September 29, 2005
How We Worship
Los Angeles Jews. AnJewlinos, if you will.
Who are they?
A diverse group if ever there was one -- as multifaceted as the city itself. About 660,000 Jews call the greater Los Angeles home -- and that does not include the many more families who are touched by Judaism through intermarriage, culture and civic ties. But numbers don't begin to portray the range of the Los Angeles Jewish experience, especially at this High Holiday season.
Jews here are as different as snowflakes. From young to old, secular to Ultra-Orthodox; transplanted from Brooklyn, or Israel, or Iran or Russia; practicing Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Greek, Persian and new-age feminist customs. There are traditional families with 11 children and yuppie families with 2.2. There are gay couples and singles and everything and anything in between.
And come the High Holidays, most AnJewlinos, even those who aren't observant at other times, come out of the woodwork in a Jewish way, at least this once, to celebrate the Jewish New Year.
How do we observe?
Some people prepare themselves spiritually the whole month of Elul, the Hebrew month before the New Year dedicated to repentance. For others, it's the only time of year they attend synagogue. Some don't even go to synagogue, but gather informally in a group, or they skip the whole services thing and partake in gloriously sweet meals among friends and family members.
The Jewish Journal has selected 10 narratives, a diverse sampling of lay people that is by no means comprehensive. These are not the rabbis, academics, day-school principals, politicians and others we normally hear from about being Jewish.
Together, their stories paint a picture of the Jews of Los Angeles, and the part that the High Holidays play in their spiritual lives.
Lives in Calabasas
Synagogue: Chabad of Calabasas
Iris Goldstein-Hagay says she is the last Israeli you'd expect to find living in Los Angeles.
"I grew up the typical Israeli girl, very proud of Israel. I trained soldiers in the army. I knew history very well -- the history of every place in Israel, every flower, every tree. I wore jeans and a T-shirt, long hair with no makeup. I was the typical Israeli girl from the Moshav," she says, referring to a communal settlement based on a semi-socialist economic system.
As she sits in her bustling real estate office conference room, it's hard to picture Goldstein-Hagay as an Israeli flower-child chalutznikit, a pioneer from the Jaffa Orange Grove lifestyle. Not with four notebooks of lists splayed out in front of her and a half dozen urgent phone calls to return from Israelis at various stages of purchasing a house. Not with her French-manicured nails and multi-toned ash-blond, blow-dried hair that sets off a deep tan.
"I came here and changed a lot," she says.
Her first trip to America was with her husband and two daughters in 1984, when she was 26 years old. Like many Israelis during that period, they came for work, and thought they'd stay only a few years to make money. (Today, many Israelis emigrate here with the intention of staying for good). Goldstein-Hagay didn't want to work in special education, her field in Israel. So after calculating how much she was paying rent for her apartment and how much money the landlord was probably making, she decided to go into real estate.
Four years after coming to Los Angeles, the marriage to her high school sweetheart disintegrated -- but her career in real estate was going well.
"The minute you get a check, it's like drugs to your blood -- you get addicted to the business," she says. "I really love it and I have a lot of passion for it."
Still, in 1992 she decided to go back to Israel because of her family. But the Moshav girl couldn't adjust to her home country any longer.
"It was very hard for me to live in Israel," she says.
She settled in Tel Aviv and worked in real estate, but had a hard time as a single mother.
Besides, she says, "I missed the way of life in America."
So with $400 in her pocket and another promise to return to Israel, she came back to the Valley she had grown to love and tried to pick up her real estate business. That was seven years ago.
In that time, Goldstein-Hagay has become the No. 5 real estate agent in Los Angeles at RE/MAX real estate agency (she's in the top 1 percent in the United States), remarried and moved to Calabasas as a "Brady Bunch" with her two daughters and two stepsons (One daughter is now married with two children and also lives in the Valley.)
Goldstein-Hagay is what Israelis call "traditional." Not Orthodox, but celebrating the basic landmarks of Jewish life, like lighting candles Friday night, having Shabbat and holiday meals, preparing special foods and holding get-togethers. Her parents usually come from Israel for the High Holidays.
For the last three years, Goldstein-Hagay has attended the local Chabad, a 20-minute walk from her house. (She doesn't drive on the High Holidays.) For her, this season is about commemorating the rituals of her childhood, when she went to shul on the High Holidays.
"It's probably a traditional habit, something that seems really important to me, even though I don't keep Shabbat or go to synagogue during the year," she says.
She explains it another way: "I'm not an American Jew. It's really hard to explain to somebody what's an Israeli Jew. I don't need to go to shul every Saturday to be a Jew," she says. "I grew up in a Jewish country."
She estimates that 60 percent of her clientele, which is focused in the Valley, is Israeli -- as opposed to 100 percent when she started out.
Goldstein-Hagay lives like many Israelis here do, within a community of Israelis -- even if "some of my best friends are American."
Her neighborhood is not a "little Israel"; it's more of a network.
"There is a strong Israeli community here, especially if you need something -- help or support -- if somebody really needs help we get it," she says.
Goldstein-Hagay visits Israel every so often, and she also works to raise money for different Israeli causes. As chairwoman of the "Larger Than Life" organization, she helped bring 21 Israeli kids suffering from cancer to America. "It's easy to support Israel from here," she says.
