September 16, 2019

‘Jojo Rabbit,’ Comedy Set in Nazi Germany, is People’s Choice at Toronto Film Fest

(From L-R): Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) has dinner with his imaginary friend Adolf (Writer/Director Taika Waititi), and his mother, Rosie (Scarlet Johansson). Photo by Kimberley French. 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Could a comedy set in Nazi Germany that casts Adolf Hitler as a buffoonish imaginary friend win an Oscar? “Jojo Rabbit” won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, an honor that usually leads to an Oscar nomination, if not a win. Last year, “Green Book” won both, as did “The King’s Speech,” “12 Years a Slave” and “American Beauty” before it.

Also getting Oscar buzz is TIFF runner-up “Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach’s drama about the disintegration of a relationship. Scarlett Johansson stars in both.

In “Jojo Rabbit,” Johansson plays a German mother who is secretly hiding a Jewish girl in her home. Her young son, indoctrinated to revere the Fuhrer, is shocked when he discovers this and comes to reconsider what he’s been taught. Director Taika Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok”), who is Jewish on his mother’s side and Maori on his father’s, plays Hitler.

The film, based on Christine Leunens’ novel “Caging Skies,” will be released Oct. 18. “Marriage Story” hits theaters on Nov. 6, and streams on Netflix Dec. 6.

A Late Comer to Her Jewish Roots

Every kid who goes to Hebrew school learns the story of the man who came to Shammai and then to Hillel and asked the scholars there to teach him the whole Torah in the time he could stand on one foot. Sarah Hurwitz’s “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There)” (Spiegel & Grau) is the book these two sages might have given him to read, if he came to them today.

Like many kids, Hurwitz had only a token Jewish education as a child. Not much stayed with her, and by the time she went through college and got a job as a speechwriter for former first lady Michelle Obama in the White House, whatever she knew about Judaism was only a dim memory. Then — and who can say why things like this happen — she took an interest in Judaism, making the rounds of rabbis and teachers in the Washington, D.C., area. Hurwitz found out (much to her own surprise) that the Judaism she had sloughed off in her childhood had the power to speak to her soul in adulthood.

This book is intended for fellow and sister students like her who may have learned a bit about Judaism in their childhoods, but who shopped for meaning everywhere else in the world, as she did, before she came back and discovered it in Judaism.

What makes this book effective is that Hurwitz never underestimates the intelligence of her readers or overestimates their knowledge. She carefully explains every Hebrew word and every religious term she uses and never assumes her reader knows or still remembers what these terms mean. At the same time, she explores the most significant concepts within Judaism and compares and contrasts what different teachers have taught her about them.

What makes this book effective is that Hurwitz never underestimates the intelligence of her readers or overestimates their knowledge.

For example, what — or who — do we mean by God? Hurwitz brings Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel together to discuss this question on the same page, even though they have very different answers to offer. She takes terms such as “tikkun olam,” which means one thing in Reform Judaism and something very different in kabbalah, and shows how both these understandings are rich in meaning. She tells us frankly when a teacher turns her off, as well as when a teacher opens new horizons for her. She juxtaposes the understanding of where the Torah comes from that she finds in modern biblical criticism and the understanding of where the Torah comes from that she finds within the tradition — and discovers both these perspectives speak to her.

If there is one fault in this book it is that Hurwitz overquotes. The expression “So and So says …” is in almost every paragraph. After a while, this book begins to sound like an anthology of what the best Jewish teachers believe rather than a personal statement of where Hurwitz stands and what she believes.

But this one flaw is forgivable when you read, for example, about how enchanting Shabbat has become to her — not so much because of the books of Jewish philosophy she has read about it, but from the experience of living the Shabbat for a whole day and sensing how the concept of the sacredness of time comes alive.

Her chapter “Freeing God From ‘His’ Man Shaped Cage in the Sky” is a delight to read for anyone who appreciates good, clean, crisp writing. And it makes the case for a grown-up understanding of the divine cogently and honestly.

Many of the “Introductions to Judaism” we give to students nowadays are pedestrian and boring. To have one written by a writer good enough to write speeches for Michelle Obama and talented enough that you wish she was writing scripts for some of the dull programs we sit through on television, is a pleasure.

You will smile numerous times when you read this book, and you will find yourself taking sides many times between the different understandings of Judaism Hurwitz presents.

And you will wish the man who approached Shammai and Hillel many centuries ago could have been given a book like this to read, instead of being sent away with anger by Shammai and being welcomed with just a single epigram by Hillel.

If you are a person who has either grown up and grown out of Judaism or a person considering joining the Jewish people for whatever reason, I dare you to read this book. If you do, you will find Judaism is not so much a catechism as it is a calendar, and you will learn that asking questions not only is permitted but is an essential part of the program. You will find out there always is another book to read, another experience to have and another perspective to consider. You will find that not only will your understanding of Judaism grow and change as you continue to study, your understanding of yourself also will grow and change.

You will find the idea that we are made in God’s image enlightening you about what it means to be a human being and that it is not just a phrase in the Bible. You will discover that the way Judaism demands we see ourselves as partners with the Divine transforms the way we see ourselves, and not just the way we understand some stories in the Bible. You will find Judaism is averse to dogma, and it insists we ask questions, and it is countercultural — then you will realize we should be, too.


Rabbi Jack Riemer is the author of “Finding God in Unexpected Places” and “The Day I Met Father Isaac in the Supermarket.”

Spiritual Leader Ram Dass Reveals His True Self in ‘Becoming Nobody’

Scene from “Becoming Nobody” Image from YouTube

Jewish filmmakers Jamie Catto and Raghu (Mitchell at birth) Markus do not believe there is anything been-there-done-that about the 88-year-old spiritual leader Ram Dass (“Servant of God”). Born Richard Alpert, a Jew, and at one time a psychology professor/LSD pioneer at Harvard (think Timothy Leary), he ultimately morphed into an iconic New Age/Hindi guru.

His is an amalgam of Eastern and trendy philosophies that include attaining an egoless life — neither defined by past regrets nor future strategies—where only the present deserves to be experienced (celebrated) and lovingkindness/awareness takes precedence over envy, competition and ambition. His first book, “Be Here Now,” recounting his own personal journey on a spiritual path, is a Bible among New Agers and he is viewed as the Granddaddy of the self-help movement.

Director Catto and producer Markus maintain that Ram Dass, who lives on Maui and has suffered a stroke, has greater application today than ever and that their documentary about him, “Becoming Nobody,” couldn’t be timelier. Just check out his presence on social media. He has well over a million followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, not to mention his multi-thousand admirers on such digital outlets as RamDass.com and the Beherenownetwork.com.

The internet plays its role in boosting his audience, the filmmakers concede, but more to the point there’s a new generation of activists on the scene who simultaneously realize they have to clear their own minds and habitual ways of thinking before they can effectively tackle political/cultural issues. 

“Ram Dass is a powerful support for anyone looking to make changes [psychological, moral, emotional, intellectual, cultural or political],” Markus told the Journal in a conference call. “He creates trust. I never met anyone who was more present in the moment for me.”

Asked to what degree favoring other philosophies or religions over Judaism may also hint at a kind of unconscious self-hating embarrassment among some Jews, Catto put forward an inflammatory response.

“In this time of shallow and egoic people cashing in on the New Age, Ram Dass is 100% authentic, humble, hilarious, real,” added the British-born Catto, speaking from London. “People can see the difference between him and other teachers. His teachings are practical and down-to-earth. They have mainstream appeal.”  

Catto, 51, a musician and videographer best known for his world music video “One Giant Leap 2: What About Me?” has been a dedicated Ram Dass follower for 26 years. Markus, 72, who headed a music production company for 20 years, has been an acolyte for half a century. For the past 12 years he has served as executive director of Love Serve Remember, a foundation dedicated to Ram Dass teachings. 

Featuring current interviews with Ram Dass, interwoven with archival footage of past conversations and public lectures, “Becoming Nobody” highlights an erudite man awash in charm and a self-deprecating sense of humor. Still, depending on viewpoint, he is an embodiment of enlightenment or a paragon of psychobabble appealing to those followers with lots of discretionary income and far too much time on their hands.

Markus reluctantly admitted that following and/or espousing spiritual paths might have limited application for those who are struggling to survive. That said, he suggested the most impoverished in India are, thanks to their culture, already inculcated with a sense of karma and connectivity to a Divine presence. As for the already “enlightened ones” (especially among the well-heeled), they have a duty to feed and love the poor, Markus said. Compassion is the core of Ram Dass spirituality.

Asked about the large Jewish presence in the movement — not least such notable leaders as Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein — Markus said a spirit of adventure and an interest in learning about other worldviews is intrinsic to the Jewish cultural experience. And so it’s not surprising at all.

Asked to what degree favoring other philosophies or religions over Judaism may also hint at a kind of unconscious self-hating embarrassment among some Jews — e.g., fear of appearing provincial or worse, tribal — Catto put forward an inflammatory response, acknowledging that what he thinks on this topic is taboo and perhaps he should remain silent.  

He reluctantly said that as the Chosen People the Jews were chosen to serve and had the opportunity to do so with the kabbalah, but for selfish reasons chose not to, believing others outside the faith were not ready for such power. That was a huge mistake and the Jews have suffered horrific karma for thousands of years, he continued. Spiritual leaders such as Ram Dass et al are healing that ancient self-inflicted wound.

Whether or not Ram Dass would concur is arguable. In the film he recognizes his Jewish roots, but like many countercultural icons, felt alienated from his own background and the society at large with its broader teachings (philosophical, psychological, intellectual). He studied many religions and philosophies, though ultimately found special solace in the presence of Hindi leader Neem Karoli Baba who, according to all accounts, was saint-like, a doorway to the Divine. It was an encounter that paved the way for his particular brand of “becoming nobody.”

Ram Dass’ advanced years have only enhanced the filmmakers’ shared conviction that the definitive film on him was begging to be made, although two previous movies on the spiritual leader are out there, including a 2017 documentary short, “Ram Dass Going Home,” which was shortlisted for an Oscar nomination.

Making the film was challenging, with many false starts. Visually, it didn’t work initially and the picture took longer to pull together than expected. “And there are always challenges in raising money,” Markus said. “Still, we didn’t have to pull teeth. Investors loved the concept and wanted to support it.”

Ram Dass played an active role in shaping the film and said he has been deeply gratified by the audience response at early screenings in Maui. The filmmakers are hopeful that moviegoers leave the theater “inspired to turn their lives around from meanness and self-protection to loving kindness and service,” Markus said. “That’s the key to Ram Dass.”

“Becoming Nobody” is currently playing at the Laemmle Glendale, Playhouse 7, Claremont 5 and Monica Film Center.


Simi Horwitz is an award-winning, New York-based writer.

Local Teen ‘Lucky to Be Alive’ After Vaping Incident

18-year-old Simah Herman. Photo courtesy of Herman.

Eighteen-year-old Simah Herman said she is lucky to be alive after almost 10 days in the hospital, including being placed in a medically induced coma, after complications from vaping. 

Herman was rushed to the hospital Aug. 15 feeling dizzy and nauseated, with a severe loss of appetite. Doctors initially thought she was suffering from pneumonia. But over the next 48 hours, her condition deteriorated and she was placed in a drug-induced coma for four days because she could no longer breathe on her own.

Luckily, Herman survived her ordeal but to date, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed five deaths related to vaping in California, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Oregon. 

As of Sept. 6, Herman was one of 450 possible cases in the United States to suffer from severe pulmonary disease related to e-cigarettes and vaping.

The CDC is advising consumers to consider not using e-cigarette products or vape pens — battery-operated devices that heat a liquid and deliver an aerosolized product to the user.

Raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, Herman was exposed to variations of Juuls, vape pens and e-cigarettes by friends at her Jewish day school in Beverly Hills. At 16, she tried vaping for the first time, not because of peer pressure, but because it looked cool, she said. 

“I just did it,” she told the Journal. “I didn’t really think anything of it. I noticed a bunch of different people had them so I would just take a hit off my friends but then I felt bad because I was using theirs all the time so I was like, ‘OK, I’ll just get my own.’ That ended up in one big spiral because then I was addicted.”

According to a Sept. 6 New England Journal of Medicine report, the aerosolized substances that users inhale in battery-powered e-cigarette devices are not harmless, as the marketing suggests.  

“E-cigarette aerosol generally contains fewer toxic chemicals than conventional cigarette smoke,” the report states. “However, e-cigarette aerosol … can expose users to substances known to have adverse health effects, including ultra-fine particles, heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and other harmful ingredients.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also issued a statement Sept. 6 stating:

“Because consumers cannot be sure whether any THC vaping products may contain Vitamin E acetate, consumers are urged to avoid buying vaping products on the street, and to refrain from using THC oil or modifying/adding any substances to products purchased in stores. Additionally, no youth should be using any vaping product, regardless of the substance.”

Herman said she was spending roughly $20-$30 each time she went to purchase Juul pods, pens and other accessories. The smoke house she illegally went to in North Hollywood didn’t card her because she told them she was 22. 

 “This is a pen that looks like a mascara wand. They’re pink. They’re purple. They’re pretty and cute. They smell like a candle and I want parents to know that.” 

— Stacy Herman 

Over the two years she was vaping, she began to feel nauseated, out of breath and had blurred vision. She also lost her appetite and would go several days without eating. A dancer for almost 12 years, she stopped because her symptoms worsened. She never thought it had something to do with vaping because nobody around her was getting sick from e-cigarettes.

Her mother, Stacy Herman, was unaware her daughter was vaping. Stacy told the Journal she initially thought her daughter was anorexic. Stacy took her to her pediatrician on several occasions to no avail. It wasn’t until Simah was unconscious that Stacy found the stash of vaping products in her daughter’s bedroom.

“I found her vape pens and her stash and I brought it back to the hospital and I said ‘You better save her ’cause I’m gonna kill her,’ ” Stacy said. “I didn’t know what it was. It isn’t recognizable. This isn’t the stuff from our childhood. As an adult, as a mother, I never smoked pot, I never smoked cigarettes but it doesn’t look like that anymore. This is a pen that looks like a mascara wand. They’re pink. They’re purple. They’re pretty and cute. They smell like a candle and I want parents to know that.” 

Stacy, who lost her own mother (also named Simah) to lung cancer, never worried her daughter was smoking because she never had the symptoms of a cigarette user — bad breath, smelly clothes, yellow teeth. “She smoked in her room, in our house, under our roof and we had no idea,” Stacy said.

For Herman, her hospitalization set her on the path to recovery and on a crusade to warn others about the dangers of vaping.   

“When I woke up, basically the only way I could communicate was with writing so I took a pen and paper and I wrote [about vaping],” she said. “I didn’t know my mom knew that I was vaping … and we just looked at each other and she said, ‘You know?’ and I said, ‘You know?’ and we both just started crying. I couldn’t let this happen to any of my friends who were smoking.”

It’s been almost three weeks since Herman was discharged from the hospital and she has quit vaping. She said she went through withdrawal in the hospital so she no longer craves nicotine. In November, she hopes to be well enough to start cosmetology school — a dream she’s had for a long time. Together with her mother and her cousins, she has also started an anti-vaping campaign. Her Instagram post on the dangers of vaping, with a picture of her in the hospital has gone viral and she hopes she can persuade more people to stop.

“I was UCLA [hospital’s] first vape-related illness,” Herman said. “They had no idea because there is no research out there. Is a little head rush from a tiny flash drive worth your life? Worth never seeing anyone you love again? Worth never doing anything you love again? Is it really worth everything to waste everything on a stupid little vape pen?

“It’s not worth it.”   

International Incubator Supports Intentional Jewish Communities

Jews of all ages come together to celebrate Shabbat at Or Gavoah. Photo courtesy of Avital Khazanov

A Jewish incubator called Hakhel (from the Hebrew “kehillah,” or community) is helping young Jews around the world support new expressions of Jewish life through intentional communities. 

Hakhel was established in 2014 as a partnership between the Jewish sustainability nonprofit Hazon and Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. Headed by Israel-based Rabbi Aharon Ariel Lavi, Hakhel currently boasts 109 communities in 80 cities in 28 countries around the globe, including five in Southern California.

A professional community organizer and social entrepreneur, Lavi told the Journal intentional communities are “a group of people who share space and time, vision and values and mission. They live in proximity to one another and meet regularly; they share a set of values and an internal culture; and they use these things as a platform for social activism to make the world around them a better place.

“Hakhel was inspired by the crisis of loneliness in the Western world on the one hand, and the success in which Israeli society has dealt with it since the 1980s,” Lavi continued. “Communities have always been important. They are, in fact, the second most important component in Jewish identity after the family.” 

Lavi said because of the ever-changing job market, which often sees people (especially young people) moving around a lot, it can be hard to make lasting friendships. And that’s where Hakhel steps in for those seeking Jewish connection. 

Hakhel, he said, nurtures people’s growth with mentorship, funding and network-building, including weekly group calls that allow the different communities to discuss what they are doing and to learn from one another. 

“Hakhel was inspired by the crisis of loneliness in the Western world on the one hand, and the success in which Israeli society has dealt with it since the 1980s.”
— Rabbi Aharon Ariel Lavi

The five Hakhel communities in Southern California are Career Up Now in Los Angeles, composed of professionals mostly working in the high-tech field; Or Gavoah in Encino, which brings people together for group Shabbats and other events; RuJuLa in Chatsworth, which connects hundreds of Russian-speaking Jewish families in the Los Angeles metropolitan area; Beth Jacob Irvine Community in Irvine; and Urban Kibbutz SD in San Diego.

Avital Khazanov, who runs Or Gavoah, started hosting Shabbat dinners in her backyard last September. Born and raised in Ukraine, Khazanov moved to Los Angeles nine years ago but missed the Jewish community she had grown up around, so she created the community she wanted. That first Shabbat dinner “was an open event for everyone to join, regardless of religion,” said Khazanov, 30. “I invited my friends and told them that they could bring friends. We had 50 people in my backyard. People [asked] me to do more. That means there is a need.”

