Rabbi Hertzel Illulian, a rabbi active in the Los Angeles Persian community, is embroiled in a revolt. It's taking place in the normally laid-back city of Santa Monica and concerns the future of the Teriton apartment building.
True Joy Through Water, a new outreach program created by Canfei Nesharim ("the wings of eagles"), an Orthodox environmental organization, it's designed to educate about the importance of water, its imperiled state and ways to conserve it.
The difficulties of being in an interfaith family.
Minerva "Min" Leonard doesn't have time for breakfast. She's too busy shopping for ingredients and preparing a salad bar luncheon for 80 people at Adat Ari El Sisterhood's weekly Multi-Interest Day. Or making 10 lokshen kugels for her friend's daughter's bat mitzvah. Or baking "I can't even begin to tell you how many" batches of cranberry and chocolate-chip mandelbread to bestow on friends, neighbors and an appreciative Jewish Journal reporter.
Reading the Megillah in esoteric tongues is part of the Purim fun at this Los Angeles synagogue, and congregant Maggie Anton Parkhurst has chosen this infinitely tongue-tying imaginary language of the Trekkies to make her bid at hilarity.
Every bar mitzvah is the same, and there is none like any other," Morley Feinstein, our senior rabbi at Los Angeles' University Synagogue, says.
Before 18 year-old Sara Smith graduated last June, she made multiple trips to the stage to receive multiple honors at Shalhevet High School's awards brunch for graduating seniors. In addition to being named class valedictorian, she received the excellence in math award, two Bureau of Jewish Education awards and a plaque from Bank of America.
This June, talented and bright middle school and high school graduates, like Sara, will star in their own school awards ceremonies. They will walk up to the stage, amid hearty cheering by faculty and family, to receive awards for their achievements in such categories as academics, the arts, sports and menschlikhkayt.
At the same time, the majority of their classmates will sit and watch, walking away without any certificates, plaques, trophies or applause and likely feeling that their contributions have been inconsequential. Many might inevitably become less enthusiastic about attending graduation ceremonies and festivities.
That conflict is not lost on the award winners themselves.
David Grossman, 18, wanted to make the Holocaust more personal. Eliya Shachar, 18, wished to understand her grandmother's pain. And Max Kappel, 17, wanted to find a tangible place to comprehend the Shoah.
They were among 51 teenagers from Los Angeles who took part in last week's March of the Living 2005 in Poland, which retraces the nearly two miles from Auschwitz to Birkenau, following the path of concentration camp inmates forced to walk to the gas chambers. They were accompanied by survivors for whom that trail once meant death, including Nandor "Marko" Markovic, 82, a Holocaust survivor, and his wife, Frances, who squeezed into the slow-moving and untidy line of about 20,000 people from almost 50 countries.
More than 30 years after Gloria Steinem founded Ms. Magazine and Sally Priesand was ordained a rabbi, more than 25 years after Judith Resnick became an astronaut and more than 10 years after Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the United States Supreme Court, Jewish women, along with their non-Jewish counterparts, have discovered that they can have it all -- at a steep price.
After spending the summer at Lishma, an intensive yeshiva-style program for young adults at Camp Ramah in Ojai, sisters Olga and Anna Dramchuk expected to be teaching Torah to fellow university students at Hillel in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Instead, they're back in Los Angeles in search of more Jewish life and learning.
"Lishma was one of the best experiences we ever had as Jews, but it was only the beginning," said Anna Dramchuk, 18.
Years ago, Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom would run up and down the Hebrew school carpool line handing out cassette tapes of his and Rabbi Harold Schulweis' sermons.
"If you're not going to come inside, at least listen to this," he'd tell parents.
The oldest and most primitive human dates back about 7 million years, according to a skull found by scientists in Central Africa.
"That's so depressing," I say to my husband, Larry. "I can't believe that in 7 million years we haven't evolved any further than this."
"This" being a world in which half the people live on less than $2 a day; in which 1 billion people go to bed hungry every night; in which 115 million children never go to school at all; and in which 27 million people live in some kind of slavery.
