In 2001, Martin (Marty) Sklar, now 79, was officially recognized as a “Disney Legend” — The Walt Disney Co.’s version of the Hall of Fame. In 2009, another exclusive distinction was bestowed on the low-key leader who had for decades guided Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), the group that designs and constructs Disney’s theme parks and resorts worldwide: On his final day before retiring, Sklar was honored with a window dedicated to him on Disneyland’s Main Street.
In 2010, Lesley Hazleton was asked to give a brief talk about the Quran. “As far as I was concerned, I was talking to those several hundred people in the hall,” Hazleton said in a recent phone interview. “I certainly had no idea that a nine-minute video about reading the Quran would go viral. … I mean, I’m in my 60s, so the words ‘Lesley’ and ‘viral’ don’t even belong in the same sentence.”
In any town across the country, a city council meeting can feel a lot like ground zero for American democracy: One by one, residents approach the podium and address the decision-makers with suggestions or grievances. With a few changes, a similar scene could have played out in a medieval English shire or a 19th century Polish shtetl.
Some months ago, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was “cruising Boyle Heights,” the neighborhood where he grew up and where a large portion of Los Angeles’ Jewish community once lived. Feeling nostalgic, he drove by B’nai Jacob Synagogue — once known as the Fairmont Street Shul — and recalled that some of his parents’ students had celebrated their bar mitzvahs there.
A typical study session for Elul, a pluralistic Israel-based beit midrash (house of study), doesn’t confine itself to a discussion of Abraham’s journey in Genesis.
The dozens of men at the mid-December breakfast gathering — all of them in their 70s, 80s or older — laughed and applauded, reveling in their alter-kackiness.
Sporting a blond wig and slinky dress, Beit T’Shuvah’s whippet-thin Cantor Rachel Goldman Neubauer sat on Harriet Rossetto’s knee and parodied Marilyn Monroe’s famous, breathy “Happy Birthday” crooning to JFK.
From the front, Devorah Brous’ modest San Fernando Valley home looks much like all the others around it. But go into the backyard, and it’s a different story. There you’ll find an urban farm, where Brous’ 2-year-old daughter, Sela, is holding a meek but healthy black-and-white speckled hen named Bella. Four other hens, all named and of various colors, run freely around the yard — when they aren’t laying brown eggs in their roomy chicken coop.
When Rabbi Steve Greenberg was a young rabbinical student at an Orthodox Yeshiva near Jerusalem in the mid-1970s, he was attracted to a fellow (male) student. He wanted to talk about his feelings of homosexual desire to a respected old rabbi — but was afraid to. So Greenberg fudged by telling the rabbi he was “attracted to both men and women.” The venerated old rabbi shrugged: “So you have twice the power of love. Use it carefully.”
“Who here is Jewish?” Kasim Hafeez asked the audience. Nearly all of the several hundred raised their hands. “Seven years ago,” he added, “I would have wanted to see all of you dead.”
The first thing you notice at Shaare Shalom Congregation in Kingston, Jamaica is the sand on the floor, softening the sound of your footsteps as you take your seat. You bend down and let the grains, smooth-gritty, run through your fingers. Is there some meaning in it, a reference to the 40 years the ancient Israelites wandered in the desert?
Rabbi Charles Simon, a recent visiting lecturer at American Jewish University (AJU), asked rabbinical students how they would deal with a future intermarriage. One young rabbi-to-be said he’d welcome the couple … then tell them that, unfortunately, he couldn’t marry them.
The smallish man, an observant Jew named Eliyahu McLean, smiled impishly at the crowd who’d come to listen to his stories of trying to create interfaith peace in the holy land.
In early 1945 in Hungary, as the Nazis were being routed out of Budapest by the Soviet army, 8-year-old Nicholas Frank came out of the Red Cross shelter where he, his mother and his older sister had been hiding. He looked at the destroyed city around him and realized that this devastation was not an act of nature. National leaders and influential decision-makers had caused it to happen. Even at 8, he sensed there must be a better way for human beings to live together.
Birthdays with a zero have a special purchase on the imagination. Whether one turns 40 or 70, that zero marks a turning point, the end of an old decade and the beginning of a new one, a chance to take stock: what in Hebrew is called cheshbon ha-nefesh — literally, an accounting of your soul. And if that birthday takes place in Israel, where you once lived for years — and where you might have stayed, had you chosen to — you have a formula for cascading, competing visions of what was and what might have been.
