The World in Which We Wish to Live

EarthIn a rare visit to the cinema, I was subjected to trailer after trailer for films predominantly about apocalyptic battles. Digital technology has made ever more realistic and accessible the horrors of world chaos, so we have live updates on military coups and grass-roots revolutions. Far less compelling, it seems, is the actual governance of peoples. As King George taunts his former subjects in the musical Hamilton, “It’s much harder to lead.” We should learn about our country’s failures.

My daughter and I recently saw Allegiance on Broadway. It is an emotionally evocative musical based on the experience of George Takei’s family. Takei is best known for playing Hikaru Sulu in the original Star Trek television show. They were among the 120,000 Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps during World War II. Their homes and businesses were either confiscated or sold at a fraction of their value (such as $2,000 for land worth $20,000). At war’s end, they were given a bus ticket and $25 in cash. The government did not apologize for their unjust treatment and offered no assistance in their social re-integration. I was teary-eyed from the very first song, and later heard the audience crying in surround sound.

Among the new shows on Broadway, three are about immigrants: Hamilton, Allegiance, and On Your Feet, about Gloria and Emilio Estefan. The director of Hamilton has added an extra pause to accommodate the audience’s cheers when the Marquis de Lafayette says, “Immigrants — we get the job done.”

During World War II, Hollywood and United States government sought to calm public anxiety with upbeat fantasies and explicit propaganda. In our time, Hollywood gives us dismal horror stories, which do not seem to offer much hope. In my reading of anthropology, we homo sapiens have prevailed over greater odds — the Ice Age, larger predators — without the technological tools and brain power available to us now. Good leadership sets the tone and resolve in facing major societal issues, but lately our leaders are trailing the people in action.

My rabbi teaches that what you take pleasure in reveals your values. I ask, what values are we demonstrating with our devotion to these stories? A taste for world domination? A penchant for violence? I long for a shared sense of humanity, where we acknowledge the need to live together in harmony for the continuation of Planet Earth. The threat of climate change will vastly exceed the threat of militant Islam. Let’s focus on making this world the one in which we wish to live.

“Peter Rabbit Tales” Live in Philadelphia

IMG_7150_bannerHe is not as clever as Curious George, he is not besotted by honey like Winnie-the-Pooh, but like them both he is one of English children’s literature’s beloved characters. He is, of course, Peter Rabbit, wearing his famous blue housecoat. And he is on stage at the Arts Bank Theater thru January 3, 2016. , where the Enchantment Theatre Company website , in collaboration with Frederick Warne & Co. and Penguin Books UK, is performing the authorized theatrical version of Peter Rabbit Tales.

‘Tis the season to get acquainted with a now grown-up Peter Rabbit and his cousin Benjamin Bunny, as they escape from incensed Mr. McGregor, outfox the fox Mr. Tod and rescue the Flopsy Bunnies from conniving badger, Tommy Brock. When Benjamin’s children are bunny-napped by the devious (and very hungry!) Tommy Brock, Benjamin pleads with his cousin Peter to help him save the bunnies from becoming Tommy Brock’s gourmet dinner.

But, at first, Peter thinks he has had quite enough of danger and adventure, remembering his (and his blue coat’s) near escapes from Mr. McGregor’s irresistible vegetable garden. Then the two cousins relive their past exploits, and, with encouragement from their friends and neighbors–Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddle-duck and Mrs. Tittlemouse, Peter is emboldened to venture on one more quest. Peter discovers he still has some hero in him—call it a little of Odysseus’s cunning, a little of Don Quixote’s chutzpah, and so, of course, he does go to the rescue.

Peter Rabbit discovers his courage by saving the Flopsy Bunnies

Peter Rabbit discovers his courage by saving the Flopsy Bunnies

This Enchantment Theatre production is in celebration of Beatrix Potter’s 150th birthday. It uses a story-within-a-story approach and combines several of her stories with excellent and entertaining results. Intricately crafted masks, puppets, and scenery, all lovingly evocative of the original book illustrations, along with original music, combine to stimulate and satisfy the imaginations of children and adults alike.

Amidst the dubious proliferation of classic children’s literature made into formulaic movies and TV series, the Enchantment Theatre’s more literary, and intimate, personally crafted form of storytelling is a worthy companion to the original storybooks. This theatrical imagining and telling, with its love of and emphasis on Beatrix Potter’s words, is sure to entice children and adults to read, or to go back and re-read, the original storybooks. And, who knows, maybe to even act them out together.

Visit the Enchantment Theatre Company website for information about tickets and performance times.

Circle of Compassion

After the tragedy of 9-11, Kermit Roosevelt explored how a country could become gripped by fear and panic. A law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, he’s written Allegiance, a sophisticated legal thriller that plunges readers into the debate within the U.S. government surrounding the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans (between 110,000-120,000) during World War II.

