By 10 a.m. on Saturday, nearly 200 people have crowded into Aish HaTorah, a small, torquoise-trimmed synagogue on Pico Boulevard. Men in dark suits, yarmulkes and black hats grip worn prayer books and rock back and forth in concentration. On the right side of the mechitza, the temporary wall that separates the genders, women pray from the same text--Hebrew on one page, English on the other.
A man in his 30s gingerly removes from a wooden case the Torah--the Five Books of Moses hand-written in Hebrew on a parchment scroll. He hands it to the cantor, who sets it on the beema, the altar. Another man removes the Torah’s embroidered mantle, unties an elaborate sash and unrolls the scroll to this week’s portion. A fourth man, his white and blue prayer shawl draped over his head, begins reading.
One by one, seven men are called up. In the past, they would have known Hebrew, but nowadays the leader reads on their behalf, with each man reciting a blessing. Boys in dress clothes perch on top of the beema, holding the sash and playing with the bells used to crown the Torah.
After the Torah is returned to its ark, Rabbi Nachum Braverman takes his place in front of the congregation. Slight, with a thin, angular face, and dressed in a dark-green suit with a bright paisley tie, Braverman personifies many of those seated before him: He and most of his congregants are relatively new to all of this. They are ba’alei t’suva, those who have returned to Orthodox Judaism after little or no religious upbringing.
“My parents’ religion was liberal Democrat,” says Braverman with a self-deprecating chuckle. His mother, Alice Daniel, was an assistant attorney general in the Jimmy Carter administration, his father a senior vice president of International Telephone & Telegraph Corp. Braverman grew up in Manhattan in a house that he describes as devoutly secular. No Jewish holidays were observed, but presents were exchanged on Christmas. A philosophy major at Yale, he went to Israel in 1978 to work on a kibbutz, hoping to “learn about socialism firsthand.”
One day toward the end of summer, Braverman found himself at the Kotel--the remnants of the Second Temple, destroyed in AD 70--with no inkling that he was standing in front of what Jews consider to be the holiest place in the world. “I had been walking around Jerusalem,” he says, “and I just saw this great big wall.” As he stood in his T-shirt and shorts, surrounded by men in suits and hats vigorously praying, a gaunt man in glasses approached Braverman and invited him to meet a “Jewish philosopher” by the name of Rabbi Noach Weinberg--the founder of Aish HaTorah.
“I felt like I had stumbled into Plato’s academy,” Braverman says. “People at the yeshiva wanted to figure out what life was about. And the more I talked to Rabbi Weinberg, the more I became convinced that this was both the happiest and wisest man I had ever met. Whatever made him so happy, I wanted it. I figured I’d better stay.”
Braverman never returned to Yale.
Founded 22 years ago in Jerusalem, Aish HaTorah seeks to stem the tide of Jewish assimilation--to bring stray Jews back into the fold. With an intermarriage rate as high as 50% in the United States--with only 28% of the children from those marriages raised as Jews--the religion, according to Weinberg, faces the prospect of slow extinction.
Neither the first nor the largest of such outreach organizations, Aish HaTorah has, in recent years, become the most aggressive and glitzy. When Braverman stumbled upon Aish, its 15 students met in the women’s section of a tiny synagogue in the Old City. Today, the organization has a budget that exceeds $16 million, 36 branches worldwide and in North America alone more than 45 “outreach professionals.”
Braverman spent five years in Jerusalem studying to become a rabbi. He became so religious so fast that he alienated his family and many of his friends. “When you first become observant, you can do stupid things,” Braverman now says. “You can become fanatical. I put on my long black coat, and shuckled [paced] back and forth when I talked. But I realized that wasn’t who I was. I realized that becoming an observant Jew wasn’t as simple as changing my coat.”
In 1983, he and his wife moved to Los Angeles to work with Rabbi Irwin Katsof to establish a branch of Aish HaTorah. Los Angeles has the second-largest Jewish population of any city in the United States (New York is the first), but its Orthodox Jewish community has always been a minority within a minority. In 1979, the last year the population was surveyed, only 20,000 of the city’s 500,000 Jews identified themselves as Orthodox. Ten years ago, Braverman says, he would have been happy to see 10 people at an Aish HaTorah Shabbat service. In fact, until 1989, Braverman and his colleagues had no building and little backing and jokingly referred to themselves as a “rabbinic SWAT team” whose motto was: “Have rabbi, will travel.”
