November 16, 2018

Timeline: A history of Iranian Jews

722 B.C.E.

After Shalmaneser V conquers the kingdom of Israel, a group of captive Jews said to be descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel is sent into exile in Persia.

605-562 B.C.E.

Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire,  conquers Judah and Jerusalem and sends a group of Jews into exile in the city of Isfahan in Persia. A Jewish quarter is built in the city for the Jews, which is named Judea (Yahudieh). The city of Isfahan also has been mentioned as being called Judea by some Islamic historians.

586 B.C.E.

Babylonians destroy the First Temple
in Jerusalem.

537 B.C.E.

After the overthrow of Babylon by the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, a group of captive Jews, along with the prophet Daniel, is allowed to reside in Iran and practice its religion freely. They settle in the capital city of Susa, southern Iran. The shrine of Daniel is in Susa.

521 B.C.E.

King Cyrus allows the Jewish pilgrims in Persia to return to Israel to rebuild the Second Temple. After his death, the new king of Persia, Darius the Great, orders completion of the construction of the Second Temple. 

486-465 B.C.E.

The third king of the Achaemenid Empire, Ahasuerus, comes to power. Haman and his wife, Zeresh, plot to murder all the Jews of Persia. The plan is foiled by Esther, the Jewish queen of Persia. The Jewish holiday Purim is a remembrance of this event. The tombs of Esther and her cousin Mordecai are in the city of Hamadan, Iran.

520-330 B.C.E.

After the relocation of the capital city in Persia by the Achaemenid Empire kings, the Jews of Iran start moving to new capital cities. Cities such as Shiraz and Hamadan attract many Jews.

330-323 B.C.E.

Greeks led by Alexander invade and conquer Iran. Despite the Iranian cultural conflict with Hellenism, historians agree that Alexander treated the Jews respectfully.

247 B.C.E.-224 C.E.

Brothers Arashk and Tirdat come to power. Arashk is to become the first king of the Arsacid (or Parthian) dynasty. Under the reign of Parthians, Iranian Jews live in prosperity.

135 C.E.

Religious persecution of Jews in Palestine by the Romans brings many Jewish refugees into the Parthian Empire.

226-651 C.E.

The last Parthian king is overthrown by Ardashir I, and the Sassanid dynasty is founded. For the first time in the history of Iran, Jews suffer occasional persecution.

634-1255 C.E.

Arabs invade Iran and suppress all the rebellions. Islamic rules begin to be imposed and conversion to Islam occurs gradually. Jews, along with other religious minorities — Christians and Zoroastrians —  are persecuted, and social restrictions and discriminations are imposed.

1256-1318 C.E.

Mongols capture Persia. The situation for Persian Jews becomes more dangerous when the seventh ruler of the Mongolian Empire, Ghazan Khan, converts to Islam in 1295. Jews are forced to convert to Islam.

1502-1925 C.E.

Safavid and Qajar dynasties come to power. Shia Islam is proclaimed to be the state religion. Mistreatment of Jews continues occasionally. Because of the persecution, thousands of Persian Jews immigrate to Palestine between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 19th century, Jews in the city of Mashhad are forced to convert to Islam, but many of them keep practicing Judaism in the privacy of their homes.

1925-1979 C.E.

Pahlavi dynasty comes to power. Modernization and reforms are imposed, and Jewish life starts to improve.

1979 to present

The Islamic Revolution turns the Iranian kingdom into an Islamic republic. Since the revolution, the number of Jews has decreased from 120,000 to fewer than 20,000. Iranian Jews have mostly immigrated to the United States — particularly Los Angeles — and to Israel.

Iranian Jews: The art, culture and history

Intro to Israel considers what ‘Matters’

Much heated conversation is conducted in these pages and elsewhere in the media about Israel. We debate every aspect of Israel’s present and future — the ups and downs of its political leadership, the role of religion in the Jewish state, the path to peace with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, the security risks that threaten its very existence, and much else besides.

The conversation assumes that we already possess a depth of knowledge about Israel. But we need to pause here and ask: What do young people, Jewish or not, actually know about Israel? After all, anyone under the age of 40 will have no personal recollections about the founding of the state, the wars that have shaped the status quo of the Middle East, or the men and women who played such a crucial role in these events.

That’s the problem to be solved in “Israel Matters: Understand the Past, Look to the Future” by Mitchell Bard (Behrman House: $22.50), a short and friendly introduction to the history, culture and politics of Israel that is clearly directed to younger readers but has something important to offer everyone.

Historian and political scientist Bard is executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and the author of numerous books about Jewish history, including “The Arab Lobby,” which I recently reviewed in The Journal. His newest book was developed with the support of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and represents an earnest effort to familiarize readers with both the origins and destiny of Israel.

“When most people talk about Israel, they talk about the pressing issues of the moment,” Bard explains. “Yet it is impossible to understand the context of the issues without looking at all the dimensions of this small country: its historical and religious significance, its technology achievements and its archaeological wonders.”

Indeed, Bard styles his book as a conversation with the reader. He acknowledges that the media is preoccupied with controversy and criticism when it comes to Israel, but he addresses a challenge to those who open his book: “This book was written to help you sort out these complex questions and help you form your own relationship to Israel.”

“Israel Matters” is eye-catching and eye-pleasing, full of sidebars, maps, charts, photographs and drawings, if only because an image is often worth a thousand words — Bard shows us that the entirety of Israel is a small fraction of the size of California and only slightly larger than New Jersey, which silently makes the point that the embattled little Jewish state sits on a tiny sliver of the Middle East, as we see for ourselves on a page that shows a snapshot of the region taken from space by Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

We meet young people who represent “Faces of Israel” in all of its ethnic and cultural diversity. We are offered the opportunity to “Look Closer” in a series of sidebars that highlight some fascinating details of Israeli life. Source documents from crucial points in history are quoted or presented in their entirety. Now and then, Bard invites the reader to answer a provocative question about an event in history: “What Would You Do?”

