General Assembly Of United Jewish Communities - November 12-14, 2006 In Los Angeles
Dear Jewish Forum:
I can't believe this happened to me!
I drove to the General Assembly (GA) early Sunday afternoon.
I wanted to give my readers the most fascinating display of mental illness they will read all week. I knew that come Monday, photocopies of this report will be circulated around all 4,000 delegates (that is 4,000, Rob Eshman, not the 3,000 you reported and bemoaned and finally climaxed with a paen to fuel efficiency).
I feared that I would not be granted a press pass. I emailed Glenn Rosenkrantz several times to let him know my importance. He replied Sept. 5: "Media registration information will be distributed mid month. I'll be sure you get it."
It was not enough to calm my insecurity.
I was so excited about the GA that I got no sleep Saturday night. Instead I spent about ten hours doing necessary busy work on my computer to keep myself in the style to which I have become accustomed.
I developed a painful dent in my right thumb.
I fled out of the house at 12:40 p.m., forgetting my trusty black yarmulke.
I make do with a white Modern Orthodox one I keep in my van.
I drove a couple of blocks past the convention center and found free parking.
Then I walked back along Pico Blvd, crossed to the south side and met up with this plump young woman pulling a big bag of stuff. It appeared that her anxiety level matched mine.
"Do you know where the GA is?" she asked.
"I'm looking for it myself. Maybe over here."
I run after two security guards who point me towards two other guards who have the barest grasp of English.
My young friend powers ahead into the empty convention center.
The guards point me back across Pico to the entrance with the flags.
"The Jews better give me a press pass or I'm going to become seriously anti-Semitic," I thought. "Maybe I'll put the Talmud on trial for hate crimes or I'll move to Lebanon and join Hezballah."
I found the press booth staffed by two women. They'd never heard of Luke Ford.
What empty lives they must lead.
They wanted proper media credentials. I can only give them my cheapo business card I made at Staples.
"Who are you with?" the white woman asked.
She was not impressed. "I'll have to call my boss."
"Is Matt [Dorff] around? I know him."
Yeah, I interviewed him once two years ago. It's not the strongest connection but it will have to do.
The woman said my name to Matt. He was not impressed. He said he'd walk over.
I stood awkwardly and pretended to peruse the press releases. Luke Ford is not nearly as great as I thought he was.
The young woman I'd abandoned across Pico Blvd now walked over. She said her name was Esther Kustanowitz. They asked her for proper media credentials and she was as bereft as me.
She's lugged a lot of stuff with her and she goes through it looking for the magical documents.
I didn't introduce myself, figuring she was going through all the tsures she could handle.
Avi, an actor and stand-up comic who I know from Young Israel of Century City, walked up for his press pass. He did not have the proper credentials either.
If these two upstanding Jews with the prodigious power of The Jewish Week and the Jewish Journal behind them had trouble, what hope was there for a rascal such as myself?
Then came my ultimate shame -- Gary Rosenblatt.
I tried to disappear into the corner. I was sure the staff would fawn over him. He was Mr. Jewish Journalism after all.
"My 3,000 readers a day don't count for much anymore," I fretted. "Yet according to that University of Chicago double-blind study, my ability to rise to the occasion is in direct proportion to the number of hits I receive.
"The last time I received this sort of rejection was when that lady pushed me off her complaining that she was too dry.
"I can't arouse a woman. I can't keep my hair dark. I can't get a press pass. I've lost my mojo."
Then salvation came from an unlikely source -- Steve Rabbinowitz (Matt Dorff's business partner).
Good thing that back in 2004 I didn't treat him like I did Gary Rosenblatt.
"So what are your plans?" Steve asked.
"I want to pick up my press pass so I can cover the GA for my blog."
I hoped I didn't sound too needy.
"Are you planning to trash us?"
I was but figured this would not be the right answer to secure a press pass.
I was kicking myself for loading the top part of my site with a bunch of naughty photos mocking the GA attendees.
Why must I always try to put something over on people?
"I plan to be fair and balanced like Fox News," I told Steve. I figured that would get in his leftist claw.
"Do you have any pull here?" I asked. "Can you get me a press pass?"
He said he could. He nods to the young woman to take care of my press pass needs.
Steve introduced me to Gary Rosenblatt.
"I'm not sure I want the credit for this shidduch," muttered Steve.
"Oh, you're Luke Ford," Gary said. "I did not recognize you when I sat next to you in shul yesterday."
A stream of people came over to pay homage to Rosenblatt Saturday morning.
For the past 26 hours, I had been sure that Gary dissed me in shul yesterday, saying no more than the necessary "Gut shabbos" greeting and refusing my gentle attempt at conversation.
