November 18, 2018

A Most Remarkable Miracle by Laurie Dinnerstein-Kurs

Hope - Magic, Miracles, and Health

[Ed. Note: As we approach Rosh HaShanah, here is an entry that offers hope and a positive story. All of us at Kavod v’Nichum offer you wishes for a Shenah Tovah Umetukah! May you be inscribed and sealed for a year of blessings. — JB]

Once upon a time, on a most average, ordinary day, I received a call from a local Rabbi asking if I was available to go immediately to the ER at a local hospital as an elderly Jewish woman was imminently expected to die… and her husband of 60 years was distraught as he stood near her gurney.

In that brief phone call … minus many details … I was informed that this very day was their anniversary. The plan had been that they would renew their vows later this evening. But as we know, often we make plans and G-D laughs.

As I changed from my jeans to more appropriate “clergy/chaplain” clothes my hubby gathered some flowers from our yard, a small glass and a little bottle of grape juice. With these items in hand, off I went to the ER.

Security guards ushered me to the correct bay, and upon my entering this cubicle, the two non-Jewish chaplains left.

So, there I was with the distraught husband, and his wife who was as white as the sheet she was laying on. I held the wife’s hand as I asked the husband to repeat a very very very condensed version of a renewal ceremony – made up on the spot!!

Concluding this ceremony with the shehechiyanu prayer, expressing thanks that they DID reach THIS day, I began to ask him about his years with her. I asked, “what was the most memorable moment that you can recall?” He responded that it was their trip to Israel the year before.

We talked about the various cities and towns where they stayed, and I asked if they had any relatives in Israel. Nope – not a one. My follow-up question was, “What in Israel moved your wife the most?” He quickly responded, “the Kotel.”

With that answer he was moved to obvious emotion. But this obvious emotion paled compared to the emotion he demonstrated when SHE responded, “the Kotel!”

This sick, frail, and dying woman somehow gathered the inner strength to say, though admittedly in a whisper, “The Kotel.”

The fact that this woman had heard us, could respond and defy the odds was strange enough. The devoted, loyal, distraught, husband NEARLY had his own medical emergency when he heard her speak. He had to catch himself from falling!

With that one unbelievable phrase – “the Kotel” – one has to wonder what the powers that be – let be. Why would THIS conversation have the power to elicit strength that was just moments before absent? How is it that she must have  heard all the previous discussions, prayers, and her husband’s pleas for her to get better, but all that for naught, and yet she heard THIS question?

The doctors were sure that death was a certainty, the chaplains were offering comfort and words of early condolence, and the husband was told to call the funeral home and “make necessary plans.” I am the Roshah of the Chevrah Kadisha in this community, and I would put out the call at news of a death.

And yet, the mention of the Kotel stirred her, emotionally and physically. Slowly, color returned to her face, and ever so slowly she began to “look” less at deaths door.

Her husband recounted to her that they had just had a Renewal of Vows, that it was in fact the day of their anniversary, and he was moved to tears that she appeared better.

With that I left the cubicle.

Outside the cubicle, several feet away, the two Christian chaplains were nonplussed and flummoxed, to say the least. Having overheard that she spoke, they wanted to know the Jewish Secret – what had I done? I simply told them “Kotel,” and left!

I did learn that the elderly, imminently going-to-die woman was released to home after 3 days – showing the power of Hashem, miracles, good luck, coincidence.

Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs hails from Brooklyn, currently living in NJ.  Having originally learned about Taharah as a yeshiva student, I knew I would participate as soon as the opportunity presented itself.  I have participated in doing Taharah for almost 30 years.  I am currently the ROSHAH of our chevrah.  When not doing Taharah, I taught school – up until I retired and went back to school and became a chaplain.  I held the Federation position of County (Mercer) Chaplain for 15 years.   My two children have blessed us with grandchildren.

Rabbi Laurie Dinnerstein-Kurs

Rabbi Laurie Dinnerstein-Kurs


Gamliel Courses

The next course in the cycle of core courses offered by the Gamliel Institute will be Course 4 – Nechama/Comfort. It will be offered online during the Fall from October 9th to December 25th 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 Dan Fendel and Edna Stewart, with guest instructors.

Registration is now open – click here.

The course planned for Winter 2019 is Course 2 – Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah. Plan ahead!


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 September 20th. More details will be sent out soon.

If you are interested in teaching a session, you can contact us at,, or


Gamliel Continuing Education Courses

Gamliel students should be on the lookout for information on a series of 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 course will be November 28th, December 5th, and December 12th. We will continue to look at death as seen in the Zohar, taught by Beth Huppin.

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

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 in 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 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 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 (



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 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.



Salvador Litvak: Can Talmud change your life?

Hollywood filmmaker and Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak recounts his journey of how one moment of learning Talmud led to a million followers on Facebook.

“What we learn from the students of Hillel is that you should be able to state the opinion of your opponent in a way your opponent will say, ‘yes, that is my opinion.’ When you do that, you are opening a door for him to say ‘I feel heard. Now I am willing to hear what you have to say.” -Salvador Litvak

Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak

From left: David Suissa and Salvador Litvak

Check out this episode!

The Space Between Us by Rabbi Janet Madden

Gried and the Space Between Us

[Ed. Note: Grief Awareness Day falls on August 30, 2017. — JB]

I recently officiated at the funeral of a man who founded a bank and a medical journal. He trained generations of physicians, funded and spearheaded disaster relief efforts and led medical missions to countries across the world in his lifelong efforts to increase medical knowledge and alleviate suffering. His family and many friends and colleagues gathered to honor his life. They derived comfort from knowing that he was able to pursue the work that he loved until the last months of his life, that his memory is a blessing to those who knew him, and that thousands of people were helped through his work. Grief at his death was balanced with the knowledge that he lived a life of passion and purpose.

Death can bring a new level of intimacy, new kinds of knowledge. When I sat with his family to plan his funeral, they told wonderful stories. I’d known that he was a child violin prodigy and I’d known about his life-long love of classical music, but I was surprised to learn that the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” was his favorite song.

Three days after the funeral, when I made a follow-up phone call to his widow, I found the family in crisis. The previous night, while the recently-buried man’s seven year old great-granddaughter slept in the next room, her mother, his only granddaughter, had hanged herself. Her body had been discovered only a couple of hours before.

Distraught family members asked if I had detected anything unusual about this young woman’s grief. I had not. None of them had perceived anything that suggested that the young woman was not grieving her grandfather’s death as what death professionals assess as “appropriate.” During the following days and the excruciating experiences of police and coroner and preparing for her funeral, the family asked the same questions over and over: how could they not have known that she was in such profound distress? What could they have done differently?

As a spiritual director, a grief counselor and a rabbi, I am well prepared to encounter death. But this is a different kind of death, and the grief that has leveled this family is, I think, unique to those whose loved ones suicide. This is complicated grief—grief knotted up with self-recrimination, confusion, shame, fear, and anger.

I guided the family through this second, tragic funeral as gently and compassionately as I know how to do. I’ve been in constant touch with them. I’ve made referrals to therapists who specialize in working with the families of those who have died by suicide. For her heartbroken parents, honor and comfort and the blessings of memory are distant concepts. I cannot fathom what her seven year old daughter, who woke up expecting to get ready for a day at summer camp and found her mother’s body, is experiencing, and what she will continue to endure throughout her life.

In the days since the young woman’s funeral, I’ve reread the lyrics of her grandfather’s favorite song. What at the time of his death seemed an expression of longing seems, in retrospect, a chilling premonition:

“We were talking about the space between us all

And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion

Never glimpse the truth, then it’s far too late, when they pass away…And life flows on within you and without you…”

I am praying for this family. I am praying for all who wall themselves off, concealing their suffering and despair. I am praying for less space between us.

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden, PhD was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-California. She serves as the rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet and Providence Saint John’s Health Center and has been a student of the Gamliel Institute.

 [Ed. Note: Rabbi Janet Madden has agreed to submit a series of entries for Expired And Inspired – watch for them to appear fairly regularly, on a more or less monthly basis. — JB]




The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester, starting September 5th, 2017. This is the core course focusing on Taharah and Shmirah ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means.


The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

There is a Free Preview/Overview of the course being offered on Monday August 14th at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST. You are welcome to join us to decide if this course is one in which you would like to enroll. Contact or for information on how to connect to the preview webinar.

There will be an orientation session on how to use the online platform and access the materials on Monday, September 4th, 2017, at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST online. Register or contact us for more information.

Information on attending the online orientation and course will be sent to those registered.


You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email, or phone at 410-733-3700.


Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person 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.

If you are interested in offering a teaching, you can contact us at, or


Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have complete three or more Gamliel Institute courses are invited to be on the lookout for information on a series of “Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (in three consecutive weeks), 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 two series tentatively planned will be on Psalms and on the Death & the Zohar. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge to attend (more information to be sent soon). Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact them, register at, or email



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 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 Gracuates 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.

You can donate online at or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is 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 (



If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.


Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.



If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email 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.



Losing to Gain: The Central Paradox of Death Rituals – The Break that Binds by Isaac Pollak

[Ed. Note: This is a reprise from 2014. — JB]

Central to religious practice, rituals may often seem intentionally obtuse, to the point of irrationality. This, in fact may be their very purpose. By devising rituals that at times seem to make little or no sense to the uninitiated, those who learn to perform the rituals – if not understand them, become part of a distinct community. The fact that rituals often don’t make practical or rational sense is exactly what makes them useful for social identification. The cognitive psychologist Christine LeGare has done a number of studies showing that rituals declare that you are a member of a particular social group. Lewis Mumford, the social philosopher, historian, and greatest urbanist of the 20th century, makes a clear case that what sets humans apart from other animals is not the use of tools, but rather our use of language and ritual, and those are what makes us “Community”. Sharing information and ideas among participants was the foundation of all societies, and “community is the most precious collective invention.”

Although there are rituals designed for every aspect of the human life cycle, the rituals surrounding “DEATH” are often the least understood, yet the most often performed. Even the irreligious may insist upon death rituals for themselves or their loved ones. Matthew Frank in his book Preparing the Ghost speaks about “our need to mythologize, ritualize, and spin tales about that which we “fear.”

The greater the lack of comprehension, the increased the amount of the rituals with DEATH, by far the most ritualized of any aspect of a society’s life cycle in every culture. The more rituals there are, the stronger the bonds of community and social identification. The life cycle events the least understood emerge in ritual earlier and are more deeply rooted.

Witness the recent tragic murder of three young Israeli teenagers which bought every dimension of Judaism – and beyond – into a unified community – from the Ultra-Hassidic to Messianics. Everyone adopted and prayed for these young men in accord with the adage ”kol Yisrael Arevim zeh l\L’zeh”, all of us are responsible for one another. Death brought us a sense of unified community as nothing else ever could.

A life broken, an individual link lost, paradoxically strengthens the group unity and identity. Rituals give us a sense of control over an area where we have none. Mundane actions are suffused with arbitrary conventions, and that makes it important to us and gives us a sense of “being in charge”. Rituals engage members of a community in the collective enterprise of building and sustaining a “PEOPLE.”

Jewish death rituals have a foundation that travels back in time 3000 years and has made us a community like none other. In fact, a new developing Jewish community has an obligation to set aside ground for a cemetery before setting aside land for a synagogue. How wise were our Rabbis.

Let us preciously value these so vitally irrational traditions and hoary rituals that bring us together to pray, to improve ourselves, and to elevate ourselves in response to mysteries we don’t comprehend.

Let me conclude by paraphrasing the German poet Rainer M. Rilke in his letters to a young Poet:

“I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign tongue. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”


Isaac Pollak

Isaac Pollak

Isaac Pollak is President and CEO of an international marketing business for almost 4 decades at this point. He holds graduate degrees in Marketing, Industrial Psychology, Art History, and Jewish Material Culture from City College, LIU, JTS, and Columbia University. He has been a student in the Gamliel Institute, and serves as a consultant to the institution. He has been the rosh/head of a Chevrah Kadisha on the upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC, for over 3 decades, and is an avid collector of Chevrah Kadisha material cultural items, having several hundred in his own collection. He serves as chairperson of the Acquisition Committee for Traditional Material Culture at the Jewish Museum in NYC. Born and raised in NYC, married, with 3 children and 3 grandchildren.




The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester, starting September 5th, 2017. This is the core course focusing on Taharah and Shmirah ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means.


The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

There is a Free Preview/Overview of the course being offered on Monday August 14th at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST. You are welcome to join us to decide if this course is one in which you would like to enroll. Contact or for information on how to connect to the preview webinar.

There will be an orientation session on how to use the online platform and access the materials on Monday, September 4th, 2017, at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST online. Register or contact us for more information.

Information on attending the online orientation and course will be sent to those registered.


You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email, or phone at 410-733-3700.


Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person 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.

If you are interested in offering a teaching, you can contact us at, or


Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have complete three or more Gamliel Institute courses are invited to be on the lookout for information on a series of “Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (in three consecutive weeks), 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 two series tentatively planned will be on Psalms and on the Death & the Zohar. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge to attend (more information to be sent soon). Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact them, register at, or email



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 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 Gracuates 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.

You can donate online at or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is 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 (



If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.


Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.



If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email 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.


LIFE Movie Review

LIFE is the type of movie that gives you faith in Hollywood.  The term “popcorn flick” is generally derogatory and expecting good acting from one is usually a pipe dream.  LIFE, however, takes that stereotype and turns it on its head.

Daniel Espinosa directs an excellent cast led by Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson.  Together, they prove a suspenseful alien movie may be well made and fun.

Often, these movies create character backstories with the express purpose of generating sympathy before killing off a character.  What LIFE does well is keep this device from becoming overly manipulative.  The story is clearly not in the character’s backgrounds, but the action on screen.  By keeping the backstory simple, it doesn’t detract from the real reason for buying a ticket: two hours of entertainment.

Casting Jake Gyllenhaal was a coups for LIFE, giving it indie film credibility to help elevate it from becoming “just” another alien movie.  Gyllenhaal garnered an Oscar nomination for his role in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and is known for selecting roles in interesting projects.

Ryan Reynolds, too, earned new respect with last year’s success of DEADPOOL, a character he worked to bring to the big screen for years.

Hiroyuki Sanada has won two awards from the Japanese Academy, the equivalent of the American Oscars.

In short, this cast served as more than place holders that absolutely anyone could have filled, as is frequently the case in this genre.  LIFE managed to transition from being a [derogatory] “popcorn flick” to a genuinely good suspense movie.  Perhaps, in fact, to the surprise of all involved.

For more about LIFE, take a look below:

—>Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

Reeling in the summer

This summer brings an eclectic group of films to local screens, many featuring specifically Jewish protagonists and covering such disparate subjects as a fundamentalist revolution, a revolutionary TV programmer, the hunt for Adolf Eichmann, religiosity and coming of age in the 1950s.