People twirl ecstatically, eyes closed, repeating, in a call-and-response fashion, chants led by Rabbi Andrew Hahn, who plays a harmonium while others play guitars and percussion instruments — repetitive, hypnotic sounds that seductively nudge the crowd, young and old alike, to sway and swirl and chant.
Elementary schoolchildren, Jews and non-Jews, many of them Latinos, danced the Mexican Hat Dance in the aisles of the main sanctuary at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino. Accompanied by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS), Argentine-born cantor Marcelo Gindlin sang a rousing rendition of the classic song while hundreds of happy 10-year-olds waved and clapped as part of a one-hour program presented by LAJS showing the links between Latino and Sephardic music. In attendance were nearly 1,000 fourth- and fifth-graders from Jewish day schools and their counterparts from largely Latino schools in the San Fernando Valley, as well as about 100 “senior guests,” residents of Jewish homes for the elderly.
In “The Naked Lady Who Stood on Her Head: A Psychiatrist’s Stories of His Most Bizarre Cases” (William Morrow, $25.99), Dr. Gary Small and his wife, Gigi Vorgan, detail therapeutic challenges Small has encountered throughout his career as well as incidents from his personal life. In the final chapter, “Sigmund Fraud,” the book touches on aging by recounting what happened when Small’s friend, also a psychiatrist, started developing Alzheimer’s.
At the opening class of “Day of Kabbalah,” Rabbi David Sacks of the Happy Minyan talked about the mysteries of the letter aleph, which he called “the Gateway to Infinity.” Sacks’ talk was filled with what those unfamiliar with the subject imagine kabbalah to be: mystical ruminations based on numerology, seeing the entire cosmos in its microcosmic elements, repeated references to “the unity of all things.”
Walk into Café Europa at Westside Jewish Community Center on Tuesdays, or the Valley version in North Hollywood on Thursdays, and you’ll find dozens of elderly men and women, sometimes as many as 60 or 70 of them. Some are frail, some feisty, many are both. They chat, they snack, they listen to lectures or watch movies or play Bingo. The name itself — Café Europa — sounds romantic, evocative of pre-World War II Europe, of Linzer tortes and intense political discussions and a world that’s disappeared. And, yes, almost all the group members were born in Europe and have European accents.
At a recent Friday night service at Beth Meier (“House of Light”), a small Conservative synagogue in Studio City, a woman and her two grown daughters read, in voices that conveyed controlled fury, a lengthy list of those killed in a horrendous terrorist attack. Many of the victims’ last names were familiar ones in any Jewish community: Malamud, Tenenbaum, Perelmuter, and on and on — 85 names in all. What was distinctive about this list of people, which included some non-Jews as well, was that their first names were all Spanish: Rosa, Marta, Andrés, Luis, Fabián.
What if someone could pursue rabbinical studies seated next to another student who aspires to be an imam? What if that Muslim theology student could have classroom discussions about ethics or scripture with a student who expects to become a Protestant pastor?
“This has not been a good year for the Jewish community. It seems like not a day went by without hearing of another scandal involving members of the Orthodox community.” These were the words of welcome offered in an agenda booklet for the Orthodox Union’s (OU) West Coast Torah Convention, titled “Recalibrating Our Moral and Ethical Compass,” held Dec. 24-27 in Los Angeles.
When Katya Aguilar, 27, talks about her journey toward Jewish conversion, she often uses the word congruente — consistent. As she talks, it becomes clear that for her, congruente means more than that. It means integrity. Oneness. Eliminating the gap she once felt between her life — growing up Catholic in Mexico — and her Jewish soul.
Is there something about Buenos Aires that breeds chazzanim? Some cantorial organism lurking in the bulrushes of Rio de la Plata, the river that borders the city? Something in the rhythm of the city — all those taxis and cars and buses, all that street life — that resonates with Jewish liturgical rhythms?
Hundreds of Latino Pentecostal pastors and congregants milled outside Sinai Temple’s sanctuary on Oct. 8, waiting to go inside. They had come from Downey, Cypress Park, Compton and other places far from the Wilshire Corridor, where Sinai Temple is located. They’d also come from cities even farther away: Fresno, San Antonio, Tijuana.
Zalman Schachter-Shalomi — “Reb Zalman” to his many friends, students and disciples — is considered the guiding light of Judaism’s Renewal movement. Recently he was in Los Angeles for Makom Ohr Shalom’s Rosh Hashanah services. Because he was so busy during the visit, he agreed to an interview via Skype after returning to his home in Boulder, Colo., where he lives with his wife Eve and their two cats, Mazel and Brakhah. Now 85, Zalman said he was “tired” from his holiday traveling, though he appeared as vital as ever. Bearded, eyes twinkling, animated, wearing suspenders and a knitted kippah, he chatted about topics close to his heart: Eco-kashrut, aging and the future of religion.
