Tug of War Over Iraqi Jewish Archive

— by Ronit Treatman

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, American soldiers discovered an Iraqi Jewish archive in Sadam Hussein’s secret police headquarters. These documents belonged to Iraq’s 2,500-year-old Jewish community.  

When the soldiers entered the building, it was flooded. The documents were located in the basement, under four feet of water. As soon as they were exposed to the air, they began to get moldy.

With the consent of the Iraqi authorities, the archive was sent to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. for preservation.

More after the jump.
The archive includes:

  • a Hebrew bible from 1568,
  • a Babylonian Talmud from 1793,
  • a Zohar from 1815, and
  • a lunar calendar printed in Baghdad in 1972, among other documents.

Most of Iraq’s Jews left before the 1990s, due to persecution, leaving the archive behind.

When the exhibit is over, the archive is expected to be returned to the Iraqi antiquities ministry. It is not known where the archive will be stored. The experts at the National Archives trained two Iraqi preservation experts in the conservation procedures used on these materials.  

A group of Iraqi Jews is mobilizing to prevent the archive from being returned to Iraq, and keep it in the Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center in Israel. This museum is located in Or Yehuda, a center of the Iraqi Jewish community in Israel.  

An Unknown Country: Documentary on Ecuador’s Jews

— by Ronit Treatman

Exotic, tropical Ecuador is a paradisaical destination for a romantic vacation. But who knew that it was also a refuge for Jews fleeing the Holocaust? They joined the Sephardic community, which had been there since the beginning of the Spanish colonization.

Emmy award-winning producer and writer Eva Zelig has been producing a new documentary about this community’s story, which is also that of her own family, for the last three years. The project was largely financed by a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.  

Is Your Jewish Family from Poland Originally From Spain?

— by Aaron Biterman

My family left northern Spain, likely around the time of expulsion in July of 1492. I am unsure what path they took to arrive in Poland, but oral tradition suggests that my Jewish family settled in the town of Hrubieszow in southeast Poland (near Lublin and Zamosc) by 1600. The surname they eventually adopted sounded much more Eastern European than Spanish. I talk more about the origins of the surname below. It’s possible my family was Ashkenazic and migrated west to Spain from another place, and then migrated back east after expulsion from Spain, but it seems more likely that they actually were Sephardic.

More after the jump.
Evidence that the family was Sephardic includes:

  • Dual Hebrew names (Yehuda Aryeh ben Yosef Tzvi) is a Sephardic practice. Ashkenazi tradition is “Yehuda ben Yosef.”
  • Concluding Shabbat davening with Ein Kelahaynu instead of Adan Olom is a Sephardic practice.
  • There may have been a synagogue in Hrubieszow before WWII which was Sephardic, where my ancestors prayed.
  • The family was religiously observant but not Hasidic even though the town they lived in (Hrubieszow) was a mostly Hasidic town.
  • There is an oral tradition of arrival in the area in Poland in the mid-1500s.

Jews had a very difficult time in Europe during the later portion of the Middle Ages. The beginnings of some of the behaviors of the Holocaust can be traced to the period in Europe from 1200 to 1500. Throughout Europe, the Jews were gradually confined in ghettos as the Middle Ages progressed. The first compulsory ones were established in Spain and Portugal at the end of the fourteenth century. Jewish ghettos existed in Madrid, Barcelona, Venice, Naples, Rome, Florence, Prague, and other European cities (Source: Jewish Displacement).

Beginning in the 8th century, Muslims had occupied and settled most of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain). Jews, who had lived in these regions since Roman times, were considered “People of the Book”‘ and given special status and often thrived under Muslim rule. The tolerance of the Muslim Moorish rulers attracted Jewish immigration, and Jewish enclaves in Muslim Iberian cities flourished as places of learning and commerce. Living conditions for Jews in al-Andalus became more difficult after the fall of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate around the year 1030.

The Reconquista was the gradual reconquest of Islamic Iberia by the Catholic kingdoms with a powerful religious motivation: Iberia was being reclaimed for Christendom. By the 14th century, most of the Iberian Peninsula, present day Spain and Portugal, had been regained from the Moors. Overt hostility against Jews became more pronounced, finding expression in brutal episodes of violence and oppression. Thousands of Jews sought to escape these attacks by converting to Catholicism.

