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March 1, 2013

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MARCH 1, 2013 PAGE 15A i I Miracle rabbis, the angel of death and other spectral characters By Rabbi Rachel Esserman The (Vestal, N.Y.) Reporter A rabbi who levitates, a boy who visits a heavenly city, the angel of death, theprophet Elijah and God (or at least God's voice) are just a few of the characters who inhabit Steve Stern's fiction. While his stories and novels contain miracles and wonders, they certainly won't be mistaken for fairy tales-and are definitely not for children. In his latest work, "The Book of Mischief: New and Selected Stories" (Graywolf Press), Stern shows no nostal- gia forthe past; his characters are neither cute nor pleasant. Although his writing style might be calted magical re- alism, Stern follows a Jewish tradition that dates back to early rabbinic texts: The rab- bis also ignored the fine line between reality and fantasy. With stories that take place in Memphis, the Lower East Side, Europe and the Catskills, Stern offers marvels and de- spair, often in the same work. "The Wedding Jester," the longest story, features writer Saul Bozoff, whose novels resemble Stern's own work. Saul is a typical nebbish who finds himself escorting his elderly mother to awedding at a resort hotel in the Catskills. His one claim to fame is several books inspired by a pilgrimage to "a transplanted Old World community" in the American South. The town consisted of"a desolate street of crumbling buildings and weed-choked lots, a junk- yard, a bridge ramp, an old synagogue converted into a discotheque of ill repute." Yet, something special happened becausewhen he blinked, Saul saw "ghosts--the immigrants crying hockfleish and irregu- lar pants, pumping their sew- ing machines like swarming hornets in the tenement lofts, braiding Yiddish curses into their yellow challah bread." Now one of his tales comes to life when, during the wed- ding, the bride is possessed. by a dybbuk, the spirit of a Borsht Belt comedian. Can Saul expel the dybbuk and salvage the occasion? The answer is far more complex than one might think. Stern cleverly combines social commentary with miracles in "The Tale of the Kite." Two types of Judaism come into conflict in a small Southern townwhen the rabbi of a traditional shul begins levitating. The children of the town's liberal synagogue become fascinated with not only the rabbi, but a more tra- ditional formoftheir religion. Their parents, who see themselves as Americans of "Hebrew extraction," are horrified by their children's transformation. What will their neighbors think? Their fear isnot unreasonable since, as the narrator notes, "the news from the Old Country is bad. In K'iev they've got a Jew on trial for blood libel, and over here folks are grumbling about swarms of Hebrews washing onto our shores." In the wonderfully sardonic "The Lord and Morton Gru- ber," the voice of God speaks to asuccessful businessmanwho wants no part of religion. The importance of having a soul is noted in"Legend of the Lost," after Men@ Dreyfuss loses his while trying to impress his girlfriend; he discovers just how easy it is to get ahead-- at least on the darker side of life--when you doff(have a conscience to hinder you. In "The Sin of Elijah," Elijah the prophet realizes that "after you've attended no end of cir- cumcisions, performed untold numbers of virtuous deeds and righteous meddlings in a multitude of disguises, your piety can begin to wear a little thin." It will come as no surprise when his fascination with a. loving couple creates problems in heaven and on earth. Those living in Europe fair little better--well, actually a lot worse--than those who moved to America. Mushie, the hero (anti-hero?) of "The Ballad ofMushie Momzer" has such an awful existence--first as an outcast in the Jew- ish community and then as a soldier in the Russian army--that death might be preferable. My two favorite stories are compelling and horrifying at the same time: "Heaven Is Full of Wonders" (which takes place on the Lower East Side of New York) and "On Jacob's Ladder" (which takes place during World War II in Europe) brought chills to my spine. It's im- possible to write about their plots without ruining the surprises, but both were incredibly affecting. Stem's writing is not for everyone. Those impatient with wonder tales, ghosts and spirits will not find this book to their taste. However, if you can tolerate some craziness in your fiction, Stern won't disappoint. Anyone who loved his novels "The Angel of Forgiveness" (which is my favorite) and "The Frozen Rabbi" will rejoice in his latest work. Hebrew-language charter school, minus the Jews By Bryan Schwartzman Jewish Exponent PHILADELPHIA--Abdul- lah Muhammad, a 16-year- old from the