and the entire nation, made of Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Baha’is, Hare Krishnas and others, enjoy the tradition and festivities that come along with the holiday. Here in Azerbaijan we understand the legacy of Hanukkah as it pertains to Jewish history and also to the Jewish narrative today – how Jews around the world have miraculously transcended the tragedies of the 20th century, and so many centuries before, and continue to flourish, celebrate, and live freely in the world.


A holiday distinguished by lights, Hanukkah is in many ways a story about creating life (light) in a world of darkness (death), and I think that is one of the most powerful messages of the holiday, and one that I can relate to most intimately. And this applies beyond me, a survivor and spokeswoman for survivors, but also to my brothers and sisters across Azerbaijan, a country that aims to shine a great light out unto the world, to illuminate the belief and practice of interreligious and multicultural tolerance, harmony and peace, which we hold so dear to our hearts and which is inseparable from our national character. We are also a country that has been under siege for many years now, by foreign invaders who hope to wipe us out, to erase our history, culture and traditions.


For these and so many other reasons, I love this holiday and the inspiration it provides, in a time when we all need as much inspiration as possible. It reminds me to celebrate legacy, to remember the champions and heroes that have fought tirelessly for my freedoms and safety. It reminds me of the courage and strength within me and it empowers me to continue fighting for justice and for my homeland and for many lives lost – so many that will not light holiday candles this year because they were taken too soon from the world. In their memory I celebrate, and in the spirit of transcendence and miracles, I join my Jewish friends and neighbors in lighting the Menorah, enjoying latkes, sufganiyot and listening to the beautiful Hanukkah music. More than anything, I join you in this festival of lights and renew my commitment to continue doing all I can to bring light into the world.

Nachshon Minyan Gets Into the Hanukkah Spirit

“No Fortnite dances and no flossing!” joked one of the young adults running the Nachshon Minyan Hanukkah Celebration’s dreidel game table, where half a dozen tween boys were going head to head. Although, judging by the little gold and silver foil discs that littered the table, they were more interested in eating the gelt than gambling with it.

The boys were among some 150 congregants who turned out for the annual event on Nov. 30 at the San Fernando Valley Arts & Cultural Center in Tarzana, about half of them kids.

Louis Lovit, 81, who was there with his wife and a family friend, had no argument with the makeup of the crowd. “I think it’s a kids’ holiday,” said the Calabasas resident who studies Torah with Nachshon Minyan’s Rabbi Judy Greenfeld. In fact, for him, the best part of the holiday is being around all the kids — on this night with the youngest members of the nondenominational San Fernando Valley congregation, and another night soon with his grandchildren.

“I mean look,” said Lovit, lifting the handmade, laminated placemat on the table before him. There was a different one at every seat, each made by a child in Nachshon’s religious school. This one happened to feature a colorful collage menorah. Lovit flipped it over to reveal the name “Harrison” on the back, scrawled in marker along with a happy face.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “And Harrison’s happy.”

In addition to the dreidel game, there was plenty of activity at tables where kids were decorating their own wooden dreidels and frosting dreidel- and Jewish-star-shaped sugar cookies. Grown-ups had activities to indulge in too, including a raffle and a small boutique where they could buy Hanukkah gifts, ranging from animal-print sweaters to chocolate bark that a bat mitzvah student had made and was selling to benefit breast cancer research for her mitzvah project.

After a dinner of latkes with applesauce and sour cream as well as jelly doughnuts, a dozen kids took the stage to sing traditional and not-so-traditional Hanukkah songs. “I’m Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica,” Tom Lehrer’s catchy ditty featuring lyrics such as, “Amid the California flora I’ll be lighting my menorah,” was a crowd favorite.

“Stay positive. Be grateful for whatever you get. Just focus on spending time with your friends and family.” — Sophia Goldstein, 9

Amid the party atmosphere, Greenfeld wanted to give congregants something to think about in the coming days, beyond presents, brisket and stuff. So before the evening wrapped up, she shared a story.

There once was a student. And the student said to the rabbi, “What is a Jewish person’s mission in the world?” And the rabbi said, “A Jew is to be a lamplighter on the streets of the world.” 

The student said, “Rabbi, I don’t see any lamps.”
And the rabbi said, “Well, that’s because you are not yet a lamplighter.”
“Well, how does one become a Lamplighter?”
The rabbi’s response?
“One must first begin with oneself.”

Greenfeld proceeded to explain the job of lamplighters in 19th-century London: lighting the gas street lamps so residents could venture out after dark unafraid. And she likened the shamash to these lamplighters. 

“I ask us all to be Jewish lamplighters this year,” Greenfeld said. “See where you can bring light into the world.”

And how to do this?

“A mitzvah is a lamp,” Greenfeld said. “When you see a person who has faults and you accept them and you draw them in, and you rejoice in the miracle of being alive; well, then you can see all kinds of lamps and all kinds of possibilities. … A Jewish person puts their selfish needs aside and goes around and lights up the souls of others with the light of what they learn from the Torah and from the people around them.”

The focus on people was not lost on even the youngest congregants. “I do love the presents,” said Sophia Goldstein, 9, of Sherman Oaks. But she said if she were given a choice between presents and spending time with her family, she would definitely choose the latter. “That’s what’s really important,” she said.

“Stay positive,” she added. “Be grateful for whatever you get. Just focus on spending time with your friends and family.” 

Poem: Got a Light?

1. This light’s for Hanukkah …
for a people who choose to begin
our best of days with light.
What special Jewish day
doesn’t start with an open flame?

2.  This light’s for the Dreidel…
for the great miracle that
happened there, unless
you happen to be there
where it’s changed to here
because we’re inclusive like that.

3. This light’s for latkes …
Potato pancakes
because everything good
begins and ends
with potatoes.

4. This light’s for Sufganiyot …
Jelly doughnuts. Not quite as popular
as latkes in all the official surveys
but, really, who can complain
when a doughnut comes along?

5. This light’s for oil …
Be careful, it’s flammable!
Bad for you in every way!
But fry anything in it and the
memory of that miracle
flies back into our hearts.

6. This light’s for Maccabees …
Judah and his whole crew.
When the not really elected leaders
started to pooh-pooh everything
they risked life and limb
for all these lights. Stand up
like a Judah, my friends.

7. This light’s for the shamash
Doesn’t take a night off.
Does the essential work that
lets the other eight shine.
Be the shamash you wish
to see in the world.

8. This light’s for miracles …
It doesn’t matter if a great miracle
happened here or there
just that you believe that one
could happen at all.
How many miracles are you missing?

Got a light?

God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Hanukkah, Talmud and the Science of Hope

The Talmud records yet another debate between House Hillel and House Shamai: How do we count the days of Hanukkah? Is it a countdown? Or a count up? Shamai says: Start with eight lights, and on each night eliminate one. Simple countdown. Like a timer. Hillel offers an opinion that’s more familiar. Start with one, and on each night add a light, counting up. The stopwatch model.

Like most apparently simple Talmudic debates, philosophical depth lurks beneath the surface. On this solstitial holiday, what does a little light represent? On this holiday that celebrates the victory of the physically weak over the physically powerful, what were the spiritual forces that enabled the Jews to emerge victorious?

One simple answer is hope. Hillel may not have been thinking only about the spiritual beauty in the home as light increases. He may have been thinking of what darkness represents, and what light can accomplish. As darkness grows, does it overpower the light? Or does the power of hope mean that no matter how widespread darkness becomes, we can always increase the amount of corresponding light?

Every Hanukkah, I think of former Chief Rabbi Abraham Kook, who said, “[The] pure righteous do not complain of the dark, but increase the light; they do not complain of evil, but increase justice; … they do not complain of ignorance but increase wisdom.” Why does Rav Kook begin with the metaphor of darkness and light? Because fighting all forces, from evil to ignorance, requires one thing that light always represents: Hope. But how does hope work in our lives and in our world? 

The scientific study of optimal human functioning, Positive Psychology, provides a few critical pieces of information to help address these existential questions. In the early days of this empirical research, the concept of hope was used interchangeably with optimism and the two were generally found to impact all sorts of desirable outcomes, like satisfaction with relationships, success in the workplace and school, or even by lessening anxiety and depression. More recent research has investigated optimism and hope as distinct phenomena and, as it turns out, they are quite different. Optimism is the belief that that things generally will work out. Hope, on the other hand, is having a sense of the strategies and behaviors necessary to turn that optimism into reality. To turn darkness into light. 

Optimism and hope have tremendous strengths but they each have limitations, as well. In her book, “The Resilience Factor,” Karen Reivich writes about “Pollyanna optimism,” the belief that everything will always just work out. This often false sense of belief can cause us to fail to take action. Certain types of hope can have similar effects. For instance, Jeff Duncan-Andrade writes about “hokey hope,” the hope that things will get better even when the evidence suggests to us that they will not. This type of hope is no different than Pollyanna optimism. It, too, can lead to apathy.

“It is only by turning hope into action that darkness is overwhelmed by light.”

Instead of “hokey hope” and “Pollyanna optimism,” we need to shift our focus to a type of hope built on the part we as individuals can and need to play in realizing the outcomes we desire. A study of the predictive value of optimism and hope distills hope down to two distinct components. One is pathways, our belief in our ability to identify strategies for accomplishing a desired result and for facing obstacles along the way. The other is agency, the belief that we can initiate and sustain the motivation necessary to execute our strategies. Notice that while both components involve positive beliefs, it was agency (energy and effort) that served as the strongest predictor of positive outcomes. It is also worth noting that the researchers found optimism to be nonpredictive.

On each night of Hanukkah, we increase the light in our homes and synagogues. But to increase the metaphorical light — hope — it appears that our focus should be on moving from loose optimism to a hardened sense of personal agency and volition. It is only by turning hope into action that darkness is overwhelmed by light. That needs to be the big takeaway here. Positive expectations like optimism can be helpful, but they’re not going to get that next candle lit. To truly increase the light this holiday, we need to strategize and act.

Nick Holton teaches at Milken Community Schools. Rabbi David Saiger is the upper school rabbi at Milken Community Schools.


And On Hanukkah… We Danced

A couple of weeks ago, I had to do the seemingly unthinkable: take the popular video game Fortnite away from my 9-year-old son, Alexander. Like many parents have realized, Fortnite is not only mega-addictive, but it also causes players to rage at each other. 

Not surprisingly, he pushed back. “But all of my friends still have it,” he argued. “I’m going to be the only one without it.” I responded with words that I realized I would no doubt use again and again in the coming decade. “You know,” I said, “when Mommy was in school, I never wanted to do anything just because everyone else was doing it. I’m not sure why: it just never felt right.”

After his initial protest, he surprisingly brought up Fortnite only a few times. He also began playing more creative games like Minecraft and even started writing a book with a friend. I began to think about why this transition was easier than I expected — and also why I had been a nonconformist from a young age. My parents never said those types of things to me.

On the start of Hanukkah on Dec. 2, Alexander and I prepared for the evening’s festivities with the music blaring and our Yemenite neighbors enthusiastically dancing. We were expecting a dozen boys, and I had brazenly told all the moms of Alexander’s friends that this was a screen-free party. I was a tad nervous about how the boys would occupy themselves without their devices in our New York City apartment for four hours, but I decided not to worry. Hanukkah has always been my favorite holiday, and nothing was going to undermine it.