The Alhambra Decree (also known as the Edict of Expulsion) was an edict issued on March 31, 1492 by the joint Catholic Monarchs of Spain (Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon) ordering the expulsion of Jews from the Kingdom of Spain and its territories and possessions by July 31 of that year. The punishment for any Jew who did not convert or leave by the deadline was death. Scholars disagree about how many Jews left Spain as a result of the decree; the numbers vary between 130,000 and 800,000 (Source: Wikipedia).

Migration to Poland

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, Jews lived in 85 towns in Poland, totaling 18,000 — a mere .6 percent of the total population. But the 16th and the first half of the 17th century saw increased settlement and a relatively fast rate of natural population growth of Jews in Poland. Among the new arrivals there were not only the Ashkenazim banished from the countries belonging to the Hapsburg monarchy, but also Sephardim who were driven away from Spain and Portugal. Beginning in the middle of the 16th century, Jews started to settle in the countryside in larger numbers. During the hundred years of the 15th century, the Jewish Polish population exploded from about 15,000 to 150,000. In the middle of the 17th century there were 500,000 Jews living in Poland — five percent of the total population.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Poland became the center for Jewish learning. Between 1501 and 1648, Jews intensified their economic activity. The primary sources of income for Jewish families were crafts and local trade. The rapid development of Jewish settlement and economic activity was accompanied by expansion of their self-government organization. As in the Middle Ages, every autonomous Jewish community was governed by its kahal — a collegiate body composed of elders elected as a rule from among the local wealthiest. The kahal organized funerals and administered cemeteries, schools, baths, slaughterhouses and the sale of kosher meat. In the closed “Jewish cities”, it also took care of cleanliness and order in the Jewish quarter and the security of its inhabitants. Administering charities such as the organization of hospitals and other welfare institutions and the dowering of poor brides were also taken on by citizens or organizations within these Jewish communities (Source: Mike Rosenzweig).

There was a period when members of the Sephardic middle class could establish themselves with some distinction in Poland. This most important page in the history of Sephardic Jews in Poland began with the reign of the Polish King Sigismund II Augustus (1529-1572). At that time, one of the most influential statesmen of the Ottoman Empire was Don Joseph Nasi, a Sephardic Jew who died in 1579 (Source: Alexander Beider).

In 1588, Polish Chancellor Jan Zamoyski established a special privilege allowing Sephardic Jews to live in his own newly founded private town of Zamosc. Many advantages were offered to those Sephardic Jews who decided to move there, which prompted a number of Sephardic families to migrate to the town. During the first part of the 17th century, new settlers generally came from Italy and Holland, according to Alexander Beider. Some of the Sephardic Jews left the area; others intermarried with Ashkenazic Jews. As a result, during the second half of the 17th century, Sephardic names do not appear in the historical documents of Zamosc and Lvov. The census of 1664 showed only 23 Jews in Zamosc, most Ashkenazic.

The presence of Sephardic families in the territory of Poland during the 16th to 18th centuries did not influence the surnames used by Polish Jews during the 19th and 20th centuries. The cultural fusion of foreign Sephardic Jews with local Ashkenazic Jews, who had lived in the same area for several centuries and were far more numerous, was rather rapid. The Sephardic Jews lost their language, and their descendants used Yiddish as the vernacular. They dropped their Sephardic names and were named according to local Ashkenazic patterns (Source: Alexander Beider).

Jews lived in Russia for centuries — sometimes welcomed and other times barely tolerated. Before 1500, Jews were permitted to live anywhere in Russia. As Russia’s western boundary moved west in the 1600s and 1700s, more Jews were annexed into a country which was intolerant of Jews. In the late 1700s, Catherine the Great decreed that Jews could only live in the territory along the western Russian border, known as the Pale of Settlement. In 1772, more Jews lived in the Pale than in the rest of Europe.