Today the synagogue is jammed with people who once would have rejected Orthodox Jewish observance: doctors, lawyers, actors, scientists, writers, accountants. They represent an astounding turnaround. The city’s Orthodox population remains small--the best guess is that it stands between 40,000 and 50,000--but it is the fastest-growing segment of Judaism. Fifteen years ago, Los Angeles had about five kosher restaurants in the city. Now there are 54. The average age of members in the popular Orthodox synagogue B’nai David-Judea has dropped from 75 to 30 in the past five years, and its membership has doubled to 250 families. Half of its congregation comes from non-Orthodox backgrounds. Ten years ago, there were 10 Orthodox day schools with a combined enrollment of about 2,700 students. Today, there are 18 such schools, with about 4,500 students. Since 1980, the number of Orthodox shuls has increased by 20.
Although no one would claim that Aish HaTorah or other outreach organizations such as Chabad, the Jewish Learning Exchange and Ashreinu are single-handedly responsible for this increase, such groups have galvanized the city’s Jewish population. Aish’s headquarters may be in Jerusalem, but the organization has achieved its greatest success in Los Angeles, where it has attracted such luminaries as Kirk Douglas and Michael and Lowell Milken. In 1995, fund-raisers here generated more than 20% of the organization’s international budget.
“Half a century ago in Los Angeles, the Orthodox community--people wrote it off,” says Orthodox Rabbi Zalman Ury of the Jewish Federation. “The renaissance of Orthodox Judaism is a miracle.”
The renewed interest in Jewish identity is not limited to orthodoxy, but many Reform Jews agree that the Orthodox movement has captured the momentum. “Over the last 100 years, the Reform and Orthodox have changed places,” says Reform Rabbi Mordecai Finley, who, with his wife, founded the Ohr HaTorah synagogue in West Los Angeles. “When Reform was just beginning, the liberal rabbis had the fire. They were responding to a crisis of assimilation and indifference. They had a messianic sense of finding the truth and purifying Judaism, leaving what they perceived to be the staid, old, bankrupt Orthodox Judaism behind.” Now, Finley says, it is the Orthodox who have the fire. And Aish HaTorah, which means “Fire of the Torah,” is at the forefront.
Each Shabbat morning, Braverman delivers a d’var Torah, words of the Torah. His job, he says, is to relate the Five Books of Moses to contemporary life. This week’s reading covers the commandment to keep kosher. “It’s easy for people to get bogged down with all the details and structure of Judaism,” he tells the assembly. “That can be all you see. But when you see the power and grace of a great dancer, or the beauty of a great painting, you don’t necessarily see all the discipline and detail involved. You don’t see each brush stroke; the hours spent on perfecting one step. In the same way, the details of Halacha [Jewish law] are what go into making a great Jewish life.”
“Yasher koach!” congregants call as he finishes speaking. “Strength to you.”
After the service ends with a rousing version of “Adon Olam,” a favorite song that even those who grew up attending a Reform shul recognize, congregants make their way to the “asphalt gardens,” the Aish parking lot that doubles as an outdoor picnic area. Men and women greet one another with “Good Shabbas.” Tables covered with pink tablecloths are filled with plates of sliced carrots, celery, cholent, crackers and soda. After kiddush, a prayer said over wine or grape juice, the mingling begins.
While praying is segregated, socializing is not. The average age of attendees is between 25 and 30 and half are single--a demographic that perfectly matches Aish’s goal of attracting young Jews and reversing the intermarriage rate. Aish offers more than 60 classes and seminars each month that focus on the religion’s relevance to dating, beauty, love and money.
The hugely successful “20-Something,” which began six years ago, is an Oprah-comes-to-Judaism weekly singles event moderated by a rabbi. Men and women sit around candle-lit tables schmoozing over topics such as “How to Shop for a Spouse and Other Important Purchases,” “How to Tell the Difference between Love and Infatuation” and “Why Men Think Women are Nuts and Vice Versa.” Its counterpart, “Love Life Encounter,” for those in their 30s, also attracts hundreds every week.