After connecting with Hakhel in October last year and becoming part of the incubator, Khazanov now hosts events once or twice a month.

“I always have an open space, accommodations [a Kosher meal] for the religious people,” she said. “A lot of singles come to my Shabbat because they are looking to meet somebody and explore their network. I feel that people are looking for the right people to be friends with and feel safe and comfortable.” 

Khazanov is leading her first spiritual retreat, focusing on self-care, this month and said she loves that she can bring spirituality and Judaism together to help people grow and learn something new.

Career Up Now currently is based in Beverly Hills but also has communities in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Boston.

“Our primary demographic is emerging professionals, and yet we are an intergenerational community,” said 39-year-old co-founder Bradley Caro Cook. “We have a high ratio of community leaders to [mentor] emerging professionals. Our oldest community leader is [about] 87.”

Career Up Now, he said, focuses on members spending time together, supporting one another in the business world and beyond, and looking into the Jewish traditions to find answers to the questions that trouble society today.

“It is important to emphasize that we are not trying to build a Jewish underground,” Lavi said, “but rather find a way to connect the new emerging communities to the existing networks and institutions. We need to seek unity and not further splits within the Jewish people.”

Those seeking to create a new Hakhel incubator can fill out an application form on the organization’s website (hazon.org/hakhel). Incubators can start with a core group of just three or four people. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis. According to Hakhel’s guidelines, if accepted, Hakhel offers “matching mini-grants, professional consulting, and learning trips to Israel for individual communities and community leaders”; networking of “communities through conferences, peer-learning, trainings and seminars”; and the development of “content and educational materials to further develop the field and the discourse of Jewish intentional communities and to support the work of our communities.”

“What we are looking for is a real need on the one hand, meaning that there are unaffiliated Jews who might be looking for this,” Lavi said. “We would not support someone who simply plans to cannibalize an existing community in order to grow his or her own community. The second thing will be a sense of confidence in the founders’ ability and motivation to lead this process to success.”

Want to Understand Israelis? Start Here

Jerusalem

My name is Sarah and I am an American Israeli, and I want to tell you something that I hope you try to understand:

Although Israel has one of the most powerful armies in the world, the country never has known a day of peace since it came into being, and that fosters a fear that is real and it does something to everyone who lives there.

And for those who say, “Israel has no real security concerns,” tell me: Have you ever sat down with an Israeli over coffee and asked her what it’s like to live under the threat of rocket fire?

Have you ever visited Har Nof, a quiet neighborhood in Jerusalem with a lot of families, and asked the young rabbi with tired eyes to describe the day in 2014 that terrorists stormed the synagogue and butchered five husbands and fathers and sons in prayer?

Have you ever choked on the smoke from a suicide bombing, smelling blood and flesh and charred bone, wondering why your sweetheart never came home from work, why their phone goes straight to voicemail? 

Have you ever seen your child look at you with huge eyes and ask, “When is Daddy coming home?” while the answer, “He isn’t” is lost in that huge scream that rips through you as you see the soldiers at your door with tears in their eyes.

“Have you ever choked on the smoke from a suicide bombing, smelling blood and flesh and charred bone?”

Have you ever thought twice about getting on a bus? Or have you ever gotten off the bus in the middle of nowhere because a man gets on wearing a bulky jacket on a hot day? Do you wake up every morning and before doing anything, check the news and call the people you love the most and instead of asking, “Hey what’s up?” you say, “Where are you? Are you safe? Did you hear? How many dead?”

Did your child spend the summer in a bomb shelter? Does your child still have nightmares about rockets flying through the air? Does a low-frequency sound — a vacuum cleaner, a motorcycle, the hum of the washing machine — make you look frantically around for shoes and jackets so you can run to the shelter, even though this time it’s nothing because too often it WAS something?

Have you ever walked through neighborhoods and hated yourself for not trusting your neighbors — and as you walk you still believe in the goodness in people? Do you still feel sick to your stomach when you find out that a 13-year-old boy was knifed in the same spot where you stood 24 hours before? Do you sit with your friends and talk about close calls? “I should have been on that bus but I was hungover and I slept through my alarm.” “I was supposed to be at Hebrew University cafeteria but I had to pee, so I was in the bathroom, instead.”

Roots run deep through frustration and through fear, through a history where you feel that you can’t control your own tomorrow. And it’s hard to move forward when you’re so afraid because the ground feels so uncertain, like it could give way.

So if you’re still here reading, please: If you want there to be a just and peaceful resolution for everyone and move forward, I’m asking you to understand why it should be simple but it isn’t.

If you can, this might help Israelis take the brave and necessary first steps toward reaching out to the Palestinians to build a better future.


Sarah Tuttle-Singer is the new media editor at The Times of Israel and the author of “Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered: One Woman’s Year in the Heart of the Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish Quarters of Old Jerusalem.”

Top-Selling Singer/Songwriter Laurie Berkner Talks Musical Influences, DIY Business Acumen

Laurie Berkner Photo by: Steve Vaccariello

Top children’s music artist Laurie Berkner has been called the “queen of kids’ music” by People Magazine and the “Adele of the preschool crowd” by the New York Times. Yet not everyone realizes that in addition to being the singer and songwriter of the music she helms, Berkner is also the founder of the Two Tomatoes Records label that put out most of her music. Berkner has not only garnered more than 32 million views via YouTube – beyond an average of nine million monthly streams – but has also authored multiple books, created music that has been featured in Off-Broadway plays produced by New York City Children’s Theater and created an Audible Original Series.

Berkner, born Jewish but raised in a Catholic home, said in 2014 she wanted to learn more about her Jewish roots so she can pass them down to her daughter, Lucy. As she noted within an interview: “I continually find myself feeling so impressed by and connected to the values that I find, like respecting feelings, personal growth, joy in life, giving, community, a thirst for knowledge and self-examination. I was surprised and delighted to find that the way we are raising Lucy is already aligned with many of the things I am discovering about my Jewish heritage.”

In July, it was announced that Laurie Berkner struck a deal with the Concord Music Group – a company whose catalog includes work related to Pink Floyd, Common, Iggy Pop and KIDZ BOP alike – for the partial acquisition of her recording and publishing catalogs. Previously just distributed by Concord, Berkner is now bringing her full catalog to the still-independent Concord, forming a long-term partnership with the company. Her 13th album, “Waiting For The Elevator,” will be out in October.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Laurie Berkner by phone in August, and below are highlights from our conversation. Berkner was every bit as warm and cheerful that an interviewer could have hoped for, yet also incredibly insightful about how she transitioned from an aspiring professional musician into a best-selling, internationally-renowned and award-winning singer/songwriter.

Laurie Berkner; Photo by Todd Owyoung

Jewish Journal: Musicians generally don’t like getting the question of “who are your influences?” but in your case, I’m curious, what were the albums that made you want to start playing guitar in the first place?

Laurie Berkner: That’s a good question. I think it was a combination of things. Like when I was little, what I listened to was pretty folky things like Peter Paul & Mary… Then when I got older I was also drawn to rock music like The Rolling Stones or The Beatles… Then even when I got older I liked listening to classical guitar like [Andres] Segovia. I just thought that the guitar was a beautiful instrument, but honestly, it’s also because I played the violin and clarinet and piano as I was growing up. I found that they were all great instruments, but they were very hard to both move around and sing with at the same time. It wasn’t until the end of high school that I picked up guitar. I took night school classes in the evening and I taught myself because I felt like it was an instrument that I could connect with.

JJ: So you were into melodic stuff outright. Did you ever have a phase when you were into AC/DC or Cheap Trick or anything harder?

LB: No, not really… I listened to a lot of musicals. I like melodies. I feel very drawn to like pop music in general… Actually my parents always thought I was going to go into advertising because I would listen to commercials and jingles and I would sing them… I just felt there was sort of a real art to that. In a way that’s kind of what kids music is. You have to be able to just get one really good idea across in a way that captures somebody pretty quickly that can be repeated over and over and easily.

JJ: I’ve read about your explanation of “Old MacDonald” as a good song for kids but you know you don’t want to have to perform that 100 times. But of course you want to write music that you can perform 100 times. Your journey has been documented as far as how you were in a cover band and how that transitioned into doing kids music. But I’m curious when you were actually able to start making a living being a children’s artist when you knew that this was going to be a career.

LB: There were different moments where I made a decision to kind of keep going towards the kids’ music and away from other ways in which I was making a living. I would say that there was a period when I, what you said, I was in my cover band and had my own original rock band that I was also teaching preschool music… I think I started teaching in the early 90s.

As a pre-school music teacher, maybe ’91 or ’92, was when I put out a cassette tape. I started to drop all of my teaching gigs when I realized I was able to make enough money doing birthday parties… Those birthday parties were sort of like little mini-performances and they were what translated into doing shows which were originally just benefits for pre-school. Parents would say, “Just come and sing and we’ll charge money for tickets and food and then we’ll pay you a part of it.” So those kinds of things kept growing…

In ’99… I was still doing all the birthday parties, but I was also making albums and so that was bringing in money between selling the albums and the birthday parties. I was able to let go of the teaching job… I would do a birthday party and people would ask for me to bring a bunch of CDs and they put them in the goody bags. Then all those kids who were at the birthday parties would go home with my music and then they would call me and then they would tell their friends and then I would sell more of them. So they were both actually important to that phase. And then in the early 2000s, one of the birthday parties I did was Madonna’s daughter Lola…

I got a moment on “The Today Show” and actually the moment turned into, like, 15 minutes. Then suddenly I had so many people know who I was just from having been on TV. I was able to even kind of drop most of the birthday parties and opened a small office… I was able to kind of take a leap and grow and continue and say to myself, “Oh I am really doing this. I’m actually making it as a musician.”

JJ: The part you mentioned about having your own office and team, usually you don’t find that people who are super-creative also have that business-savvy. So is that something that you studied in school? Or you grew up around business?

LB: Yeah, my mom was in marketing, my dad actually did have some business background, although we didn’t talk about it that much. It wasn’t so much that there was a lot of business in my world, but I do think that I’ve always been someone who wanted to be in control of things. (laughs)

If I have to work for somebody else and sort of fit what I wanted to do around what someone else was asking me to do, that was not as appealing to me as, “Hey I have an idea, I want to do something with it”… I feel like I did that in elementary school where I was like, “I’m going to get all the neighborhood kids together and we’re going to put on a show and we’re gonna charge, you know, a dollar per ticket. Here, you make the popcorn, and I’ll get the set together.” I would go and buy tickets at the stationery store and I definitely had kind of an impulse to want to put everything together like that.

I wish I actually had studied business. I think that would have helped me a lot. I think I would have had some years where I would have been able to maybe do better than I did… I really looked for people who could help me do what I wanted to do as an artist and still maintain a pretty strong sense of independence and that I could work together with.

So I mean the only reason I even ever started my own business was because I had a good friend who was freelancing at the time, she was a writer. We knew each other actually since elementary school, but we kind of reconnected in college and then stayed friends right out of college. I made this album and she was freelancing and I called her, “I don’t know what to do, I am so bad at promoting myself, but I feel like if people heard this music maybe they would buy it. I don’t know how to get them to hear it.” She said, “I’m going to come over once a week and on Friday afternoons we’ll just meet for a couple of hours.” I was like, “I can pay you fifty dollars a week to do that… and give you a to-do list…”

One weird thing is that a lot of the people who have been helping me, none of them studied business either… It’s been only within the last four or five years I really have gotten some direct business help, which has made an enormous difference in my life. I recommend everybody do that much earlier, but it’s possible without it, I guess.

JJ: So what does the next year to look like for you career-wise?

LB: That is such a great question. It’s very open right now. I’m putting up an album this year and I do have more songs already finished and that I’m working on… I certainly want to keep putting out music, but there’s also this project with Audible where I wrote chapters or stories that incorporate my music in them. I would love to do more of that. So that may happen…

Hopefully I’ll actually be doing some more traveling and performing outside of the United States as well as more inside the United States. So I kind of feel like I’m seeing what starts to grow, and continue to write my music. I just have a lot of different ideas that are also much bigger fantasies, things that I don’t know if they would still happen or not, but I would love to work on another musical and I’m hoping that will be part of the future. Then I’m sure there are things I can’t even imagine…

JJ: Finally, Laurie, any last words for the kids?

LB: Mine would be: “Follow what you love.” I think that’s for any kid or any adult who is still connected to that kid inside the adults or any kids. I think that’s just a good way to think about life.

More on Laurie Berkner – including tour dates – can be found on her website.

Unpacked for Educators New Research Program Includes Three LA Schools

Senior Vice President Noam Weissman speaking to educators at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School about Unpacked for Educators. Photo courtesy of Jerusalem U.

Jerusalem U announced Sept. 4 that their online Jewish Education resource Unpacked for Educators, will kick off its Unpacked for Educators Partner School Research Initiative for the 2019-2020 school year.  

Fourteen schools are participating in the initiative all over the U.S. and Australia, including three Jewish schools in Los Angeles  YULA Boys High School, YULA Girls High School and Milken Community Schools.

This research initiative will help the Unpacked for Educators team better understand the use and impact of its Israel education resources and content in schools across the religious spectrum and across the world.

Unpacked for Educators provides educators with video series likeHistory of Israel Explained”, “The Weekly”  and feature-length film programs

Unpacked for Educators main purpose is to provide Jewish insight to educators so they can explore all forms of Jewish perspectives with their students.

In collaboration with Rosov Consulting and Unpacked for Educators partner schools, the research initiative will survey hundreds of students and teachers throughout the school year after they have engaged with the Unpacked for Educators content. The data collected will help deepen the Unpacked for Educators team’s understanding of the student needs for Israel education and will guide future content and activities to ensure educators have access to the most relevant and necessary materials. 

Dr. Noam Weissman, Jerusalem U’s Senior Vice President of Education, is leading the initiative which will gather information from diverse schools, including community, pluralistic and Orthodox communities to learn about their unique approaches to Israel education. 

“In this past school year alone, I have had conversations with over 100 Jewish day school principals and teachers along with dozens of Jewish education professionals from across the political and religious spectrum,” Weissman said in a statement to the Journal. “While each school and each Jewish professional is unique, there is one thing that has been consistent throughout: More than a need, there is a deep and pervasive demand for practical ways to teach about Israel in a nuanced, sophisticated and non-dogmatic way.”

Jewish Bluegrass Duo’s Single ‘Homesick’ Written to Combat Anti-Semitism

Gabriela Rose and Nick Cameron of Mama Danger; Photo by Dan Johnson

“We want people of all minorities to feel heard. We want non-Jewish people to understand the experience of what it’s like being Jewish and being a minority in this country and not feeling like it’s our home.”

So says Gabriela Rose, 24, one half of the multi-instrumental bluegrass duo Mama Danger. Together with Nick Cameron, 25, their latest single, “Homesick,” draws upon the anti-Semitism and other injustices they have experienced in their southern community of Asheville, N.C.

“I felt this melancholy in the community about identity and living in the South and being Jewish,” Rose told the Journal. “I wanted to speak to that … because Judaism isn’t really talked about in the South and often having a Southern identity has a negative connotation. I want to be proud of being Southern but also be proud of being Jewish. And there is a conflict between those identities.” 

“Homesick” was written toward the end of 2018, not long after the Tree of Life synagogue mass shooting in Pittsburgh. “We wrote it as a single because it was such a specific emotion regarding the whirlwind of the media,” Rose said. 

‘Homesick’s’ lyrics include: “Branches bloom in my lungs. Stealing songs left
unsung.” 

Said Rose, “I’ve always been fascinated by the imagery of trees and branches and how they mirror what our anatomy looks like on the inside. There is also that feeling like you don’t have a voice and what you are saying doesn’t have an impact.”

She added the duo is “very covert with our Judaism [in “Homesick”], because we want to bring people in to listen to the song and then fully understand it.” 

There is a line in the chorus that says: “To ignite this ever-burning flame.”

“Our theme within the song is to ignite this [flame], which is a symbol of the Jewish people prevailing through adversity,” Rose explained. “So often, the story of Judaism is that Jews have been misplaced and pushed around so there is this longing for a home that doesn’t necessarily exist and that is starting to feel that way in America.”

Born and raised in Raleigh, N.C., Rose said, “My mother is a piano teacher, my brother is a drummer, my other brother is a bassist and my father plays guitar. So we would do the whole family band thing. I always grew up around music and especially folk music.” 

Rose’s father is Israeli so a large majority of her family lives in Israel. “I grew up going to Israel, riding camels in the Negev desert and playing in the streets of Tel Aviv,” she said. “Judaism is a very core part of my life.” 

“I felt this melancholy in the community about identity and living in the South and being Jewish. Often having a Southern identity has a negative connotation.” 

— Gabriela Rose

However, growing up in the Raleigh area, Rose said, “I have been bullied for
being Jewish. I’ve been tokenized and made to feel different in a predominantly white community.”

Cameron hails from Maryland. His mother is Jewish and his father is Christian but it was important to them they celebrate the different holidays of both religions. He grew up doing theater and that turned into musical theater, which turned into just music. It wasn’t until 2014 when he moved to Asheville that his Jewish identity came into play. 

“Because the area of Maryland I grew up in had a pretty large Jewish population, I had lots of friends who were really more knowledgeable about Judaism than I was,” Cameron said. “So I never really thought about it until I came to Asheville and I became a lot of people’s one Jewish friend. I was the token Jew as it were, and it was eye opening.”

Rose moved to Asheville in 2013, to study psychology at UNC Asheville. It was in 2016 that she found her way to the music department, where she met Cameron. They were part of the university’s ambassador choir, and during a trip to perform for President Barack Obama’s final Christmas at the White House, a close friendship was forged between them. “On that trip Nick and I became friends and I felt comfortable to share with him the songs that I had been writing over the course of my life,” Rose said.

In seeking out a band name, the duo tried to create an anagram from both their names but came up short. Then they put the word “anagrammed” into an anagram generator and it came up with Mama Danger.  “It had a bluegrassy ring so we went with it,” Cameron said. 

