Will Jewish Journal Hollywood Columnist Danielle Berrin Make A Good Rebbitzen?

For the past few months, journalist Danielle Berrin has been dating David Wolpe, a famous author and the senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Westwood.

Rabbi Wolpe is twice her age (he was born in 1958 and she was born around 1984). Danielle, however, is a few inches taller than the spiritual leader.

This gossip brings me back to remarks in the 2003 book The New Rabbi.

On page 60, David Wolpe’s father tells him he’s not a great scholar.

But the retail business of religion has changed dramatically. “I don’t think I could have had anything like the success I’ve had 30 years ago, because I’m not a great scholar, who’s going to listen to me?” David says. “But the field of religion isn’t like that anymore. You don’t have to write a book with a thousand citations for someone to say, ‘OK, I’ll take this guy seriously.’ My editor said to me, ‘I want you to speak from your own authority as a spiritual teacher.’ Nobody would’ve said that at the peak of my father’s rabbinate.”

…Today there is “a business of selling spirituality. Jewish groups pay very well for guest speakers.”

…David knows that some rabbis refer to his work as “Heschel-lite.”

In the September 11, 2008 issue of the Jewish Journal, Danielle Berrin wrote:

Just before the High Holy Days last year, I was sitting in synagogue when I was struck by the star power of its rabbi. When he spoke, everyone listened, transfixed, as if the words he offered were revelations — inspiring, challenging and healing all at the same time.

At the end of his sermon, the congregants erupted in applause. I could hear them whispering about him all at once.

“He’s amazing,” several said.

“Brilliant.”

“I love him!”

That’s when the cantor’s wife, who was sitting next to me, tapped me on the shoulder.

“You know,” she whispered under the din of temple chatter. “I’m waiting for the story about what it’s like to be married to someone in the clergy.”

That’s when I began wondering about the people rabbis go home to at night, the people who don’t just love the rabbi, but who also know the rabbi.

For as long as rabbis have been arguing Talmud, their wives have been at home preparing Shabbat dinner.

Yet that image, along with expectations for clergy spouses, has evolved. For one, they’re no longer all women. They’re no longer always hovering in the background; they’re not even always a different gender from their partner.

… I became involved with a rabbi of my own, because as it turns out, God is not without a sense of irony.

The night the man I am now seeing was ordained, he asked me whether I could see myself marrying a rabbi. I hesitated to answer. I didn’t think I could bear missing someone so much. I wondered whether a rabbi could ever love their spouse as much as they love their work — a tough choice when your business partner is God.

At the time, Danielle was dating Scott Perlo, now the rabbi of Adat Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Westwood.

In the June 10, 2009 issue of the Jewish Journal, Danielle Berrin wrote:

Eliana Wolpe had been running for six hours and fifteen minutes and 26.2 miles when she finally crossed the finish line. Dripping sweat and beaming, she jogged past the screaming crowds with her arms stretched triumphantly over her head. For her, the live rock music that played ubiquitously at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon sounded as good as a victory hymn. After she finished, Eliana locked eyes with the people she was running for — her husband, Rabbi David Wolpe, and their 12-year-old daughter, Samara, who had stood huddled together on the sidelines waiting to embrace her.

Eliana burst into tears, and the threesome collapsed into a tight embrace, gripping one another and sobbing. Then the rabbi kissed her. And as hoards of other runners filed past, the Wolpes celebrated their moment of triumph. This was, for them, a victory over illness, a repudiation of the cancers that have haunted them and destroyed their sense of safety. But even as they sought hope in a new day, they knew their battle wasn’t over.

It began in the fall of 1997, soon after the Wolpes moved to Los Angeles from New Jersey with their 9-month-old daughter to begin a new life. Already an accomplished author and speaker, the rabbi was in demand as a scholar-in-residence at synagogues across the country and had not planned to become a pulpit rabbi. But when Sinai Temple, one of the country’s largest Conservative congregations, offered him a position, the couple decided to accept. Then, three months after they arrived, Eliana was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive reproductive cancer.

