Jews, Too, Should Beware the ‘Code’
by David Klinghoffer
The Catholic Church has good reason to take issue with Dan Brown’s megaselling “The Da Vinci Code” — and the film version of the book that opens this weekend. But should non-Christians be concerned? And should Jews, in particular, care when, in effect, another religion is maligned through a popular and persuasive work of fiction that pretends to be more than fiction?
The answer to both questions is yes.
In fact, Jews, in particular, need to be aware of the unwitting gift Brown has given to anti-Semites.
As most everyone knows by now, Brown uses the medium of a gripping suspense story, set in the present, to inform us that Jesus was not celibate but instead married Mary Magdalene, and that he has descendants living in Europe today. Furthermore, according to the film, the members of this surviving family of Jesus have been protected for centuries by an altruistic secret organization, the Priory of Sion, which is locked in combat with a sinister, violent Catholic group, Opus Dei, which seeks to keep the secret of Jesus’ fecundity from getting out. Behind Opus Dei stands the Catholic Church. For millennia, the church has perpetrated what the film calls “the biggest cover-up in human history.”
Opus Dei, the real-life Catholic lay order, asked Sony Pictures to place a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie admitting that the story is fictional — as of press time, the studio refused. Sony’s compliance or noncompliance hardly makes a difference, though, for much damage has already been done. Brown himself states at the outset of the novel that his tale is grounded in “fact”: “The Priory of Sion — a European secret society founded in 1099 — is a real organization” and so on.
Scholars have done a solid job of pointing out the fictions that interweave Brown’s “facts.” Notably, the Priory of Sion is real only in the sense that it really is the modern invention of Pierre Plantard, an eccentric and paranoid Frenchman. Plantard’s creation co-opts the name of an ancient order that disappeared into history, but the incarnation of his hoax dates to 1956 not 1099. The historic Priory of Sion was a medieval monastic order that ceased to exist by the 14th century and had nothing to do with legends about Jesus’ fathering children.
You may wonder if Brown’s readers find his tall tale convincing. The answer is, they do. A Barna Group poll found that 53 percent of the book’s readers said “The Da Vinci Code” aided their “personal spiritual growth and understanding.”
But why should a Jew care?
Consider that the alleged conspiracy underlying the “biggest cover-up in human history” bears a remarkable resemblance to another phony conspiracy, the one that underlies the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
In both conspiracy theories, an ancient world religion turns out to be a massive fraud perpetrated to gain or maintain power. In Brown’s version, the Priory of Sion (“Sion” means “Zion” in French) is the good guy. It’s been sitting on the secret about Jesus having children, waiting for the right moment to reveal the truth, meanwhile giving safe harbor to the children of those descendants.
The priory also practices a pagan goddess worship that, as we’re supposed to understand, is the true religion intended by Jesus and his spouse, Mary Magdalene. All the while, in the tale, the Catholic Church plots to hide the truth about the holy “goddess” and the “sacred feminine” forever. To ensure that the world’s people remain in the dark, the story says Opus Dei is willing to go to any lengths, including murder, all to keep the male-dominated church hierarchy in power.
In the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — a text thought by many scholars to have been authored by Russian monarchist and anti-Semite Mathieu Golovinski in 1898 — a secret society of Jewish elders plot to rule the world through “Darwinism, Marxism and Nietzscheism.” Here the “Zion” (or “Sion”) team is the bad guy. Like the Catholic Church in Brown’s scenario, the elders of Zion are committed to keeping their diabolical plot absolutely secret.
Plantard (1920-2000), the French monarchist and anti-Semite who gave us the Priory of Sion hoax, spent much of his life inventing fantastical, esoteric organizations intended to “purify” France of the evil influences of modernity — and of Judaism. A group he started in 1937, Alpha Galates, which like all his efforts attracted few followers, supposedly devoted itself to fighting “the corrupt principles of the old democratic Judaeo-Freemasonry.” In 1940, he wrote of the “terrible Masonic and Jewish conspiracy” that threatened France.
The Priory of Sion existed almost exclusively on paper and in his imagination. The point of this occult order was to advance Plantard’s claim that he was the surviving heir of the ancient Merovingian line of French kings, whose “holy blood” was guarded by the priory. The idea that the Merovingians were the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene was added later by others — not Brown.
In Plantard’s fantasy, this priory was not founded by him but by Godfrey de Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade. Godfrey is the same person who in reality presided over the massacre of the entire Jewish population of Jerusalem in 1099.
Undoubtedly Plantard knew of the “Protocols.” How did it influence him?
That’s hard to know. But we can say with certainty that the same poisonous European air of delusional paranoia that fed the “Protocols” also fed Plantard’s fantasies about Jews and himself.
The fact that the two conspiracies highlight the word “Zion” or “Sion” would only be an interesting coincidence, except that both myths share an understanding of how to deal with ideas you disagree with. Rather than taking traditional Christian beliefs at face value and arguing against them, Brown portrays the religion as a belief system based on a lie told about history. The purported lie that Jesus had no wife allows the church’s elders, who are all men, to perpetuate male-domination of the Christian religion. This strategy excuses Brown from having to make any arguments for his book’s promotion of the “sacred feminine.”
Anti-Semites do much the same thing. The “Protocols” were composed initially as a response to Russian revolutionary socialism. In form, they are the supposed instructions to a new member of the Jewish conspiracy of the elders of Zion, outlining how the Jews will manipulate the media and financial institutions to establish control over ignorant gentiles. The elders’ tools include the modern secular, liberal ideologies, which will detach non-Jews from their old loyalties to traditional structures of the church and of the monarchy.
Rather than coming out honestly and openly against Darwinism or Marxism or modernity in general, the author of the “Protocols” concocted a story about Judaism as a conspiracy taking the form of a religion — a cover-up, a lie, designed to perpetuate the rule of the Jewish elders over the unlucky non-Jews. Judaism, in this view, may be a religion, but its primary importance is as a conspiracy. The “Protocols” remains a global phenomenon of staggering popularity and, to many readers, especially in the Arab world, it’s accepted as truth.
I don’t mean to imply that Brown ever intended to foment bigotry, nor that he is an anti-Semite, a bigot or anything remotely similar. There would be no warrant whatsoever for saying that.
But we live in a time when conspiracies based on flagrant hoaxes captivate millions. A healthier culture would demand serious proof for startling claims or simply put no stock in them when they appear in fictional entertainments. Today, Americans and others will accept dubious beliefs simply because they tickle their fancy, or because those beliefs appeal to an increasingly influential anti-religious impulse — about which Jews often seem strangely unconcerned.
Such a world stands in peril of succumbing to all manner of untruths, from the benign to the deadly. Like other intellectual and physical capacities, the ability to distinguish fact from fancy needs to be exercised to remain strong. Each time we fall prey to another hoax, our powers of discrimination are weakened.
If you don’t think America has fallen prey to the hoax of the Priory of Sion, then contemplate the Barna Group finding: More than half of Brown’s readers believe their “personal spiritual growth and understanding” was aided by knowing about, among other things, the wild conspiracy theory given as fact in Brown’s novel.
Brown has inadvertently encouraged in his readers the habits of paranoia and gullibility. For anti-Semites and other conspiracy theorists, the gullibility of Americans is welcome news. For people committed to finding the truth through investigation and argumentation, it’s worrisome.
For Jews, it’s even more troubling. Historically, we as a people haven’t fared well when the culture we live in turns to entertaining fantasies and delusions at the expense of unfashionable religions.
“The Da Vinci Code” phenomenon has more serious potential ramifications than Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” ever did — because it’s been a long time since the ancient slur that the Jews killed Jesus got any serious traction. On the other hand, the charge that Judaism is a conspiracy seeking power over gentiles is one that still claims numerous believers. Many Muslims find the idea entirely plausible — and not only Muslims, as anyone who listens to talk radio can tell you. “The Da Vinci Code,” in encouraging people to think of religions as conspiracies, is playing with dynamite in a way that Gibson wasn’t. Surely, this merits some attention from our official community. So far it has received none.
I hope that our discerning anti-defamation groups, committed to defending Jewish interests as well as to fighting the unfair maligning of other faiths, will take an interest in the way the Catholic Church is being defamed by Brown.
To recognize the peril in his storytelling would be in our own interest. It’s also the right thing to do.
David Klinghoffer (
|A Holy Mess for Church Leaders
by Gabriel Meyer
The May 19 release of the film version of Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel, “The Da Vinci Code,” published in 2003, promises, if anything, to intensify the controversy that has swirled around this dark thriller — and its breathless and profoundly misleading tour of medieval Christian esoterica — what New York Times critic Janet Maslin, who liked the book, calls “the motherlode of religious conspiracy theory.”
Not surprisingly, Catholic opposition to the “Code,” off to a fairly slow start, has become more vocal. The Vatican is the predictable bogeyman of Brown’s story, which features an upside down version of the canonical Christian Gospels, with Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus and real leader of the church and subsequent co-divinity — a narrative, according to the “Code,” that the Catholic Church both knows to be true and ruthlessly suppresses.
For good measure, the international Catholic organization, Opus Dei, is brought on stage as the principal agent of the Vatican’s murderous cover-up — complete with an albino monk. (Shades of “Monk” Lewis and the 19th century Gothic novel!)
(A priest friend of mine recently got a taste of what may be in store for him, when, after responding long and thoughtfully to a young person’s question about Jesus’ celibacy, was told: “Well, you would say that, of course.”
One Vatican official, Msgr. Angelo Amato, has called Brown’s “slanders” — on par with insulting the prophet Mohammed or denying the Holocaust, and some church leaders have called for a boycott — no doubt, to the delight of the film’s producers.
Last year, Genoese Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s official doctrinal watchdog, called for a boycott of the book and this past March launched a series of public debates on Brown’s work in Italy in anticipation of the release of the film adaptation. You couldn’t pay for better publicity.
A number of Catholic publications and Web sites, such as the El Cajon, Calif.-based Catholic Answers, have posted fulsome point-by-point refutations of the “Code.” More seriously, Catholic scholars Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel — Miesel is an expert on medieval history — weighed in with a thorough debunking of Brown’s historical claims in “The Da Vinci Hoax” (Ignatius Press, 2004). And they’re hardly the only ones.
Amid this furor, casual readers — and now moviegoers — can be forgiven for asking: What’s all the fuss about? It’s a pulp thriller, for goodness sake, not a theological treatise: it’s an airport read with a plot twist at the end of every chapter, the sort of book you stick into your carry-on for the long flight to Cincinnati. It’s just entertainment. Nobody takes this stuff seriously, do they?
Well, yes they can and do. According to recent polls, more than one-third of Brown’s 18 million readers to date are persuaded that the book’s “motherlode of religious conspiracy theory” is literally true. That’s worth pondering — not only in terms of Brown’s book, but, more importantly, in terms of the larger questions it raises about our society and culture.
Part of the problem is inherent in the material — its goulash of “facts” and fiction, the interweaving of real people and institutions with fictional ones. Brown is often quoted as saying that his book is a work of fiction. Fine, but he also stresses how meticulously researched “The Da Vinci Code” is and how factual its historical assertions are.
Brown even appends a fact page to the front of the book, underscoring the purported reliability of the book’s claims, particularly about the so-called Priory of Sion, Opus Dei and the descriptions of art, architecture and rituals. As one critic put it recently in a television interview: “Brown offers [his work] as fiction, but sells it as fact. You can’t have it both ways.”
In a revealing comment on his Web site, Brown isn’t as coy about the question of fact or fiction:
“The secret I reveal is one that has been whispered for centuries. It is not my own. Admittedly, this may be the first time the secret has been unveiled within the format of a popular thriller, but the information is anything but new.” (Emphasis added.)
As Miesel has written: “By manipulating his audience through the conventions of romance writing, Brown invites his readers to identify with his smart, glamorous characters who’ve seen through the impostures of the clerics who hide the ‘truth’ about Jesus and his wife. Blasphemy is delivered in a soft voice with a knowing chuckle: ‘Every faith in the world is based on fabrication.'”
Just for the record, hardly any of the facts in “The Da Vinci Code” are accurate nor are they the result of original or even respectable research. Brown’s ideas are drawn not from primary source material, but from popular New Age excursions through the Grail legend and goddess worship and from popular books about early Christian gnosticism. When he has his characters confidently assert hitherto unknown facts about the origins of the biblical canon, for example — that the Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicea codified the Bible as we know it — this is, at best, willful ignorance.
One example of many: The Knights Templar were a real 12th century military-religious order, set up to accompany and protect pilgrims in the Holy Land. But the myth of the Templars as masters of occult wisdom is a creation of the late 18th century, where they loom large in Masonic lore and later in the speculations of the Nazis.
And so on.
There are larger problems here than sloppy research, however, and larger issues at stake.
With nearly 20 million in sales and editions in 44 languages, and with a film adaptation in release, there’s no doubt that “The Da Vinci Code” has struck a chord in the modern world, but we would do well to ask what the nature of that chord is.
As David Klinghoffer points out, the popularity of conspiracy theories, in whatever form, is always a matter of serious concern.
The infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” portions of which were first serialized in a Russian newspaper in 1903, may have been plagiarized, in part, from a mid-19th century French political satire that had Freemasons playing the “heavy.” In the hands of Russian anti-Semites, the work was recast to feature Jewish leaders and financiers as the “puppet-masters” of world events and has gone on to play a vicious role in 20th century European anti-Semitism. It currently unleashes its toxins in cheap editions that can be found on street corners throughout the Muslim world.
Conspiracy theories are perennially attractive because they not only provide us with simple explanations for complex phenomena, but they usually do so in such a way that our prejudices remain blissfully unchallenged.
The story line remains the same — betrayal and deception for the sake of power, though the identity of the villain may change: now the Masons, now the Jews, or the Rothschilds, or the Vatican or whomever else we have been taught to hate or fear. And as the 20th century proved all too conclusively, what begins in triviality may end in murder.
Gabriel Meyer is an award-winning poet, journalist and novelist. He won Catholic Press Association awards for his coverage of the first Palestinian intifada in 1989 and went on to cover the Balkan war for the National Catholic Register in the early 1990s. Since 1998, he has written extensively on the civil war in Sudan and is the author of “War and Faith in Sudan” (Eerdmans, 2005).
High Ideals and a Hot Bod
PASSOVER: Myriad Ways to Tell an Ancient Tale
Every haggadah has a story, its own story, beyond that of the exodus from Egypt. Depending on illustrations, design, typesetting, additions, where the edition is printed and who commissioned its creation, each version is a marker of Jewish history. In some cases, the wine stains on the pages tell stories too; they appear as family emblems, carrying generations of memories.
New Editions of Old Favorites
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s splendid book, first published in 1975, “Haggadah and History” (Jewish Publication Society) is now back in print. The book is scholarly, intriguing and beautiful, an aesthetic timeline of Jewish history and culture. Featured are 200 facsimile plates, depicting haggadah pages from the early days of printing in the 15th century to the 1970s, with explanations of their context.
As Yerushalmi — the Salo Wittmayer Baron professor of Jewish history, culture, and society at Columbia University, who specializes in medieval and modern Jewish history with an emphasis on Spanish, Portuguese and German Jewry — notes, the haggadah is the most popular and beloved of Jewish books.
