November 16, 2018

The Beauty of Ritual

Photo from Pinterest.

When you have a child later in life, there are many issues you don’t consider. For me, one of the more troublesome has been: Who will be there for the holidays?

At 8, my son is not yet aware of what he’s missing. But each Pesach in particular, I am achingly aware. Throughout my childhood, the holidays marked the times when a flood of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins descended upon our house, filling it with the raucous joy that only close family can impart.

My grandfather, my father’s father, led our seders. Elegant, dignified, commanding respect simply by being a gentleman — a gentle man — my grandfather set the tone for our seders for the next few decades: sensual, spiritual feasts that left our hearts, minds and souls in some sort of cosmic unity. Or at least that’s how it felt.

By the time my son, Alexander, arrived, that unity had begun to shatter. My mother died when he was 2. My brother moved to Florida when my son was 3. My cousins, undermining every value my grandfather tried to instill, dispersed.

Seders soon became makeshift affairs — with an assortment of close friends providing a variegated experience each year.

As much as I am grateful for those friends, the fact that Alexander is not growing up with the same holiday rituals each year tugs at my heart. Oh sure, I fill in where I can at our synagogue, which excels at Sukkot, Simchat Torah and Purim. And I now try to have an annual Hanukkah party for his friends.

But, love ’em or hate ’em, there’s really nothing like being with family on the holidays.

Perhaps unconsciously, I’ve been adding more Jewish ritual to Alexander’s life in other realms. I have sung the Shema to him every night since he was born. We light Shabbat candles as often as we can and go to the children’s Shabbat service as often as the synagogue provides it. (Which means not during the summer months. Did you miss the part in the Torah where God says that going to the Hamptons on summer weekends is more important than a Shabbat service? Yeah, I did too.)

Recently, a new ritual has entered our lives. One evening, as I was fumbling to get the keys out of my bag, Alexander was asking for something that I wasn’t ready to give him. I looked up, and the mezuzah at our door stared back at me. “OK, we’ll see,” I said. “But anyway, it’s time that you start to kiss the mezuzah every day.” He eagerly reached up and did so.

I have to admit, I was a little shocked. This is a child who groans before Hebrew school and likes his Shabbat service only because of the pretty Israeli teachers. But he has taken to this new ritual with gusto, with an enthusiasm usually reserved for kibitzing with his friends.

It has made me think: What other rituals can I easily integrate?

These 3,000-year-old rituals aren’t going anywhere. They’re here to make us feel loved, safe, connected.

The truth is, even when you don’t have a child late in life, families change and often disintegrate. People get sick, divorced, move across continents, die.

But these 3,000-year-old rituals aren’t going anywhere. They’re here to make us feel loved, safe, connected — to provide us with the foundation to create light. And the beauty of most rituals is that they’re not dependent on others: The bond is between each of us and God.

If faith provides hope, ritual provides order. But perhaps more important, ritual provides a reminder of faith, just as nature and beauty do.

Last week, Alexander had to get checked by a cardiologist (for hopefully a very minor issue). For the next 24 hours, he had to be wired up with uncomfortable tabs across his chest. When he realized that tearing off the whole thing was just going to send him back to a long, unpleasant ultrasound, he finally relented to being distracted till bedtime.

I was a little concerned with how he was going to sleep with his chest looking like technological warfare. A slightly tattered, stuffed Torah, given to him as a baby, has been called upon for times like this. “Here,” I said, “Let’s let the Torah hold the monitor so you can just relax and go to sleep.”

When I checked in on him a bit later, he was sleeping peacefully — clutching the spool of the Torah with one hand.

Chag sameach.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and author.


June Walker, Presidents Conference Chair and Hadassah Leader, Dies at 74

June Walker was in working mode two weeks ago.

On July 21, she presided over a farewell reception for outgoing Israeli U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman. Two days later she led a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which she chairs.

Late in the week, however, tests revealed the cancer she had fought for seven years had advanced too far to allow for a new round of treatment. Walker, of Rockaway, N.J., died Tuesday at 74.

“She was such a remarkable fighter,” said Walker’s rabbi, Amy Joy Small. “She did not let it stop her. She had things to do.”

Walker, a former president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, became only the second female to lead the conference last year when she replaced investment banker Harold Tanner as chairperson.

“Leaders of the United States and Israel held her in high regard and respected the person even more than the positions she held,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the Presidents Conference’s executive vice chairman, in a statement. “They, as we, recognized immediately her integrity, her intelligence and the sincerity of her advocacy. I am personally, as is the conference collectively, devastated by her passing.”

Walker’s nomination in April 2007 as chairperson was something of a departure for the Presidents Conference, the main communal umbrella body on foreign policy, which in recent years has been headed by prominent businessmen.

A respiratory therapist, former college professor and health-care administrator, Walker was a longtime community activist whose involvement with Hadassah began as a teenager.

In June, Walker was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa in recognition of her years of work on behalf of Israel, and in particular her devotion to health care in the Jewish state. Walker was one of seven honorees, including a former director of the Mossad intelligence agency and three university professors, but was chosen to deliver remarks on behalf of the group.

“She told me that she was determined she was going to be strong and healthy to get to Haifa and receive this award because it was for her symbolic of her lifetime achievement, something that represented for her a culmination of her accomplishments,” said Small, who accompanied Walker to Israel for the ceremony.

Small recalled that the honorees were to walk across a balcony and down a flight of stairs, a feat that she knew would be challenging for Walker, who was suffering back and leg pain as a result of her disease.

“She held herself with such dignity and such honor you would never have known that she was suffering,” Small recalled. “And she was beaming.”

Later, Small wrote that Walker was “this generation’s Golda Meir” in an article published on the Web site of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.

Walker rose through a succession of positions at Hadassah before assuming the presidency in 2003, a post she held for four years. Under her leadership, the organization raised $75 million for a $210 million inpatient tower at its hospital at Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, and completed a $48 million emergency medicine facility in Jerusalem.

She also grew the student body at the Hadassah College of Technology in Jerusalem from 600 to 2,000 students.

“It is with a very heavy heart that we begin to mourn June Walker, a unique leader and a wonderful friend to many,” said Walker’s successor as Hadassah president, Nancy Falchuk. “June once said that Hadassah embodied everything she was interested in: Israel, women’s empowerment, Judaism, education, medicine and Zionism. But June personified values that Hadassah stands for: pride, dedication, and spirit enhanced by her own personal grit.”

Walker is the first Presidents Conference chairperson to die in office. The group says it has no succession plan.

“We’ve never had it,” Hoenlein said, adding that when top officials have become incapacitated in the past, former chairmen have temporarily stepped in.

Walker taught at Passaic County Community College in New Jersey and was the director of inservice education for pulmonary medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. She is also a member of the Citizens Committee for Bio-Medical Ethics, the American Lung Association and the Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Hatikvah of Summit, N.J., according to her official Hadassah biography.

She is survived by her husband, Barrett; son, Davi; daughters, Julie Richman and Ellen; and six grandchildren. The funeral was held Aug. 31.

— Ben Harris, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Oluwaninse Abhay Charan Adeyemi died July 8 at 11. He is survived by his father, Ayodele; mother, Adrienne Liberman; sister, Parama Liberman; and brothers, Manjari and Daniel Liberman. Hillside

Jacob Barad died July 12 at 75. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; and sons, David and Glenn. Hillside

Irene Barton died July 15 at 85. She is survived by her sons, Fred and Mark. Hillside

Mervyn Max Becker died July 21 at 78. He is survived by his wife, Yetta; son, Aaron; daughter, Carla; one grandchild; and sister, Elaine. Groman

Lynda Belasco died July 21 at 61. She is survived by her husband, Steven; son, Joshua; and uncle, Irving (Charlotte) Nudell. Malinow and Silverman

Dr. Murray Gill Boobar died July 7 at 85. He is survived by his wife, Helen; and daughters, Robin Lappen and Mindy Cahan. Hillside

Larry Chalfin died July 20 at 68. He is survived by his wife, Vicki; son, Charles; and daughter, Leah Gordon. Hillside

Edward Chersky died July 17 at 83. He is survived by his wife, Evelyn; and sons, Robert, Barry and Stewart. Hillside

Mania Sara Cymer died died July 12 at 97. She is survived by her sons, Harry and Max. Hillside

Ilse Erlanger died July 13 at 97. She is survived by her daughter, Susan (David) Leveton; and grandchildren, Steven Leveton and Stephanie Kinedale. Hillside

Frances Gordon died July 15 at 97. She is survived by her nephew, Peter Spring. Hillside

Dr. Lawrence Gosenfeld died July 19 at 67. He is survived by his friends. Hillside

Victoria Harris died July 21 at 100. She is survived by her sons, Godfrey (Barbara), Micheal and David. Hillside

Philip Kozin died July 20 at 96. He is survived by his daughter, Gail (Stan) Holander; and son Howard. Hillside

Anna Landsberg died July 12 at 92. She is survived by her sons, Abe and Raymond. Hillside

Charles Robert Lever died July 16 at 78. He is survived by his wife, Pamela; and stepson, Mark Neilson. Hillside

Diane Rita Mehlman died July 17 at 75. She is survived by her son, Lon; and daughter, Dina. Hillside

Emily Bell Miller dies July 14 at 93. She is survived by her daughter, Joyce (Stephen) Ranger; and granddaughter, Courtney Ranger. Hillside

Terry Lee Miller died July 12 at 69. She is survived by her daughters, Allison and Julie; four grandchildren; and companion, Norman Lieberman. Hillside

Gerald David Novorr died July 13 at 91. He is survived by his wife, Pearl; son, James; and daughter, JoAnn. Hillside

Bernard Rumack died July 21 at 87. He is survived by his daughter, Robin; and sister, Vella Bass. Hillside

Lillian Schafer died July 13 at 86. She is survived by her daughters, Sue Sanders, Lyn Caron and Elaine Thomassian. Hillside

Rubin Schieren died July 21 at 93. He is survived by his daughter, Phyllis (Ben) Berkley; son, George (Ellen); and seven grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Ira Schulman died July 20 at 81. He is survived by his sons, Alan and Russell; daughter, Leslie Mendoza; sisters, Davida Racine and Diane Friend; and partner, Nora Graham. Hillside

Mike Simon died July 10 at 75. He is survived by his wife, Angela; sister, Billie Evenas; and stepdaughter, Patricia Garza.

Harry Talsky died July 17 at 93. He is survived by his children, Leland and Martha. Hillside

Marla Lynn Waldman died July 20 at 51. She is survived by her father, Gerald; mother, Barbara; and brothers, Ron and Craig. Hillside

Hilda Weiner died July 15 at 93. She is survived by her sons, Arnold (Elaine) and Edward (Susan). Hillside

Married . . . at last!

I got married for the first time at 50. The groom was 51. Yes, we are both Jewish. We met online.

I am tall, thin, blonde, green-eyed, and have a little turned-up nose. My
father-in-law’s first comment, across the Thanksgiving table, was, “Doesn’t she look like a shiksa?”

My husband is an inch shorter than I am and round. He is also handsome, smart, funny and very logical. But I married him because he is a good person and I love him very much.

I decided when I was about 46 that I really wanted to get married. The question became where to meet men who really wanted to get married, too. I decided to try online dating. I had already done everything else.

It was not love at first sight. It was interest. It was let’s see what will happen. We both had dated enough to know the difference between passion and real caring.

It took three years, but we did it. The short version:

We met in November of 2000. The cats and I moved in with him in 2001, and I gave him an ultimatum. We got engaged in June of 2002 and were planning to marry in December 2002, although I had yet to see a ring.

Thirteen weeks before the wedding, he fell and shattered his shoulder. We postponed the wedding. I told him he had until my birthday, in August, to do the ring, or it was over. This was it.

It took him eight months, but he did it. Three days before my birthday, he took me to dinner, and proposed a second time, this time with ring in hand.

This was August 2003, and we were going to get married August 2004. We would have a year to arrange the wedding. That was the plan. The next month, my then-91-year-old mother fell and wound up in the hospital, so the wedding was moved up to December.

I had three months to plan the wedding. I was crazed, to say the least. It turned out that my little, humble then-83-year-old aunt knew the owner of a hotel, which shall remain nameless, kayn ayin hora, poo poo. It was a fabulous hotel, famous for its weddings. We had a place. Then we had a date, invitations, a dress, a menu, a klezmer band and a dance band, and a lot of tuxedos.

In addition to planning a wedding in three months, a full-time job, I was also working and taking a class. How I did it, I don’t know. But I was almost there. We divided the wedding planning, sort of. My husband chose all the food and liquor. I handled the cake and flowers, the logistics of the day, the arrangements for out-of-towners, the rehearsal dinner, the auf ruf and half of the visitor packets. (My husband did the maps and the sites of interest.)

The day finally arrived. Hair and make-up call, 6 a.m. Both my husband and I have backgrounds in the entertainment industry, but this was the biggest production either of us had to pull off. He had produced and directed theater, and I had produced and directed reality TV. But this was something else.

I was drugged out of my mind the morning of the wedding. Not serious drugs, but Advil combined with terror can have a mind-numbing effect.

I had only my maid of honor, my cousin Patty, in the suite with me as I got ready. The ketubah signing was done privately with the rabbi in a separate room with only my two attendants and the two male witnesses present. It was beautiful.

It was getting scarier and scarier. Patty and I retired to the bridal suite to await the final call. The hotel’s coordinator lined everyone up, then called up to the room. They were ready for me.

Patty and I took the elevator down. We stepped out. I looked back at the mirrored elevator doors as they were closing on 50 years of being single. I looked at myself and affirmed, “I’m doing this.”

I just wanted to get through the chuppah. I got into line, at the end, next to my then 84-year-old father. This was a dream. This was unreal.

The music started and the bridal procession began. The coordinator was counting the beats. The aisle was 80 feet long. My father and I had rehearsed this, but there was no need. He was a natural. The music changed. I heard, “Now,” and I said to my Dad, “Right foot.”

Talk about a deer in headlights. I saw my cousin Jenny smiling. She stood up first, and everyone followed suit. All these people were standing up for me! I was the bride!

The ceremony was great, I thought. I loved the rabbi’s words of wisdom, although I had to watch the video about four times to remember what he said.

It was an awesome wedding, filled with Jewish rituals — the hora, the chair dance, the brachot over wine and bread. Then, after the first course, the mezinka, the dance honoring the mother upon the marriage of the last child. I am an only child, my husband, the last of four. His mother was deceased. We danced around our three parents, unbelieving that their “old” children were finally married.

In case you are wondering, married life is great. It is not a sitcom, it is not a romantic comedy — it is real life. Whatever you were before, you bring to marriage. Marriage is not a date — you see each other in the morning, someone takes out the trash, and you pay the bills.

But you do it together. At last.

Mierel Verbit is a writer and teacher who lives with her husband and cat in Santa Monica. She can be reached at

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


The Greatest Game

We sat at my sister-in-law’s kitchen table, 11 of us from three generations of my husband’s family, absorbed by a wicked game of dreidel on the fifth night of Chanukah, howling with abandon and anticipation at each seemingly endless spin. My 10-year-old daughter, the youngest present, was killing us all, amassing huge quantities of chocolate gold.

But this typically Jewish gathering was really something quite different than what it might have seemed at first glance. We were in one of the least Jewish places in America, in a farmhouse on the icy plains of eastern Iowa. Twinkling Christmas lights lit up the front of the house, and a tree burned bright in the living room just beyond where we were sitting. The table was laden with a mix of beautifully crafted traditional holiday cookies, and my daughter was taking more than her share of the green wreath-shaped ones. The people, too, were not what you might expect — everyone other than my husband, my daughter and I was a devout Catholic.

This year my nuclear family — the three of us — had gathered together with my husband’s family, and we were taking advantage of the odd coincidence that overlapped Chanukah so directly with Christmas. It was the first time my husband’s family had ever seen a dreidel. Before this night they’d never tasted a latke, let alone a piece of gelt.

The Jewish rituals are now familiar to Richard, my husband of 15 years, although he sometimes still feels a bit new to all of it. He takes nothing for granted in his dreidel game, now that he’s gotten pretty comfortable with the Hebrew letters and their designations. As we lit the candles on the menorah we’d brought with us from Los Angeles, he was the one to translate the prayers for his family — taking care to explain the meaning behind the Hebrew words we’d chanted, because he especially knows what it means to not understand.

Richard is in the process of converting to Judaism, a step that’s been a long time coming, although he long ago moved away from the heartfelt faith his heartland family sought to instill in him. It’s been a big move; he knew of only one or two Jewish families growing up in this region, where the most popular museum features John Deere farm equipment, and a local chain of ice cream shops is a main attraction. As we laughed through this Chanukah evening together, it was easy to understand how much he respects and loves his German, Scots-Irish family, who have stayed close to their Midwestern roots, even though they no longer till the land. His decision to change religions has been a very careful and prolonged one.

It wasn’t easy for me to enter his family, either; at least the anticipation of it was intimidating for this East Coast-born, deeply ethnic Jew. In 1989, I made my first trip to the Quad Cities, along the banks of the Mississippi at the border of Illinois and Iowa, and I was scared. I feared that Richard’s family would see me as an alien being — an aspiring intellectual, art-loving liberal. These were interests, I presumed, that they knew little about.