Prosperity continued until the second half of the 17th century, when a series of massacres by Cossacks ruthlessly killed Jews and Gentile Poles alike. Poland was then pummeled by another Cossack uprising, two invasions by Sweden, and a war with Turkey. In the 1700s, Poland was divided three ways, and the Jews of Poland fell under the rule of Russia, Germany, and Austria (Source: Jewish Displacement).

Surname Biterman

My family’s surname of Biterman could either have Eastern European or Sephardic origins. I talk more about it on my genetic genealogy page http://chelm.freeyellow.com/bi…

A Kippah Question

There’s something sad about seeing many of our American youth wearing a kippah while visiting Israel.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not against them wearing a kippah; I am gratified by it. The reason I think it is so sad is because the vast majority of those same kids will not wear one at home in America other than when sheltered from the outside world. For example, they have no problem wearing their Jewish identity openly when going to synagogue, attending religious school or participating in a Jewish event but wearing one in the general public, well that’s a different story.
[Read more…]

The Soap Myth Off Broadway: “Unreliable Memories” & the Holocaust

— by Lisa Grunberger

Although I saw it over 48 hours ago, The Soap Myth,  playing in New York City at the Black Box Theatre, through April 22, continues to haunt me. This is the theatre of witness at its best – provocative and  morally ambiguous that raises more questions than it answers.  Playwright Jeff Cohen and director of the National Jewish Theatre, Arnold Mittelman’s The Soap Myth explores the claim that the Nazis made soap out of Jewish bodies.  

More after the jump.
Greg Mullavey is brilliant in the role of Milton Saltzman, a Holocaust survivor who bears personal witness to the production of the alleged soap.    The play explores the “inherent conflict between the eyewitness survivor memories and the evidentiary standards demanded by scholars.”  It explores too what role, if any, Holocaust deniers play in this issue.   To what extent ought the Holocaust deniers, who figure prominently in the play, affect Jewish museum exhibits?  More than you would like to think.

“All history is speculative” says Annie Blumberg, the young journalist (played admirably by Andi Potamkin) reporting on the soap myth for a magazine.   The denier, played brilliantly by Dee Pelletier (who also plays the museum director) gives a disturbing lecture, based on actual facts, delivered to a university audience, where she casts doubt on the number of victims who perished during the Shoah. “Must the Jews be greedy even in this” — referring to her claim that Jews have egregiously exaggerated the number of victims who died.    

In exploring the politics of memory, The Soap Myth asks uncomfortable questions about what constitutes enough evidence to make it into a museum exhibit. When the museum gatekeepers reject Milton’s repeated requests to include the soap in their exhibit, they are effectively denying this survivor’s testimony as purely anecdotal. The dramatic struggle of The Soap Myth is Milton’s attempt to get somebody to listen to his painful story.  

The Soap Myth is presented as part of the National Jewish Theatre Foundation and Holocaust Archive initiative, directed by Arnold Mittelman.  Mittelman is the Former Producing Artistic Director for over two decades of the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida.  Mittelman founded the National Jewish Theatre in 2007.   Its mission is to celebrate the “genius, creativity and history of the Jewish people.”   NJT produced the Soul of Gershwin, the Musical Journey of an American Calmer, Sholom Alechem: Laughter Through Tears with Theodore Bikel as author and actor.  Future plans of the NJT include plays and musicals such as: The Rothschilds, Joseph Vass’ Words By, Mark Saltzman’s Rocket City Alabam and Hannah by John Wooten.  

NJT’s latest initiative is to create the first comprehensive research and production oriented around the Holocaust Theatre Archive. According to Mittelman, the NJT is filling an unfortunate void that has occurred by the loss of many professional resident English-speaking Jewish theatres, in major cities, including New York.  

It is worth a ride to NYC to see this provocative, haunting play which will have you thinking about the nature of memory and how a survivor survives these memories for a long time.   The Soap Myth is not to be missed.  

The Soap Myth: Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre in NYC. Click here for tickets.

