February 20, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Yitro

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

It came to pass on the third day when it was morning, that there were thunder claps and lightning flashes, and a thick cloud was upon the mountain, and a very powerful blast of a shofar, and the entire nation that was in the camp shuddered. –Exodus 19:16


Judy Gruen
Author of “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith”

A few years ago, I heard about a renowned Torah scholar who suffered from chronic pain. Before taking his pain pills, he would pause, look at them in his hand, sometimes even trembling, lest he begin to credit the pill alone, and not God, for any potential relief. This made a powerful impression on me: This man felt enough awe for God’s presence in his life to literally tremble at the idea of losing that connection. 

Ever since hearing that story, I also stop for a moment before I pop one of my migraine pills, and tell God — out loud — that I know he is the only true healer, and the pill merely a conduit. 

At the revelation at Mount Sinai, we were overwhelmed — quite literally — by God’s spectacular special effects, as we were lifted from rootlessness and slavery into a nation, his chosen people. There was no mistaking God’s omnipresence in our lives during the times of open and frequent miracles. At Mount Sinai, the cloud overhead contained God’s palpable essence. 

Today, we often have a metaphorical cloud that obscures his presence. Our lives are so distracted and frazzled, we need more focused intention to connect to God’s presence, love and care. But it’s still with us, as much as we allow it to be. We need to find our own ways to break through that obscuring cloud and see him in the smaller, everyday miracles he provides — including pain relief in a miniscule pill.  

Salvador Litvak
AccidentalTalmudist.org

This was the greatest moment in human history. More than 2 million people personally heard God’s words at Mount Sinai, and the event has been recounted countless times by Jews, Christians and Muslims around the world.

Rav Huna said that everyone present heard five voices. The first two are derived from the plural voices, “kolot,” used for the thunderclaps. Another kol is the continual shofar blast. Three verses later, yet another kol refers to a second shofar, and the final kol is God’s direct voice. (Berachot 6b, B. Talmud)

We thus have two kinds of natural phenomena (the thunder), two kinds of spiritual phenomena (the shofars), and God’s overpowering voice. I say overpowering because after a few words, the people begged Moses to take dictation for them, fearing their souls would fly from their bodies if they heard another word from the Almighty. And that is why so few humans have ever attained prophecy. It is possible, however, for any of us to hear the other four voices if we learn how to listen. 

I believe the two voices of thunder correspond to the revealed and hidden aspects of our physical universe. The incomparable beauties of the mountains, seas, stars and life itself are the Creator’s love songs to his creatures. As we learn more of nature’s secrets via biology, physics and other sciences, we discover even greater love.

The two voices of the shofars correspond to the revealed and hidden aspects of Torah. If we approach these ever-unfolding teachings as God speaking to us now, then we, too, stand at Mount Sinai and witness an ongoing revelation that is 3,300 years young.

Rabbi Avraham Greenstein
Professor of Hebrew, Academy for Jewish Religion

This verse describes the scene of the giving of the Torah, and it is an aurally and visually busy scene. The increasingly loud sound of the shofar is punctuated by thunder, and an obscuring cloud is lit by intermittent lightning. Clearly, it was an awe-inspiring scene, as the nation of Israel trembled in response. 

Rabbi Nathan’s midrashic commentary on Avot asserts that this description is intended to teach us how to approach the study of Torah: Just as the Torah was first received in awe, so it should be studied with awe. Rabbi Matya ben Harash echoes this in Yoma 4b, adding that this is what the Psalmic words “and you shall rejoice in trembling” (2:11) are referring to. Our delight in studying the Torah is heightened through the recognition that the Torah and its giver are awesome and essentially beyond our ken. We should feel an awed sense of privilege in studying Torah. 

The Malbim comments on the two types of sound that could be heard. He asserts that the shofar blast, which was constant and ever-growing, corresponds to the teachings of Torah that proceed from awe and that are taught for the sake of heaven. These teachings have lasting power and influence, whereas the teachings that proceed from self-aggrandizement or from an exploitation of the Torah have only temporary influence, even if they are momentarily impressive like thunder. Our goal in studying Torah should be to find the light rather than to obscure it.

Meira Welt-Maarek
Arevot Women’s Beit Midrash, Sephardic Educational Center

As a new teacher, I relied heavily on visual aids and props to hold students’  attention. Over time, I realized these were distracting, taking the focus off the learning material at hand. Similarly, during the giving of the Torah, the people were engaged with the sounds and sights of the event instead of listening and internalizing what was being said. 

In this verse, the Israelites were startled by loud thunder and flashes of lightning at Mount Sinai, with the whole mountain smoking and shaking violently. This scene actually reflects the people’s inner state, trembling with fear while the noise of the blaring horn grows louder and louder. Despite preparing for this moment of revelation, the experience was so overwhelming the people appealed to Moses to intercede “lest they die.” 

The Kotzker Rebbe implies this focus on externals is what enabled the sin of the golden calf to take place so soon after receiving the Torah. One can see, one can even tremble (or properly shuckle, ritually swaying during prayer) yet still remain disconnected and afar. In a similar manner, the Israelites remained standing distantly while revelation passed them by. 

In the Talmud, Rav Sheshet, who was blind, could tell when the king was approaching by the sound or lack thereof of the rooting crowd. As we learn from God’s revelation to Elijah on Mount Horeb, the Lord was not in the wind, earthquake and or even fire, but rather in the still small voice. 

Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon
Motivational Speaker

Ask any American Jew, “Who did God did give the Torah to at Mount Sinai?” and almost all will respond that God gave the Torah to Moses. This response may be because of Cecil B. DeMille’s classic film “The Ten Commandments” and its depiction of Moses receiving the tablets on Mount Sinai. The image ingrained in American-Jewish consciousness by DeMille is beautiful, but DeMille should have read the original script!

The Torah’s version is quite different. The operative words in our verse state that it was “the entire nation that was in the camp.” Some 2 to 3 million people experienced a national revelation when HaShem gave us his Torah.

The Jewish people are the only nation in the history of mankind to experience such a communal revelation. Other major religions of the world accept this event as true, and hold it as a key component of their traditions.

The fact that most American Jews are not aware of these facts is proof that the reason we lose thousands of Jews every year to assimilation isn’t because they suddenly have a profound appreciation of another religion, but rather that they sadly lack an appreciation of their own religion!

When Name Calling Is a Good Thing

As the cashier at the grocery store began to ring up my purchases, she glanced at me and asked, “Did you find everything you were looking for today, ma’am?”

I expected the question — it was company protocol to ask. Even on occasions when I hadn’t found quite everything I had looked for, I’d still answer blandly, “Yes, thank you.”

That day, I decided not to answer by rote. I read her name tag and said, “Yes, thank you, Toni.”

She looked back at me for a just a second and visibly brightened. “Glad to hear it!” she answered with a smile.

With only one word, I was able to infuse a predictable and commonplace interaction with a small spark of personal connection. She was not just a cashier ringing up groceries during a long shift. She was a woman named Toni.

Happy with these results, I have made it a regular habit to call sales clerks or service reps by name. I do it in person and even in online chats. In person, I always am rewarded with a smile, a straightening of the shoulders, an appreciative look. I’d like to think that I would have thought of doing this on my own, but I was prompted to do it because it’s a mitzvah to greet people with a pleasant demeanor. It’s also a mitzvah to be the first to greet another person. What was I waiting for?