I was afraid they’d reject me because Catholicism is so important in their lives; it wasn’t just of passing interest that I was not one of them. Just as we Jews hope to preserve the sanctity of a Jewish family, they believe in their traditions and the need to perpetuate those beliefs. Mary, the oldest of my husband’s three sisters, is a nun; one of his brother’s sons studied to be a priest for a while. I’d had Catholic friends my whole life, but Richard’s family was somehow more Catholic, more devout and more lovingly committed to their faith than any I’d ever known.

Yet from our first hug when they met me in the airport on that first trip, they’ve never let me down. That embrace was the first of many, and I can no longer even imagine them rejecting our ways. Their early misgivings about their Richard marrying a Jew — and even about his gradually becoming a Jew — have not stopped them from accepting us for who we are. Over time, my mother-in-law has let us know that she is concerned first that we have faith in God. As for their granddaughter, she brings home stories not from a Catholic school, nor a public school, but a Jewish day school. Both of Richard’s parents joyously take in these tales like the doting grandparents they are; and they have come to Los Angeles to visit her and see her school performances.

So there we were in Iowa, playing with a dreidel because Christmas and Chanukah coincided and because this family of Catholics is always ready for a good game. As Richard patiently taught them the Hebrew letters on the dreidel — it took some effort, as those little squiggles all seemed to baffle them — I cooked the latkes with the help of my two 4H-proud nephews. Good food is a universal language. My mother-in-law knows this, too. As dinner was being prepared, she surprised me with a kugel she’d made, inspired by a recipe she’d gotten years ago from my father’s mother.

As the game ended, Mary picked up a couple of pieces of gelt to take home to her monastery. There was a picture of a menorah on the coin, and she wanted to share it with the sisters.


The Best Presents: Ritual and Repetition

During my family’s annual Thanksgiving beach road trip this year, my kids showed remarkable stamina for tolerating monotony as they watched the “Rugrats’ Chanukah” video 12 times in a row. I was about to inquire how they could manage to consistently laugh like fiends each time they saw Stu dress up like Latke Man, but stopped short upon realizing that they could easily turn the question back on me. You see, I’m no stranger to repetition myself, having managed to spend Thanksgiving on Hilton Head Island every year since I was in first grade.

My family always looks forward to our November return to South Carolina — where we unfailingly celebrate the holiday on Friday rather than Thursday — and to having fishing and sandcastle competitions and playing charades late into the night. But this annual pilgrimage represents far more to my kids than just fun. It is the makings of their greatest memories, the links between past, present and future, and the safety net that is woven out of knowing that no matter how crazy their world may feel the other 51 weeks of the year, they will spend that one glorious week, which happens to include the third Thursday in November, embedded in the familiar, the mundane, the beautiful traditions that weave our lives together year in and year out.

No wonder many psychologists believe that it is in the simple repetitions of life — not the grand black-tie events — that our children find the sense of stability and continuity they need to thrive in an unpredictable world. In other words, even if your kid is convinced that the only present he wants for Chanukah is a new, updated video-game system to replace the his old new, updated video-game system, you can rest assured that he really wants something else. This Chanukah, give your kids an extra present — one that will last far longer than the batteries in their hot new toys. Here are ideas for eight nights of rituals to help you begin to weave a lasting emotional safety net for your families, leaving them feeling as warm as the menorah’s glowing flames and strong as the courageous Maccabees for many Chanukahs to come.

Treasure Hunt Night: Make a treasure map for your kids to follow in order to find their loot for the night.

Tzedakah Night: Give your children a set amount to spend and take them to the toy store where they can pick out a gift for a needy child. Let them personally deliver it to a children’s hospital, homeless shelter or charity drop-off point.

Latke-Making Night: Whether it is peeling, washing or frying, making latkes is almost as much fun for kids as eating them.

Homemade Present Night: By stocking up on art supplies, having each family member draw a name and proceed to make a special gift for that person, you create a tradition as meaningful as it is messy.

Dreidel Showdown Night: Your family will have a “geltload” of fun taking part in an annual family dreidel tournament.

Big Present Night: OK, I may catch some flack on this one, but I support this unabashedly materialistic ritual, nonetheless.

Book Night: Reserve this night for exchanging hot reads and follow up with family reading time.

Friends and Family Night: The stories and memories swapped on this night will ultimately mean far more to your kids than the presents that will undoubtedly swapped, as well.

Sharon Estroff is a nationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist. She is a mother of four and an award-winning teacher with degrees in education and psychology. Her first book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?: The Essential 411 on Raising Modern Jewish Kids,” will be published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, in 2007.


‘Tis Never the Season for Chrismukkah

On Dec. 25, Rod Shapiro and Pat Wong will exchange Christmas and Chanukah gifts spread under a seven-foot Christmas tree. They will listen to carols sung by Johnny Mathis and Chanukah songs by the Klezmatics.

In the evening, this interfaith couple in their mid-50s, married two years, will light the menorah and invite friends to stop by their Long Beach home.

Welcome to Chrismukkah 2005, a holiday that offers greeting cards that feature a reindeer with menorah antlers and recipes for Gefilte Goose and Kris Kringle Kugel in “The Merry Mish Mash Holiday Cookbook.” Christmas tree ornaments decorated with Stars of David abound, as well as a children’s book called, “Blintzes for Blitzen.”

For Shapiro, who describes himself as culturally Jewish, Chrismukkah is a light-hearted solution to the familial conflicts that interfaith couples often face. “Personally, I think that more and more people should embrace their similarities and tolerate their differences, and Chrismukkah is a holiday that allows couples to do that,” he said.

But for others, who won’t be wishing their interfaith family and friends a Merry Mazel Tov, Chrismukkah is a superficial and commercial pseudo-holiday that presents multiple problems. And it’s compounded this year by Chanukah and Christmas coinciding on the same day, an every-19-year occurrence.

In fact, Chrismukkah created enough of a stir last year that the independent Catholic League and the New York Board of Rabbis issued a joint statement condemning it as shameful plagiarism and an insult to both Christians and Jews. The two groups will likely issue another statement this year.

“The criticism still stands,” said the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik. “I just feel it’s inappropriate to take two very distinct holidays that belong to two different faith groups and to synthesize them into one. It doesn’t respect the integrity of either one.”

And while the Board of Rabbis of Southern California will not be putting out a similar statement, Executive Vice President Mark Diamond said, “In the strongest possible terms, we would urge families and individuals not to participate in and not to sponsor these Chrismukkah festivities.”

Chrismukkah first jumped into public consciousness in a episode of the Fox TV show, “The OC,” on Dec. 3, 2003, where the main character, Seth Cohen, the son of a Jewish father and Protestant mother, decided that interfaith families should no longer have to choose between Christmas and Chanukah.

“I created the greatest superholiday known to mankind, drawing on the best that Judaism and Christianity have to offer,” he declared.

And while Chrismukkah may not yet have lived up to Cohen’s prime-time expectations, this hybrid celebration was featured for the third time on “The OC” on Dec. 15, in an episode titled, “The Chrismukkah Bar Mitz-vahkkah.”

So is Chrismukkah nothing more than a made-for-TV, faddish, one-size-fits-all holiday that will fade from memory faster than Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle-Me-Elmo? Or is it a more sinister creation that threatens to dilute the religious significance of two distinct holidays even further, trivializing them and confounding children’s sense of religious identity?

This melding and mingling of customs is nothing new. Historians trace it back to the Jewish Christians who lived in the first century C.E. And interfaith couples for ages have been quietly celebrating both holidays. Weinukkah, for example, the German celebration of both Christmas, or Weihnachten, and Chanukah, is the subject of a current exhibit in the Jewish Museum of Berlin through Jan. 29.

Perhaps out of a drive for assimilation, perhaps a desire not to be deprived of a lovely tradition, albeit not their own, generations of Jews, particularly German Jews, in this country have put up Christmas trees in their homes and called them Chanukah bushes.

Meanwhile, the number of interfaith families has continued to increase. The National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001 counts 5.2 million Jews in the United States, with 47 percent of those, since 1996, marrying non-Jewish spouses.

And while estimates of the total number of interfaith couples widely vary, sociologist Bruce Phillips, professor of Jewish communal service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, calculates the number at 624,000.

For these families, Edmund Case, president and publisher of, a nonprofit online resource for interfaith families, opposes combining elements of the two holidays.

His organization advocates raising the children of interfaith families as Jews, but he sees no problem in their participating in Christmas celebrations. “It doesn’t mean the kids won’t be Jewish; it doesn’t mean they’re rejecting Judaism,” he said.

In the Second Annual December Dilemma Survey sponsored by, two-thirds of the almost 400 self-selected respondents indicated that they planned to keep holiday celebrations separate. Additionally, 78 percent thought Chrismukkah a bad idea, while only 6 percent applauded the concept.

The Opper family of North Easton, Mass., hosts an annual Chanukah party, with latkes, cookies and games of dreidel. They also hold a separate Christmas celebration that includes such family traditions as lighting the tree, drinking hot chocolate and egg nog and making a gingerbread house.

“You lose the tradition and history of both of them trying to make a Chanukah bush out of a Christmas tree,” said Cheryl Opper, a practicing Protestant who, along with her husband, Neal, is raising their daughter Jewish.

And for 78 percent of the families responding to the survey, the Christmas celebrations are more secular than religious. Betty Bildner, who is Jewish, and John Power, a nonpracticing Catholic, have raised their three children Jewish, a decision made before they were married.

The Encino family celebrates Chanukah, but they also have a tree and a separate Christmas observance. For them, “Christmas is about giving and sharing and about getting together as a family,” Bildner said.

And to her husband, it’s a reminder of one of the happiest days of his childhood.

But for many families the distinctions are more blurry, and decisions regarding religious upbringing are often ignored until a child enters the picture. This was certainly the case for Ron Gompertz.

Gompertz, who describes himself as “a typical bar mitzvah boy from New York City,” is the son of Holocaust survivors but grew up with a Chanukah bush in the house. His wife, Michelle, the daughter of a Church of Christ minister, identifies more with Buddhism and atheism than anything. But it wasn’t until two and a half years ago, when their daughter, Minna, was born, that Gompertz, now 52, and his wife started thinking about religious issues.

As a result, the family moved to Bozeman, Mont., where in 2004 Gompertz created and launched Chrismukkah Web site (, which he first conceptualized as a way to make light of his own intermarriage.

The Web site, the subject of a current trademark conflict with Warner Bros., which produces “The OC,” serves as an online store to sell Chrismukkah cards and merchandise. It’s also a forum to publish Gompertz’ reflections on the subject, which range from whimsical to subversive, questioning the role of religion and God in the world.

“We celebrate Christmas and Chanukah separately, but laid over that is this metaphorical notion of Chrismukkah. We think about peace, love and brotherhood. It’s an attempt to reconcile rather than compete,” he said.

That concept works for Vanessa Hernandez and her husband, Joe Nierenberg, who are raising their children, 10 and 7, both Catholic and Jewish and who decorate their Oakland home with elements of both holidays. Stockings, for example, hang from a mantle that displays a menorah and dreidels.

“Chrismukkah is a trendy word and we don’t use it, but we definitely intermingle,” she said. “We do it out of respect for each other and being true to who we are.”

Gompertz’ rabbi, Allen Secher of Temple Shalom in Bozeman, supports such efforts. He sees no problem in commingling the holidays as long as the celebration doesn’t become obscene, such as people doing the hora around a Christmas tree.

But most rabbis disapprove.

“You cannot mix hot cross buns with latkes,” said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He is especially concerned with the misappropriation and misunderstanding of the holiday symbols, such as the evergreen tree, which represents the eternity of Jesus.

And it’s not only the rabbis who are troubled. The Rev. Paul Keenan, director of radio ministry for the Archdiocese of New York, said, “My real desire in all of this is to see Jews celebrate their holiday of Chanukah in as full and rich a spiritual way as they can and to be proud of that without feeling a need to adopt ours.”

Commercially, Chrismukkah might be gaining some ground. Gompertz reported that sales on his Web site are running about double of last year’s. He expects to sell about 75,000 Chrismukkah cards, with “Good Cheer With a Schmear,” a picture of four bagels with cream cheese, this year’s top seller. Still, “It’s a very small microgarage business,” he admitted.

And Elise Okrend, creator of MixedBlessing interfaith and multicultural cards, a retail and Internet business based in Raleigh, N.C., estimates sales of more than 350,000 cards this year, up from about 12,000 when she and her husband, Philip, founded the company about 15 years ago.

But spiritually, Chrismukkah remains a mystery.

“Why have any mishmash?” asked Schulweis, wondering what is drawing people, even in small numbers, to this celebration or concept, however misguided and misinformed.

“They’re looking for something, but they’re totally ignorant,” he mused.

Gompertz expressed surprise at last year’s vehement anti-Chrismukkah backlash by talk-show radio hosts and Jewish organizations.

“I’m a Jew and I’m a good Jew,” he professed.

Perhaps that’s why he’s been seriously researching the history of his European relatives. And perhaps that’s also why, during the past year, he and his wife made the decision to raise their daughter as a Jew.

Maybe that’s the real meaning — and miracle — of Chrismukkah.

Chabad Menorahs Gain Acceptance

Ten years ago, the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) sued the city of Beverly Hills to block the local Chabad house from erecting a 27-foot menorah in a public park near City Hall. Displaying the menorah — a Jewish religious symbol — on public property, the AJCongress argued, was unconstitutional.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the city, allowing Chabad to put up the large candelabra. A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed the decision.

When it comes to displaying menorahs in public places, what a difference a decade makes.

This Chanukah, Chabad-Lubavitch plans to light more than 11,000 large public menorahs, from Bangkok to Miami Beach. Those lighting the Chanukah candles won’t come strictly from the ranks of America’s Chabad Chasidim; leaders of Jewish organizations across the spectrum, eager to take part in the public celebration of the Festival of Lights, will also be lighting Chabad’s candles.

The growing acceptance of the Chabad menorahs is just one example of a broader trend: As Chabad spreads throughout the United States and the world, America’s mainstream Jewish community is increasingly willing to embrace the movement, whereas in the past many Jewish organizations preferred to keep it at arm’s length.

“I think there’s less fear and more openness on the parts of both Chabad and the broader community to support all who can reach and touch Jews,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York.

Chabad, though, said the recent past offers some indication of how far things have come — and where they may be headed.

“Chabad has not changed that much in a generation,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of the American Friends of Lubavitch. “The organized Jewish community has gone from being indifferent or harsh to being much more welcoming.”

Chabad insiders and observers cite several developments that highlight the change:

• Jewish federations around the country are funding Chabad projects, inviting Chabad rabbis to sit on their boards and committees and including Chabad synagogues in their listings of local places to pray.

• With each passing year, more U.S. Chabad houses become dues-based congregations — like most mainstream Jewish congregations — running on membership payments rather than simply on donations.

• Most Jewish groups no longer sue to prevent Chabad from erecting public menorahs.

• Chabad continues to secure support from Jews outside the movement, even non-Orthodox Jews like Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz.

The movement says its annual budget comes in at more than $1 billion, much of it raised by emissaries in the field for their own programming.

Chabad has made extraordinary efforts to reach out to Jews of every stripe, some of whom have grown to embrace the movement.

“In the market of outreach, Chabad looms large,” said Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College.

Dancing rabbis on Chabad fundraising telethons have given the movement a public face, as have the movement’s mitzvah mobiles and the army of young Chabadniks who spend days out on city sidewalks asking passers-by if they’d like to put on tefillin or sit in a mobile sukkah and shake a lulav.

“I think that Chabad and much of Orthodoxy have come of age,” Heilman said. “Orthodoxy in general is much more a part of the discussion. Within that, there’s been a recognition that Orthodoxy is not just one thing.”

Part of the reason Jewish groups were wary of Chabad was the impression that the movement was not out simply to offer Jews positive Jewish experiences, but wanted to make unobservant Jews Chabad adherents. Chabad rejects this notion, although its officials do acknowledge that they wouldn’t mind if those who come in contact with them take on more Jewish rituals.

Mama Said…

Taking relationship advice from your Jewish mother is like heeding a shiksa friend’s advice about curly hair gel. It’s not their area.

Besides, your mom has an agenda: to get you married. Sure, she wants you to be happy. But in her mind, the two may or may not coincide. Consider the following well-meaning but misguided maternal advice:

You Can’t Love Somebody Else Until You Love Yourself. Of course you can! Granted, you may not love the person in a healthy, much less reciprocal way. But you’ll think you’re in love, and the power of a delusional mind and desperate heart are a formidable combination. Besides, love and hate are far enough apart on the scale of emotions that they come full circle and become the same thing. Your self-loathing turns into other-loving, so that the more you hate yourself, the more you love the other person. Don’t wait for self-esteem to kick in before pursuing romance. That could take years of therapy and remember, you’re not getting any younger.

If You Marry for Money, You’ll Pay the Price. Not really. Money’s good and, the fact is, no matter whom you’re with, you’re bound to be disappointed eventually. Wouldn’t you rather be disappointed and rich than disappointed and broke? Think of it this way: You can be disappointed on an estate in Malibu or disappointed in a crappy, roach-infested studio apartment in Reseda. Besides, what better way to drown your disappointment than in a shopping addiction?

