February 23, 2019

The Screenwriters Who Made ‘BlacKkKlansman’ Jewish

Adam Driver (left) and John David Washington in “BlacKkKlansman.” Photo by David Lee / Focus Features

BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee’s 1970s-set film about a black police detective who poses as a white man to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, is nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best-adapted screenplay. It’s the first nomination for childhood friends Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz, and it’s their first produced script.

Based on the memoir “Black Klansman” by Ron Stallworth, about a black man who posed as a racist in telephone conversations and enlisted his white colleague to stand in for him in person to carry out the deception, the film resonates in today’s America.

“It hits a nerve,” Wachtel said in a telephone interview with both writers. “It’s easy to see the parallels between what the movie is trying to say and what our current climate is today. Spike always said, ‘We have to connect the past to the present and make it contemporary.’ ”

Rabinowitz believes the film benefited from fortuitous timing. “We got the script to Spike through Jordan Peele, and once [Lee] got involved, he was able to make it quickly and release it on the on the anniversary of the Charlottesville rally,” Rabinowitz said.

The writers first discovered Stallworth’s story in a Facebook post. They contacted the author via his publisher and manager, and they received permission to adapt the memoir on spec.

“We worked with Ron Stallworth to develop the script. We did multiple drafts and sent him every draft. He gave us feedback on every page,” Rabinowitz said. One of the things they discussed was the tone, which strikes a balance between serious drama and absurd comedy. “While the absurdist elements of the story lend themselves to comedy, it had to be something that people took seriously,” Wachtel said. 

As with most screen adaptations, there were changes the writers suggested early on. While it was never carried out in real life, “We wanted to make the bomb plot real so they had a specific thing to investigate,” Rabinowitz said. The screenwriters also turned Stallworth’s gentile detective partner into Jewish Flip Zimmerman, who must pretend he’s a racist, anti-Semitic Holocaust denier to carry out the ruse.

David Rabinowitz (left) and Charlie Wachtel. Photo by Eric Charbonneau

“We wanted to make him Jewish for a few reasons, first as a storytelling device to give it more stakes and more drama,’” Rabinowitz said. “Just like Ron has to deal with a certain split identity, we wanted to mirror that in his partner. [Klan leader] David Duke emerges as the central villain in the story and for him Jews are enemy No. 1. And we’re Jewish, so it’s our way into the story. Ron was right on board from the beginning.”

The Zimmerman role was expanded when Lee and Kevin Willmott did their revision of the screenplay. Wachtel knew producer Shaun Redick, who had worked with Peele on “Get Out.” Peele signed on to produce and they did another rewrite based on Peele’s feedback. Peele brought the script to Lee, who continued to shape it according to his vision. All four writers share the Oscar nomination.

It’s a dream come true for Rabinowitz and Wachtel, who met in Hebrew school in East Brunswick, N.J., and always wanted to be filmmakers. Raised in Conservative Jewish families, they attended each other’s bar mitzvahs and made movies together for high school projects — writing, directing, producing and acting in them. 

Rabinowitz thought that a career in filmmaking would combine his interests in creative writing and movies, and he set about pursuing it after graduating from Quinnipiac University. For Wachtel, two family trips to Universal Studios in Los Angeles and Orlando made a big impact. “We took the tram ride and I got to see behind the scenes on movie sets. I was able to see that making movies was actually a business,” he said. He moved to L.A. nine years after graduation from American University and Rabinowitz followed in 2012.

Today, both describe themselves as culturally Jewish, but they do observe the High Holy Days. “The content of the film being what it is, even having this conversation with you, makes me proud to be Jewish,” Wachtel said. “It’s something that’s been a constant in my life.”

They also said they have writing “in their DNA.” Author and playwright Sholem Aleichem is Rabinowitz’s great-great-great-uncle on his father’s side. Wachtel’s mother, Shirley Russak Wachtel, is an author whose memoir “My Mother’s Shoes” is about her mother, a Holocaust survivor.

Wachtel has thought about adapting that story “down the line,” but the pair already have several projects in progress. Interest in their work has picked up considerably since they woke up to news of their Oscar nomination on Jan. 22.

“It’s extremely rare. The first script we sold got made into a movie and got nominated for an Oscar,” Rabinowitz said. “Winning would be huge but the nomination feels like a win already, just being invited there. As a new screenwriter, you take a lot of meetings and may compete with 10 other people to get a job. With a nomination, the number goes down, or you may not be competing with anyone. And the quality of the meetings goes up.”

Benefiting from this interest is the first script they wrote together, a basketball-themed drama called “Madness” that will soon go into production. They’re also writing “Thacher Island,” about the origins of the witness protection program, and a Cold War spy series about Operation Mongoose, the CIA’s secret operation to eliminate Fidel Castro when he took power in Cuba in 1959. They don’t only want to make films based on true stories, however. “We’re very open to different genres and styles,” Wachtel said.

They’re ready to take advantage of their newfound status in Hollywood. “David and I have a lot of goals. We’ve talked about forming a production company together. We each have interests in directing and becoming a showrunner for television, as well,” Wachtel said. “We like to think we’re just getting started.”

Real Magician Takes on Role of Houdini in ‘Ragtime’

Benjamin Schrader (center) and the cast of “Ragtime.” Photo by Jenny Graham

A decade ago, during his first crack at the musical “Ragtime,” Benjamin Schrader was a member of the ensemble and an understudy in the show’s first Broadway revival. Fast forward to the Pasadena Playhouse where “Ragtime” has become magic time for the Seattle-born Schrader.

Not only is Schrader undertaking the role of Harry Houdini in the Pasadena Playhouse production that runs through March 3, he is also the show’s magic consultant. Given his career as a professional magician, the dual assignment of illusionist and illusion overseer fits the actor like a rabbit fits in a magician’s top hat.

“We have straitjacket effects while hanging upside down high above the stage. We have some pyrotechnic elements,” Schrader said during a rehearsal break a couple of weeks before the show’s opening. “A lot of the design work is coming from my end, so I have my role as an actor and I have my role as a magic technician and the meeting of two worlds. It’s kind of thinking with the left and right side of my brain here.” 

Adapted from the novel by E. L. Doctorow, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, “Ragtime” tells three intersecting tales. In New Rochelle, an upper-middle-class woman called Mother keeps her family together while her husband is out of the country. A black pianist from Harlem encounters racism while trying to carve out a life with the mother of his infant son, and a Latvian Jew travels to America with his young daughter with a dream of striking it rich. The Playhouse staging is directed by “Frasier” co-creator David Lee and is one of the largest physical productions in the company’s history. 

In addition to its fictional characters, “Ragtime” is littered with historical figures: the actress Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman and Houdini, who pops up at strategic points in the narrative, a figure of mystery and the ultimate representation of an immigrant having made good. 

“If he was possessed of anything, it was self-promotion. He was a showman through and through,” Schrader said of Houdini, who was born Erik Weisz. “And if he had a Twitter feed or an Instagram if he was alive today, he would be one of the greatest influencers in the world.”

“[Houdini] was a showman through and through. And if he had a Twitter feed or an Instagram if he was alive today, he would be one of the greatest influencers in the world.” — Benjamin Schrader

Schrader had a magic kit as a child and read a couple of books on magic, but lost interest when his attention switched to theater. He studied at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, worked extensively at theaters in Washington state and ultimately moved to New York. Schrader appeared in the Broadway productions of “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Mormon” and toured with “Avenue Q,” “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “Big River.”

Relocating to Los Angeles five years ago, he accompanied a friend to the Magic Castle, a visit that triggered a flood of memories and nostalgia for the art form. Schrader returned to the books and became a regular at the Magic Castle. He eventually worked his way up to performing and used his theatrical eye to help other magicians develop their shows. Schrader opened the Magic Bar at a strip mall in Encino where, two nights a week, he and fellow Magic Castle magicians craft cocktails and do close-up magic for an intimate audience of 18.

“It’s been going for over a year-and-a-half now and it’s turned into one of the premiere venues for close-up magic in the country,” said Schrader, who will have a substitute magician hosting at the Magic Bar on Tuesdays during the run of “Ragtime.” “And I’m very proud of it.”

Jews have put their stamp on magic throughout history, from Houdini to David Seth Kotkin (AKA David Copperfield). Schrader’s mother was from Long Island and Jewish, and her family included singers and vaudeville performers. His father was a non- Jew who worked for American Airlines, relocating the family to the airline’s hub in Washington DC. 

“The Jewish sensibility, the Jewish sense of humor, the Jewish cuisine, that was all my Jewish experience and still is,” Schrader said. “The culture surrounding being Jewish has always been just a major influence in my life, in everything from my love of theater and performing, to my sense of humor, down to the quality of the matzo ball that my mom makes when I go and visit her. The only thing that hasn’t been a large part of my life is the religious aspect of it.”

As for “Ragtime,” he is seeing new themes in the show this time around, as well as old ones. 

“The play has stayed the same. The content technically hasn’t changed,” he said. “But for some reason, the meaning of the play and the words and the description of this play have gone through profound changes because the news cycle brings out new things. I find that fascinating, how a piece of art can stay the same and yet evolve over time.”


“Ragtime” plays through March 3 at The Pasadena Playhouse

Excerpts from ‘Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice’

WOMEN IN JEWISH LIFE
From the very beginning of the twentieth century, men and women worshipped side by side in Conservative synagogues, and boys and girls, as well as men and women, studied together in the classroom. (To this day, in most Orthodox communities, after the third or fourth grade, learning occurs in gender-specific classes. Also, teenage boys often study Talmud, while teenage girls study Bible, commentaries, and laws governing Jewish practice.) 

In 1922 Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan inaugurated the bat mitzvah ceremony for his daughter Judith, and by the middle of the century most Conservative synagogues were scheduling them for young women. The ceremonies varied, however. Some bat mitzvah girls did what most bar mitzvah boys did: recite Kiddush on Friday night, chant the Torah blessings and the haftarah on Saturday morning, and give a homily on the Torah reading. At other synagogues, the bat mitzvah only recited some readings and delivered a homily on Friday night.

Some Conservative synagogues were fully egalitarian by the late 1940s, but that was rare. Only in the 1970s did a significant number of Conservative synagogues move in that direction. Gradually, legal rulings were needed to justify the emerging customs and to augment them in areas that custom could not determine. This happened with the decision to ordain women in 1983 and with subsequent CJLS [Committee on Jewish Law and Standards] rulings that enabled women to count as part of a prayer quorum, to lead services, to act as witnesses on documents, and to serve in other capacities in Jewish life.

THE ORDINATION OF WOMEN AS RABBIS
Unlike other developments in women’s Jewish rights that entered Conservative Jewish practice first by custom, the Conservative movement’s ordination of women rabbis was a conscious decision grounded in extensive legal and moral reasoning. At present, about three hundred of the approximately seventeen hundred Rabbinical Assembly members are women. 

In 1977 the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA, or, more commonly now, JTS) and the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative movement’s rabbinical association) formed the Commission on the Ordination of Women as Rabbis. As you will read in the following excerpts from the official 1979 report, the majority of members believed that women could be ordained because most of the tasks rabbis do are not restricted to men in Jewish law. Since then, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has validated rabbinical rulings that open to women the few remaining rabbinical functions traditionally limited to men, such as leading services and serving as witnesses on documents. Even so, women rabbis can choose not to take advantage of these permissive rulings and ask men in their community to perform these tasks instead. 

“The role of the rabbi as we know it today is not one that is established in classical Jewish texts, but rather is one that has evolved through social need and custom. Consequently, there is no specifiable halakhic category that can be identified with the modern rabbinate, nor with the currently accepted mode of ordination. … To summarize, then: The halakhic objections to the ordination of women center around disapproval of the performance by a woman of certain functions. Those functions, however, are not essentially rabbinic, nor are they universally disapproved, by the accepted rules governing the discussion of halakhah in the Conservative Movement. There is no direct halakhic objection to the acts of training and ordaining a woman to be a rabbi, preacher, and teacher in Israel.”

RULINGS ON BIOETHICS
When the authors of classical Jewish law weighed ethical issues in medicine many hundreds of years ago, they could never have imagined today’s incredible medical advances. As a result, whereas the conditions and therefore also the rules for building a sukkah have not changed much in more than two thousand years, the medical rulings of yore offer few straightforward answers to most of today’s bioethical questions. 

Modern Conservative movement thinkers have consequently approached new medical realities by applying traditional Jewish perceptions and values to the new circumstances. Sometimes that may mean trying to balance conflicting goals. For example, one responsum permits contraception and yet encourages couples not to wait too long to have children and then to have three or more if they can. Because of the radically new medical realities of our times, it should not be surprising that different Conservative rabbis who endeavor to strike the right balance in applying the tradition to contemporary circumstances sometimes arrive at different conclusions. (This is true in the Orthodox and Reform movements as well.) So, for example, Rabbis Elliot Dorff and Avram Israel Reisner agree on most end-of-life issues but differ on whether it is legitimate to withhold or withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration from a dying patient and the amount of morphine that may be used in quelling pain.

CONTRACEPTION
The following responsum by Rabbis Miriam Berkowitz and Mark Popovsky asks: When is contraception permitted within Jewish law, and what classical teachings should guide the decision to employ it? When contraception is permitted, does Jewish law determine which contraceptive method is preferable? Does Jewish law distinguish between contraceptive methods initiated prior to intercourse and “emergency” or other contraception introduced only after intercourse?