Will she ever live in Israel again?
"I feel my heart's there," she says. Still, "I'm a very realistic person, and I know it's not for me anymore -- my family is here. I already tried to live there, and it was really hard for me economically," she says firmly. "That's the reality and I'm very realistic person."
The Socialist Atheist
Lives in Cheviot Hills
Synagogue: Adat Chaverim
Joe Steinberg says he was always an atheist.
When he attended Orthodox Hebrew School in Chicago in the 1930s he thought the whole thing was "nonsense." His Polish immigrant parents had sent him there till his bar mitzvah.
"It was terrible experience for me. I was a very smart and curious child, and no questions were ever answered there," he says, slapping himself on the hand to demonstrate the switch.
It's not hard to picture Steinberg as that child, because he still has big blue eyes, one eyebrow permanently raised quizzically and a tendency to jump up when he remembers something important or exciting. With a fuzz of white hair on both sides of his head, he looks like elder statesman Yitzhak Rabin, but much more animated.
"I swore after I was bar mitzvah that I would never go into a synagogue again," Steinberg says like it was yesterday and not 70 years ago. "And I didn't have to." His parents kept a kosher home and celebrated the traditions, like lighting candles for Shabbat and holding Passover seders. They attended synagogues only on the High Holidays.
Even in the foxhole, Steinberg kept up his atheism. After he got an undergraduate degree in accounting at the University of Iowa and then a graduate degree from the Yale School of Drama, he was drafted -- and got injured in his first assignment at the Battle of the Bulge.
"I was one of the lucky Jews -- they saved my leg," he says, including a long story about this anti-Semitic captain in the Army that ended with a laugh instead of a fistfight. The wound got him discharged, and with his wife, Gladys -- another long story about how he started dating his girlfriend's friend -- he eventually ended up in California running a finance company and dabbling in film.
His most noted film fact is that Lee Harvey Oswald, after assassinating President Kennedy, ran into a theater to watch his film "To Be a Man" (which Oliver Stone later licensed for "JFK").
Steinberg made many friends in the business of like political mind. People like Pete Seeger and Earl Robinson milled about his house. Many of Steinberg's other friends wouldn't come around for years because they knew their license plates would be noted, and they'd end up on FBI watch lists. An active member of the Independent Progressive Party, Steinberg hosted fundraisers for the "Hollywood Ten" -- who refused to name alleged communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
"Was I nervous?" Steinberg repeated the question about fear of recriminations from the communist-obsessed government of the 1950s.
"What the hell could they do to me? I was a retired officer, shot in battle, the owner of a capitalist company," he says, sitting up from the couch. "No, I wasn't afraid at all."
It was among these people -- primarily Jews -- he discovered a place to Jewishly educate his two daughters: the kindershul movement, a left-wing Jewish Yiddish-speaking Socialist movement -- all things Steinberg was interested in.
"I didn't want them to go through the terrible regimen I went through, learning by rote with rabbis slapping you on the wrist, learning a language that you didn't know what the hell you were saying."
By the 1970s, Steinberg had joined University Synagogue to be with his children and grandchildren (today he has four and one great-grandchild). But he says he left after a social-action interfaith project for low-income housing didn't get funding. That's when he joined the Secular Humanist Jews of Los Angeles. Yet this group was not proactive enough for him, so he and two other members founded Adat Chaverim in the Valley, which today has 75 members and a Sunday school with about 20 kids. They hold services once a month, and will have services on both days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
So what's a Jewish congregation -- don't call it a synagogue -- that doesn't believe in God?
They perform the rituals, like lighting candles, breaking bread and singing songs that speak of the "light within us." They don't pray, per se, but speak well of the ill, honor the dead and talk about leading a good and ethical life.
"People say to me, 'Joe, how could you be Jewish and not believe in a god?' And I tell them, 'I don't care what you believe in. Are you a mensch? It doesn't matter what you believe or not.' The thing we're looking for is to make people menches."
During the High Holidays, his fellow congregants speak of forgiveness and do tashlich, the ritual of throwing bread in the water that typically represents a person's sins being cast away.
"It's a symbol. We're not asking God to forgive us. He -- or she -- is not going to sit in judgment. Bull--," he says, earning a dirty look from Gladys, his wife of 61 years, as she passes by. "You're going to sit in judgment. The toughest part is to forgive yourself," he says. "Do I have faith? Sure I have faith. I have faith in my wife, in my kids, in my comrades. I don't have faith in the unknown."
The Meditating Jew
Lives in Valley Glen
It's hard to understand how someone who lost a son could call himself "lucky" or say "God's been pretty good to me," but perhaps that's a testament to Stephen Weber's faith -- or more precisely, his meditation.
Weber came of age in the '60s, when as a student at USC he heard a talk by Richard Alpert, a.k.a. Baba Ram Dass -- who, with Timothy Leary, wrote a book on LSD and spirituality. Until that point, Weber had been a High Holiday Reform Jew from the San Fernando Valley, who hadn't thought much about religion or God since his confirmation classes.
"It just didn't strike me," he says. "The Eastern model of transcendentalism did strike me," he says.