On a Los Angeles FM radio talk show, the following aired recently:
A caller identifying himself as Mohammed said, “I believe that so-called Israel should be annihilated totally, wiped off the map ... I hope that Iran has the gall to nuke and exterminate them so they go back to Europe.
The e-mail was short and to the point: Several members of my 1952-1954 class at Garrison Junior High in northwest Baltimore — Class 215 — were holding a reunion.
The medical facility where I received treatment is one of the most prestigious in the world, but some staff members had a lousy bedside manner. One resident -- I thought of him as Dr. Worst-Case-Scenario -- would always give me his gloomiest predictions.
Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the first black sub-Saharan rabbi ordained at an American rabbinical school, has had a very busy time since returning to Uganda in June, after not having lived there for five years.
At pilot school in Florida, Mark Gabriel found something that he loved and had the craving to learn. After two years of study and training, he returned to Southern California, where he worked as a co-pilot for a charter jet company
"Failure of Intelligence, The Decline and Fall of the CIA" by Melvin A. Goodman (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).
life-size soft sculpture of a cleaning woman scrubbing the floor marks the entrance to the office of Harriett Rossetto, founder and executive director of Beit T'Shuvah
On a wall at Beit T'Shuvah's sanctuary there are plaques with the names of those connected with Beit T'Shuvah who have passed away. One of those names is that of Josh Lowenthal, a former resident who died on June 11, 1995
In the small lobby, a teenage boy with blondish hair sits passively on a couch, staring at the wall, not reacting to the threats thrown his way. His mother, her face puffy from crying, pleads with her husband, the boy's enraged stepfather, who slams in and out of the building, furiously yelling that the boy stole his car and his money to buy drugs
Real estate developer Sev Aszkenazy recently settled a lawsuit with the city of San Fernando over a liquor permit he was denied for a planned steak house. He said the denial was due, in part, to anti-Semitic bias.
In the stark black-and-white photo, two small children play in and around water, as children anywhere might do on a hot day. But there's something odd about the image: it isn't the shore or a recreational pool they're playing in, but a concrete irrigation canal.
If you're heading down Mexico way, all the way down to Oaxaca, you should know about a bed and breakfast there called Casa Machaya. The name is a sly Jewish reference, a wink at potential clients for the B & B: That's right, it's not meant to be the Spanish "ch," as in "change," but a guttural "ch," as in mechaya, Yiddish for "joy."
Practitioners of world music are constantly exploring ways to fuse disparate musical strains in new and interesting ways. Given all that, it should not be a surprise that there is a new group that combines klezmer with salsa. Odessa/Havana -- "The Explosive Jewish/Cuban Musical Mash-Up" -- a musical project that brings together these two musical traditions in a jazz context will perform at the Skirball Cultural Center at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 29.
In the 1950s, a few years after Yiddish culture in Europe had been decimated, there was a bustling metropolis in the Western Hemisphere that still had a thriving Yiddish culture. This city had a number of schools in which classes were taught in Yiddish; there was an active theatrical scene, a couple of daily newspapers, books, literary magazines, songs and musicals -- all in Yiddish. There were Yiddish comedians, as well as cafes where Yiddish-speakers gathered to chat and drink tea with a bissel (little) lemon. And there were vacation resorts, a few hours' drive from the city, where Yiddish was regularly heard. New York? Montreal? Actually, Buenos Aires.
So, this past summer, I made the rounds of alternative synagogues, minyans and chavurot in Los Angeles, to see whether any spoke to me. I visited more than a dozen places that aspire to the spiritual life I associate with the 1960s: They're egalitarian, inclusive, committed to social action and steeped in music. They seek joyful experience instead of dogma, connection to one another and the outside world rather than status, healing instead of judgment and passionate involvement rather than merely showing up and mouthing prayers.
"Master Blaster" Michael Chusid got down on his knees so he could face Ida and Shirley, who sat on a couch at Encino Retirement Home. In Chusid's left hand was a shofar, his spiritual/musical instrument and constant companion during the High Holy Days.
Herb Goldberg has now returned to his lifelong themes in the recently published, "What Men Still Don't Know About Women, Relationships, and Love" (Barricade Books, 2007).