You Won’t Meet Anyone by Sitting Home Alone in Front of Your Computer. Actually, I’ve never met more people more quickly than by sitting home alone in front of my computer. It’s like being at a fabulous party, but looking my best (courtesy of a JDate photo taken three years ago) and not having to deal with freeway traffic or second-hand smoke. In fact, my fondest dating encounters recently have taken place from the comfort of my Aeron chair.

Just Be Yourself. Do our mothers really expect us to get to a second date by being ourselves? Will any guy show interest in a judgmental intellectual snob who visibly rolls her eyes when her date says he doesn’t know who Thomas Friedman is? On the other hand, most guys will go ga-ga over a woman who says, “No way! Me, too!” when her date declares that “Tommy Boy” is his all-time favorite movie. So if your date thinks David Spade is an underrated genius and you think David Spade is a moron, feel free to borrow your date’s opinions. If he gushes about Aqualung, gush back for the sake of simpatico. (“Aqualung? Yeah, I love Aqualung!” — even if you’ve never heard of Aqualung.) If he says his favorite movies are “A Clockwork Orange” and “Raging Bull,” there’s no need to mention that yours are “Amelie” and “Lost in Translation.” If he says he’s a vegan who doesn’t eat junk food, stop yourself from talking about your love of Big Macs and Cold Stone chocolate sundaes. (The implication being: We both like healthy food, therefore we like each other.) It’s advisable to take on alternate personalities as we try to guess what type of person might appeal to the object of our affection. Be yourself, on the other hand, and you’ll be by yourself.

If He Can Have the Milk for Free, He Won’t Buy the Cow. Our moms clearly forgot about the sexual revolution. Nowadays, no guy will marry you just for the nooky. So if you’re going to be manipulative, choose something else to withhold. Like the truth about who you really are. Because if you give him that, he’ll probably want to trade you in for a less dysfunctional cow.

Put on Some Lipstick, Mascara and a Cute Outfit When You Go Out for Your Morning Coffee — You Never Know Who You Might Run Into. Nobody wears makeup and a matching Juicy Couture get-up when they roll out of bed on Sunday mornings unless they’re Britney Spears or the Hilton sisters. If I’m all dolled up in the Peet’s line, it doesn’t matter who I run into — guys will be running away from me.

Honest Communication Is Key. Both honesty and communication can wreck an otherwise peaceful courtship. Nothing ends a relationship faster than getting the truthful answer to “What are you thinking about, sweetie?” and having him reply, “I was thinking about what the 19-year-old college student who works at Kinko’s looks like naked.”

Act Uninterested — It’s a Turn-on. A turn-on to whom? We’ve all had our objects of infatuation act uninterested, and it didn’t make us like them more — it just made us like ourselves less.

No disrespect to our mothers, but courtship rituals have changed since they were dating. So forget all their antiquated rules. Except the one about never criticizing your boyfriend’s mother, no matter what. If he secretly hates his mother, he’ll end up hating you instead for merely broaching the subject. In fact, he’ll probably accuse you of hating his mother, and say that he can’t love anyone who hates his mother, even though in truth he loves you and hates his mother. Or else he loves his mother so much that he hates you for demanding a portion of that love. Either way, you lose.

So shut up about his mother. Because this is one area Mom knows something about.

Lori Gottlieb, a commentator for NPR, is the author of “Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self.” Her Web site is


The Blessing of Bibhilu


A book’s opening chapter is crucial to setting the mood and aura for the remainder of the book’s journey. Likewise, the opening scene of a film usually helps set the tone for what will ensue.

The Passover seder is both a reader’s experience and a moviegoer’s. We sit around the table and read the haggadah, and we also witness a host of rituals. But how does the seder leader creatively capture an audience and draw it into the experience from the beginning?

My father is neither novelist nor screenwriter, but from childhood he exposed me to a Moroccan seder ritual that immediately drew all those around the table into the full experience of a seder. This ritual is affectionately known amongst Moroccans as Bibhilu.

Following the kiddush, the karpas, and the yahatz (division of the matzah), the leader takes the brass seder plate, adorned with all of the ritual items, and he begins to walk around the table, waving the seder plate over each person’s head. As the plate is being waved, the entire gathering at the seder chants in unison: “Bibhilu yatsanu mimitsrayim” (“In a hurry we left Egypt”). When my father did this, each of us wondered whether he would simply wave the plate above our heads or knock us over the head with it. This ritual created lots of positive energy — between the anticipation of your turn under the plate and the chanting in unison of Bibhilu.

Yes, it’s a lot of fun. But is there a deeper spiritual meaning, or is this ritual simply some gimmick meant to create excitement among those who might be otherwise bored?

Throughout my life, I have always celebrated the seder in Moroccan fashion, Bibhilu and all. But only a few years ago did I first see a Moroccan haggadah.

At the beginning, there was, as in all haggadot, a drawing of the seder plate, illustrating the placement of each ritual item, which generally followed the Sephardic tradition. I had always known that Sephardic Jews arrange the seder plate differently than Ashkenazim, but again, I never knew why.

The Sephardic pattern, I knew, derives from tradition attributed to the great kabbalist from Safed known as the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria). In this haggadah, the drawing not only reflected the Ari’s Sephardic arrangement, but it added something that I had never seen, something which suddenly tied together for me the logic behind the Sephardic arrangement, and the reason behind the Moroccan Bibhilu ritual. Next to each ritual item on the plate was written one of the 10 kabbalistic sefirot, the mystical dimensions describing the sacred attributes of God. The three matzahs correspond to keter (crown), chochmah (wisdom) and binah (understanding); the shank bone corresponds to hesed (kindness); the egg corresponds to gevurah (strength); the bitter herbs correspond to tiferet (beauty); the charoset corresponds to netzach (victory), the karpas corresponds to hod (splendor), the hazeret corresponds to yesod (foundation); and the seder plate itself represents malchut (kingship).

It suddenly dawned upon me that, with this mystical arrangement, the seder plate is no longer just a platter carrying a selection of ritual items. The Ari’s Sephardic arrangement transformed the seder plate into a sacred representation of God, which means that when the seder plate is waved above your head during Bibhilu, you are being blessed by the spiritual strength of the Shekhina. The body of God, as represented by the sefirot, is now being waved above your head, and for the rest of the evening, the presence of the seder plate on the table represents the presence of the Shekhina in your midst.

From then on the Bibhilu ritual suddenly meant a lot more to me, because I now understood that, in addition to drawing in the audience, the Bibhilu ritual also represented a spiritual blessing for each participant as he or she prepares to set off on the haggadah’s storytelling journey from slavery to freedom.

As an American Jew raised in a Moroccan Jewish home, the Bibhilu ritual will always be part of my life. Having experienced it from childhood, and now coming full circle to understand its meaning, I will always look at the seder plate as a source of blessing and sanctity throughout the evening. Whether you are Moroccan or not, this ritual can become a powerful way to help infuse your seder with a newfound spiritual depth.

As it turns out, my father is now in a wheelchair, so he has transferred this privilege and responsibility to me. And yes, after all of those years under the seder plate, it’s lots of fun banging my father over the head while we all chant Bibhilu.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.


Shabbat on Slopes Takes Wrong Turn


To me, skiing is almost a religious experience. When you’re flying down the back bowls, sun on your face, cool air filling your lungs and a warm feeling filling your heart, it’s like you can feel the hand of God.

Last winter, my wife and I went skiing in Deer Valley, Utah.

Deer Valley opened in 1981, and the idea was to create a luxury ski resort with every possible amenity and in the best possible taste. Everything from the incline of the slopes to the way the sun hits them has been considered. The food couldn’t be more delicious, nor the staff more solicitous. It was perfect.

On the last full day of our trip, a Friday, I went downstairs to where the ski report was posted. The report was pretty much the same as it’d been all week: “Spring conditions, 91 groomed trails, all lifts open, Shabbat services at 3:00.” Yes, Shabbat services at 3 p.m.

Deer Valley, in addition to featuring 91 trails, 21 lifts and fantastic food, had Shabbat services on the mountain at someplace called Sunset Cabin. The services were at 3 p.m., shortly before the lifts closed.

Do I go?

Sure, skiing has its spiritual side — the hand of God and all that — but I hadn’t planned on having an actual religious experience. I like Shabbat services, and I’ve found myself atop a slope or two where praying to God seemed my best bet for getting down alive. But did I really want to spend part of the afternoon — my last afternoon — at services?

We hit the mountain. Sure enough, at every lift, between the Kleenex and the urgent messages (“Hannah Silverblatt! Call Danny!”) was a sign: “Shabbat services. Sunset Cabin. 3:00.”

I’m 45, but I remember when skiing was still the domain of tall Aryan people in stretch pants. For years, of course, Jews have taken to the sport with gusto. Indeed, throughout our stay when anyone asked why the slopes were so crowded, the answer was the same: “The New York schools are on vacation.”

When I was a kid, most people still hadn’t seen a bagel, and every year I’d have to explain to my non-Jewish friends what Rosh Hashanah was. So it was quite something to have Shabbat services atop a mountain — in Utah of all places. What an advancement! Yet, the whole thing stuck in my craw.

First off, Shabbat begins at sunset. Even in Utah in March, 3 p.m. simply is not sunset. (Maybe they called it “Sunset Cabin” to distract you.) And besides, how many of these people so anxious to observe Shabbat were planning to take the following day off the slopes? Especially after they’d schlepped to Utah.

I skied all day, going back and forth on whether I would attend services or not.

Suddenly, it was 3 p.m. I was obsessed. Who went to these services? Was this, as it were, Muhammad coming to the mountain? Or had the folks at Deer Valley found a way to bring the mountain to Muhammad?

3:05. 3:10.

At 3:16 p.m., while happily shushing down a crowded slope, there it was. Sunset Cabin sat atop the snow, between verdant trees under a bright blue sky. There were no Stars of David or Hebrew letters, but I knew what it was the moment I saw it.

Perhaps it was the young woman standing in the doorway — it was standing-room only — with an expression of duty and resignation. Was she upset because she couldn’t get inside, or because she wasn’t outside on the slopes? And her resignation seemed to turn into belligerence, or judgment, as she caught my eye and my landsman’s punim outside skiing, rather than inside praying.

Should I catch the rest of the service? What was my problem, anyway?

I slowed down. And, as I avoided the skiers whooshing by — Texans? — I heard the unmistakable sound of many voices raised together, “Yitgadal, v’yitkadash, sh’mei rabbah.”

I knew what I had to do.

This is where I’m supposed to screech to a halt, whip off my skis, breathlessly stagger into Sunset Cabin — tears in my eyes, at one with my brethren, my dead ancestors, the mountain and God himself — and admit how foolish and cynical I’d been.

But, with one last, rather unfriendly look at the woman in the doorway, I sped up and skied on. I was, for lack of a better word, offended. After all, Kaddish is a serious prayer about a serious thing and the thought of intoning these beautiful and important words, then readjusting my goggles and stepping into my bindings seemed silly, stupid and sacrilegious.

Without a doubt, God and nature are a dynamite combo. But shouldn’t religious rituals have some dignity? Shouldn’t they demand some extra effort on our part? Like, say, waiting until Shabbat to have to a Shabbat service? Sure, it’s inconvenient to have a service on a ski slope after dusk; so, um, maybe the service should be somewhere else. Y’know, I’m glad that I can get Krispy Kremes at Dodger Stadium or Starbucks on United Airlines, but isn’t worship just a little different? What’s next — Kol Nidre at the ArcLight? A mikvah at The Grove? For that matter, why have Rosh Hashanah right after the kids go back to school? Let’s move it to June.

As I raced away, I thought: Was this service on the mountain about Shabbat, or was it just another amenity, no different in the end than the free ski boot storage or the famous seafood buffet? And is it really advancement to have a Shabbat service so in service to its surroundings? (3 p.m.? Kaddish, 16 minutes into the service?) Actually, perhaps the greatest sin of this Shabbat service on this most tasteful of mountains was that it was, in fact, just plain tacky.

For sure, I think it’s possible to find God when you least expect to. Like when you’re flying down the back bowl of a beautiful mountain with the wind whipping through your hair. But I don’t think that God should have to look for you there, too.

I love skiing. And I love being Jewish. But to me, religion is not a skiing experience.

David T. Levinson has written for a variety of media outlets. His newest play, “Early Decision,” will have its world premiere in October.


Give Your Sukkah a Shot of Style

After the high of the High Holidays, twice-a-year Jews hang up their kippot for another 354 days, or so, and in the process miss out on the lesser-known treat of Sukkot. While not a "High" holiday anymore, Sukkot used to be one of the big three back in the time of the First Temple. The harvest festival was one of the shalosh regalim, or three pilgrimage holidays, when Jews would bring offerings to the Temple. While this ritual has changed, the main one — that of dwelling in a sukkah, or booth, as our ancestors did in the wilderness — remains. It’s a commandment from Leviticus — we’re required to eat our meals in the sukkah, to actually live in it as much as possible, for eight days.

Besides it being a mitzvah, the idea of living closer to the natural world for a period can have spiritual resonance. And with stars visible through the foliage of your roof, and endless possibilities for festooning your sukkah with lights, flowers and traditional fruits, bringing family and friends together for an elegant outdoor dinner party only adds to that. For those of us who are used to thinking of the sukkah as something that more resembles a hut with Hebrew school decorations thrown on the walls haphazardly, here we offer tips for what is decidedly not your momma’s sukkah — and it turns out, it only requires a little more planning to create.

Theme-ing the Cube

Deciding on one thematic element is the first step to creating a cohesive design for your sukkah, according to interior designer Miriam Montag, owner of Memphis Lily Interiors in Los Angeles.

Floral, fruit or harvest themes are all good choices, according to Montag. Last year, she said, she used plastic grapes.

"I draped the grapes … and clustered them down each pole and then linked them around the sukkah with vines," she said.

A friend of Montag’s chose a different unifying element: "She draped tulle from the center out, kind of like a tent feeling, and tulle draped down the sides," Montag said.

Rita Milos Brownstein, author of "Jewish Holiday Style" (Simon & Schuster, 1999) goes one step further. Her book offers suggestions for three very disparate sukkot: a "garden sukkah," a "sukkah by the sea" (which needn’t literally be seaside) and "the penthouse sukkah." From the materials she uses to build the sukkah, to the booth’s interior, each design is customized according to theme: lattice and pine and floral bounty for the garden variety, bamboo and canvas for the seaside sukkah and silvery beads and corrugated fiberglass for the penthouse.

"The biggest key is the more the better. You need to make it bold … and stick with one theme," Montag said.

Schach Talk

Impossible to pronounce, but essential to your sukkah is the schach, or roof covering. While the walls of your sukkah can be made of just about any material — the only directive is that they should be solid enough to inhibit the wind from blowing out a candle — the schach, by contrast, must be porous enough to be able to see the stars from inside the dwelling. It also must be made of items that grow from the ground, and cannot become tamei (ritually unclean), but can no longer be attached to the ground, either. Only organic materials may be used on the roof, which means no staples or nails.

Brownstein offers various suggestions depending on the theme. A roof of aromatic young pines or branches accented with bunches of dried herbs or hydrangeas is perfect for a garden feel, she writes. Roll-up mats, which are a traditional choice, "have a clean, uncluttered, almost Japanese-screen flavor," as is bamboo, which "gives your sukkah a rustic, island look," she writes.

Here in Los Angeles, palm fronds abound and are another attractive way to crown your sukkah, and Montag stresses that any of these choices work beautifully.

"It’s all preference, and what’s easiest…. Whatever it is, you have to work it into your theme and it’s you," she said.

Wall Flowering

Your walls, unlike your ceiling, are literally a blank canvas. Both Montag and Brownstein suggest splatter painting canvas walls for a kind of modern art look as one option — one the kids will no doubt want to help out with, as well.

Montag again stresses practicality as the essential guide in choosing the material for the walls of your sukkah, which can be the same material as your roof. (Jewish law only requires that there be between two and a half and four walls.)

Brownstein suggests various options for different effects. For a Japanese-inspired look, she writes, opaque fiberglass walls give "the look of shoji screens," while "clear plastic sheeting is inexpensive and gives your sukkah a greenhouse look."

Woven lattice is Brownstein’s choice for the garden-themed sukkah, with plastic sheets stapled to the outside of the walls to block the wind, and canvas or ripstop nylon for the "sukkah by the sea."

"If you use white nylon sides," she writes, "tie back your entrance flap for a look of casual elegance."

Decorations and Centerpieces: Be Fruitful and Multiply

Building on the theme through decorations is essential. For a harvest motif, Montag suggests placing wheat stocks on either side of entry, and then around the sukkah.

As many florists have taken to doing these days, Montag suggests incorporating fruit like grapes or pomegranates — which are two of the sheva minim (seven species of fruit associated with the land of Israel in the Bible) — with flowers, for distinctive centerpieces.

Hanging fruit and spice garlands, flanking your entryway with appropriate potted plants or flowers, or decking the ceiling with silvery beads are some of Brownstein’s suggestions for adding atmosphere.