“You are a Palestinian living in the refugee camp in the city of Jenin in the West,” goes one such exercise. “You have several paths you can follow in your life, including joining a group that interacts with Israeli peace organizations or choosing to stay out of politics … [b]ut you could also join a group that advocates armed struggle that may ask you to try to attack Israelis.” Many of these sidebars tell the reader what actually happened in a real-life incident, but this one ends provocatively: “This episode in history hasn’t closed. Young Palestinians face these types of choices every day.”

“Israel Matters” has a point to make, of course, and the sharper edges of Jewish history and politics are buffed off. While Bard writes respectfully about the other faiths that claim the Holy Land as a place of significance, for example, he emphasizes the spiritual and historical Jewish linkages that “helped sustain Jews during long centuries of exile and nurtured them in times of persecution.” By contrast, he pauses to make the argument that “[t]he Arab connection to Palestine did not begin until after the death of Muhammad in the seventh century, and most Palestinian Arabs arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Even so, Bard provides enough of the raw material of history to allow the discerning reader to reach his or her own conclusions. For example, a series of maps show the various proposals for the division of Palestine between Arabs and Jews, starting with the original British mandate, continuing through the armistice lines drawn after the various wars between Israel and its Arab enemies, and including more recent peace proposals, all of which puts in perspective the current argument over the boundaries of Israel.

Some of the incidental details that enliven the text are clearly meant to enable young people to identify with Israel even if they have no strong Jewish connections. On one page, for example, we are introduced to violinist Itzhak Perlman, a native of Tel Aviv, and on the opposite page we meet Natalie Hershlag, a native of Jerusalem better known as the Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman. By the end of the book, however, it is clearly the hope of the author that the reader will not only be more knowledgeable but also more sympathetic toward Israel.

“[M]aybe Israel is too abstract right now, a faraway place that is only familiar from the news, the Bible, or from discussions with friends and family,” he concludes. “One’s feelings may be conflicted: it is possible to admire some aspects of Israel’s history and culture, yet feel uncomfortable with particular policies.” To his credit, Bard acknowledges that his book is only “a starting place,” and he insists only that “the conversation about Israel is never-ending, passionate, and meaningful, and it always matters.”

Author’s note: I have business dealings with the publisher of “Israel Matters” but played no role in the content of the book. Irwin Field, a former publisher and current board member of The Jewish Journal, played a leading role in developing “Israel Matters” for publication.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at and can be reached at

Benzion Netanyahu: In life and death

Two momentous events occurred recently in the life of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last week, he dropped a bombshell on the Israeli public by forging, under the cloak of night, a coalition with Kadima, his party’s leading rival in the Knesset. This move, which forestalled early elections expected in September, demonstrated yet again Netanyahu’s formidable political skills, in this case by co-opting his most dangerous parliamentary foe.

The second event came a week earlier, on April 30, with the death at 102 of Benzion Netanyahu, the prime minister’s father. Netanyahu père was an erudite scholar of Jewish history who exerted an outsized influence on his tight-knit family. The elder Netanyahu held to what the greatest of 20th century Jewish historians, Salo Baron, called the “lachrymose” — or tearful — conception of Jewish history. This view can be readily summarized in a line uttered by Benzion Netanyahu to David Remnick for a 1998 profile of Bibi in The New Yorker: “Jewish history is in large measure a history of holocausts.”

We might call this the Amalekite view of Jewish history, referring to the hated biblical foes of the Israelites whose existence — and even memory — should be blotted out (Exodus 17:14). The historian’s belief that the Jews have been subjected to constant genocidal threats did not lead him to a passive fatalism, as if there were nothing that the Jews could do in the face of Amalek. Rather, it inspired his own militant Zionism, which demanded a persistent willingness to wage war against one’s enemies.

Bibi Netanyahu dismisses talk of his father’s deep imprint on him as “psychobabble.” But it is hard to avoid seeing traces of the father’s vision of the past in his own thinking and policies. It is hard, for example, to disconnect his bellicose stance on Iran from his father’s Amalekite worldview. Netanyahu the son does not merely see Iran as a grave threat; he regards it as comparable to the most terrifying of Jewish persecutors, the Nazis — a point he made explicitly at the March 2012 AIPAC convention and during his recent Yom HaShoah remarks. There is a broader historical perspective that anchors this analogy. Like his father, the prime minister sees the long history of the Jews as marked by “powerlessness,” “utter defenselessness” and “the atrophy of Jewish resistance,” the antidote to which is the unapologetic and ever-ready assertion of Jewish force.

To be sure, Bibi Netanyahu is more than a mere replica of his father. Indeed, there is another facet to his personality alongside the Amalekite — that of the political pragmatist educated at MIT and trained in the art of deal making at the Boston Consulting Group. That is what makes him such an intriguing figure in the history of Israeli political life. Still, it is worth reflecting on the father, both because he deserves our attention in his own right and because of his strong cultural and historical transmission to his son.

Benzion Netanyahu was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1910 and emigrated to Palestine in 1920. While studying in Jerusalem, he became involved with the upstart Revisionist Zionists, who organized themselves in the mid 1920s as an alternative to the European-based World Zionist Organization, as well as to the Labor Zionists of David Ben-Gurion in Palestine. The goal of the Revisionists was not to build up the ancestral homeland through cooperative communities and an egalitarian spirit, but rather to insist on the creation of a political state to be located on both sides of the Jordan River. The fledgling movement’s charismatic prophet, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940), was a brilliant Russian-Jewish journalist who laid out his distinctive political perspective in a 1923 essay titled “Iron Wall.” Jabotinsky was willing to accord full rights to Arabs in Palestine, but only as a function of Jewish beneficence, not as a result of power sharing or negotiation between equals.