At some point, a friend sent me an opinion piece that The New York Times published that day: “The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah.” The title was so surreally offensive I thought it had to be a parody. It wasn’t. The writer attempted to make the case that it was hypocritical for him, an assimilated Jew, to celebrate Hanukkah, a holiday that celebrates resisting assimilation.

“How do you pass the love of joy onto your children if you don’t allow yourself to experience it?”

In some ways, it’s an honest piece about secular Jews. But there is also a major flaw. It casts the Maccabees as religious fundamentalists, making no mention of how violently the Seleucid Empire persecuted the Jews for merely wanting to be Jews, for refusing to be Hellenized. 

Ever since Alexander was a baby, I have said to him at bedtime what Mattathias said to his five sons before dying: “Hazak ve’amatz” — be strong and brave. I’ve told him that the Maccabees were the first superheroes, but in many ways they were also the first true individualists: They fought for our freedom to live as we choose. 

Apocryphal or not, what Mattathias said to his sons is exactly what allows a person to become an individualist: bravery. Without bravery, one will naturally conform. Why? Because conformity is easy. 

And when you think about it, nearly every story of Jewish history is about individualism. My parents didn’t need to give me a lecture on nonconformity because I was getting those values through the Bible stories — from Moses to Queen Esther. 

There’s another part to this that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaks about so eloquently — finding light in the darkness. It is pivotal to the Hanukkah story and to so much of Judaism. 

For me, if one can’t find light in the darkness, if one is constantly finding ways to dwell on the dark, one is going to have trouble experiencing real joy. Indeed, how do you pass the love of joy onto your children if you don’t allow yourself to experience it?

At our Hanukkah festivities, as the boys began to arrive, it was clear they were going to have no problem filling the time with nonscreen activities. I managed to have them light the first candle, and each took a turn reading about the Maccabees. But otherwise, they seemed delighted to almost literally bounce off the walls. 

Toward the end of the evening, when Alexander surreptitiously changed the Spotify station from Hanukkah to heavy metal, I didn’t say a word. These 12 boys — from four religions — will forever connect the holiday with joy and irreverence. In today’s political and cultural atmosphere, nothing could make me happier.

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

Hope for a Radical Middle

Recent Congressional dealmaking may signal that a move to the center — a strengthening of bipartisanship — is gaining momentum. 

Four days before the start of Hanukkah, a little miracle happened in Washington, D.C. Nancy Pelosi was not just nominated by Democrats to be Speaker of the House, a move that had been a bit uncertain after her party gained a majority of House seats in the midterm elections, but she agreed to rules changes sought by Democratic members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus — changes that would make it easier to introduce bipartisan legislation and ease political gridlock.

Nine of the Democrats in the 40-plus-member caucus had threatened to withhold their support for Pelosi if she didn’t agree to the rules changes. House members will vote for the Speaker at the beginning of the next session of Congress, planned for Jan. 3.

The pre-Hanukkah maneuvering offers a ray of hope for a much-needed movement — what I call the rise of the Radical Middle — that has been gathering momentum, especially over the past year, in intellectual, political and academic circles. And yet, hardly anyone has heard about it.

Clearly, all the noise has gone in the other direction, with the manic tribalism that characterizes our age. Every episode of societal drama —   from mass shootings to Supreme Court nominations to midterm elections — seems to elicit rage, incivility, violence and a deepening of hatred for “the other side.” The underlying reasons run the gamut from economic fear to identity politics to social media to a Congress that disincentivizes compromise — all of which have led to a knee-jerk partisanship that makes schoolyard bickering seem sophisticated. 

Are there historical precedents for such polarization?

“In some ways this is unique, in other ways not,” said Rutgers University history professor David Greenberg, author of “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.” “Obviously, the period before the Civil War was just as, or more, divided than now. Politics in the Gilded Age were very divided. The late 1960s and early 1970s were very divided and uncivil.”

On some level, it’s reassuring to know that, aside from the Civil War, the country has been this divided before. The question is, have we reached rock bottom? Could it be, at a time when things seem so fractured, divisive and polarized, that bipartisanship — a strengthening of the center — could re-emerge?

The agreement won by the Problem Solvers Caucus may be a crucial first step. The caucus was inspired by a nonpartisan nonprofit called No Labels, which is led by volunteer founder Nancy Jacobson.

“I believe that people are less polarized than their elected representatives and would welcome a new spirit of conciliation,” said William Galston, a No Labels consultant and the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in Governance Studies and a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.

Or as Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist and professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, put it: “We are evolved for tribalism, but we are capable of transcending it.”

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), a leader of the Problem Solvers Caucus, said in his midterm-election victory speech: “We proved that unity beats division, that bipartisanship beats extremism, that progress beats obstructionism.”

“Americans are hungry for unity, and we’re working to ensure that’s what presidential candidates deliver in 2020.” — Nancy Jacobson

Political Realm
In 2010, Jacobson, then campaign finance chair for former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), saw a growing problem. “No one was taking the time to invest in the center,” Jacobson said. “The common goal of the country — what’s in the best interest of the country — was getting completely lost.”

Since then, of course, the problem has gotten much worse. “The parties have become like tribes,” she said. “The party leadership demands loyalty — deviation gets you into trouble. Compromise is not rewarded — you lose campaign funding, you are taken off committees, you don’t get phone calls returned. There is a competitive desire to win at all costs — to poison the other side. We need a reset.”

Jacobson created No Labels to foster that reset. From the beginning, the group had two primary missions: Re-create the center and focus on the country, not the parties. Its biggest achievement is inspiring the creation of the Problem Solvers Caucus — akin to a Freedom Caucus for the political center. Co-chaired by Gottheimer and Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), the caucus proposed a package of bipartisan rule reforms called “Break the Gridlock” in July.

“Due to the House floor being controlled by a select few, most members of Congress are not able to bring their ideas and proposals to the floor for a fair vote that would allow us to begin solving some of the most contentious issues facing our country today,” Reed said.

A key provision in the rules package adopted by Pelosi, which drew upon several ideas from Break the Gridlock, would give fast-track consideration to any bill that is co-sponsored by two-thirds of House members or a majority of both of the parties. 

Another reform would eliminate the “motion to vacate” provision, which previously allowed a single lawmaker to force a vote on ousting the sitting Speaker. Reform advocates say the tool has given too much power to individuals and small factions of the party, who dangle the threat of the motion over the Speaker’s head. Under the new rules package, it will take a majority of the party caucus to force such a vote.

“We’ve seen how our common-sense solutions get jammed up in a system built to empower the voices of a few extremists,” Gottheimer said. “Instead of letting obstructionists create roadblocks to bipartisan consensus, the American people deserve action on everything from infrastructure to immigration.”

Jacobson said that when the Democrats won the House majority, the Problem Solvers Caucus saw its opportunity. “The Democrats will not have a huge margin of control, which makes Josh Gotthiemer more able to influence legislation with his band of Problem Solvers,” she said.

In that regard, Gotthiemer said: “Our most important mission is to govern and find a way to get to ‘yes’ on the most critical issues facing our nation, including infrastructure, gun safety, health care, immigration and the opioid crisis. No Labels and the Problem Solvers Caucus believe in putting people above party, and working together to find common ground to move our country forward.”

Nancy Jacobson

I asked Gottheimer if the rules changes Pelosi agreed to implement will have a trickle-down effect on the intense hyperpartisanship of the general public.

“Yes, we certainly hope so,” he responded. “We’re working to change the culture in Washington, and the Problem Solvers Caucus is becoming a testing ground for big ideas that can be enduring because they have bipartisan support. For instance, a few months ago, we hosted Jared Kushner, CNN commentator Van Jones, and president of Americans for Tax Reform Grover Norquist to discuss working together to pass prison reform, and soon after helped pass the First Step Act to take the first step toward reforming our criminal justice system.

“We have to take the time to get to know one another and focus on where we agree rather than where we disagree,” he continued. “One of the biggest benefits of the Problem Solvers Caucus is spending time with someone from a different part of the country — over a meal or even a bipartisan workout — to understand his or her point of view. We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Jacobson calls the group’s mission a “disruption from the center.”

“The parties have become like tribes. … We need a reset.” — Nancy Jacobson

Meanwhile, other groups in the political realm are also working to rebuild the center. For example, the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution gathers stakeholders from across the political spectrum and gets them working together on common visions — such as teachers-union leaders with charter-school heads.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, “Washington think tanks are undergoing a fundamental evolution. A lot of them, like the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, were built to advise parties that no longer exist. They were built for a style of public debate — based on social science evidence and congressional hearings that are more than just show trials — that no longer exists. Many people at these places have discovered that they have more in common with one another than they do with the extremists on their own sides. So, suddenly, there is a flurry of working together across ideological lines.” 

Before the midterms, Greenberg, the Rutgers history professor, said he was skeptical about attempts to pull American politics to the center: “One reason groups like No Labels may fail and someone like Michael Bloomberg won’t get the Democratic nomination is because the base won’t allow it,” Greenberg said. “Same with someone like John Kasich in the GOP. In the U.S. system, what historically happens is that one party moves to claim the center. The Democrats did this from 1933–1968. The Republicans did better with Independents from 1968–1992. Since President Clinton, we have been split and there’s been no majority party. Hillary Clinton seemed poised to rebuild the Democrats as a big-tent party, but instead both parties have moved to their extremes.”

After the election, Greenberg said he was more optimistic.

“What’s interesting about the Democrats who picked up GOP seats is they are liberal-to-moderate — people like Conor Lamb [of Pennsylvania], Max Rose or Antonio Delgado [both of New York], the New Jersey candidates. These people rejected ‘Abolish ICE’ and single-payer [health care]. So the Democrats have an opportunity now to reclaim the center-left. Who gets the presidential nomination in 2020 will matter. [Former Vice President Joe] Biden or [New Jersey Sen. Cory] Booker sends one signal; [Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth] Warren or [Vermont Sen. Bernie] Sanders sends another.”

He added: “I think Pelosi winning shows that there is a liberal center between the far-left progresssives on one side and the moderates on the other. Pelosi has her flaws, but she talks about the Democrats as a capitalist party, has no patience for ‘Abolish ICE’ rhetoric, is pro-Israel, and is generally going to play it safe. So for now, the party has not lost its head.”

Ideological Realm
Clearly, ideology plays as much of a role in the rise of the Radical Middle as rules changes. However much centrists might find President Donald Trump unappealing on a personal level, they’ve been finding the push toward illiberalism on the left — restrictions on free speech, lack of due process, a biased press — even less appealing.

As New York Times political columnist Bret Stephens recently put it: “The day Democrats take charge in the House would be a good opportunity to stop manning imaginary barricades and start building real bridges to the other America.”

Which is why what’s happening outside of Congress is so important.

Haidt, the moral psychologist, formed the Heterodox Academy in late 2015 as a way to counter what he saw as some of the major problems on university campuses — an orthodoxy of opinion, a lack of tolerance for viewpoint diversity, an inability to have constructive disagreement, a reduction of complexity, and an increase in emotional reasoning — that have found their way into the larger national discourse.

“What is a liberal education?” asked Haidt, who recently co-authored “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” “Liberal means freedom. Well, what if you’re not free to express your opinions and ideas? It is Talmudic, really: Out of debate, we advance; out of argument comes truth.”

Today, Heterodox Academy boasts a membership of 2,300 professors of diverse politics. Most academic faculty in the U.S. are in the liberal left, “but fearful”; with only a small minority in the illiberal left, according to Haidt. It is Heterodox’s mission to help embolden the liberal left to speak out against illiberal education, he said, as well as to change the underlying ideology that has led to much of today’s intense polarization.

