I met Arne Zaslove because of a Costco hot dog and a New Yorker magazine.
I hadn't been in the downtown Seattle Costco for over a decade, but in May circumstances found me in the south end, low on gas and very hungry.
Magazine in hand, my hot dog and I searched for space at the crowded tables. With no choice but to share, I set my reading down and the man across from me'a Judd Hirsch lookalike ' said, 'The New Yorker! I'm a New Yorker,' and we launched a discussion of our recent and ancestral origins.
We were soon joined by a friend of his, who looked familiar. Once we established that I didn't know either one of them from kishkes, introductions were made.
It turned out I was dining with the former director of the Bathhouse Theater. That bastion of the Seattle performance scene and unique resident of the shores of Green Lake for so many years folded in 1999.
We spoke for a while and rushed off, being Friday afternoon, each to our own Shabbat dinner preparations, but not before he agreed to an interview.
The story of the loss of the Bathhouse, home to Zaslove's '50s rock 'n' roll A Midsummer Night's Dream and the ever-popular holiday show, The Big Broadcast, is too long to relate here. Suffice it to say that once Arne raised the funds to save his house from foreclosure (the theater's board had leveraged it for funding), he found himself a free agent.
But the co-founder of the University of Washington's graduate theater program and a Fulbright scholar who studied mask work in Paris, has been working hard. He's the busy dad of Max, 12, and Jessica, 6, handling a lot of the 'day shift' while his wife, Claire, is at work. He has private students and has consulted with Cirque Du Soleil (one of Zaslove's interests is physical theater), was involved in the creation of Teatro Zinzanni, and produced a series of arts documentaries that will air on the Seattle Channel.
Arne told me of his Jewish re-awakening many years ago during a Traveling Jewish Theater production of The Dybbuk in Vancouver, B.C.
At the end of the play, relates Arne, when the rabbi says kaddish for the soul of the demon, 'I started to weep! What the heck is going on here? I've been a secular Jew,' he recalls asking himself. (While he had an Orthodox Bar Mitzvah, his father soon left organized religion.)
Eventually, Zaslove brought the production to Seattle and that led to a need to know more about Kabbalah.
This led him to the late Rabbi Richard Rosenthal of Tacoma's Temple Beth El, who Zaslove calls, 'one of the wisest men I've known.' He and Claire began studying privately with Rosenthal and a year-and-a-half later, Claire converted to Judaism. Now Max is beginning his Bar Mitzvah preparations.
The drama of the past few years would make a good play I suggested. Arne laughed. 'I'd rather do Shakespeare than personal angst'it's too common.' You check out what else Arne's been up to at www.zaslove.com.
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Josef Herz has been elected to a third term as national president of Volunteers for Israel.
The Renton resident, who was born in Israel and moved to the U.S. at age 8, first learned of the organization when he returned there for an extended visit in 1991, just as the first Gulf War started.
'I found the fact that American Jews were bailing out of Israel distressing,' he explains. 'I did some work in the Golan and when the rainy season came, one of the farmers told me about the [VFI]
He went back again in 2002.
'I could see the organization was having problems, so I offered to help using my background in software engineering. I offered to do their Web site and other tech stuff. One thing led to another and I was invited to be a board member in 2003. In 2004 I ran for president.'
Board member Deborah Cole of Redmond, who has been a VFI participant nine times, says Herz has done an 'absolutely outstanding' job as president.
'It's amazing what he's done to bring the organization into the global electronic world,' she says. 'I can't say enough good about the dedication he has shown.'
VFI is a non-political, non-profit volunteer organization founded 25 years ago. It sends Americans to work in Israeli hospitals, nursing homes and on military bases. Volunteers work Sunday through Thursday for two to three weeks, leaving weekends for touring. 'The VFI volunteer temporarily becomes an Israeli,' says a VFI press release.
Herz says VFI's main goals are 'to help with physical labor and build [Israeli] morale by our physical presence.'
Currently the volunteer-run organization is focusing on a few issues: one is to get participants in the Taglit-birthright israel program to extend their stay with VFI (birthright israel provides free trips to Israel for young people). They have just put an 'Ulpan-chik' program into place, bringing language training to the volunteers, and are hoping to develop a first-aid certification course through Magen David Adom.
Josef and his wife, Nina, lived in Israel for three years before moving to Washington with their son Sam in 1999. They are still members of the Masorti (Conservative) congregation Kehilla Succat Shalom in Remat Yishai, and Herz says he still worships there whenever he visits. You can find VFI on the Web at www.vfi-usa.org.