Helping an orphan of history recover its past

It’s not every day that you can help a city recover its history.

But that’s what happened recently in Lviv, in western Ukraine, when I served on the jury for an international design competition to mark and memorialize key sites of Jewish heritage.

Sponsored by municipal authorities in association with the Lviv Center for Urban History and the German Society for Technical Cooperation, the competition was aimed at counteracting widespread, and sometimes willful, amnesia about the city’s rich and convoluted past.

This amnesia, Deputy Mayor Vasyl Kosiv reminded us when our jury first convened, was the product of a century of often violent upheaval that left Lviv something of an orphan in history.

“Over the past 100 years, the ruling government changed at least eight times, often dramatically and often followed by tragic changes,” said Kosiv, who also was a jury member.

An elderly person literally could have remained in Lviv all his or her life but have been born in Habsburg, Austria (when the city was known as Lemberg); gone to school in Poland (when it was called Lwow); spent adulthood in the Soviet Union (when it was known as Lvov), and be retired now in Ukraine.

War and conquest radically altered populations as well as borders.

Before World War II, when the city was part of Poland, more than half the population was ethnic Poles, about 15 percent was Ukrainians and one-third was Jewish. The more than 100,000 Jews formed the third-largest Jewish community in Poland.

But the Jewish community was annihilated in the Holocaust, with nearly all synagogues and other traces of Jewish history destroyed. And after the Soviet Union took over in 1944, most of the local Polish population was expelled westward and replaced by Ukrainians and Russians moved in from the east.

Lviv became a focus of Ukrainian national identity, its multi-ethnic history largely suppressed or forgotten.

The design competition for Jewish sites, the biggest such competition ever held in postwar Lviv, was conceived as a step toward recovering collective memory.

The official brief was “to respond to the growing awareness of Lviv’s multi-ethnic past by contributing to the rediscovery of the city’s Jewish history and heritage through creating public spaces dedicated to the city’s historic Jewish community.”

It singled out three key sites of Jewish history to be redesigned as memorial areas:

* the “Valley of Death” that was linked to the notorious Janivski camp set up by the German occupiers in World War II, where more than 100,000 Jews were killed;

* the site of two destroyed synagogues in the city’s former downtown Jewish quarter, situated next to the visible ruins of the 16th century Golden Rose synagogue near the main market square;

* and the so-called “Besojlem,” the small piece of open ground that is the only part of the destroyed old Jewish cemetery not built over. All the rest is now covered by a big bazaar, the Krakovsky Market.

Architects from the United States, Israel and 12 other countries submitted a total of 70 designs for the three sites.

Our nine-member jury was an international mix of architects, urban planners and other experts, each of whom was looking at the proposals from different viewpoints and experience.

For two days, in a drafty hall where the designs were displayed, we debated each proposal not simply on its appearance but on its feasibility of implementation, sensitivity to place and, importantly, on its sensitivity to Jewish concerns, including halachah, or Jewish law.

I was among three Jewish jury members. Though I am not an architect or urban planner, I have spent years analyzing the restoration and redevelopment of former Jewish quarters in post-communist Europe.

The other two Jewish jurors were the Lviv-born architectural historian Sergey Kravstov, from the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem, and Josef Zissels, the longtime head of one of Ukraine’s national umbrella Jewish organizations.

The submissions were anonymous, so we had no idea from where they came.

In the end, remarkably, we were nearly unanimous in our choices for the three designs we awarded first prize in each category.

The team of Ming-Yu Ho, Ceanatha La Grange and Wei Huang, from Irvine, Calif., won first prize for the Janivski concentration camp site with a project that would turn the site into a form of land art—a raised walkway curving around a slope covered with slabs representing symbolic tombstones.

The Berlin-based team of Franz Reschke, Paul Reschke and Frederik Springer won first prize for the synagogue square site, a design that incorporated the archeological excavations of one destroyed synagogue and traced the form of another.

And Ronit Lombrozo, of Jerusalem, won first prize for Besojlem with a design that was particularly sensitive to the fact that the space was a cemetery where bodies are still buried. It envisaged a raised walkway and also the use of unearthed tombstones as part of a memorial site.

Other prizes and honorable mentions went to designs from Italy, Poland, Germany, Austria and Ukraine.

It remains to be seen, of course, when and whether the winning projects will be carried through. Kinks in the designs need to be worked out, and funding must be raised. Still, the entire process bodes well for the future.

Indeed, I was particularly impressed that the winners included several young architects from Lviv who were in their early 20s. Their approaches to reintegrating a component of local history that has far too long been suppressed, ignored, forgotten and/or distorted were thoughtful and sensitive—even though the world whose memory they were attempting to recover must seem to them by now like ancient history.