“Scholars have meditated upon it, children delight in it,” he writes in the book’s introduction. It has been reprinted more often than any other classic text, and is the most frequently illustrated.
A haggadah printed in Poona, India in 1874, with text in Hebrew and Marathi (the language of the Bene Israel) opens with a full-page illustration showing women in saris, flowers in their hair, preparing and baking matzah, seated in classic Indian positions familiar from Hindu painting. The illustrations are modeled on an earlier version of the haggadah printed in Amsterdam, although they are Indian in tone and detail.
Other highlighted editions include the earliest illustrated haggadah, with decorative woodcuts. Its place and date of origin are unknown; it may have been printed in Spain or Portugal in the last decade of the 15th century before the expulsions, or by Sephardi exiles in Salonika or Constantinople. Also included is a version reproduced by mimeograph in North Africa in 1942 by the Palestine Jewish Brigade.
Selected from the collections of Harvard University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, the haggadahs featured here are only a small percentage of the number of editions that have been published. Since Yerushalmi wrote his book, many new versions — with folk art designs, environmental themes and computer-generated illustrations — have been created.
Also new this season is “Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesah and the Haggadah” by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Ktav), including 10 essays drawn from the writings of the late scholar and leader known as “the Rav,” who died in 1993. This volume, part of the series MeOtzar HaRav, was edited by Joel B. Wolowelsky and Reuven Ziegler, prepared from handwritten manuscripts and tapes of the Rav’s lectures.
The first essay, “An Exalted Evening: The Seder Night,” begins on a personal note, as the Rav recalls his childhood fascination with the nights of the seder and of Kol Nidrei. He felt “entranced by these two clear, moonlit nights, both wrapped in grandeur and majesty.” Enveloped by a “strange silence, stillness, peace, quiet and serenity,” he would “surrender to a stream of inflowing joy and ecstasy.” On those nights, he sensed the presence of God; the commonality of the two is man’s encounter with God. In this and the other far-ranging philosophical essays, he goes on to explore the experiential and intellectual dimensions of the seder and the major themes of Passover.
New Haggadahs on the Shelf
“Touched by the Seder” by Rabbi Yechiel Spero, with an introduction by Rabbi Nosson Scherman (Artscroll) is a haggadah featuring inspiring stories and commentary, compiled by the author of the “Touched by a Story” series. The book includes the Artscroll translations and seder instructions. The selected stories — whether about Jews baking matzah in the Warsaw Ghetto, families showing great strength in the face of tragedy, two friends caring for a third friend immediately after he is wounded in battle while fighting in the Israeli army or Rav Chaim Berlin’s experience on Yom Kippur in the late 1800s — are a vehicle for emphasizing the teachings of the holiday
“The Chazon Ish Haggadah” (Artscroll) features the traditional haggadah text, highlighted with the writings and teachings of the late Maran Hagaon Harav Avraham Yehaya Karelitz, who was known as the Chazon Ish and died in 1953. During his lifetime, much of his work was anonymous, unsigned commentaries, and here Rabbi Asher Bergman compiles his rulings and customs regarding the seder.
An introductory section that lists the halachic rulings and practices of the Chazon Ish on preparing for the holiday notes that he ruled that “one must search books for the possible presence of crumbs.” He would set aside the books he planned to use on Pesach and, beginning several days before the holiday, would check them page by page.
On the page of text with the words “Whoever is hungry — let him come and eat,” Bergman illustrates the generosity of the Chazon Ish, who comforted and helped many Holocaust survivors who came to Israel. With money sent to him from Jews all over the world, he married off more than 100 orphan girls to young Torah scholars. He himself lived in poverty, while channeling money to Torah institutions and to the poor and sick.
“The Liberated Haggadah” by Rabbi Peter Schweitzer (Center for Cultural Judaism) is different from other haggadahs in its humanistic approach, geared to secular and cultural Jews. This haggadah acknowledges early on the author’s view that of the Exodus story as mythical rather than historical. Schweitzer, who leads the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Manhattan, recasts the story as a humanist parable, highlighting contemporary relevance.
Rituals are connected not to the historical Hebrews, but rather to an ancient springtime celebration. In addition to the traditional Four Questions, he offers translations in Ladino, German, Yiddish, Russian, French and Arabic and a set of modern questions, framing contemporary issues. He asks, “Why can we get people to the moon but we can not get the homeless adequate shelters?”
He also offers discussion questions for after the meal, raising timely issues including immigration, modern-day sex slavery and forced labor. Included are traditional and new songs, with touches of lightness and humor.
Also available this year is the “Internet Hagada” by Rabbi William Blank. The text is an edited version of the traditional text, set in contemporary English that reads well, with some Hebrew and transliteration. He also pays attention to page design, creating an attractive haggadah.
Here, the traditional four sons are four students: “One is diligent, one couldn’t care less, one is uncomplicated, one is too overwhelmed to ask questions.” Blank explains that there are no external themes imposed on the traditional material as many modern editions do; he emphasizes the universal values and deeply resonating spirituality of the seder.
Blank, who lives in Sacramento, says that he grew up Orthodox, was ordained as a Reform rabbi and now belongs to a Conservative synagogue. He is the author of “Torah, Tarot & Tantra: A Guide to Jewish Spiritual Growth” and “Soon You Will Understand the Meaning of Life.”
This haggadah, suitable for groups where participants are at different levels, is available only through the Internet. Readers are required to buy one (in .pdf format) and then can make as many copies as they need.
Haggadahs for the Kinder
“Max’s 4 Questions” by Bonnie Bader, illustrated by Bryan Hendrix (Grosset & Dunlap) tells the basics of the Passover story through the adventures and questions of Max, the youngest of four brothers who lives in a chaotic house, where they host a joyous seder crowded with relatives. The youngest seder attendees might enjoy the stickers included for decorating the book’s seder plate.
“More Than Matzah: A Passover Feast of Fun, Facts, and Activities” by Debbie Herman and Ann Koffsky (Barron’s) is designed to engage, teach and keep young kids busy.
Other Picks for Passover
Everyone can easily participate in the seder with Rabbi Nathan Goldberg’s 98-page newly translated, large type and transliterated “Passover Haggadah” (KTAV Publishing House) complete with numbered lines. www.ktav.com
Two books in one, “Haggadah” by Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Continuum) contains a Hebrew-English Haggadah, with attractive Hebrew typography and accompanying commentary as well as 21 insightful and wide-ranging Passover essays, all written by Sacks. www.continuumbooks.com
Harriet Goldner created and self-published the 18-page illustrated and color-coded “Please, Don’t Pass Over the Seder Plate” to keep her grandchildren entertained while they learned the Passover traditions. www.jewishfamilyfun.com
Fully illustrated and easy to understand, Rob Kopman’s “30 Minute Seder,” downloadable in minutes, provides abbreviated and slightly non-traditional seder basics for impatient participants. www.30minuteseder.com
The Hebrew-English “Hamsa Haggadah,” beautifully illustrated by Eduard Paskhover (A.G.N. Ltd., Israel, 2005) and shaped like a hamsa, highlights the 12 stones of the high priest’s breastplate, each stone representing one of Israel’s 12 tribes. Distributed through Alef Judaica, Inc., in Culver City. — Compiled by Jane Ulman, Contributing Writer
What’s So Bad About Torture?
Where Streets Were Paved With Sorrow
“Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced Into Prostitution in the Americas” by Isabel Vincent (William Morrow, $25.95).
Memory is a central concept in Judaism. When someone dies, we say that he or she lives on in how he or she is remembered by others. Countless museum exhibits, oral histories, films, books and archives that memorialize the Holocaust repeat the mantra, “We will never forget.”
Conversely, the biggest insult that any Jew can face is to be forgotten — by fellow Jews, by history, by the country in which he or she lived. This was the fate that nearly awaited the Jewish “shtetl girls,” who were lured to South America by wealthy-looking men who promptly sold them into lives of prostitution. Thankfully, Isabel Vincent, a journalist who spent five years researching these women and their situation, rescues them from obscurity in her new book, “Bodies and Souls.”
Vincent introduces us to three women who illuminate three very different aspects of the shameful reality of white slavery that existed in Latin America between 1860 and 1939. Sophia Chamys excitedly came to the Americas with Isaac Boorosky, a pimp who she believed — at some level, until her death — was her husband; Rebecca Freedman first became a prostitute in New York and then went on to work for and lead the Society of Truth, an organization devoted to giving Jewish prostitutes a proper Jewish burial; and Rachel Liberman was instrumental (at great personal risk) in helping police plan a series of raids of the Zwi Migdal crime syndicate.
One of the most profound ideas that Vincent gets across is the sense of cosmic disappointment that is common to the three women. We have all heard horror stories of shtetl life, the violence and fear that lurked around every corner — but to read about how America turned out to be nearly as terrible for these eager girls is almost as heartbreaking as the physical pain and degradation that the prostitutes endured.
The narrative arc of the book, from Sophia’s crushed naiveté to Rachel’s open resistance, makes Vincent’s work a deeply Jewish story where out of abandonment, suffering and disillusionment come self-determination and a fierce survival instinct. Ultimately the shock and shame of learning about the atrocities that Jewish pimps inflicted on their modest shtetl sisters is somewhat rescued by the nobility that many of the women managed to salvage for themselves.
If Vincent has misstepped at all in this book, it is largely in her overuse of theoretical language: “Maybe, in order to make her feel better about her situation, Madame Nathalia told Sophia that she was one of the lucky girls.” “It must have taken a tremendous effort of will for Julio Alsogaray to remain calm throughout the lengthy interrogation.” Nearly every page contains some similar stylistic hedging.
This linguistic tic seems more a mark of Vincent’s careful reporting than of mere misjudgment, especially since, as she notes, most of the 20,000 women who were involved in the trafficking could not read or write. Historical records were quite hard to come by. But reading “might have,” “must have,” “may have” and “perhaps” over and over again throughout the book had the net effect of leaving the reader questioning how sure Vincent was of even those things she did report as fact: She knew that “tin cups and utensils were set out on coarse blankets on the whitewashed floors” of a Buenos Aires immigrants’ hotel, but had to say, “flustered, Sally must have also shown the stranger her first-class ticket.”
Although it’s annoying, this stylistic choice further highlights the sad reality of the subjects of Vincent’s book: how history, religion and shame conspired to threaten these Jewish prostitutes with that most dire of prospects — to be forgotten. There was sparse historical record, few survivors and even fewer family members who were willing to speak openly with Vincent. One might wish that Vincent had opted instead to write a work of historical fiction in which she would not have to constantly apologize for her lack of reportable material. But there is a certain amount of intellectual honesty in her choice. It is not merely that she resisted the temptation to falsely beef up her work; by choosing to acknowledge this story as a real chapter in history, Vincent affords her subjects the dignity of not being “spoken for,” as they were so often and so cruelly during their lives.
This article was reprinted courtesy of The Forward.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Mass.
Bye Bye Diaspora, Hello ‘New Jews’
Wiesenthal’s Work Beyond Words
Simon Wiesenthal devoted his life to tracking down Nazi war criminals, and his life and that effort unfold in a new exhibit at Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance.
Wiesenthal died last week at 96 at his home in Vienna, and this exhibit was quickly but lovingly put together at the museum, which is part of the L.A.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. The center, though named for Wiesenthal, was not founded nor run by him. Yet there’s an indelible connection between the center’s work and Wiesenthal’s own mission — and he donated many personal effects to the museum.
The exhibit’s powerful collection of photographs, awards and artifacts is a virtual walk through history with Wiesenthal, seemingly, as your personal guide. There are his personal pencil sketches of the camp as well as photos and handwritten notes.
One photo is of an American flag, fashioned by the prisoners from scraps of clothing, before American soldiers liberated the camps. The flag contains 56 stars because the prisoners were unsure how many states were in the United States.
“They handed the flag to the American soldiers when they walked into the camps as a gift for setting them free,” exhibit curator Eric Saul said.
Wiesenthal and his wife, Cyla, were among the camp survivors, though they lost dozens of family members. By the end of the war, the couple had been forcibly separated, and each believed the other was dead. The exhibit’s treasures include notes written by Wiesenthal and his wife after the war, but before they were reunited. There’s also archival material from each of their childhoods. Cyla died in 2003.
Wiesenthal, who was barely alive when liberated, began his Nazi-hunting quest as soon as his health permitted. He first began the process of gathering and preparing evidence on Nazi atrocities for the War Crimes Section of the U.S. Army. He worked for the Army’s Office of Strategic Services and Counter-Intelligence Corps and headed the Jewish Central Committee of the U.S. Zone of Austria, a relief and welfare organization.
As the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified, both sides lost interest in prosecuting Germans, and Wiesenthal’s volunteers, succumbing to frustration, drifted away to more ordinary pursuits. In 1954, the office in Linz was closed and its files were given to the Yad Vashem Archives in Israel, except for the dossier on Adolf Eichmann, who, as chief of the Gestapo’s Jewish Department, had supervised the implementation of the “Final Solution.”
Wiesenthal never gave up on tracking down Eichmann or others, determined that the world wouldn’t forget those who died. He worked out of a small office in his home using telephone books to track down war criminals, many of whom hadn’t even bothered to change their names after the war.
According to Museum of Tolerance Director Liebe Geft, when Wiesenthal found a Nazi criminal — and no one would pursue the suspect — he would hold a press conference to shame the world into it.
His efforts paid off in the apprehension of some 1,100 war criminals. Through Wiesenthal’s work, Israeli agents eventually captured Eichmann and brought him to Israel to stand trial. He was ultimately convicted and executed. The exhibit includes a rogue’s gallery of the war criminals he helped to expose and bring to justice.
Wiesenthal wanted everything to proceed according to law. He opposed the hit squads formed by some survivors who sought to kill Nazis after the war.
“He didn’t believe that was right,” exhibit curator Saul said. “He believed becoming murderers wasn’t the answer, but bringing them to trial would better serve the memories of the dead.”
Saul recalled Wiesenthal’s explanation that he was out for justice rather than revenge, and an assurance the world would never forget: “Wiesenthal would often say, ‘Every day is remembrance day for me.'”
A refusal to bequeath collective guilt on the entire German nation made Wiesenthal a popular speaker among German youth.
The exhibit, Geft said, is a poignant reminder of a time the world would have chosen to forget, if not for Wiesenthal and a few others.
According to Saul, although Wiesenthal only achieved a 10 percent success rate on convictions, he was not daunted. It was all about the process of justice for him.
“When people view this exhibit, they should realize that not all, but a little justice was done,” Saul said.
Wiesenthal refused a salary for his work and lived instead off royalties from his books.
The 12 books he authored are displayed, along with honorary diplomas and certificates from various universities. Numerous magazine articles chronicling his work are prominent throughout the exhibit.
He was as little concerned with honors as with money. Saul recalled visiting Wiesenthal’s home and finding that he kept his medals and awards under his bed, collecting dust.
“He was however, proud of his distinguished award from the Polish government, the highest they could bestow on a citizen. It meant something to him because Poland was his homeland,” Saul said.