Remaining Showtimes

  • Special Holocaust Remembrance Day performances, Today, Thursday, April 19, 2012 3:00 PM and 7:00 PM
  • Friday, April 20, 2012, 8:00 PM
  • Saturday, April 21, 2012, 3:00 PM
  • Final performance, Sunday, April 22, 2012, 3:00 PM

Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, New York, NY 10036
Ticket Price: $50-$60; $20 student rush
Ticket Information: 212-352-3101

King Lear of a Role: Tovah Feldshuh in Bristol Riverside’s Gypsy


Broadway veteran and four time Tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh will star as Momma Rose in the Julie Styne-Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical Gypsy at the Bristol Riverside Theatre December 6, 2011—January 15, 2012.    I had the chance to interview Ms. Feldshuh about the upcoming show and her life as a performer.  

Gypsy opens on December 8, which is a good omen, as Tovah noted it’s the yahrzeit (anniversary) of Golda Meir’s passing as well as the date of her own Bat Mitzvah.    Tovah performed Golda’s Balcony, the longest running one-woman show on Broadway, at the Bristol Riverside in 2010.  

Tovah was not always called Tovah: “I was named after my Aunt Tilley who died in her 30s from tuberculosis.  The Sue comes from my Great Grandmother.”  After she changed her name from Terry Sue to Tovah, her Hebrew name, and began her performance career Tovah said that “it changed the landscape of my life.”  She starred in Yentl on Broadway and in Golda’s Balcony on Broadway, the longest running one-woman show.  But interestingly, she has worked hard not to let her notable Jewish name typecast her: “I’ve played all kinds of roles from Diana Vreeland to judge Danielle Melnick in Law & Order and now, Rose in Gypsy.  What’s in a name? Everything.”

Gypsy is loosely based on the 1957 memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist, and focuses on her mother, Rose, whose name has become synonymous with “the ultimate show business mother.”  Following the dreams and efforts of Rose to raise two daughters to perform onstage, the musical contains many popular standards, including

Interview follows the jump.

LG:   When I look at the all the things you do between Law and Order and your one-woman shows, films, and now Gypsy, I wonder how you do it all.  Would you consider yourself a driven person?

TF:  I’m at the prime of my faculties as an artist.   I’ve worked hard for my achievements.  As I get older, the process slows down, but the wisdom increases

LG: Gypsy is a play about a lot of things, but at its heart, it explores the mother-daughter relationship.   How has being a mother and a daughter shaped your life?

TF:  Gypsy is a King Lear role for a woman.  I’m trying not to be derivative in my performance.  Rose is a woman of flesh and blood and guts, not a beast.   She’s driven.  I think the abandonment of her mother is the key to her character.   From the moment you have children, they come first.  So you necessarily have to slow down.   But I think my husband and I did ok – as Amanda’s at MIT studying physics and Brandon is at Harvard studying economics.  

Tovah began to sing some lines from the song, Rose’s Turn for me.    

LG: Did you encourage your own daughter, Amanda, to become an actress?

TF:  I discouraged my own children from going into show business.  

LG:  Why?

TF:  I’m very bourgeois.  

LG: What would you have been, if not an actress?

TF: I came into the theatre after I was wait-listed at Harvard Law School.   My Father went to Harvard Law, and it just so happens so did my husband, who I adore.  You don’t need Freud to figure out how this work!.   It was my brother, (David Feldshuh a Pulitzer price nominated playwright for Miss Evers’ Boy) who encouraged me to apply for the McKnight Fellowship, which I received, and this launched my career.

LG: You have worked in show business for 37 years.    You have done film, television, musical theater, drama – how does this fit into your bourgeois bias?

TF:  I’ve been on my own since I was 21.  I had to live life on a budget and worry whether I had enough money for cab fare in NYC.  At 23, when I was starring in Yentl on Broadway, I decided I didn’t want to be poor.    I was committed to making enough money so I could have some freedom.   I have always tried to balance more commercial jobs with more artistic projects.   I also married a Harvard trained lawyer, which helps!

LG:  Do you have stage fright?

TF:  No, I’m at home on the stage.    Being on the stage is like a warm bath.  I let the gold dust settle where it settles.  I try to remain very loose on the stage and let the truth of the character bubble up.  I hope audiences will see my full skill set in action in this performance of Gypsy at the Bristol.  