However they do not consider themselves merely a bluegrass band. “We are pretty influenced by a band called Punch Brothers,” Cameron said “They look like a bluegrass band but when you look into their music, it is kind of like all over the map. You can hear jazz and classical and pop. So we are inspired by their disregarding of genres.” 

Aside from Mama Danger, both work at the Asheville Jewish Community Center, where Rose is a preschool teacher and Cameron works in the after-school program twice a week. 

“Living in the South and being Jewish is a core part of a lot of the Jewish population’s identity,” Rose said. “In Asheville, the community is very small (3,500 Jews in all of western North Carolina). “Our Asheville JCC has faced some anti-Semitism and in the past couple of years, we were one of the many JCC’s that had a bomb threat called in. We have had people vandalize the Jewish cemetery and post anti-Semitic flyers around town. And oftentimes, the JCC has to go on high alert. It is scary and I have to teach 4-year-olds what to do when a bad guy comes.”

Moving forward, the duo hope to be a voice for marginalized people. Said Rose, “The future for us is to continue to grow within the western N.C. community and spread our message and the acceptance of a Jewish identity through our music
and playing at Jewish events and non-Jewish events.”

‘Homesick’ is available on Spotify.

Can You Be Present In This Wilderness?

Many of you are arriving at the end of this summer feeling weary, and wondering how you can continue to be present while things go from bad to worse. It might be stuff in your personal life, or it could be facing the daily horrors of our world. We wander in the wilderness of all that is happening right now.

When I am in this place, I look to core stories that hold wisdom. Lately, I’ve been remembering the story of Moses and his transformational encounter in the desert. You may remember that he comes upon a fiery bush that is burning but not consumed. After noting this awesome sight, Moses hears a voice that calls to him from inside the bush.*

God (The Great-Mystery-That-Is-Impossible-to-Name) calls to Moses by name. And Moses replies:

“Hineni. Here I am.”

Hineni הִנֵּנִי in Hebrew means much more than “I am physically here” – it means that one is all in – entirely present in the now. You know, those instants when everything fades away and you are in the present moment.

To which God responds:

“Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.”

What? You can imagine Moses thinking – wait, this is scary. Maybe I should run. But he does not. He stays. Feet firmly planted.

I interpret this scene in several ways:

1) When we bring our full selves to whatever moment we are in, this itself is a holy action. It’s not easy, but when we sink into exactly where we are, no matter what, there is a doorway to the sacred.

2) Any ordinary place can be a holy place – when we are fully present.

The transformation from an ordinary place to a holy place is presence.

Truly, we cannot be anywhere other than where we are. We can try to avoid facing the present, distract ourselves, or deny the pain. We might preoccupy ourselves with the past or the future. But all that does is keep our attention off the only place it can be, which is the present.

When we do, we get a glimpse into eternity. We discover the sacred in the everyday. We give ourselves the opportunity to see the silver linings in even the most difficult times.

In the last week, several people have said to me – I am unable to listen to the news because I’m in too much pain about it or I have lost hope. Or perhaps you are scared about a recent diagnosis. Maybe you are grieving a loss.

To all of it: You are where you are. Please do not judge yourself. We are all grownups here. Berating or judging where you are does nothing.

The first step in any place is to simply acknowledge:  I am here right now.  I am sad or scared.  I feel scattered.

And just let that be OK. I will be writing about the steps that come after I AM HERE over the next few months.

Take your shoes off in whateverplace you are in. For you are standing on holy ground. Even in the wilderness of now.

Want more spiritual insights to help navigate these times? Click here to subscribe to my newsletter.

* Exodus 3:1-6

Shivah, Zucchini Pie and Facing East

Sometimes it is in explaining something to another person that you gain greater insight and understanding of that very subject. This was the case last week when I attempted to describe to a non-Jewish friend the meaning and symbolism behind the rituals of Jewish mourning after the death of a shared and much-beloved Jewish friend. Since my entire family lives in Israel, I wasn’t sure what to expect because I’d never been to a shivah in America.

While there are some stark differences in mourning rituals between American and Israeli Jews, there are greater similarities than I thought. In Israel, until about 20 years ago, there was only one way to deal with death: the Orthodox way. Even though the vast majority of Israelis define themselves as “traditional” if not secular, marriage and death ceremonies were still carried out under strict Orthodox practices. And although Israel is a country where roughly 98% of Jews proudly display a mezuzah on their doors, the requirement to adhere to strict, state-sponsored Orthodoxy can feel alienating. 

Recently though, funeral ceremonies in Israel have become a mix of old and new. While the chevrah kadishah (the Orthodox community who handles funerals on behalf of the state) still goes through the basic and most significant religious portions of the funeral ceremony — the kriah (tearing of the clothes of the mourners), the identification of the body, the burial and the leading of the Mourner’s Kaddish  — modern ceremonies include moving memorials with personal music selections and touching eulogies from friends and family.

In Israel, everything is done graveside without the involvement of the synagogue. There is no service before the funeral and there is no casket, except in the case of fallen Israeli soldiers. The body is placed on a stretcher and shrouded in white linens. 

After the burial, custom in Israel dictates that only close relatives go home with the mourners, but in the States the shivah begins immediately upon returning from the funeral. 

Over the next seven days, relatives, friends, neighbors and colleagues visit the mourners. No invitation is required to attend a shivah. Rather, the shivah coordinator (usually a close friend of the family) sets the visiting hours. In Israel, no visiting hours are observed, rather from the time a death notice is placed on the door at the deceased’s home, there is a constant stream of visitors from as early as 7 a.m. until midnight, with the exception of Shabbat. 

In Israel, where it is said that “kol Israel chaverim” (all of Israel is friends), anyone who had a relationship with the deceased, or with the mourners, will take time out and even take time off work to pay a shivah call to the mourners.

Although the rules of etiquette for a shivah are slightly different in the U.S., I was struck by the great similarities in sitting shivah in this time-honored tradition for all Jews. In the States, mourners, particularly more Reform Jews, may not adhere strictly to the rules of the shivah, which include no bathing, shaving, cooking or housework, covering all the mirrors in the house and wearing torn clothing. However, one ritual that crosses continents is that of bringing food to the mourners’ home. Although it’s common for every religion to bring sustenance to families in mourning, in Judaism, the foods we bring are unique.

While I guided my non-Jewish friend to bring a tower of kosher Jewish baked goods to the family, including a favorite sweet treat of our late friend, I decided to bring a more traditionally Israeli dish, given that my deceased friend’s husband is Israeli. 

Because there is nothing more Israeli or comforting than borekas — small, handheld pastries stuffed with a variety of savory fillings — as well as hard-boiled eggs, which are eaten at every shivah to symbolize rebirth and the circle of life, I also made a filo pastry-wrapped zucchini pie, a hearty and herb-laced warming comfort food, created by Greek and Turkish Jews. 

And when I stepped into the apartment, quietly carrying disposable trays full of homemade pastries and pies, it was precisely at the moment that the mourners stood up to pray. I set down my packages, still warm and fragrant from the oven, and did something I had never seen done in Israel: I faced east. I had taken it for granted that even in mourning, all Jews remember Israel and look eastward; toward Jerusalem; toward eternity; toward our sacred homeland.

FILO WRAPPED ZUCCHINI PIE
2 pounds zucchini, washed and trimmed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup olive oil, divided
2 large onions, finely chopped
1 cup fresh mint, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon dry oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
2 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated
2 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
10 sheets prepared filo pastry, defrosted overnight in refrigerator

Grate zucchini on a cheese grater or in a food processor, sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and let sit in a colander over a bowl to release juices.

In a medium saucepan, place 2 tablespoons olive oil and heat. Add onions and saute until translucent. Remove onions to cool in a large mixing bowl.

Squeeze excess water from zucchini until dry. Place 1/8 cup olive oil in the same pan, heat and cook zucchini. Continue to stir until zucchini has slightly browned and all water has evaporated.

Add mint, parsley, oregano and black pepper and cook another minute to combine. 

Place zucchini in the bowl with onions and stir to combine. Refrigerate until cool. When mixture is cool, add beaten eggs and cheeses and taste for salt (remember, the cheese is salty.)

Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, stir the mixture well and chill in refrigerator until ready to use. 

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Butter a large round or rectangular baking dish (13-by-9 and 3 inches deep).

Combine remaining olive oil and butter and lay out a sheet of filo on a clean work surface. Using a pastry brush (or your hands), brush a thin layer of the olive oil/butter mixture on the sheet and transfer to the baking dish. Repeat with additional 4 sheets of filo, brushing each sheet with the olive oil mixture and layering one on top of the other. 

Evenly spread zucchini mixture on top of filo, then repeat the process for the remaining 5 sheets of filo tucking any filo that doesn’t fit the pan inside.

Brush the top filo sheet with olive oil.

Freeze pie for 30 minutes, then bake in a preheated oven for approximately 50 minutes until pastry is lifting slightly and turns a golden brown.

Re-heat in hot oven before serving.

Serves 10.


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

The Rise of Anti-Semitism, and What to Do About It

In 1986, Steven Spielberg and Don Bluth’s animated “An American Tail,” about Jewish immigrants (portrayed by mice), declared American anti-Semitism not just dead, but nonexistent. The Mouskewitz family and friends saluted the Golden Medina — America — for having streets paved with gold and inhabitants blessed with golden hearts. The exuberant, down-is-now-up number “There Are No Cats in America” rejoiced that Jews finally have a welcoming home. In this extraordinary republic of liberty and equality, “the streets are paved with cheese” and there, you can “set your mind at ease.”

True, we sourpuss historians know Gen. Ulysses S. Grant banned Jews from Tennessee during the Civil War. We know that in the 1880s, when the great Eastern European Jewish immigration started, German Jews faced discrimination in fancy hotels. We teach that the immigration limitations of the 1920s reflected fears of the mongrel “kikes.” We recall that anti-Semitism peaked in the 1930s, as attackers branded Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as Franklin Rosenfeld’s Jew Deal. That is why a “Paper Wall” built by State Department bureaucrats and reinforced by hoodlums on the streets barred European Jews from the United States — sentencing some of them to die in Auschwitz.

Nevertheless, we agree America historically was different. President Abraham Lincoln countermanded Grant’s General Order No. 11, and Grant later repented. Many of the 2 million Jews who successfully came from Europe made it big in America — with their kids doing even better. In America, Levi Strauss could herald the jeans revolution; Betty Friedan could help launch the feminist movement; Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand could top the pop charts; Henry Kissinger could go from Nazi refugee to secretary of state; and Israel Isidore Beilin (aka Irving Berlin) could write our national hymn, “God Bless America.” These pioneers paved the way for our generation’s celebrated American-Jewish gamechangers, from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to tech giant Mark Zuckerberg.

Even more important than any one Jew’s success was America’s embrace of the Jewish people. More than 400,000 Americans died defeating Hitler, with many of the toughest soldiers liberating the Nazi death camps with tears in their eyes. Half a century later, in December 1993, more than 6,000 Billings, Mont., homeowners defied white supremacists by hanging paper menorahs in their windows after one hooligan broke a window decorated with a paper menorah. The United States consistently defended Israel while fighting the United Nation’s anti-Israel pile-on.

I had to admit Grandpa was right. The world still hated Jews.

I felt blessed to be born into this post-Auschwitz covenant, where the Western powers that failed to protect the Jews of Europe now vowed “never again.” This rejection of anti-Semitism was not just a slogan. It was a solemn global promise American idealism and power backed. “The world learned its lesson,” I would tell my Polish-born grandfather, who still saw anti-Semites behind every tree in Queens, N.Y., where I grew up.

Further proof came during the Sukkot holiday in 1986. On Oct. 19, Elie Wiesel, the newly named Nobel Peace Prize winner, threw out the ceremonial first pitch in a World Series game. Having received the ultimate global high-five days earlier, he was a symbol of Jewish wisdom, Jewish suffering and Jewishness itself, and people enthusiastically cheered for him at Shea Stadium as he performed this most sacred of all-American rites.

For me, the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl 16 years later broke that international pledge — or my deluded faith in it. My students wondered that after 9/11, “what kind of fool” would wander around Pakistan interviewing Islamists. I answered, “I was that kind of fool.”

I never knew Pearl, but I believe he also had a misplaced faith in the world. We both felt protected. We were born into the 1960s’ Pax Americana. We were educated at the best American schools — he at Stanford, me at Harvard. We were de-Jewified by our “objective,” “impressive” professions: he as a journalist, me as a historian. Our world-class institutions protected us: The Wall Street Journal! McGill University! We had won the post-Holocaust Jewish sweepstakes. We were the luckiest Jews ever, putting our people’s history of oppression behind us and living The American Dream – capital T, A, D!

That delusion survived the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the Entebbe selection separating Jewish from non-Jewish hijack victims, the rising tide of anti-Israelism starting to fester in universities and the U.N. — even the post-9/11 murmurings that thousands of Jews knew to skip work that day. But then Islamists kidnapped Pearl as an American, slaughtering him as a Jew, forcing him to say, “My father’s Jewish. My mother’s Jewish. I’m Jewish.” Something snapped, particularly because it occurred as Palestinians were blowing up Israelis in cafes and buses, yet “the world” blamed Israel, despite Israel’s unprecedented attempts to make peace.

I had to admit Grandpa was right. The world still hated Jews.

Author’s Battle Plan to Combat Anti-Semitism 

Insightful New York Times columnist Bari Weiss enjoyed her “holiday from history” for longer. Yes, she arrived at Columbia University a year after Pearl’s 2002 murder and, according to her, was “taught in many classes, in the dining halls, and in campus bars that you couldn’t be both a progressive in good standing and a Zionist.” Yes, lovely fellow liberals would kindly, curiously ask her, “So how can you be a Zionist? How can you support a racist ideology?” Yes, when she defended Israel in her essays, critics cast her as (horror of horrors) a conservative, even though she considers herself a “left-leaning centrist.” Yes, she watched Jewish colleagues get bullied when they dared to criticize Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign; she, too, has been trolled as a “rootless cosmopolitan.” Still, her delusions only died in October 2019 when a crazed, gun-toting white supremacist shot up the Pittsburgh synagogue where she had been bat mitzvahed, killing 11 congregants. 

Bari Weiss’ book shows why the irrational hatred fueling this old/new anti-Semitism threatens every American.

The chilling moment when her sister Molly texted, “He’s screaming ‘all these Jews need to die,’ ” made Weiss fear a New American anti-Semitism metastasizing.  That unhappy “aha” moment resulted in Weiss’ compelling, equally chilling new book, “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.”

Whether the Pittsburgh shooting was a turning point in U.S. history or merely in Weiss’ understanding of Jewish history remains to be seen. To her credit, she is working hard to prove herself wrong and maintain America’s distinction as the least anti-Semitic non-Jewish state. Weiss’ book is her battle cry and battle plan. “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” bravely diagnoses the problem. It shows why the irrational hatred fueling this old/new anti-Semitism threatens every American, and it ends with thoughtful suggestions detailing how to combat the hatred.

New York Times Op-Ed writer Bari Weiss

It’s hard to praise a book you wish never had to be written. Every word is etched in sorrow and highlighted with the blood of our new martyrs: Daniel Pearl, the Pittsburgh 11, Lori Gilbert-Kaye of the Poway Chabad shooting, the HyperCacher Four and the hundreds killed by Palestinian terrorists after Israel voluntarily entered into the Oslo Accords.

In 1944, Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht, who had his own historical wake-up call “thanks” to Hitler, called his attempt to explain anti-Semitism “Guide for the Bedevilled.” This title emphasized the reasonable person’s reasonable surprise that this unreasonable hatred persists. Weiss’ book is a modern handbook for such good — but justifiably befuddled people — as well as an expose of today’s devils, including their many enablers. 

The anti-Semitism of intellectuals and social justice “warriors” is refined and elusive. Skulking behind self-righteous rhetoric about “intersectionality” and “white privilege,” it obsessively targets the Jewish state, forcing progressive Jews who wished to be known for their liberalism to become modern-day Marranos, hiding their Zionism.

Most haters of Jews hate America as well as Israel. They poison our overall public discourse, not just the discussions of Jews and the Jewish state.

Even while identifying the anti-Semitic forces stirring the politically correct pot on campus and white-nationalist plots online, it helps to distinguish American anti-Semitism from the harsher, more dangerous and more prevalent Islamist and European varieties.

Anti-Semitism is a stain on the body politic we just can’t remove. It not only is the “longest hatred” (in historian Robert Wistrich’s words), but it is the most plastic hatred: adaptable, flexible, artificial, durable and mass produced. It keeps mutating like a computer virus, targeting our ideological vulnerabilities. That malleability also makes it the most congenial hatred, embraced, enhanced and enabled by some of the nicest — and most self-righteous — people.

Consider the new campus fad: finding Jews guilty of “white privilege.” This backlash to white nationalism marks the flip side to the victimization Olympics. Just as some minorities brandish genuine suffering to amplify their voice and demonstrate their virtue, branding rivals with the mark of “white privilege” shuts them up. “White privilege” caricatures Jews as rich and white, treating “whiteness” as a crime while mischaracterizing millions of Jews who aren’t wealthy and the majority of Israelis who are nonwhite and not rich. That helps tee up Israel as not just “white” but — the latest offensive accusation — “patriarchal.”

When Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) supported a resolution condemning anti-Semitism last March, Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour called Pelosi “a typical white feminist upholding the patriarchy, doing the dirty work of powerful white men.” This libel renders pro-Israel women invisible, too.

This is the American Jews’ “double bind,” Weiss writes. “They are at once white and nonwhite; the handmaidens of white supremacy and the handmaidens of immigrants and people of color; in league with the oppressed and in league with the oppressor.” That’s anti-Semitism’s stretch-to-fit plasticity for you. When being white welcomed you into the powerful elite, Jews were not considered white. Today, on campuses and other places where whiteness has been deemed a crime, Jews have suddenly become white.

The Myth of Jewish ‘Privilege’

All this Jewish “privilege” negates Jewish suffering through the millennia, not merely at the hands of Palestinian terrorists or anti-Semites today. One student told Weiss that during a Holocaust class, a classmate called Auschwitz survivor Wiesel “privileged.” Why? Because he “was a white, able-bodied man.”