You never know where a kind greeting can lead. My friend Barry not only chatted with the manager of a local mailbox store, calling her by name, he asked her out on a date. They were married within the year.

The simple practice of greeting others with a kind expression isn’t such a small thing after all.

Addressing people by their name in a caring way leaves deep impressions. Recently, I attended a memorial tribute for an elderly friend named Maurice. Now, Maurice was a big man with a big personality, brash and bluntly opinionated. We had belonged to Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, the “Shul on the Beach,” for many years. A strong baritone, Maurice had seized the opportunity to begin prayers and hymns with his melodies of choice. His commanding voice and musical selections helped define the spiritual atmosphere of the synagogue for nearly 40 years.

Maurice was a colorful character, yet as people reminisced and eulogized him, it was clear that he had touched people by always remembering shul members’ full names, bellowing out his greetings: “Jacob Israel!” Or, “Leah Emunah!” His loud acknowledgement became one of his trademarks, but it didn’t end there.

He also remembered the names of shul members’ extended family members, and he also remembered what troubles or issues they were dealing with.

As I sat listening to the tributes, I nodded in recognition. Long ago, I told Maurice that my sister was about to undergo another spinal surgery, and for years afterward, he’d regularly ask me, his brow furrowed with concern, “How’s your sister Sharon doing?”

One speaker said half-jokingly, “I thought Maurice only remembered the names of my parents and siblings. Now that I know he did that for everyone, I’m feeling a little less special.”

The youngest speaker at the event, a young mother in her 20s, recalled that even though the synagogue was overflowing with children, Maurice knew all their names. “We all understood that in a small congregation, we were each important. Only later did I realize that a big part of this feeling came from Maurice always addressing us by name.”

In today’s society, too many people feel invisible and lonely. Increasingly, even when we’d like to smile or nod or make small talk with another person in public, we can’t. Too often, they are in the addictive clutch of their phones, an impenetrable barrier. These small losses add up to a much larger fracturing of the social compact.

I discovered through my little experiment, and Maurice proved, that the simple, old-fashioned practice of greeting others with a kind expression and acknowledging their names when we can isn’t such a small thing after all.


Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith” (She Writes Press, 2017).

A Skeptic Meets Her Faith

Sensational, poignant stories about ultra-Orthodox Jews leaving behind their communities are in style right now.

The new Netflix documentary “One of Us” examines three ex-Chasidic Jews trying to find their way in the secular world. In 2015, Shulem Deen’s “All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir” received media attention from Jewish and secular outlets. And this past March, The New York Times published a story headlined “The High Price of Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Life.”

But there aren’t so many tales about people having positive experiences in the religious Jewish community. Author Judy Gruen aspires to help change that with her new book, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith” (She Writes Press, $16.95).

Gruen, an Orthodox Jew who lives in Pico-Robertson, was raised in a non-observant home in Los Angeles. It wasn’t until she met her husband, Jeff Gruen, in the 1980s and started attending the Pacific Jewish Center (PJC), also known as the Shul on the Beach, that she became a ba’al teshuvah. “The Skeptic and the Rabbi” is all about Gruen’s roller coaster of a journey toward Orthodoxy, and her eventual decision to become observant.

“My goal for the book was to dispel a lot of myths and misconceptions about what it’s like to live an Orthodox life,” Gruen, 57, said. “Even the word ‘Orthodox’ is a problematic one. Are the ‘Orthodox’ the Charedim? … [Are they] women who wear pants and don’t cover their hair but go to a Modern Orthodox synagogue? It’s a huge umbrella term.”

“Frankly, I was just afraid of what my exposure to Orthodox teachings might lead to.” — Judy Gruen

Gruen was exposed to some cultural and religious aspects of Judaism as a child; her grandparents were stringent about rituals. But she truly didn’t experience Orthodoxy until adulthood. “I carried a lot of myths about what my Orthodox life would look like,” she said. “Was I wrong about everything? No. But I was wrong about most things.

“My biggest fears were that there would be a stifling uniformity to the people I met, which was not at all true,” she continued. “The PJC community in Venice in those days included artists, actors, writers, lawyers, psychologists, the whole gamut. While you could, of course, find some ‘group think,’ you also find group think in any group.

“I just want to create a little more understanding,” she said of her memoir.

The book covers Gruen’s childhood, her college days, and her courtship and eventual marriage to Jeff, as well as all the messy situations, reluctant thoughts and confusing questions she had along the way to becoming observant. She attempts to explain her new lifestyle to her family and friends while straddling the secular and religious worlds.

Unlike other religious articles and books, which might skip over the more challenging aspects of faith, Gruen doesn’t spare any details in “The Skeptic and the Rabbi.” Early on, she worried that because her rabbi “was Orthodox and South African, he would be both sexist and perhaps racist. I had zero exposure to Orthodox teachers and had intuited, unfairly, many stereotypes about all things Orthodox. Frankly, I was just afraid of what my exposure to Orthodox teachings might lead to.”

She also highlights an incident where she accidentally served a Shabbat guest something nonkosher.

“The book is “not sugar-coated,” Gruen said. “I talk about what I didn’t understand, and about what’s hard.”

Ultimately, Orthodoxy started to make sense to Gruen. She enjoyed Shabbat, saw how the religion solidified her relationship with her husband and felt her soul awakening through practice.

Gruen, a mother of four, a grandmother of three and a member of The Community Shul (formerly Aish HaTorah), has contributed to publications including the Journal and The Wall Street Journal.

She’s authored humor books such as “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement” and “Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping.” “The Skeptic and the Rabbi” will be translated into Spanish and is up for a Sophie Brody Award for outstanding Jewish literature.

Although the book has received mostly positive responses within the Orthodox community, Gruen wrote it for anyone trying to connect to a higher purpose. She said she once received a Facebook message from a first-generation, Indian-American man who found the book inspiring on his own path.

“That was very meaningful to me,” she said. “I want people to feel empowered in their journeys to faith, whatever they are.”

Ready, Aim, Birthday!

It’s not every day that I am E-vited to a birthday party promising to feature live ammunition. Excitedly, I E-sponded with a resounding “yes.”

Paula was throwing a Wild West-themed shindig for her husband Bill’s birthday. It was a “BYOF” (Bring Your Own Firearm) affair.

“Don’t worry,” Paula said. “Dale and Pete are bringing extra guns and they’re willing to share.”

After my husband and I signed a long, pesky agreement at the counter, I saw Paula, Bill and our friends firing away. I tried to bolt for the range, but the guy at the counter pointed to a pile of earmuffs and said, “Hey! You’re going to need a pair of these.”

I slapped a set over my head, and when I finally got onto the range I immediately jumped in terror at the sheer decibel level of a dozen guns going off at once.

Our friends greeted us, and the birthday boy, sporting a .38 caliber, was grinning from ear to ear. He seemed to be saying something, but I couldn’t hear anything other than the rat-a-tat-tat of live ammo just a few feet away.

I had never known that Dale and Pete were marksmen, nor that Dale’s wife, Nancy, a sweet mother of two who might weigh 95 pounds wearing a dress of sand, could make Swiss cheese out of a target within 100 feet.

Dale showed me how to hold, load and aim his .38. He clipped a fresh target paper on a reel and sent it back about 15 feet. The target featured a masked gunman holding a hostage.

“OK now, that guy with the gun has just broken into your house,” Dale said. “The hostage is one of your kids. Go get him.”