“Assuming that all aspects of safety and efficacy with respect to more than one contraceptive method are equal for a particular couple, the couple is advised to follow the order set out in this teshuvah from most to least preferable means: Hormonal contraception (the pill, implants, vaginal insertion, transdermal patch) 

“Intrauterine device — copper or hormonal (IUD) 

“Diaphragm, cervical cap 

“Sponge, including spermicidal gel; spermicidal gel in combination with another method 

“Condoms 

“Emergency contraception (‘the morning after pill’) — only after the fact and not for regular use”

“If a woman elects to employ a method of contraception farther down the list for reasons of health, safety or efficacy specific to her circumstances, she may rest assured that such a choice represents a halakhically valid decision, fully justified within normative Jewish practice. Birth control of any means is far preferable to abortion. Every effort should be made to ensure access to and accurate information about contraception for all who might engage in sexual intercourse. The concern that such measures will encourage risky sexual activity or promiscuity is unsupported by scientific evidence and insufficient to warrant the increased health risks borne by those in communities where access to contraception is limited.”

THE PRESENT CHALLENGE
“Today the challenge is one of seduction into the general, secular culture through assimilation, intermarriage, and a commitment to work over family. … How shall we meet this challenge? Upholding the legal norm imposed by the later Rabbis on the male member of the couple of unlimited reproduction is neither practical nor desirable. Nor does it seem right or wise to say to the female member of the family, ‘Give up higher education and a career to have a large family.’ Rather, a reasonable course would be to encourage a fertile couple to have at least two children in compliance with the early Halakhah and at least one additional child to help the Jewish people replace those lost in the Holocaust and maintain its numbers in the modern world. The first two children that a couple produces are mitzvah children in the sense that they enable the couple (specifically, the man) to fulfill the command to procreate. We would like to suggest that the third child (and any further children) also be designated ‘mitzvah children,’ not only in the sense that classical Jewish law requires us to have as many children as we can, but also in the sense that having three or more children helps the Jewish people maintain its numbers and even regain a bit of the numbers we lost in the Holocaust. Another way to think of this is that the couple should have, if possible, at least one more child than they were planning for the sake of the Jewish people, with a minimum of three.”

Excerpts from “Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice” by Elliot N. Dorff.


This story was featured as part of Jonathan Kirsch’s Feb. 22, cover story

In Praise of Denominations

One of the cool and fashionable expressions in modern Jewish life is to say you’re “post-denominational” — that is, you’re a Jew who doesn’t fit into categories and doesn’t need labels. Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg captured this notion with his memorable, biting line, “I don’t care what denomination you belong to, as long as you’re embarrassed by it.”

Greenberg, who is Modern Orthodox and made that statement during a 2006 interview, was dramatizing the sentiment that labels are inherently divisive, since they put more emphasis on our differences than on what we have in common. I’ve always had sympathy for that critique. When I started a spiritual magazine many years ago to promote Jewish unity, we had a T-shirt that said “I’m an ashkephardicultrarefoconservadox Jew and proud of it.”

Over the years, I’ve learned to balance my idealism with reality, and the reality is that human beings enjoy belonging to like-minded groups. In the Jewish world, these like-minded groups go far beyond the Big Three denominations of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.

Even within denominations, there are plenty of variations. Under the broad Orthodox label, for example, you will find variations such as Open, Modern, Yeshivish, ultra-Orthodox, Chasidic and so on. All of these groups and subgroups have things that distinguish them — from davening style to rabbinic leaders to interpretation of Jewish law to specific traditions based on their ancestry. 

The point is this: The Jewish community is and always has been splintered around myriad factors that go way beyond the broad religious denominations. 

“Given the differences among Jewish groups, how realistic is it to envision a ‘post-denominational’ future for American Judaism?”

Choosing a synagogue is a key point of distinction. In Los Angeles, for example, Jews who belong to the IKAR community are different from Jews who belong to Sinai Temple, just as members of Young Israel of Century City are different from members of The Happy Minyan. Yes, they are all Jewish and have plenty in common, but there are different tastes, different flavors, different priorities.

The same applies to my Sephardic community — there are many flavors. I get the goosebumps when I hear prayer melodies from my Moroccan childhood. I don’t feel the same way about melodies from other places, which is normal. We have a unique connection to the traditions we grew up with, especially when they trigger our nostalgia.

Here’s the larger question: Given the differences among Jewish groups, how realistic is it to envision a “post-denominational” future for American Judaism? I know Greenberg was speaking in jest, but is belonging to a denomination or specific group really something to be embarrassed about?

In our cover story this week, we go in the opposite direction. Our book editor Jonathan Kirsch reviews the latest book by American Jewish University professor Elliot Dorff, “Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice,” that proudly makes a case for the Conservative denomination. 

“For those who grew up in other expressions of Judaism,” Dorff writes, “I hope the book will deepen your understanding of Conservative Judaism beyond the one-dimensional ‘Orthodox Judaism watered down’ or ‘Reform Judaism beefed up’ and impel you to engage with its teachings on its own terms.” 

Ironically, one of those teachings is the embrace of dissent within Dorff’s own denomination.

“Conservative rabbis and lay leaders reveled in the diversity of opinion and practice within the movement,” he writes. “They did not want to squelch its creativity and liveliness, and, furthermore, they believed it would be Jewishly inauthentic to adopt a rigid definition of what a Conservative Jew must believe or do.”

“Denominations, and all the movements within and around them, are just another expression of a 3,500-year-old work in progress. The Jewish journey itself feels like a never-ending procession of breakaway minyans.”

In an interview with Kirsch, Dorff endorsed the very notion of denominations: “I am a pluralist,” he says. “I don’t think that the major problem in Jewish life is that we have too many denominations.”

Neither do I.

Denominations, and all the movements within and around them, are just another expression of a 3,500-year-old work in progress. The Jewish journey itself feels like a never-ending procession of breakaway minyans. Some Jews think they have something new to add, so they go off and try it out. For all we know, that dance between stability and restlessness may be the key to our continuing survival.

At its best, Judaism provides a refuge of meaning from the emptiness and uncertainties of life. Denominations provide ideological homes, just as synagogues provide communal homes. It’s natural that we gravitate toward a specific place within that refuge that is more familiar to us and appeals to us the most.

Of course, there is plenty of room in all of these nooks and crannies for wandering Jews who feel like experimenting with different flavors. Maybe that’s what people mean when they say they’re “post-denominational.” It’s not that they don’t believe in groups or denominations, they just want to be free to try as many of them as they like.

After all, what is “post-denominational” if not a group you enjoy belonging to?

Two Jewish Comedians Talk Mary Tyler Moore, #MeToo, and Mothering

Photo provided by Debra Nussbaum Cohen.

Comedian Judy Gold emerged on stage at an Upper West Side theater on Feb. 11 and screeched, “Oh my God, I’m so excited,” as she welcomed comedian/actress/performer Sandra Bernhard to a live taping of her podcast “Kill Me Now.” 

It didn’t take long for the pair of Jewy comics to dive into celebrity gossip. Bernhard asked if the host had been invited to Jennifer Aniston’s 50th birthday party. “I wasn’t invited,” Bernhard said dryly. Gold asked: “Hasn’t she had a lot of work done?” to which Bernhard diplomatically replied, “She’s had a lot of tsuris.”

Being in the audience felt a lot like eavesdropping on two famous friends having a grown up slumber party. Their conversations roamed from what it was like growing up in a New Jersey suburb (Gold) and Scottsdale, Ariz. (Bernhard); how they’ve dealt with hostility toward female comics and sexual harassment over the course of their careers, as well as the fickle fortunes of fame.

Throughout, Gold dinged a hotel desk bell every time they mentioned someone or something Jewish. There were a lot of dings.

The comics riffed on their shared love of Carole King’s album “Tapestry,” reminisced about tearing the cellophane off new albums while sitting on shag-carpeted bedroom floors, and their mutual obsession with TV variety shows and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Although both women are Jewish, Gold builds her shtick around feeling awkward and unpopular because she is tall and gawky. Bernhard, on the other hand, is all cool fashionista. She has graced the cover of Elle, is known for her style as well as her Mick Jagger pout and is as unflappable as Gold is neurotic. 

To this day, Bernhard is thankful that she didn’t get cast in her high school production of “Funny Girl” despite her Barbra Streisand-esque nose and beautiful voice. Instead, the casting director picked a curvier “totally blond shiksa” and, Bernhard said, ended up sexually molesting the lead and others girls.

“From the get-go, HaShem protected me and I was never molested,” she said, although she did share another story. She said the late comedian Buddy Hackett invited her to come to his Beverly Hills house the morning after the premiere of her 1982 film “The King of Comedy” with Jerry Lewis and Robert DeNiro. She was 26 at the time. “He met me at the door in a terry-cloth robe,” Bernhard said. That was my #MeToo experience,” but she didn’t elaborate further.

“Judy Gold builds her shtick around feeling awkward and unpopular because she is tall and gawky. Sandra Bernhard, on the other hand, is all cool fashionista.”

Gold shared her own Hackett #MeToo moment. “The Concord Hotel was trying to stay open. Buddy liked me for some reason and asked me to open for him. He liked tall women. (Gold is 6 feet 3). He comes up to me right before I go on, he comes up to here on me,” Gold said, holding her hand at bust level, “and says, ‘Give me a kiss.’ I say, ‘I’m not giving you a kiss.’ He’s like, ‘Just give me a little tongue.’ And then he puts his face in my boobs,” shaking it back and forth. “Then I went right onstage.”

Bernhard she said that while she was growing up, she was teased by schoolmates for having her famously full “n-word lips.” After finishing high school early, she went to a kibbutz in Israel, where she had lots of cousins. She picked oranges and grapefruit, chopped weeds in cotton fields and, in the kibbutz slaughterhouse, vacuumed lungs out of chickens on the assembly line. She credits the manual labor with teaching her a strong work ethic.

After returning to the U.S., she moved to Los Angeles, enrolled in the Charles Ross School of Beauty and studied to be a manicurist for three months before working in salons while doing stand-up in local comedy clubs. Comics Paul Mooney and Lotus Weinstock mentored her.

Unlike other women working in comedy at the time, Bernhard refused to be self-deprecating in her act. The late Joan Rivers told her she’d never make it in show business unless she got a nose job but she never considered it.  

“From Day One, it was confidence, confidence, confidence,” Gold said, admiringly.  

“I was insecure, don’t get me wrong, but it never came out in my material,” Bernhard said. “I couldn’t let all the feminists down. All my ladies. They fought for me.”

Gold, on the other hand, wanted a nose job. In the exaggerated, Jewish mother voice she uses when quoting her late mother, Gold said, “You’ll get your nose done when Barbra Streisand gets hers.”

Starring with Lewis and De Niro in “King of Comedy,” was a career high for Bernhard. “I’m sure Jerry Lewis was very nice on set,” Gold, said. “No, he wasn’t,” Bernhard replied. “He was a horrible person.”

The two then talked about being Jewish mothers. “I tortured my daughter. I was involved in the Kabbalah Centre for a long time,” Bernhard said. “From the time she was in utero until she was 10, 11, I would drag her to the Kabbalah Centre.”

She said she then took her daughter to Chabad, where she was bat mitzvah’d. “I thought she would never want to be near anything [Jewish] again,” Bernhard said.  But about a month ago Bernhard went to visit her daughter in London, who said to her mother, ‘Let’s go to Shabbat in Golder’s Green.’ “So we went to synagogue,” and she was really into it, and I was like, ‘HaShem, thank you.’ ”

“You’re so lucky,” Gold said. “Yeah, I didn’t drive her completely away from her faith,” Bernhard replied.

And as any Jewish mother would, Gold responded, “Mazel tov on that, honey. Mazel tov.”


Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes from New York for Haaretz and is a contributing editor at The Forward. 

Netflix Show ‘Russian Doll’ as a Manual for Spiritual Growth

Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll Photo courtesy of Netflix

This article contains spoilers from the Netflix series “Russian Doll.”

The new Netflix series “Russian Doll” is so splendidly Jewish.

The eight 30-minute episodes in Season 1 follow the life of the main character, Nadia, played by Natasha Lyonne (“Orange is the New Black”), who dies and wakes up at her 36th birthday party in a never-ending loop, “Groundhog Day”-style.

The series is Jewish in two distinct ways. It’s a rare combination of secular New York bagels and kosher pickles Jewish, and deep mystical and ethical principles Jewish.

On the surface, there are the trappings of the sort of Jewish history that’s threaded through the streets of the East Village: a birthday party in an old yeshiva building, now an ultra-fancy hipster loft encased in subway tile; a synagogue on 14th Street — at its center an old, bearded rabbi who was a couple of blocks away all along; and the necklace Nadia wears throughout the series, which represents not only her lost mother who left it to her, but her Holocaust survivor grandparents, who lost faith in paper money and trusted only gold currency.

As much as I love the ghost of the yeshiva, the mystical/practical rabbi and Lyonne’s representation of intergenerational trauma, I’m most compelled by the Jewish thought embedded in the plot. The idea that you can make a decision that minimizes rather than maximizes your humanity; a decision that hurts rather than helps those around you is the epitome of the Jewish concept of teshuvah. Often translated as “repentance,” teshuvah really means “returning”: returning to our best selves and the life we should be living.

Traditionally, Jews focus on teshuvah during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but it is an ongoing process throughout the year. The classic interpretation of teshuvah is espoused by Maimonides, the 12th-century Spanish rabbi and philosopher. I love this description of his steps to Teshuvah by Rabbi Leora Kaye and artist/animator Hanan Harchol, not least because we see Nadia precisely as a “Jew on the street,” wandering the streets of Alphabet City over and over:

[Maimonides] wrote for the simple “Jew on the street” as much as for scholars, and his codes have remained relevant across the spectrum of Jewish belief until today. According to Maimonides, four of the most important steps of teshuvah are the following:

  1. Verbally confess your mistake and ask for forgiveness (Mishneh Torah 1:1).
  2. Express sincere remorse, resolving not to make the same mistake again (Mishneh Torah 2:2).
  3. Do everything in your power to “right the wrong,” to appease the person who has been hurt (Mishneh Torah 2:9).
  4. Act differently if the same situation happens again (Mishneh Torah 2:1).