Benzion Netanyahu was nurtured on the principles of Jabotinsky’s Revisionism. He also inherited the movement’s sense of persecution and marginalization within Jewish Palestine. Not only was the movement a minority party within Zionism, its militant stance toward both the local Arab population and British Mandatory authorities made its existence somewhat precarious. It is no surprise that Jabotinsky’s chief disciple, the future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, titled a history of the Revisionist paramilitary group Etse”l (National Military Organization), which he commanded, “In the Underground” (“Ba-mahteret”). Begin and his fellow Revisionists felt the need to hide in the underground, where they faced a multitude of enemies (Arab, British, even Jewish) while seeking to redeem the Jewish people through armed struggle.

Benzion Netanyahu deeply internalized this bunker mentality, bringing it with him from Palestine to the United States, where he moved in 1940, initially to serve as secretary to Jabotinsky (until his hero’s death later that year). For the next eight years, he ran the Revisionist-affiliated New Zionist Organization of America. Simultaneously, he undertook doctoral studies in Jewish history at Dropsie College in Philadelphia, earning his degree in 1947 with a dissertation on the great Iberian Jewish thinker and statesman, Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508).

This study, published as a book in 1953, launched Netanyahu’s career as a historian of Spanish Jewry. One might assume that his path into academia signaled his exit from the world of Zionist politics. Not so. Netanyahu’s historical views undergirded and were intricately entwined with his political outlook. Thus, he evinced considerable empathy for Abravanel, not only owing to his communal leadership but to his deep antipathy for the hostile Christian world that surrounded him. At the same time, he took Abravanel to task for his flights of messianic fancy, wondering what might have been had the Jewish leader instead “propagated a realistic course, a plan of regaining the Promised Land by settlement and colonization.” In other words, he held Abravanel, rather ahistorically, to the standards of 20th century Zionism.

Perhaps more significantly, Netanyahu began to develop in this book his iconoclastic, controversial and conspiratorial outlook on one of the most notorious institutions in the history of the West, the Inquisition. Netanyahu was continually drawn to the phenomenon of conversos, those Jews who had been forcibly converted in Spain beginning in 1391 and whose presence proved to be a major irritant to Spanish Old Christian society. Now that the stigma of Judaism had been removed, the conversos were free to gain entry to any and every position of power in Spain. Netanyahu, among other scholars, argued that the Inquisition was introduced between 1478 and 1481 in order to retard the advance of the “New Christians” into the heart of Spanish society. This, in itself, was not particularly original.

What did set Netanyahu apart from other scholars, however, was his claim that the Inquisition, which was not directed against Jews per se, but against perceived heretics among the conversos, engaged in wholesale and malicious fabrication. Its long recitation of the “Judaizing” crimes of the conversos — observance of the Sabbath, abstinence from pork, Torah study, etc. — was but a lie. Almost no converso, Netanyahu strenuously argued, continued to adhere to Jewish ritual practice; all had assimilated into Spanish society.

Netanyahu first detailed this assertion in “The Marranos of Spain” (1966), relying on contemporaneous Hebrew sources. At the end of that book, he posed a vexing question: If the conversos were not in fact engaged in secret Jewish practices, what then motivated the Inquisition to persecute them? It was this question that occupied his attention for 30 years — and that stood at the center of his monumental, nearly 1,400-page book, “The Origins of the Inquisition” (1995). Relying on Christian sources now, Netanyahu argued that the Inquisition was propelled into action not by religious zeal, but by a mix of socio-economic and racial factors. On one hand, the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, sought to prevent the ascent of conversos into the uppermost echelons of the Spanish economy. On the other, the Spanish Inquisition was rooted in a pernicious racial enmity toward all those possessed of Jewish blood. Indicative of this enmity were the “purity of blood” statutes introduced in mid-15th century Spain to exclude New Christians from public office. Herein lay the true motivations of the Inquisition. And herein lay a stunning adumbration of modern, racial anti-Semitism, as it would take form in Nazism.

Others have noted this link between early modern Spanish and modern German racialism, most notably Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. But few scholars argued that there were virtually no secret Jews among the conversos and, therefore, that the Inquisition was founded on a vast lie. In fact, while Netanyahu canvassed a wide range of sources, he was frequently criticized for ignoring the veracity of the largest trove of documentary material relating to the conversos: the detailed accounts of Judaizing activity in Inquisitorial records themselves.

Benzion Netanyahu’s provocative methods and findings are inseparable from his deeply ingrained Amalekite worldview, according to which Jews face unrelenting hostility from the Gentile world — even when those Jews abandon their very adherence to Judaism. His perspective was nurtured not only in the archive, but also in the underground, where suspicion and paranoia tend to fester. And, via his powerful son, it is a perspective that will survive Professor Netanyahu’s death, informing Israeli political culture at a most crucial juncture.

David N. Myers teaches Jewish history and chairs the History Department at UCLA.

Recognizing the righteous in my family’s Polish town

It’s August, and I’m jockeying for air in a banquet room at the Warsaw Marriot, wedged shoulder to shoulder with a few hundred others: Holocaust survivors and their descendants, members of the Polish parliament, press and ambassadors from 20 European Union nations. We’re here for a very special ceremony bestowing one of Israel’s highest honors — the Righteous Among the Nations medal from Yad Vashem — on a group of Poles who rescued their Jewish neighbors, acquaintances and even complete strangers, during the Holocaust.

The ceremony is running late by half an hour so the Israeli team could do a security sweep of the ballroom.  Finally, we’re allowed inside. Eleven Polish rescuers will be honored today, but I’ve come from Los Angeles to witness the tribute to the late Janina Bereska and her surviving son, Marian Bereska — rescuers from Radomsko, Poland, the town in Central Poland where my mother’s family lived for generations.

I take a seat between Szymon Bereska, a grandson of Marian Bereska, and Leo Ofman, the son of the survivors who traveled here from Scottsdale, Ariz. One seat over is 77-year-old Marian Bereska himself.

For 70 years — until this moment — Marian Bereska has kept secret the story of how he and his mother hid five Jews in their house in Radomsko.  He has told no one. Not even his wife or his son or any of his neighbors or friends. 

It’s difficult, from our perspective, to fathom why, but Marian learned very young the exigency of guarding this secret.  In Poland, it was not only Jews leaving the ghetto who were subject to the death penalty. In the words of a Nazi decree of Oct. 15, 1941, “The same penalty applies to persons who knowingly shelter such Jews.”

In her book on Christian rescue during the Holocaust, the author Nechama Tec writes, “It was not uncommon in Poland to conceal one’s help to Jews from one’s own family — one wanted to shield them from anxiety and possibly, from death.”  And then, after the war, during the decades of communist rule in Poland, it was forbidden to speak about many aspects of Poland’s World War II history — including the annihilation of the Jews by the Nazis, as well as the activities of the Polish Underground.

During the Shoah, as the Yad Vashem Web site reminds us, “Bystanders were the rule, rescuers were the exception.” An act of heroism like that undertaken by Janina and Marian Bereska was outside the social norm of a small town. To reveal it to one’s neighbors or employers was to court social and economic ostracism or, as one Polish friend of mine remarked, “to bring upon oneself a thousand unpleasant things.” 

Marian Bereska might never have broken his 70-year silence had it not been for his grandson, Szymon, 28, now a doctoral student at the University of Warsaw. Over the last two decades, Szymon coaxed this tale out of his grandfather and finally convinced him that in the “new” (post-communist) Poland, it was safe to tell his story to his family and to the world.

The ceremony begins. A choir sings a song in Hebrew. The Israeli ambassador to Poland, Zvi Rav-Ner addresses the assembly: “These people … whom we honor today, were human beings. But more than that, they were brave, sincere, and they risked their lives. They risked the lives of their families and their towns. And they made the right choice. These are human beings whom we have to honor and respect forever.”

My journey to this ceremony in Warsaw began with my own family research. I wanted to learn the fate of family members who’d stayed behind in Radomsko when my grandparents immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s. In 2000, as regional archives were opening up in a newly democratic Poland, I joined an online group called CRARG (Czestochowa-Radomsko Area Research Group), organized by a dedicated descendant of Radomsko’s scattered Jewish survivors.

Radomsko landsleit — fellow Jews — from all over the country pooled resources to cover the cost for a Polish researcher to type records in the Radomsko city hall.  What I found was both moving and chilling: the location of my great-grandmother Golda Wajskop’s grave in the Radomsko Jewish Cemetery; the last address for my great-aunt, Feyge Konarska Wilhelm, before her deportation to Treblinka.

But I wanted to interview someone who’d known what prewar life was like in Radomsko, when Jews made up almost 55 percent of the town’s then-population of 27,000.  Among the Radomsko survivors I was able to locate was a distant cousin named Berek Ofman.

In 2004, I flew to Sun City, Ariz., to interview Berek, a charming retired tailor whose father was the last kosher butcher in Radomsko. When the war began in 1939, Berek was just 14.  He escaped the Radomsko ghetto in 1942 — after both his parents and brothers had been deported. He made his way to a house outside the ghetto that belonged to a Polish-Catholic carpenter named Wladyslaw Bereska, to whom his older brother had been apprenticed.

The carpenter’s wife, Janina, responded to his knock. “She had an 8-year-old boy and a girl 4 years old,” Berek said. “She didn’t hesitate. She let me in.” 

Berek was shocked to learn that Janina’s husband had been arrested by the Germans in the middle of the night — still wearing his pajamas — and that he’d died in Auschwitz. Later, Berek learned that Janina’s husband had been a Home Army officer who attempted to blow up a factory producing military equipment for the Germans.

Berek explained to Janina that he was his family’s sole survivor. She was well aware of the danger, but she agreed to hide him. Soon, he brought four others —Regina Epstein, her parents and her cousin Marysia — to the little house. Janina’s young son, Marian, helped Berek construct a camouflaged cellar. The five fugitives hid there for nearly three years.

Berek, Regina and Marysia all survived the war. Regina’s parents were shot and killed by German soldiers one week before the end of the war, when they ventured out of the hideout. Two days after liberation, Berek Ofman married Regina Epstein. Their son Leo was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany in 1947, before they emigrated to Israel and then to the United States.

Berek called Janina his “angel.” He refused to judge those Poles who lacked her courage. “If somebody did hide a Jew, then they are the most heroic people, and I cannot explain why they did it.”

Janina Bereska passed away in 1970, but her son, Marian, still lived in Radomsko. Berek declined to give me Marian’s address there.  “It would be too dangerous.”

Surely Berek was mistaken. He didn’t understand how the climate had changed in Poland since the end of communism. But Berek was adamant.

I returned a second time to interview Berek in 2006. Once again I asked him for Marian’s address. Once again, he balked. I tried to reassure him. My translator was discrete and diplomatic. We would ask Marian to meet us outside the town. I would keep his secret if he wished.

“Yes, you probably would,” Berek conceded. “But … you cannot comprehend this history.” His voice rose with emotion. “It’s something that I won’t touch,” he said flatly.