That was all I needed to hear. I took aim, fired and shot off a hunk of the ceiling. A lot of good I’d do in an emergency.

I aimed again, lower this time, and got about two zip codes closer. By the time my turn was up, I had clipped the dirtbag’s shoulder and right knee. It was progress.

I stepped back to let my husband have a go at it, but I was eager for my next turn so I could focus on my target. In the meantime, Paula sidled over to me.

“I hate guns,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m doing this at all.”

“Love can make you do strange and terrible things,” I yelled, since our earmuffs made normal conversation impossible.

“I’m just waiting for the pizza and beer part. That’ll be a lot more fun,” she promised.

I wasn’t sure about that. I was itching to try Dale’s shotgun, which he soon put into my newly gunpowder-stained hands.

“Geez, this is heavy,” I said. “Someone could really get hurt with this thing.”

“That’s the idea. Now let’s have another go at the bad guy,” Dale said, clipping a new target on the reel and helped me position the gun against my shoulder.

“Watch out for the recoil,” he warned.

I steadied the gun, aimed and fired. The recoil was terrific, instantly bruising my shoulder. Amazingly, I got within the target, and my friends applauded and hollered. I began to turn to take a bow but Dale screamed, “Don’t turn the shotgun! Put that thing down!”

I put the gun down carefully, took my bow and resumed firing.

Our kids joined us at the pizza party after, where I proudly showed off my bullet-ridden target paper to the oldest teens.

“Your mom’s a good shot,” Dale warned them. “Better keep your room clean.”

I’m thinking of going back to the range for a couple shooting classes, to give me that euphoric rush that grocery shopping seldom delivers. Maybe, for my midlife crisis, instead of entering a deep depression, I’ll join the NRA and move to a state that allows you to carry a concealed weapon. No one will know why I will have a smirky “make my day” expression. But I’ll owe it all to Paula and her E-vite to Big Bill’s Birthday Blast.

Judy Gruen is the author of two award-winning humor books. Read more of her columns on www.judygruen.com.

 

Kohelet 5766

On the holiday of Sukkot, it is customary to read Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes, written by King Solomon. The following “updated” version of Kohelet is written by Judy Gruen, with major apologies to King Solomon.

“Futility of futilities,” Sarah Rivkah bas Leah Rochel said. “All is futile.”

What profit does a balabusta have for all her labor, which she toils in the supermarket and in the kitchen?

A table of guests comes and a table of guests goes, but Yom Tov endures almost forever. And the sun rises and the sun sets — then it is Yom Tov again. All the guests flow into the sukkah, yet the sukkah is not full until we invite the ushpizin (seven souls). (Could have fooled me; there is hardly room to put the soup.)

All meals become wearying; one becomes speechless, except for my youngest child, who won’t let anyone else get a word in edgewise. Whatever has been cooked is what will be served, and whatever was forgotten in the back of the refrigerator will not be served. There are no new recipes beneath the sun (except at Susan’s house — she has more than 100 cookbooks, and even uses them). Sometimes there is a salad of which one says, “Look! This is new!” Yet it is simply arugula with mustard vinaigrette, and it has already existed in the ages before us.

I, a balabusta, am queen over my kitchen in Pico-Robertson, so why do I feel like a galley slave? I applied my mind and body to creatively prepare for two-dozen Yom Tov meals — it is a task that God has given to the daughters of Israel with which to be concerned. But I have seen all I want to see of the aisles of the kosher store this week, and behold, finding parking becomes a vexation of the spirit. A car twisted into taking two parking spots cannot be made to fit in one parking spot if you don’t have the keys; and what I will spend in the market cannot be numbered.

Then I looked at all the things that I had done and the energy I had expended in doing them; it was clear that was all madness and folly, since the fly-catcher I had hung in the sukkah fell down and went splat on the ground and a great stink rose in the sukkah. This, too, was a vexation of the spirit and caused much grief, as she who even inadvertently creates a stink in the sukkah increases pain.

Everything has its season, and there is a time for everything under the heavens:

A time to plan menus, and a time to shop.

A time to cook, and a time to set the table.

A time to put children in time out, and a time to heal.

A time to bake cakes and a time to eat.

A time to shop again, and a time to pray for parking.

A time to chop vegetables, and a time to borrow two onions from your neighbor.

A time to serve guests, and a time to clean up.

A time to feel exhausted … is a good time to stay silent.

I have observed that God put an enigma in our minds so that we cannot comprehend why He wants us to do so much cooking and serving. Thus I have perceived that I may as well rejoice and cook more meals before the next dozen guests sidle into the sukkah. Indeed most men and women who eat and drink will find satisfaction in all my labor — it is a gift from God (and since Yom Tov is not yet over I hope it is a gift that will keep on giving).

Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a glad heart, since I put it all on the Visa and the store merchant approved my credit. Take care lest you spill dark grape juice on my white tablecloth, or I may be tempted to anoint your head with oil.

The race to the bakery is indeed won by the swift and the grocery shopping achieved by the strong, and this is a good thing since weeks of Yom Tov will happen to us all. Like fish caught in a net, like birds seized in a snare, so are women caught in a moment of disaster when Yom Tov falls upon them suddenly. This, too, I have observed personally, and it affected me profoundly.

The balabusta seeks to rejoice under the “clouds of glory,” no matter how many three-day Yom Tovs there are, and feed her guests without comparing her menu to that of her neighbor, who has been baking since before Labor Day, since that would be a vexation of the spirit. Home-baked challah will also be digested in the same way as store-bought challah. After all, a feast is made for laughter and wine gladdens life, so let your heart cheer you in the days of Yom Tov, especially if you have not spent most of the previous month in the kitchen. Wear sensible shoes in the kitchen, for you will stand there for a long time.

The sum of the matter, when all is considered: Fear God and keep His commandments, and remember to stock up on Shabbas candles and extra canned goods that can quickly be made into a salad in case you leave a dish on the stove for too long. This is not a balabusta’s whole duty, but it sure is a big part of it during Yom Tov.

Judy Gruen is the mother of four kids and humor writer. Read more of her columns and order copies of her award-winning humor books on www.judygruen.com.

 

Rough It in Style at El Capitan Canyon

As a city woman whose family is unaccustomed to “roughing it,” I planned our family vacation to involve a lot of nature but no sleeping on hard ground. That’s what made El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara the perfect place for us: It’s camping for people who like staying in Hiltons.

A two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, El Capitan Canyon is a former private campground that was transformed five years ago into a plush nature resort on 65 acres heavily populated with oak and sycamore trees. It allows guests to savor a rustic environment, but with down duvets and gourmet coffee for the coffeemaker.

Upon arrival, we took in the sweet, clean air gently blowing through the canyon. We had booked two cabins for our party of seven: a king suite with a bedroom, a living room with a pullout sleeper sofa and kitchenette, and a bunk cabin (which could have slept six) for our three sons. All cabins have bathrooms with showers, as well as refrigerators in kitchenettes — an important consideration for kosher consumers like us who bring our own food.

For more rustic tastes, El Capitan Canyon offers canvas safari tents on raised wooden decks, with screened windows and zip-down flaps. Bathroom facilities and showers for the tents are located in nearby buildings. Though our boys were at first disappointed at the absence of TVs, the beauty and calm of the campground environment assuaged them.