The terror of cancer would plague the Wolpes relentlessly. In October 2003, Rabbi Wolpe suffered a grand mal seizure that led to the discovery of a brain tumor. Fortunately, it turned out to be benign. Then, in August 2006, the rabbi was diagnosed with follicular non-Hodgkins lymphoma — a cancer he continues to fight today.

These battles with illness played out before a 2,000-family synagogue. Yet if in private the Wolpes felt pain, in public they strove to appear as normal as possible. They treated their congregation like they treated their daughter — putting others’ needs and security before their own, assuring everyone as best they could that life would go on as expected, even when they feared it might not. The Wolpes tried to be honest and open about their cancers, but there were limits: How could they offer comfort about their situation when they couldn’t comfort themselves?

Each coped differently. Rabbi Wolpe saw his coping with illness as a teaching opportunity; Eliana recoiled from the spotlight. The rabbi avoided thinking about it; Eliana pored over medical journals. He wrote books, gave lectures and thrived in his career. She focused on their daughter, scheduled her husband’s medical visits and demanded for him the very best care. “I never cared if I was offending anybody along the way,” she said.

In recent months, however, Eliana has found that cancer has offered her something else, as well. Once a deeply private person, cancer has pushed her to open up for the first time.

A few months after this article came out, Rabbi Wolpe and his wife separated. Then they divorced.

In an August 28, 2010, Saturday morning sermon at Sinai Temple, Rabbi David Wolpe said: “The beginning of this sermon is going to be very personal, much more personal than any sermon I have given…

“It has to do with something that happened to me a month ago when I was sitting at lunch with a member of the congregation and he said to me, ‘I understand you are going out with so-and-so?’

“I said, ‘What? I am not going out with anyone. I don’t even know who this person is.’

“The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. We are just beginning the separation of our lives. I have a daughter. We are still very close, all three of us.

“Last week, Eli rode a bike 100 miles to raise money for cancer lymphona research because I am in remission from lymphona. In a couple of weeks, she’s running a marathon, also to raise money for lymphona research. One day it might save my life.”

Rabbi Wolpe says: “I would never — when we are taking the first steps to lead separate lives — be going out with someone.”

“I was told that everybody knows this, especially in a certain community.”

“During the past 13 years that I have been the rabbi of this synagogue, numerous members of the Persian group have come to me and said, ‘Please talk about gossip in the Persian community.’

“I’m doing it this morning in part because of what happened this week, because there was a terrible tragedy and a few young people were killed and our hearts go out to their families. I want you to know that if you gossip about it, then you are wounding families who have already suffered unimaginable pain, so don’t do it.”

Danielle Berrin, Barack Obama at AIPAC in 2005

Danielle has written many times about Rabbi Wolpe. Here she is May 10, 2010: “Hollywood Jew has learned that two of L.A.‘s most influential and innovative rabbis—Sinai Temple’s David Wolpe and IKAR’s Sharon Brous—will head to the White House next week for the first ever Jewish Heritage Month reception with the Obamas.”

There’s a delicious car-wreck quality to Danielle’s life and work that makes it hard for even the most Torahcentric among us to look away.

Intensely ambitious, a ten out of ten on the beauty scale, and equipped with good manners, Danielle’s writing can be equally compelling whether bad or good. Her best writing comes in the first person and focuses on ridiculous people trying to make it with her (such as here and here). Her worst writing comes when she comments on ideas (such as here and here).

I know what it is like to date a beautiful woman. A few years ago, I took one to all the writing gatherings I frequented and the men over 50 just worshiped her. They’d send her emails about lofty issues that always contained disclaimers such as, “I hope I don’t come across as just another creepy old man trying to get in your pants.”

A good friend of mine made a serious pass at her and when she rejected him, he stopped talking to me.

My girlfriend was ambitious but without accomplishment as she readied to enter her fourth decade. My female friends with significant credits rejected her attempts to bond with them as an equal. “I find my brain slowing down when I try to talk to her,” said one.

