January 22, 2019

Moving & Shaking: Holocaust Memories; Temple of the Arts Bash

From left: Remember Us Teen Board President Eva Suissa; Remember Us Director Samara Hutman; Samantha Lazaruk, Michele Rodri’s daughter-in-law; Remember Us Board Co-Chair Michele Rodri; and Remember Us Board Member and Child Survivors of the Holocaust Los Angeles President Lya Frank come together at a Yom HaShoah concert. Photo courtesy of Remember Us.

The Conejo Valley community gathered at the new home of Valley Outreach Synagogue on April 15 for “Music and Memory,” a Yom HaShoah concert that was the vision of Asher Mehr when he became a bar mitzvah last July.

For his bar mitzvah project, Mehr participated in Remember Us: The Holocaust B’nai Mitzvah Project, during which he came to know Michele Rodri, a survivor and Remember Us co-president. Mehr decided he wanted to help bring the memory of Rodri’s beloved brother, Maurice Rosenberg, who died in Auschwitz, back into communal memory and into the hearts and minds of his friends and family, said Remember Us Director Samara Hutman.

The concert featured pianist David Kaplan, cellist Kevan Torfeh and vocalist Rabbi Ron Li-Paz. The musical program included Beethoven’s “Appassionata,” for which Kaplan received a standing ovation.

“Like me, Maurice loved music, especially Beethoven,” Mehr said in the program notes. “Because Maurice loved Beethoven, I felt it was crucial that Beethoven be part of this afternoon.”

Mehr also performed “La Mer,” a 1946 song written by French composer, lyricist and singer Charles Trenet that was Rosenberg’s favorite song.

“I think music can reach where words cannot and that art can offer healing,” Mehr said. “I wish for survivors to be able to find a place together in music that can lift spirits from a time of vulnerability and rawness. I hope this concert to honor Maurice will provide an opportunity for community, light and comfort.”

Holocaust survivor Itzhak (Ernie) Hacker and his wife, Niza, pose together at Zikaron Basalon, Hebrew for “Memories in the Living Room,” during which Hacker shared his story of survival. Photo by Ayala Or-El.

Itzhak (Ernie) Hacker, born in Austria in 1929, had a happy childhood until the day the Nazis invaded his small village and ordered the Jews to pack up and leave.

“I still can’t imagine how a government can be so cruel,” said Hacker, 89, his voice trembling some 70 years since the Holocaust took place. “It’s unimaginable.”

Hacker was one of a dozen survivors who shared their stories in private homes across Los Angeles on April 9, two days before Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), as part of the annual Zikaron Basalon (“Memories in the Living Room”) project.

Established eight years ago in Israel, Zikaron Basalon, which provides Holocaust survivors the opportunity to share their stories in intimate settings, has grown into an international event. This year in Los Angeles, Zikaron Basalon was organized by the Israeli-American Council and held in several locations, including at the Woodland Hills home of Rakefet and Arye Aharon, where 180 guests listened to Hacker’s story in the Aharons’ spacious living room.

“Once we had arrived in Auschwitz,” Hacker continued, “the doors were opened [to the freight-train cars] and the SS officers started barking at us: ‘Schnell! Schnell!’ [German for “Quickly!”] We were separated into two groups — in one, the men, and in the other, the women, young children and old people. One of the first things I noticed was the smoke coming out of the crematorium. At first, I had no idea what was the meaning of it, but after a couple of days, I’d realized that those were my brothers and sisters who were going up in smoke.”

Hacker, who lives in Tarzana with his wife, Niza, was a teenager during the Holocaust. His memories of Auschwitz include a tattooed man who was murdered because an SS officer’s wife had taken a liking to his tattoo and wanted to use his skin for a new purse, and another man who tried to escape and had his testicles cut off as punishment.

Hacker also remembered acts of kindness in a place where humanity had ceased to exist.

“I was very thin and weak, but I missed my mom so much,” he recalled. “I wanted to see her and let her know I was still alive. So I wrote a note and walked to the fence, which separated the two blocks between the women and men sections. At the fence, I saw a Hungarian woman. I asked her if she knew where my mother was, but she shook her head. Still, I threw the note to her so she could give it to my mom. She picked it up and then took something out of her pocket and threw it toward me. It was a small piece of bread. If you gave me today $1 million, it wouldn’t mean as much to me. I asked her for her name and she said, ‘Agnes Genz Fried.’ I have never forgotten it.”

Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

From left: Former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad, Temple of the Arts Board President James Blatt and Temple of the Arts Founding Rabbi David Baron attend the Temple of the Arts 25th anniversary fundraising dinner. Photo courtesy of Temple of the Arts.

Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts honored its founders and board of directors at an April 10 fundraising dinner, which also celebrated the synagogue’s 25th anniversary.

The evening at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills recognized Temple of the Arts’ founding rabbi, Rabbi David Baron, as well as the 10 members of the synagogue’s board of directors and the 10 members of the board of the Beverly Hills Performing Arts Center, both of which operate out of the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills.

“We had a very successful event,” Baron said. “We exceeded our target goal by 20 percent, which is always great, and we had a great celebration.”

Beverly and Robert Cohen, owners of the Four Seasons, chaired the gala, which drew about 190 guests. Among those in attendance were Burt and Mary Hart Sugarman, who dedicated the synagogue’s new dressing room and green room; former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad, who presented the synagogue with a proclamation on behalf of the city of Beverly Hills; and Temple of the Arts President James Blatt, who presented the honorees with their awards.

Temple of the Arts was founded in 1992 with 50 members. Today, the synagogue has 1,400 members and continues its mission of connecting people to Judaism through music, drama, arts, dance and film, Baron said.

“We are an address for those who relate to art and religion, but we’re not conventional denominational Jews,” Baron said. “I feel we have carved out that niche.”

The synagogue purchased the Saban Theatre, an art deco building and a Beverly Hills historic landmark, in November 2005.

“By owning and operating our own venue, which is a historic theater, we are able to attract that part of the community,” Baron said. “That’s very gratifying.”

Temple of the Arts plans to open a preschool in a building it purchased recently on South Hamilton Drive, behind the Saban Theatre. The preschool is scheduled to open in September 2019 and is expected to serve about 60 children, Baron said.

The synagogue is in the process of searching for an assistant rabbi whose responsibilities will include working in the preschool, he said.

Allen and Deanna Alevy. Photo courtesy of Bnei Akiva Los Angeles.

Religious Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles has renamed its Modern Orthodox Zionist camp in Running Springs, Calif.

The new name, Moshava Alevy, became effective April 9. The camp was previously known as Moshava California, and before that as Moshava Malibu.

The renaming is “in gratitude to the generosity of Mr. Allen and Mrs. Deanna Alevy … in memory of their parents Norton and Sylvia Alevy,” the organization stated on its website.

Allen Alevy is an entrepreneur, futures trader and real estate investor who has provided funds to a variety of Jewish causes designed to strengthen Jewish connection, identity and longevity.

When the camp was launched in 2013, in partnership with the Shalom Institute, a nondenominational organization in Malibu, Bnei Akiva named its camp Moshava Malibu. When Bnei Akiva acquired its own site in Running Springs in 2014, it renamed the camp Moshava California.

The name change marks a new chapter for the camp and for Bnei Akiva, which, operating in the United States and Canada, is the self-described “premier religious Zionist youth movement dedicated to growing generations of Jews committed to building a society devoted to Torah and the Jewish people in the State of Israel.”

From left: JQ International honored (from left) Lynn Bider, Jacob Hofheimer and Maria Shtabsakya during its 2018 JQ Awards Garden Brunch. Photo by Anna Falzetta.

The 2018 JQ Awards Garden Brunch was held on April 15 at the Beverly Hills home of Dr. Jamshid Maddahi and Angela Maddahi.

JQ honored philanthropist Lynn Bider with the Community Leadership Award; Jacob Hofheimer, JQ’s first teenage and transgender honoree, with the Trailblazer Award; and Maria Shtabsakya, an LGBTQ leader and wealth management adviser, with the Inspiration Award.

The gathering, JQ International’s signature event, honored the work of prestigious LGBTQ and ally Jews in Southern California.

Other attendees included JQ Executive Director and Co-Founder Asher Gellis, JQ Assistant Director Arya Marvazy, and JQ board member Todd Shotz.

JQ International, which operates a variety of programs and services for the LGBTQ community, holds inclusion training for institutions, conducts workshops, runs a speakers bureau, has a Jewish Queer Straight Alliance for teens across Los Angeles, operates a JQ Helpline, and more.

Comedian Dana Goldberg served as host for the event, which drew 250 people and raised more than $140,000.

Passing on a Legacy of Love

“All That Matters” by Jan Goldstein (Hyperion, $17.95).

Walk into Zabar’s and it’s easy to spot 76-year old Gittel “Gabby” Zuckerman. She’s feisty and funny, and her shrinking height and failing health don’t diminish her power. Nor do the memories of the family she lost in the Holocaust ever leave her.

Gabby is the heroine of Jan Goldstein’s uplifting first novel, “All That Matters,” a book that’s been compared to Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie,” for sharing the wisdom — this time in fiction — of an elderly person facing death. It’s Gabby who ultimately saves her granddaughter Jennifer, and the novel follows their journey together, toward each other, affirming memory, life and love.