LG:  What are you currently reading?

TF:  I’m listening to the book American Rose about Gypsy Lee Rose’s life.  I’m also listening to my voice teacher on an Ipod, as I have to stay focused on my singing.  

Tovah sang a few more bars of Rose’s Turn for me and had to return to rehearsal.  

Tovah Feldshuh stars in Gypsy at Bristol Riverside Theatre as part of its 25th Anniversary Season on December 6-January 15.  With music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, the production is directed by Keith Baker and also features Robert Newman, Amanda Rose, Brittney Lee Hamilton, Joe Grandy, Bethe B. Austin, Kathryn Kendall, and Demetria Joyce Bailey.

Previews begin Tuesday, December 6 with opening night on Thursday, December 8.  Performances run Tuesday through Sunday until January 15.  Tickets start at $40, with discounts for students and groups.  Tickets are available online or by phone at 215-785-0100.  Bristol Riverside Theatre is located at 120 Radcliffe Street in Bristol, PA.

“They Were Our Neighbors”: Our Class at the Wilma Theater

The Wilma Theater begins its season with the United States Premiere of Our Class, written by Polish playwright Tadeusz Stobodzianek (translated by Ryan Craig) and directed by the Wilma’s Artistic Director Blanka Zizka.   Based on true events in the Polish village of Jedwabne and inspired in part by Princeton History Professor Jan T. Gross’ controversial book Neighbors, Our Class chronicles the lives of ten classmates from their childhood in the 1920s to the beginning of the new millennium.   While it is difficult not to be moved by the tragic subject matter, the play’s overwrought writing, full of sensational and clichéd plotting, does not, finally, succeed in translating the events that happened in Poland into an artful, engaging evening of theatre.  

More after the jump.
On the sparse set, designed by Marsha Ginsberg, you witness the haunting barn inside which 1600 Jews were murdered, burned to death not by the Germans, but by their fellow Polish citizens.   Slobokzianek’s play raises important questions: how can neighbors be moved to murder neighbors, and how does one survive the aftermath of such atrocities?  How do individuals and societies lives with or bury the memory of such deeds?   Unfortunately, the story itself is not told in a compelling, original manner but too often falls into clichéd writing.  For instance, at the opening of Act 2, Wladek, a Pole who must clean up the burned Jewish bodies describes how the bodies were chopped up: “It was horrific.  It made me wretch. I threw up.”   This kind of writing does not add anything to either our understanding of the events nor, more importantly to the character’s development.  

The characters remain wooden and empty vessels – types — who are not fleshed out human beings who one grows to care about.   Torture and brutality and murder and rape – we are well aware of the atrocities of crimes committed by Stalinists and Fascists; good theatre is powerful because it tells us a compelling story with particular details in an engaging way.  Unfortunately, by the time the fourth rape is graphically enacted on the stage I am repelled not by rape, but by the sensationalistic, unaesthetic depiction of actors on a stage.  This could be any rape anywhere and loses its power to move us.   Rather than making the murder that happened in this barn more real, more intimate, more personal, this piling on of characters and rapes effectively dulls us to the events.  It becomes an all too familiar and general tale of life gone very bad for a young group of class mates.  

Are these class mates – Catholic and Jewish, men and women —  the victims of historical circumstances or did they make choices? Unfortunately the play only hints at such questions but its focus seems to want to make us as uncomfortable as possible.   At the performance I attended a group of women left during the intermission.   I had the opportunity to talk with them and the director briefly.  Ms. Zizka, the director, explained that the play does not provide easy answers.   It depicts Jews who sympathized with Stalin as well as local Poles as being responsible for the crimes that occurred.   She said “The characters’ individual memories are subjective and even contradictory.  I admire Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s resolve to ground the play in moral rather than ideological concerns and to leave it to the audience to create their own picture, their own understanding of the events from this choir of disparate voices.”   The audience members with whom I spoke thought the play to be “too much.”  When pressed to state too much of what – they effectively said that the writing was not engaging, that the story was not told in an original manner.   “The characters are not individual, it’s not that the subject matter that is difficult, for I’ve seen many depictions of the Holocaust, but that the writing did not engage me.”  

