Strict Orthodox Laws Don't Deter Believers

Times Staff Writer

Gina Solomon packs a kosher lunch and leaves her job as a legal secretary before sundown on Friday so she doesn't break Jewish law prohibiting travel on the Sabbath.

Just in case he gets stranded after dark while on business in Chicago or Atlanta on a Friday night, Martin Nachimson takes a list of Orthodox families he could stay with.

Nachimson and Solomon, both members of the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in North Hollywood, are among a growing number of modern Orthodox Jews who follow traditional Jewish laws while maintaining strong ties to the secular world.

Of an estimated 3.9 million Jews affiliated with synagogues in the United States, about 9% were Orthodox in 1986, double the number 15 years ago, according to the Council of Jewish Federations.

"It's difficult in the winter months, when the sun goes down by 4:30," said Nachimson, whose job as partner in an accounting firm requires constant traveling. "But getting on a plane after dark on Friday is not an option if you believe in the laws of God as handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai."

Those laws, which Orthodox Jews believe God revealed directly to Moses on the mountain more than 3,500 years ago, include dietary guidelines and rules for keeping the Sabbath--the period beginning at sundown Friday and ending half an hour after sundown Saturday. Orthodox Jews interpret the Bible literally, particularly the passage that reads, "Be fruitful and multiply." (Genesis 1:28).

"Natural increase is one reason why Orthodox Judaism is growing," said Conservative Rabbi Robert D. Wexler, vice president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. "It's not unusual for Orthodox Jews to have five or six children."

Yet many Orthodox have far fewer children. Solomon, 33, for instance, only has two, a son and daughter, and she does not plan to have any more. "Technically, we have satisfied our obligation to reproduce" under an interpretation of the passage that recognizes one male and one female offspring as satisfactory, she said.

Although Mark Hess, a 30-year-old tax attorney and member of Shaarey Zedek, has three sons, he too plans to stop having children if his next child is a girl.

Orthodox Judaism requires its adherents to embrace a life style based on the laws set forth in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and in the Talmud, a collection of legal and ethical writings, said Aron Tendler, associate rabbi of Shaarey Zedek.

"Most people, unless they're exceedingly strict, tend to pick and choose their observances," Tendler said. "But the laws of family purity, the Sabbath and keeping kosher are not open to compromise. All of them remind us of our spiritual connection with God."

Some of the 613 traditional Jewish laws most Orthodox Jews observe include:

Keeping kosher. The dietary laws allow Jews to consume only meat from animals with split hoofs who chew their cud, and fish with fins and scales. Pork and shellfish are prohibited as well as combining meat with dairy foods. Even bread must be certified kosher lest it be prepared with lard or with equipment that was ever used with lard. Fruits and vegetables are among the few permissible non-kosher foods.

The laws of family purity. Women are not to have sexual relations with their husbands while they are menstruating and for seven days afterward. Before relations can resume, a woman must go to the mikvah and immerse herself in a ritual bath. Monthly periods of abstinence are said to refresh marriages and elevate couples to a spiritual plane appropriate for the creation of life.

Observing the Sabbath. Jews are to refrain from any creative work on the Sabbath. Traveling, turning on lights and carrying anything--even a child or a wallet--are among the actions prohibited, although some Orthodox keep their lights on timers.

Other rules are discretionary, such as ones requiring married women to cover their hair for the sake of modesty and prohibiting men from cutting their sideburns, Tendler said.

Being a good Orthodox Jew is not always easy in the modern world, tax lawyer Hess said. To observe the dietary rules, he keeps a small refrigerator and microwave in his office. When he goes out to lunch with clients, he orders a fruit or vegetable salad. Even if it means he does not become a partner in the firm because he is unable to work Saturdays, Hess said being Orthodox is worth it.

"It gives me a good perspective on life to know that no matter what, I get to spend one day a week with my family," he said. "Success and money are great, but my family comes first."

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