When I first encountered this text in my early 20s, I appreciated its practical advice toward righting a wrong. So much better than guiltily agonizing for years and years. But I, like many people, had a problem with No. 4. If making a different decision in the same situation is the final step, then true teshuvah is hard to come by. To really do it right, you’d have to go back to a different multiverse, be presented with the exact same situation and then make a different decision.

This is Nadia’s story. She follows Maimonides’ steps of teshuvah, one by one, multiverse by multiverse. Being human, she sometimes slips, but in general, she moves forward. She apologies to her friend for a hurtful past comment; she reconsiders her refusal to connect with her ex-boyfriend’s young daughter; on two separate occasions she makes sure a homeless man has shoes on a cold night; and eventually, she puts her heart and soul into saving her teshuvah partner, Alan (Charlie Barnett).

“Russian Doll” not only depicts the behavior of teshuvah, as laid out by Maimonides, but also moves us by showing the characters’ inner growth. Before they can complete their teshuvah and live their fullest lives, both Nadia and Alan must face the demons that led them to fail others. This is teshuvah as a therapeutic practice. When she first sees the ghost of her neglected child-self, Nadia immediately dies, but little by little she grows stronger, able to face her own trauma and let go of her guilt.

“‘Russian Doll’ not only depicts the behavior of teshuvah, as laid out by Maimonides, but also moves us by showing the characters’ inner growth.”

 

Sitting down to write this story, I Googled “Maimonides Russian Doll” and discovered a post on ReformJudaism.org, discussing why Maimonides called his great work of commentary “Mishne Torah,” the “second Torah.”

[Maimonides] must have seen himself as upholding the commandment [of] repeating and retelling God’s law. Maimonides’ addition to the previous replications of God’s word finally results in the textual equivalent of a Matryoshka (Russian nesting) doll, one retelling nested inside another, each one a successively larger copy of the predecessor concealed within it.

In this analysis, Torah itself — including Maimonides’ commentary — is a Russian doll; a series of self-enclosing multiverses considering the same story from a different angle.

Like Torah, the video games Nadia designs for a living are both directional (moving forward in time) and cyclical (starting over and over). So it is with life. We may not wake up over and over at the same aging hipster birthday party, but we do repeat our patterns, and we do have the ability to change our lives by shifting our attitudes, behavior and ultimately our reality.

Teshuvah is the central Jewish expression of this concept; another way of saying that perhaps there are multiverses, different possible versions of each of us. It is up to us to decide which world we will live in and who we will be.   


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher. Her most recent book of poetry is “Fruit Geode” (Augury Books).

Modern Orthodox Group Praises Court Decision to Fire Man Who Won’t Give a Get

Photo from PxHere

Ohr Torah Stone, a Modern Orthodox network that consists of 27 groups, praised the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court’s decision late last week that ordered the Egged Bus Cooperative to fire one of its employees because of his constant refusal to properly divorce his wife with a Get.

The couple who has been married for 15 years, whose names were not disclosed, came to Israel from India with their child a few years ago. The husband reportedly has had a violent history with his wife, physically attacking her and their child resulting in police intervention on more than one occasion.

Ten months ago, the Rabbinical court ordered the husband to grant his wife a Get but he refused. As a result, the court imposed various sanctions, but the man continued to refuse to give a Get.

Though Egged can’t terminate him without giving him a hearing they told him they are giving 30-days’ notice and will then fire him unless he gives the get.

“Like everyone else, my client deserves to lead a peaceful and happy life,” said Attorney and Rabbinical Court Advocate Tehila Cohen who will be representing the wife. “We will not rest until she receives her freedom and can embark upon a new and secure life together with her son.”

Cohen works with Yad La’isha: the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center which is one of the Ohr Torah Stone organizations that assists agunot – women who are “chained” to marriage because their husbands deny them a Jewish divorce.

“Ohr Torah Stone applauds Tehila Cohen’s ingenuity and untiring efforts on behalf of the wife in this unfortunate case,” said Ohr Torah Stone President and Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Kenneth Brander in a statement. “All women deserve the chance to begin anew without being held hostage; all the more so when they are victims of violence and abuse, as in this case.”

Tidying Up to Spark Joy

Tidying Up to Spark Joy
by Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback from Stephen Wise Temple

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. (Exodus 25:1-2)

לֵּאמֹֽר: אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה  יְהוָ֖ה  וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר

יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃

 כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר מֵאֵ֤ת תְּרוּמָ֑ה׃

When I was a kid, tidying up was definitely not something I looked forward to.

Now it’s officially a craze.

Marie Kondo’s show, “Tidying Up,” is a big hit on Netflix. It’s based on her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which has sold millions of copies and has been translated to 30 languages.

Sermon from Soulful Shabbat at Stephen Wise Temple February 8, 2019

Here’s how Kondo describes the way it all started:

“I was obsessed with what I could throw away. One day, I had a kind of nervous breakdown and fainted. I was unconscious for two hours. When I came to, I heard a mysterious voice, like some god of tidying telling me to look at my things more closely. And I realised my mistake: I was only looking for things to throw out. What I should be doing is finding the things I want to keep. Identifying the things that make you happy: that is the work of tidying.”

The basic idea is to go through your belongings, keeping only those things that “make your heart flutter” or “spark joy” in you.

I was thinking about this “tidying up” phenomenon as I read the opening verses of last week’s Torah portion.

Our ancestors are asked to bring donations for the construction of the Tabernacle.

All sorts of objects are mentioned – gold and silver and bronze; linen and ram skins; acacia wood; pure oil for the menorah; aromatic incense; precious stones. All for the purpose of constructing a Tabernacle so that, as our Torah puts it, we might be closer to God.

It’s an inversion. We are asked to take objects that most probably make OUR hearts flutter and we give them away for a higher purpose.

Here’s the insight from our tradition: the focus is on “sparking joy,” as it were, in God’s heart, in the hearts of members of our community.

I’m not suggesting that what God wants above all else is for us to build edifices in God’s honor. I don’t believe that God would very much care about that sort of stuff.

But the notion that we should devote our time, our talent, and our treasure to behaving in ways that would bring God joy and satisfaction – I like that idea very much.

Indeed – that idea makes my heart flutter.

Let’s ask ourselves – just as a thought experiment – what we could do to spark joy in God and in those around us. I bet we would be kinder, gentler, more loving and more generous people. I imagine we would fight harder for justice. I’m sure we would be better people as a result.

It’s not that our joy is unimportant. It’s the idea that the well-being and satisfaction of others should matter, too.

And it’s a core Jewish value. It’s the way the Rambam understands the very central teaching of our tradition, what Rabbi Akiva called the great principle of Torah:

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

What I want for myself – that is, what makes my heart flutter – I work to provide for the other.

This way of thinking, this way of living will make hearts flutter. It will spark joy in others, in ourselves, and maybe even in God.

It’s the kind of tidying up to which we should commit ourselves.

‘Blue Bloods,’ ‘Sopranos’ star Steve Schirripa on His Jewish Roots and Kosher Sauces

Steve Schirripa. Photo from his website.

When you talk about the greatest television shows of all time, odds are that “The Sopranos” will come up in that conversation. While “The Sopranos” has not produced a new episode in more than a decade ago, many of the “Sopranos” cast members continue to work steadily, and Steve Schirripa is clearly one of them.

Beyond being part of the cast of the CBS hit “Blue Bloods,” Schirripa has found success as a producer, author, voiceover artist and show creator. Schirripa also has his own line of organic, vegan (and kosher) pasta sauces, Uncle Steve’s Italian Specialties Group. The Brooklyn, New York native also has dozens of “Tonight Show” appearances under his belt.

Bringing together the old and the new, Steve Schirripa will be performing as part of “Sinatra Meets The Sopranos at the NYCB Theatre in Westbury, New York on May 4. Schirripa will be appearing alongside Michael Imperioli (“Christopher Moltisanti”), Vincent Pastore (“Sal Bonpensiero”), singer Michael Martocci and host/comic Joey Kola.

The “Sopranos” actors will be telling stories and answering audience questions – as moderated by Kola — about the acclaimed David Chase series while Martocci will be performing actual charts from Frank Sinatra’s long-time musical director Vincent Falcone.

Below is a snippet from my January 2019 phone chat with Steve Schirripa, while the full chat will be appearing next month as part of the Paltrocast With Darren Paltrowitz podcast.

Jewish Journal: Not everybody realizes that you’re part-Jewish. Were you bar mitzvahed?

Steve Schirripa: No, I was not bar mitzvahed. My mother was Jewish so I had a whole Jewish side of the family. My mother’s maiden name was Bernstein. My grandmother’s name was Moskowitz, so I know all about that world. So I was raised Catholic, but I very much identify as being Jewish as well. I had all kinds of aunts and uncles and I had the best of both worlds.

JJ: Are there any projects or events that I didn’t touch upon that you’d like to mention?

SS: I’m hosting the Garden Of Laughs. It’s a charity event at Madison Square Garden. Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Stewart and Brian Regan… It’s April 2. It’s the third time I’m hosting that, that’s for charity, the Garden Of Dreams Foundation. All the money goes for kids in the Tri-State area .

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

SS: My thing is, “Listen man, stay the course.” Try to do something that you like. It doesn’t come right away. Listen… I never had any dreams of being an actor until I was in my mid to late 30s. It came out of nowhere. It wasn’t a dream that was simmering. So you never know where it’s going to take you, you know?

‘Guardians’ 80th, Canadians, Sundance Shabbat

From left: Jeff Schlesinger, Tony Berns, Marilyn Freeman, Zane Koss, Larry Schnaid and (back row) Peter Steigleder attended the 80th anniversary celebration of the Guardians of the L.A. Jewish Home. Photo courtesy of the L.A. Jewish Home

The Guardians of the Los Angeles Jewish Home celebrated its 80th anniversary on Jan. 26 at the Hollywood Palladium.

The event, dubbed “1938: A Comedy Night for the Ages,” honored Michael Koss, who established Koss Real Estate Investments in 1971; and presented the Ambassador Award to Josh Flagg, a reality television star and real estate agent. 

Koss, who specializes in the acquisition and development of commercial real estate, has been a supporter of the Guardians for 25 years and is a former board member of the organization. Flagg, who has a starring role on Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles,” serves on the Guardians’ executive board.

The event drew more than 650 attendees and raised over $630,000, said Jessi Cazary, manager of the Guardians.

Tony Berns, Marilyn Freeman, Zane Koss and Peter Steigleder chaired the event. Richard Ziman served as honorary chair. 

The mission of the Guardians is to provide financial support for seniors and needy members of the Jewish community served by the Los Angeles Jewish Home, through residential and community-based programs. The organization was founded in 1938 by a handful of volunteers.


Daniella Alkobi, vice president of Marino. Photo courtesy of of Marino

Marino, a strategic communications and public relations firm based in New York with an office in Los Angeles, announced the promotion of Daniella Alkobi to vice president, on Jan. 23.

Alkobi, who joined the firm in 2012, has handled accounts including American Friends of Tel Aviv University, which raises funds and awareness for the educational institution.

“Daniella has been instrumental in the build-out of our Los Angeles office and California presence,” said John Marino, the company’s president. “Her incredible work ethic has been invaluable to our agency as she continues to elevate our clients to new levels of visibility.” 

Alkobi, 32, received her bachelor’s degree in communications and professional writing from UC Santa Barbara. A San Francisco native, she resides in Ventura with her husband, Sagi Alkobi, and their son, Mason. 


Philanthropist Julie Bram enjoys the traveling exhibition, “The Canadian Jewish Experience,” in Beverly Hills. Photo courtesy of Sharon Krischer

More than 40 people gathered Jan. 13 at the Beverly Hills home of Sharon and Joel Krischer to view the traveling exhibit, “The Canadian Jewish Experience,” curated by Tova Lynch, an immigrant member of the Ottawa, Ontario, Jewish community.  

The exhibit, created to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada in 2017, honors Jews who made contributions to the building of the country. Nine panels cover Jewish contributions to government, the legal system, business, architecture, sports, the arts, pop culture and other aspects of Canadian life. 

Speakers at the gathering included Consul General of Canada in Los Angeles Zaib Shaikh; Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa, who spoke about his life after emigrating to Montreal from Morocco; and Lynch. Attendees included local Jewish philanthropist Julie Bram.

The exhibition acknowledges the challenges faced by Jews in Canada, specifically immigration barriers and prejudices targeting Jews in the 1960s, while recognizing the growth of the Jewish community that today counts nearly 400,000 people living in all the provinces and territories, with particular concentrations in Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver.

“All Canadians take pride in our 150th anniversary, but Jewish citizens celebrate with a special appreciation,” the exhibit’s website says. “Canada’s peoples come from many backgrounds and religions. Our spirit of tolerance and diversity helps cultural communities thrive within the mosaic.” 

Lynch worked with her husband, Jim Lynch, a former diplomat, as well as a team of volunteers, in creating the exhibition. 


Students at the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies at UC Berkeley  

The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation of Los Angeles has awarded the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies at UC Berkeley a $1 million matching grant toward the institute’s goal of building a $10 million endowment by 2024.

According to the Jan. 23 announcement of the grant, the Berkeley Institute’s endowment campaign has also received grants totaling nearly $2 million from the Koret Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation. 

“We’re issuing a challenge to other funders who care about proven campus models for engaging students around the study of Israel and Jewish identity in the modern world,”  Gilbert Foundation trustee Martin Blank Jr. said in the announcement. “This is an exciting endeavor, and we hope others join us in this cause.” 

The Berkeley Institute houses two programs: the Berkeley Program on Israel Studies and the Berkeley Program on Jewish Law, Thought and Identity. 

The institute, which was launched in 2011 and has a faculty of 22 members hailing from a variety of academic disciplines, allows students to integrate Israel studies throughout different campus departments, courses and programs; and to complement Jewish studies’ traditional focus on history and literature with a range of classes engaging Judaism from different vantage points. 

The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation supports a variety of academic programs at UC Berkeley and UCLA, including a monthly colloquium at the Berkeley Institute for presentations and discussions related to Israel and Judaism.