“This,” Weiss concludes, “is your brain on intersectionality.”

Here is anti-Semitism as an ideological X-ray. It reveals the extremes of the left and the right today, just as many of the greatest stupidities of each succeeding era have been exposed in all their absurdities when applied to Jews. 

These days, we see how anti-Semitism helps gut the political center, which “is bending toward and being distorted by the extremes on both the ethnonationalist right and the anti-colonialist left,” Weiss writes. “Each day, it seems, faith in liberal institutions and ideas — respect for free speech and intellectual gadflies, faith in the open society and the value of immigration, trust in democratic institutions, admiration for expertise and reason — erodes further.”

A book published last year by historian Deborah Lipstadt deftly exposes what she calls “the enabler,” the “dinner-party antisemite” and the “clueless antisemite,” whose more subtle behaviors are symptomatic of broader pathologies. While putting anti-Semitism in historical context and calling out today’s unapologetic “extremist” bullies, Lipstadt warns “that sometimes the most harm can be done, not by the violent, in-your-face, self-professed Jew-hater, but by ordinary people who have acquired these views almost through cultural osmosis.”

The spelling change (of antisemite) is no typo. It reflects the depth of Lipstadt’s thought-provoking analysis. She exiles the hyphen because hyphenating misleads. “Anti-Semitism” suggests “that one opposes ‘Semitism,’ ” like the anti-immigrant movement opposes immigrants. But there are no “Semites.” “Semitism” is an artifice. Dropping the hyphen suits this “illogical, delusional passion full of self-contradictions and absurd contentions.” It “doesn’t deserve the dignity of capitalization, which in English, is reserved for proper names.”

Weiss’ book feels like one long, soul-wrenching letter, written in a charmingly accessible style by a proud American reeling from the realization that the haters are on the rise in this land we love. Lipstadt’s “Antisemitism: Here and Now” is written as a three-way correspondence. Two composites — “Abigail,” a “whip-smart Jewish student” and “Joe” a non-Jewish academic — struggle “to understand the phenomenon of antisemitism” by questioning Lipstadt, the world-renowned expert. The technique makes a book with a most-depressing and complex subject as easy — and painful — to read as Weiss’ work.

Both authors advocate a less partisan approach to fighting this scourge.  Unfortunately, many right-wingers give most supporters of President Donald Trump passes because he is pro-Israel. And when liberals call out anti-Semitism on the left, they run into claims that “the white nationalist, xenophobic far right is the clear source of rising anti-Semitic violence in this country,” as Dylan Williams, vice president of government affairs at J Street, recently asserted. “Instead of seriously combating that threat — which the president has stoked with his own hateful rhetoric — the Trump administration and its allies in the right-wing minority of the Jewish community prefer to focus overwhelming attention on nonviolent campus critics of Israel, and to wield false accusations of anti-Semitism as a partisan weapon against progressives.”

In truth, both authors ignore a vexing source of rising anti-Semitic violence. You have to read through 633 words of the 948-word New York Times article from February 2019, “Anti-Semitic Attacks Fuel Continuing Rise in Hate Crimes in New York,” before discovering “many of the assailants arrested by the police have been young men of color.” Nevertheless, the statistics are used to fuel fears of the “spike” in the more ideological Jew-hatred the authors — and most of us — are talking about these days.

I know I am not only being impolite here but impolitic. I am approaching the third-rail of modern American politics. Honest discussions linking the words “crime” and “people of color” increasingly are off-limits. 

There is a long, sad history of burying this problem. The most outrageous example occurred during the Crown Heights riots of 1991 in Brooklyn. Politically correct descriptions of a “racial clash” between two equally guilty and violent groups covered up angry cries from African Americans of “up to the Jew neighborhood.” Only 20 years later did a former New York Times reporter, Ari Goldman, confess his editors had refashioned the copy he and his colleagues sent in, to suppress the targeting of Jews that fueled the riot. 

This disturbing phenomenon is not an anti-Semitism of words. It’s not an inviting target for the left like Trump, for the right like PC-idiocy on campus, or for Westerners like Islamist terrorism. This street hooliganism against Jewish neighbors is more sociological, situational, impulsive and instinctive than ideological.

Still, it’s no less painful and traumatic for the victims. It deserves the kind of sensitive analysis Weiss and Lipstadt otherwise provide. Like all forms of hatred, it risks cascading if camouflaged behind politically-driven sensibilities that consciously or unconsciously validate the violence with silence.

Modern Jew-Hatred

For all that I learned from both books, I wish each had wrestled more intensely with such subtleties and worked harder to distinguish American Jew-hatred from the other global strains. Even if both authors believe there are “cats in America,” America remains distinct. Weiss acknowledges the United States is not Europe. America is built on inclusivity and equality, shares the Jews’ Bible-based sense of mission, and lacks centuries of Jew-hatred. Lipstadt rejects the numbers game. Even if a few thousand annual hate crimes in a nation of 330 million represents a statistical blip, modern Jew-hatred’s ugliness and irrationality compels her to take it seriously.

Still, listing anti-Jewish incidents risks re-creating the Wiki history of anti-Semitism. Clicking on the Wikipedia entry for American anti-Semitism provides a litany of bigotry, from Peter Stuyvesant in 1654 to Henry Ford in the 1920s and Rep. Ilhan Omar and neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, alt-left and alt-right, today. The catastrophic cataloguing is devastating and misleading. As Weiss and Lipstadt acknowledge, anti-Semitism remains a marginal gutter phenomenon, especially in America. Jews not only belong to America’s most admired religious group, but non-Jews are marrying non-Orthodox Jews en masse.

A memorial from the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Photo from Reuters

The strong sense of American decency that counters anti-Semitism is powerful, even in our age of partisan thugishness. “It may sound strange,” Weiss admits in her book, “but the reaction to Pittsburgh gave me a tremendous amount of hope that we are not alone in this fight.” In a moving tikun of Jewish history, thousands of Christians poured out of their churches after prayers the next day, wielding flames and marching toward synagogues. But this was the New World, not medieval Europe; they paraded with love in their hearts, candles in their hands — not menacing torches — and heartfelt, anguished vows of “Never again,” “Not here” and “He is not us” on their lips.

In a country menaced by 39,773 gun deaths in 2017, during an era of church shootings, school massacres and gay nightclub slaughters, two murderous attacks on synagogues are two too many. Yet might they reflect how Jews fit in rather than stand out? How much of the synagogue shooters’ stories center on hating Jews, and how much on hating themselves, others and life in general while targeting life-affirming places or vulnerable places where people gather, be they shuls or schools?

“It may sound strange, but the reaction to Pittsburgh gave me a tremendous amount of hope that we are not alone in this fight.” — Bari Weiss

I don’t deny the problem of an American anti-Semitism, but it should be put in the context of the larger plague of an American nihilism that also warped these killers’ minds while poisoning their souls.

So even while identifying the anti-Semitic forces stirring the politically correct pot on campus and white-nationalist plots online, it helps to distinguish American anti-Semitism from the harsher, more dangerous and more prevalent Islamist and European varieties.

Professor Judea Pearl, Daniel Pearl’s heroic and brilliant father, suggests using the word “Zionophobia” to zero in on the irrational, Israel-obsessed Jew-hatred festering in academic and progressive circles. Similarly, it might help to use the word “Judeophobia” to zero in on the American strain of this global illness. Beyond evoking the xenophobia behind white nationalism, calling it a “phobia” puts the onus where it belongs: on the hater, not the hated. Weiss and Lipstadt correctly complain that more than with any other targeted group, people often blame Jews for being disliked.

Targeting Zionophobia and Judeophobia might unite left and right against both pathologies, rejecting left-wingers who claim to like Jews while hating Israel and right-wingers who claim to like Israel while hating Jews.

A Presidential Leadership Test

Most important, calling American anti-Semitism “Judeophobia” acknowledges the United States’ unique acceptance of Jews and Judaism. The U.S. remains that place where so far, major party nominees compete over who is more pro-Israel rather than who can scapegoat the Jews the most. It’s a place where Americanism and anti-Semitism inherently clash. It’s a place still broadly committed to its core ideals and to an all-American decency the far left refuses to acknowledge and Trump keeps violating.

Of course, there’s a presidential leadership test here, which Trump is failing, despite his pro-Israel actions. Weiss writes, “In the end, Trump’s incessant dog whistling is less significant than the larger charge of which he stands guilty: the systemic removal of what my colleague Bret Stephens has called ‘the moral guardrails that keep bigotry down.’ Trump has done this by denigrating both the most heroic and the weakest people in our culture, by stoking angry mobs, by showing contempt for the rule of law and disdain for the very best of American traditions.”

By contrast, consider two other presidents — one Republican, one Democrat. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush offended many Jews by calling himself “one lonely little guy” facing “powerful political forces” after more than 1,200 Israel activists lobbied Congress, seeking loan guarantees to help Israel resettle emigrating Soviet Jews. Shoshana Cardin, chairing the Conference of Presidents, privately met the then-president. She explained that rhetoric about Jewish lobbyists outmuscling the president echoed traditionally bigoted exaggerations about Jewish power.

“Don’t trust people who seek to divide Jews. Even if they are Jews.”
— Bari Weiss

“Mr. President, I think you need to understand how deeply American Jewry was hurt by your statement,” Cardin said. “Because of your statement, you drew blood and the sharks came swimming.” Bush pointed out he didn’t use the word “Jews.” Cardin explained he did not have to. “Everyone understood that the people you were referring to were Jewish. That’s why the White House switchboard lit up with so many messages of support from anti-Semites.”

“I never intended to hurt anyone,” Bush said, “or give encouragement to anti-Semitism.” He then apologized to the American Jewish leaders he had invited to the White House to meet him. 

Yes, the United States once had a president who could listen carefully to critics and sincerely say he was sorry.

On a broader scale, after Timothy McVeigh’s truck bomb destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, President Bill Clinton fought back against the white militia movement, not just McVeigh’s co-conspirators.

While deploying America’s full legal might, Clinton also subtly asserted moral leadership, condemning the militia traitors while refusing to demonize all forms of dissent. “I’m hoping that we can draw the lines of things that we think are unacceptable, that are just purely fostering hatred, division and encouraging violence and still have a conversation with differences of opinion,” he told a reporter. “… My job as president is not to try to silence people with whom I disagree, no matter how bitterly I disagree. My job is to try to see that the Constitution is protected and that the laws are upheld, that the American people are safe and secure to lead whatever lives they want to lead, to do whatever they want to do, and to express whatever political views they have.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, by 2001, the number of militia or “patriot” groups had plummeted from 858 to 194. Its analysts and other opponents rejoiced that the movement had been reduced to “a shadow of its former self.”

Unlike many liberals and journalists today, Weiss doesn’t blame everything on Trump. She acknowledges the internet gives once-marginalized haters a reach they lacked just a decade ago. She sees Trump as a symptom of the problem as well as a force making the fight harder. She ends her book with 27 suggestions for combating anti-Semitism from the left and the right.

Weiss divides her proposals into three parts. First, she examines “how we orient ourselves toward our enemies,” insisting we call out Jew-hatred wherever it festers. Trust your gut, she urges, offering a kippah/Jewish star test. If you can’t feel comfortable openly displaying symbols of Judaism, it’s time to fix your environment — or move away. She also advises, “Don’t trust people who seek to divide Jews. Even if they are Jews.” Here, Weiss demands a boldness in the fight the Jewish response often lacks.

Next, Weiss examines “how we orient ourselves toward our allies. Notice your enemies. But even more, notice your friends. Follow ‘the Pittsburgh principle,’ ” she writes, appreciating the loving non-Jewish mainstream, not the Judeophobic fringe. She urges an ideological house-cleaning, with liberals attacking left-wing Zionophobia while conservatives confront right-wing Judeophobia.

It’s true. The best response to Jew-hatred is to embrace Jews, Jewish peoplehood, Judaism and Israel. If we don’t stand up, we will keep getting knocked down.

Finally, and most exhaustively, she examines “how we orient ourselves toward ourselves.” She says everyone must fight “first and foremost, as Americans,” voting for freedom, preserving liberalism and supporting Israel. She also urges Jews — as Lipstadt does — to “Lean into Judaism. … Nurture your Jewish identity — and that of those around you.” Finally, Weiss encourages her readers both to “Know that one person can change history” and to “Tell your story.”

It’s true. The best response to Jew-hatred is to embrace Jews, Jewish peoplehood, Judaism and Israel. If we don’t stand up, we will keep getting knocked down.

Weiss’ proposals are more strategic than tactical. Most make the book feel like it’s written for American Jews when all Americans should read it. Sadly, the need to start there reflects the deep confusion among American Jews who have been so sucked into the partisan whirlwind that it’s blunted one of the Jews’ most basic historic instincts: the ability to identify our enemies.

Still, the suggestions she provides are overwhelming. Specifics would have helped.  For example, I would solicit assistance from America’s power centers. Where in Hollywood are the successors to Darryl F. Zanuck, Elia Kazan, Moss Hart and Gregory Peck, who helped make “Gentleman’s Agreement” an Academy Award-winning blow against anti-Semitism in 1947? Where on the right are the successors to William F. Buckley, who started writing an article in 1991 that turned into a book, detailing why Pat Buchanan’s anti-Semitism didn’t belong in the Republican Party? Where on the left are the successors to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who said “when people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews, you are talking anti-Semitism”? 

When targeting plutocrats, Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Judge me by the enemies I make.” By that standard, I am proud to be hated by white supremacists and uber-nationalists of the right; by the illiberal liberals and intersectional bigots of the left; by the Islamist terrorists who somehow bridge left and right; and by Jew-hating street hoods.

But judge me by my friends, too. By that standard, I feel blessed to be in league with smart, proud writers such as Bari Weiss and Deborah Lipstadt. 

I’m not naive enough to predict that with tellers of truth such as they are, we will prevail. Still, with prophets like them, at least some of us will keep honest and centered and inspired to fight for what’s right — for all our sakes.


Gil Troy is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University in Canada and author of the recently released “The Zionist Ideas.”

Silence of the Libs: Is Security a Jewish Value?

Courtesy of JNS.org

About 10 hours after the horrible slaying of 17-year-old Rina Shnerb in a terror attack on Aug. 23, I was curious to see the reaction of the Jewish community. There was widespread condemnation across mainstream and right-wing groups. Among progressive groups more focused on politics and policy, J Street and Americans for Peace Now unequivocally condemned the attack.

J Street tweeted: 

“We are heartbroken by this fatal attack near Dolev in the West Bank. Our thoughts are with the victim’s family, two of whom are still in serious condition. This violence must be condemned without equivocation.”

Americans for Peace Now tweeted:

“We unequivocally condemn the heinous killing of 17-year-old Israeli Rina Shnerb in a terrorist bombing today in the West Bank, which also seriously injured her 19-year-old brother and father.”

But I saw no such statements from other progressive groups such as T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights; the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC); Rabbis for Human Rights; and the New Israel Fund. Two days later, still no reaction. How could that be? Why would they not condemn such a deliberate, depraved act of violence against Jews?

So, I took a closer look at their websites to get a better sense of the Jewish values that animate their work.

T’ruah acts “on the Jewish imperative to respect and advance the human rights of all people … [and] call upon Jews to assert Jewish values by raising our voices and taking concrete steps to protect and expand human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Progressives are very loud when they pounce on Israel for any violation of the human rights of Palestinians. But how about the human right of a Jew to not be killed by Palestinian terrorists?

The RAC aims to “organize communities to create a world overflowing with justice, compassion, and peace,” while adding that their work is “completely nonpartisan.”

Rabbis for Human Rights describes itself as “the rabbinic voice of conscience in Israel, giving voice to the Jewish tradition of human rights,” including “the traditional Jewish responsibility for the safety and welfare of the stranger, the different and the weak, the convert, the widow and the orphan.”

The New Israel Fund is “working to build a stronger democracy in Israel, rooted in the values of equality, of inclusion, and of social justice.” 

What I found odd with all these groups is that while they cite plenty of Jewish values, I didn’t see one mention of “security.” The closest was Rabbis for Human Rights, which mentions “safety” for “the stranger, the different and the weak, the convert, the widow and the orphan.”

That is indeed noble, but what about “safety” for a strong, 17-year-old Jewish girl whose only crime was to go on a nature walk with her family? 

Is it possible that the silence of these groups after the murder of Rina Shnerb was connected to the absence of “security for the Jewish people” in their values statements? After all, they are very loud when they pounce on Israel for any violation of the human rights of Palestinians.

Security is connected to the highest Jewish value of them all — saving a life.

But how about the human right of a Jew to not be killed by Palestinian terrorists?

Maybe progressives see a value like “security” as too crude, too simplistic, too right wing. In truth, they should know that security is connected to the highest Jewish value of them all — saving a life.

It is ironic that a Reform writer and activist, Jacob Kraus, had no problem spelling that out. Writing in 2016 on the website ReformJudaism.org on the balance between “civil liberties and national security,” Kraus led his piece with this Jewish principle:

“ ‘When one pursues another with intent to kill … every Jew is commanded to save the intended victim, even at the cost of the pursuer’s life’ (Maimonides Yad, Rotzeach 1:6). Maimonides’ instruction here echoes the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh (saving a life), an imperative that overrides nearly every commandment.”

The Jewish groups I mentioned embrace Jewish values like justice, equality and compassion, but why can’t they also embrace the Jewish value of protecting lives, including Jewish ones? Where was their outrage at the terror that took the life of Rina Shnerb?

Yes, Jews are supposed to care for the stranger, but aren’t we also supposed to be responsible for one another, which includes being responsible for our well-being and not just our sinning?

I want to give the groups the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it was just an oversight that they will soon correct. In any case, may we all heed the words from Isaiah 58:1, featured on T’ruah’s home page:

“Cry aloud; do not be silent. Lift up your voice like a shofar.”

The departed soul of Rina Shnerb deserves nothing less.

