November 16, 2018

Moving & Shaking: Israel Festival, Azerbaijani Delegation

Photo by Linda Kasian Photography.

The Israeli-American Council’s (IAC) annual Celebrate Israel festival, this year commemorating Israel’s 70th birthday, was held on May 6 at Rancho Park in West Los Angeles.

The event drew more than 18,000 attendees.

“This weekend in Los Angeles, the IAC made history, with the single largest celebration of Israel’s landmark 70th birthday outside of the Jewish State,” IAC Board Member Naty Saidoff said in a statement. “We were inspired to join more than 18,000 people in a powerful display of love, pride and support for the Jewish State and all that it represents.”

Saidoff and his wife, Debbie, were the main sponsors of the event, subsidizing admission to the festival.

The daylong gathering kicked off in the morning with a 1-mile Israel solidarity march organized by the pro-Israel group StandWithUs. Participants marched from Rancho Park to the Simon Wiesenthal Center and then returned to the park.

High-profile supporters of Israel turned out, including Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who have helped to drive the growth of the IAC, and Haim Saban.

Also at the festival, the Taglit Innovation Center held a special interactive exhibition titled “70 Years of Zionism, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.”

Highlights included a performance by the Israeli pop duo Static and Ben-El, Liraz Russo and Ben-El Tavori.

The IAC held Celebrate Israel festivals in cities across the United States.

IAC CEO Shoham Nicolet said he hoped the enthusiasm people showed for Israel during the Celebrate Israel festival continued throughout the year.

“Israel is a miracle and a gift we should be celebrating every day, not just once a year,” Nicolet said. “The festivals across the nation are bringing to life our vision of Israeli-Americans, who serve as a living bridge between Israel and the Jewish-American and pro-Israel communities here in  the United States.”

From left: Justin, Michael, Caroline and Gabrielle Hackman attend The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ annual Real Estate and Construction (REC) Division dinner, which honored Michael Hackman, founder and CEO of Hackman Capital Partners. Photo by Howard Pasamanick Photography.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles held its annual Real Estate and Construction Division dinner on May 9 at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica.

The dinner honored Michael Hackman, founder and CEO of Hackman Capital Partners, for his leadership and contributions to Federation and the Jewish community. The dinner brought together more than 1,500 professionals and community members and raised more than $3 million for Federation.

Hackman Capital Partners is a privately held real estate investment and operating company that focuses on commercial and industrial properties in major U.S. markets.

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said the organization’s Real Estate and Construction Division plays a part in Federation’s success.

“The leaders of our Federation’s Real Estate and Construction Division are incredible partners, helping achieve and make a reality the important work of the Federation on a daily basis,” he said. “We are overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the real estate group and the community at large.”

Attorney Richard Pachulski presented the award to Hackman, who made remarks to the audience.

“It was a wonderful evening for the real estate industry and those who are leading the way in support of the Jewish Federation,” Hackman said. “I would like to thank all those who invest in our future, help the most vulnerable, and support our community. I am humbled by the outpouring of support and fun that was had at this record-setting event, and would like to thank all of the sponsors, donors and attendees for stepping up in such a big way.”

The evening began with a cocktail hour, followed by an a cappella performance by the Pellas, a Jewish ensemble. Following the dinner, many guests attended the after-party.

Bryan Berkett, Brent Iloulian, David Chasin and Reuben Robin co-chaired the event. Jonathan Klein, chair of Federation’s Real Estate and Construction division, also spoke.

According to the Federation website, the Federation’s Real Estate and Construction Division professionals meet regularly to network, discuss trends in the industry and conduct philanthropic work.

A delegation of interfaith leaders from Azerbaijan visited with Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa (fifth from left) on May 14. Photo by Farid Babayev.

An interfaith delegation from Azerbaijan visited the Jewish Journal office on May 14.

During the visit, Consul General of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles Nasimi Aghayev discussed with Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa the Jewish community of Azerbaijan and the former Soviet country’s positive relationship with Israel.

Azerbaijan is Israel’s largest supplier of oil and a major purchaser of Israeli defense technology.

Appearing along with eight Azerbaijani leaders, Aghayev said his country is a place where Jews, Muslim and Christians peacefully coexist.

The delegation members were Mubariz Gurbanli, chairman of the state committee for work with religious organizations of the Republic of Azerbaijan; Milikh Yevdayev, president of the religious community of the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan; Aleksandr Sharovskiy, president of the religious community of European Jews of Azerbaijan; Yevgeniy Brenneysen, vice president of the religious community of European Jews of Azerbaijan; Fuad Nurullayev, deputy chairman of the Caucasian Muslims’ office; Robert Mobili, president of the Albanian-Udi Christian religious community of Azerbaijan; Elnur Afandiyev, archpriest of the Russian Orthodox church; and Nijat Mammadli, head of the foreign relations section of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

That evening, the Azerbaijanis participated in an event at Sinai Temple titled “Multifaith Harmony Without Conflict,” which drew 300 attendees.

From left: Beverly Hills City Councilmember Robert Wunderlich, Sharona Nazarian, Beverly Hills City Councilmember Lili Bosse, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg, Beverly Hills Mayor Julian Gold, Vice Mayor John Mirisch, Councilmember Lester Friedman and Gina Raphael attend a Yom HaAtzmaut celebration in Beverly Hills. Photo courtesy of Sharona Nazarian.

A May 9 event celebrating Israel’s 70th birthday drew more than 200 guests to the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills.

Sharona Nazarian and Gina Raphael chaired the invitation-only gathering.

Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg attended along with half of his consul, as well as all members of the Beverly Hills City Council, including Mayor Julian Gold, Beverly Hills Vice Mayor John Mirisch and Beverly Hills City Council member Lili Bosse.

The event featured a video presentation along with Mike Burstyn serving as the emcee. Hedva Emrani, who started his career in the late-1960s as part of the famous duo Hedva and David, was the special guest performer.

The event recognized the relationship between Beverly Hills and Herzliya, Israel, with the official signing of the sister-city agreement between the two cities.

The guests, city council members and Grundwerg stood together and sang “Jerusalem of Gold.”

From left: Judy Flesh, holding Charlotte Flesh; Martha Berkett; Helen Sassover and Holocaust survivor Hedy Orden attend a Yom Hashoah gathering at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services. Photo courtesy of Columbus and Company.

An April 22 Yom Hashoah ceremony gathered together Holocaust survivor Hedy Orden, 30 members of her family, residents of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, and supporters and participants of Vista Del Mar’s Jewish Life Programs.

During the event, held at Vista Del Mar’s Los Angeles campus, the Orden family passed the Memorial Scroll Torah — on permanent loan to Vista Del Mar from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London— down the line until it came to Orden.

The scroll featured a new Torah cover designed by artist Wendy Peretz that honored Orden, her late husband, Ted, and their family. The cover acknowledged the Ordens’ support for Vista Del Mar’s Jewish Life Programs, which provide individualized religious education programming, bar and bat mitzvah tutoring, and inclusive High Holy Days services to children with autism and other special needs.

Attendees included Vista Del Mar Board Chair Laurie Konheim and Executive Vice Chair Marla Kantor.

Festival provides a taste of Israel in Rancho Park

Thousands of people typically gather for music, food and more at the Celebrate Israel festival. Photo by Linda Kasian Photography

Play backgammon with a stranger. Rock out to pulsating Israeli dance music. Meet the faces behind your favorite Jewish communal organization.

The annual Celebrate Israel festival takes place on May 7, and as it does every year, the gathering is expected to draw upward of 15,000 people to experience live music, kosher food, kids’ activities, a market built to resemble Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem and some pro-Israel solidarity, to boot. This year, the event also celebrates 50 years since the 1967 reunification of Jerusalem.

Naty Saidoff, a board member of the Israeli American Council (IAC), which organizes the event, remembers living in Israel during the momentous historical event half a century ago.

“I was 13 years of age when it happened,” he said. “It was a very scary time and, all of a sudden, instead of being thrown in the sea as Arabs promised us, we pushed them back and we got the glory of reunified Jerusalem, with the old city of Jerusalem.”

