Saturday, December 30, 2006

Bow down, party people

From: Los Angeles Daily News

PASADENA - It was three days until the big game, but Joe Cahn's RV was already in line Friday morning outside the Rose Bowl.

He'd been near the front since arriving late Thursday from the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl in San Diego, 15 hours before the parking lot would open for a weekend of tailgating for the Rose Bowl game between Michigan and USC.

Cahn does not bleed maize and blue, or cardinal and gold. He doesn't have a ticket for Monday's game - and he doesn't want one, either.

In the same way that David Stern isn't an ordinary basketball executive and William Bratton isn't simply a police officer, Cahn is not just another football fan.

"The first year after going to every stadium in the NFL," Cahn said of 1996, "I was declared the King of Tailgating."

By whom, he is asked.

"By myself."

Cahn goes by a different title now. Kings can be overthrown and presidents voted out, but commissioners are appointed for life.

And so Joe Cahn, a 58-year-old retiree who has tailgated at 44 collegiate and professional football games this fall - sometimes four in a weekend - has branded himself the Commissioner of Tailgating.

"I think every man would aspire to such a job, but there's only room for one. And I don't know if anybody could really fill Joe's shoes," said Bill North, one of Ford Field's "tubgaters" in Detroit. "He's too good at it for anybody else to try to compete with him."

Short, stocky and resembling actor-director Rob Reiner, the commish is a bit of a comedian. He promoted himself in 2004 as a write-in candidate for president.

"I felt the Republican Party is a good party and the Democratic Party is a good party, but there is no party as good as the Tailgate Party - because that is a party," he said.

"I'm still contesting the election. There were a lot of ballots smeared with mustard and barbecue sauce."

Cahn began his journey in 1996, a year after divorcing Karen Cahn, whom he is engaged to remarry next Nov. 16 - their original wedding date.

After visiting all 29 National Football League stadiums, Cahn found a calling. He's since become an ambassador for weekend warriors, a fan's favorite in scores of cities, big and small.

But his status in tailgating isn't universally known or accepted. A quick survey at the Rose Bowl demonstrated that much.

"Do you know how I know the Commissioner of Tailgating?" asked Alan Meda. "Because that is him right there."

Meda was referring to fellow University of Michigan alum Dave Moen. Meda reversed course, however, after being told of the man who drives the land in search of the best pre-game parties.

Cahn's nomadic nature has left him without a hometown.

His house on wheels is a 40-foot silver Country Coach. The top-of-the-line recreational vehicle is complete with slides that expand the coach's center into a spacious living room, with a couch on one side and a cherry-wood desk on the other. A plasma TV hooked to satellite and showing the NFL Network hangs above the leather captain's seats.

"In Southern California and New York, people say, `My God, it's bigger than my apartment,"' Cahn said.

He paid $250,000 for the RV last year and has driven it 72,000 miles; this year he's burned through 12,834 gallons of diesel fuel.

He doesn't like to talk money, but said he gets by on a few corporate sponsorships (Stanley Thermos bottles and the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association), occasional speaking engagements (the upcoming Colorado RV Adventure Travel Show) and savings from the New Orleans School of Cooking, which he sold in 1993 for "well under $10 million - well under $10 million."

Surprisingly, he's attended only four games this year - 10 percent of those at which he's tailgated. Tickets are expensive and so is the food and beer.

Besides, Cahn views his role as a conservator of "the last great American neighborhood," which he finds on Thursdays and Saturdays and Sundays and Mondays on blacktops and grassy knolls.

"It is the job that everybody wants. Forget about the perks of being the commissioner of football," he said. "The perks of the parking lot are the best - the perks of family, food and football."

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Who is THIS Jesus?

From: Los Angeles Daily News

BURBANK –- Inside KFI-AM, the face of this Jesus looks nothing like familiar images of Christ. Bald and goateed sans moustache, he wears a hoop earring and bears the tattoos of a rebellious youth.

The voice of KFI Jesus - a strong, smooth bass - belongs to Neil Saavedra, who does not believe he is the Messiah, yet he assumes the godly persona during a three-hour call-in show that airs Sunday mornings.

His tone is not sarcastic but loving, his aim not to deceive but to reach Christians in need of support, encouragement and pastoral advice.

For Saavedra, a lifelong Christian who had his born-again moment at age 17, it's a calling. Serving as marketing director for KFI-AM (640) pays his bills. Hosting "The Jesus Christ Show" is how he gives back.

"Do I feel qualified to answer any of this stuff? No way," he said during a commercial break. "But sometimes the people are so desperate for help, my God, I've got to do something."

Listeners heed his wisdom; some consider it divinely inspired.

"Oh, Jesus?" Pete Moyes, 54, of Murrieta said after waiting on hold for about an hour. "Question - I really appreciate you taking my call - how can I be assured of my salvation?"

"OK, what's your concern?" KFI Jesus asked.

"Well, people that know me, and I've known you for 30 some-odd years and I know that you are going to perfect whatever work I start, but I would think that after 30 years, I would get rid of some of these character defects, things that I do that I know I have to apologize for," Moyes said. "Why is my brain still thinking that way?"

"Well," KFI Jesus responded, "Scripture says it via (the Apostle) Paul very well: `The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.' ... The benefit is that it's paid for: It's taken care of by the blood of the cross. ... You hit it on the head when you called, and that is that I will finish the work and the perfection I started in you. That comes from me and not you."

Weighty words from a man who didn't die on a cross and rise from the dead three days later.

The natural, if knee-jerk, reaction is to question the audacity of a self-trained, unordained minister of the Gospel who would answer people's most haunting questions and try to heal their deepest wounds by pretending to be their best friend and life guide.

The Christian Bible warns no fewer than seven times against false teachers who will twist God's message for their own gain. Christians are taught to be on guard, clearly illustrated during an early commercial break.

"Hey Neil, on Line2 the guy seems a bit combative," KFI Jesus' call screener said. "He wants to know if you are a false Jesus and if we should run from you."

Suspicions come from the informed and the ignorant. Some worry not about KFI Jesus' intentions but fear the nature of the show makes listeners too impressionable for human advice.

"My concern is when someone takes on the persona of deity," said Ingrid Schlueter, a syndicated Christian radio host who gave Saavedra the Hall of Shame Award on her blog in May. "Doing that is a form of fraud. And when you are dealing with vulnerable people, we are fallible humans, and we make mistakes.

"I can give good advice, but I can't give the same advice as Jesus."

The first time Brad Abare tuned in, he thought, "This guy is just off his rocker."

But after listening, Abare, director of communications for the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, an L.A.-based Pentecostal denomination, began to appreciate the show as a "fresh" way to sow the Gospel among a secular audience.

"I love the fact it is on a top-rated station," he said. "It is not on some obscure, cheesy Christian station that no one is listening to."

Saavedra, 37, comes from a large family - five brothers and one sister. Born and raised Catholic, he grew up in a lower-income Ventura County home and was never much of a student.

Uninspired to attend community college and transfer to a university, Saavedra became a graphic artist but also began auditing courses at a Christian academy in Santa Monica, and poring over the writings of Christian apologists J.P. Moreland and Hugh Ross. He also found in the Bible his hero - Paul - and a verse to live by, 1 Peter 3:15.

"But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect," the passage states.

The first incarnation of the "The Jesus Christ Show" was on KFI's "The Bill Handel Show." Saavedra, who worked in Christian radio before joining KFI in 1994 as an intern on Handel's show, was invited to join his friend for an Easter program. The condition: He had to play the role of Jesus, and he had to do it without kitsch or irony.

"There was no question he could not answer. Out of that evolved what I consider to be the most unique show in radio," said Handel, who is Jewish. "It's sort of like Dr. Dean Edell meets Dr. Laura meets Jesus on the cross."

Calling into KFI on Sunday morning is not what most Christians mean when they say they are going to talk with Jesus.

But radio is the medium through which about 100,000 Angelenos and tens of thousands of Southern Californians connect with their savior each week. For the past six years, many regularly have tuned into "The Jesus Christ Show" to hear what they believe to be Jesus' perspective on the mundane, the profane and the arcane.

"Two thousand years ago, he walked this Earth," a recent airing began just after 6a.m. "Teaching, guiding, loving and preparing to make the ultimate sacrifice. `For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.' What if today you could talk to him, laugh with him, cry with him - not just through prayer but through the radio?

"You're listening to `The Jesus Christ Show.' To be part of the show, call (800) 520-1KFI. And now, here's our host, Jesus Christ."

KFI Jesus opens with a monologue, and the show then becomes a call-in. Callers are screened and placed on hold for two minutes to two hours.

In the studio, "your holy host," as KFI Jesus refers to himself, has a stack of references - his "safety net" and "security blanket" - which include the Bible, commentaries on the Old and New testaments, the books "When Skeptics Ask" and "When Critics Ask" and a 2-inch stack of notes.

And, of course, the Internet.

During breaks, KFI Jesus prepares for the next caller's question, so when he answers without hesitation, it seems God-breathed.

But off the air, Saavedra's not perfect, and he doesn't pretend to be. Before beginning a lunch interview, he made it clear he wasn't going to speak for God. Only between 6and 9a.m. each Sunday does he play that role. Never in conversation with friends or colleagues. Never as a party trick or a Halloween costume.

"One time, I dropped an F-bomb in front of my mom, and this sweet lady, who was raised Catholic - she went to parochial school - looked at me and said, `Son, you are no Jesus.' And I said, `Mom, you are no virgin."'

Saavedra's faith is fervent, but he is not pious. His opening monologue usually is an indication of his recent struggles, and when it's about God's plan for sexual purity, his colleagues know he's not following it.

"He is very religious, but he is very rebellious," said Robin Bertolucci, KFI's program director. "He has sort of a love-hate relationship with religion."

Saavedra does not belong to a denomination. He's typically too tired to attend church after the show, but, when he does, it's the Oasis Christian Center on Miracle Mile. Its pastor, Philip Wagner, mentors Saavedra when he is in need.

"I heard him on the radio and just called," Wagner said, recounting how he met Saavedra four years ago. Wagner was intrigued by the show and listened intently for several months before inviting KFI Jesus to host a question-and-answer at Oasis.

"He wouldn't come to our church as Jesus and answer questions. He just wanted to be Neil Saavedra who produces the show," Wagner said. "He wanted to be careful about how he answers questions for Jesus. I thought, `That is great.' I thought pastors could use that."

But is his shtick blasphemous? Wagner says no, and for the same reason most supporters do: Instead of asking "What would Jesus do?" the show asks - and attempts to answer - "What would Jesus say?"

And many who call in to the show believe the words spoken to them are coming directly from above.

"I was talking to Jesus through Neil," Helen Harris, 69, of Woodland Hills said after calling KFI Jesus.

The founder of RP International, a nonprofit that fights retinitis pigmentosa, a rare disease that causes blindness, Harris' life has been scarred by trauma. RP stole her vision 33 years ago and now is taking her two sons' sight. One also is battling prostate cancer and depression.

For the first time, Harris said, she was asking, "Where is God?"

"Why after we fix one problem after another and don't fall because you help us, why is there another one after another one?" she asked KFI Jesus.

He listened and encouraged, and when the show went to commercial for a half-hour news update, KFI Jesus put Harris on hold. Saavedra picked up the line off air.

"I hate hearing what has happened to you, and I hate hearing what has happened to your family," Saavedra said before slipping back into character and reminding his disciple that God doesn't guarantee life will be easy. "You've trusted me for many years. I need you to keep doing that."

Then Saavedra prayed with her and hung up.

"It was very, very, very important what he did," Harris said later. "It was touching. It was real. It was driven by God's hand."

Driven, yes, but not divine, said the Rev. Thomas Rausch, professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University.

"There is a good principle in Christian theology that revelation comes to an end with the death of the last Apostle," he said. "Therefore, someone who claims to be speaking the words of Jesus is doing it by his own light and inspiration, but that is not the same thing as divine inspiration."

Despite the faith some of his listeners have in him, Saavedra is aware that his message is like any other sincere minister: It's an informed opinion.

In arguing that the Bible must be the written word of God, he belies any pretense that man, even extraordinary men, can be a surrogate for his Heavenly Father.

"Elijah was suicidal; Isaiah preached naked. These are not perfect people. Job went bankrupt; John the Baptist ate bugs. It wasn't about perfection. It wasn't about them not having any flaws. It was about God using them, seeing in them the passion and intensity for the word of God," KFI Jesus told his audience.

"My producer, Neil Saavedra, loves me - no doubt about it. But is he the person you should follow or use as a standard? Oh please, heavens no. A work in progress, like anyone else."

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Modern Jewish Patriarchs (and a Few Matriarchs)

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Blaming Judaism for his father's peculiarities, the first Jewish member of Congress converted to Christianity to hide his heritage and preserve his political career.

But with a name like David Levy Yulee, he was only fooling himself.

Times have changed since Yulee became Florida's junior senator in 1845 - more than a century before the southern state became a favorite destination for Jewish retirees from the northeast.

After a handful of victories in Tuesday's election, Jews are poised to have their largest congressional representation ever. This U.S. community of roughly 6 million people - about 2 percent of the nation's population - will contribute 30 members to the House. With 13 Jewish members of the Senate, the proportion in the upper chamber will be 6 1/2 times greater than that in the general population.

"Jews are just political animals," said Steven Windmueller, dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

"Politics sort of is the Jewish religion," he added. "There is just such a passion for being in the game, in the process. Jewish life thrives in societies where democracies work, and that is why there is such a heavy buy-in into the American political process."

Like Catholics, Jews long ago abandoned their early 20th-century reputation for living on the fringes of society in immigrant ghettos. Since the 1960s, they have risen sharply in politics, falling short of only the presidency and the vice presidency (although in 2000, presidential candidate Al Gore's running mate, Joe Lieberman, came within 537 Florida votes of the White House).

The Nov. 7 election may have been a turning point for Jewish pols, who have typically represented Jewish communities. They were elected to Congress not just in California, Florida and New York, but also in Arizona, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Tennessee.

"If you would have told me in the '50s and even the '60s that (some of these states) would elect someone from the Jewish faith, I would have said, `You're crazy,"' said Rosalind Wyman, who in 1953 was the first Jew elected to the Los Angeles City Council.

People no longer are concerned about candidates being Jewish, said Rabbi Kurt F. Stone, author of "The Congressional Minyan: The Jews of Capitol Hill."

"They are voting for those people who speak to their heart and to their head," said Stone, a Sherman Oaks native.

But that's not true for all faiths. It wasn't until Tuesday that a Muslim - and a convert at that - was elected to Congress.

Keith Ellison's campaign in Minnesota's 5th District was slowed by suspicions he could be a wolf in sheep's clothing - an Islamic extremist pretending to be a pro-Israel Democrat. Fears about Ellison, who was supported by Minnesota's Jewish community over a Republican Jew, were reminiscent of those half a century ago that presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy would be a papal pawn.

"It is an unfortunate reality that people use every tactic of mudslinging and name-calling, except here the name-calling had to do with his religion and not him personally," said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the L.A.-based Muslim Public Affairs Council. "Mr. Ellison overcame it. It is a success story, and I hope it is one every household learns about as we get more Muslim-Americans engaged in politics."

Yulee, the first Jewish senator, served 12 years before becoming the "Father of Florida's railroads," according to his congressional biography. Half his tenure he served alongside Judah P. Benjamin, a Yale-educated Jew who was the last Southern politician to leave Congress before the Civil War.

"Up until the last moment, he was trying to keep the Union together," Stone said of the man who became the war secretary and state secretary of the Confederacy and was referred to as "Mr. Jefferson Davis' pet Jew."

Today, both California senators and eight of the state's U.S representatives - including five from the L.A. area and Congress' only Holocaust survivor, Tom Lantos of San Mateo - are Jewish.

"My parents always taught me that it was important to do what you can to make society better, whether that be locally or on a larger scale," said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks.

"I took that to heart and always wondered what was the most efficient way to do that because I was thinking like a CPA long before my first accounting class. And I concluded that being involved in government and politics was the most efficient way to make society better."

Jewish politicians often mention tikkun olam. Hebrew for "repairing the world," the concept is instilled in Jewish children.

"To mend the world," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, explaining why he entered politics. "There is a public-service ethic that is part of the Jewish tradition and an interest in looking out for people who are less well off."

That has translated into socially progressive politics. For almost 80 years, Jews were considered a one-party community. Their reverence for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt led to the joke that Jews believe in three velts - a Yiddish word for "world": die velt (this world), yene velt (the next world) and Roosevelt.

But three of the 43 Jewish members of the 110th Congress are Republicans. National exit polls found 88 percent of Jewish votes went to Democrats and 12 percent to Republicans. A poll administered for the Republican Jewish Coalition reported 26 percent of Jews voted Republican.

Congressional Jews generally favor stem-cell research, reproductive rights and the separation of church and state. But there is no Jewish caucus, and political ideologies run the gamut - from the socialist Rep. Bernard Sanders, newly elected to the Senate, to Rep. Eric Cantor, the House's only Republican Jew.

Across the nation, Jews' greatest bond is their support for Israel - but that goes for most politicians on Capitol Hill. Even about Israel, Jews will disagree on policy details.

"Our political persuasion is as diverse as the American electorate," said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. "If there is some commonality in their voting, it probably has nothing to do with their faith and something to do with their social philosophy.

"These are not people who are elected to office because they happen to be Jewish."

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Evangelical Atheists

From: Los Angeles Daily News

With tattooed arms and dressed like Johnny Cash, Ryan Langley stood in UCLA's Bruin Plaza and shared his faith with all who inquired.

Earth below - certainly. Heavens above - he doesn't think so. Langley may be an evangelical, but he's not the typical kind. He's an evangelical atheist.

"We're all about promoting critical reasoning, scientific inquiry, human-based ethics," Langley told a woman from the Student Coalition for Marriage Equality. "While we understand religion has a place in society, we'd like to keep it in private life and out of politics."

Newly hired by the Secular Student Alliance to do outreach at Southern California colleges, Langley is part of a push by agnostics, brights, free-thinkers, humanists and skeptics - a group commonly referred to as atheists - to increase visibility and improve public relations.

Talking about "coming out of the closet" and drawing parallels to the fight for gay rights, atheists are going mainstream. Last month, two books attacking belief in God spent a week among the top 10 nonfiction books on the New York Times best-sellers list.

On the political front, atheists last year sent their first lobbyist to Washington, D.C. On Tuesday, the Center for Inquiry will open a public policy office in the capital to act as a secular-minded think tank.

"Before, we didn't think the religious-right agenda made that much of a difference on our lives, but suddenly the agenda was being followed by the people in power," said Lori Lipman Brown, the Secular Coalition for America's first lobbyist.

"They are hearing, more than ever before, people saying there shouldn't be a separation of church and state, that our country should be based on Christianity."

Atheists' fears festered in the wake of the 2004 election, in which "conservative Christians were very influential in re-electing President Bush," said John C. Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Though Republicans lost control of Congress last week and the "edge" has been taken off atheists' concerns of a coming theocratic nation, Green said, the midterm elections won't signal a changing tide of sympathy for the nonreligious.

"The antipathy they feel still exists because the religious conservative groups are still out there and are still involved in politics," he said.

Of course, those across the religious divide tell a different story - one in which the ungodly already have too much power in Washington.

"Two starkly contrasting world views predominate today's moral and cultural debate," Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson, whose organization declined requests for comment, told The Boston Globe. "One side defends the traditional values that have made this nation great for more than 225 years; the other works to chisel away at that foundation."

Dobson, whom many consider today's most influential evangelical, has lobbied heavily against abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research. He also has complained that the GOP takes conservative Christians for granted.

America, Dobson has argued, is a land strangled by secular humanism, a place where the only accepted religion is a diluted spirituality that doesn't expect people to live according to God's desire.

Living in a nation of Judeo-Christian ethics, atheists have long been perceived by their peers as amoral, if not evil.

Stuart Bechman of Simi Valley grew up afraid that his lack of faith was a sign of "mental illness." When he began dating a Mormon woman, he noticed her parents' displeasure.

"They just presumed I had no scruples and I was unethical and I was a bad person because that is what their religion told them," said Bechman, now co-president of L.A.-based Atheists United.

Last spring, the University of Minnesota reported that only 60percent of Americans believe atheists agree with their vision for society - a smaller percentage than for Muslims (74percent), homosexuals (77percent) and conservative Christians (86percent).

And 48percent of Americans said they would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist, more than for any other group.

"People tend to think of religiosity or being involved in religion as something that is a proxy for being a good person, being a moral person, being a trustworthy person and being a good citizen," said Penny Edgell, University of Minnesota associate professor of sociology and the study's lead researcher.

"Most people don't even know an atheist. It becomes this label that people respond to that doesn't say much about the group in question but says a lot about people's assumptions."

A 1999 Gallup poll found 49percent of Americans would be willing to vote for an atheist president - up from 17percent in 1958, but still more than 40percentage points lower than for a Catholic, Jew or African-American and 10 points lower than for a gay candidate.

There are no openly atheist members of Congress, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

It's unclear how many atheists live in the United States. Some Christians say they've never met a true atheist because most nonbelievers qualify as agnostics - they don't know if God exists or if it matters.

"People who don't know if there is a God probably don't have a God belief," said Bobbie Kirkhart, past president of Atheist Alliance International.

The Secular Coalition for America pegs its constituency between 10million and 30million. Depending on the definition, researchers estimate atheists make up 3 to 10percent of the U.S. population.

Most likely to be educated and men and ranging from liberals to libertarians, experts say, atheists' chief interest shifts from promoting science to fighting religious influence on politics, depending on the cultural climate.

Lately, they have mobilized against:

The drive to teach intelligent design in public schools as an alternative to Darwinian evolution.

Renewed efforts to criminalize most abortions.

The creation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which gives government money to sectarian social-service organizations that require religious involvement from clients and patients.

Opposition to the legalization of gay marriages.

The words "one nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

These social-conservative causes are part of what journalist Michelle Goldberg calls the "rise of Christian nationalism."

"With a revisionist history that claims the founders never intended to create a secular country and that separation of church and state is a lie fostered by conniving leftists, Christian nationalism rejects the idea of government religious neutrality," Goldberg, a secular Jew, wrote in her recently published book, "Kingdom Coming."

"The movement argues that the absence of religion in public is itself a religion - the malign faith of secular humanism - that must, in the interest of fairness, be balanced with equal deference to the Bible."

Langley had Goldberg's book in his backpack, tucked beneath a small white table in Bruin Plaza. Until he was 5, his mother was a Jehovah's Witness. But then she was kicked out of the fellowship for living with a man out of wedlock, and her children grew up without any religious influence.

Langley's younger sister found Jesus; he didn't. Now 32 and a recent graduate of Chapman University in Orange, he's trying to peel back whatever layers of religious tradition college students carry from home.

"When you grow up with it from Day One, you don't tend to question its validity," he said. "That's why we are here: To ask them to question whether they need to subscribe to some absolute view to have morality."

He went about his evangelism quietly, occasionally walking into the masses and handing out pamphlets but mostly hanging behind his table and waiting for the action to come to him.

"What's this?" Heather Collette-Van Deraa, a junior studying communications and women's studies, asked as she approached.

"We are trying to organize students around secularism, the separation of church and state," Langley responded.

"I'm down with that," she said. "This is definitely an issue I get behind."

As an "out atheist," Collette-Van Deraa said she often feels scorned as the other - "capital O in quotes."

"There are misconceptions that atheists hate anyone who is in organized religion, or that atheists are baby killers or old-people killers," she said. "There is a sense that atheists to some extent can't be sensitive to the spiritual views of others."

Though theologically not a religious group, the courts have increasingly ruled atheism deserves the same protections.

"And it should," said Derek H. Davis, a Baptist who has written about atheism and is dean of the college of humanities and graduate school at University of Mary-Hardin Baylor in Texas. "Nonreligion as a worldview needs to be treated like a religious worldview in terms of giving people protections to live out their conscience."

Atheists United, which Bechman described as "a support group," funded Langley's job. "They are not going to be here much longer, and we need new blood," Langley said.

After two hours at UCLA, he packed up, intending to return in a few weeks and again sow seed. He had spoken with six people; none was interested in launching a student group.

It's a tough gig being a campus pitchman. Students train themselves to stare at the ground, listen to music or talk on cell phones - anything to avoid eye contact with the zealots at UCLA staffing 50-plus tables from the U.S. Marine Corps to Hare Krishna to the Korean American Student Educational Outreach.

Langley didn't have the luxury of shaking his hips like the sexy sophomore promoting a Samahang Pilipino party. And though he could have dressed in a giant platypus suit like the guy promoting STA Travel, he said he prefers a more subtle approach.

"It's one of those things where a hard sell isn't going to make it happen," he said. "So, you just try to make your presence known."

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The New Latino Jews

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Farsi, Hebrew, Russian and, of course, English have long been the languages of conversations at the Jewish community center in West Hills.

Now, you're as likely to hear Spanish.

Latino Jews who came in a wave to Los Angeles during the past five years were without a home and without a place to celebrate their Jewishness. But Omar Zayat, an Argentinian Jew who immigrated in 2003, solved that problem.

Last year, he and a few other area Latino Jews created the Latin American Jewish Association. The New JCC at Milken in West Hills, the only full-service Jewish community center in Los Angeles, decided to support the program by providing Zayat with an office and a modest salary.

"Jewish community centers for decades have emphasized immigrant absorption," said Michael Jeser, the center's assistant executive director. "It is part of our mission, and it is part of Latin American culture to link up with JCC, so it was a natural partnership."

There are two major differences between Latino Jews and American Jews. The first is their sense of connection to and concern for the state of Israel. While 40 percent of American Jews have visited Israel at least once, according to a recent American Jewish Committee survey, Latin American Jews often go regularly.

"In the Mexican Jewish community, it is not if you have traveled to Israel, it is how many times," said Dina Siegel Vann, director of the AJC's Latino and Latin-American Institute.

The other significant difference deals with Jewish community centers. In the United States, involvement in JCC activities has been on the decline for years. Many Jews no longer find the services relevant or convenient. But in Latin America, Siegel Vann said, JCCs are "the heart of Jewish life."

There, they serve a role similar to synagogues here. Latino Jews, who don't see their Jewish identity as linked to a religion, rely on JCCs as their social network, the place they go to embrace their tradition.

Also, in the United States, many Latino Jews have lower incomes than the general Jewish population and cannot afford synagogue membership dues.

A mixture of legal and undocumented immigrants, middle class and working class, many of Los Angeles' estimated 11,000 Latino Jews previously lived in anonymity. But what began with 13 people, Zayat's organization - which goes by the name LAJA (pronounced La-Ha)- has grown to 400 families.

It is a committed group that includes families from Orange County - people willing to brave nasty traffic while some Israelis won't drive from Tarzana, Jeser said.

"There is a vibrant community. What LAJA has done is create a place for people to go to that hadn't really existed," said Steve Gitlin, 39, of Woodland Hills, who heads the young professionals network and regularly frequents the JCC with his wife and three sons.

Though there are about a half-million Latino Jews in the diaspora, they remain a small minority in the United States. An estimated 100,000 strong, they account for less than 2percent of U.S. Jewry.

"Immigrants are surprised to see a white one who talks Spanish, is a rabbi and is like them," said Rabbi Aaron Katz, an Argentinian who leads Spanish-language Sabbath services at Beth Shalom in Whittier.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was apparently surprised too when he spoke recently at The New JCC at Milken, and a few audience members cheered in Spanish.

"I didn't know there were Spanish-speaking Jews," Jeser recalled the mayor saying.

While not faced with an identity crisis, Spanish-speaking Jews in the United States often feel doubly removed from the mainstream: first because they are Latino immigrants and second because they are a minority even among Jews.

"Most (Jews) think of (Latinos) as maids, the gardeners, people at the market," said Jenny Kopelioff, an Argentinian Jew who teaches Spanish at Milken Community High School and for 10 years has run an exchange program with a school in Mexico City. "I decided to show my students not everything is that way. It is just another community in the Jewish diaspora."

There are two histories of Jews arriving in Latin America. The first wave came ashore after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. The second followed in the 1800s and 1900s, consisting mainly of Jews from Eastern Europe. The largest communities are in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.

Rosie Milstein's parents fit the latter group. Her Russian father and Polish mother were both taken by their parents to Argentina as toddlers.

"I was born in Argentina, and I lived in Israel. I don't know how to define myself," said Milstein, a 52-year-old Reseda bookkeeper. "Speaking Spanish, people in Israel didn't understand me."

In their native countries, Latino Jews tend to be affluent, except Argentina, which has more of a middle-class Jewish community. And when they immigrated to the United States in the past, it was often done in response to a job offer or a business opportunity.

"The families that come from Mexico are very well-educated, and they already have a plan as to how they are going to make their living. But basically they need to be integrated to the Jewish community here," said Nadine Gerson, a Westside Jew who grew up in Mexico City and first came to the States to study at Yale University.

Since returning to the United States 22 years ago for work, Gerson has aided many families trying to adjust like she did.

"It is a pretty fast process," said Gerson, whose mother used to make gefilte fish Vera Cruz style. "Once you start making Shabbat dinners and having your kids in Hebrew school learning the curriculum, it's much easier for them to integrate into American society."

Until 2003, the flow of Latino Jews was rather weak. Then Argentina's economic crisis hit, and about 25 percent of the nation's 220,000 Jews left for the United States and Israel, with many settling in L.A., which has the nation's highest concentration of Latino Jews.

Zayat came then. Now 40 and living in North Hollywood, Zayat has light skin, curly hair and a reddish-brown mustache. He appears indistinguishable from a European Jew - until he speaks broken English with a thick accent.

A trained psychotherapist, Zayat was director of a Jewish children's camp and worked at a Buenos Aires JCC for 20 years. He works in a cramped office with a handmade calendar posted on the wall. He is LAJA's staff. "It was operating on Omar's energy and fumes of a budget," Jeser said.

Israeli dancing, which Zayat launched in January, is a snapshot of the bridge-building LAJA is doing at The New JCC at Milken. Tuesday, about 20 Jews from Argentina, Canada, Chile, China, England, France, Germany, Israel, Iran, Russia and South Africa interacted.

They began the weekly hourlong session with a beat-thumping song that implored them to "pump it up" - clearly not Israeli music. The next track was salsa music. And the third was in Hebrew.

Argentina-native Susana Ezon, 53, of Woodland Hills said, "Omar gave us such energy that we absolutely have to come and dance and have fun."

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

All L.A.

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Yvonne Velez loves L.A.

You get the message from her convertible sports car, her spiritual leanings, her career rebirth.

Even her license plate proclaims it:

"I ♥ LA"

Velez is a classic California dreamer, a New York transplant who still believes life is better near the Pacific.

All those reasons to hate Los Angeles - the traffic, the smog, the people, the home prices - Velez overlooks. All she sees are sun and sand and a slower pace of life. Slower.

"Wow," the 58-year-old Chatsworth resident said she thought after arriving, "this is where I am supposed to be."

Velez had left behind the poor Puerto Rican childhood in the Bronx; the completing of college and a master's in finance while toiling away at full-time jobs; the long and cold days.

In 1980, the aeronautics company accountant was transferred to a Burbank office. Tired of New York winters, she jumped at the chance.

She quickly noticed the coastal differences, for better or worse.

"In New York, Mrs. Goldstein would come over - `Do you have a cup of sugar?' - and she would stay and talk for an hour and forget the cup of sugar," Velez said. "Here, you could live next door to someone for 10 years and never meet them.

"I had a mission: to bring a little bit of home to L.A."

Ten years later and burned out on bean-counting, she left Bendix Corp. and began soul-searching.

"What am I going to do when I grow up again?" she asked herself.

Five feet tall, with a tanned, muscular build and tightly spiraled golden-brown hair, Velez had become a health nut and an amateur bodybuilder. She was embracing LaLa Land and wanted to turn her new lifestyle into a standard of living.

She settled on massage therapy and physical training, later added assisting women during childbirth, and created a business: Yvonne's Touch.

The career change became a major factor in her happiness. Though self-employment carries its own stresses - inconsistent income, higher health-care costs - it meant not having to deal with a boss, making her own hours and choosing when and where she wanted to work.

Velez has opted for clients who live near her home, which has afforded her a relatively traffic-free life - a good thing in L.A.

"The key to life in Los Angeles is learning how not to commute a long distance," said urban historian Joel Kotkin.

The most recent report by the Texas Transportation Institute found that the average Angeleno loses 93 hours per year - 2 1/2 workweeks - sitting in traffic. The Bay Area is runner-up with 72 hours lost per year.

Another common knock on L.A. is that it's a lonely place, and that its suburbs are the most lonely of all. Friends of Velez, however, describe a vibrant and dependable woman eager to assist neighbors with the trash or fix their washing machine.

"She is always there like Johnny on the spot, helping," said Vicki Ahlers, a 66-year-old neighbor. "She is the type of person everyone would love to have as a neighbor."

In 1999, Velez decided her life again needed some new seasoning. Desiring a car that would let her savor the Southern California sun, she chose a white Mitsubishi Eclipse with a black convertible top.

"I was entitled to a fun, little, black-and-white convertible," she said. "And black and white is like the yin and the yang."

In picking a customized license plate, Velez listed 12 possibilities. She didn't think her top choice - "I LA" - would be available, so she placed it at No. 12.

But as the DMV checked No. 1, No. 2 and on through No. 11, the clerk had the same response.

"Sorry. Taken. Taken. Taken."

No. 12 was available - and a rare find.

"I wouldn't be surprised if somebody offered her $10,000 for that," said Richard Barnett, president of, a site through which collectors can buy, sell and trade vanity plates.

A few months later someone spotted the license plate and offered Velez $1,000.

"Sorry. Not tempting enough," she recalled saying. "Then he asks, `Do you know Randy Newman?"'

Newman, whose publicist said he was too busy for an interview, wrote the 1980s hit "I Love L.A."

"From the South Bay to the Valley/From the West Side to East Side/Everybody's very happy/`Cause the sun is shining all the time/looks like another perfect day

"I love L.A."

Velez does not know the Oscar-Emmy-Grammy-winning composer. But she shares his sentiments about their adopted hometown.

"Most New Yorkers, or most people from out of town, they hate L.A. I truly, truly love L.A.," she said. "I'm a transplant and I love the place. Pollution and all, I love it. High real estate prices and all, I love it."

She later added: "I feel like I have been on vacation 26 years."

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Returning to God

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Scott Newman was fresh out of jail and trying to shake a 20-year heroin addiction when he heard about a rehab center in L.A.

Beit T'Shuvah wasn't like the rehabilitation centers he had been to before. It was just for Jews, and it treated addiction by healing the soul through Jewish teachings. Newman wasted little time hopping a bus from Washington state to Los Angeles in June 1996. And he has been clean since.

"Beit T'Shuvah became my community and my life. It was where I went when I was sad and where I went when I was glad. It was where I was acknowledged and appreciated," said Newman, 45, of Lake Balboa, who is now a homeowner, a consistent jobholder, a loving husband and a reliable father.

"They don't just offer detox, they offer a home."

Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown tonight, is about t'shuvah, or returning to God. Jews will observe the Day of Atonement, the holiest of their year, by attending synagogue, refraining from work and fasting for 25 hours.

But for the 120 men and women at Beit T'Shuvah, or the House of Return, t'shuvah is a yearlong act. These Jews are repenting day after day of their sins and repairing relationships with their friends, family and God.

"Addicts are people who are seekers. If you look on a bottle of whiskey, a lot of them say 'distilled spirits.' Drug addicts, a lot of them go to their connection to get a 'fix.' It's really a spiritual language," said Rabbi Mark Borovitz, the center's spiritual leader. "So we give them the way to God, to their spirit, to their soul, without ever having to get loaded again."

Combining Jewish faith and tradition with the fundamentals of 12-step programs, the center directly confronts a sentiment common in the Jewish community: Jews don't fall prey to addictive behavior.

That has particularly been the belief about alcoholism. There is even a Yiddish saying, "A shicker is a goy" — a drunk is a non-Jew.

No major studies have surveyed Jewish addictions, but anecdotally it seems to be about the same rate as the general population, said Jonathan Katz, director of a New York Jewish organization that runs a support group called Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others.

"You see people from all parts of the spectrum — educators, rabbis, doctors, lawyers, successful business people, mothers and grandmothers and aunts — people who challenge the stereotype that an addict is something lying filthy in the gutter," Katz said.

Borovitz knows how easy it is to be seduced by addiction.

Having grown up in a comfortable Jewish home in Cleveland, Borovitz threw away stability for booze and crime. He was a mobster, a con man and a thief — serving two prison terms in the '80s for it.

"My crime was I stole your trust," he said Friday before a Sabbath service at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. "A con man steals from you all you have: A con man steals from you your soul."

But, for the past 18 years, he has been trying to restore souls. "He really emphasizes self-forgiveness," said Basya Goldstein, 43, of Memphis, Tenn. "We hate ourselves so badly, and if we don't get past that it perpetuates the drug use."

Goldstein arrived at Beit T'Shuvah three months ago. She had been to Hazelden, to the Betty Ford Center. Nothing could cure the cocaine addiction she began at 23 out of boredom. "I was the mom who was snorting cocaine in the car-pool lane," she said.

An Orthodox Jew of upper-middle class means, Goldstein left behind her four children and husband, a financial adviser, and anticipates being at the rehab center for 12 months.

So far, she's been shocked and encouraged by the love and support she has felt from both her families — the one in Memphis and the one in L.A.

"That's our biggest fear: If we let people know who we are and what we've done, no one is going to love us," Goldstein said. "Rabbi has shown me that's not true."

Beit T'Shuvah began 20 years ago as a halfway house for Jewish ex-cons. Located near MacArthur Park, the home was created to rehabilitate Jews who were repeatedly returning to jail and prison for crimes connected to alcohol and drug addiction.

Its founder, Harriett Rosetto, was performing outreach to Jewish prisoners at the time. A few years after, she met Borovitz, who was an inmate and the rabbi's clerk at California Institution for Men in Chino. When Borovitz got out, he went to work for Rosetto. They fell in love and married.

Under the guidance and spurring of Rabbi Ed Feinstein at Valley Beth Shalom, Borovitz became the spiritual leader at Beit T'Shuvah. Even before he was ordained a Conservative rabbi in 2000, he was already the addicts' rabbi.

In 1999, Beit T'shuvah moved to a new — and larger — building on Venice Boulevard, near the heavily Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Addicted Jews across the country are referred to the center, and the dorms often are filled with patients, ages 18 to 65.

Plenty of its patrons are the well-heeled, but about $2 million of the center's $3 million operating budget is supported by donations from foundations such as Resnick and Annenberg.

Some of the biggest spiritual support, though, has come from members of Valley Beth Shalom. For the past 10 years, Beit T'Shuvah members have visited the Conservative synagogue for Sabbath services the Friday before Yom Kippur, known as Shabbat Tshuvah.

"I wanted the kids of this synagogue to meet real heroes, so I am glad you are here," Feinstein said as dinner wrapped up. "You have a place set at our table. You have a place in this community. You are our family. You are home here."

Goldstein leaned over and whispered to another at the table, "Do you know how radical that is?" She couldn't imagine an Orthodox rabbi saying that.

From the social hall, about 200 people — a mix of members from both congregations — moved into the sanctuary. Beit T'Shuvah's choir led the worship, and Borovitz delivered the message, one about the importance of repairing relationships.

"Our tradition said do t'shuvah one day before you die, and since none of us knows when we will die, we should do t'shuvah every day," Borovitz said.

The service then took on the shape of a support group, with Jews from both congregations standing up to share their struggles.

"I'm Samantha," a 20-year-old woman said.

"Hi Samantha!" the congregations responded.

"OK, so I just had a meltdown. I hadn't cried about anything in a long time. I think the reason I was so upset is the last time I was here was my brother's bar mitzvah, and I was disrespectful and on coke," she said.

"I'm really grateful to be here. I've been to a lot of rehabs, and this one's the best. Thank you, rabbi."

Thursday, September 28, 2006

USC closing in on UCLA

From: Los Angeles Daily News

For decades, UCLA students have derided crosstown rival USC as the "University of Spoiled Children" and the "University of Second Choice."

But each of the past few years has drawn a smarter and more accomplished freshman class to the University of Southern California.

Just 10 years ago, USC was 12 spots behind UCLA on U.S. News and World Report's annual ranking of national universities - the bible for most college-bound high schoolers. Five years ago, USC narrowed the lead to eight spots and last year to five.

Now, it trails UCLA by just one.

With school starting at the Westwood campus today,Bruins can no longer thumb their noses at the "rich kids" attending the pricey, private school in South Los Angeles who didn't have the academic mettle to gain entrance to UCLA.

Trojans have already surpassed Bruins on one of the most critical academic assessment tools - the SAT - and are on the precipice of dethroning UCLA as L.A.'s highest-ranked university.

"There might be some soul searching," said Jeff Schenck, editor in chief of UCLA's student newspaper, the Daily Bruin.

Fellow student Edgar Campos, a double major in history and Chicano studies, worried that USC's ranking surge could devalue a UCLA degree.

"It weighs down the value," he said. "My paper (would be) worth less than theirs."

University of California, Los Angeles, officials downplayed the impact of USC's rise in the rankings, saying closer academic competition is good for both schools.

"A metropolitan world-class city like Los Angeles deserves two outstanding universities, one private and one public, to engage each other and egg on each other to greater heights," said Vivek Shetty, chairman of the UCLA Academic Senate. "Ultimately, they benefit and society benefits."

Drawing more applicants last spring than any school in the country, UCLA is not at a loss for bright freshmen. The issue is about bragging rights. The problem for Bruins is not that UCLA has fallen from grace, but that USC has risen so fast. The survey ranks schools on 20 categories, including the caliber of applicants, alumni donations and faculty resources.

In 1996, USC was ranked 43 and UCLA 31. USC climbed to 34 and UCLA to 26 in 2002. Last year, they were ranked 30 and 25, respectively.

When U.S. News' 2007 rankings hit newsstands last month, UCLA clung to 26 and USC rose to 27. If the trend continues, USC could pass UCLA as soon as next year.

"You talk about other major, major schools, and UCLA wants to be right up there as a prestigious university," said Larry Davis, a Northridge lawyer who sits on the board of the UCLA Alumni Association. "And to have SC sneak up there from behind, that is not the greatest news."

USC administrators credit President Steven B. Sample, who took the helm in 1991 and led a $100million faculty hiring campaign. Since 2000, USC has increased its tenured and tenure-tract faculty from 409 to 494. There are 10 students for every USC faculty member, compared with 18 for every faculty member at UCLA.

"USC is a very nimble, entrepreneurial institution," said Peter Starr, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. "I think we are seeing the benefits of that."

At the same time, USC has made huge strides. In 1996, only 12,778 high school seniors applied, forcing USC to admit 72percent. This spring, the admissions office received 33,979 applications and admitted 25percent - the same admissions ratio as UCLA.

During that time, average SAT scores of admitted USC students have climbed about 150 points, to 1,374 this spring (adjusted for the new test). The same average SAT at UCLA was 1,339.

"You hear about their GPA, and you hear about their SAT ...," USC Undergraduate Student Government President Sam Gordon said. "I don't know if I could get into the school myself now."

Interestingly, the increased caliber of applicants coincides with USC's rise to the top in college football. The Trojans shared the national championship in 2003, won it outright in 2004 and in January came within 26 seconds of beating Texas at the Rose Bowl for their third-straight title.

This put USC back in the national consciousness, and helped increase student applications, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

"The reason institutions support athletics, the cynics tend to home in on money, but in fact it is also a matter of visibility and the creation of attachment," Nassirian said. "I mean, how many applicants to Notre Dame got to know Notre Dame because of its phenomenal athletic tradition?"

Getting course books in UCLA's Ackerman Student Union, communication studies senior Andrew Green, however, said he is more concerned with UCLA keeping pace with other top-ranked public schools - UC Berkeley, the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

"Among private schools, USC is definitely second tier," Green said. "For that kind of money, you want to be going to something top 10, top 15."

Indeed, the U.S. News and World ranking favors private universities, which tend to have higher rates of alumni donors and smaller classes. The top 20 schools are all private - from Princeton to Notre Dame. Berkeley, Michigan, Virginia and UCLA fill four of the next six spots.

Believing that the rankings accounted more for a campus's reputation than the education it provided, Washington Monthly created its own annual rankings guide two years ago that focuses on social mobility, research and service. This year, the magazine ranked UCLA No.4 among national universities.

"In social mobility, UCLA really trounces USC," said T.A. Frank, a contributing editor to the monthly.

UCLA also was named a "New Ivy" in the 2007 Kaplan/Newsweek college guide. Two professors made Popular Science's "Brilliant Ten" list, and five faculty members have Nobel Prizes. The Westwood campus is second in the nation in total research expenditures only to Johns Hopkins University.

"Students react to what is cool and uncool," UCLA's Shetty said. "But that changes every year. We are a constant."

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Undie Run I Remember

For: UCLA Magazine

The first run began with 13 guys jumping up and down in our skivvies. At the stroke of midnight during spring 2002 finals, we raced from my bedroom onto Glenrock Avenue. Undie Run was our sophomoric act of defiance against UCPD for deploying scores of officers to prevent Midnight Yell from again digressing into a melee of broken windows and burning couches.

Four years later – the length of study for most undergraduates – Undie Run has become a bonafide Bruin event. UCLA officials last spring tired of testosterone-fueled guys running across the hoods of parked cars and of drunken students face-planting on Westwood streets, and designated a path through campus.

No longer 13 strong, Undie Run boasted 5,000 participants by police estimates in June – about 150 more than this fall’s anticipated freshman class. Wearing boxers or briefs, cotton panties or lace thongs – and in some cases miraculously less – students ran, walked and frolicked down Gayley, across De Neve Plaza, past Pauley Pavilion and up Bruin Walk. The run culminated for many with a dip in Shapiro Fountain, between UCLA’s most iconic buildings.

“No other event at UCLA brings students together like this,” the Daily Bruin editorialized.

I was dumbfounded by what had become of our little run. I met at the June run alums who returned after skipping the event as students; underclassmen participating for the fourth or fifth time; and students from other schools who heard the call of the wild. Mostly, I found an event that thrives without any leadership, any organization or even any awareness of how the dance began.

“I have no idea,” Brandon Lafferty, a sophomore wearing cycling shorts, a cowboy hat, aviator sunglasses and a beach towel for a cape, told me. “I know it’s a tradition though. It’s gotta be like 20 years now.”

My, how quickly things change. When Undie Run began, runners were target practice for Glenrock residents lobbing beer-filled balloons and firing paintball guns. For this reason and the sheer silliness of prancing around in my underpants with what was then mostly guys, I was never excited about Wednesday night of finals week. But I remained more embarrassed to sit on the sidelines than to show off my Scooby-Doo boxers.

My college roommate, Eric Whitehead, B.A. ‘04, founded and fostered the quarterly event. He was a theater student who loved to strap on his booty shorts, slip on his frog cap and slap a boombox blaring “Eye of the Tiger” on his shoulder.

“Crazy,” Whitehead said when he heard what had become of his legacy. “I hope it doesn’t get out of control like Midnight Yell, with people lighting couches on fire and the cops showing up in riot gear and shooting people with rubber bullets.”

Since being moved onto campus, the event has continued with limited disturbances and UCLA has no plan of terminating it. But Dean of Students Robert J. Naples said that would change if Undie Run becomes a safety or criminal concern. “This is just a problem waiting for intervention,” he said. “I hope I’m wrong because this is something students do look forward to.”

The original 13 runners have moved on to law school and record deals, newspaper reporting and cruise-ship singing. But assuming Undie Run will live on – and it’s the only contribution some of us made at UCLA – I wonder who will be the first among us to have a son or daughter take the jog.

--By Brad A. Greenberg '04

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Gone ...

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Before Youssef and Elana Tehrani flew from Iran to Austria, they entrusted their eldest son to smugglers who would transport him into Pakistan.

Babak Tehrani was 16 and evading military service so he couldn't travel freely out of Iran. He expected to meet up with his parents and two brothers in Vienna, then travel with them to Los Angeles, where he would continue his studies and become a doctor.

That was in 1994, and the Tehranis haven't seen him since.

They are convinced he was arrested and tortured as he tried to emigrate illegally through the flat desert near Zahedan. A former neighbor has testified he saw Babak in a notorious prison in Tehran, giving them hope he is alive.

"Imagine going 12 years not knowing where your son is - no news, no letters," Elana Tehrani said, brewing Persian tea in her Westside apartment. "How would you feel if you were in my situation?"

This month, the Tehranis and six Iranian Jewish families living in Israel filed suit against the former president of Iran, whom they hold responsible for the disappearance of 12 Iranian Jews between 1994 and 1997.

Relatives believe the men, ages 15 to 60 when they disappeared, have been secretly incarcerated and tortured.

"It's a last hope," said Siamak Tehrani, the middle son, who was 14 when Babak vanished. "We've knocked on every door hoping one would work."

Elana Tehrani has spent much of the years crying her tear ducts dry. Youssef Tehrani blames his heart attack on worrying about his son.

"There is not even a moment when we don't think about the situation," said Siamak Tehrani, now 26. "We open our eyes in the morning and we think about this until we go to bed at night."

The Tehranis and the other families that sued have received no record of their sons', husbands' and fathers' whereabouts. Inquiries with the Iranian government have been rebuffed. But multiple witnesses claim to have seen the men in Iranian prisons.

"Where they are? Why they are being held? If in the opinion of Iran they have committed any crimes, what are their charges?" asked Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation. "There are a lot of unanswered questions. These are citizens of Iran, and the government needs to provide answers."

The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran for more than two decades.

Messages left for Mohammad Mohammadi, spokesman for the Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations, were not returned.

On a two-week speaking tour in the United States, Mohammad Khatami, a relative moderate who was Iran's president from 1997 to 2005, was served the lawsuit by two retired police officers while attending a private reception in Arlington, Va.

Khatami has until Thursday to respond.

Filed in U.S. District Court in New York, the suit seeks unspecified damages - "hundreds of millions of dollars," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner.

In a phone interview from Tel Aviv, Darshan-Leitner said U.S. law allows foreigners to sue other foreigners violating the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act. If her clients win, she said, they could target Khatami's assets in nations friendly to the United States.

Elana Tehrani hopes the case attracts international attention to her son's disappearance. At a pro-Israel rally outside the United Nations last week that coincided with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defending his nation's nuclear program before the General Assembly, Tehrani took the stage and begged for her son's return.

"If President Bush can hear us," she had said in her apartment. "He supports all the Jews and he has been there for the Jews. In the war with Israel (and Lebanon), President Bush supported Israel because of the hostage situation. This is a hostage situation."

For 2,700 years, Jews have lived in Persia, now called Iran. They were persecuted often during that time, but remained for the culture they cherished.

The middle of the 20th century brought prosperity to Iranian Jews. But after Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was deposed in 1979 during the Islamic revolution, Jews left Iran en masse.

Some 35,000 now live in Los Angeles, the most populous Iranian Jewish community outside Israel. Treatment worsened toward the estimated 20,000 Jews who either couldn't leave or decided to stay.

"By 1995, Jews were accused of bringing AIDS into Iran and causing economic chaos," the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles reported in 2000. "That same year, Fayzollah Mekhubabt, a 78-year-old cantor in a Tehran synagogue, was taken to prison. His eyes were gouged out before he was executed. Mekhubabt was buried in a Muslim cemetery. His family was forced to disinter his remains in order to bury him in a Jewish cemetery."

The source of that information, and the focus of the article, was Frank Nikbakht, a Jew who escaped Iran in 1982 and has become a voice for those who remain. A leader of the tiny L.A.-based Committee for Religious Minority Rights in Iran, he speaks ominously of the sectarian cloud over his homeland.

"The Jews are in danger of being exterminated with one little incitement from the heads of government," Nikbakht said. "They have created enough hatred so that when the time comes that they decide to get rid of the Jews, they can do it in a matter of hours."

Among the 12 missing men is Shaheen, whose last name is not being used because his parents still live in Iran. He was 20 and with Babak when they disappeared June 8, 1994.

Shaheen was trying to get to Los Angeles, where his brother had settled after fleeing Iran through Pakistan in 1989. Their parents were going to follow once Shaheen was out and safe.

"This is not just an accident that kids disappear," his brother said. "It was an orchestrated effort to eliminate the Jews from getting out of Iran. I believe they have captured them to create a fear."

Shaheen's family did not join the lawsuit because they feared that the government would retaliate, possibly lethally. But they are running out of options.

"We have been pleading to these people for the last 12 years," Shaheen's brother said. "We haven't gotten any answers."

Monday, September 18, 2006

Manny and Me

From: Los Angeles Daily News

It's 5:41 a.m., and Manny Covarrubias' cell phone is already buzzing.

"Good morning, Hilda," he says to an assistant to LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer calling with a schedule change.

Manny swings into the alley behind the superintendent's beachfront Venice apartment. He opens the mailbox - "No mail" - grabs Romer's newspaper and climbs the stairs to the second floor, slipping a key into the lock and letting himself in to the residence of one of Los Angeles' most powerful public officials.

And so begins the first day of a new school year with the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Manny's official title is sergeant at arms - a fancy moniker for chauffeur to the CEO of the nation's second-largest school district. In reality, he is the glue that holds the superintendent's office together.

"It is probably the most important relationship I've got," Romer says. "He is just the guy who helps me function, who helps me keep things together."

The two have become quite close. Romer considers Manny one of his best friends; Manny thinks of Romer as a doting father.

But Romer is on his way out of the district, out of California, back to his Colorado ranch and the state where he served as governor from 1986-98.

And Manny doesn't know if the next superintendent will keep him or revert to the past system of having a rotation of armed police escorts, which would return Manny to the bus-driving schedule he kept before Romer arrived in 2000.

But Manny, too, is entering a new chapter. This summer, he finished the required courses to transfer from East Los Angeles College to California State University, Los Angeles, where he will start classes Thursday.

"It is going to be intense," he said. "I know I am up to the challenge and I know I am going to pass."

Exhausting would be an understatement.

Chauffeuring the superintendent is a dawn-to-dark duty. It's dodging L.A. traffic jams. It's midday catnaps to push through 16-hour shifts. It's dropping off the boss at 1 a.m., driving 31 miles to his wife and teenage son sleeping in their two-bedroom house in Whittier and being back in Venice at 6 or 7 a.m. to repeat the routine.

Long days are something Romer brought to the office, said his secretary, Raquel De Leon, who has worked with seven superintendents in 20 years. But none of it seems to bother Manny.

"Working with them is like being in the Army: It's not a job, it's an adventure," he said.

Manny is 42, lean and muscular, with dark skin, salt-and-pepper hair in a buzz cut and a scruffy moustache. He has never called in sick - not during his nine years as a bus driver, not in the six years since Romer arrived.

He works 50 to 60 hours most weeks - less when Romer is out of town - and last year pulled in about $65,000.

Team members said he makes himself available to assist with any task.

"He was just a spark plug in the whole team," said Stephanie Brady, who served as press deputy until this past June and considers Manny a friend. "He did everything possible to make things run smoothly for the superintendent, who has so much to juggle."

Romer arrived on the heels of an eminent domain campaign for new schools that embittered some in the district's path.

"The situation was very hostile," said school police Sgt. George Sandoval, who was the detail for Interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines in early 2000. "Since I can remember, there has been a police officer attached to the superintendent."

Romer didn't want an armed guard, but an assistant on whom he could count for more than security and transportation.

"A lot of people around here, you'll ask them to get something done and you don't know if it will," Romer said. "But you can always count on Manny to come through with anything you ask him."

The superintendent's office, at district headquarters on Third Street just west of the Harbor Freeway, is on the north side of the 24th floor. It is the size of a large living room, with a long conference table and a breathtaking view of the Hollywood sign, Mount Baldy and downtown.

A large red chair and a small desk that resembles a TV tray sit outside the door. Here Manny studies for his classes, or naps when Romer is in a meeting.

Manny's office is some 200 feet below, in the third floor of the parking garage. It crisscrosses L.A. at a rate of 60 to 200 miles a day.

The silver Crown Victoria is a mobile workstation, a down-sized motorhome. The trunk is filled with office supplies, gym bags, a book bag, a pillow and a change of clothes.

Romer is constantly at work in the back seat, reviewing documents, talking on his cell phone and, occasionally, resting.

"I couldn't do the job without a driver because I couldn't get to all the places and do all the work I need to do," Romer said. "I literally work out of the back seat of the car, and it just extends my day by two or three hours to have a driver."

When Manny's not transporting Romer, he's picking up office supplies, taking colleagues to LAX and visiting Romer's dry cleaner and cobbler. The varied schedule afforded Manny the intervals to scurry to class, and he developed a passion for reading.

The Crown Victoria merges onto the Santa Monica Freeway, heading east toward Crenshaw Avenue. It's 6:12 a.m. and traffic is light. Manny weaves in and out of lanes, passing other commuters as he shaves seconds off the 25-minute drive to Wilshire Park Elementary School.

L.A.'s vast system of schools and its labyrinth network of highways and byways demand an ace automobiler.

Manny's reputation is somewhat mythical in the office. How, during rush hour, does he get Romer from downtown to the West Valley in 30 minutes?

"Artful driving," said former spokeswoman Brady, who regularly rode shotgun.

Brady called Manny "the most frightening driver ever," but said it was comforting to know that no matter how much Romer overloaded his schedule, Manny would find a way to deliver him on time.

The car is quiet except for the sound of Romer flipping through the newspaper, catching up on what happened while he was in Virginia over Labor Day weekend.

The sedan exits and heads north on Crenshaw, turns right on Olympic Boulevard and then left on Wilton Place.

"Are we near?" Romer asks.

"We're here, governor. Are you ready?"

"I'm still doing my homework," Romer says.

Manny parks and goes to help out the 77-year-old superintendent, who has a bad ankle and often uses a cane. Manny's phone rings.

"Manny, it's Hilda. Where are you? How far away are you?"

"I'm looking at you," he responds, not sounding the least irritated.

Manny walks with Romer to Hilda Ramirez. KNBC (Channel 4) is waiting for an interview, and the news conference touting the seven new schools opening their doors for the first time today is set to begin.

During the next two hours, while reporters sling queries about the Legislature's passage of the mayor's school takeover plan and district chiefs give a tour of the new Koreatown campus, Manny stands patiently on the curb, holding Romer's briefcase and answering his cell phone to resolve a logistical crisis.

At 6:41 a.m., it's district spokeswoman Shannon Murphy, who is trying to find her way from West L.A. Manny puts her on hold, clicks over to Ramirez, who is calling because Romer needs something out of his briefcase, then clicks back to Murphy.

"Shannon did you exit Crenshaw? No, no, keep going east to Crenshaw," Manny says.

"I've got to write this down," Murphy says. "Hang on while I grab a pen."

"Be careful," Manny says.

He hangs up and flashes a smile, and then his cell rings again. It's Lucy Okumu, the director of external affairs. She's lost, too.

"God, Manny is a lifesaver," Okumu says later.

The 10-member Covarrubias family immigrated to California in shifts.

Patriarch Miguel Covarrubias was a migrant worker who picked whatever fruit was in season and returned to Tijuana in between. Manny joined his mother, younger brother and three of his six sisters in L.A. during the summer of 1979.

At age 14, he didn't know a word of English and planned to return to Tijuana to continue his studies and become a teacher. But he decided to stay in L.A. and eventually graduated from Garfield High School.

He took a year after high school to clear his head before enrolling in an electronics course at L.A. City College. He quickly dropped out and began wandering the workforce - embroidery machinist, dye factory worker, custodian, bus driver.

He long outstayed his passport and became an undocumented resident. In 1986, he and 2.7 million other illegal immigrants received amnesty. And on Jan. 5, 2000, Manuel (no middle name) Covarrubias became a U.S. citizen.

"Nothing ever came free for Manuel," said his wife, Gloria. "He took advantage of every opportunity that came his way."

Manny joined LAUSD in 1991 and bounced around coverage areas for five years. He spent another five years as a cover driver - the utility infielder of transportation workers - before Romer arrived in July 2000.

Manny was given the temporary task of driving him. He was told to dress formally but wasn't sure what that meant. Tuxedo? Black cap? He fished out of the closet a black tie, his only white-collared shirt and his sole pair of black slacks - dress pants he hadn't warn since he stopped attending church years before.

"His pants were really tight and he looked like a chef," Gloria Covarrubias said. "He was embarrassed, but Manuel carries himself very well. He knows how to play things off."

That laid-back spirit won Romer's favor. After about two weeks, the new superintendent asked Manny to be his regular driver. But some of the other district drivers weren't happy that a coveted transportation gig had been given away without their invitation to apply.

"Manny, you know, I think they want to take your job," Romer told him after the union inquired. "What can I do to keep you?"

"Excuse my French, governor," Manny responded, "but this is a bunch of B.S. What you say, governor, goes."

And it did. But then Romer laid the challenge back to Manny.

"He said, `Don't get me wrong, you're a good driver, but you're smart. Why didn't you go to college?"' Manny recalled. "I said, `Governor, I'm a good driver, but I'm not smart."'

But at the urging of the boss, Manny entered East Los Angeles College, first taking not-for-credit remedial English and math courses.

"I had to start climbing the hill. It was English 21 and then English 61 and then English 65, then English 101 and English 103."

Taking four to nine units each semester and summer for the following 3 and 1/2 years, Manny received his associate's degree - what his wife called one of his proudest moments.

He'll begin his university studies with an elective course about inequalities based on class, race, ethnicity and gender. If all goes according to plan, he will complete his bachelor's in 2010 with a major in kinesiology, and then might spend the following year getting credentialed and searching for a job teaching physical education.

"Manuel is like, `You can do it if you just set your mind to it,"' Gloria Covarrubias said. "Sometimes, I rub my head next to him so I can get some of his brain."

The news crews finish their tour of Wilshire Park and step onto what must be the cleanest yellow bus in the district's fleet. Romer is going along for the ride, and before he steps on, Manny hands over the briefcase. Manny will follow the bus to each of the schools it visits between now and noon.

Walking to his sedan, he sees a distressed TV reporter whose car has been partially blocked by a double-parked pickup. Without her asking, Manny goes searching for its owner. The reporter maneuvers around, and Manny walks back to find her pulling out - with her SUV's hatch open.

He closes it and sets out for the district office. His phone just rang, and they need him to deliver some documents to Romer before the closed session of the school board meeting at 2 p.m. The route around MacArthur Park takes Manny through his old neighborhood and past the bus stops where he used to wait because he didn't get his driver's license until he was 19.

He continues from the office to Abram Friedman Occupational Center on Olive Street. Manny parks in front of the touring school bus and chats with its driver, Louis Gholar, whom he's known for 12 years and with whom he regularly lifts weights.

"What's going to happen when he leaves?" Gholar asks about Manny's role with the district.

"I don't know yet," Manny says.

Reporters board the bus, and Manny leaves, following it to the next school and then another before the tour winds up at 450 N. Grand Ave., the former district headquarters on which a new high school is being built. When the show's over at 12:19 p.m., Romer slides into the back seat.

"Manny, am I free to stop and eat and read all this crap?" Romer asks, referring to the closed-session materials Manny brought to him.

"Yeah, you're free until 1:30," Manny says.

He drops the boss off at the Marriott Hotel, takes Murphy to the district office and swings into the East Side Market to scarf a roast beef and turkey sandwich before going back to the Marriott and then back to the district office. He's already worked eight hours.

From Third and Beaudry avenues, Manny drives to South Los Angeles to help his goddaughter, who got in trouble at school. He refuels at the district pumps, stops at the Downtown Car Wash and at 3:13 p.m. heads back to Venice to drop seven of Romer's shirts at the dry cleaner.

He kills a little time strolling the boardwalk before making the short trip to LAX; Romer's wife, Bea, is flying in from Denver, as she does about every two weeks. Then it's back downtown so the Romers can eat dinner at the Water Grill.

The Crown Victoria pulls back into the alley behind Romer's apartment at 10:06 p.m. and unloads its passengers. There is no traffic left on the freeways, so it will only take Manny about 30 minutes to get home.

He'll be back in Venice in nine hours.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Greek drama

From: Los Angeles Daily News

The Greek system at CSUN was on the brink.

Police had been dispatched to disperse inebriated partygoers up to no good. Neighbors demanded the university designate on-campus housing for fraternities and sororities. Vilified students felt like pariahs.

"At this point, fraternities are doing everything with kid gloves," the president of the Interfraternity Council said. "I've made it known that we have to be real careful. The Greek system feels it's hanging on for dear life."

That was spring 1986. Twenty years later, tensions are again running high. Complaints about the fraternities have recently consumed hours of discussion at neighborhood council meetings, and the City Attorney's Office is pursuing cases to shut down some. Officials declined further comment.

With the fall quarter beginning today and fraternity rush week in tow, neighbors are bracing for raucous parties, while students are clinging to CSUN's unsanctioned college experience.

The Northridge East Neighborhood Council wants California State University, Northridge, to take responsibility for its fraternities and sororities, particularly by creating a Greek Row, and to take the burden off families and elderly residents living near the Greek houses that dot Halsted Street, Zelzah Avenue and other suburban streets.

"We look at this as a defining moment for us," said council President Kelly Lord. "Either CSUN has rules and they follow them, or they do not."

The current spat is the latest on a long list of grievances between Northridge and the state college that put it on the map. Unchecked campus growth and unbridled traffic have long topped that list. But the Greek issue pops up like a gopher every few years.

Nude volleyball?

"With these frat parties going on, some of them are getting to the point the neighbors can't even enjoy their weekends," said Steve Patel, who lives near CSUN. "It's not just the adjacent homes. They end up parking throughout the streets, littering, making noise."

Neighbors complain of loud music. Blinding party lights. Nude volleyball.

Well, that match actually was played a decade ago by the Sigma Chi guys, for what reason, no one seems to remember. But unhappy neighbors speak of the incident as if it were a semesterly event.

Students say locals have unrealistic expectations.

"They want to live next to a college and yet they want it to be like they live in a forest and there is no noise," said Justin Weisman, 25, who graduated in June and lives in one of the homes on Halsted.

The problem is CSUN never planned for Greek life. There was a push in the mid-1980s to designate 10-plus acres for fraternity and sorority houses, followed by a university offer to move the organizations into a residential tower on campus. But those never materialized.

"They have just unfortunately inherited a situation that is 30 years old," said Jamison Keller, the school's Panhellenic adviser.

Instead of fraternities and sororities living side by side in 20-room mini-mansions, much like they do at most major universities, Greek organizations rent one- and two-story homes around CSUN.

Illegal use

Most of them operate illegally because their houses are not zoned for high-density living. To reduce unwanted attention, some have taken down their letters and profess to not be a "frat house." A few organizations have sought conditional-use permits from the city.

"We've gone through a tremendous amount of work," said Greg Morris, the brother in charge of getting Sigma Chi into compliance with its permit, which has included building a nine-foot-tall fence around the entire house - at a cost of $9,000 - and planting 30 Italian cypress trees three feet apart to create a visual wall above the fence.

Because of years of neighbors complaining, CSUN's 11 Interfraternity Council fraternities and six sororities host most of their larger parties - several hundred students - at nearby bars and clubs. They use campus rooms for weekly meetings.

The residences inhabited by a handful of brothers exist as a home base, a place for informal Thursday night bashes. Other than a place for bros to throw back a few six packs, they say, the houses aren't socially used for much more.

Most of these houses are located on Halsted, which runs along the northern edge of campus. Students consider its route east of Zelzah the closest thing they have to Frat Row.

The loudest complaints, however, come west of Zelzah on Halsted's 18200 block. A few hundred yards from university dorms, the only residences are two single-story homes with long wooden fences that enclose dead lawns, tattered couches, empty Bud Light cans and houses full of testosterone.

The residences are occupied by members of Pi Kappa Alpha and Zeta Beta Tau, two CSUN fraternities. These are not frat houses, technically - PKA and ZBT letters do not hang from the homes. They are unmaintained and filthy, but they are a far cry from "Animal House."

"It's ridiculous. We'll have five people come over, and the cops will come up - and the cops will tell us this is ridiculous," said Dan Schneider, 23, who lives with the ZBTers.

No shootings or stabbings have occurred at fraternities during CSUN Police Chief Anne P. Glavin's four years on the job, nor have any related cases of sexual assault been reported to her department. Glavin said "98 percent" of the Greek-related complaints deal with parking, noise and litter.

"There is not a knee-jerk solution," she said, adding that students should be respectful of their neighbors. "But I've been in the business 30 years. This is not a new problem for college communities."

Last spring, ZBT notified neighbors of an upcoming event to raise money for breast cancer. The philanthropy event included a Chippendale-style show at which sorority girls would buy dates with the student strippers. The neighbors pushed back, and the event was canceled.

Housing turnover

The pressure has caused regular turnover in the run-down houses rented by fraternity members. Sigma Phi Epsilon gave up on a three-bedroom Halsted home in April. But it wasn't replaced by a family of four or a few young professionals. In moved three members of Pi Kappa Alpha.

"Who else is going to want to live there?" Schneider said. "Have you seen that house?"

CSUN is a commuter campus at heart, with 2,200 beds for its 33,000 students. With an average age of 27, only 4 percent of the student body claims Greek membership, compared with about 12 percent at UCLA and 20 percent at USC. But over the years it has grown in stature and in admissions draw.

"This is no longer Valley State College," said Los Angeles Councilman Greig Smith, who represents the Northridge district and has lobbied CSUN to establish a Greek Row. "They are bringing in students from all over the state, from all over the world. And they need to evolve."

The 48-year-old campus recently unveiled its growth plan. Called Envision 2035, it detailed goals to build 600 faculty and staff housing units, expand on-campus housing for 2,500 students and construct a $100 million performing arts center.

No Greek Row

Left out was a Greek Row, which would cost millions to create.

"As we went out and had conversations on and off campus, there was not a big push for that," Dean of Students William C. Watkins said. "If that had emerged, that kind of need is directly in competition with academic space needs. We needed to make sure that we had adequate facilities to take care of our primary mission, which is teaching and learning.

"I don't imagine this is a challenge that is going to disappear overnight."

Patel wishes it would. He attended the University of Southern California, with its stately fraternity and sorority houses centered in a T-shape among the apartments east of Hoover Street. And he blames CSUN for forcing neighbors to deal with its students.

"This is typical of CSUN," said Patel, a real estate investor who works out of his home. "The leadership of CSUN adheres to the minimal requirements to get by. If a student practiced the same criteria, they'd fail in life."

That's not to say Northridge doesn't benefit from having a state university. Besides being one of the largest employers in the San Fernando Valley and pouring millions annually into the local economy, CSUN gives this safe community some of that enlightened-minds spirit.

But it's difficult to live alongside a college campus without dealing with college students - both when they're a blessing and when they're a curse. The solution, according to the past land-use chairman of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council: Live west of Tampa Avenue.

Judie Levin wouldn't relent on that issue when she and her husband moved to Northridge. And she has little sympathy for newcomers who don't follow that advice.

"The neighbors, as far as I am concerned, made a mistake in moving there," she said, "and now they are stuck."

Friday, August 25, 2006

St. Joe sold their homes

From: Los Angeles Daily News

St. Joseph must sense the housing market is in a slump.

For more than 500 years, home sellers have turned to Jesus' earthly father for help locating a buyer. Like a litmus test, sales of his 4-inch statues - which sellers plant head down on their property - ebb and flow with the tides of the real estate market.

Lately, they've been flying off Christian gift store shelves. And sellers testify they've turned into believers.

"Whether it is divine intervention or faith - or who knows? - definitely something is working," said Brian Moore, a Glendale real estate agent.

Moore, who was raised Catholic, first heard about the St. Joseph phenomenon six months ago from a colleague who, like him, was having trouble selling a home.

Moore bought and buried a statue on each of six properties he was listing. Each entered escrow that week.

Because some people think the practice is a silly superstition, Moore said, he sometimes buries the statues without telling the homeowner.

"You don't know how people will react," he said. "But I believe that it works - absolutely."

Since 2000, few homeowners had needed supernatural support to sell property. With annual double-digit price appreciation throughout California, homes were selling within days - sometimes hours - of appearing on the Multiple Listing Service.

All that came to an end late last year.

The median price of a home sold last month in the San Fernando Valley was just 1.2 percent more than in July 2005 - and 2.9 percent, or $18,000, lower than in the month before. Only 809 homes were sold this July, the fewest for that month since 1993, amid the last housing downturn.

"Coming off of several years of very strong sellers' markets, this looks shocking. And it is a dramatic turnaround, no doubt about it," said Steve White, president of the Southland Regional Association of Realtors.

Against historical measures, however, the housing market is returning to normal, he said.

Still, hopeful sellers are getting nervous. With a current inventory of 5.7 months, it has become common for a house or condo to go 60 days to 90 days without an offer.

Before Isabel Nu¤ez put her Winnetka town home up for sale in mid-June, she repainted the walls and updated the fixtures. No buyer. She shampooed the carpets and cleaned the patio. Nada. Finally, she dropped the price by $6,000 from $465,000. Still, no luck.

Hoping to comfort his client, agent Jeffrey Billinger sent her a St. Joseph statue. The Catholic woman buried it in front of the "for sale" sign Friday and waited.

Suddenly, real estate agents began calling, and looky-loos actually attended an open house.

"If you have faith in something, it will work," the 28-year-old customer-service representative said.

Joseph, the husband of Mary and earthly father of Jesus, is a Catholic saint, though the home-selling tradition is not endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church.

"Catholics often make use of saints' images in meditating on their lives and asking them to pray for us," said Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "I'm not aware of any place in the Gospel or in Christian tradition that justifies using saints' images to sell real estate. At best, it is probably a harmless superstition."

Legend has it that St. Joseph entered the real-estate market in the 16th century, some 1,500 years after his death. In need of land for a convent, St. Teresa of Avila dug a hole in the ground and buried an image of the saint.

"I'm only assuming it was a seller's market back then and there was no land available," said Phil Cates, owner of "Since she wasn't a real-estate mogul, she called on St. Joseph for help, and she buried a medallion of St. Joseph, and they got the land for the convent."

At some point, the saint crossed over to the seller's side to provide assistance during buyer's markets. Some real-estate agents use the statues "religiously," said Cates, who said his Modesto-based distributor has seen business double in each of the past three years. A few have printed business cards with a picture of St. Joseph on them.

Though some homebuyers have used the statues to ensure the close of escrow, there is no known saint through whom prayers will soften a seller's market.

"The market can do that on its own," said Cates, who also is a mortgage broker. "We're talking `St. U.S. Economy' there."

The statues aren't just for the Christian faithful. Take the Jewish man who recently visited Zimmer's Religious Art & Gifts in Toluca Lake after his home had gone almost a year without getting a nibble.

"He didn't want to enter the door because it is a Christian store, so he opened the door and stuck his head in," said owner Margie Murphy, who sold him a St. Joseph statue and gave him a prayer to recite. "Five days later he came back and said activity was hopping."

At St. Peter's Pier in Canoga Park, only one statue remained in a green box that read, "Faith can move mountains ... and homes!"

But don't expect that $9.95 purchase to add thousands of dollars to the sale of your home, said store owner Hal Storey, who deep-sixed a statue to sell his Minnesota home in 1964.

"You can't list your house $10,000 over the market and just use one of these and pray it will sell," Storey said.

"Sometimes," his wife, Barb, chimed in, "God says, `No."'