War Talk: Reserve Judgment

Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

ON A RAINY MORNING LAST WEEK, ABOUT 20 PRICEY L.A. LIBERALS -- among them Norman Lear, Mike Farrell, and philanthropist and all-around macher Stanley Scheinbaum -- gathered for breakfast in the Brentwood living room of Leonard Beerman, the rabbi emeritus of the Leo Baeck Temple, to hear two Israeli army reservists talk about why they won't serve in the Occupied Territories. The guest list was Beerman's, but the refuseniks' hectic one-day schedule (part of a national tour of key U.S. cities to drum up sympathy and support for their movement, Yesh Gvul) was orchestrated by Women in Black, the Los Angeles wing of an international anti-war group modeled after an Israeli-Palestinian women's movement that holds vigils protesting the Israeli occupation.

Nothing could be further from the Israeli macho-man prototype than these two soldiers. Both are ardent patriots who are committed to army service, but refuse to serve in territories they consider unlawfully seized by Israel. Ram Rahat, a founding member of Yesh Gvul, is a rumpled, doe-eyed, Montreal-born accountant with a modest middle-aged belly rising over his chinos, who refused to serve in Lebanon during Israel's unprovoked invasion of that country in 1982. Ishai Sagi, a shy, slight 25-year-old with earnest blue eyes and a whisper of beard on his chin, still believes that the Israeli army is "the most humane and moral army in the world." Yet so ashamed was he of what he witnessed as a conscript and a reservist in the West Bank -- a bored Israeli officer at a roadblock ordered Palestinian cars taken apart, then forced the owners to put them back together; another officer in Tulkarm placed a loaded gun to the head of a Palestinian for talking while waiting in line for a permit to work in Israel -- that by the time Sagi received a standing order in Nablus to shoot any Palestinian, even a 6-year-old who picked up a stone, he asked to be transferred to the Lebanese border. Sagi got 26 days in a military jail for his pains. Every military order he'd given or received, he said, had its own internal logic, but slowly he came to realize it was the logic of an occupying army, not an army of self-defense.

After a few factual questions from an audience who clearly needed little persuading that the cause was worthy, the meeting drew to a close. Norman Lear wrapped the startled Sagi, who would doubtless have gotten a mouthful from Archie Bunker, in a bear hug. Beerman held up a box containing shards of the glass he'd broken under his foot when he got married. Explaining that the broken glass serves to remind Jews, even at a wedding, that they live in a broken world, he expressed a hope against hope that a broken Israel would heal its wounds.

That evening, a group of mostly Israeli members of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, where Sagi and Rahat were preparing to speak, burst into their own synagogue just as Progressive Jewish Alliance president Douglas Mirell was wrapping up his opening remarks. (Rabbi Laura Geller was not present.) They took up positions at the back of the sanctuary and held up signs that said, "Ram Rahat and Ishai Sagi have NO courage" (a reference to Courage To Refuse, another selective-refusal movement that grew out of the current Intifada), "Ram Rahat and Ishai Sagi Work for Arafat" and "My son is risking his life in the army so these men could run away." The protesters booed during Rabbi Beerman's introduction, and yelled "Go back to Israel, coward!" when Sagi took the stage. The young reservist kept his cool until the shouting brought his presentation to a halt. Then he called, "Get out of here!" to which the protesters yelled, "You get out of our temple." The rowdiest were escorted out of the shul, but they returned to scream, "Our children should not be exposed to this filth." The soft-spoken Rahat remained calm throughout, picking up his speech between heckles. Later he told Women in Black's Sarah Jacobus that as disruptions go -- army dissenters have been physically attacked in Israel, and in Boston a refusenik had to leave a synagogue under police protection -- this one was on the mild side.

--Ella Taylor

HIDDEN L.A.: A Spider Man Comes to America

TALL, SKINNY AND SHY, VYGANDAS Relys is a young Lithuanian arachnidologist who spent most of Memorial Day weekend in a state of mild shock. He was manning the desk at the first ever Los Angeles Spider Survey -- which means he spent the day taking vials and bottles and cups of spiders out of young children's hands and trying hard to identify the species. He was shocked for a lot of reasons. First, he thought almost nobody would show up with spiders and, instead, hundreds and hundreds did, forming a long line of parents and grade-school kids clutching their specimen containers. He was also shocked at being forced to identify species outside of his lab. "Usually, we have microscopes," he said to one parent who was demanding the identification of a spider curled up at the bottom of a pill bottle; it might be a sack spider or a ground spider and he just couldn't tell, he tried to explain. He only left Vilnius a few months ago and he's just getting to know L.A.'s spider species. "In Lithuania, I could do this with my eyes. Here I have to go through the literature," he said, his hand flipping through an imaginary spider book.

Ultimately, he's just shocked to be here at all. In January, he was an up-and-coming professor at the most prestigious university in Lithuania. ("I made my Ph.D. in Salzburg," he said, in a tone suggesting that Salzburg is the world's capital of advanced arachnid studies.) And then his wife was offered a post-doc fellowship in biochemistry at UCLA. "I had no choice," he said, clearly wishing he had.