Saidoff and his wife, Debbie, are the main underwriters of the event, and he said many of the people at this year’s festival will be a mix of those who experienced the events of 1967 and many who have never been to Israel. That’s the point: The annual festival transforms Cheviot Hills Recreation Center in Rancho Park into a miniature Israel.

“What we do is for the people who cannot go to Israel and the people who went to Israel and want that flavor again, we bring it to you. This is the closest experience you can get to being in Israel,” Saidoff said. “This is Israel, user-friendly.”

The annual festival takes place every year around the time of Israel’s Independence Day, Yom HaAtzmaut, which this year was May 2. It is the largest program of the IAC, an umbrella organization for Israeli Americans that, with help from philanthropists such as Sheldon Adelson, has expanded to cities nationwide since its launch in 2007. Other festivals this year are taking place in New York, Las Vegas and Chicago. The L.A. event ( is the largest.

This year marks the sixth year since the festival was revamped and moved to the Westside of Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley.

Israeli musician Dudu Aharon is slated to headline the festival’s main stage, with other highlights including a flyover air show by the Tiger Squadron; a bar for 20-somethings; photographs by Tel Aviv-based photographer Noam Chen; and a challah bake where people can learn how to braid the bread.

For the youngsters, a kids’ stage features children’s acts Naama Super Al and Sportuly, and a Jerusalem biblical zoo offers camel rides, pony rides and a giant petting zoo.

For the artistically inclined, the IAC has organized a Jerusalem Moment Instagram competition, seeking submissions of photos that “explore the architecture of Jerusalem, faith, food and the hipster side of Jerusalem.” According to Saidoff, Jerusalem is becoming a destination for millennials seeking great restaurants, culture and art, and organizers want photographs reflecting that. The top 100 photos will be exhibited at the festival.

American Friends of Magen David Adom, which raises funds for Israel’s most active emergency-response organization, will conduct a blood drive. Gift of Life pavilion, in memory of the recently deceased community member Adam Krief, will swab cheeks to help with bone marrow matches.

The glatt-kosher offerings include barbecue, hummus, salads, falafel, baked goods and watermelon.

Channel your inner wandering Jew and explore the grounds of the park. Stumble into the JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) pavilion and play backgammon or create a cookbook.

Installations include a 32-foot-long Western Wall replica, where attendees place notes, much as they do when visiting the Kotel; a re-creation of the famous “Ahava” (Hebrew for “love”) statue from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; and a 28-foot-tall Tower of David, featuring photography by Chen.

The festival begins at 11 a.m. For those who want to celebrate Israel earlier, a “Salute to Israel Walk in Blue and White,” a 1-mile loop sponsored by the pro-Israel organization StandWithUs, starts at 10. Participants will walk from the park to Pico Boulevard and Roxbury Drive, outside the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, then return.

“StandWithUs is going to be there with their high spirits, their energy,” Saidoff said.

Saidoff said he believes an event like this is an opportunity for the non-Israeli Jewish community, including Persians, Russians and observant Jews — especially their children — to party Israeli-style in a family-friendly environment.

Many Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Journal and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, set up booths at the festival.

The festival ends at 6 p.m. Advanced general admission tickets cost $15; the walk-up cost is $20. There is no charge for children up to age 3. Parking, at $10, is available at Fox Studios Galaxy East Parking Garage, Century Park West Garage and Constellation Park Garage, and the price includes shuttles to and from the park.

The Celebrate Israel festival takes place on May 7. For more information, visit this story at

Israel Festival: dancing with Eyal Golan

At the end of a long day of festivities Sunday, the crowd screamed as Israeli singer Eyal Golan wrapped an Israel flag around his body on stage at Rancho Park’s Cheviot Hills Recreation Center.

Golan, whose good looks have helped solidify his pop star-status in Israel, also let the music show his pride in the Jewish State at the lavish Celebrate Israel festival,the first such event organized by the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC). Combining Middle Eastern influences, Western pop and Hebrew lyrics. Golan performed up-tempo Mizrahi songs and ballads, and the crowd of thousands fueled the energy.

As the people upfront in the V.I.P. section clamored to get as close to Golan as possible, security tried to keep them from getting in the way of the camera boom operator. The scene was chaotic but joyous: guys cuddled their girlfriends singing along with Golan; adults and children waved Israeli flags, creating a sea of blue-and-white, and everyone, young and old, danced to Golan’s beats, rhythms and harmonies.

Golan’s performance was the moment when the largely Israeli group came together to celebrate Israel’s 64th birthday.

“It’s just really incredible and inspiring, and it just makes you feel so happy to know that you are part of a community and it’s such a strong and loving community that really stands for Israel,” said Lian Kimia, program manager at the Israeli Leadership Council.

The event drew 15,000 people during the course of the day, Israeli singer Gilat Rapaport, the main stage’s master of ceremonies, announced toward the end of the festival. A few hours earlier, Kimia had estimated that 9,000 tickets had been scanned.

Whatever the number, the event, which is estimated to have cost more than $800,000, kept a lively pace, starting at 9 a.m. with a Salute to Israel Walk organized by StandWithUs and ending at 7 p.m. with Golan’s performance. Vocalist Monique Benabou, faith-rocker Craig Taubman, the Israel band Hanadnedot and the children’s MATI Choir performed on three stages placed at some distance from one another in the park.

Speakers included Israel Consul General David Siegel; Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles CEO Jay Sanderson; San Fernando Valley congressman Brad Sherman and Howard Berman and ILC board members Shawn Evenhaim and Naty Saidoff, who also chaired the festival.

Kids rode rides and won stuffed-animals at carnival-games, while pita and falafel stands with seemingly endless lines served up Israeli cuisine. Lines of booths showcased various Israeli and Jewish community organizations including Federation, Birthright Israel, Chabad, the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), Stand With Us, the Jewish Journal and others.

Story continues after the jump

Video by Ryan Torok, edited by Jeffrey Hensiek

Siegel praised Israel as “a nation of 8 million in the heart of the Middle East,” saying, “You ain’t see nothing yet” of Israeli innovation before wishing the crowd “a Yom HaAtzmaut sameach.”

Other representatives at the ceremony included Los Angeles City Council members Paul Koretz, Jan Perry, Dennis Zine and Bill Rosendahl, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, City Controller Wendy Greuel and Assemblyman Mike Feuer. Radio host Michael Medved hosted.

Cost of tickets was $19 for adults and $12 for kids, with reduced prices offered online. Despite tight security, approximately 100 people snuck in, according to a private security guard. “It’s inevitable, but everyone should pay their share,” Kimia said. Los Angeles Police Department officials were on hand, reporting no incidents other than a few children temporarily separated from their parents.

Because the festival was held on several acres sprawled out on baseball fields and grassy areas, some areas felt empty at times. The “spiritual pavilion,” the DJ stage and Israeli dancing-area failed to draw large numbers.

But the most agreed the community had turned out to mark the occasion. “It’s like the one event throughout the whole year that the whole Israeli community in Los Angeles comes together and has something to celebrate,” said Saper Azulay, 18, of Sherman Oaks. Azulay is president of the Israeli Scouts Los Angeles division, which had a presence at the event, and he was with his mother, Michelle, who said she came to “meet friends and to show support” for Israel and the live music was her favorite part.

At 4 p.m., just before the performance by Benabou, a contestant the current season of NBC’s “The Voice,” throngs of attendees overflowed the main-stage tent. Families and friends lay on blankets on the grass, in the sun, munching on snacks, alongside baby strollers and kids playing with blown-up toys and young adults and teenagers in sunglasses, tank-tops, shorts and short skirts, drinking energy drinks and wearing Israeli flags as scarves. Hebrew chatter filled the air, blending with a beat blaring from the nearby DJ stage.

Late in the afternoon, 27-year-old Barak Suisa, a contractor from Reseda and friend of the vocalist of Israeli rock band Hanadnedot, which performed around 2:30 p.m. on the “Café Tel-Aviv “ stage, watched as his two buddies played against each other at the “backgammon station.”

“Every year I’m waiting for this festival, so I was really disappointed when they didn’t do anything [last year],” he said. “This is the best. It’s clean, more organized, there are more stages and it’s just more fun.”