This was the high-energy moment, the "money shot" of an outreach program run by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS). Attended by about 700 fourth- and fifth-graders from Jewish day schools and their counterparts from several largely Latino mid-Valley elementary schools, the concert on April 16 was the culminating event after a series of classroom workshops focusing on connections between Latino and Sephardic music.
When Dr. Rick Hodes prepares a to-do list, it doesn't look like anybody else's.
Mehlman had gone to the Mexicali home because this community wants Spanish-speaking rabbis to visit them and give them guidance. Through a series of connections, Orozco learned about Mehlman, who's Argentine-born and has sponsored many conversions, and invited him for the weekend.
"I don't understand the fuss people make," he said. "In Africa now they're circumcising thousands of adult men for AIDS prevention. If it were such a big deal, don't you think word would get around and the men would stop doing it?"
Meyer was a disciple of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and carried on the humanistic teachings of his mentor.
Today, Rabbi Daniel Mehlman is trying to continue that same tradition.
There are top-notch players with names like Berman, Fischman, Heimowitz, Oppenheim, Seidel, Gold, Levi, Sklansky and so on, which begs the question: What other regularly telecast sporting competition has such a strong Jewish presence?
New York's upscale The Prime Grill, coming to Beverly Hills this week, isn't your father's glatt kosher restaurant.For one thing, it's a high-end steak house that also specializes in sushi. For another, the management expects it to become a destination for high-powered meetings and high-profile celebrities.They go so far as to claim that the opening here means Los Angeles is finally catching up to New York in the Jewish culinary big leagues.
Beth Shalom has become the spiritual home of a growing group of Hispanics who have recently converted, or are in the process of doing so.
As the jewish population in the area east of Los Angeles has dwindled -- and as the Conservative congregation has aged -- Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak has reached out to the Spanish-speaking community in the area.
Ever since she was a little girl, Portnyansky dreamed of coming to the United States. "My parents used to get a magazine called Amerika. It had photos and articles about the U.S. In my mind I was already there, from the first grade." The opportunity came in 1991, during the last throes of the Soviet Union: She received an invitation from the U.S government to do a concert tour.
In an April 2006 article for The Forward, journalist Irin Carmon links this widespread phenomenon -- Israelis on tourist visas working at mall kiosks -- to the "wander year" taken by young Israelis after completing military service. The article suggests that young Israelis -- who feel alienated by their military service and by the tenor of life in Israel, where daily interactions are a struggle -- come to live and work in the United States because they like the relative ease and quiet of life in America. The article implies that the tension of working in the United States illegally is minimal when compared to the tension of living in Israel.
According to statistics compiled by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), during 2004 alone, 540 Israelis were deported or about to be deported. If that many Israelis were caught, it stands to reason that there are many thousands more -- in Los Angeles as well as the rest of the United States -- who have not yet been located by authorities.
Soccer's World Cup, played every four years, is being contested in Germany by 32 national teams from all parts of the world. One week of competition has gone by, three weeks to go before the championship game on July 9. The world is riveted. But not the American sports public, which has reacted with its usual collective yawn.
Imagine that you live in Latin America and you're Jewish. Typically, you and your family would belong to a full-service Jewish club with cultural, recreational, educational and athletic activities for all ages. The club is reasonably priced, promotes Jewish identity in a secular manner and is the backbone of your social life.
Jewish Tango Cabaret -- a performance at the New JCC at Milken in West Hills on Saturday, May 13.
These days, so much depends upon language. One person's "civil war" is another's "random violence." Someone's "unlawful wiretapping" is someone else's "terrorist surveillance."
In that sense, whether you use "illegal aliens" or "undocumented residents" partly depends on how you view immigration. But whatever your political attitude, if you think that every illegal/undocumented came into the United States guided by a coyote, then think again.
In Los Angeles, as in other American cities where Jews have moved out en masse from their old neighborhoods, they not only left dwellings behind, they also left behind synagogues, social centers, stores and street corners that connected them to a certain time in their lives and to a particular era in their collective past.
During a recent trip to Argentina -- eager to see where my parents were born -- I traveled to Carlos Casares, a five-hour trip by car from Buenos Aires. At the town's archive, I looked up my family history. I got more than I bargained for -- especially from a volume of local history that was first written in Yiddish, then translated to Spanish.
"They are holding both my parents together in the living room," recalled Alejandra in a recent interview about the terrifying events of that night 30 years ago. "They ask them questions and then come into my bedroom and ask me the same questions: Where my parents work, what they did, what am I studying at school...."