January 8, 2004
Jews and Xmas
I read with great interest the articles in The Journal about Jewish filmmakers and Christmas movies ("Dreaming of a Blue and White Christmas" and "A Gift From Santa's Jewish Helpers," Dec. 26). I enjoyed them both, but feel they both missed the single most important element of why these holiday movies succeed. I, too, am Jewish, and two years ago I directed for Disney, "The Santa Clause 2," with Tim Allen. Tim is a deeply religious, spectacular man. He hired me because he believed in my skills, and in my ability to tell a story with substance, as well as entertainment value. I hired a mix of Christians and Jews to be my filmmaking team. Our movie made just under $200 million worldwide, and that represents moviegoers of many religious faiths. Why then did this movie, and others with a similar sensibility, reach such a large culture?
The answer is in faith.
The thing about holiday movies is that, at their very core, they are faith based. Not a faith in a particular religion, but a faith in human kindness, in goodness, in the human desire to have something to believe in. We want to forgive, we want to believe in kindness, we want to experience generosity and giving without the need for reciprocation or thank you. And for the most part, when you strip away the artifice of a commercial entity -- like the holiday film -- there is a deeper story being told that is absolutely, unequivocally, about faith and the restoration of that dynamic. It drives people to the theaters. It makes them laugh and cry and bring family to the movie theater at holiday time. It affects Christians and Jews evenly.
Michael Lembeck, Malibu
Jewish Family Service works hard to maintain a safety net for our clients and our staff. Unfortunately, your Jan. 2 cover story ("Low Wages Force Workers to Struggle") does not accurately represent our efforts, so I am writing to correct the record.
Wages, benefits, hours and working conditions are agreed to by JFS and the union. As always, we will make the best offer we can when new contract talks commence in the spring (a fact omitted by your article).
JFS complies with the "living wage" ordinances of Los Angeles and Santa Monica. In most cases, we exceed the minimum hourly salary called for by these laws.
The union's claim about employees making less than $20,000 per year is misleading. Fifty-two of JFS' 275 union employees make less than $20,000 per year, but 83 percent of those 52 workers work part time.
The salaries of the featured JFS social worker and the SOVA driver were understated and did not include benefits, which add more than 30 percent to their total compensation. At JFS, the average licensed clinical social worker and registered nurse makes $45,228 and $48,397, plus benefits, respectively, on a full-time equivalency basis.
Your article raises important issues that must be presented in a context of accuracy and fairness to all. It is my hope that The Jewish Journal will play a judicious and balanced role as all of us try to do the right thing.
Paul S. Castro, Executive Director/CEO Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles
Marc Ballon responds:
Paul Castro made it sound as though JFS pays some of its workers low salaries because of poor negotiating skills by the AFSCME Local 800. The union pushes hard for the highest wages and the most comprehensive benefits.
My story never talked about how many JFS workers earn less than $20,000. It dealt with the 450 workers represented by the union, some of whom are JFS employees.
Castro questions the accuracy of the salary information in the story. I gathered it directly from employees or from data submitted to the union by JFS and other agencies.
There is no doubt JFS and other Jewish agencies are doing their best. The question is whether we, as a community, are doing enough.
The community owes The Jewish Journal a big "thank you" for publishing Marc Ballon's feature story, "Low Wages Force Workers to Struggle." Unfortunately, this is an old story, not a new one.
As some of your readers know, I was a member of the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) professional staff in Los Angeles for 41 years, retiring in 1993 as ADL Western United States director emeritus. From 1952 until the late 1970s, had it not been for the fact that my wife, Hope, worked every year that I worked for ADL, I would have had to leave ADL or accept life in a modest apartment forever.
Don't get me wrong. I loved my job and couldn't wait to get into the office in the morning, but salaries were another matter. A solution? Maybe, just maybe, those Jewish community executives who are earning handsome six-figure salaries will reduce what they are getting and share the difference with their less-fortunate staff people.
Or, maybe, just maybe, each organization will take a real hard look at its programs, cut out that which is absolutely nonessential and give that money to their employees. I know that agency heads are judged by the size of their budgets. The bigger the budget the more important they are and the more they will be paid. But, at the start of the new year, one can wish, can't one?