Cabin rates range from $135 to $345 for their brand-new canyon loft, which has a king-sized bedroom, living room with a sleeper sofa and stairs leading to a sleeping loft that can sleep up to four. It also has a full bathroom, gas fireplace and kitchenette. Safari tents range from $115 to $135 for a deluxe tent. Midweek pricing specials are available.

Cars are not allowed in the canyon, but a shuttle brings guests from their cabin or tent to the entrance of the facility, where the El Capitan Canyon store and deli are located. We preferred walking the half-mile or so from our cabin to the store, spotting vibrantly colored scrub jays and woodpeckers along the way.

Visitors can be as relaxed or as busy as they want. Our family borrowed complimentary bikes from the front office and rode for several miles on the bike path along El Capitan and Refugio beaches, just five minutes from the campsite. Water-lovers can kayak or surf, though rentals are not available directly on the premises. My husband and I hiked along the paths in the canyon, on the lookout for snakes, bobcats or mountain lions, which signs at the trailhead warn live in the mountain. (Fortunately, we didn’t meet any.) Our less adventurous kids preferred to swim at the pool or play catch on the large grassy area adjacent to the cabins. Our favorite time was after dinner, when nearly everyone dined at picnic tables outside their cabins or tents. We met our neighbors, our kids met other kids and we had fun roasting ‘smores in our fire pit.

The campground management at El Capitan Canyon also offers a ropes challenge course, wagon and carriage rides, guided hikes led by a naturalist, and horseback riding at the adjacent El Capitan Canyon Ranch. Live concerts are performed Saturday nights through September, and feature jazz, blue grass, oldies rock ‘n’ roll and more.

But if that sounds too ambitious, telephone the front office and reserve a massage, facial, mud treatments or other spa services. After all, you’re there to relax!

The hit movie, “Sideways,” has made visits to the nearby wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley more popular than ever. We toured the Firestone Winery, which offers tours every hour, and while we could not partake of the wine tasting, it was fascinating to learn about the complex and delicate nature of wine making. For those who keep kosher, Herzog Wine Cellars is now open in Oxnard. Plan to make this kosher winery part of your trip on the way to or from El Capitan Canyon.

If you are traveling with kids, make sure to drive to nearby Solvang for seasonal apple picking. A stroll through Solvang and a quick stop at Ostrich Land in Buellton can help round out a family-friendly day.

El Capitan Canyon, 11560 Calle Real, Santa Barbara. For more information, call (866) 352-2729 or visit www.elcapitancanyon.com.

For help planning your trip, be sure to visit the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce at www.sbchamber.org or the Santa Ynez Valley Visitors’ Association at syvva.com.

For a list of area wineries, visit santabarbara.com/winecountry. For more information about Herzog Wine Cellars, call (805) 983-1560.

For fruit picking, try Apple Lane Farm, 1200 Alamo Pintado Road, (805) 686-5858; or Morrell Nut & Berry Farm, 1980 Alamo Pintado Road, (805) 688-8969.

Judy Gruen hopes her next vacation will include a trip to at least one outlet shopping center. Subscribe to her regular “Off My Noodle” humor columns at www.judygruen.com.

 

Spiritual Help Can Benefit Hopelessly Ill

 

When my friend, Debra, learned that a young man she knew had been in a tragic accident and was comatose, she went to the hospital to visit him every day for three months. No one knew if the man would emerge from his deep, distant sleep, but Debra believed that he would.

During her daily visits, she recited Tehillim (psalms) aloud to him. She believed, as nearly all religious Jews do, in the spiritual and healing power inherent in these psalms, compiled by King David more than 2,000 years ago.

Eventually, Debra’s prayers were answered, and the man awoke from his coma. When he first saw Debra, he told her that he had heard every one of the Tehillim she had recited, and that it had helped him recover.

This man had been beyond the reach of medical technology, but he had not been beyond the reach of a spiritual connection made by a loving friend. She knew that even a person who is severely ill, perhaps irreversibly, has a nefesh, a living soul. Who can judge what meaning and fulfillment that soul receives from hearing the voice, feeling the touch or receiving the heartfelt prayers of those around them?

Most people believe that while there’s life, there’s hope. But in a frightening trend, lawmakers and “intellectuals” in the United States and Europe have decided to eliminate both possibilities for the dramatically ill or infirm. Three years ago, the Dutch Parliament officially legalized euthanasia for adults who requested it, and it is legal in the state of Oregon.

But Groningen University Hospital in The Netherlands has taken the horrifying step in recent months of allowing its doctors to euthanize children under the age of 12 if doctors believe their suffering is “intolerable” or if they have an incurable illness. Legal investigations have determined the medical decisions were appropriate. While this had already been common practice for many years in The Netherlands, giving it legal sanction is chilling.

When a society condones killing patients whose medical cases are deemed hopeless, it discounts the value and the purpose of the soul, and negates the guiding hand of Hashem in our lives. It expresses a belief that people are valued only in utilitarian terms: Once they become too much of a drag on resources or create hardship for family members, it’s time to give them a lethal injection.

This idea is not unique to Europe. Peter Singer, head of Princeton University’s ironically named Center for Human Values, has long advocated the disposability of disabled or unwanted babies. People like Singer and the bureaucrats from Groningen University Hospital see no transcendent spark, nothing of the divine, in the human being. They see no reason to put up with the mess, expense and emotional havoc wrought by an inconveniently ill relative.

Judaism teaches that every second of a person’s life is precious, filled with potential, even for the severely ill. Each time Debra recited psalms for that comatose man, his spirit revived, and eventually his body followed suit.

Even when a person’s medical situation is hopeless, the energy, love and prayers given to that person by family, friends and caregivers has enormous spiritual value. Three years ago, I watched in agony as my mother lay dying from cancer. Barring an open miracle, her situation was irreversible.

But when she could do nothing for herself any longer, she still revealed a spiritual awareness, even calling out to my father to tell him she was coming to him soon. He had died years earlier.

And what about the value of my sitting at her bedside, tending to her needs with the bottomless love and tenderness that I felt for her? At that point, with my mother’s pain palliated, the most intense pain belonged to my sister and me — the people who loved her most in this world. I believe there was enormous value in the circle of giving that took place in my mother’s dying days, and I believe that at some level her spirit benefited from our ministrations.

Many people in similar circumstances have found that the expressions of love, forgiveness, compassion, acceptance and faith that are shared during these painful times often become some of the most meaningful and defining moments of a lifetime.

As a result of the Gronigen protocols, countless Dutch citizens will no longer have the opportunity for these transcendent moments. The seriously ill or infirm will not have the chance to benefit from a potential medical breakthrough, a miracle or even the love of those closest to them.

Isn’t it obvious that, sooner or later, others who are a little too disabled or imperfect will also be deemed disposable? In this awful, cruel and brave new world, only the fittest will survive. For the sake of our humanity, we must fight to protect the sanctity of the living.

Judy Gruen is the award-winning author of two humor books. Her columns can be found at www.judygruen.com.

 

Keeping My Hair Under Wraps

 

Recently, I found myself spellbound while watching “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” This film, based on the excellent Tracy Chevalier novel, is a fictional account of the history behind Vermeer’s famous painting of the same name.

The novel revolves around a servant girl, Grete, who became a secret assistant to the painter in his studio. In one scene, Vermeer accidentally glimpses Grete with her hair uncovered. The moment is electric. Grete, like all women of her social station, covered her hair at all times. It was as if Vermeer had caught her unclothed.