Jennifer loses her way after her Hollywood producer father (“Harvey Weinstein in a size 40”) leaves the family and marries a younger woman (“Ms. Beverly Hills Aerobics”), and after her mother Lili’s death. Lili was fatally struck by a car while crossing a Los Angeles street, on a day when she lent Jennifer her own car. After Jennifer feels abandoned by one more person, a boyfriend who promises her a better life and then asks her to move out, the young woman tries to commit suicide on Venice Beach — but she is found by a truck driver.

Defying her doctor’s orders, Gabby flies across the country when she hears the news and insists on bringing her only child’s only child home with her to the Upper West Side, rather than allowing her ex-son-in-law to confine her to an institution. To see her granddaughter so troubled “was a grandmother’s pain, one that reached the deepest part of her, a place where the memory of lost family resided.”

Gabby wrestles with God, never forgiving God for failing to save her family in Poland, yet on occasion she offers up prayers of gratitude nonetheless. But when it comes to Jennifer, she found that God “didn’t seem a reliable bet,” so she turns to her late daughter, Lili, searching for her voice.

It’s exactly this time of year when Gabby and Jennifer return to New York City, when the air is crisp and the leaves are turning burnt orange and golden. The fall scene on the book jacket could be Central Park, where some of the novel’s key scenes are played out. When Jennifer first enters her grandmother’s apartment in the West 70s, she “took a deep breath and exhaled, looking over the glass coffee table overflowing with tchotchkes. It was if she’d entered a time warp, fallen into some kind of back hole where everything modern and contemporary had ceased to exist.”

The author — whose book recently made the Los Angeles Times best-seller list — is an L.A.-based poet, playwright and screenwriter who has written two nonfiction books, “Life Can Be This Good” and “Sacred Wounds.” One fact about him doesn’t appear on the book jacket: He’s a rabbi, trained in the Reform movement. For 20 years, he was the rabbi-in-residence at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, and he now heads a congregation called Shofar, “a show business shul,” he said. He said that his rabbinic experience “has given me insight into human psychology and what moves people.”

As a man probing the inner lives of women, he credits the powerful example of his mother, who was a poet, and his father, who was an actor, and helped establish a conservative synagogue in Burlington, Vt., where he grew up, “surrounded by poetry and theater.”

Goldstein explains that he also learned a lot about women as a single father, with primary responsibility for raising his three children — two daughters and a son, who are now grown up — after a divorce. Now 53 and remarried, he also has a stepson and a young daughter.

His attraction to the rabbinate grew out of his involvement in the ecumenical movement in Vermont.

“We wanted to bring people together, to create more understanding between religions,” he said. “I wanted to explain who Jews are.”

Throughout his rabbinic career “the writer in me has been wanting to come out,” he said.

He describes his Jewish outlook as “progressive in orientation, with a healthy respect for tradition and a healthy hunger for creating new forms of ritual. Telling stories is a very Jewish activity, also a human activity, making meaning out of human experience.”

“We have a profound power through creativity to help alter the world. In a small way I’m doing that through the stories I tell.” He added, “Artists like to nudge the world along.”

“All That Matters” was inspired in part by the suicide of a vivacious young woman Goldstein had taught; he hadn’t seen it coming and that haunted him.

“I wondered if I could create a character who could intercede, who could mentor her back to discover the joy of living,” he said. “I couldn’t think of a more dramatic person to reach someone and show someone how precious love is than someone who has seen the worst that life can dole out.”

The character of Gabby was informed by several Holocaust survivors he has known, who have a joyous quality about them — in spite of all they have been through. In particular, his father had a cousin whose own experience of surviving and being hidden by a righteous Polish woman is reflected in Gabby’s story. Goldstein was also influenced by a meeting with Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna, when he was researching an earlier nonfiction book. Some of Wiesenthal’s determination — how early experiences in his life led to his involvement in bringing the world to justice, and a sense of owing something to future generations — surfaces in Gabby.

For Goldstein, the message of the book is about second chances in life, about learning to savor life’s gifts.

“Sometimes we look in the wrong places for a special kind of love that can rejuvenate our lives,” he said.

Goldstein’s writes with ease and fluidity, and he explains that he finished the book quickly, in 10 weeks.

“It just poured out of me,” he said.

While he was writing, he could imagine a film version and several producers have shown interest. The author dreams of Natalie Portman playing Jennifer.

About the book title, he sounds rabbinic, “When we discover what matters, life becomes different and better.”

Goldstein will be the featured guest at Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live on Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m. 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood.