November 18, 2018

Dating 101 – The Last Word of Caution

I have written a couple of times this weekend about Benjamin. He is a man I spoke to for a week, made plans to meet, and then I was 30 minutes late for our first in person meeting due to insane Friday night LA traffic. After letting him know I’d be late, twice, and chatting on the phone while I was stuck in traffic, when I arrived he stood up, gave me a hug, sat down, and told me he was pissed off I was late and was leaving. Our meeting lasted about 40 seconds. This is after we spoke for endless hours on the phone before the meeting.

I drove 2 hours in traffic to meet a Frisbee player for 40 seconds. Annoying to be sure, and it totally hurt my feelings, but I took comfort in the comments I received from my readers when I wrote about it. People were kind when he couldn’t be, which was wonderful and made me feel better. It is impossible to have an experience like this and not take it personally. We’d been getting to know each other, had a great connection, then he saw me in person and bailed. I was late. I didn’t stop to kill someone on my way, I was just late. I don’t get his reaction.

Important to note that we met at a place between our two homes in the valley. I drove 2 hours from the Palisades, (Sunset Boulevard was a nightmare), but he drove to the meeting from his home, which in horrible traffic was about five-minutes away. I could assume he saw me and changed his mind, but that doesn’t really make sense, and why does it need to be something about me that made him go? The honest truth is I am beautiful, funny, and kind. Having a cup of tea with me would have been easy. He simply made a choice to be a douchelord.

Or, maybe it wasn’t a choice, maybe he is just a schmuck. Maybe he is rude, elitist, selfish, weird, and emotionally stunted. So different from what I thought about him BEFORE we met. This is the guy who is going to blame you for everything. He is controlling and intimidating, confusing and scary. He did me a favor by leaving, even though it wasn’t him who left. I got up and left. He was still sitting at the table when I drove by. Perhaps waiting for his next date. This is not a nice guy and I didn’t see it at first. Or did I?

Reviewing our conversations before we met, I thought he was great. Thinking back on our conversations after we met, he said some strange things, but I didn’t hear it because I heard what I wanted to hear. There is a lesson in this humiliation. We need to pay attention when dating. If there is a red flag, don’t tuck it away in the hopes you are misreading it. If you sense something is off, believe yourself. When you are dating it is easy to talk yourself into something you know in your gut is not good. I am embarrassed he was done after seeing me, but I don’t think it was me. He was enraged I was late and he took it as disrespectful. That is scary.

This was about him not me, but it doesn’t make the embarrassment any less. Dating is hard, and there are no guarantees, but it should not be hurtful. If someone is unkind, walk away. If someone talks unkindly about an ex, walk away. If someone blames you for things that are not your fault, walk away. In the course of 6 days this man charmed me, made me think I had been rude, made me think I needed to apologize, then ended our first meeting after 40 seconds because I disrespected him by being late. That is crazy and I can hardly believe it happened to me. For a minute I thought about taking down the blogs I wrote about him and simply erasing the experience, but that isn’t how I roll. I share the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I am a smart girl and it is fascinating I didn’t catch the red flags when they first appeared. Someone might read this and think I am overreacting and it was just a bad date, but I don’t think so. This is a horrible guy. This is not about having the last word, as much as it is about sharing words of caution. We are all in this together and as a woman searching for love, I sometimes stumble. My readers have picked me up every time I’ve fallen, and so I am swallowing my pride, exposing the ugly side of dating, and hoping it helps someone else keep the faith.

Happy Birthday Son

Today is my son’s 22nd birthday. I don’t really remember what my life was like before he was born, and every single day I have been blessed to be his mother, has brought me joy. I have not always done a great job, but he has always been a great son. He is a true blessing to not only me, but to everyone who is lucky enough to know and love him. In honor of this special day, I would like to share 22 things I love about this wonderful human being. In no particular:

  1. He makes me laugh daily.
  2. He is a fantastic chef.
  3. He is compassionate.
  4. He is talented.
  5. He is funny.
  6. He reminds me of my dad.
  7. He is socially aware.
  8. He works hard.
  9. He appreciates me.
  10. He follows his dreams.
  11. He is going to change the world.
  12. He respects women.
  13. He is a Dr. Doolittle.
  14. He is fearless.
  15. He respects the planet.
  16. He is brave.
  17. He makes good choices.
  18. He is a great friend.
  19. He is my sunshine.
  20. He lets me take a lot of pictures of him.
  21. He forgives me when I misstep.
  22. He is a feminist.

Happy Birthday Son! I love you very much and am proud of you. I hope this year brings you all you wish for yourself, plus more. Having a front seat to your life is my greatest blessing and I can’t wait to watch your dreams come true. Thank you for everything. I wish you health, happiness, and peace. Mahashooshoo. Always remember that life is better when you are keeping the faith.

Dating 101: Dinner at McDonalds

Yesterday I was running some errands and headed into a shop. I was on the phone and didn’t pay too much attention to my surroundings, but did see a homeless man sitting to the right of the door asking for money. Before I left the store, I looked in my wallet for a dollar to give him on my way out. I stopped to hand him the money, he said thank you, then asked if I wanted to go out for dinner. It made me laugh. I thanked him for the invitation, declined, and headed to my car.

As I was walking away I continued to laugh and realized this man had made my day. He was sweet to ask me out for dinner, and while I didn’t know if he was unwell and potentially dangerous, I knew I needed to go back. I approached the man and said that while I was not able to have dinner with him, could I buy him something to eat. He looked wary for a quick second, then said he would love some dinner. I asked him what he felt like eating. Without hesitation he said McDonalds.

I asked if he wanted to come with me, and he said he’d wait. I assured him he could come with me, but he said I’d be better off not talking him as people get nervous. That made me sad, then it didn’t because the truth is under different circumstances, he would make me nervous. So I went into McDonalds and bought him a Big Mac, fries, coke, water, apple pie, with a Quarter Pounder and some cookies as back up. When I got back he looked surprised to see me.

He said he didn’t think I was coming back and opened the bag with joy and relief. I told him to enjoy his dinner and stay safe. He looked me in the eye and locked my gaze. It was a lovely moment of thanks and compassion. I smiled and told him I needed to head home. He asked me what my name was, and when I told him he thanked me by name, introduced himself, then asked me out for dinner one more time. I laughed again, and without overthinking it, I told him I’d be right back.

I went back to McDonalds and got myself some fries and a drink. I then joined him for dinner. We sat at a bus stop and shared a meal. We chatted about the weather, and he told me about himself. It was lovely. I enjoyed talking with him and was happy about how happy he was with his dinner. He told me he knew we’d have a date. I assured him it wasn’t a date and just dinner because I would never go on a date to McDonalds. He laughed as he watched me eat the best fries ever.

I grabbed a blanket and umbrella out of my car and gave them to my new friend. He said it was his lucky day and I was an angel. It was all very sweet and I left him with a smile on my face. My goal for 2018 is to ask people to share their stories, and view everyone as a human being who shares the planet, not just people who are different. It is empowering and inspiring to look at all people with compassion. I am setting aside fear, making room for bravery, and keeping the faith.

Don’t Dismiss the Power of Prayer

This week, a mass shooter in Texas walked into a Baptist church and murdered 26 people, including more than a dozen children. Many conservatives — and many religious people more generally — immediately offered their thoughts and prayers. The most controversial figure to do so was Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who tweeted, “The people of Sutherland Springs need our prayers right now.”

This drove a tsunami of rage from gun control advocates. Actor Wil Wheaton tweeted, “The murdered victims were in a church. If prayers did anything, they’d still be alive, you worthless sack of s***.” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweeted, “We have pastors, priests and rabbis to offer thoughts and prayers. What we need from Republicans in D.C. is to do something. Lead.” Keith Olbermann of GQ tweeted in less temperate fashion, “shove your prayers up your ass AND DO SOMETHING WITH YOUR LIFE BESIDES PLATITUDES AND POWER GRABS.”

It’s questionable whether some additional law would have prevented the massacre in Sutherland Springs. It’s clear from the evidence that the shooter never should have had a gun: He was convicted of domestic violence, including cracking the skull of his infant stepchild; he’d pleaded guilty to animal abuse; he’d been sending threatening text messages to his mother-in-law, who attended the church he shot up. The Air Force has openly admitted that it didn’t send his criminal record to the FBI, which would have prevented him from buying weapons under current law.

But there’s something deeper going on here with the anti-prayer tweets — something more troubling. First, dismissing prayer dismisses the value of religion more generally; second, conflating prayer-driven-action with action you like makes religion irrelevant, and your political agenda paramount.

To dismisss the value of prayer after horrific events demonstrates a lack of knowledge about prayer itself — or worse, an antipathy toward the values prayer promotes. Prayer is designed for several purposes. Prayer reminds us that while we must strive each day to prevent evil from succeeding, God’s plan is not ours; we will not always succeed in stopping evil’s victory. That knowledge suggests a certain humility, an unwillingness to surrender to the foolish optimism of utopianism. It’s why Jews say, “Baruch Dayan Emet” (“Blessed is the true judge), upon learning of a death.

Prayer also helps us see the value in others, and convey that we understand that value to others. Atheists say that prayer is nothing but empty verbiage, but how many people have been changed because they entered a prayerful community? The people who died in the church were attempting to reach out to one another and provide one another support. That’s why we pray with a minyan. It’s why we pray communally.

Finally, prayer reminds us that we must better ourselves: We must treat our friends, neighbors and family members better, correct our mistakes. We cannot change God, but we can change how God responds to us if we change ourselves. In this sense, prayer provides the impetus to action.

We have a reactionary tendency to credit our opponent’s worst intentions.

It’s this last rationale for prayer that many on the left have seized upon to the exclusion of the other two. They say, rightly, that action is one of the anticipated outcomes of prayer. That’s fine so far as it goes — but it doesn’t go particularly far when you are making the secular case for gun control, then demanding religious support for it. Just because someone disagrees with you on a remedy to a problem doesn’t mean that their prayers are insincere — or that the goal of their prayers is the same as yours.

Recognizing that simple truth would go a long way toward healing wounds that seem to be festering. We have a reactionary tendency to credit our opponents with the worst intentions, up to and including insincere use of prayer, in order to press them to embrace us, but the opposite is usually the outcome. If you alienate religious people who disagree with you by stating that their prayers are insufficient, they’re likely to stop seeking common ground. That will be your fault, not theirs: You’re cutting them off at the knees.

Just because we disagree on gun control doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray, or that our prayers lack merit. And ripping prayer itself after dozens of Americans are murdered while praying is disrespectful to our fellow citizens and to the religious victims.

Ben Shapiro is a best-selling author, editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire and host of the conservative podcast “The Ben Shapiro Show.”

Shabbat Shalom from Oz

I am writing today from Melbourne, Australia, where I have come on a little holiday. By little of course mean I am here for 48 hours. I left Los Angeles on Wednesday night and arrived Friday morning. It is now Saturday morning in Oz, and I leave tomorrow at 9:00 am. It is a bit insane to travel for two days to spend only two days, but I am so happy I did it. I love it here and love the people I am with.

I’m staying with my friend Gamble in a glorious part of the country. Yesterday we ran errands and got caught up. Had lunch with her family and sat by the ocean as I tried my first oyster while having the best Cosmo I’ve had in a long time. It was a perfect day. This group is like family and I feel blessed to spend time here, even if just for a couple of days. I love Australia and have a real connection to this place.

When I was recovering from cancer, Gamble swept in like an angel and saved me from myself. I was either going to stay in bed and feel sorry for myself, or was going to get up and live my life. Not just live it, but be brave. Her kindness and nudging forced me to not waste my time thinking about what had happened, but rather what was still possible. Gamble made me brave and gave me Australia.

She attached herself to my heart and I am thankful. I get a lot of perspective on my life through knowing Gamble. I am able to see myself differently through her eyes, and able to see George differently through mine. I am in a very happy and settled place in my life, and Gamble has helped with that. Not only Gamble, but also her sister Tempest, who I love very much. These two remarkable ladies  are family.

I am in Melbourne for two days and it is perfection. The weather is divine, there are a million birds singing in the garden, and while I am sad to be leaving so quickly, am happy that I came and know I will be back soon, for a proper vacation and enough time to see everything this amazing country has to offer.  Tonight we will mark a milestone birthday, have too many cocktails, and celebrate friendship.

If you have an opportunity to visit Australia, you must. If you can spend more than two days, you REALLY must! I wish you all a very happy and peaceful Shabbat. I hope you all have friends like I do, women who inspire you to not only be better, but be happy with exactly who you are. Have a wonderful weekend and be safe out there. Remember that life is always better when you are keeping the faith.


USC Trojans march for restored Torah; Backyard tashlich in Fairfax

Trojans Greet Restored Torah
When the Trojan fight song rings out at a Torah restoration ceremony, where else could you be but at USC?

About 100 people gathered Sunday under the shade of sycamore trees in front of the university’s Bovard Auditorium to witness the ceremonial completion of a restored Torah scroll that will become the centerpiece of religious life at the Chabad Jewish Student Center.
“It’s an honor just to be here,” said Kaley Zeitouni, a sophomore. “I really feel like I’m witnessing an important moment in this community’s Jewish history. Every time I see the scroll at services I’ll remember that I was part of this event.”
Rabbi Aaron Schaffier, one of two Torah scribes involved in the scroll’s restoration, said the scroll is between 70 and 80 years old and probably originated in Eastern Europe. Its long journey to USC included a layover in Massachusetts, where it was used for several decades at a synagogue that has now merged with other congregations.
The ceremony was particularly moving for Abe Skaletzky, who was visiting his daughter, Michele, another sophomore at USC.
“I’m a ba’al teshuvah,” Skaletzky said. “So knowing this scroll might help other people return to Torah means a lot to me.”
After the last details of the restoration were complete, Schaffier stitched the scroll to its wooden dowels with kosher sinew. Rabbi Dov Wagner carried the Torah from Bovard Auditorium to the Chabad House under a chuppah to symbolize the scroll’s new life.
And that’s when seven members of USC’s marching band brought the moment to life. They began the procession with a rendition of the Trojan fight song, prompting students in the crowd to hold up the two-finger sign for victory.
During its installation at the Chabad House, the scroll was dedicated to the late Sandra Brand, a Holocaust survivor who established a fund to support the restoration of Torah scrolls to be donated to college communities.
— Nick Street, Contributing Writer
Backyard Tashlich in Fairfax
For a few years on Rosh Hashanah — until the raccoons ate all the fish and the fishpond was turned into a giant planter — members of Ohev Shalom, a small Orthodox shul on Fairfax Avenue, gathered in my parents’ yard for Tashlich.
The “pond,” mind you, is about four feet in diameter and maybe a foot deep. But it’ll do for the landlocked mid-Wilshire residents who don’t drive on Rosh Hashanah and want to participate in the custom of Tashlich, which literally means to cast off.
Orthodox residents across the city seek out small bodies of water in which to throw bread crumbs, symbolizing their sins, as they recite atonement-related prayers on the first day of Rosh Hashanah (unless, like this year, it falls on Shabbat).
Tashlich is a custom, not a law, and can be recited anytime during the 10 Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Ideally, the water should be flowing and have fish in it, but that isn’t always possible, so a small reservoir — or my parents’ fish pond — works, too.
A small slab of the L.A. River runs through Beverlywood, some people gather there on Rosh Hashanah to toss their sins through the chainlink fence into the trickle of water muddying up the concrete cutout.
Maybe not quite what the rabbis had in mind when they based the tradition on the quote in Micah, “And you will all their sins into the depths of the sea.” But then again, if bread crumbs can symbolize sins, why not fish ponds as the depths of the sea?
— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

Questions, Prayers and Shabbat Lights

Interfaith Questions

Why do bad things happen to good people? Or why do bad things happen to me? Dr. Aryeh Dean Cohen paraphrased these questions at an April 5 interfaith dialogue on theodicy or how to reconcile a benevolent God with evil.

The roundtable dialogue, “Jewish and Christian Perspective on Theodicy: How Could God Let Something Like This Happen and What Can We Do About It?” was sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the Fuller Theological Seminary, a nondenominational Christian seminary in Pasadena, and was the second interfaith discussion on a series of topics.

“We have so much to learn from our Jewish friends, who give us permission to lament and engage in arguments with God,” said Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller.

Before Passover and Easter, rabbis and pastors listened to varying perspectives on how the two religions confront all the disasters occurring in the world.

“Can God’s justice be defended and should one even try to do so?” asked James T. Butler, associate professor of the Old Testament at Fuller. He said that it’s important to question, rather than accept things on blind faith or counsel others that it is God’s will.

“If we convey the fact that faith is strongest when unquestioned, we contribute to the spiritual infantilization of our neighbors,” he said. “We teach them to settle for the God we have, rather than God they read about…. Instead of discouraging those who suffer, we can be their voice.”

Cohen agreed: “Sometimes the only thing you can do is listen.” He said that at other times, “the only thing you can do is scream and yell and curse.”

But really, he added the question is not “why did God do this, but why did we do this?” When it comes to natural disasters like New Orleans or human atrocities like genocide, we can’t really answer the question of where God is. But “where am I is a question we have an answer to.”

Egalitarian but Spiritual

They say “two Jews, three shuls,” so why not one more alternative community?

That’s why a group of 20-somethings started PicoEgal, an egalitarian minyan where men and women, participating as equals, conduct an entire, uncut Shabbat and holiday service that incorporates singing and spirituality.

“The basic idea is to have a community with a davening in accordance with halacha that also has spiritual singing,” said one of the founders, Abe Friedman, a first-year student at the University of Judaism.

Modeled after New York’s Hadar congregation, which attracts some 300 people each week, PicoEgal is one of a number of recently established minyans here and around the world that don’t affiliate with a particular movement and don’t have a synagogue building. For now, the two dozen or so “members” of PicoEgal meet at apartments in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the first and third Saturday mornings of each month, but they are looking for a more permanent space to rent. However, unlike other religious communities that are looking for a permanent home — like Ikar, for example — PicoEgal has no plans to become a full-time congregation.

“We’re not a one-stop shop for everyone,” Friedman said. “We didn’t want this to be an entire community, so much as a davening community [that adds to] what was already available.”

In that same vein, PicoEgal is also starting a multidenominational Beit Midrash study program, beginning with a Torah portion class each Tuesday in May, taught by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform teachers.

“While there are many opportunities for Jewish learning in the area, there is a lack of learning opportunities across the denominations. We wanted to try and provide a neutral forum for Torah learning outside any establishment,” Friedman said.

Just One Candle…

First it was Shabbat; now it’s candles…. What’s next? Kosher?

Ten years ago, Shabbat Across America began its campaign to get as many Jews as possible to celebrate Shabbat for at least one weekend a year. This May, a new organization is promoting “FridayLight,” a campaign encouraging 1 million women to light Shabbat candles — that’s 2 million candles!

“By lighting up each and every Friday night, you will not only bask in a personal moment of inner peace but also connect to a larger community of women everywhere who together hold the power to foster global peace,” reads the Web site (, which features a pale redhead in a Oriental robe holding a fat, yellow candle — definitely not a traditional Shabbat candle for sure.

“With the flicker of a million flames each and every Friday night, we can bring light to some of the darkest places on earth and usher in peace throughout the world,” it adds.

The New Four Questions

Why is law important in the Jewish faith? Why isn’t the bible enough? Why does the practice of Judaism seem to be different from what is written in the Torah? How can Jewish law relate to modern issues?

These and other modern-day questions about religion will be addressed in “From Sinai to Cyberspace,” a course from the Jewish Learning Institute, a Chabad adult education program presented at Chabad locations in 150 cities around the world. Each course, taught by Chabad rabbis, provides a textbook and is supplemented by audio-visual presentations. The courses also are available online.

“From Sinai To Cyberspace” examines the interplay of the written and oral traditions and how they impacted the development of Jewish law, creating a vibrant and flexible system faithful to its roots.

The course begins in early May at Los Angeles at Chabad Centers throughout Southern California, including Los Feliz, Studio City, Burbank, Sherman Oaks, Northridge and Pasadena.

For more information on PicoEgal, e-mail

For more information on the Chabad course and locations, visit


Just One Shabbat

“Just one Shabbos and we’ll all be free,” religious rocker Mordechai Ben David sang back in the 1980s. Well, for the last decade, one Jewish organization has tried to get people to experience Shabbat at least once a year. The National Jewish Outreach Project (NJOP) on March 3 celebrates its 10th anniversary of Shabbat Across America, where more than 650 synagogues of all denominations will host Friday night services and a traditional Shabbat meal around the country.

“Shabbat Across America/Canada allows Jews — many of whom have never enjoyed any Sabbath experience — to come together to get a real feel for one of the Jewish tradition’s greatest treasures,” said Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald, founder and director of NJOP.

Buchwald founded NJOP in 1987 to address issues of assimilation and lack of Jewish knowledge. NJOP also provides classes and programs as well as Shabbat Across America, which some 850,000 people have attended over the years.

For the 10th anniversary dinner, held at locations around Los Angeles and the Valley, the organization has produced “Gourmet Shabbat: Recipe for a Friday Night Experience,” a 32-page color booklet that includes an explanation of rituals, prayers and 10 recipes from top chefs around the country. Wolfgang Puck chimes in with gefilte fish, Jean-Georges Vongerichten with brisket, Sara Moulton with Grated Carrot Salad. The booklet — a takeaway gift to all participants and also available online — is meant to provide Shabbat newbies a recipe for a traditional meal.

“Shabbat is not merely a series of gourmet meals,” Buchwald said. “Shabbat is an environment of light, peace, domestic tranquility and song. But most of all, an environment of sanctity.”

The following synagogues are hosting NJOP in Los Angeles:

•Adat Shalom, 3030 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles (310) 475-4985

•Temple Bet T’shuvah, 8831 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles (310) 204-5200

•Helkeinu Foundation (310) 785-0440

•Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, 9350 Civic Center Drive, Beverly Hills (310) 203-0170

•Chabad of Burbank, 1921 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank (818) 954-0070

•Pacific Jewish Center, 505 Oceanfront Walk, Venice (310) 392-8749

•Temple Mishkon Tephilo, 201 Hampton Drive and 206 Main St., Venice (310) 392-3029

•Maohr Torah, 1537 Franklin St., Santa Monica (310) 657-5500

•Temple Sinai, 1212 N. Pacific Ave., Glendale (818) 246-8101

•Temple Beth Hillel, 12326 Riverside Drive, Valley Village (818) 763-9148

•Beth Shir Sholom, 1827 California Ave., Santa Monica (310) 453-3361

•Congregation Tifereth Jacob, 1829 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Manhattan Beach (310) 546-3667

•Makom Ohr Shalom, 5619 Lindley Ave., Tarzana (818) 725-7600

•Jewish Home for the Aging, 18855 Victory Blvd., Reseda (818) 774-3018

For more information, visit


Between the Pages for Young, Young-at-Heart

Let’s face it. Many people go to synagogue on the High Holidays because they have to. A feeling of poorly understood and unappreciated obligation can pervade this time of year. But it doesn’t have to. You can put yourself or your children in the spirit and in the know with help from this by-no-means-comprehensive list of titles that elucidate the prayers and customs of the holiday.

For Young Children:

“My First Book of Jewish Holidays”
by Shmuel Blitz, illustrated by Tova Katz, (Artscroll Mesorah, 2004)

“My First Book,” which is beautifully illustrated, explains the historical significance of the holidays (i.e., the world was created on Rosh Hashanah, as well as the laws). In addition to their regular text, the pages have “Did you know?” boxes. It is not a storybook, but it is written clearly and its pictures are mesmerizing.

“Rosh Hashanah With Bina, Benny, and Chaggai Hayonah”
by Yaffa Ganz
(Artscroll Mesorah, 1990)

“Rosh Hashanah With Bina, Benny, and Chaggai Hayonah” is one in a series of books about Jewish holidays, in which two young children and their talking dove go on a learning mission. In this pleasantly illustrated book, children can learn about holiday customs, such as dipping an apple into honey, and different names of Rosh Hashanah. For example, Yom Hakeseh is called the Day of Concealment, because the moon is concealed on that day — just a sliver in the sky. And metaphorically, the outcome of the new year, too, is concealed from us.

For Teenagers:

“Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit” by Shimon Apisdorf
(Leviathan Press, 1997)

The “Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit” is aimed at those who

would really rather be elsewhere during the services — sound like any teenager you know? The book gives tips about how to make the service meaningful, without being bogged down with effort. (Sample tip: “Five minutes of prayer said with understanding [and] feeling … means far more than five hours of lip service.”)

It also offers cute factoids about Rosh Hashana, presenting an easy and fun-to-read overview of the prayer service and Torah readings.

Don’t be fooled by its simplicity — “Survival Kit” does not shy away from the weightier matters; it offers compelling expositions on teshuva (repentance) and personal development.

For College Students:

“60 Days, a Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays”
by Rabbi Simon Jacobson
(Kiyum Press, 2003)

In “60 Days,” Jacobson looks at the months of Elul (the Hebrew month preceding the High Holidays) and Tishrei (the Hebrew month in which the High Holidays occur) as a period for self-improvement. Basing many of his teaching on Kabbalah, Jacobson goes through each day of the two months, explaining the historical significance of the day well beyond the obvious holidays. For example, the 18th of Elul is the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism.

But he also describes exercises to enable the reader to use the 60 days for introspection. Jacobson wants us to be our better selves, and to use that improvement for an enhanced relationship with God.

For the Prayerfully Challenged:

“Pathway to Prayer: A Translation and Explanation of All the Amidah Prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur”
by Rabbi Meir Birnbaum
(Artscroll Mesorah, 1997)

Even for those familiar with the daily prayers, the Rosh Hashanah service can seem formidable. It is long, different and should ideally be infused with enough kavannah (concentration and devotion) to change the destiny of the upcoming year for the better.

In “Pathway to Prayer,” Birnbaum explains the prayers line by line — often word by word. He is not merely content with translating. Rather, he explains what the thought process should be when each word is said. For example, in the musaf prayer, the repeatedly used word. “Hagadol [the Great One], referring to God, really means God who is great “in exercising the attribute of kindness.”

“A Guide to Jewish Prayer”
by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
(Schocken Books, 2000)

“A Guide to Jewish Prayer” provides great background reading for those interested in the history and development of prayer in Judaism. The chapter on Days of Awe, as the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known, provides a brief overview of the holiday and the origins of the prayers that developed in conjunction with it.

This book will not necessarily help you navigate a machzor (special prayer book for the holidays), but it does outline what we will be saying on Rosh Hashanah (i.e., which prayer comes after which, when the shofar is blown, etc.) as well as explanations and customs of shofar blowing. Steinsaltz also explains differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic nusachs (the order of the prayers).

For Meaning Searchers:

“Days of Awe: Sfas Emes, Ideas and Insights of the Sfas Emes on the High Holy Days”
by Rabbi Yosef Stern
(Artscroll Mesorah, 1996)

The Sfas Emes, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Alter of Ger, became leader of the great Gerer Chasidic dynasty in Poland in 1870, when he was only 23. Under his guidance, Ger became one of the biggest Chasidic groups in Poland.

In this volume, Stern distills the Sfas Emes’ Chasidic teachings into illuminating essays on topics such as “The Omission of Hallel on Rosh Hashanah” to the “Symbolism and Significance” of Shofar blowing.

“This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared — The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation”
by Alan Lew
(Little Brown and Company, 2003)

“This Is Real” follows no ordinary Rosh Hashanah book path, because it encompasses so many different elements. Part memoir, part Zen mediation, part rumination on life in general, interspersed with Torah readings, Jewish teachings and Zen parables (Lew considers himself a Buddhist rabbi), this is a book that describes a soul’s journey from Tisha B’Av through Yom Kippur, as it “heads home.”

Lew sees the High Holidays as a metaphor for life itself, and he wants us to experience “oneness with everything.” Rosh Hashanah is a time that we can “experience the truth of our lives.”

Though the title is ominous, the book is ultimately uplifting, about a person’s power to transform sadness to joy.

For General Background:
“Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days”
by Shmuel Yosef Agnon
(Schocken, 1995)

This is a collection of writings on the Days of Awe culled from traditional sources, such as the Torah, Talmud and Zohar. Agnon lets the writings speak for themselves, but he compiles them in a way that tells the history of the holidays.

In the section on Rosh Hashanah, he starts with the commandment from Leviticus to observe Rosh Hashanah (“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns”).

He then moves on to descriptions from Ezra in Chronicles of the Jewish people bringing sacrifices on Rosh Hashanah, and then quotes from the Mishna and Talmud about what Rosh Hashanah means.

The book is a fascinating compilation, perfect for those who want to understand the meaning of the holiday from original sources.

For Contemporary Approaches:

“Celebrating the Jewish Holidays: Poems, Stories, Essays.”
edited by Steven J. Rubin
(Brandeis University Press, 2003)

“Celebrating the Jewish Holidays” is not a book for those who simply want laws or traditions laid out for them. Rather it’s for those seeking creative or artistic musings on the holidays.

Gathering verse from poets as diverse as Solomon Ibn Gabirol (an 11th-century Jewish Spanish scholar) and Emma Lazarus, the poems convey a range of experience, from the spiritually awesome to the skeptically modern. The stories and memoirs are evocative. Eli Weisel tells of Rosh Hashanah in the concentration camp, others of Rosh Hashanah in the shtetl.

“The Jewish Way, Living the Holidays”
By Rabbi Irving Greenberg
(Simon and Schuster, 1988)

In “The Jewish Way,” Greenberg explains the holidays as “the quintessential Jewish religious expression, because the main teachings of Judaism are incorporated in their messages.”

In his essay on Rosh Hashanah, he explains that it is a somber time when we must confront our own mortality, since one’s life “is placed on balance scales.” In addition, Greenberg gives a summary of the prayers and customs of Rosh Hashanah.


A Prayer for Victims of Hurricane Katrina

Are You watching, God?

Have You seen the innocent swept away?

Are You listening, God?

Have You heard their cries?

Be with them, God.

Be their strength and their comfort.

Let them know You are near.

Work through us, God.

Teach us to be Your messengers on earth.

Wake us up, God,

Show us how to help.

Use us, God, shine through us,

Inspire us to rebuild the ruins.

Open our hearts so we can comfort the mourning.

Open our arms so we can extend our hands to those in need.

Shake us out of our complacency, God.

Be our guide,

Transform our helplessness into action,

Our generous intentions into charity,

Turn the prayers of our souls into acts of kindness and compassion.


Rabbi Naomi Levy is spiritual leader of Nashuva ( She is the author of “Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration” (Doubleday, 2002)


City’s Plight Brings Flood of Memories

In New Orleans, the Jews are the only ones buried in the ground. Others, if their mourners have any means at all, are laid with the expectation of eternal rest in stone crypts to protect them from rising waters. My mother used to say, “Someday, we Jews’ll all be floatin’ down the river.”

Just as in California, where we know that one day “the big one” will come, in New Orleans, we knew that someday the water would overtake us. But the denial overtakes the wisdom, and we stay and build lives. I think of Pompeii. New Orleans was so beautiful.

Last week, I accompanied my daughter, Jen, to New York University for her freshman year. I returned home from New York on Monday, Aug. 29, with the expectation that I would be tending an empty nest. However, on the flight home, the CNN images on my private television screen, showed me that the nest that needs tending is the city itself, the one that nurtured me and held my memories — the place that gave me such delight throughout my youth and so much heartbreak as a young adult, when my mother and sister died in 1971.

I hope to be able to join the Red Cross relief effort, starting in Houston and from there, perhaps, deployed to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where we vacationed when I was a girl. I will then connect with the recovery efforts of the New Orleans Jewish Federation, which has moved to Houston and Baton Rouge, along with much of my New Orleans Jewish community.

I would like to be a Jewish face in the rescue efforts with the larger community — a student rabbi working in a non-Jewish setting. And then I want the solace of comforting my own.

My hope is to try to provide consolation to the people who surrounded me as I said Kaddish for my father during the flood of 1995. That was said to be the greatest flood in 500 years, and people who came to comfort me came through mud and water, but that experience doesn’t come close to the water and heartbreak that now must be drained from the streets of New Orleans.

My family came to New Orleans at the turn of the last century, and they took part in building many of the Jewish institutions. At one time, we belonged to two Orthodox synagogues, one Reform and one Conservative. I grew up in the classically Reform Touro Synagogue, one of the oldest congregations in the United States.

My grandfather sold furniture from the back of his horse cart, and around 1925, he and five other peddlers pooled their meager resources and opened a store, Universal Furniture House.

As one of seven children, my father inherited one-seventh of his family’s one-sixth share in Universal. He became its manager and built it into one of the largest furniture businesses in the South. Though he only owned a small part of it, as head of it he was able to play a prominent role in the New Orleans business and philanthropic community, particularly the New Orleans Jewish Federation and the Louisiana Red Cross.

My father loved New Orleans almost as much as he loved me. I am so glad he is not alive to see this. Or my Aunt Rosalie, who was the executive secretary to the mayors of New Orleans over a period of 20 years, which means that she had more influence than just about anyone in the city.

As a child, it seemed natural to me to go in and out of the mayor’s office whenever I wanted. We were seated in the mayor’s box at City Hall for all of the Mardi Gras parades, while Aunt Rosalie embarrassed us as she pranced around in her Mardi Gras costumes that were more fabulous each year. My Aunt Ida had an antique jewelry shop on Royal Street in the French Quarter.

Every Shabbat, when I sing “Shalom Aleichem,” I hear their voices, see their faces and smell the chicken being prepared by their cook, who was the sister-in-law of Louis Armstrong.

Until Thursday, Sept. 1, when they were rescued, driven to Baton Rouge and flown to New York, my elderly cousins, 95-year-old Rosalie Cohen (three brothers married three sisters, and they all named their children Rosalie, Ida, Mose and Lazard), and Mildred Brown, 87, were stuck in Mildred’s condo in the Garden District, a part of New Orleans where the water did not get too terribly high — only a few feet. They had a caregiver with them. I actually got through to them on the phone three times.

Rosalie Cohen was one of the grand dames of the Jewish world — think Miss Melanie of “Gone with the Wind” meets “Driving Miss Daisy.” A celebrated beauty and intellect. Warm and charming, with a lyrical voice and, of course, perfect manners.

She was the first woman vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations, a Hebraic scholar who stayed at the Beit HaNasi (the president’s house) when she visited Israel.

She and Teddy Kollek were the last survivors of one of the major Zionist gatherings, a witness to the Arab riots of 1929 at the Wall and, I believe, one of the last Jews at the Wall before it became inaccessible to Jews for so many years. I have a picture of her with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Rosalie does not understand why she is not in her beautiful home in a lower part of the city, with her ancient and rambling oak tree, which is registered as a “protected tree.” Her younger sister, Mimmie, says she has to explain what is going on to Rosalie 20 times a day.

On Wednesday, I spoke to Rosalie who greeted me in her melodic upbeat voice, “Oh darling, how nice of you to call. We’re just riding it out and waiting for things to get back to normal.” The caregiver told me that they were waiting, hoping to be rescued by the National Guard.

When I told Rosalie that I might be coming in with the Red Cross, she said, “Well, do give us a call when you are in town.” I imagine that when the rescuers came, she put on white gloves and stockings.

How they were able to drive out of New Orleans without the car being hijacked and what they must have seen from that car is beyond me. The survivors whose harrowing stories I know are the ones with means and, therefore, the lucky ones.

When I last spoke to them before their rescue, there was only about a foot of water in their street, but they were probably the only ones remaining in their building. Of course, there was no electricity or air conditioning. The caregiver said they had adequate food and water, although Mimmie said otherwise. When I asked why she didn’t leave, she said she was “too old to travel.”

Today, Sunday, Sept. 4, I spoke to a dear family friend, age 90. She is in Houston with her grandson, having come with only the clothes she was wearing.

She said, “We were given a directive by the mayor to get out in one hour. I left everything, but we, at least, have our lives.

“I’ve just cried constantly since this happened. Such a feeling of loss. Not for the material things … but all the people….

“I wonder who I’ll ever see again. I tell myself, ‘Stop crying, at least you are alive.’ The people in the Holocaust didn’t even have their lives.”

When I told her of Rosalie and Mildred’s whereabouts, she said, “I saw Rosalie at a meeting about a week ago. She was as elegant and beautiful as ever. I told her that she had been my inspiration, all those years ago, for getting involved in Jewish community life and how grateful I was to have her as a role model. Now I will probably never see her again.”

She began to cry.

Was it Ellie Weisel who said, “There are things that are real that could not possibly be true?”

When I speak, I give this picture as a definition of healing:

In 1971, after my mother and sister died, I left New Orleans. When people asked, “How can you leave?” I said, “I have to go. Every tree, every street corner has a memory. It is unbearable.”

Years later, when I returned to New Orleans and people asked how it felt to be home, I would say, “Every tree, every street corner has a memory. It is exquisite.”

Now every tree and every street corner needs healing.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, forwarded, these words:

“Perhaps we cannot expect to know why the world is broken; it may be enough to be blessed with the capacity to see the brokenness and to respond with love.”

Please all of you, do what you can.

Love to all of you. For those of you who pray — send prayers to my beautiful city. For those of you who know New Orleans, you know what a treasure we have lost. n

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.


Boy Scouts Blend Values at Shul Tent

When Boy Scout troop 711 from Alaska lost four of its leaders in a freak electrical accident on the first day of the recent National Scout Jamboree here, the one Jewish Scout in the Alaska contingent was left in a quandary.

On the Sunday morning of the gathering, when jamboree activities were suspended for a few hours, all of Noah Magen’s troop mates were headed to religious services for their respective faiths. But what does a Jewish Scout do on Sunday?

For Noah, the answer was the Shul Tent, where daily services and special programming were provided for Jewish Scouts.

The Boy Scout Jamboree, which is held every four years at Fort A.P. Hill, near Fredericksburg, brought together more than 35,000 Boy Scouts and another 8,000 volunteer staff for the July 25 to Aug. 3 gathering — the largest jamboree since 1964.

For the fourth time, Tzivos Hashem, a Jewish children’s organization within the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, provided special programming for the estimated 1,000 Jewish Scouts who attended this year’s jamboree. In addition to hundreds of Scouts who are members of nonsectarian troops, there were also Scouts from all-Jewish troops at the 10-day event.

Some 100 observant Scouts and leaders of the shomer Shabbat contingent — made up of Jewish Scouts from across North America — prayed together daily.

Although all the Scouts may not belong to shomer Shabbat troops in their hometowns, the contingent allows Jewish Scouts at the jamboree to be as observant as they choose, providing kosher food and scheduling daily prayers and Sabbath services. On the Jamboree’s Friday night, the Shul Tent and the adjacent Chapel Tent were overflowing with 500 Scouts for Shabbat services.

Scout Patrick Matson, the sole Jew in Troop 271 from Ocean Springs, Miss., wanted to attend the Friday night services. In order to abide by the buddy system required at the camp, he brought a Catholic friend with him.

Matson found the service, filled with Hebrew songs and English prayers, spirited and fun.

“My friend said the service was amazing,” he said.

After the services, a non-Jewish Scout in his late teens went to Rabbi Pinny Gniwisch, the chaplain for the Northwest Region of the Boy Scouts of America, and told him in a strong Southern accent, “I don’t think I ever met a Jew before, but if it is always like this, sign me up!”

Each Jamboree participant was required to visit the Religious Relationships Booth representing his particular religion. The Jewish booth was a constant buzz of activity. Ben Shreibman of Troop 41 from Cleveland put on tefillin for the first time in his life.

“It felt weird,” he admitted. Andrew Foster of Troop 1704 from Dallas was with a Jewish friend, who put on tefillin. “I never saw anything like it before,” Foster said. “It’s pretty cool.”

Six Jewish Boy Scouts were called to the pulpit in the Shul Tent to recite blessings over the Torah for the first time in their lives, stimulating interest by the local Fredericksburg, Va., newspaper, the Free Lance-Star, which featured a full page of pictures from the mini bar mitzvah ceremonies in its July 29 edition.

The Tzivos Hashem program in the Shul Tent drew close to 1,000 Boy Scouts. The event, which opened with brief greetings from Boy Scout dignitaries, included a play staged by the shomer Shabbat contingent, a juggling display and a lively audience-participation singing session led by Rabbi Shmuly Gutnick from the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn. The Jamboree Web site dubbed him “The Reggae Rabbi.”

The Scouts then went to various booths in the Shul Tent, where they crafted their own shofars, braided their own Havdalah candles, had their pictures taken in front of a panorama display of the Western Wall in Jerusalem while wearing tefillin and wrote private letters to God that would be mailed to Israel to be placed in the Wall.

Participating in these activities allowed many of the Scouts to complete the requirements for the Jewish Boy Scout award, the Ner Tamid Award.

When he ran out of the patches given for this award, Bruce Baker, the vice chairman of the Connecticut Yankee Council of the Jewish Committee on Scouting, saw it as a good sign.

“That says so much that Jewish scouting is alive and well,” he said.

Jay Lenrow, the chairman of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, attended his first jamboree in 1964 with his father, who was also his scoutmaster. When he returned in 2001, Lenrow was a scoutmaster and his son was a Scout.

“What we want to do is create a strong Jewish connection to link the generations by combining the love of the outdoors and camping achievements, coupled with growth and development of Jewish knowledge and observance,” Lenrow said. “Scouting can do that.”

Howard Spielman of Sharon, Mass., is the modest, soft-spoken, powerhouse who initiated the current surge in programming that allows Orthodox youth to benefit from the Boy Scouts.

Spielman brought a small shomer Shabbat contingent to the Jamboree in 1993. At that time, he brought his own 20-by-20 tent and an extension cord so he could have two light bulbs shining for evening services.

In 1997, he brought a 20-by-40 tent to house his growing group. By 2001, Boy Scouts officials provided an even larger tent. And this year, Spielman was supplied with one 44-by-66 tent; one 20-by-40 side tent; five 20-amp circuits; and 32 outlets.

“What is most satisfying,” Spielman said, “is seeing the impact on the shomer Shabbat boys and the other Jewish Scouts who come to Jamboree. They benefit from the opportunity to grow in their Jewishness through scouting programs.”

On Sunday afternoon, the Shul Tent hosted a meeting of Chabad rabbis from Virginia and Maryland and officials from the Boy Scouts of America.

“We stand ready to support any organization that shares Scout values,” said David Richardson, national director of Religious Relationships of the Boy Scouts.

Want to get involved in Scouting in Los Angeles? The Jewish Committee on Scouting is active in the Valley and Westside. For more information, contact Joyce Roberts-Stein at (661) 313-5623.


Spiritual Help Can Benefit Hopelessly Ill


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Daf a Day


Growing up religious in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I didn’t have much choice when it came to religious studies: it was full time till I was 18. I always felt it was being shoved down my throat.

So I stayed away from religious studies for about a decade — from college, through marriage, a year of service in Vietnam and three children.

During that time I stayed close to religion through observance, community and friends, but I avoided any formal religious study.

After we bought a new house and moved to a new neighborhood in Flatbush, Brooklyn, I came upon a new, small synagogue — a shtiebl — close to my house where I could attend the (more minor) evening services on weekends. The rabbi of the shul had a soft and pleasing personality. I was drawn to his softness and started to sit in on some of his Talmud classes. I discovered I had a penchant for the back-and-forth, up-and-down method of the talmudic process.

After about a year of these classes, my mother died. Coincidentally (I think), the rabbi decided to start a daily Talmud class half an hour before the 6:45 Shacharit (morning) services. When I finished sitting shiva, the traditional seven days of mourning, I decided to attend, because I felt it would be a good way to commemorate my mother’s name.

I attended these classes for a number of years, studying about 12 to 15 masechtot, or tractates. During that time the classes were moved up to a 6 a.m. start and then, to 5:45 a.m., one hour before prayers. Getting up daily for a 5:45 class was tough — but the advantage was that I did not have to take away evening time from my wife or four children. This was my own time I was giving up.

Our small daily Talmud study was actually one of many around the city — and country and world — that learned a daf or a page, a day (yomi), and over seven and a half years would complete the entire Talmud doing this Daf Yomi process.

Before I had started these Daf Yomi cycles, I had spent a number of years playing at a regular weekly card game, feeling in a rut — somehow feeling guilty about not learning, yet having no motivation whatsoever. But somewhere along the line, when I started the classes, I had learned that there was a question of the permissibility of winning money from other Jews playing cards. I decided to give up my card game and continue the learning.

Now instead of spending a night out with the boys playing cards, I was spending the morning out with the other boys: Ravina and Rav Ashi (the compilers of the Talmud).

The days became weeks, which became months, then years. In some way, it became addictive.

Before the Daf Yomi classes, when I took stock of my life, I had felt that I was not really accomplishing anything — despite my career, fatherhood and marriage — I felt I was failing in my role as a Jew, not fulfilling my role in this world; the role that was required of me.

I remember reading somewhere that you should ask yourself where you would like to be five or 10 years from now — and were you doing anything to make that dream come true? The answer struck a chord: What you are now is where you will be later. I remember feeling like I was just going along in life, having some vague ideas about where I’d like to be in life, what I would eventually like to accomplish, but I never had any plan to get there.

The Daf Yomi classes set its own goal. By simply going there on a daily basis, I was following a plan to reach an eventual worthwhile goal. After I got into the Daf Yomi routine, when I looked over my life, I felt it was a way for me to really accomplish something in my lifetime.

I finished my first full cycle, completing the entire Talmud, 15 years ago.

I remember the first time I went to the Daf Yomi Siyum, the giant celebration where participants and observers come together to acknowledge this great undertaking. I felt part of the collective exhilaration, like thousands of people graduating a seven and a half year advanced degree program.

Daf Yomi has been part of my daily life for the last 22 years (I’ve missed classes due to illness but have made them up). These years of study have made me feel that I have accomplished something great in life. I now walk with a different pride, and my self-esteem is greatly improved.

Last night, Tuesday, March 1, I attended my third Daf Yomi celebration. I was one of more than 20,000 people at New York’s Madison Square Garden, part of a gathering of more than 120,000 Jews throughout the world (some 2,600 gathered at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall). The program of the giant celebration (which was connected around the world through satellite feed) began with the afternoon and evening prayers, followed by a number of moving speeches. But when the actual Siyum (which literally means “end”) took place — when they read the last few lines of the whole Talmud — something happened: The whole Garden spontaneously started dancing in every available aisle. People who could not get to an aisle were dancing side to side in their rows and seats.

Tears began streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t know why. Was it the exuberance of the spontaneous dancing? Or seeing this huge mass of Jews exhibiting uninhibited joy? Or was it some pent-up emotion for all the years and hours I put into the daily study of Talmud? Perhaps it was the combination of all of the above.

Today, the next morning, the new cycle has started. I got up early and went to class — because that’s just what I do.

Dr. Warren Klein (father of Managing Editor Amy Klein) is a practicing dentist and a practicing Jew.


Time to Go Home


When my wife and I woke up on the day we made aliyah, we talked and decided that we felt good. Natural. Normal. A little excited. A bit eager. Somewhat tired from some late-night, last-minute packing. Above all, we were ready. It was time to go.

The family dressed in T-shirts that we had made for the day. The white shirts were emblazoned in blue with our Hebrew slogan for the trip: “Bashana Hazot,” which in English means “this year.”

Our shirts were inspired from the central motto of the Jewish people: “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Thanks to some terrific support from friends and family, “Next Year” was now.

We had been staying with my parents, who could not have been more encouraging and supportive, for a last precious drop of a week with them. We will next see them in three months, at our new home, in Israel.