Los Angeles County probably has around 500 spider species, but nobody knows for sure because no one has ever done a survey. The entomology department of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County decided to correct that by asking the general public to bring or send in spiders along with a questionnaire explaining exactly where the spiders were found. "If we collected them ourselves, we'd go to a few dozen places; this way we get spiders from hundreds of places," Vygandas said. He and a few others will spend the next year carefully identifying each spider sample and, hopefully, coming up with a comprehensive list of spider species and a map of their habitats. The survey kicked off at the annual museum insect fair this past weekend and for the next 12 months, anyone in the area is invited to bring a spider to the museum or mail one in. Vygandas prefers the spiders be dead (a tiny bit of tissue dipped in alcohol and dropped in a bottle next to the spider should kill them quickly), but nearly everybody brought their spiders in very much alive -- many with a recreated habitat of some leaves and twigs and even an insect or two for dinner. Vygandas will spend the first few days throwing out leaves and killing spiders. He expects most of the samples will be from the most common spiders, but he hopes to get at least a few of the rare ones. Only two of L.A.'s spiders are known to be poisonous to humans: black widows and South American violin spiders, and Vygandas hopes nobody tries too hard to catch one of them.

There are a lot of children in Los Angeles who are deeply fascinated by spiders and there's no better proof than the fact that nobody mentioned the Spider-Man movie at Vygandas' desk; nobody ä had those Spider-Man gloves that shoot a rubber dart. Instead, the children huddled, shyly, around Vygandas and listened carefully as he explained what kind of spider they caught. He spoke softly and they spoke softly, so it was hard to hear what was being said in a crowded, noisy hall. But it soon became clear that almost everybody was bringing in the same two kinds of spiders. There were a lot of daddy longlegs, and it's pretty hard to make them exciting. But Vygandas had a little routine for the other common spider. He would look at the container and say, "It's a false widow." But he has an accent and he speaks so quietly that there would be a beat where nervous parents and thrilled kids thought he said black widow. One of them would say, "Black widow?" And Vygandas would say, "No, it's a false widow. It looks like a black widow and it's the same family. But this one can't hurt people." When people would then say, "Oh, it's not poisonous," Vygandas would look annoyed and answer sternly, "All spiders are poisonous. The question is, 'Can it bite people?'"

After a few hours, Vygandas seemed to decide that it was good to see so many people having fun with spiders. "In Europe," he said, "I can't imagine people could be so excited about this."

--Adam Davidson

A FAN'S NOTES: Macca Mystery Tour

"I FEEL LIKE THE WIND, THE BREEZE and the sea," oozes Thomas as he waits inside the Highlands in Hollywood to board one of six buses beside 250 mothers, daughters, dads, sons, chicks, dudes, hippies, yippies, yuppies and KLSX's Chris Carter of "Breakfast with the Beatles" fame to see Paul McCartney at the Staples Center. The outing feels like a pilgrimage to Mecca – only this time it's Macca (that's Paul's new moniker, which kind of sounds like a football stadium but is not quite as lame as J-Lo).

"I have people here from Japan," says Miriam Davis, of Los Angeles' ETS Concert Caravan, which arranged the pre-show party and transportation. "I have people here from Switzerland. I have people here from Seattle, New York. And I have one guy who has attended six of these across the nation."

Anita Kennelly won an essay contest to get tickets for the caravan and sold-out show. Her tale of her encounter with the Fab Four hushes the crowd as she describes being a fan in the '60s, then working at Capitol Records and having several encounters with "them." When I ask if she screamed when she won the tickets her reply is an extremely shrill: "Yeah, yeah, yeah!"

Rex never got to see the Beatles except on The Ed Sullivan Show. And Rex's 26-year-old son Ryan, who wasn't even born when the Beatles broke up, has his own group, "The Raccoons," which is heavily influenced by the Fab Four. The Highlands' busboys and caterer girls, who seem barely out of high school, bop and sing along with Beatles tribute band Apple. But the older fans in the room have an almost trancelike look in their eyes, as if they know this could be their last chance to see a live Beatle, which is as close to a real Santa Claus as they'll ever get.

With the buses ready to roll, the assembled fans take their seats for the ride downtown and talk ecstatically about the living legend they're about to see. Some of them sing.

After the show, however, the revelers are completely spent. The usually stoic Chris Carter admits: "I had to put my sunglasses on a couple of times during the show so my cool friends couldn't see my eyes welling up with tears." Earlier that day Carter interviewed Macca over the phone for broadcast the next morning on his show. "It's an interesting combination of extreme excitement coupled with an underlying calm that instantly happens when he speaks to you," Carter says. "Being that he has a new record out, he's promoting just like he did with the Beatles and you feel that he needs you – even though he doesn't." Carter pauses. Except for the rumbling of the engine, the bus is completely quiet.

--Peter Fletcher