On the other hand, my male friends — every bit as professionally advanced as my female friends — adored her and praised her writing.

The best description of Danielle comes from her own keyboard: “Born in the sticky heat of the Everglades region, where hurricanes whirl by every summer and mojitos are as ubiquitous as water, Miami is my native land. The year-long summers in Florida meant my move to Los Angeles wouldn’t be too shocking; I was merely trading hurricanes for earthquakes, humidity for smog. But I didn’t come here for the weather, it’s just an added benefit. I ventured across the country because Hollywood is where dreams come true, and although I possess many passions, I’m enjoying the pursuit of journalism.”

Danielle loves talking about her intellectual interests such as architecture and French New Wave film. She’s got a sweet little career going as a public speaker. She even joined Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on a panel to talk about materialism (shopping, not the philosophy).

As the Jewish Journal reported: “Boteach had invited Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, Rabbi Naomi Levy of the Nashuva community, and Jewish Journal staff writer Danielle Berrin to join him on the panel.”

Danielle Berrin wrote in the Jewish Journal March 13, 2008:

It’s early Saturday morning and Shabbat is cresting with the West Coast sunrise. As is my custom, I dress, slip into a pair of heels, and ready myself for a contemplative worship. When I was new in town I could daven, throw back a shot of Manichewitz and grab a piece of challah on my way out; but the days of passing through community circles unnoticed and unscathed are over.

The first time it happened, a well-dressed woman with ebony tresses and ample perfume pulled me aside during Kiddush and said, “Excuse me, are you married?”

She grabbed my right hand and glared at my naked finger.

“No, I’m not married,” I replied.

“Are you Jewish?”

“Am I Jewish?” I thought, incredulous. I’m in temple, on Shabbat. This is not a pashmina draped over my shoulders. It’s a tallit.

“How old are you?”

“I’m 24.”

“Very good,” she said, all smiley and nodding.

She meant “very good” not because she felt Jewish-feminist pride that a single young woman is attending Shabbat services, but because my answer affirmed that I have six more childbearing years before I turn 30.

“I have a son! He is handsome, a lawyer. Can he call you?”

Danielle’s latest blog post is aptly titled, “Odd Couple, Blessed Match”.

As Jesse Jackson used to say, “Keep hole alive!”

I feel queasy writing about anyone’s dating life. I have some ambivalence about publishing this post. Apparently, however, Rabbi Wolpe felt no ambivalence about weighing in with his opinions on Mel Gibson’s private phone calls to his girlfriend. Rabbi Wolpe wrote for the Huffington Post July 30, 2010: “I suppose I am relieved to hear that people are dropping Mel Gibson right and left. His vile rant would be enough to bury any career. Not only did he abuse another human being, but the admixture of rank sexism was enough for any canny watcher of the media to know that this was a cooked goose.”

Is there anyone who has not said things in private that he would not be ashamed about were they made public? Even Rabbi Wolpe? I hope so. Such a controlled person does not sound human.

Dennis Prager had a very different reaction to Mel’s phone rants:

On his radio show Monday, Dennis Prager says: “Mel Gibson is a troubled man. I have more pity to him than hate. I don’t think he is a danger to the country.

“I think there’s a larger issue than what a man thinks about minorities in his private conversations.

“Privacy. The notion that a man ranting at his girlfriend is now played for the world is very disturbing. The vast majority of human beings in the midst of terrible anger, particular in a relationship, say terrible things. It’s none of my business.

“Americans on the left are keen on the right to privacy when it comes to extinguishing the life of an unborn human but when it comes to the right of privacy of what you say privately in a phone call to your lover, then the left is thrilled to violate the most primal notions of privacy.”

“It’s a terrible thing that these private phone calls were recorded and then placed on the internet.”


About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been chronicled by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, 60 Minutes and Entertainment Tonight. I teach Alexander Technique in Los Angeles (see Alexander90210.com).
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