Germantown section of Philadelphia, never imagined he'd be studying Hebrewinhighschool. When he transferred to the new Solomon Charter School in the Chinatown section of Philadelphia last fall, he was hoping to learn Chinese. But he was told that all of those classes were full and he'd have to take the only other foreign language offered--Hebrew. Solomon, which opened in September , offers a rare Yin and Yang of Hebrew and Chinese and embodies a fairly new educational model: It's part cyber school and part bricks-and-mortar acad- emy. Solomon is believed to be the only public school in the region currently offering He- brew. In the past, it has been offered in the Philadelphia school district, Lower Merion High School and several other suburban schools. What it doesn't have-- which may appear odd for a school with a kosher kitchen, a Hebrew curriculum and an early closing on Friday after- noon for Shabbat--are any Jewish students. Not being Jewish is one thirg th@,0 stu- dents enrolled in the school's four Hebrew classes--as well as all 150 students in the school--have in common. Beyond that, they represent an array of ethnic and reli- gious backgrounds. When asked what it was like to be a Muslim studying Bebrew, Muhammad, a sophomore, didn't delve into the con- nection between ancient languages and peoples or the. modern Arab-Israel conflict. He said that his knowledge of Arabic, which also reads from right to left, has made his transition to Hebrew fairly seamless. He has a 93 average so far. "The letters are similar," said Muhammad, an African-American who has also learned Portuguese during a summer program and says he hopes his study of multiple languages will look good on his future college applications. Saundra Epstein, Solo- men's chief academic officer, said that, despite efforts to reach out to the Jew- ish community, so far at least, "the Jewish community has not gotten behind the school." She attributed this in part to what she termed the "false start" the project got off to three years ago. That's when local businessman Stephen Crane, Solomon's founder and CEO, first pro- posed a Hebrew-language charter and pitched the idea throtJghout the Jewish com- munity. He even held several meetings with prosPective Russian-speaking parents at a kosher restaurant in North- east Philadelphia. But when the school, which at that point had planned to partner with an existing charter school, didn't get off the ground,. Epstein said, many of the par- ents who seemed interested at the time simply moved on. Crane and Epstein went back to the drawing board and rei- magined what their potential school would look like. Initially, it was modeled after a number of Hebrew- language charter schools that have opened over the past several years in several states. But they moved in- stead to a model that focuses on culture as well as language and also incudes Chinese, and possibly soon, Vietnamese and Hindi. Epstein Said Solomon is still looking to attract Jews in the future. The food in the cafeteria is kosher--which works for Muslim students who need to eat halal food-- and school ends at I p.m. on Fridays, which is, in part, a nod to the several Orthodox Jews on the faculty and also represents a hope that it might be relevant to prospective Jew- ish students. Epstein said she also likes theidea of closing early on Friday because stu- dents have trouble focusing once Friday afternoon rolls around. Currently, Solomon goes from 7th grade to 10th grade, but the Pennsylvania DePartment of Education has approved Solomon to operate a K-12 institution. Plans are in the works to expand to elementary school next year. Epstein said they decided to startwith 7th grade because they wanted "to do leadership training from the beginning." "Think of the scouting model where each group of older students mentors younger students. This is what we want to build," Epstein said. Last spring, the Pennsylvania Department of Education approved Solomon as one of four new cyber charter schools Statewide. As of now, just 26 of the150 students are full- time distance learners. Each student, whether studying on site or off, gets an iPad, and most assignments are turned in electronically, lVtuham- mad and several classmates lamented that their iPads are blocked, so that they can only use the devices for school- work, rather than playing games or watching movies. Epstein said the cyber option allows students with learning or physical disabilities the chance to be part of a wider community of learners, to say nothing of those who live far from school but are interested in the curriculum. The hope for the future is to host avideo link so students can take part in classes in real time. Currently, the Pennsylva- nia State Senate is taking a closer look at cyber charter school funding and per- formance. Last year, State