Israel and Nov. 29

“The Vote,” the best show in town, opened at 7:45 p.m. on Nov. 29 and, after 23 acts, closed down 60 minutes later.

During that one hour, speakers, actors, musicians, singers and dancers commemorated the day, 65 years ago, when the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.

Less than six months later, the State of Israel was reborn.

In a seamless mix of historical remembrances, the day — and preceding years of persecution and struggle — came alive in words, film clips, re-enactments, and, most of all, in songs and dances of the era.

A large picture and the spirit of Theodor Herzl hovered over the audience as Rabbi David Wolpe and guitarist Ari Herstand invoked Herzl’s exhortation to the Zionist Congress and the Jewish people, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Israeli Consul General David Siegel and Judea Pearl spoke vividly of that November day in 1947 when the Jewish world held its collective breath as 58 nations voted yes, no or abstain on the partition of Palestine resolution.

The Rev. Alexei Smith of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, as well as Mormon and Protestant representatives in the audience, served as reminders that many Christians actively supported the nationhood struggle of their Jewish brethren.

Actress Naomi Ackerman and singers Mike Burstyn and Noa Dori entertained in repeated appearances, and the talented youngsters of the Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble and the MATI Kids Choir kept spirits high at the American Jewish University’s Gindi Auditorium.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein closed the evening with a poignant reminder that, only hours earlier, another United Nations vote had overwhelmingly backed a demand to upgrade the Palestinian status in the world body.

Amazingly, the entire show had been written and produced in three weeks by Craig Taubman and the staff at his Craig ‘N Co., and premiered without a single run-through or dress rehearsal.

In something close to a biblical miracle, rabbis, diplomats and performers voluntarily limited the lengths of their presentations to two to three minutes each.

The evening’s only negative notes were the many empty spaces left in the 474-seat Gindi Auditorium. Tickets were free, and 600 had been quickly distributed to the first-comers, leaving later applicants out of luck.

Yet a quarter of the ticket holders failed to show up, and the loss was theirs.

The seeds of the commemoration were planted in the pages of the Jewish Journal four years ago by Judea Pearl, UCLA professor, one of the world’s foremost authorities on artificial intelligence, and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, created to commemorate his journalist son, who was killed by Islamic terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.

In an 2008 op-ed in the Journal, titled “The Forgotten Miracle,” and a follow-up article a year later, Pearl called the 1947 U.N. vote “perhaps the most significant event in Jewish history since the Exodus from Egypt,” and “a new chapter in world history.”

He expressed deep chagrin that no Jewish organization, institution or academic center had seen fit to commemorate the event and called for a Jewish Thanksgiving Day to express gratitude to the 33 nations that had voted for the 1947 U.N. resolution.

It took the next four years to realize at least part of Pearl’s vision, and during that time, he pressed the idea around town to just about every major Jewish institution and Israeli outpost.

“All the leaders I talked to thought it was just a great idea, but they didn’t have the budget or the staff or the time to pitch in,” Pearl said in an interview last week.

Finally, the local Israeli Leadership Council and its CEO, Sagi Balasha, picked up on the concept a couple of months ago, engaged Taubman and put the show on the road.

Pearl, who thinks big, is now aiming for annual celebrations on Nov. 29 in Jewish communities throughout the world.

“Wouldn’t it be great if the consul generals of the 33 nations were invited to a celebration each year to express the Jewish community’s thanks?” Pearl asked.

“Or if Jewish student groups on American campuses invited their counterparts from the 33 countries?” It would be a Thanksgiving Day, Pearl said, in which the Jewish community remembers, and reminds others, of the day world opinion took the decisive step to enable the birth of Israel.

‘Incident at Vichy’ probes moral questions of ongoing relevance

In 1964, the New York Herald Tribune asked playwright Arthur Miller to cover the war crimes trial in Germany of the Nazi officials who ran the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

While listening to the testimony of man’s inhumanity to man, Miller started writing “Incident at Vichy,” and the play premiered in December of the same year at New York’s Washington Square Theatre.

“Vichy,” now on stage at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, was generally well received in New York, though not with the superlatives that greeted Miller’s earlier “Death of a Salesman,” “The Crucible” and “All My Sons.” Some critics panned the one-act play as too didactic and moralistic.

Rereading “Vichy” now, it appears that the play has aged well, and the intervening decades have done nothing to lessen the acuity of Miller’s inquiry into the nature, conscience and prejudices of the human animal.

Set in 1942, after the Nazis’ swift defeat of France, and the division of it into Nazi-occupied and “unoccupied” Vichy halves, the play opens in a “place of detention” holding eight men and a 14-year-old boy.

They have been picked up off the streets without charges and are now trying to puzzle out the reason for their confinement and their likely fate at the hands of the French police, who are supervised by a German “professor of racial anthropology.”

After first deluding themselves that the roundup is just a routine ID check, the inmates gradually realize that they have been arrested because, according to Nazi criteria, they appear to be Jews.

As each of the men is called into the adjacent interrogation room, only two qualify as obvious “Aryans,” a French businessman and Prince von Berg, a member of the old Austrian nobility who despises the Nazis.

In the end, only two are left waiting, the prince and Leduc, a French-Jewish psychiatrist who was picked up after leaving a safe hiding place to scout for some pain medicine to ease his wife’s toothache.

The two engage in the play’s most probing dialogue, with the psychiatrist pitilessly stripping the aristocrat of his idealistic “illusions.”

Leduc lectures, “I am angry that I should have been born before the day when man has accepted his own nature; that he is not reasonable, that he is full of murder, that his ideals are only the little tax he pays for the right to hate and kill with a clear conscience.”

Miller ends the play on a somewhat more hopeful note, showing that man’s better angels may occasionally triumph over his bestiality.

I sat down and discussed the upcoming performance of “Vichy” with director Barbara Schofield, who also serves as a resident director for the Sierra Madre Playhouse.

Her resume includes a doctorate in theater from Tufts University, further studies in Berlin and London, and some two decades of experience as actor, director, producer and teacher at universities and theaters from New York to Hollywood.

“I’ve been wanting to do this play for a long time, because the issues Miller raises are relevant for every generation and relevant to us today,” Schofield said. “The question is, what does the moral individual do when the norms of society break down; how does he or she act in a world devoid of values?”

In American society today, the individualistic cowboy mentality is getting the upper hand over the community’s collective needs, Schofield believes.

The Sierra Madre Playhouse, once a vaudeville palace and then a movie house, was converted into a 99-seat theater in the 1970s. It maintains a year-round schedule of plays and breaks almost even on ticket sales to a predominantly white, elderly and conservative audience, the director said.

All this in a community of 11,000, nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, with a volunteer fire department and the distinction of having been named an “All-America City” by the National Civic League in 2007.

Since joining the Playhouse staff four years ago, Schofield has been trying to attract a younger audience through somewhat edgier plays and has found that the theater’s current patrons will accept a certain level of sexual frankness but are turned off by blasphemy.

“We’re not pushing the envelope,” she said. “For instance, we’re not going to put on a play like David Mamet’s [expletive-laden] ‘Speed-the-Plow.’ “

Schofield describes the small-theater scene in the Los Angeles area as “the most active in the country, with more venues than in New York and Chicago combined. Here, we have a new theater company opening up practically every day.”

“Incident at Vichy” continues through Sept. 8. Performances are on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. For reservations, phone (626) 355-4318, or order tickets online at

Thai Tikvah

While that may sound like an old Jewish joke, it's an arrangement that well suits a community which feels at home in this overwhelmingly Buddhist nation but keeps a low profile.

The three synagogues serve as a rough guide to the makeup of the permanent and transient Jewish community here.

Worshipers at the showpiece Bet Elisheva synagogue tend to be wealthier suburbanites. The three-story building serves as community center and houses the sanctuary, the meeting and recreation rooms, the mikvah, and the living quarters of the youthful Rabbi Yosef Kantor and his family.

There are daily preschool classes for six children, and a Sunday school for older kids is in the planning stages. The preschoolers are taught by two young women, still in their late teens, who arrived two months ago from Kfar Chabad in Israel.