How could Gary not recognize me? I was Hustler magazine's Asshole of the Month for the 1999 Holiday issue.
I decided Gary was one of those hoity toity New York Orthodox intellectuals who pretended to not read Hustler.
"Oh, you're Luke Ford," said Esther.
I gave a shy wave. My self-esteem had taken a tumble the past few minutes and I was not my abusive self.
"Where did you get the lid?" asked Steve.
"I don't understand."
"The lid. Your yarmulke. You're wearing it especially for the GA."
I wanted to explain to Steve about the depth and breadth of my commitment to Yiddishkeit but instead muttered something about my Orthodox community.
I paced the show floor and David, the assistant publisher of the Forward, restores my self-importance. He's heard of Luke Ford. The reknown of my mitzvos has traveled across the country to the office of Editor J.J. Goldberg.
I had porcelain put on a few holes in my teeth last week and ever since the tooth third from the end on the top row, left side of my face, has been agony whenever I've chewed or swallowed water.
I had been trying to fix the problem by chewing gum but that had only burned off the tip of my tongue.
I plugged in an earphone and tried to get the Dallas Cowboys score. None of the AM stations pick up in the South Hall but FM 97.1 broadcasted the Seattle - St. Louis game.
I wished that I had scheduled things better over the previous two weeks so that I could've soaked my dying curls in Grecian Formula and returned to my twink look.
For the opening session, I sat in the Los Angeles senior citizen section of a big hall filled with 3,000 people.
2:10 p.m. Singer Debbie Friedman exchanged a tearful hug with a GA speaker named Beryl Geber.
A woman behind me complained that Rob Eshman's latest column was smug.
Screenwriter Dan Gordon was introduced. I decided I would introduce him as the author of three bad movies. Then I got caught up in his anecdotes and resolved to reduce the number of cheap shots I took at people.
The conference co-chair was the female head of Bank Leumi. She had a thick accent and bored the crowd.
Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni walked to the lectern. Most everybody stood up and cheered. The crowd wanted to like her but the applause died out quickly as Tzipi had little to say beyond cliches.
She was hotter in person than on TV. She looked as healthy as a horse. I would have liked her to be my big sister but she did not strike me as Foreign Minister material. She struck me as a lightweight, like Ehud Ohlmert, the Prime Minister.
Tzipi proclaimed "there is no room for terrorism."
Yeah, that will solve the problem.
I heard the mood in Israel was depressed (in large part over the country's political leadership). Most of Israel's political leaders were at the GA.
There's more singing. I thought I saw Gary Rosenblatt, renaissance man, at the piano.
I was so invigorated by my time Sunday at the GA that on my drive home down Pico Blvd, I was neither scared nor angered by the many dusky ones with their fecund ways.
General Assembly Monday
Pics: Karaite University spokesman Shawn Lichaa talks with a religious Jew Fareed Zakaria movie of Fareek Zakaria and Bernard-Henri Levy signing autographs Fareek Zakaria and Bernard-Henri Levy signing autographs Fareek Zakaria and Bernard-Henri Levy signing autographs Ruth Messenger, Richard Joel (president of YU), some geezer movie Ruth Messenger, Richard Joel (president of YU), some geezer play Jewpardy at the YU booth Ruth Messenger, Richard Joel (president of YU), some geezer Rabbi Emannuel, Richard Joel Aviv Shir-On, Michael Parks (L-R) Irit Atsmon, Jeffrey Goldberg, Aviv Shir-On, Michael Parks movie of media panel
I like to begin my day by saying my prayers or singing a song or reading a chapter from the Bible or watching Fox News.
Today I watch Fox News.
Then I snag $5 parking and hit the G.A.
Dr. Beryl Gerber moderates a discussion with the three seminary heads -- Rabbi Norman J. Cohen (Provost, HUC-JIR), Dr. Arnold M. Eisen (Chancellor-Elect, JTS) and Richard Joel (President of Yeshiva University).
She ruins things by asking long awkward questions that invite cliche answers.
Richard Joel is the star of the panel because he's funny and real. He says he was present at the beginning of the Birthright Israel program (which gives those Jews 18-25 who have never been to Israel a free trip) and that many Jews took advantage of it for the most Jewish of reasons -- it was free.
Joel says that "dialogue" is not the preeminent value in the Orthodox community.
One of the biggest blocks to Jewish dialogue is that most Jews don't know what they're talking about (when it comes to Judaism).
Joel says he wants Reform kids to have a first-class Reform day school.
"It's hard to have fun dancing around the Shabbos table by yourself."
Beryl asks how the three seminary heads can "adapt" to the new individualistic next generation. Maybe the individualistic next generation will have to adapt to joining institutions as they have children and age and recognize the importance of community?