A former clerk for the Supreme Court Justice David Souter, Roosevelt delved into the political machinations and intrigue over the Japanese internment. I learned from the book about the pro-Japanese extremist group, the Hoshi Dan, who pressed their brethren for renunciation of American citizenry and why so many of the inmates failed the loyalty test (30% refused military service and almost 16% refused to disavow loyalty to Japan).

The Nisei who were born here faced the prospect of being separated from their parents. Their parents could not answer positively, as they were still citizens of Japan (and not allowed to be naturalized by an act of Congress), so they’d be committing treason. Also, they thought the questions were a trick: if they disavowed loyalty to Japan, does that mean they’d previously supported the Emperor?

While reading the book, I thought of our fellow Jews who send their children to study in Israel (a claim of disloyalty made against the Japanese), volunteer for the Israeli Defense Force, and even raise money for equipment for the Israeli soldiers. What would happen when Israel is labelled an enemy nation in some future war?

At the author’s presentation at Main Point Books, a woman came who was born into one of the worst of the Japanese internment camps, Tule Lake in rural California. I asked her if the adults reacted differently from the children and she said that she has not met any adults who retained any resentment. She quoted a Japanese phrase which translates as “It cannot be helped.” This sounds Buddhist in philosophy, and a healthy perspective that allowed the Japanese to seek a life in this country after World War II.

I marveled at the diverse role of real Jews in the narrative: Federal Judge Louis E. Goodman who presided over the July 1944 criminal trial of 26 Japanese-American young men who were drafted from the internment camps and refused to serve. Goodman dismissed the federal charges on the grounds that men were living with duress and restraint, so they cannot be compelled to serve or to be prosecuted for their unwillingness to serve. Other prominent Washington Jews, however, were not concerned with the plight of the Japanese-Americans, including Herbert Weschler, then Assistant Attorney General. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter operated on the belief that supporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt (who’d picked eight of the nine Supreme Court Justices) was the surest way to end the War and end the suffering of all.

In preparation for the writing of Allegiance, Kermit Roosevelt (a great-great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, and thus also a relative of President Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt) also researched the psychology of empathy and what conditions promote compassion. To his surprise, one key factor is the reading of fiction, that is reading narratives that open a window into other people’s lives and broaden what the late Attorney General Francis Biddle called the “circle of compassion.” After all, the instinctive reaction to fear is to draw lines of safety. Anyone outside these lines are deemed “not-like-us,” suspicious, and potentially dangerous. In the worst historical incidents, the Other is characterized as Not Human Like Us.

The world seems smaller than ever, through the Internet and global travel and migration. Do we enlarge our circle of compassion or do we circle the wagons and withdraw within? Kermit Roosevelt has written a sensitive portrait of a young man, raised in the insular lap of privilege of the Main Line of the 1940s, who gradually develops a broader view of humanity. The protagonist, Caswell Harrison, becomes a fuller human being when he learns the capacity to imagine the suffering of others so unlike him and he sought a role in their aid.

Kimmel’s ‘Bullets Over Broadway’ Is a Hit

Bullets Over BroadwayRegardless of what you think about Woody Allen in his personal life, you have to admit the man is a genius when it comes to putting words to paper, and creating either a movie or a play. In the case of Bullets Over Broadway, he has done both.

The national touring company of Bullets just opened for a short run at the Academy of Music, through November 1, one of the Broadway Philadelphia offerings of the Kimmel Center. Susan Stroman, the Tony award-winning choreographer, teamed up with Allen to create sensational dance routines for a very talented cast.

The play, like the 1994 film by the same name, and it has the preposterous proposition that a mob boss wants to fund a Broadway show, provided his main squeeze, Olive, gets to play an important part in the show. Not that Olive has any experience as an actress, but she has ambition to get out of the chorus in the strip club where she has been “performing.”

Jemma Jane is absolutely delicious as the wannabe actress, with pipes to match her gorgeous figure. And her version of “The Hot Dog Song” brings down the house.

And then comes the altruistic young playwright, David, played by Michael Williams, who loses his altruism when the mob boss dangles funding for his show in front of him. He also forgets about his true love when he is thrown into company with the lovely and ego-maniacal diva Helen Sinclair, played by Emma Stratton.

However, it is Cheech, the mob boss’s lieutenant assigned to guard Olive in her new environment, who steals the show. Jeff Brooks, as Cheech, pays attention, not just to Olive, but to the whole enterprise, and he soon has suggestions for dialogue and plot that David is forced to confess make the show a lot better. But no one is allowed to know who the secret script doctor is.

The sets are fabulous, the costumes are gems, and the whole show has the audience humming and clapping like crazy. About 25 actors-singers-dancers participate in this production, and they are all Broadway-caliber. Do not miss it.

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.