Night Light

Lighting, of course, adds the final touch of ambiance. In some sukkot she’s visited, Montag said, "sometimes you have this ugly bulb," but "run twinkle lights all around the sukkah and you don’t even need other lights."

She also suggests Moroccan lanterns, which come in all shapes and sizes.

"You can get one big one, or you can do three" she said. "They’re fun to mix and hang at different heights. They’re not cheap, but it’s an investment you use in your sukkah forever."

Brownstein suggests a romantic candelabra, "taking care to use short votives that won’t place the flames too near the greenery," or seaside, Chinese bamboo lanterns inside and tiki torches outside as "a dramatic way to welcome your guests at night."

Kids Stuff

There is, of course the question of what to do about the children’s decorations. Montag is quick to emphasize that the kiddie art doesn’t have to be trashed to achieve a look of elegance.

"You should have your kids’ stuff hanging there. That’s the beauty of Sukkot," she said.

Of her mother’s sukkah, Montag said, "The whole thing is decorated with things that we made over the years," and added to avoid a messy, haphazard look, a unifying element once again does the trick. "You can run ribbon around. You can use gold ribbon … to hang all the same little decorative things."

Brownstein notes that with all of the decorations you make to hang in your sukkah, "most important, share the fun and creativity with the ones you cherish. These are the rituals that create the memories."

Ease Your Kids Into Holiday Services

I was tired, I was bored and I hated wearing pantyhose. I stood up and sat down at the right times, and even hummed along to the some of the prayers. But in my head I was replaying scenes from my favorite movies and wishing I was home playing video games.

Ah, the High Holidays. The mere words conjure up memories of long services, uncomfortable clothing, endless Hebrew passages, Mom and Dad dozing off, semi-fasting against my will, and, most of all, not quite taking in what the holidays were all about. What can I say? I was a kid.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to make Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur more accessible to your kids. Find out if your synagogue offers special children’s or family services. I remember my childhood synagogue had separate services for kids. Our rabbi would illustrate important holiday concepts by telling entertaining stories about a character he called "Charlie Brownstein." We saw the shofar up close, sang fun songs and sat with our friends. Every Rosh Hashanah, I still wonder whether Charlie Brownstein has been inscribed in the Book of Life.

If your synagogue does not offer such alternatives, keep your child’s limits in mind. If the services are rather lengthy, you might consider taking short breaks with your children, so they aren’t overwhelmed or bored. (I met my closest Hebrew school friends in the bathroom and lobby areas during the High Holidays!) Besides giving your children a breather, these breaks can be an opportunity for them to meet other kids in the Jewish community.

If you feel your children are too young for services, some synagogues offer other kinds of children’s programs. A few years ago, I volunteered to help with one such program. I read holiday-related picture books to a group of rambunctious 6-year-olds. Afterward, all of the volunteers put on a Rosh Hashanah puppet show for the kids, using characters from Disney movies. Who knew that Snow White and Ursula from "The Little Mermaid" were Jewish?

Hebrew-heavy services can be alienating to young kids if they don’t speak the language or know some of the prayers. If you know the prayers, you might try saying or singing them to your kids ahead of time, so they recognize them during the service. As a kid, I can recall singing along to the Shema for the first time and feeling a sense of belonging.

If "dressing up" is an issue, nip it in the bud early. I remember the endless fights my mom had with my little brother, who insisted on wearing jeans and a T-shirt, rather than the adorable suit my mother picked out weeks before. Take your children shopping, and let them have a say in choosing their holiday outfits. Remember, if a garment is itchy or uncomfortable in the store, expect it to be 10 times worse on the big day.

Make the holidays more personal by explaining them to your children. Tell stories from your own childhood memories of synagogue. For Rosh Hashanah, talk about your hopes for the New Year. For Yom Kippur, talk about the things for which you’d like forgiveness. Clearly, you may not want to share all your reflections, but encouraging your children to express some of theirs will help them understand what both holidays are all about.

Create your own holiday rituals. When I was in second grade, a religious-school teacher served my class apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah. She even sang a song about it, which I remember to this day. For Yom Kippur, try breaking the fast with foods your children like, to create a positive association with the holiday.

When it comes to fasting, you probably know what’s best for your children. If they are mature enough to handle the fast, be sure to explain why we fast on Yom Kippur. It’s probably best not to force them to fast, if they are resistant. I was told that I had to fast. The result? I hid in the closet and chowed down a bag of Doritos. I avoided fasting for several years after that because of my resentment. The old "because I said so" doesn’t carry a lot of weight, and kids may rebel, as I did.

Finally, remember that your kids are going to take cues from you. If you zone out or sleep during services, your kids will get the message that the High Holidays are unimportant. Find a way for your children to take an interest in at least one aspect of the holidays, be it the shofar, the food, a song, a charismatic rabbi or talking to God. If you can establish a connection, the High Holidays will become a meaningful and permanent part of your children’s lives.

This is a reprint of a Jewish Journal article published Sept. 14, 2001.

Are Cell Phones Ever Cool in Shul?

A few weeks ago, I was at a funeral at Mount Sinai in Glendale when, at one of the most emotional moments, a cell phone rang loudly for several minutes, humming a Broadway tune. Attendees fumbled into their handbags and pockets to check if they were the culprit. The cell phone offender was one of the children of the deceased who was receiving a long-distance call from his family. The rabbi paused for a few seconds, looking irritated, and then continued his sermon. The call had interfered with a solemn moment during which silence is essential.

I started to wonder if cell phones had become as common during Jewish rituals as they are at movies and at manicurists.

Cell phone etiquette, particularly in public locations (movie theatres and synagogues among others), is an educational task that has been undertaken by the very companies that produce cell phones. Sprint and Verizon are two of the companies that have hallmarked "cell phone education months" and partnered with movie chains and other outlets to remind people to be cell-polite. What ever happened to common sense? I guess it was too early for Emily Post to have a chapter on cell phones.

Should rabbis run a "no-cell" commercial (sponsored by Manischevitz) like in movies and post big "verboten cell" black/red signs around the synagogue? What will rabbis do during the upcoming Jewish High Holidays to ensure that people can pray in silence and reach non-buzzed introspection.

An Orthodox friend of mine who davens at Chabad in Hancock Park tells me that cell phone interruption is a problem during daily minyans but that the use of cell phones during holidays is strictly prohibited. During daily minyans, he said that the interruptions are frequent. Just this morning, two phones rang on the bimah. But, he is adamant that "those things" don’t happen during Shabbat and the holidays in Orthodox shuls.

"People won’t even call from the bathroom?" I ask.

My Conservative and Reform friends were considerably more liberal in their cell phone plans for the High Holidays. They all agreed that at no time, should a cell be answered or used in services. But, they all admitted that at the various synagogues, people "do forget" and "it happens." There has to be quite a few "exceptions" if this happened at more than 10 shuls in the city. My Reform friends were much more comfortable about calling from the bathroom than my Conservative friends.

"The bathroom? We are not disturbing anyone who is praying. We phone on Shabbat so why shouldn’t we call on the holidays? We need to check on the kids and tell Rosa that we are on our way home to lunch."

They all agreed that vibrate mode was OK and that they would be reluctant to leave their phones in the car. And that cell phones should not be confiscated during the security check. What if there is an emergency?

And, as you think of emergency, your mind drifts toward Jewish doctors. I mean could there be an emergency when so many of them are in the sanctuary at once. Beyond doctors, everyone else should turn off their cell phones before entering the sanctuary. A Conservative usher believes that even vibrate can be disturbing as some vibes are louder than others. A doctor can place his cell on vibrate. However, most doctors carry a pager (again on vibrate) and the pager is only used to contact them in case of an emergency. They usually can go out to the street to return the call. However, most Jewish doctors are not on call during the High Holidays and, therefore, are only contacted in extreme emergencies.

Rabbis agree that the biggest cell phone culprits in synagogue are teens and children who are either bored or unaware of customs. Many L.A. bambini seem to have their own cell phones and do not seem to know the difference between a regular day and a High Holiday. It is important for parents to discuss the decorum of the holiday and being in a public place and the use of the cell phone.

All the rabbis I spoke to did say that they felt that it was essential to have a clear posted sign on cell phone use and to remind people from the pulpit several times during the day to turn off their cells.

So I keep my fingers crossed that this year, as I attempt to go into deep prayer there will not be a Broadway tune or "Hava Nagila" chanting in the background. The High Holidays are a time of reflection. Being quite liberal, I will not be critical if in the bathroom, I do hear someone talking about what is for lunch.

So unless, you are waiting for a direct call from God, there should be no phones in the synagogue.

Shavuot: A Link to God

"Why is the festival of Shavuot called ‘The time of the giving of our Torah’ and not the time of the receiving of our Torah? Because the giving of the Torah happened at one specified time, but the receiving of the Torah happens at every time and in every generation. — Rabbi Meir Alter of Ger

"Each generation must make its own way back to Sinai, must stand under the mountain and re-appropriate and re-interpret the revelation, in terms that are both classical and new. We recognize change as part of the continuing process of tradition itself." — Rabbi Gerson Cohen

The least-known of the Shalosh Regalim (the three pilgrimage festivals) is Shavuot, the two-day Festival of Weeks. A victim of schedule,Shavuot

comes just before the beginning of summer — unable to fit into the vacation schedule of most contemporaries and lacking any special rituals to excite widespread observance.

In the biblical period, Shavuot celebrated the conclusion of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. Jews from all over Eretz Yisrael would bring their bikkurim (first-fruits or new grains) to the Temple in Jerusalem, where the priests would bake them into shtei ha-lehem (two loaves of bread), which they would offer on the altar, after which the people could eat their new grain. The two days were, consequently, feast days for the entire people.

By the time of the Mishnah and the Talmud, some thousand years later, the rabbis declared Shavuot as the judgment day for fruit trees, just as Rosh Hashanah is for humanity, thereby building on the centrality of the harvest. Additionally, Shavuot expanded beyond its agricultural origin to incorporate a historical event as well. Since the festival comes exactly seven weeks (hence its name) after the second day of Pesach, which marks the liberation of the Jewish slaves from Egypt and their wandering toward Mount Sinai, the rabbis saw Shavuot as celebrating z’man mattan Torateinu, (the season of the giving of our Torah) token and record of the special love between God and the Jewish people.

That link between Pesach and Shavuot, based on the Torah’s insistence that Shavuot occurs precisely 50 days after Pesach, follows a logic of human liberation, as well as the cycles of the calendar.

Pesach, however popular, is just a beginning: the initiation of Jewish freedom. As our ancestors were liberated from Egyptian slavery, they took their first halting steps toward freedom and independence.

No longer saddled with the burdens and oppression of Egyptian taskmasters, the Jews entered the wilderness of Sinai, experiencing their independence as little less than anarchy. Theirs was a freedom from control, a freedom from limits. Such liberty, by itself, is the freedom of adolescents, one which bridles at restraint.

Such a freedom is fine as a first step, but it ultimately cannot insure human growth, creativity and community. Rather than simply avoiding limits, mature freedom entails living up to one’s best potential, meeting responsibilities with a sense of purpose and satisfaction. Freedom fulfilled is freedom to live productively and with meaning.Just as "freedom from" finds completion in "freedom to," so the festival of Pesach initiates a process of liberation that culminates in the festival of Shavuot. The second of the three pilgrimage festivals of the Torah, Shavuot marks the coming of age and responsibility of the Jewish people, celebrating the encounter between God and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.

That moment of Divine-human commitment resulted in a formal link between the two, a brit (covenant) that bound God and the Jewish people forever. That brit received its first expression in the writings of the Torah, which has formed the core of all subsequent Jewish identity.

Shavuot, then, marks the special relationship between God and the Jews, celebrates the biblical understanding of the Jews as God’s Chosen People — a concept essential to Jewish identity, and one which has been distorted both by Jews and by non-Jews.

What does it mean to be chosen? Chosen does not mean superior, and it does not mean that God loves the Jewish people better than other people. The Bible itself records God’s love for all humanity. Being chosen does, however, imply that God loved the Jewish people first. That love is a matter of historical record: Judaism gave birth to the two monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Islam, which have spread a commitment to biblical values and knowledge through much of the world.

"To be chosen" is really a grammatical fragment. A person is never simply chosen but always chosen for something. When we say that the Jews are chosen, we mean that the Jews were selected to embody the practices and values of Judaism as expressed in the Torah and subsequent Jewish writings.

God chose us to be a role model — to demonstrate that a society of people dedicated to ritual profundity, moral rigor and compassionate action could profoundly shape the world. Jews are chosen to live Torah, nothing more and nothing less.

In the words of the siddur, "You have chosen us from among all peoples by giving us Your Torah." To the extent that we make the practices and values of the Torah real in our daily lives and in our communal priorities, we, in turn, choose God. The Torah is given anew each time we allow it to live through our deeds.

Shavuot, then, is a recommitment to our founding purpose. Each year, we remember why there is a Jewish people, why there is Judaism. On this festival, we celebrate, as did our ancestors, in wonder, the fact that God chose our people to live the mitzvot, and we renew our commitment to walk in God’s ways.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism and the author of “The Bedside Torah: Dreams, Visions & Wisdom,” (McGraw Hill).

Groups Celebrate Seders With a Cause

At Jewish Family Service’s Freedom Seder, participants read
from a haggadah that was just a little bit different. Instead of reading of the
four sons, those at the Freedom Seder read about the “four community members.”

“The wise community member asks, ‘How can we, as
individuals, and a community, address domestic violence?'”

“The wicked community member asks, ‘Why don’t they just

The focus of the Freedom Seder was liberation from domestic
violence, and it was one of several seders in Los Angeles that celebrated not
the exodus from Egypt but liberations of different kinds.

As one of the most elaborate rituals in the Jewish
tradition, many groups have co-opted the seder’s ceremony and traditions to
express their own personal freedoms — be it from violence at the Freedom Seder
or bigotry at the Interfaith Alliance’s Breaking the Silence
Muslim-Jewish-Christian seder. At the Jewish Deaf Community Center’s (JDCC)
10th annual community seder at Temple Adat Ari El, participants celebrated
being able to observe the Jewish tradition in a manner that was accessible to

The Freedom Seder was held March 30 at a secret location. It
was closed to the public to protect the identity of its participants, most of
whom were women, both Jewish and not, who had been or were still in violent

The participants took the traditional haggadah and added
their own narratives to it, like the poem, “From Withered to Freedom,” by
Marlys Nunneri, whose husband physically and emotionally abused her for 40
years and in June of 1999 shot her point-blank in the chest. Nunneri, who
survived, wrote:


“My eyes were all red,

My body black and blue.

He would always blame me,

For things I didn’t do.”


“Whether these women are Jewish or non-Jewish, they are all
celebrating the same thing,” said Kitty Glass, JFS’ outreach coordinator, who
was careful to point out that Nunneri’s case was an extreme example of domestic
violence. “They are free from being hostages in their own homes, which is how
many of the women describe it.”

A few days earlier on March 28, Rabbi Steven Jacobs from
Congregation Kol Tivkah; Dr. Nazir Khaja, president of the Islamic Information
Service; the Rev. Ed Bacon, All Saints Church in Pasadena, and Rabbi Joshua
Levine Grater, Pasadena Jewish Temple Center, hosted Breaking the Silence: A
Passover Celebration Seeking Peace and Reconciliation Seder at Kol Tikvah for
members of their respective congregations.

Like the Freedom Seder, Breaking the Silence used a revised
haggadah, one that contained excerpts from the Torah, the Quran and the
Christian Bible. One-hundred-and-eighty participants of different faiths sat
together. The aim of the seder was to show that the message of Passover is one
of reconciliation and peace, and that religion does not have to be governed by
bigoted extremists.

“Tonight’s commemoration of the seder together,” wrote Khaja
in the haggadah, “gives us the unique opportunity to come together, not blinded
by emotions and passions that have kept us divided but truly as a people moving
forward towards liberation from cynicism, mistrust and doubt.”

At the Jewish Deaf Community Center’s seder held on the
second night of Passover, the celebration was on being able to enjoy the
ceremony without the inconvenience caused by disability. The JDCC’s seder was a
multimedia one, with a video service projected onto large screens. The service,
which was hosted by deaf Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, featured
voiceover narration, captions and sign language.

“For years, deaf people have had to look at their haggadah
books and try to follow the leaders or sign-language interpreters,” it says on
JDCC’s Web site. “JDCC decided to develop a user-friendly seder, allowing us to
focus on the screen without having to worry about what page we are on.”

Sharon Ann Dror, president of JDCC, communicating with The
Journal through use of a teletext telephone, said that she developed the seder
because of a lack of religious services for deaf Jews.

“The Americans With Disabilities Act [ADA] provides equal
access for deaf people. For example, at the Mark Taper Forum, they need to show
captioned movies once a week. When my kid takes a class at the park, they need
to find the money for sign-language interpreters. But the Jewish community is
not affected by the ADA, because of the separation of church and state,” Dror

Dror said that she started her organization when she saw the
way her three deaf children were being denied religious education and religious
participation because of a lack of funds.

Religious organizations “complained that there was not
enough money to pay for interpreters, so I decided to solve my own problem and
start my own program,” she said.