It was odd to feel such a kinship with a fictional character, and one who lived in the 17th century at that. But, like Grete, I also keep my hair covered in front of all but family members.

Over the years, I have begun to feel that my hair is a very private part of me. Revealing it has become an almost intimate act.

I never expected to feel this way. Years ago, I wrestled with the idea of living an Orthodox life. It was the most defining and difficult spiritual struggle of my life, and one that was not made quickly. While I was captivated with the timeless truths of the Torah, I insisted that I could never fulfill the mitzvah of covering my hair after I married.

The Torah considers a woman’s hair part of her crowning beauty. Covering it after marriage symbolizes not only the woman’s modesty but also her exclusive relationship with her husband.

For a long time I considered this idea to be repressive and anti-feminist, and could not make peace with it. But I had a problem: In my new circle of Orthodox acquaintances I kept meeting Orthodox married women, bewigged or wearing scarves or hats, who failed to match my unflattering stereotype of the Jewish Stepford wife. These women were intelligent, highly educated and lively. Almost none had grown up Orthodox, so I couldn’t claim they were covering up their locks by rote. Nearly all were baalei teshuva, or returnees to the faith, and they had chosen this spiritually rich lifestyle despite myriad available choices.

Even after I married and adhered to most Orthodox standards, I did not cover my hair. I wanted to want to do it, but I couldn’t bring myself to take on this monumental obligation. I attended lectures about hair covering, but left depressed because I had not found the beauty or inspiration I had sought. What did everyone else see in this that I could not see?

However, I no longer viewed the idea of hair covering as repressive, since Jewish men, both single and married, also wear garments that remind them of their unique obligations as Jews: the kippah on their heads and the four-cornered tzitzit under their shirts. I had learned enough by then to understand that these guidelines were designed to help us incorporate spiritual awareness into the physical aspects of our lives, including how we dress.

Eventually, I began covering my hair to set a good example for my sons.

After all, how could I expect them to make blessings before and after eating, wear their little kippot and perform other mitzvot, when I failed to uphold such an obvious one?

Still, it remained a struggle. I vainly missed compliments about my hair’s beauty. I missed feeling the wind in my hair. Still searching for meaning behind the practice, I continued to drill friends about their feelings about it. When one friend said that covering her hair made her feel special, like royalty, something finally clicked. Jews are supposed to be God’s chosen people and should dress the part. Stylish, modest clothing and head coverings did the trick for her. I liked this idea of hair covering making me special.

These days, when women and girls bare so much skin in public, I know that my manner of dress makes me something of an oddity. Looking at me in my long skirt, mid-sleeve blouse, and hat or beret on my head, many can instantly identify me as an Orthodox Jew.

I like being marked this way. I appreciate how the Torah has taught me to resist the ordinary and the faddish in an effort to become exemplary. My modest attire and hair covering remind me that I must always separate the private from the public. My body, including my hair, is private. I’ve also been heartened by the book, “Hide & Seek,” an anthology of essays about hair covering, edited by Lynne Schreiber (Urim Publications, 2003). The writers in this book are an eclectic group of Jewish women — not all of them Orthodox — who came to the decision to cover their hair in many ways, some of them unexpected and dramatic. Reading these women’s stories, including their struggles with a mitzvah that they find both important yet difficult, I realized I had more company than I would have expected.

When Vermeer saw Grete’s beautiful, naked locks, it added a level of intimacy to their relationship. It took me years to realize this, but eventually, I found that reserving my hair only for the closest of family members — and especially for my husband — has done the same for me, too.

Judy Gruen is a columnist for Religion News Service and an award-winning author of two humor books. Read more of her columns at www.judygruen.com.

 

Why I Keep My Hair Under Wraps

A few weeks ago I found myself spellbound while watching “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” This film, based on the excellent Tracy Chevalier novel, is a fictional account of the history behind Vermeer’s famous painting of the same name.

The novel revolves around a servant girl, Grete, who became a secret assistant to the painter in his studio. In one scene, Vermeer accidentally glimpses Grete with her hair uncovered. The moment is electric. Grete, like all women of her social station, covered her hair at all times. It was as if Vermeer had caught her unclothed.

It was odd to feel such a kinship with a fictional character, and one who lived in the 17th century at that. But, like Grete, I also keep my hair covered in front of all but family members.

Over the years, I have begun to feel that my hair is a very private part of me. Revealing it has become an almost intimate act.

I never expected to feel this way. Years ago, I wrestled with the idea of living an Orthodox life. It was the most defining and difficult spiritual struggle of my life, and one that was not made quickly. While I was captivated with the timeless truths of the Torah, I insisted that I could never fulfill the mitzvah of covering my hair after I married.

The Torah considers a woman’s hair part of her crowning beauty. Covering it after marriage symbolizes not only the woman’s modesty but also her exclusive relationship with her husband.

For a long time I considered this idea to be repressive and anti-feminist, and could not make peace with it. But I had a problem: In my new circle of Orthodox acquaintances I kept meeting Orthodox married women, bewigged or wearing scarves or hats, who failed to match my unflattering stereotype of the Jewish Stepford wife. These women were intelligent, highly educated and lively. Almost none had grown up Orthodox, so I couldn’t claim they were covering up their locks by rote. Nearly all were baalei teshuva, or returnees to the faith, and they had chosen this spiritually rich lifestyle despite myriad available choices.

Even after I married and adhered to most Orthodox standards, I did not cover my hair. I wanted to want to do it, but I couldn’t bring myself to take on this monumental obligation. I attended lectures about hair covering, but left depressed because I had not found the beauty or inspiration I had sought. What did everyone else see in this that I could not see?

However, I no longer viewed the idea of hair covering as repressive, since Jewish men, both single and married, also wear garments that remind them of their unique obligations as Jews: the kippah on their heads and the four-cornered tzitzit under their shirts. I had learned enough by then to understand that these guidelines were designed to help us incorporate spiritual awareness into the physical aspects of our lives, including how we dress.

Eventually, I began covering my hair to set a good example for my sons.

After all, how could I expect them to make blessings before and after eating, wear their little kippot and perform other mitzvot, when I failed to uphold such an obvious one?

Still, it remained a struggle. I vainly missed compliments about my hair’s beauty. I missed feeling the wind in my hair. Still searching for meaning behind the practice, I continued to drill friends about their feelings about it. When one friend said that covering her hair made her feel special, like royalty, something finally clicked. Jews are supposed to be God’s chosen people and should dress the part. Stylish, modest clothing and head coverings did the trick for her. I liked this idea of hair covering making me special.

These days, when women and girls bare so much skin in public, I know that my manner of dress makes me something of an oddity. Looking at me in my long skirt, mid-sleeve blouse, and hat or beret on my head, many can instantly identify me as an Orthodox Jew.

I like being marked this way. I appreciate how the Torah has taught me to resist the ordinary and the faddish in an effort to become exemplary. My modest attire and hair covering remind me that I must always separate the private from the public. My body, including my hair, is private. I’ve also been heartened by the book, “Hide & Seek,” an anthology of essays about hair covering, edited by Lynne Schreiber (Urim Publications, 2003). The writers in this book are an eclectic group of Jewish women — not all of them Orthodox — who came to the decision to cover their hair in many ways, some of them unexpected and dramatic. Reading these women’s stories, including their struggles with a mitzvah that they find both important yet difficult, I realized I had more company than I would have expected.