Some of these medals also are shown in the exhibit.
Not everyone was a fan. On display, among the letters from dignitaries and admirers, is hate mail. At least twice, bombs were placed at his doorstep.
The exhibit also portrays a private side of Wiesenthal, including his stamp collection. But this hobby found its way into his work.
“It was the stamp collecting that led him to Eichmann when he realized he could track war criminals through postmarks,” Saul said.
Geft said she hopes to create a permanent Wiesenthal exhibit as part of the Museum of Tolerance.
“Maybe some child will visit this exhibit and step forward to become another Simon Wiesenthal,” Geft said. “We encourage everyone to come and sign the book and write a message to keep his work and the memory alive.”
Saul said Wiesenthal once told him, “When I go to heaven and they ask what I did on earth, some will say ‘baker, laborer, doctor.’ I will say, ‘I never forgot you’ to the 6 million I will meet there.”
But the photos and archives also underscore Wiesenthal’s service to future generations. He once said, “The only value of nearly five decades of my work is a warning to the murderers of tomorrow, that they will never rest.”
Simon Wiesenthal Exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Free with museum admission. For more information, call (310) 553-9036 or visit
David: Great Leader or Damaged Hero?
A Bissel ‘Kvetch’ Goes a Long Way
“Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods” by Michael Wex (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95).
If you asked me whether I enjoyed Michael Wex’s hilarious and learned book, “Born to Kvetch,” I would find myself in an impossible quandary. To admit the rare pleasure I derived from reading it would be to violate what Wex argues is the very essence of Yiddish sensibility: a stubborn, cynical and often maddening refusal to concede satisfaction, with anything. So, despite my enjoyment of Wex’s fresh linguistic psychoanalysis of Yiddish culture, I am bound as a Jew to respond — aftselochis! (spitefully) — with nothing more flattering than a kvetch. Thankfully however, Wex provides a variety of ingenious Yiddish idioms whereby I might indicate approval of his work, without betraying my Yiddishkeit by “speaking goyish” — that is, by expressing satisfaction or direct, cordial flattery.
So, did I like this book, you ask?
Let me tell you: “Mayne sonim zoln nisht hano’e hobn fun a aza bukh!” (“My enemies should never enjoy such a book!”)
Wex analyzes the many ways that Yiddish — a language that has perfected the art of the curse while experiencing deep discomfort with praise — developed a strategy to deal with those rare times when a Yiddish Jew (henceforth, the “Yid”) has nothing negative, nasty or bitter to say.
Imagine, for example, that the Yid has somehow managed to spend the night with Halle Berry and is asked, “Iz zee shayn?” (“Is she pretty?”). Without lying — or risking sounding satisfied by responding in a goyish (positive) way — the Yid can turn his reluctant concession of Berry’s undeniable beauty into both a kvetch and a curse: “Mayne sonim zoln zayn azoy mees” (“My enemies should only be as ugly” [as she is pretty]).
The inquirer gets far more than he asked for, always a risk when conversing in Yiddish. Not only has he received an honest, if tortuously indirect, response to his question, but he also has learned that the Yid has bitter enemies, and he has shared in the nasty Yiddish curse that these enemies should all turn metaphysically ugly.
The “my enemies” trope is one of dozens of Yiddish expressions that Wex not only expertly translates and probes, but also psychoanalyzes with never-failing comic insight in constructing his depiction of the essential sensibilities of Yiddish, the Jews’ language of never-ending displacement, dissatisfaction, disillusion, deflation and denial. Wex argues that to understand Yiddish properly — he dubs it “the international language of nowhere” and “dybbuk-infested German for blasphemers” — one first must understand the history and sacred literature of the Jews since biblical times, with a particular focus on the long Jewish historical experience with goles, or exile.
Wex is at his best when tracing Yiddish expressions back to their Hebrew and Aramaic roots in biblical and talmudic sources, then mining their deeper meanings and what these reveal about the essential Yiddish mentalité. According to him, the history of the Jews as a people was inaugurated by what is arguably the most audacious collective kvetch in recorded civilization: Having been freed from centuries of brutal slavery by God’s spectacular plagues visited on their enslavers and then His dazzling miracles to enable their own escape from Egypt, the Jews almost immediately complain about the catering services in the Sinai desert. They’re sick of the manna, they’re thirsty, they want meat. Why couldn’t they have just stayed in Egypt, where they got free room and board, instead of having to die of starvation in the desert? Worst of all, what will the non-Jews say when they do indeed die in the desert? God responds to the Israelites’ astonishingly ungrateful kvetching with what Wex defines as the counterkvetch.
God decides to answer the Israelites’ complaints about the food in the desert by giving them something to kvetch about. The Jews want meat instead of manna? Moses tells them: “God’s going to give you meat and you’re going to eat it! Not one day or two days; not five days or 10 days or 20 days. But for a month you’re going to eat it, until it’s coming out of your noses” (Numbers 11:19-20).
Every demanding child of Yiddish-speaking parents has encountered a well-worn version of this maddening, all-purpose counter-kvetch to a simple, innocent request (though Wex doesn’t cite it explicitly). The child wants ice cream? “Ikh vell dir bald gebn ayz-kreem!” (“Oh, I’ll give you ice cream, all right!”) the parent retorts. Unlike the biblical paradigm, though, this really means “No!”
Wex contends that almost two millennia after the biblical period, Yiddish became the most effective vehicle ever to express “dos pintele Yid,” the essential spark of a Yid since ancient times, particularly that which always has differentiated him from the goy. Yiddish, more than just a language and less than most languages, embodies a skeptical state of mind, a discouraging posture and a perennially suspicious attitude toward an ever-hostile world. Yiddish is, as Wex illustrates abundantly, fundamentally a language of exile (goles) and alienation, and it has developed hundreds of expressions to convey the Yid’s jaundiced view of life, which centuries of displacement and oppression have engendered.
Beginning with a chapter on the linguistic and cultural foundations of the kvetch (“Kvetch-que C’est?”), and ending with myriad Yiddish expressions for death (“It Should Happen to You: Death in Yiddish”), Wex explores just about every aspect of exilic Jewish life, as reflected in Yiddish idiom. The chapters, “The Yiddish Curse: You Should Grow Like an Onion” and “Sex in Yiddish: Too Good for the Goyim,” are particularly rich (and shmutzig). Wex’s 10-page discussion of the various forms of corporal punishment and insults meted out to generations of Jewish children by kheyder-melamdim (Hebrew school teachers) is a fine example of the author’s ability to produce a long and ribald rant that would turn comic Dennis Miller green with envy. His long, descriptive list of the forms of assault at the melamed’s disposal (the knip, shnel, patsh, zets, klap, flem, frask and, finally, the much-dreaded khmal, whose victim will be so knocked out as to “see Cracow and Lemberg”) will have readers falling out of their chairs, as will the melamed’s extensive repertoire for demeaning his students’ intelligence. Beyond being physically assaulted, the less gifted kheyder student risked being called any, or all, of the following: nar (fool), shoyte (moron), sheygets (non-Jew), shtik fleysh mit oygen (piece of dead meat with eyes), puts mit oyren (prick with ears), puts mit a kapelyush (prick in a hat), goylem af reyder (golem on wheels) and shoyte ben pikholts (the idiot son of a woodpecker). As for the institutions of the kheyder and its melamed, Wex offers this insight:
Airless and overcrowded, full of preadolescents forced to trudge through steaming jungles of syllogisms, bubbe-mayses and kid-eating prohibitions — you can’t touch your hair while praying, you can’t pet a dog on Shabbes or go swimming during the hottest three weeks of the year — the kheyder had to be run by a combination of prison guard, exegete and child psychologist. But we’re in goles; we got the melamed instead.
Wex is a rare combination of Jewish comic and scholarly cultural analyst. Between his lines, brimming with linguistic comedy, there is a more serious message in “Born to Kvetch,” one that includes a trenchant, basically fair, critique of the earnestly humorless, secular enthusiasts of “modern Yiddish,” particularly the advocates of what is known as klal shprakh — the standardized version of the language invented mainly for academic purposes by the founders of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. While klal shprakh certainly fulfills an important need for, say, classroom instruction, it is not, never was and, Wex argues, can never be an adequate replacement for the idiomatic, natural, mimetic Yiddish of native speakers, so steeped in what Yiddish’s greatest scholar, Max Weinreich, famously coined, “derekh ha-Shas,” (the pathways of the Talmud). Other than a handful of klal shprakh devotees — described by Wex as “strident nudniks talking to their children as if they were all speaking Yiddish on ‘Meet the Press'” — most of today’s native Yiddish speakers are Chasidim of Hungarian origin, whose Yiddish is incomprehensible to those who know only klal shprakh. And, as Wex wryly observes: “Klal shprakh has adherents; Chasidim have babies.”
The vexing (or, should I say “Wexing”?) problem that lovers of Yiddish must face after reading this marvelous book is: What kind of a future might this bountiful and beautiful language — one that, Wex observes, “likes to argue with everybody about everything” — have in an America of catastrophic Jewish cultural loss? In this era of unprecedented Jewish success and comfort, when most Jews desire little more than to imagine that their long and bitter exile — whose conditions nurtured all that is so rich, moving and comical about Yiddish — is a thing of the past, and when the main association most American Jews have with Yiddish is happy, campy klezmer music, can we find a way (to paraphrase Jesse Jackson) to “keep kvetch alive?”
Article reprinted courtesy The Forward.
Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University, and a consultant for academic affairs at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
David: Great Leader or Damaged Hero?
Spectator – Lessing’s Shots of Liberty
Erich Lessing received his first camera when he exited the synagogue from his bar mitzvah in Vienna in 1936.
“There was no idea of taking up photography as a profession,” said Lessing, 82, from his house in Austria. “In a good Jewish family in Vienna you would only be a lawyer or a doctor.”
But the camera stayed with Lessing when he left Austria for Israel in 1939 to escape the Nazis. There he took photographs for the British army. When he returned to Austria in 1947, he started working as a photojournalist. His interest was the newly communist Eastern Europe, and the photographs he took in Austria and in Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 have become Cold War icons.
For one week, starting Sept. 25, a selection of Lessing’s photographs of Austria will go on display at the Beverly Hills Country Club in conjunction with Austrian American Day. The exhibition, titled “From Liberation to Liberty” includes images famously emblematic of the period, such as “Four in a Jeep” — a photograph of four military policeman, one each from the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union, a symbol of the post-war occupation in Austria.
Lessing did not stay with this reportage: “After the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, all the photographers who had been there saw that it was not our documents that were changing political decisions. I do not want to downgrade the influence of photography — the photography at the end of the Vietnam War was very influential. But it took another 50 years for the end of communism in Europe.”
In 1960, Lessing started taking photographic “evocations” of the lives of great poets, musicians and scientists, often taking still photographs of their work in museums. The result was more than 30,000 photographs of art, history and archeology that have filled 40 books. But his seminal work remains the photographs of the 1940s and ’50s.
“I found it a very strange title, being dubbed the photographer of the Cold War,” he said. “But I think it is true.”
“From Liberation to Liberty,” will be on display at the Beverly Hills Country Club, 3084 Motor Ave., as part of the Austrian-American Day Celebration. For more information, call (310) 444-9310.
The Curious Little Monkey’s Tale
More Love and Lust From the Bible
“The Song of Hannah” by Eva Etzioni-Halevy (Plume, $14).
Biblical fiction is enjoying a renaissance. Some say it began in 1998, with Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent” — a fictionalized account from Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, of daily life with her aunt Rachel and mother Leah. For the last few years, writers have started mining the Bible for similar stories — that they could rewrite into a Harlequin-type romance, replete with heaving bosoms and burning loins. The stories of Queen Esther and matriarchs Sarah and Rebecca, to name a few, have been rewritten in this manner.
The latest addition is “The Song of Hannah,” Eva Etzioni-Halevy’s debut novel about the mother of Samuel the prophet, the man who anointed both King Saul and King David. Hannah earned her own place in Jewish history through the power of her prayer. Bereft at not conceiving children, Hannah went to God’s tabernacle in Shiloh and prayed for a son, promising God that if He would grant her a son, she would give him up to serve God for all the days of his life.
The presence of Hannah and her husband, Elkanah, in the biblical text is brief — the account is written in 28 sentences in Chapter 1 of Samuel I, while her famous “song of joy” is 10 sentences in Chapter 2.
“The Song of Hannah” as imagined by Etzioni-Halevy, tells the story of two women — Hannah and Peninah, Elkanah’s other wife — and its chapters alternate between their two voices. It is essentially the tale of two young women who find themselves wedded to a faithless husband, in a community where women have few rights. Although both women are scribes, their status depends on Elkanah, who is portrayed as a cruel, polygamous beast and expects servile obedience, while he sleeps with and impregnates his many maids. The only reason he marries Peninah (in the novel) is because he has impregnated her out of wedlock. And at their wedding, he spies out Hannah and starts wooing her. Soon after he marries Peninah — once she is pregnant with their child — he tells her that there will soon be three in the family, and no, he is not referring to the fetus she carries. He means Hannah, who is Peninah’s childhood friend.
He marries Hannah, giving her a far more beautiful bedroom than Peninah, and his relationship with his wives, and their relationship with each other, is forever tinged with jealousy and some bitterness. Peninah satisfies Elkanah’s lust, but he loves Hannah. Yet his love for her doesn’t stop him from sleeping with the maids (whom he admits mean nothing to him) or from spending most nights of the week in Peninah’s room.
The book has some feminist points: As many characters point out — it’s unfair that ancient Israel was a polygamous society but not a polyandrous one. Of course, what the author does not say is that had that society been polyandrous, a person’s paternity could never have been established.
But Elkanah is not the only character who needs to repent. The book is full of sex — and purple prose. Perhaps the best pick-up line is by a priest to Hannah: “Come with me and I will show you how beneficial my priestly blessing, my triple priestly blessing, can be.”
Peninah takes a lover of her own, and Hannah helps her keep the secret from Elkanah. Meanwhile, Hannah’s son, the prophet Samuel, grows up and marries a woman whom he impregnated before their wedding, and then falls in love with Peninah. In this ancient Israel, all the men, it seems, lust after women who are not their wives, while the idol trade does good business among the sinning multitudes.
Etzioni-Halevy, a professor emeritus of political sociology at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, admits that there is no evidence in the Torah for Samuel’s attraction to Peninah (nor is there evidence of him getting his wife pregnant before he married her), and the description of Elkanah as an imperious, lustful cad is at odds with the Elkanah of Samuel I. Traditional commentators note that Hannah was Elkanah’s first wife, not his second, and it was only at Hannah’s urging — because she saw that she was barren, that Elkanah took a second wife. Elkanah was, according to tradition, kind to Hannah and a God-fearing man, who bought his children to God’s tabernacle in Shiloh because he wanted to instill in them fear of God.
“The Song of Hannah” might inspire readers to study the source, but as biblically inspired material, such books can come across as either religiously superficial or so filled with melodramatic guesswork that their value as something more than light entertainment is open to question. Taken seriously, it’s a fairly dispiriting look at the origins of Judaism — presenting our forefathers and mothers as adulterers and worse. Perhaps the next wave of biblical fiction will have something deeper and better to offer.