This is why I am opposed to all government welfare. Without it, people would have to join together for health insurance, welfare and protection. If there was no government safety net, people would have to join communities with safety nets.
Eisen says he's commanded by Torah. If that was true, he would not support ordaining gay rabbis. I say his institution JTS should ordain sodomites till the cows come home, but don't then claim you're commanded by Torah. Say you know better than Torah (Dennis Prager).
Birthright Israel booth manned by babes.
A cheap Jew asks a volunteer: "Do you know where they're giving away water?"
He says there is one Karaite synagogue in the United States and it is in the San Francisco Bay Area.
He says that intermarriage between Karaite and non-Karaite Jews is minimal. Shawn would be willing to marry a non-Karaite woman but would want her to become a Karaite.
Lichaa grew up in San Diego in a non-Karaite shul and he taught at a non-Karaite shul.
He says Karaites are strong Zionists. "My mom's family was put in prison in Egypt after the 1967 war just for being Jews."
Shawn does not hold by the documentary hypothesis. He believes the Bible comes from God.
Karaites have the same Torah reading each week. Their prayer book is about as long as the Orthodox Jew's but it is very different. "We take off our shoes when we pray and we fully prostrate."
Karaites don't have any binding post-Biblical commandments. They hold by patrilineal descent (while traditional Jews hold by matrilineal descent).
Fareed won't name Fox News when he slams it.
I don't understand why until Rob Eshman explains to me that it ruins the joke to name Fox.
Zakaria says he wants to "decatastrophize" our thinking about Islam. That we are not at war with Islam. We're only at war with radical Islam, which occupies the allegiance of few Muslims.
Lefties say yeah. Fareed's in da hood! He da man! Yo my nigga! Screw Bush. ---- dat bitch!
I would never use such language. I wouldn't even write it on my website except that secular culture has desensitized me.
There's no Alana Newhouse at the conference.
So what's the freakin' point of having a conference?
2:15 p.m. MEDIA LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE WAR.
Jeffrey Goldberg walks in with moderator Martin Raffel and Israeli Foreign Affairs spokesman Aviv Shir-On.
Jeffrey's built like a brick. But a brick turning to fat.
I listen in on their conversation.
Jeffrey's quick and funny.
He's a freakin' journalism star.
During a break in his conversations, I inquire if I can ask him a question (I wanted him to elaborate on a sentence in his book where he describes Jewish leaders in America as puny compared to Israel's leaders).
He says sure.
I pull out my tape recorder. He freaks out. "Who are you? Who are you with?"
I say my name and the name of my website and show him my press pass.
"No," he says. "No interviews."
Damn. I shouldn't have pulled out my tape recorder.
In the past, I've mailed him a letter and emailed him to request an interview. No luck.
Moderator Martin Raffel gives a tiresome 10-minute introduction, full of such cliches as "most journalists I know do their best."
Most terrorists do their best. So what?
It reminds me of Ira Stoll, managing editor of the New York Sun, who wrote in a review of my Jewish journalism book: "Most journalists I know are drawn to the work because they are interested in good stories."
Yeah, but so what?
Former Los Angeles Times Editor Michael Parks has lips that curl up to his right when he sets them.
Irit Atsmon (IDF spokesperson) on the recent Israel vs. Hezballah war in Lebanon: "The internet is almost a lethal weapon in this war."
Jeffrey Goldberg says he's often a "self-hating reporter."
"There's an American bias that the underdog is right. That someone who lives in refugee camps is right."
About criticism of Israel: "Sometimes Israel does bad things."
"The performance of [the IDF spokespeople during this summer's conflict in Lebanon] was Israel's worst ever. This was Israel's worst war [in explaining itself]."
CNN's John Roberts: "You would think this was [Israel's] first war."
Michael Parks says journalists should be compassionate.
Jeffrey: "There are plenty of Jewish groups working on Israel's image. It would be nice if Israel worked on Israel's image."
During questions, I ask the first one. It's for my man Jeffrey: "Is their something in the Israeli psyche that makes them suck at telling their story?"
Goldberg agrees with me. He says Israelis tend to lecture and reporter don't like to be lectured. That American-Israelis pick up cultural cues [of non-Israelis] better than Israelis do.
Michael Parks says that some of the LA Times reporters covering Israel have made aliyah (moved permanently to Israel). "I've been to forums where Linda Gradstein, who leads a devout life, has been pilloried [by a Jewish audience]."
Calev Ben David gives a long lecture praising CNN's Anderson cooper.
While Jeffrey waits to sign books, I inquire about asking him a couple of questions about his book.
"I'm running out," he says.
"How about another day?"