For three years after college he traveled the world teaching Yoga. That's where he met his wife, Merryl (now together 31 years), a Jewish woman who was also into meditation. Merryl was from a more traditional family, so they joined the Conservative Temple Adat Ari El in the Valley, where they sent their two children to Sunday school. But spiritually speaking, Weber still got most of his inspiration from his daily hour of meditation and yoga practice.
On an atypically overcast morning, Weber showed off his unusually green, almost tropical garden -- more like a small rainforest really than a yard in the San Fernando Valley. As he approaches a wood bridge over a pond, he veers off to get food for the gargantuan goldfish, who wait by the water's edge.
"They can hear me coming," he says.
Around the pool and in the garden are Buddha-like statues, surrounded by plants. They're not religious symbols or shrines.
"Just decorations," Stephen says.
Sitting by his kidney-shaped pool, Weber could be mistaken for a movie mogul: He's wearing a black and cr?me palm tree print short-sleeved shirt that hangs loosely over a vigorous stomach, black pants and shiny loafers.
But this is not that kind of pool, and Weber's not that kind of guy. He's got a different vibe. Over the soothing sound of a fountain, he speaks slowly and carefully, in an even-keeled, almost affectless voice. His internal metronome seems to tick at a calmer pace.
"I've had a spiritual career and a business career," he says. The business part was the show "Amazing Discoveries," with Mike Levey, otherwise known as "The Sweater Guy" to those familiar with infomercials.
Weber's inner and outer life took a sharp turn 10 years ago when his 20-year-old son Adam was killed in a boating accident while vacationing in North Carolina, on spring break from UC Santa Cruz.
After losing his eldest child, Weber soon sold his infomercial company and is now semi-retired, working on various entertainment projects. It was around that time that he got more interested in Metivta: The Center for Contemplative Judaism, then run by Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man.
"It was Jewish meditation, and I didn't know there was such a thing," Weber says. "Metivta seemed to afford a place for people who were ex-practitioners of other practices like yoga or Buddhism or Zen teachings, but who were looking for something in our own Jewish religion.
He began attending monthly Shabbat services there.
"It's different than say, Adat Ari El, because there are a lot of elements of meditation and chanting in the services," he says. "You can stop at one thing and nobody's going to be after you if you're not with the group. It's not like 'Please turn to Page 173,'" he says, mimicking an announcer.
His son's death threw him into tremendous grief: "I dealt with it head on. I didn't try to run. I sat with it. I just sat with it. I would walk at night, till I was so exhausted I would fall asleep."
Meditation seemed to be the only thing that helped. "I might me miserable but this hour is mine," he says. "There's still times, 10 years later, when it hits you sometimes, but not for that long."
He remains a regular at Metivta, where he will celebrate the High Holidays. "I think it's a chance to get in touch with the divine and to look at yourself from one year to the next -- not where have I progressed, but where am I? Am I on course?"
"I feel that meditation is like God talking to me, and prayer is like me talking to God."
What does he pray for these High Holidays?
"I try not to ask for personal things. I kind of feel that God's been pretty good to me, all in all. I feel more like gratitude: Thank you that I don't live in Louisiana, or near the tsunami, you know. Thanks for the healthy body, material well-being, nice family -- I try not to ask for too much."
"I didn't think it would be a good tribute to Adam to be carrying around the weight of his death," Weber says. "He wouldn't have liked that."
The Jewish Student
Lives in Westwood
Synagogue: UCLA Hillel Shul
Welcome to Generation Z.
These are the young people, born sometime in the 1980s, who are so adept at computers that even their religious missives go out online.
Before the High Holidays it is customary to ask your friends and family for forgiveness -- or mechilah -- but Andy Green does it by a massive e-mail.
That's what Green, a fourth-year UCLA student, is sending out this year to about a hundred friends and relatives.
"Dear friends and family," he writes. "You and I have interacted over the course of the year, and if there's anything that I've done that has hurt you in any way, or that you want to talk to me about, please do. And I want a chance to talk to you about it and to make up for what I've done."
It's not that Green has endless time on his hands. He's been active these last three years at Hillel: The Campus Foundation for Jewish Life, where he's now serving as student president.
"With the High Holidays happening so late this year, there will be a great opportunity to bring in lot of students that wouldn't come otherwise, once-a-year Jews, to expose people to our Hillel," he says. (This year Rosh Hashanah actually falls during the school semester, as opposed to last year, when the first day of class fell on Sukkot, at the end of the High Holiday season.)
That's how Green sees things, in terms of opportunities to interest students in different aspects of Judaism. He's no salesman, just idealistic and down-to-earth - and putting his Jewish day-school education to good use.
Green grew up in mid-Wilshire and attended Pressman Academy and Shalhevet High School. His family attends the Conservative Beth Am Synagogue. (During the High Holidays, he and his father attend Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller's services at UCLA, because his father is an alumnus and also met his mother at UCLA Hillel.)
Green doesn't like to categorize himself religiously. Looks-wise, it's hard to tell, because this tall, teddy-bearish guy wears a colored, knitted yarmulke on his head -- and Birkenstocks and dress socks on his feet. If pressed, he'll say "Conservadox," but he feels more comfortable with the slogan that Los Angeles activist David Suissa once put out on T-shirts, bumpers stickers and billboards: "I'm ashkefardicultrareformaconservadox and proud of it."