Eva Etzioni-Halevy will be appearing Sept. 20, at 7:30 p.m. at the Jewish Community Library, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Free, but reservations required at (323) 761-8644 or email@example.com.
Like Some ‘Guilt’ With Your Chick Lit?
A Rhythmic Spin on Boyle Heights’ History
Choreographer Heidi Duckler drove around Boyle Heights one day, in search of her next project and “feeling that my heart was in this community.” Suddenly, she saw a building with a striking dome and “I just knew it had to be a synagogue,” she recalls.
Sure enough, Duckler had stumbled upon a community center called the Casa del Mexicano, a former synagogue from 1914 until 1930, when it became the property of the Mexican Consulate.
“This building has been used for so many things,” she says. “It’s a survivor that adapts to its community.”
Called “the reigning queen of site-specific dance performance” by the Los Angeles Times, Duckler brought her dancers to the Casa del Mexicano and began to develop “The Entire World Is a Narrow Bridge.” The latest project by Duckler’s Collage Dance Theatre and titled after the talmudic adage, the dance, which premieres in early October, explores the unique history of Boyle Heights, while addressing the more universal issues of immigration and demographic shifts in communities.
With more than 40 works in her 20-year-old company’s repertory, Duckler has been a prominent choreographic force in Los Angeles, which according to the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, houses more than 100 nonprofit dance companies. And while certainly smaller than what’s found in New York, the L.A. modern dance scene continues to grow. On a fairly regular basis, both local and visiting choreographers show their work at venues like Highways, Electric Lodge or at the cutting edge Redcat in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Upcoming performances range from the fifth annual SOLA Contemporary Dance Festival in Torrance Nov. 4-7 to the acclaimed Montreal-based modern troupe, Compagnie Marie Chouinard, at Royce Hall Oct. 7-8.
Opportunities to view Jewish-themed dance by contemporary choreographers, however, do not occur every day and, in the case of Duckler, “Narrow Bridge” represents the first time she has explored issues of Jewish identity.
“The idea behind this piece is that often, when there’s a constant flow of immigration, no one remembers the history of who came here first and how did they arrive there,” she says over coffee at a Brentwood cafe. “Also, it’s a tribute to Boyle Heights, which I find so colorful. There’s the Hispanic community and remnants of this Jewish community, and if you talk to the old timers who live there they all remember things differently.”
Though Duckler interviewed longtime Boyle Heights denizens, including residents of a nursing home and consulted various books, old maps and Jewish scholars, she could not find further clues to Casa’s history.
“We know that the building was originally supposed to be a church but no one knows how it became a synagogue,” she says. “It’s a real mystery.”
Performed earlier this summer as a work-in-progress, “Narrow Bridge” featured dancers who are initially dressed like Chasidim as they leap over each other’s backs, roll on the floor and perform the more classic gestures of Jewish prayer, like beating the chest and swaying while standing. Later, they add colorful Mexican belts that punctuated their dark outfits and they pay more attention to the rope bridge in the center of the room. Three dancers hurl themselves over to one side of the bridge. One dancer lingers behind. Another dancer hangs upside down from the bridge. Meanwhile, a dignified couple in traditional Mexican costume start to waltz.
The dance also features music by Robert Een that is performed by a Mariachi band and draws upon both Latin and klezmer influences, while the audience is encouraged to participate in a responsive reading. Duckler’s still not sure where the audience will sit.
“We haven’t finished exploring the building,” she says. “What’s key to the process is that the dancers come into the space and they start to get physical with it. I tell them to leap off the stage, test the strength of the balcony. The movement comes from integrating into the environment of the space.”
Duckler, who grew up in Portland, Ore., and did plenty of ballet as a child, eschewed the idea of a conventional dance career early on.
“Dance was my medium but I couldn’t relate to a lot of it,” she says of her college experiences as a student at Reed College and the University of Oregon. “I wasn’t into looking at myself in the mirror or performing in little black box theaters. That seemed so confining.”
Interested in pop culture and the work of artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Duckler, who received a masters in dance from UCLA, knew she wanted to create the type of dance that forged a connection with the outside world. Her first work, “Laundromatinee,” took place at a Santa Monica Laundromat and dancers spun in dryers and dove into washing machines as they explored the plight of the housewife. The venues of her ensuing works have ranged from the Los Angeles River to an automotive repair shop to the Ambassador Hotel.
“My work is never about just lyrical abstraction,” Duckler says. “I’m always looking at a greater story, whether it’s psychological, cultural or political.”
Duckler maintains “it’s serendipitous” that she’s presently dealing with Jewish themes. Yet, “I’ve already explored my other identities, such as being a wife or artist,” she observes. “I guess it was time to deal with the Jewish one.”
Collage Dance Theatre performs “The Entire World Is a Narrow Bridge” Oct. 7-9 and 20-23 at the Casa del Mexicano, 2900 Calle Pedro Infante, Boyle Heights. Fri. and Sat. 7 and 9 p.m.; and Sun. at 7 p.m. Special benefit on Oct. 6. Tickets $25-$40. For information, visit www.collagedancetheatre.org.
‘Fear of Unknown’ Enters Pop Culture
Spectator – The Great ‘Wall’ of Israel
Simone Bitton’s new documentary, “Wall,” opens with long, meandering shots of the Israeli security fence, the great concrete and barbed-wire structure that straddles more than 450 miles of land in Israel’s disputed territories.
As the camera lingers on the wall, the disembodied voices of two Israeli children are heard talking to the filmmaker.
“We shoot the Arabs from there,” one says of the wall.
“No,” says the other. “The Arabs shoot at us.”
“Who shoots at whom?” the filmmaker asks them, and they have no answer.
What Bitton tries to establish in this scene, and indeed throughout the rest of the film, is that notions of security are murky and propagandistic (despite the fact that since the construction began on the fence in 2003, the government says that terror attacks were reduced by 90 percent) while what she sees as the devastation of the wall is real. For Bitton and most of her subjects, the wall is something that concurrently, divides friends, separates farmers from their land, creates a prison (of Gaza), ruins the environment and prevents people from getting to work.
Though Bitton interviews both Israelis and Arabs, none of her subjects has been personally affected by the terror attacks that caused the wall to be built in the first place.
Bitton intersperses her interviews with both Israelis and Arabs with excruciating shots of the wall itself — concrete sections being craned into place, giant bulldozers shoveling gravel, and buffering them all is the ambient soundtrack of machinery and helicopters humming loudly and obnoxiously.
Bitton, a French filmmaker who has made seven other documentaries about the histories and cultures of the Middle East and North Africa, considers herself an “Arab Jew.” She said that she made the film because “The very idea of a wall erected between Israelis and Palestinians tore me apart…. I felt this wall would be insurmountable for all the good-willed people like myself, while creating hundreds of new suicide bombers.”
Her film, she said, “is an act of resistance [against the wall]”
“I identify myself with [Israel], because I, too, am a Jew and an Arab at one and the same time,” Bitton said. “Judaism is part of this country’s history, but one day, Israelis must agree to become a little Arabic, too. That day, the walls will come tumbling down.”
“Wall” opens in Los Angeles on Sept. 23 at the Laemmle Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 477-5581 or visit
‘Fear of Unknown’ Enters Pop Culture
Righteous Anger Fuels ‘Auschwitz’
“Escaping Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting” by Ruth Linn (Cornell University Press, $20).
There is a fierce anger at the core of Ruth Linn’s work, the anger of a woman who suddenly and irrefutably discovers that the story she has been told by her Israeli teachers, Israeli society and Israeli culture from childhood onward regarding the Holocaust is but a partial narrative. Her teachers selected materials from the events of Holocaust history to fortify Zionist ideology, to reinforce the importance of Israel and to indoctrinate a new generation. This unraveling of her seemingly naïve trust in her elders revolves around one of the truly important and fascinating events of the Holocaust.
On April 7, 1944, two men, Rudolph Vrba (Walter Rosenberg) and Alfred Wetzler, escaped from Auschwitz and made their way to Slovakia. There, with the help of the Jewish Working Group, they wrote a report, complete with maps, detailing what had occurred at Auschwitz over the past two years and the plans — soon to be realized — for the deportation of Hungarian Jews, who were deported en mass only weeks thereafter. Their report made its way from Slovakia to Hungary, where Hungarian Jewish leaders had a clear idea of what indeed was happening at Auschwitz — mass murder — before the deportations. Those leaders chose not to share this information with ordinary Hungarian Jews who reported for the trains not knowing that “resettlement in the East” was deportation to death factories and who didn’t know what Auschwitz was.
As Elie Wiesel wrote in his memoir “Night”: “Auschwitz, we had never heard the name.”
Many Hungarian Jews, young and old, echo his statement. Vrba’s work has been translated into many languages, but not into Hebrew until 1999. Why? Vrba had not been honored by Israel until he received a doctorate honoris causa from the University of Haifa due to Linn’s initiative. Why?
The story of Vrba is well-known in the West. Claude Lanzmann interviewed him at length in his classic film “Shoah.” I personally published the Vrba-Wetzler Report in my collection of Holocaust documents “Witness to the Holocaust,” and his report formed a centerpiece of “Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp” (Indiana University, 1998), which I co-edited with Israel Gutman, and “Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It” (St. Martins, 2000), which I co-edited with Michael Neufeld, based on an international conference held at the Air and Space Museum honoring the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993. Vrba was a featured speaker at a 1994 conference on Hungarian Jewry and his words from the Lanzmann interview are permanently inscribed in the Museum’s exhibition at a pivotal point just when one exits the box car. They are nothing less than poetic.
There was a place called the ramp where trains with Jews were coming in.
They were coming day and night,
Sometimes one per day and sometimes five per day
From all sorts of places in the world.
I worked there from August 18, 1942 to June 7, 1943.
I saw those transports rolling one after another,
And I have seen at least 200 of them in this position.
Constantly, people from the heart of Europe were disappearing,
And they were arriving to the same place,
With the same ignorance of the fate of the previous transport.
I knew that within a couple of hours after they arrived there 90 percent would be gassed.
Linn’s anger, however justified, seems quite innocent and quite naïve. For decades now, a new generation of Israeli historians have challenged the “preferred narrative” — to use the term developed by Edward Linenthal in his masterful work “Preserving History: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Memorial” — developed by earlier historians who sought to present the past in a manner that is conducive to creating a national future. If anything, the historian that Linn criticizes so intensely, Yehuda Bauer (and to a lesser extent Gutman), has been more open and more willing to stray from the Zionist historiography than the generational that preceded him.
The Psalmist proclaimed: “By the Rivers of Babylon we sat and we wept as we remembered Zion.”
The place from which we remember an event shapes the manner in which it is recalled.
For the past two decades, the divergence of national historiography relating to the Holocaust has been the subject of intense historical scrutiny in Germany, Austria, the United States, France, Israel, Sweden and Switzerland. In the 15 years since the demise of communism and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the countries of Eastern Europe — Poland and Hungary in particular — have rewritten their history of the Holocaust to better serve a free people and to better comport with the evidence. Even as this review is being written, Romania is going through that agonizing task as an international commission — chaired by Wiesel and featuring the work of Radu Ioanid, a Romanian immigrant to the United States — investigates Romania’s role in killing its Jews.
Anger has its place. Linn shakes up the Israeli status quo. She reminds us — within months of the opening of the new Yad Vashem Museum that will retell the story of the Holocaust to a new generation of Israelis who now are more than a 60 years from the event — that the Israeli perspective, however important, is limited and must be balanced by other presentations of the very same history. Linn points out that the decision not to translate certain books into Hebrew such as Vrba’s memoirs, Hilberg’s masterpiece “The Destruction of the European Jews” (Holmes and Meier, 1985) and Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (Penguin, 1994) limits what an Israeli public can understand of the Holocaust. Still, to a younger generation of Israelis whose English is fluent — and to Israeli scholars who want to make their reputation by writing in English for the international community — there is a press to present a broader history.
Her role in understanding the importance of the Vrba report is also limited. She does not seem to know the way in which it changed a June decision of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem not to press for the bombing of Auschwitz since that would result in the death of innocent Jewish non-combatants incarcerated there. Yet one month later in London, Moshe Shertok (later Sharret) and Chaim Weizmann were pressing for the bombing and secured the support of Winston Churchill who told Anthony Eden “get what you can out of the Air Force and invoke my name if necessary.” She also does not seem to know the role that it played in the U.S. War Refugee Board forwarding a request to bomb Auschwitz to the War Department, which led to the famed — infamous — reply by John J. McCloy in August 1944. The full text of the report was not available in the United States until November.
The work is interesting. Her passion is genuine. Her disappointment is apparent throughout. Righteous anger fuels her work, righteous anger, but still limited learning.
Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and the co-editor of “The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It?”
My Seder With Brando
Kilmer’s Moses a Real ‘Ten’
When Val Kilmer talks about his new role in the small, bare room that is his office on the Paramount lot, he sounds more like a Bible class teacher than a participant in a multimillion-dollar extravaganza.
“It’s hard to imagine what a culture is like when a human thinks they’re God,” he said, referring to Pharaoh. “And people react [to that] from a foundation of fear. It’s amazing that Moses was able to do what he did, and that clarity of intensive righteousness that he had, and how selflessly he assumed the role of leader that he didn’t want. That is what characterizes him as extraordinary.”
Kilmer plays Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” the new musical version of the Exodus story, which is set to open at the Kodak Theatre on Sept. 27. His philosophical musings are typical of those of the main players behind the show. While the trend in recent popular musicals has been to give audiences a good time in the most facile way possible, “The Ten Commandments” aims to be wholly entertaining but primarily inspirational and educational.
“It’s so hard to find a story that lends itself to speak to a generation, but people do want to be entertained and they don’t want to be preached to,” said Robert Iscove, the show’s director. “We are trying to get our message across in a highly educated and entertaining way.”
The message of the show, as Iscove describes it, is: “Faith will not divide us, only our fear will. We are all the same underneath the skin, and without all agreeing on a code of behavior, anarchy rules. The only time we don’t grow and follow our spirituality is when our individual Pharaoh is ruling us.”
That message is one of the reasons that producers Charles Cohen and Max Azria decided to launch the production.
Cohen, who was the senior acquisitions adviser for Europe to SFX, the company that is now Clear Channel Entertainment, originally saw the “Le Dix Commandements” in France, where it was the most successful musical ever produced in that country. It ended up playing to audiences of more than 2.2 million over 17 months, and selling 11 million copies of the soundtrack and 1.2 million copies of the DVD.
When Cohen saw the production, he was mesmerized by its scale, extravagant special effects, heartwarming and heart-pumping score and inspirational underpinnings. He loved it so much that he invested in it, and he also started thinking about how he could bring the French production to an English-speaking audience in the United States. He brought his friend, Azria, the designer behind clothing label BCBG, in to see the show in Paris, and together they started a musical production company to get “The Ten Commandments” to America.
In the international exchange, Cohen and Azria ended up revamping the show completely. They recruited Patrick Leonard, who produced the soundtracks to “Moulin Rouge” and “Legally Blonde,” to write the new music, and Emmy-award winning songwriter Maribeth Derry to write the new lyrics.