“Septembers of Shiraz” 

Australian director Wayne Blair explores the devastating effect of the Iranian revolution on a secular Jewish family during the early 1980s in “Septembers of Shiraz,” adapted from the award-winning book of the same title by Dalia Sofer. As the film depicts, after the Shah was overthrown in 1979, the rage and resentment of the Iranian underclass was directed against the wealthy, the Jews, the intellectuals and anyone who had been in any way connected to the Shah’s family. When the mob and the Ayatollah Khomeini took power, Islamic fundamentalism became the law of the land, and with it came repression, torture, executions and capricious arrests. Those who felt persecuted under the Shah had now taken power, and started to mimic and even surpass the tyranny of their predecessor.

Academy Award-winning actor Adrien Brody (“The Pianist”) stars as Isaac Amin, a prosperous gemologist and jewelry merchant who is arrested without warning on vague charges of spying for Israel. While in prison, he is physically and emotionally tortured, and it becomes obvious that his interrogator, who himself had been tortured when the Shah held power, is envious of Isaac’s privileged life and enraged that Isaac accepted the social and political structure of the previous regime.

Meanwhile, Isaac’s wife, Farnez (Salma Hayek), a strong, assertive woman, tries in vain to get him released as she watches her entire life disintegrate. Her house is stripped of valuables, employees of her husband start stealing the jewels from his business, and she is powerless to stop what is happening. Among the thieves is the son of her housekeeper, Habibeh (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a Muslim woman who is loyal to the family but starts to believe some of the charges made by the revolutionaries against the former elites.

After turning over his life’s savings, Isaac is released, but he and his family must flee the country, leaving behind everything they still possess, if they are to have any hope of survival.

Blair said one reason he was drawn to the story was that, at its core, it deals with the importance of family. “Family is close to my heart. [During] my own upbringing, I traveled a great deal with my immediate family, as my father was in the military. When he retired and we settled in our hometown, I was around my mother and father’s extended family even more. That meant the world to me.” 

And, producer Alan Siegel predicted, “Audiences will sit at the edge of their seats. It’s a thrilling roller-coaster ride that also has a deep meaning for today.” 

“Septembers of Shiraz” opens June 24.


“Tikkun” explores issues of determinism, Orthodoxy and sexual repression. According to Israeli filmmaker Avishai Sivan, who is quoted in the media notes, the word “tikkun” means “improvement” in everyday Hebrew, but on a deeper level, “tikkun” has a more metaphysical meaning. Sivan says belief in reincarnation can be found in Judaism, and the term “refers to a soul returning to the living world in order to rectify an unresolved issue from its past life.”

The film takes place in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, and it focuses on Haim-Aaron (Aharon Traitel), a brilliant yeshiva student who is so devout that he fasts to repent for dropping his prayer boxes. One night, the sexually repressed young man is tempted to masturbate in the bathtub when he collapses, hitting his head against the back of the tub. The paramedics can’t revive him and pronounce him dead, but his father (Khalifa Natour) frantically tries to resuscitate him, and, mysteriously, Haim-Aaron comes back to life. However, he is completely changed. Unable to sleep at night, he takes to wandering the streets and falling asleep during the day in yeshiva class. He begins to tentatively explore the secular world and even accompanies an acquaintance to a brothel, though he can’t bring himself to have sex with the prostitute whom he has just paid. He also announces that he will no longer eat meat, an insult to his father, who is a kosher butcher in a slaughterhouse.

Shot in black-and-white, the movie begins to verge on the surreal as the father comes to fear he has thwarted destiny by reviving his son. 

“Tikkun” is tentatively scheduled to open in Los Angeles June 17.

“Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You”

Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon in “Indignation”

Another Jewish boy from the East is the central character in “Indignation,” based on Philip Roth’s 2008 semi-autobiographical novel of the same title. The movie depicts college life in the 1950s and centers on Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), son of a kosher butcher shop owner in Newark, N.J. Marcus escapes the Korean War draft by means of a scholarship courtesy of his synagogue to Winesburg College, a small school in Ohio.

While Marcus is happy to be free from his smothering father, he is uninterested in college social life or in forming close friendships, preferring to focus on his studies. However, the independent-minded Marcus encounters some new, unexpected experiences, including anti-Semitism and an infuriating requirement to attend weekly chapel. He also experiences his first sexual encounter, along with his first love.

Writer, producer and film company executive James Schamus (he earned an Oscar nomination for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) makes his directorial debut with this film. Schamus is quoted in the production notes as saying, “It was a real limbo time after World War II. The sexual revolution was yet to come, anti-communism and the Blacklist were in the news, and teenage culture, as we know it, was just around the corner. Meanwhile there’s another massive war going overseas. Our characters are really struggling to find themselves in that landscape.”

Variety’s chief international film critic, Peter Debruge, praised the movie, writing in his review at Sundance earlier this year, “ ‘Indignation’ unfolds at a certain distance, both in maturity and time: Schamus may not have lived the era, the way Roth did, but he channels the ’50s still-conservative mentality convincingly enough, hitting the novel’s tragic final note ever so delicately, devastating those drawn in by Marcus and his dreams.”

Roth, who attended the premiere of “Indignation” at Sundance, called it “the most faithful adaptation” of one of his works he’s seen.

“Indignation” opens July 29.

“The Tenth Man”

“The Tenth Man,” directed by Daniel Burman, tells the story of a man’s return to his observant Jewish roots. Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) has been living in New York and enjoying a successful career as an economist but has distanced himself from his background. He returns to the Jewish section of Buenos Aires, Argentina, known as El Once, where he was raised, in part to introduce his father, Usher (played by himself), and the rest of his family, to his fiancée, a dancer who is supposed to follow him to Buenos Aires after she completes an audition. 

During his visit, Ariel gets pulled into helping at his father’s market and performing certain duties for his father’s charitable Jewish foundation. While Ariel keeps trying to meet with him, Usher remains elusive and constantly involved in aid projects. The situation brings back Ariel’s feelings of being neglected as a child when his father attended to his charitable activities. 

While Ariel remembers wanting more of his father’s attention when he was a child, Ariel also finds himself brought back emotionally to the way of life of his formative years.

As Ariel draws closer to his heritage and to the community he left behind, he also draws closer to Eva (Julieta Zylberberg), an Orthodox, silent and beguiling woman who works for Usher’s foundation.

Burman explains in the media notes how he and Usher, a real person heading a real foundation, met for the first time. The two were on a pilgrimage to visit the graves of Sadikin, Jewish mystics of the 17th and 18th centuries who, according to legend, had a direct connection to God. Burman says there was something about Usher that he found fascinating.

“This feeling only grew when I learned more about his kingdom, his army of volunteers, that mysterious world of people giving without a special satisfaction beyond something provided by the fact of doing what needs to be done, as part of a particular logic of aid. In the foundation, the others who are being helped are not an undifferentiated mass that needs just anything. The help there is about the uniqueness of each individual. In order to give somebody exactly what he needs, there has to be an intention to understand why he needs this and nothing else. That world captivated me.” 

“The Tenth Man” opens in August, exact release date TBA.

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer“

Burghart Klauner in “The People vs. Fritz Bauer”

Argentina is also a major element in “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” a docudrama about German-Jewish prosecutor Fritz Bauer (Burghart Klauner), who is credited with locating Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer in charge of arranging the deportation of vast numbers of Jews to death camps before he became a fugitive after the war.

The film opens in 1957, when Bauer has returned to Germany from Denmark and Sweden after World War II and makes it his mission to expose and prosecute former Nazi officials, many of whom are now prospering in business or holding positions in the German government. But members of the current government block Bauer’s efforts at every turn, either because they don’t want their past Nazi activities exposed or don’t want to relive Germany’s crimes.

One day, Bauer receives a letter from Argentina written by the father of a girl who is dating Eichmann’s son. The letter reveals that Eichmann is living incognito in Buenos Aires.

Bauer is passionately anxious to have Eichmann extradited and put on trial in Germany,  but his goals are again thwarted by German authorities who are former National Socialists. So Bauer is forced to enlist the aid of the Israeli Mossad, an act tantamount to treason and punishable by imprisonment.

After verifying Eichmann’s identity, the Mossad does capture him, but Bauer’s desire to have him tried in Germany is overridden by those at the highest levels of government in Israel, the United States and Germany, so Eichmann is prosecuted and hanged in Israel.

It was only after Bauer’s death in 1968 that his part in finding Eichmann was revealed.

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” opens Aug. 19.

Also of interest: 

“Agnus Dei” (The Innocents) is a French-Polish movie directed by Anne Fontaine (“How I Killed My Father”) that tells the almost-unknown story of Madeleine Pauliac, a French doctor who took care of concentration camp survivors in Warsaw right after World War II. When a nun shows up to her clinic and begs for her help at a convent, Pauliac discovers several pregnant nuns, one of whom is about to give birth. A nonbeliever herself, Pauliac finds the nuns becoming more and more dependent on her in the tragic aftermath of war. Opens July 1.

“The Kind Words” is an Israeli film about a woman and her two brothers who get a shock after their mother dies and they learn that she had been having a long-term affair with an Algerian. Fearing their real father may have been a Muslim, the three travel from Israel to Paris and Marseilles to seek out the truth.  Opens July 1. 

“Life, Animated” is a documentary about Owen Suskind, an autistic boy who never spoke until he learned to engage with the world by continually watching Disney films, such as “The Lion King.” The films inspired him to empathize and identify with characters outside of himself. Opens July 8.

“Café Society,” Woody Allen’s latest romantic comedy, is about a young man from the Bronx who tries to succeed in the glamorous world of Hollywood during the 1930s. Opens July 15. 

Oh so sorry

I’m sorry I haven’t eaten more hot dogs. 

Saturday is Selichot, the time when the whole Jewish world sings with Connie Francis, “I’m sorry,” and vows to do better next time. Many of us are focused on the wrongs we’ve done to others, or even to God. 

This year, however, as I contemplate in yet a new way the impact of lung cancer, there’s no one to whom I owe apology more than myself. 

Yes, many of my apologies go to me. I should have eaten more hot dogs, with mustard and sauerkraut. And even more hush puppies, which in Jewish delis are hot dogs wrapped in potato knish, served best (if not only) in New York. 

I know what you’re thinking: you were only watching your health. But if you want a hot dog and never give yourself a hot dog, what are you accomplishing? Fear of food is, I think, a crime against the soul, the shutting down of the appetite by which we show our confidence in being alive. 

For years I refused to eat popcorn at the movies. I was a college student and deemed myself too good for plebeian food. That year, a New York theater started popping its kernels and brewing its own coffee to sell with the latest Belmondo film. Popcorn brought great enjoyment to my next James Bond movie. Sean Connery is such a hunk, and I apologized profusely to myself for having missed out on the great all-American experience — albeit without butter. 

If I’m going to keep the appetite going, I have to respond to where the taste buds tingle. 

Since I received a lung cancer diagnosis, I’ve been macrobiotic, lived on smoothies, Chinese herbs, Ensure shakes. But even before I was fanatic. I ate pasta with broccoli. Broccoli, with Vitamin C, may reduce breast cancer. I never smoked cigarettes, which is linked to 85 percent of lung cancers. 

Today, when it might help, my body is in overdose. I avoid any food colored green. I’m no doctor, but any one of these regimens destroys appetite in all its meanings faster than a hot dog now and again. It’s the luck of the draw. Eat a hot dog or not, you can get cancer anyway. Might as well live. 

And although early on I cut out sugar and dairy, ice cream is now my dinner of choice. 

I begrudge myself nothing. If you don’t express your appetite, what comes next? Soon you won’t have any. A friend will ask if you want to eat by the ocean, and you won’t know. Soon enough, you miss the summer sunset, and the blooming begonia, and the loveliness of a child’s smile. It takes will to live. 

More hot dogs. More fun. 

Lung cancer taught me that what we do today is fun. Tomorrow the bill comes due. Develop taste. Don’t be a snob. Don’t live in regret. Don’t worry about where your cancer is going to come from. When you have to know, you will. 

One year, when I was new to Selichot, I sent around a list. I knew what I had done to everyone. They, of course, had long ago forgiven me. But it’s different to pardon myself. 

At the base of the apologies I owe myself, is a youth spent trying to stay in control. I thought I had it covered. I didn’t know anything. 

S’lach lanu. Forgive us. Forgive me for thinking I had anything under control. 

That’s not the only amends I owe myself. I’m sorry I kept slipcovers on the living room couch for more than a decade. I regret that it took me years to decide to paint the kitchen, and less than a month to get the job done. 

I underestimated the pleasure that comes from pleasure; that playing the piano badly is not a crime against humanity; that nothing beats the joy of making up my own mind and paying my own way. 

I’m sorry, but I’m not guilty. I’m sorry for the false truths accepted and fun cut short without thought. I’m aware of hours spent trying to explain myself — what a waste. Years spent pursuing trivial goals — why? I was definite about ideas I knew nothing about. 

So much gets squeezed on to a hot dog.

My Unataneh Tokef moments

On Rosh Hashanah, it is written and Yom Kippur, it is sealed; who shall live, who shall die.  But repentance, prayer and charity avert the severity of the decree.  If you apply a literal reading to this most famous of High Holiday prayers, you cannot help but conclude that it is medieval gobbledygook.  Our destinies for the next year are predetermined by God, but repentance, prayer and acts of charity will somehow mitigate that predetermined destiny.  What does that mean?  If someone dies, would a few more ducats in a Tzedakah box have allowed that person to live another year?  Would a few more times at Shul reciting some prayer by rote have altered the outcome?

Ours is a tradition that begs for interpretation.  And for this prayer to be meaningful to me, I needed to put a spin on it, which is almost directly contrary to its literal meaning.  I have learned from humanistic, rational and compassionate teachers to interpret the prayer as an acknowledgement of the inevitability of death; that every living creature must at some point die.  And if human mortality becomes a foundational element of the prayer, then the emphasis on repentance, prayer and charity become the choices you make with the finite time that you may have on this planet.

Perhaps our choices should include more acts of caring for those less fortunate; let’s call that Tzedakah.  Maybe we should be more forgiving of others and of ourselves and sincerely work at making ourselves into a better people; let’s call that one Teshuvah.  Finally, if we take some time, perhaps each week, to acknowledge the orderliness of creation and of a creator that has taught humanity morality, compassion and justice; let’s call that one Tefillah.  Now there’s an interpretation of what is otherwise a problematic prayer in which I can believe.

And yet, I have also literally experienced moments of life and death, triumph and tragedy all on Rosh Hashanah. 