"That captures what I feel," Green says, adding, "it's very important to have an open Jewish community, where people can express Judaism in whatever way they feel comfortable."
Whether that means joining a temple or just being a "cultural" Jew who cooks Jewish food and eats matzah ball soup -- "I think that's beautiful," he says.
It's ironic, he says, that UCLA was his first time out of the Jewish "ghetto" -- the sheltered life of Jewish day schools and camps, while for many friends, UCLA has been their first exposure to a campus Jewish community.
He spends much of his time organizing Hillel intercultural events, but he also enjoys those late-night conversations that only seem to happen on a college campus -- you know, about what the meaning of life is, why bad things happen to good people or defining your own purpose.
"Most people of my generation, when they're seeking to find an outlet for their spiritual impulse, the first place they're looking is not the tradition of their parents," he says. "Judaism is empty for them. But Judaism is not empty -- there are so many opportunities to explore."
Why does this math and econ major devote so much effort to connecting students with Judaism instead of working on his resume, or at least partying with the best of them?
"Because this is what's important to me," he says. "I believe that all the interactions I'm having with students at UCLA is the purpose of life -- to meet other people and to have life-altering experiences with them. And to explore who you are and have them explore themselves."
And besides, he confesses, "Partying doesn't do that as much for me."
Lives in Pico-Robertson
Synagogue: The Kabbalah Centre
Mitch Desser originally went back to synagogue to meet a nice Jewish girl.
He was 38 years old and hadn't really been into the whole organized religion thing -- the only times he'd gone to synagogue since his bar mitzvah and Orthodox Sunday school education was on the High Holidays. His parents were traditional.
At Ohr Hatorah, Rabbi Mordechai Finley's shul on Olympic Boulevard, Desser fell in love -- not with a woman, but with Kabbalah.
"I felt a connection, and I knew I wanted to be a ba'al teshuvah," he says, using the term for a returnee to the faith, which usually implies a more Orthodox path than before. After attending Finley's classes at the University of Judaism, he started going to The Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard, which was right near his house.
Over the last six years -- as he's gotten married and had two kids -- Desser has taken one or two classes every quarter, completing eight courses at the Centre, and now attends services on Saturday. He finds Kabbalah easier and more meaningful than the traditions and the ritual of the Orthodoxy he was raised on.
"Instead of it being about dogma and religiosity, it was about conscientiousness and spirit," he says.
Desser doesn't seem like someone who'd be particularly into Kabbalah -- or any spiritual pursuit. An entrepreneur with a telecommunications and real estate company, the baby-faced, balding Desser, looks like your average middle-class husband, tired after a long day of work, eager to sink into his leather couch with his wife, maybe drink a beer or a glass of wine and listen to see if the kids will stay asleep. As he explains his newfound religious connection, a large flat-screen TV blares "So You Think You Can Dance" in the background.
He talks about what Kabbalah means to him in his lemon-lime living room as he fidgets with a sippy cup filled with Cheerios. His olive-skinned face and blue eyes relax into a waking dreamlike state while he attempts to explain the basics, as his secular Israeli wife, Shani, listens.
"They teach you about consciousness, and the unity of all the people in the world, the connectedness of all the people in the world, wherever they are; they teach you about human dignity," Mitch says. "As far as how to connect -- they call God the light -- how you connect to the light is how you connect through human sharing," he says.
The High Holidays, he says, are a time to plan spiritually: "Rosh Hashanah is the seed for the entire year. It's when you open up the spirit and allow yourself to get correction -- tikkun. Whatever you're struggling with, it's time to get connected to the light and learn what your personal lessons are."
What are the lessons he needs to apply?
He rubs his eyes and thinks.
"I want to work on letting go of my control of the physical reality, to alleviate the everyday worries and tasks," he says.
He will not be attending the massive Kabbalah Centre High Holiday service -- they hold it in different cities, this year in Dallas -- where the Rav channels everyone's consciousness together for a stronger prayer.
Instead, he'll repair to the familiar Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard, and have a traditional meal or two at home with Shani, who grew up secular in Israel, and moved here five years ago when she met Mitch during a visit he took to Israel.
Shani, 32, has her own goals, mainly affecting her children.
"I want the kids to get something, even if it's just what I got -- tradition -- to know what the holidays are and to know what they mean," she says. "So we'll probably do a little Kaballah and a little tradition."
She describes herself as privately spiritual: "I don't have to go to synagogue for that, and if I do go, it's more for the community than less for spirituality."
She once went with her husband to a Kabbalah Centre seder -- there were 3,000 people there -- but it wasn't for her.
"It was too much praying for her," Desser says, smiling and touching his wife's hand. "She just went there for me."
"I didn't get it, I think," she interjects.
"You don't get any religion," he says.
"That's true," she agrees.
Does it bother Desser that his wife doesn't share Kabbalah with him?
"Religion is a very important thing," he says. "I don't want to tell my partner how to think or feel.... Sometimes I come home and share stuff with her."
Before he goes to synagogue, "she says things like, 'You go and pray for me,' because she wants to make sure she's covered in case I'm right."
She looks at her husband and smiles: "Just in case."