Berek was right. No one who wasn’t there could comprehend what had happened in Poland during the war. Berek wasn’t even sure whether Marian had ever told his own children what his mother had done during the war, or that he himself had been involved in the rescue effort. “You don’t know how they would react,” Berek told me. “Because this was the greatest secret in the world!” 

Before I left that day, Berek made me tea. As the pot brewed, he picked up a Christmas card from the sideboard and placed the envelope — addressed in a feathery European-style handwriting — upside down in front of me on the table. “This is a card from Marian Bereska in Radomsko. He remembers me every year.”

Berek watched as I carefully transposed the upside-down address into my notebook. He did not give it to me; but he did not prevent me from taking it.

It took several more years for Marian Bereska finally to agree to meet with me. In December 2010, I traveled to Radomsko with my translator and listened as Marian, a dignified, craggy-faced man, described those dangerous years of concealment. His grandson Szymon sat beside him. 

Snow fell steadily outside the windows of the hotel as Marian carefully sketched out the dimensions of the bunker: the trapdoor in the kitchen, the second door to the potato cellar. Five Jewish souls hidden under their roof, under their floor.

He used his strong hands to demonstrate, occasionally placing a cup or a spoon on the table to indicate how close they came to disaster. He recalled when the SS came to arrest his father during the night, and how he instantly became the man of the house. He told me how he journeyed to neighboring villages to exchange linens for bread, trying not to attract attention from nosy neighbors as he procured enough food for seven people on rations for three. 

All my attempts to question the why of the risk he and his mother assumed were ignored, did not register. Someone needed their help; they responded.

I’d been in touch with the Bereskas for a while as part of a tandem effort to submit testimony to Yad Vashem. Throughout 2009, I helped the Ofman family prepare Berek’s statement. In Poland, Szymon readied his grandfather’s testimony, had it notarized and sent it to Jerusalem.  Yad Vashem took a year to make its decision. Part of the process was verifying the survivor’s testimony and confirming that the rescue was for altruistic reasons, not material profits.

More Poles have received Righteous Among the Nations medals than people of any other nationality. Currently, the number from Poland is 6,266, with the Netherlands next, numbering 5,108. That may not sound like many out of a population of millions, but, as the Israeli ambassador reminded us at the Warsaw ceremony, “When we ask, ‘Why weren’t there more?’ To be honest, each and every one of us has to ask — in a world of broken moral order, ‘Would I have risked my own life and my family’s lives to save a neighbor — a stranger?’ ”

OK, ask yourself: Would you shelter an undocumented immigrant in Los Angeles on penalty of death? Not just your own — but your entire family?

Two days after the ceremony in Warsaw, Szymon and Leo Ofman and I drove the four hours from Warsaw to Radomsko for the press conference to witness Marian Bereska reveal his long-kept secret to his fellow citizens. Anxious for his first glimpse of the town he’d heard about his whole life, Leo pushed the speed limit on the winding roads. Szymon cautioned him to slow down. We passed apple orchards and fat cows grazing next to sunflowers.

En route, Szymon told us how he unraveled his grandfather’s secret. “He often mentioned a cellar … what cellar?”  He heard the names “Berek and Regina Ofman” and when Szymon was old enough to use the Internet, he found these names in the Memorial (Yizkor) Book of Radomsko’s Jewish Community. He started to piece it all together.

A phalanx of eager young reporters awaited us in Radomsko’s Town Hall.  The mayor, Anna Milczanowska, described to those assembled how Marian had been her boss at a city agency in the 1980s. At the time, young Anna was a Solidarity activist, and Marian, an engineer, belonged to the Communist Party. Marian warned her when the communist secret police took an interest in her activities, and he kept her under his protection. “I thought of him as my father after that,” she said. “We wish to have more people like Marian Bereska in our community … so helpful, so open, so brave.”  The Bereskas are the first family in Radomsko to be honored by Yad Vashem.

After the press conference, Marian, Szymon, Leo and I walked the streets of the little town. We walked through the cemetery, past the tzadik’s tomb and my great-grandmother’s grave.  We ended the emotional day at the Radomsko train station, where Szymon and I would catch the express back to Warsaw. Leo was staying overnight in Radomsko at Marian’s house.

As we boarded, I got a last glimpse of Marian, the rescuer, and Leo, the survivor’s son, standing side by side on the platform. They had met for the first time only the day before, and yet, they already knew each other so well. 

Szymon wrote me from Poland that his parents and siblings were very proud to learn about Marian’s and Janina’s actions during the war.  The Radomsko newspaper and local television station featured the story quite prominently. As part of a government program, The Righteous in Polish Schools, Marian likely will tell his story to schoolchildren in Radomsko, so they can learn from his heroic actions during the occupation.

For Szymon, the most essential reason for his grandfather to tell his story was simply this: “This is history, this really happened, people cannot deny that it happened.”

On the trail of the Maccabees

The heroes of Chanukah are no secret. The legendary Judah Maccabee and his warrior brothers defeated the Greek Hellenists in true Israelite fashion. Just as a young David slew Goliath, this tiny family-led army defeated a powerful military force. That much we know. But where in the world do we find a physical trace of these ancient warriors?

The mystery of the elusive trail of the Maccabim, as they are known in Hebrew, begins between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Near the entrance to Modi’in, one of Israel’s fastest-growing cities, elaborate Hasmonean graves are clearly marked with modern signage. Local legend suggests this is indeed the site of the ancient city of Modi’in, Maccabee headquarters during the time the Chanukah story took place. But is this, in fact, where the clan was laid to final rest 22 centuries ago?