(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,”  and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at She is currently a scholar in residence at the Hadassah Brandeis Institute.)

Anticipating Orphanhood

Over coffee at Panera, my friend Ellen and I discussed our children’s school, her career options and my recent dating adventures. And we laughed about the policeman who didn’t give Ellen a ticket because he liked her “Beat Bush” sticker. We laughed a lot, as we usually do.

Then we started to talk about our aging parents.

“There’s so much I still want to share with them,” Ellen said. “What I really wish is that my kids would have meaningful conversations with my parents someday — when they don’t find my mom and dad so boring! I just hope they’re around long enough for that to happen. I really can’t picture my life without them. I don’t want to.”

I know how she feels. I started to imagine being an orphan after visiting my 87-year-old father in Ohio.

Maybe it’s like sneaking a look at the ending of a scary or painful novel to see what’s coming. (Yes, I’ve done that.)

In the case of a parent’s mortality, however, we do know what’s coming.

Many people with aging parents don’t want to face their eventual death, said Rachelle Elias, a licensed marriage and family therapist and grief specialist in Santa Monica. “We believe that, since they’ve been here all of my life, they’re a fixture. They’ll always be here.

“Also, the small child part of us sees our parents as a buffer between us and anything bad that might happen. They’re sort of a place of refuge, even if it’s just in our mind.”

There is probably no one who will ever love me as much as my parents do. In spite of my arguing as a teenager, and the disappointments or criticisms, I never believed that my mother or father would leave me, or stop loving me because of some flaw in my personality, or some irritating way I do things. If I really, really consider not having that reliable, unconditional love anymore, it makes me gasp for air. If I imagine the void it will leave not seeing my mother’s face, not hearing my father’s greeting when I call — “Hey, sweet love!” — I start to cry.

So, if it’s that painful to imagine, why do it?

Elias said it’s an important part of the relationship: “Old age should be treated like a terminal illness. If you find out someone you love has cancer, you don’t ignore it. You try to have meaningful time with that person, while you still can. We should do the same thing with aging parents.”

Years ago, while working in a psychiatric setting, I noticed how many people were filled with regrets over what they had or hadn’t said to someone who died.

All that unfinished business over harsh words left hanging and kind words never said, seemed like such a burden — one that I wanted to prevent in my own life.

This means really noticing the last words I’ve said to my parents or loved ones — in case one of us gets hit by a toilet seat falling from the Mir space station (a reference to my favorite TV shows, “Dead Like Me.”) — because then it’s too late.

I guess it’s like not going to bed angry.

“When a parent dies,” Elias said, “it gives people comfort if the last thing they ever said to their mother was, ‘I love you, Mom.’ It’s also important to ask yourself what your parent would want to hear — things like: ‘I’ll never forget you,’ or ‘I’ll never let my kids forget you. I’m going to tell them your stories.’ This gives them a sense that they will live on.”

A woman once hired me to do an oral history with her father. But she asked me to pretend I was doing the interviews for my dissertation (my nonexistent dissertation) to protect her father from guessing that she considered him not long for this world. At 96, I imagine this wasn’t news to him.

My father sometimes jokes about aging and death. He also expresses sadness at what he won’t be able to do… like take my son, Ben, skiing.

I know how much he would want to shout instructions at my son as he did with my sister and me. His words force me to imagine his absence, but his sharing also adds to our closeness.

I asked my friend Ellen what she would miss when her parents are gone.

“My mom’s my biggest fan,” she said. “It’s really nice that she thinks whatever I do is great! She laughs at all my jokes. She’s just part of the fabric of my life. And my dad is always there … like a rock.”

My mother just had her 87th birthday. My son, Ben, and I arrived at her board and care with flowers and chocolate cake, singing “Happy Birthday.” Mom started to cry when she saw us: “Oh! I’m so glad you’re here!”

As always, she seems to think I’ve traveled from the moon to see her, rather than the mile from my home. I put “South Pacific” into the VCR, and we sang together (much to Ben’s horror) as I held her hand.

And when we said goodbye, I told her how much I love her.

Ellie Kahn, a freelance writer and oral historian, can be reached at or


Pages Reveal a Whole New Esther

As far as narrative goes, Megillat Esther is one of the most exciting parts of the Tanach. It is rich in religious significance and considered a seminal text on the miracle of Jewish survival, the story of Esther, the orphan girl who is chosen in a nationwide beauty contest to become the queen and ends up saving the Jewish people from the evil machinations of Haman the Wicked, has all the elements of a good potboiler. Played out under the specter of Armageddon for the Jewish people are great and lavish displays of wealth, a mighty king who is duped by his nefarious adviser, scheming chamberlains, a harem full of nubile virgins, power plays among the king’s underlings and enough surprising plot twists to keep the pages — or the scroll itself — turning.

