A Pottstown synagogue and a nearby theater are setting the stage, literally, for a combined Friday night Shabbat service and opening night revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” on May 13. After the play, audience members may meet Tevye and his five daughters — or at least, the actors who play them. [Read more…]
On Thursday, I attended a fascinating lecture at Drexel’s Judaic Studies department. The guest speaker was Lisa Moses Leff, whose new book, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust, is about Zosa Szajkowski, who single-mindedly rescued Jewish books and documents from Germany and France, as an immigrant American GI paratrooper during WWII.
Szajkowski brazenly used the U.S. Army free courier service to ship his parcels back — some two or three in a day — to New York, the last remaining branch of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He continued to steal Jewish documents after the war and he financed his own scholarship by selling them piecemeal to Jewish institutions in the United States and Israel; the two top buyers were the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Hebrew Union College. He was eventually caught red-handed and he committed suicide in 1978.
When Dr. Leff, Associate Professor at American University, interviewed the elderly librarians who’d acquired the documents, knowing of their sketchy provenance, she found that they were proud of helping to rescue Jewish written material from the Nazis. However, some of the items were taken from institutions that survived the war, and there remain big gaps in the European archives. Everyone knew of Szajkowski in the library and archive community, but he was never publically named.
Ironically, the stolen documents have gained better care, having been catalogued and made available for scholarship. Indeed, when one librarian was asked about giving back the documents, he retorted that they — the European institutions — should pay for all the years of care and storage! Zosa Szajkowski, with his looting and his scholarship, singlehandedly established the field of Jewish historical research, using documents of ordinary Jews. So, do you think the end justifies the means?
The Philadelphia book opening for activist Mark Segal’s new work And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality was adroitly staged at Philadelphia’s Independence Mall where Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers blared their Comcast grievances beside the program entrance, as both a Comcast and union leader arrived in the author’s honor. Activists, politicians, business and labor leaders, and many Philadelphia area recipients of his lifetime of social justice advocacy mixed in intensive networking and sharing of his often daring exploits throughout the party-like atmosphere and formal proceedings. Regardless of your politics there is an immense amount to be learned about methods of effective activism for every and any cause in And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality, Mark Segal’s fascinating and instructive, story-filled autobiography that brings forth a good deal of often suppressed GBLT movement history of which many are likely unaware.
And Then I Danced is a flowing read across decades of incidents and strategies leading to today’s remarkable degree of GBLTQ inclusion as equal human beings the mitzvah of kavod habriyut—honor for all that lives. At the podium Mark Segal offers the same bold, celebration of life and liberty as in his writing. The room at the book opening was filled with a rare kind of pure loving appreciation, including that from residents of the John C. Anderson Apartments, the first federally-funded LGBT-friendly residence in the nation, which is located in downtown Philadelphia. Mark Segal takes “Yes we can!” to the level of “Yes we did!”
Mark himself had many tales to tell that he delivered with passion, power and gratitude from the dais. His connection to Jewish values of liberty and justice for all shone through steadily and he did not spare the Yiddishisms in his talk. At points his writing reveals the Jewish appreciation of the importance of making common cause with those who are oppressed. He explains:
…my favorite headline came from the Times Leader: “Shapp Aide Tells Berger to Reconsider Homos Ban.”…After one long day of fighting, I asked Shapp why he was taking this on, and he told me, “Mark, I’m in the closet as well.” When I looked at him strangely, he laughed and followed up with, “My real name is Shapiro, I had to change it to Shapp to enter politics. So I understand discrimination.”
In June of 1975, Milton Shapp became first governor in the nation to have his state officially proclaim Gay Pride Month.
A rare charisma that arrives sans unhealthy narcissism shines from Mark Segal along with his capacity for the mitzvah of hakarat hatov — seeing the good done by those with whom he developed effective collaborations and naming it. Book clubs will love his presentations.
What Makes This Man Possible?