Dershowitz Makes the Case in Defense of Israel

Alan Dershowitz is a familiar name in media coverage and public conversation on an astounding variety of topics, but the subtitle of his latest book, “Defending Israel: The Story of My Relationship With My Most Challenging Client” (All Points Books), reveals what matters most to him.

Although the book was written before the president of the United States urged the prime minister of Israel to exclude two congresswomen from a congressional delegation to Israel, Dershowitz acknowledges that support for Israel — once a rare point of consensus in American politics — can no longer be taken for granted. Indeed, the whole point of his book is to make the case for Israel, which is exactly why Dershowitz refers to the Jewish state as his “client.”

While Dershowitz is careful to acknowledge that he has “no actual lawyer/client relationship with Israel,” he also embraces the moniker that has been bestowed on him by the pundits: “I have been called ‘Israel’s single most visible defender’ and ‘the Jewish state’s lead attorney in the court of public opinion.’ ” He insists that “I am free to criticize its policies when I disagree with them.” But he accepts the mantle of Israel’s public defender, and his new book can be seen as a kind of trial brief.

“If the drift away from bipartisan support for Israel is not reversed, it will pose real dangers to Israel’s security,” Dershowitz warns. “It is a goal of this book to try to influence, in a positive direction, this discernable drift away from bipartisan support for the Middle East’s only democracy and America’s most reliable ally. It is a daunting task, but a crucial one to help secure Israel’s future.”

“If the drift away from bipartisan support for Israel is not reversed, it will pose real dangers to Israel’s security. It is a goal of this book to try to influence, in a positive direction, this discernable drift away from bipartisan support for the Middle East’s only democracy and America’s most reliable ally.” — Alan Dershowitz

At the same time, “Defending Israel” is a memoir, both sentimental and poignant. Dershowitz was raised in a Jewish family in Brooklyn that “saw no conflict between their religious orthodoxy and their political liberalism, or between their Zionism and their progressive values.” At the age of 10, he challenged some of the rabbis in his Orthodox elementary school who believed that Jewish sovereignty must await the coming of the Messiah. Later, he attended a summer camp where his counselors included a 20-year-old Noam Chomsky, who “supported, in theory, a binational secular state” but “was not opposed in practice to the state declared by [David] Ben-Gurion.” (A couple of decades later, Dershowitz would publicly debate his former camp counselor over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)

Dershowitz is quick to point out the ironies that suffuse the current debate over Israel. The two-state solution, he reminds us, was explicit in the United Nations resolution that partitioned the British mandate over a territory called Palestine into “independent Arab and Jewish states.” The word “Palestine” itself was actually coined by the Roman conquerors of ancient Judea and referred to place, not a people. When Frank Sinatra sang at a fundraising concert in support of Jewish statehood at the Hollywood Bowl, the event was dubbed the “Action for Palestine” rally. “Had the new nation-state of the Jewish people called itself ‘Jewish Palestine,’ instead of Israel, the optics would be quite different,” Dershowitz quips.

Another irony is that Israel was far more popular in the early years of statehood, when it was seen as “weak, both militarily and economically, and it posed no danger to anyone.” Only after the Six-Day War in 1967 — and, a decade later, the electoral success of Menachem Begin and the Likud party — did the ground shift under Israel’s feet in world public opinion. “The election of Begin created some cognitive dissonance for many American Jews like myself and many of my friends and colleagues, who are both liberals and Zionists,” he writes. “We have had to confront this conflict over many years, and it may well continue into the foreseeable future.”

Significantly, Dershowitz was among the Jewish voices who spoke out in 1979 against the building of settlements on the West Bank. “We honestly believed, and I still believe, that building civilian settlements on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip was harmful to Israel’s moral standing and did not contribute to its security,” he declares. Later, he joined in supporting “the Israeli equivalent of the ACLU” in challenging Israeli policies on civil liberties. And, only last year, he published the book “The Case Against BDS: Why Singling Out Israel for Boycott Is Anti-Semitic and Anti-Peace.” 

“My position on Israel guaranteed me enemies on both the right and the left,” he explains. “The center, where I had located myself (center left in my case) was shrinking, and that movement toward extremes made reasoned, nuance discourse more difficult.”

Throughout his new book, Dershowitz enlivens his account with lively anecdotes that also remind us of the author’s friends in high places. When he told Arthur Goldberg that he was traveling to Israel to interview Prime Minster Golda Meir for a PBS broadcast in 1970, the former Supreme Court justice asked Dershowitz to do him a favor: “You have to bring Goldie a carton of Lucky Strikes unfiltered cigarettes as a gift from me and Dorothy,” Goldberg told Dershowitz. “She loves them, but her security people won’t let her have them.” When he sat down for a talk with Ariel Sharon, he was frustrated that Sharon spoke “as if reading from a scripted briefing.” 

“ ‘Can we get down to tachlis?’ I asked, using a Yiddish term that roughly suggests, ‘Cut the B.S. and let’s get to the point,’ ” Dershowitz recalls. “He laughed and replied, ‘Good, I like tachlis.’ ”

Dershowitz has written more than 40 books and we can be sure he will continue to participate in what he calls “the communications war.” But there is a certain solemnity and gravity to his latest book, which serves as a charge to his fellow Americans and his fellow Jews. “We must determine our destiny, write our future history, and assure the survival of the Jewish people and their nation-state forever,” he concludes.

By “Defending Israel: The Story of my Relationship With My Most Challenging Client” on Amazon here.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Choosing Life: The Jewish Secret to Survival

My mother, a clinical social worker in the Baltimore public school system, swears by the book “The Choice” by Edith Eva Eger. Eger survived the Holocaust, while her parents were sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. It’s her spirit of embracing the possible that makes Eger’s post-Holocaust psychology stand out. “We can choose what the horror teaches us,” Eger reminds us. “To become bitter in our grief and fear. Hostile. Paralyzed. Or to hold on to the childlike part of us, the lively and the curious part, the part that is innocent.”

No matter our struggles, challenges, insecurities or pain, we have the power of choice. The question is, what do we choose? 

“Choose life.” A few days after Dvir Sorek, an 18-year-old yeshiva student and soldier, was killed by Palestinian terrorists, I kept repeating his father Yoav’s eulogy in which he implored everyone to “choose life.”

How could he speak so positively after this tragedy? Eikhah, how?

After reading Eikhah on a Saturday night, I realized perhaps the better question than “how” is: What does this sort of response tell us about Zionism and the Jewish people, especially in light of Tisha b’Av?

Zionism as a Tikkun

Tradition tells us that on the ninth of Av, we lost the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, because of the sin of spies who, upon return from the Land of Israel, spoke about the land in an unbecoming way. Yet, the sin of the spies seems quite vague and the punishment so severe. God tells Moshe to take the best and the bravest, the outstanding leaders of the Jewish people to scout the land. These aristocrats do just that, and they come back with their objective assessment of what’s taking place. They cite the good (i.e. land flowing with milk and honey), then the bad (i.e. there were giants and a lot of other nations). Their description was accurate. It was honest. And that was the problem. Their objective assessment of the Land of Israel was not good enough.

Consider the early Zionists as foils to the spies. Unlike the spies, these young men and women, often orphans and penniless, were anything but aristocratic. When they arrived in the Land of Israel (then called Palestine) from Europe, they might have seen the marshes, the disease, the swamps, the local Arab inhabitants and said, “Nope. This isn’t for us.” It would have been accurate. It would have been honest. It would have been fair. Nobody would have blamed them for this objective assessment. But the early Zionists had what writer Ari Shavit calls “convenient blindness” and collectively banded together like the 12 spies should have and said, “We can do it. We can turn this land into our land. We can reclaim our heritage.”

Of course, seeing the Temple desolate was devastating. The rabbis’ objective assessment was accurate. It was realistic. It was fair. But Rabbi Akiva saw things through the lens of anchored optimism — not objective reality and not juvenile fantasy.

Essentially, they showed themselves to be the descendants of Kalev, who, in the face of adversity from the other spies, peer pressure and groupthink, asserted his own view and heroically declared, “Aloh naaleh, viyarashnu otah, ki yachol nuchal lah,” “We can do it! We can conquer the land!”

The job of a Jew is not to describe things as they are, but as they ought to be. We’re not just realists; we’re thoughtful and reflective optimists who, in the words of the late Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, choose optimism over pessimism because “optimists and pessimists die the exact same death, but they live very different lives.”

Rabbi Akiva and Optimism

One millennium after the story of the spies, the Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Akiva and his rabbinic colleagues traveling to Jerusalem. When they approached the Temple Mount, they saw foxes exiting the Holy of Holies. How did the rabbis respond? With tears. How did Rabbi Akiva react? By channeling his inner Kalev — with optimism and laughter.

“Eikhah, how?”

The rabbis asked Rabbi Akiva this very question, and his answer is a subtle hint into the psyche of the success of the Jewish experience from antiquity to today.

“Why do you laugh?” they asked.
“Why do you cry?” he replied

How can we not cry, they said, when we see foxes milling about a place of which it is written that “a stranger who draws near shall die?” To which, Rabbi Akiva replied, “This is precisely why I laugh. Uriah wrote, ‘Zion shall be plowed as a field.’ Zachariah wrote, ‘Old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem.’ So long as Uriah’s prophecy was not fulfilled, I worried that Zachariah’s prophecy might not be fulfilled. Now that Uriah’s prophecy was fulfilled, there is no question that Zachariah’s prophecy will also be fulfilled.”

Of course, seeing the Temple desolate was devastating. The rabbis’ objective assessment was accurate. It was realistic. It was fair. But Rabbi Akiva saw things through the lens of anchored optimism — not objective reality and not juvenile fantasy.

Russian author Leo Tolstoy asks, “What is the Jew? What kind of creature is this whom all the rulers of all the nations of the world have disgraced and crushed and expelled and destroyed; persecuted, burned and drowned, and who, despite their anger and their fury, continues to live and to flourish?”

I think we can begin to answer that question. From Kalev to Rabbi Akiva and from the early Zionists to Yoav Sorek, the Jewish people have shown the ability to see what others either cannot or choose not to, to live lives of anchored optimism and to “choose life” in the face of adversity and trauma.

On the heels of Tisha b’Av and during the shivah of Dvir Sorek, I echo the words of Yoav Sorek, who described his slain son as a young man with a “bright face, positive thought, innocence and love for humanity.” Let’s follow Yoav Sorek’s lesson to “choose life,” and let’s remind our young people to engage in the “positive thought and love for humanity” by which Dvir lived.


Noam Weissman is the senior vice president of education of Jerusalem U, a digital media company focused on Israel education and Jewish identity.

Why Bibi Should Have Followed AIPAC

U.S. Reps Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) hold a news conference after Democrats in the U.S. Congress moved to formally condemn President Donald Trump's attacks on four minority congresswomen on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 15, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo

There are many angles to the still-burning controversy of Israel refusing to allow entry to U.S. Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.

First, there are the merits of the case. Israel passed a law in 2017 prohibiting entry to anyone who supports the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Tlaib and Omar have well-documented anti-Israel and pro-BDS credentials. Their published itinerary for the visit didn’t even pretend to see both sides of the conflict. It reeked of a propaganda media circus to embarrass their Israeli hosts.

Further, the trip was sponsored by a Palestinian group, Miftah, that NRO’s David French wrote is “a vile, vicious anti-Semitic group that spread blood libel, printed neo-Nazi propaganda, and celebrates terrorists who kill children.”

So, yes, Israel had every right to prevent a visit that had all the makings of an Israel hatefest and could have incited violence in a region already on edge.

From the minute Trump’s tweet came out, it transformed the dynamics of the story… The story was no longer about the anti-Zionism of two Congresswomen; it was about the U.S.—Israel relationship.

But let’s go beyond the merits and think strategically. As I wrote online after the decision, “Regardless of where you sit politically, it’s bad optics for a country that bills itself as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ to act as if it has something to hide.”

And while there was a strong case for refusing entry, doing so made Israel appear anti-Democratic and turned Tlaib and Omar into heroes and victims. It also strengthened the voices of those who libel Israel as an Apartheid, anti-Democratic state.

This was clearly, then, a lose-lose situation for Israel.

Until something happened that changed everything— the nakedly partisan tweet from President Donald Trump:

“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!”

From the minute Trump’s tweet came out, it transformed the dynamics of the story. Even if Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu had already decided to bar Tlaib and Omar from entering (as he ended up doing), it didn’t matter– it would be seen as if he bowed to Trump’s pressure and played along with his political war against Democrats.

And if he allowed them in, he’d be seen as going against a president who has been hugely supportive of Bibi and his government.

By introducing partisan politics, Trump significantly raised the stakes. The story was no longer about the anti-Zionism of two Congresswomen; it was about the U.S.—Israel relationship.

Bibi was in a tight spot. He was pressured from both sides. What he might have missed is that Trump’s public pressure actually presented a unique opportunity. Had he refused to go along with Trump’s partisan games, Bibi could have made this dramatic statement to the U.S. Congress:

“Bipartisan support for the state of Israel, as well as our enormous respect for the U.S. Congress, are rock-solid values for my country. That is why we will welcome Rep. Tlaib and Rep. Omar to Israel, despite our serious concerns about their anti-Israel activity, and despite partisan pressure from some of our friends.”

In other words, going against Trump, which would have taken cojones, was precisely the leverage point Bibi needed to solidify Israel’s most vital strategic asset: Bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress.

Allowing two anti-Zionists to flack their propaganda for a few days in the Palestinian territories seems like a reasonable price to pay for that strategic benefit, especially considering that barring them has exacted its own price.

Would Israel have paid a price from a vindictive Trump whose “order” was not followed? One never knows with our impulsive president, but he must be aware that “punishing” Israel would surely not help him retain the White House in 2020.

Bibi was in a tight spot. He was pressured from both sides. What he might have missed is that Trump’s public pressure actually presented a unique opportunity.

As it stands now, instead of Israel getting a boost in Congressional support, Bibi’s decision to bar the Congresswomen has undermined that support, forcing Democrats to defend Tlaib and Omar and further fraying Israel’s bipartisanship relationship with its most important ally.

One can argue that Congressional Democrats should have aimed their sights on Tlaib and Omar for planning a one-sided trip with intentions to humiliate an ally. Maybe, had the Congresswomen been allowed in, pro-Israel Democrats would have had more ammunition. We don’t know.

What we know is that Bibi could have used a comeback with Democrats. His love affair with a president that virtually all Democrats abhor hasn’t helped Israel’s image. I’m sure Bibi knows this. I’m sure he also realizes that his latest move will likely reinforce the resentments and partisan divisions.

He had a chance to reverse this pattern by following the wise ways of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a group that understands and nourishes bipartisan support for Israel better than anyone. In a rare move, AIPAC went against Bibi’s decision, tweeting that “every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.” They knew what they were doing.

The “entrygate” controversy may blow over in a few news cycles, or it may linger and leave a scar. Either way, it’s a shame that Israel couldn’t seize the moment to strengthen its position in the world’s most powerful legislature. That’s the one angle to this story I find most compelling.

The Omar-Tlaib Entry Ban: 10 Comments on the Aftermath

U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) participates in a news conference to call on Congress to cut funding for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


1. Israel was right to reverse course and prevent representatives Omar and Tlaib from visiting. The following tweet by former Israeli MK Dr. Einat Wilf says it all: “Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have no goodwill towards Israel, or pro-Israel Jews. They are on a long-term mission to turn the US away from Israel. They are not coming with an open mind. There is no reason for Israel to allow them in and submit to their agenda.”

2. Or read this tweet, by Eugene Kontorovich. “Omar’s falsely and proactively calling this a ‘Muslim ban’ reassures me that denying the visa was the right thing to do. Anything that would happen on the trip she would absurdly blame on racism, anti-Moslem bigotry. Now the list is at least kept short, the visa denial”.

3. Why did I begin with Wilf and Kontorovich? Because there is a false impression that there are no decent arguments for banning the visit, and no decent people supportive of banning the visit. That’s not the case.

True, many legislators and Jewish leaders and Aipac and AJC opposed the ban. They also have good arguments. But these arguments are not necessarily better than the arguments raised by supporters of the ban (myself included).

4. A while ago, I came to suspect that many US Democrats no longer understand the value of borders and no longer have respect for the right of countries to control their borders. This is evident to anyone observing the US debate about immigration. It is evident when Israel is criticized for insisting on its right to control its borders, whether to stop Gazans from infiltrating southern Israel, or deciding that two visitors are not welcome.

5. Something to remember: Tlaib and Omar have no inherent right to visit Israel. Israel is under no obligation to let them visit. They are not Israeli.

Some people say: you must tolerate critics. We do. In fact, we tolerate much more than our fair share of critics. Israelis have the right to criticize Israel from within, and all others are free to criticize Israel where they are.

6. Some people say: the ban will damage Israel’s relations with the Democratic Party. It might, or it might not. But is Israel the only party with a vested interest in these relations? Democratic leaders also have a choice. They can choose to understand that Israel has a point. They can choose to disagree and move on. They can also choose to damage the relationship. What they can’t do is argue that Israel alone is responsible for maintaining the relationship, and that Israel alone is responsible for souring it.

7. That Aipac believes Israel erred is important, but quite predictable. Aipac’s main turf is Congress, Aipac’s main challenge is having to deal with a reluctant Democratic Party. Israel made this challenge more difficult to overcome. Aipac is attempting to mitigate the damage.

8. It is reasonable for a state to say that it is willing to engage with everyone except those openly seeking its destruction. It is useful for a country, and for its critics, when a line of intolerability is drawn for everybody to see. That way, there is no confusion. You want to be a critic and still engage Israel in conversation? Here is a line you cannot cross.

9. Oftentimes policy makers must make decisions when the probable outcome of different options is unclear, because it depends on many unknowns. How long might the ban damage Israel’s relations with the Democrats? Will Omar and Tlaib serve in Congress for many terms, and get senior positions? Who will win the next US election? What will be on the American agenda in the coming years? Is Netanyahu staying or going? Will a peace process resume, how and when? Just take note of one recent example: when PM Netanyahu decided to speak in Congress against the Iran deal, he was condemned by many Democratic legislators. But his insistence paid off when Trump was elected President.