Despite all of this, the acting is strong, with excellent performances by Kate Czajkowki, who plays Rachelka, a Jewish woman who converts to Catholicism; Michael Rubenfeld, who plays Abram, a Jewish member of the young Polish class who emigrates to America and becomes a rabbi; Ed Swidey who plays Wladek, gives a striking performance.  

In the end Our Class becomes a soggy tale with too much talk of vodka, beatings, hookers and broken fingers, and too little character development to make the play engaging which is a shame as the subject is an excellent one for dramatic adaptation.   Do we really need to know that “eels had eaten off his face.”  In the end, while I admire Our Class’ political and moral engagement with historical material, (for anti-Semitic vandals recently defaced a Polish monument that commemorated where the Polish Jews were killed, writing “they were flammable” and a swastika on the memorial) it fails to make it new, to give new expression to the Shoah.  This does not mean we shouldn’t see the play, and discuss it amongst ourselves — Jews, Poles, Catholics, priests and rabbis.    

After almost three hours of theater, I am left with a lot of chatter — song, dance, and a deluge of words in Our Class, but not what the quiet gravitas that great art may give us by knowing what to leave out.  I wish Our Class had left more restrained silences, more brokenness in its telling of the story of this Polish village.   The German poet Paul Celan’s ambiguous, often sparse poems, in their quiet, mystical restraint, are humble meditations about the Shoah:  “Count the almonds/count what was bitter and kept you awake/ count me in.”  
*  
On Tuesday, November 1st: “America as Haven,”  A program of The Wilma Theatre and the National Museum of American Jewish History.  This program will examine the idea and reality of this country as a place where immigrants can find a new life.  Director Blank Zizka, who was born in the former Czechoslovakia, will discuss her own experience alongside others with expertise of 20th Century immigration.  Actor Michael Rubenfeld from the production of Our Class, will read letters from the Museum’s collection written across continents between immigrants and their families.  Complimentary reception follows the discussion..   Held at the National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S. Independence Mall East.

Our Class: October 21 – November 13, 2011
Where: The Wilma Theatre   265 South Broad Street   Philadelphia, PA 19107
Tickets: range from $39 to $66, available at the Wilma Box office 215 546 7824, visiting www.wilmatheater.org or at the theater.

   

A Soul is Like a Play: New Jerusalem at the Lantern Theatre

  • All we get is the poetry of a Jewish fruit peddler and a heap of vanishing figs.  — Baruch Spinoza
  • You will be greater than all of us, but not as a Jew. — Rabbi Mortera


Reminiscent of intellectual dramas like Copenhagen, New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656 is an ambitious new drama by David Ives, known for his evenings of one act comedies called All in the Timing and Time Flies.  Playing through November 6th at the Lantern Theater Company, this heady play directed by Lantern’s Artistic Director Charles McMahon is based on true events in the life of the philosopher Baruch de Spinoza.  This recent off-Broadway hit challenges traditional political and religious thinking with passion and wit.  

The production’s action takes place in the Amsterdam synagogue where the 23 year old stands trial for his revolutionary thoughts about God, nature and human life.  Sam Henderson’s Spinoza, donning a black leather bomber jacket, (costumes beautifully designed by Maggie Baker with lighting by Shon Causer) is arrogant but humble, witty and rakish.   The favorite son of the rabbi’s heir apparent, (played by David Bardeen) Spinoza refuses to remain silent about his revolutionary thoughts, and is accused by political leader and Calvinist Abraham van Valkenburgh ( played by Seth Reichgott) of heresy.   The audience becomes part of this trial as we witness Spinoza refuse to silence his radical beliefs, denying the divine origin of the Torah which sits in the Ark of the Covenant, that provides the effective and sparsely designed backdrop for the action (designed by Nick Embree).

