Book Review: Pope Francis and Rabbi Skorka’s Interfaith Dialogue

— by Jonathan Kremer

Interfaith dialogue is often a challenge. A participant may feel a need to be “politically correct,” to pull punches, or to make every effort to present their own religion in the best light possible. True dialogue enables participants to “lower the defenses, to open the doors of one’s home and to offer warmth,” in the words of Pope Francis, without compromising one’s identity.

The book On Heaven and Earth is a collection of uncompromising dialogues between then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a community rabbi and rector of the Conservative Jewish center Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires.

The conversations between Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Skorka covered a wide range of subjects, including God, religious leadership, prayer, same-sex marriage, science and Argentine political history. They agreed on much: the arrogance of the atheist and the unquestioning believer, religious leaders as teachers and guides, and the dangers of fundamentalism. They even concurred — after a charged exchange — that the Vatican must open its archives, so that lingering questions about the Church’s actions during the Holocaust might be answered.
[Read more…]

A Musical Legacy: Nelly Berman, 1938-2015

Nelly Berman

Nelly Berman

Nelly Berman, the Russian-Jewish pianist from Odessa, Soviet Union, who created a premier classical music school in Haverford on the Main Line, which has trained some of Philadelphia’s top young musicians and provided scholarships for their serious studies, died Monday night. She was 77 years old.

During the 35 years her school existed she touched the lives of many generations of young people through music, inspired them to reach beyond and above their comfort level and to seek beauty, depth of emotions and perfection in music performance.

Despite suffering a stroke in 2011, she continued teaching and molding young talented students, passing to them her immeasurable technical performance skills and profound love of classical music. Four days before her death, she applauded her students at a concert at the Nelly Berman School of Music and taught her last student the day before her death following serious heart surgery. She said to her daughter “If I get better after this surgery, I am planning to start teaching more talented children who are serious about music.” As she was driving to the hospital for the surgery, she was discussing the pieces her students will learn during the interim of her recuperation.

The story of her emigration from the former Soviet Union and subsequent integration into the American society reads almost like a fairy tale. Being an immigrant, her life was full of hardship. It was extraordinary that she was able to overcome the staggering pitfalls in her path, as well as to become a trailblazer for many who came to her for help. She became a great mentor, friend and supporter to the students and the teachers at the school. Their lives were forever enriched by this talented, intuitive, fiery, optimistic, generous, and inspiring woman.

The values she had sought in all of the Nelly Berman School students were great beauty of sound, tenderness, passion, and in her ability to touch all hearts through music. She sought and persevered with all of her being to realize her vision for the creation of a non profit corporation, the NBS Classical Music Institute, which awards talented students scholarships to realize their potential in music performance.

Nelly teaches her two-year -old daughter Elena.

Nelly teaches her two-year -old daughter Elena.

Nelly Berman has been a passionately devoted mother, wife and a friend. She is survived by her husband, David Lefkovitz, children, her daughter Elena Berman-Gantard, and her son Dmitry Berman. She is beloved and mourned by her grandchildren Emma, Armand and Jacob, her niece Faina Lushtak, her cousins Emma and Mara and their spouses, her Russian childhood friends Rachel, Bella, Vladik, Luda, Mila, and her American friends Andrea, Elaine and Marina, and many more dear relatives, friends, students and colleagues. The family thanks all their friends and relatives for their support and love.

Alumna Anna Claire Lynn-Palevsky, shared the sentiments of many of her fellow students:

I can’t imagine my life without the Nelly Berman School of Music, and I can’t imagine a world without Nelly in it. She had the most incredible gift for turning children into musicians through her passion for teaching, the joy she found and shared in music, and most of all, her constant faith in every single student who walked through her doors. The things I learned in her music school have shaped every aspect of my life. Thank you for all the love and trust you always showed me, Nelly. It’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given.

Her funeral will take place at Goldsteins, Rosenberg, Raphael Sacks, 6410 N. Broad Street Philadelphia, PA 19126 on Friday, September 4 at 10:30 AM. Family viewing at 9:30 AM. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Nelly’s foundation, her legacy to past and future generations of young musicians. For more information please contact Nelly’s daughter, Elena.

Book Review: ‘Stolen Legacy’ Explores Nazi Greed

— by David H. Weinstein

A new book, Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin documents how the Nazis deprived a once-prominent Jewish family of a huge commercial building, and the battle to reclaim it.

If you ask someone what the Holocaust was, the answer will likely be “the Nazis’ genocide of the Jews.” The systematic extermination of one-third of World Jewry surely is the most horrendous, shocking aspect of the Shoah. Yet, from the Nazis’ perspective, the Final Solution was intended to be as much an economic program, designed to strip the Jews of their labor and material wealth, thereby “Aryanizing” the German economy and funding both the war effort and the Nazis themselves.

For one limited example, it has been estimated that before 1933, of the 1,200 buildings in Berlin’s city center, at least 225 belonged to German Jews.

Through the seizure of their bank accounts, businesses, property, and goods, the Jews collectively were forced to pay for their own murder. In sum, wholesale theft was an essential component of the Final Solution.

In the seven decades since World War II ended, the impulse for justice has led to numerous actions by governments, Jewish organizations, and individual victims and their descendants. The Nuremburg military tribunals, the trial and execution in Israel of Adolph Eichmann, and the denaturalization, deportation, and criminal prosecutions of John Demjanjuk and other death camp guards and workers are a few examples of governmental efforts to achieve justice. In addition, the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany has represented the organized Jewish community’s efforts to secure compensation directly to individual Holocaust survivors and grants to social welfare organizations serving survivors. The Conference has funded these efforts through negotiated settlements, first with West Germany, and later with Austria, Swiss banks, and certain industries.

Rue St. Honoré, après midi, effet de pluie, by Camille Pissarro.

Rue St. Honoré, après midi, effet de pluie, by Camille Pissarro.

Apart from the communal efforts to achieve some measure of justice, some individuals have, in one manner or another, pursued their families’ claims for justice by way of restitution or compensation. These efforts have not, however, always been very successful. For example, in June 2015, the federal court in Los Angeles denied a claim for restitution or compensation where a family’s painting (on the right) had been seized by the Nazis. (The court found that, under the applicable Spanish law, the museum holding the painting had acquired legal ownership despite the original theft of the painting.)

East Germany refused to provide any relief at all to victims of Nazism, and even following German reunification in 1990, heirs of the original property owners generally received minimal, if any, payment for seized buildings; Jewish families were often repaid only 10 percent of the properties’ market value. In its recently adopted constitution, Hungary has apparently disavowed any responsibility for compensation or restitution arising from the Holocaust.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I

Still and all, there have been successes. The recent popular movie, Woman in Gold, is a fictionalized version of a true story in which a prized painting (Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I) was recovered by the true owner’s niece.

After a 15-year legal battle, in 2007 the Claims Conference recovered $118 million, or about two-thirds of market value, on behalf of the Wertheim family that before the Nazi era had owned a major department store and five acres in downtown Berlin. And in 2000, after more than 11 years of various judicial proceedings brought by New York State and federal officials, the federal court in Manhattan ruled that Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally was stolen property; following that ruling, the heirs of the original owner accepted $19 million as compensation in exchange for allowing the painting to remain on display at the Leopold Museum in Vienna. (See the documentary film Portrait of Wally for more details.)

Stolen Legacy opens with an event in December 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Dina Gold, the author, arrives at the building in the former East Berlin and informs Herr Münch, the English speaker summoned to greet her, “I’ve come to claim my family’s building.”

After a 20 minute consultation with his superiors, Herr Münch returns and says, “We have been waiting for this to happen.”

When Gold then recounts her family’s story to him, Herr Münch assures her, “Yes, you must get this building back for your mother.”

With a focus on this building and the effort by her mother and herself to reclaim it, Gold, the great-granddaughter of Victor Wolff, the business scion who originally built the building in 1908-09, has applied her experience as an investigative news reporter to chronicle a case study of her family before, during, and after the Holocaust and the different ways the Holocaust affected the lives of the various members of her once-very privileged family. All but one of them, her great-uncle Fritz, escaped Germany during the ‘30’s; Fritz refused to leave and was later murdered in Auschwitz.