Dawne Bear Novicoff, chief operating officer of the Jim Joseph Foundation, said the Berkeley Institute has transformed the possibilities for Israel study at UC Berkeley.

“The strong desire for rigorous academic engagement with Israel at Berkeley is undisputed now,” Novicoff said. “Each year, the Institute offers even more to students, contributing to an Israel studies landscape that is completely transformed compared to what it was seven years ago. With its proven model, the Institute can work to ensure its future viability and long-term impact.”


At the Sundance Film Festival, Peter Yarrow of the folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary dropped by the Shabbat Lounge and reminisced about the 1960s. Photo by Emily McLean

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein and Rebbetzin Rachel Bookstein of Pico Shul in Los Angeles held a Shabbat dinner and other programming at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on the weekend of Jan. 25–27.

Among those who came to the Shabbat Lounge, organized by the Shabbat Tent and the Chai Center, were Peter Yarrow of the folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary; sex therapist Dr. Ruth and rapper Kosha Dillz. Attendees enjoyed a Friday night dinner while meeting and networking with film industry leaders and enthusiasts from around the world. 


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

For Your Consideration: The Jewish Oscars

Photo from Flickr.

This year, for the first time in three decades, the Academy Awards will have no host. And frankly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should have seen a situation like this coming, because hosting is a thankless job. No matter what you do, people hate you. They’ll say you’re not edgy enough, not talented enough, too tame, too political, too unfunny. They’ll call you sexist, homophobic, bigoted or racist.

Does this hostless situation provide an opportunity to make the Oscars more Jewish than ever? For several years, the Jewish Journal ran a hashtag game charging readers to “#MakeMoviesJewish” by contributing Jewy movie puns: “Jewrassic Park,” “American Snipper” (a prospective bris-related film, of course) and “An Anti-Defamation League of Their Own.” So how would we continue this momentum, in a hostless year, to #MakeOscarsJewish?

Hit up the Hollywood havurah: Contemporary Judaism has no monarch, no acknowledged leader (Steven Spielberg doesn’t count). Many communities have havurot or lay-led independent minyanim. As havurah members will tell you, not having a rabbi/host is fine: identify a few core “Hollywood lay leaders” to take turns (“toranut!”) running parts of the service — er, the awards show. For example, Gwyneth Paltrow, descendant of the Paltrovich Rebbe, is also an Oscar winner, as is Israeli-born, occasionally Hebrew-speaking Natalie Portman. Plus, we hear that Harrison Ford’s one-quarter Jewish — not too shabby. (Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song can be a helpful resource.) 

The host: If you are a bit more “Awards Show Orthodox” and insist on a single Oscars host, consider Tiffany Haddish. She is so ready that her brand’s slogan is “She Ready.” She famously re-wears a white Alexander McQueen dress that’s ready for Tu b’Av at a moment’s notice. And she’s Jewish on her father’s side: Tsihaye Reda Haddish was a refugee from Eritrea from an Ethiopian Jewish family. So instead of saying there’s nothing new (“ayn hadash”) under the sun, say, “yesh Haddish,” because there is a Haddish and “she ready.” 

The writers: some Oscars writers are probably already Jewish; let’s add a rabbi or educator from every Jewish denomination to better balance the content, and a rabbi with independent semikhah (rabbinic ordination), who will write intros for — what else? — independent films.

Red carpet fashion and activism: honestly, we’re always a bit worried about actresses who probably haven’t eaten in a few weeks, and are now in sleeveless dresses, possibly suffering from the early stages of hypothermia in the 70-degree weather of February in Los Angeles. On the red carpet, we’ll ask them who they are wearing, are they cold and have they eaten anything; and regardless of their answers, we’ll give them each a sweater and a vegan, non-GMO granola bar, just in case. The press will also be instructed to ask which charities they support.

The music: when you win an Oscar, you take to the stage to thank everyone who got you there, including your agent, manager, spouse and deity; and when you run too long, a gentle swell of music rises to warn you to wrap it up. At the Jewish Oscars, winners must thank their mothers in the first 30 seconds or the musical cue — the opening violin solo from the “Fiddler on the Roof” overture — will start to play and an offstage chorus will sing, “The Mamas! The Mamas! … Be grateful!” If a speech goes on too long, a frenetic “Havah Nagilah” will begin until the winner leaves the stage or the audience starts a hora.

A shame montage instead of “In Memoriam”: this will be a safe space to hang our heads and whisper the names of the Hollywood (and non-Hollywood) Jews who have embarrassed us in the last year. We can end the segment with a misheberach prayer for the healing of those who have suffered as a result of deeds perpetrated by the people in the shame montage. 

For your consideration, Oscars team. Now what about you? Are you hungry? Cold? Here’s a sweater and a granola bar.

Two Nice Jewish Boys: Episode 125 – The Hungarian TV Star Who Bought a 100 Year Old Jewish Newspaper

Kristof Steiner

Just a couple of weeks ago we commemorated the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the entire western world mourned for the 6 million souls that perished. But what is often missed is the fact, that the Nazis didn’t only murder the people, they murdered whole parts of the Jewish culture that thrived in Europe for many centuries. They destroyed hundreds of newspapers and obliterated whole libraries. They murdered a language, Yiddish.

And indeed, before World War II, Jewish culture in Europe was extremely vibrant, with an endless stream of theater, books and newspapers. Literally, hundreds of newspapers were published throughout Europe and America, in Yiddish, Hebrew and the local languages. The people of the book were obviously obsessed with ink and paper, and it showed. Most of these publishings didn’t make it through the war, but some survived. One of those was Új Kelet, a Hungarian-Romanian newspaper founded 100 years ago.

The history of this paper is a long one, but the interesting part is how the paper nearly went bankrupt a few years back. Right when Kristof Steiner entered the story.

Kristof is a Hungarian, part-Jewish model and TV celebrity. He’s been living in Israel for the past ten years and when he heard about the state of Új Kelet, he decided he simply couldn’t let the paper die. What happened next is absolutely incredible. We’re proud to have Kristof Steiner here on the podcast to tell the story.

Kristof’s blog, Facebook and Instagram

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Special D’var Torah: Mishpatim

Photo by REUTERS/David W Cerny

If only the whole Jewish world knew, and lived by, this one comment of Rashi.  If only that…then the Jewish people would be kinder, more ethical and more dignified.

Let me rev this up by saying that one of my recent and current pet peeves (which is saying it lightly. What I am about to describe is a source of tremendous pain and anguish for me about Jewish living) is the discourteousness (again, to say it lightly) exhibited by some who are punctilious about ritual Jewish observance.  In my mind, I have thought of this as “ugly Judaism.”  A Judaism which valorizes, and pays attention to, halakhic/legal/ritual detail, while eschewing (sometimes simultaneously) basic politeness and rudimentary ethical comportment.  Myriad examples jump to mind.  Jews who are so careful about not touching a person of the opposite gender such that it impacts where they sit on an airplane, but seem to jettison all expressions of patient, flexible kindness when trying to meet those needs.  Jews who are careful and ubiquitous when it comes to regular, obligatory prayer, and who can recite the prayers fluently and fluidly…but then resort to lashon hara (gossip, damaging speech) as soon as there is a gap in the service.  Jews who are so set on venerating the Torah that they literally knock people over (and thus knock over the values of that very Torah) on the way to giving the Torah a kiss.  Some might call that last example as veneration-turned-idolatry, with frenzy having replaced honor.

(I am neither a perfect Jew nor a perfect human.  I try to name and efface as many of the flaws that I recognize within myself as possible. So I will accept “guilty as charged” for any of the ways in which I fall prey to the very phenomena discussed above.)

I muse about how we got to this place in Jewish sociology wherein the class of phenomena I named is so prevalent. Perhaps it should not be such a surprise. Human beings are complex and riddled with internal inconsistencies.  We undermine, and betray, our own values and principles all the time—sometimes unaware and unconscious, and sometimes quite aware, but as a result of some negotiation, or rationalization, with self.  But even if this is true, ought we not try to aspire to something better, something higher?

The commentary of Rashi I referenced above is his first on Parshat Mishpatim, and emerges from a pretty wonky and zoomed-in read of the text.  The parsha begins with the words ואלה משפטים / V’eleh hamishpatim / “And these are the laws/statues…”.  The parsha then continues with a litany of laws (making Mishpatim the parsha with the second-most number of mitzvot among all the 54 parashot, with only Ki Tetze having more). Most of those laws are related to civic life, business practices and ethical living, with rather few of them existing purely in the ritual realm. Rashi notes that all sorts of sentences in the Torah begin with the introduction of “אלה / Eleh / These…” And he notes, or suggests, a pattern: When the opening word is just Eleh, the word is meant to separate what is to come from what came before.  It would be read something like “Now that we have finished that topic, these are some other things, in another category.” But when the opening word is “V’eleh” (as it is in our verse), the opposite is true: The word connects the upcoming verse(s) and concept(s) with the antecedent, as if we should read it something like “And these things, as well!”

Rashi is highlighting the import of the slim, humble, almost indiscernible vov-letter that begins the word and the parsha.  Within that tiny letter is the following exhortation: lest you delude yourself into thinking that the laws about to be commanded are somehow other, or lesser, or disconnected from the “true revelation” we just had in Parshat Yitro…lest you erroneously think that all (any!) of the commandments after the initial 10 are secondary, the vov of “V’eleh” sets you straight.  You thought that the Sinai moment ended last week? Hardly.  It continues into Mishpatim, with no conceptual or hierarchical separation. So as you remember Shabbat and render it holy, and as you commit to monotheism and to not taking that one God’s name in vain, so too do you promise to act towards your servants with decency, and pay the damages of one you have injured, and guard your animals lest they create havoc, and ensure that your open pits do not pose a danger to unsuspecting wayfarers, and treat the stranger with empathy, and support the widow and orphan, and ease the burden of an overladen animal, and on and on and on.  They, too, are part of God’s revelation to us, and expectations of us.  While the latter category without the former category might be ethical humanism, I would say again that the former category without the latter is ugly Judaism.

Remember that vov, and act on it.  Connect your conception of Sinai to how you hold yourself, especially while you find yourself in the midst of a ritual act.  Make God’s name truly holy by having your very being be a conveyor of holiness, from the ritual to the civil, and back.

Shabbat Shalom


Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. 

 

An Ancient Moon and a Modern Fascination

Painted by Lisa Goldberg

On a bitterly cold January night (or early morning, to be exact), I stood out on my front porch and there it was. A blood moon. It was my third trip outside, as I had gone out every few hours—first to see the full moon, then to see the eclipse beginning, and now this. My entire family was asleep, but I “shared” the experience with millions of others around the world. I had purposefully stayed awake for this and it did not disappoint.

The next morning, Tu B’Shevat (which always happens on a full moon), my social media feed exploded with pictures of that beautiful and awesome site. Once upon a time, people would see such a thing and think the world was ending. Now, we plan for days in advance to marvel at nature’s beauty. With our modern telescopes and internet stream. Remember the Great American Eclipse of 2017?

It truly is amazing to think about. In the age of the endless news cycle, streaming, and text messaging, why are we still as fascinated by the moon as we were fifty years ago when Neil Armstrong first set foot? But, then again, that is our entire lives as Jews—balancing the old with the new. The ancient with the modern. Indeed, we can have both. They are not mutually exclusive.

Tonight, Jews around the world will light Shabbat candles, fulfilling an ancient commandment at the end of a busy week. Depending upon their level of observance, they will engage in various recreational activities. Some as old as a game of chess, others as modern as a Netflix video. Different Jews with different traditions. On Saturday morning, out comes an ancient scroll read aloud in a most likely modern building. Old and new. Ancient and modern. It is everywhere.

In his weekly column in the Detroit Free Press, Mitch Albom unapologetically writes about his continued ownership of a flip phone. “I don’t care about phones. To me, they are there for talking and for hanging up. I don’t need to carry the world in my pocket. I don’t need to post my life.” A modern writer who still uses “old” technology.

Anyone who has been to Israel has experienced this dichotomy. One day, you are walking through the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem and the next day, you find yourself amidst the bustling nightlife of Tel Aviv. However, one need not go to Israel to have this. It is the entire history of the Jewish experience. Each Jewish holiday (appropriately placed against the ancient cycle of the moon) has a mix of old and new. Hanukkah candles substituted for oil. The Passover seder plate now includes an orange. The list goes on and will continue to be updated for eternity.

L’dor V’dor. From each generation, we create our own traditions, combining the old with new. And it is as beautiful as a blood moon at midnight.


Disclosures: the author’s husband is Mitch Albom’s cousin. The painting included with this story is an original created by the author.

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

The Truth Is Out There in Israeli Science Fiction

“The State of Israel may be regarded as the quintessential science fiction (SF) nation,” write Sheldon Teitelbaum and Emanuel Lottem, the co-editors of “Zion’s Fiction (Mandel Vilar Press), “the only country on the planet inspired by not one, but two seminal works of wonder: the Hebrew Bible and Zionist ideologue Theo-dor Herzl’s early-twentieth century utopian novel, “Altneuland (Old New Land).” 

Yet it is also true that the 17 stories collected in “Zion’s Fiction” reflect the here and now of modern Israel. “This book will pry open the lid on a tiny, neglected, and seldom-viewed wellspring of Israeli literature, one we hope to be forgiven for referring to as ‘Zi-fi,’ ” write the co-editors in an introduction to the anthology. “We define this term as the speculative literature written by citizens and permanent residents of Israel — Jewish, Arab, or otherwise, whether living in Israel proper or abroad, writing in Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian, or any other language spoken in the Holy Land.”

The introduction to “Zion’s Fiction” and an introduction by Robert Silverberg, one of the living masters of the SF genre, are admirable works of literary history and commentary in themselves, and they provide an illuminating context for the stories that follow. But the stories, of course, are the real attraction, and “treasury” is exactly the right word to describe what we find in the collection. Buried in these fascinating exercises in imaginative fiction are glimpses of the anxieties and aspirations of the real Israel.