More after the jump.
Accused of atheism, Spinoza protests, “I know a few things about God no one else does.”    Accused of loving a Christian woman, Clara van den Eden (played beautifully by Mary Tuomanen) Spinoza insists she tell the truth when she is questioned, for her “essence will not allow her to lie.”  His petty and vengeful half-sister Rebekah de Spinoza, (played by Kittson O’Neill) who early in the play betrays her brother, marks one of the weaker plot points as later in the play she professes great loyalty.  Her kvetching (from the audience where she glares at her accused brother on trial to be excommunicated) while intended to provide some comic relief, strikes one of the few false notes of the evening.  

The most convincing and moving relationship we witness is that between the Head Rabbi of Amsterdam, Mortera, and Spinoza, whom he considers like a grandson.    While Spinoza is intoxicated “by God and mathematics”, the rabbi must think about the community of faithful Jews whose religious freedom is being threatened.   Will the Rabbi remain faithful to his most gifted student or will he turn his back on him for the sake of the Jewish community’s survival?  

Ives manages to write an engaging courtroom drama full of complex philosophical ideas from Descartes’ dualism to the Mishneh Torah.   If questions like: is there immortality, is there a God, what are the moral implications of a world without God, interest you — you will spend two riveting hours at the Lantern Theater Company.   Remember, when Albert Einstein was asked about his belief in God, he responded, “I believe in Spinoza’s God.”   To find out what he means by this go see New Jerusalem at the Lantern Theater Company.

On Saturday, October 22nd at 2 pm there will be a Panel Discussion on the Lantern Main Stage called Out of Order! Courtrooms as Theatre, Courtrooms in Theatre featuring Vince Regan, Assistant Chief District Attorney of Philadelphia, Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham.  

New Jerusalem runs through November 6th.

  • Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen’s Theater
  • 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia, PA 19107
  • Adults: $20 – $36, Students: $10 – $26, $10 student rush tickets available 10 minutes before curtain with valid ID; cash only. Special discounts are available for seniors and groups of 10 or more.
  • Phone: (215) 829-0395

A Review of “The Submission”

The Submission” by Amy Waldman, reviewed by Rabbi Jack Riemer

Do you remember what happened a few years ago when a group of Moslems wanted to build a mosque &mdash well, it was not exactly a mosque; it was more like a Jewish Community Center with a gym and classrooms as well as a place of prayer — at Ground Zero — well, it was not exactly at Ground Center, but it was meant to be built a few blocks away? The country went berserk. How dare they desecrate the sacred ground on which Moslems killed several thousand people and destroyed one of America’s iconic symbols? True, the Constitution provides freedom of religion for all, but so what? Does that justify this kind of an insult? Don’t the feelings of the families of those that died on 9/11 have priority over the Constitution?

For weeks, insults flew back and forth, as zealots on both sides called each other names, and the politicians tried to stake out a position that would straddle the conflicting claims of the public with the principle of freedom of religion.

The issue seems to have calmed down, at least for a while, since the people who were planning to build this mosque-or center-or whatever they will end up calling it if they ever build it — turned out not to be able to raise the money for it-at least not yet-and as the media turned its attention to other matters.

Amy Waldman wrote most of this novel before this bruha took place, but it raises the same kind of questions; Are American born Moslems entitled to their civil rights, or are they all to be stereotyped as terrorists out to kill us? Do those who lost loved ones on 9/11 have special claims on the memorial which is being built there, or are professional architects and artists the only ones who are capable of making aesthetic decisions? Are Jews entitled to suspect Moslems, in view of the fact that they have been the special targets of violence by Moslems in many countries, or should Jews be the defenders of civil rights for Moslems, because their own place in this country depends upon civil rights?

These are some of the questions that Amy Waldman deals with in this novel.  She gives no easy answers. Her characters are complex and ambivalent on these questions.

More after the jump.  
The central character is Mo Kahn — short for Mohammed — an assimilated architect whose parents came from India. He submits his proposal for a Memorial Garden to be built at Ground Zero, and, in a contest in which no names are allowed to accompany the submissions, he wins. And then he must justify his claim that his work is simply a work of art, and that it is not motivated by any desire to glorify the killers of 9/11 or even to pay tribute to Moslem Art.