Megillat Esther is perennial — it is read every year on Purim in synagogues and homes all over the world accompanied by a cacophonous soundtrack of grogger noise — but the story itself has recently inspired a number of contemporary authors to spin their own versions of Esther’s compelling tale.

While two novels published in the last year take a new look at the beautiful queen, another self-help book uses the megillah as a source of business advice to young women.

In "The Gilded Chamber" (Rugged Land, 2003), author Rebbeca Kohn tells the story of Esther’s pauper-to-princess journey in way that evokes Anita Diamant’s "The Red Tent" in style and Arthur Golden’s "Memoirs of a Geisha" in setting. Much of the narrative in "The Gilded Chamber" is devoted to life in the harem, a setting that develops intrigues of its own between the girls themselves. There are many lush descriptions of the girls trading secrets and gossiping while reclining on couches and being fed and tended to by eunuchs. The eunuchs also instruct the girls how to pleasure the king, and the book is full of flowery and euphemistic sex prose, like, "My body opened to him like a rose in bloom, each soft petal unfolding until the final burst of color and fragrance."

The story of Purim is the backdrop of the "The Gilded Chamber," but the book is not a retelling of the megillah. Mordechai’s role, for example, is greatly reduced. He is Esther’s unrequited love interest and, taking great liberties with the source text, he emerges in "The Gilded Chamber" as a man largely estranged from traditional Judaism. Esther pines for him, all the while trying to figure out how she can protect herself from becoming doped and sick from the drugged wine that the eunuchs feed the virgins, and how she can keep herself in the king’s favor to eventually save her people. According to the book’s press materials, Kohn supplemented her imagination with meticulous historical research, and so while there are no surprises about how the story ends, it still manages to look different from the story we know.

"The Gilded Chamber" sticks to ancient Persia, but "Writing the Book of Ester" by Louise Domaratius (Quality Words in Print, 2003) travels across continents and time to the present day, and uses the story of Esther as a starting point for a complex novel that meditates on race, culture and religious identity.

"Writing the Book of Ester" is the story of Celia, an American English teacher who lives in Paris and is in love with Medhi. Medhi is her 19-year-old Iranian student, and the son of a Muslim father and a Jewish mother — named Ester. Ester is in prison for writing provocative journalism and, as Medhi talks about his mother, Celia becomes fascinated with her. Celia creates a "book" in which she parallels the contemporary Ester and the biblical Esther, seeing in both a fascinating feminine strength and defiance. Like the biblical Esther, who had to hide her Jewish identity in the palace but still remain true to it, the contemporary Ester does the same thing. While she converts to Islam, she remains true to Judaism in her heart and maintains her cover so she can help the Iranian Jews.

In both these books, Esther emerges as a proto-feminist hero. In the self-help book "What Queen Esther Knew: Business Strategies From a Biblical Sage," authors Connie Glaser and Barbara Smalley (Rodale 2003), continue this idea, seeing Esther as a role model for young women trying to make it in the business world. With chapter headings like "It Pays to Know the Palace Gossip" and "Communicating With the Clout of the Queen," the authors advise young girls to act "queenly" in business, much the same way that Esther did in the palace. The book keeps referring back to the megillah — "Queen Esther requested not one, but two banquets with King Ahasuerus and Haman. Why? Putting in more face time with the king before revealing [her] request was likely part of her master plan…" — but it also references a good number of other business advice books to bolster its advice, and a few contemporary Esthers, like Sherron Watkins, who blew the whistle on Enron.

"Given all that Esther knew," Glaser and Smalley write. "It’s little wonder that her story continues to inspire women — even after 2,500 years."

Are You My Mother?

All her life, Jeanette Kopitowsky has been searching for a face in the crowd. She scans strangers’ faces for someone, anyone who looks like herself. Her biological mother. Her father. A sibling.

The playwright-actress, who was abandoned by her parents as a baby, grew up in foster homes until she was adopted by a Jewish family at the age of seven. She describes the painful experience in her powerful, one-woman show, “What’s Your Name, Who’s Your Daddy?” which asks the question, “Do I exist if I don’t have anyone to claim me?”