The (Nearly) Intermarried Jews
Amy Levy and Chad Savage
Ages: 37 and 39
Live in Brentwood
Synagogue: Temple of The Arts
In the 10 years that Amy Levy has lived in Los Angeles, she really put herself out there to find a nice, tall, Jewish man. The 6-foot New York transplant attended Friday Night Live, joined JDate, went to Federation events and even worked for five years at a Jewish organization (The Anti-Defamation League).
About two years ago one of her P.R. clients told her he had the perfect guy for her.
"Is he tall?" Levy asked, pronouncing it the New York way: Tawl. Yes, he said. Chad Savage was 6-foot-4.
"Is he Jewish?" Levy asked.
"No, but he is the nicest guy I have ever met."
The client was wrong about Savage's height -- he's only 6-foot-2 -- but he wasn't wrong about the TV executive's personality. On their first date Levy was "absolutely de-lighted" by Savage, as she likes to say.
The subject of religion came up right away.
"We were talking about my sister's wedding," Savage explains in a voice that is as steady and calm as Levy's is vigorous. He mentioned that it "took place in a chapel, and Amy announced: 'FYI: No chapel wedding.' That was blind date No. 1," he says. "I was a little surprised, but she was Amy throughout."
On date No. 2, Levy -- still her effervescent, straightforward self -- was having a really good time, and she told Savage that. She also announced: "I kind of want to have a Jewish wedding and kids who are Jewish and the holidays. I'm not very religious and I go to temple mostly on the holidays. But the heritage and the cooking and acknowledging the holidays spiritually is really important to me. How do you feel about that?"
Savage, who takes most things in stride, told her it was OK.
He also admits, "I wasn't sure where we were going at that point."
"We were still only on the entrée," Levy interjects.
"If that," Savage says. "I appreciated her forwardness, her honesty. So it didn't scare me."
Levy's whirlwind personality didn't scare him at all, as a matter of fact, and neither did her connection to a Jewish heritage.
In fact, some of Savage's best friends are Jews. No, really. Although he looks like a white-bread Midwesterner, with a lumbering tallness and a pale skin that probably burns easily, he grew up in Santa Monica next door to a Jewish family that invited him to all the holidays at their house.
"I've probably gone to temple more than I've gone to church so it was not anything strange to me," he says.
Levy interrupts: "We invited that neighbor that he grew up next to -- I hope they come -- as they see their little Chad getting married under the chuppah and break the glass."
Oh yeah, Levy and Savage are getting married Nov. 6, just two years after they met. Rabbi David Baron, of the Temple of the Arts, where they go for High Holiday services, is performing the ceremony, as well as meeting with them beforehand to prepare them for a Jewish wedding.
Although religion can be a problem for many couples -- even those within the same faith -- there wasn't much conflict for them.
"There really were not any issues," Savage said. He's already been through the cycle of holidays with Levy.
"We'll figure out what the rules and morals and things will be for our household together," Levy says. "We start off with a good spiritual base and an understanding that we are both good people. I think you sort of take it from there," she says.
They will celebrate Christmas and Easter at his parents house, and have a Christmas tree in their own -- although not this year, because they'll be on their honeymoon.
Will Savage become Jewish?
"I haven't asked him," Levy says.
"She may have asked," Savage says. "But I said no. Twice."
Levy looks sheepish. A tiny bit.
"I'm just not very religious," Savage says. "I appreciate the traditions and the community of Judaism, but I have issues with religion in general. Even politically, I'm registered Independent."
"Don't worry, he voted Democrat," Levy says quickly. (It's one thing to intermarry, but quite another for this liberal Westsider to pull an inverse Marlee Matlin.) Actually, they share similar values and backgrounds: graduates of public school, patrons of the arts, supporters of KCRW, yada yada yada.
"One of the things that I learned at the ADL is to celebrate diversity, and I think that I needed to practice what I was preaching," she says about meeting Savage.
"I'm not promoting intermarriage or saying, 'Go out and find someone different, you'll be happier,'" she says. "But sometimes you end up with someone that you never thought you would."
"Some people say, 'Are you marrying a nice Jewish boy?' and I say 'I'm marrying a nice boy.'"
The Gay Jews
Robin Berkovitz & Laurie Newman
Ages: 44 and 52
Live in Venice
Synagogue: Beth Chayim Chadashim
Robin Berkovitz has just spent the morning cleaning.
This morning it was the beach in Venice, as part of Heal The Bay's "Coastal Cleanup Day," an annual worldwide campaign to rid beaches of debris. Then, in the afternoon, she climbed up to the roof of her studio/garage to clean off the leaves that have been bugging her all summer.
"It's kind of an Elul thing," she says, referring to the Hebrew month preceding Rosh Hashanah, during which many Jews dedicate themselves to repentance. "I like to do some kind of a physical cleanup."
On this mid-September Saturday afternoon, Berkovitz looks like she's put in a hard day's work -- or maybe she always looks that way, with her no-nonsense short, gray-flecked hair, khakis and a T-shirt. As she talks, she's sitting outside in the backyard with her partner Laurie Newman -- between the Spanish-style house and the garage/study. The latter now does duty as a playroom for their 3-year-old, who is evading her afternoon nap. Chubby, impish Eliana is climbing a ladder to pile plastic file boxes into a precarious tower.
A lot has changed since they adopted her from Guatemala three years ago.