For more information about the Family Violence Project, call
(818) 789-1293.

For information about Breaking the Silence, call (818)

For information about Jewish Deaf
Community Center, visit

The Sedermakers

It’s not that Jeanne Weiner wanted Aunt Leonie’s Indian Tree
dishes for herself. She hadn’t used the hand-painted china in five years —
since just before her husband died — and last Passover she was on the verge of
giving the entire service for 31 to her daughter Joelle Keene, who had taken
charge of the family seder.

But when it came to actually giving up the china, she
balked. And even though this year she is making the transfer, these dishes —
more than the Thanksgiving dishes or all the furniture she gave to her
daughters — call up a wave of emotion and tears.

“I wanted to give them to her, but I couldn’t. I just had to
be ready, because I was making a statement. And that statement was that my
husband was gone and I wasn’t going to do any real entertaining of my family
anymore and it’s moved on to my children’s homes,” said Weiner, a 76-year-old
psychologist, sitting at her daughter’s dining room table, the pink and
turquoise peonies blossoming on a setting of the dishes in front of them. “It
is part of my new life, which is not as satisfying as my old life was.”

The emotions heaped on a set of seder dishes shouldn’t be

The microcosm of the seder, perhaps like no other ritual of
the year, brings into focus all the nostalgia, Jewish identity issues and
family dynamics that stay in the fuzzy background the rest of the year.

At no point are those dynamics more in focus than when it
comes time for the seder to transition from one generation to the next.

“It is a sign that things are changing, that the power of
the older generation is fading, that the end of that generation is coming and
that a new generation has to take over,” said Rabbi Nina Bieber Feinstein,
associate rabbi at Beit T’Shuva.

The question of who is making seder and how becomes symbolic
of whatever is going on in a family. Whether the transition occurs because of
death, illness, new geographic realities or simply a readiness to retire, it
means changing a ritual whose very focus is the continuity of generations.

“We in America have gotten used to handing our children over
to institutions to get their education, but this is one instance where the
family has to take a role in presenting something that is so deep and so
educational,” Feinstein said.

She suggests making the transition in stages, if
circumstances allow, and making sure that not only is the recipient ready to
take on the enormous task, but that the one giving up sedermaking
responsibilities is really ready to do so.

When Don Goor’s mother, Stephanie Goor, finally stopped
shlepping her box of seder paraphernalia — charoset bowls, kiddush cups,
candlesticks — back and forth between his home and hers, he knew she had fully
let go of making seder.

The transition started about 10 years ago, when Goor and his
partner, Evan Kent, first moved seder into their home. Goor’s mother and
grandmother still prepared much of the food and led the seder as they had for
years, with Stephanie sticking strictly to her never-changing marks in her
leader’s haggadah. And each year Stephanie brought over the box of stuff, and
for years took it back to her home.

“For a long time it was still their seder but it was in our
house,” said Kent, the cantor at Temple Isaiah in West L.A., who has been with
Goor, the rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, for 18 years. “We used the same
haggadah and had the same food, but slowly what happened was we realized that
our own friends would join us and it sort of grew and changed.”

Discussion became more spontaneous and informal, with the
hosts (both clergy, after all) taking the lead. Eventually the menu evolved,
since Kent is vegetarian, though many of the foods — mom’s knaidlach and
grandma’s farfel muffins — stayed the same.

Finally, they switched to a different haggadah, and the
transition seemed to be complete.

With change coming slowly and organically, Goor said his
mother and grandmother never felt pushed aside or left out, and always

“My mother’s way of resisting was to make these little
editorial comments along the way about how good seder used to be, or what an
unusual way of doing things,” Goor said. “My grandmother was more outspoken.
She would come out and say, ‘I don’t like this haggadah. I liked it better the
other way.'”

This year there will be another transition. Goor’s
grandmother died at 91 a few years ago, and his mother died just a few months
ago at the age of 71. Seder will be a low-key affair this year.

“I’m avoiding it totally. I keep pretending it will happen
on its own,” Goor said.

For many, who is not at the seder is as important as who is.
Beyond the rawness of missing loved ones, the cycling of the generations can
have a strong psychological impact on those who take over — even when it is not
because someone has died.

“Before, there was this buffer between you and your own
mortality, but then when you take ownership, you are the matriarch, you are the
patriarch and there is no buffer between you and the end of your cycle,”
Feinstein said.

It was a slow transition for Jeanne Weiner’s family after
Beryl, her husband of 27 years, died four years ago.

Beryl had been central to the family seder since they moved
to California from New York more than 30 years ago, after Weiner’s first
marriage ended.

“Beryl had a real gift for drawing people out and making
them comfortable so they wanted to talk,” said Keene, the music teacher and
newspaper adviser at Shalhevet High School, who lives in Beverlywood with her
husband and three teenagers.

After Beryl died, the family seder sputtered a bit, not only
because of Beryl’s death, but because Keene and her family had become much more
observant, scaring away her two sisters and her mother from a seder that they
imagined would start late and take forever.

But eventually they gave it a try.

“Last year was the first time everyone came and we had a
really big seder here. I remember feeling that this was like the first real
one, because everyone was here,” Keene said.

Weiner still does some of the cooking — she’s used the same
matzah ball recipe for decades, and the chopped liver stays on the menu.

Keene has tried to replace the haggadah she and Beryl
composed when she was 18, but nothing has seemed quite right yet. With cousins
ranging in age from a baby to teenagers, and religious observance covering the
spectrum, coming up with the right balance, timing and tone is challenging.

But Keene is determined to make it work.

“I feel pressure to make seder really wonderful — it should
be terrific, fun, uplifting, interesting, relaxed, memorable — the list of
adjectives is so long,” Keene said. In other words, to make seder just like

But Weiner encourages her daughter to create a seder that is
all her own.

“I think what you are trying to — and have — emulated is the
feeling rather than the fact of our seders — the lasting impression of it,
which was that you loved it and it was good, and that is what you are
recapturing. But you are creating your own, and frankly that is as it should
be. It’s nice to pass on dishes, but do things in your home the way you want
them to be done in your home,” Weiner said.

Keene is happy to make it her own, but like any daughter of
any age, still wants mom’s approval.

“Is there anything good about the seders here?” Keene asks
her mom. “You said the food was good.”

“No, I didn’t even say the food was good,” Weiner answers,
deadpan. “I said what was good about the seder was that the family is here.
That is the most important thing.”

“Well, you said I do a good job on the table,” Keene

“You said it and I agreed. Don’t misquote me,” her mother
fires back.

They go at it for a few more minutes, until finally Weiner
caves in with the smile and love that was there all along.

“The seder is warm and friendly and welcoming and the food
is delicious. The family is here and the table is beautiful. What more could
anyone ask?” Weiner says.

“Thanks,” says Keene, with a relieved laugh. “Thank you. I
needed that.”  

A Superhero Dreams

When friendly strangers find out I’m a convert to Judaism, they want to know why.

And I’ve learned to be ready.

I have two stories: One is

respectable, and one involves comic books and video games.

The first is the one I bring out for casual conversations, for puzzled strangers and for grandparents. It fits in a neat little box, and people nod their heads in an understanding way when I’m talking, so it must make sense.

It goes like this: I asked my best friend (not a Jew) about Judaism, and he recommended I read Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin’s “Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism.”

I did. With a few more books under my belt, I signed up for an Introduction to Judaism class at Temple Beth Sholom; it happened to be the shul closest to my old apartment.

I called the front desk at Temple Beth Sholom and said I wanted to talk to a rabbi about converting. That’s how I met Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell. He said he didn’t turn people away from Judaism, because he knew how wonderful it was for him. He expected me to study, to experience the ritual and to bring Judaism into my life. I said I was game.

Donnell and I looked at the prayer service and talked about what the prayers meant to me. He encouraged me to look at Shabbat and what I could include or exclude to make the day holy. Most important, he helped turn my book learning into emotion and communion with God.

“How do you feel?” he would ask after I described things I’d done. That’s how Judaism traveled from my brain to those places in my stomach and heart that make me cry and laugh.

I explained my interest in Judaism to my parents — an atheist and an agnostic — and they both thought it sounded like a good idea for me.

After more than a year of study, I converted. There was a beit din with Donnell and Rabbis Stephen Einstein and Heidi Cohen to determine my seriousness about conversion. I went to Tarzana for a ritual circumcision (I was already circumcised). Finally, I went to the ritual bath at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Some guy saw me dunk naked (he was a rabbinic student making sure I did it right). And when everyone had left the room I got out of the mikvah and said the “Shehecheyanu” privately. I knew I was a Jew. I hadn’t believed in God, and now I did.

So, that’s the story I’d tell you if I met you on the street. But if we crossed the street to a coffee shop, and the subject stayed on Judaism, well, I might come clean: I converted to Judaism because of superheroes and video games.

When I was a kid, I read comic books (OK, I still do). I wanted fantastic powers to use for good deeds.

Sadly, it was no dice on being Superman, cape flapping in the breeze, rescuing innocents from scowling super villains. Like all of you, I am left with the more mundane abilities of humankind: smiles to make someone feel better, an ear to listen when someone needs to talk, a hand to help others, and a heart and a voice to thank God.

The rabbis knew the power of those little things in life and what a difference they could make. They had rules for putting on a happy face, helping the less fortunate and blessing God for every beautiful thing in the world (and there so many).

Then, about the time I read that Prager and Telushkin book, I was playing a video game called “Morrowind.” In it, I played a freed slave brought to an island kingdom to perform work for the king, but the most amazing thing to me was a bit of a side quest: joining the native religion. I performed pilgrimages to holy sites and brought food to the poor and healing potions to the sick. Doing good for good’s sake triggered that childhood yearning in me that said “Life is for doing good and being good, in big ways and little ways.”

I had always tried to be good and compassionate, but I realized I wanted a path to lead a good life, and Judaism provided the right one for me. There’s where the story ends. Well, really, it doesn’t end at all. I’m a Jew now, trying to be a better Jew and bring more good to the world. I even dream of being a rabbi someday. That’s about as super heroic as I’ll get.

I also know that if you let your tallit blow in the breeze, it makes for a great cape.

Brendan Howard lives in Anaheim and is an editor for a video trade magazine.

The Next Generation Adds Its Own Touch to Seder

When newer, color versions supplanted the 1923 Union Haggadah Revised, Tamar Soloff’s brother and father hoarded enough copies of the original to ensure that their extended families would have a supply of their own.

"That was the haggadah from my childhood," Soloff said. After marrying Martin Brower and starting a family, they departed from Westchester for Newport Beach, taking half of the haggadah stash with them.

Again this month, the Browers will rely on the small, out-of-print books at seders for their family and their Temple Bat Yahm chavurah. Retelling the story of the Jews’ flight from ancient Egypt in English and Hebrew, its pages also transport Brower back to earlier times with songs like "Behold It Is the Spring Tide of the Year" and "Who Knows One?"

"Tradition is what you’re used to," said Brower, who served as the choir director in the Westchester synagogue of her father, Rabbi Mordecai Soloff. "It has the music that I grew up with, and my children grew up with."

The old cliché that change is hard is never truer than when it comes to the Passover seder — whether that means changing haggadah, menu, location or host.

The microcosm of the seder, perhaps like no other ritual of the year, brings into focus all the nostalgia, Jewish identity issues and family dynamics that stay in the fuzzy background the rest of the year.

At no point are those dynamics more in focus than when it comes time for the seder to transition from one generation to the next. The transition occurs for any number of reasons — an aging parent is simply ready to retire, or in more dire circumstances falls ill or passes away. Or perhaps someone moves out of town, or makes religious changes and wants to make the seder her own way.

The question of who is making seder and how becomes symbolic of whatever is going on in a family. Who is not at the table and why — death, illness, conflict, geography — is as important as who is. This intensity of emotion, no doubt, has as much to do with Pesach’s being the most observed Jewish rites of the year as does the rabbi’s brilliance in crafting the rituals of the seder.

Add to that the notion that any change is hard, especially one that is so laden with associations, and you begin to understand why something like using a childhood haggadah becomes so important or passing on a set of seder dishes can serve up a hearty portion of emotion.

Last year, Jeanne Weiner thought she was ready to give her daughter, Joelle Keene, Aunt Leone’s Indian Tree dishes — service for 31, plus serving dishes.

But when it came to actually giving up the china, she balked. And even though this year she is making the transfer, these dishes — more than the Thanksgiving dishes or all the furniture she gave to her daughters — call up a wave of emotion and tears.

"I wanted to give them to her, but I couldn’t. I just had to be ready, because I was making a statement. And that statement was that my husband was gone and I wasn’t going to do any real entertaining of my family anymore and it’s moved on to my children’s homes," said Weiner, a 76-year-old psychologist, sitting at her daughter’s dining room table, the pink and turquoise peonies blossoming on a setting of the dishes in front of them. "It is part of my new life, which is not as satisfying as my old life was."

Adjusting to a new reality has also been part of Passover for Don Goor and his family, and it also came down to dishes.

When his mother, Stephanie Goor, finally stopped schlepping her box of seder paraphernalia — charoset bowls, kiddush cups, candlesticks — back and forth between his home and hers, he knew she had fully let go of making seder.

The transition was a slow one, starting about 10 years ago, when Goor and his partner, Evan Kent, first moved seder into their home. Goor’s mother and grandmother still prepared much of the food and led the seder as they had for years, with Stephanie sticking strictly to the never-changing marks in her leader’s haggadah indicating who got to read which part. Each year Stephanie brought over the box of stuff, and would take it back to her home.

"For a long time it was still their seder but it was in our house," said Kent, the cantor at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, who has been with Goor, the rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, for 18 years. "We used the same haggadah and had the same food, but slowly what happened was we realized that our own friends would join us and it sort of grew and changed."

Discussion became more spontaneous and informal, with the hosts (both clergy, after all) taking the lead. Eventually, the menu evolved, since Kent is vegetarian, though many of the foods — mom’s knaidlach and grandma’s farfel muffins — stayed the same.

Finally, they switched to a different haggadah, and the transition seemed to be complete.

With change coming slowly and organically, Goor said his mother and grandmother never felt pushed aside or left out, and always participated.

"My mother’s way of resisting was to make these little editorial comments along the way about how good seder used to be, or what an unusual way of doing things," Goor said. "My grandmother was more outspoken. She would come out and say ‘I don’t like this haggadah. I liked it better the other way.’"

This year there will be another transition. Goor’s grandmother died at 91 a few years ago, and his mother died just a few months ago at the age of 71. Seder will be a low-key affair this year.

"I’m avoiding it totally. I keep pretending it will happen on its own," Goor said.

It was a slow transition for Jeanne Weiner’s family after Beryl, her husband of 27 years, died four years ago.

Beryl had been central to the family seder since they moved to California from New York more than 30 years ago, after Jeanne’s marriage to Joelle’s father ended.

"Beryl had a real gift for drawing people out and making them comfortable so they wanted to talk," said Keene, the music teacher and newspaper adviser at Shalhevet High School, who lives in Beverlywood with her husband and three teenagers.

After Beryl died, the family seder sputtered a bit, not only because of Beryl’s death, but because Keene and her family became much more observant, scaring away her two sisters and her mother from a seder that they imagined would start late and take forever.

But eventually they gave it a try. Last year the whole family was together again — with adjustment and accommodations to new religious realities, kids of many ages and the absence of Beryl’s guidance.

"Last year was the first time everyone came and we had a really big seder here. I remember feeling that this was like the first real one, because everyone was here," Keene said.

Weiner still does some of the cooking — she’s used the same matzah ball recipe for decades, and the chopped liver stays on the menu. Not only do the plates and bowls come from her, but so does the sense of style and care with which the table is set, and the general love of entertaining she passed to her three daughters.

"Those are things that transitioned down the generations very seamlessly, especially since my mother is here to help us and to congratulate us when we get it right and correct us when we get it wrong," Keene said.

Keene, who is now Orthodox and uses the full text of the haggadah, has tried to replace the haggadah she and Beryl composed when she was 18, but nothing has seemed quite right yet. With kids ranging in age from a baby to teenagers, and religious observance covering the spectrum, coming up with the right balance, timing and tone is challenging.

But Keene is determined to make it work.

"I feel pressure to make seder really wonderful — it should be terrific, fun, uplifting, interesting, relaxed, memorable — the list of adjectives is so long," Keene said. In other words, to make seder just like Mom.

But Weiner encourages her daughter to create a seder that is all her own.

"I think what you are trying to and have emulated is the feeling rather than the fact of our seders — the lasting impression of it, which was that you loved it and it was good, and that is what you are recapturing," Weiner said. "But you are creating your own, and frankly that is as it should be. It’s nice to pass on dishes, but do things in your home the way you want them to be done in your home."

Keene is happy to make it her own, but like any daughter of any age, she still wants Mom’s approval.

"Is there anything good about the seders here?" Keene asks her mom. "You said the food was good."

"No, I didn’t even say the food was good," Weiner answers, deadpan. "I said what was good about the seder was that the family is here. That is the most important thing."

"Well, you said I do a good job on the table," Keene submits.

"You said it and I agreed. Don’t misquote me," her mother fires back.