"You're looking at this all wrong," Larry assures me. "Seven million years is an insignificant blip in the history of the cosmos."
And, Jewish tradition tells me, the first 6,994,235 years hardly count.
Don't call them synagogues.
They are minyanim, or spiritual communities. They have evolved from shared and individual dreams and from serendipitous, profound and beshert connections. They are new, egalitarian, independent, warm, collaborative and vibrant.
And they are all led by female rabbis.
"Why are you having a bar or bat mitzvah?" Larry Kligman, dean of students at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, asks the school's 65 seventh-graders.
"Are you in for another 20?" my husband, Larry, asks. We're lounging on the beach on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, a brief
escape to relax and reconnect as a couple, to celebrate and contemplate two decades of marriage.
Exactly 20 years earlier we were standing under a chuppah at the Beverly Hills Hotel, reciting our marriage vows. It was Purim, 1983, and just as Esther had saved the Jews from Haman's evil plot, so Larry was rescuing me from my less-than-fulfilling life as a 30-something single woman.
The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that we are created with yetzer hatov (good inclination) or yetzer harah (bad inclination).
"Haman wanted to hurt our people. We pushed him in the water and a shark ate him," announced Hayden Cohn, 3, a student in the Valley Beth Shalom Nursery School in Encino.
"Why go to war?" Dr. Aryeh Cohen, chair of rabbinic studies at the University of Judaism, asks a group of teenagers at Milken Community High School.
No, Jeremy, you cannot wear 'liberty spikes' to your bar mitzvah party," I say, referring to the hair-style that transforms my son's head into the Statue of Liberty's crown.
"Mom, you don't understand," he says. "Even when I'm 50, I'll be spiking my hair."
"You're the oldest of all my friends' moms," my son, Danny, 11, tells me.
Like I don't know this. Or have a card for senior discounts or billions of cells that have lost their elasticity to prove it.
Danny, 10, can recite the Five Pillars of Islam: faith, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage.
Jeremy, 12, understands the difference between Predator armed drones and Global Hawk surveillance drones; between 500-pound "dumb" gravity bombs and 2,000-pound "smart" precision-guided bombs.
Gabe, 14, knows that Pastun and Dari are the spoken languages of Afghanistan while Pastuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks make up the main ethnic groups.
Zack, 18, can locate most of the "stans" -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Since Sept. 11, on a practical and comprehensible level, my sons have learned about the religion of Islam, the military capability of the United States, the ethnicity of Afghanistan and the geography of Central Asia.
Many Native American parents, in an adolescent rite of passage, send their teenage sons on a solo journey, without food and with little water, into the wilderness. This is called a vision quest, and the child doesn't return until he is visited in a dream by his personal spirit. Often, this takes several days.
We Jews, on the other hand, who are not called stiff-necked for nothing, insist not only on keeping our hormonally challenged teenagers at home, but also on presenting them to the entire Jewish community in an elaborate, expensive and anxiety-provoking ceremony. This is called a bar or bat mitzvah, and it signifies that our teenager has become an adult according to Jewish law, even though this child still cannot vote, drive or pick up his socks.
My husband, Larry, and I had been training, or so I thought, for the Avon Breast Cancer Three-Day, a 60-mile walk in from Santa Barbara to Malibu last October.
But now I realize that we were really training for a grave new world -- for when an act of God, or more likely an act of godlessness, blindsides Los Angeles, shutting down our streets and transportation systems.
Nes Gadol Hayah Sham.
We all agree that the letters on the sides of the dreidel stand for "A Great Miracle Happened There." (In Israel, of course, the letters stand for Nes Gadol Hayah Po -- "A Great Miracle Happened Here.")
But -- and this is why there's a book titled "Two Jews, Three Opinions" -- what miracle are we talking about?
My son Zack, 17, is celebrating Shabbat dinner tonight at the Bohema Restaurant in Krakow, Poland.