"Ever since we had Eliana, I haven't been as good at making time for myself," Berkovitz says, echoing most new mothers, even if her family has two mothers. "I haven't been good at making time for doing my emotional cleanup."
She's referring to her Elul practice of reading spiritual books like "Wisdom of the Jewish Sages" by Rami Shapiro, or taking classes at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), the world's first lesbian and gay synagogue, on Pico Boulevard.
"Now I might read some of those books in shul," she says. Then again, she may not, just like she doesn't always fast strictly on Yom Kippur because she's busy taking care of her daughter. And her Passover seders don't go on as long because the kids at the table want to go to sleep.
Berkovitz has become more flexible on her religious rituals, just as Newman has learned to accept Jewish traditions in their home.
Both women grew up in Reform households -- Berkovitz in Southern California and Newman in New York. Unlike Newman, however, Berkovitz always liked tradition and ritual: "I felt in my bones very Jewish and very interested. I was the only one who liked religious school. No one else did."
Newman certainly did not. From under her baseball cap, her blue eyes narrow when Berkovitz talks about religion. Newman attended synagogue for what she calls the "fashion-show High Holidays" on Long Island, and only went to BCC eight years ago "to try to meet a Jewish woman." (Berkovitz has been a member for 20 years.)
In 2001 they held a marriage ceremony under this same bougainvillea-covered trellis they're sitting below during the interview. Despite their commitment, like many couples, they had some adjusting to do when it came to religion.
Newman, a former chef who works as a senior deputy to state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, says that Berkovitz "made an assumption that because she met me at synagogue I was as active as she was."
"Or that she was as interested in spirituality as I was," adds Berkovitz, a lawyer with the Los Angeles County public defender's office.
Eliana's arrival merged their religious paths, especially since, like many young children, Eliana loves rituals -- and loves the rabbi, Lisa Edwards. And that has caused Newman's perspective to evolve: "I think there were little pieces of things I really loved growing up, and it if it had been more child-friendly, I'm sure I would have it liked a lot more."
Through her daughter, Newman is reconnecting to Judaism. "No one's forcing me to do it. I'm making the choice now. I realize the importance of it for our family."
Berkovitz adds: "No matter how much good stuff we can transmit to Eliana in the way of feeling good about herself, and making her a strong person (and I think she was that way when she came to us), no matter how much good stuff we give her, she's going to have to make her way in the world."
And that includes making her way as a Guatamalan Jew, an adoptee and a child with two mommies.
"I think about the Unetana Tokef," Berkovitz says, referring to the High Holiday prayer about who shall live and who shall die. The prayer means to her that you can't predict how your life is going to be. "That's how I feel about Eliana, that with that kind of supportive, loving and stable environment, she'll be able to deal with the world."
The Persian Jews
The Salimpour Family
Live in Pacific Palisades
Synagogue: Sinai Temple
It's hard to believe that Rosh Hashanah dinner at the Salimpours' could be more extravagant than this recent Shabbat dinner, but they're planning for more than twice as many people and plate after plate of additional dishes. For the Salimpours, there's something almost sacred about food, and the generosity of spirit that accompanies the sharing of food is inseparable from their religious observance.
On this night, one of their twice-a-month Friday night meals, there are at least four different kinds of rice: white rice; whole grain rice; tachin, which are muffin-shaped rice and yogurt patties; and tadik, which is the crunchy rice found at the bottom of the pan that apparently everyone fights over (although not here, since there's plenty to go around and of course everyone's watching their carbs). Then there's the stuff you put on the rice -- the ghormeh sabzia green stew of spices with lamb and fesenjoon, a pomegranate chicken stew. There also are assorted items that are not necessarily Persian, such as Cornish hens, stuffed eggplant, breaded sole, an assortment of salads and ziti for the little kids, who, when offered this array of delicacies, will only eat pasta.
The food is laid out buffet style in silver and ceramic dishes on a long, white-clothed rectangular table in a low-lit mint-green room of the same shape. The setting seems tailor-made for people standing around, listening to Kiddush and watching the kids gather to say the hamotzi blessing in a cute day-school English jingle.
There are two-dozen adults and kids -- among them the four Salimpour children and their spouses and children, a cousin or two from France and the hosts, Rafael and Farah Salimpour.
On Rosh Hashanah, in this same dwelling, more than 50 will gather for a feast that also will include traditional fare for a Rosh Hashanah seder -- including apples and honey, a lamb's tongue, beets, carrots and other foods to suggest or inspire blessings for a sweet and healthy new year.
The Salimpours are Conservative and pray at Sinai Temple in Westwood. For them, the holidays are about tradition. Obviously, food is a huge part of that, but tradition also means a heritage of 2,000 years in Iran, and 25 in America.
The High Holiday seasons "reminds the whole family that we have a pretty old tradition that kept us together, and by keeping those traditions we have survived, where other nations haven't," says Rafael Salimpour, 73.
After an equally sumptuous choice of desserts, the Salimpours are splayed out comfortably in the living room, interlocked with sleeping children and ready to talk about their life.
Suffice it to say, it wasn't always like this.
Rafael and Farah Salimpour grew up in Tehran, where Rafael, a pediatrician rose to the top of his field as the director of Her Majesty's Research Institute on Child Health, an unusually high position for a Jew.