Our search begins with the establishment of the modern city of Modi’in, which launched construction only in the 1990s. Next door, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach founded the collective settlement of Moshav Mevo Modi’im with a similar-sounding name more than 35 years ago. Developers unearthed thousands of relics after digging into two Modi’im sites. The first was Titora Hill, where archeologists discovered fascinating signs of ancient habitation, including remains of a large settlement. An elaborate tunnel system dating from the Bar Kokhba period and a crusader fortress also were unearthed. Today, the ruins stand as a green sanctuary in the middle of a burgeoning city.

The second major find came to light on the nearby road running from Modi’in to Latrun (between Shilat Junction and Mevo Modi’im), at the site called Um el-Umdan, Arabic for “mother of pillars.” During the construction of Route 2, excavations unveiled the oldest synagogue in all of Israel, decorated externally with pillars, which led to the locale’s moniker. Inside, archaeologists discovered beautiful frescoes. Other remarkable evidence includes a 25-room villa from the Hasmonean era and a Second Temple-era mikveh. In the second century C.E., following the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Romans razed this Jewish village.

The amazing discoveries at these sites derailed construction in the area and proponents proposed both as locations of the ancient village of Modi’in. But across the street from the aforementioned Um el-Umdan is perhaps the most remarkable discovery of all. On Highway 443, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, bilingual Hebrew and English signs point to “Maccabean Graves — Hashmonean Village.” Here, in a story that rings familiar for many sites in Israel, a group of Jewish schoolchildren and their Zionist teacher were seeking a connection with these strong Jewish heroes in 1907. They asked a local Arab shepherd if he knew where the Maccabim were buried. He led them to a site called Kubur al-Yahud, Arabic for “the graves of the Jews.” On Erev Chanukah, they lit the first candle of the holiday and danced at the cluster of monumental graves. This Chanukah tradition continues today. 

Experts doubt this is the authentic site of the Maccabee graves, but popular belief endures. A look at the ancient texts describing the events of Chanukah offers more hints of the real location. As it states in the Book of Maccabees I (13:25-30), Shimon, the sole survivor, buried his family. He also constructed a pyramid-like tombstone on each of the graves for his parents and four brothers as well as his own future final resting place.

“Shimon sent for the bones of his brother, Jonathan, and buried them in Modi’in, city of his forefathers.

“All of Israel eulogized him and mourned for him many days.

“Shimon erected over the tombs of his father and brothers a monument of stones, polished front and back, high enough to be seen from a distance.

“He set up seven pyramids facing one another for his father and his mother and his four brothers.

“For the pyramids he devised a setting of big columns, on which he carved suits of armor as a perpetual memorial, and next to the armor he placed carved ships, which could be seen by all who sailed the sea.

“This tomb which he built at Modi’in is there to the present day.”

It’s impossible to conclude the accuracy of the enduring folk legend around the location of the graves. But excavations dating from the 19th century suggest the traditional site misses the mark and that Midya, a nearby Arab village, more closely fits the ancient description instead. Meanwhile, the experts qualified to actually determine the veracity of the myth are archaeologists, who remain unwilling to excavate the graves due to the sensitivity of the religious community. With the popular fervor for strong Jewish heroes so attached to the current site, the mystery of the Maccabee graves is likely to endure.

For those interested in exploring more of Hasmonean lore, the beautiful botanical garden and biblical nature reserve at Neot Kedumim offer insight into daily Hasmonean life. Activities include crushing olives for oil with a massive stone mill, creating clay lamps, drawing water, milling flour and participating in biblical cooking classes.

Another wonderful excursion through time is available both above and underground at the Jerusalem Archaeological Park and Davidson Center, where Maccabee-era houses, ritual baths, and galleries and multimedia presentations buttress the southern entrance to the Old City and Kotel area. Virtual panoramas, time lines and more are found on the park’s Web site.

For more information, visit Neot Kedumim ( and Jerusalem Archaeological Park and Davidson Center (

Awards recognize Germans preserving Jewish history

A woman who rescued a synagogue that had been turned into a barn was one of six recipients of the 11th annual Obermayer German Jewish History Awards.

The ceremony, held Jan. 24 at the Berlin Parliament House, was one of several events commemorating the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet soldiers on Jan. 27, 1945.

For the first time, Germany’s main Holocaust remembrance event features a representative of the Sinti and Roma, or Gypsies. Zoni Weisz, a Dutch survivor, was scheduled to address Parliament and Chancellor Angela Merkel in ceremonies Thursday to be broadcast live.

German President Christian Wulff is attending ceremonies at the Auschwitz memorial and museum in Poland.

The Obermayer awards recognize Germans who preserve local Jewish history and build contacts with Jews who fled during the Nazi years. Arthur Obermayer, an American Jewish businessman who was inspired by his contacts with historians in his family’s ancestral town of Creglingen, created the awards.

Awardee Brigitta Stammer helped raise funds to bring a tiny, 19th century synagogue from the village of Bodenfelde to her home city of Goettingen, in Lower Saxony, where it is now being used by a Jewish community.

“I wanted the new Jewish community to have a roof over its head, to have a synagogue, and be integrated in the society of Gottingen,” Stammer said.

Filmmaker Sibylle Tiedemann, of Ulm and Berlin, was recognized for films that explore the dark side of local memory, including the recollections of her own mother and her former Jewish classmates.

Retired bookseller Barbara Staudacher and publisher Heinz Hogerle documented the flight of Jews from Rexingen, in Baden-Wurttemberg, to then-Palestine. Today the Jews of Shavei Zion in Israel have a special bond to the next generation of Germans in Rexingen.

Journalist Peter Korner was honored for helping preserve the Jewish history of Aschaffenburg, Bavaria, and for his role in creating a website to search local Jewish genealogy. Teacher Michael Heitz of Eppingen, Baden-Wurttemberg, who once faced closed doors when he asked what happened to the local Jewish community, today inspires his own pupils to explore this history.