“The Smell of Orange Groves” by Lavie Tidhar, for example, imagines a future version of Israel as a poly-ethnic nation that includes not only Arabs and Jews but men and women whose ancestry reaches all the way to Mars. Their religious leaders now include such new-fangled authorities as Saint Cohen, the Oracle of the Others, and Brother R. Patch-It of the Church of Robot. “The question of who is a Jew had been asked not just about the Chong family, but of the robots, too, and was settled long ago,” muses Boris Chong, the hero of the story, a Russian-Chinese Jew who finds himself inexplicably haunted by dreams of the far-distant era when Tel Aviv did not yet exist and the place where he lives consisted of “orange groves, and sand, and sea.” After thrusting us into a strange new world, the author reminds us that sentimental memory provides no relief from the terrors of the world we already knew.  

“Buried in these fascinating exercises in imaginative fiction are glimpses of the anxieties and aspirations of the real Israel.”

In “The Believers,” Nir Yaniv describes the sudden appearance of God on Earth in the guise of a judge who inflicts sudden and gruesome death on anyone He judges and finds wanting. All too many modern Jews, it turns out, are deemed to be worthy of divine punishment. The narrator, for example, recalls the night when he and his girlfriend could no longer wait for marriage before sleeping with each other. “A weird smell woke me up in the morning,” he recalls. “Just beside me, in bed, a gray-red-purple sack, moist, dripping went. Still twitching. Fluttering about. My girlfriend, turned from the inside out.” So God is proven to be utterly real and highly dangerous, but the narrator turns out to be just as judgmental. Like Abraham and Moses, he is perfectly willing to stand up to God.

“I have always believed in God,” he tells us. “It’s about time that He started believing in me.”

Not every story is quite so theological or so apocalyptic. “Death in Jerusalem” by Elana Gomel begins as a simple and poignant boy-meets-girl story, but the woman called Mor senses something strange about her b’sheret, David. “His kisses were sterile; his mouth tasted of nothing.” When they marry in a civil ceremony in Cyprus, and she meets his family, she sees them as avatars of death by plague, by suicide, by old age. The life that Mor and David live is normal enough (“They watched Netflix and ate dinner”), but something threatening is always just below the surface. Eventually, Mor is forced to confront a dire presence that “was there when Neanderthals scattered ochre around the skeletons of the eaten ones … when shamans withered babies in their mothers’ wombs and flayed men alive without even touching them.” The ending owes more to “Rosemary’s Baby” than to anything in the Tanakh, and some readers will be reminded of the ghost stories that Isaac Bashevis Singer loved to tell. 

Many of these science fiction stories, however, can be understood as a kind of modern midrash. The Bible’s talking donkey was Balaam’s ass, of course, but we are introduced to his modern counterpart in “My Crappy Autumn” by Nitay Peretz, a wildly comic parody that features a Yiddish-speaking and wisecracking donkey named Tony. “Believe me, everyone’s an ass,” Tony insists. “But at least this ass knows what he’s talking about.” The character who tells the tale is Ido, whose girlfriend has dumped him and sent him into suicidal despair. His weapon of choice is a chrome-plated Jericho Magnum: “When it comes to death, only Made in Israel will do.” But he is diverted when a UFO lands in Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv, where it is surrounded by “three Merkava Mark II tanks and one Chabad Mitzvah tank.” Ultimately, the lesson that Ido
learns from Tony is reminiscent of Balaam and his famous ass: “Some Jews have the heart of a donkey, and some donkeys have a Jewish heart.”

Science fiction and fantasy may be understood as a refuge from the harsh reality of the world in which we find ourselves. But, as “Zion’s Fiction” shows us, it actually seeks to show us a way to solve our problems rather than just hiding from them. “SF dreams (and nightmares) are products of the imagination, but they are inspired by reality,” writes Aharon Hauptman in an afterword. “If humans fail to understand our potential futures, our alternative realities, it is mostly due to the failure of imagination.” When Hauptman argues that “an SF story is a thought experiment about alternative realities,” he is defining exactly what all of us need to find a path forward.


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

The Forward Ends Print Edition After 121 Years

After 121 years of printing a Yiddish and English Jewish paper, The Forward, one of the longest-running Jewish publications in the United States, will cease its print edition, and lay off its editor in chief and 40 percent of its staff, according to JTA.

The New York Post reported Wednesday that editor in chief, Jane Eisner will be let go after more than a decade in the position, along with Executive Editor Dan Friedman. Kurt Hoffman, the art director; Anya Ulinich, the deputy art director; Dave Goldiner, director of digital media; Kathleen Chambard, vice president of marketing; and Fern Wallach, an advertising account executive will also be laid off from the staff of the publication, which has been in business since 1897.

“The Forward is taking the next step in making our brand more relevant to our readers and more connected to their lives,” Publisher and CEO Rachel Fishman Feddersen said, on the Forward’s website. “Over our 121-year history, we have changed our format many times, launching new sections, publishing in new languages (Yiddish, English, Russian), and embracing change in our community. Whereas our readers once went to the newsstand with a nickel to read the news of the day, today, the vast majority of our community connects through the digital world. That is where the Forward is and will be.”

The transition to all-digital will take place spring of 2019.

‘Family Secrets’ Reveals Jewish Skeletons

Michael Naishtut, Niloo, Debbie Kaspar and Rosie Moss in “Family Secrets.” Photo by Maureen Rubin

A granddaughter learns that her beloved rabbi grandpa was a con artist. A daughter discovers that her doctor father is into degradation pornography. A sister is never told about the sibling who died before she was born. 

These are three of the dozen provocative tales told in the Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) production “Family Secrets,” currently playing at The Braid in Santa Monica and other locations through Jan. 29.

Opening with the lively song “My Dysfunctional Family,” the show is a mix of poignant, shocking, funny and touching true stories about sex addiction, forbidden romance, sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy and hiding one’s true self, all told from a Jewish perspective.

“Family secrets are so compelling because we all have them,” co-director Susan Morgenstern told the Journal after a rehearsal. She contributed the aforementioned piece about her older sister’s hidden death. “The poison of it was keeping the secret, so to hear it now and know that audiences will hear it is very cathartic,” she said.

Rosie Moss, one of the show’s four performers, found much to relate to in the material. A piece about a Polish grandfather’s relationship to Judaism resonated with her.

“My grandfather’s family is from Poland and Russia, so it’s easy to think about the generations before me coming to America and what that means for your identity,” she said. “I didn’t have a swindling rabbi in the family, but we have some not-so-perfect characters that I don’t know the full stories about, and I want to go call my grandmother and get more details. This stuff is all pretty universal.”

JWT Artistic Director Ronda Spinak narrowed down some 60 submissions to choose the 12 in the show. “I asked myself, was I moved by this? Did I learn something? Did I laugh out loud? If the piece has one or all of those, it [went] in the possible pile,” she said. Then she looked for variety, balance and resolution. “It wasn’t enough to share the secret. What happens when that secret is shared or not shared? How does that play out? What kind of impact does the keeping or sharing of that secret have? The pieces in the show answer that question or don’t answer it.”

Spinak co-founded the nonprofit JWT 12 years ago “to give voice to Jewish women to tell their stories onstage. Our mission is to create, produce and preserve Jewish stories so that future generations will know what it was like for the Jewish man and woman in America. We do men’s stories, too. Men come to our shows,” she said, although the audience is typically 55 percent or more female.

Spinak spoke about the JWT’s roots in “the tradition of Jewish women having salons in their homes, to bring forth cultural voices. We’ve performed in synagogues, museums, a women’s prison.” “Family Secrets” will play at several local synagogues and theaters over three weeks before heading to Santa Barbara and the Bay Area. 

“[The show] will make people think about their own secrets and the impact of learning those secrets and the impact of not telling them. If you’ve kept a secret, there’s usually a reason for it.” — Ronda Spinak

“There are so many different ways to be Jewish and to practice Judaism,” Spinak said. “We try to represent that in our shows.” 

Upcoming JWT shows include “It’s a Lie,” which, Spinak said, tells “funny, ironic stories surrounding death.” It opens in March, followed in May by “True Colors,” about Jews of color. “There are many ways to do Jewish,” Spinak said.

Spinak, whose heritage is Ashkenazi and one-quarter Sephardic, grew up in Orange County and has fond memories of attending Camp Hess Kramer. “I learned to have a spiritual connection to nature and to mash up creativity and Judaism,” she said.

Although her parents “didn’t believe in God anymore” after her sister’s death, Morgenstern said she found her way back to Judaism though JWT, where she’s been the resident producing director for six years. 

“I’ve started to understand exactly how Jewish I am,” she said. “Everything that matters to me is Jewish. I’m much more spiritual and focused on my Judaism. I feel more connected. I love my work here. It’s meaningful to me and I see the impact that we have.”

Co-director Lisa Cirincione, who also acts at JWT, was surprised at how deeply the plays have affected her. Raised Jewish by a Jewish mother (her father is Italian and Catholic), she said she “loved the material because it allowed me to learn about my own Judaism. The content penetrated my heart really deeply and quickly, and kept me coming back. I’ve gotten to play all kinds of Jewish women: American Jews, Russian Jews, Iranian Jews.”

New Jersey native Moss grew up in a “proud, culturally Jewish family. Reform but with a lot of traditions,” she said. “My brother is in his last year of rabbinical school and my mother is the executive director of a synagogue in Manhattan.” Her paternal grandmother sang and told stories in Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish, and influenced her desire to perform. 

Moss appeared in the JWT’s “Guilty Parties” last year, and she wrote and produced the short film “Enchanted LLC,” about a children’s party performer, based on personal experience. “It’s not a Jewish theme, but that’s what I want to do next,” she said.

Moss hopes audiences will come away from “Family Secrets” with “an understanding of all of our flaws, that we’re not perfect. Maybe something in our past is complicated but it still can be experienced and celebrated.” 

“It will make people think about their own secrets and the impact of learning those secrets and the impact of not telling them,” Spinak said. “If you’ve kept a secret, there’s usually a reason for it. Is telling it going to destroy? Bring closer? Inspiring people, making people think, provoking new thoughts, provoking change is really important. Having an audience leave talking about a piece and sharing secrets of their own begins dialogue about ideas that the Jewish people of America are wrestling with.”


“Family Secrets” runs through Jan. 29. Visit jewishwomenstheatre.org or call (310) 315-1400 for venues and dates.

Honor Guard by Susan Barnes

This is a description that I wrote shortly after I had my first experience of shmirah, guarding or watching over someone who has died. The Jewish tradition is not to leave a person alone from the time of their death until the time of their burial. A shomer (male) or shomeret (female) is the person who stays with the dead person during this time.

I was asked as a member of the Chevrah Kadisha to serve this role for a person in the community who had died. This case was a bit unusual. the person’s family said the deceased would not have wanted anyone to lose sleep watching over him. As a result, we only had people sit with him from the time he was placed in his coffin after the autopsy until the time I left to go home to bed that evening.

I arrived early, so I had time to walk around the facility, a mausoleum and funeral home (identifying information omitted). I was surprised to see that some people’s ashes were stored in containers in glass cases, which also contained other personal items, such as photographs, eyeglasses, and, in one case, a CD of the person’s memorial service.

At one end of the mausoleum are a couple of small chapels. The shomeret on the shift before me was in one of them, with the met (the body of the male deceased), who was in a plain wooden casket with a Jewish star on it.

I let the person with the shift before me know I was there, and I allowed her a moment to say goodbye to the met. After she left, I greeted the met, and introduced myself. I thought it would be creepy to be in a big mausoleum by myself at night, but it wasn’t.

The only thing even mildly creepy was the music playing in the background. It was like bad elevator music on Quaaludes – the very worst of what stereotypical funeral home music can be.

Traditionally, people doing shmirah read Psalms. The good news is that once I started reading the Psalms out loud, I could barely hear the awful music. I soon realized I should have brought a bottle of water. After only 20 or 30 minutes of reading out loud, my mouth started to dry out.

Other than that, the evening was uneventful and passed quickly. When it came time to leave, I felt bad about leaving the met, especially with that awful music playing. If I were him, that music would be driving me crazy. I wondered whether dead people get crazed by things like that.

On the way home, I began to wonder why it wasn’t creepy at all being there. It occurred to me that if I had just been sitting there, and not reading out loud, it would have been easier for me to hear odd noises and to start to think about them. Also, by concentrating on my reading, I didn’t have time to dwell on the possible source of any odd noises, even when I did hear them.

Then I thought, maybe there is something to reading all those Psalms about “God will protect me” and “God’s love is steadfast.” Maybe reading Psalms actually does provide mental strength and comfort. Maybe it helped me. I hope the Psalms, and/or my presence, helped the met.

Susan Esther Barnes is a founding member of Rodef Sholom’s (Marin) Chevrah Kadisha, and she can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services.

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Kavod v’Nichum 17th Annual Chevrah Kadisha Conference

Watch for information on the 17th Annual Kavod v’Nichum Conference, to be held June 2-5, 2019 in Fort Collins, CO. Early Registration will open in January. Hold those dates.

Gamliel Students are encouraged to plan to attend the Gamliel Day of Learning that will immediately follow the Conference, running until June 6 mid-day. Again, watch for information on how to register to appear soon.

_____________________

Gamliel Courses

The next course in the cycle of core courses offered by the Gamliel Institute will be Course 2 – Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah. It will be offered live online during the Winter from January 8 – March 26 on Tuesday evenings, for 90 minutes each week for 12 weeks. The classes will begin at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET. Primary instructors will be Rick Light, assisted by Holly Blue Hawkins, with guest instructors.

Registration is now open – click here.

___________

Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to a free informal online session, held monthly. On the third (3rd) THURSDAY of each month, different person(s) will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is January 17, topic to be announced. Details will be sent out soon.