At LAX, our porter saw the boxes we were sending, asked a polite question or two and soon knew that we were moving. Before he left us, he said something very formally in Gaelic, which he translated as: “Have a safe trip home.”

Once at the gate, my 4-year-old saw the El Al plane with the giant Jewish star on the tail. He yelled: “Abba, that’s a Israel plane.” Exactly.

As the plane thundered down the runway, my wife looked a question: “Can you believe this is happening?”

I smiled and shook my head from side to side.

Like all flights to Israel, this one lasted a long time, but it did not end until I filled out the Israeli visa entry forms. Under reason for visit, I wrote, “Aliyah.” Under planned departure date, I wrote, “None.”

As we approached Israel, we dropped through a storm. Our 4-year-old saw a rainbow. I held my wife’s hand.

When we crossed over the Tel Aviv coastline, I experienced a flurry of emotions, which were magnified by a sense that this return was final.

I felt a great, humbling appreciation that I was now doing what so many of my ancestors had wished to do for thousands of years. I thought of the millions of Jews who had prayed to God for the existence of a Jewish state in Israel. I was grateful for the sacrifices of the early Zionists, who took sand and mosquitoes and made milk and honey. I considered the multitudes of people, both in America and around the world, who have prayed and worked for Israel’s safety. I recalled all of our friends and family who wished us the absolute best. And, I understood that the thoughts, prayers, dreams and hopes of all those people, going back all those years, were with us, right at that moment, right at that single point in our lives. It was overwhelming.

When our plane landed, my wife and I said the “Shecheyanu” blessing, and thanked God for allowing us to reach this day.

As we entered the terminal, we were met by a smiling official from the Ministry of Interior, who was holding a big blue and white welcome sign, and a volunteer who had previously made aliyah from the United States.

At the airport office of the Ministry of Interior, the kids got candy, flags and pins, and the parents got a new-immigrant identity card called a Teudat Oleh. My cousins brought us not one, but two cakes welcoming us to Israel and drove us to our new home.

As we left the airport, some 26 hours after our day had begun, our boys tried to imitate Hebrew. They laughed as they babbled together: “Cha-cha-cha, cha-moosh, cha-cha-cha.”

They sounded just great.

Nathan D. Wirtschafter lives in Rehovot, Israel.


Faith Holds Fast

Almost every Friday afternoon for the last few months, I’ve been visited at my office by a pair of young Chasidic Jews — high school students in big black hats and sporting the wispy beginnings of what I am certain will someday be fine beards.

“Howdy boys,” I say, welcoming them.

They are exercising that peculiarity of the Lubavitch sect of Chasidism that, perhaps unique among religions, holds the door of faith open to those who care to walk in, without criticism or condemnation. They want to speak about the Torah and want me to daven or put on tefillin. I indulge them. First, they are young, and youth should be encouraged. I don’t know what, if any, reward they get for each Jew they snag into putting on tefillin. I’d like to think they get points toward a Schwinn bicycle, with a bell and a light, but I doubt it.

Second, the regular arrival of a religious team endeavoring to save my soul raises eyebrows at the office, and so meshes nicely with my own self-image of a hellbound reprobate, envious of H.L. Mencken and his reputation as the Antichrist of Baltimore.

Blessed Are You, Lord our God

And, third, I suppose there is a pleasure in ritual, in binding the Word upon my forehead, in rolling up my sleeve and wrapping my arm in the leather thong of the phylacteries, in having the prayer box bound to the back of my left hand. It’s an oddly dramatic moment, for me anyway, to stand in the office, my arm outstretched, wrapped to the fingers in a leather strap, saying the ancient prayers.

I’ve always been fascinated with the Lubavitch because they have solved, for them, for now, the problem of being an insular traditional religious group in a wide-open secular world. Their kids don’t have the problem of standing out in school because they form their own schools. They never have to deal with not being able to wear their big Borsalino hats while working as a fry cook at Wendy’s because they don’t work at Wendy’s. They form their own businesses and hire each other. Their numbers aren’t decimated by intermarriage because they don’t shake a strange woman’s hand, never mind date, never mind marry. At least generally.

A lot of the bad news in the papers boils down to groups trying to maintain their identity in a world full of people such as myself — secular, flexible, creedless. Whatever else you can say about the Muslim world and how it is grinding like a tectonic plate against the West, they are absolutely correct in their belief that modern capitalistic society will eventually crush them to a powder, as it has done to most every group since the Navajo.

Society presses upon them, and they press back. It’s fascinating to watch France trying to cope with its undigested mass of 5 million Muslim immigrants by banning head scarves in schools. By our standards this is ludicrous and oppressive. A teenage girl can wear a Chanel scarf to keep her coiffure from the wind, but if she’s doing it for Allah, she’s in trouble.

This seems to put the government in the mind-reading business and, besides, would force into private religious schools those who feel they can’t send their children into public scarfless, or yarmulke-less, as the French are also banning skullcaps (so typical; France slaps at the Muslims and hits the Jews).

I don’t think France wants that. The beauty of Western society is that you don’t need men with sticks to make people embrace it. They dress in jeans, they guzzle Coke, they blast Britney, all of their own accord. I say, let the kids wear the trappings of their faiths. Ripping them off only encourages zeal. Religious extremism is difficult, and unremunerative — nobody pays you to pray — and history shows that the fundamentalists do not prevail, but fade. Video games prevail.

The religious groups know this. That’s why they circle the wagons. They know that five minutes of watching Diane Lane can overturn 1,000 years of theology. Given their claims to the power of God, it strikes me as an awfully fragile brand of philosophy.

God Doesn’t Condone Neil’s Books

One recent Friday, our business concluded, I was ushering the boys out of the office, so I could return to the deity-denying, institution-wrecking work that is journalism. I don’t remember how it came up, but I yanked one of my books off the shelf — I’m always forcing my books on people; it’s the only way anybody ever reads them.

“Here, take this,” I said, “Give it a read. You might enjoy it.”

They drew back as if I’d offered a puppy head on a plate.

“No thank you,” one said. “We’re not supposed to read outside books.”

That moment needs no commentary. But were I convinced that God was on my shoulder, and my life was being led in accordance to the secrets of Creation, I don’t think I’d feel the need to shield myself from the contamination of inferior thoughts. That would be like my shunning seed catalogs out of fear of being drawn into farming. Nor would I make my daughters wear scarves to guard them against harlotry. That wouldn’t say very much about my view of their character.

Still, I’ll pray with the boys, if they return, and I think they will. Grant the faithful this: They don’t give up easily. One advantage they do have against the steady erosive pressure of the secular world.

Neil Steinberg is an author and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

‘Light’ From Darkness

What a year! Struggle and loss, the threat of war, earthquakes and elections. Like many of us, I’d begun to feel as though peace, not to mention peace of mind, was always going to stay just one upheaval away.

And then the man in UPS brown arrived. He brought an envelope containing a beautiful ray of hope, an exceptional picture book by Jane Breskin Zalben titled "Let There Be Light: Poems and Prayers for Repairing the World" (Dutton Books, $15.99). Zalben is well known as an illustrator-author, providing art for her own writings as well as others. With "Beni’s First Chanukah," she began a popular series of picture books for the very young about various Jewish holidays ("Papa’s Latkes," "Pearl’s Passover," "Goldie’s Purim," "Beni’s First Wedding," etc.) Some of her more recent works are specifically aimed at enhancing Jewish family, food and fun.

In this new book, however, she turns instead to many different cultures and faiths, trying to offer universal reassurance to young readers in an uncertain time. Culling poems and prayers from across the world, Zalben chose simple texts from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism, as well as African, Inuit and Native American traditions, and included the words of such leaders as Ghandi and the Dalai Lama. Often departing from her usual dry brush watercolor technique, she matched each quote with an illustration drawing on its cultural art, materials and patterns. Cut paper, collage and paint are used. Japanese rice paper, Egyptian papyrus, African bark paper and papers from Nepal, India and Italy were sought out; Persian miniatures, Islamic tiles and many other sources served as inspiration.

Zalben has included a serene Asian scroll illustrating the sixth-century words of Buddha and a smiling, curly lamb safe in its field opposite the 23rd Psalm. She shows a simple flower from seed to the dropping of its last petal opposite Kohelet 3:1-9, while the limitless purple-shadowed sky over a prayer for peace from Zimbabwe is as soothing and uplifting as the artist obviously hoped it might be. Through her work illuminating ageless words of love, faith, purpose, friendship and understanding, Zalben has contributed to tikkun olam and can help heal your family’s world.

Rita Berman Frischer, long active in the fields of library and literature, currently works as a freelance writer, lecturer,reviewer, instructor and book group leader.

Beth Sholom’s New Siddur

For some, synagogue choreography is as mystifying as opera.
To enjoy an opera, though, aficionados know to review the scenes in a libretto
before the curtain rises. Yet the typical siddur prayerbook provides no such
guidance. “The prayerbook, rather than help them, becomes an obstacle,” said
Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell of Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom.

To address the needs of congregants not fully comfortable
with Hebrew liturgy, Donnell, along with a group of lay leaders, spent eight
years developing a new siddur. “Tfeelat Shalom,” the sum of that effort, will
be introduced Dec. 13.

In it, prayers in Hebrew are accompanied side-by-side with a
phonetic transliteration. “I made a 180-degree turn,” said Donnell, who
initially opposed the transliteration’s inclusion. For the Hebrew illiterate,
he believes the transliteration builds familiarity and eventually a thirst for
greater knowledge.

The siddur also provides clear instructions on the service’s
choreography, such as when to rise on tiptoe or bow. For example, “you’re not
supposed to bow with the leader, but in response,” Donnell said. Footnotes
provide historical insights, such as commentary excerpted from “Siddur Rav Amram
Gaon,” a recognized ninth century rabbinic authority.

English translations are purposely typeset like poetry. The
intent is to suggest to the worshiper, like a reader of verse, to supply their
own personal interpretation. “We have been trained to look differently at
text,” said Donnell, whose editing was influenced by Lawrence A. Hoffman,
author of “The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Only,” and a professor and
dean of liturgy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Currently in use at the synagogue is the Reform movement’s
“Gates of Repentance,” last revised in 1972.


By the time you read this, it’s probably too late for me.

To repent, I mean.

You might be reading this on the day before Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement itself, and by then — despite all the rabbinic lore of last-minute deathbed confessions and Indiana Jones-style slide-under-the-fast-closing-door of Heaven’s pearly gates — I think that if you haven’t been thinking about your wrongs until the final hour, "Ne’ila" — the last prayer of Yom Kippur day, which literally means closing — then you don’t have a prayer to be saved.

How many shall leave this world
and how many shall be born into it?
Who shall live and who shall die?
Who shall live out the limit of his
days and who shall not?
Who shall perish by fire/water/
earthquake/plague/strangling/stoning … etc.

If my attitude toward these holy days seems glib, it’s because I took these Yom Kippur prayers very seriously from a young age, and this is my only way to deflect that foreboding feeling that grips my chest like a shrunken glove, sometime mid-August, at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, a month before Rosh Hashana.

Some people look forward to the High Holidays, with its delectable apples and honey, the family ingathering and even, they say, their time in synagogue, which they say is "cleansing." Imagine that.

I, on the other hand, raised on the fire-and-brimstone imagery of angry angels, an unforgiving God and a never-ending checklist of sins listed in the Machzor prayer book, never overjoyed at the prospect of these holidays.

How could I?

There were too many things I did wrong over the year for me to enjoy the holiday — although what an 11-year-old religious girl could do wrong, in retrospect, seems laughable compared to 20 years later.

Greater men than I have thought about the concept of sin. Rabbis, theologians, philosophers, professors have dedicated tomes to it. But this is a subject that I have been schooled in all my life — one way or another, Orthodoxy, and the departure from it, is always about sin — and I have become an amateurish expert myself, a dilettante of sorts.