Return of Nazi-Looted Art Proves a Good History Lesson

LOS ANGELES—It was a mix of state ceremony, mutual admiration fest, education forum and Seder symbolism when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who orchestrated the event, returned two Nazi-looted paintings to the grandchildren of the original Jewish owners, on behalf of the State of California.

The setting last Friday (4/10) was the historic Leland Stanford Mansion in Sacramento, usually the venue for feting heads of state, and the honorees included the lawyer who had FILED THE CLAIM[sued California] to recover the Italian Renaissance paintings FROM THE STATE.

The story began in 1935, when the Hitler regime confiscated the paintings of premier Berlin art dealers, Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer, and sold them at a forced Judenauktion, or Jew auction.

The Oppenheimers had previously fled to France where, after the Nazi conquest, Jakob died in poverty while Rosa perished in Auschwitz.

Following the forced 1935 auction, three of the paintings were subsequently bought by press tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who apparently knew nothing of their provenance. He added the new acquisitions to his collection of 25,000 paintings at the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, along California’s central coast.

In the 1950s, the 165-room castle was turned over to the California State Parks Department and now welcomes over a million visitors a year.

Two decades ago, Paris-based attorney Eva Sterzing started tracking paintings from the former Oppenheimer collection at European and American museums and eventually discovered the three paintings by 16th century Venetian artists at the Hearst Castle.

After thoroughly researching the evidence for two years, lawyers for the state parks and attorney general offices validated the claim of the Oppenheimer heirs.

However, rather than quietly arrange for a transfer, both sides agreed on an unusual deal to derive a permanent history lesson form the fate of the Oppenheimer family and their paintings.

The lesson unfolded, and was transmitted live on the governor’s web site, as Schwarzenegger and state officials met with two Oppenheimer grandchildren, Peter Bloch of Boynton, Florida and Inge Blackshear of Buenos Aires.

Sharing the stage were two oil on canvas paintings on easels, about to be returned to the Oppenheimer family after a 74-year interval.

One painting shows an elderly bearded man with a book and necklace of shells, thought to be by Giovanni Cariani, the other a portrait of a nobleman, attributed to an unnamed student of Jacopo Tintoretto.

Placed separately was the third painting, a photographic reproduction of “Venus and Cupid,” attributed to the school of another Venetian master, Paris Bordone. Through an amicable agreement, the original of this painting will remain on display at the Hearst Castle, together with reproductions of the two returned paintings.

“As of today, guides will be instructed to tell visitors about the history of the paintings and about the atrocities of the Holocaust,” said Hoyt Fields, director of the Hearst Castle museum.

Attorney Bradly (ok) Torgan, one of the main state negotiators with the Oppenheimer heirs, drew a more personal lesson from the experience. After conducting a second Seder at his home the preceding night, Torgan saw a parallel between the return of the painting and “the story of the Exodus, which is a commemoration of the Jews’ flight, of liberation, and, ultimately, the journey home.”

Bloch, in accepting the two paintings, thanked the State of California on behalf of nine heirs on three continents and expressed the hope that “other states will follow suit.”

Throughout the 30-minute ceremony, Schwarzenegger served as the designated cheerleader, again and again calling for rounds of applause to thank the Oppenheimer heirs – and even their lawyer – for their generosity and good will.

In an interview afterwards, Schwarzenegger explained his personal interest in the case and the purpose of the preceding ceremony.
“I was born two years after World War II in Austria, where there were atrocities and crimes against Jews, who were robbed of everything,” Schwarzenegger said.

“So I am of the next generation and we have to be different. We have to try to give back what we can.”
The governor is well aware of his star power as body builder, Hollywood actor and politician.

“My being here will be reported in the media and whatever California does is widely copied, so we’re sending a great signal to the rest of the world,” he said.
Neither Bloch nor other participants would talk about the dollar value of the two returned paintings, but given the number of far-flung heirs, the paintings will most likely be sold and the proceeds divided among the heirs, Bloch said.

Hearst Castle is the 25th American museum to have negotiated settlements over Nazi-looted art during the past decade.

Sholem Aleichem, Gogol Show Two Views of Shtetl Jews

Russians, Jews and literature scholars get excited about jubilee years, and for those who fit any of these categories, 2009 is a big year. One hundred and fifty years ago this month, a writer who would immortalize the Russian Jew in literature, Solomon Rabinovich (1859-1916) — better known by his literary persona, Sholem Aleichem — was born in the town of Pereyaslav, near Kyiv. This spring also marks the 200th birthday of Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), who was born about 100 miles to the east of Kyiv, in the town of Sorochintsy. Gogol, too, helped to immortalize the Russian Jew in literature, but in a more problematic way: the Jews who crop up around the margins of his stories, most of them crafty market vendors, money-lenders and tavern keepers, are anti-Semitic stereotypes, an unsettling detail in the work of one of the greatest comic writers of modern literature.

Literary history rarely moves in a straight line. Gogol and Sholem Aleichem may have written in different languages and represented different cultures, but their lives, remembered together, offer a vivid picture of the interplay of Russian and Jewish cultural history, and their stories, read side by side, appear as if in conversation. Both writers were obsessed with the dangers of commerce and capital, a theme that renders them all the more current in 2009. Both hail from what is now Ukraine, and each came to be viewed as a literary ambassador from an ethnic group within Russian culture. Gogol knew Russian and Ukrainian, attended a Russian school, moved to Petersburg to become a writer and spent years traveling in Western Europe. Sholem Aleichem attended both a Jewish cheder and a Russian secondary school, a marker of assimilation in a Jewish family. He began writing in Russian and Hebrew, but found success in Yiddish. Like Gogol’s tales of Ukraine, which sounded quaint to the Russian elite, Sholem Aleichem exported tales of the Jewish Pale of Settlement to cosmopolitan readers via publications in Warsaw and Petersburg, and visits to the United States.

