September 21, 2006
Jewish bond doesn’t draw all to Holiday observances
They include a law professor, a newspaper editor, a computer scientist, an architect and a retired Army colonel.
However diverse, they have one thing in common: They generally do not attend synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Yet they are neither self-denying Jews nor rare exceptions. Some are intensely dedicated Jews, and all feel bound to the Jewish people. Statistically, 39 percent of all American Jews, and 44 percent of all Jewish college students, do not attend religious services, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey.
Judea Pearl is a UCLA professor of computer science and a leading international authority on artificial intelligence. He is also president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, established to carry on the work and world view of his son, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan.
With his wife, Ruth, Judea Pearl is co-editor of the award-winning collection of essays, "I Am Jewish," the title reflecting his son's last words before his execution.
Yehuda Pearl grew up in Bnai Brak, one of the most ultra-Orthodox enclaves in Israel, which was co-founded by his grandfather, Chaim Pearl, a Chassid from Poland. It was not exactly the place to declare oneself a nonbeliever, but Yehuda did just that at the age of 11.
"I had thought a great deal about it and decided that it was impossible that the deity worshipped by my parents and grandparents existed," he said. "Everybody thought it was just a youthful phase, but I never got over it. I cannot believe that there is a God who listens to my prayers."
Yet, the Pearls light candles every Friday night and make Kiddush.
"My parents and grandparents did this, and I do so in their memory," he said.
"Or perhaps, to show my daughters something about their tradition."
With a laugh, Pearl recalled a recent dialogue with a Muslim academician, after which he, some Jewish friends and about 30 Muslims adjoined to a restaurant for dinner.
It was a Friday night, so Pearl asked the waiter for glasses, a bottle of wine (juice for the Muslims) and recited the Kiddush prayer. Both his Jewish and Muslim friends were flabbergasted.
"But you said you were secular," they said, shaking their heads.
Bret Israel, editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar section, usually takes a long walk on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur near his home in the Hollywood Hills.
"I am not a deeply meditative person, but I find that a walk on that day helps to cleanse the spirit," he said.
Some years, he will take the holiday walk along Santa Monica Boulevard or another city street. "For me, it's a way of being of this world and not being of this world," Israel said.
Israel was raised in a Reform family on Long Island, N.Y., had a bar mitzvah but stopped going to synagogue during his college years.
His immigrant grandfather from Germany was adamantly secular and refused to step into a synagogue as a matter of principle.
"I am not like that. I'll go occasionally with a friend, usually to Temple Israel of Hollywood," he said. "But in general, by temperament and philosophy, I don't feel comfortable in organized worship."
However, in the past two years, Israel has taken to fasting on Yom Kippur, explaining, "Somehow, it's a cleansing experience."
Jonathan Zasloff loves Shabbat services, takes and teaches classes on Judaism, fasts on Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av and generally walks out of the High Holidays services before they conclude. A UCLA law professor, specializing in environmental and urban planning, Zasloff, 41, was raised in a Conservative home and tends to attend Conservative synagogues.
However, "I find much of the liturgy and services outdated, inaccessible, highly stylized and not very spiritual," he objected. "And too many of the services are formalistic and stilted.
"I don't like other people praying for me," he continued. "Though I find parts of the services meaningful, we must find some ways to make them more participatory and interactive. That's why I like to go to the Brandeis-Bardin Institute."
Architect Allen Rubenstein, project manager for capital construction for Beverly Hills, grew up in the Bronx in the 1930s and '40s. His American-born parents observed no particular ritual on Friday nights, "but we always had chicken soup," he recalled. "And on Sunday mornings, we had herring and boiled potatoes."
When he reached 13, his mother wanted him to have a bar mitzvah, and Rubenstein shudders at the recollection.
"They sent me to an old rabbi, who spoke hardly any English and rapped me on the knuckles," he said. "I read without understanding anything."
The experience did not induce a love for religious study. "I saw no reason to go back," he said.
Rubenstein moved to the San Fernando Valley and married. When his two daughters grew up, "they sort of wanted to have a bat mitzvah because their girlfriends had them. I was neither for it, nor against it," he said.
Occasionally, he went to a synagogue for the High Holidays, "more to listen to the sermon than for the service." But last year, when his daughter invited him to her temple for Rosh Hashanah, he declined.
So what makes Rubinstein, a thoughtful and sensitive man, a Jew at all?
"Culturally, I feel very comfortable in a Jewish environment. It's in the food we eat, the family feeling, what we talk about," he replied. "I feel connected to Israel, and I support Jewish charities. But when it comes to the formal parts of religion, I feel alienated."
Rubenstein's daughter, Karen Willis, is on the board of directors at Temple B'nai Hayim, a Conservative congregation in Sherman Oaks, and sends her children to a Jewish day school.
As a girl, she said, she had a somewhat more active religious life than her father indicated, mainly due to her mother's influence.
"My dad just went along for the ride," she recalled.
There is no doubt that Willis, a chief financial officer for a bank subsidiary, leads a more observant life now than in her childhood.
"I think it's when you start having kids, you ask yourself how you want to raise them," she said. "I know I want my future grandchildren to be Jewish. I want them to carry on the tradition."
Dr. Irwin Silberman's great-grandfather was a pious man, born in the biblical town of Safed, six of whose seven sons became rabbis. The exception was Silberman's father, a jeweler, who emigrated to the United States.
Silberman has done many things in his life, including hundreds of circumcisions. "I was a gynecologist-obstetrician in the U.S. Army medical corps for 20 years," he recounted. "At that time, most male children were circumcised, so I did it almost automatically in the delivery room."
Today, Silberman is a tall, hearty world traveler, after retiring as a colonel from the Army and subsequently from the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.
His father was a physician in the Navy, who moved his family frequently from one base to another. Young Irwin had his first taste of High Holiday services in Norfolk, Va., and found them boring and incomprehensible.
He had a "rushed" bar mitzvah, because his father was about to go overseas. "It felt like a graduation, and I felt I had now done my duty," said Silberman. Later, in 1949, he joined a Jewish fraternity, Kappa Nu, at UCLA and was even elected chaver nassi or president.
"All the guys were Jewish -- they wouldn't be accepted in a gentile fraternity -- but there was no religious element," he recalled. "We never went to a temple or to Hillel."
His first "Jewish act," post-bar mitzvah, was to get married at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, but the marriage ended in divorce.
A few years ago, Silberman went to a seder, hosted by friends of his non-Jewish wife.
"My wife enjoyed it, but I didn't," he said. "It had no more meaning to me than a Catholic ritual."
But Silberman does not reject his name or his ancestral past. "I feel connected to Jews by a bond of common heritage," he said. "We'll meet a Jewish couple on a cruise and feel drawn to them. I know they grew up in the same environment and the man was also called a 'Jewboy' at some time."
He added, "I don't go to services, but I believe in God. I became a believer when I was a medical intern and took care of people who were dying. Then I said, 'God, can't you help me save this person?'"