“In America we knew that it was a different ballgame altogether,” Cohen said. “We decided to change the scenic aspects, the costumes, the designs and the composition of the lyric. A new book [script] was written, we had new choreography, and different, much bigger special effects. It’s the same story, but a new show.”
Cohen won’t disclose the exact figure he and Azria put into the production, except to say that it is “many millions of dollars.”
“We are much over [the budget of] a regular Broadway production,” he said. “We have 52 people on stage, and our show becomes bigger and bigger every day. Two months ago we didn’t know that Kilmer was going to be on board, and we tripled our special effects budget. It is huge. We cannot give numbers, but those numbers are going up every day.”
“The Ten Commandments” is the largest show to originate in Los Angeles. It is booked for 90 days at the 3,400-seat Kodak Theatre, and after that it will travel to Radio City Music Hall in New York, before beginning a national tour.
Of course, “The Ten Commandments” has a long history of being a “big” production.
The original giving of the Ten Commandments more than 5,000 years ago, where 600,000 Israelites saw the revelation of God, is the historical event that for many Jews establishes the authenticity of Judaism.
When Cecil B. DeMille decided to retell the story on screen in 1956, starring Charlton Heston as both Moses and God, it was billed as “The greatest event in motion picture history.”
Iscove said that his musical is significantly different from DeMille’s film.
“A lot of the effects back then were very anachronistic, and the style of acting is different, and the message to a ’50s generation is stricter and more rigid,” he said. “There is also more feminism [in this retelling]. We do a lot about the pain of the women in the story, Ziporrah [Moses’ wife], Yochebed [Moses’ mother] and Bithia [Pharaoh’s daughter who saved Moses from drowning and then raised him in the palace.] Zipporah is a much stronger woman [in this production] than she was in the 1950s.”
The musical tells the story of how Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s house, alongside Ramses (Kevin Earley), who is Pharaoh’s son. Ramses becomes the next Pharaoh who refuses to free the Israelites from their slavery, and Moses is the brave leader who defies him to bring the Israelites to freedom.
“The story is very close to the Bible,” Iscove said. “Two people were raised in the same house, given all the same privileges, and one finds his humanity and follows his spiritual path and the other rejects his humanity and his heart gets hardened by God. It is only by Moses recognizing his humanity that he became the leader of the three great religions.”
Iscove said that Kilmer, who in the past has had a reputation of being difficult with directors, is “terrific” as Moses.
“He is becoming Moses, and the leader of this company,” Iscove said. “He is adopting Moses. Moses is a gentle soul, and he has been very much a gentle soul in this.”
This production is Kilmer’s second turn as Moses. His first was with the 1998 DreamWorks animated film “The Prince of Egypt.”
For Kilmer, the role is an extension of the weekly Bible readings that he does for his local Christian Science congregation in his home state of New Mexico.
“I get a lot of satisfaction from reading the Bible and sharing stories that matter with my community,” he said. “Playing Moses is bound to have some effect on me and anyone else involved in this story, and hopefully the audience will be affected too.”
“The Ten Commandments” opens Sept. 27 at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood and Highland. Previews begin Sept. 21. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at (213) 365-3500. For more information, visit www.the10com.com or call (323) 308-6363.
Valuable Art From a Disregarded People
A Great Beginning
When Ed Block’s father died three years ago, he and his siblings were left to look for keepsakes while disposing of the contents of his Florida home. When opening a large, flat box stored in a closet, they were flooded by memories of their father, ever eager to show off a possession prized for 30 years: an unframed lithograph series by Abraham Rattner, a contemporary Jewish American painter.
"He loved to show them," said Block, of Laguna Hills. "But he never figured out what to do with it," he said of the collection. "He didn’t want to split them all up" between his three children.
In vivid primary colors with figures drawn in bold, black strokes, the 12 large pictures in the series titled, "In the Beginning," depict seminal moments of Jewish biblical history, along with an appropriate citation and quote. Several suggest the dreamy fantasies of Chagall; others are painted with a dark, foreboding cubism in a style reminiscent of Picasso. Just 200 were printed in the early ’70s.
Among the biblical characters portrayed are Moses at the burning bush, Adam and Eve and Sampson and Delilah. The abstract lithographs mounted in contemporary frameless Lucite will be permanently displayed on the second floor of the synagogue under a vast skylight.
The collection can be viewed through Aug. 27 in the current exhibit at the Kershaw Museum in Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El. The modernist series aptly fits Beth El’s contemporary architecture, reborn after an extensive remodeling from its original industrial use. The congregation relocated from trailers in 2001.
Block’s father owned the lithograph collection, because he was a childhood friend of Rattner’s publisher, New York art dealer Bill Haber.
After his father’s death in February 2001, neither Block nor his two siblings, Cheryl Gelber and Marilyn Harvey, were ready to hang the collection in their homes. Eventually, they decided to celebrate their father by making the collection a gift to Beth El. Jo Anne Simon, whose family helped establish the synagogue, served as an intermediary.
"I wanted it close to home so I could go and visit it," said Block, a physician. He and Lori, his wife, are 15-year synagogue members. His own artistic preference favors the realism of Israeli artist Tarkay, who sentimentally portrays women in vibrant scenes.
Recent appraisals valued the collection, one of Rattner’s lesser known works, at about $15,000, Block said. "It’s not that valuable. Its value is that it’s intact."
Individual prints from the series can be found for sale but not the entire collection, he said. Alan Wofsy Fine Art in San Francisco acquired Rattner’s portfolio a decade ago and currently lists signed and numbered lithographs made by the artist in the last decade of his life for $400 each.
In the decade that preceded Rattner’s biblical series, the artist’s work began reflecting religious themes and his Jewish heritage. One of his best known from that era is "Victory — Jerusalem the Golden," honoring Israel’s 20th anniversary of independence.
Rattner was born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. His parents were immigrants who came to the United States to flee anti-Semitism and czarist Russia. Work by the artist, who died in 1978, was widely exhibited in his lifetime and is included in several museum collections.
His personal papers and those of his second wife, Esther Gentle, are archived in the Smithsonian’s collections, in part because of Rattner’s friendships with some of the century’s most creative luminaries. After serving in World War I, where duty included painting camouflage, Rattner spent 20 formative years in Paris, a cultural center for disillusioned expatriates. He experimented with cubism, futurism and expressionism, which would inform his later work that pushed the boundaries of artistic tradition.
During that period in Paris, he was part of a group that included Picasso, Dali and Miro and writers such as Henry Miller, a friend for 40 years who would join the artist on a road trip in the United States.
The introduction to "In the Beginning" is by the artist’s dealer. Haber wrote, "The 12 scenes symbolize man’s aspirations, his triumphs and defeats, his wisdom, his folly, his hopes and his prayers. There is no end to ‘In the Beginning.’"
Miller, too, added an introductory comment: "I’m so happy to see that with the advance of time, my dear old friend, Abe Rattner, continues to reveal that exaltation of spirit. He has the uncommon faculty of combining wrath, biblical wrath, with ecstasy. His work speaks of a living God, a God of infinite compassion and understanding. It belongs not in the museum, but in the cathedral of a new and promising world."
At least by one measure, Miller’s comments proved prophetic. For sure, Beth El’s remodeling transformed a secular environment into a public space with cathedral-like qualities.
UC Irvine Graduation Clash Fizzles
"Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought" by David N. Myers (Princeton University Press, $29.95).
It is a rare exception to find a scholarly volume penned by an academic that speaks with such a resoundingly relevant message to the popular community at large. Professor David N. Myers’ "Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought" is one of those pleasant exceptions.
What does it mean to "resist history"? What is "historicism," and why would there be "discontents" toward historicism in German Jewish thought, or in any intellectual society? Myers refers to the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as having been opposed "to the kind of historical thinking that reduced human experience to a long series of disconnected moments." In Jewish terms, "historicism and its discontents" means that when a Jew enters a synagogue on Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), the day that is traditionally fixed as a day of mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the rabbi tells his congregants that "today’s mourning includes the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, plus the expulsion from Spain in 1492, plus the Holocaust," and that all of these tragedies are linked as part of God’s "Divine plan for the Jewish people," the traditionalist (anti-historicist) takes solace in knowing that "in every generation, they seek to destroy us, but the Holy One Blessed be He saves us from them."
The historicist in the congregation understands that while it is religiously enticing to view these tragedies as part of a larger "divine picture," the proper academic understanding of these events involves studying each one as an independent event, each with its own unique set of social, political and economic circumstances, void of any theological implications. To a traditionalist, the rabbi’s interpretation of Tisha B’Av is deeply inspirational, while the historian’s explanations would seem cold and void of any spiritual message. To the historicist, the rabbi’s interpretation is theology, not history, and a proper academic analysis of the various "Tisha B’Av tragedies" would ultimately make more sense to the rational mind.
Myers writes of four German Jewish intellectuals who each, in his own unique way, resisted the strong wave of historicism that was capturing the minds of intellectual German Jews during the 19th century. Philosophers Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosensweig, political leader Leo Strauss and Orthodox Rabbi Isaac Breuer were each passionate opponents of historicism.
I write a review of Myers’ book not as a professional historian with the academic qualifications of adequately critiquing the particulars of his arguments, but as a community rabbi and educator who is continuously challenged with the tension of maintaining Judaism’s traditional theological beliefs in the face of modern academic and scientific research. I write this review as a teacher of Torah who faces the challenge of merging the midrashic wisdom of Rashi with the modern insights of academic Bible scholars and archaeologists. Within my mind, the rational historicist prevails, but within my soul, I hear the voices of Cohen, Rosensweig, Strauss and Breuer.
By examining the lives and writings of these four particular thinkers, whose styles, philosophies and religious orientations are so diverse, Myers demonstrates that the tension between historicism and anti-historicism crosses all denominational and political lines. The fact that three of the four are not Orthodox (Cohen, Rosensweig and Strauss) shatters the conveniently prevalent myth that this tension is limited to a struggle between Orthodox and liberal Jews. Thanks to Myers’ book, we now understand that this tension is not between opposite poles of Jewish theology, rather it is between those who wish to view Jewish history through spiritual lenses — e.g., Max Dimont’s book "Jews, God and History" (Mentor Books, 1994) — versus those who wish to study Jewish history through the less than spiritual lenses of sociology, politics, economics and archaeology.
As a recent manifestation of this tension, Myers cites Rabbi David Wolpe’s now-famous sermon about the historicity of the exodus. Wolpe’s sermon, delivered from his Sinai Temple pulpit on Passover 2001, and the controversy that it generated, serve as a lucid reminder that the tension between historicism and its discontents is alive and well within current Jewish circles.
Like all scholarly volumes, Myers’ book is a challenging read but, in this case, one that is well worth the effort. The intricacies of scholarly lingo are softened by the author’s bold admission in his introduction that his interest in this subject is not a matter of dispassionate scholarly concern, but a reflection of his own personal tensions of living within "the academy and the shul," so to speak.
Myers’ book brilliantly addresses the tension that many Jews — scholar, rabbi, educator and lay person alike — face every day. This is therefore an important read for all of us, as it will continue to help facilitate the important dialogue on how we honestly live with and address these theological tensions within our congregations and classrooms, and within our minds and souls.
Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.
Is Gaza Becoming the Next Lebanon?
Polish City Unveils Its Jewish History
Czestochowa is known around the world as the site of the Jasna Góra Monastery, a pilgrimage place for Poles and other Catholics who flock there to see the famous painting of the Black Madonna.
Soon, residents also will be able to learn about local Jewish history. An exhibition on the subject, based on materials from the town archives, will open for a three-month run later this month in Czestochowa, before traveling to several larger Polish cities.
Behind the newfound interest in Czestochowa’s Jews is a long story of cooperation. Two years ago, Jerzy Mizgalski, historian and dean of the local Pedagogical Institute, was doing research in the city archives, when he found thousands of documents and photographs dating as far back as 1618 connected to Czestochowa’s Jewish history.
He elicited the help of Elizabeth Mundlak, a professor of thermodynamics living in Venezuela, who was born to Jewish parents in Czestochowa and rescued by Christians during the Holocaust. Together, they conceived of an exhibition to display the archives and tell the story of the Jewish history of Czestochowa.
Before World War II, Czestochowa was home to 30,000 Jews, about one-third of the city’s population. Today there are 37 Jews living in the city.
After his find in the municipal archives, Mizgalski decided to teach a course on Jewish history, expecting about 35 students — but 400 signed up.
Mizgalski and Mundlak moved forward with their plans for the exhibition, and Mundlak approached two American businessmen and cousins, Sigmund Rolat and Alan Silberstein, to underwrite the project. The exhibition is co-sponsored by the city of Czestochowa and the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
Three days after the Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, launching World War II, they were in Czestochowa, Silberstein said. During the war, the city was a centralized concentration point where Jews living in smaller towns were sent.
A large ghetto was established, and then a smaller one which eventually was liquidated. Jews were deported mostly to the Treblinka concentration camp, but some were put in the HASAG forced labor camp in Czestochowa.
With no precedent for an event that encompasses such a long history in Czestochowa, the group was free to be creative. They wanted to be sure that the archives showed the broad range of Jewish people and practices, from the more "quaint, religious" Jews to the fully assimilated ones, like Rolat.
"I was called a goy," Rolat remembers.
The team obtained the help of Czestochowa’s mayor, Tadeusz Wrona, who said, "It’s important for the younger generation to look at the past and future, a future that should be created together. We should look not to a future concentrating on prejudice and stereotypes but creating a future free of this."
The mayor agreed to use city funds to help restore the local Jewish cemetery.
The cemetery is accessed through the gates of the large steel mill that grew up around it, and which has afforded it a measure of protection. A month ago, the cemetery was "a jungle," said Rolat. Now, workers are clearing trees and cleaning the landscape in a way not to disturb the graves.
The restoration comes just in time for the exhibition, which will open April 21 for three months and then travel to Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw. The exhibition and accompanying academic symposium are titled, "Coexistence, Holocaust, Memory."
In addition to the rededicating of the cemetery, events will include a film premiere, Klezmer music, a military commemoration ceremony and a performance by the Czestochowa Symphony Orchestra, which will take place in what is now Philharmonic Hall. Before it was burned in World War II, the philharmonic building was the New Synagogue.
Above all, the backers hope to convey a program that is about Jewish life, not Jewish death.
Standing in the cemetery, Mizgalski said, "You can’t talk about the history of a Polish city without mentioning the one-third that were Jewish. The Germans wanted the memory of Jews to be erased. But we’re not allowed to forget."
For more information, contact Stan Steinreich at (212) 786-6077 or (201) 982-2373.
Caribbean Cruise Kosher Style
‘L-Words’ in a J World
The 2000 book “Best Lesbian Erotica” includes Jewish writer Joan Nestle’s short story and its provocative, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination title referencing sex with World War II pinup Rita Hayworth.
“Desire and passion are a very big part of my life. I am a Jewish woman and I refuse to give up that part of my territory,” said the 63-year-old author of short stories in the anthologies “Queers Jews” “The Oy of Sex” and “Friday the Rabbi Wore Lace.”