When Vermeer saw Grete’s beautiful, naked locks, it added a level of intimacy to their relationship. It took me years to realize this, but eventually, I found that reserving my hair only for the closest of family members — and especially for my husband — has done the same for me, too.

Judy Gruen is a columnist for Religion News Service and an award-winning author of two humor books. Read more of her columns at www.judygruen.com.

 

Fretting About Fressing

Apples dipped in honey. And while you’re at it, dip the challah, too. Chicken soup with knaidel. Here, who’s gonna finish this last little piece of brisket? What? You didn’t try the noodle kugel? Don’t tell me you’re too full for my homemade honey cake and cookies — it’s Yom Tov!

While Rosh Hashana meals are meant to be sweet, to herald in what we hope will be a sweet new year, the result more often can be a day of belt-loosening and naps rather than the soul-searching that God intended. And after two days of fressing like this, weighing yourself can be an experience as bitter as Pesach maror. If we’re not careful, even the fast day that follows Rosh Hashana (Tzom Gedalia) may not undo our self-inflicted damage. Hey, I don’t know about you, but I already have enough chest-pounding planned for Yom Kippur; I don’t want to have to hit myself extra hard when it comes to the one that says, "and for the sin we have sinned before You with food and drink…."

But let’s be honest. Rosh Hashana is only the beginning — Judaism offers year-round opportunities to overdo it. After our New Year, Sukkot is only days away, and we’re dipping that challah in honey again as we sit in our lovely sukkot, celebrating God’s eternal providence to our people. And the cycle continues: Chanukah, with oil-slicked latkes and sufganiyot; carbo-laden Purim treats in our shalach manot baskets, which we better finish in a hurry because they’re chametz and Pesach is coming. (Pesach can be a Dr. Atkins dieter’s dream, since bread and pasta are verboten, but just watch out for all that potato starch in the cakes!)

And none of this even includes Shabbat! Each and every week, we are blessed with the beautiful, magical, spiritually renewing, and yet from a weight-watching viewpoint, still potentially lethal day. I’ll admit: for years, the most vigorous exercise I got was elbowing my way past the crowds at shul to the "Kiddush" tables, trying to have at some rugelach.

When I first became observant more than 15 years ago, I wondered how I’d cope with all this wonderful holiday and Shabbat food and not end up as big as Mount Sinai. As someone who used to think of "portion control" as something airlines did to annoy passengers, I soon learned it was an essential fact of life. I’ve mastered the art of abstaining from the "Kiddush" table, and I’ve greatly improved in my ability to keep my hands off a second piece of challah. But just put anything chocolate on the table for dessert and I’m a goner. Unless the chocolate has been molested by something horrid like coconut or nougat, I’ll have some and savor every bite. I just plan on doing an extra aerobics tape the following week. I think that’s a fine trade-off.

I estimate that over the years I have served close to 900 holiday and Shabbat meals for my own family and guests. (That’s a lot of chicken.) I’ve also found that as my cooking has become "lighter," my guests have been profuse with gratitude, even when I lay out something as simple as steamed snow peas and red peppers as a vegetable. Maybe it’s because we live in California and have to look at too many "beautiful people" at the gym, but no matter: I know that in the cooking department, light makes right, and people who know they are just hours away from another Yom Tov meal usually appreciate not being drugged by an overdose of shmaltz in the potato kugel.

And speaking of kugel, I have to go now. The aroma from the kitchen tells me that my kugel (only a quarter-cup of oil for eight potatoes) is about ready.

In any case, I’m not too worried about the Rosh Hashana meals. For one thing, I’ve never liked honey cake, or challah with raisins for that matter. After I take out the kugel, I’m going to bake a batch of my family’s favorite chocolate chip cookies.

After all, it is Yom Tov.


Judy Gruen is the author of “Carpool Tunnel Syndrome.” Her next book, “Till We Eat Again: Confessions of a Diet Dropout,” will be published in January by Champion Press.

Confront and Comfort

Avi Schnnur doesn’t get a lot of sleep these days. Schnnur, a West Los Angeles physicist who works for the defense industry, now spends nearly all his nonwork hours putting the finishing touches on a communitywide conference he has organized, billed as “Spiritual Responses to September 11.”

Slated for Dec. 2 at the Radisson Hotel at LAX, Schnnur was inspired to create the event because the nation has exhibited an “unprecedented reaction to what really was this generation’s Pearl Harbor,” he told The Journal, “Even people who were not directly affected by the events of Sept. 11 have a pervading sense of insecurity. I hear it everywhere I go: people realize they need to find ways to treasure the people around them, and to look for ways to find spiritual answers to this horrendous attack. They want to add more meaning to their lives.”

The conference, presented jointly by the Westwood Kehilla and Aish HaTorah, will feature some of the nation’s leading Jewish speakers, including Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, best-selling author of “The Committed Life,” and Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Center in New York.

Other speakers include Rabbi Joel Zeff, former rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla who made aliyah several years ago, who will give an Israeli’s perspective on America’s terrorist threat; and Rabbi Michel and Feigi Twerski of Milwaukee, both dynamic speakers on topics of Jewish spirituality.

George Steuer, an FBI special agent, will also address the gathering about the nation’s state of preparedness for bioterrorist threats, and a New York member of Hatzalah, a Jewish emergency medical response team, will provide an eyewitness account of his rescue efforts at the World Trade Center.

Remarkably, although nearly 175 Hatzalah volunteers worked side by side with New York firefighters on Sept. 11, only one Hatzalah volunteer sustained any injuries, despite having worked in the inferno.

In addition to the feature presentations, the conference will offer smaller workshops on a variety of topics, including: making our home lives more harmonious, building communities, how to speak to God, women’s spirituality, and making a blueprint for living life happily and meaningfully.

Schnnur believes that Los Angeles is the first Jewish community in the nation to organize this kind of conference. “We hope that this will be a beginning and not an endpoint,” Schnnur said. “If we have an enthusiastic response to the workshops, they will grow into ongoing projects.”

Schnnur also plans to make planning materials available to other communities as a template for their own conferences. “As Jews and as Americans, we are obligated to take these terrible sacrifices and somehow translate them into growth that can yield greater strength than we had ever seen before 9-11. At one level, this is a way to absolutely deny victory to the terrorists.”

The conference will run from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 2, at the Radisson Hotel, 6225 W. Century Blvd. Admission is $36 per person, including lunch. Walk-in registration will be accepted, but please call ahead if possible. For a full conference schedule and online registration, go to www.kehilla.org , or call 310-441-5288 ext. 29.

Challenging Content

Hollywood may be taking a drubbing lately for its content and marketing practices, but if you ask Mark Honig, the industry has no one to blame but itself.

Honig, the executive director of the Los Angeles-based Parents Television Council (PTC), a national watchdog group, says, “Hollywood doesn’t have a monopoly on the First Amendment. They have every right to put out whatever product they want, but that doesn’t mean we have to sit by and keep quiet when they broadcast atrocious and violent program-ming to our children at 8 o’clock in the evening.”PTC, founded in 1995 by noted conservative Brent Bozell, is chaired by Steve Allen and has grown to 535,000 members nationwide. Its rapid expansion stems largely from the organization’s national full-page newspaper ad campaign, which has run more than 1,000 times. In the ad, Steve Allen urges parents to join PTC, thus sending a message to Holly-wood that “we’re not going to stand by and accept their raunchy programming any longer.”