Auditor General Jack Wagner called for a moratorium on the approval of new cyber charters until a comprehen- sive review had been done. State Sen.Andrew Dinniman, a Democrat from Chester County who sits on the Sen, ate's education committee, said he has "questions in texms of how we guarantee the intellectual integrity, the academic depth of cyber charters as well as how we ad- equately review the financial cost of cyber charters." Ac- cording to Dinniman, gradu- ation rates at cybers are 60 percent, compared to 80 percent for charter schools and 84 percent for regular public schools. Epstein said it's unfair to compare Solomon to other cyber schools since it offers a much newer concept of a blended education. "You really have to be present," said Epstein, meaning that distance learners can't get away without doing work because they constantly have to check in and complete as- signments. "Does it work all the time? No. But you could say that about any school." She said the school has a mix of gifted students and those who had previous disciplinary problems or issues learning in other settings. One student who had dis- ciplinary problems in the past, 14-year:old Joseph Fugarino, of South Philadelphia, said he gets to school early every day because heJeels at home there. Learning the Hebrew alphabet, he said, has proved difficult, but his teacher, Yael Sandler, said he has made great strides. On a recent Friday morn- ing, Sandler, who heads the Hebrew department--a department of one--strolled the llallway as students were between classes. As groups of African-American and Asian students walked by, she greeted them with "Shalom" or "Ma nishmah?" which is Hebrew for "How are you?" Some of the students didn't answer while others said, "beseder," which roughly translates to "OK." Sandler said she never expected to be teaching He- brew to non-Jewish students, but finds the experience rewarding. Her classroom is plastered with the Israeli flag and pictures of modern Israel. Hebrewversions ofchil- dren's books like "Goodnight Moon" are stacked near her "desk. She's taught lessons about the recent Israeli elec- tions, how Israelis celebrate Purim and showed students how to make a marshmallow dessert from Israel called kremba. The class recently cel- ebrated the 155th birthday of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who is credited with inventing mod- ern Hebrew. "I don't focus on the Bible. I focus on Tel Aviv as a modern metropolis," she said. "This is a fantastic op- portunity to educate people about another culture." Bryan Schwartzman writes for the (Philadelphia) Jew- ish Exponent, from which this article was reprinted by permission. Jewish Museum Of Florida-FlU PP.fl.ICrT- S,ncet.e.920s t.e of m0000,onog has / I I I, Igl.l,I/ ignited the popular imagination with beautiful 0II tiles, mythical origins and communal spirit, g i k:i  This exhibit provokes memories of the I_.'i) intergenerational tradition of this game, and 200; illuminates mah jongg's influence on := March 17, contemporary culture. : i%.= J project Mah Jongg was curated and is circulated by the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memodal to the Holocaust, New York. The exhibition Ls made possible through the generosity of the National Mah Jongg League. Addltlonal support is provided by Sylvia Hassenfeld and 2wlce Arts Foundsion. Local funders for Project Mah Jongg include Robert Arthur Segall Foundation, Funding Arts Network, Charles & Sandra Simon, Jonl & Stanley'rate. - ',I ::; :: : :i tT ,=- 4.  "y Portraits oy mez Holla Thru May 5, 2013 Through vibrant prima colors and strong, unrelenting brushstrokes, this series Larry Dreaming About the documents a community teeming in diversity ' 8,or . G,. O.,., Beach, acrylic.on canvas, 2008. and captures the emotions of its subjects. cr on csn,=, 200 "Brig'thsa'== Also see the Museum's core exhibit, MOSAIC: Jewish Life in Rorida, in for 2 for 1  with over 500 artifacts and photographs of unique history. ILl admission = Visit the Orovitz.Museum Store for one-of-a-kind gifts HFJN  and have a snack at Bessie's Bistro! [ [ JewishMuseum of Florida 301 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach , Open daily 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. P 305-672-5044 Except Mondays, Jewish and Civil Holidays   The Museum is supported by individual contributions, foundations, memberships and grants from the State of Flonda, Oepadment of S ............... C ...................... daC ............. d C ......... M,ami-Dade County Tourist D ......... Counc,,, , u'l L,,=I the Miami Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and the Cuffural Affairs Council, the Miami-Dade County Mayor and Board of K C ..... CO ............ dtheC ................ C ................... C ...... Arts Council, !u!, , ] , ,,AMtBEACH