Bangkok, as the gem-trade capital of the world, has attracted a large number of Israeli businessmen. They, along with tourists staying at the more expensive hotels, pray at the appropriately named Even Chen (Precious Stone, in Hebrew) in the center of the city.

Serving the lower end of the economic scale is the Ohr Menachem synagogue, which, with a kosher kitchen, is part of Bet Chabad. It caters to the stream of backpackers, an estimated 15,000 a year from Israel alone, who stay at the nearby cheap hostels and guest houses.

Rabbi Yosef Kantor, with wife, Dvorah Leah, and son, has been spiritual leader of the Bangkok Jewish community for four years. Photo by Tom Tugend

The first contingent of Jews arrived in Thailand at the turn of the century, mainly from Middle Eastern countries.

These Sephardic Jews were joined in the 1920s by groups of Ashkenazim, said “Jacob,” whose father arrived here from Russia, via Italy, in 1920.

Jacob, who requested that his real name not be used, represents what is now the oldest Jewish family in Bangkok. He is president of the Jewish community, as his father was a generation earlier.

Besides the Israeli businessmen, the community includes a sizable segment of American Jews. The men, mainly lawyers, got to know Thailand while serving with the U.S. military or the Peace Corps, liked what they saw and decided to stay.

Jacob's request for anonymity is grounded in his sense of vulnerability to terrorist attacks. In 1973, the Palestinian Black September group seized the Israeli Embassy here — although Thai authorities were able to defuse the situation without bloodshed.

Four years ago, Jacob says, police apprehended a terrorist “by a stroke of luck. He had enough explosive material to level everything within a mile radius in the heart of the city.”

Surveying his constituency, Jacob notes that, “basically, all of us are Orthodox; we have no Reform or Conservative Jews here.” The community gets together for Purim and Chanukah parties, and, during the past year, celebrated one wedding, one bris and a few bar mitzvahs, and welcomed one young Thai woman as a convert.

As for the burden of the presidency, Jacob confides that “just because it's a small community doesn't mean it's an easy one.”

What attracts Jews to live in Thailand?

“It's a nice country with friendly people. All religions can function freely, and there are good business opportunities,” says Jacob.

There is also no anti-Semitism, perhaps because “the Thai have no idea what Jews are,” as one resident put it.

In the past, the community had a hard time attracting and then keeping rabbis. “We had one who stayed for a year, and then a second one who left after six months,” says Jacob.

Four years ago, community leaders turned to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who dispatched Rabbi Kantor. The 28-year-old native of Australia has “done a terrific job,” according to Jacob.

Kantor and his wife, Dvorah Leah, who hails from Los Angeles, are now well-settled and are raising a family. He relies primarily on e-mail to stay in touch with Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn and with the rest of the world.

Some things about Thailand, though, are hard to get used to, including the extremely hot and humid weather. “Sometimes, I dream of just taking a pleasant walk, like in Los Angeles,” says the rebbetzin. “Now [in February], it's the middle of the winter, and the temperature is 100 degrees.”

Mindi Gerlitzky, one of the two young teachers recently arrived from Kfar Chabad, is struck by other phenomena.

“I was shocked to see so many Israelis here,” she says.

Israeli tourists now flock to Thailand at the rate of 50,000 a year, according to Yaakov Avrahami, the No. 2 man at the Israeli Embassy.

Besides the 15,000 backpackers, there are some 35,000 mostly middle-aged visitors, attracted by cheap package tours and the regular El Al flights between Tel Aviv and Bangkok.

The Israeli Embassy was opened in 1957, but the Thai reciprocated in opening an embassy in Tel Aviv only last year. One reason for the latter move was to serve the estimated 20,000 Thai nationals now working in Israel, mainly in the agricultural sector.

Trade between the two countries runs at $500 million a year, with the balance almost 2 to 1 in Israel's favor. Thai exports are mainly in diamonds and gemstones, and imports from Israel include machinery, electronics and communication equipment.

Diplomatic relations between Thailand and Israel function smoothly, says Avrahami, and, judging by the three English-language dailies in Bangkok, Thailand's people and government seem well-disposed to the Jewish State.

Entrance to Bet Elisheva, one of three synagogues in Bangkok which also serves as community center. Photo by Tom Tugend