Who shall die:  It was Rosh Hashanah 1990 and I flew in from Los Angeles to New York to spend the holiday with my father and brother.  My father cooked the dinner for the first night, which was attended by my father, my brother, a co-worker of my brother’s.  After dinner, Dad made a point of saying that since he had done the cooking; he was retiring to the den to relax, while we did the clean-up.  The three of us schmoozed while we cleaned the dishes and put away the food.  After we were done, I went downstairs to the den to check on my father.  I discovered him lying on the floor unconscious; I quickly made a 911 call and waited outside for the ambulance to arrive while my brother held my father.  He regained consciousness by the time the paramedics arrived; Dad argued with both the paramedics and us about not wanting to go to the hospital.  I pleaded with my father to no avail.  Finally, I phoned his twin brother to see whether someone of his own age and experiences could better persuade him to take care of himself than his sons.  Fortunately my uncle was hosting his own son, a physician, who explained to my dad that losing consciousness was a result of lack of oxygen to the brain and that someone had to figure out what the cause of that might be.  After that explanation, Dad allowed us to drive him to the emergency room.  The hospital wanted to keep him overnight for observation, but had no rooms available.  Dad had no desire to spend the night on a gurney bed in the ER.  We let him come home only after we extracted a promise from him to go back the next morning.  That was only the beginning of a very long and difficult evening as my father fell and collapsed multiple times with my brother reviving him each time. 

The reason that my dad was vehemently opposed to going to the hospital is that he witnessed his spouse, my mother (z’l) go into the hospital for cancer treatment eight years prior and never emerge.  My dad knew something was seriously wrong and where this all was heading.  By the way, I never did make it to Shul that Rosh Hashanah as I spent the entire holiday in the hospital with my dad.  My father died in that same hospital 54 days later, never having left the hospital during that time period.

Who shall live:  Fast forward to Rosh Hashanah 1997.  My wife Brenda was pregnant with our second child, who was due to be born five days after Rosh Hashanah by a C Section, which was scheduled two weeks earlier than the actual due date.  Rosh Hashanah began that year on a Wednesday evening and Brenda wanted to prepare a festive holiday dinner for the family.  I argued with her to no avail that Hashem would give her a pass this year.  So she went off to to purchase a huge roast beef.

In the course of dinner preparation, I received a phone call at work from Brenda indicating that she was not feeling too well.  I asked whether she had called her obstetrician, which she had.  Brenda was instructed to drink a half glass of wine and relax.  I, of course, was anything but relaxed as I rushed home from work to join my wife.  By the time I came home, she was still not feeling too great.  However we had a soon to be 2 ½ year older sister in the house and no one to watch her while we went to the hospital.  So I had to call a friend of mine who was sitting down to Rosh Hashanah dinner with his own family and ask him to leave his family dinner to pick up my daughter and take care of her.  While we waited for him to arrive, I wrapped up the roast beef and put two slices of cheese on some bread for my dinner to eat on the drive to the hospital.

We arrived at the hospital about the same time as the obstetrician who was the only non-Jew in a medical practice group which except for her consisted of all Jews.  The first words that I spoke to the obstetrician were expressions of gratitude that she was not of the Jewish faith.  The doctor examined Brenda and quickly came to the conclusion that if the birth were vaginal, she would be sending Brenda home because labor had not progressed far enough.  She also mentioned that given that Brenda was going to give birth by C Section in a few days and that both doctor and patient were already at the hospital that she was willing to perform the C Section that night if Brenda wanted it.  I remembered seeing two obstetricians in the operating room for my older daughter, Judy’s birth, because a C Section is still surgery.  I asked the doctor about who would be assisting her in the operation.  Maria said that she had called the least religious in her practice group, but he still was in no mood to interrupt his own Rosh Hashanah.  Maria said that a surgical resident would be more than adequate assistance. 

Next I did what any guy would do at this time, which was shut up and let my wife decide what she wanted to do.  She opted for having the baby that night.  I had a kippa on under my surgical garb and witnessed the birth of our daughter Lindsay at 10:44 PM on the first night of Rosh Hashanah.  With a sense of circularity, our daughter Lindsay was named for the same person who collapsed on Rosh Hashanah seven years earlier, my father, Leonard (z’l).

Despite my view that Unataneh Tokef is a bunch of medieval gobbledygook, I have witnessed during the days of awe and judgment, life’s highest highs and lowest lows.  Most of life is lived somewhere in between great triumph and horrible tragedy.  The birth of my child and the death of my father are in my thoughts each and every Rosh Hashanah, making every High Holiday since those events somewhat anti-climactic.  

However, if I am going to live, I still want to make my life have some meaning and value.  In that regard, Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedukkah can certainly help improve the quality of my life and that is what I will focus on for each Rosh Hashanah going forward.  I will still take my Rabbis’ teachings over those of medieval Jews.  L'shanah tovah 

11 observations on life and living

1. We just want someone to listen to us.

My mother broke her hip, she’s in rehab, she wants to get out but, imprisoned, she needs someone to listen to her story. I’m providing that service.

That’s what we all want. Someone we don’t have to be our best self with. Someone we can reveal our inadequacies and frustrations to. Someone who will patiently listen and won’t give us unwanted advice. We usually don’t want any advice, we just want to be heard. A great listener possesses the key to friendship. Someone who listens will have more friends than any world-beater. People are complicated and flawed. Don’t berate them for opening up, embrace them.

2. Don’t do all the talking.

That doesn’t mean in one or another conversation you can’t dominate, but if you can’t ask how the other person is doing, if you can’t interact in a way that evidences you’re listening, you may think you’re winning, but you’re not. Life is about giving. If you’re always taking, it’s going to get very lonely.

3. Business books are b.s.

Because even if the advice is good, it’s not particularized to you. I’m not saying you can’t gain insight, but the people you’re reading about don’t resemble you, and too often the writers are doing it to make money and burnish their careers as opposed to genuinely trying to help you. Sure, it’s great to identify with what a writer says, but don’t overinvest; you’ve got to find your own path.

4. You can’t tell people what to do.

They’ve got to find out for themselves. When you’re listening to them, it’s about being heard, as stated above; it’s not about you dropping pearls of wisdom that they can follow. Furthermore, if you do manage to help them out once, they’re still gonna be flummoxed soon. Life is about experience. It’s a long ride we’ve all got to take. You’ve got to find your own way. It’s great if you can find a mentor, but I’ve never encountered one. But the main point is people don’t really want advice, no matter how much they say they do. Tell them the truth and you’ll be in trouble — they’ll start explaining why you’re wrong. It’s human nature.

5. Don’t evidence weakness.

I know this sounds contradictory, but my main point is don’t always be the person who got the raw deal, who the world is against. Life is tough for everybody. Sure, complain. But be joyful sometimes, too. Otherwise, everybody’s gonna run from you.

6. Life is not always up. 

If you haven’t experienced downs, you haven’t taken any risk or you’re so rich you’ve never engaged. Life is about losses even more than victories. Lick your wounds, but then lift yourself back up, however slowly, and get back in the game. Learn from what happened, but do your best not to be burdened by it.

7. Everybody’s got an interior life.

When they reveal it to you, you bond. Most people don’t feel safe enough to tell you their truth. But when they do, it’s a magic moment for both of you, the teller feels exhilarated and alive, finally able to relax in his skin, and the listener starts to tingle, stunned that the teller trusts him that much.

8. It’s not what you own, but who you are.

But you don’t realize this until you’re close to 60. The young kids have little wisdom and all the strength and synapses. The old people have all the wisdom, but failing bodies. So you’ve got young people doing stupid things, not realizing how long life truly is, and you’ve got old people driving around in the sports cars they can finally afford. It would be better if the young people had wisdom and Ferraris, that they could truly enjoy, when they’re truly meaningful, and the oldsters could drive Priuses and Fusions yet have no aches and pains.

9. No one remembers history. 

They’re doomed to repeat it. It’s the way of the world, the same way people repeat the same relationship until they finally wake up and realize their choices are bad, what they think they want is actually no good for them.

10. Trustworthiness is more important than excitement.

11. We want people we can count on. 

Who will take us to the hospital. Who will go out of their way to help us just because they’re our friend. We all know these special people, who live to serve, despite being neither rich nor famous, they’re our society’s secret savers. If you don’t have one of these people in your life, someone not related to you, start looking, now. And once again, you get them by giving more than taking.

Bob Lefsetz is the author of the e-mail newsletter The Lefsetz Letter, where this column originally appeared.

Life in Southern Israel on hold during Gaza situation

Two weeks ago, Noami Cohen and Uzi Madar had a traditional engagement party for Jews from Arab countries called a “hina.” They dressed in colorful costumes, danced and partied with 120 of their friends. They were looking forward to their wedding and were expecting 500 guests.

But one day before the wedding scheduled to be held at the Agamim hall in the southern Israeli city of Beersheva, Israel killed Hamas military commander Ahmed Al-Jabari. Soon afterwards, rockets began landing throughout the south of Israel. The phone started ringing – was the wedding on or not?

“The Israeli Home Front Command (in charge during conflict) said we could go ahead with the wedding but we could only have up to 100 people,” Naomi, 23, told The Media Line. “I’m getting married once in my life, and I don’t want to make it smaller or be afraid during it.”

So Naomi and Uzi postponed the wedding. They went on Facebook and made dozens of phone calls. Relatives from Tunisia and France who had come for the wedding turned around and went home. The hall, the flowers, the DJ, and the honeymoon in the southern resort town of Eilat were all cancelled.

“I just couldn’t stop crying,” Naomi said. “I just feel so bad. Now, I have to start planning all over again. I waited for this so long, and then, boom, it’s just gone.”

Her fiancé Uzi, 27, who works for the army, said he watched the clock on Thursday night.

“Right now I was supposed to be breaking the glass, (a traditional Jewish custom to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD),” he remembers thinking. “It’s very depressing. We planned this for a whole year and then we couldn’t do it.”

Hundreds of weddings and other celebrations have been cancelled all over the south Israel – the region of the country most frequently targeted by Hamas rockets. Throughout the rest of the country, even when events have been held as scheduled, guests who live in the southern area have cancelled, afraid to be out driving when a missile hits.

“Everything has been cancelled since Thursday,” Shalom Gibli, the owner of the Agamim wedding hall, told The Media Line. “Usually we make people happy, and it’s always happy here, but now it isn’t. I told most of my workers to stay home.”

Agamim has two halls – one that can seat 1000 guests, and the other 500. Both are normally full every night, he says, and sometimes during the day as well for circumcision parties or other events. Gibli estimates he has already lost almost $200,000 in income. He says that even though legally he can charge Naomi and Uzi one-third of what they should have paid, his conscience won’t let him take any money.

But even without the wedding hall, Naomi and Uzi are already out thousands of dollars.

“We have to make new invitations, and we had already cooked a lot for the special Sabbath meals after the wedding,” Naomi said. “We will have to pay a cancellation charge on the honeymoon. We can’t get the DJ we booked so we’ll have to take someone more expensive. I cried for six hours on Thursday.”

Naomi lives in Moshav Zimrat, a small farming community just a few miles from the Gaza Strip. She says she hears the booms of rockets sent from Gaza exploding daily as well as Israel’s return air strikes.

“I don’t remember being as scared in my whole life as I was this past week,” she said. “I had to leave the house after being inside for almost a week – I was going crazy.”

She said her two-year-old niece is terrified every time the warning siren goes off. She freezes and is unable to move. Naomi says she lives in an old house and there is no reinforced room as is required in newer homes. She and her family go to an inside room when they hear the sirens.

Naomi says she’s tired of living with uncertainty, and Israel must strike hard against Hamas in Gaza.

“We’ve been living like this for too long,” she told The Media Line. “We have to deter them once and for all. We should cut off electricity and food. This is our country.”

She and Uzi have not yet set a new wedding date. She says she couldn’t bear to cancel a second time and will wait until the fighting ends before she gets married.

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Sept. 29 – Oct. 5, 2012



Smithsonian magazine hosts a free day at participating museums, including the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, The Grammy Museum, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Pasadena Museum of California Art and the Autry National Center. Zimmer Children’s Museum, which is closed on Saturdays, will be open for Museum Day on Sunday, Sept. 30. Sat. Free (registration required, ticket information on Web site). Various times, locations.



Join the Israeli Leadership Council, MATI and Mitchabrim — organizations dedicated to strengthening the Israeli-American community — at this folksy Sukkot festival. Arts and crafts, Israeli folk dancing, sukkah decorating, kids’ activities and more make it a can’t-miss event for the entire family. Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Free. Warner Center Park, 5800 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 466-6454.


West Hollywood’s celebration of the written word features more than 220 authors and artists. Speakers include “Saturday Night Live” alum Rachel Dratch (“Girl Walks Into a Bar”) and comedy writer David Misch (“Funny: The Book”); Journal columnist Bill Boyarsky (“Inventing L.A.”); political commentators Robert Scheer (“The Great American Stickup”) and Nancy L. Cohen (“Delirium”); novelists David Brin (“Existence”), Seth Greenland (“The Angry Buddhist”), Tod Goldberg (“Living Dead Girl”), Gregg Hurwitz (“The Survivor”), Stephen Jay Schwartz (“Beat”) and Jerry Stahl (“Pain Killers”); and children’s writers Amy Goldman Koss (“Side Effects”) and Eugene Yelchin (“Breaking Stalin’s Nose”). Attend writer’s workshops, poetry readings and performances, and peruse more than 75 exhibitor booths featuring publishers, booksellers and writing groups. Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free (includes admission, shuttle and parking). West Hollywood Library and West Hollywood Park, 625 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood.



Comedian Sarah Silverman joins actor Russell Brand and singer-songwriters Catie Curtis and Mary Gauthier in headlining this Americans United concert in support of church-state separation. Mon. 7:30 p.m. $25 (standing room), $50 (rear orchestra), $100 (front orchestra). El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.



YouTube clips of the Pittsburgh native effortlessly freestyling are viral classics, and his records — including debut album “Blue Slide Park” — showcase Miller’s knack for lacing his rhymes with humor. The 20-year-old rapper makes a stop in Los Angeles as part of his Macadelic Tour. Hip-hop act Travis Porter and rapper YG also perform. Tue. 8 p.m. $30-$35. Nokia Theatre, L.A. Live, 777 Chick Hearn Court, Los Angeles. (213) 763-6030.



David Levinson, Big Sunday executive director and author of “Everybody Helps, Everybody Wins,” joins bioethicist Stephen Post (“The Hidden Gifts of Helping”) and Stanford University School of Medicine neurosurgery professor James Doty in a discussion about the latest in medical science and altruism. They draw on recent studies that found that frequent volunteering among older adults led to reduced risk of an early death, and that nonvolunteers were more likely than volunteers to experience a major illness. Moderated by Lisa Aliferis, editor of KQED health policy and public health blog “State of Health.” Thu. 7:30 p.m. Free. Goethe-Institut Los Angeles, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.