My first "sin": My first official fast, age 12. It is drizzling, a cool September Brooklyn rain that cools and clears the sizzling summer streets, and portends the torrid winter to come. The night mist spritzes my father and me on our way home from shul. I am wearing my yellow plastic slicker, run-walking, trying not to slip, to keep up with my father’s lengthy paces. I put my right sleeve in my mouth, while my left holds my father’s yanking hand. The rubber is wet. I am thirsty, and it tastes good. I let some more rain gather on the edge of the sleeve, and then suck it off, delicately. My father doesn’t notice. I am drinking. On Yom Kippur. A sin.

Oh, there were many sins for which to repent.

"For the sin we have sinned before You
under duress and willingly,
and for the sin we have sinned before You
through hardness of the heart.
For the sin we have sinned before You
without knowledge,
and for the sin we have sinned before You
with utterance of the lips…."

A sin for every occasion. The Artscroll Machzor lists one for each letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, which we recite about 10 times throughout Yom Kippur, pounding our hearts in repentance.

There we are, crowded in one row: My mother, her mother and me, sandwiched between my older and younger sister. On rickety metal chairs with sticky red vinyl cushions, in the basement "break-away minyan," the five of us stand, sit, stand, sit, each time the ark is opened and closed.

We take our right hands in a fist, and pound our hearts for every sin. My elder sister, nearly as pious as God, sways and pounds fervently, like a metronome, carefully iterating every word, loudly. Too loud.

"You’re supposed to whisper," I tell her.

Another sin. Talking during davening.

My grandmother doesn’t say the words at all. I watch her lips and they aren’t moving.

"You’re supposed to talk them," I tell her. Me, the little rebbetzin.

"I’m reading them to myself," she says. I am disappointed. Also, look at how she pounds her heart — with an open hand, tepidly, as if caressing herself. What kind of repentance is that?

And forget my mother. She pounds her heart perfectly in time. Her hand is just the right shape, but it is her heart that isn’t in it. I see it, but I say nothing. Because you can’t tell someone who doesn’t care about sinning to repent. It’s like arguing with a color-blind person about fall fashion. It’s just not applicable.

But as much as I am watching those around me, it is my own young soul for which I am mildly terrified. I think that this anxiety over the holidays originated in my schooling, the prayers themselves, and, if I want to be psychoanalytic about most of my religious hang-ups — from my father.

We learned that on Yom Kippur you ask God for forgiveness for all your sins, but prior to synagogue, during the 10 Days of Repentance, you are supposed to deal with your fellow Jews. The sins you did onto them — the ones they know about and the ones they didn’t know about (which were most of them, presenting another question: Did you have to actually tell them about the times you made fun of them, making them feel bad in order to exonerate yourself?). Otherwise you had no business asking God for forgiveness. If you sincerely asked a person three separate times for forgiveness (saying in one breath, "I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry," doesn’t count) and they refused to forgive you, the sin was upon them, according to Jewish law.

As a child, I lay in dread of asking my father for forgiveness — like asking for an expensive after-school trip, it seems fraught with doom and rejection; and as I grew older, even as I gave up this parent/child exchange, I use the High Holidays to reconcile with other people I might have wronged. It’s the one custom that remains, though few others do.

Yom Kippurs pass, awesome in their familiarity, and standing between my mother and older sister, my piety vacillates: I’m repentant, at times, and questioning at others.

"For the sin that we have sinned before You
through denial and false promises…."

This is the one I have the most trouble with. My false promises.

Yes, I know. In the three steps of repentance — acknowledgment of the sin, regret for the sin and a promise not to do the sin again — I am clear on the first two. But year after year, I find myself in shul, making the same promises, having the same regrets, seeing the same failures — with new ones added to boot.

And I grow weary. Wary. How could I be here every year saying the same things, knowing I wouldn’t manage to keep my word? How meaningless is that? It’s like a Hollywood marriage — they say the vows, but everyone knows that it will never last.

"For the sin that we have sinned before You
in public or in private,
and for the sin we have sinned before You
with immorality."

Years after I leave Brooklyn, I am beyond my girlish desires of hoping not to sin again. On Yom Kippur I stand there, knowing I will sin. I know I will violate the Sabbath, conduct "lewd" acts, eat in a non-kosher restaurant and countless other wrongs. But, I think, who says these are really sins? (Sin: Haughtiness.)

In my 20s I reached a point where I didn’t even consider these things sins. In Judaism, it seems, the more observant you are, the more you have to worry about. The most pious rabbi, the one who never said an unkind word to a soul and spent all his time studying Torah, sits crying for days before Yom Kippur. On the other hand, my Sunday school friend eats cheeseburgers on the beach on Rosh Hashana, and thinks, "Hey, I’m a pretty good person. I am nice to my mother, I pay my taxes. What do I have to worry about?"

Which person would you rather be?

So, as an adult, with no one to force me to go to services, I take a break from the holiday, the angry angels, with their copious note-taking on my deeds, tallying them up like Santa’s elves, with the prize being life. The break occurs inadvertently. My non-religious boyfriend won’t come to synagogue with me. "It’s boring," he says. I had never considered this obvious possibility, synagogue being boring. Especially if you take your prayers seriously; and you have to, don’t you? Or not.

I start to "cut" services on the High Holidays. I don’t go to the beach or do anything quite so rebellious, I just sleep in or go for a walk in the park. (Sin: "We have strayed.")

But still the High Holiday angst does not disappear; it comes regularly, mid-August, like a seasonal occurrence, among the turning leaves and shorter days. I ride it out like a panic attack or a tornado, waiting for the storm to descend, descend, envelop, then disappear by the time Sukkot rolls around.

A few years back I am invited to a Traditional synagogue. Since I no longer identify as "religious," I think that there is no harm in going there, despite my strict training against other streams of Judaism, which, in truth, have always seemed as foreign to me as another religion.

I arrive just in time for the Musaf service. And it seems as if I have never left. They are reading the same verse as years prior. My heart starts to pound, and I ready my hand for the sin lists. But they don’t beat themselves, as they read aloud: "We abuse, we betray, we are cruel."

Hey, those don’t seem so bad, I think. "We destroy, we embitter, we falsify," OK, I can handle this, I say to myself. "We gossip, we hate, we insult…." I don’t recall the prayers being this easy. They aren’t as negative as I remember. Or is it my childhood Bogeyman that frightened me so?

As I read through this list of sins, I feel a sense of possibility. Hey, I can do this, I think. I can be this person. I may have a shot at being a good Jew.

No, this is not solely about denominations — sure, this is a different Machzor I read, a different translation, with only half the sins, interpreted in a way that I can apply to my life without feeling like an utter and complete failure. But it’s more than that. Reading the holiday from a different perspective — instead of the same words I had read since childhood, with the voice of my father/teachers/rabbis embedded within — introduces to me a concept so integral to Yom Kippur, but one that I had forgotten: Forgiveness.

All my life, I worried so about my sins, my wrongdoings, my faults, my failures, that the only image I had was of a vengeful, exacting God towering above us mercilessly.

"For all these sins, forgiving God,
forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement."

These words are there in every Machzor, but this time, I am old enough — distanced enough? — to hear it. If God is so great and awesome, won’t he be more apt to overlook, excuse, and yes, forgive me for the sins I have committed? Could there be another God than the one that I grew up with?

It’s been two decades since my first "real" Yom Kippur, and I still don’t have the answer to that. Or to any of my other questions on sin and repentance, observance and disobedience.

Nonetheless, I have recently returned to services, sporadically. This year, at the Tashlich services, when we gathered at the ocean to throw bread in the water to symbolize the casting away of our sins, a school of dolphins swims up, nearly to meet us. The dolphins jump and dive as we lob out day-old raisin challah, and while I’m not sure that they eat our bread, as I stand there, knee-deep in the salty high tide, I think it is a sign. Maybe my sins — whatever they are, however and whoever is counting — will be forgiven. Maybe.

The Golden Calf

We are entering the homestretch. Aug. 9 is the first of Elul, the last month in the Jewish calendar. It is a time when Jews around the world begin to prepare for the High Holy Days by saying prayers called “Selichot.” These are prayers to ask forgiveness of God. It is said that after the Israelites sinned at Mt. Sinai by worshipping the Golden Calf, Moses went back up for another 40 days and nights and prayed for forgiveness. He started on Rosh Chodesh Elul (the first day of Elul) and was forgiven on Yom Kippur.

Elul is your opportunity to think about your Golden Calf: What did you do this year that you regret? Was it a video game you became obsessed with? Was it an overwhelming desire for all your clothes to have a certain logo on them? Did your parents get mad at you because of these things, or did you neglect friends who weren’t dressed as “cool” as you were? The great thing about this month — and Yom Kippur — is that you get to make a fresh start every year!

UCLA Hillel Mourns Victims

It was a postcard-perfect afternoon outside Kerckhoff Hall on UCLA’s campus on Tuesday, Aug. 6., but Debra Bach could not stop crying.

The day before, Bach had been in San Diego attending the funeral of her Hebrew University roommate, Marla Bennett. Now she stood among 150 people singing "Kaddish" for Bennett and six other victims of last week’s bombing of a Hebrew University cafeteria in Jerusalem.

"It’s a beautiful tribute to Marla that so many people who didn’t know her [attended her funeral] and were forever moved by her life and her love," Bach told the audience, before lighting a candle for Bennett, who was only 24. Amid a steady stream of tears, she spoke of Bennett’s generous spirit, of how the San Diego-raised aspiring educator always invited people to attend her Shabbat meals and crash at her apartment.

"We used to joke that our place was like a youth hostel," Bach said.

As the campus buzzed with its usual summer activity, the crowd participating in the emotional UCLA Hillel-organized memorial service recited prayers before pictures of Bennett and the other victims: Janis Coulter, 36, who ran Hebrew University’s foreign students department in New York; American students Benjamin Blutstein, 25, Dina Carter, 37, and David Gritz, 24; David Diego Landowski, 29, of Argentina; and Levina Shapira, 53, head of the Student Services Department at Hebrew University. Candles were lit for each victim, as friends of recalled their lives.

Bennett’s death touched many in Los Angeles, as she was closely connected to the community. She had attended Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, as a camper, CIT, counselor, unit head and last summer as the program director.

"It’s been devastating to the staff that knew her and grew up with her," Bill Kaplan, executive director of Shalom Institute, who had known Bennett for 12 years, later told The Journal. "This was the nicest person in the world. A mensch, mensch, mensch. She always went the extra mile."

Arriving from Israel only 90 minutes before the service, Peter Wilner, executive vice president of American Friends of Hebrew University spoke about his somber visit of the "burned and severely damaged" survivors of the bombing. He described his late colleague Coulter as "an individual who died simply because she was doing her job to take American students to Hebrew University." Right before the lunchtime bombing, Coulter, who had converted to Judaism after becoming interested in the Holocaust, had just returned from leading a visit to the Western Wall.

During the services, Cantor Avshalom Katz, of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, sang songs of solace, and Hillel Director Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, who organized the event, blasted the Hamas-sponsored act of terrorism that "cut them down in their youth when they were brimming with potential."

He described Hebrew University as "the home of dialogue and tolerance and the dream of mutual coexistence."

Meirav Elon-Shahar, Israeli consul for communications and public affairs, condemned the extremists who "consider it legitimate and holy to kill those who are innocent," she said.

Leah Buchwald, who knew Blutstein and Bennett, tearfully recalled spending Shabbat with Bennett and going to parties and weddings with Blutstein, a DJ who had dubbed himself "Benny the Bee."

"This past week has been a real nightmare," Buchwald said. "But if they were here, they would tell you not to stop believing in Israel," she said. "I don’t want them to die in vain."

After the service, the undergrads in attendance told The Journal that they were not only drawn to the memorial out of sadness for the victims, but also as a sign of support for Israel. They said that by bombing what should have been a "safe educational environment," Palestinian extremists have gone too far.

UCLA student Dana Nahoray said she didn’t know any of the victims personally. She came because "I have a connection with all Jewish people. It’s important to show support for Israel. That what happens to the people over there affects us here in L.A., in our community."

Jonathan Dekel, 23, came with his sister, Jennifer, and friend, Eugene Niamehr, 22. The bombing really hit home for Dekel and Niamehr. Both had studied at Hebrew University during the 1999-2000 school year.