They go at it for a few more minutes, until finally Weiner caves in with the smile and love that was there all along.

"It’s warm and friendly and welcoming and the food is delicious. The family is here and the table is beautiful. What more could anyone ask?" Weiner says.

"Thanks," says Keene, with a relieved laugh. "Thank you. I needed that."

Andrea Adelson contributed to this article.

Menopause Goes Mainstream

After years of being talked about in hushed tones as “the change of life” — or not being talked about at all — menopause is now in the spotlight. Two recent plays, “Is it Hot in Here … Or Is it Me?” and “Menopause the Musical” literally put menopause center stage. A support group at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centers, called “Red Hot Mamas,” is part of a nationwide program. There’s even a World Menopause Day.

So it’s no surprise that the topic is also being explored in a Jewish context as women increasingly look to their tradition for meaningful ways to mark this transition.

“Jewish tradition has been silent for a lot of years about menopause and other biological passages that women go through, and the losses and stresses that these passages represent,” said Rabbi Debra Orenstein, spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana.

“In the last 25 to 30 years, we’ve begun to fill in some of these gaps. Menopause touches on getting older, on loss of fertility, on mortality and femininity. Judaism has a lot to teach about these themes.”

Using Jewish sources and existing traditions, rituals have been created to recognize menopause as well as childbirth, abortion, miscarriage, retirement and a host of other biological milestones and significant life events that have not traditionally been formally acknowledged. While many women are creating their own ceremonies, an increasing number of books provide suggested formulas and inspirational readings. Ceremonies can range from a simple blessing to an elaborate seder.

“Many menopause rituals draw on Pesach metaphors, and many use mikvah. There are also menopause prayers based on new moon blessings and tkhines [Yiddish women’s prayers],” noted Orenstein, who edited “Lifecycles Volume 1: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones” (Jewish Lights Pub, 1998). Examples of seder-based ceremonies can be found on the Web site One incorporates expanded meanings of such Pesach symbols as the four cups of wine, the four questions, the shank bone and matzah.

Regarding the middle matzah, author Shoshana Silberman writes, “One section will stand for a part of me that is gone. The other section will stand for what lies ahead. These parts will be united at the end of my journey.”

Other ceremonies focus on the mikvah.

“More and more women are discovering the mikvah as part of marking — of moving from one stage of their lives to another,” said Penelope Oppenheimer, supervisor of the Rabbinical Assembly’s mikvah at the University of Judaism. “Mikvah represents the womb of the Jewish people. So when you come to the mikvah you’re actually being reborn, which opens itself up to the idea that you are emerging into a new self. It isn’t a matter of losing things, but of going toward something that’s new and exciting and different … and that has worth as a Jewish experience.”

In addition to ceremonies around Passover and the mikvah, women are creating their own Jewish interpretations. Speech therapist Linda Kaufman created and participated in a midlife ritual along with five other women as part of a class at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, N.Y.

“We looked at the roles we’d played up to this point in our lives, and what we wanted to commit ourselves to [now],” Kaufman said. “I thought it was transforming.”

As a result of her experience, she helped start a Lifecycles Havurah for women at Makom Ohr Shalom.

So why has it taken this long for Judaism to recognize such integral moments of women’s lives? Both Oppenheimer and Orenstein agree that pointing to a patriarchal society is too simplistic. Oppenheimer says the lack of rituals around menopause may have resulted from the “inherent value of modesty at a time when menopause was considered a very private matter.”

Orenstein noted that menopause is a relatively modern phenomenon. Women continued to have children throughout their lives, which were much shorter in ancient days. But in our time, the lack of recognition of such events as miscarriage or menopause has caused many women to suffer in silence.

“Making ritual available takes away any aspect of shame,” Orenstein said.

She believes that rituals for these occasions “provide a communal way to address” such major life transitions.

Orenstein said there is no “standard” menopause ritual at this time because it hasn’t had time to evolve. By contrast, naming ceremonies for girls have been occurring much longer and versions are offered by the Reconstructionist, Conservative and Reform movements.

“It wasn’t until the 1998 edition that the Conservative rabbi’s manual offered a full-blown ceremony for naming a baby girl, as well as prayers for grieving miscarriage and stillbirth,” Orenstein said. “My hope is that the next edition will include prayers for [getting older] and menopause, too.”

In the meantime, she said, women who sit down to create their own rituals learn about and forge a stronger link with their tradition. And that’s something worth celebrating.

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.

Lights Were Last to Go

My family never went to church but celebrated Christian
holidays by putting up a Christmas tree in December and hunting for Easter eggs in the spring. I had lots of fun as a child
and counted myself lucky that I didn’t have to spend long, boring hours at
church like the other kids.

I played in my backyard on hot summer days while the other
kids in the neighborhood went off to vacation Bible school.

My mom was a fallen Catholic and my dad was religiously
unaffiliated. I have a picture of my mom and the five kids lined up in front of
a big pink Lincoln in the mid-1950s on the one Easter Sunday we went to church.
I don’t know why we went that one time, I never asked.

When I grew up I kept on in my unaffiliated way — until I
fell in love with a Jewish man and we got married. We began our intermarried
life together celebrating both holidays.

I hung the colorful Christmas lights on the front of the
house and decorated the tree with ornaments I had since childhood. My new
husband lit the candles on the menorah and placed it in the window.

I soon began to realize there was a big difference in our
approach to our respective holidays. Because my Christian observances were
limited to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I never stopped to think of the
meaning behind the rituals. My husband understood the meaning of the candles he
lit each night during Chanukah and why he fried the latkes in hot oil. He knew
the history of his people and understood his traditions.

As my husband lit the Chanukah candles and sang the
blessing, I knew those eight candles meant more to him than my myriad strings
of red, green and white lights. I felt drawn to his religion and wanted to know

After 17 weeks of conversion class, successful examination
by the beit din (Jewish court of law) and submersion in the mikvah, I became a
Jew. I gratefully embraced the faith and traditions of my adopted tribe. I sold
my beloved Christmas dishes to a lovely Christian woman who promised to give
them a good home. The strings of lights were given to Goodwill, along with the
ornaments, except for the one I made out of sawdust and glue in first grade.

The rabbis taught me that becoming a Jew is a process. I
found it to be true; as I celebrated the rituals in my home with my husband,
they became imbued with meaning.

Christmas, however, with its food, songs, trees, lights,
gifts and sentimentality, is hard for a new convert to ignore.

I missed the pine scent from the tree and placed my menorah
in the window with the tiny candles shining brightly, while I looked at the
Santa sleigh coming in for a landing on my neighbor’s roof, with huge
spotlights that lit it up like an airport runway.

Over the years, the smell of latkes sizzling in the oil on a
dark winter night replaced the aroma of evergreen and gingerbread. The red and
green wrapping paper was replaced with blue and silver wrapping paper. The
miracle of the oil burning in the newly dedicated Temple was an image that
brought comfort during the dark season of the year.

I still enjoy Christmas — from afar. I sing along with
Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow’s Christmas CDs in my car. I still bake some
special cookies that I made with my mother and grandmother. I still struggle to
get my latke’s crisp on the outside and hot and steamy (not raw and greasy) on
the inside.

In December, the two major American religions celebrate a
miracle and symbolize with it with light. I place my menorah in the window and
think about the thousands of Jews who have lit them before me and will continue
to light them after I am gone. I smile as I look at the big Christmas displays
and heartily respond, “Merry Christmas” to my Christian friends, knowing in the
deepest part of my soul that I am a Jew. Â

Kathleen Vallee Stein is a freelance writer who lives in Monrovia.

Finding Community

Synagogue is never mentioned in the Torah. — Leo Rosten

Like many unaffiliated Angelenos between 30 and marriage, I face a problem every Rosh: How to benefit from this diverse Jewish community while remaining a sort of post-sect/noninstitutionalized member of the family. Intending to find and feel the most righteous things I can, I plan on attending four or five houses of worship over the 10 days of atunement (a word I heard from a New Yorker suggesting letting 3,000 shofars boom at Ground Zero as a wake-up cry).

Where can a single, grazing Jew-without-portfolio go to seek some awe and a cheap place to pray? The first of Tishrei will find me among redwoods in a sloping garden behind the Zen Center of Los Angeles on Normandie Avenue. A shul grows in Koreatown!

The rabbi there is given to delightfully long, serene silences. He lets the smell of the damp trees and a paper handout with a Bal Shem Tov story awaken something within us. What is it about the “Avinu Malkeinu” that taps into our collective unconscious so sacredly? Family memories overwhelm me as the rabbi talks about 2,600 years ago, when Jeremiah saw a friend crying after the destruction by the Babylonians and exhorted to him: “You have your life!”

I wonder what the neighborhood thinks when they hear the blast of the shofar, but I don’t get paranoid about it. As a breeze blows through the Normandie garden, women pull shawls over the heads of their babies, making them look like tiny Muslims. I’ll take that as a good sign.

On Tashlich I like to take part in an annual tradition on the Santa Monica-Venice border. Everyone on the Westside goes down to the sea to cast off bread I believe they buy at Trader Joe’s. They chant for the great ocean (“Oseh ha yam hagadol!”) and watch the gulls try to grab the hunks before the waves send thick, gooey globs — “my sins?” — back to shore. One can see chaverim from different Santa Monica houses of worship gathered on the beach north to Malibu. Imagine 100 years ago celebrating here like this. What a shtetl! Do the rituals make a community? In Jewish tradition, the community is responsible as long as even one sinner is left on earth.

Watching families dancing, singing and picnicking on the sand, I will desire the living drama of a Brechtian Jewish wife. I’ll covet one, even. Kids maybe, too.

The 3rd of Tishri is called the Fast of Gedaliah, but I don’t know what that means so will no doubt not observe. On the 9th, I’ll be at the Directors’ Guild Association on Sunset Boulevard for Kol Nidre. Theater One is usually full, so in Theater Two they beam in the rabbi on a 50-foot screen.

The Directors’ Guild influence gives the whole presentation a more dramatic flair. Just the right amount of over-the-top Hollywood progressive prayer to tickle your Yiddishkayt, or set your tuchus on edge, if you know what I mean. Announcements for seminars at Esalen (“Course books are available in the lobby”) can be way too-L.A. for all but the most nonpraying customer.

For Neilah I like to attend the Laugh Factory, just a breezy walk down Sunset Boulevard. A true “only in Los Angeles” — comedy club converted into synagogue.

Hot and packed with the poor and the humorous, the miskayt and the unaffiliated, it looks like Prague in the 1400s and smells like old sugary club hooch stuck to your shoe. The macher of the place stands in the back like my uncles Louie and Willie Kimmell used to stand at the back of their moviehouse in Royal Oak outside Detroit. There may be one joke circulating about “Bush Hashanah,” but most remains appropriately solemn and spirited and actually quite rejoicing. A folksy, guitar-accompanied “Aleinu” usually gets everyone going.

High Holiday prayer is a mix of faith and memory, openness and solace.

There will be stirring Holocaust readings, and at least one rabbi will lay into us pretty good. One may say the message of Yom Kippur is: “We are our own best destiny!” Another says Jews attend services every New Year “with so many questions.” I disagree. I think I go because this is where I know I’ll find answers. This year I can add to the Book of Life instead of just showing up on page 5764. Otherwise, why bother showing up at all? That would be so 5763, wouldn’t it?

Hank Rosenfeld is a storyteller on public radio’s “All Things Considered” and “The Savvy Traveler.”

Turn the Tide

One of the best things about being the editor of a Jewish paper is I get to meet a lot of Jews.

Looking back over the past year, I see it’s a fascinating perk of the job.

Just in the past two weeks, for instance, I danced (poorly) at the Chabad Telethon when the tote board hit $3.4 million, met with two powerful state legislators, hobnobbed with celebrities and entertainment industry machers, lunched with Israeli diplomats and Jewish professionals and educators, cocktailed with Israeli diplomats and Persian businessmen — you get the idea.

Old, young, secular, black hat, poor, rich, gay, straight, engaged, apathetic, famous and, in one case, infamous: When I say I meet a lot of Jews, I mean a lot of different kinds of Jews. It is a pleasure too few of us enjoy. As Jewish life in Los Angeles has grown and diversified, it has also become increasingly particularized.

Part of this phenomenon is reflected in the recently released National Jewish Population Survey, which shows that a majority of Jewish institutions serve a minority of Jews: synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and federations draw about 40 percent of the Jewish population, and the number of truly active participants is probably far less. That means there is a minority of Jews engaged in what we call, with increasing optimism and inaccuracy, "the Jewish community." Yet most Jews remain outside.

Even among Jews who do, as the jargon goes, "affiliate," the distance among them is great. Of this there is no measurement in the NJPS, but I can tell you anecdotally it is a common phenomenon, and a sad one.

There are 600,000 Jews in Los Angeles, and most of us get to know only one kind among them. Because we are not just Jews, but human, our knee-jerk reaction to these other Jews is to regard them as the Other. The natural result of joining one group is to look askance at all the ones you opted out of. When I told some people I spent last Sunday evening with Chabad, they regarded me as either a dupe or a traitor. I’ve told others about the preschool at Kol Ami, a gay and lesbian synagogue, where children (many adopted from the four corners of the world) discover Judaism as a faith of warmth and inclusiveness — and you’d think I was speaking of the Amalekites. The Jewish communities of greater Los Angeles rarely touch, and even more rarely interact. Many of us don’t approve of the Other, as if we are viciously competitive teams in a regional league, and our common sport is Jewish.

So there are two problems here. On the one hand, we have divided ourselves into Jews on the inside of Jewish life and Jews on the outside, the affiliated and the unaffiliated. On the other hand, within the affiliated groups, we have divided ourselves from one another.

"Do not separate yourself from the community," said the sage Hillel, "and do not be sure of yourself until you are dead." Every day I see any number of examples of us doing just the opposite.

What we don’t seem to understand is that while Judaism may offer immutable rituals and beliefs (itself a notion open to challenge), humans by nature approach faith and ritual as part of their journey through life. The extent to which we become partners in shaping and encouraging someone’s journey to be a Jewish one depends on how open we are to understanding and participating in the Other’s journey. If you want to pull your friend out of the mud, said a great rabbi, first you have to step into the mud yourself.

The nature of religious experience in our postmodern world is personal, mutable and somewhat mysterious. As our choices and freedoms expand, our varieties of Jewish experience will become even more varied. We will have to fight against our instinct to disparage the new and different. Few among us adhere to a form of Judaism that some other Jews, at some point in history, didn’t regard as treif.

Without stretching beyond our immediate Jewish community — whether that community is a mega-shul, a mini-shtiebel, a social action group or a choir — we are unwittingly participating in the diminishment of Jewish life. "If you stop dialogue and debate, you start talking to yourself," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, "and that is the first sign of insanity." It is also a ticket to self-righteousness and extremism, something we’ve seen enough of in 5763.

Meeting Jews is easy — this town is full of them. Meeting and getting to know and appreciate different kinds of Jews is a challenge, but a crucial one.

Try it once this year.

Shanah Tovah.

Remembering Dad During Days of Awe

This Rosh Hashanah brings to a close the year in which my father died. For this reason, and many others, I am grateful that the Jewish New Year is marked not by parties, but by days and weeks preceding and following of self-evaluation, quiet contemplation and prayers for blessings in the coming year.

In English, Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, are known as the High Holidays; in Hebrew, they are known as Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe). This year, more then any other, I understand those words.

When I try to think of planning a Rosh Hashanah meal — any meal — I think of my father and his joyful appetite for food and for life, and I want to stop. But the days do not stop, and the holidays roll around, and in the Jewish concept of these never-ending rituals, I found some comfort.

While looking up the dates for Rosh Hashanah, I noticed that in the Hebrew calendar, the New Year is placed in Tishrei, the seventh month of the year, instead of Nisan, the Hebrew equivalent of our January.

According to the "The Jewish Holidays, A Guide and Commentary" by Michael Strassfeld, "the presence of two New Years is not accidental, rather it grows out of a notion underlying the Jewish calendar, the notion of two kinds of time, historical and cyclic."

Historical time, Strassfeld explains, is linear movement, created by man, and set arbitrarily by clocks, calendars and our drive for progress, needs for change. Cyclical time, on the other hand, is set by nature, the timeless comfort of her seasons, and its symbol is the reoccurring phases of the moon. Strassfeld says we need both because "if historical time teaches us that to be alive is to move, cyclical time teaches us that sometimes to wait in place is more important then moving on."

And I observe in my family, through the phases of this special year, the gentle wisdom of both.

My brother, Mark, found a new job and started a vegetable garden where he grows cucumbers, pole beans, watermelons, and, my father’s favorites, brandy wine tomatoes. My sister, Susan, took to eating her meals outside, covering a corner of her yard with small white gravel and stringing white lights from the trees above, sure to reflect the moon. My brother, Jonathan, traveled to a business seminar in Boston that reminded him why he takes the overwhelming risks he does, following his entrepreneurial path like our father, but for him and his wife, Robin, so far away from home in London. My sister, Wendy, filled her yard with friends and food for her husband Yaron’s 40th birthday, and she made sure the most important people were there — his parents all the way from Israel. My mother started playing the piano at night, and in the days she created a rock garden from stones she unearthed herself.