If you miss a Gamliel Café and wish access to the recording (if one is made) please send a request to receive it after the date of the session to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

If you are interested in teaching a session, you can contact rboroditsky@jewisgh-funerals.org, rlight@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

_______________

Gamliel Continuing Education Courses

Gamliel Continuing Education  Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will usually be in groups of three ninety minute sessions (three consecutive Wednesdays) offered roughly twice yearly, with different topics addressed in each series. The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first course took place in fall 2017, focusing on Psalms, and the second was on The World to Come and the Zohar. The third course was November 28, December 5, and December 12, 2018, with Beth Huppin focusing on the Idra Rabbah section of the Zohar. If you wish to secure access to any of these courses, register and a link to the recordings will be provided.

The next series will be in the winter of 2019. Information will be sent out as available. Registration is required for the Continuing Education programs, and there is a tuition charge of $72 for each series. Contact us for information, by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or simply register online at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/.

____________________

Taste of Gamliel Series

The prior Taste of Gamliel series have each concluded, but it is not too late if you want to access the recordings. You can Register for any of the prior series, and view them via recordings. There are usually five sessions in a series, and each session is approximately 90 minutes.

The 2019 series is being planned now. It will run on dates spanning the period from January 27 to a date in June.

Registration for Taste of Gamliel is mandatory to access the sessions. The Registration fee of $36 for each series helps us defray the out of pocket costs.

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions close to the time for each. To register, click register.

_____________________

DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the annual conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Continuing Education courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities. At this time there is also a fundraising effort to support the Chevrot Kadisha in Pittsburgh – look for that on the website at www.jewish-funerals.org.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to:

Kavod v’Nichum, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045.  Please note how you would prefer your donation to be used on the memo line.

Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute] are a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

___________

SUBMISSIONS WELCOME

Please note: this blog depends on you for content. Without you it cannot publish new material. If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

_____________________

 

Empowering Homeless Youth With Technology

Photo by Cyndi Bemel

Donating phones and laptops aren’t the first things people think of when wanting to give to the homeless. But Heather Wilk realized technology was a necessity and made it a priority to use technology to help homeless teens.

Wilk is the executive director of Straight But Not Narrow (SBNN), a nonprofit founded in 2011 that provides resources to homeless LGBTQ youth. Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, according to Wilk.

“We wanted to be more hands-on,” Wilk told the Journal. “Not just talk about awareness but do something about it and actually help them.”

To this end, SBNN takes donated cellphones and laptops, refurbishes them and gives them to homeless teens and young adults as an incentive to connect with shelters and LGBTQ support centers. SBNN also provides them with tech courses and resume services.

“I think we take for granted the digital world,” Wilk said. “This isn’t a luxury anymore. It’s a necessity to have a phone now. The phones are filled with information [including apps, resources and hot spots] so [teens] will always have a safe place to go to and a number to call if they need.” 

Wilk, 33, said that many of the teens she’s worked with haven’t met someone “like them” until connecting on social media. To date, SBNN has distributed 825 devices and reached more than 35,500 LGBTQ teens all over the country. Among the 12 centers it works with, SBNN has partnered with the Trevor Project and its resources to help bridge the divide for teens who feel they don’t belong. 

“I think we take for granted the digital world. This isn’t a luxury anymore. It’s a necessity to have a phone now.”

“High school is already an alienating place,” Wilk said, “and if you don’t have someone out there looking out for you, to mentor you, you can feel really lonely. Their first real communication that’s safe with someone is through the internet, especially if you are in a rural area. You need the device to connect with others.”

Wilk, once part of the small Jewish population in Oklahoma (in school, she’d play teacher and educate her classmates on the Festival of Lights), knows what it’s like to feel different. 

“I think growing up in Oklahoma as a Jewish person, you immediately felt like an outsider, so I’ve always empathized and clung to people who maybe don’t feel they fit the norm,” she said. “I always loved being able to help out if I can. I think allies are really important. We all need to be allies for one another.” 

The need to supply homeless teens with solar charging portals for phones was one of the most valuables pieces of feedback Wilk received. Since teens on the street rarely have regular access to electrical outlets, they need to be able to use a charging port that generates its own power. 

“I think familiarity and knowledge changes everything,” she said. “Once you are more informed, you will be more accepting and empathetic, and so I [want to] do what we can to get people to understand what’s going on.”

Wilk said her compassion for others comes from her father, Larry. “He puts everyone’s needs before his own. He was always welcoming and grateful, and happy to have any of my friends come over no matter who they are. I think [from] that open-door policy, we learn about other people and then become better people ourselves.”


Read more about our 2019 mensches here.

The Bookends of Life by Jean B. Berman

The call came from a woman I liked and had learned from: would I consider participating in a Taharah – a what? Someone had died and she was spearheading a new initiative to offer the traditional Jewish ceremony of purification. I was hesitant but open, and after more conversation decided I would give it a try. I felt unsure – what would it be like to cleanse a dead body? Would there be a smell? Could I handle it or would I want to leave?

The woman who had called me led the team as we met together in a room of a local funeral home. She asked for questions and feelings, which we discussed. When we were ready, our leader set a sacred tone into which I relaxed. Praying to the soul of the deceased woman, we let her know our intention of offering honor, respect and comfort, and asking forgiveness in advance for anything we did or didn’t do that missed the mark. That was reassuring.

The sights and smells of the funeral home were unfamiliar and felt challenging. What was I doing there? As one woman was directed to begin reading the prayers for the ceremony, the rest of us gently, and with reverence began to prepare the body of the deceased. The liturgy was mostly unfamiliar to me. We were all learning. We debriefed afterward, talking about and giving thanks for the opportunity. I left with deep gratitude for the sacredness of the experience.

During my second Taharah, I found myself feeling how much this was like welcoming a newborn baby with tenderness and care. I imagined and wished that all those in the process of dying and everyone on Earth could have this experience. I sent wishes of peace and blessing out to those in the dying process everywhere, that they might feel held, comforted and honored. I had a deep sense within that I was born to do this work.

Over time the spiritual experience of Taharah and Shmirah have deepened for me. I have immersed myself in learning and sharing aspects of these sacred traditions with others.


Jean Berman speaks and leads workshops on Honor and Comfort: The Jewish Way of Death and Mourning, Care of the Newly Dead – An Inquiry into Intuition and Tradition, and How Death Enhances Life: Heightening our Awareness. She enjoys walks in nature, kayaking and playing ukulele, and lives on Peaks Island, Maine. She is a graduate of the Gamliel Institute, and has served as an Instructor. She is a Board member of Karvo v’Nichum. 

_____________________

Kavod v’Nichum 17th Annual Chevrah Kadisha Conference

Watch for information on the 17th Annual Kavod v’Nichum Conference, to be held June 2-5, 2019 in Fort Collins, CO. Early Registration will open in January. Hold those dates.

Gamliel Students are encouraged to plan to attend the Gamliel Day of Learning that will immediately follow the Conference, running until June 6 mid-day. Again, watch for information on how to register to appear soon.

_____________________

Gamliel Courses

The next course in the cycle of core courses offered by the Gamliel Institute will be Course 2 – Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah. It will be offered live online during the Winter from January 8 – March 26 on Tuesday evenings, for 90 minutes each week for 12 weeks. The classes will begin at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET. Primary instructors will be Rick Light, assisted by Holly Blue Hawkins, with guest instructors.

Registration is now open – click here.

___________

Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to a free informal online session, held monthly. On the third (3rd) THURSDAY of each month, different person(s) will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is January 17, topic to be announced. Details will be sent out soon.

If you miss a Gamliel Café and wish access to the recording (if one is made) please send a request to receive it after the date of the session to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

If you are interested in teaching a session, you can contact rboroditsky@jewisgh-funerals.org, rlight@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

_______________

Gamliel Continuing Education Courses

Gamliel Continuing Education  Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will usually be in groups of three ninety minute sessions (three consecutive Wednesdays) offered roughly twice yearly, with different topics addressed in each series. The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first course took place in fall 2017, focusing on Psalms, and the second was on The World to Come and the Zohar. The third course was November 28, December 5, and December 12, 2018, with Beth Huppin focusing on the Idra Rabbah section of the Zohar. If you wish to secure access to any of these courses, register and a link to the recordings will be provided.

The next series will be in the winter of 2019. Information will be sent out as available. Registration is required for the Continuing Education programs, and there is a tuition charge of $72 for each series. Contact us for information, by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or simply register online at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/.

____________________

Taste of Gamliel Series

The prior Taste of Gamliel series have each concluded, but it is not too late if you want to access the recordings. You can Register for any of the prior series, and view them via recordings. There are usually five sessions in a series, and each session is approximately 90 minutes.

The 2019 series is being planned now. It will run on dates spanning the period from January 27 to a date in June.

Registration for Taste of Gamliel is mandatory to access the sessions. The Registration fee of $36 for each series helps us defray the out of pocket costs.

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions close to the time for each. To register, click register.

_____________________

DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the annual conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Continuing Education courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities. At this time there is also a fundraising effort to support the Chevrot Kadisha in Pittsburgh – look for that on the website at www.jewish-funerals.org.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to:

Kavod v’Nichum, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045.  Please note how you would prefer your donation to be used on the memo line.

Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute] are a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

___________

SUBMISSIONS WELCOME

Please note: this blog depends on you for content. Without you it cannot publish new material. If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

_____________________

My 2019 Jewish Bucket List

Photo from Pinterest.

When I started writing for the Jewish Journal last spring, I found myself drawn to the variety of different Jewish events I attended and the Jews from across the spectrum I interviewed that were doing interesting and meaningful things. For the first time since I moved to Los Angeles several years ago, I realized that there were lots of cool things for Jews to do in Los Angeles and I wanted in. 

Raised Conservative in the Midwest, I went to Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah. We celebrated every major Jewish holiday and some of the minor ones. We still do. But since moving to L.A. I really hadn’t immersed myself in Jewish activities. 

Over the years I attended Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live singles mixer a few times. I occasionally attended services at different synagogues, but there was nothing consistent. 

However, over the past year, thanks to my work with the Journal, I discovered that the more I am exposed to Jewish experiences, the more I crave them. I don’t want to just write about them, I want to be immersed in them. So, at our last editorial meeting of the year, I mentioned that. I spoke of how I’d always wanted to learn Yiddish and perhaps I could do an article about it. Maybe even a column.

“OK, Deb,” David Suissa said. “Do it.”  

Then I mentioned how I also wanted to immerse myself in more cultural Jewish experiences and with the New Year upon us it would be the perfect time to try new things. I revealed I had always wanted to learn how to bake challah. 

To which David replied, “Well, if you’re going to do two things, you may as well do a dozen. One a month in 2019.”

I discovered that the more I am exposed to Jewish experiences, the more I crave them. I don’t want to just write about them, I want to be immersed in them.

And just like that, my 2019 Jewish Bucket List column was born. Over the next 12 months I have committed to delving into a new Jewish experience each month, which I will share on these pages.

In my other life, when I’m not freelance writing, I’m a coach who helps individuals and businesses achieve their goals. The accountability piece is perhaps the most powerful. Once you tell people you plan to do something, the more likely you are to do it. I excel at holding others accountable. And now you, our readers, can hold me accountable.

However, as I embark on these 12 months of 12 Jewish experiences, I would love your input on suggestions for me to expand my Jewish horizons in Los Angeles. 

I have ideas for three of the months, but I need nine more: 

Take a Yiddish class
Bake challah
Take an Israeli folk dancing class

Beyond these assignments, I’m looking for suggestions. What do you consider a cultural Jewish experience in Los Angeles I should try? Is there something you take part in that you think I will enjoy? What would you like me to experience on your behalf? Off the bat, I think we can safely say at least a third of these will be food-related. We are, after all, Jewish.

Please send me your ideas for my Jewish bucket list to deckerling@gmail.com, or comment on this post.


Debra Eckerling is a contributing writer to the Jewish Journal and a goal coach.

Five Things I Learned From Amos Oz

Amos Oz died December 28 at age 79.

I didn’t know Amos Oz, the Israeli literary giant who died of cancer on Dec. 28 at age 79. I only met him once, about 20 years ago, when he spoke at a synagogue in Los Angeles. At the time, I had launched a spiritual magazine that promoted Jewish unity. When the person who introduced us mentioned that I was into Jewish unity, Oz quipped that in the Jewish world, “Unity means if you agree with me, then we’ll have unity.” The man had a sense of humor.

When I reflected more seriously on what he had said, that became the first thing I learned from Oz: Don’t dream the wrong dreams. Jewish unity may sound wonderful, but it is a pipe dream. It’s nebulous and naïve. Oz could dream, but he was a hard-nosed dreamer. He knew how the world worked; he knew that sharp disagreement was built into the human condition.

Oz could dream, but he was a hard-nosed dreamer. He knew how the world worked; he knew that sharp disagreement was built into the human condition.

The second thing I learned from Oz came during the same conversation. “Disagreement is a good thing,” he told me, “until it turns into animosity. That I mind.” Here was a man of words drawing a red line for healthy discourse. He was telling us to disagree, yes, but disagree without anger, without rejection, without resentment. Twenty years later, when one sees the state of our communal discourse today, this red line resonates.

The third thing I learned from Oz is how to talk about the Holocaust. Six million Jews were not killed, he would say, “they were murdered.” When I heard him say that, I remember how he deviated from the theme of his talk to make a point about the difference between killing and murdering. It felt as if he had done so countless times. He was a man of words. He was telling us that you can’t truly honor the victims of the Holocaust without being clear and accurate about the kind of evil they encountered.

Another clear word from Oz helped me better understand the complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was the fourth thing I learned from him. “We need a divorce from the Palestinians,” he would say. It took me years to fully appreciate the essential truth of that idea. Oz had a reputation for being a lefty peacenik, but his concept of divorce had nothing to do with leftism or peace delusions. If anything, it recognized the hard reality of irreconcilable differences. Over the years, more and more Israel supporters have come to appreciate this reality.