Roy Bendor, vocalist of Hadadenot (Hebrew for “The Swings”), relaxed on a grassy knoll nearby before he was scheduled to perform, hanging with his fiancée, Rafaeli.

“We’re enjoying it very much,” Bendor said.

Nearby, a small crowd gathered at the Hummus Bar and Grill, calling out to the Israeli cooks making sandwiches in front of customers’ eyes to hold the Tahini, to put more Tahini on and asking if it was kosher. Earlier, parachutists from the Golden Stars Skydiving Team flew in toward the main stage, turning festivalgoers’ heads skyward. The banging of bongos and tambourines came across the field from a drum circle.

Calabasas mother Sharona Jacobs, who attended with her 15-year-old daughter Avia and her daughter’s friend, Andrea, was waiting in the lengthy line for falafels. Originally from Israel, Jacobs has been in Los Angeles with her family for 10 years, and she and her daughter have attended six Israeli Independence Day festivals. She was tired of waiting in line for food, but she was also happy with the literature from the StandWithUs tent that she’d picked up, which will be informative for her daughter who attends Calabasas High, she said, and with the old Judaica that she’d browsed at NCJW’s thrift-store tent. For Jacobs, the positives of the festival outweighed the negatives.

“Every year, we’re going to come to the festival, regardless of the lines and the cutting, because it’s worth it,” she said.

“This place is literally like Israel, and Israeli is my favorite place,” her daughter, Avia, said. “And this is like the biggest place I’ve ever seen with just Israelis, and that’s amazing.”

Guess who’s bringing the Israel Festival back?

One adult ticket to this Sunday’s newly relaunched Celebrate Israel Festival in Rancho Park (purchased online in advance): $15.

Transforming the Cheviot Hills Recreation Center for the Israel-themed blowout party, the biggest of its kind in the United States: $800,000 and counting.

The possibility that thousands of Israeli-Americans and American Jews will come to this park near Century City and not only eat falafel, dance to Israeli pop songs and ride the Ferris wheel but also leave with a renewed appreciation for Israel and a feeling of connectedness to Jewish Los Angeles:  Priceless, according to Naty Saidoff.

Saidoff, an Israeli Leadership Council (ILC) board member, and his wife, Debbie, and other leaders and staff from the ILC — all of them Israeli-Americans — have donated their own money to the effort and have been working day and night lately to make sure that every aspect of the festival is ready. “I knew it had to happen,” he said. “And I knew it had to happen on the Westside.”

Saidoff and the ILC board are trying to make up for last year’s embarrassment, when Los Angeles’ annual Israel Independence Day Festival was canceled at the last minute. It had been a mostly volunteer-driven event and had been taking place in different locations for the better part of the previous two decades, in recent years in Woodley Park in the San Fernando Valley.

“Los Angeles was the only big city in the country — maybe the world — where, despite having great Jewish organizations, people were not able to get their act together to have something for Israel,” Saidoff said of the 2011 debacle.

The ILC had given money to support the 2008 festival, when Israel marked its 60th birthday, but after the Israel Independence Day Festival’s cancellation in 2011 — due primarily to financial difficulties, first and foremost, but also to strained relations between the organizers and the major Jewish organizations that had previously acted as the festival’s co-sponsors — Saidoff and his fellow board members decided in December 2011 to take it upon themselves to organize an entirely new festival in a new location.

“People from the city, they don’t go to the Valley,” Saidoff said, explaining why he insisted on locating the relaunched Celebrate Israel festival on the Westside. Part of the ILC’s mission is to strengthen connections between the Israeli-American and American Jewish communities in Los Angeles that otherwise interact only very occasionally.

Unlike Woodley Park, the Cheviot Hills Recreation Center is not well served by public transportation, so bringing thousands of Israeli-Americans and Jews to the recreation center that sits on the northern edge of the leafy Rancho Park neighborhood will involve some significant logistical challenges.

The ILC has secured more than 10,000 privately owned parking spaces, hired buses to run continuous shuttle service from lots in Century City to the park and back, and had to garner support for the event from the local neighborhood council, a group not known for welcoming large events into the large park in its backyard.

“They knew that we were for real,” Saidoff said, explaining why the Westside Neighborhood Council, which initially expressed “concern” about the possibility of “neighborhood intrusion” on the day of the festival, ultimately voted 11-1 in favor of the festival. “They knew that we had something good.”

Even had they wanted to stop the event from taking over the park, it’s not clear that the neighborhood group could have done so. The ILC leaders have powerful voices in city government to speak on their behalf, including City Councilman Paul Koretz, whose district includes the recreation center, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“The mayor is very instrumental in making sure this festival is happening,” ILC board member Shawn Evenhaim said in February. Evenhaim, who helped found the group in 2007, was named the group’s chairman at the end of March.

“He was at my house for Rosh Hashanah,” Evenhaim said of Villaraigosa. “That’s when I spoke to him and said we want to do a festival.”

Even with the support of high-placed officials, the ILC leaders — and Saidoff in particular — appear to have acted in a gutsy way to get the festival launched as quickly as they have.

“We had already signed the contracts, and there were hundreds of thousands of dollars that had already been spent, and we never had the permits,” Saidoff said in mid-April, just after the various city agencies actually signed off on the permits for the event. “We didn’t have the luxury of time. We started working on it right before Christmas, and normally it would take two years to put something like this together.”

Saidoff, who runs a commercial real estate holding company, is used to taking on projects where the outcome is uncertain. “They call it venture capital because it is an adventure,” he said.

The soul of Monique Benabou

Monique Benabou might be a guy’s ideal woman. The 23-year-old former contestant on NBC-TV’s reality singing competition show, “The Voice,” handpicked by pop star Christina Aguilera, is beautiful and equipped with soulful pipes, along with being adventurous, compassionate and proud of being Jewish.

Her big moment, featured on the second season of “The Voice” this year, came when she sang Kelly Clarkson’s “Mr. Know It All” during the show’s blind-audition round: Production cuts cycled back and forth between her belting out lyrics like a diva, her nervous parents watching backstage with host Carson Daly, and close-ups of Aguilera — the show’s only female judge and a vocal star herself — itching to press the button that would signal she wanted Benabou to join her team.

You could do something with her,” country artist and judge Blake Shelton whispered to Ag-
uilera, prompting the pop queen to finally hit her button.

In the next round, paired head-to-head against the show’s favorite, operatically trained Chris Mann, Benabou was eliminated from the competition. She says she learned from the experience, however briefly, especially from being coached by Aguilera, and she will apply what she’s learned when she’s one of the headliners at Sunday’s Israel Festival at Rancho Park.

Born in Oakland, Calif., in 1988, Benabou stayed home from school when she was 12 to take care of her mother, who’d been diagnosed with cancer and survived the disease. During her junior year of high school, tired of being bullied due to the color of her skin — she’s a mix of Moroccan and Israeli descent and stuck out on the mostly white campus — she dropped out of school to pursue her love of singing. While living in the Bay Area, she auditioned for “American Idol” twice, at 16 and 20, but both times failed to advance beyond the first audition. Four years ago, she moved to Los Angeles and performed at open-mics and bars in Ventura County and West Hollywood, often playing in a cover band, before auditioning for “The Voice.”

Benabou talks to The Jewish Journal about how she went from teaching Hebrew school to performing in front of millions of people on national television, why participating in “The Voice” is worthwhile even though it can be painful, her teen challenges and what to expect from her first album, tentatively titled “Ride the Wave,” a collection of six songs she plans to release digitally and without a record label in July.

Jewish Journal: Describe your connection with Israel.
Monique Benabou: I feel better when I’m in Israel. Something about the land, the air, the culture, the way of life, it hits so much closer to home, it just makes me feel that’s where I’m supposed to be. I have family in Tel Aviv, in Herzliya, in Jerusalem, in Sderot.

JJ: In Sderot? Where the Katusha rockets are falling from Gaza?
MB: That’s where most of my family is, actually. Luckily, thankfully, no one in my family has died from the bombs there. The bombings, it’s scary. It’s definitely like when we hear something on the news we’re holding our breath and calling everyone and making sure we’re all accounted for. It’s so nerve-wracking, and all we can do is pray and go about our lives and not live our lives in fear because of the unfortunate circumstances that are there.