L.A. Opera music director James Conlon’s concert series restores two generations of composers that were wiped off the map by the Third Reich. Tonight’s chamber music concert features performances of lost works by Austrian composers Alexander von Zemlinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Franz Schreker; and Czech composer and pianist Erwin Schulhoff. Pacific Trio and friends accompany Conlon. Thu. 7:30 p.m. $37-$65. Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. (310) 434-3200.



Documentarian Barry Avrich’s latest film offers an unflinching portrait of Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of the Weinstein Co. and Miramax Films. Avrich turns to Martin Scorsese, James Ivory, John Irving and others to examine the influence that Weinstein holds in Hollywood. A post-screening Q-and-A with Avrich follows. Thu. 7:30 p.m. $10 (general), $7 (LACMA members, seniors, students). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 857-6000.

High Holy Days: Who will live, who will die?

You don’t have to be a Jewish scholar to note a glaring difference between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Jan. 1, the secular New Year.

The former is solemn while the latter is boisterous. And one reason for Rosh Hashanah’s solemnity is the central question that it confronts: “Who will live and who will die [in the coming year]?”

The High Holy Days liturgy is meant to force us to confront our mortality. And that is not a particularly jovial subject.

Is this a good thing? 

I think it is. As Samuel Johnson put it a long time ago, “Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.”

The fact is that knowing we will die is one of the most beneficial realizations we can have.

First, death forces us to value time. If we never died, why would we do anything we didn’t absolutely have to do?

Why read a book today when you know that you can just as easily put off reading it for a year, or for that matter, a hundred years? 

Knowing that our time is limited forces us use it more productively. Years ago, a Swiss lawyer, after being told that he had incurable cancer, wrote a book during his last year of life. Among the first things he decided to do was to stop watching television.

Well before I read about that book, at a young age, I remember thinking that, in terms of using time wisely, it would be a good thing to live as if one had a terminal illness.

For the fact is that we all do have a terminal condition — life itself.

Rosh Hashanah asks us — no, it demands of us — that we lead our lives knowing we can die any day. Because nearly every one of us would lead our lives differently if we were told we had a year to live. 

Second, death confers wisdom.

Knowing that we will die gives us wisdom: Death puts things into perspective.

Knowing that we will die clarifies what is important and what is trivial. It is one reason that human beings have always associated age with wisdom. 

The usual explanation for associating age with wisdom is the longer one lives, the more wisdom one accumulates through increased life experiences. But I believe something else is at least as much at work here. And that is that the older one gets, the closer to death one gets. If people could expect to live, let us say, 500 years, I am not sure that 80-year-olds would have as much wisdom as they do today.

As people get old, they are more likely to believe in God. This is often dismissed as a function of their fear of death. But I submit it is not fear of death nearly as much as it is the reality of death that makes older people more likely to believe in God.

When you stare death in the face, you get a lot a more clarity about life. And one of those clarity realizations is that if there is no God, this whole thing called life has been no more than a charade: We make believe things matter, but they really don’t. 

The same holds true with belief in an afterlife. When people are young and think they will live forever, the idea of an afterlife can seem both irrational and unimportant. But when you confront death, it becomes far more difficult — not just emotionally, but intellectually — to say, “This life is all there is.”

Another proof of how much death clarifies what is important is the funeral.

It is well worth paying attention to eulogies. If you do, you will notice that much of what we deem to be of major significance is virtually never even mentioned in any of the eulogies for the deceased.

For example, many parents (Jewish ones most certainly) deem what college their children get into to be the most important goal of their child’s life. Virtually everything is dedicated to that goal — getting into the best preschool, the best elementary school, the best junior high and high school, getting the best grades, and spending whatever it takes.

But have you ever heard any eulogy mention — even in passing — what college the deceased attended? Has any rabbi, priest, minister, spouse, child or friend of the deceased ever said anything like, “We will miss Sam, who, you will recall, attended Harvard”?

Eulogies — the ultimate confrontation with death — force us to talk about what is truly important: “We will miss Sam. Sam was a wonderful husband, a devoted father, a loyal and giving friend. He loved life. He had a happy disposition. He was an honest man, etc., etc.”

Finally, death increases our love of just about everything in life.

Death forces us to value the quotidian. Those diagnosed with a terminal illness value sunsets and flowers and rain showers and people more than they did before their diagnosis.

So, for all these reasons Rosh Hashanah focuses on our mortality. That is why, ironically, while the theme resonates far more with the old, it is the young who most need it. Because the sooner people appreciate their mortality, the sooner they will value what is truly important: goodness, sunsets, people — and, yes, God and religion.

Who will die this coming year? Maybe you and maybe me. 

What is certain is that confronting the question will make for a better year.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 970 in Los Angeles) and founder of His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarprCollins, 2012).

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Sep. 15-21, 2012


“With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story”
The feature-length documentary explores the life of the 89-year-old, comic-book legend, co-creator of the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Hulk. Directed by Terry Douglas, Nikki Frakes and William Lawrence Hess, “With Great Power” highlights Lee’s Depression-era upbringing, his early years at Timely Comics, his military service during World War II, the dawn of Marvel Comics and more. Narrated by Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber), the doc features interviews with Kevin Smith, Patrick Stewart, Samuel L. Jackson and Eva Mendes. A Q-and-A with the filmmakers follows the screening. Sat. 7-9 p.m. $10. Downtown Independent, 251 S. Main St., downtown. (213) 617-1033.


High Holiday Food Drive 2012
SOVA needs your help. This Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles program, which provides free groceries and an array of support services to more than 12,000 individuals each month, is collecting canned beans, meat, tuna, dry milk, pasta, noodles, rice, dry soup, peanut butter, toiletries and other items. Drop-off locations include the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles as well as participating synagogues and day schools. Sun. Through Sept. 26. The Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Call (818) 988-7682, Ext. 116, to find drop-off locations in your area.,


The Grammy nominee appears live in support of his latest record, “Spark Seeker.” Like its predecessors, the new album — Matisyahu’s fourth — features a blend of reggae, hip-hop, beat boxing and spiritual lyrics, but also showcases traditional ancient sounds and electro beats. Expect to hear lead single “Sunshine” as well as other new tracks, and older material off of albums “Light” and “Youth,” during tonight’s performance. Opening bands include reggae-rock ensembles Dirty Heads and Pacific Dub. Tue. 6:30 p.m. $27.50. Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (800) 745-3000.


“Sarin Zakan & Eshel Ben-Jacob: Bacteria Art and Eco-Fashion”
Israeli fashion designer Sarin Zakan, who creates eco-couture clothing that blends science and art, makes her U.S. debut at the Pacific Design Center. Zakan’s work — including collars and dresses — features patterns formed by bacteria. Her pieces will be displayed alongside the work of her mentor, Tel Aviv University physics professor Eshel Ben-Jacob, who is called the godfather of bacterial art patterns. Wed. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. Through Nov. 9, Mon.-Fri. Pacific Design Center, 8867 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 657-0800.


Mitch Albom 
The best-selling author of “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” sits down with Rabbi David Wolpe to discuss his new book, “The Time Keeper.” Albom’s novel follows the inventor of the world’s first clock, Father Time, who, after being punished for trying to measure God’s greatest gift, is given a chance to redeem himself by teaching two people — a teenage girl about to give up on life and a wealthy old businessman who wants to live forever — the true meaning of time. Admission includes a copy of the book. Thu. 8 p.m. $20 (Sinai members), $25 (general). Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 481-3243.


Martin Amis and Matthew Weiner
Matthew Weiner, the marvel behind “Mad Men,” appears in conversation with Martin Amis, a master of ironic prose (“Money: A Suicide Note”). A postwar British writer of fiction, nonfiction, short stories, essays and reviews, his new novel, “Lionel Asbo: State of England,” follows the problematic relationship between a thuggish and lottery-winning English uncle and his nephew. Though experts in different mediums, Weiner and Amis share a fascination with the lives of the privileged in their respective works. Fri. 7:30 p.m. $20. Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 855-0005.

French singer-songwriter and actor Michel Jonasz embodies Abraham, his cantor grandfather, in this one-man show. Set before his death, the play follows Abraham as he recalls his deepest memories — his childhood, escaping from Poland, meeting his wife, his deportation to concentration camps, and the joys and sorrows of existence. In French with projected English translations. Fri. 7:45 p.m. Through Sept. 22. $50 (general seating), $75 (premium). Theatre Raymond Kabbaz, 10361 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 286-0553.

The Torah of our lives: On writing the next chapter

“Boomers [people born between 1946 and 1964] are the first generation in human history … to reasonably anticipate living well and wholesomely into their 80s and 90s, if not beyond,” sociologist Steven Cohen writes. “But not only are Jews (as others) living longer, they are living in an age of meaning-seeking, with the interest and wherewithal to make living a life of meaning an ultimate and reasonably obtainable objective for any point in their lives.”

I just turned 62; I’m a boomer. My grandparents experienced their lifetimes in three major life stages: childhood, midlife and old age. (The idea of adolescence as a distinct period between childhood and adulthood didn’t develop until early in the last century.) For my parents, there was childhood, adolescence, adulthood and then retirement (to Florida) at 65 and the beginning of old age. For me, it will be different.

There is a lot being written about a new life stage between maturity and old age. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, in her book “The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50,” writes: “The arc of life and learning is continually being expanded and redefined. … [N]ot only are people living longer and thus facing interesting questions related to how to compose their lives, but also that what I am calling the Third Chapter represents a significant and new developmental period in our culture. … This is a chapter in life, then, when the traditional norms, rules and rituals of our careers seem less encompassing and restrictive; when many women and men seem to be embracing new challenges and searching for greater meaning in life.”

One of the places that Jewish boomers are going in search of this “greater meaning in life” is the synagogue. Along with families with young children, they are the next largest group coming to synagogue, whether or not they are actually joining. Boomers are our adult learners; they populate many of our worship services and they come to their rabbis and synagogues for help dealing with their aging parents. At the same time that they are responsible for elderly parents, many still have older children at home or who have recently returned because of the difficulties of this economy. How can they navigate these competing claims? What does it really mean to honor one’s mother and father? How does one parent an adult child? What ought to be the role of grandparents?

We boomers are in the process of composing and reinventing our lives as we realize that time means something different when there is less of it ahead than behind. What will be our legacy? How can we continue to create lives of meaning and purpose when we can no longer define ourselves primarily in terms of our careers or even our families? What would constitute meaningful volunteer work and a chance to give back? Where might there be the opportunity to mentor a younger generation, to share professional and life wisdom? What kind of travel offers the opportunity to do service as well as experience a different culture? What kinds of intentional communities might offer attractive alternatives to living alone in our homes? And what kinds of spiritual resources does our tradition have to offer us as we write this new chapter of our lives?

It turns out that Judaism has a great deal to teach about aging wisely, particularly about the spiritual practices of forgiveness and gratitude that seem to be so central to the work of this stage of our lives. Judaism teaches that God is present in every moment; we acknowledge God’s presence by blessing, ritual and ceremony. Traditional Jewish life cycle rituals of brit milah, bar mitzvah, marriage, and illness and death might have been sufficient for my grandfather’s life, but they don’t acknowledge the reality of my life experience. We first learned this in the early ’70s when the Jewish feminist movement challenged us to think about the Torah of our lives and acknowledge the divinity present in all of our experiences. While one could certainly argue that there are many other rituals that our tradition offers connected to other moments of transition, such as affixing a mezuzah when moving into a new home or expressing gratitude for surviving an illness (Birkhat ha-Gomel), the claim that all of our experiences are Jewish experiences and therefore deserve to be acknowledged through ritual suggests that we turn to creating new rituals to help us think about this new chapter as well.

What are those moments? They include retirement, moving out of the homes where we raised our children, becoming a grandparent, giving up our cars, major birthdays, reaffirmation of marriage vows, and even choosing whether to begin a new relationship when a beloved spouse no longer recognizes us because of advanced Alzheimer’s.

As USC anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff taught, there is danger in creating new ritual. It needs to feel authentic and convincing by somehow echoing the power of more familiar ritual and linking us to the cosmic narrative of our people reflected in Torah. We need to touch not only the Torah of our own lives; these new rituals must also connect us to the Torah of tradition.

The norms, rules and rituals of this stage haven’t yet been written; we are writing them together as we compose this next chapter of our lives enriched by the insights of Jewish tradition. I look forward to a challenging and engaging conversation.

Survivor: Albert Rosa

Albert Rosa spied his older sister Luna across the chain-link fence. He remembered her as beautiful, with big, blue eyes and long, dark hair. Now she was skinny and filthy, her head shaved. “It broke my heart,” he said. Albert had been at Auschwitz only three weeks and had given up two days’ rations to persuade a bunkmate to trade uniforms and work details so he could see his sister. She was digging, supervised by female guards with guns, whips and German shepherds. He stood by the fence and got her attention. “Do you know anything about my children?” she asked him. “My husband? Mommy and Daddy?” A guard quickly appeared and clubbed Luna on the head. She fell, as blood gushed. The guard continued beating her.

Albert tried to rip the chain link apart, yelling the only words he knew in German, “Work faster, God-damned Jew.” The guard unleashed the German shepherd, commanding the dog to kill. As the dog charged his throat, Albert, a boxer in his native Greece, hit the dog with all his strength. They fought. Albert was mauled and, in his words, “left for three-quarters dead.” Still, he was ordered back to work. He later saw two women pulling a wooden cart. They picked up Luna’s body and threw it on top, “like trash,” Albert said.

Albert was born Jan. 25, 1925, in Salonika, Greece, to Ephraim, a hardware store owner, and Regina. The youngest of eight children in an observant and comfortable family, he excelled at swimming, soccer and boxing.

The situation for Salonika’s 56,000 Jews changed in April 1941, after Germany invaded Greece. Albert could no longer attend school, and his father’s business was confiscated. The persecution increased in February 1943, when the Jews were forced to wear yellow stars and relocate to ghettos.

A month later, in the early morning, Albert’s family and others were loaded into military trucks and then crammed into cattle cars, which over 10 days and nights transported them to Auschwitz. Albert spent the journey resting on a neighbor’s dead body. “We weren’t human anymore,” he said.

Arriving at Auschwitz, wearing only underwear and no shoes, Albert felt he had been put “in a deep freeze.” He was given number 110362 and a blanket and sent to a barracks with his older brothers Daniel and David. The next day, Albert was issued a uniform and sent to work in the coalmines, where he dug with a pick and shovel from sunup to sundown.

