It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and the last day of Hanukkah, the Jewish feast of lights and dedication. At first glance the scene at the home of Valerie Griffin and Bob Roosth on a side street in Venice was typical: the living room decorated with a few streamers, the words “Happy Hanukkah” strung across the mantle, upon which rested a menorah, the traditional candelabrum, a table laden with fruit punch, wine, cookies and bowls of sour cream and applesauce--the latter two items awaiting the latkes, potato pancakes, which could be smelled frying in the kitchen . . . .
About 40 people gathered, embracing old friends, greeting a few invited guests, strangers.
Among the strangers who answered “Happy Hanukkah” to those who greeted him was Sami Odeh.
Odeh is a Palestinian from the West Bank who emigrated to this country in the 1970s, married and became a real estate broker in Orange County. His brother was Alex Odeh, who directed the Southern California chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee until he was killed in October after a bomb went off at the committee’s office in Santa Ana.
His slaying remains unsolved, but it is widely assumed that it is connected to the tensions in the Middle East between Arabs and Jews that have spilled over into this country.
Alex Odeh has been memorialized by many people, including his brother, as a man of peace who believed in reaching out to people. It was for this reason that Odeh and several other Arab-Americans had been invited to the New Jewish Agenda’s fourth annual Hanukkah party and for this reason that they had accepted.
The New Jewish Agenda is a 5,000-member national organization founded in 1980 that is committed to what it calls progressive human values. “It is dedicated to promoting values of peace and social justice from Jewish tradition,” its Los Angeles director, Richard Silverstein, said. It supports national self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians. Its 400-member local chapter is an affiliate of the Jewish Federation-Council of Greater Los Angeles.
(Ted Kanner, executive vice-president of Jewish Federation, said in a later interview: “Federation has as part of its constituency those member organizations where we feel the program objectives are not in conflict with ours. They’re (New Jewish Agenda) part of the mainstream of American Judaism. Of course, there are all kinds of shadings of opinion on the continuum. Just like anything else, the opinions go from left to right.”)
Precedent of Sorts
The party on Sunday was the first time New Jewish Agenda had invited Arab-Americans, but there had been a precedent of sorts, according to Andy Rose, national co-chair. Three years ago, Alex Odeh attended a Hanukkah ceremony and lit candles.
Alliance for Survival’s Jerry Rubin, a supporter of the New Jewish Agenda, had been there. Sunday, at the Venice gathering, he recalled it.
“It was the eve of Hanukkah, Dec. 10, 1982. The Alliance for Survival invited Dean Hensel from Jewish Peace Fellowship and Alex Odeh to come together and light the candles. Dean said the prayer and started to light the candle, but the flame went out. Alex spontaneously lit a match, but the candle wouldn’t light. He was burning his fingers and all of a sudden it lit, and flared very high. They hugged each other and we were in tears.”
In addition to Odeh, representatives of two Arab-American organizations had come Sunday, as well as radio announcer and disc jockey Casey Kasem with his wife, Jean. An American whose parents were from Lebanon and members of the Druze sect (an offshoot of Islam), Kasem is a supporter of the New Jewish Agenda, and has appeared at several functions with the group this past year.
Calling himself a moderate activist who because of his extensive Jewish acquaintances and friends could understand both sides of the issue, he said, “The only way somebody will listen to you, if you have an opposite viewpoint, is if you will listen to them.”
He said he was delighted with the work this and other groups such as Peace Now in Israel were doing and was encouraged.
Fixing the Problem
“There are enough Jews in Israel and enough here who recognize we have to fix not the blame but the problem.”
Souad Cano, an Iraqi-born Christian and president of the greater Los Angeles chapter of the National Assn. of Arab Americans, came, she said, because, “I like to see as many people as possible involved in honoring Alex. Also, New Jewish Agenda is working for peace and justice in the Middle East. I want to give them support and to give them respect.
Cheryl Faris, a local attorney and vice president of the local board of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, was there with her husband, Patrick King. Like Cano, it was her first Hanukkah party.
“I just think this is a very necessary and important part of what the Arab community is doing,” she said. “We need to make connections with the other minority groups.”
The ceremony was a simple one, combining a loving, rather light touch, and very serious matters. Rose stood before the fireplace, introduced his mother, Madeline Philips, here from Sacramento for the occasion, and told everyone they would “eat, drink, schmooze and maybe cry later. Right now, we want to observe Hanukkah.”