On another front, what’s come to be called the Intellectual Dark Web is more blatantly disregarding today’s political norms and re-intensifying civil discourse. Intellectuals and activists Eric Weinstein, Bret Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz are all purposefully going against cultural norms to break the illiberal orthodoxy that has taken over much of the left. They are focused on the same goal as Heterodox, and are speaking across the country and around the world to sell-out crowds.

Clearly, people are hungry for civil discourse, respectful disagreement and tolerance of political diversity. The more we can implement it in the culture, the easier it will be to change the political dynamic.

“I believe that people are less polarized than their elected representatives and would welcome a new spirit of conciliation.” —William Galston

Cultural Realm
Unfortunately, the least progress toward a Radical Middle has been made in the realm of culture. In short, everything from media to theater to sports remains politicized; meaning, one must accept the leftist orthodoxy or risk being shunned and shamed.

The most disheartening realm for me is journalism. Real journalism — unbiased, just-the-facts journalism — barely exists. The blatant inability of media like The New York Times and CNN to report on Israel in a professional, unbiased, journalistic manner is just the most extreme example. One needs to read from two or three sources before one feels as though one has gotten the full story on a subject.

The inability to separate art from politics is also disheartening. Of course, some art has always had a political component. But today, politicization is nearly a requirement for an artist to get produced and shown. I have come to embrace children’s movies because, as yet, they are not required to pass a political test and are still allowed to have good win over evil — something that’s seen as politically incorrect in other realms.

One shining triumph of the Radical Middle is the new online magazine Quillette. Edited by Claire Lehmann in Australia, Quillette unabashedly takes on “dangerous” ideas like differences between the sexes and is beloved worldwide by readers hungry for objective, untheorized articles. The New Republic and Slate (two publications I used to write for) used to do precisely that. In fact, that was the norm just two decades ago. Sadly, when magazines like The Atlantic venture off of the politically correct grid with just one article, they need to respond with a deluge of apologies and cultural Marxist gymnastics.

“It used to be that sensible professionals served as gatekeepers at the networks and newspapers and magazines,” said Greenberg, who I worked with at The New Republic. “They kept extreme politics sidelined. The internet and social media have encouraged the spread of conspiracy theories, hate groups, partisan screeds and the like.”

What’s next?
“Now it’s our time to bind up our nation’s wounds,” Gottheimer said. “It’s our time to come together and move forward, remembering that extremism, on either side, holds our country back. Division isn’t the answer. Neither is obstruction for the sake of it, or attacking success and old-time class warfare. 

“Now, more than ever, we must work together, united, as one nation under God, to solve the challenges we face and seize upon the opportunities ahead. We must sew together the flag that some have tried but failed to tear apart.

“Our most important mission is to govern and find a way to get to ‘yes’ on the most critical issues facing our nation, including infrastructure, gun safety, health care, immigration and the opioid crisis.” — Josh Gottheimer

“But we need a vision for what we’re for, not just for what we’re against. At our core, we believe in opportunity for all and responsibility from all. In good jobs and a good education, in fighting crime and terror to keep our communities safe, in looking out for one another, in taking care of our children and our seniors.”

Said Greenberg: “I think the next president (or maybe the next one after that), regardless of party, will run as a statesman, the way Obama did. He or she will appeal to the better angels of our nature. People will be sick of Trump and the “progressive” left and yearn for a decent, respectable leader like Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, even Eisenhower — men who appealed to common purpose and patriotism. I think there is a yearning for this and the right candidate, from either party, could win by running on such a platform.” 

No Labels intends to test this proposition as the group is now turning its attention to the presidential race. It has launched a Unity 2020 campaign, which will call for the presidential candidates of both parties to make specific procedural and policy commitments – like naming a bipartisan cabinet and a commitment to start working on a bipartisan immigration bill immediately upon entering office – that No Labels believes are essential to promote the cause of national unity. Although the Unity platform is still under development, the effort will culminate on November 3, 2019, in New Hampshire – the first presidential primary state – when No Labels hosts a Unity Convention that will feature the presidential candidates and 2,000 citizens.

“I believe the narrative that Americans are hopelessly divided is a false one,” said Jacobson. “Americans are hungry for unity, and we’re working to ensure that’s what presidential candidates deliver in 2020.”

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

Harvard Chabad Menorah Knocked Over on First Night of Hanukkah

The Chabad House at Harvard’s menorah was knocked over on Sunday, the first night of Hanukkah, an incident that is reportedly being investigated as a hate crime.

At around 3:30 p.m., reportedly a white man who was dressed in black, allegedly pushed over the menorah at Cambridge Common and then pedaled away on his black bicycle.

Right after the incident occurred, a group of people proceeded to put the menorah back up:

Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi from the Harvard Chabad told CBS Boston, “That is very much the story of Hanukkah where it was a few people who came together and to triumph over the darkness and to demonstrate love can overpower hate and good can overpower evil and that’s exactly what they did.”

Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern denounced the toppling of the menorah as “an act of hatred” in a statement.

“What might otherwise be described as an act of violence fits into a chilling and all-too intentional pattern of hatred and bias-motivated violence that is visible at the national and local level,” McGovern said. “Even more disturbing, national leaders and outlets serves as platforms for supremacist and nativist ideas, whether passively or actively. That their rhetoric gives way to violent acts is predictable and unacceptable.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) New England chapter thanked McGovern in a tweet and called the menorah toppling “unacceptable”:

The police are looking into the incident as a possible hate crime. The investigation remains ongoing.

Hallmark Channel to (Finally) Celebrate Hanukkah Next Year

From left to right: Marilu Henner, Emily Hampshire, Joey Lawrence. Photo by Crown Media

The Hallmark Channel, home to wall-to-wall Christmas programming in November and December (they kicked off the holidays at the end of October this year), will add menorahs to the mistletoe next year with two Hanukkah-themed movies.

In a long overdue move, Hallmark will include “Holiday Date” and another untitled Hanukkah rom-com in its holiday lineup in 2019, when the Festival of Lights will begin on Dec. 22, overlapping with Christmas. No details, including plots or casting, have been announced, so it is unclear whether Jewish writers, producers or actors are involved in the films.

The last Hallmark movie to incorporate Hanukkah was “Hitched For the Holidays” in 2012. Joey Lawrence (“Blossom”) as an Italian-Catholic man, and Emily Hampshire, as Jewish woman, who pretend to be a couple to placate their meddling families but fall in love for real. There’s a repeat showing Dec. 18 at 4 a.m. PT on Hallmark Channel.

Getting Ready for the Big (wedding) Day!

You said yes! Now what? A thousand thoughts must be running through your mind and not the least of which is that you want to look fabulous for your wedding!! You want your skin to glow and no bags under your eyes because you could not sleep the night before your wedding due to all the excitement! Not to mention that when you look into your loved one’s eyes when you say “I do” you want them to melt into those gorgeous eyes of yours rimmed with long beautiful eyelashes! So how do you get your skin to say “I do” on your wedding day also?

I did some research and checked out the top recommended products on various magazines and Rodan & Fields caught my eye. They had great reviews in more than one reputable magazine not just for excellent products but also they are a DTC; direct to the consumer company, which means their consultants are small business entrepreneurs and I am all about supporting home based businesses!

I contacted a consultant; Lori Jakiela and asked her about the product. She uses the products herself and of course that is the highest recommendation. Lori said that in preparation for your wedding, she recommends you use the solutions tool that I mention below to see what products will work best for your skin type.

Then, for spectacular eyes, Lori recommends lash boost. This is a product that R & F is known for and has proven results! They are longer, fuller and darker looking. No fake lashes for you on your wedding day! Lori emphasized that clean eating and lots of hydration is half the battle won and combined with these amazing products, you will see beautiful results.

Achieving a radiant, wedding-worthy complexion is a time investment, so it is recommended that you start right away.  We all know that unless it’s plastic surgery change does not happen overnight! Also, as you will be introducing a new skin care, from cleansers to sunless tanners, you should start no less than a month or two before the big date date, so you can eliminate any products that trigger even the slightest irritation.  If you don’t have any complex skin care concerns, and you want smoother, softer, more even-looking skin—exfoliation is one of the safest, simplest ways to get your skin glowing. Even the best makeup won’t truly hide the look of uneven skin texture, so R & F suggests adding the micro-dermabrasion paste to your chosen regimen, which uses sugar and sea salt to gently scrub your skin. This paste will remove old, built-up skin cells and allow younger, more vibrant cells to appear on the surface and your skin will look brighter after just one use. I have actually used a few samples of this paste myself and it really does give you a glow after one or two uses. BTW, as you are working directly with the company, it means you have a coach and consultant to help you every step of the way. Not some nameless customer service rep on the phone.

Since this is also Hanukkah, they have fantastic specials on that you might want to order as gifts right now! So this is the best time to get these products at a great price, get your skin in great shape and start growing those lashes!

Lori said to use this solutions tool, (click on the link) to go through the questionnaire and see the products Rodan and Fields recommends for your particular skin type. Of course if you have questions you could also check in with Lori. Her contact info is at the end of this post.

On a personal note; as a wedding planner I am aware that many couples are on a budget and that the wedding often erases any and all savings that they may have had. This company not only has amazing products, you can join their community of entrepreneurs and either earn some money as a side income or become your own boss and experience connections with great people, opportunities for personal growth and your own business in the skincare industry.  Lori tells me that their consultants are an enthusiastic group of entrepreneurial individuals who all share a love for the R+F life. This could not only be a chance to have fabulous skin in time for your wedding and maintain it for the rest of your life, but also add some extra cash to your pocket for spending on your honeymoon!

I would love for any brides-to-be out there who are going to try these products, to contact Lori with before and after photos. But… this is not just for brides….. if your bridesmaids or any of the bridal party want to start a get-healthy-and-glowing challenge we will post their pics too! Just remember, being healthy and looking great is a lifetime commitment! Don’t just do it for the wedding day.

R+F has a regimen for various skin types and each one has its own approach. For instance don’t exfoliate if you have a skin concern like adult acne. Instead consider the UNBLEMISH regimen, which targets blemishes and works to prevent future breakouts. If you’ve developed brown spots from sun exposure or hyperpigmentation, the REVERSE Regimen helps to visually brighten and even skin tone. (You might even get away with wearing less makeup.) As the most impressive results are seen over time, plan accordingly. If the wedding is less than a month away, their cardinal rule is to only stick with products that are currently compatible (or are extremely gentle) with your skin. Click on the solutions tool to check what will work best for you.

What should you avoid? In the last two or three weeks, don’t even consider in-office dermatological procedures (like chemical peels or laser treatments) and resist any last-minute temptations to try new treatments. Keep up your natural glow by staying hydrated and moisturizing your skin. Last-minute facials (except gentle exfoliation) are off-limits, as are touching, picking or squeezing, which can all irritate skin. Finally, avoid unnecessary stress and over-cleansing which can cause breakouts. Wear a hat where possible when you are in the sun and apply your sunscreen all the time! Again try these ahead of time so that your skin is used to the new products and you can find a formula that works with your makeup. Ultimately, through thick and thin, your skin is with you for life—so be good to it always.

You can contact Lori by clicking here if you have questions or click here to start shopping!

Thank you for spending time with me! Keep following me for fun articles and reviews about destination weddings and honeymoon venues, delicious wines and food and of course great skin care and nutritional products.