As the issue heats up, Mo gradually changes his own attitude to his work and to this country. He starts out as an urbane, sophisticated liberal, who has no interest in, and no commitment to, Islam, but he is deeply offended that his work is being judged as Moslem propaganda when he believes deeply that he designed it with no such motive in mind. Little by little, in response to the attacks on him and on his work from the zealots, he begins to reconsider his heritage, and to insist on his right to be a Moslem American and on his right to be an architect who draws of many sources including Medieval Moslem Art, if he so wishes. He even goes to a mosque to pray, something that he has almost never done before in his life, perhaps to help determine for himself who he really is, or perhaps in order to defy those who are reviling him.

Another character in this novel is Claire Burwell, who is a wealthy woman, with some knowledge of art, whose husband died in the Twin Towers. She is the one who champions his submission in the first place, and she is the one who gradually persuades  the others on the panel to choosing it. But the more she sees the anger and the hysteria that the choice arouses, the more she is tempted to back down and take away the prize and given it to someone less controversial.

There is Paul Rubin, the politician, who only wants to make the furor go away so that it will not inflame the city and effect the next election. There is Sean Gallagher, a frustrated and angry man, whose brother died in the Twin Towers, and who sets out to lead a rebellion against the choice, so that he may have acquire and some importance for himself. And there is Asma Anwar, an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh, whose husband died on 9/11, and who only wants to stay in this country, and to be inconspicuous so that she will not be sent back, but who gets caught in the center of the controversy..

Amy Waldman brings these different characters, with their different agendas, together in this novel. They bounce against each other like billiard balls ricocheting. Sometimes they attack each other; sometimes they influence each other, and sometimes they seem like people caught in a tinderbox of conflicting emotions and intentions.

Ms. Waldman pits these characters, not only against each other, but also against their own inner drives and emotions. Each one reveals layer after layer of feeling, as the story spins out of control. At the end, we come away simply sick at the ugliness, the instability, and the chaos that manifested itself within so many of us in reaction to what happened on September 11th. We become aware through this novel of how angry, how unstable, how shocked and how vengeful we all felt in the aftermath of the events of that day. And we are forced to wonder and to worry about the question: Ten years after the calamity, have we healed yet, and if not, what will it take to restore sanity and stability, patience and calm, to us?

Novels do not usually set out to raise moral questions, but this one does. And the answer to these questions of have we recovered and have we purged ourselves from the trauma and the anger that 9/11 did to our souls,will come from what reactions this novel arouses. It is a gripping story, but it is meant to be more than just that. What kind of a country America will be will be determined, in some part, by how we come to terms with the trauma of this horrible event, whose tenth anniversary has now arrived. I hope that it does not take ten more years for us to calm down and to think rationally, instead of striking out in all directions, hurting the innocent, chasing the guilty, and injuring ourselves most of all. And I think that this book may help us in this task.

Rabbi Jack Riemer is a frequent reviewer of books of Jewish and General interest in America and abroad. He is the co editor of So That Your Values Live on: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them, and the editor of the three volumes of the The World of the High Holy Days.  

Jewish Summer Fest at the Shore

7th ANNUAL JEWISH SUMMER FEST AT THE SHORE

On Sunday, August 14th experience a taste of Jewish Culture through food, music and art. Participants will enjoy an exciting and entertaining evening of pulsating Jewish music featuring the Yellow Red Sky Band, hands on crafts, children’s rides games and face painting as well as a delicious kosher BBQ offering hotdogs, burgers, falafel and more. The event welcomes the entire community regardless of background or faith.

“We hope to offer children and their families an exciting evening while giving them a positive Jewish experience,” says Rabbi Avrohom Rapoport, the event coordinator.

The Jewish Summer Fest will take place on Sunday, August 14th, from
6-9 pm at the Beach at the Ventnor Library (Newport Ave. Ventnor, NJ).  Rides and craft badge is $12 donation per child.

For more information please call 609-822-8500 or visit www.jewishsummerfest.com .

The event is organized by Chabad at the Shore. Chabad is dedicated to ensuring Jewish continuity through educational and social programming.