One night in 1979, after the Iranian Revolution had begun, he was taken away at gunpoint and dragged to his offices where soldiers were rifling through his files.
"I was very scared," he says. "In those days it was very easy to kill people."
But Salimpour confronted the soldiers: "You've been here all night -- did you find anything?"
The soldiers admitted they hadn't, and the doctor sent his assistant out for food to make them all a good breakfast of bread and cheese.
Seeing the family patriarch dragged off at gunpoint stayed with the family. And five months later, when they were in America on a one-month visit, they got a call from friends and relatives in Tehran warning them not to return. They decided to heed the advice.
Like many Persian Jews who fled Iran for Los Angeles, that meant leaving a lot behind -- in Salimpour's case a successful career, property and funds upward of $2 million. And exchanging that for life in a foreign country with only the suitcases they'd packed for a month to visit Pejman, their eldest son who was then finishing up high school in America.
"I knew he would be successful here," Farah Salimpour says about her husband. She insisted he turn down a job in Cleveland to come to Los Angeles, where her sister lived. Good call. Her husband persuaded Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to hire him, despite the hospital's contention that there were no available openings. He took his American boards, did a fellowship, and then opened Salimpour Pediatric Medical Group, one of the largest pediatric clinics in the city. His fellow practitioners include his two sons, Pejman and Pedram.
Patriarch may not be the word that comes to mind when you look at Rafael Salimpour -- he's trim, quiet and unimposing -- and yet what else can you call a man who fled a country at the height of his career and built it up again tenfold? What do you call a man who inspired his four children to become successful entrepreneurs? In a community that has often valued traditional roles for women in the home, the Salimpour daughters are as successful as their pediatrician brothers: Sherri Nikka is a fashion designer with her own eponymous company; she dresses stars such as Tyra Banks and her clothes sell at Neiman Marcus and Barney's. Nilou, the youngest, is a publicist in Beverly Hills with entertainment, fashion and corporate clients. Besides working with their father, Pejman and Pedram, have set up Nexcare Collaborative -- a nonprofit call center that links parents to needed services and referrals, directing many to free or low-cost health insurance. It's assisted more than 20,000 Southern California families over the last two years.
Why such a commitment beyond their own practice?
"It didn't have to be this way," says Pejman, the eldest. "We didn't have to walk into a new country that allowed us to buy a home, start a business, to go to the best graduate schools. It could have been like other countries where immigrants live in their own separate communities. America took us in with open arms."
"As doctors, we have a special responsibility to do something for other immigrants," he says, looking at his father with pride.
Patriarch Rafael sums it up quite nicely: "I could never imagine in my wildest dreams that I would be so successful in America."
Lives in Hancock Park
Synagogue: Kehillas Yakkov (Rabbi Bess' Shul)
When Shana Kramer was about 5, she had an epiphany. She piped up from the backseat of the car to share it with her parents: "I am so lucky -- I could have been born anyone, and I was born a Jew."
Some 50 years, six children and 21 grandchildren later, Kramer understands how proud her parents must have been at that moment. "Now that I have children -- six ... married, thank God) and grandchildren, I see how special that was," she says, seated in her sedate home in Hancock Park.
It's a typical interior for this neighborhood: shiny hardwood floors, a breakfront filled with Jewish ritual objects, a wall of recessed shelves holding gold-lettered sefarim (Jewish books) and most available mantels adorned with picture frames of children and grandchildren, weddings and other simchas and old-world sepia-toned photographs of bearded rabbis and their European families.
The daughter of a rabbi, Kramer has always been Orthodox -- in those days Modern Orthodox, as opposed to European and Chasidic, but today Charedi, or ultra-Orthodox. Over the years, she has, like the rest of the Orthodox community, become more frum (religious) being more careful with modesty, with kashrut and with her prayers.
Her hair is covered by a shoulder-length brown shag shaytl, a wig that might look real to the unpracticed eye. She is wearing a powder-blue turtleneck and a loose knit sweater of the same color over it which cover her collarbone and elbows, just as her navy blue skirt and bone-colored stockings do her legs. The whole outfit highlights the sparkle in her emerald green-blue eyes, and the passion of her rosy cheeks.
She is passionate -- but still modest -- about her latest project, e-chinuch.org, a Web site that gathers and disseminates curriculum and teaching materials for religious school teachers around the world that is relaunching next month with the help of a grant from the Avi Chai Foundation. Kramer was a teacher for 30 years before she "semi-retired" to create the Web site and to work at Ma'alot, a religious college in Los Angeles.
Teaching is just one passion. Her main one is her family, living in centers of Judaism around the world, from Israel to Baltimore, Monsey, N.Y. and Lakewood N.J. She and her husband of 37 years, Alex, a computer consultant, moved to Los Angeles seven years ago, after about 18 years in Riverdale, N.Y. Aside from missing her family -- she prints a four-color weekly family newsletter to keep everyone in touch -- Kramer has nothing but praise for the City of Angels.
"Life here is so pleasant and so relaxed, and everything is so pretty, and you're constantly being invited outdoors," she says. "I think that people are nicer here. They're not pressured and rushed and harried, assuming that every confrontation is unpleasant. It makes everything about living here so much nicer and it speaks to my soul."