How does a person come to be so aware, and capable of a life of dedicated caring activism? The only Jewish family in the Wilson Park projects, born to immigrant parents, Mark Segal recalls:
Our new neighbors were hardly welcoming. I still remember the first few days of kindergarten when Irish and Italian kids would say to me “You killed our Christ,” or the one that always stumped me, “you’re a devil with horns.” Somehow I had become a deformed six-year-old murderer. For a while I’d subconsciously touch the top of my head, waiting for the horns to grow, and I wondered, how could I possibly comb my hair with horns?
One time my mother went to my grade school to defend me because the teachers had demanded that I sing “Onward Christian Solders.” In those days there was still prayer in public schools, and they had us sing Christian songs…, so I knew discrimination from a very young age… My refusal to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was my first political action, my first defiance of conformity and the status quo.
Segal also writes of his anguish over his parents’ shame and pain at being unable to give him things, the toys a child would want. Poverty shrieks through his guilt when he shares how his mother cried when a rare, hard-earned gift to him falls through a hole in his bag and is lost. Many will rethink parenting of all possible kinds of children after reading this autobiography.
Mark Segal’s parents’ acceptance of their son as gay seems almost miraculous, for its time. His cousin Norman’s experience was…more normative:
I didn’t want to kiss the girls. I’d look at the guys in my class and feel far more attracted to them. There was no doubt in my mind about this, but I didn’t know the word for who I was or what I was feeling. I knew, however, that I was okay with it. Now, I wasn’t going to tell anybody, not in the 1960’s…
When I was younger, maybe five or six years old, my cousin Norman was sixteen. His father discovered that he was gay, gave him a major beating, and threw him out of the house. Cousin Norman was the family member whom nobody mentioned. One day, I was in the backseat of my parents’ Studebaker while they were discussing him and I somehow picked upon the fact that he was a guy who liked guys — a fegeleh … I knew that whatever it all meant, I too was a fegeleh … As a teenager, I read in TV Guide one afternoon that on his PBS talk show, David Susskind was going to interview “real live homosexuals.” A new word different from fegeleh, somehow I knew it also referred to me. I just knew it …
Awakening and the Role of Riots
The movement for GBLT equality has historical flashpoints, as with all revolutions. The legendary Stonewall Riots were at a New York City bar and Mark Segal was there:
For me it started out as a frightening event … I was in the back of the bar near the dance floor, where the younger people usually hung out. The lights in the room blinked-a signal that there would be a raid—then turned all the way up. Stonewall was filled that night with the usual clientele: drag queens, hustlers, older men who liked younger guys, and stragglers like me—the boy next door who didn’t know what he was searching for and felt he had little to offer. That all changed when the police raided the bar. As they always did, they walked in like they owned the place, cocky, assured they could do whatever they wanted and push people around with impunity. We had no idea why they came in, whether or not they’d been paid, wanted more payoffs, or simply to harass the fags that night …
… As the riot was happening all around me, the idea of a circus came to mind, and then it hit me: we can shout who we are and not be ashamed, we can demand respect. It was at that point that Marty Robinson’s words hit a chord. We are fighting for our rights just as women, African Americans, and others had done throughout history.
Segal also cites San Francisco’s Compton Cafeteria riot in 1966 and the Dewey’s sit-in n Philadelphia in 1965:
Drag queens and street kids who played a huge role in both events never documented those riots; thus they have been widely eliminated by the white upper middle class, many of whom were ashamed of those elements of our community. But Stonewall, Compton, and Dewey’s all have one thing in common: drag queens and street kids. For some historians, drag queens are not the ideal representatives of the LGBT community. Oppression within oppression was and is still of concern.
Once activated, Segal brought his intelligence and creativity to the journey toward equal rights. These came to be called “Zaps.” These often meant somewhat risky strategic actions, such as in service of exposure of media prejudice. He once went after CBS’ secure studio by means of asking a student training in the Radio, Film, and Television department at Temple to obtain the program’s Temple University stationary. Posing as students it only took two weeks to secure an invitation to view a broadcast firsthand, December 11, 1973:
Their usual pattern called for CBS to later rebroadcast the six pm show to the remainder of the country or, if breaking news warranted, they would broadcast it live again. At about fourteen minutes into the program, as Walter Cronkite was reporting to the American public about security procedures for Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, I knew this was the moment, and for the first time while doing a zap my heart started beating very fast. I wasn’t scared but somehow I knew that after this event things would change forever. I rushed onto the set, holding up my sign and yelling the message printed on it, “Gays protest CBS prejudice!” The CBS Evening News broke down right in front of Walter. I stepped between him and the camera shutting him out of the picture to show only that sign. As millions watched, I sat on his desk and held the sign right into the camera lens so that everyone could clearly see the words. Gays Protest CBS Prejudice …
… “Why,” Cronkite asked the activist with genuine curiosity, “Why did you do that?”
“Your news program censors,” Segal pleaded. If I can prove, it would you do something to change it?” …
“Yes,” Cronkite said, “I wrote this show.”
Philadelphians will find many political surprises in And Then I Danced. For example, support for GBLT rights sometimes came from both sides of the aisle:
Arlen [Spector] was district attorney of Philadelphia. He had not taken a stand on the gay rights bill that was before city council. Efforts to set up a meeting went unanswered. So we had to be a little creative. One crisp Monday morning, a caterer delivered two large coffeemakers and dozens of donuts to Arlen’s office. His staff thought that he had ordered the special treat, and Arlen thought his staff had arranged it. At the same time, in the City Hall courtyard, and in the corridors of the building, members of the Gay Raiders were handing out flyers that read, District Attorney Arlen Specter invites you to a reception in honor gay rights legislation in city council. Please join him at ten a.m. in his office, Room 666 (that really was his office number.)
At ten a.m. we, along with hundreds of city workers and a huge collection of news people arrived at his office, we walked in and there was Arlen’s staff trying not to look too surprised at a reception held in the office that their boss was hosting, about legislation he had not endorsed. Arlen remained in his inner office. At first, the media took pictures of me handing out coffee and donuts to City Hall staffers, and we weren’t sure if Arlen would even come out of his private office. Finally, the door opened, and there he was all smiles…
Now, here’s what most people never knew: in Arlen’s Republican years in the US Senate, when it was hard to support LGBT rights, he was always behind the curtain ready to vote yes on gay rights if it was needed to assure passage.
Addressing The Biblically Ignorant
Reading the Torah in service of GBLT rights takes new eyes. Mark Segal gives an example of how to do so:
“Says Leviticus,” she bellowed, “Man who lays with man is an abomination!” She was just going on and on until Phil interrupted her and asked if she’d like to hear my response.
“Madam, from what you say it seems you don’t respect religion,” was my reply.
She said, “I’m a true Christian.”
I stare her down. “A true Christian respects the rights of other religions. My religion accepts who I am. Are you inferring that Judaism is a false religion? If you’d like to talk religion we can do so, but I’ll also quote other parts of the Bible you seem to have forgotten.”
She exploded and just started tossing out various biblical verses at me.
“You don’t know your Bible well,” I said. That sentence would become a trademark comment from me in religious discussions. I continued, “you use your Bible like you were ordering from a restaurant menu. I call that Bible a la carte. You choose what parts of the Bible you wish to obey and what others to ignore.”
Then I looked her over and explained that all she was wearing that made her an abomination according to that same Leviticus chapter, which condemns wearing clothing of two different fabrics. Polyester-cotton blend, anyone? I followed that up by asking the audience a quick succession of questions about shellfish, metals, pigskin, and all the rest, then asked, “Do all of you obey your husbands? While I know none of you would commit adultery, I’m sure you’re aware that in cases of adultery your husband has the right to kill you. So, if I’m going to hell, you’re all joining me. As the Good Book says, he who has not sinned should throw the first stone. Is there anyone in this audience who has not sinned?”