Later, after his sister’s murder, Albert was assigned to dig a pipe hole. At one point, seeing an open kitchen door, he grabbed a few potatoes. A guard saw him and started to shoot, but the gun jammed, so the guard began beating him with its butt, almost killing him. Albert’s brother Daniel, 6 feet tall and also a boxer, saw what was happening and, in Albert’s words, “came like a wild animal.” He knocked the guard out and choked him to death. Several guards intervened, cracking Daniel’s head and taking him away.  That evening at the nightly hanging, which other prisoners were forced to watch, Albert saw his brother Daniel on the gallows. “Daniel, I will survive, and I will avenge you,” he said.

In autumn 1943, months after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Albert and a large group of Greek Jews who spoke neither Polish nor Yiddish were transported to Warsaw to bury the dead, whose decomposing bodies were piled up in bunkers. At the end of the almost yearlong assignment, they were commanded to blow up the ghetto.

Afterward, Albert was part of a forced march from Warsaw to Dachau. He remembers that the group panicked when they reached a wide river, too deep to wade across. Soldiers stood on a small bridge, firing at them with machine guns as they tried to swim to safety.

Albert reached Dachau and was quickly transferred to Kaufering, a subcamp. One day, in January 1945, hearing they would be killed, he and seven prisoners escaped. Two were killed immediately, and Albert, running through the forest as fast as he could, said he “left part of my face and arms on the branches.” Eventually they reached a farmhouse, where, ravenous, they ate from the pigs’ trough. And when the elderly farmer, a one-legged German civilian, began shooting at them, they dove into a pile of fertilizer. American soldiers soon liberated them. They gave Albert a uniform, and he joined the Americans, doing medic runs as bullets rained down around him. For his service, he was awarded a Purple Heart.

After the war ended, in May 1945, Albert spent six months at the Feldafing displaced persons camp in Bavaria and another six months hunting down Nazis. In spring 1946, he joined the Irgun, the underground Jewish resistance group, recruiting refugees to help build Palestine. He also met his future wife, Betty Rosensweig, at the Riedenburg DP camp in Salzburg, Austria.  Soon after, he was imprisoned by the British in Cyprus for smuggling arms into Palestine, but managed to escape.

Albert and Betty married on Aug. 26, 1948, making their way to Denver in late 1949. Albert found a job as a janitor in an upholstery factory and worked his way up to factory manager. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1959. Here, Albert worked as an upholsterer and then, with a partner, ran a market and deli on Venice Beach for 20 years.

Albert’s daughter Regina was born in 1949,  son Andrew in 1953, and second daughter Yvette in 1964. Betty died in 1997. He has one granddaughter.

For 55 years, Albert didn’t talk about the Holocaust. But after seeing “Schindler’s List,” his daughters and son encouraged him to speak out, which he now does frequently.

“I want the schoolchildren to know that life wasn’t always so easy. When I was their age, I was starving,” he said.

In praise of falsehood

What is it with people telling the truth all the time? I don’t mean under oath, or even in response to a question that has been posed to them; I mean when they just come out of the blue and dish out a nice, hefty portion of truth because they love you too much to lie to you.

For years, the first thing I heard from some of my favorite aunts upon greeting them was, “You look awful.”

They said this no matter how hard I had tried to fix myself up, or how good I thought I looked when I came through the door.

“I’m telling you the truth because I love you,” they added. “You’re too thin, you must be working too hard, you should eat more, wear some makeup, cut your hair or something.”

I was wearing makeup. I didn’t think I looked so bad.

“Well, you’re wrong. And anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you. You really shouldn’t let your husband see you like this.”

How can you get mad at someone who’s telling you the truth for your own good? And besides, these ladies were older than I. Among Iranians, few transgressions are as grave as talking back to an older person, especially a family member. To say you disagree with them is bad enough, but there’s no way you can tell them to mind their own business and be able to hold your head up in the family afterward. So I tolerated the love talk for about a decade, then heeded the advice of my husband. He grew up in England, where he was taught not just respect, but also diplomacy.

“I appreciate your concern,” he suggested I tell these honest, loving people, “but what you tell me makes me feel bad.”

That might have worked for Diana. For me, it was a nonstarter.

“I’d rather you felt bad and fixed yourself up, than felt good and looked bad,” my loving elders said. 

That finally stopped when I became old enough that to look good, all I have to do is maintain a pulse. Nowadays, I feel pretty safe at “hello,” but it’s anyone’s guess what happens from then on. Truth telling, it seems, has become a national pastime, with all that reality garbage constantly on television, all those celebrities bearing their hearts out for Dr. Drew, and every middle-aged, unemployed man and woman signing up with some online university for a degree in marriage and family therapy, then graduating with honors and charging the world with their professional wisdom.

I had an hour of this last Saturday when I went to a Shabbat luncheon at a family member’s house. I arrived at 1:30 wearing heels and makeup and — tell me this isn’t making an effort — a red dress. It was a large gathering, and I didn’t know most of the guests, so I managed to get in a good three minutes without being told I was late or I looked awful or I had offended someone by failing to “convince” my kids to come with me, but then I got overly confident and made the mistake of approaching a cousin. She’s the effusive type and always full of compliments. She saw me and declared, loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, “Now this is a good color for you!”

In case you’re too self-confident to grasp the nuance, the implication there is that whatever else I’ve worn over my lifetime was not a good color. This same cousin had told me, a week after my older son’s bar mitzvah, that the dress I wore to the party made me look “dead.”

“And your hair looks good, too,” she now added. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t like it before.”

Before what? I’ve had the same hair since I was 22 and had it cut to within an inch of my scalp.

“I hope you don’t mind my telling you this. I don’t like to lie.”

Me neither. So I left the cousin and went outside into 100-degree heat, hoping to find shelter among people who didn’t love me and didn’t feel compelled to tell the truth. I had spent five minutes making small talk with a stranger before a woman I barely knew came up and asked, without the smallest bit of preface, “How do you rate your books?”

How do I rate them?

“I mean, what do you think of them?”

I think they’re terrible — badly written and pointless — and so do the publishers and critics and the buyers, of course. 

“I ask because my daughter read one of them and didn’t like it. I hope you don’t mind my being honest.”

Among Iranians, the polite response to such honesty is to thank the person and acknowledge their feelings. Anything else would be considered rude, tag you as a shrew and ruin your children’s chances at marriage.

OK, so maybe strangers’ truths aren’t any better than friends’ truths, I thought, and went back inside, sat down with my Orthodox cousin’s five kids, all under the age of 6, each brighter and more beautiful and charming than the rest. A few minutes later another cousin, a newly minted marriage and family therapist, joined us. We talked about how cute these children were, how quickly they grow up. I said something about missing my younger son who just moved out of the house to go to college. I thought that was rather innocuous, but it seems Antioch University disagrees. My cousin boiled with outrage.

“Let him go!” she yelled like Moses at the Pharaoh. “You’re castrating the child!”

Really? Castrating?

“That’s the trouble with Iranian men: They’re all castrated by their mothers.”

I looked around at the dozens of castrated men and all the castrating women in the room. I considered telling my cousin that I had studied all about castration in Psych 101 a thousand years ago at UCLA, and that there’s a slight difference between loving a child and wanting to own him, but that would have been rude of me; it would have hurt her feelings, meant that I was an ingrate and a shrew. It’s a “Catch-22” I think anyone in a caring, close-knit community has experienced and I, at least, have no idea how to solve it or where to find the right balance. I can’t blame people, because I think they mean well, so I’ve decided the fault lies with the truth itself. I therefore recommend the following prayer before and after each social gathering:

Dear God, give us this day our daily dose of denial. Keep us safe from love, truth and honesty. Lead us out of the light and into the darkness; let us remain ignorant of our failings, unpopularity and good colors. If possible, impose some minimal requirements for becoming a marriage and family therapist. And whatever you did with my hair this past Saturday … keep that up until further notice from my cousin.

Religion’s power in the face of death

Contemporary Bible scholars tend to look at religion as the object of study rather than the source of inspiration, or so we might conclude from their writings.  But something quite different can happen when they are confronted with the kind of life experiences for which religion has always served as a balm.

A fascinating example can be found in the latest book by Harvard professor James L. Kugel, “In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief” (Free Press: $26.00).  Kugel is best known for his books about the origins and uses of religious texts, including “The God of Old” and “How to Read the Bible.” When he was diagnosed with cancer in 2000, Kugel was reminded of the lines of Psalm 102 — “O my God, do not take me halfway through life” — and he imagined that the Psalmist must have been similarly stricken.

“You would think that a Bible professor would, in the circumstances I have described, seek comfort in these and other words from Scripture,” he writes. “But to be absolutely truthful, although I know much of the book of Psalms by heart, these were not the words that I kept thinking of after the doctors’ diagnosis. Instead, what ran through my mind was mostly poetry in English, poems I had learned a long time ago – some of them fairly corny.”

Happily, Kugel regained his health, and now he offers a meditation on how our perceptions and of religion can change when we confront the imminence of death.  He describes how the “background music” of daily life — “the music of infinite time and possibilities” — seemed to suddenly stop when he heard his diagnosis, and he muses on the smallness of life as symbolized by the sight of a freshly-dug grave: “Can a whole human being fit in there, a whole human life? Yes. No problem.”

Kugel frankly asks why human beings are (and always have been) so fascinated by religion — a question that is at the core of his life’s work — but he argues that some of the modern scientific theories about the origins and workings of the religious imagination fail to see the forest for the trees. “They all seem to be saying: once we understand the neuroscience and evolutionary biology that explain how this delusion got going in the first place, then we can start to come to our senses and reorder our lives,” he writes of books like “The God Delusion.”  “But that really is to miss the point…. After all is said and done, it may come down to a choice between seeing something through a wavy lens…and not seeing at all. Faced with such a choice, I’ll take seeing anytime.”

To explain the elusive concepts that he is struggling to express, Kugel resorts to a whole library of sources, texts, and points of reference, ranging from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the architecture of medieval cathedrals to pop music and gospel music, from the Homer to Augustine to Rilke.  Kugel argues that religion can be a way of seeking “a different reality, more powerful and truer than the one we live in every day…a vision of things that is altogether different from our usual one” — an idea that is hardly revolutionary but one that takes on both complexity and resonance in Kugel’s work.

And yet, even though Kugel refuses to simplify what he has to say and always drills deeply into the texts that he ponders, he is also willing and able to share moments of startling clarity.  “Why do we expect the world to be a fair place?” he asks. “In fact, your own little tragedy is inscribed next to so many big ones on the front page of every newspaper (teenage soldier cut down for trying to keep the peace; pilgrims blown to smithereens by a suicide bomber) that in no time at all it is just one more instance in an endless litany of unfairnesses — why should anyone ever expect life to be any different?”

Then, too, he is willing to humanize and personalize the human beings who wrote and read the ancient texts that continue to serve as the touchstones of religion in the modern world. “It is easy now for religion’s deniers to dismiss the way of seeing associated with ancient religions as a benighted patchwork of superstitions and wishful thinking, one that is now happily being disproved and scientifically explained,” he writes. “But my own belief – and the continued theme of this book – is that people two thousand or five thousand years ago were not any stupider than we are today, and that they certainly knew when their own innocent children were dying, whether from disease or famine or apparently nothing at all.”

“In the Valley of the Shadow” is a curious blend of scholarship and confession.  Kugel’s mastery of the texts and traditions is richly displayed yet again, but somehow it all seems much more consequential when framed by an account of his own passage through that often-invoked “valley of the shadow of death.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at


The Next (Jewish) Miss America?

Loren Galler Rabinowitz is not an overachiever. Not to say that she hasn’t achieved more during her 24 years than most accomplish in a lifetime; however, none of it came without expectations. Galler Rabinowitz has felt the pressure to succeed her whole life and has borne it well. You’d be hard pressed to find a more driven or dedicated individual, but no amount of drive can easily explain how a fiercely intellectual woman who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard ended up on stage in spangles with a tiara on her head and the title of Miss Massachusetts.

Galler Rabinowitz was born in Brookline, Mass., into a family of physicians. As a child, she accompanied her mother on trips to her clinic in Barbados, where she worked with underprivileged children. “I’ve been involved with medical research my whole life,” said Galler Rabinowitz, who, by the age of 14, was helping write grant requests and caring for people at the clinic. 

Galler Rabinowitz has a particularly strong relationship with her mother, a major role model in her life. It was through her mother’s influence that Galler Rabinowitz would find her first passion. “My mom was a ballerina, and when I was small, she took me ice skating. It became something we did together.” It was on one of her childhood trips to the rink that Galler Rabinowitz was discovered by an Olympic skating coach and put on the track toward stardom.

Paired with skater David Mitchell, Galler Rabinowitz soon rose through the ranks of U.S ice dancers. She and Mitchell won the bronze medal at the 2004 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. “I so desperately loved skating. It was my singular focus for 10 years,” Galler Rabinowitz said in a recent phone interview. However, her Olympic dreams were star-crossed: A shoulder injury to Mitchell sidelined the pair for the 2005 season, and they never recovered their previous chemistry. To make matters worse, Galler Rabinowitz was about to lose someone who had been her inspiration for years.

When she was just a child, Eva Vogel had been rounded up in a Nazi sweep with her family and put on a train to the Belzec concentration camp. Vogel’s father, wanting to spare her the horrible fate that awaited her, pushed Eva out the small window of the train so that she would have a chance at freedom. Eva managed to find a sympathetic Christian family to take her in. With her blond hair and green eyes, Vogel spent the rest of World War II as Katrina, an assumed identity. After the war was over, she married Henry Galler and eventually made her way to America, where she, Henry, and their daughter, Janina, settled in New Orleans.  Years later, Janina Galler would marry Burton Rabinowitz, and among their children would be a talented young ice dancer named Loren.

Loren’s grandmother Eva was her idol. She’d dedicated her post-Holocaust life to traveling around to schools with her husband and preaching against racism and bigotry. Galler Rabinowitz is effusive in her praise of her grandmother. “One of my most cherished memories is spending time in the kitchen with my grandmother. Every time I make her famous matzah ball soup, I feel closer to her, like I’m bringing part of her with me.”

In August 2005, like some cruel joke from above, Hurricane Katrina, bearing the same name that had once saved Eva Galler’s life, crashed into the city of New Orleans. Their home damaged, Eva and Henry were forced to move to Texas, but Eva couldn’t stand the strain. A few short months later, she was dead.

With her skating career over and her beloved grandmother gone, Galler Rabinowitz was forced to consider a new direction in life. She took a trip to Israel to help care for a sick relative. It was her first experience in the Holy Land. “I’d never been there before and wanted to see it. It was really important for me to connect with where I came from and to get a sense of where I needed to go,” Galler Rabinowitz said wistfully. “I had the best time ever.  Having the ability to eat falafel four times a day after years of being on a skater’s diet was definitely something I took advantage of.”