Clearly, PTC is swimming against the cultural tide. Its staff must watch the very shows they abhor in order to tally the acts of violence, vulgarities and sexual references that appear every hour on prime-time television. For example, during four weeks of programming last fall in the 8 p.m.-11 p.m. time slot, PTC counted 1,173 vulgarities, nearly five per hour on six net-works, and a rate five times higher than in 1989. Honig, who is Jewish, admits that despite the work of PTC, the overall quality of television continues to decline. Still, he can point to some successes. After Allen showed up at an MCI Worldcom shareholders meeting and blasted the company’s advertising support for UPN’s “WWF Smackdown!,” the company pulled its advertising dollars. PTC efforts also led to others doing the same, including Ford, Coca-Cola, M and M Mars, and the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.

PTC worries about what it considers the inappropriate content of much of today’s tele-vision offerings. Their newsletters warn parents about particularly sleazy shows, and lists names, addresses and phone numbers of companies advertising on them. However, they also laud shows they consider wholesome, such as “7th Heaven,” “Touched by an Angel,” and “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.”

Honig claims that it isn’t sufficient to tell people to just turn off the TV. “Even if your own kids aren’t watching, your neighbors’ kids are being influenced by it.”

Honig also points to several studies, including a University of Michigan researcher’s 22-year study which linked prolonged television exposure with violent acts committed by youth, such as rape and murder. In the past 18 months, four people have been killed imitating wrestling matches from the popular and ultraviolent wrestling programs, such as “WWF Smackdown!” For this reason, “Smackdown!” continues to be a prime target of PTC’s efforts to wean advertisers off programming.

Honig disagrees with Hollywood claims that warning labels and ratings should be enough. “V-chips and warning labels are only Band-Aid approaches, and they have the unintended conse-quence of giving the industry a protective shield without addressing the underlying problem of the sexual and violent content.”Besides, Honig says, many parents complain that the ratings system is complicated and confusing. “For some reason, networks now feel they have to offer edgier and shallower content, which often deals flippantly with issues of teen sexuality, incest and violence.”

As a nondenominational group, PTC includes people of all faiths. But Honig’s Jewishness motivates his work with the group. “My Jewishness affects my entire life,” he says. “I believe that as Jews we should try to set examples that are moral in nature. The popular culture has become so powerful that this is one way where I can effect change for the better.”

Some prominent Jews on PTC’s advisory board include Michael Medved, Mort Sahl and Senator Joseph Lieberman, whose vice-presidential candidacy thrills Honig. “He has seen the content that he speaks about and has raised this in the national debate,” Honig says. “I hope all the candidates continue to address it.”Honig says he is sometimes “saddened” by the number of Jews involved in writing and produ-cing some of what he would call Hollywood’s worst products. “Unfortunately, most Jews in Hollywood don’t ask themselves, ‘How can I as a Jew put out a product that will uplift us?'” He hopes that Jews in Hollywood might band together in an organized way to work toward that goal, just as more than 1,000 Christian actors, writers and producers have in the group Intermission.

“We want to reach out to all who are concerned about the direction of our popular culture, and that obviously includes the Jewish community. For thousands of years, Jews have helped shape values that know no time constraints. Therefore it’s very important that we address this issue, especially considering the large Jewish contingency in Hollywood.”

For more information about Parents Television Council, visit www.parentstv.org

One People: Religious Christians and Jews?

Most of the mainstream secular Jewishorganizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the AmericanJewish Congress would like us to think so. But a recent gathering inWashington proved that a grass-roots movement is taking hold amongJews — not only the Orthodox — whose views are economically,politically and socially more in line with members of the ChristianCoalition than with either the ADL or the AJC.

My husband and I were among the nearly 300participants from 34 states who attended the conference, sponsored bySeattle-based Toward Tradition and held at the Capital Hilton. TowardTradition’s founder, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, has labored for the past sixyears to create a coalition of Jews and Christians who share acommitment to bringing back a God-based morality into American lifeand politics.

Rabbi Lapin has fought an uphill battle. Many Jewshave disagreed with Lapin’s premise of working with Christians on thegrounds that Christians must, by definition, want to convert Jews. Heresponds: “Only Jews who are insecure in their own Judaism will havetrouble with a polite ‘No, thank you’ to any attempts at evangelism.Besides, any sucess they enjoy is less a tribute to the appeal ofChristianity than it is an indictment of American Jewisheducation.”

This second Toward Tradition conference, titled”Toward a New Alliance: American Jews and Political Conservatism,”was an enthusiastic gathering of Reform, Conservative, and OrthodoxJews along with Christians and Catholics. I dare say that thisecumenical gathering was far more harmonious and warm than any singlegroup of Jews meeting alone. Many of the non-Jews were relieved thatthe fervently secularist Jewish groups, who leap to join lawsuits tokeep menorahs off public parks and deny even silent, voluntary prayerat school, do not reflect the thinking of all Jews. Jewish attendees,for their part, were grateful to be in an environment whereconservative ideology was not considered freakish.

Gary Polland, an attorney and Republican activist,spoke at the conference about his disillusioning experience with theADL, for whom he used to serve as Southwest regional chairman.Polland was asked to resign from his post after adding his name to anadvertisement that ran in The New York Times protesting the ADL’sdistribution of a book titled “The Religious Right: The Assault onTolerance and Pluralism in America.”

“They had taken many quotes [from Christianleaders] out of context in that book,” Polland said, “and made itseem like anyone who was part of the Christian Right wasautomatically anti-Semitic. It wasn’t fair or true.” At a meetingwhere Polland was supposed to have had a chance to defend his case(he had brought 27 pages documenting the errors in the book and itsconclusions), he was told flatly by a national ADL officer, “We’renot interested in what you have to say.” Two years later, this bookis still in circulation and is available for purchase, according to alocal ADL representative.

When groups such as the ADL need to demonizeIsrael’s and Jews’ staunchest supporters in order to justify theirown existence — and employ the very discriminatory tactics they arecharged with rooting out — they reveal the hollowness of their ownmission. In fact, several speakers at the conference, includingformer Reagan administration official Elliot Abrams, noted that thereal enemy of American Jews today is not external anti-Semitism atall but a lack of spiritual connection with Judaism. Abrams’ newbook, “Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America,”argues this very point.

The Jewish “alphabet” groups took a well-deserveddrubbing at the conference, though many other issues were discussed.Jewish groups rushing to “remove God from the public square,” asRabbi Lapin is fond of saying, do far more damage to the Jewishcommunity even than the occasional vandal. There’s no better way tofoster anti-Semitism, Rabbi Lapin insists, than having people withJewish surnames from the ACLU or the AJC suing to remove the TenCommandments from their town’s classrooms. As Dennis Prager, also aconference keynote speaker, has noted on his show, “Jews gave theworld the Ten Commandments and are now in the forefront of trying totake them away.”

As more examples of this kind of extremesecularism envelop our society, it’s no surprise that more peoplefind Toward Tradition’s message compelling. Arthur Fass, a Jewishphysician from the San Fernando Valley, is a good example. Althoughhe belongs to a Reform synagogue, Arthur sends his children to aprominent Catholic private school where 30 percent of the studentbody is Jewish. When I asked him why, he responded with severalreasons: The school fosters the moral values that he and his wifeshare (as distinct from theological values), the quality of theeducation, the modesty and seriousness of the girls hishigh-school-aged daughter meets there, and — are you listening,Federation leaders? — the affordable tuition. (Arthur told us thattuition at this school is half that of the Conservative Jewish schoolin their area.)