JJ: How much family do you have in Sderot?
MB: A couple hundred [relatives]. We’re Israelis; we procreate. I have cousins, two aunts and uncles that live there, and they each have about 13 children, and their children have children at this point.

JJ: Tell us about your upcoming album.
MB: I’m very, very excited. I want it to be such a well-rounded album that is commercially viable, that sells some records but still maintains the artistry of songwriting and my vocal ability. 

JJ: We hear so much about the hopeless state of the music industry today. How do you find encouragement in the face of that?
MB: It is a cutthroat business. There are so many ‘nos’ you have to get through. Even when you do get your break, there’s still ‘nos’ ahead. You have to keep working hard.

JJ: Does a show like ‘The Voice’ help or hurt an artist’s chances of succeeding in the industry?
MB: ‘The Voice’ is a great opportunity on many levels. You learn so much, but you also emotionally go through this up-and-down roller coaster. Sometimes you’re left pretty empty and pretty drained and not knowing where to pick up the pieces from. That’s personally how I felt afterward. But there are always two sides. ‘The Voice’ definitely gave me the most realistic glimpse of what the industry is like.

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JJ: What are your goals outside of music?
MB: Are you familiar with the term tikkun olam? That is my No. 1 thing that I promote, and it’s very important to me. I’m really supportive of the anti-bullying foundations that are starting to come up. I want to help our youth understand that bullying is not OK and it’s not cool.

JJ: Has bullying personally affected you?
MB: I grew up in a predominantly suburban area, and I was a poor kid out of all the rich kids. The school I went to was predominantly white and Asian. From being beat up every day, from not being able to keep friends because they would get made fun of if they befriended me, I had a conversation with myself one day and said, ‘I want to sing, no matter what; this is what I want to do.’ I dropped out my junior year, took my GED, and I enrolled in a junior college.

JJ: So, that was the moment when you decided that a music career is what you wanted out of life?
MB: I’ve always kind of known. Since I was 3, that’s all I did was sing.

JJ: What motivated you to audition for ‘The Voice’?
MB: It took my cousin pushing me. I thought about auditioning prior to my cousin telling me to do so, but there was that phobia of dealing with the rejection. I didn’t want to do it — because I had such a bad experience on ‘Idol,’ I thought ‘The Voice’ was going to be the same thing, but it wasn’t. It was actually quite the opposite.

JJ: What was it like working with Aguilera?
MB: Going onto Christina’s team, it was an amazing experience working with her. She is so filled with knowledge, and she knows herself, she knows the stage and that specifically is [what she worked on] with me, on my confidence and stage presence and stage performance. I’m very excited for the Israel Festival, because I get to showcase everything I learned from Christina.

JJ: What was your thought process the day of your elimination, before and after you were eliminated?
MB: I was convincing myself that I was going to win, even though I knew I was going home.

JJ: How did you know?
MB: Because I didn’t see from a business standpoint, from a television standpoint, and from a marketing and record level standpoint, I did not see [Chris Mann] leaving. He’s very talented, and he’s one-of-a-kind on the show.

I said, ‘F it, I’m going out there to perform for myself, for my family, to make myself proud and give the performance of my life, because, at the end of the day, this will be televised.’ I felt like I took it, but that’s not how the cookie crumbled, and I’m grateful for the experience.

JJ: The bio segment of the show revealed that your mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when you were 12 years old, and that you took care of her. What was it like to have that exposed to the world?
MB: For all that to come out was a little unnerving, but I am a pretty open book.

JJ: Were you able to have a bat mitzvah at the age of 12, or was life too crazy at the time, given your mom’s sickness?
MB: I did not have a bat mitzvah. My parents are Sephardic, and how they grew up is that the boys are getting bar mitzvahs and the girls not really.

JJ: How do you go about writing songs?
MB: Lyrically, I’m writing the songs, and then I have co-writers who accompany me either on piano or guitar and put a supporting instrumental or melody behind it or help me create that vocal melody behind it. I cannot read music — I’ve learned what I’ve learned from working with musicians. Thank God I have a natural ear and good music intuition.

JJ: Where do you record your music?
MB: Right down from Simi Valley, there’s a home studio where I had an internship for the last three years. It’s called Rock City Studios, and it’s in Camarillo. The man who owns it, Dan Peyton, has also been my mentor for the last three years. He took me under his wing, taught me about songwriting and the industry, helped me find my voice. I went from laying vocals down over beats to working with live musicians. It was a completely different feel, and I loved it.

JJ: Without the support of a record label, how are you financing the creation of the album?
MB: My parents are helping me out a great deal, and Dan doesn’t charge me for recording as of right now. I’m also in the process of working on a promo and putting it on [crowd-funding site] Kickstarter. Hopefully anyone who believes in the project will be able to help us out and help us raise money to put out a great album.

JJ: What can we expect from your upcoming performance at the Israel Festival?
MB: Put smiles on faces and further my place in the Jewish community.

Benabou performs on Sunday, April 29, at the Celebrate Israel Festival, which commemorates Israel’s 64th Independence Day. For additional information and to purchase tickets, visit

Letters to the Editor: Israel Festival, Etta Israel, Dominique Strauss-Kahn

Israel Independence Day Fest Is Loved, Missed by Many

I was very moved and touched by Rob Eshman’s editorial last week (“I Miss Us,” May 13). I was born and raised in Los Angeles and, other than my years in Israel or New York, I spent every single Yom HaAtzmaut at a community Israel festival. Whether it was the 18K Walk for Life we had throughout the ’70s, culminating in a festival in Rancho Park, or Pan Pacific Park, or, more recently, Woodley Park, the festival is something that is a built-in part of my community identity as a Jew. I, too, loved to complain about the food, and I was always most anxious to go around to each booth and strike up a debate on an issue. I remember going to the JDL booth, and then to the Peace Now booth, and would love playing the “other side,” because the whole day felt like a living page of talmudic debates.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Director, Sephardic Educational Center

Rob Eshman is right — the absence of the festival is a great loss to the greater L.A. Jewish community and a reflection of a fracturing of our communal leadership. The Federation, the Israel Leadership Council and Yoram Gutman will, hopefully, get their act together (and maybe reach out to some other potential supporters) so we can gather at Woodley or some other appropriate venue next year. It’s a bit of a shandah that Irvine and Santa Barbara can put on impressive Yom HaAtzmaut parties while L.A. drops the ball.

Rabbi Gil Kollin
via e-mail

Sad about the festival at Woodley Park — so come up to Santa Barbara’s Oak Park and celebrate with us!

Judy Mannaberg-Goldman
Santa Barbara

For more on the Israel Independence Day Festival cancellation, click here.

Etta Israel Faces Financial Challenges

The article you published regarding Etta Israel group homes and what an important addition they are to the Jewish mosaic that is Los Angeles was so appreciated by all of us who are involved with this important organization (“Etta Israel Expands Programs,” April 22).

Although the article implied that we are expanding and growing, the sad fact is that the expense of caring for 18 adults with differing mental challenges is expensive. Monies from the State of California have been reduced every year since 2008 while contributions from concerned members of the Jewish community continue to go down. Even though we have a fourth home donated, we lack the funds to open it. We are struggling to keep the homes we have as we brace for another round of funding cutbacks from the state.

Etta Israel’s residents come from Orthodox, Chasidic, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated homes — they are a microcosm of klal Yisra’el [“oneness of Israel”]. I know of no other organization that serves all members of the Jewish community under one roof, figuratively and actually.

Tikkum olam, “repairing the world,” begins at home with our most vulnerable members. Our special-needs Jewish community members need help from all California Jews. All contributions are needed. If every person who reads this article could give just $18, we could continue our present homes and open the fourth.

Tikkum olam begins with one small action. I pray your readers recognize the need and contribute generously to Etta Israel group homes so we can grow and provide more homes for our most vulnerable citizens.