When Africa Comes to Israel

There is a new threat to Israel, although the people raising it are entirely innocent. The threat is represented by a growing population of African refugees, mainly escapees from the hellish dictatorships of Eritrea and Sudan, who are pouring over the Egyptian border into Israel and settling in some of the country’s poorer neighborhoods, especially in Tel Aviv. They’re now coming at the rate of more than 1,000 each month, according to recent government statements.

In summer 2006, when the presence of these new immigrants first gained public notice, the State Attorney’s office numbered them at fewer than 200. Then, they were strictly a humanitarian concern. And this continues to be so: The people from Darfur and Southern Sudan have fled annihilation; those from Eritrea fled war, lifetime military conscription and persecution. A substantial proportion of refugees from both places were tortured along the way, many of the women have been gang raped by their Sinai Bedouin guides, and all the refugees dodged brutal imprisonment or death at the hands of Egyptian border guards.

The African migration through Sinai to Israel began in 2005 with tiny numbers of Sudanese leaving Cairo, where they had been hounded by police, denied the right to work and treated with ruthless contempt by racist Egyptians. After a police massacre at the end of that year of at least 30 and as many as 200 Sudanese refugees outside the United Nations’ compound in Cairo, the routes through Sinai to the Israeli border began heating up.  

The first arrivals were held in an Israeli prison for a year, or more. But Supreme Court challenges and pressure from the U.N. and the media got them out in 2006. They began moving to Eilat, to sympathetic kibbutzim, and to South Tel Aviv. The cell-phone grapevine between Israel and Cairo told of a relatively great life here.

Soon, the Eritreans started coming, too, and the numbers of African refugees entering Israel each month grew from dozens to hundreds. 

Three years ago, prime minister Ehud Olmert, under pressure from American Jewry because of the worldwide concern over Darfur, granted temporary residency — which means the right to work and to receive Israeli social benefits — to the roughly 500 Darfurians in Israel at the time. Since then, about 2,000 more Darfur refugees have arrived, and they have not been given temporary residency. And, now, even Darfurians from among those original 500 say the Interior Ministry is refusing to renew their temporary residency, according to attorney Anat Ben-Dor, who represents many of them.

Israel’s leading activist on the refugees’ behalf, Sigal Rozen, former director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, estimates that 19,000 refugees in Israel are from Eritrea, 8,000 from Sudan and another 4,000 or so from various other, mainly African, countries. As these numbers continue to increase, they also signal a danger, potentially an existential one to this country, whose entire population is 7.5 million and whose size is roughly that of New Jersey.

“The flood of illegal workers infiltrating from Africa [is] a concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at a July cabinet meeting.

Officially, the Africans are called “infiltrators,” a misleading term because not only do they not hide from Israeli troops after crossing the border, they give themselves up eagerly. They are taken to Saharonim holding facility in the Negev, then released, usually within days, with a bus ticket to Beer Sheva. Afterward they usually head for Tel Aviv and settle wherever they find work.

A refugee family from Eritrea with their Israeli neighbors — Jewish immigrants from Uzbekistan.

None of them has been linked to terrorism or any kind of security offense, according to Deputy State Attorney Yochi Gnessin and William Tall, the representative in Israel for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Most are young men who live together in rented apartments, several to a room, and they take on whatever work is available, “doing the rough, dirty work that no normal person would do, for whatever money they can get,” said Dror Krispi, who runs an all-night snack bar in Hatikva Quarter, where many refugees have settled. Most commonly, they work as garbage collectors, gardeners, packers in outdoor fruit-and-vegetable markets, house cleaners, janitors and dishwashers in the Tel Aviv area and as menial staff in the hotels of Eilat.

Yet in those poor neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv, Eilat, Ashdod, Bnei Brak and other cities where they’ve settled by the thousands, they have set off a wave of xenophobia. The backlash, once confined to nonviolent expressions, now appears to be heating up. In early December, a gang of teenagers in South Tel Aviv reportedly attacked some refugees, and an apartment building in Ashdod, where several refugees live, was torched, although it has not been determined who committed the arson or why.

Meanwhile, the asylum-seekers continue to come over the Egyptian border into Israel. To use Ehud Barak’s phrase from the bad old days of the Intifada, Israel proper (not counting the occupied territories) is a “villa in the jungle” — a democratic, relatively tolerant, prosperous country in the middle of the impoverished, repressive, sprawling Third World. To quote Netanyahu from late November, it is also “the only developed country that you can reach on foot from the poorest countries in Africa.”

Also since November, Israeli bulldozers have been building a security fence along the 150-mile border with Egypt. It is expected to take two and a half years to complete, said Udi Shani, director-general of the Defense Ministry, at a recent Knesset hearing. Construction of a detention camp is planned in the Negev desert, near the Egyptian border, to house up to 10,000 refugees. Netanyahu has given assurances that they will receive “humane” treatment; the Prime Minister’s Office’s official English-language term for the camp is “open housing center.” Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, however, has noted that a camp meant to keep people in cannot at the same time be “open.” The refugees are to be prohibited from working.

The government’s hope is to find foreign countries to take the refugees in, reportedly with financial inducements. But U.N. representative Tall calls this plan “a non-starter.”

“Other countries are already dealing with much larger numbers of refugees, they don’t want to take in Israel’s, too,” Tall said. In early December, he said, some 150 Southern Sudanese refugees were flown back home, with their consent, via an unnamed third country, joining a similar number who repatriated last year to Southern Sudan, which is in the process of gaining independence.

But even though 300 refugees are gone, at least that many new ones are coming across the border from Egypt every week.

Jewish community stresses feelings at its peril

We shouldn’t be the least bit surprised that American Jewry is in trouble. We have been overemphasizing what feels good at the expense of what does good for the Jewish people for quite some time.

Allow me to explain.

Many Jewish organizations have taken to pursuing political agendas that at best are distantly, and usually not at all, connected to Jewish concerns. For example, B’nai B’rith International has taken positions on immigration reform and Latin American free trade. The National Council of Jewish Women has spoken out on the earned income tax credit and the line item veto. The ADL has taken stances on same-sex marriage, immigration and reproductive rights. And the Reform movement’s URJ biennial advocated for “righteous, healthy eating,” health care reform and statehood for Washington, D.C.

While I certainly understand the desire to repair the world, spending time and energy on these issues doesn’t help us to create more committed Jews. If a group of law school students devoted years to charitable endeavors, their efforts, while highly laudable, would in no way advance their study of jurisprudence. To be effective attorneys, they must still concentrate on law. To be effective Jews and effective Jewish organizations, we have to concentrate on specifically Jewish matters.

Some might argue that we can both advocate for political positions and inspire Jews to be more committed. That’s just not happening. A multitude of studies demonstrates how non-Orthodox Jews are becoming less and less involved in Jewish life. Very simply, too many Jews are becoming citizens of the world at the expense of being committed citizens of their Jewish community.

We also hurt ourselves in the pursuit of equality in the Jewish community. How could equality be a bad thing? When it gets in the way of placing the brightest, most talented individuals on our boards and in our organizations. It should not matter whether an organization or a board is populated by a majority of female, male, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, gay or straight Jews. Our organizations deserve to be filled with the very best individuals we can find. The Jewish world shorts itself every time it places equality ahead of quality.

Most of us don’t make business decisions in this way, so why do we think such an approach makes sense in our Jewish work? It might feel good to seek balance, but the greater Jewish good suffers as a result.

It is painful to note that an increasing number of American Jews favor Palestinian causes over support of the Jewish state. Here is yet another example of feelings winning out over common sense. Many of us understandably but sometimes wrongly tend to sympathize with the weaker of two opposing parties. After all, why would the stronger group appear to need our support? Presumably it is able to easily protect itself.

Yet strength and weakness have no relationship to right and wrong. How we instinctively feel about two parties tells us nothing about their moral quality. A weaker group that intentionally targets civilians is morally inferior to a far more powerful nation that institutionally attempts to target terrorists.

Of course there are faults to be found with Israel’s conduct. But Israel’s enemies are nowhere near Israel morally with regard to freedom of speech and religious practice, treatment of women and of gays, or waging war with moral constraints.

As it relates to the programs we create, our support for the State of Israel, those we choose to guide our organizations and myriad other matters, our Jewish communities must start acting more on the basis of what does good rather than what feels good. We must get more into the Jew-building business and not spend as much time in the feel-good business.

The irony is that as we do, at least as it relates to the vitality of our Jewish communities, we ultimately will have more to feel good about.

(Joel Alperson is a past national campaign chair for United Jewish Communities—now known as the Jewish Federations of North America. He lives in Omaha, Neb. His views do not necessarily represent those of the organization.)

The Eulogizer: Bible scholar, businessman-FBI informant, online journalism pioneer

The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories, and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at {encode=”” title=””}. Read previous columns here.

Noted Israeli Bible scholar

Professor Shemaryahu Talmon, a Holocaust survivor who became a noted Israeli Bible scholar with a worldwide reputation, died Dec. 15 at 90.

Talmon, a native of Germany, was the sole member of his family to survive the Shoah. Following World War II, he became head of the education system in the Jewish refugee camps in Cyprus before coming to Israel.

Talmon’s achievements included the prestigious Israel Prize in Bible study. His research combined text criticism and the place of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Jewish canon. His work revealed a deep sensitivity for the Bible’s literary character and the social reality reflected in it.

He said people today must deal with the Bible in our own time, that Israeli society was an integral part of an extensive cultural network in the Near East, and that Jewish beliefs were influenced by its neighbors.

Talmon was the Judah L. Magnes emeritus professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and he taught and held positions elsewhere in Israel, Europe and the United States. He published scores of academic papers. Talmon also participated in Christian-Jewish dialogue among biblical scholars and was a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, to which he donated a collection of 10,000 volumes in the areas of Bible studies.

The Eulogizer was surprised to find no obituaries of Talmon in any major media, Hebrew or English.

California businessman who helped in FBI sting

Marvin Levin, a real estate developer who wore a wire in his cowboy boots during a major FBI anti-corruption sting of California’s state government in the 1980s, died Nov. 19 at 76.

In the wake of the FBI investigation, several lawmakers, state leaders, legislative staffers and a lobbyist were charged, and the hard feelings have yet to subside. Some of the reader comments (later removed) on a newspaper article recounting Levin’s life and death were scorching.

Levin was an invaluable informant in the sting, which ended in 1988 when investigators raided offices in the state Capitol. Levin’s boot-borne tape recorder had taped dozens of meetings with politicians and legislative staffers. The sheriff and undersheriff of Yolo County, California, also were convicted after they attempted to extort money from Levin for a re-election campaign.

Levin told The Los Angeles Times in 1988 that he was motivated to end Sacramento corruption because he had experienced it firsthand and “somebody had to.” All he received for his efforts were $1,800 to cover expenses, including a paint job for his 1978 Buick and the cowboy boots purchased at the behest of the FBI because they didn’t think he was “flashy enough.” But the activity cost him dearly; his wife said he had three heart attacks.

Levin was one of three children of Jewish refugees from Russia. His father was a storekeeper. He moved to Florida nine years ago.

Online journalism pioneer, website builder

Mary Jane “M.J.” Bear, a journalist and Internet pioneer who built websites around the world, died Dec. 17 at 48.

Bear, a native of Des Moines, Iowa, worked for TV and radio stations. At National Public Radio she became a vice president. She also worked for Online, Radio Free Europe in Prague and Microsoft, in Vienna, Austria. She launched websites for Microsoft in Greece, Poland, Israel and Turkey, as well as TV programming in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia.

During her illness from leukemia, Bear created a website on Caring Bridge, which provides free and private websites “that connect people experiencing a significant health challenge to family and friends.” The site is now filled with touching tributes from friends and family.

Bear took an active role in Jewish communities in every city in which she lived, and was a founding board member of the Online News Association, which is establishing an endowment fund in her name for young journalists.

The city of lights at its darkest hour

Adolf Hitler may have been bloody in tooth and claw, but he was enough of an aesthete to understand that Paris was the center of gravity for European culture. On the only visit he made to the city during World War II, he went sightseeing like any other tourist, then or now. Still, the open-mindedness that made Paris so appealing to artists, writers and intellectuals from around the world inspired only contempt in the führer.

“Does the spiritual health of the French people matter to you?” he remarked to architect Albert Speer. “Let’s let them degenerate. All the better for us.”

The story is told by Alan Riding, author of the best-selling “Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans” and former cultural correspondent for The New York Times, in “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris” (Knopf, $28.95), a remarkable cultural history of the City of Lights at its darkest hour. He paints a vivid portrait of the famous figures who found themselves in Paris when the army of Nazi Germany marched under the Arc de Triomphe, and he asks tough questions about what they did and did not do.

“How, I wondered, had artists and intellectuals addressed the city’s worst political moment of the twentieth century?” Riding muses. “Did working under the occupation automatically mean collaboration? Should any writer be sanctioned for the ‘crime’ of an opinion? Do gifted painters, musicians or actors have a duty to provide ethical leadership?”

So Riding puts a whole generation of public intellectuals in the dock and holds them accountable for their words and deeds. “During the occupation, we had two choices: collaborate or resist,” Jean-Paul Sartre said many years after the war, but Riding points out that Sartre was engaging in a self-serving oversimplification. “In truth,” Riding writes, “the options — and dilemmas — faced by individual artists were far more varied, as Sartre himself demonstrated.”

Some artists and intellectuals managed to escape from Nazi-occupied France. Marc Chagall, for example, was one of the beneficiaries of a remarkable American named Vivian Fry, who courageously pried him out of police custody by warning that the collaborationist government of France “would be gravely embarrassed” by the arrest of “one of the world’s greatest painters.” Others tried to but failed — Walter Benjamin famously ended his own life with an overdose of morphine after he was refused entry into Spain. Samuel Beckett actually returned to Paris, “reportedly saying he preferred ‘France at war to Ireland at peace,’ ” and P.G. Wodehouse, interned as an enemy alien, later agreed to participate in propaganda broadcasts from Berlin. Remarkably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, both Jewish, chose to stay in Paris and managed to survive the occupation, perhaps because Stein wrote a preface for a collection of speeches by the collaborationist French leader Pétain in which she compared him to George Washington.

Riding points out how treacherous it could be for artists who remained behind, whether by choice or by necessity. Maurice Chevalier, for example, agreed to sing for French prisoners of war in a camp near Berlin but declined an invitation to do the same in a German theater. The Nazi press ran photographs of his performance without identifying his audience, and, as a result, “he learned he had been sentenced to death by a special tribunal of de Gaulle’s provisional French government in Algiers.” Fearing both the Gestapo and the French resistance, he went into hiding for the rest of the war.