The book is much broader than just a study of the family’s claim of ownership of the Wolff Building. Indeed, that aspect of the story consumes only about one-third the length of the book. Although Gold describes the fruits of their efforts, the book provides scant information—and no footnotes to sources—about the numerous hurdles faced and overcome by her mother’s lawyers and experts in their investigations aimed at documenting her family’s right, as heirs, to reclaim the Wolff Building. Nevertheless, as Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat observes in his Forward to the book, Stolen Legacy “tells us much about how difficult property restitution is even today” in 2015.

Moreover, unlike the claims mentioned above, the administrative process appears in this case to have been relatively expeditious. Dina Gold’s mother, Aviva, asserted her claim before the German Federal Office for the Settlement of Property Issues just before the October 13, 1990 deadline, after which individual claims were barred in deference to a comprehensive claim by the Claims Conference for all victims. By March 1, 1994, the family and its experts and attorneys had completed their investigation and had presented the details and evidence to support the claim. In November 1995, the bureaucrat considering the case rendered her draft decision, favoring compensation to the family. On December 14, 1995, the German Transport Ministry, which occupied the building, agreed to purchase it from the Wolff family descendants for DM 20 million (about $14 million). The administrative process had taken just over five years from start to finish.

The dozens of swastikas peppered throughout the book were disconcerting and discomfiting, serving no real purpose as far as I could see.

The dozens of swastikas peppered throughout the book were disconcerting and discomfiting, serving no real purpose as far as I could see.

Stolen Legacy is much more than a recounting of the claims process. Rather, in her sometimes-too-dry, straightforward reporter’s style, Gold provides a detailed and informative description of the Wolff Fur Company, the very successful family business that enabled her ancestors to live in the wealth and grandeur of Wannsee. Ironically, that elite Berlin suburb would years later become infamous for the formal adoption there of the Nazis’ Final Solution. Gold documents the family’s plush lives in Wannsee after World War I, the increasingly harsh anti-Semitic laws of the Third Reich, and the 1937 foreclosure by the Victoria Insurance Company on its mortgage on the Wolff Building, leading directly to the forced sale and direct transfer of ownership to the Reichsbahn, Hitler’s railways. To supplement her written story, Gold provides us with a varied collection of 43 photographs, the overwhelming majority of which are of family members or of the estate in Wannsee.

It would be natural if, after the claim was resolved, the Wolff family descendants had moved on to other matters. But a quest to know the details of her great-uncle’s life in Germany after the rest of the family had escaped and his subsequent murder in Auschwitz in 1943 led Gold to resume the investigation of the story more than a decade after the claim was resolved. At the same time, she uncovered significant information about the nefarious co-opting by the Nazis of the Victoria Insurance Company. Before 1933 that company had been headed by a Jewish executive and had catered to financing German Jewish businesses. The Victoria was well positioned, then, when its new “Aryan” executive assumed control, to foreclose on Jewish-owned properties.

During the war the company was also part of a consortium that insured the buildings at the Auschwitz death camp. The Victoria remains one of Germany’s leading insurance companies today, but it has never fully acknowledged or made amends for its role in the theft of Jewish property and the destruction of Jewish lives in the Holocaust.

Stolen Legacy is about one family, a quite privileged and exceptional one before the rise of the Nazis to power. But the book’s title is somewhat misleading, since the story of achieving compensation for the Nazis’ theft is really just the vehicle for conveying the much broader story of Gold’s family. In the process, the book allows us to see the resilience of these Holocaust survivors and their families even as they strive to overcome the horror and injustice they have endured.

david-weinstein[1]David H. Weinstein is a member of the Center City Philadelphia law firm, Weinstein Kitchenoff & Asher LLC, and among other things, is one of four lawyers appointed by the court to serve as interim class counsel for the class of Hungarian Holocaust survivors and descendants in Simon v. Rep. of Hungary, dismissed and appeal pending. He is also Chair of the Board of Governors of Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania.