David Mayer
Board member, Etta Israel

Partnership Helps Further Day-School Project Goals

With interest and appreciation I read the Journal article reporting on progress toward a “first phase” day school endowment goal of $100 million and highlighting the role of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education in this initiative (“Tuition Grants, Endowments to Benefit Day Schools,” May 13). 

Any communal project of such magnitude cannot be achieved without the partnership and collaboration of many people who share a vision and work to realize it. The Jewish Federation shared in setting the $100 million initial endowment goal and has provided annual support toward funding BJE’s work to strengthen day schools. In addition, PEJE: Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education is playing a major role in the Leadership and Fundraising Academy, referenced in the Journal article as well as in the “Generations” endowment project.

It is through partnership with such institutions and with individual donors that important communal goals can be realized, and BJE is deeply appreciative of the contributions of each of its program and funding partners. Many thanks to Julie Gruenbaum Fax and The Jewish Journal for covering an important milestone in communal progress toward day school endowment development.

Gil Graff
Executive director, BJE: Builders of Jewish Education

Jews and Sexual Assault

Rob Eshman’s casually analytical blog on whether it matters that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is Jewish is a borderline apologetic comment on a gravely serious allegation, in particular coming as it does on the heels of the conviction for rape and sexual assault of Moshe Katsav, the former president of Israel (“Dominique Strauss-Kahn Is Jewish. So?,” Bloggish, May 15). Strauss-Kahn is, of course, entitled to his presumption of innocence, but both cases point to a base and brutal imposition of power and position.

Hopefully, as Jews, we are more than “embarrassed or appalled” at these circumstances, and, hopefully, this is seen as something more than a run-of-the-mill “scandal.” If we are mandated to be “a light unto the nations,” certainly it has to begin with behavior that is morally aboveboard. Yes, Jews are human and we have our criminals; we even kvell over our beloved gangsters – Lansky, Siegel, Cohen – but while any one of us might know someone who cheats on his taxes, doesn’t keep his rental property up to code or over-bills Medicare, it’s God-willing precious few of us who keep company with rapists.

This has nothing to do with what neo-Nazis or radical Islamists think. It has everything to do with how we think of ourselves, and if we’re not prepared to denounce this behavior in the strongest possible terms, we put our very birthright at risk.

Mitch Paradise
Los Angeles

More Than Apologies Are in Order

The Brooklyn-based Der Zeitung owes more than apologies to the White House for its “digital removal” of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Audrey Tomason from the situation room photo of U.S. officials watching the raid on bin Laden (”Chasidic Paper Apologizes for Cutting Hillary Clinton From Photo,” May 13). Such revisionist media manipulation requires apologies to the two women. The editorial staff of Der Zeitung would do well to offer apologies to their mothers, wives, daughters and to all women in their ancestry whom they continue to “write out of history” using a misguided rationale of “piety.”

Judith Levitt
North Hollywood

School Is in Session Concerning Documentary Film

I am writing with respect to Jason Ablin’s opinion piece (“Waiting for Nowhere,” April 15) in which he offers a baffling review of the documentary “Race to Nowhere,” which I produced and co-directed. In the piece, not only does Mr. Ablin not even attempt to support any of his opinions with fact-based research, he also misinterprets my intention as a filmmaker; misstates the movie’s message; and, perhaps most surprisingly, does not seem to recognize or acknowledge the many areas in which he and I agree.

I set out to make “Race to Nowhere” to better understand the impact of America’s pressure-cooker culture on our children. In so doing, over a period of two years, I spoke at length with hundreds of students, parents, educators and school administrators on myriad topics, such as the benefits and detriments of AP courses; the time spent preparing for, and value placed on, standardized testing; the amount of homework typically assigned, and whether it was purposeful or relevant and supported by research; the over-scheduling of students’ time (including sports, extracurriculars, jobs and community service); the encouragement of resume-building (which prioritizes the appearance of achievement over the true mastery of academic subjects or passions); and the seeming emphasis on rote memorization over actual learning. I spent a significant amount of time with renowned pediatricians, psychologists and clinicians who specialize in adolescent issues, both mental and physical, who explained to me the potentially devastating health consequences of stress-related responses, including sleep deprivation, cutting, eating disorders, binge drinking, performance-enhancing drug (Adderall) abuse, depression and extreme anxiety to the point where a child might simply “give up,” whether that manifests in quitting school or quitting life. I even approached some of our country’s most famous and famously demanding colleges and universities — those that some might argue serve as the “source” of these issues — some of [whose representatives] acknowledged, either on camera (in an interview) or behind the scenes (in tears) their complicit “contribution” to the mess of a situation in which today’s students find themselves.

So while it is true that it was my concern for my child that provided the impetus to create the film, in exploring this issue more deeply, I discovered an epidemic of stressed-out, exhausted and disengaged young people across the country, many of whom are, quite simply, unprepared for college or the workplace. Since its premiere in September 2010, “Race to Nowhere” has been screened in over 1,800 locations across the United States and in more than 20 countries worldwide. The film has proven popular through word-of-mouth because students, parents and educators recognize themselves and their lives in the compelling testimony of those on screen. Unlike “Waiting for Superman,” another documentary on education that Mr.  Ablin clearly prefers, and which received its backing from large corporate donors, “Race to Nowhere” has supported itself via a nationwide grass-roots movement, building a democratic community of concerned citizens who are committed to improving our education system for all students. In order for these improvements to be made, we must change the current performance-based system, which stifles intellectual development, diminishes critical thinking and creativity, and compromises the health of our children.

Incidentally, in voicing his support for “Waiting for Superman,” at the same time that Mr. Ablin inexplicably attacks my parenting skills, he also betrays a real lack of understanding of how the education system is failing our children. Describing “systemic and philosophical problems in the public school system that are a threat to our democracy and, ultimately, to our commitment to human freedom,” he decries how our nation has lost its sense of community, how children are “being molded, designed and programmed,” and yet, in so doing, he is agreeing with a fundamental precept of the message behind “Race to Nowhere.” The mistake Mr. Ablin makes is that he advocates holding parents primarily responsible for this problem, rather than indicting the larger system of enforced accountability designed by politicians and underwritten by businesses.

In my view, the true threat to democracy and human freedom that Mr. Ablin warns about is one he appears to support, the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act — a top-down education regime imposed by legislative mandate, where the curriculum is governed by state-approved standardized testing, and educators fear that their funding will be pulled or their schools shuttered if student test scores are not up to par. Perhaps in a follow-up piece, Mr. Ablin can explain how students can “free their minds from the possible tyranny of others” under such a system. I know I’d be interested in reading it, as, I suspect, would countless others.

In sum, I agree with Mr. Ablin that parents and teachers both need to do a better job at helping children understand why they are learning and what their larger purpose is, but as the 500,000+ students, parents, educators and administrators who have seen “Race to Nowhere” and continue to support its message can attest: This cannot be accomplished in a system where teachers are forced to teach to the test, where curriculum is stripped down or eliminated in order to ensure funding, where children are hurting themselves (deliberately or not) for fear of not “measuring up.” This can only be accomplished by students, parents and teachers banding together, taking a stand and making changes, large and small, in our homes and in our schools, changes that will foster creativity and promote education as the path to personal evolution.

By taking these positive steps, and modeling responsibility to one’s community and to the world at large, we will at last succeed in “raising” the kind of children of which Mr. Ablin can be proud.

Vicki H. Abeles
via e-mail

Can L.A. support an Israel Festival?

This year, for the first time in decades, Israel Independence Day came and went without a major public celebration in Los Angeles, and local Jewish leaders are vowing that won’t happen again.

“We are completely committed to having a communitywide celebration for Israel’s Independence Day,” said Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater of Los Angeles. “We need to create something that is really a community event, something people X off on their calendars and look forward to and talk about afterward.”

Just two weeks before the planned May 15 event, organizers canceled the annual Israel Festival in Woodley Park, citing financial troubles.

“We’ve gotten a lot of phone calls from people who are upset and amazed that we had to cancel this year,” said Yoram Gutman, executive director of the Israel Independence Day Festival.