“They reintroduced me to Judaism and it changed my life,” says Greg Yaris, a 39-year-old lawyer who met his wife at Aish HaTorah four years ago. “It’s giving me a focus, redirected my priorities and made me a happier and healthier human being.” Yaris began attending Aish 11 years ago when a friend told him about a “Love, Sex and Marriage” class. “They have an adult approach--they don’t focus on guilt or the Holocaust or Israel. They say, ‘You’re an adult, see what you think.’ They challenge you to ask questions.”
More than 300 marriages have resulted from Aish get-togethers, a statistic Braverman and his colleagues point to proudly. After all, they say, with the population of American Jews shrinking each year, they are fighting for Jewish souls.
“Sex,” begins Rabbi Noach Weinberg, eyeing the group of men in their 20s who are seated before him. Located at Aish’s yeshiva in Jerusalem, the classroom overlooks the Kotel. “Everybody knows sex is a powerful drive, the greatest physical drive that a human being has, aside from simple survival.” He is leaning on a wooden podium, legs crossed as he teaches a beginners’ class called “Harnessing the Power of Sex.”
“And we all know that sex, especially for you young men, can drive you batty.” Weinberg chuckles, pacing back and forth. “You can waste an awful lot of time on it. Now, a lot of you guys are going to be skeptical, that in a yeshiva you’re going to learn about sex. You’re thinking, ‘What do you guys know?’ Well, we know all about it. The Almighty taught us all there is to know. We, who were brought up in the Jewish tradition, we say you poor secular guys, you’re . . . deprived.” Weinberg clicks his tongue. “You’ll never know what it’s about. So let me focus your attention.”
He pauses. The men, even those who appear to be bored, look up. “Remember the first girl you were involved with?” Weinberg says. “Oh boy, what magic, huh?” Some of the men, casually dressed in shorts, T-shirts and sandals, snicker. “Tell me friends,” he says, lowering his voice. “Don’t you really think that that magic should be reserved for your wife? Hmmm? Preserved for your wife? If you could marry the only woman in the world, do you understand what your life would be? The only woman in the world, that’s who you should marry. She is your other half. In Judaism, we believe a man and a wife is not a partnership, it’s not a companionship, it’s a oneness, a spiritual bond. It’s a uniting.”
Upbeat and warm, the man Nachum Braverman called “Plato” is 66 years old, has a white beard that reaches his chest and a protruding stomach encircled by a worn black leather belt. Rabbi Weinberg wears a black bowler hat tipped slightly to the side and speaks with a pronounced New York accent. He looks a bit like a Jewish Santa. “We don’t sell the steak,” Weinberg says of Aish’s classes. “We sell the sizzle. We present the power Judaism gives you, then we motivate you to get the power.”
The youngest of five children in a religious family, Weinberg grew up in New York’s Lower East Side during the ‘30s and ‘40s--a time, he says, when American culture was luring second-generation Eastern European Jews from their religion. “I saw my friends’ older brothers becoming Communists. I saw heavy attrition from Orthodox families. My peer group was getting lost,” he says, munching a Ricola cough drop and sipping a glass of ice water spiked with mango juice. “It made me aware quite early in my teens, that if we don’t do something, especially with the kids who don’t come from religious backgrounds, they’re gone. I knew then I was going to have to tackle this job, one way or another.”
Because of his strong religious family, especially his father, a businessman who died when he was 15, Weinberg maintained his faith. “Whenever our paths crossed, my father’d say to me, in Yiddish: ‘Noach, you remember there’s a God?’ And I’d say, ‘Sure!’ He’d say, ‘You’re doing a big mitzvah [commandment].’ That’s genius. I use that with my children. ‘Remember God loves you? That’s a big mitzvah.’ ”
At the age of 11, Weinberg would play hooky and go to the New York Public Library to read everything he could. “One morning I woke up traumatized,” Weinberg says, leaning forward, lowering his voice. “I was really traumatized. I said to myself: ‘Noach, you’re an Orthodox Jew, because your father is an Orthodox Jew. If you were born in Arabia you’d be a Muslim, if you were born in Italy, you’d be a Catholic, if you were born in China, you’d be a Confucius. How do you know you’re right?’ I couldn’t ask my father, but I could ask my brother, Yaakov. He was 18. He gave me a reading list, and taught me: Investigate! Find out for yourself. It changed my life. That’s what I tell people. Investigate!”
Weinberg studied at Baltimore’s Ner Israel yeshiva by day and attended Johns Hopkins University at night, where he received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. He made his first trip to Israel in 1953, one credit short of his master’s in education, to seek advice about stemming the tide of assimilation from the Chazon Ish, a venerated rabbi. Although the Chazon Ish died before Weinberg could see him, Israel had gotten under his skin. In 1960, he returned with his wife, Dinah, and the first of their 12 children. He was one of the first Americans to study at the Mir, one of Israel’s most respected yeshivas. Six years later, he started his own school.
By then Weinberg had developed a plan to combat Jewish assimilation. Jewish activists, he reasoned, had been at the forefront of many causes in the United States that were unrelated to Judaism--civil rights, labor, the environment. Why not rechannel their energy to the “Jewish cause”? He wanted young people to be “committed to Jewish survival. I thought, ‘If they can fight for the elephants, they can fight for the Jews,’ ” he says, hitting his fist lightly on his desk.
Weinberg recruited students primarily from young American tourists who, by the late ‘60s, were visiting Israel in droves. Volunteers at the Kotel would ask college-age men--and in the early days, they only selected men--if they wanted a meal or to attend a class or spend Shabbat with a family. Did they want to have a “Jewish experience”? Surprisingly, many did, and an increasing number wanted to stay in Israel and study with Weinberg.
Many Orthodox rabbis thought Weinberg’s scheme crazy. They had reason to be suspect. Many of his early students were, in Weinberg’s own words, “flower children"--pure products of the ‘60s who saw Judaism as just another trip. And until Weinberg established Aish HaTorah in 1974, he had begun three different organizations to attract secular Jews--and all but one folded. (Ohr Somayoch, which he helped found in 1972, only to leave two years later, continues to thrive and is known in Los Angeles as the Jewish Learning Exchange.)
But from the beginning, Aish HaTorah was a success. The yeshiva, in Jerusalem’s Old City, was ideally located to attract students. “That’s where the real ‘traffic’ is,” he says. “Everybody ends up there.” He received grants from the Israeli government (every registered yeshiva in Israel receives a per-student stipend), which would eventually sell him the site of Aish’s current headquarters for a dollar. By 1979, when the first graduates opened a branch in St. Louis, the organization was drawing as many as 1,000 students a year.
Private funding began to increase as a result, especially as Aish established branches in the United States. Early backers included businessman Irving Stone, president of American Greeting Cards, and Herman Wouk, author of “The Caine Mutiny.” In December of 1995, for instance, Aish raised $2 million through a VIP trip to Israel, which included actors William Shatner and Rod Steiger, publisher and real estate developer Mort Zuckerman, violinist Isaac Stern and Maureen Reagan. Talk show host Larry King and Ron Meyer, president and CEO of MCA/Universal, chaired another trip last year.
These days Aish’s Jerusalem headquarters--which, in addition to offices, includes dormitories, a study hall, dining room, eight classrooms, a tape library and audiovisual studio--spills over with more than 200 long-term students (those who stay more than three months). Outside Weinberg’s office hangs a world map dotted with red flags indicating where Aish has branches--36 in all, from Moscow to Chile to Melbourne. A glass cabinet contains dozens of Aish HaTorah books, pamphlets and video and audio tapes. Although most participants now arrive at Aish through organized programs coordinated by branches in America, England, Australia and South Africa, Aish still gets students recruited at the Kotel.
Shalom Webber, who has a long black beard and is dressed in a dark suit, spends his days in the Jewish quarter of the Old City. Employed by the Heritage House, a Jewish youth hostel, Webber walks around the main square or sits on one of the many stone steps, looking for tourists who might be interested in reexamining their religion.
Webber, who is in his 40s and has been working in the Old City for nine years, spots a young man with a backpack and green baseball cap walking through the square. After establishing that he speaks English and that he’s Jewish, Webber schmoozes with him a bit before asking him if he needs a place to stay or is interested in experiencing a Shabbat. Webber is not pushy, and when he senses resistance, he backs off. His immediate goal is to get these tourists to classes, to “start their wheels turning.”