It is two decades of work from such writers that is being honored Sunday at the USC-affiliated gay and lesbian ONE Institute & Archives. The event celebrates ONE’s long-running Lesbian Writers Series and also coincides with the institute’s Feb. 29-April 10 photo exhibit, “Image from Sapphic L.A.’s Photography Community.”
Nestle is one of many Jewish lesbian writers with work catalogued at ONE, an archive similar to New York’s Lesbian Herstory Archive, which Nestle co-founded in 1973.
“I’m a secular Jew, but memory is how I live the history of the Jewish people as I know it,” she told The Journal.
Other Jewish writers to be highlighted at Sunday’s retrospective include Alice Bloch, Elizabeth Nonas and Robin Podolsky, an aide to state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles).
For writer Sarah Schulman, crafting stories about her sexual identity has isolated her from prominent publishers.
“It’s not because I’m Jewish, it’s the gay part,” Schulman said. “It’s very hard to know what I would do if I felt free. I’ve had so many problems with censorship that I write very defensively at this point.”
For a lesbian writer, she said, isolation also can be felt through Judaism’s family-centric institutions.
“Women are supposed to reproduce the Jewish culture,” Schulman said. “It’s one of the few cultures that has no role for single people.”
Nestle said Schulman seeks, and deserves, popular acclaim that older Jewish lesbian writers like her are not as drawn to.
“She has a sense of entitlement that is perhaps much more healthy than mine,” Nestle said. “I’ve never been really bothered by competing identities but I don’t expect my work to be ‘mainstream.'”
“20 Years of L-Words!” will be held Sunday, March 28 , 2
p.m.-4 p.m. ONE Institute & Archives, 909 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles. For
more information, call (213) 741-0094 or visit
In Search of My Sephardic Ancestors
Gibson Film Doesn’t Star Anti-Semitism
Before saying what is wrong and what is right with Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” let’s get out of the way the question that is on everyone’s mind. Now that the film has opened, it will become clear to regular moviegoers who have heard of the controversy — furiously fanned by those enterprising fundraisers at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) — that no, the film is not anti-Semitic.
It does not show Jews per se in a uniquely nasty light. Depicting the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life, it portrays all humanity, except for the few earnest followers of Jesus, in an exceptionally ugly fashion.
The Roman soldiers who mercilessly, endlessly scourge Jesus with clawed whips, laughing and wiping drool from their mouths the whole time, are no less disgustingly portrayed than the proud, callous, foolish Jewish priests who demand that the Roman governor take the torture to the next level: crucifixion.
When Gibson has the crucified Jesus cast an eye up to heaven, the director orients the camera so that the big, round chocolate-brown eye is looking straight at us all in the audience, accusing humanity. Moments later, when Jesus is taken down from the cross, his mother cradles him in her arms, and she looks directly at us in the audience, again casting the accusing eye.
But the fact that “The Passion” isn’t anti-Semitic doesn’t make it an effective piece of filmmaking. The bad news is that Gibson’s motion picture manages to be sadistically violent and somewhat boring at the same time.
It would be hard to know, just from the portrayal in this film, what it was that made Jesus a personality so special as to inspire one of the world’s great religions. The fact that he died in agony? That’s it?
In a quick flashback to the Sermon on the Mount, he is shown endorsing love of one’s enemy, and in a flashback to the Last Supper, he commands his followers to love each other. That exhausts Gibson’s depiction of Jesus as teacher of timeless spiritual truths.
The whole rest of the movie is taken up with depicting Jesus’ grotesque and minutely shown final agonies. When in the course of the very long scourging scene, a claw on one of whips wielded by his Roman tormentors gets stuck in his bloodied flesh and has to pulled out, I thought: OK, enough. But that was only about halfway through the movie.
It is very hard to see how anyone is going to be uplifted by this. Frankly, I’m a little worried about a non-anti-Semitic lunatic getting it into his head to bludgeon some innocent person of any or no religion like Gibson’s Romans do to Jesus.
This alone isn’t a reason not to have made his movie. Who could have predicted that “Taxi Driver” would inspire John Hinckley to try to assassinate Ronald Reagan?
But Gibson ought to have known that there’s a good reason why sensitive people avoid violent films: Watching this stuff, however noble or spiritual or religious the filmmaker’s intentions, coarsens the soul.
Specifically, contrary to Gibson’s intent, “The Passion” seems unlikely to inspire personal repentance. For all the realism of the violence, the rest of the film is highly unrealistic, in such a way that no one who sees it — unless he’s a psycho killer — is going to recognize himself in Gibson’s narrative and feel moved to control himself and stop hurting other people.
The cruelties in our lives, the hurts we inflict, the acts of unfaithfulness to others and to God are many, but they are simply of a different character than nailing a man’s hands to a cross.
As for the part the Jewish priestly establishment plays, arresting Jesus and turning him over to the Romans, their villainy is unrecognizable, because it makes no sense. We’re supposed to believe the Temple priests are after Jesus because he’s got some big, dangerous following that’s going to crown him Messiah, but nowhere do these massively numbered followers ever make an appearance.
From all the evidence of “The Passion,” Jesus had about 10 disciples, 20 max. So why were certain Jews in the New Testament’s telling so intent on seeing him dead? Gibson has no idea.
I mentioned that there is something right about “The Passion.” In at least trying to make a film that depicts his own faith not as a golden dream fantasy but as a reality — an event that actually happened in history, complete with dialogue in the ancient language Jesus really spoke (Aramaic) — Gibson has done something daring, even heroic. The juxtaposition of the Aramaic dialogue in particular, beautifully achieved, with the Caravaggio-esque spooky atmosphere of certain scenes is genuinely thrilling. There is art here, and that fact will move other artists. The importance of his movie lies in the new wave of religiously and even biblically inspired films it will help launch.
He has shown other filmmakers it can be done, and not even the ADL can stop you. This is going to be interesting.
David Klinghoffer is a columnist for The Jewish Journal and The Forward and author of the forthcoming “Why the Jews Rejected Christ: In Search of the Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).
The Passion of Mel Gibson
A Dramatist’s Own Private Afghanistan
"Homebody/Kabul," which opens at the Mark Taper Forum Oct. 2, is "a very dark, unhappy play in many ways," author Tony Kushner said. The Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "Angels in America" began creating the piece in 1997, when his own obsession with Afghanistan conjoined with his interest in creating a monologue for a British friend. Over the years, the Dr. Seussian tour de force — at turns witty and endearing — accumulated two additional acts and 11 more characters, among other changes. But since the tragedies of Sept. 11, and as events change daily in our present military campaign, "Homebody/Kabul" often feels less like fiction and more like a dramatic interpretation of the day’s news. Rather than weakening the production, this unintended intermingling of fact and fiction heightens the show’s impact; when we leave the theater we have no choice but to carry it home. "I didn’t expect the outside world to be helping us out so much," Kushner said wryly, "providing a context of tragedy to this little tragedy we are making on the stage."
"Homebody/Kabul" is very much about people trying to erase their pasts through encounters with those who are different from them. Whether British or Afghan, Christian or Muslim, all the characters have a history created by colonialism that informs their present struggles. The British characters on stage are "overwhelmed and succumbing to luxury," masking their middle-class ennui with antidepressants, heroin and self-hate, while their Afghan foils suffer physical and emotional abuse created by extreme poverty and violence. The drama is fueled by the dynamic of oppression that still defines relationships between their two worlds: The guilty seek redemption from those they afflict, who in turn seek salvation from the very ones responsible for their suffering.
"Homebody/Kabul" opens in a sparse living room with the homebody of the title, played by Linda Emond, addressing us from a chair. It becomes clear through her act-long monologue that few expect much from her and that she has retreated into antidepressants, a predilection for little-known words and, of central importance to her life and this show, an armchair romance with Afghanistan. She is so enamored with the Afghanistan of old, and so pathetically wed to her chair, that she shares with the audience her passionate, desperate fantasy about getting swept away by a local Afghani hat merchant.
In the second and third acts, middle-class England is replaced by the broken-bricked ruins of Kabul, where we are told the homebody, who is never given any other name, has escaped her life of oppressive luxury. Is she alive? Is she dead? Those questions are left to her cowardly husband, Milton (Dylan Baker), and vitriolic daughter, Priscilla (Kelly Hutchinson), who become an unlikely pair of detectives, investigating hospitals and holy sites, biblical myths and family secrets, to discover what has torn their family apart. Along the way, they encounter a heady mix of characters, including a Tajik poet who works in Esperanto, a Taliban doctor whose English consists primarily of medical terms and a British aid worker addicted to local heroin. The more Milton and Priscilla learn, the less they actually know, as additional facts only call their earlier discoveries into question. In the end, "Homebody/Kabul" is less concerned about what actually occurred than with the condition of unknowing we are forced to confront when dialectical forces meet face to face.
This element of mystery and uncertainty, Kushner told the Forward during a 2001 interview, grew out of his initial inquiries into Afghanistan.
"The more I talked with people, the more deeply confused I became," he said.
Even research into how many Afghans were killed during President Bill Clinton’s bombing of Afghanistan in 1998 turned up wildly divergent answers, leading Kushner eventually to believe that some things are simply impossible to know. In addition, he said, his plays attempt to "probe areas of confusion and bewilderment," to engage the audience in a collective process of looking deeper into "a place of not knowing, of doubt."
All of the characters come from a background far different from the playwright’s Jewish American gay identity.
"I checked my identities at the door," he said, "but I knew that a Jew writing about Islam would be interesting, complicated."
Kushner had no trouble drawing on his background as a Jew to depict the Taliban, using Orthodox Jews as his model.
"I think there is absolutely no difference between deeply religious people of one faith and deeply religious people of another faith," he said, pausing a moment. He then cited the common heritage of an Abrahamic tradition and argued that "among extremely religious Jews, God is in everything and everything is about one’s relationship to God."
And yet there are differences, he said upon reflection. While the concept of becoming a martyr in the Jewish world is seen as tragic, he said, in the Christian and Muslim world suffering is seen as "being a good in and of itself, of having some sort of spiritual valence." And in Christianity, of course, martyrdom is viewed as "transformative, transfigurative. It’s the resurrection."
Kushner said he developed the play’s British family as Jews during the early stages. However, "British Jews are too complicated," he soon decided, and after a brief stint as Catholics they once again returned to the Church of England.
In the end, he was glad he made the homebody the way he did because she "has a sense of engagement with the world that it is completely Christian; it’s about suffering. It’s the idea of expressing your agency in the world by taking on the suffering of the world."
Kushner once wrote, "I am in the habit of hoping," and in "Homebody/ Kabul," hope emerges through the metaphor of language.
Among the many quirky details that fill this play, one of the oddest is its use of Esperanto, the international language developed by the Polish Jewish philologist Ludwik Zamenhof in 1887 to ease communication between speakers of different tongues. The word "esperanto" itself means "hopeful." The play also concerns itself with binary code, the language uniting all computers, and the Dewey Decimal System, which gives books a clear place in the universe of knowledge. These global languages represent the hopeful side of our interconnected world. Globalization corrupts all it touches and none can escape its reach, the show tells us, but it also brings people together and creates order out of chaos. The tragedy of the Taliban is that they represent what happens when order is realized at the cost of freedom and justice, but "Homebody/Kabul" holds out hope that all three are possible. Most important, the show is less interested in offering a solution than in taking its audience on a journey to explore how fascist ideologies come into fashion in the first place, whether in Nazi Germany, Afghanistan or here in America.
"Homebody/Kabul" plays Oct. 2-Nov. 9, at the Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (213) 628-2772.
Hitler’s Conductor: Man or Monster?
‘The Passion’ Over Jesus
"It’s a headache that we don’t need," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, articulating a central complaint about Mel Gibson’s upcoming film "The Passion" and its resurrection of ancient images of Jews and the death of Jesus.
"I wish the movie was never made," radio talk-show host and Jewish moralist Dennis Prager said with equal bluntness.
Controversy over "The Passion" has swept through Jewish leadership circles, with the yet-to-be released film generating a discomfort and fear not found in the typical, sometimes difficult conversations that Jews have with non-Jews over contentious issues such as Israel. The film’s very existence crisscrosses issues close to Jewish culture — one religion’s narrative offending another faith, the place of Jews in a non-Jewish world and art versus censorship.
"The Jewish community has to respect the rights of Christians to tell their story," said Paul Lauer, marketing director at Gibson’s Icon Productions, which made the $25 million film. "It’s a sacred story and one that should not be changed."
But telling the story of Jesus’ horrific crucifixion is a delicate proposal.
"There are only two parties to what occurred — the Jews, of whom Jesus was one of them, and the Romans," Hier said. "Now since the Romans are not here anymore, if you’re upset with how Jesus died, there’s only people left to blame — and that’s the Jews."
Gibson has not announced any distributors for "The Passion"; he has had a long relationship with Paramount Pictures while his Icon Productions now is located on the 20th Century Fox lot. But the actor-director whose "Braveheart" won a Best Picture Oscar is expected to succeed in distributing "The Passion" widely next spring.
"Given his stature within the film community, I don’t think there is any doubt that he will get a distributor, even if he has to fund it himself," said Greg Laemmle, vice-president of Laemmle Theaters. "Films are still being acquired for potential year-end 2003 distribution. So the timing does not preclude the film being acquired for distribution. And the public will have the right to form their own judgment."
"The biggest thing about this is how commercial is the film?" said Milton Moritz, the California/Nevada chapter president of the National Association of Theater Owners. "And your commercial theaters, even to run subtitled films, it’s going to be difficult."
Greg Laemmle’s father Bob Laemmle said of "The Passion’s" chances in his art house theaters, "I doubt that it would be presented to us, but if it is we would consider it on its merit."
As Jewish leaders speak out against the rough cut of "The Passion" being screened to clergy, the film’s trailer is being shown to massive gatherings of evangelical Christians in an extensive marketing push before the film’s planned Easter 2004 release. During the Aug. 8-11 Harvest Crusade Christian revival at Anaheim’s Edison Field, about 100,000 Christians watched huge stadium screens displaying the four-minute "Passion" trailer, its music video-style scattershot images including a crucified Jesus.
"People are so pumped for this film," Lauer said. "We’re the No. 5 most downloaded trailer on the Internet."
The trailer’s more fleeting images also showed Jewish Pharisees tossing pieces of silver to the betraying apostle Judas, and those same Pharisees’ stunned faces when Jesus dies.
"There are two different movies being seen here, one by Jews and one by Christians," said Prager, who saw the entire film at a summer screening with Gibson and a few others at the American Film Institute. "Christians are watching the torture and death of their savior, and Jews are watching Jews depicted as Christ killers."
After an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) staffer attended a "Passion" screening in Houston, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman issued in an Aug. 11 statement claiming that the film, "if released in its present form, will fuel the hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism that many responsible churches have worked hard to repudiate. The film unambiguously portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob as the ones responsible for the decision to crucify Jesus."
Lauer said that this week he would screen the film for, "10 significant Jewish leaders" in Southern California, though he declined to name them.