By contrast, we learn that “the dashing young conductor Herbert von Karajan,” whom Riding describes as “a member of the Nazi Party since 1933,” became an “instant celebrity” in Paris when he presented a program of Wagner operas at the Paris Opera during “a trip sponsored by Hitler himself.” One performance was reserved for Wehrmacht officers, but the other one was open to the public — and it sold out, too. “Madame, what you have done for Isolde,” French writer Jean Cocteau wrote in a revealing fan letter, “was such a marvel that I lack the courage to remain silent.”

Indeed, there are precious few examples of heroic conduct by intellectuals in Riding’s account. Andrè Malraux, for example, “had come to personify the intellectual engagé in the ’30s, but declined to join the resistance until 1944 and “spent much of the war in a quiet corner of the Côte d’Azur.” Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir remained “Left Bank celebrities” whose photos appeared in the Nazi-controlled newspapers, and the occupation did not prevent them (as well as Pablo Picasso and Albert Camus, among others) from attending all-night parties where the only risk was a curfew violation.

Riding does not overlook the less-famous intellectuals who engaged more courageously in the struggle against Nazi Germany. “Many writers chose to sting with words, some did so with armed resistance, a few gave their lives for their beliefs,” he acknowledges. “When the liberation came, the world of letters had its heroes and martyrs, too.” But he concedes that “cultural resistance had a limited reach,” and he quotes the remark of one French writer who dismissed the efforts of the more timid resisters: “Poets who wrote a quatrain about Hitler for a confidential sheet — called clandestine — under a pseudonym believe sincerely that they have saved France.”

“And the Show Went On” is a challenging book in more than one sense.  It’s a work of intellectual history in its purest form, and Riding is as much concerned with ideas and values as with events, deeds and personalities. He refuses to idealize or demonize any of the artists and writers whom he ponders in its pages; rather, he allows us to see a certain fog of war that affects civilians as well as soldiers and casts them in an uncertain light.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at


Could Hungarian anti-Semitism get out of control?

The rise of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik Party has ratcheted up debate about anti-Semitism in this country and focused attention on the seeming paradoxes of Jewish life here.

On the one hand, a recent article in Germany’s Der Spiegel described Budapest as “Europe’s capital of anti-Semitism,” where Jews are “being openly intimidated” and making plans to leave the country.

On the other, Hungary is home to a flourishing and multifaceted Jewish life that finds vigorous public expression in religious, cultural and even culinary ways, and also enjoys high-profile government recognition.

I saw this myself at Chanukah when I munched on latkes at a Friday night oneg Shabbat, sampled doughnuts at a sit-down dinner for Holocaust survivors, joined 20-somethings at a riotous klezmer/hip-hop gig, and just missed witnessing the foreign minister, Budapest’s mayor and other VIPs help light a big menorah set up in the center of town.

While anti-Semitism remains a serious concern in this central European country, Budapest-based Jewish writer Adam LeBor wrote in the Economist, the Der Spiegel article was a one-sided screed that portrayed the Jewish experience in Hungary “solely through the warped prism of anti-Semitism rather than its much more complex, and healthy, reality.”

A timely and important new book puts contemporary Hungarian anti-Semitism into perspective. Based on studies carried out since the early 1990s, “The Stranger at Hand: Antisemitic Prejudices in Post-Communist Hungary” is the most comprehensive analysis to date of the scope and impact of the phenomenon. It’s just too bad that its $131 price tag will put it out of reach of many potential readers.

Written by Andras Kovacs, a sociologist at Budapest’s Central European University who has devoted decades to tracking both the development of anti-Semitism and the development of Jewish life and identity here, the book presents a highly complex and sometimes contradictory picture.

A large part of Hungarian society, both Jewish and non-Jewish, is convinced that anti-Semitism has increased in Hungary since the fall of communism, Kovacs writes.

“What is said on the street, written in newspapers, and heard on the radio can and does give rise to concern,” he writes. “Are the fears legitimate?”

The answer, he told JTA in an interview, is a mix of yes, no and maybe.

Jobbik, with its anti-Semitic rhetoric and virulently anti-Roma, or Gypsy, political platform, won nearly 17 percent of the vote in April elections and entered Parliament as Hungary’s third-largest party. But recent evidence shows that it has been losing support amid divisive internal squabbles, and newly imposed legal measures have clamped down hard on its once-feared paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard.

Still, Jobbik did not emerge from thin air, and Kovacs’s book traces the evolution of several anti-Semitic trends against a shifting background of political and social change.

He identifies three main types of anti-Semitism in Hungary. The first is “classic” anti-Jewish prejudice, based on social and religious stereotypes that date back centuries and were kept alive, if suppressed, under communism. The second occurs when anti-Semitism becomes a sort of “language and culture” that fosters a general anti-Semitic worldview. The third is political anti-Semitism, “where political activists discover that they can mobilize certain social groups by using anti-Semitic slogans to achieve their own goals.”

Kovacs’ research shows the recent growth in anti-Semitism to be qualitative rather than quantitative. Surveys show that 10 to 15 percent of Hungarians are hard-core anti-Semites, while another 25 percent nurtures anti-Jewish prejudices to some degree.

Contrary to popular perception, Kovacs said, these figures “have increased to some extent but not dramatically over the past 17 years.”

What is different and much more alarming, according to Kovacs, is how the type and expression of anti-Semitism is changing within that proportion. For one thing, the percentage of political anti-Semites has grown. These political anti-Semites, he said, are “more urban, better educated and relatively younger” than they tended to be in the past.

Jobbik’s key leaders, for example, are youthful, clean cut, and media and Internet-savvy—factors that helped enhance their appeal ahead of the April vote.

Related to this is the way hate speech among the general public has been emboldened by the open use of anti-Semitic and anti-Roma rhetoric by extreme right public figures. Kovacs calls this a “dangerous dynamic.”

He said young people in particular frequently seem to lose their inhibitions, and their use of slurs against Jews and Roma often goes unchecked by parents, teachers and other authority figures.

“We know that people are much more cautious in expressing their prejudices if they think that it is not legitimate,” Kovacs said. “But when they realize that so-called important people use this language openly, they feel they can use it as well. This is what we feel now in Budapest.”

What follows is unclear. So far, Jobbik’s anti-Jewish rhetoric seems aimed at creating a body of like-minded followers rather than serving as a rallying cry for concrete political action against Jews, according to Kovacs.

But could the extreme right eventually elevate political anti-Semitism into a force with significant mainstream influence?

Kovacs thinks it’s unlikely, but ultimately, he writes in his book, it will depend on how Hungary’s mainstream cultural and political leaders react to any attempts to “transform the prejudice that once affected the margins of Hungarian society into a language, culture and ideology.”

(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” “Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere),” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at

Appeals court turns down wrongly accused spy’s lawsuit

A Jewish civilian employee of the U.S. Army wrongly accused of spying for Israel was turned down in his second attempt to sue the federal government.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati on Tuesday declined to overturn a lower court decision that dismissed David Tenenbaum’s lawsuit.

The judges agreed that Tenenbaum was subject to a high level of scrutiny and intrusion in his family’s life due to the investigation, and that Tenenbaum’s Orthodox lifestyle in part brought about the investigation, according to the Detroit Free Press. However, the judges said the issues already had been litigated.

A 2008 Department of Defense investigation concluded that David Tenenbaum, now 52, had his security clearance privileges revoked inappropriately more than a decade ago because of his Jewish faith and the perception of a dual loyalty to the United States and Israel.

During a 1997 polygraph test administered by the Army, Tenenbaum said anti-Jewish epithets were shouted at him. He said the next day his computer was gone and his name erased from the e-mail system at the Tank Automotive and Armaments Command, the military facility in Warren, Mich., where he worked.

After a yearlong FBI investigation, the U.S. Justice Department in 2008 determined that there was no basis to prosecute Tenenbaum.

Op-Ed: Risk aversion is risky business

“Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?” Robin Marantz Henig asked in The New York Times Magazine (“The Post-Adolescent, Pre-Adult, Not-Quite-Decided Life Stage,” Aug. 22). Lori Gottlieb urged reluctant single women to “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” in The Atlantic Monthly (March 2008), later a book. Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett advised revising priorities in “Creating a Life: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Having a Baby and a Career” (2002).

What provokes these personal questions and their subtext of alarm?

Successive studies show more Americans aged 25 to 34 are unmarried than married, Justin Wolfers reported in a New York Times Op-Ed (Oct. 13).

Postponements may reflect delays in assuming adulthood itself. In 1960, when parents of today’s young adults were young, 77 percent of American women and 65 percent of men younger than 30 accomplished five sociological milestones of adulthood—“completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child”—Henig writes. Today, fewer than half of women and one-third of men match that fully adult profile. Instead, American young adults go back to school, compete for unpaid internships, Teach for America or serve in the Peace Corps.

Delayed family formation has special resonance for American Jews and the communities in which they live, I found in my interview-based study of American Jewish leaders in their 20s and 30s funded by the Avi Chai foundation. A third of American Jewish women and more than half of men aged 25 to 34 are unmarried.

Marriage and children are “simply not talked about,” said a recently married social entrepreneur, who noted that “I will turn 33 this summer and I have a whole bunch of friends who still aren’t even dating the person they’re going to marry, let alone getting married.”

Even more startling: “We’re very afraid to talk about these issues with each other” because “people worry about seeming judgmental.”

My respondents were uneasy about giving up opportunities before defining one’s own path. A female rabbi in her 30s said people like her should “Pace yourself and get married when you’re ready,” cultivating “a great network of friends and to date and meet people, and to go hiking and backpacking and cook, and all these things that I enjoy.”

Many said adults should achieve self-understanding—colloquially “find themselves”—before committing to sustained relationships. A young male rabbi, like many in his cohort, said there is little or no “peer pressure to get married” in college, and we feel we have “permission to take some time to find out who we are before we lock ourselves into a life partner.”

Serious dating and marriage carried the connotation of narrowing options.

Many note the influence of education, occupational achievement, contraception, cohabitation and economic conditions. But fear of risking romantic mistakes also plays an important role. Gottlieb critiqued evaluating dates as commodities, demanding perfection, rather than giving people and relationships a chance.

In my interviews, single women in their 30s explained “deal breakers,” including prior marriage or young children. Singles revised lists of desirable qualities, so they wouldn’t “waste time” on individuals who don’t measure up.

Large networks of singles make singlehood normative. An artist in her late 30s criticized, “Everything in America is about choice. That’s what Americans are used to, whether it’s food or shul or online dating.”

In contrast, the artist said, “Israelis tend to gravitate towards forming families. It’s very important.”

Indeed, sociologist Sergio Della Pergola showed that hiloni (irreligious) Israelis say ideal family size is three to four children per family, and Israelis have one more child on average (2.7) than American families (1.7).

Many interviewees urged care in choosing life partners and parenthood. Some linked postponement to parental divorce. But others said delays also can generate disappointment, especially for women.

When men marry in their 30s and 40s, they often choose younger women (and sometimes non-Jewish women), leaving women their age with fewer choices.

Statistics since the 1980s show Jewish women with advanced degrees expect two or more children, but have fewer. Despite reproductive medicine and more single mothers by choice, later marriage or non-marriage is often correlated with unwanted infertility.

“Lord knows I would like nothing better than to have had children by this point,” said a 38-year old woman, “but I don’t.”

Mahon Hadar co-founder Rabbi Ethan Tucker provided perspective. In Israel studying for rabbinical ordination, he and his wife had their second child at age 31 and felt like “laggards” because others their age had three or four.

Back in New York, they found that “None of our friends even had one kid, and many were not married.” The typical “alpha” marriage story was marriage in the late 20s or early 30s followed by years of waiting before starting a family.

“If you wait until you have found yourself before you take on responsibilities,” he said, “you find a different self than if you have responsibilities.”

The lived Jewishness of young American Jews has been transformed by sweeping postponement of marriage and childbearing, which often delay Jewish connections, as well as personal goals.

However, this postponement is seldom researched or discussed. The issues are sensitive, but avoiding them helps no one. The willingness to open a conversation is yet another risk worth taking.

Sylvia Barack Fishman is chair of the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis University, where she is the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life and also co-director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. She is the author of seven books.

The Eulogizer: Soldier who found Hitler’s will, Southern lawmaker, Israeli English broadcaster

The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at {encode=”” title=””}. Find previous editions of The Eulogizer here.

American soldier who found Hitler’s will
Arnold Weiss
, a German-born U.S. counterintelligence officer in World War II who found Hitler’s last will and testament, died Dec. 7 at 86.

In December 1945, Weiss and his counterintelligence team tracked down a Nazi military aide who was stationed at Hitler’s bunker during his final days but had left as a courier with an important envelope shortly before Hitler killed himself. The aide, Wilhelm Zander, took Weiss to a farm on the outskirts of Munich, where he had hidden the envelope at the bottom of a dry well. Inside the package was a document headed “Mein privates Testament,” signed by Hitler the day before he died, as well as the marriage certificate of Hitler and Eva Braun.

Toward the end of the war, even before finding Hitler’s will, Weiss said he and his team left Nazi prison guards at the gates of refugee settlements for “additional debriefing.” Weiss claimed never to know what happened to the German soldiers.

Weiss was placed into a Jewish orphanage as a child in Germany in the early days of Hitler’s reign. He was hoisted once to a lamppost and flogged by Hitler Youth members.

“You lived from day to day and tried to roll with the punches,” Weiss said.

“While generally being a pretty miserable place, the orphanage wasn’t all bad. You always had someone you could play with and talk to. You had companionship. The beatings were unpleasant, but you learned to cope.”

Weiss fled Germany after his bar mitzvah and made his way to the United States. He ended up in Milwaukee after a foster family failed to meet him in Chicago.

Weiss, a lawyer by training, lived and worked for decades in the Washington, D.C., area, as a senior official in U.S. financial agencies and then in a private investment firm that funded international development projects. He told his law school alumni association that his work in that field was fueled by the destruction he saw in Europe during World War II:

“I think it’s the war that changed me more than anything else. I decided I wanted to build rather than destroy. In Belgium, Luxemburg, France, Germany … there was so much destruction. I knew there was a better way of doing things.”

Pioneering female lawmaker in South Carolina
Harriet Keyserling
, a self-proclaimed “New York Jewish liberal” who became a political force in South Carolina for decades, died Dec. 10 at 88.

Keyserling was a “feisty Democrat” who went against the status quo “as a liberal Yankee in the world of good-old-boy conservative Southerners.” Among other accomplishments, her efforts led to a statewide recycling program, a state energy office and the shuttering of a landfill that accepted radioactive waste from across the United States.