Oz was bitterly opposed to many policies of the Israeli government, but he was a deep lover of the country he called home, the place he wrote about with such poignant lyricism.

Oz was bitterly opposed to many policies of the Israeli government, but he was a deep lover of the country he called home, the place he wrote about with such poignant lyricism. How did he reconcile this paradox? This is the fifth thing I learned from Oz — the art of loving something that can drive you nuts. “I love Israel even when I can’t stand it,” he would say. These are the words of a lover. When someone very close to us does something we deeply dislike, we “can’t stand it” precisely because we love them so much.

Oz knew how to love, how to express his love, and how not to let go of that love. Among the many things that will form his legacy, this extraordinary love will be one of them.

She is Pure by Rabbi Me’irah Iliinsky

Drop of Water

My first Taharah, ritual purification, was a trial of courage for me. I stepped in with little preparation, and it was new to me.

We met as the sun was going down, to prepare the metah (Hebrew for a deceased female) for burial the next morning. The difference between someone very ill, yet alive, and the shell that once had housed life is startling.

I didn’t know why, exactly, we were doing what we were, but followed the instructions of the team leader. We shared an intimacy with the metah, as we undressed and washed her, poured many quarts of water over her (bringing the mikveh or ritual bath to the metah), dried and dressed her in simple white garments, held her in our arms as we placed her in her aron, casket.

I felt as though I was getting to know her, and in caring for her in this way, I became attached to her. At the same time, I was frightened, and in a mild state of shock—continuing to function with the guidance of the team leader until our job was complete. And when we were done, she looked so peaceful, clothed in white, bonnet on her head, snug in her aron.

Afterwards, I walked out into the fresh air of the night, looked at the stars, noticed that my arms could lift all by themselves…. They didn’t need someone else to lift them! I cried for the preciousness of being alive in this dear world!

I recognized that I did not know or understand what we had done, though it felt important. During the ritual, together with the actions we performed, we paused at times to recite a liturgy unfamiliar to me. In its newness, and in my shock, I couldn’t absorb it. I felt I needed to know more about it, and now, through classes with the Gamliel Institute I have been taught why we do what we do, and learned this liturgy and find it exquisite.

What I learned is that the prayers for the Taharah ritual are a conversation between God, the team, and the deceased. The team asks God to help us in the difficult task ahead, to forgive any mistakes, omissions, or errors. We also entreat God to forgive the metah for the transgressions in her life.

We address the metah as a lover might when we wash her, reading to her from Song of Songs. We dress her as the high priest Joshua (Zechariah 3:4) was dressed as he prepared to go into the Holy of Holies (Isaiah 61:10, Zechariah 3:5), in the Temple in Jerusalem to meet God. Just so, we are preparing this soul before us to meet God. Many words of Torah are said to the deceased to comfort her (Isaiah 61:11, 58:11). We call upon sixty angels to surround both the casket and the soul on their journeys: one to the grave, the other to The World to Come.

The words of the liturgy raise a scaffolding to carry us over the liminal abyss, bringing us safely to the other side. They give us courage. They structure deep meaning into our actions and connect us with the timeless.


Rabbi Me’irah Illinsky graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2007. Both a rabbi and an artist, Iliinsky is the illustrator of National Jewish Book Award Winner, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, published by the URJ Press and the Women of Reform Judaism. She has served as a board member for Kavod V’Nichum, and been a student and instructor for the Gamliel Institute.

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Gamliel Courses

The next course in the cycle of core courses offered by the Gamliel Institute will be Course 2 – Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah. It will be offered live online during the Winter from January 8th to March 26th on Tuesday evenings, for 90 minutes each week for 12 weeks. The classes will begin at 5 pm PST/8 pm EST. Primary instructor will be Rick Light, with guest instructors.

Registration is now open – click here.

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Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to a free informal online session, held monthly. On the third (3rd) THURSDAY of each month, different person(s) will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is December 20th. More details will be sent out soon.

If you miss a Gamliel Café and wish access to the recording (if one is made) please send a request to receive it after the date of the session.

If you are interested in teaching a session, you can contact us at rboroditsky@jewisgh-funerals.org, rlight@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

_______________

Gamliel Continuing Education Courses

Gamliel Continuing Education  Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will usually be in groups of three ninety minute sessions (three consecutive Wednesdays) offered roughly twice yearly, with different topics addressed in each series. The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first course took place in Fall 2017, focusing on Psalms, and the second was on The World to Come and the Zohar.

The next live course will be November 28th, December 5th, and December 12th. We will continue to look at death as seen in the Zohar, with a focus on the Idra Rabbah mateials, taught by Beth Huppin. This is a stand-alone course – you do not need to have taken the prior course to register for this one.

Registration is required, and there will be a tuition charge of $72 for each three session series. Contact us for information, by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or simply register online at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/.

You can also register for prior courses and access them via recording.

____________________

Taste of Gamliel Series

The 2018 Taste of Gamliel series has concluded, but it is not too late if you want to access the recordings. You can Register for the 2018 series, Your’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone: Jewish Practices of Remembrance, or any of the series from prior years, and view them via recordings.  There are usually five sessions in a series, and each session is approximately 90 minutes.

The 2019 series is being planned now. Registration for Taste of Gamliel is mandatory to access the sessions. The Registration fee of $36 for each series helps us defray the out of pocket costs.
Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions. To register, click here: register.

_____________________

DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the annual conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Continuing Education courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities. There is a matching donation program in progress so your dollars go further. See the website for details.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to either:

Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute,

c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum,

8112 Sea Water Path,

Columbia, MD  21045.

Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute] are recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

___________

SUBMISSIONS WELCOME

Please note: this blog depends on you for content. Without you it cannot publish new material. If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

              _________________

Jewish Journal City Guide 2019

Need to know what’s happening around the Greater Los Angeles Jewish community? Fear not, The Journal has compiled everything you need to know right here (just click the magnifying glass).

 

 

Table of Contents:

Community

 

 

Summer Camp

 

 

Education

 

 

Religious Life

 

 

Goods & Services

 

Oscar Turns Cold Shoulder to Israel

Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters

Israel’s more than half-century courtship to win an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language film has been akin to the tale of an attractive young woman, often chosen as a bridesmaid, but never as a bride.

Since submitting its first entry – and winning its first nomination – for “Sallah” in 1964, Israel has made the short list of top nominees ten times, without ever catching the Oscar bouquet.

This year, tribal boosters can stop biting their fingernails anticipating the outcome. Israel’s entry “The Cakemaker,” a challenging film on bisexual affairs between German and Israeli lovers, was eliminated in the first round.

The list of nine semi-finalists among entries from 87 countries, announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Monday evening (Dec. 17), eliminated the Israeli entry.

However, Israel was not the only snubbed contender. Looking at the entire history of Oscar awards, the three leading countries in the number of both nominees and ultimate winners – Italy, France and Spain – were all eliminated this time around.

Yet, oddly enough, if the themes chosen by a country’s filmmakers reflect in some ways the interests of their movie-going public, the world’s fascination with the Holocaust, World War II and their aftermaths, has never been higher.

Eight countries have this year submitted films which deal directly or indirectly with the fate of Europe’s Jews during their darkest period, including Austria, France, Holland, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia and Switzerland.

None of these countries’ films made the short list, but of particular interest is Russia’s “Sobibor,” centering on the 1943 uprising in the notorious concentration camp, and Romania’s oddly named “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians,” which focuses on the massacre of Odessa’s Jews by the Romanian army.

The list of nine semi-finalists will be winnowed down to five on Jan. 22, and the winner will clutch the golden statuette at the 91st Oscar telecast on Feb. 24.

Celebrating Covering My Hair

On my wedding day, I made sure I packed everything I needed before heading off to the venue. Wallet? Check. Veil? Yes. Toothbrush? Got it. Headscarf? Yup. 

I’d be wearing the headscarf immediately following the wedding. I decided during my Orthodox conversion process that as a married woman I’d be covering my hair. 

There are many reasons given for this custom. I’ve learned that holiness resonates from a woman’s hair and she should protect it for herself and her family. An Orthodox Jewish woman needs to keep a barrier between herself and the outside world, and covering her hair accomplishes that. It also communicates that she is married and unavailable.  

At the time, the reason behind my decision was simply that everyone else was doing it. The women in my Pico-Robertson community wore scarves, tichls, hats, snoods and sheitels galore, and I wanted to join them.

When I was going through my conversion process, I had imposter syndrome. I have blond hair and blue eyes, so I don’t exactly look Jewish. I don’t speak Hebrew. I pray in English, I can’t recite all the bentsching by heart and I don’t understand inside jokes about Jewish day school or camp. So I was looking for a way to fit in, by trading pants for skirts and tank tops for shirts with sleeves. Covering my hair was the final piece that would help me look the part.

“When I go out into the world, hair covered, I am demonstrating that I’m honored to uphold this custom.

And so, the morning after my wedding, I put my hair into a bun and attempted to tie the scarf around my head. It slipped right off. I asked my husband for help, but it started to fall off after a few minutes. There was just too much material on my head and it was heavy. 

Frustrated, and with nothing else to cover my hair, I took a bunch of bobby pins and awkwardly secured the scarf to my head. I walked downstairs, where our friends and family were hanging out beside the pool, and kept readjusting my scarf so that it wouldn’t slip. It was uncomfortable, but I was determined. It continued this way for the next few weeks, the constant messing with
the scarves.

Not long after that, I became fed up with the scarves and I was now self-conscious about appearing to be too religious in public. I was beginning to understand why women wore wigs, and I wanted one of my own. 

Orthodox women can tell right away when another woman is wearing sheitel, but the outside world usually can’t. It was the perfect solution. Plus, I was going to my brother-in-law’s wedding and I didn’t want to wear a scarf with a fancy dress. 

I went to a sheitelmacher in Brooklyn and tried on a bunch of blond wigs —  an incredibly difficult hair color to shop for, because many Jewish women are brunettes. 

The best wig didn’t look natural at all, but I thought, “Oh, well,” because I needed it. I financed it for $1,100. 

The wig was heavy and made me feel self-conscious. In pictures, you could see the netting. I didn’t feel like myself. It was downright annoying and awkward. Every time I walked past the wig, I remembered how much I still owed on it, so I threw it to the back of my closet. I went out into the world, hair uncovered, for two months. 

During that time, it was liberating to be able to show off my washed and styled hair, but much of the time, I felt naked. I realized that the head covering, be it a hat, a scarf or the wig, made me feel like I had a little tent over my head, protecting me at all times. I was reminded of HaShem when I wore one of them. I practiced more mitzvot. I liked that other Jews knew from seeing me that I was a married woman.

I learned from a few rebbetzins about hair covering and I liked their reasons for doing it. I slowly started covering my hair again. First, I just wore hats and showed my hair. Then, I got smaller scarves that were super cute and easy to tie. Eventually,
I ditched that first sheitel for a more natural-looking one that I could wear with the front of my hair showing. It was a little trick I learned from my fellow Orthodox Jewesses. 

Today, I cover at all times, with hats, scarves and sheitels. When I go out into the world, hair covered, I am showing that I’m happily married. I am demonstrating that I’m honored to uphold this custom. And I’m saying, above all else, that I am a proud Jew.


Read more from the 2018 Chuppah Edition here. 

Ten Years and Three Hours by Karen B Kaplan

Is it time?

The closer a marathon runner gets to the finish line, the more the suspense builds up,  each mile covered takes on more and more significance. But as the distance to the end diminishes, the strange thing is that the chance of risk as well as reward increases. The runner is more likely to finish, yet more likely to become too weary to go on.

The girlfriend of one of my hospice patients found herself in this quandary. Jackie (all the names are changed) had lived with Saul for ten years. About a month before Saul was admitted to the hospice residence, they wanted to publicly validate their deep and abiding love with a formal marriage ceremony. But each time they wanted to set their plans in motion, Saul got a little bit sicker. Jackie kept putting it off hoping that he would feel a bit better and that they would wed then.

When Saul first joined the residence, he was still talking, but by the time I met the couple a couple of days later, Saul no longer could speak. Later that day I found out from a social worker that Jackie somehow wanted some kind of acknowledgment of their relationship, even if it was not technically a wedding. The social worker and I entered the room; Saul had his eyes open—sort of—and I explained to Jackie that I could do a “love ceremony,” so named to ward off any misunderstandings about legal implications. She and other family agreed, so I softly sang an upbeat melody, read from The Song of Songs, directed the “bride” to plant a little kiss on Saul’s forehead, and offered congratulations to her and other family present. After a moment of taking this in, Jackie said, “He looks more peaceful now.”  At the end of my shift I discovered that three hours after the ceremony, he had died.

The opening moments after reaching the finish line bear a heightened significance much as the ones before do. There is completion, there is release, perhaps material consequences. There is an altered world. For the survivors of the death of a loved one, all the things people say and do will have a disproportionate impact on them compared with what they say and do as the finish line recedes and life reverts to its mundane schedules.  For many of the readers of “Expired and Inspired”, you are in a privileged position. With your sensitivity as members of a chevra kadisha, or as part of a funeral home staff, or other related groups and professions or simply as a sensitive person, you have the opportunity to skillfully and compassionately bring solace and insight more than others might to the survivors. Just as a hospice team aims to make the most of moments before death, so can a chevra kadisha strive to do the same for those rarefied moments that come after, when all is taken so deep to heart.

Rabbi and board certified Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan is author of Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died, (Pen-L Publishing, 2014) a series of true anecdotes capped with the deeper reasons she chose her vocation. She has also recently published a collection of science fiction stories, Curiosity Seekers (Createspace Independent Publishing, 2017). She has submitted multiple entries published in Expired And Inspired.

Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan photo

Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan

_____________________

Gamliel Courses

The next course in the cycle of core courses offered by the Gamliel Institute will be Course 2 – Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah. It will be offered live online during the Winter from January 8th to March 26th on Tuesday evenings, for 90 minutes each week for 12 weeks. The classes will begin at 5 pm PST/8 pm EST. Primary instructors will be Rick Light, assisted by Holly Blue Hawkins, with guest instructors.

Registration is now open – click here.

___________

Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to a free informal online session, held monthly. On the third (3rd) THURSDAY of each month, different person(s) will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is December 20th, during which Rabbi Me’irah Iliinsky will talk about her art which is being presented to the Pittsburgh community. More details will be sent out soon.

If you miss a Gamliel Café and wish access to the recording (if one is made) please send a request to receive it after the date of the session to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

If you are interested in teaching a session, you can contact rboroditsky@jewisgh-funerals.org, rlight@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

_______________

Gamliel Continuing Education Courses

Gamliel Continuing Education  Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will usually be in groups of three ninety minute sessions (three consecutive Wednesdays) offered roughly twice yearly, with different topics addressed in each series. The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first course took place in Fall 2017, focusing on Psalms, and the second was on The World to Come and the Zohar. The third course was November 28th, December 5th, and December 12th. 2018, with Beth Huppin focusin on the Idra Rabbah section of the Zohar. If you wish to secure access to any of the courses, register and a link to the recordings will be provided.

The next series will be in the Winter of 2019. Information will be sent out as available. Registration is required for the Continuing Education programs, and there is a tuition charge of $72 for each series. Contact us for information, by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or simply register online at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/.

____________________

Taste of Gamliel Series

The Taste of Gamliel series have each concluded, but it is not too late if you want to access the recordings. You can Register for any of the prior series, and view them via recordings. There are usually five sessions in a series, and each session is approximately 90 minutes.

The 2019 series is being planned now. It will run on dates spanning the period from January to June.

Registration for Taste of Gamliel is mandatory to access the sessions. The Registration fee of $36 for each series helps us defray the out of pocket costs.

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions close to the time for each. To register, click here: register.

_____________________

DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the annual conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Continuing Education courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities. At this time there is also a fundraising effort to support the Chevrot Kadisha in Pittsburgh – look for that on the website at www.jewish-funerals.org.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to:

Kavod v’Nichum, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045.  Please note how you would prefer your donation to be used on the memo line.

Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute] are a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

___________

SUBMISSIONS WELCOME

Please note: this blog depends on you for content. Without you it cannot publish new material. If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

_____________________

Jewish Latina’s Unique Perspective on Local News

Photo courtesy of Giselle Fernandez

Television journalist, producer and five-time Emmy Award-winner Giselle Fernandez brings three decades of experience to her new anchor job at Spectrum News 1, the cable provider’s hyper-local news channel. A Latina and a Jewish woman born in Mexico to a Jewish mother (née Eisner) and a Spanish-Catholic father, she also brings a unique perspective when covering the diverse communities and people of Southern California.

“I think my greatest contribution to Spectrum comes from my multiethnic, multicultural background,” Fernandez said. She grew up all over the Southland, in East L.A., Hollywood, Northridge and Westlake Village. “I see things from a much broader lens and have a great appreciation what our collection of communities have to offer. I’m not covering communities of ‘the other.’ I am the other.”

Fernandez is on the air daily from 5 until 9 a.m., which means rising at 1 a.m. to arrive at work by 2:30. Taking on such a daunting schedule at the age of 57, Fernandez said it gives her more time to spend with her 12-year-old daughter but she also really wanted the job. 

Fernandez, who previously worked for CBS, NBC and KTLA, said she missed reporting. “I’m actively involved in many boards and charities that specifically deal with underserved communities, health care and education — that has been my life off the air,” she said. “This was a chance to go back to basics and tell community stories, get people engaged in stories that affect them personally and build trust and unity at a time when we really need it. It’s so in my passion zone. I really feel that I won the lottery.”

 “I was not quite Mexican enough to be Mexican and not Jewish enough because I wasn’t raised in a Jewish household. I always felt like I was on the outskirts until I created my own identity.” ­

— Giselle Fernandez

Spectrum News 1 has been covering the rise in hate crimes and vandalism against Jews in the Southland. “Synagogues have had to beef up their security because of threats and vandalism. Orthodox women in Hancock Park have had their wigs pulled off. These are stories I advocate for,” Fernandez said. “Local is global. If we can address the ills of our own community and shine a light on them, we have a chance to activate community interest and engagement. That is our mandate and it’s certainly mine.”

Fernandez also hosts Spectrum News 1’s weekly primetime interview show “L.A. Story,” airing Mondays at 8 p.m. “We focus on impact-makers in business, the arts, innovation, the sciences,” she said. Guests have included Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, actress-choreographer Debbie Allen and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, with whom she shares cultural similarities.

“I talked with him about being a fellow ‘kosher burrito,’ his immigrant background and why he feels he should potentially throw his hat in the ring for a run in 2020,” she said. “He spoke very boldly against President [Donald] Trump and why he felt California would be best served with someone like him at the helm.”

Of her own Jewish background, Fernandez said, “I was not quite Mexican enough to be Mexican and not Jewish enough because I wasn’t raised in a Jewish household. I always felt like I was on the outskirts until I created my own identity.” 

Her DNA test results showed she is 49 percent Ashkenazi Jewish and 51 percent Spanish. But she believes that her father’s ancestors may have been Jews who converted to Catholicism but secretly practiced Judaism. She has always had Jewish friends and was drawn to Jewish culture. But it wasn’t till CBS News sent her to Israel to cover the Gulf War in 1991, that she found a deeper connection to her roots. She studied with an Orthodox rabbi upon her return. Ultimately, she realized that she wasn’t cut out for that level of observance. “But I always credit my Halachic training for my interviewing skills,” she said. 

Today, she is a member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where she had her bat mitzvah at age 50, and her daughter Talei will have hers next June. Fernandez adopted Talei at birth from Guatemala. “I want to be a voice for the voiceless and stand up for victims of oppression and those who are less fortunate,” Fernandez said. “I identify those as Jewish values and teach them to my daughter. ‘You are here to make this world a better place.’”

Taking inspiration from the fictional Nancy Drew and real-life peripatetic journalists Nellie Bly and Margaret Bourke-White, Fernandez set her sights on a journalism career at the age of 7. “I wanted to travel the world and live a life telling stories of human beings, how we managed and triumphed,” she said.

Fernandez has been to Somalia, Panama and Haiti covering crises, but Israel, where she’s returned many times since the Gulf War, stands out in her memory, and she hopes to return with her daughter. 

Another memorable experience was competing on “Dancing With the Stars” in 2006, despite her elimination in the third round. “I was devastated because I didn’t get the chance to do the Paso Doble (dance step) and honor my father. But I loved the experience,” she said.

Owning a bed-and-breakfast and visiting India are on her bucket list, but not in the near future. “I think it’s really remarkable that I get the opportunity to work in my dream profession at this stage of my life,” she said. “As Jews know, how we tell our stories can inform our history. So of all the things I’ve done in life, this is one of the most important jobs I’ve done.”    

Religion and The Poetry of Order

The evening before I watched the new film “Islam and the Future of Tolerance” — a dialogue between religion critics Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz — our Yemenite neighbor, Saya, came to our apartment to light our seventh-night Hanukkah candles. I told her how the menorah had been in our family for more than 100 years and that the Hebraic script on it spelled out “Israel.” My 9-year-old son, Alexander, taught her how to use the shamash. “Everything has an order,” he told her rabbinically.

Having lived through a strict Muslim upbringing that included two arranged marriages, Saya now calls herself an atheist — as does Harris, who was born to a Jewish mother. In many ways I feel closer to Nawaz, who calls himself a liberal Muslim and sees no contradiction between maintaining a tough, rational mind and having a love for the poetry of religion.

At its core, that’s what the film, based on Harris and Nawaz’s 2015 book of the same name, is about: How to move forward so that both Muslims and non-Muslims can see that there doesn’t have to be a contradiction between the two. Saya rejected much of what she was taught as a child, including a fierce hatred of Jews, and therefore can come to our home to light our candles with an open mind and heart. Nawaz got to his place of understanding via a stint as an Islamist and his near-execution in an Egyptian jail. 

But instead of rejecting Islam flat-out, he seeks to reform it. How? First, by distinguishing between Muslims and Islam (conflation leads to bigotry); second, by distinguishing between the four types of Muslims: jihadis, who seek to create an Islamic caliphate through violence; Islamists, who seek to impose a caliphate through nonviolence; strict religious Muslims, who believe in following the Quran but don’t want to impose Sharia law on others; and secular Muslims. Most of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, Nawaz says, fall into the third group.

It is when the conversation turns to scripture that things get dicey. “Words are not infinitely elastic,” Harris says. You cannot simply ignore or reinterpret the more barbaric parts of the texts. “There will always be a temptation toward literalism, as well as a link between belief and behavior.”

“Dialogue is the only remedy. Without conversation we become more and more entrenched in our views.”

— Maajid Nawaz

Nawaz, who started the group Quilliam in 2008 to help make Islam compatible with liberal democracy, counters that Islamic texts should not be read literally: “I don’t accept that there’s a ‘correct’ reading of scripture; it’s open to myriad interpretations.” In some ways, Nawaz is trying to do for the Quran what the Talmud did for the Torah: show, for example, that some passages are metaphorical, not to be followed literally. 

“Nawaz is borrowing the very ancient (and very Jewish) tradition of interpretation,” said Rabbi Eli Fink, adding that Talmudic interpretation did not begin in earnest until 200 BCE and continues today. Still, though I am rooting for Nawaz wholeheartedly, he clearly faces an uphill battle.

Sadly, the battle is not just from Islamists and jihadis. “I was expecting pushback from Islamists,” Nawaz says. “But most disappointing is the opposition from those who call themselves liberal.” Nawaz coined the term “regressive leftist” to describe liberals who are so mired in identity politics that they end up losing all sense of morality, let alone rationality. 

Nawaz talks about how Islamists, when he was among them, would purposefully exploit the multiculturalism of the left. They once put up a poster on a campus in the UK that read: “Women of the West: Cover Up or Shut Up.” They snuffed out all opposition to the poster by calling university administrators “racist.” The poster stayed up — and spurred a murder. 

That tale alone makes this documentary worthwhile, although neither Nawaz nor Harris is under any illusion that it will solve every problem. But it provides a much-needed beginning. Their hope is to inspire nuanced dialogue.

“Dialogue is the only remedy,” Nawaz says. “Without conversation we become more and more entrenched in our views. And we need to give people permission to talk across ‘identity’ lines — you don’t need to be Muslim to challenge Islamist theocracy. That alone will lead to a less identity-driven — a more rational — conversation.”


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

Brave Students Oppose Anti-Semitism

Photo from Flickr.

Most of us never have to deal with anti-Zionist activists protesting outside our homes or harassing us at our jobs. We can make a conscious decision to face our opponents at rallies or protests or in other public settings, but we almost never enter into in-person encounters unless we deliberately choose to do so. 

But brave pro-Israel students at UCLA and other universities face that challenge every day. Last week, I wrote about the threat of anti-Semitism on our college campuses and praised those students for the work they do and the risks they take to confront that threat. But even while we support and applaud those courageous young people, many in the Jewish community have come to view the campus battle lines as something far removed from our own lives. 

What happens on college campuses, though, rarely stays on college campuses. And the thing to remember about college students is that they often graduate. After they receive their diplomas, they take with them into the real world the lessons they learned both inside and outside the classroom. A cultural attitude or policy preference that a young person develops as an undergraduate doesn’t disappear when they finish college; it accompanies them for many years afterward.

Once they complete their education, these young people grow up to stay at Airbnbs when they travel. They buy music from Lana del Rey and Lorde. They join the National Women’s March, even if the March’s leaders are consorting with Louis Farrakhan. 

None of these ideological or consumer choices make someone anti-Semitic, of course. But our biggest danger as a community doesn’t come from a small number of haters as much as from a much larger group that ignores or tolerates or minimizes hate. The more difficult challenge is not from those few individuals who learned during their college years that they should despise us, but rather the much larger group that learned they just shouldn’t care very much one way or the other.

This ambivalence manifests itself in every corner of society. The owners of Airbnb aren’t anti-Semites. It just never occurred to them that discriminating against Jewish settlers on the West Bank was anything more than a politically correct concession. Most of the singers who refuse to perform in Israel aren’t intentionally malicious, but rather simply oblivious to the security necessities of a nation that must protect its people against terrorism. And those Women’s Marchers who choose to excuse the behavior of their leaders aren’t haters themselves, they’ve just decided that the March’s other goals are higher priorities than standing up against hate directed toward the Jewish community and homeland.

Until now.

With the notable exception of courageous leaders like Amanda Berman and her colleagues at the Zioness Movement, too many Women’s March participants and supporters have been willing to overlook the close relationship that March leaders Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory maintain with a notorious anti-Semite like Farrakhan. It was only after Farrakhan’s most recent invectives against the Jewish people that broader pressure began to build on Sarsour and Mallory to distance themselves from him. (Women’s March Founder Teresa Shook, actor Alyssa Milano and several regional March leaders deserve special credit for their efforts to bring necessary attention to the controversy.) 

Sarsour and Mallory have issued defiant and unsatisfactory responses to this pressure, creating a dilemma for all the women and men who support the March’s goals. Is it better to pretend that Farrakhan’s allies in the March leadership have satisfied our concerns about their relationship with him and their support of his agenda? Or does it make more sense to continue to push for their ouster, even at the risk of potentially weakening the broader impact of the March scheduled for Jan. 19?

The answer can be determined by how troubled each of us is when anti-Zionism oozes into anti-Semitism, and where this particularly noxious brand of hatred ranks on the list of outrages to decide how much that disagreement matters to each of us.


Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, and at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. He is the founder of the USC-L.A. Times statewide political survey and the former director of the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles region.