In Los Angeles, the Jewish community has celebrated Israel’s birthday with a festival since the early 1970s. For the last 18 years, the festival has been run by an independent nonprofit, known as the Israel Independence Day Festival, with some financial support from the Jewish Federation. But over the last five years, attendance at the festival has been dwindling, along with revenue and support from the broader community.

Last year’s festival left the organization with a debt of $45,000 after the city unexpectedly charged fees for previously waived expenses for traffic diversion and fire and police services. The 2010 festival cost $175,000 to produce, even before the city tacked on $43,000. So this year, after learning that The Jewish Federation declined to renew the $20,000 of support it traditionally has given, organizers determined they could not go forward with the festival.

The festival’s viability should not have been so dependent on one sponsor, Sanderson said.

“The fact that we stopped sponsoring was not the only contributor to the festival not continuing,” Sanderson said. “Their financial issues went beyond our support.”

Paid attendance at the Israel Festival shrank from 17,000 in 2006 to less than 9,000 in 2010, according to Gutman. Even the 2008 celebration for Israel’s 60th, which cost $346,000 to produce, saw a drop to 12,000 paid attendees (Gutman said an additional 2,000 vendors, entertainers and volunteers usually attend free of charge). There were fewer booths last year than any previous year – 138, compared to 204 in 2007 — but the entrance fee rose from $5 to $8.

Sanderson said the decision not to contribute came as Federation moves away from a model where it gives a little money to everyone and is instead refocusing its resources. 

“The Jewish Federation is no longer in the sponsorship business. We don’t feel that is the best way to use our donors’ money,” Sanderson said. “We are in the business of building collaboration and partnership.”

Sanderson said Federation is interested in working with other organizations to produce an Israel festival that is more impactful, broad based and appealing than the current festival.

“The Israel Festival certainly attracted a large number of people, but as the years went on, the geographic diversity was lacking,” Sanderson said, with the Valley population and the Orthodox and Israeli communities overrepresented, in Federation’s view.

He also didn’t see buy-in from other Jewish and Israel-oriented organizations, which despite sponsoring booths at the event, were not involved in its conceptualization or planning.

Shoham Nicolet, executive director of the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC), agrees with Sanderson’s assessment. ILC sponsored the Israel Festival in 2008 to celebrate Israel’s 60th birthday but since then has not been involved with the festival.

“The needs of the community change, and the focus changes, and you cannot assume that you can do the same thing again and again and get the same results,” Nicolet said. “You always need to be very sensitive and listen to what the community wants.”

He said he would like to see broader involvement in shaping the festival.

“It cannot be a small group of people deciding. If it’s a community event, it should belong to the community, and the community should feel ownership and feel they are a part of it,” he said.

The Israel Festival has a board of 12 members, and an additional 15 to 20 people who plan the festival, most of them Israeli.

While the Israeli Consulate takes a large booth at the festival, it focuses its resources on creating its own invitation-only Yom HaAtzmaut celebration for the international diplomatic corps and top civic leaders, according to Jacob Dayan, the consul general in Los Angeles.

Sanderson, in collaboration with ILC, has pinned Federation’s focus on reviving the Israel Walk Festival, which through the 1970s and ’80s drew thousands of Angelenos for an 18K walk-a-thon starting in the Beverly-Fairfax area and ending in a day-long festival at Rancho Park in Cheviot Hills. Federation sponsored the walk-a-thon and ran it through its youth department; at the time, chairing the festival was considered a top leadership post, according to Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.

In 1985, the Los Angeles Times reported that 5,000 people joined the walk. While in 1986 that number was down to 1,000, as many as 50,000 people attended the festival at Rancho Park that year, according to the L.A. Times.

“For that generation of us who grew up in Los Angeles, the Israel Walk Festival was a significant identity-forming event,” Sass said. “You saw all your friends there, and there was folk dancing, and this public celebration of being Jewish and connecting with Israel.”

When Federation downsized in the early 1990s, the festival — which had already dropped the walk portion of the event — went through a transition period before landing with a group of Israelis that had begun a community Yom HaAtzmaut celebration in the late 1980s. That group became the Israel Independence Day Festival, and, in 1995, it hired Gutman to produce the event. Gutman was paid $38,500 in 2008, but he says he has not taken any salary since November 2009, because the organization still owes money to vendors. He spends around 70 percent of his time on the festival and also runs a business that sells agricultural irrigation products.

The festival moved to Woodley Park in 2001, and in 2002 started charging admission. This year, admission would have been as high as $15 a person to cover costs, Gutman said.

That fee hike would have come despite downsizing the event.

Organizers already had cut the budget from $175,000 to $101,000 for the planned 2011 festival, eliminating features like the skydivers, who for the last several years evoked images of Israeli paratroopers when they landed in the festival. Organizers also had opted not to close off Woodley Avenue, and for the past three years had used local talent rather than shipping in marquee entertainers from Israel, which had been a draw for Israeli Angelenos in the past.

Gutman says he is already beginning to plan for a fully revitalized festival on April 29, 2012. But what isn’t clear is whether that festival will be in collaboration or in competition with a revived Israel Walk Festival, which has not yet been calendared.

“If [Gutman] is interested in being part of a larger operation that involves lots of organizations and, hopefully, synagogues in the community, we would love to have him be involved. If he’s interested in doing his own thing, that is not going to work,” Sanderson said.

Gutman said he would be open to conversation.

Whether the community is up for a walk festival, given the fraught climate surrounding Israel, is another question.

“What is unfortunate is that at a time when Israel needs its friends and allies to be standing tall with it, and at a time when the community itself doesn’t have a lot of opportunities to get together, we lost the festival,” Sass said. But, he added, reviving the walk may be tricky.

“In those days, in the ’70s and ’80s, things were much more uncomplicated, there was much greater unanimity about supporting Israel, and I think that also plays a part,” Sass said.

Sanderson believes a large show of support is essential.

“Given where everything is and given what is going on in terms of support for Israel, there has never been a more important time to do a big, communitywide event,” Sanderson said.

Annual Israel festival at Woodley Park canceled

Los Angeles Israeli Film Festival put focus on social justice — and secrets

Critics and audiences alike can try to search for a political message in the 23rd Israeli Film Festival’s premiere films.

It’s not easy being apolitical when it comes to Israeli films — films that foreign audiences often view through the prism of the Israel-Palestinian/Middle East crises and hopes for the future.

Take the “The Band’s Visit,” Eran Kolirin’s poignant and humorous feature about an Egyptian police orchestra that gets lost in a small Israeli town. Although the film portrays Egyptians and Israelis, Jews and Muslims, the story is more about cultural understanding, love and friendship than any high-falutin’ political statement.

But New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis insists on putting “The Band’s Visit” into the context of a political landscape.

Trailer: ‘The Band’s Visit’

“Mr. Kolirin also seems to be saying that a specific loneliness haunts Israel as well,” she wrote in a Dec. 7 review. “Surrounded by desert, a few longingly invoke the sea, summoning a desire, but for what? Mr. Kolirin, I think, suggests that this longing is for something the poet Marcia Falk calls the ‘Eternal wellspring of peace.'”

But they won’t find a political message in “The Secrets,” which premieres opening night, June 12, or in the spotlight premiere screening of “Noodle” on June 14.

That’s because neither film deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the crisis in the Middle East or military life and its consequences, as many movies have in the past.

“The Secrets” is a tale of two rebellious ultra-Orthodox girls who befriend each other at a yeshiva seminary in Safed and try to help a woman using kabbalistic remedies. “Noodle” is about a Tel Aviv flight attendant who must deal with a young Chinese boy after his mother, her cleaning lady, is deported from Israel.

Religious themes? Yes. Social themes? Maybe. Political? Not at all.

The two films are part of Israel’s growing trend toward smaller, character-driven films that cast Israel in a far different light from what one we might expect from watching CNN or reading the newspaper.

“If you make a movie about ‘the situation,’ which is bigger than anything else, you might as well write an essay in a newspaper,” said Avi Nesher, director and co-writer of “The Secrets.”

“People are no longer compelled to make a movie about this one subject; I think it’s a maturing of the country and the culture,” he said.