"When we were in the Ulpan," Dekel said of the Hebrew program, "we ate at that cafeteria every day. That’s where we got to know each other and really bond."

Following word of the bombing, a friend traveling through Europe contacted Dekel at 5 a.m. to deliver the bad news.

"I’m very shook up, but I’m not surprised," he said, "because I knew that the terrorists were capable of this."

Jennifer Dekel’s frustration extended to the political isolation she feels Israel is going through. "I’m frustrated with the media biases against Israel," said the 20-something, who just came back from studying at Tel Aviv University. "I’m frustrated with the ignorance of the world to fact and truth about the Middle East conflict."

"There’s always going to be criticism of the Jewish people," Nahoray added. "But I don’t think any of the countries have the right to criticize. They don’t have suicide bombers coming into their universities and bombing them."

"Nothing’s sacred," her brother added. "Look at Sept. 11, and now this attack on a university campus. "

Mixed among the sadness and the anger, there was a sliver of optimism.

"She loved people. She loved Israel. She loved Jerusalem," Bach said of Bennett. "Marla gives me great hope for the Jewish people because she always gave beyond herself."

Red String

I wear a piece of red string around my right wrist, a talisman for healing.

Since receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer a year ago, my life has continued in a relatively "normal" vein, recognizable to secular Jewish Westerners like myself. I meet with the best oncologists and take advantage of the extraordinary medical advances of our day.

But when Rabbi Sheryl Lewart of Kehillat Israel offered me a length of string, I did not resist. I became excited, my heart racing. As a patient, I was entering a world where logic was obscure. More would be revealed.

As it turned out, Lewart left the string with her colleague, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, when she visited Israel, where she promised to put prayers for my health in the Western Wall. One Shabbat, Reuben took the length of string and tied it on me, making a gentle series of knots. "There," he pronounced with a sweet smile, when the wristlet was neat. "Go."

One day about a month ago, I saw another woman with a red string bracelet. I chased her down the hall.

"Your string," I muttered.

"What of it," she said. She did not open up, and my search for a sister sufferer ended.

I have been asked to speak next weekend on the topic, "The Spiritual Challenge of Cancer," at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I hope to explore not only this specific affliction, but also the relationship between disease and morality, health and faith — the challenge of living as experienced by most of us, the well and the ill. It is the challenge of the red string.

Though our tradition decries it, Jews are no strangers to magic. Like advocates of feng shui, American tribal healing or any superstitious band of cult followers, in times of pain we go occult, putting faith in colors, mascots, stars — silent prayers for survival. In the end, my doctors would be happy if magic worked, as would I.

I do draw the line. On the Web, recently, I came across an entire Jewish site devoted to superficial guidance that illness is a distortion of "energy fields." Even my acupuncturist knows better. He would not offer me a piece of blind Torah text and claim that the healing power of Hebrew letters would clear the body.

Yet, the red string does me some good, or else I wouldn’t wear it. When I’m washing dishes, the warm water slips over the thread, quickening my pulse. I am reminded, in an intimate way, that my body is leading me toward healing.

Somehow, the simple decision to keep my kitchen clean is connected with the idea of God. God is the action that transports me from cause to effect, from waiting for others to take care of me to willingness to do my part.

It transforms me from a cancer victim, passive recipient of pathetic wishful thinking, to a person in service, engaged in my own salvation.

Salvation is at the heart of the matter. The ill and the well alike have limited time. We inevitably, constantly, ask ourselves, what is it we are doing with what we have left, with the life we have been granted?

As it turns out, the red string comes from the Torah discussion of leprosy, a topic filled with moral confusion. Leprosy is one of the few medical conditions given full biblical analysis.

Like cancer, leprosy provides a "moral warning" that time is at hand. We are not to punish ourselves for our affliction, but ask what to do now. I am not being punished with cancer, but rather I am demanded to take what time I have left seriously, and to resist the inclination toward self-absorption that, sadly, is the homeland of the ill.

The red string reminds me that this struggle, between my body and my purpose, is of utter urgency. It is anything but an exercise in blind faith. It asserts that salvation is larger than what the doctors can do. Unbreakable filament, it provides connection that is direct, strong, true.

YULA Alumna Injured in Blast

Tuesday morning prayers at the girls school of Yeshiva High School of Los Angeles (YULA) took a little longer than usual this week.

It wasn’t just the extra Tehillim (Psalms) the high school girls added for their former schoolmate Ariella Feinstein, 20, who was injured in Saturday night’s suicide bombing in Jerusalem. It was that each girl seemed to need just a little more time with her prayers to reflect on what is going on in Israel, and how it keeps getting a little closer to home.

"The younger ones don’t know Ariella, so they relate to it differently. But many of the seniors were just in tears," says Rabbi Sholom Strajcher, educational director at YULA.

Feinstein was injured when shrapnel from the bombs lodged in her legs and face. She is currently recovering from surgery.

Feinstein was the second YULA graduate in just a few months to bring terrorism in Israel closer to home for the Los Angeles Orthodox community. In August, Shoshana Hayman Greenbaum, who graduated from YULA in 1988, was killed when a suicide bomber blew up Sbarro Pizza in downtown Jerusalem.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, where the Feinsteins are members, says Feinstein is a "very special, sweet kid" from strong and kind family. Her parents, Dr. Charlie and Alice Feinstein, had just returned from Israel three weeks ago, and Alice Feinstein went back this week to be with her daughter.

It wasn’t until Sunday night that Dina Morrow, 20, also a YULA graduate and a friend of Feinstein’s, told her mother, Linda, that she was in the area when the blast occurred. Morrow told her mother that her roommate, Temima Spetner, a yeshiva student from St. Louis, was seriously injured when the bomb severed Spertner’s femoral artery, and a bolt punctured her intestine and lodged near her spine.

Tali Katz, a YULA senior whose family moved to Los Angeles from Israel five years ago, was deeply affected by news of Feinstein’s injuries.

"When my brother called and told me, I felt that thumping in my heart, that adrenaline rush, like, ‘Oh my God, I know that person,’ " Katz says. "But even people we don’t know are our brothers and sisters and we should feel that thumping in our heart every time — but we don’t."

Sarah Stomel, a senior who is president of the school’s Israel Club said, "I was crying when I heard about Ariella, because it really made me realize that everyone who is hurt or killed has families and friends, and now we are experiencing what they experience every day." The Israel Club, which gives daily and weekly news updates, sells dogtags to help Israel’s MIAs, is initiating a pen-pal program with a school in Israel.

Many of the girls at YULA are planning to attend yeshiva in Israel next year, and they have no intention of changing those plans.

"If we stopped going to Israel and gave up on it, it would be like letting the terrorists win, like we’re letting them scare us off," says YULA senior Esther Behmanesh.

Debbie Schrier, the school’s interim principal, thinks Feinstein’s injuries might penetrate the students’ sense of invulnerability, much as it has done for weary parents.

"Until this the kids felt untouchable, thinking, ‘all right, this is going on but we’re going to Israel anyway.’ But it depends on to what degree this escalates," says Schrier, who has a daughter who is a senior at YULA who plans to go to Israel next year.

The girls, however, seem to have taken a much different lesson from this.

"Ariella told her parents she didn’t regret her year in Israel and she wants to stay," says Tiffany Lev, a senior. "That is total counter attack, because she won’t be afraid."

The Most Dangerous Game

Today I received a phone call from an 18-year-old named Steven. Steven and I were scheduled to meet at Starbucks in a few days, prior to his leaving for U.S. military service. He called to let me know that he could not keep our appointment as the Marine Corps insisted that he report for duty that very evening, two weeks ahead of schedule. I asked him for his Hebrew name (Shlomo Yakar ben Nechama) to add his name to our prayers recited each Shabbos on behalf of the entire American and Israeli Defense Forces.

Steven, I will devote this column to the message I want to share with you. Please read it over again and again till you are home and we can keep our appointment.

This week’s parsha, Vayishlach, opens with Jacob facing an adversary of long ago, his brother Esau. The Torah describes Jacob’s apprehension at meeting this brother, who comes to greet him with 400 armed men ready to battle.

" And Jacob became very frightened and it distressed him."

This fright, says the Midrash, was his fear of being killed. The distress he felt was that he might be compelled to slay others. It was obvious to Jacob that if a battle would ensue, it would be to the death. Jacob faced the tragic dilemma of kill or be killed. He was living The Most Dangerous Game. The great medieval commentator, the Ralbag (Rabbi Levy Ben Gershom), writes that the term "distress" expresses a greater sense of emotion than it does fear. To Jacob, the thought of needing to kill pained him more than the thought of being killed.

This no-win predicament is the sad circumstance our people face whenever we need to raise our weapons in self-defense. Golda Meir summed it up so poignantly when she said, "We can forgive our Arab neighbors for killing our sons, but we can never forgive them for making our sons killers."

This conflict of emotion did not deter Jacob from preparing for the battle at hand, and it should not deter you, Steven. War may be necessary, but it is still war. Killing a sworn enemy may be essential, but it is still killing. This realization, however uncomfortable and paradoxical it may be, must both plague and steel the conscience of your soul.

Steven, if you are sent to defend our country, go forth as Jacob did. Jacob understood that it was his duty to protect his family against all enemies, whoever they may be, and he was prepared to do so. To quote G.K. Chesterton, "The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him." Steven, let the special love of your mother and father be engraved upon your heart as you face the battles being waged against the freedoms we hold so dear. Each day in Afghanistan, we read of reports of gross abuses by soldiers, both Taliban and Northern Alliance. Each side boasts of their atrocities, holding up artifacts and booty as if they are badges of honor. These men have allowed their souls to be corrupted by the devil called war. It is understandable and at times justified to fight for what one believes in; it is never permitted to be gleeful about it.

Steven, I am proud to know you. I express to you my gratitude for your service, and I offer my prayers for your well-being. May God guard you from all physical danger and return you safely and speedily home. But always remember, Steven, it is your job to guard your soul, that it remain forever fresh and untainted. Like our forefather Jacob, may you be steeled for your mission even as your soul remains forever distressed at the need.

Find the Gems

There once was a man who could provide only potatoes for his family’s subsistence. As the monotony and the poverty wore on, he prayed, and his prayers were answered. There fell into his hands a mysterious map to a magical Island of Diamonds.

Begging a boat, he set sail on a long and difficult voyage. One day, he spotted the island, gleaming on the horizon. Upon landing, he discovered a pristine beach covered with diamonds. His heart leapt as, carrying a dozen potato sacks, he pulled his small boat ashore and began to fill the sacks with diamonds.

He was so busy, he didn’t notice that the people of the island had come to watch.

"What are you doing?"

"I’m gathering diamonds; I’m going to be rich."

"Rich? Those won’t make you rich! The whole island is covered with them. If you want to be rich here, you have to find something much more rare and valuable. The most valuable thing here is potatoes."

"Potatoes? I know potatoes!"

So he dumped all the diamonds from his sack, and ran into the forest. In 15 minutes, he found a dozen potatoes. The crowd looked on in awe. They carried him from the beach, and installed him as king of the island.

After a year, he remembered his family and informed the island people that he would soon be leaving for home.

When finally he arrived in his home port, the whole town turned out to meet him. Fearing him long lost, he was greeted with tears of joy. Finally, his wife mustered the courage to ask:

"Did you find the Island of Diamonds?"

"I became king of the Island of Diamonds!"

"Did you bring back diamonds? Diamonds from the island?"

"Diamonds? Heavens no! I brought back something much more valuable than diamonds! Behold, potatoes!"

Why do we set out in life to find diamonds, only to return with bags full of common potatoes? How were we persuaded that potatoes are more valuable than diamonds? How were we enticed into collecting potatoes when we stood upon a beach covered with diamonds?

The most common Hebrew word for "sin" is het. This word comes from archery. Het literally means missing the mark, missing the target. This is not a failure of intent, nor a failure of fundamental morality. There are other words for that. Het indicates a failure of vision, a problem of distraction. And distraction may be the greatest spiritual problem.