On a good day, he sends those he meets to an Aish HaTorah “essentials” class, held every hour on the hour, covering such topics as “The Five Levels of Pleasure,” “Free Will” and “How to Get Your Prayers Answered.” Often he’s brushed off by those who think he’s a Jewish missionary--a label he doesn’t mind. “I have a mission,” he says. “Jews know a lot about a lot of things, but they don’t know much about Judaism.”
“The great thinkers of Judaism would be embarrassed by this movement,” says Rabbi Daniel Landes, former head of the Orthodox congregation B’nai David in Los Angeles. He, like many critics in Israel and the United States, strongly disagrees with Aish’s neatly packaged, well-marketed brand of “microwave” Judaism. “Basically, Aish does not come from the mainstream of the classical sources of Judaism,” adds Landes, who now directs Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, a nondenominational school of Jewish studies for men and women. “They appeal to the upper-middle-class, and base their philosophy on what makes your life enjoyable. Their approach is very non- or even anti-Jewish in making people think that enjoyment and pleasure, which is the hallmark of pagan society, is the basis of Torah society.
“The type of Judaism it brings people toward doesn’t represent the best of Judaism. The notion of fighting for justice, taking care of the poor, compassion, universalism, reaching for a better and just society doesn’t appear. I don’t consider them a heretical movement or a cult, but I do consider them an emotional and intellectual backwater of Judaism. All their rabbis sound the same--they all parrot Rabbi Weinberg.”
And there are those who are critical of Aish on its own terms. “The ba’al t’suva professional, glossy, high-class, speak-your-language type of approach has been going on for more than 25 years,” says Rabbi Chaim Brovender, himself a pioneer in the outreach movement. “But has it worked? Is there a drop in intermarriage? There’s a rise in intermarriage. Aish HaTorah does wonderful work. But numerically, I don’t know what kind of success they’re having. They might be affecting some individuals very positively. But they’re not changing the course of the Jewish people. They have become a very successful corporation. But it’s important to keep sight of the truth, that this method yields meager results.”
Aish was born at a time when, for American Jews, assimilation was becoming possible for the first time. Jews had long left their ghettos behind; anti-Semitism was receding; intermarriage was burgeoning. The question became--as Jews integrated more and more into American society--could they maintain their Jewish identity? Without overt persecution and social barriers, would there be inner motivation to retain a strong Jewish existence?
The debate over “Jewish continuity,” as the issue has since been dubbed, has become heated. For umbrella organizations such as the Jewish Agency, World Zionist Organization and Jewish Federation, which are pouring millions of dollars into education, the emphasis is on preserving a culture, a tradition, a 3,000-year history. For Orthodox groups, which are also pouring millions into education--and for outreach organizations like Aish HaTorah--Judaism is a God-given way of life.
They believe that the religion cannot be separated from day-to-day existence: from what you eat to what you wear, from how you do business to how you behave with members of the opposite sex. Indeed, to the Orthodox--whether they are Haredi or Hasidic or Modern--the Torah defines and describes reality. But to many Jews such practices as married women covering their hair or men growing lengthy side curls seem byzantine--one more indication that orthodoxy represents a retreat from modernity. Although Rabbi Weinberg and Aish-trained rabbis are Heredi, they are unusual in their connection to the secular world. With its emphasis on relationships and career, Aish embodies the belief that orthodoxy is not an anachronism--that one can be Orthodox and still function successfully in contemporary society. Aish prides itself on its openness and sophistication. All its rabbis are secularly educated with degrees in such disciplines as psychology, philosophy and physics.
Still, many are suspicious, and none more so than feminists. “It’s ultimately a patriarchal religion with a father God and a structure that is male-dominated,” says feminist theorist and writer Ellen Willis, whose brother is an Aish rabbi in Israel.
“No matter how much you glorify the feminine role within that structure, it’s still a structure in which women are confined to the role of having and bringing up children. Essentially the highest reaches of intellectual development are the men’s sphere. In practice it’s taking a great step back in terms of restriction and un-freedom.”
Despite such criticism, as much as 75% of ba’alei t’suva are women, according to one New York study. Orthodoxy gives these women--who are mostly in their 20s and 30s and single--what the Reform and Conservative movements, no matter how spiritual and progressive, never can: a community whose sole focus is spiritual growth. It offers a lifestyle in which women’s roles as wives and mothers are honored and seen as central. As women attempt to balance the various demands of work and home life, joining a religious community in which women are placed squarely in the home is one way of avoiding the tensions and difficulties that face those who attempt to juggle a career and a family.