As total silence fell over the room, I directed my next comment back to the lady with the Bible. “Oh, and one more thing, remember the Ten Commandments? Gluttony? How many of you are joining me in hell now?” No LGBT person had ever challenged an entire TV audience in that manner before. This kept the Bible-toting crowd focused on issues like discrimination, hate crimes, and entrapment.
Yes You Can
And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality came out in October of 2015. A second run of 10,000 has already been announced. The sheer number of political strategy memories can expand readers’ skills and savvy. Mark Segal’s sharing reveals realities and opportunities taken that have long needed better documentation. With inspired reader encouragement this valuable guidebook can enter not only homes, but also enter university and religious settings and serve to teach empathy and activism for generations to come.
Note: Learn more about the evolving acceptance of homosexuality across the spectrum of Judaism: Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition.
On Tuesday night, I attended a viewing of the documentary film Refugee Kids, about an American program set up for refugee children. Run by the International Rescue Committee (founded by Albert Einstein to rescue Jewish refugees), the Refugee Youth Summer Academy transforms 120 kids speaking 26 languages from the world’s hot spots – Iraq, Egypt, West Africa, Tibet, Burma and Bhutan – from tongue-tied newcomers into confident, savvy New Yorkers over the course of a six-week program.
There is Helen, a 16-year-old Burmese refugee, who effortlessly translated from English to Burmese to Chin to Thai to Nepali. There is Tek Nath, who in his first six months in America, did more than most adults: he leased the family apartment, translated for the surgeons operating on his brother’s heart, applied for the family’s green cards, opened bank accounts, and tutored both parents and younger siblings in English – and all the while maintaining straight A’s in his school work. Tek Nath is a 17-year-old who had spent his entire life in a rural Nepalese refugee camp where he had virtually no English instruction.
George from Liberia had lost both parents at a very early age and was raised in Staten Island where he was confronted with the brutality of gang violence and yet still emerged as a student mentor, exhibiting leadership skills. There are also the siblings who faced long separations from their families: Rigzin and Tashi from Tibet who are reunited with their parents in Brooklyn after eight years spent at the Dalai Lama’s refugee school in India; and Ida and Jennifer from Togo who were raised by their aunt and encountered an unforeseen family tragedy — fire and death of a young sister– upon their arrival in the Bronx.
The directors, Renee Silverman and Peter Miller, added to their footage with interviews in the children’s homes and in their communities. The children narrated their often harrowing back stories in hand-drawn pictures, which were animated by the talented Brian O’Connell. Liz Swados, the beloved composer, recorded an original score before her untimely death. Editor Aaron Vega wove the many stories together into a cogent, short film as his last project before winning a seat as American state legislator in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
Refugee Kids is the second film by Silverman and Miller, following their teen Holocaust theater story, Sosua: Make a Better World. Miller writes, “It’s something of a miracle that we were able to shoot, edit, and complete Refugee Kids for what might be the lunch budget of normal film, but we were blessed with generous and talented friends.”
The screening at Rodeph Shalom was sponsored by HIAS PA and the American Jewish Committee. HIAS PA runs a similar summer tutoring program, and it welcomes volunteer tutors and donations of books.
Under the direction of Hazzan David Tilman, cantors, other soloists and a chorus of forty voices delivered Bernstein music from his show “West Side Story,” from his operetta “Candide,” and from his more serious symphonic work “Mass.” The concert concluded with a full performance of the three movements of “Chichester Psalms.” Solo performers included Hazzan Jeffrey Weber, Elizabeth Weigel, Rebecca Schwartz, and in the performance of “Chichester Psalms,” boy soprano Owen Yoder, who brought the audience to its feet with applause.
The Kehillah of Old York Road is comprised of Congregations Adath Jeshurun, Beth Am, Beth Sholom, Keneseth Israel and Kol Ami, all located in Elkins Park. The event marked twelve years of joint activity by the Kehillah and attracted about eight hundred guests.
In 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.
He 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.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.
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.