He told us that he planned to share some of whathe learned at the conference with his temple men’s club, despiteknowing that most of them were politically liberal and theologicallyindifferent. He explained: “You know, there are simply consequencesfor believing in God and consequences for not believing in God, andthose consequences for not believing are coming back to haunt us….There’s a liberating effect on the human spirit from knowing clearlyright from wrong.”

The conference attendees — whether they woresidecurls and black hats (as some did), knitted yarmulkes (as severaldid), or even crosses (as some did) — clearly share Arthur’s view:that in the twilight of this millennium, the human spirit andAmerican culture have been damaged by the moral relativism thatstates that nothing is absolutely right or wrong anymore (with thepossible exception of cigarette smoking). We believe that ournation’s financial wealth counts for little in the face of ourspiritual sickness. And we are coming together to pronounce –unapologetically — that we reject the liberal dogma that hasfostered this moral confusion.

As Jews and conservatives, we also believe in theconcept of tikkun olam, (healing the world). We just think that we need to followGod’s advice more closely on how to achieve it.

Judy Gruen is a writer living in Venice. Herwritings have appeared in the Washington Times, the Chicago Tribune,the Los Angeles Times, and many Jewish publications.

I Hear Mermaids Singing: Listening to theRight

By GeneLichtenstein,Editor-in-Chief

Like Judy Gruen (above), I, too, recently attendeda forum organized by Jewish conservatives. Mine took place at the endof September in San Diego, and the sponsoring group was the JewishPolicy Center, a nonprofit Washington-based think tank.

Actually, the JPC is an outpost for intellectualJews who take a conservative approach to most political and religiousissues and whose fellows and sponsors are articulate JewishRepublicans.

The links with Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s organization,Toward Tradition (based in Seattle), are multiple and overlapping.For example, Rabbi Lapin and talk-show hosts and authors DennisPrager and Michael Medved were speakers at both forums, rounded outin San Diego by the addition of Barry Farber, billed as the “Fatherof Conservative Talk Radio,” and author and political activist DavidHorowitz. Both men could have easily appeared at the Washingtonconference.

Unlike Gruen, I found the tenor
and tone of mygathering discouraging and somewhat discomforting. It left me withthe sense that, while the panelists seemed engaging and friendly,pleasant enough to spend an evening with, what they were cobblingtogether was a nasty, thuggish mix of politics and religion, thelines often blurring between the two.

It was not the issues themselves that weredisturbing. They were familiar enough: Vouchers and educationalchoice for parents, the bankruptcy of welfare policies, the need fora moral society, and the error of keeping school prayer and religiouseducation out of the schools. I agreed with the speakers on somepoints, disagreed on others.

But these were just headlines as bait, earnestmoney for the real sport that lay ahead. The point of the evening,echoed and restated throughout, was the game of “get the Jew,” inthis instance, the liberal and the secular Jew. It was not anennobling performance, though I must admit that the 200 or so Jewsgathered at the Hilton Hotel on San Diego’s Mission Bay lapped itup.

Liberalism is a secular religion and a destructiveforce, according to Horowitz, whose recent autobiography, “RadicalSon,” chronicled his journey from a teen-age communist to amiddle-aged proponent of right thinking.

Liberals lie and resort to deception, pronouncedmoderator Medved, a nationally prominent film critic and a talk-radiohost in Seattle who is soon going national. His tone was genial andeven jocular, but there was little doubt that the hyperbole was themessage.

Prager intoned solemnly that some of his goodfriends are liberals and that they are nice people — yes, nicepeople, he emphasized, before anyone could contradict him. It is justthat their policies have evil and disastrous consequences.

Rabbi Lapin could barely contain himself. If apolitical movement to ban circumcision on grounds of child abuse orif one to end kosher practices because of cruelty to animals werelaunched in this country, the liberal and secular Jews would be atthe forefront. They are ignorant of Judaism and, he implied, areopposed to its religious and moral practices. It is not too great aleap to see them as the enemy.

Who then will save kashrut and circumcision, whowill preserve Judaism in the United States from the attacks ofliberals and secular Jews, and serve as Rabbi Lapin’s allies? Noneother than the religious Christians. I assume that this was either anemotional response or one based on impressions Rabbi Lapin hadgathered from meetings with evangelical leaders. But there was noevidence offered for his conclusions. (I wondered, too, how Horowitzwas feeling on the panel, for he is a secular Jew. He remainedsilent.)

I must admit that it took me awhile to find mybearings. Why did all the speakers sound so angry and so much like aminority under attack, I wondered. According to Medved, Lapin andHorowitz, liberals seemed to be everywhere and to be in control. Ifyou did not attend to reality closely, you might think that liberalswere running the country, despite our Republican-controlled Congressand the majority of conservatives on the Supreme Court. “After all,”I said to Medved, “you and Prager and Lapin alone must reach millionsof people every day on your radio programs. I can’t think of manyliberals with audiences like yours. Why do you sound sobeleaguered?”

It’s the Jewish community we are worried about, Iwas told, not the nation. Jews still seem swayed by what Gruen refersto as the “alphabet” organizations, still tend to vote Democratic innational elections, still hold to past shibboleths and earlier(generational) political beliefs.

In one important way, this concern of thepanelists made sense. If the Jewish conservatives are going to allythemselves with religious Christians — and this certainly is true ofLapin’s movement, Toward Tradition — then they will need to bringtroops to the field. Otherwise they are the “token Jews” trotted outbefore Christian groups to offer prayers and religious homilies fromthe Hebrew Bible. It is little wonder that we are warned about peoplewith Jewish surnames who exercise their right of free speech onbehalf of causes that anger the Christian right. There is no betterway to foster anti-Semitism, says Rabbi Lapin.

Still, I wondered, who are these destructiveliberals? Are they the same people who helped secure voting rightsfor African-Americans? The same people who advocated positions andequal pay for women in law firms, universities and on newspapers? Orare the JPC conservatives creating some mythical scapegoat, caught insome outdated time warp when being anti-communist meant something?Their cry might better be: Communists of the world, where are you nowwhen we need an actual foil?

Indeed, the buzzword “liberal” has taken on someof the coded meaning that “fellow traveler” used to have. Only, ofcourse, it often stood for “Jewish fellow traveler,” nowtransmogrified into Jewish liberal.

The difficulty with this line of reasoning is thatliberals vs. conservatives no longer is relevant. The complex issuesthat beset us today — vouchers, affirmative action, abortion, moralrelativism and the weakening of family ties — require analytic andpragmatic solutions, almost on a case-by-case basis, rather thantired, old political labels.

If this is what passes for political rhetoric onthe right, it is not very impressive. This was brought home to mewhen Horowitz declared that liberals were pushing a peace policywhich was suicidal for Israel.

I know people who share that point of view, but,more importantly, I know many, many Jews who endorse the peace policy– an overwhelming majority, Republicans and Democrats. Are these theliberals who need to be overcome?

But soon it became evident that Horowitz’sopinions on Israel were not quite so solid. It turns out that theywere derived from second- and third-hand sources (which, I hasten toadd, does not make them necessarily invalid). He has never been toIsrael.