“The whole fight of the feminist movement was, ‘Respect me as an individual, in the working world and in the social world,’ ” says Denah Weinberg, who runs EYAHT, the women’s branch of Aish HaTorah. “Women are attracted to the respect they see naturally from a man to a woman in the Orthodox world. They can then go on to develop themselves and not fight for status.”
“The Reform slur the definition between men and women,” says Holly Pavlov, who has been teaching ba’alot t’suva women for 13 years and now heads a women’s yeshiva in Jerusalem. “They say we are the same with different biological parts. Orthodoxy says women are different from men, and what we contribute to society and to the workplace and to the home should reflect those internal differences. Men and women each add their own crucial element to the world.”
While Aish in Israel makes a point of staying out of politics, the Orthodox movement is, by definition, political--especially in America, where religion has become a powerful ideological tool. No voting bloc in the United States, with the exception of African Americans, has been more consistently Democratic than Jews. Represented by the Reform movement, the Jewish community has helped shape liberal policies. The Orthodox, on the other hand, are conservative, especially on issues such as abortion (they oppose it) and homosexuality (they think it’s wrong). Because they are expanding rapidly and are the most cohesive and most aggressive segment of the Jewish population, the Orthodox could begin to shift the balance in Jewish American politics.
“Elements in the Orthodox community have begun playing around with the Christian Coalition,” says historian Arthur Hertzberg, a visiting professor of humanities at New York University, “and they’re not merely concerned with morality. They’re looking for state money through vouchers for parochial education. In that area, they are having a significant influence on American politics.”
“The swing to the right has driven out the semi-Orthodox, undercutting the cooperation within Judaism,” says Irving Yitz Greenberg, president and founder of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “The pressure among the Orthodox not to talk to the other movements is creating even greater segregation.”
His concern is inadvertently confirmed by Rabbi Weinberg’s brother, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, who heads the Ner Israel yeshiva in Baltimore. “You can’t say--as Yitz Greenberg does--that, ‘You’re right, and you’re right.’ We can’t all be right. We don’t believe [that those outside orthodoxy] are right, but that doesn’t make them less Jewish. We cooperate with them, just not on religious matters. We’re two different religions.”
Inside a two-story, white-walled home in Los Angeles, about 25 people await Julia Blum’s arrival. Some of the men wear yarmulkes and payis, side curls, some of the women are in long skirts with scarves over their hair. Others are in jeans and sandals. As Blum enters, her mouth opens in shock. “Surprise!” the group yells. Her husband enters playing “Happy Birthday” on the violin. Julia’s father follows with a video camera.
Tugging on her black, shoulder-length sheitel, wig, Blum walks from guest to guest, thanking each one for coming. “She’s an amazingly inspirational woman,” says 27-year-old Marissa Reiter. The two met at a Shabbat table four years ago. “I would like to be like her. There’s a light that radiates within her.”
Blum’s voice teacher, whom she hasn’t seen in 12 years, arrives, wearing a large square, rainbow-colored yarmulke and smiling broadly. “You look so normal!” he says, only half-jokingly. The last he had heard of Blum, she had “become Orthodox.”
Blum, 30 years old, grew up in Beverly Hills. Her mother is an elementary school teacher, her father an insurance executive. The family attended a Conservative synagogue and celebrated the major Jewish holidays. The summer after graduating from Yale in 1988, Blum traveled through Europe, Greece and Israel, where she visited an Orthodox women’s yeshiva to “find out about Jewish things.” Six months later, she arrived back in Los Angeles, an Orthodox Jew.
Her family and friends were shocked. “When she came back, she had changed so drastically,” says Magali Bergher, a high school friend. “We thought she was cheating herself out of her destiny. Everyone thought that if anyone would get an Oscar, or be on Broadway, it would be Julia.”
Piano lessons at 3, ballet lessons at 7, an agent at 12, voice lessons at 13 with a Hollywood coach whose students included Michael Jackson and Anita Baker--Blum had her career mapped out. She starred in commercials and won the lead in every production at Beverly Hills High School. She was accepted by all the colleges to which she applied--Princeton, Harvard, Brown. At Yale, she was cast in graduate school performances, almost unheard of for an undergraduate.