"I haven’t seen the trailer and I haven’t been invited to the screening," said Conservative Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the 260-member Board of Rabbis of Southern California.
Although Prager agreed with Hier’s observation about the film being a "headache," he added, "If it’s just a headache, let’s call it headache and not call it a brain tumor. Some Jews are calling it a brain tumor. That’s why I’m working with [Gibson] to undo some of the gratuitous damage. I’m worried about Jews making such a big hullabaloo that would we could have a crash with our best friend, who happens to be Christian."
"The Passion" trailer has been seen on Christian and Catholic channels including TBN, CBN and EWTN. The film’s rough cut was screened in early August for several hundred receptive Catholic priests at Loyola Marymount University. Reaction to the trailer was supportive at this summer’s Christian Booksellers Association convention in Orlando, one of many Christian business conventions and music festivals that "Passion" marketers are targeting.
Christian retailers are expected to recommend "The Passion" even though its graphic, bloody scenes will give it at least an R rating — usually the kiss of death for Christian retailers’ film endorsements. "It’s a marketing arena populated by gatekeepers all along the way," Christian marketing consultant Jim Seybert said.
One concern of Jewish leaders is not how American Christians will view Jews after seeing "The Passion," but how the film will play abroad. Jews can point to Harvest Crusade pastor Greg Laurie’s innocent enough "Passion" endorsement — "I can see that film being shown around the world to touch untold millions of people" — to crystallize their fears about it being seen in Muslim countries.
"This probably will be a huge hit in the Arab world, where they do hate Jews," said Prager, adding that he made that exact observation to Gibson after they watched the film. "He was shocked. It never occurred to him."
Lauer said on Aug. 11 that Gibson would release an "open letter" to Jews that same week. Gibson said in a statement earlier this summer, "Neither I nor my film are anti-Semitic…. Anti-Semitism is not only contrary to my personal beliefs, it is also contrary to the core message of my movie."
As of press time, Gibson had not released the new letter.
Key ADL complaints are that the film allegedly portrays Jewish leaders and crowds as being heavily involved in the crucifixion, that "The Passion" portrays Jews as blood-thirsty, sadistic and money hungry, and that its historical errors include showing the Jewish high priest controlling Pontius Pilate.
In light of Jewish leaders’ concerns, Lauer said changes in the unfinished "Passion" may be done, but that, "regardless of what changes may still be possible in the film, the most important issues are what can be built around the film."
"We expect Christians to make it clear to the Jewish community that they do not see Jews as Christ killers, and that we hold ourselves responsible for the death of Christ," he said. "The Christian community needs to speak plainly and clearly about absolving the Jews from these centuries of old bigotries and hatreds."
"We expect that tolerance going both directions," Lauer added. "I have a number of leaders in the Jewish community collaborating with us to create a platform for discussion and dialogue. It can’t be an ecumenical one-way street."
Beside Prager, the film also has been seen by conservative Jewish film critic Michael Medved, who praised it along with both front-rank and second-tier Christian leaders. Lauer said the Rev. Robert Schuller, of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, saw the film last week, "and pledged his support."
Laurie told his stadium audiences that it is, "absolutely ridiculous" for Christians to blame any one, isolated group — including Jews and Romans — for Jesus’ death.
The Journal interviewed numerous Christians at the Harvest Crusade, who said they blame all of humanity for Jesus’ death. But while such unabashed religious people are more concerned with converting souls to Jesus than finding culprits of his death, the issue of Jewish blame still circles the film.
"When I became a Christian, it never even dawned on me to blame the Jews," Chuck Canady, 41, told The Journal. "I’ve seen the clip three or four times."
But then there was a group of young Asian American Christians who all attended the same Boston church during college. One of them talked about Jesus, Jews and history, and in an unguarded moment she said, "You can’t really go around the fact that the Jews killed Jesus." Quickly realizing what she said, the woman said, "No — no way!" and then added, "I never thought of it like that until people started saying that."
"The Passion" also appeals to a large wing of evangelical Christians who believe that Jews will accept Jesus in a Christian-run, Book of Revelations-predicted, end-of-times Israel. Many Christians at Harvest Crusade attend Pentecostal Assembly of God churches; during the Harvest Crusade weekend, the 3,000-seat Assembly of God Church in Chino Hills held a three-day annual Israel Bible and Prophecy Conference with Messianic Jewish speakers not recognized by most Jews as being Jewish.
"There are passages in most people’s sacred scripts that are troubling and offensive to others," Diamond said. "And as religious leaders we have a responsibility to think of the consequences of what we’re putting before our audiences."
As Christian target marketing rolls ahead, "The Passion" controversy may not appear so pressing among Jews beyond Jewish leadership circles.
"I was at temple on Friday night and normally people ask me about films," Greg Laemmle said. "And no one was asking me about this one."
Prager said one reason Christians are embracing "The Passion" is because, "They perceive a huge anti-Christian bias in America. The only reason that a Jew would be offended is if the people watching it think that Jews are despicable. That’s what Jews are understandably afraid of. I am not offended unless people mean offense."
But Hier is staying on a firm but diplomatic course. "Despite the best intentions of Mel Gibson, and I believe him, despite his best assurances, it’s not words that will help heal these wounds. When people see this film they’re not going to bring to the theater Mel Gibson’s letter. It’s not too late that with goodwill, there are a number of suggestions."
And Jews in Hollywood — uncomfortable with censorship — may accept this Gibson explanation: "My intention in bringing it to the screen is to create a lasting work of art and engender serious thought among audiences of diverse faith backgrounds [or none] who have varying familiarity with this story."
Making Dreams of Israel Come True
A Short Escape to Prewar Italy
Even when it’s 40 F out and a freezing wind sweeps through the narrow streets of Florence, it is good to be in Italy.
No, it’s great to be in Italy.
My wife, Naomi, and I spent 10 days in Rome and Florence in the dead of winter, bundled like Aleuts in the Mediterranean cold. I’ve read that of all the world’s art treasures, 70 percent reside in Italy — the sacking of Baghdad has probably upped that number to 75 percent — and a chance to see beauty we had only read about was one reason for our long-planned vacation.
What better place to visit as civilization teetered at the brink than the repository of much of civilization’s bounty?
There was a subtext to the voyage as well, inevitable when a rabbi and a Jewish journalist disembark anywhere. The war in Iraq was a few weeks away, and the conflict in Israel blared over CNN International and in the Italian headlines. We would inevitably seek out Jews, Jewish sites and opinions on the international situation, finding plenty of all three along our way. But this was primarily a vacation, and we had no qualms about a brief encounter with Italy’s seemingly unlimited array of pleasures.
Rome was first. Although it was cool in the capital city, we found ourselves walking everywhere from the new and charming Hotel Ottocento, near Piazza Barberini. Nicola, the concierge, just about threw his arms around us when he discovered we were Jewish and from Los Angeles. He was convinced we knew the lyrics to every Barbra Streisand song ever sung. “Peace, war, Bush yes, Bush no” he waved off all talk of the impending conflict. “Do you know, ‘Stony End?'”
Laden with maps Nicola marked up for us, we set off.
If all roads lead to Rome, all Roman streets lead to surprises. Turn a corner and there before you is the Spanish Steps. Tourists dawdle, lovers snuggle and poets linger in the shadow of the building where Byron and Shelley once wrote (and where Shelley, at age 24, died). More walking that first evening led to the sites we had read about but never visited — the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona. Even in February, even before a war, tourists crowded into Rome, but the atmosphere was festive and the people relaxed. If the world was coming to an end tomorrow, why not enjoy tonight?
If the looming war was hurting tourism among Americans, it didn’t seem to faze thousands of others. The next day, when we set off by subway for the Vatican, we emerged to find a line for the Vatican Museums that was at least a mile long. Instead, we headed for the synagogue.
Rome’s grand synagogue sits on the banks of the Tiber River at the edge of the ghetto, or Jewish quarter. Security is tight, and has been ever since a PLO attack in 1982 that left a child dead. Italian soldiers stand guard with machine guns, and visitors pass an armored door to get inside. The interior is stunning, and an exhibit of congregational artifacts, including Nazi-era deportation orders, provides yet more evidence that Jewish life is both adaptable and immutable.
Many Israelis joined us in one of the many daily tours of the synagogue, and over the next 10 days we’d meet several more Israelis taking a break from their country’s tensions by making the four-hour hop from Lod airport to Rome or Milan. Several carriers, including El Al, offer the flights, which run about $500 round trip, making Italy a perfect stop to or from Israel. Perhaps not what Moses Hess had in mind when he penned the Zionist manifesto “Rome and Jerusalem,” but the makings of a great trip nevertheless.
The ghetto is home to several busy kosher butchers, bakeries and a handful of restaurants specializing in Roman Jewish cuisine. To eat this food is to understand, in a bite, much about Italian and Jewish history. As early as the second century B.C.E., Jews traded and settled in Rome. Thousands more were marched off as slaves to the city after the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. forming, by some estimates, a quarter of the ancient city’s population.
“Perhaps the greatest single force in maintaining culinary tradition over the city’s 2,800-year history,” writes David Downie in the indispensable “Cooking the Roman Way” (HarperCollins, 2002) “has been the Roman Jewish community.”
The 16,000 Jews of Rome (about half of Italy’s Jewish population) are scattered about the city now, but the ghetto still provides Rome’s best glimpse into the Italian Jewish past.
At La Taverna del Ghetto, just behind the synagogue, you can sample excellent renditions of these contributions to Italian cuisine, including deep-fried carciofi alla giudia (literally, “Jewish artichokes”) and sweet-and-sour salt cod.
Working backward in history, we visited the ruins of ancient Rome next, stopping to see the frieze on the Arch of Titus depicting the destruction of the Temple. The image looms large in books on Jewish history. In reality, it is tucked away inside the arch. One people’s tragedy is another’s interior decoration.
At the Coliseum, we joined up with a local tour group. The guide, Paulo, tells us it is Jewish slaves who built much of the structure, which was adorned with gold and silver from the sacked Temple. History books are less certain on this point, but in itself it seems a mere footnote to the tens of thousands of people murdered there in the name of sport. The worst reality TV is the pinnacle of civilization compared to what the emperors watched, and our own bloody times seem reassuringly tame in comparison.
When we finally joined the line at the Vatican, it was down to a half-mile, and it went surprisingly fast. The Vatican Museums are built partly on the conquest of bodies — plundered treasures from around the world — and partly from the winning of souls — wondrous artworks from devoted, or at least well-paid, masters. In any case, the assembly is mind-boggling. By the time we reached the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s revived frescoes, we doubted any art could further impress us.
We were wrong. The chapel, a vast room with the soul of a warehouse, is home to a creation that somehow magnifies the power of all creation. We lingered, refusing to be shooed away, as the guards emptied the vast crowd for closing time. Our stiff-necked refusal paid off as we stood almost entirely alone beneath God and Adam.
Somehow it was fitting, not jarring, to be surrounded by so much beauty even as the world was poised on the brink of a war which, if you remember, threatened to doom the Middle East, Europe and America. Flags calling for PACE were hung from hundreds of windows, groups gathered in St. Peters Square singing hymns of peace, the headlines inveighed against President Bush and the Italian prime minister, who had joined the coalition of the willing. In my college Italian, I followed café arguments about how America, with Israel behind her, was pushing the world into a war no one wanted. But whatever doubts Italians had about our country’s policies, they were warm and effusive toward us.
In Florence, the people were just as warm, the air colder.
The lush Tuscan countryside was taking the winter off, but the city itself was full of life and tourists. And art.
Neither of us had ever been to Florence, and we walked the narrow streets unashamedly clutching maps, camera and guidebooks. You get giddy from the quantity and quality of the masterpieces — the light and shadow of Il Duomo; the work of the young Leonardo in just one of the endless galleries of the Uffizi; Ghiberti’s bronze doors at the Baptistery; and, of course, Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia di Belle Arte.
For nearly five days, we explored Florence and Sienna. Sienna’s main square, or campo, proved a perfect place to soak up the sun’s rays on an otherwise cold day, and the small city is a marvel of well-preserved tradition.
The synagogue in Sienna — one of Europe’s best-preserved — was shuttered (we had neglected to call ahead), but the Florence synagogue became a trip highlight.
A friend of mine from Israel, Shulamit, met and married the man who would eventually become the chief rabbi of Florence, Yossi Levi. Shulamit showed us the beautiful interior, painted in Tuscany’s muted reds and greens, and the preschool, where the din of children matched that at any busy L.A. synagogue. Florentines, in general, are private and tolerant of other people’s privacy, and despite the fears of Jews in France and other parts of Europe, Shulamit said the community in Florence felt generally secure.
But Shulamit did say the congregation in Florence could benefit from the participation and energy of long-term non-Italian residents, Jews on study or work visits to Florence, and she was eager to get that word out.
On our last day in Florence, with about 500 museums left unseen and only 2 percent of Italy’s masterpieces under our belts, we made one last stop to see David. Nothing in picture books had prepared us for the power of that sculpture, and we knew, back in Los Angeles, back in our lives, we would miss it. So back we went, and the line was magically nonexistent. You stare and stare at David, and end up feeling that we humans, with our petty arguments and massive wars, are capable of a much grander world. Maybe a world more like … Italy. N
Italian Travel Tips
Kosher establishments are so noted.
Via dei Cappuccini 19
La Taverna del Ghetto (Kosher)
Via del Portico d’Ottavia
Kosher Bistrot (Kosher)
Via S. Maria del Pianto, 68-69
Piazza Augusto Imperatore, 9
Vicolo Scavolini, 79
(Fontana di Trevi)
Piazza della Torretta, 38
At this family-run restaurant specializing in fish, the owners forbid smoking — a fact which makes it a rarity in Italy. It’s also quite good and reasonably priced.
Caffe Sant’ Eustachio
Piazza Sant’ Eustachio, 82
(Near the Pantheon)
The be-all and end-all of coffee. Roasted over oak wood and prepared by dedicated barristas following a secret method. Stand in line, order a gran’ caffe, and you’ll weep the next time you set foot in a Starbucks.
Gelateria San Crispino
Via Della Panetteria 4
Long ago discovered by The New York Times, still superior to all other gelatos we tried in Italy — 45 F weather be damned.
Murano Glass Judaica
Via del Lavatore, 33
(Fontana di Trevi)
Via nazionale 22/a
A very reasonably priced three-star hotel in a city known for high-priced accommodations. Clean rooms, friendly and helpful staff, and a convenient location near the train and bus stations.
Via dei Leoni, 8r
Via di Terzollina, 3
Via Del Moro, 48r
Now famous and deservedly so.
Ruth’s Kosher Vegetarian Food (Kosher)
Via Farini, 27a
Next to the synagogue, Ruth’s focuses on Middle Eastern specialties.
Piazza dei Cimitori, 4
Know Before You Go:
www.FaithWillinger.com is a wondeful site by an expert on Italian food and restaurants.
www.Jewishitaly.org has all the names and addresses of the country’s Jewish sites.
CulturalItaly.com is an L.A.-based firm through which you can make museum reservations before you leave. It costs a bit more, but unless your idea of a vacation is standing in line for a half day, do it.