10. There is another unknown that ought to be considered. Had Israel let the visit move forward as planned, what would be the consequences? What if the Congresswomen deliberately provoked Israeli security officers? What if they were successful in stirring tensions that would then turn to bloodshed? What if they were hurt and Israel was blamed for it?

The answer is: We only see the damage of the road taken, but there is also damage in the road not taken.

Olivia Cohen-Cutler is Helping Couples Say ‘Yes’

You can find Olivia Cohen-Cutler most Wednesdays at the Van Nuys County Courthouse. There, clad in her law school graduation robe, she serves the state of California as a deputy commissioner of civil marriages. She has a box of tissues in case someone cries and a box of Hershey’s Kisses to help couples start their marriages with something sweet. 

But before she was helping people say “I do,” she had a 29-year career at the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), first in labor relations and business affairs, then as senior vice president of policy and standards. During her tenure, she helped to eliminate hate speech from the airwaves and to support accurate portrayals of faith on television. She also chaired the MorningStar Commission, an organization founded by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, to advocate for a healthier diversity of portrayals of Jewish women in the media and entertainment industry. 

Now, 3 1/2 years after retiring, she’s marrying between 12 and 15 couples a day and reflecting on the reasons people decide to legally commit to each other.

Jewish Journal: At ABC, you often decided what made it to air. What kinds of things did you prevent from airing and to what extent did your Jewish identity or experience inform your work?

Olivia Cohen-Cutler: My Jewish identity, especially in the last 16 years of my career at ABC, was my moral compass. It was part of my job to be the moral compass for the content. We said no to all manner of hate speech. We took out the stereotyping, [terms like] spic, wetback, kike, the n-word. … You have no idea how many times we heard those kinds of things and didn’t allow them on the air, because to allow them on the air would make them acceptable in a larger context. We had to find a way to say what they wanted without proliferating hate speech, trying to give writers and creative people the most leeway we could to tell their stories. I would insist upon Jewish practices being right, and we had to make sure you weren’t using the stereotype of Jews being stingy and miserly with money. We made sure things having to do with the Catholic religion were also done with the right tenets of their faith. 

Part of our mission was to make sure things were accurate. Especially as a Jewish woman, and then chair of the MorningStar Commission, it was important to create strong and diverse portrayals of Jewish women, not all Jewish American Princesses and overbearing Jewish mothers. It was important [during my work at ABC] that [faith portrayals] be accurate and relatable. Most people in the U.S., the only experience they have with a Jewish person is what they see on a screen. If you live in Los Angeles or New York or Florida, you forget that.

JJ: It’s the Jewish holiday of love, Tu b’Av, so let’s talk marriage. What’s it like spending a day of your week helping people say “I do”?

 “It’s so crazy that I say three minutes of words and they’re legally bound to each other. It’s so interesting to me that in this day and age, this tradition is so powerful. There’s a psychic power to the marriage ceremony that defies explanation.” 

OCC: It’s so crazy that I say three minutes of words and they’re legally bound to each other. It’s so interesting to me that in this day and age, this tradition is so powerful. There’s a psychic power to the marriage ceremony that defies explanation. I have a ceremony template I tweaked to reflect things I wanted to include in addition to the required vows and pronouncements to make the ceremony a little more meaningful. They can say vows, but most don’t. Sometimes I ask, “What made you decide to get married today?” In my notebook, I write down the first name and age of both, and a paragraph about what transpired so I can remember and honor the experience.

Many couples have divorced and found they couldn’t live without each other and are remarrying. Some couples have just the two [of them] present; sometimes [there’s] a lot of people. 

When I introduce myself, [couples sometimes] give me a sign that they’re happy that I’m Jewish. “Someone who understands who I am,” they’ll say. [With] one couple, one of the bride’s parents was born in Israel. At the end, everyone said “mazel tov.” I said, “Let’s get the whole mishpachah up here,” and they flipped out, [saying], “I knew we had a Cohen!”  After a life of saying “no” [at ABC], I’m saying “yes” to everyone. I love the hell out of doing it. Talk about a slice of life.

JJ: You’ve been married to your husband, Andy, for 42 years. What’s your best piece of relationship advice? 

OCC: Forget a lot. Look for the good and forget whatever’s sticking in your craw. It’s not about forgiveness because some things you can forgive but not forget and the forgetting enables you to make the next day clean. Everything passes, the good and the bad, unless you hang on to it. And the forgetting is how you don’t hang on to it. Life happens and the person that you’re with bears the brunt of how that life is happening to you and vice versa.

[On anniversaries] we each try to be the first to say happy anniversary. It compounds the importance of our bond, that we don’t let that go. Ritual is important to everything. We’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs. You have to hold on to the stuff that is important to get you through the times that are tough.

‘CultureShift’ Initiative Helps Camps Create Safe Environments in the #MeToo Era

Photo courtesy of Camp Ramah

Jewish summer camp is intended to be a space of Jewish and personal exploration. Many of today’s Jewish adults fell in love or had their hearts broken at camp. But as awareness of sexual harassment and consent increases, parents and educators are faced with the challenge of how to create safe spaces for children, especially at summer camp, where campers assert their independence and the counselors who act as their role models are often teenagers themselves. 

Moving Traditions, which has specialized in teen programming since its founding in 2005, is meeting this challenge head-on through its CultureShift camp initiative and a new SRE (Safety Respect Equity) Coalition grant to create training videos for camp staff.

While Moving Traditions had already been working with camps since 2015 on issues around harassment and consent, “#MeToo really raised the alarm for the Jewish community and the wider world that we can’t ignore them anymore,” said
Moving Traditions founder and CEO Deborah Meyer.

“What makes camp so special and unique is our intentionality, from the songs we sing, the activities we provide, to how we speak to one another,” said Dr. Aviva Levine Jacobs, director of camper care at Camp Ramah in California and a Moving Traditions camp advisory board member. “CultureShift addresses that intentionality around sensitive topics that touch all of our lives.” 

“Starting with smaller conversations among staff members at several camps, [we] realized it could go very deep very quickly,” said Rabbi Daniel Brenner, Moving Traditions’ director of education. “The lightbulb was, ‘Wow, this has direct and immediate application in the camp environment, even more than in the regular year.’ ”

In April, 15 leaders from nine camps participated in a two-day “train the trainer” institute. The online CultureShift tool kit includes a 75-page handbook for different camp audiences and includes research, role-playing exercises and resources for when mental health or medical staff need to be involved. These tools will be evaluated and revised in the fall and another training session is planned for January 2020. 

While Moving Traditions had already been working with camps since 2015 on issues around harassment and consent, “#MeToo really raised the alarm for the Jewish community and the wider world that we can’t ignore them anymore.”

— Deborah Meyer

“Moving Traditions works to foster self-discovery, challenge sexism and create long-lasting connections to Judaism, helping teens develop an ethical framework, how to form positive relationships, build meaningful community,” Meyer said. “Sex, sexuality and respect are essential elements to creating a moral and meaningful life, so we have felt really called to help teens look at issues that are central to their joys and challenges, drawing on their own values and addressing the things they care about most.” 

Local CultureShift supporter Brian Shirken said, “As parents, [my wife and I] have seen how important it is for our kids to engage in mutually respectful relationships and to understand the nuances of this issue in today’s society. CultureShift will definitely increase the awareness and activism of all kids and parents around this issue and enable them to engage in an informed manner and behave in an appropriate manner.” 

“For so many camp counselors, this is their first job. [We need to] educate them about what’s appropriate in the workplace,” Meyer said. “Parents want to hear that this conversation [about consent] is happening even if it’s not clear what the policy or guidelines should be. Many parents and directors want to hear that their staff isn’t turning up the volume on peer pressure and objectification. Eighteen- and 19-year-olds are modeling behavior through humor, teasing and practical jokes as much as through speeches on how to behave. How are the counselors modeling behavior and understanding that part of their job is turning down the sexual pressure? That’s really key.” 

Brenner noted that consent conversation is a particular challenge with boys, who “thought they were being told what to say or being patronized. We started thinking about alternative ways to talk about consent with teen boys. Teens need to hear a counter-message in an environment they feel is safe for men to be in and speak in.”

The collaboration between Camp Ramah in California and Moving Traditions began in 2016-2017 as “a shared conversation around best practices regarding working with teens around issues of gender, modesty and sexuality,” Jacobs said. 

In the summer of 2017, Brenner modeled the implementation of a mapping exercise around gender norms, stereotypes and assumptions for the Ramah staff. Ramah adapted the guidelines related to sex and sexuality at camp and held training for staff members working with teens. 

Even before working with Moving Traditions, Jacobs said Ramah convened a “split gender circle” during staff week, inviting veteran staff members to share stories around the topics of “creating a healthy culture at camp around body image, language, inclusion, sexual intimacy and more.” 

The National Ramah Commission also partnered with Sacred Spaces, an organization that works to prevent institutional abuse in Jewish communities, to offer more clear and explicit guidelines to safeguard against sexual harassment or abuse in the workplace, Jacobs said.

Brenner said that Orthodox camps also were represented in every city with CultureShift training. “It’s not safe to assume that gender-segregated camps are not experiencing sexism and sexual harassment. There is the same number of stories of throwing out staff for inappropriate behavior.”  

“We hope that by utilizing the resources that CultureShift provides, we are shifting culture at camp to align most closely with our core values of creating a makom (place) where staff and campers alike feel first and foremost safe, comfortable and in an environment less mired with sexual pressure, rigid gender norms and body shaming than the outside world,” Jacobs said.

“This is a long process, not an overnight change,” Meyer said. 

Added Brenner, “We’re starting where we see the greatest need and impact: These excellent summer camps that are open to how to do this better.”

Israeli Nurse and LGBTQ Advocate is a Bride Like No Other

Maya Orabi’s voice raises an octave as she describes the wedding gowns she will wear for her upcoming nuptials. “The first is a very modest dress for under the chuppah,” she says. “The second is much more sexy. I like dressing sexy.”

That Orabi and her dress designer boyfriend, Kobi Ezra, are getting married in a traditional Jewish ceremony is remarkable because, as Orabi explains in a single breath, “I’m an Arab Muslim transgender who’s marrying a Jewish straight guy.”

Two years ago, Orabi came out as a woman. Six months later, she began hormone therapy and a few months after that underwent breast augmentation surgery. Three months ago, she went under the knife again for lower-body gender reassignment surgery, a process that confined her to bed rest. Next month, she’s getting married. The packed timeline doesn’t faze her. “I do things fast,” she says.

Orabi and Ezra met when she modeled one of his dresses. At the time, he had no idea she was transgender. When he eventually introduced her to his parents, traditional Jews of Iraqi origin, they were shocked. “They didn’t really know what transgender meant,” Orabi said. However, they soon grew to love her and have since become surrogate parents in lieu of her own, from whom Orabi is estranged.

Born into a conservative Muslim household in the northern Israeli town of Acre, Orabi was given the name Tamer. She refers to Tamer in abstract terms and always in the third person. “I’m not in denial about that persona but it’s not real. Maya was inside Tamer all along,” she says, recalling buying the dress from the henna wedding ceremony of one of her sisters. “She never knew this but I tried on that dress. It was beautiful. I want it for my own bachelorette party.”

“They think they lost their only brother but they don’t understand that they’ve earned a sister. Maybe one day they will.”

Orabi’s usually buoyant tone grows wistful when she speaks of her three sisters. “They think they lost their only brother but they don’t understand that they’ve earned a sister. Maybe one day they will.”

Orabi’s father told her that if she wanted to go to college, it would have to be in the deeply conservative Palestinian town of Jenin. Orabi was tenacious about pursuing her degree, knowing it was her ticket to freedom. Coming out was the first thing she did after she graduated as a registered nurse four years later.

Israel’s first transgender nurse, Orabi began working in Ichilov hospital’s neurosurgery department. She also volunteered with the Israeli LGBTQ+ youth organization, in particular helping Arab youths struggling with their sexual identity. She simultaneously pursued modeling as a side hustle. Her dream is to be as successful as Canadian model Winnie Harlow, who also has vitiligo — skin characterized by pigmentless patches. “I love this illness,” Orabi says. “It reminds me of all the hardships I’ve been through and where I am today. It is hope.”

Post-surgery and in the run-up to her wedding, Orabi has put the volunteering and modeling on hold and taken a less stressful job with a private nursing company. But she knows she’ll be back. “It gives me lots of happiness to be involved in lots of things. This is my personality,” she says. “And if I succeed in preventing one [transgender] girl from turning to prostitution, then I’ll have done my best work.”

Jewish Women Bring Lawsuit Against Charlottesville Neo-Nazis

Photo by Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share via Reuters

On the night of Aug. 11, 2017, hundreds of white supremacists descended on the streets of Charlottesville, Va., for a torchlit rally at the University of Virginia (UVA), unleashing a weekend of terror through the “Unite the Right” rally. The next morning, then 20-year-old James Fields Jr. plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.

What was branded as a “rally” was really more of a rallying cry for hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists to raid the college town with semi-automatic weapons and launch an all-out race war over the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.

On Oct. 12, 2017, 10 plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in the Western District of Virginia against more than two dozen of the rally’s organizers. The case, Sines v. Kessler, alleges the organizers meticulously plotted a violent conspiracy months in advance of the rally. The plaintiffs represent a group of 10 counterdemonstrators. Elizabeth Sines was a second-year UVA law student at the time. Jason Kessler was the lead organizer of the rally and obtained the permit for
the event.     

Helming the plaintiffs’ case is Roberta Kaplan, the lawyer who made history when she defeated the Supreme Court’s Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, paving the way for marriage equality in all 50 states. Now she’s seeking to combat the leadership behind America’s growing white supremacist movement and possibly bankrupt them into obscurity.

The case is set to go to trial in the summer of 2020. Other defendants include Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right”; Matthew Heimbach,  the founder of the now-defunct hate group the Traditionalist Worker Party; and Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer. 

The 112-page complaint provides a glimpse into the chat room discussions the defendants and alleged co-conspirators engaged in months before the riot. According to the complaint, conversations in a private chat room called Discord spoke extensively of specific weaponry to bring, including semi-automatic rifles with shields and armor. Also discussed was whether it was “legal to run over protesters,” dubbing the tactic of plowing through a crowd as a “protester digester.” 

Kaplan told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in June that she sees this case as a once-in-a-generation lawsuit, similar to 1925’s so-called Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tenn., when high school science teacher John Thomas Scopes was accused of teaching evolution in violation of a Tennessee state law.

Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, a nonprofit backing the suit, told the Journal, “This case is really indicative of the broader crisis of extremism, anti-Semitism, white nationalism and racism that we’re facing right now.”

While the case is focused on holding the defendants accountable for their actions in Charlottesville, Spitalnick said it “also has the potential to dismantle the infrastructure and leadership at the center of this extremist movement.”

In a 2017 interview on Washington Post blogger Jonathan Capehart’s podcast, Kaplan said Charlottesville was not about free speech. It was about racially motivated violence thinly disguised as a First Amendment protest. “If Nazis or KKK (Ku Klux Klan) or white supremacists just want to stand peacefully on a street corner and hold up a sign saying they hate Jews or they hate black people … that is protected speech,” Kaplan said. “I have no issue with that. But that’s not what happened here.” 

That point was emphasized in a federal district court’s 62-page decision issued in July 2018 that rejected the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case on the grounds of First Amendment rights. Senior U.S. District Judge Norman Moon wrote, “The Court concludes Plaintiffs have adequately pled specific factual allegations” and that “much of this conduct was not protected by the First Amendment.”

“This case is really indicative of the broader crisis of extremism, anti-Semitism, white nationalism and racism that we’re facing right now. I don’t think that our defendants like the fact that they’re being sued by Jewish women.”

 — Amy Spitalnik

Kaplan and co-counsel Karen Dunn are preparing their case based on two statutes that date to the Reconstruction era: the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the KKK Act of 1871, which were created to protect minorities from racially motivated violence in the South.

Kaplan’s team has won a number of court orders since filing the case.  On Aug. 9, a federal court sanctioned the defendants for not complying with orders to subpoena their phones and social media accounts.

One of the defendants, Chris Cantwell, recently lost his attorney after making violent threats  against Kaplan. Cantwell told his followers on the instant messaging app Telegram, “After this stupid kike whore loses this fraudulent lawsuit, we’re going to have a lot of f—ing fun with her.”

“I don’t think that our defendants like the fact that they’re being sued by Jewish women,” Spitalnick said. “That’s something they’ve made clear.”

In the two years since the “Unite the Right” rally, Charlottesville proved not to be an anomaly but a flashpoint foreshadowing a much larger crisis in America’s white nationalist epidemic.

According to a February 2019 Southern Poverty Law Center report, the past two years have seen record numbers of hate groups emerge, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has recorded a surge in right-wing extremism, such as the attack at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018, which left 11 Jews dead, and the Aug. 3 massacre at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in which 22 were killed and was, according to the ADL, the third-deadliest act of right-wing extremism in 50 years. 

Both the Pittsburgh and El Paso attacks followed a similar pattern of shooters using online forums to find a community of like-minded people. Each subsequent attack has the potential to inspire the next, with chat rooms becoming a breeding ground for violent extremists.

Those two days of hate in Charlottesville have spawned further violence in the two years since.

Sines v. Kessler couldn’t be more urgent.


Peter Fox is a contributing writer for the Forward and Tablet magazine. Follow him on Twitter @thatpeterfox. 

111-Year Old Nonprofit Bnai Zion Launches New Website With Modern Look

Bnai Zion, a U.S. nonprofit that funds capital projects in Israel, announced on Aug. 13 that the organization revitalized its image “to meet the expectations of today’s philanthropist,” Bnai Zion said in a statement to the Journal. The nonprofit added, “Brand changes include a revamped website, contemporary visual identity and updated mission statement. The rebrand reflects the evolution of Bnai Zion and its vision for the future.”