Today she lives in a modest house in Carthay Circle with her husband, a software programmer, and their two children. Blum is the academic director of the Beverly Hills Tutoring Center, which caters to elementary and high school students who are high academic achievers. “I never thought of myself as married with kids,” says Blum, sitting in her backyard. Nearby are a high chair, tricycle and rocking horse. Her 4-year-old son, Aaron, makes mud with a hose and a bucket with his 3-year-old sister, Bella. Tall and angular, her hair covered with a black mesh snood wrapped with a brown knit scarf, Blum is as striking as she was when everyone thought she was going to be a star: high cheekbones, large brown eyes, a wide smile.
When Blum first returned home in 1988, there was a lot of talk about “what happened to Julia” from old high school acquaintances. There were family functions she couldn’t attend because they were on Shabbat. She couldn’t eat at friends’ or relatives’ homes because they weren’t kosher; she would no longer hug male friends or extended relatives because of the Orthodox prohibition against any touching between men and women who are not immediate family.
“It was hard to understand why she had to go from 0 to 100, rather than step by step,” says Blum’s mother, Cynthia Blum. But Blum felt that once she decided to embrace Orthodox Judaism she had no reason to go slowly. “I had no understanding of the larger picture that exists in the world, but I realized what I was missing once I saw it. I wasn’t a seeker, but I was an honest enough thinker to know that when I saw something that was the right thing to do, I had to do it.”
At that Jerusalem yeshiva, as she pored over the texts written in biblical Hebrew, sat in classes, talked to her teachers, visited religious families and kept the Sabbath, something--she says--clicked: “This is my religion.”
This realization was followed soon by: “Great, now I’m stuck. If Hashem [God] created me and Hashem created the Torah, then I have to keep the Torah.”
At the beginning, Blum says she thought she could be Orthodox and continue to perform. She soon found out that the religion prohibits women from singing in front of Orthodox men. Her initial reaction was, “Are you kidding me?” And, of course, she couldn’t work on Shabbat. Again, more soul-searching. “The human condition is limiting,” Blum says. “You have to choose which limitations make the most sense. I had to ask myself: Why do you want to be a singer? Why do you want to be a performer? Because I’m good at it? Because I like the attention? Because everyone says that’s what I’m going to do? Because that’s what I’ve always done?
“When you’re ruthlessly honest with yourself, that just doesn’t cut it. People don’t realize that whatever they’re thinking, they weren’t born with, they learned. How can you know what you think if you haven’t gone outside your own mode of thought? I have gone outside my mode of thought, looked at it and compared it. Then the decision was easy.”
Even after years of Orthodox practice, certain aspects of this life are still a struggle. “I realized I had been trained to think about the world, and function as a woman, in a certain way. I learned that whatever was associated with a woman’s role is bad, and that if someone wanted me to do something that was a woman’s role, it meant they were trying to subjugate me. But what has cooking, or being with children, have to do with being degraded?
After preparing a meal of rice, red peppers and tomatoes, Blum sits down at the oak table in her sparsely decorated dining room, closes her eyes and makes a blessing over the food. “I have to work on myself because of the ideas that were put in my head for so long.” she continues. “And what’s wrong with serving my husband? People who are hostile to cooking for a husband wouldn’t be hostile about cooking for a friend.”
Blum, the oldest of four girls, talks to her mother at least once a day. After the birth of Aaron, the Blum parents koshered their kitchen so Julia and her family could eat there. The children spend the night at their grandparents’ home twice a week. Some points of friction remain, however. “I don’t like that I can’t even shake my son-in-law’s hand,” says Cynthia Blum. “Or that Julia cannot shake her uncle’s hand. It’s sad for me to realize that once my grandson reaches 13, he can no longer give his own aunt a hug. I find that whole area . . . difficult. It’s not that I don’t understand where it comes from. But it grates against who I am.”
Blum is working on her second album of religious folk music and travels a few weeks out of the year, performing and telling her story to girls’ and women’s groups throughout the country. “I miss things,” Blum admits. “But I don’t regret things the more time passes. It’s a life choice, and you can’t have everything. But now I don’t have to worry about selling myself.”