Spirituality, for some people, proves a roundabout route with detours and rest stops. But for Kramer, it was more of a straight road, always aiming for a higher plane.
One turning point in her life came after her daughter's friends got together one Yom Kippur and said Tehillim (psalms) for a barren woman, who then gave birth -- the following Yom Kippur.
"The thought that we might have that kind of power in us -- to squander it and not take advantage of it is very sad," she says. "We don't realize how we can make changes in the world. People should ask for what they want -- if they want God's help they should come together and ask for it."
These are the things that Kramer will pray for in shul on the High Holidays:
1) a good year -- for "kehillas Yisroel" (the Jewish community) and her family;
2) freedom from worry and fear;
3) freedom from illness and suffering;
4) no division and strife;
5) and for the terrible "tsuris in Eretz Yisrel" -- trouble in Israel -- to abate.
Kramer says the world has changed, from an increasingly worrisome situation in Israel to growing anti-Semitism around the world and even to a hostile anti-Zionist atmosphere on America's college campuses. There's nothing like a precarious geopolitical situation "to concentrate your prayers," she says, referring to kavanah, or the intention one must internally feel to make the prayers meaningful and to direct them to God.
What does she pray for besides ben adam l'chaveiro -- between man and man? What are her prayers ben adam l'makom -- between man and God?
"That's a personal question," she says smiling, even blushing a little, but she'll try to answer it.
"I do daven for a closer personal relationship to God," she says, using the Yiddish word for pray. "I want to be more aware more of the time about God. It's very comforting -- it's good for me."
And though it's half a century later, it's not hard to picture her as a little girl in the car proclaiming her love of being Jewish when she says, "God's my father in Heaven and I am his little girl."
The Russian Jew
Lives in North Hollywood
Synagogue: Congregation Mogen David
When he came to America four years ago, Aleksandr Berkovich thought he might work as an opera singer.
After all, he'd trained for this vocation like his father before him, and had spent 10 years performing the main roles in more than 30 operas in St. Petersburg -- from Verdi's "La Traviatta" to Tchaikovsky's"Queen of Space."
But on his first day in America, in July 2001, he met with Alla Feldman from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who put him in touch with Cantor Binyamin Glickman of Mogen David Synagogue on Pico Boulevard. And on his second day here, Berkovich met with the cantor, who convinced him to join the synagogue's choir. A month later, they began preparing for the High Holidays.
"What do you think about being a cantor?" Glickman asked Berkovich after the High Holidays. "You have a good voice and a good personality and you feel the Jewish music."
"I don't know if I can do it," Berkovich told him.
Over the next few years, Glickman tutored the Russian immigrant. A year ago, Berkovich entered the four-year Cantorial Mechina Program at the Academy for Jewish Religion.
And then, as they say, opera was history.
While Berkovich may not be the "typical" Russian Jewish immigrant -- many of Los Angeles' Russian Jews immigrated to America in the 1970s and 80s, and moved to the Fairfax and West Hollywood environs -- his story of leaving the anti-Semitic homeland for America rings familiar: "In the former Soviet Union, in our school, it never gave us the education to feel Jewish. We were Soviet people."
Yet he was always interested in Jewish history and Jewish culture -- which he learned from his more religious grandparents. Berkovich used to listen to his grandfather's Jewish records ("vinyl," he calls them).
"I think I felt connected to the Jewish music from then," he says. Even while still in the opera trade, he'd joined the St. Petersburg synagogue choir and decided he wanted to know more about Judaism.
A sandy-haired man with Slavic cheekbones and hooded light eyes, Berkovich is easy to pick out from the crowd at Starbucks in North Hollywood, where he lives: He's the only one wearing a tie. It's a navy diagonal striped tie, and he's also got on a blue checked shirt and gray checked pants that sort of match. In halting accented English he explains why he and his wife, Regina -- Rivka in Hebrew -- decided to come to America.
"Russia still has anti-Semitism," he says. "I felt people knew that I am Jewish," he says, pointing to his kippah, a black felt one clipped almost imperceptibly amid the pile of thick sandy hair. He once saw graffiti outside his house that said, "Go home" with a Jewish Star.
Berkovich's brother settled in Los Angeles in the 1990s -- his wife had family here -- and their parents followed a few years later. Berkovich made the move with his wife and son in 2001. Joining the synagogue choir did not settle the issue of making a living. At first, Berkovich worked as an accountant. He recently became funeral coordinator and cantor at Beth Olam, the Jewish section of Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
The Federation and the Bureau of Jewish Education helped Berkovich enroll his son, Emmanuel, 12, in the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge.
"I am very grateful. I have a lot of things, and many people helped us," he says. "We knew the United States was a free country but we didn't realize how free. You can do whatever you want and practice whatever religion you want."
This Rosh Hashanah, of course, Berkovich will be singing in the choir at Mogen David. In attendance will be his family -- including his parents, wife and son and his brother's family -- and the clan will gather afterward for a meal.
Maybe it's the language barrier or maybe Berkovich is not prone to introspection, but when asked if the High Holidays have any special personal meaning, he shrugs and smiles: "It's a new year. It's a great holiday. I don't know how to explain it."
He searches for the right words: "It's like living. I like to live. I don't know why."