This trend might be one of the reasons behind the startling fact that Israelis, for the first time, went to see their own local movies more than American imports. For the second time in 20 years, Israeli films hit the $1 million mark at the local box office with five films: “The Band’s Visit,” “Noodle,” “The Secrets,” “Jellyfish” and “Beaufort,” Joseph Cedar’s Oscar-nominated film about the Lebanon withdrawal, the only one with a war theme.

“Israel is about many things, and if you stick to one subject, you trivialize it,” Nesher said.

Nesher, 53, knows from politically themed films. His first, at age 23, was “HaLahaka,” which has since become a cult classic, about an Israeli-type USO troupe entertaining soldiers after the 1967 war. It was actually another of his political films, “Oriental,” a 2004 documentary about the failure of the peace process, that got him thinking about what would later become the apolitical “Secrets.”

“The more you talk to people, the more you see that there is this whole agenda: women’s rights,” Nesher noticed after interviewing Israelis and Palestinians for “Oriental.” There is a “revolution” for women’s rights all over the Middle East, he said. “That’s one of the main themes, as far as I’m concerned.”

To call a driving theme of “The Secrets” women’s rights is somewhat surprising.

This Week – Two Sundays

I left The Jewish Journal’s booth at last Sunday’s Israel Festival just before a loyal reader came up and asked whether I was around because he wanted, “to clean an editor’s clock.”

By then I was making my way back to my car through the throng at Woodley Park, and as I did, the same two thoughts I have every year occurred to me again: Wow, what a crowd, I marvel at first, and then: Who are these people?

A couple of middle-aged men strode in through the security checkpoint, wearing full-fledged, ill-fitting Israeli army uniforms, which reminded me that criminologists most often profile mass murderers as middle-aged white males in ill-fitting army fatigues. I passed by the Kabbalah Centre’s booth. As usual a constant crowd hovered in front of it, signing up for red string bracelets and a free book.

The Israeli paper Shavua Yisraeli had a large booth; the other Israeli weekly, Shalom LA, was nowhere to be seen.

“They’re boycotting the festival this year,” an Israeli familiar with the turf war told me, her voice dry and sarcastic. “The publishers didn’t feel the festival organizers were treating them with the respect according to their stature.” (The folks at Shalom LA had no comment.)

It was interesting who had a presence and who didn’t. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, arguably the highest profile Jewish organization in town, didn’t show up — does any Jew not know where to find them? But I do think I saw the center’s associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, walking purposefully about, sporting the only dark grey suit and tie in the park.

The crowd grew and changed by the hour. First come the hardcore lovers of Israel, eager to spend a whole day hearing Hebrew songs from the bandstand, complaining about the $6 falafels they were devouring and gossiping with friends from the Altneuland under the shade trees. But even an hour or two after the 10 a.m. opening, security personnel and L.A.P.D. anti-terrorism units seemed to outnumber visitors.

By 1 p.m. the “streets,” which are rows of booths representing Jewish organizations or businesses, filled up. The crowd was largely Israeli, with a solid representation of families with very young children, Persian Jews and the Orthodox. The Israeli community started the festival in honor of their country, and this year The Jewish Federation partnered to expand the day’s reach. But the locus of the event is still 7,500 miles east.

I go to events, banquets, synagogues and meetings all year, but few people at the festival were familiar faces, other than the regulars I see there each year: the gaunt, black-frocked man who wants me to wrap phylacteries; the pleasant folks at the Americans for Peace Now booth enduring waves of verbal abuse; the officials, like Consul General Ehud Danoch or City Counciman Jack Weiss, towing their kids about.

There were new faces, too: a striking young Israeli woman hawking T-shirts in whose simple white logo “JERUSALEM” the letters “USA” appearing in red, white and blue; roving bunches of youthful Israeli scouts eating the ripe slices of watermelon they came to sell; a middle-aged man with hand-made signs promoting a Jewish sperm bank and some eager entrepreneurs shilling for a Web site called

By late afternoon, when the main acts began to take the stage, the streets of this mini-Israel were packed with young Israelis who had come to hear a nearly free concert by Mashina, which for Israelis of a certain generation is like American Gen X-ers hearing Green Day for $5.

If some 40,000 Jews, according to police estimates, were at Woodley Park, several thousand more were scattered about the city participating in Big Sunday. Begun under the auspices of Temple Israel of Hollywood, the day of social action and giving back has grown to encompass 25,000 Angelenos of all faiths, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who brought the city bureaucracy on board.

The Israel Festival and Big Sunday would be the two largest Jewish communitywide events on the community calendar — if there were one community and if it kept a calendar. This is the second year the events landed on the same Sunday, guaranteeing that most people, if they were to attend either, would choose one or the other. As the saying goes, there’s only so much herring one Jew can eat. (The exception, of course, was Villaraigosa, who spoke at the Israel Festival after building benches in MacArthur Park with Big Sunday volunteers. There’s no truth to the rumors that he then raced home to shower, daven mincha and conduct a bris.)

I used to think it foolish to double up on the day, that picking one day out of 365 to have two huge events — whose success depends on a large Jewish turnout — seemed like asking for failure. But I’ve come to see the logic. The Israel Festival celebrates tribal Judaism — inward, self-celebratory, content in its own rituals, foods and certainties — a bit odd to outsiders. Big Sunday celebrates universal Judaism, the word going forth from Zion, feeding the hungry and nurturing the sick — welcoming to all. One speaks to our shared past and joined destiny, the other to our higher purpose, our common mission. Our identities commute between these concepts — from the Universal Jew to the Particular Jew, the Man Engaged vs. the Jew Apart.

Last Sunday, we saw they can, they must, co-exist. Yes it takes a village to raise a child. But it takes a tribe to sustain a village.


Kids Page

Israel Is 57!

Normally Israel’s birthday is celebrated on the 5th of Iyar, but since it falls on Shabbat this year, the celebration day was moved to the 3rd of Iyar (Thursday, May 12).

In Los Angeles, our Israel Festival is on May 15 at Woodley Park in Van Nuys.


Israel Is…

I asked the second-graders at Pressman Academy in Los Angeles what they think of when I say the word “Israel.” Here is what Alexa, Noam, Maor, Aaron, Josh, David, Rachel and Jacob said:

“Israel is the land of freedom, an ancient land, the land of milk and honey, the land of the Jewish people, a land of happiness, and the Land of God”


Wagner Soap Opera

It was meant to be the "not Wagner" concert: Daniel Barenboim, the pride of Israeli music-lovers, conducting his Berlin orchestra, the Staatskapelle, on the last night of this year’s Israel Festival. Little did we know.

The festival had originally announced that the orchestra would appear with Placido Domingo and play extracts from "Die Walkurie." The very idea was denounced by Holocaust survivors and other Israelis who have not forgiven Wagner, known as Hitler’s favorite composer, for being a notorious (and well-documented) Jew-hater.

Israeli MPs beseeched the festival organizers to think again; so did Minister of Culture Matan Vilnai. He didn’t want to limit artistic freedom, you understand, but this was, after all, the Israel Festival, a state occasion. Barenboim, who launched his musical career as a child prodigy in Tel Aviv, got the message. Under protest, he agreed to change the program.

So, on Saturday night in the Jerusalem International Convention Center, 2,000 of us sat down to a rich, disciplined performance of Schumann’s "Fourth Symphony" by one of the world’s great orchestras, followed by an exuberant concert version of Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring." When the Diaghilev ballet premiered the "Rite" in Paris in 1914, the audience went wild, some in anger, some in frenzy. The unshockable Israelis took it in their collective stride.

The drama came later. It was planned and choreographed. Barenboim, who has been trying to break the unofficial Israeli taboo on Wagner for years, manipulated the audience the way he manipulates an orchestra. He knew exactly what he wanted. He worked, subtly but firmly, to achieve it.

Israeli concertgoers expect encores. Barenboim gave us one, Tchaikovsky’s "Waltz of the Flowers." It was familiar and soothing after the pagan brass and percussion of the Stravinsky. We were relaxed, enjoying ourselves, and ready for more.