"The great danger facing us all," wrote the American preacher Phillips Brooks, "is not that we shall make an absolute failure of our life. Nor that we shall fall into outright viciousness. Nor that we shall be terribly unhappy. Nor that we shall feel that life has no meaning. The danger is that we shall fail to perceive life’s greatest meaning, fall short of its highest good, miss its deepest and most abiding happiness, be unable to tender the most needed service, be unconscious of life ablaze with the light of the Presence of God, and be content to have it so."

Our nation has embarked on a great campaign to cleanse the world of terrorism and find some measure of justice in response to our tragedy. We certainly have the means. The question is, will we have the resolve? America’s attention span is notoriously short. We live for distraction. Soon, there will be new stories, new scandals, new crises to displace this tragedy from our headlines. Can we sustain the commitment to achieve this great goal? n

Contrary to the popular conception, Yom Kippur is not the holiest day of the Jewish year. Today is. True, Yom Kippur is the most severe. Yom Kippur demands fasting, self-denial, prayer and repentance. Its stringency supersedes even Sabbath. On Yom Kippur, we are all saints — all our intentions pure, all our resolutions robust. Because on Yom Kippur, it’s only abstract, theoretical, hypothetical. Today, we go back to the workplace, to the carpools, to the routine. Today, we go back to normal. And today, we discover if Yom Kippur really changed anything. Today is the holiest day of the Jewish year because today we see if we shall come home with potatoes or if we shall come home with diamonds.

By Journal Staff

Three Rabbis were talking over a regular Sunday morning breakfast get-together.

Rabbi Ginsberg said, “We have such a problem with mice at our shul. The shammos sets all kinds of baited traps but they keep coming back. Do either of you learned men know how I can get rid of these vermin?”

The second Rabbi Cohen replied, “We have the same problem at our synagogue. We’ve spent all kinds of gelt on exterminators, but the problem still persists. Any suggestions?”

The third Rabbi, Rabbi Slosberg, looked at Rabbi Ginsberg and Rabbi Cohen, and told the following story:

“Rabbis, we had the same problem with mice at our synagogue. We tried traps, exterminators, even prayers; but nothing worked. Then one Shabbat, I went to the synagogue about an hour before services started. I brought a big wheel of yellow cheese and placed it in the center of the bimah. Well, soon hundreds of mice appeared on the bima and headed for the cheese. While they were feasting on the cheese, I Bar Mitzvah’ed all of them. I’ve never seen any of them in shul again.”

Nighttime Devotion

“Entering the Temple of Dreams: Jewish Prayers, Movements and Meditations for the End of the Day” by Tamar Frankiel and Judy Greenfeld. (Jewish Lights Publishing, $16.95)

Jews have a long history of publishing various types of devotional literature. Historically, just as men and women lived in different religious circles, so too was devotional literature generally, but not exclusively, targeted to one gender.

During the past few years, an effort has been made to retrieve women’s devotional literature and present it to a contemporary Jewish world. Works like the late Norman Tarnor’s “A Book of Jewish Women’s Prayers” and Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin’s “Out of the Depths I Call to You: A Book of Prayers for the Married Jewish Woman” offer some of the most moving and powerful of the women’s prayer traditions, called techinot. Traditionalist Jewish publishers, such as Artscroll, have catalogues full of devotional novella, short stories, and tales recounting inspirational deeds and lives.

Frankiel and Greenfeld surely did not mean to write a women’s devotional, as such, but they seem to have caught the spirit of that form of literature.

Women’s devotional literature occupied a distinct and important area in Jewish life. In traditional society, women were more or less locked out of both the intellectual traditions of the beit midrash and the communal prayer traditions of the beit tefilah. But Jewish women even then were not passive, not content to let their intellectual and spiritual juices just quietly simmer away. Instead, through devotional literature, private prayer, home ritual and the like, they created for themselves an important and vibrant arena.

Hence women, and men writing for a women’s market, developed a devotional literature for the relatively uneducated. These women certainly knew Jewish ritual and prayer, but not in depth and not through the intensive study that the traditional Jewish world would have most boys aspire to. So a literature grew that finds an echo in Frankiel’s and Greenfeld’s book.

“Entering the Temple of Dreams” has a melange of purposes: part exegesis; part introductory mysticism; part meditation technique; part self-guide in the conduct of home liturgy, with a dash of New Age technique; Chassidic-style storytelling; and religious apologetics.

One senses two hands at work in this project, with perhaps different agendas. Frankiel, an academic, writer and active teacher in the Los Angeles Orthodox community, seems to provide the traditionalist approach. Greenfeld, apparently the model for the movement choreographed to the five-part bedtime prayers, is a cantorial soloist (and obviously not Orthodox). A point of unity seems to be a shared sense of mystical experience, a concern with dreams as a portal to mystical experience, and a common quest to find a woman’s religious voice as part of Jewish life. It is gratifying to see such collaborations across denominational lines.

In the first chapter, a conceptual framework is given, with a brief outline of how Jewish sources have viewed sleep, dreams and the like. Unfortunately, it is also the most confusing chapter, blending apologetics with citations from scientific sleep research. Sometimes the notes are more illuminating than the text. At other times, they make blanket statements without citing any source at all.

But this is not an academic or even a scholarly book. It is an attempt to reintroduce a powerful prayer ritual to an audience of spiritual seekers. As such, it draws from those components of Jewish religious life that seem to have the greatest resonance these days: mysticism and kabbalah.

For their endeavor to bring to a wider, generally uninformed Jewish population the great wonders and beauties of Jewish religious life and ritual, Frankiel and Greenfeld deserve accolades. Particularly strong are the chapter-by-chapter exegeses of the bedtime prayers: while perhaps drawing a bit too heavily from Zohar, their short, well-written and moving explanations of these five different prayers are a good introduction to the structure and sense of Jewish prayer from a Chassidic-kabbalistic perspective.

The Hebrew typesetting, translations and transliterations of the five prayers are very well done. As such, this would be an easy book to keep by the bedside precisely for what it teaches: not only how to say the bedtime “Sh’ma” but why it is not just for kids but for all of us, as we wander off into our nighttime lives of dreams, angels and wistfulness.

The book is not without its problems. The technique and psychological material reads like so many of the other free-ranging meditation, mystical, spiritualistic, New Age books that populate the self-help section of Barnes and Noble. This is a good book to read in bits and pieces, and somewhat selectively. Some of it works, but not all. Perhaps a dose of Jewish rationality, so speak, would have helped focus the book a bit better. Nevertheless, for what it does offer, Frankiel and Greenfeld give us a book that can be turned to repeatedly — in fact, nightly.

Do You Believe

For a small donation, you can now e-mail your prayers to a site in Jerusalem where they will be placed into the Kotel, the Western Wall, on your behalf.

With a powerful computer, scholars in Israel have revealed the secret codes embedded in the text of the Torah — codes predicting the Holocaust, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, as well as calamities yet to come.

A local religious group touts the healing benefits of scanning pages of mystical texts, regardless of whether one can read the words or understand their meaning. Just having a set of the text in my home, an adherent urges, will bring blessings to my family.

How seductive is magic? Hidden knowledge, secret powers, special access to the inner workings of the universe — who can resist? It is an addiction that plays upon a deep sense of powerlessness and frustration with a complex world. I doubt my ability to navigate this world, so I turn to signs, omens and secret incantations to bring success and happiness. I doubt the presence of God in a world of AIDS, drive-by shootings and moral lunacy, so I look to secret codes for reassurance and guidance. But at what cost?

In turning to secrets and signs, do I not surrender the power of my intelligence, my judgment, my reason? Do I not surrender my capacity to imagine and create a better life, a better world?

This week’s Torah portion, which is about the lure of magic, breaks the narrative flow describing the desert journey of the Israelites and takes us to Moab, one of the nations in Israel’s path.

The king of Moab, terrified by the advancing Israelites, realizes that his only chance is to enlist the power of a well-known wizard, Balaam, to render them vulnerable. There ensues a remarkable negotiation. The king believes in the power of magic to destroy his enemies, and in his ability to buy this power. He believes in the multitiered cosmology of paganism. On the lowest level , human beings — pitifully weak and vulnerable. Above, rule the gods, who control the forces of nature. But above the gods, there is another level — the mysterious forces of ultimate fate. The only chance human beings have of shaping their own destiny is to employ secrets of these upper powers to manipulate the gods, forcing them to do human bidding.

This is the essence of magic — the manipulation of the forces of destiny through secret knowledge, spells and rites. So the king sends a bribe, contracting the wizard to curse Israel. But this is no ordinary wizard. In fact, he is no wizard at all. Balaam is a true prophet, who continually insists that he is only a conduit for the one, sole power in the universe — the God of history. This God works His will in history and will not be manipulated or bought.

In this remarkable exchange between the king and the wizard, the Torah has placed the contest between magic and monotheism. Magic is a form of slavery, confirming a sense of human powerlessness in the face of mysterious forces of destiny.

The God of the history takes us out of bondage, empowering human beings to shape our own destiny, to seek the Promised Land, with His gifts of intelligence, conscience and imagination.

When, at last, a final, huge bribe persuades the wizard to accompany the king, he stands over the Israelite camp, and out of his mouth come, not curses, but blessings: “Ma tovu ohalecha ya’akov” — “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”

God will neither be bought nor manipulated. God is not amenable to secrets. But God has shown us the way to turn curses into blessings whenever we are prepared to listen.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Alligators Under

I learned most of my theology not from my teachers but from my children. When my daughter, Nessa, was 3 years old, we had a routine. Each night, I would tuck her into bed, sing our bedtime prayers, kiss her good night and attempt to sneak out of the room. Halfway down the hall, she began to scream, “Abba!” An avid reader of Parents magazine, the Torah of parenting, I knew what to do: I walked back to the child’s room and turned on every light. I looked under the bed. “No alligator, Nessa.” I checked the closet. “No monsters, Nessa.” I surveyed the ceiling. “No spiders, Nessa. Now go to bed. Tomorrow is coming, and you’ve got to get to sleep,” I’d say. “Everything is safe. Good night.” “OK, Abba,” she said, “but leave the light on.”

We did this dance for an entire year until, one night, I stopped myself as I was walking down the hall and asked myself: “Who is right? Whose description of the world is empirically, factually correct? The child afraid of alligators under the bed? Or the father who reassures her that everything is safe and tomorrow is surely coming?

The truth is that the child is certainly correct. She doesn’t know the names of the alligators under the bed. She doesn’t know about cancer, about AIDS, about drive-by shootings, about lunatics who steal children. We grown-ups…we know their names, and yet we still insist to our children that the world is safe enough to trust for this one night. All loving parents do this. Even the most hard-boiled atheist says to his kid, “Tomorrow is coming; you’re safe tonight; go to sleep.”

This is the beginning of spirituality, our experience of God’s presence. Perhaps 17-year-olds can proclaim their disbelief. It’s easy for them — they don’t put children to bed each night. They are isolated — there is no one whose life and hope depends upon them. But for those of us who live with others, who live for others, we know better. Having children, rearing children, loving another with all our soul is an exercise in spirituality.

Spirituality is not something added onto life. It is underneath life, just beneath the surface of consciousness. It represents the answers to the ultimate questions of our lives — questions we may never have consciously asked, but whose answers ring through our daily actions. Why do we get up out of bed in the morning? Where do we find the hope, strength, inspiration to go on each day? How do we cope with all that’s terrifying in life?

Judaism is a way, a language, for asking these questions consciously. It is a way of sharing the answers of the generations that have come before us. And it is a discipline for facing our fears, listening to the questions and searching out the answers.

In this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotecha, the journey toward the Promised Land resumes. Interrupted for the two-year encampment at Mount Sinai, the trek through the perilous and mysterious wilderness will now continue. But before the march commences, instructions are given for the kindling of the menorah, the sacred lamps. Judaism is that menorah — the light left on at night, a gift of wisdom and hope whenever we suspect that there are alligators under the bed.

Ed Feinstein is the associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. He replaces Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who is completing a book (along with fulfilling synagogue responsibilities at Wilshire Boulevard Temple).

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