NuRoots’ Infinite Light: Celebrating Hanukkah After the Fires

Infinite Light, a citywide festival of Hanukkah events organized by NuRoots, a 20s and 30s initiative run by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, began this past summer with upward of 35 organizational partners and individuals planning events. They ranged from meditation to storytelling and everything in between.

The marketing plan was set. Social media posts had been written and scheduled. Then the fires hit and everything changed.

“Our mind-shift has definitely changed, regarding marketing and the framing of the program” said Margalit Rosenthal, senior vice president of NuRoots. “We pressed pause while everything was going on. Now, as we’re coming back, we’re really focusing the message less on ‘celebration,’ and not using language in a joking way.”

In previous years, events had names like “Vodka and Latkes,” “Let’s Get Lit for Hanukkah” and “Light it Up.” But this year, Rosenthal explained, the overall framing for L.A.’s Infinite Light has shifted.

“Now is the time to actually feel the community that comes together in times of crisis like this,” Rosenthal said. “There are a lot of scary things in this city and community. We are really looking to give people an outlet during this time, the comfort of feeling that community.”

From Nov. 30 through Dec. 9, NuRoots is helming Infinite Light’s festival of diverse programs to celebrate Hanukkah that covers a wide geographical swath of the Los Angeles map. The array of programs includes hosted experiences in arts and culture, civic engagement, food, fitness, games, global Jewish culture, Israel, LGBTQ+, music, Shabbat, social justice and storytelling for singles, young couples and young families.

Among this year’s offerings are Hanukkah in Marrakesh, hosted by a NuRoots community member in a private home in West Hollywood. Art and Storytime with PJ Library is taking place in Beverly Grove. Master Debater, a debate on the themes and ideas of Hanukkah with a comedic bent, is sponsored by East Side Jews in Silver Lake. Festival of Rights, hosted by Bend the Arc in Sherman Oaks, celebrates the holiday and the work of young Jewish leaders in their Jeremiah Fellowship Program. Glow: Cocktail Party & Comedy Podcast features IKAR’s Rabbi David Kasher in conversation with his brother, comedian Moshe Kasher, in Pico-Robertson. And JQ International’s annual “Gelty Pleasures” Hanukkah party, this year with a story slam, takes place in West Hollywood.

“Now is the time to actually feel the community that comes together in times of crisis like this. We are really looking to give people an outlet during this time, the comfort of feeling that community.” — Margalit Rosenthal

One of the stipulations of Infinite Light partners, who receive partnership investments ranging from $500 to $3,000 depending on the size and extent of collaboration with partnering organizations and individuals, is that the events not be fundraisers. Even in the aftermath of the fires, there doesn’t seem to have been a pivot by event organizers, but it is something that NuRoots would be open to, if the hosts requested it.

“None have come and asked to raise money for our fire relief fund,” Rosenthal said. “[But] if they did, we’d figure out a way. People are reeling and trying to figure out how to do the program they are already doing, without having to change [them].”

Why so many events? Because L.A. is a large city and from the Federation’s perspective, “shows a healthy economy,” Rosenthal said. “There are so many young Jews in the city. We don’t anticipate anyone having issues filling up their space,” she said, noting that in a large community, there’s always going to be a lot of events. “But we’re also conscious of not programming similar events on the same nights and in the same location. We listen to our partners.”

Ultimately, Rosenthal said, Infinite Light’s Hanukkah celebrations will continue, and will provide a sense of belonging that many — even those in pain — may find comforting.

“Hanukkah is celebratory and fun,” she said. “We want people to feel that, but also want them to feel the connection to the community.”

A Look at He’brew Beer’s Limited-Edition Offerings for Hanukkah 2018

This Hanukkah, the New York-based Shmaltz Brewing Company officially turns 22. Still the only Jewish celebration beer company in the country, Shmaltz admittedly began as a novelty brewer. Now, Shmaltz reportedly has dozens of staff members and is the recipient of dozens of awards for its signature specialty beers.

For the 2018 holiday season came the first-ever canned beers from Shmaltz. This applies to the brewer’s “official” Hanukkah beer (in 12-ounce cans) and the revered Jewbelation anniversary ale (in 16-ounce cans). Both new brews hit stores in more than 30 states as of Nov. 1.

For beer fans close to Upstate New York, Shmaltz’s new bar and tasting room at 518 Craft in downtown Troy, NY features the breadth of Shmaltz’s portfolio including its latest seasonals, annual favorites, and vintage beers from their private archive.  Further relevant to those in upper New York, Shmaltz Brewing also has a line of upstate New York focused farm beers under the 518/838 Craft brand name beyond its officially-licensed Star Trek-themed beers.

Not bad, especially when considering that Shmaltz’s founder and owner Jeremy Cowan established hand-bottled and delivered the first 100 cases of He’brew Beer from the back of his Grandmother’s Volvo. More on all things Shmaltz can be found online at www.shmaltzbrewing.com.


A Pop-Up Dreidel Card for Hanukkah

Of all the greeting cards I make, the ones that have pop-ups are the most popular. There’s something about opening a card and having a three-dimensional shape emerge that makes one all happy and surprised. 

So in the spirit of Hanukkah, here’s a card in which a dreidel pops up when you open it. Hanukkah is all about celebrating a miracle, and the miracle of this card is that it’s actually easy to make. 

What you’ll need:
Two sheets of cardstock in contrasting colors
Double-sided tape

1. Cut two sheets of cardstock in contrasting colors so they measure 10 by 7 inches each. Then fold them in half so you have two cards that are 5 by 7 inches. (You can also cut out 4-by- 6 inch cards.) I used one sheet of blue and one sheet of white cardstock. One card will be the exterior piece, and one card will be the interior piece that pops up.

2. Choose the card that will be your interior piece, and place it in front of you with the folded side down. Using the template in the photo above, cut three vertical slits on the folded side of the card — one that is 1/4 inch high, one that is 1 inch high that’s 1 inch to the right of the first slit, and another that is 1 inch high that’s 1 1/2 inches to the right of the second slit. Then draw a diagonal line from the top of the third vertical slit to the fold, about 1/ 2 inch to the right of that slit. Discard the triangular piece you’ve cut. Don’t cut along the horizontal lines of the template — those are crease lines.

3. Open the card, and push the cut-outs in the opposite direction of the fold so they pop up. Then close the card and press down. Those horizontal lines on the template that weren’t cut are now the vertical edges of the pop-up dreidel, and they will crease when you press down on the card.

4. Apply double-sided tape to the back side of the interior card, and adhere it to the exterior card. If you have trouble lining up the two cards evenly, just do the best you can and trim the card afterward to even out the sides.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at jonathanfongstyle.com.

‘A Festival of Delights’ Kindles Hanukkah Memories

“Hanukkah: A Festival of Delights” examines the traditions at the center of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, including lighting candles for eight nights on the lamp known as a menorah. Photo by Yehoshua Halevi

They barely knew each other and their time together was limited, but with the camera rolling, documentarian David Anton got the man known worldwide as Captain Kirk to share — of all things — a cherished Hanukkah memory.

“I asked him to describe his mother’s kitchen,” Anton recalled of his interview with William Shatner for the documentary “Hanukkah: A Festival of Delights” which begins airing on PBS stations Dec 2. “He smiled and looked off to the side and said, ‘The stove is over here and the place to eat is over here, and my mother is standing over a frying pan dropping ground potatoes into sizzling fat, and there’s a bowl of applesauce on the table, and I had a glass of milk in my hands….’”

“I only had about twelve minutes with Mr. Shatner,” Anton said. “I got the sense that that was the first time he had ever been asked those questions, and it brought him back to some of those moments in his life.”

As “Festival of Delights” so profoundly demonstrates in its 60 minutes, Hanukkah often has that kind of effect on people. It is the favorite and most personal holiday for many Jews for an assortment of reasons, according to the film. Many consider it a holiday built around the celebration of a military victory and the subsequent miracle of the lights. Sometimes viewed as the “Jewish Christmas,” many use Hanukkah as an opportunity to indulge in the gift-giving spirit of the season.

That’s not uncommon, and the film traces the child-focused consumerization of the holiday to Max Lilienthal and Isaac Mayer Wise, a pair of Reform rabbi from Cincinnati. In the mid 19th century, Lilenthal and Wise created family festivals out of the holiday in their synagogues and publicized the festivals through newspapers that they operated, later getting congregants from synagogues across the country to talk about how their congregations had created similar events. The trend grew and the holiday took on a new meaning to millions of American Jews. 

But in exploring his subject, a follow-up to his film “Hugs and Knishes: A Celebration of Our Jewish Foods and Traditions,” Anton had a different kind of agenda than exploring the “Jewish Christmas.” Instead, he came to view Hanukkah as the Jewish Thanksgiving. 

“I was looking to make a film for families that would bring the holiday back to the original theme of hope that we explore in the film that is so important these days,” Anton said. “I started off with the idea of a young girl and a young boy asking questions of their rabbi, and that became a theme of the program.”

The film features interviews with Rabbi David Ingber of Kehilat Romemu in New York, and Rabbi Rafi Rank of the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, Long Island; authors Dianne Ashton and Abigail Pogrebin; Susan L. Braunstein, senior curator at the Jewish Museum in New York City and Judaica artist Joy Stember. In addition to Shatner, the other celebrity voice comes from actress Lainie Kazan (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “My Favorite Year”) who talks about preparing for her grandson’s first Hanukkah. 

The sweet, festive and savory traditions like dreidel spinning, chocolate gelt devouring and latke frying are all favorites, but it’s the menorah and the symbolism of the Hanukkah lights that, according to the film, take us into a deeper discussion of what the holiday is all about. A Jew’s willingness to put a menorah in the window not only announces his pride in his cultural heritage, but also symbolizes a desire to shine a light during dark times. 

Pogrebin learned several perspectives on the holiday while researching her 2017 book “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew.” Multiple rabbis conveyed the idea that Hanukkah was a holiday recognizing the Jews’ ability to fight back against Assyrian oppression and worship openly.

“The Maccabees were, in a sense, to use the modern shorthand, [the] ultra-Orthodox of their day,” Pogrebin said. “They had no tolerance of those Jews who became enamored of the Greek way of life and had become Hellenized. I had rabbi after rabbi tell me that Hanukkah should be a warning, reminding us of what happens when we become Hellenists and water down our Judaism.”

She discusses the year that her family observed the holiday around the hospital bed of her dying father-in-law and notes the fact that Jews gather as families and continue to embrace the light and hope even when one of their members is departing. 

To Anton, Pogrebin’s story has a parallel to an account told by Rabbi Rank of a rabbi who was a prisoner in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Although any celebration was forbidden, the rabbi and his fellow inmates gathered a potato, some butter and some threads and manufactured a makeshift menorah. One of the inmates got angry, complaining the potato and butter were valuable nutrients that should be consumed by the starving prisoners. 

“The rabbi said, ‘I understand, but remember that people can live without food, but the day they do not have hope, they cannot live another second,’” Anton said. “I loved that story and the message that even during the darkest times of the year, we always look forward and always look for solutions to the problems that surround us.”

“Hanukkah: A Festival of Delights” airs Dec. 2 on PBS SoCal at noon, and on KVCR at 5 p.m.; Dec. 3 on KCET at 1 p.m.; and Dec. 8 on KCET at 7 p.m.  

Distant Cousins’ Musical Hanukkah Message

From left: Dov Rosenblatt, Duvid Swirsky, Ami Kozak Photo by Jon Danovic

Consider yourself warned: Should you encounter a distant cousin, you, too, could inspire a song. 