5 Video Games to Play This Summer

Summer is at its peak, and it is a great time to turn on the air conditioner, sit on the couch or chair, and play games on your favorite platform until the evening.

The PlayStation 4 Console and Xbox One have been with us for a year and a half, and have a great selection of games by now. They both can be found for less than $400. Graphically, the PlayStation 4 is the superior console, but some prefer the Xbox One as they want to play specific exclusives.

If you have a decent PC from recent years, a video card that costs about $200 can make it a gaming machine superior to both consoles, if you know someone who knows how to install the card.

This article will cover some of the best games available for all three platforms right now. [Read more…]

Eclectic Musical Group Gaining Traction

Patricia Lynn, "the Wave," from The Wind and The Wave. Photo: David Treatman

Patricia Lynn, “the Wave,” from The Wind and the Wave.
Photo: David Treatman.

— by David Treatman

:The Wind and The Wave falls in between musical genres — embracing elements of blues, rock, indie-folk and pop.

The group’s catchy melodies, bluesy guitar licks, and lyrics from the heart are fresh. Their eclectic style has several trademarks like their use of swirly guitar strokes as a background for punchy lead guitar. Another signature sound is their complex, tom-heavy drumbeats.

The group’s compositions are starting to successfully cut through the mix of a largely electronic and auto-tuned industry. Signed by RCA in 2013, The Wing and The Wave have started to climb the ladder, playing bigger and better venues. Their debut album, “From the Wreckage,” has climbed steadily in the Spotify charts, and they have been featured in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy with a track off of their sophomore album, “Covers One.”

Last Saturday the group lit up the Forest Stage of Firefly Music Festival in Delaware. The trio: Patricia Lynn, Dwight Baker and Nick Spreigl, managed to draw a strong audience that erupted in applause at the end of every song, despite performing at the same time as several other acts such as “Foster The People.” The energy flowed and, as Baker said, “made the night magical.” This set was their first after an intense week of vocal rest and coaching. Lynn worked hard to beat her laryngitis, which forced the band to cancel their set at Bonaroo last weekend.

Dwight Baker, "The Wind," (playing guitar), and Nick Spreigl, (in sunglasses), from The Wind and the Wave prepare for their set at Firefly. Photo: David Treatman

Dwight Baker, “The Wind,” (playing guitar), and Nick Spreigl, (in sunglasses), from The Wind and the Wave prepare for their set at Firefly.
Photo: David Treatman

I sat down with Baker (“the Wind”) and Lynn (“the Wave”) earlier this year after a concert in Philadelphia. They suggested that new music was in the works, and have since confirmed to their organized fan base, The WRKG, that they have recorded demos in preparation for a third release. You can buy all of their music, and merchandise, and sign up for their mailing list on their website, and can join The WRKG by contacting the band and making your interest known.

Film Chat: A Borrowed Identity

dancing_arabs-629937_full[1]The final selection in the 19th season of the Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia was Eran Riklis’s A Borrowed Identity, originally titled Dancing Arabs, based on the 2004 novel by Sayed Kashua of the same title.

It is a provocative film that sensitively portrays the alienation of Arabs living in Israel, as they are subjected to legal obstacles, border crossings, and prejudice. It is also discomforting to watch Jews being the oppressor. However, it is a well-crafted piece of art.

The protagonist, Eyad, is a young Arab Muslim boy who wins a scholarship to a prestigious school in Jerusalem, after a humorous incident in which he solves a complicated riddle posed on an Arab show on cable television. The social isolation and public humiliation of being an Arab in a Jewish state impedes his progress. Along the way, he is assigned to visit a disabled Jewish boy, Jonathan, as part of the school’s community service requirement. [Read more…]

Book Review: Subway Love

Subway Love by Nora Raleigh Baskin is a page-turner of a short novel, skillfully designed to encourage both family and classroom discussion of difficult topics such as divorce, abuse, first love, intermarriage, and coping with the end or loss of both casual and important relationships.

For example, is someone you once loved and have not seen in decades being almost unconsciously scanned for by your soul, almost everywhere you go? If that person suddenly emerged out of the pages of time, what would you do?