“Technology changes and shifts, and the expectations of benefactors have brought new approaches for nonprofits,” CEO of Bnai Zion Cheryl Bier said. “As a 111-year old organization, Bnai Zion is no stranger to progress. We have experienced many different generations of donors, each with its own needs and expectations. This rebrand is a response to the experiential and engagement-focused generation of benefactors who recognize our work today.”

The cleaner website design and improved functionality will allow today’s generation of philanthropists to navigate the organization’s projects more clearly and simply. The new logo incorporates a modern design, while simultaneously “building on its history and familiarity among supporters,” Bnai Zion explained. The non-profit also ensures to connect its projects more closely with the rise of anti-Semitism in the U.S.
“With anti-Semitic incidents jumping more than 50% over the last two years here at home, donors of all ages want to support the Jewish people and Israel,” Bnai Zion President Stephen Savitsky said. “It is one reason we expanded our messaging online to include the message that the best way to combat anti-Semitism is to build a strong, vibrant Israel.”
The new website will be updated regularly to introduce project launches, press coverage, events and donation information. The site went live on Aug. 13 and can be accessed here

Searching for the Exotic Adventures in Life and in Judaism

The more exotic the better. That was my philosophy about traveling. Anything that might sound the least bit familiar wasn’t on my list of destinations.

When my late husband, Jerry, and I booked a Mediterranean cruise in 1982 for our second honeymoon, I was excited about seeing the Greek Isles, Egypt and Ephesus, the Greek and Roman ruins in Turkey. There was also a stop in Israel, but that was of no consequence to me. I am Jewish and thought back then Israel was “familiar.” Code for uninteresting. And there was something else. I always thought of Judaism as overwhelmingly solemn and sad. Such unspeakable evil had been committed against the Jews for so long that the idea of experiencing joy when so many had suffered — and who are still fighting to protect their homeland — seemed impossible to me. If it hadn’t been on the itinerary, that would have been fine with me.

The Greek Isles were not exotic to me, but bland. 

The next stop on the cruise was Port Said in Egypt. I could hardly wait to start the day. I knew it would be exotic.  

When we left the ship, we were hit with a blast of hot air. We ran to the air-conditioned bus that would take us to Cairo. After we took our seats, we learned the air conditioning was broken. Oh, joy.  

As we drove down the hot, dusty road in a sweltering bus with sand blowing in our faces, we saw tiny old women dressed in burkas carrying buckets of cement on their heads. In the heat. They were helping to build a two-story house. With buckets of cement on their heads! I felt like I had time-traveled back centuries ago when life was truly primitive. Except this was 1982, and these people were still living this way. 

It was a long ride to the Egyptian Museum (now referred to as the Old Egyptian Museum). I had been guzzling down water and needed to find a restroom. 

 Once there, I entered a stall. What I found was not a toilet but a hole in the floor, the walls and floor reeking of urine. Now I was hot and dusty, and felt dirty. 

The main attraction was the great display of King Tut artifacts. When the tour ended, though, I was ready to sit down, relax and have a good meal.

Two hours back in the suffocatingly hot bus, we arrived at what was then known as the Mena House Hotel. It was close to the pyramids, so tourists would have easy access to the site.

I don’t remember what I ordered for lunch, but it was inedible. 

After lunch, we rode camels and had our passports stolen by our guide, which were retrieved later — for a price.

Suddenly, “familiar” was exhilarating. My preconceived ideas had been all wrong. I was amazed and inspired by what the Jews had accomplished. And I no longer felt Judaism was sad and solemn. I didn’t get what I came for. I got a whole lot more.

I was looking for exotic. Somehow, these weren’t the experiences I had imagined.

The next day, we arrived in Israel. The bus was new, clean and air-conditioned. It even had a bathroom. As we drove to Jerusalem, I looked out my window expecting to see endless miles of sand and more primitive conditions, but instead I saw grass and sprinklers. I was awestruck.

Our tour took us to the Christian sites first, which were fascinating, but nothing resonated since I wasn’t a Christian. 

And then we arrived at the Western Wall. Some Orthodox men were deep in prayer; further down, a woman’s fingertips grazed a ridge in the stone. The emotion welling up in my chest caught me by surprise. We stood there on hallowed ground and for a few moments neither Jerry or I said a word. We wrote prayers on snippets of paper and tucked them into crevices in the Wall. We bought trees in the names of loved ones to keep Israel green. We soaked up our Jewish history.

The King David Hotel had been recommended for lunch. We learned it was Israel’s Independence Day, and after a delicious lunch, we interlocked arms with hotel guests and danced the horah around the pool in celebration. I’ve danced the horah a million times, but to dance it in Israel on Independence Day was a singular experience.

Suddenly, “familiar” was exhilarating. My preconceived ideas had been all wrong. I was amazed and inspired by what the Jews had accomplished. And I no longer felt Judaism was sad and solemn. Of course there are solemn occasions, but now the joy and richness, light and life of what Judaism represents had risen to the forefront of my mind. 

I didn’t get what I came for. I got a whole lot more. 

I wanted to return to Israel the very next time I traveled internationally. Still, on the plane ride home, I found my mind wandering to even more exotic locations: Bora Bora, a cruise to the south of France, a safari in Africa.

After we arrived home, I made a luncheon date with a girlfriend, suggesting all the usual places. She said, “Why don’t we go somewhere different for a change?”

I said, “Like where?”

“My friend, Bonnie, raved about an Ethiopian restaurant.”

“Ethiopian? What kind of food do they serve, exactly?”

“I don’t know, but she said it was very good.”

Much as I like to try new things when I travel, I go back to the tried and true when I’m home. I was reluctant but agreed to go. We drove 40 minutes to get there. 

We entered the restaurant. “White tablecloths. Encouraging,” I said.  I noticed customers eating with their hands. What fun.

Then I looked at the menu. “Everything’s spicy. There’s nothing I can order.” 

Then a man at the next table said, in an unfamiliar accent, “I’m eating a delicious beef dish which isn’t spicy at all.” 

“Thank you,” I said. “Where are you from?”

“Yemen.”

“I travel a lot but I’ve never been to Yemen. No wonder I didn’t recognize your accent,” I said.

“Since we’re trying new things, let’s get their vodka cocktail. It’s made with unforbidden blueberries,” I grinned.

As we drank our vodkas and got to know our new friend from Yemen, I smiled and thought to myself, “I don’t have to travel 16 hours to find exotic. It’s right here at home, in Los Angeles.”


Lynn Brown Rosenberg is the author of the memoir “My Sexual Awakening at 70.” 

Obsess Over Which Feminists Are Jewish, Not Which Rapists

Photo from Pexels

“You know, a lot of sexual harassment stuff is in the news of late,” said “Curb Your Enthusiasm” creator Larry David during his 2017 “Saturday Night Live” monologue. “And I couldn’t help but notice a very disturbing pattern emerging, which is that many of the predators — not all, but many of them — are Jews.”

America’s favorite grump isn’t the only one who noticed. Two years into the #MeToo movement, when Jeffrey Epstein’s years of allegedly sexually exploiting teenage girls came to light, so did — overwhelmingly — the fact he was a Jew. (Epstein was found dead in his jail cell Aug. 10 after an apparent suicide). Anti-Semites took delight in pointing out that Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen and Brett Ratner are Jewish. But so did journalists.

In 2017, online magazine Tablet ran a piece titled “The Specifically Jewy Perviness of Harvey Weinstein” – for which the publication had to issue an apology – but not before white supremacist leaders Richard Spencer and David Duke had applauded it. 

Attempts to claim sexual abuse as a characteristic of Judaism are vile, whether they come from a Klansman or an opinion writer. 

Yet, Jews and anti-Semites alike actively seek to highlight the Jewishness of sexual abusers. In contrast, we hardly emphasize the Jewish roots of feminists who have made movements such as #MeToo thrive.

Jewish women have pioneered the campaign for gender equality and its struggle against sexual violence.

Jewish women have pioneered the campaign for gender equality and its struggle against sexual violence. While predators such as Weinstein and Epstein might have preyed on many women, Jewish feminists have protected far more.

Gloria Steinem, the spokeswoman for the American feminist movement, is a Jew. Yet few people focus on that. The first women’s rights attorney, Gloria Allred, brought justice to countless women by taking on an A-list of abusers, including Bill Cosby, Anthony Weiner, O.J. Simpson, Roman Polanski, Rush Limbaugh, Roy Moore and even Donald Trump. Yet no one attributes the lawyer’s advocacy to her Jewish heritage.

It’s odd how little Jewish women are credited — or at least credited as Jews — for the strides made toward gender equality and ending sexual violence.

Our right to vote? Thank a Jewish woman. Ernestine Rose founded the suffragettes, and rejected Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s racism when she became an abolitionist partner of Sojourner Truth. Decades later, Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” spring-boarded the second wave of American feminism in the 20th century. Bella Abzug carried that wave into public office, imploring women to become legislators. Norah Ephron and Joan Rivers brought women’s voices into comedy. “Dr.” Ruth Westheimer started a candid conversation about sex, while Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought to end discrimination on the basis of it.

These are just some of the Jewish feminist pioneers with name recognition. They stand on the shoulders of hundreds of lesser-known activists fighting sexual violence through art, writing, scholarship, organizing, health care and politics. 

I wonder if the lack of acknowledgment of Jewish feminists compared with Jewish rapists is fueled by anti-Semitism, the perception of women’s achievements as less notable than men’s failures, or a culture that sees women somehow “less Jewish” than men. The alienation of women showing up as Jews to feminist movements because of anti-Semitism scandals from Women’s March Inc can’t help. But even the original Women’s March on Washington, D.C.,  was co-founded by a Jewish feminist — Vanessa Wruble — who continues to mobilize against sexual assault as the executive director of March On.

Jewish men can be predators who must be loudly condemned and brought to justice. The worst abuse I’ve ever received in my life has been at the hands of Jewish men. But as a Jewish woman, I have led two marches against sexual violence and connected more than 50 sexual-exploitation survivors to the aforementioned Allred to fight their abusers.

So I pose the question: Who is truly acting out their Judaism? Me, or the men who’ve hurt me?


Ariel Sobel is a screenwriter, filmmaker and activist, and won the 2019 Bluecat Screenplay Competition. 

IAC Announces Young Professionals Summit

A group of young professionals taking part in IAC's EDGE program. Photo courtesy of IAC.
Israeli-American Council (IAC) has announced the first national summit of its kind, IAC EDGE, which focuses on career development for Jewish and Israeli-American young professionals between the ages of 22 and 42. The summit will take place in Los Angeles on September 5.
Hundreds of attendees will come together to hear from and connect with leaders in real estate, health, media, entrepreneurship, technology, and other fields.
IAC EDGE said in a statement to the Journal that they hope to harness “the inspiration of Israeli entrepreneurship, innovation, and chutzpa to bring [attendees] closer to their roots and the Jewish state.”
“The IAC is thrilled to unite Jewish young professionals across the country around the spirit of disruptive Israeliness through career development programming that has never been offered in the Jewish world before,” IAC Co-Founder and CEO Shoham Nicolet said. “We hear all the time about how millennials are hungry for programs that will provide them with the hands-on tools to launch their careers. IAC EDGE is answering this call.”
Speakers at the Los Angeles summit will include Matthew Altman, Co-Star of “Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles” on Bravo, Ilana Golan, Board and General Partner at Homrun and Forbes Business contributor, and Gary Wexler, Award-Winning Creative Director & Professor at the University of Southern California. Speakers at the New York summit will include Moran David, Mobileye North American General Manager, Avi Cohen, Co-Founder and COO of LiveU, and Omer Zigdon, Founder & CEO of Zigdon Enterprises.
To learn more about IAC EDGE, visit their website. 

A Modern Day of Mourning

Like so many Reform Jews, I have lived my life with the sometimes difficult reconciliation between our powerful tradition and living in the modern world. I have spent many years (and a graduate school research paper) examining the change in Jewish traditions, particularly as they relate to holidays.

The one I have struggled with the most is Tisha b’Av. Mishna tells us that “On the ninth of Av, it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the Promised Land, the Temple was destroyed the first and second time, Bethar (last standing Jewish fortress in the Bar Kokhba revolt) was captured and the city (Jerusalem) has ploughed up.” More modern catastrophes such as the expulsion of Jews from England and Spain are also attributed to this day as well. For these reasons, and others, Tisha b’Av is marked as the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.

As part of the observance of this late summer holiday, we observe many of the same restrictions as Yom Kippur—fasting, abstaining from bathing, wearing leather shoes, and sexual intercourse. At the evening synagogue service, we sit on the floor, as a sign of mourning, and read from the Book of Lamentations. Lights are dimmed, a few candles are lit, and the service is recited in a hushed tone, giving the feeling of a house of mourning—akin to the entire Jewish people sitting shiva for catastrophes which are a part of our collective history.

Admittedly, I had never heard of, let alone experienced Tisha b’Av, until I was an adult. I have struggled with this day, partly because it takes place in the late summer as we are hurriedly moving from summer to back to school and also because even after three visits to Israel, I have been naively removed from these events of the past. 

The Temple no longer stands, but I have experienced the holiness that is that site. And the modern State of Israel is a testament to our people’s survival. Tisha b’Av used to seem so ancient and difficult to relate to. It is sadly ironic that I never wanted to feel that sense of mourning. And now I do. 

Here we are in 2019 and I have found myself mourning a lot recently. Not just as a Jew. As an American. To be sure, Pittsburgh and Poway have shaken us to our core. But, it’s not just us. The FBI reports that hate crimes nationwide have risen dramatically in recent years. As I write this, the nation is still reeling from the most recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. By all accounts, the El Paso shootings appear to be a hate crime (El Paso is 80% is Latinx). Two days ago, over 600 immigrants in Mississippi were rounded up in an ICE raid as their children attended their first day of school. Make no mistake, the American soul has lost its way. How sadly ironic that after all these years, I have found a modern reason to mourn on Tisha b’Av.

Leviticus tells us to not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds (19:6).  So we won’t. The Jewish community has repeatedly spoken out against cruel treatment of immigrants and in about a month, a delegation from several Jewish organizations will head to the Arizona-Mexico border in solidarity and advocacy. The biblical references to loving and treating immigrants with decency and equality are too numerous to count. Indeed, we are facing a moral crisis as Jews. 

This Saturday night, as Jews everywhere sit on floors and read Lamentations, perhaps no verse is as poignant as this. “The tongue of the sucking child cleaves to the roof of his mouth for thirst; the young children ask bread, and no man breaks bread for them…For the punishment of the iniquity of the daughter of my people is greater than the punishment of the sin of Sodom, that was overthrown as in a moment, and no hands stayed on her” (4:4-6). Tisha b’Av is no longer a day of mourning for tragedies of the past. I am mourning for our present. And praying for our future. Jewish poet Emma Lazarus’ words, immortalized on the Statue of Liberty, say “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That time is now.


Lisa Rothstein Goldberg is a social worker and Jewish educator. She lives in Louisville, KY with her husband and their two young daughters.

Leadership Program, New Consul General

From left: ETTA board members Jaime Sohacheski, Scott Krieger, Dave Garden and Michael Baruch. Photo courtesy of the Sephardic Education Center

ETTA, a leading nonprofit serving adults with special needs, held its inaugural Charity Poker Tournament on July 28 to raise funds to continue and expand its work.  

Celebrities, sports figures, professional poker players, clients and several
hundred supporters gathered at the iconic Sports Museum of Los Angeles for the event.

Attendees included ETTA board members Jaime Sohacheski, Scott Krieger, Dave Garden and Michael Baruch.


Justin Pressman, the West Coast director of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Photo courtesy of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

The West Coast director of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (AFIPO), which supports the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and helps sustain the cultural institution’s future.

Pressman was previously the West Coast associate director of AFIPO, a position he held since December 2018.  The development professional has worked with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra’s Miami Residency, New World Symphony and the Castleton Festival (Va.). As a Fulbright scholar, he studied orchestral and opera  conducting in St. Petersburg, Russia, and received his bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Miami in classical trumpet performance.

He is originally from Chagrin Falls, Ohio.


The Sephardic Education Center’s (SEC) latest Hamsa Israel Teen Leadership cohort comes together for a group photo in Israel, joined by SEC Director Rabbi Daniel Bouskila (far right). Photo courtesy of the Sephardic Education Center

Volunteer committee Save Beverly Fairfax and those committed to preserving the Jewish character of the Beverly-Fairfax district received the 2019 Preservation Award at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. on July 25 for their successful effort to list the Beverly-Fairfax area in the National Register of Historic Places.

The award from the L.A. Conservancy recognizes a small group of Beverly-Fairfax district residents who have opposed the development of the neighborhood, including the building of McMansions, and want to preserve the area’s Jewish character and history.

“We’re trying to prevent the whole landscape and history from disappearing,” Beverly-Fairfax resident Fred Zaidman, a volunteer in the grassroots effort, told the Journal.

Award recipients include project leads Dale Kendall and Nora Wyman; preservation consultants Katie Horak, Mary Ringhoff and Mickie Torres-Gil; and team members Kathryn Bundy and Brian Harris.

According to the website of the L.A. Conservancy, the Beverly-Fairfax district was one of the few L.A. neighborhoods in the late 19th century that did not prohibit property owners from selling or leasing to minorities, including Jewish Americans. The area “became the destination of many Jewish Americans who migrated from the [city’s] eastside in the 1920s. 

“By 1961, the district was over 60 percent Jewish,” the website says. Many Holocaust survivors settled in the neighborhood, which today “remains largely Jewish.” 

“We have Holocaust survivors and our history in that area,” Zaidman said in a phone interview.

Last month, the group gathered for a celebratory luncheon. Meanwhile, an event publicly recognizing their efforts will take place on Aug. 11, during which L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz will present the group with an award. The gathering will also commemorate new historical district signs that will be placed throughout the neighborhood.


Volunteer committee Save Beverly Fairfax and others received the 2019 Preservation Award from the L.A. Conservancy for their efforts to preserve the Jewish history of the Beverly-Fairfax district.
Photo courtesy of Fred Zaidman

The Sephardic Educational Center (SEC) in Jerusalem, under the leadership of Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, successfully completed another cohort of its Hamsa Israel Teen Leadership Program this past July. 