Dov Rosenblatt recalls playing a gig at Rockwood Music Hall in New York during the summer of 2017 with Ami Kozak and Duvid Swirsky, his bandmates in the folk-pop trio Distant Cousins. At the show, Rosenblatt reconnected with a longtime friend and fellow musician who later bade him farewell with the words, “Good luck on the road.”

Those words became the inspiration and the final track on “Next of Kin,” Distant Cousins’ about-to-be-released first full-length album. 

“She knew we needed good luck on the road,” Rosenblatt said. “It was less ‘Good luck with it’ and more ‘Be careful out there as you guys grow and grow.’ And we do acknowledge that so much of where we’re at is because of the hours we put in, and there’s just a lot of being in the right place at the right time.” 

The Los Angeles-based band will go back on the road after the New Year and the three musicians, who are not related, figure to create their own luck. As for timing, their moment appears to be now.  

“Next of Kin,” the band’s first album with the indie label Julian Records, will drop on Nov. 30, after a release party concert at The Mint on Nov. 29. In another bit of fortunate timing, the band’s song “On Your Own (Are You Ready)” accompanies the trailer of the latest film in the hit animated franchise “How to Train your Dragon: The Hidden World,” due out in early 2019. 

“The trailer has gotten something like 6 million hits and tons of buzz,” Rosenblatt said. “That song was pitched for that trailer 11 months ago, and it happens to come out the week we’re putting out our album. Those are the things we’re grateful for.”

“I like to use the analogy that the music business today is a lot like farming,” Kozak added. “We’re constantly planting seeds everywhere. You don’t know exactly where they’re going to come to harvest but they pop up in random places that you don’t even remember that you plowed.”

Longtime players on the Jewish and Israeli music circuit, the men who would become “cousins” seemed destined to find one another. Kozak and Rosenblatt attended the same New Jersey high school (four years apart) while Swirsky grew up in Israel and was raised on the music community, Moshav Mevo Modi’im. Rosenblatt was the lead singer of the Jewish group Blue Fringe, and Swirsky was a founder and singer of the Moshav band. During their various gigs, the three musicians would regularly encounter each other, and they shared a bill in 2012 after Kozak relocated to Los Angeles. Kozak offered to produce the song “When We Love” that Rosenblatt and Swirsky had written, and he joined the band soon thereafter.

“I like to use the analogy that the music business today is a lot like farming. We’re constantly planting seeds everywhere.” —  Ami Kozak


“The whole process felt so natural, that we just kept rolling from there,” Swirsky said. 

The 11 tracks of “Next of Kin” draw their inspiration from a range of sources, everything from Bob Dylan to late-night affirmations inspired by Election Night 2016. Songs have sprung from riffs that have sat in the group’s idea file until a cousin stepped forward and prodded his band mate to finish it. 

The track “Like Me,” for example, originated as a jam session at Kozak’s home studio with Swirsky beating out a drum rhythm, Rosenblatt playing guitar. The song remained unfinished and stuck in the band’s “in progress” folder on Dropbox. The beat was good, but something was missing. When they later reassembled to finish the song, Swirsky pulled out a recording on his iPhone of the late folk singer and civil rights activist Odetta, singing a live rendition of “Hit and Miss.” Kozak recorded “Hit and Miss” into the song, chopped it up and incorporated it into “Like Me.” The late singer’s estate granted permission, and Distant Cousins had their featured guest artist. 

“It’s the only song that we have a co-writer on,” Swirsky said, “and our only co-writer is Odetta, which is pretty cool.”

The album’s opening track, “Lights On,” has become the band’s opening number at live shows. It’s a high-energy number offering a message consistent with many of Distant Cousins’ songs about venturing out on your own, taking life by the horns and staying true to oneself:

“Secrets will eat you if you let them defeat you

So you might as well be who you are.

Turn your lights on. Turn your lights on. 

No more hiding in the dark”

The album is being released days before Hanukkah at Hollywood’s Amoeba Records. “Next of Kin” will be featured as a special gift idea. And while the light-out-of-darkness messaging of “Lights On” may not have explicitly been inspired by Hanukkah, there is a certain resonance to the spirit of the holiday according to the cousins.

“The theme of the song is being proud of who you are and not feeling the need to cover up who you really are inside,” said Rosenblatt, “and when we thought about that, that’s what Hanukkah is about. It’s not, ‘Put your candle in the window so everybody knows you’re Jewish.’ It’s ‘Put your candle in the window so you’re expressing who you are inside.’”

Distant Cousins performed with M. Tennyson and Zev the Wolf on Nov. 29 at The Mint, 6010 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Click here for info.

Nashuva Teams With Don Was on Album of Jewish Prayers

Don Was

How does “a Jewish virtual outreach organization” without a building of its own, that doesn’t charge dues or have a paid staff, get the president of Blue Note Records, in-demand bassist, and Grammy-winning producer who has worked with Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Iggy Pop, Ringo Starr and the B-52’s, to produce their album?  

According to Nashuva’s Rabbi Naomi Levy, best-selling author and spiritual leader of the congregation and the multi-ethnic, interfaith group of musicians that has been together for nearly 15 years, it was “a Hanukkah miracle type of thing. When you least expect it, something beautiful can come into your lap.”

Levy is referring to the legendary Don Was, who agreed to produce Nashuva’s album of Jewish prayers, “Heaven on Earth: Songs of the Soul.” Was, Levy said, is “a mensch beyond. A pure mensch.”

The meeting of Nashuva and Was was an act of serendipity when an elderly couple, Bill and Ethel Fagenson, started attending Nashuva’s services several years ago. They’d arrive early and offer to help set up. Levy was sure they’d been married forever. “They had that look of a couple that had been together for years,” she said, but about three years ago they asked if she would marry them. On the Shabbat before their wedding, there was a service to
bless the couple, and Bill asked his son, Don, to attend. 

“I wouldn’t say I was reluctant,” Was (ne Don Edward Fagenson), told the Journal. “Let’s say I went in with low expectations.” However, he added, “the first thing I noticed was that this was actually good. I was really surprised.” The second thing he noticed was “the impact it was having on the congregation. There was no question that it was going deep and was really uplifting.”

After the service, he spoke with Levy. “I thought she had put [the prayers] together in a way that was relevant and that honored tradition,” he said. Although Was had not really attended services since his bar mitzvah, “I knew the prayers, and it was respectful of where the prayers come from but addressed our times and I saw the impact.”

At the time, Levy had no idea who she was talking to. “I didn’t know who Don Was was,” she said. He attended the service in a black suit, white shirt, wide-brimmed hat with a full beard and a halo of hair. “I can’t tell you how many people said to me, ‘We didn’t realize Bill’s son was a Chasid,’ ” Levy said. 

After speaking with Levy, Was agreed to produce Nashuva. While some of the Nashuva’s musicians play professionally, the group had never recorded together. The original plan was to record the band live, but “it was just easier to bring them to the [Apogee Studios in Santa Monica] than to bring the studio to them,” Was said. 

Was listened to recordings of the band’s performances and chose the songs he felt worked best. To re-create the feel of a service, he set the band on a stage, and members of the congregation were invited to watch and sing along. Levy said they packed as many seats as they could into the room. 

When some congregation members told Levy they were tone deaf, she asked Was if that was a problem. It wasn’t. “He said he wanted tone deaf,” Levy said. “He wanted the crowd to be organic and tone-deaf is good because it adds a certain kind of natural feel to it.”

The album was recorded “live” with very few overdubs. “They’re very well-rehearsed, and really good,” Was said. “I pressed record — the most important job there is.” He said he wanted “to make sure that the thing that you felt at the service was captured, which is sometimes hard  to do.” 

Levy described the sessions as “like a festival inside the studio. It felt joyous and loving. Most of the songs were recorded in one take. “If we didn’t feel chills, we didn’t use it,” Was said. 

Describing what impressed him about the sessions, Was said, “They’ve landed on something that had a deep velour to it. It resonates. To me, playing music and recording music is spiritual, even if you’re not directly singing prayers.” 

He also spoke of Nashuva having chemistry. “They’re a really cool band,” Was said. “It’s an odd collection of folks that come together, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  That, I think,  is the essence of all great bands.” 

Listening to the album, Levy said she was “overwhelmed by the warmth and beauty, and this beautiful gift we had been given.” Was added he thinks the band and album embodies Levy’s “call to the disenfranchised to reconsider.”

Did the experience cause him to reconsider? 

Was laughed and said, “I’m always reconsidering.”

“Heaven on Earth: Songs of the Soul” is available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, or can be purchased on Amazon, iTunes, or through Nashuva.com. 

Grateful for Hanukkah in a Paradise Postponed

Milena Ovseevich and Elijah Pine Cohn with Bonzai Photos by Milena Ovseevich

After losing their home in the Camp Fire in Northern California, Milena Ovseevich, 30, and her boyfriend, Elijah Pine Cohn, 23, have had to put their dreams on hold. 

The couple met in December 2017, drawn together by their Russian roots and their love of nature. Ovseevich, an herbalist and alternative healer, was born in the former Soviet Union. Her family moved to Haifa when she was 2, and then to Sunland when she was a teenager. Cohn, an ecological landscape designer and permaculturist, grew up in Mount Shasta in Northern California. 

“We have a lot of similarities and a lot of passion for healing the earth, bringing people together and connecting back to the earth,” Ovseevich told the Journal. 

At the beginning of 2018, the couple bought an RV and headed up the coast. They spent the first few months working on a vegetable farm near Chico, until someone introduced them to 13 acres of land that was available to rent in Concow, near Paradise. 

Said Ovseevich, “We wanted to create this beautiful abundant land, where like-minded people come together to share the bounty of the land, grow food and contribute to the community with their unique individual skills. Kind of like a kibbutz.”

The owners were happy for Ovseevich and Cohn to rent the property. “They [told us], ‘do whatever you want. Your vision is beautiful. This land needs some work.’ And they were really supportive of our dream,” Ovseevich said.

“I don’t know what would have happened if our friend [hadn’t been] there to wake us up.”
— Milena Ovseevich

The couple spent the next six months developing and investing in the land. Friends came to help, leveling the ground and planting trees and wildflowers. But on the morning of Nov. 8, the couple were awakened in their RV by knocking on their door. One of their friends who was staying on the property had spotted the Camp Fire on the hill adjoining the property.

“The first thing we did was put our dog in the car and check on everyone — our landlord, three workers and two other people on the parcel next door — who were on the property,” Ovseevich said. “Our landlord was packing quickly and was about to come get us.” 

Ovseevich and Cohn grabbed a few things, jumped in their car and quickly made their way down the trail. “At that point the fire was already cresting down the ridge, very close to our land and smoke was everywhere,” Ovseevich recalled. “We were scared [we would be] stranded and we were in a state of panic.”

As they were trying to flee, Cohn remembered that a friend on the property, Theo, had a van with a dead battery. The couple quickly turned around and went to rescue Theo and three workers who were supposed to be leaving with him. 

“Elijah grabbed our pickup truck and loaded [everyone] in it,” Ovseevich said. “We rushed down the road and made it safely to the dome gas station where all the evacuees from Concow had gathered.”

Growing permaculture food gardens for the community.

A few days later, Ovseevich and Cohn received photos of the property from a neighbor who was rescuing animals in the area. Everything was gone. Their RV, Theo’s van, the developed land. Miraculously, the woodshed survived.