Now, around the front corner of their home, brown earth supports sculptures of granite, like a prayer. And my brother, Harold, and his wife, Lori, are expecting their second child, bringing a new life into the New Year.

I hold my daughter even more than usual. I walk as often as I can to a park near our apartment and sit on a large flat stone near a creek, where I listen to water run over, around and under time-smoothed rocks; its flow reminding me that the cycles of days, years, death, then life, never end.

One of my father’s shining qualities was courage, so my Rosh Hashanah meal will be full of hearty foods reflecting what I’ve learned. I’ll make my mom’s delicious Stuffed Cabbage, remembering her rolling perfectly seasoned meat inside moist, pale green leaves as my father looked on, talking of how his mother also made wondrous stuffed meat dishes.

I’ll bake a round Honey Raisin Whole-Wheat Challah, because it is earthy and a little sweet. And for dessert, I will try an Apple Meringue Pie, a recipe from my sister’s mother-in-law, Eliza Kornreich. Because when my father was ill, she sent her love through baked goods express mailed from Haifa, and because I want to try something new.

Kay’s Honey Raisin Whole-Wheat Challah (Pareve)

Kay Levenson’s whole-wheat challah is divine. And this honey-raisin version, wrapped into a smiling circle, gives it an extra textured, sweet taste that is perfect for the holidays.

3 tablespoons (or three packages) fresh yeast

3/4 cup warm water

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup sugar

1 cup honey

6 eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon salt

2 cups old fashioned oats

4 cups white unbleached flour

1 cup warm water

5-6 cups whole-wheat flour

1 1/2 cups raisins


1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon warm water


Oil two 10-inch round baking pans and sprinkle with oatmeal (to prevent sticking and add extra flavor to bottom crust). In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water (between 105 F-115 F) with teaspoon of sugar and set aside to proof (or expand), approximately eight to 10 minutes.

In a large bowl mix oil, sugar, honey, beaten eggs, salt, oats, white flour and cup of warm water. Mix thoroughly. (Using a dough hook in the electric mixer on lower speed works well.) Add yeast mixture. Pour in raisins. Then gradually add whole-wheat flour, a 1/2 cup at a time, mixing as much as possible in the bowl. Knead on countertop approximately 5-10 minutes until dough is elastic and springs back to touch. You may need more or less of whole-wheat flour, so watch consistency of dough as you work, and sprinkle on flour sparingly and knead until dough loses sticky texture but doesn’t get dry. Place in oiled bowl, turning it to oil all sides. Cover and let it rise in a warm place until approximately doubled in size, about one to two hours. Punch down, knead a few more minutes, and shape into two large (or four small) loaves. Let the loaves rise one hour.

To shape the large loaves, roll half of dough into a long strip approximately 18-inches long and 3-inches wide, with one end slightly thinner then the other. Placer the thicker end in the center of oiled round pan and tightly coil strip around itself, tucking ends underneath. Let rise as instructed.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Brush the loaves with glaze and sprinkle with oats, if desired. Bake until golden brown, approximately 35 to 45 minutes (less for smaller loaves). Check the loaf after 30 minutes as oven timing varies. Remove from the pans and cool on a wire rack.

Mom’s Stuffed Cabbage

This dish is fun and therapeutic to make, what with the hearty mixing of meat by hand followed by the arranging and filling and rolling of a table full of soft leaves. It does, however, require some preparation ahead of time, like making the rice and freezing the cabbage for ease of use. But the taste of this delicately seasoned meat rolled in a thin layer of cabbage is refreshing and cozy all at once.

30-34 large cabbage leaves (two heads of cabbage)

2 pounds lean ground beef

2 cups cooked white rice

2 large eggs, beaten

1/2 large onion, diced

1/4 teaspoon sage

1/4 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon salt, to taste

1/2 teaspoon pepper, to taste

1 15 ounce can tomato sauce

1 7 ounce can mushroom slices

1/2 cup water

Four days in advance, freeze the cabbages whole in tightly closed plastic bags. A day and a half in advance, remove the cabbages from the freezer and keep in a bag in the refrigerator to thaw.

Cook rice as specified on the package.

Cut out the core of the defrosted cabbage and gently peel out the leaves and spread on wax paper. It’s fine to use some of the small leaves as well as the larger ones. If the cabbage is still a little frozen and its leaves hard to remove, run them under warm water.

In a large bowl, soften the ground beef with your hands. Add well-beaten eggs, diced onion, sage, thyme, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Mix well. Add cooked rice and mix again.

Place a heaping tablespoon of meat on the center of a cabbage leaf, nearer the tougher core side. Fold the core area just over the meat, then fold in from each side over the meat and role up tightly, placing fold side down.

Pour tomato sauce, mushrooms with liquid and water into a large, heavy skillet. Cover and simmer on medium-low and slowly arrange the stuffed cabbage, fold side down, in sauce. Layering, if necessary, is fine. Add enough water — about a cup depending on the size of your pan — to come half way up sides of the top cabbage rolls. Bring to a boil, cover, turn heat to low and simmer approximately 1 1/2 hours, basting occasionally.

Remove stuffed cabbage from sauce with slotted spoon and arrange on a serving platter. Pour sauce over and serve. Extra sauce can be served on this side.

Serves 15

Eliza’s Apple Meringue Pie (Pareve)

I was nervous to attempt this dessert because of the meringue. But it is worth it. As my mother said, the taste is elegant. And with the three distinct layers, each slice looks as beautiful, fresh and light as a new day.


1 1/4 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup margarine

2 tablespoon sugar

2 egg yolks

1 tablespoon cold water


5 large Granny Smith apples

3/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon margarine

1 teaspoon cinnamon


2 egg whites

1/3 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon vanilla

Dough: In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder and sliced margarine with your fingers until crumbly texture. Add egg yolks, sugar and cold water and mix with fork or hands into a creamy dough that will be slightly sticky but light. Press into 9-inch pie plate along bottom and sides and refrigerate covered in plastic wrap.

Filling: Peel and slice apples into approximately eight slices each. In a heavy pot, combine apples, margarine and sugar. Cook on a low heat with top on for approximately 15 minutes or until apples are soft but not falling apart. Watch carefully so apples do not overcook and lose their shape. Remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Remove pie dough from refrigerator and pierce dough all over bottom with a fork. Blind bake for 15 minutes or until dough is golden. Remove from the oven and arrange the apple slices, overlapping in concentric circles, without liquid, on the dough. Sprinkle cinnamon over the apples.

Lower oven temperature to 325 F.

Meringue: In large bowl of an electric mixer, beat egg whites on medium until foamy. Gradually add sugar, a few tablespoons at a time, and vanilla, beating on high, until mixture stands in glossy white peaks when beaters are lifted. Gently spread over apples and bake for 20 minutes. Meringue will be browned. Cool to room temperature before serving.

Serves 10

It’s Passover Time Down Under, Mate

Because Australia is situated below the equator, its seasons
rebel against the Jewish calendar. Our winter is their summer; our spring their
fall. Although Passover’s rituals and symbols resonate spring, the holiday is
celebrated in autumn Down Under.

“Passover begins just as the temperature drops, days grow
shorter, and grapevines lose their leaves,” said Jenni Neumann, a New Yorker
who grew up in Sydney. “It’s rather odd, if you’re not used to it, I guess.”

Yet, most of Neumann’s childhood memories of Passover would
be familiar to many American Jews: the apple and walnut charoset, matzah balls
floating in golden broth and jars of Manishewitz gefilte fish. Like many of her
American counterparts, Neumann, 38, grew up in an Ashkenazi world. While
Australian Jews call themselves Aussies, throw chicken on the barbie — or
barbecue — and speak English with the accent of Crocodile Dundee, their
Passover cuisine is straight from Molly Goldberg.

How did that happen, since Australia not only began as an
English colony, but still owes its allegiance and cultural heritage to Great

While British Jews were present at the colony’s inception,
the demographics of Australia’s Jewish population has somersaulted several
times, as immigrants from various continents landed on its shores. After the
American Revolution, England needed another penal colony and selected Australia
as a dumping ground for undesirables.

In 1788, eight of the 751 convicts expelled on the first
fleet from London were Jews. If that’s not surprising enough, some of these
Jews were women. In subsequent decades, Jews continued to be sprinkled in
convict shipments, and others, down on their luck, left London voluntarily,
hoping for a better life in this hardscrabble country.

Defying the odds, many Jewish prisoners attained freedom
within several years. By 1817, Jews in Sydney had established a minyan and
burial society.

“When thinking of Jewish life back home, I picture Sydney’s
Great Synagogue,” said Neumann, describing this architectural jewel with its
four-story pointed towers and spectacular stained glass.

Built in 1879, the Great Synagogue is a quintessential
example of Victorian architecture, one of the most magnificent synagogues in
the world. During Australia’s first 150 years, English descendants dominated
the Jewish community and were fiercely loyal to the “mother country.” But the
19th century saw the arrival of German, Russian and Polish Jews.

A small Sephardi community bloomed and withered. As diverse
as these influences were, they were not strong enough to compete with the
established Jews who quickly Anglicized and absorbed newcomers. But this
situation changed radically during the 1930s when Jews from Central and Eastern
Europe headed in large numbers to Australia to escape the anti-Semitism fueled
by Hitler.

Anglo Jews could not contain this flood of Yiddish-speaking
immigrants who descended en masse and eventually overran them. Once World War
II ended, another band of European Jews took root, people freed from displaced
persons camps. Today, approximately half the Jews in Australia arrived in the
Holocaust’s wake, or are their descendants. For example, Neumann’s family
originated in Moravia (the southern part of the Czech Republic) and moved at
some stage to Vienna, where they became jewelers. Her grandparents and
great-grandparents fled the Nazis in 1938. Finding asylum in Australia, they
brought their Passover recipes and traditions with them.

“The thing I remember most about childhood seders are the
red eggs my mother used to make,” said Neumann, explaining that this was one of
the recipes her grandparents carried from Vienna. She describes how white
eggshells absorb brilliant pigment from steeping for hours with skins from
brown, or better yet, red Spanish onions.

Their red-brown color symbolizes the roasted egg on seder
plates. The pigment penetrates so deeply that egg whites turn a pale peachy
shade. Neumann’s mother, Barbara, starts stockpiling onion skins two months
before Passover.

“I save skins every time I use an onion in cooking and also
collect them from the green grocer’s onion display,” she said, explaining that
she prepares about five dozen eggs, enough to send home with Seder guests and
to last through the holiday’s eight days.

While charoset is a delightful treat, Neumann feels her
family recipe is the best. A generous amount of cinnamon and a splash of sherry
hint at palatschinken, the famed Viennese dessert crepe often filled with

Neumann has fond memories of spending Passovers with her
Uncle John and Aunt Shirley, whose father grew horseradish in his garden.
Contrary to bottled horseradish in America, where the infusion of red beet
juice indicates milder flavor than its white counterpart, in Australia mixing
beet juice with this bitter herb connotes that only the hottest horseradish was

“As far as I’m concerned, the hotter the better,” said
Neumann, chuckling as she remembers challenging her Uncle John to see who could
take the strongest horseradish.

Shirley introduced a trendy honey mustard chicken and a
layered matzah cake, with decadent amounts of cocoa, whipped cream and dark
chocolate. She learned to make this outrageous dessert from an Israeli friend
in the catering business, and it immediately became everyone’s favorite.

“Shirley had to make two of these cakes to keep us happy,”
Neumann said.

With an eclectic array of recipes, Shirley credits Sephardi
friends with expanding her culinary horizons. Australia’s long-dormant Sephardi
community was revitalized in 1956, following the Suez Crisis. After some
political maneuvering, Egyptian Jews were allowed to enter its borders. By 1969
when Iraqi Jews were targeted for persecution, Australia opened its doors to

Twenty years later, a stream of South African Jews arrived,
reinforced by refugees seeking opportunities after the former Soviet Union
disbanded. There’s a contingent of Israelis, too. Today more than 100,000 Jews
call Australia home; 80 percent of them live in Melbourne and Sydney. With more
than half of Jewish students attending Jewish schools, Australia boasts the
highest enrollment rate of any country except Israel. The Orthodox movement is
strong Down Under, but Reform — or what Aussies call Progressive — Jews make up
about 25 percent of the population.

Neumann waxes poetic about a leather bound haggadah she
received as a bat mitzvah gift. A copper plaque depicting ruins of the Second
Temple graces its front. “It’s beautiful and for years I proudly brought it to
Seders,” she said, explaining that the copper comes from mines in Israel dating
back to King Solomon. She inherited her appreciation of the past from her
parents who are antique dealers.

While shopping for their business, the Neumanns collect
Passover artifacts for their seder table, remnants of Australia’s rich Judaic
history, a legacy they have passed to their children.

Sherry Charoset

1 pound red apples (2-3) with skin on and seeds and core

5 ounces walnuts, chopped

2 teaspoon cinnamon

1¼4 cup sweet sherry

1¼3 cup matzah meal

Liquid artificial sweetener to taste

1. Cut apples into chunks run through a food processor using
the coarse grating disk.

2. Place in a mixing bowl. Add walnuts and cinnamon. Combine
ingredients by hand.

3. Mix in sherry. Add meal to stiffen mixture. Add
sweetener, if needed. Charoset should be soft yet easy to serve

with a spoon. If necessary, adjust sherry and meal for
consistency and flavor. If making in larger quantities, retain the

apple-walnut-cinnamon ratio.

Yield: 8 servings

Red Eggs

Large pot that you don’t mind staining

Supermarket sized bag full of onion skins

2 dozen medium sized raw eggs

1¼2 pound fatty brisket

1. Place a thick layer of onion skins at bottom of pot,
followed by a layer of eggs. Continue layering, finishing with a layer of onion

2. Top with brisket.

3. Add enough cold water to cover the contents of pot (about
2 inches from the top).

4. Cover pot and place over medium heat to bring to a boil
slowly, which helps eggs from cracking. Keep eggs boiling steadily for 5-6
hours, adjusting heat between medium and low.

5. Check on eggs every 20 minutes, adding more water if
necessary. Gently move eggs around, using a wooden or plastic spoon. Make sure
eggs are covered all the time.

6. Turn off flame and cool down to warm. Wearing plastic
gloves to protect hands from staining, carefully remove eggs to a strainer to
dry. Store in original egg containers in refrigerator. They will keep right
through the holiday. To serve, break shells and sprinkle with a little salt or
salt water.

Chicken in Honey-Mustard Marinade

2 tablespoon margarine

1¼2 cup honey

1¼4 cup artificial kosher-for-Passover Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 teaspoon salt

8 chicken drumsticks

No-stick spray

1. In a saucepan, stir first five ingredients over a low
flame until thoroughly blended, about 5 minutes. Cool.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a shallow, oven-proof baking
pan with spray. Arrange drumsticks in a single layer. Pour marinade over drumsticks.

3. Place pan in center of oven, turning drumsticks every 10
minutes. Lower temperature if sauce thickens quickly as it may burn. Roast 40
minutes, or until drumsticks brown and juices run clear when pierced with a

Cocoa Cream Layer Cake

1¼2 pt. of nondairy whip topping (or heavy cream, for dairy

1 tablespoon sugar

1 1¼2 teaspoon baking cocoa

3 matzahs

6 teaspoons sweet sherry (or a bit more, if needed)

1. In a large bowl, whip nondairy whip topping, sugar and
cocoa until stiff peaks form. (If using cream, do not overbeat or you’ll get
chocolate butter.)

2. Spread matzahs on 3 plates. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons sherry
over each matzah. Make sure entire surface is moistened, but don’t wet
completely or they’ll become mushy.

3. On a serving plate, place one matzah and completely cover
with half of whipped cream mixture. Don’t leave any area bare or it will dry
out. Place a second matzah on top and repeat.

4. Place third matzah on top and cover with chocolate
topping (recipe below).

Chocolate Topping

3 one-ounce squares of semisweet chocolate

2 pareve margarine (or sweet butter, for dairy version)

1 tablespoon milk nondairy creamer (or milk, for dairy

In a double boiler, melt and blend topping ingredients.
Spread on top of third matzah. Place toothpicks into softened spots near the
top matzah’s four corners. Cover completely with aluminum foil. Refrigerate for
two days before serving.

Yield: 9 servings  

Sweet Memories of Broken Matzah

My great-grandmother, Gouda, escaped Germany by boat at
night when she was in her 60s. My grandfather, Opa, fled with her and his wife
and two small children when he was 42. Both lived long, energetic, brave lives
in their adopted country: she, chasing her great grandchildren around in a
playful hide-and-seek when she was 95 years old; he, establishing a synagogue
in the Bronx after abandoning one in Grebenaou, Germany. Both also had
elaborate Passover breakfast rituals involving broken pieces of matzah.

“Gouda lined her half-full coffee cup, with thin strips of
matzah,” my mother told me. Then, in the order they went in, she lifted each
piece out, sprinkled it with sugar and ate it.

“She had to work quickly, otherwise the matzah would become
too soft and drop off,” my mother said, “and when I was a young girl, I
watched, waiting to see if even one would break.”