In fact, not only is he celebrating Shabbat, but he and his group -- 15 students from Milken Community High School in Los Angeles and 140 students from Tichon Chadash High School in Tel Aviv, plus teachers and parent chaperones (including my husband, Larry) -- are practically doubling Krakow's Jewish population, estimated at 200. It is a population that, at its height in the late 1930s, numbered more than 60,000.
The photographs from my son Gabe's bar mitzvah sit on my dining room table, waiting to be ordered.
His bar mitzvah took place more than a year ago.
The handpainted needlepoint canvas that I am stitching for my husband's 50th birthday remains unfinished. Never mind that he's now 51.
I am fundamentally a responsible and organized human being.
I am also the mother of four sons -- ages 10, 12, 14 and 17.
"How do you manage?" my cousin Lexy asks. She is overwhelmed with one daughter.
"Some days not very well," I answer.
Particularly days in which I try to write about being a mother. This column, for example, represents my umpteenth attempt.
Why are we the People of the Book? Why aren't we the People of the Question?
After all, before Moses receives the Torah on Mt. Sinai, like Abraham earlier, he answers God's call to service with a question. In Exodus 3:11, he says, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?"
"Fish is meat," announces Danny, my 9-year-old vegetarian son.
"Fish is fish," responds Larry, my 50-something pescetarian husband.
Judaism backs up Larry, classifying fish as pareve, neither dairy nor meat, and telling us that fish first appeared almost 6,000 years ago, on the fifth day of creation, when God commanded, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures" (Genesis 1:20). God later elaborated, "anything in water, whether in the seas or in the streams, that has fins and scales -- these you may eat" (Leviticus 11:9).
"We have slaves to help," Jerry Rabinowitz, the Friday co-captain of the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry, announces. "We Jews know something about slaves."
Judaism commands us to be kind to animals.
On Nov. 9, five years after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Milken Community High School students reached across 7,563 miles and 10 time zones to their sister school, Tichon Chadash, in Tel Aviv.
Imagine the possibility of having restricted access to your own religion and culture without even realizing it, whether you attend synagogue and study sessions faithfully or not. Such a phenomenon actually exists, and it's doing its disturbing work in our own Jewish community. I am referring to the inability to read and interpret the Hebrew language - the original mode of communication of the Torah, rabbis, biblical scholars and personas, and thousands of years of Judaism. I call this disability Hebrew/Jewish illiteracy.
In a perfect world, my cousin Sima and I would have grown up together. Almost exactly a year apart, we would have talked in secret code, tormented our younger siblings and giggled together at family seders. We would have shared our adolescent crushes and angst, and danced at each other's weddings.
"Pay me to read? That would be awesome," my son Jeremy says.
Not only is he perpetually in debt, but he was also faced with a formidable list of books to read before beginning sixth grade at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge on Sept. 5.
"But it would be wrong," he immediately adds.
"I can't wait until I'm older so that I can join the NRA," my son Danny, 9, announces.The National Rifle Association? My son?
"Danny," I ask, "don't you know that guns hurt people?'
"Mom," he answers, staring at me incredulously, "they're supposed to."
This past year, Toys R Us was excoriated for proposing and, in some instances, constructing separate "Boys World" and "Girls World" sections. But public outrage quickly forced the 707-store retailer to abandon this gender-based marketing concept, which it euphemistically referred to as "logical adjacencies."Twenty years ago, I would have vehemently condemned Toys R Us' discriminatory actions, perhaps even joining the ranks of the politically correct protesters. Girls, I would have argued, have as much right to play with a Tonka truck as boys with a Little Tikes vacuum cleaner. And not only a right, a need.Twenty years ago, I was single, childless and clueless.
Why is this night different from all other nights?
This night is different because I, a person who equates working in the kitchen with working on a chain gang, cook most of the multicourse Passover meal. Singlehandedly and from scratch, I might add.
According to myth, Jews don't drink. This is false.
According to the "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous, alcohol is cunning, baffling and powerful. This is true. Otherwise, why would my father choose to move in 1991 to Portland, Oregon, to live alone with his Dalmatian and begin drinking after 18 years of sobriety?