“Everybody on our property managed to leave,” Ovseevich said. “We were very lucky to get out, but some of our friends in Paradise weren’t so lucky. I don’t know what would have happened if our friend [hadn’t been] there to wake us up.”

Ovseevich and Cohn have not yet been able to return to the property. The roads to Concow are still closed. They have been bouncing between friends, their landlord’s other house in Chico and Cohn’s family in Mount Shasta.

“We wanted to create this beautiful abundant land, where like-minded people come together to share the bounty of the land, grow food and contribute to the community. Kind of like a kibbutz.” — Milena Ovseevich

“We’re waiting anxiously and trying to keep our spirits up while being patient,” Ovseevich said. “It’s been very hard, but every day that passes, it feels more clear. We feel even more passionate about rebuilding.”

Ovseevich had nothing but praise for the local community, which she described as “incredible. As tragic as this is, you can’t help but see the other side of it — how people are coming together and bringing ideas of how to rebuild,” she said.

With Hanukkah just around the corner, Ovseevich said she is grateful to be able to celebrate with family.

“Hanukkah is the holiday of light and fire, and I think that this year I’m really [feeling] the power of transformation that fire can bring. To know that we can gather together and celebrate the holiday this year, it means everything to us because a lot of people didn’t get that opportunity. When you go through something like this, you realize what’s important is your life, your loved ones, your family, your community and to be here for one another.”

Beyond the Maccabees: Saving Your Family Stories

The author’s son, Ben Evans, in 1997, with the menorah designed by artist Bonnie Roth (aka Branah Layah)

Most families celebrate Hanukkah with familiar rituals. Candles are lit, prayers recited, gifts exchanged, dreidels spun, gelt counted and the Maccabee family history is recalled. 

This year, what if during Hanukkah we celebrated our own family’s history? 

As an oral historian, I too often hear this lament: “We kept meaning to record my grandparents’ stories, but we were too busy. Now it’s too late.” Sadly, most people don’t get around to preserving the memories of their older relatives, and these precious stories are lost, which is a tragedy.

Not only is it a loss for future generations that miss knowing about their heritage, it’s also a loss for the storyteller who doesn’t have the opportunity to leave this most important legacy behind.

“We don’t come from thin air. We come from somewhere,” said Danny Maseng, spiritual leader and founder of Makom LA. “If you don’t know where you come from, you are, in a sense, missing a whole element of yourself. That can come into true relief if you know the stories of those who came before you.”

This Hanukkah, I invite you to interview your older relatives, and record their life stories and memories.  

“I love this idea,” said Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “Unless people intentionally take the time to ask questions, we often don’t get to hear the stories. Hanukkah is a unique time when you have your elders gathered with the younger people in the family. Choose a certain night of Hanukkah that’s ‘story night.’ If the fifth night is for gathering stories, then that’s the gift.”

“Unless people intentionally take the time to ask questions, we often don’t get to hear the stories of our elders. Hanukkah is a unique time when you have your elders gathered with the younger people in the family. — Rabbi Susan Goldberg

When we ask an older relative to share life experiences, we honor them for who they are and the life they have lived. Some might object, saying they have nothing of interest to tell, but we can assure them that their personal stories and memories, whether they are joyous or painful, have tremendous value to us. 

“The story of Hanukkah is about conflict and tensions,” Goldberg said. “And that’s also a part of our family stories, because a lot of people’s lives are hard. So it’s not like, ‘Tell me just the good stuff.’ It’s, ‘I want to hear everything about your life.’ 

In ancient tribes, passing down family stories and values to the next generation was a natural part of life. Taking the time to record our relatives’ oral histories is a way to renew this tradition. 

“The connection to storytelling in Judaism is inextricable,” Maseng said. “So that you know where this happened, where you came from, why this happened. When you are aware of such histories, you are better prepared for life.”

When I became an oral historian, I interviewed my parents. My father was a wonderful storyteller. One of his memories has inspired me since childhood. Dad recalled, “During the Depression, I’d occasionally come home from school to find a strange, unshaven man, dressed in rags, sitting at our kitchen table. My grandmother was serving him an entire meal – from soup to dessert. This ritual greatly concerned my mother, since Bubbe was a tiny, frail woman. When Mom asked my grandmother why she did this, Bubbe simply said, ‘How could I not do this? He was hungry.’”

Everyone has a story. And they are worth saving.

Here are some specific suggestions for creating your own Hanukkah Story Night.

Before Hanukkah: 

1. Designate the night for the interviews and invite your family’s participation. Plan to have the storytelling before or after the meal, when there will not be the noise of silverware or dishes.

2. Ask relatives to come with 10 or more questions to ask older family members. Open-ended questions typically work best. For example, rather than asking, “Was your mother a good cook?” you might ask, “What sorts of things did your mother cook?” Examples could include: “What can you tell me about your own grandparents and their lives?” “How would you describe them?” “What do you know about your parents’ childhoods?” “How did they meet?” “What do you think drew them together? “What are your earliest memories? Frightening memories? Favorite family times?” “Memories of deliveries, radio, TV, movies?” “What was the importance of being Jewish and family traditions?” “What did you learn from your parents?” “What were the most impactful world events during your lifetime?” “Describe meeting your spouse. What made them the perfect mate? What have you appreciated about them over the years?” “What have been your biggest life challenges, and how did you get through those?” “What are favorite memories of your children? How was each one unique?” “What are your hopes for your grandchildren?” 

3. Encourage children to ask their grandparents questions. Examples could include: “What were your favorite toys? What did you like best or least in school? Did you ever get into trouble?” “What did you want to be when you grew up?” 

Questions from teenagers could include: “Favorite movies or music?” “First love?” “Challenges for teens in your day?” 

4. Ask the older relatives to list any stories and experiences they might want to share. This could include meaningful or amusing experiences growing up, life lessons or words of wisdom. If they express anxiety, reassure them that this isn’t a performance; it’s just a conversation, and a precious gift to the family. If they say they recall little of their past, tell them not to worry about making the list.

5. If you are the oldest relative in the family, invite your children and grandchildren to do the above. Make a list yourself of what you want to make sure your descendants know about those who came before them: their experiences, their values, their challenges and successes. What do you want to share about your own life and what has been most important and meaningful to you? This is your chance to give a priceless gift to your family.

6. Choose the audio and/or video recorder you’ll use. A teenager might be the perfect person to handle the equipment. Plan for enough storage (memory cards or flash drive) and power (batteries or electrical). Important! Practice first, to see how and if the equipment works. It’s also a good idea to record on two devices.

Story Night: 

1. If possible, seat the older relatives in one area, so that the microphones will capture all of their voices. Someone should make sure that the recorder is near the person speaking, especially for relatives who speak softly. When someone asks a question, don’t hesitate to ask follow up questions to get more details.

2. Many families have one or two more talkative people, so some other relatives might sit and listen during family gatherings. They might need encouragement to join in. Most older people love the chance to reminisce and be heard, and frequently family members are surprised at how much the “quiet ones” have to say.

 3. If you have relatives who grew up together (i.e., siblings or cousins) it’s fun to have them respond to questions together about shared childhood and family experiences, descriptions of family “characters,” memories of growing up together and values learned within the family. Amusing disagreements can also result (e.g. the name of the dog, or which uncle always told the same joke).

4. If a relative is unable to answer a question or has memory problems, please be patient. Don’t correct them. If it will help to jog their memory, gently remind them. Otherwise, just move on. Whatever they can remember is perfect. This should be a positive experience for everyone.

5. If family members experienced painful or challenging events in the past, you might consider asking them before the gathering if they are willing to talk about these memories. Often, parents and grandparents protect their family from hearing about their difficult times, but if they know you want to hear about their experiences, they are frequently relieved to share. If someone gets emotional, that’s OK.

6. Whether stories are “happy” or not, entertaining or not, let your relatives know how grateful you are for the chance to hear and save their recollections. Finally, ask, “Is there anything else we didn’t talk about that you’d like to say?” Most of all savor this time with your older relatives. We never know how long we’ll have them.

7. Make copies of the recordings for family members. Someone in the family might edit the recordings into a book or video — a great gift for next Hanukkah. Because, as Goldberg noted, “As a Jewish tradition, we really believe in the power of narrative. Story is what connects us as a people. We have come to form who we are based on the stories of Torah, based on our passing down the traditions from great-grandparents to children. It’s the core of who we are.” 

Happy Hanukkah!

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer and oral historian, and owner of LivingLegaciesFamilyHistories.com. 

Challah and Sufganiyot in the Clouds

Winston Churchill was so impressed by Uganda during his 1907 safari that he wrote a book about it titled “My African Journey.” Published in 1908, Churchill wrote of the then-British Protectorate: “For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life — bird, insect, reptile, beast — for vast scale — Uganda is truly the Pearl of Africa.” 

Churchill’s arduous journey took him from Mombasa and Kisumu in Kenya, across Lake Victoria and into Entebbe and Jinja in Uganda. 

Upon reaching Ripon Falls, he left “modernity” behind, walking, bicycling and canoeing until he reached Murchison Falls, the world’s most powerful waterfall. Although he continued by boat along the Nile through Uganda into Sudan to Khartoum, it was Uganda that he fell in love with. Most visitors to Uganda still do, only now, much more comfortably than Churchill did and enjoying much better food than was available in 1907.

Indeed, after living in Uganda for over a decade and having traversed the continent, I’m left breathless every time I venture outside its lively cities. A two-hour drive outside the capital Kampala’s perimeter delivers nature’s full bounty with plentiful wildlife and endless swamps of papyrus, forests and vast African plains. As a chef and founder of two of Kampala’s first Western restaurants, I’m often asked to train to various lodge staffs around the country, some with remote bush kitchens, little more than tin shacks without running water or sometimes even electricity. 

Last week, I was elated to have a four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend free and an invitation to southwest Uganda to a remarkable award-winning lodge called Clouds, part of a five-star franchise of safari lodges in isolated locations around the country. Wildplaces camps are remote, luxurious throwbacks to a more glamorous era with personal butler service, spas, gourmet food and some of the world’s most stunning views. The brainchild of Montreal-born Pamela Kertland and her British husband, Jonathan Wright, I’d been to some other of their properties, and they never disappointed in a single detail. 

Clouds, Uganda’s highest-elevation lodge, is located near the Nkuringo trailhead, ideal for gorilla tracking. It sits on a mountaintop at an elevation of 7,000 feet overlooking the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and is ringed by active volcanoes that glow red in the night sky. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to almost half of the remaining endangered mountain gorilla populations, making it a “bucket list” destination for international tourists who buy tracking permits for a few hours of up close and personal time with these mesmerizing behemoths.

I left Kampala at daybreak on Thanksgiving and was driven seven hours until the fully paved roads gave way to gravel trails that hugged the side of the steep mountain for another two hours until I reached Clouds. 

We arrive in the afternoon under heavy black clouds hanging above the volcanoes into a breathtaking, warehouse-sized reception hall with a ceiling rimmed in Swiss chalet-style beams of wood. There is no mistake, though, that this is Africa in between the wooden sculptures and masks, I recognize the works of the most famous Ugandan painters and photographers in frames on the walls. 

I’m greeted by the young resident manager, chef Annabelle Wright, daughter of the lodge owners and a graduate of the London’s Michelin-starred Hambleton Hall and the revered Bocca di Lupo. My job is to teach her staff some American favorites in the form of bagels and doughnuts, challah for French toast and New York-style pizza dough recipe. 