When I was young, I watched Opa gather the small, leftover
pieces of matzah, and pour them in his half-full coffee cup.

“Nothing should go to waste,” he would say. Then he took one
big piece of matzah in his hands and crumbled it over the cup until it was
filled to the brim. When he was satisfied with the matzah-to-coffee ratio, he
pushed down with a big spoon, crunching the pieces closer and closer together,
allowing the warm coffee to soak through. Then he waited, for a minute or two,
before he carefully placed the saucer over the cup. Flipped. Jiggled. Lifted.
Voila! A matzah mountain.

With a small silver spoon, he sprinkled a layer of sugar,
like new snow, over his mountain and, working gently from the top down,Â
spoonful by spoonful in silence, he ate until the mountain was gone. According
to “The Jewish Holidays, A Guide and Commentary” by Michael Strassfeld
(HarperCollins Publishers, 1985), matzah symbolizes freedom. But broken matzah,
an integral part of the Passover seder, symbolizes the struggle for freedom and
the reality that no one is totally free.

So maybe it is no coincidence that my biggest moves to new
cities happened around Passover. And that the foods from those first seders
stand out for me, some dry and strange, some smooth and magically sweet.

When my daughter was 2, we left our home in Atlanta, Ga.,
for a fresh start in Portland, Ore. In Atlanta, we lived in a ranch house,
within easy driving distance of five brothers and sisters, their spouses and
children, my parents and a thick group of old and new friends. In Portland, I
rented an apartment about 20 minutes away from one college friend, and his dog.

The emptiness was palpable as was the excitement in
arranging our furniture in a new place that overlooked a park with an orange
climbing gym and a swimming pool surrounded by plump bushes and flowering

But when the holidays rolled around, I wondered who would
share our table. Our liberated family of two felt small. According to
Strassfeld, the core meaning of Passover is the liberation of the Israelites
from Egyptian slavery, but it is also referred to as the “Holiday of Spring.”

“The watchwords of both spring and Pesach are rebirth and
hope,” Strassfeld says.

And I clung to both ends of that spectrum.

Eventually, I found a cozy Jewish preschool for my daughter
to attend, and we met some new people and got invited to a big family seder.
The faces were new as was the relentless black rain filling the windows, but
the food was warm and plentiful; matzah ball soup, brisket, matzah kugels,
warmed fruits and more I can’t remember.

But what I can never forget is the dessert. A cousin of the
host bought a plastic sandwich bag full of broken matzah pieces half-covered in
a chunky chocolate coating. I was stuffed from the long meal, but with my last
sip of wine, I took a bite of the sweetened matzah. Magic! The chocolate
covered a buttery toffee layer in between, and it tasted like a gift. I got up
from the table and joined the group of woman at the kitchen counter eating
straight from the bag. We all agreed it was dangerously good. We laughed. We
ate more. After a while, I looked over my shoulder. My daughter was playing on
the floor with a new friend. I looked out the window; the rains no longer
seemed as dark. With each chocolate bite, my move far away from home lost some
of its bitterness. And I learned what Gouda and Opa surely understood, that
magic can be made from broken pieces, sweetened just right.

Chocolate Toffee Matzah

This is a very adaptable recipe. The quantity of the
ingredients depends on how much chocolate and butter you want covering the
matzah. My daughter and I make it every year, and she covers the pieces with
indulgent quantities of chocolate, both milk and semi-sweet. But we always
leave part of the matzah uncovered for ease of handling and visual variety.

1 cup butter

1 cup brown sugar

1 box matzah

3 cups chocolate (semisweet morsels, dark or milk chocolate
bars chopped with serrated knife, or any other chocolate you like)

Chopped nuts (optional)

Line two cookie sheets with foil. Arrange matzah, broken in
half, on lined cookie sheets (some overlapping is fine). Melt butter and sugar
in a saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly. Pour over matzah parts and
spread with spatula. (It will not cover completely, which is fine, but you can
alter to taste.)

Sprinkle chocolate morsels, chocolate shavings over matzah.

Bake in oven at 300 F, approximately 5-10 minutes, or until
chocolate melts. (Hint, the morsels may not look melted but take out and spread
with spatula or knife to test. Bake a few more minutes if still solid.)

Remove from oven, spread chocolate over matzah while still
warm. Sprinkle with nuts (optional). Put trays, uncovered, in freezer until
hardened. About two hours. Break matzah in smaller, uneven pieces and store in
sealed bags in freezer until you are ready to eat.

Betty Goodfriend’s Matzah Kugel

This recipe is an adaptation of Betty Goodfriend’s wondrous
lokshen (noodle) kugel. If you ever tasted her noodle kugel, you wouldn’t
hesitate to create this Passover version.

6-8 tablespoons margarine (approximately 1 stick)Â Â Â Â Â Â

2¼3 cup dark brown sugar           Â

4 large eggs                  Â

1¼3 cup Sabra liqueur              Â

1¼2 cup pineapple juice(from can)           Â

8 Matzahs, broken in 1 1¼2 inch

 by 2 inch pieces   Â

1¼2 cup white sugar

1¼3 cup vegetable oil plus 2 tablespoons

1¼2 cup raisins

1 teaspoon cinnamon (to taste)

Topping (optional)

1 can pineapple slices or chunks

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Chopped walnuts or almond slivers (optional)


Melt margarine and pour into 9 x 13 glass pan. Make sure all
sides are greased. Sprinkle brown sugar evenly over bottom. Arrange pineapple
slices in a layer.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Put broken matzah pieces (not too small or they will become
mushy) in medium bowl and pour warm water over to soften. Soak approximately
3-4 minutes. Drain. Squeeze out liquid completely. Put raisins in small bowl
and pour hot water over to plump. Drain.

In large bowl, whisk eggs, sugar, oil, pineapple juice and
liqueur together. Add cinnamon. With wooden spoon mix in matzah and raisins
into egg mixture. (At this point, Mrs. Goodfriend said to taste for salt, and
add if needed).

Pour matzah mixture over pineapples in baking pan.


Mix sugar, cinnamon, and nuts together and sprinkle over
noodles. (Dot with extra margarine if desired.)

Bake for one hour. Test at 45 minutes to see if bottom is
dark. If so, move pan to higher rack in oven and bake 15 minutes longer.

Obst und Gloessien (Fruit and Dumplings)

This traditional German recipe belonged to my grandmother
(Oma) who passed it down to my mother. Both made it every year for Passover.
When it was my turn to break the hard matzah, forming something round and soft,
creating the steaming fragrance of warmed fruits, then, at last, tasting the
cinnamon sweet dumplings, my own kitchen filled with the richness of time.

4 matzahs crushed or 3 cups matzah farfel

2 tablespoons matzah meal (heaping)

3 eggs

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1¼2 lemon, juiced

12 ounce package mixed dried fruit

Pinch salt

Pinch cinnamon

In medium bowl, soak matzah in warm water until soft. Drain
and squeeze out liquid. (It is important to drain well, as dumplings will not
hold with too much moisture.)

In small bowl soak fruit in lemon juice.

In medium pan, sauté matzah in vegetable oil. Set aside.

Put fruit in large pot and add water to cover well above
fruit. Simmer covered for 30 minutes.

In large bowl, mix beaten eggs, matzah meal, sugar, salt,
cinnamon. Add matzah. Mix until moist enough hold together. Form into
matzah-ball size dumplings. Set aside.

Bring fruit to a slow boil and add dumplings. Add more water
if necessary. Simmer covered for 30 minutes. Test with knife, dumplings should
be cooked through and not soggy in the center. Serve warm. Â

Seder at Bubbie’s

Mah Nishtanah Ha Lila HaZeh Mikol HaLeilot?

Why is this night different from all other nights?

On all other nights I’m required to act like a 25-year-old
adult, but on this first night — being the youngest person at my seder table —
I get to be a kid.

For the last seven years, I have flown to Chicago to enjoy
the first night of seder with my Mom, Bubbie, Zayde and Uncle Brad. Yes, this
seder is small, but cozy. And knowing that Bubbie’s kremslach (potato pancakes
with shmaltz) are waiting for me, makes the four-hour flight worth it.Â

During my family’s traditional first-night seder, my Zayde,
who was born in Eastern Europe and lost his parents and sister in the camps,
dons his kittel, the traditional white robe worn on Passover, to preside over
the seder. While we all read out of the same ’50s-looking hardcover hagaddah
(we are not Maxwell House people), there are an assortment scattered around,
from “The Open Door” (my choice) to the Artscroll (my Mom’s) to the several
Hebrew-filled commentaries used by Zayde and Uncle Brad. Everyone has a chance
to chant the “Kiddush” (something my Zayde taught me when I was a teenager as a
surprise for my Bubbie). I sing the Four Questions in Hebrew and my Bubbie then
says it in Yiddish (as her mother, my Big Bubbie, used to), with some help from
my Zayde.

Two Passovers ago, I introduced my family to the Miriam’s
Cup, which is filled with water in honor of Moses’ sister Miriam, who led the
women in song as the Israelis left Egypt. Needless to say, this move was met
with a couple of raised eyebrows, but I’ve got favored-grandchild status. My
mother, on the other hand, doesn’t fare so well. Every time we reach the four
children (gender equality), she always, without fail, ends up with the part of
the wicked child — regardless of where she sits. But every year she grins and
bears it, wearing the title as a badge of honor.

The subterfuge starts after Zayde breaks the middle matzah
for the afikomen. In our family, it is my job to steal the afikomen from my
Zayde. I figure as long as I have to ask the Four Questions, I should reap the
rewards usually reserved for the kiddies. He wraps it up in a white napkin and
puts it on the server near his seat at the head of the table. As soon as he
goes to the kitchen to wash his hands I pounce. I grab the Afikomen and put a
folded-up napkin in its place before he comes back.

When afikomen time hits, I negotiate with Zayde — provided
Uncle Brad hasn’t taken it from where I put it. (Note: When someone asks if you
are 100 percent positive you have something, double check before you say yes.)
When I was younger, I would ask for books or toys; when I was a teen I asked
for my Zayde to stop smoking. Now I don’t ask for anything — it’s all about the
thrill of being able to grab and hide.

The thrills continue as we sail throughout the rest of the
seder. “Who Knows One?” becomes an exercise in lung power as my mother and I
compete to see who can say “I Know Thirteen” in one breath. We sing the verses
of “Chad Gadya” in the same manner and contemplate how much a zuzim would be
worth in today’s economy.

When our seder is over, it’s almost like the last day of
camp: you couldn’t wait for it to come and now you are sorry to see it go.

One day, I know, I will no longer be able to go to Bubbie’s
house for Pesach. But even when I have my own seder, with my own youngest child
— and even grandchild? — to say the Four Questions, I will still want to sing
them out loud, as if I were still sitting at Bubbie’s table. Â

Reform Shuls Object to Kol HaNeshamah

Objections raised by two established Reform congregations to
a start-up alternative shul in Irvine has forced the new group to temporarily

postpone seeking admission to the Reform movement’s national
organization, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). Nearby
synagogues, Newport Beach’s Temple Bat Yahm and Irvine’s Congregation Shir
Ha-Ma’alot, opposed UAHC membership by tiny Congregation Kol HaNeshamah, said
Rabbi Linda E. Bertenthal, associate director of the UAHC’s Southwest council,
which reviews new congregation applications.

Kol HaNeshamah, a self-described Reform congregation,
consists of 32 families that hold services monthly and religious school weekly
in low-cost, Irvine community centers. Dues are $650 a family. A
nondenominational seminary, the Academy for Jewish Religion, ordained its
part-time spiritual leader, Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein, who is also the chaplain
of San Diego’s Jewish Healing Center. About half the families are refugees from
defunct Congregation Or Ami, which collapsed due to unable to meet their

“We’re not really a threat to anybody,” said Pat Goldman,
who with her husband, Howard, are co-founding presidents. “They don’t realize
how alternative we are,” she said, adding that Kol HaNeshamah has attracted
members who previously had no synagogue affiliation. “We have very low dues, no
building, no cantor. We offer much less.”

Perhaps, Goldman surmised, Bat Yahm, with 700 families, and
Shir Ha-Ma’alot, at 350 families, fear a repetition of the explosive growth
experienced by another newcomer established in the late 1980s: Irvine’s
University Synagogue today has 570 families. “We’re not going to grow; we’re
tiny,” she said. “I used to think we could grow to 45.”

Many synagogue budgets are shrinking as more congregants in
financial straits seek dues relief, fail to fulfill pledges and drop membership,
Bertenthal said. “They’re anxious for their own interests,” she said of Bat
Yahm and Shir Ha-Ma’alot.

Though UAHC congregations lack veto power over the admission
of new members, their opinions are solicited and territorial invasions that
undermine a congregation’s viability are reason for rejection, said Peter B.
Schaktman, UAHC’s new-congregation department director. About 30 new
congregations were admitted nationally since 2001.

“The level of displeasure by surrounding congregations was
surprising,” he said of Kol HaNeshamah.

At Bertenthal’s urging, the congregation agreed to withdraw
its UAHC quest to attempt to collegially quell concerns. Goldman said its
leaders intend to establish relationships with the other synagogues, including
attending the movement’s convention next month in Costa Mesa. She expects to
reactivate the congregation’s membership application in time for their
scheduled review in June.

More than one-third of UAHC’s more than 900 congregations
are small congregations of 150 members or less that seek membership to gain
access to the movement’s myriad resources, including political clout,
leadership training, placement services and education curriculum. Dues are
based on a formula that includes expenses and membership.

Kol HaNeshamah’s expected UAHC dues would be $500, Goldman
said. By comparison, Bat Yahm’s and Shir Ha-Ma’alot’s dues were $59,233 and
$19,289, respectively, says the 1999-2000 annual report, the most recent
available. Or Ami, which also raised objections, was delinquent in paying, the
report shows.

“We can pay our dues,” said Goldman, a previous Or Ami
member.  “We don’t have many expenses. We don’t ever want a building. That’s
what killed us.

“People don’t come to us because we’re cheap. We give them
something they don’t get,” she said, including a spiritual and intellectual
component, and less restrictive rules about participation in rituals.  

Inspiration Burns in Flames of Menorah

Every Chanukah, I am struck by the beauty of my chanukiyah as the flames glow steadily against the darkness around them. It helps that the chanukiyah uses wicks dipped in olive oil, which nourishes them for hours, instead of candles that burn down in half an hour. I usually admire their light until midnight.

For many of us, the chanukiyah has been a vessel of history, concretizing the Chanukah blessing, "She-asah nisim l’avoteinu, ba-yamim ha-hem, ba-z’man ha-zeh," praising God for doing miracles in those days, in this time. Emphasis on "in those days."

Since Sept. 11 and the matzav (situation) in Israel, that emphasis has changed. Ba-z’man ha-zeh. Now we ask for miracles in our time.

"Judaism is a religion of optimism. It’s about increasing the light," said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author and spiritual leader of The Temple in Atlanta. "It’s important for parents to teach their children that there is a new and additional light each night. The light gets stronger and serves as a weapon against the darkness."

Chanukah, a season of light and miracles, can be especially comforting as we face the "brokenness" of the world today.

"Just when things seem darkest and most chaotic, we can manufacture light," said Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn. "And as we begin to increase the light artificially day by day, miraculously, so does nature and the world around us; the moon returns by holiday’s end, followed by the gradual increase of daylight following the solstice.

The values of unity and diversity that the events of Sept. 11 awakened in Americans is the essence of Chanukah, too, said Rabbi Sandy Sasso, author and spiritual leader of Congregation Beth-el Zedeck in Indianapolis.

"What is Chanukah but a celebration of hope and freedom and respect for difference." Sasso said. "That is also the core of American democracy. The Maccabees fought for the right to be different, to express their own Jewish tradition and not become Hellenists. In America, anyone can practice their own religion without fear."

"In contrast," Sasso continued, "the terrorists are seeking only one way of believing. As we celebrate Chanukah, we can celebrate the spirit of America and the spirit of Judaism."

Chanukah’s timeliness is rooted in the classic triumph of goodness over the powers of destruction, said Rabbi David Wolpe, spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. "Chanukah reminds us that fighting evil is a mandate of goodness in the world," Wolpe said. "You can’t be indifferent to it and ignore it."

Wolpe said the critical difference between the time of the Maccabees and our time is that the most powerful country in the world is not the ally but the enemy of those doing evil. "Maybe it’s a difference we should be celebrating."

Wolpe stressed that the Maccabees were not just battling an external enemy. They represented one side of an internal schism in the Jewish community, defying Hellenism — assimilation — while others supported it.

We, too, need to be careful of splitting our community, Weiss warned. "Even though Jews in America are overwhelmed by the challenges here, we should never forget that Israel faces this every day," he said.

The Maccabees’ decision to fight for their beliefs has made them role models, whether or not we agree with their religious zeal. "Judaism is not pacifist," noted Hammerman. "There are times when we have to break all the rules in order to save lives."

How can families create new and meaningful rituals as part of their own Chanukah celebrations? Parents can transform gift-giving into a healing act by coupling it with tzedakah, rabbis and educators suggested.

Every Jewish family could dedicate one night as a "giftless night" for themselves, Salkin said, giving the gift instead to agencies who help families in need.