In one scene, young Jeanette approaches a dark-haired woman in the supermarket and gingerly says “You look like a very nice lady…and I think you might be my mother.” The child asks the woman to meet her in the same spot the following day, but the woman never appears.

“Even today, when I see people who look like they could be related to me, I always want to ask them ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘Do you know a Jeanette?'” Kopitowsky told the Journal.

She says she wrote the play to heal herself, and also to help other foster children to heal. “I want to let people know what can happen to the psyche of a child in foster care,” says the actress, a para-professional counselor at the Stephen S. Wise Adoption Support Center. “I want them to know what it is like to feel like an outcast because you don’t have a family.”

All Kopitowsky has of her birth mother is a “faded little picture” of an unsmiling woman with haunted eyes. From the Jewish adoption agency, she had learned that her mother was an Argentinean-born teacher who had suffered from mental illness. Jeanette and her younger brother were whisked away to separate Jewish foster homes; her Catholic mother had insisted upon Jewish families, perhaps because she had assumed that Jews make good parents.

Nevertheless, Kopitowsky always felt “different, alien, apart” while growing up in an upper-middle-class Jewish foster home on Long Island. “Instinctively, I knew that I did not belong,” she says, “and that I was not supposed to stay.” Every Saturday, Jeannette stared enviously at the other Jewish children who were walking with their “real” parents to shul.

Her foster parents did not neglect her, she insists, but it was clear she was not their own. So Kopitowsky learned to parent herself: She cut her own hair, bought her own toiletries, drank soda for breakfast, walked herself to school, dressed herself in the hand-me-downs provided by her guardians. She was punished for writing her name in crayons on the floor of her bedroom. “I was marking my territory,” Kopitowsky explains. “I did it for the same reason that I compulsively hoarded my Halloween candy. As a foster child, I just needed to know that something belonged to me.”

When Jeannette was 5, a social worker told her that she was going to Buenos Aires to live with her real mommy and her little brother. One day, the doorbell rang, and there was the social worker with a little boy, his eyes round as saucers. “Here is your brother,” the social worker said, “and the two of you will take the airplane ride together to Argentina.” The social worker took the children to Burger King to get acquainted, but Patrick was so scared that he threw up.

After that day, Kopitowsky did not see her brother again for two decades. Something had happened to their birth mother, the social worker said, and Jeannette would have to find other parents.

“Auditioning” for an adoptive family, Kopitowsky believes, is what turned her into an actress. Even at age 6, she knew she had to appear cute and charming in order to impress prospective parents. “Please take me!” she would pray.

In the play, the actress describes the day she arrived at the Long Island home of the Kopitowsky’s, the people who would eventually adopt her. “My forehead started to sweat, my heart started to race, I couldn’t breathe right….I [thought] I was about to die,” she remembers. Upstairs, the skinny, brown-haired girl stared in disbelief at the lovely bedroom that Diane Kopitowsky had prepared for her, with butterflies all over the walls and a bedspread with a rainbow and ruffles. “This [is] too good for me,” she says in the play. “I’m a foster kid.”

The Kopitowskys proved warm and loving parents, but the damage had already been done. Jeannette became an actress, in part, to seek the love and attention she had missed during her first seven years of life. She studied theater at Pace University, did TV commercials and musical theater in New York and moved to L.A. in 1995.

After some detective work, she found her biological father, who refused to return her letters and hung up on her when she telephoned. “That was devastating,” Kopitowsky says, “but it also provided closure and allowed me to move on.” At the suggestion of her therapist, the actress began writing a one-woman show to explore and exorcise her childhood memories of feeling “lost, confused and unwanted.”

And around the time she conceived the play, several years ago, Kopitowsky received a startling telephone call that would change her life. A strange young man was on the other line. “He said, ‘My name is Patrick, and I’m your brother.’ I was so shocked that I dropped the telephone,” the actress recalls. The siblings talked for three hours, then arranged to meet on the top of the Empire State Building. Kopitowsky first spotted him while she was waiting for the elevator near the 80th floor; he was holding a bouquet of flowers. “We ran to each other and hugged,” she says.

Recently, Patrick flew to Los Angeles to see a special performance of “What’s Your Name?” the proceeds of which benefited the Stephen S. Wise Adoption Support Center. Afterwards, he embraced his sister. “He told me that the play was his therapy, because he went through all the same feelings that I did,” Kopitowsky says.

The Oasis Theatre Ensemble presents “What’s Your Name, Who’s Your Daddy?” through Aug. 15 at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave. in Venice. Tickets are $15, and $20 for the Aug. 15 benefit performance for Concerned United Birth Parents. For information, call 310/ 823-1286..