That evening, dinner is eaten by candlelight and we all inhale Wright’s fresh butternut squash ravioli dressed simply in browned butter and sage from the vast garden behind the property.

The next morning, I spend the day in the kitchen with Wright hand mixing challah dough, teaching her the blessing as I braid it, and then how I turn it into sufganiyot or Hanukkah doughnuts. We decide to make a crème patisserie and, while it’s chilling in the refrigerator, I shape the remaining half of the challah dough into balls for sufganiyot. While they are rising, I paint the now-risen challah with egg wash and place it into a charcoal stove for baking (there is no thermometer-regulated oven in the kitchen). I push in the loaf and hope for the best.

After frying the sufganiyot, letting them cool and filling them with pastry cream, we garnish them with fresh borage flowers from the garden. We present them on a bed of coarse sugar to an American couple drinking champagne in the lodge. I explain the meaning of Hanukkah and the eight-day tradition of eating food fried in oil, and they proceed to taste them.

Their eyes widen at first bite. “We can’t believe we came to Uganda to eat the best doughnut we’ve ever tasted!” they exclaim. 

I bet that’s exactly what Winston Churchill would have said.

1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 egg yolk, beaten
1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus 4 1/4 cups for frying
4 to 4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup seedless jam or jelly, any flavor or pastry cream
Powdered sugar for garnish

To make the dough, put lukewarm water in the bowl of stand mixer. Add yeast and sugar, and stir to combine. Let the yeast mixture rest for 5 minutes.

Add the beaten eggs and egg yolk, along with 1/4 cup of oil, to the bowl and stir to combine.

While the mixer is running slowly, add the flour, salt and nutmeg, and mix until the dough comes together. Mix for 5 minutes to knead the dough well. Turn off mixer and let the dough sit in the bowl of the mixer for 15 minutes.

After the rest period, turn the dough out into a lightly oiled bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough for at least 8 hours — preferably overnight.

When ready to form sufganiyot, remove dough from the fridge and portion into about 1 1/2- to 2-ounce balls, resting each on a baking paper-lined sheet tray.

Cover the doughnuts with lightly greased cling film or a cloth kitchen towel and let them rise in a warm part of the kitchen until doubled in size, or about one hour. 

To fry the doughnuts, heat the remaining vegetable oil in a pot or wok until the oil reaches 360 F on a thermometer. Carefully add a few doughnuts to the hot oil and fry until golden brown, about 1 minute per side. Use a slotted spoon to remove the doughnuts from the hot oil and place them on paper towels to absorb extra oil. 

Let the doughnuts cool completely. To fill, place filling of your choice in a plastic bag or piping bag. Using a chopstick, make a hole in the top or side of doughnut. Remove chopstick and insert the tip of the piping bag. Pipe in 2 or 3 teaspoons of jam or cream into the center of each doughnut. Sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired.

Makes about 20 sufganiyot.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef
at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co. 

Celebrating Light and Hope in Our Time of Darkness

The last five weeks have pummeled us with horrific experiences of hate-filled violence, darkness of the soul and death. With our country already riven by bitter and hostile social and political differences, the shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue and a Thousand Oaks bar inflicted pain, outrage and darkness upon countless persons. Then, the Camp and Woolsey fires took dozens of lives (with hundreds still unaccounted for), destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes and devastated community institutions. 

As we continue to sift through the physical and emotional rubble, and try to assess the financial and psychological damage, suddenly Hanukkah is upon us — a time to connect with family and friends in our homes in celebration of a storied miracle in which a flame burned longer than it was expected to. The dissonance is stark: Many among us have no homes to go to. Families have been fractured. Scores of people have lost everything to fires that could not be contained.

How do we celebrate the rededication of the Temple destroyed long ago, when we and our families, friends and neighbors are reeling from these urgent crises?

In the wake of the devastating fires, can we connect with the Festival of Lights and its images of a reconstructive flame? Is it possible to look at the light of the menorah and see illumination instead of destruction? 

The Journal posed these questions to local rabbis and leaders — some of whom are on the front lines of caring for victims — to help us understand. 

Fires of Destruction and Lights of Hope
Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Rabbi Julia Weisz, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas

This Hanukkah, Congregation Or Ami rededicates the temple, literally reconsecrating our Calabasas sanctuary during our first Shabbat since evacuating the synagogue during the fires. Through the Maccabean efforts of our Fire Remediation Task Force and our crisis manager, Joffe Emergency Services, the temple is (again) professionally cleansed. As we light our hanukkiah, ancient past and devastating present blend together.

By lighting eight candles that differentiate between fires of destruction and miraculous lights of hope, we:

1. Remember that we were targets, condemned equally by an evil king long ago and an enraged murderous shooter a few weeks ago, who hated that we seemed different and sought to erase our uniqueness from the polity.

2. Caution that angry sparks, set intentionally or not, quickly and easily burn out of control, creating targets among the innocent.

3. Seek to extinguish flames of hatred that burn to harm others.  

4. Encourage wide-eyed awareness and intentional responses to the statements, policies and actions that fan the flames of hatred and/or neglect to lock down weapons of destruction.

5. Retell the story of courageous Maccabean first-responders: firefighters, police and countless volunteers who faced flames or braved bullets to save countless people and properties.

6. Celebrate the vast communal response forged in the fires, and our role as one shamash within, that kindled deep partnership to shine light for the common good.

7. Sing praise that Nes Gadol Haya Sham … v’Poh (a great miracle happened there … and here), reflecting the blessings of the Holy One, who works through decidedly human but nevertheless holy people.

8. Rededicate our synagogue home as a center of learning and holy activism, committed to repairing our broken world. 

Becoming Part of the Rededication Miracle
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Am, Pico-Robertson

The much-beloved teaching by Rabbi David Hartman about what, indeed, was the miracle on the first night of Hanukkah, such that the holiday is eight days rather than seven (after all, the first day they did have enough oil, so what was ostensibly miraculous?), speaks directly and poignantly to this moment.  

To have hope, to begin to illuminate crushing darkness when there is no guarantee of what tomorrow brings, is the epitome of human resilience. It is what is called upon in moments of tragedy, whether personal, local, national or global. The conquering heroes lit that first night, rather than submit to understandable disconsolation. That was a miracle too — of heart, not of oil. In Rabbi Hartman’s words, inspired by our ancestors, we “ought to pour infinite yearnings even into small vessels.” 

In the Maccabean era, the fires of destruction came not only from the flames of enemies, but also from the burning civil discord in the face of incalculable emergency. Today, individuals and communities in our midst face devastating darkness. Let our generosity — of time, spirit and financial resources — be their first candle. Let our togetherness deter rancorous and divisive blame-games. Let us be part of their miracle of rededication. 

Reclaiming Shammai, Reducing the Flames
Rabbi Lori Shapiro, The Open Temple, Venice

The story of Hanukkah is a literary tale formed over several millennia, its origins spinning through the Book of Maccabees I and II, through Josephus, the Talmud, Maimonides and beyond. It’s a literary time machine. And if each evolving civilization imprints its own addition to this tale, might we look around at our times and ask, “What is our contemporary contribution to the telling?” Perhaps this year nothing is more important to illuminate than the Spirit of Machloket (disagreement), as most famously demonstrated in the mental sparring of Hillel and Shammai, the rabbis of the Talmud who respectfully preserved the minority opinion in matters of dissent.  

According to the house of Hillel, we begin with one light and increase the light each day until we have all eight illuminated. What if, this year, all of us reclaim the Shammai hanukkiah, in addition to our beloved Hillel hanukkiah (Shabbat Bavli, 21b)? Perhaps we should begin with a blaze, akin to the great fires in our city, state and nation, and reduce the flame for eight nights as a symbol of our humility, unity and oneness?  

This Hanukkah, The Open Temple shares this tradition at our annual “Hanukkah on the Canal Parade,” and we dedicate ourselves to the search for light in times of darkness. We hearken to the sounds of strangers and invite the Other into our hearts and homes as an eight-night meditation of reduced light to guide our return, until a singular candle, representing all of us, together and alone, becomes our sole companion. A singular light, reminiscent of the mystery and promise of creation. 

In the Darkness, Create Light
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean, American Jewish University, Bel Air

In a remarkable demonstration of courage, the Maccabees rededicated the Temple, pouring faith into kindling light from one small flask of oil. We light candles counting upward, each night adding one more candle. The more light, says the Talmud, the more holiness.  

At a time of darkness and challenge, our response is to increase the light. Unlike any other time of year, during Hanukkah the lights are for the sole purpose of witnessing the shining brightness, finding in it the inspiration to create more light.

Lighting the Hanukkah candles invites us to take time to see our own soul’s light. In so doing, we are reminded that deep within us we hold the truly miraculous weapons of hope and faith that we can use to fight darkness, evil and pain.  

The Book of Proverbs says it best: “The light of God is the human soul.” It is this light that guides us to illuminate the darkest paths and leads us to kindle additional light deep in the holy souls of other people. 

Don’t Cancel Holidays: Celebrate the Will to Rebuild
Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Ohr HaTorah Synagogue, Mar Vista

Some of the people who frequent our synagogue were forced to evacuate their homes and/or lost their homes entirely in the recent Woolsey Fire. There may also be someone in our midst who is grieving a loved one lost in the Camp Fire’s destruction of the town of Paradise, the Borderline Bar & Grill shooting in Thousand Oaks or the Tree of Life synagogue attack in Pittsburgh.

Everyone is shaken. The news cycle brings the catastrophes home to each of us. As a religious and spiritual community, we have to acknowledge the pain and trauma and guide people through it — how to grieve and how to console.  

But we don’t cancel holidays or turn them into rites of mourning. Some who have suffered grievous loss can have their spirits lifted by the wisdom, beauty and joy in our holidays. Perhaps for a brief time, they will want to be at one with the community and the tradition. 

It’s a fine line: being present for the grieving, but also trusting that our traditions have enough depth and wisdom for anyone at any time of life. This Hanukkah we are reminded of people who risked everything and many who lost everything. They asked us to celebrate their victory, their moment of rededicating that which had been desecrated. 

We are a tough people, with the vision and will to grieve, restore and rebuild. Let’s celebrate Hanukkah. 

Recognize the Candles in Our Families
Rabbi Nicole Guzik, Sinai Temple, Westwood

I recently read an odd but inspiring answer to the question: “How many candles do we light on Hanukkah?” The Mishneh Torah explains a rare tradition in which you light a candle for each family member, the following night it doubles, triples and so on. By the end of the eighth night, your home is filled with candle after candle, pinpoints of light that pierce the darkness. 

But it’s more than just an aesthetically pleasing sight. It is a plea to each of us that even within our own families, where disagreements and grudges can run high, we must push through our differences to find ways to see each other. There is no perfect family. Extending further, the Jewish nation has been filled with opposing opinions and ideologies for thousands of years. But to do God’s work of diminishing the darkness in this world of shadows, we must recognize the candles within our own family. Candles yearning to be lit. Candles yearning to be seen. 

No matter how much we disagree with those we love, they are family. See them. Perhaps one day, you will need their light.

Working Together, Rising From the Ashes
Jay Sanderson, president & CEO, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

For me, the definitive image of Hanukkah is a menorah radiating in the window of my family’s home. Those flames, burning brightly, symbolize our victory over tyranny and oppression. This past week I drove through the West San Fernando Valley, Conejo Valley and Malibu, parts of our Jewish community ravaged by our recent fires. I saw how flames can cause tremendous destruction and felt many emotions. But what I experienced rising from the ashes was the strength and resilience of our Jewish community. 