Do you remember what it was like to break up with a first love, or have that person just disappear from your life?

Has someone’s existence called to you or someone you love in ways that led or lead to risk-taking in order to connect? What if a parent did not appear safe to talk to about what is happening in your life? What if he or she brought a second relationship into your home who abused you, and your safety was not your family’s first priority?

Baskin, known for tackling difficult subjects in her writing, again provides healthy material rich in graphic language and encounters, that is helpful to eliciting inter-generational honesty in the discussion of real relationships. Parents, whether married or divorced, would surely provide a very different narrative about our exhausting struggles to care for our children.

By Baskin revealing a view of the world after divorce, youth and adults have an honest plane for discussion “about the characters” that can help deepen relationships within schools, youth groups, camps and families in potentially life-saving ways.

The book debuted just as New York's mayor refused protection to Five Pointz, an empty commercial building that had become a community gathering point for community musical events, local meet-ups and some of the best examples of the art of graffiti in the U.S. (Photo: Barry Bub.)

The book debuted just as New York’s mayor refused protection to Five Pointz, an empty commercial building that had become a community gathering point for community musical events, local meet-ups and some of the best examples of the art of graffiti in the U.S. (Photo: Barry Bub.)

Graffiti is a metaphor that travels throughout the book, set in 1973:

Mayor Lindsay had declared war and…well over fifteen hundred New York City youths had been arrested for vandalism. He called the graffiti ‘demoralizing,’ and he said the graffiti writers were ‘insecure cowards’ seeking recognition, though nothing could have been further from the truth.

The book debuted just as New York’s mayor refused protection to Five Pointz, an empty commercial building that had become a community gathering point for community musical events, local meet-ups and some of the best examples of the art of graffiti in the U.S.

While such sites often become protected in Canada and England after a period of festivals held on the site, the ultimate message of graffiti and the book, of life’s impermanence, was realized. The buildings were white-washed to abruptly halt the efforts at advocacy and adulation in the press of the art, and then expediently demolished to make way for high-rise rental apartments.

Perhaps impermanence is necessary to define both graffiti and life. The opportunity to reflect upon this reality, as afforded to us by the book, is another important entry point provided by the author.

The question of whether the main characters are intent on breaking the law at points, doing a mitzvot, or simply engaging in self-expression, is likely to be one of many riveting discussions based on the book to hold with teen readers. The book dovetails beautifully with Jewish topics such as our core ethos of mitzvah-centered living, and core challenges such as our struggles with victimization.

In this age, adult personal struggles are typically supported in therapy behind closed doors, leaving youth clueless of how to cope in their own lives. Our youth are too often supported through the peer alternative of immature “wise guys” than mentoring by truly wise guides. Training programs such as those of Reclaiming Judaism are emerging to ensure Jewish educators, understandably reluctant to serve in this way until they are trained, become skillful in guiding young lives.

Baskin’s writing highlights the importance of community-based mentors who are truly available to listen deeply to our youth and mentor them on the journey called life. Subway Love is an honest, important short novel best used in settings of skillful dialogue and safe rapport.

Theater Review: “Bad Jews”? Bad Play!

BadJews.Press1

Although Sofie Yavorsky gives an energetic performance as Daphna Feygenbaum, a Vassar student who is grieving the loss of her grandfather, the play relies on caricatures, not characters.

The overbearing, dominant, kvetchy Jewish woman is alive and well in Joshua Harmon’s comedy, Bad Jews, playing at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio until November 30.

Directed by David Stradley, the play is set in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, immediately following the funeral of the characters’ poppy. We meet Jonah and Liam Haber, their cousin Daphna, and Liam’s stereotypically-blonde girlfriend Melody as they engage in a family squabble about who is to inherit their grandfather’s necklace.

Although Sofie Yavorsky gives an energetic performance as Daphna Feygenbaum, a Vassar student who is grieving the loss of her grandfather, the play relies on caricatures, not characters. Listening to Daphna yell at her cousin Liam, who brings home his shiksa girlfriend Melody, that he is not a real Jew and that he can go ahead and “f*** an ethnic free bush,” did not pack the punch that was presumably intended in this kind of dialogue.