“It’s about rededication to freedom,” he said of the festival, “about fighting successfully against oppression, about rededication to independence, against domination, against assimilation.”
The candles to be lit by Agenda members, he said, would be dedicated “to different individuals and causes that we want to dedicate ourselves to for the coming year.”
Lighting the Candles
Joe Maizlish of the War Resisters League lit the first, “for liberation in all its meanings.”
Susan Phillips lit the second, “in hopes that the U.S. government stops sending arms to the contras, and that this year we see freedom for the people of El Salvador.”
Andy Rose, who works for AIDS Project L.A., dedicated the third for “those who have died of AIDS and those who continue to live.”
Julia Stein lit the fourth for “an immediate end to apartheid and for immediate freedom for all political prisoners in South Africa.”
For her daughter Josie, a toddler who was raising a row in the background as she spoke, Valerie Griffin dedicated the fifth candle “so that she and the women of her generation will not find doors closed to them because they are women.”
Dan Rosenblatt lit the sixth “in honor of labor and that all people earn enough to live a decent life.”
The seventh candle was “for issues involving the Jewish people,” Mike Parks said, “for their religious liberty and self expression in various parts of the world, and that Jewish people give other Jews respect when they express their religion in various ways. We dedicate our attention to the needs of people in our own community.”
The eighth candle was very special, Rose said, commemorating “a tragedy in Southern California in October,” when a bomb killed Alex Odeh.
Sami Odeh came forward, took the taper and, in memory of his brother, hoped for “peace, love, kindness and life for all mankind, and for justice for the Palestinian people in refugee camps and for all the oppressed all over the world.”
When he had finished, Kasem had something to add. “I learned a wonderful Jewish expression lately: tikun olam. It’s about rededication. It is our responsibility, all of ours as human beings, to repair the world. This is a gathering dedicated to tikun olam and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Rose concluded the ceremony, “taking up where Casey left off,” he said. “A reordering and repairing of the universe is what a lot of us do a lot of the time.”
Rose had said the occasion would be a ceremony and a party. The ceremony concluded, the group switched immediately, abruptly almost, from the solemnity of the candlelighting and its messages, which had moved several people to tears, to levity. The peculiar circumstances of the day made the occasion heavy with emotion, most of which remained contained.
Joining in Song
Abe Boxerman passed out drawings to complement his irreverent Yiddish question-and-response from the audience song, announcing it was “to lighten the atmosphere. Everybody gets into the act.”
The Arab-Americans had come more formally dressed than the others and less sure of what to expect. If they initially looked a little disconcerted at the switch, which they did, they nevertheless went along with the mood, gamely trying to join in some of the singing.
By the time it came to “Ma-oz tzur” or “Rock of Ages,” Odeh had picked up enough of the tune to sing the ending:
That the time is nearing
Which will see
All peoples free
Then Dorothy Sitzer bounced to the front, giving every indication she is one who can turn any surrounding into a stage, and announced exuberantly, “As one of the Yiddishe mamas of this organization, what’s more appropriate than singing about latkes?”
And sing about latkes she did, in a strong, clear operatic voice, delivering a long comic ode to Mrs. Maccabees, wife of the Jewish patriot from the Maccabean family that led the revolt against foreign rule that Hanukkah celebrates.
Odeh thought she was wonderful, and Casey Kasem asked for her telephone number. He said he wanted to hear more of her work.
The latkes were ready.
Souad Cano, biting into what she said was her first, gave it a thoughtful taste test, nodded her head in recognition and gave it the ultimate approval: “We do something like this, I think.”
While Kasem’s wife, Jean, stood at the screen door, jostling one of several party-going babies into tranquility, Kasem said, “There are a lot of kindred spirits here and you can feel it.”
It was not the sort of occasion that would necessarily lead to lifelong friendship and intimacy between those gathered. Nor had anyone come with those expectations, it seemed. People had been polite, warm and friendly, trying successfully to connect on a human level. That seemed to be enough.
“Hopefully, every time Arabs and Jews get together, it won’t be a highly symbolic event,” Andy Rose said. “There’s a political significance to this, but there’s just a human connection that needs to be made. There’s no way to work it out if we don’t work it out with each other. There just isn’t.”