With teenagers from Sephardic communities in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, the monthlong Hamsa Program features all of the traditional touring, hiking and immersion into Israeli society and culture, celebrates Sephardic Judaism’s culture and history and emphasizes leadership training.

According to its website, SEC is “dedicated to strengthening Jewish identity for youth and young adults and to building a new generation of spiritual and community leaders.”


From left: JNF Board Members Carole Shnier and Civia Caroline, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Hillel Newman, JNF Los Angeles Board President Alyse Golden Berkley and JNF National Campaign Director Sharon Freedman. Photo courtesy of JNF

Hillel Newman, the new Consul General of Israel to the Southwest United States, attended his first official event since arriving in Los Angeles: an appearance with the Jewish National Fund (JNF). 

The newly arrived diplomat, who began his duties around the beginning of July, participated in an intimate reception with JNF’s board of directors and major donors on July 24 at a private residence in Trousdale Estates in Beverly Hills. 

Attendees included Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch, Vice Mayor Lester Friedman and Beverly Hills City Councilmembers Julian Gold and Robert Wunderlich.

The event was the vision of JNF’s National Campaign Director Sharon Freedman, according to the JNF.

“Hillel and I go back to New England, where we became fast friends when he was the Deputy Consul General for that region,” Freedman said. “Los Angeles and the entire Southwest are so lucky to have his vast experience, wisdom and vision here as our Consul General.”

Newman said he was grateful to the JNF for hosting him at the event.

“Thank you to Jewish National Fund for such a warm and beautiful welcome to L.A.,” Newman said. “And thank you for all that you have done and continue to do to make Israel grow and thrive.”

During the event, Newman shared the current state of events in Israel.

“Israel faces both challenges and opportunities today,” Newman said. “There
are also new horizons emerging in fields ranging from diplomacy to innovation.”

The mission of the JNF is to ensure a strong, secure and prosperous future for the land and people of Israel.


Want to be in Movers & Shakers? Send us your highlights, events, honors and simchas.
Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.

‘Hippie Woman Wild’ Memoir Takes Jewish Women’s Theatre

Carol Schlanger; Photo courtesy of Carol Schlanger

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as part of a scattershot back-to-the-land movement, hundreds of communes cropped up throughout the U.S. Young men and women who had taken the measure of the country — war, recession, consumerism, middle-class values — and found it wanting, settled most of the communes. Each was different, but they all shared the dream of a rural paradise where they could dig, plant and build a world of their own making. 

In a recently published memoir titled “Hippie Woman Wild,” Carol Schlanger describes — in hilarious and at times cringingly honest detail — the struggles, loves and joys of living in a commune in rural Oregon in the early 1970s. Her experiences in two locations — first on a piece of leased property then on land that Schlanger bought — involved roughly a dozen people doing their best to survive a hardscrabble life, doing whatever they had to, whether it was (illegally) growing marijuana on nearby government land or using a ruse to obtain food stamps.

On Aug. 11, Schlanger — an actor-writer who lives in L.A. and in Oregon — will perform an excerpt from her book at the Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) at the Braid in Santa Monica, and answer questions about her experiences.

Before being in a commune, Schlanger (who wrote that she was a “not-so-nice Jewish girl” back then), was a graduate student at Yale Drama School, where she met a “stoner cowboy” from Texas, Clint Helvey, who was at Yale’s architecture graduate school. 

“Clint was much more hippie-ish than I was,” Schlanger said. “I was pretty straight. I had turned down marijuana my whole life, really focused on my work.” Schlanger told the Journal that Helvey introduced her to LSD and to the possibility of living a different kind of life.

After an irony-laced, rebellious interaction with the school’s dean contributed to her getting kicked out of Yale, Schlanger moved back to New York, her hometown, where she found acting work. Helvey joined her. “Clint didn’t like living in New York,” she said, “His friends were in Oregon, starting a commune, so he left and begged me to come with him. I didn’t want to go. My career was starting to take off. I knew I’d miss it. But I also missed him. … So I went.”

In Oregon, Schlanger found “an anarchist situation, a free-flowing place with no dogma, no leaders. The only rule was ‘You can’t tell anybody else what to do …’ ” 

There was a core of people who stayed, others came and went. For Schlanger, the crisis came when the commune was “raided by a motorcycle gang. Since it was an open-door policy, [the bikers] were welcomed. … I didn’t like that, so I said, ‘That’s it, I want my own place. Clint and I will have a Tarzan and Jane life, it’ll be really gorgeous, there’ll be waterfalls, we’ll live as a man and woman should live.’ ”

With help from Schlanger’s family, Schlanger and Helvey bought a piece of land in a different part of Oregon. “It was very remote,” she said. “There was no electricity, no running water, no road that you could use except with a four-wheel drive. Nothing around for hundreds of acres.”

After moving to the land they’d bought, Helvey, to Schlanger’s dismay, invited the previous location’s core group to join them. “I was furious that Clint invited them,” Schlanger said. “But without them, I never would have survived at all. … When you’re in remote circumstances, you’re all in the same foxhole.”

 “I didn’t have a lot of skills. I was kind of a crappy hippie. At first, I didn’t know how to chop wood or how to bake. I couldn’t sew. I got lost in the woods.” 

— Carol Schlanger

Growing up in a fairly affluent Jewish home in New York as an only child, Schlanger said, “I’d never done my own laundry, and all of a sudden I was doing laundry for 12 people. … I can’t say I loved that part of it very much, but I loved the sharing.” 

But it didn’t always feel like Eden. 

“You miss things,” Schlanger said. “You miss hot water. Something that would take five minutes in the outside world would take you two days, so you had to have patience. … You had to chop down a tree just to cook beans. You stop taking things for granted. When I’d go away from the commune and be able to take a hot shower, that was like a miracle. I’d be in ecstasy.”

Schlanger said that for the most part, they learned to take care of their own medical needs, but when her first child, a son, was about to be born, Schlanger rejected giving birth in a remote area with no doctor and Helvey drove her to a hospital. She said she made that choice because communal living had “cracked open” her mind, “but not to the point of becoming scrambled.” 

Food was always an issue. In the excerpt Schlanger performs at JWT, she goes to a government office to get food stamps. In the waiting area, there’s a woman with a baby and Schlanger makes a deal: If she can borrow the baby for the interview, she’ll give the woman some food stamps. 

The woman agrees. With a baby she’s never seen before in her arms, Schlanger pretends to be “a slow-witted backwoods woman who’s got four kids and a blind husband who’s a goatherd.”

Success! Schlanger gets a life-saving stack of food stamps. When she gives the baby back to the mother, Schlanger peels off some food stamps for the woman, who’s not satisfied with her cut. As Schlanger hurries away, the woman yells out: “Jew!”

Schlanger shrugged off the slur. “Without those food stamps, we would have had to eat a lot of squirrel. … Look, I didn’t have a lot of skills. I was kind of a crappy hippie. At first, I didn’t know how to chop wood or how to bake. I couldn’t sew. I got lost in the woods. But by getting food stamps, I helped the others survive. And it was fun being an actress for a few minutes.”

After a couple of years, the commune dissolved, as most others did. Schlanger, Helvey and their toddler — named, you guessed it, Huckleberry — moved on to the next phase of their lives. 

“I learned a lot there,” Schlanger said. “Most important lesson: How to read bear scat. If it’s fresh, there’s a bear nearby. Scat size tells you if the bear’s big or little. I may be the only woman on the Westside who can read bear scat. I’m proud of that!” Schlanger laughed heartily at her own joke. 

As Schlanger’s friend actor Henry Winkler has written about her, “Carol can’t say a sentence — she can’t write a sentence — without making you laugh.” n

“Hippie Woman Wild” performance and author talk with Carol Schlanger is 10 a.m. Aug. 11 at the Braid, Jewish Women’s Theatre. 

Westside JCC Maccabi Teens Bring Home Gold From Atlanta

JCC Maccabi Games girls soccer team. Photo courtesy National Geographic

Both the Westside Jewish Community Center (JCC) under-16 girls’ and under-16 boys’ soccer teams brought home the gold from the recently completed JCC Maccabi Games in Atlanta. The girls defeated the host team, 4-2, in the final, while the boys also beat the Atlanta team in the finals in a 3-1 penalty shootout after a 2-2 tie. 

The annual games were held in Atlanta from July 26-Aug. 2 and in Detroit from Aug. 2-9. One hundred and seventy five Westside JCC athletes from ages of 12 to 16 participated, thanks to the JCC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which also sent 30 volunteer coaches to the games. A total of 3,000 participants attended the games from throughout the United States, as well as Israel, Hungary, England, Mexico, Panama and parts of Canada. 

After the under-16 boys’ win, JCC Maccabi Games Head Soccer Coach Lee Turnbull told the Journal, “The reason I volunteer for Maccabi is because I want to be an influence in these kids’ lives. I was a much worse kid than these kids are [when I was their age] and [because of] a sprinkle of good influences that I luckily found, I turned out OK. I want to give [my players] incredible memories. I want them to not get so stressed about schoolwork and realize it’s OK just to take a break here and there and breathe. I try and help the kids to be critical thinkers.” 

Los Angeles Westside JCC Director of Experiential Learning and Maccabi Games Delegation Head Ari Cohen the Journal, “As a program, our goal is to [create] an impactful Jewish experience for our teens by being connected to Jews from across the religious spectrum, denominational spectrum, socioeconomic and geographical boundaries of Los Angeles, as well [as] the world. By connecting them to all these different types of Jews and the global Jewish world, we see that our kids have a greater desire to stay connected to the Jewish community for their teen years and beyond.” 

Turnbull, a former animal behaviorist, said receiving Instagram messages from his players about how he’s “influenced them and given them a new perspective on life, [makes me] want to scream from the rooftops because I feel like I’ve already achieved everything I’ve ever wanted to achieve in this world. It’s all I yearn to do.”

As a program, our goal is to [create] an impactful Jewish experience for our teens by being connected to Jews from across the religious spectrum, denominational spectrum, socioeconomic and geographical boundaries of Los Angeles, as well [as] the world.”

 — Ari Cohen

As a values-based program, JCC Maccabi stresses principles of community, learning, friendship, health and wellness, inclusiveness, family and repairing the world, Cohen added. The games, he said, replicated an Olympic-style “opening ceremony and serious competitive structure. Beyond that, the things that make it special are that our opening ceremony always [includes] a tribute to the Israeli athletes who were killed at the Munich Olympics in 1972 [and] we have an athlete and spectator pledge to uphold the values of the JCC Maccabi Games.”

The Munich tribute is so impactful because the participants “connect immediately to these athletes, and therefore Israel, global Judaism and the Jewish world,” Cohen said. “We see a lot of tears at [the] opening ceremonies every single year.”

Aside from the opening ceremony and competitive sports, other activities, workshops and icebreakers were offered throughout the week to encourage participants to meet new people and learn about Israel and Jewish values. 

“Every day our kids [participate in] a huge activity together, which is something that’s different than most athletic experiences,” Cohen said. “Kids who are playing against each other at one moment really intensely are the same kids that are hanging out at the night activity,” he said. “We also make sure [that] every team is involved in a tikkun olam experience to give back to the community that is hosting us.”

Indeed, 13-year-old Ben Escobar, who played on the Westside JCC’s under-14 baseball team in Atlanta, said, “I enjoyed the nighttime activities and having fun with my teammates. I also loved hanging out with four other baseball players from all over the country at my host family’s house. We played lots of pingpong and watched baseball together. The opening ceremonies were very welcoming and made me feel like I was part of a greater Jewish community. It also made me excited for the week.”

Cohen said he hoped the teens had an “exposure to the greater Jewish world and the increased pride they have in their own Jewish identity. The other thing that’s very important to us is to give them a really great athletic experience and have high-quality coaching … and at the same time, to be great Jewish mentors so they begin to understand and reconnect with the fact that sports can be something that gives them a stronger sense of self and teaches [them] positive human values. 

“Maccabi,” he said, “creates a community. Once you’re in it [you’ll] do whatever [you] can to [expand] that community.”


Melissa Simon is a senior studying journalism at University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Jewish Journal summer intern. 

Summer Delights: A Kiss Friendly Garlic Pesto Recipe

Along with last week’s sauerkraut recipe, a fermented food that’s sure to improve your gut health, there are other recipes I use in a medicinal manner when I am run down or overworked. You’d be hard pressed to find a more medicinal ingredient than garlic, a plant in the onion (Allium) family, related to shallots and leeks, that has been used throughout history for its health properties.

Although garlic originally is thought to be a central Asian discovery, the Egyptians valued garlic’s medicinal properties so much that they buried their dead with the bulbs for use in the afterlife. Rabbinic literature is peppered with references and praise for garlic. A portion of the Talmud states that garlic “satisfies hunger, it warms the body, it illuminates one’s face, it increases seed and it destroys intestinal parasites.” It’s considered a mitzvah to eat foods loaded with garlic on Friday nights in many Orthodox communities to enhance fertility and as an essential and effective aid to “create ardor and enhance lovemaking” on Shabbat.

Eating garlic was so much a part of the Jewish identity that Jews were known as “garlic munchers” and the sulfurous smell of the herb was used as an anti-Semitic slur by the Romans who came up with the expression “allium olere” or “stinking of garlic” to identify Jews as people of a lower class. Classic Italian dishes like artichokes braised with garlic became known as “Carciofi all Giudia” or “Jewish-style artichokes.” 

Jewish “penicillin” in the form of chicken soup gets its reputation as a health food in part because of the onions and garlic that infuse the broth; the benefits of garlic are indisputable for a wide variety of ailments. Large-scale studies have proven that regular doses of garlic may lower blood pressure, reduce cardiac events, increase bone health, help with athletic performance and fatigue, reduce the severity of colds and flus, and may even prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia.  And even if it didn’t contain manganese, B vitamins, vitamin C, selenium and calcium, garlic enhances the flavor of so many dishes, the fact that it’s so good for you is just a bonus. 

One of my favorite garlic delivery systems is pesto sauce. Pesto originated in Genoa in the Liguria region of Italy. The word “pestâ” means to pound or to crush in Italian and, in a traditionally made pesto, the ingredients are ground in a mortar and pestle — pestâ, pestle, pesto — get it?

The benefits of garlic are indisputable for a wide variety of ailments.

Pesto is a mix of herbs combined with cheese, nuts and a good quantity of another great health food, olive oil, to make it more fluid. It’s usually then served over pasta but it can be used to top soup as in the great French Pistou, spread on bread or drizzled on vegetables. Although pesto can be made with a variety of herbs and nuts, I find the classic mixture of Italian basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan and extra virgin olive oil a hard combination to improve upon.

The only downside to the savory, incredible powerhouse of nutrients is garlic breath. No one likes to smell like garlic, and there are many people who cannot handle the odor. I’m conscious of this when making pesto at the embassy. One day, while whipping up a huge batch of pesto for a lunch special, I started to think about how to prevent people from suffering through their co-workers’ garlic breath during afternoon meetings. 

That’s when I took a page from the French playbook and added a whole bunch of chopped parsley to the mix. Parsley does two important things to a pesto. First, it keeps the sauce a vibrant green color but second, and more importantly, it neutralizes some of that raw garlic sharpness that can do a number on our stomachs as well as our non-garlic eating companions or co-workers.
Now, I never make pesto any other way because the parsley mellows the pesto and makes it much more kiss friendly. In addition, a small amount of fresh lemon juice, when added to the raw garlic, although not traditional, goes a long way in mellowing out the piquancy of the garlic.

At home, I use my mortar and pestle to make pesto but that’s impractical when making vast quantities of the sauce because pounding that much basil and parsley is too much work. On the other hand, if you don’t overprocess, a food processor with the regular blade insert makes short work of pesto and allows you to use the abundance of basil in your garden or a fresh bunch you may find in the farmers market. 

The following recipe will leave plenty of leftover pesto to freeze. You can double or halve the recipe but I always double it. Pesto can hold in the fridge with a layer of olive oil on top for at least a week and can be frozen in jars or containers indefinitely.

It can’t be beat for a quick pasta, to serve over steamed vegetables, as a spread for fresh bread or swirled into eggs. I particularly love it as a topping for zucchini noodles (if you don’t own a spiralizer yet, get one!) or even on top of grilled fish such as salmon or trout. 

It packs a hefty nutritional punch from the basil, parsley and garlic, which makes it high in antioxidants along with a good olive oil; it’s probably one of the most detoxifying and absurdly tasty things you can eat.

With the addition of the parsley and lemon to prevent garlic breath, this is one case where you should feel practically obligated to kiss and tell.

Kiss-Friendly Pesto
20 cloves garlic, peeled
15 tablespoons untoasted pine nuts (if unavailable, use cashews)
15 ounces fresh Italian basil
4 ounces curly or flat-leaf parsley
10 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
(for dairy-free version, substitute 5 ounces nutritional yeast)
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 1/2 cups mild-tasting extra virgin olive oil (preferably Italian)
5 pinches sea salt (be cautious, cheese is salty)
5 healthy grinds black pepper (optional)
2 ounces grated Parmesan (or nutritional yeast) for garnish (optional)

Pulse garlic in food processor until finely chopped.

Add pine nuts and pulse again until chopped.

Add basil and parsley and continue to pulse until the pesto has reached a rough, rustic consistency. Pulsing mimics a pestle pounding ingredients.

Add Parmesan cheese and lemon juice and pulse a final time to combine. If needed, scrape down the sides of the processor a few times to incorporate ingredients. 

Place mixture into a bowl and drizzle in olive oil, stirring to incorporate the oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pesto is a raw sauce and shouldn’t be cooked but rather, gently heated. If serving pesto over pasta or zucchini noodles, heat noodles in a pan with a generous amount of pesto and a few tablespoons of pasta cooking water to make it come together and bind into an emulsion.

Grate additional Parmesan on top (or a sprinkling of nutritional yeast) and drizzle with a bit more olive oil.

Makes 4 cups.


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