Harvey Schechter, Sherman Oaks
I cannot recall having read a story more shocking to me than your article "Low Wages Force Workers to Struggle." It is shameful that this is a problem entirely of our own making.
In a world in which injustice seems ready to flood out justice at every corner, that a Jewish community allows itself to do anything other than strive for righteousness at every possible opportunity is itself enough of a scandal. But in a community in which every weekend of the year tens of thousands of dollars, if not much more, are lavished on celebrations of bar and bat mitzvot, that those who have cared for and trained these young adults coming of age, and those who care for their grandparents and other treasured members of our community, must suffer insufficient salaries and poor or absent benefits is beyond scandal.
Jonathan Silk, Culver City
Professor Reuven Firestone's "What Made Saddam Run?" (Dec. 19) concentrates on pre-Islamic Arabian culture as the major factor in shaping Saddam's brutal behavior. However, an equally important source of influence and "inspiration" were the ancient kings of the Assyrian-Babylonian empires, and especially Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed Jerusalem, killing thousands of its defenders, taking the rest as captives to Babylonia.
When I saw the pitiful shape of Saddam after he was captured, I was immediately reminded of Nebuchadnezzar's image as visioned in Daniel 4:30: "He was driven from among people, and ate grass as oxen ... his hair was grown like eagles' feathers and his nails like birds' claws."
Yona Sabar, Los Angeles
Although I believe that Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller should be punished for his alleged assault on Rachel Neuwirth, I was disappointed to read that Neuwirth is not open to resolving the case before a beit din, as suggested by Rabbi Mark Diamond ("Rabbi to Undergo Anger Management," Dec. 26).
Her refusal to submit to a religious court, as opposed to a secular one where she could name Seidler-Feller, and more importantly Hillel, as a defendant in a lawsuit, shows that she has very little interest in "justice." It will be money collected from tzedakah, not the pocket of Seidler-Feller, that will pay any settlement. And it will be the students who use the services of Hillel at universities across California, not Seidler-Feller, who will suffer as a result of any monetary settlement.
Yaakov Arnold, Los Angeles
Egypt and Israel
Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel and in return it received the entire Sinai. Israel even removed all her settlements. How come Egypt now permits the smuggling of dangerous explosives and weapons by underground tunnels to Palestinian militants to terrorize Israel? Where is a U.N. objection? Why doesn't the United States protest?
Shimon Paskow, Rabbi Emeritus Temple Etz Chaim Thousand Oaks
In November, you had a review of the CD, "Abayudaya, Music From the Jewish People of Uganda" ("An Afro Judeo Beat," Nov. 14). The staff reviewer said, "But the harmonies remained African, and this collection celebrates the melding of the songs and prayers you know with music you can only dream about. Give it to a cantor today."
This music is so beautiful, I think that it should not be reserved for cantors. It's like "Lion King" meets Jewish prayers. The liner notes are extensive and describe this community's conversion to Judaism and their struggles to maintain their Judaism despite Christian and Muslim attempts to convert them. When I read that all royalties are sent to the Abayudan community, I decided to give this as a gift to my friends as their Chanukah gift. I am sure this CD would be appreciated by many, many people.
Judy Lederich-Mayer, via-e-mail
Loowla Khazzoom has written a very good analysis about Palestinian suffering and undeserved, heinous attacks by Palestinians on Jewish civilians ("Who's To Blame for Palestinian Despair?" Dec. 26). Some months ago "A Romance in the Negev" was published in The Journal. In that article, she relates giving a slip of paper to the young Islamic gas station attendant for his phone number. An intimate relationship develops with this man who "hates Israeli Jews." She is uncomfortable with this but pleased to see, one morning, that he has separated her meat and dairy dishes. She felt they were creating a small island of peace. I became concerned about her safety and possible future with this man.
Her long, warm relationship with the Jewish community and her writings about Jewish feminism are recorded on her Web site. I do not understand the apparent split personality evidenced in these two Journal articles.
Dr. David Ackermann, via e-mail
Painting Through Pain
With regards to Leora Alhadeff's "Painting Through the Pain" (Dec. 26) article: Orville Wright Middle School is located in Westchester, a middle-upper-class suburb in Los Angeles. Although many students from nearby underprivileged areas attend, it is incorrect to refer to this ocean-proximate school as "inner-city."
Sonya Neweissman, Orville Wright Junior High School alum Culver City