Then, after the applause died down, Barenboim turned to the audience. Speaking quietly, in Hebrew, without a microphone, he said he was talking to us man-to-man (and -woman). He reminded us why he had canceled the Wagner. But now, he went on, the official concert was over. If we really wanted to hear Wagner, they would play it as his "personal encore." Nothing to do with the festival, nothing to do with the orchestra. If not, the musicians would pack up and go home without a fuss.

The vast majority of the audience applauded enthusiastically. Yes, please, maestro. A handful walked out, perhaps in silent protest, perhaps because they had to relieve the baby-sitter (it was after 11). Half a dozen objected. "It’s a disgrace!" the widow of an eminent rabbi shouted. "It’s the music of the concentration camps!" an elderly man bellowed. Others yelled back: "If you don’t want to hear it, go home! You’ve had your money’s worth."

The dialogue continued for half an hour. Barenboim never raised his voice. At one point, the conductor invited a persistent heckler to come onstage and "discuss this like cultured people." The man, 40-something in a white shirt and small black kippah, declined and went on shouting. Another protested in English. "Shut up," someone retorted.

One man did go forward, faced the audience and said: "I was against playing Wagner in the festival, but now I’ve heard the maestro, and I understand that he’s talking about playing outside the state event. Now I’m in favor." More applause.

A man sitting in front of me took out his mobile phone, and I heard him say, "You’d better send a crew straight away." I thought he was a television executive, but he turned out to be an off-duty police superintendent. "I told them to send reinforcements, in case hooligans attack him," he told me later. Happily, it wasn’t necessary.

Finally, Barenboim signaled the orchestra and waited, baton poised, for silence. As they began to play a love song from "Tristan und Isolde," fewer than a dozen objectors walked out, slamming doors and stamping feet.

The rest of us sat enthralled through 10 minutes of wrenching, lyrical tenderness, the antithesis of the Teutonic bombast that turns some Jews (and not only Jews) off Wagner. You could hardly hear anyone breathe, let alone cough.

At the end, the audience gave Barenboim and the Staatskapelle a standing ovation. A middle-aged woman in a long, pastel-pale dress plucked a rose from a window box at the edge of the stage and presented it to the conductor. Barenboim accepted it with tears in his eyes.

This wasn’t the first time Wagner has been played in Israel. A provincial orchestra in Rishon Letzion broke the 50-year barrier a few months ago. But this was Jerusalem, the Israel Festival (disclaimers notwithstanding). It was Daniel Barenboim, a Jewish Israeli cultural icon, and a German ensemble that was the court orchestra of Prussian emperors and East German commissars. Can "The Ring" be far behind?

Up Front

Sister Rose Thering with Monsignor Robert SheeranThe first thing that catches the eye when meeting Sister Rose Thering is the large pendant of a Star of David intertwined with a Cross dangling from her neck.

The pendant is a kind of shorthand for the Dominican nun’s lifework as self-appointed ambassador for the Jews within the Catholic Church, from parish-school classes to the highest Vatican councils.

It all started, the 76-year-old nun told The Jewish Journal, while taking a grade-school Bible class in a small Wisconsin town, where she read that the Jews were condemned to wander the earth.

“Why?” asked the curious youngster. The answer she received: “Because they killed Jesus Christ.”

“I couldn’t accept that, because I knew that God was good,” Sister Rose said. She has been questioning and changing Catholic attitudes toward Jews ever since.

One milestone was her doctoral dissertation at St. Louis University, which unsparingly documented anti-Semitic references in Catholic-school texts.

She presented her findings at a national meeting of Catholic-school superintendents in 1961, and “I was all but tarred and feathered,” she said.

Sister Rose was vindicated a few years later, when her research contributed to the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate declaration, which proved a watershed in redefining Jewish-Catholic relations.

Since then, she has been a tireless advocate for Israel (visiting the country 49 times), Soviet Jews, rescinding the United Nations’ “Zionism is Racism” resolution and, perhaps most importantly, educating teachers in interfaith relations.

It was the latter mission that recently brought her to Los Angeles to promote the Sister Rose Thering Endowment for Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, a 140-year-old Catholic institution in South Orange, N.J.

Seton Hall, where Sister Rose taught for two decades as professor of secondary education, has long been an academic pioneer in interfaith communications.

The endowment enables teachers from public, private and parochial schools to participate in courses and workshops on Catholic-Jewish relations over the centuries, biblical interpretations, and the Holocaust, under the auspices of the Graduate Department of Jewish-Christian Studies.

To encourage support for the endowment fund in Southern California, Sister Rose spoke at a reception at the home of TV producer Alan Neuman and his wife, Robin.

A fellow guest was Monsignor Robert Sheeran, the university’s president.

He noted that about 15 percent of his faculty is Jewish, including an Orthodox rabbi, and the state of New Jersey now mandates Holocaust education in all schools, thanks, to a large extent, to Sister Rose’s lobbying.

At the initiative of Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs, both Sister Rose and Sheeran were lauded — via resolution and in person — by the City Council.

Big Daddies

Like most peoples, Jews come from a long line of fathers. And we take our dads seriously, writing chapter after chapter of Holy Writ about them. You can spend this Father’s Day, June 15, at the Skirball Cultural Center from 2 to 4 p.m., exploring what Jewish texts have to say about fathers — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and you. Joel Lurie Grishaver — cartoonist, author, family educator, storyteller — will lead dads and grandpas (and moms and grandmas too) through biblical stories, art projects, theater and dramatic debates about the meaning of being, or having, a father. The workshop is designed for adults and children aged 7 and up. Register in advance by calling (310) 440-4647. Admission is free with paid museum admission. And Happy Father’s Day. —Robert Eshman, Associate Editor

Sephardic Film Festival

A scene from the Sephardic film “Braids” directed by Yitzhak Halutzi.

Sephardic life, love and suffering in the Old and New worlds will be dramatized at the first annual Los Angeles Sephardic Film Festival, from June 3 to 18, at the Laemmle Music Hall Theatre in Beverly Hills.

The festival, presented by the Sephardic Educational Center, opened on June 3 with Moshe Mizrahi’s “Women,” the beautifully told story of a pious love triangle, set in old Jerusalem a century ago.

Accompanying the feature was a striking documentary, “Island of Roses,” tracking the traditions of Jews from the island of Rhodes to present-day Los Angeles.

The June 9 bill will feature “O Judeu” (The Jew), a Portuguese-Brazilian co-production. The film unsparingly portrays the fate of a popular playwright of Jewish descent burned at the stake by the 18th-century Inquisition.

“Braids,” an Israeli film about a 14-year-old Jewish girl in Iraq, imprisoned for Zionist activities, will be the second presentation.

The final evening, June 18, will explore present-day Sephardic life in Cuba, Rhodes and Morocco through three documentaries.

Mati Franco and Arthur Benveniste chair the festival, which is co-sponsored by the local Israeli Consulate. For information, call (213) 653-7365.

Back to Warsaw

An image from the series “Beyond the Shtetl, 1919- 1939: Jewish Life in Urban Eastern

Europe” which will be held at UCLA

UCLA will continue its exploration of the vibrant Jewish life in pre-Holocaust Europe, on Sunday, June 8, with an afternoon program titled “Beyond the Shtetl, 1919-1939: Jewish Life in Urban Eastern Europe.”

In the program’s first part, starting at 2 p.m., historian Samuel Kassow of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., will speak on “Jewish Warsaw.” Following an intermission, Kassow and Sabell Bender of Yiddishkayt L.A. will discuss “The Yiddish Cultural Renaissance in an Urban Setting.” In the century preceding World War II, “Eastern European Jewish communal life had been transformed,” said Professor David Myers, director of the host UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, in defining the scope of the program. “The once insular shtetl had given way to major new concentrations of Jews in cities which provided an arena for the struggle between tradition and modernity.”

The new urban centers cradled new political and cultural forms, from socialism, Bundism and Zionism to Yiddishism, literary modernism and more.

During the intermission between the two parts of the program, refreshments will be provided, accompanied by Yiddish music.

The event will be held in Korn Hall of the Anderson Graduate School of Management on the UCLA campus. General admission is $7, and $5 for seniors and students. For ticket and parking information, call Yiddishkayt L.A. at (213) 962-1976 or the UCLA center at (310) 794-8522.