‘Terrorist’ Helped Israeli Heal
Literary Look at the ‘Jewish Experience’
This Shavuot, as we read about Ruth’s decision to convert, we should examine our own religious connection: To what extent do we (and would we) internalize the essence of the Torah?
In fact this question touches upon the much larger issue of what it means to be a Jew. "The Jewish Experience" is mentioned frequently and can refer to bagel brunches as easily as it can to surviving the Holocaust. That both of these are cultural references is not a coincidence; Judaism has traditionally emphasized actions and American society echoes this approach. There is however, a component beyond The Jewish Experience. There is an experience of being Jewish. There is a unique way of seeing life that informs all of our cultural practices and associations. This distinct worldview is what we embrace on Shavuot.
Three books in particular directly address the experience of being Jewish, each from a slightly different vantage point.
Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin’s work, "To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life" (Basic Books, $18.50), is often at the top of the reading list for people considering conversion. It begins with an overview of the basic tenets of Jewish thought, then elaborates upon these tenets by showing how they manifest in Jewish practices. And while it can certainly function as a practical handbook, it differs from one in that it constantly engages in a discussion of "why". Donin explains early on that the Torah was given in order to bring sanctification to the world. He continues, "The purpose of holiness permeates all of Jewish religious law, and encompasses every aspect of human concern and experience." Even if the reader gets no farther than page 35, orienting oneself to this concept alone can be life-altering.
The book is highly informative, with facts brimming on every page. It can be read in its entirety or consulted as a reference. Discussions are authoritative without being preachy. And where there is the possibility of controversy (e.g., birth control), Donin is remarkably adept at focusing on areas of common ground among rabbinic opinions.
"Judaism for Everyone: Renewing Your Life Through the Vibrant Lessons of the Jewish Faith "(Basic Books, $27.50) by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (of Kosher Sex fame) incorporates imagery and language from popular culture, especially the realm of New Age. The book contains a great deal of social philosophy, a fair amount of theorizing on contemporary life by the author and some very cogent articulations of the Jewish perspective on life. By packaging traditional Jewish thought in Bodhi Tree wrapping, potentially daunting ideas are made accessible to an audience that might not otherwise be reached.
Among the book’s most compelling points are the contrasts between Judaism’s views on life and those of the ideological competition. Jackie Mason jokes that Jews don’t have a sense of what it means to be Jewish beyond the understanding that "we’re not goyim." In this age of cross-cultural pollination, it is useful to know where ideas originate in order to better recognize what is the essence of our own.
Divergent approaches to suffering place Judaism in opposition to Christian thinking as well. Boteach notes that the message of the crucifixion to Christians is: "Without suffering there can be no redemption." On the other hand he writes, "In Judaism, however, suffering is anything but redemptive…. Ennoblement of character comes through triumph over suffering, rather than its endurance." As a supreme example of this view he cites the establishment of the State of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust: "The response to death is life." Though it borders on the melodramatic, no one familiar with Jewish history would argue with this statement.
The most profound distillation of what it means to be Jewish can be found in the pages of "The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels" by Thomas Cahill (Anchor Books, $14). The book is written with a poetic sensibility that belies an appreciation of life so rare in academic circles it is almost nonexistent. Cahill’s scholarship focuses on history as "the narratives of grace."
The Jewish gift referred to in the title is the introduction of linear thinking. Prior to Abraham, all people conceived of life as a circle or spiral, with events simply repeating themselves into infinity: "The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing … so much that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had."
The text illustrates how choice and decisionmaking could not exist without the shift from the circular to the linear. The Ten Commandments could not exist, nor could the capacity for morality, nor, ultimately, Western civilization.
It seems ironic that the book that best encapsulates the Jewish contribution to society was written by a non-Jew. Then again, perhaps it is appropriately heartening and in keeping with our role as the standard-bearers for a more perfect world. Maybe we’re doing something right after all. And maybe, the more we internalize our gifts as a people the better able we will be to share.
Words From the Old Ball Game
Lawyer Takes on Looted Art, Austria
In one of the most complex legal battles in the annals of Holocaust restitution, centering on the return of art looted by the Nazis to their rightful owners, E. Randol Schoenberg is stationed on the front lines.
The stakes are enormous. In the biggest collective art theft of all time, Hitler’s minions seized up to 600,000 important works between 1933 and 1945, according to a recent report in The New York Times.
If one includes all art objects, books, Judaica, silver pieces and other valuables, the Nazis stole 10.7 million items in all of Europe, worth more than $37 billion today, the same article estimates.
A current case, which has drawn wide attention, pits Schoenberg against the government of Austria. There is some historic irony in the confrontation, since the 36-year old Brentwood lawyer is the grandson of the pathbreaking Austrian Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, often dubbed "the father of modern music."
Schoenberg, the lawyer, represents Maria V. Altman, an 87-year-old resident of Cheviot Hills, who is seeking to recover six paintings by the early 20th century Viennese painter Gustav Klimt. The paintings, valued at $150 million, include a stunning portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.
The Austrian government, which holds the paintings, is contesting the claim. Last year, Schoenberg scored a major victory when an appeals court in San Francisco ruled that a foreign government could be held to answer in the United States for a Holocaust-based claim.
But the two-and-a-half year old case is far from over. The Austrian government is appealing the decision and, to Schoenberg’s dismay, the U.S. administration is backing the Austrians on the grounds that a sovereign foreign state is immune to lawsuits in American courts. The case might end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Last December, Schoenberg opened up another front by seeking to recover a $10 million Picasso oil painting for the Berkeley-based grandson of a Berlin woman who owned it before World War II.
The 1922 painting, "Femme en Blanc" ("Woman in White"), was "confiscated" by the Nazis in 1940. After the war, by a circuitous route via French and American art dealers, the Picasso eventually became the property of a Chicago art patron, who is fighting the grandson’s claim.
Besides these headline cases, Schoenberg has advised hundreds of Jewish families from Austria on their restitution rights, usually as a free service, but he earns his bread and butter through more mundane business litigation.
"It is enormously time-consuming to pursue the art recovery cases — I received my first call from Maria Altman in the Klimt case in 1998 — and enormously expensive, running into millions," said Schoenberg, sitting in his high-rise office on Wilshire Boulevard. "So you can only initiate an action if the paintings are immensely valuable. You’re not going to sue over a looted $50 mezuzah."
"Randy" Schoenberg has the rare distinction of being the grandson of two eminent 20th century composers, both of whom fled the Nazis and settled in Los Angeles.
On his mother’s side, his grandfather was Eric Zeisl, best known for his "Requiem Ebraico," composed in 1945 when he learned that his father had perished in a concentration camp. Zeisl also wrote music for a number of Hollywood movies.
But because Randy’s last name is Schoenberg, the young lawyer is most closely identified with his other grandfather, fervently admired, and sometimes damned, for his development of atonal music and the 12-tone technique.
Arnold Schoenberg, who spent the last 17 years of his life in Los Angeles and taught at UCLA and USC, was largely ignored by the classical music world in the 1930s and ’40s. But since his death in 1951, there has been a major rediscovery and appreciation of his works.
"I run into people who are ecstatic to meet Arnold’s grandson and who worship and love him," said the lawyer, who was born well after his grandfather’s death. "There are others who hate his music, but I doubt if they know all his works. He wrote so much, 15 hours worth if you play it all, there’s something a music lover is bound to like.
"It’s funny, people who would hesitate to give an opinion on paintings or literature will instantly pronounce judgment on a piece of music."
Arnold Schoenberg had a stormy relationship with his ancestral faith. As a young man, he converted to Lutheranism and then reconverted to Judaism in 1933, when Hitler came to power.
He predicted the Holocaust with prophetic clarity and eventually became a utopian Zionist, whose opera, "Moses und Aron," expressed his faith in his people’s destiny.
Randy Schoenberg himself grew up in a nonobservant environment, but since his marriage to Pamela, and the birth of their two young kids who attend Sinai Temple preschool, the family has established a kosher home.
"Being Jewish has played such a major part in the history of my family," mused Schoenberg, an ardent genealogy researcher. "I am deeply involved in our culture, history and philosophy and I try to incorporate them in my personal and professional lives."
Political Fight Wages Over Abbas
Absence of ‘Justice’
“Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the
Unfinished Business of World War II” by Stuart E. Eizenstat (Public Affairs,
“Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America’s
Courts” by Michael Bazyler (New York University, $34.95).
In the last moments of the Clinton administration, Stuart
Eizenstat was breathless. From his posts at the European Union and the
Commerce, Treasury and State departments, Eizenstat was the administration’s
“point man” on Holocaust restitution, with a unique portfolio to pursue the
assets that were looted from Nazi victims. This was to be the final financial
accounting for the crimes of World War II. In the frenzied final days of the
Clinton presidency, Eizenstat was wrapping up deals with the Austrians and
French that — together with earlier agreements with the Germans and Swiss banks
— were worth some $8 billion.
In his memoir, “Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave
Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II,” Eizenstat, who will be
speaking at the University of Judaism on Sunday, March 30, recounts his five
peripatetic years as a facilitator-mediator sprinting among the various parties
in the most emotional legal and diplomatic issue of the time. On one side were
the Western European governments and businesses that faced lawsuits in U.S.
federal courts assailing them for their failure to honor war-era insurance
policies and demanding compensation for slave labor and the restoration of
dormant and unclaimed Jewish accounts in Swiss banks. On the other were the
lawyers, Jewish organizations, American regulators and Eastern European
governments that pressed victims’ claims.
“I felt like the manager of an insane asylum,” he writes.
It’s a valuable, if lopsided, book, and it contains some
surprises. The U.S. government jumped into this fray without any thought.
Eizenstat was based in Brussels, nudging the post-communist governments of
Central and Eastern Europe to restore communal properties confiscated during
the Nazi-era to religious communities, when, in June 1995, he read a Wall
Street Journal story about the dormant accounts in Swiss banks. He asked
Richard Holbrooke, his boss at the State Department, for authorization to
extend his restitution work to Switzerland. Holbrooke did not hesitate to
“No one in Washington held any meetings or weighed the
pluses or minuses,” writes Eizenstat, now an international trade lawyer in
private practice in Washington and special counsel to the Commission on Art
Recovery of the World Jewish Congress. “I just plunged in, initially with no
goal other than to find out the facts about the numerous dormant bank accounts
in Swiss hands for over five decades. There were no grand plans or strategies;
these came later.”
Eizenstat’s work on the issue entailed juggling conflicting
interests as the Swiss banks issue snowballed. Eizenstat was attempting to help
Nazi victims while trying to steady the United States’ diplomatic and economic
relations with European governments, which were roiled by the American lawsuits
and regulators’ threats of sanctions. Much of it was far beyond his control,
and he routinely battled with state and local regulators, arguing that their
threats of sanctions interfered with U.S. foreign policy. The $1.25 billion
Swiss banks settlement was under the supervision of U.S. District Judge Edward
Korman in Brooklyn, not the U.S. executive branch. Where Eizenstat did take
some control — to deal with claims against German and Austrian interests — he
freely admits in his memoirs that he used “creative accounting” and “dubious”
arithmetic to reach deals that looked better than they were.
He also was creative with funds that the U.S. government set
aside for Holocaust survivors. The funds were supposed to be “redress” for the
American failure to turn over to Jewish successor organizations the heirless
Jewish assets held by American banks after the war. Eizenstat was “rarely more
proud” than when he announced in 1997 that the United States would contribute
$25 million to a new international fund for Nazi victims. The money, he writes,
was to be used for food and social programs for Holocaust survivors in Eastern
Europe. However, 150 pages later, he recounts that, in the midst of the slave
labor negotiations, the Polish delegation was balking at the amount of
compensation being offered to its war-era forced laborers, so Eizenstat made a
“secret” deal in which Poland would receive $10 million of the $25 million.
The public did not notice Eizenstat’s efforts until May
1997, when he issued a U.S. government historical report on Switzerland’s
commercial links to the Nazis. His statement that these links helped “prolong”
the war was the sound bite that made the news. In his memoirs, however, he says
that these were “ill-chosen words” and that he could have made the same point
less harshly by saying these links helped “sustain” the German war effort.
“Prolong” is not the only thing from which he is backtracking. The cover of the
book — a swastika-shaped image superimposed over the Swiss flag — raised a hue
and cry. Eizenstat has said he regrets that the book cover offended the Swiss.
Apparently, that is not good enough. In January, a lawyer in Zurich filed
criminal charges against him, under a Swiss law that protects the flag from inappropriate
Eizenstat seems to have an aversion to giving others proper
credit — even to the government he served. He refers repeatedly to the fact
that over 50 years, Germany paid DM 100 billion [$44.25 billion based on
conversion rates] to Nazi victims, without stressing that it was American
military occupation authorities who, after the war, compelled the German states
in the American Zone to enact restitution and compensation measures for
victims, and that in every subsequent treaty dealing with German sovereignty,
including reunification, the U.S. insisted that Germany retain its commitment
to Nazi victims.
In his chapter on Nazi-looted art, he discusses the “poster
child” of all successful claims: a 16th century painting by Lucas Cranach the
Elder that was looted from the collection of Philip von Gomperz, a Viennese
industrialist, and turned up at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The Gomperz
heirs, so impressed that the museum agreed to return the painting, agreed to
sell it to the museum for half its value. Eizenstat mentions by name everyone
except the woman who mediated between the museum and Gomperz heirs, arranging
both the recovery and the sale: Monica Dugot of the Holocaust Claims Processing
Office of the New York State Banking Department.
“Imperfect Justice” focuses on the political and diplomatic
aspects of Holocaust restitution. The legal dimensions are covered in
“Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America’s Courts” by Michael
Bazyler, a professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa. (I should disclose
here that Bazyler mentions me in the acknowledgments, for reading part of the
manuscript in draft.) The book, which is due out in April, is valuable as a
play-by-play of litigation on the Swiss banks cases, slave labor, Nazi-looted
art and Holocaust-era insurance policies, the latter being a topic Eizenstat
ignored. But to tell the story, Bazyler relies heavily and indiscriminately on
news accounts, especially those that bolster his points. However, most of the
news reporting of the litigation, negotiations and settlements was shoddy. Most
reporters were ignorant of the relevant history and law, and the stories were
only as accurate as the sources cited. Thus, the stories routinely were
incomplete, ahistorical and often served as platforms for partisans in the
Despite these flaws, taken together, the two books provide
the most realistic picture yet of the road to Holocaust restitution settlements
at century’s end. Try to overlook the titles. Bazyler’s title implies that the
courts provided a remedy, although the major suits — against German companies
for slave labor compensation — failed. The Swiss banks’ settlement was not a
triumph of law and legal rights, but instead was due to Korman jawboning
everyone to reach a settlement. As for Eizenstat’s choice, it suffices to say
that Nazi victims rarely call this justice, imperfect or otherwise.
Stuart Eizenstat will be speaking and signing his book on
Sunday, March 30, at 8 p.m. at the University of Judaism, Gindi Auditorium, 15600
Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 476-9777 ext.
He is also scheduled to speak at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA on Sunday, April 27 from 2-5 p.m. For more information, visit
7 Days In Arts