"How do I reach you?"
"Knopf handles all my interviews."
Because of the spiritual influence of this G.A., I no longer find secular chicks hot. Bais Yaakov girls (after they graduate and attain majority) is where it's at.
Sarah Schenirer is da man!
General Assembly Tuesday
There's massive security because Israel's prime minister is speaking. On the other side of Figuroa from the Staples Center, a large anti-Israel demonstration builds. Speakers obsess about bloodshed and predict the demise of the Jewish state.
Inside Hall B, I find it a challenge to get nuggets for my salacious column from a crowd of 5,000 Jews wanting to do good.
I'm more used to dealing with scum.
For all three days of the convention, my primary thoughts are: "Don't these people know how important I am?
"When I write my column, they are really going to regret not talking to me.
"Why do I always have to do the approaching? Nobody seeks me out.
"I'm tired of running like a spurned lover after Jeffrey Goldbergs.
"Because of my pride, I'm going to stick to myself, even if it means my column will suck."
The Koreh LA literacy booth is manned by stunning blondes. By pure accident, I sit next to them (Talia and Ruth) during Ehud Olmert's speech in the afternoon. I want to ask them how often they got hit on by the Jews but I fear that might sound like I am hitting on them, so I keep my peace and meditate on this week's Torah portion, a particular favorite of mine.
Chaye Sarah. It's like that Camus novel The Stranger, which begins: "Mother died today."
If the speech reflects the man, Olmert is a nothing for he said nothing Tuesday but cliches, just like his Foreign Minister Tzipi Lipni did on Sunday. No wonder Israelis are depressed about their political leaders.
Howard M. Rieger, President and CEO of the UJC, is another repeater of cliches. He supports "collectivity" vs. "localism." He says "we must rise to the challenge."
Who thought this guy would be an inspiring speaker? If you give enough money, you can bore an audience of 2,000 for 15 minutes?
"I am proud to be Jewish."
People who say such things tend to be the least observant. Those Jews who lead a Jewish life filled with mitzvot don't need to say, "I'm proud to be Jewish." It's like saying, "I'm proud to be heterosexual."
He mentions a Columbia professor who recently published a book on male vs. female brains. This prof had a friend who was determined to give her children non-sexist upbringings. This naive mom gave her daughter trucks. The daughter disappeared for a couple of hours. When the mom went to check on her, the daughter said, 'Shh. I just put trucks to sleep.'
Dennis: "Has a boy ever put a truck to sleep? You know what boys do with trucks? They run them into each other."
"The Jews are the most religious people in the world. The problem is that their religion is rarely Judaism."
Prager's first question from the audience: "If you believe the Torah is divine, why are you not Orthodox?"
DP: "Three words. Yom Tov Sheni."
2:30 - 4 p.m. Implications of 2006 election.
E.J. Kessler says: "We've seen the limits of the internet as an organizing tool. Moveon.org and the leftist activist websites have yet to elect a candidate."
Walking to my car, I hear a pro-Palestinian speaker say to loud cheers from about 300 demonstrators: "No matter how much blood has to be spilled, no matter how many children have to die, [the Palestinians will triumph over Israel]."
A friend emails: "The feedback I got was that the GA was well executed this year, but I am still struck by how many people I know who are very engaged in Jewish communal life in LA who had pretty much nothing to do with the GA while it was here."
A friend asks: "Do you only write online? Why don't you write for the Jewish Journal?"
Luke: "Have you read my stuff? I'm the opposite of that lame paper."
Friend: "Lame? The Jewish Journal is my favorite newspaper. I read it from cover to cover every week."
Luke: "I'm hard-hitting."
Friend: "Because you write about ----?"
It seems that a majority of the G.A. attendees are secular.
I walk past the National Council of Jewish Women booth.
"I want to join your club," I say.
They invite me over.
I ask them what they are about. The publicist Vanessa Schnaidt, who has a degree in gender studies, says they fight against religion persecution and for religious freedom.
"In America?" I ask.
"What's an example of religious persecution in America?"
"A lot of abstinence education in highschools is motived by religious beliefs."
"There's a conception that feminists don't have a sense of humor."
"Oh no. I have a very good sense of humor. I have to to do my job."
Most of the people who man booths are so professional that they are not nearly as interesting as gay cowboys.
I'm told by L.A. people that the L.A. Jewish Federation got screwed in this G.A. That the national board shook up the agenda to focus on Israel and its last war.
A couple of lefties say Tzipi Livni is the most popular member of the current Israeli government and the only woman likely to become prime minister.
Prof. Stanley Fischer, Governor of the Bank of Israel, does get a big laugh when he notes that Israeli kids to be rowdier than their Japanese counterparts.