Listening to Liam accuse Daphna of being a purist, even a “Nazi,” who is interested in preserving the integrity of Jewish blood line, when she argues he should not marry a shiksa, sounded like a familiar, schematic and wooden rendition of the old particular-universalist, ethnic-assimilationist debate. We have heard these debates before, and this particular tale of family inheritance, grief and familiar strife adds nothing new to the story in its language.

What does it mean to be a Jew is a perennial question that “Bad Jews” attempts to answer, but is far too in enamored by its easy “shocking” repartee to even being to engage this question in a complex, serious way. A particularly low point is when Melody, an opera major in college, sings an embarrassing version of “Summertime” for Daphna, to cheer her up. It is a cheap moment that goes for an easy laugh that feels out of place in the play.

BadJews.Press2

If such misogynistic stereotypes of women pass as “brave comedy with tragically high stakes” (The Financial Times), then something is seriously wrong with theater reviewers.

 

Harmon’s writing has neither the comic timing and wit of Neil Simon, nor the intellectual weight of Tom Stoppard. The highlight of the show is perhaps Liam’s use of “Holocaust” as a verb: “Don’t Holocaust me” he warns Daphna.

Other than that, the play has little original writing, little story, and a lot of yelling by a clearly hysterical Jewish woman who is mean, vindictive, and self-righteous. If such misogynistic stereotypes of women pass as “brave comedy with tragically high stakes” (The Financial Times), then something is seriously wrong with theater reviewers.

Bad Jews had its world premiere at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Roundabout Underground in the fall of 2012 and was nominated for three Outer Circle Awards. Sitting through the 90 minute (no intermission) family brawl among young cousins made me long for a good 25-minute episode of Larry David’s creative, quirky, whimsical sitcom, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Book Review: The Resolutionary War


As the Jewish New Year approaches, The Resolutionary War and its premise make for an interesting model to contemplate in contrast to Jewish New Year practices.

This debut novel by Sandy Chase and Violet April Ebersole involves a group of individuals intending to meet monthly in support of fulfilling personal resolutions.

Judaism advocates a process that advances healing and intimacy. This involves undertaking a fiercely honest personal inventory of our behavior and relationships across the year (heshbon hanefesh), making appointments with those we have hurt to our regret, a plan of action for how to avoid repeating negative behaviors, commitment to non-defensively support healing within the relationship (teshuvah), which is further sealed by giving charity to support healthy developments within the greater society (tzedakah).

By contrast with Jewish New Year spiritual practices, the book brilliantly reveals profound flaws in the personal resolutions model. Social workers often say that the presenting problem is rarely, if ever, the real problem. This is one of the problems with resolutions: They usually belie the necessary process and guidance to uncover the work that most deeply needs doing.

This novel will easily provoke discussion about family dynamics, because it is rife with painful, often superficial interpersonal dynamics, long-held secrets, and an almost total absence of authentic intimacy grounded in meaningful empathy between the characters. So many relationship skills are missing between these characters that one yearns to jump right in and start coaching each toward the capacity to have a “we.”

A popcorn-style of dialogue gives this debut novel a soap-opera- or graphic-novel-like sensibility. The co-authors chose this approach well, as it serves well to underscore the different social classes depicted among the families. A wide array of true-to-life tensions about life’s essential topics such as marriage, addiction, infertility and adoption give the story weight, character and energy.

The Resolutionary War gives its readers fodder for reflection upon the need to realign their own relationships during this Hebrew calendar month of Elul, which in itself is an acronym for ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.” May each and all be so blessed.

Israeli-Born Trombone Artist to Perform on Franklin Parkway

rtimeReut Regev has owned and made music with her trombone since she was 13 years old, when her parents gifted it to her.

Regev will perform with the R*Time trio Friday, August 8, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia (free after admission). The concert is a co-presentation of the Museum of Art’s “Art After Five” series and JazzPhest, sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia.

The concert will be performed in two sets: 5:45-6:45 p.m. and 7:15-8:15 p.m.
[Read more…]