Her son, Billy, who took over her seat in the Legislature and is now the mayor of Beaufort, S.C., said his mother defeated the Legislature’s practice of all-night filibusters by keeping a journal that recorded just how legislators wasted time.

“I have had the opportunity to work with thousands of great leaders in my public and private life, but not one have I respected more than Harriet Keyserling,” said former Soth Carolina Gov. Dick Riley.

Keyserling, a graduate of all-female Barnard College in New York City, moved to tiny Beaufort from New York after marrying Herbert Keyserling, a Jewish, Southern, small-town doctor. The women of the small Jewish community there took her in, taught Sunday school together and put on synagogue suppers.

“I believe we had a more direct and energetic approach, probably considered aggressive at the time, to the projects we undertook,” she wrote in her 1998 autobiography, “Against the Tide: One Woman’s Political Struggle,” in which she also describes her life and her husband’s as Jews in the South in an era of anti-Jewish prejudice and the Ku Klux Klan.

Her hometown paper said Keyserling attempted to re-create the intellectual stimulation of New York in her adopted hometown by co-founding a concert series, and by hosting Saturday-evening dinners with “sophisticated conversation by Harriet and her guests.”

Bud Ferillo, a Columbia, S.C., public relations executive and longtime Democratic political worker, referred to Keyserling as his “Jewish mother.”

Israel Radio English broadcaster
Anita Davis Avital
, one of Israel Radio’s original English language broadcasters and a mentor to several generations of women, died in October at 86.

A native of London, Davis was working in Yugoslavia in 1947 for the United Nations when she met a convoy of Jewish orphans on their way to Israel. Upon her return to Britain, she became involved with aliyah groups and made her way to the newly declared State of Israel shortly afterward.

After a stint working at the Iranian embassy, Davis Avital became one of the first employees of Israel’s nascent English-language shortwave radio service, originally called Kol Zion Lagola, the Voice of Zion to the Diaspora. The station later joined the government broadcasting authority with domestic programming, as well.

Sara Manobla, herself a veteran of English-language broadcasting in Israel, described Davis Avital in a lovely tribute as “a prominent and engaging figure in Anglo circles in Jerusalem of the 1950s and ’60s.”

Chevra kadisha revival noted
The New York Times notes the renewed interest in chevra kadisha groups and practices, with links to organizations and synagogues active in promoting traditional Jewish burial practices.

U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke

The passing of diplomat Richard Holbrooke is being covered extensively in the media. JTA’s coverage makes extensive references to Holbrooke’s Jewishness.

Palestinian firefighters denied entry into Israel for tribute

Three Palestinian firefighters were refused entry into Israel for a ceremony honoring Palestinian firemen who helped battle the Carmel blaze.

Only seven of the 10 firemen were to be allowed in for the ceremony that was scheduled to take place Sunday afternoon in the Druze village of Usfiya. The ceremony was canceled.

The Israel Defense Forces said the denial of entry for the three firemen was a bureaucratic error. The list of names did not include the firemen’s ID numbers, the IDF said, and that it did not receive the list in time. The army told Haaretz that it is working to get the correct permits and that the ceremony would be rescheduled, Haaretz reported.

Israeli-Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi called the incident “not just a march of folly or a theater of the absurd but stupidity and the normative lordly attitude of the occupation regime.”

In a statement, the Palestinian Authority said that “It’s not clear how the same firefighters who got permits to go out and help snuff the fire now are now refused permits to their honoring ceremony.”

“We did this despite the occupation because it was our humane duty,” the PA statement added. “We knew the occupation would still be here after our assistance.”

The Palestinian firefighters were honored over the weekend by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“Our neighbors faced a tragedy and it was our duty to do our humanitarian work toward our neighbors to protect the environment and human life,” Abbas said during the ceremony in his office in Ramallah.

The Eulogizer: World War II pilot, basketball writer, Carmel fire victim

The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories, and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at {encode=”” title=””}.

Decorated Czech World War Two pilot who flew for RAF
Jan Wiener
, a decorated veteran of a Czech bombing unit attached to the RAF during World War II, died in Prague on November 24 at 90.

Wiener, a native of Hamburg, fled Hitler’s Germany for Prague, but had to escape again after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. He made it to Britain after racing through Yugoslavia and Italy, and joined the Royal Air Force’s No. 311 Czechoslovak Bomber Squadron.

A Prague newspaper offered the most detailed account of Wiener’s early life and flight, including a dramatic retelling of how Wiener’s parents committed suicide rather than risk capture: “The father swept the pawns from the (chess)board and told his son: ‘Tonight I am going to kill myself. … Tomorrow they will be here. They will shave our heads. We will stand naked in front of them. They will humiliate us and in the end they will kill us. So I want to use my only freedom—to choose the way I die.’ That evening, Jan was summoned to the master bedroom, where Julius and Margaret Wiener lay dressed in their Sunday best. ‘We have already taken the pills,’ father told son. ‘Let’s hold hands.’”

Wiener’s life was celebrated in two films, including “Fighter,” an award-winning documentary by Amir Bar-Lev that featured the intense emotions released as Wiener and a companion retraced his journey across Europe.

Sportswriter who covered the Philadelphia 76ers
Phil Jasner
, a longtime newspaperman who covered the Philadelphia 76ers for the “Philadelphia Daily News” since 1981, died December 3 at age 68.

Friend and collaegue Rich Hoffmann described Jasner as “an old-fashioned reporter who grew to be the most important basketball voice in a basketball city, known for both his fairness and his decency.” Hoffmann said Jasner not only had phone numbers for the famous, such as Wilt Chamberlain, he also had “the phone number of the guy who would get you to the guy you needed. He kept all of them in a stack of index cards held together by a rubber band.”

The team Jasner covered remembered him fondly: “He loved to talk about basketball, off the record, just talk hoops. How many guys who had Stage 4 cancer would continue on like he did? He just loved it. He loved basketball. It was his outlet. We argued sometimes, had great debates. But he was fair and he was a character. Philadelphia basketball people are interesting people, and he was one of them,” said Sixers General Manager Ed Stefanski.

Jasner is in five halls of fame: the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (, Overbrook High School Hall of Fame, Temple University School of Communications and Theater’s Hall of Fame, and Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.

Rabbi who taught in Winnipeg, Denver in Israeli forest fire
Another of the many victims of the Carmel forest fire was Rabbi Uriel Malka, an Israeli Prison Service trainee chaplain, who had worked at Orthodox day schools in Winnipeg and Denver.

Columnist Rabbi Levi Brackman described Malka as “a Torah scholar and the epitome of a guy who would not sweat the small stuff. He somehow always saw the positive in every situation.”

Here’s a short video of Malka blowing shofar this past Rosh Hashana.

Malka, who died on the doomed bus of Prison Service cadets, said in a final SMS message: “I am on my way to rescue Jews. We’ll be in touch.” A memorial website for Malka, a native of Yavneh, Israel, already filled with tributes, photographs, videos, and more, can be found here (

Op-Ed: Fire’s devastation can lead to positive change

It is hard to explain just how devastated Israelis are by the Carmel fire. But it is easier to explain how that devastation can become a positive force for positive change, right now, in Israel.

The fire consumed at least 42 lives, thousands of forested acres and millions of shekels in property. With the assistance of a dozen foreign nations, the beleaguered firefighters finally got the resources they needed to battle a blaze that consumed more than its obvious victims. What may have perished in the fire is Israel’s sense of self-reliance, and the confidence of ordinary people that they can rely on their government and society to meet their needs.

Just as the Second Lebanon War provoked questions about Israel’s readiness to withstand a bombing campaign, the Carmel fire illuminates issues that have been too readily subsumed in the endless attention to the conflict. We at the New Israel Fund are painfully aware that Israel is often seen two-dimensionally, even by its own government. It is of course a priority for Israel to pursue peace and security, but an exclusive focus on these issues skews attention and resources away from an equally critical task.

We, the organization that founded and funded Israel’s civil society and that works every day on intractable social issues, know what that task is. It is building a society founded on equity and social justice, where every person has the opportunity to live a decent life, and building the infrastructure and the institutions that provide this opportunity to all. It is security, yes, but in a sense that extends far beyond fighter planes and a separation fence. What Israel discovered last week is that while it prides itself on its strength, it is in some ways far, far too weak.

There wasn’t the proper equipment for fighting fires, and the supply of fire-retardant chemicals was exhausted even before the Carmel ignited. Just a few weeks ago, when the 40-story Shalom Tower in Tel Aviv was burning, it turned out that the Tel Aviv Fire Department does not have a hook-and-ladder truck that extends beyond 10 stories. Israel sits on an earthquake fault and has done little to plan for that eventuality, while in a drought-stricken region water and development policies are enmeshed in money interests and politics, not in sustainable growth.

For too long, under successive governments, Israeli society has polarized between the center and the periphery, the Jews and the Arabs, the religious and the secular, the haves and the have-nots. The current government, paying attention to the demands of its political coalition, is channeling even more money into stipends for non-working yeshiva students and radical settler incursions into Palestinian neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem. But every government has been held hostage to the demands of specific constituencies, the inequalities persist, and now poverty in Israel is more widespread than in any of the 30 European Union nations. Income inequality in Israel is second only to the United States among developed nations, and Israeli schools, public lands and infrastructure are deteriorating quickly.

This situation can and must change. The Carmel fire may have been Israel’s Katrina, but we and many people like us will insist on a faster recovery than New Orleans experienced. We know the real strength of Israel is not only in its military but in its people—the thousands of ordinary people we work with every day.

The day the fire started, grass-roots organizations of the North began mobilizing. A day after it ended, our Haifa office was already gearing up with our grantees and partners for the huge tasks of long-term recovery. We will work to ensure that there is compensation for the victims and the homeless, and that it is distributed fairly. Environmental groups are too infrequently consulted in Israel; we will make sure they are at the table when the future of the Carmel Forest is considered.

The fire re-ignited anti-Arab invective in some segments of society; our longstanding leadership of Arab and Jewish groups in the North will substantiate efforts to eradicate racism and build a truly shared society.

Israel’s beautiful Carmel Forest is burnt and black. Its people’s faith in their government is shaken. But Israel does have a civil society, which means that there is a force that enables ordinary people to change their circumstances, even if they are not wealthy or politically connected. Civil society empowers and ennobles and, yes, sometimes enrages the powers-that-be.

Now is the time for ordinary Israelis to insist on leadership that is accountable and fair, and on a society that plans for peace and prosperity, not just for defense and war. It is time for all of us, Israeli and American, to see Israel in all its dimensions, in all its needs and in all its possibilities.

Chanukah Events

Wed. Dec 1

First night

American Hasidic singer Lipa, Jewish rock band Pardes and Lenny Solomon perform at the Chabad of the Valley’s Chanukah celebration. Wed. 5-9 p.m. Free. Universal Studios City Walk, 100 Universal Hollywood Drive, San Fernando Valley. (818) 758-1818.

Spend the first night of Chanukah on the Santa Monica Promenade for a candelighting with congregation Beth Shir Shalom. Wed. 4:30 p.m. Free. 3rd St. Promenade, Santa Monica (meet in front of Banana Republic). (310) 453-3361.

Thu. Dec 2

Second night

The Los Angeles Jewish Chamber of Commerce and the Latino Business Chamber of Greater Los Angeles co-host a Chanukah Mixer, featuring Wolfgang Puck cuisine and live musical entertainment. Thu. 5:30 p.m. $10 (members, advance), $20 (general, advance), $25 (general, door). Club Nokia VIP Room, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., downtown.

Fri. Dec. 3

Third night

Celebrate Chanukah and Shabbat at Beth Shir Shlaom. Bring your own dinner and chanukiah. Fri. 5:30 p.m.-dinner ($10 donation per family, call for reservations). 6 p.m.-family Shabbat, 7:30 p.m.-Chanukah Shabbat Celebration. Beth Shir Shalom 1827 California Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 453-3361.

Sat. Dec. 4

Fourth night

Young professionals (ages 21-39) “Hannukah Hop” at three different houses in Santa Monica for an evening of food and drink. 7 p.m. $12 (members), $18 (guests). For more information, visit

Sababa in the Valley: Crazy Chanukah Party features DJs spinning top 40, house beats and Israeli music. People who bring a toy for children of Chai-Lifeline receive a $5 discount at the door. Sat. 9:30 p.m.-2 a.m. $15 (before 11 p.m.), $20 (after 11 p.m.). Club Aura, 12215 Ventura Blvd. (second floor), Studio City.

Sun. Dec. 5

Fifth night

A Chanukah concert for kids features The Hollow Trees, The Living Sisters, The SIJCC Shabbat Band, The Silver Lake Chorus and Lucky Diaz. Other activities include food-creating contests Iron Chef Latke and Brisket Making. Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. $10-$15 (adults free). Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, 1110 Bates Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 663-2255.

Musicians Peter Himmelman and The Witcher Brothers perform at Down Home Hanukkah Celebration. The family-friendly event also includes woodworking and quilting demos and circus acts. Sun. 11 a.m. $10 (general), $7 (seniors and full-time students), free (members and children under 12). Skirball Cultural Center 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

Israeli Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon speaks on behalf of the Israeli government, following a Chanukah celebration with Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple. Sun. 5:30-7:30 p.m. $10. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 390-7172.

Make eco-friendly menorahs using recycled materials during a Humanistic Judaism celebration. Sun. 10 a.m.-noon. Free. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (818) 518-7867.

A Chanukah-inspired scholarship benefit concert features performers Netanel Hershtik, Nati Bar Am and Herschel Fox. Sun. 7 p.m. $25 (friend), $36 (patron), $54 (donor), $108 (benefactor). Beth Jacob Congregation, 9030 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 278-1911.

Comedian Robert Cait performs at the Chabad of West Orange County’s annual Chanukah Latkes and Laughter party, which includes sushi and salad bar. Sun. 6:30 p.m. $14 (adults, advance), $6 (child, advance). $18 (adult, door), $8 (child, door). Chabad of West Orange County, 5052 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach. (714) 846-2285.

Tue. Dec. 7

Sixth night

Dance, eat and sing the afternoon away a Board of Rabbis of Southern California/the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ second annual Chanukah celebration. Tue. noon-1 p.m. Free. City Hall Rotunda, 200 N. Spring St., Los Angeles. RSVP no later than Friday, Dec. 3 to {encode=”” title=””}. (323) 761-8600.

Wed. Dec. 8

Seventh night

Celebrate the last night of Chanukah with Temple Etz Chaim. Kindergarten through second grade students perform. Wed. 6:30 p.m. Free. Janss Marketplace, 275 North Moorpark Road, 
Thousand Oaks (meet by the fire pit located near the Mann Movie Theatres). (805) 497-689.

If you would like to add your Chanukah event to our listings, please email {encode=”” title=””}.