As we approach Hanukkah this year, I am deeply inspired. I recognize the long journey we have ahead to rebuild lives, homes and institutions, but I am emboldened by how our Federation staff, lay leaders, communal leaders and rabbis have selflessly stepped forward to do this essential work together.

Eight Bring-Light-to-the-Darkness Kavanot
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, B’nai David-Judea Congregation, Pico-Robertson

The recent man-made and natural calamities have, for me at least, blended into a broader and deeper darkness that has served as their backdrop and soundtrack. This is the darkness produced by the incivility and indecency of our political and social discourse over the past number of years. When we can banish this darkness, we can be realistically optimistic that we can banish any darkness that may come our way. In this spirit, I offer these bring-light-to the-darkness kavanot (intentions) for our eight nights of Hanukkah.

Night 1: Let us speak only truth. Not what “might be” or “could be” or “who knows?” Just truth.

Night 2: Let us not abuse God’s gift of speech by using it to ridicule, mock or demean other human beings.

Night 3: Let us oppose all forms of bias and hatred, not only the ones that suit our politics. 

Night 4: Let us imagine what it would feel like to stand in the shoes of the other, before we espouse a position that impacts that other.

Night 5: Let us take to heart the strict Talmudic prohibition upon affixing nicknames to people.

Night 6: Let us respond to division by trying to heal it, not by exploiting it to our benefit.

Night 7: Let us remember that the only consequence to opening our ears more is that we will understand more.  

Night 8: Let us recommit to the idea that humility is not a weakness to be taken advantage of, but a virtue to be admired.

Nimrod Back Creates A New Spin on the Ancient Top

Nimrod Back

If a one-day supply of oil that ends up burning for eight days is a supernatural occurrence that’s been celebrated for over 2,000 years, then a top that can spin continuously for forty hours is a veritable modern-day Hanukkah miracle. 

Nimrod Back is the miracle-maker behind Limbo, a solid-metal spinning top with a gyroscope hidden inside that allows it to spin in perpetuity — or at least until the rechargeable battery runs out. 

Back, 34, got the idea from watching the movie “Inception,” where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character deduces whether he’s awake or dreaming according to whether the spinning top topples over. Back said his customer base falls into three categories: The first category is made up of people who are into what Back calls “executive toys” — C-level suits fidgeting with a spinner during board meetings, for whom the Limbo is a prestige item (it costs around $60). “We develop toys for children with salaries,” he explained.

The second category is comprised of physics aficionados. “The Limbo represents a very cool principle called angular momentum,” Back said, referring to the rotary inertia of an object in motion around an axis, like our planet. 

The third category includes “Inception” fans. Of the thousands of comments Limbo has attracted from several viral videos, the one that is most often repeated is along the lines of, “Oh s—, we’re still in a dream,” Back said.

An industrial engineer living in Tel Aviv, Back always liked making things. When he was 12 and his skateboard was confiscated, he unscrewed the back of his wooden school chair and after sanding, filing and securing wheels to it had a new skateboard small enough to hide in his backpack. 

“It’s a weird object that stands on its tip and turns. It’s already kind of magic, a tiny miracle.” — Nimrod Back

His penchant for making things plus a love of fantasy made inventing magical items, as he calls them, an obvious career move. “I call them magical items and not magic tricks because you don’t need to be a magician to use them,” he said. 

He also invented Pressy, a tiny, customizable button that fits in a mobile phone’s headphone jack to start apps with a single press; and Boogie Dice, which roll when you clap your hands or snap your fingers. But only Limbo has earned his company, Fearless Toys, over $1 million, $800,000 of which came from a crowd-funding campaign and more than $300,000 in sales. 

Part of Limbo’s appeal, Back said, is something that even regular spinning tops have. “It’s a weird object that stands on its tip and turns. It’s already kind of magic, a tiny miracle,” he said.

He posited that watching a spinning top has a calming, hypnotizing effect because a person’s breathing ends up synchronizing with the rotations in much the same way it does when a person watches a candle burn. In June, Limbo beat the existing Guinness World Record for spinning with a 27-hour spin. 

Beyond its record-breaking capabilities, Limbo is “pretty good for hustling,” Back said. He explained that at restaurants he will wait for the waiter to approach before spinning the Limbo on the table. Invariably, the server will wait patiently for it to fall before taking Back’s order. At that point Back will smile wryly and say, “Let’s bet that I’ll finish my dinner before it falls.”

While it was not designed as a dreidel, Back said he hopes that by next year he will market a Limbo version for Hanukkah.

Hanukkah Is Not Christmas. This Year, Let’s Embrace That

It’s that time of year again when American Jews bask in the wintertime flavor of Christmas — when we teach our children that the Jewish version of Christmas is called Hanukkah, that the equivalent of the Christmas tree is the menorah, that while Christians have a big gift-giving blowout, we have eight crazy nights (in Adam Sandler’s iteration). The prominence of Christmas in America means that American Jews often attempt to ride the Christmas coattails, to get into the “holiday spirit” — or, more cynically, to compete with Christmas in order to prevent our children from falling for the romance of Christmas. 

To that end, we elevate Hanukkah as a holiday, treating it as more sacred than actual sacred days. A 2010 study published in The Economic Journal by Ran Abramitzky, Liran Einav and Oren Rigby found that while 38 percent of Jewish Tel Aviv University economics undergraduate students ranked Hanukkah among the three most important Jewish holidays, 68 percent of Jewish economics undergrads at Stanford University did so. Orthodox Jews celebrated Hanukkah whether they had young children in the home, but Reform Jews tended to celebrate the holiday only if they had young children in the home as a counterbalance to Christmas. As the study stated, “Jewish individuals may be more responsive to Christmas if their children are at a higher ‘risk’ of intermarriage, conversion, or feeling envy and left out during Christmas.”

This is a problem.

Hanukkah ought to be celebrated in its own right. And failure to see Hanukkah for what it truly it means that our children will be far more likely to abandon Judaism than to embrace it, no matter how many Lego sets we buy them to outdo Santa Claus.

The message of Hanukkah is precisely the opposite of what more secularized Jews believe it is. Hanukkah isn’t just a wintertime festival rife with consumerism and kitschy lights. It’s about the requirement for a fulsome Jewish lifestyle that infuses our entire being, that motivates us all year, that gives us something to live and die for. Hanukkah reminds us that Judaism cannot survive by outcompeting other religions, but by focusing inward — by creating a profound sense of Jewish identity. 

Hanukkah, after all, is about a war: a war against Hellenism, the attempt by Greek forces to force a pagan vision upon the Jews. Hellenism offered a rich philosophic and aesthetic culture, a vision of the universe free of the burdens of the Torah. The Jews rebelled against that vision, refusing to allow our Temple to be defiled. Jews even fought other Jews who wished to join in the Hellenization, refusing to allow the land to be governed by the rule of foreign gods. In the vision of the Maccabees, Judaism was a lifelong commitment worth defending and protecting. The miracle was a result of that commitment.

This authentic view of Hanukkah enables Jews to see Christmas in a different light: not as a competing holiday, but as a ritual complete with aesthetic beauty but lacking any Jewish spiritual relevance. Thank God that America welcomes Jewishness; Christmas isn’t a threat. We can enjoy Irving Berlin songs and smile at Santa with children on his knee confident that our spiritual heritage isn’t threatened by the “fun” of the season. After all, we offer more than fun to our children. We offer a light we shine before the world proudly, unwaveringly and with a spirit of confidence, rather than in a spirit of nervous competition. If we fail to commit to Judaism more broadly but think that a few presents and some over-oiled hash browns will keep our kids Jewish, we’ve missed the message of Hanukkah entirely.

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

Is America a Racist Country?

There’s a powerful story in the Nov. 26 issue of Time magazine titled, “I Love America. That’s Why I Have to Tell the Truth About It.” It’s written by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen.

In his piece, Nguyen addresses the criticisms of America and other countries that he included in other writings, which prompted protests from a few U.S. military veterans. Nguyen explained that those criticisms were really a sign of love.

“I made such criticisms not because I hated all the countries that I have known but because I love them,” he writes. “My love for my countries is difficult because their histories, like those of all countries, are complicated.”

I understand Nguyen’s way of expressing a “difficult” love through criticism. Love is a complicated emotion. And criticism can spur improvement and help make things better. 

What I would suggest is that if we don’t complement criticism with progress, we can create a distorted view of reality. Take, for example, the issue of racism in America.

In recent years, there’s been a popular meme contending that America is an inherently racist country. As The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson declared in 2015, “America will only end racism when it stops being racist.” Even President Barack Obama said at the time that “racism remains a blight that we have to combat together.”

Since President Donald Trump entered the White House two years ago, the racism meme has only gotten louder. From the continued expansion of Black Lives Matter to professional football players protesting police violence against Blacks to white supremacists making more noise, the implication has been that racism is alive and thriving in America.

But is it? Let’s pull back and look at the bigger picture.

According to a 2017 report in The Economist, “Americans appear far less racist than in the past. Only 4 percent of Americans supported interracial marriage in 1958. By 1997 that was 50 percent; today it is 87 percent.”

Also, according to The Economist, “racially and ethnically motivated hate crimes reported to the FBI fell 48 percent between 1994 and 2015.”

How about racist hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan? According to a 2012 report in Slate, the KKK is “clearly contracting, since its rolls have shrunk from millions in the 1920s to between 3,000 and 5,000 today.” 

“While we must always stay vigilant and pounce any time racism rears its ugly head, we also have an obligation to show the full picture.”

In a recent podcast interview on City Journal, Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Shelby Steele, who specializes in the study of race relations, multiculturalism and affirmative action, also touched on the theme of racial progress:

“The impulse of racism is something that all human beings, I think, have to come to terms with, struggle against, learn all sorts of moral lessons from. But it is not, I don’t believe at any rate … the problem that Black America faces today. And I think one of the most unrecognized features of American life is the enormous moral progress America has made since the ’60s.”

Steele, who is Black, added: “I grew up in segregation. I know what that was like. And when I look at my life today in America, everything is wide open. I can do anything I want. … I don’t detect any will in the society, in American society, to oppress Blacks anymore. Any hint of wanting something like that would be utterly ruinous to a person, to their reputation. They would pay a terrible price for it.” 

None of this is to suggest that racism is dead, or even dying, in America. As Steele reminds us, the “impulse of racism,” however shameful, is something that may never be eradicated. 

What the new reality does suggest, however, is that the long arc of racial justice in America is going in the right direction.

You probably wouldn’t know about this progress from watching the evening news, for the simple reason that good news doesn’t sell. It’s hard to imagine a special report on CNN on how “Americans appear far less racist than in the past.” How sensational would that be? 

And yet, we need those reports. While we must always stay vigilant and pounce any time racism rears its ugly head, we also have an obligation to show the full picture. Bad news may be more lucrative than good news, but good news can often give us a more balanced view of reality.  

That’s why I wrote this column. Just like Viet Thanh Nguyen, I love America, and I have to tell the truth about it.

And part of that truth is: Just as Jews light a candle for every night of Hanukkah, America has fought its own darkness by lighting a candle of justice for every generation.

For me, it is those inexorable candles of hope, however hazy they may appear at times, that are the real drama of this country.

Happy Hanukkah. 

Nov. 30, 2018