Best known in the United States for his Tevye character, who became a symbol of the Jewish departure from Eastern Europe thanks to the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” Sholem Aleichem was canonized in the Soviet Union as the representative Yiddish writer, and an abridged six-volume Soviet edition of his works, in Russian translation, was as expected a collection in any Soviet Jewish household (and in many non-Jewish households) as the collected works of Lenin or Tolstoy.

Gogol, now best known for his later works, like “Dead Souls,” “The Overcoat” and “The Inspector General,” first became famous for his tales of provincial Ukraine, which he peopled with an amalgam of Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Poles and Gypsies. In his first successful story, “The Sorochintsy Fair” (1830), we marvel at how “a gypsy and peasant smacked hands then squealed from pain; how a drunken Jew slapped a woman on the backside; how vendors who had been arguing hurled profanities … and crayfish; how a Russian stroked his goatish beard with one hand, while with his other … “ In this story, a Jew buys and sells a demon’s coat, infecting an entire fair with evil. Gogol’s Jewish characters increase the sensation of a tale told from the margins of the Czarist Empire and often provide a moral lesson about overzealous trade.

Jewish stock characters later appear in Gogol’s epic novel, “Taras Bulba” (1835 and 1842), based loosely on Bohdan Chmielnicki’s Cossack uprising against Polish Magnates in 1648, an event in which thousands of Jews were killed. “‘Hang all the Jews!’ rang out from the crowd, ‘don’t let their Jewesses sew skirts out of our priests’ garments!’” In this story, a Jew, Yankel, escapes a pogrom in his shtetl but eagerly betrays his community by offering products and services to the Cossack warriors for the right price. “Taras saw that his protégé Yankel had already managed to erect a stall with an awning for himself and was selling flints, handfuls of gunpowder in paper cones, and other military items — even bread rolls and dumplings.”

Little surprise, given the stereotypes sprinkled throughout his work, that Gogol has been dismissed by Jewish readers, from the Russian historian Dubnow to the Soviet critic Mashinsky, as one of Russia’s many literary anti-Semites. But Sholem Aleichem chose to model much of his writing, and even his appearance, on Gogol. Ruth Wisse, in “The Modern Jewish Canon” (University of Chicago Press, 2003), has called Sholem Aleichem “the Jewish Gogol.” David Roskies, in “A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling” (Harvard University Press, 1995), reminds us, “Rabinovich kept a box marked ‘Gogol’ on his desk for work in progress, often quoted Gogol in private correspondence, and even wore his hair as Gogol did.” Had the two writers, with their dandyish bobs and whiskers, lived at the same time, they might have been mistaken for one another.

What Sholem Aleichem was borrowing from Gogol was a rural East European landscape that may have been dangerous, but could unite readers through the power of collective memory. He also learned from Gogol to soften this danger through laughter, and he often rewrites Gogol’s Jewish characters, correcting anti-Semitic stereotypes and narrating history from a Jewish perspective. Gogol’s heavily caricatured Jew tends to profit against all odds at Ukrainians’ expense, but Sholem Aleichem’s characters (like the author, who lost his inheritance in the Kiev Stock Exchange in 1890) are usually failures at trade, and their living conditions are squalid.

Sholem Aleichem devotes numerous stories and two full volumes to “Kasrilevka,” a fictional shtetl based, in part, on his childhood village, Voronka. The first, “Old-New Kasrilevka,” is a parodic Baedeker: “They turn out ‘A Guide to Moscow,’ ‘A Guide to Berlin,’ ‘A Guide to Paris,’ so why shouldn’t we have ‘A Guide to Kasrilevka?’ The guidebook includes seven sections, decreasing in appeal: “Transportation,” “Hotels,” “Restaurants,” “Liquor,” “Theater,” “Fires,” and “Bandits.” Eastern Europe was increasingly threatening to Jews, and Sholem Aleichem subtly expresses this by depicting the most despicable elements of the shtetl. Sholem Aleichem’s popular Menachem-Mendl stories (written between 1896-1913) find the title character traveling the world inventing get-rich-quick schemes. His adventures begin when he is given, in place of a promised dowry, a small sum of cash, two promissory notes and an illegitimate “draft” on bad credit (to be redeemed in Odessa). Menachem-Mendl’s wife, Sheyne-Sheyndl, remains at home in Kasrilevka, alternately scolding her husband for his bad investments and sending him money when his ventures fail. Gogolian characters occasionally appear in her shtetl. In one letter, she writes that a government inspector has arrived in town to ascertain what has become of certain sums of money meant for charity, an echo of Gogol’s “Inspector General,” whose anticipated arrival shakes a town to its core, unearthing the illegitimate finances of its provincial elite.

Sholem Aleichem’s 1900 “The Haunted Tailor” begins with a mock-biblical description of a community’s poverty:

And it came to pass that Tsippa-Beyla-Rayza was returning one summer day with her basket from the market, she threw down her bundle of garlic with a little parsley and potatoes that she had bought, and cried angrily, “This can all go to hell! Enough of thinking up what to cook for dinner. You have to have the head of a prime minister! Dumplings with beans and again dumplings with beans. May God not punish me for these words! But even Nekhame-Bruchkhe, who is destitute, miserable, a charity case, she has a goat!

For all their apparent misery, Sholem Aleichem’s hapless characters inspire the Yiddish reader to imagine a world that is not limited to the confines of the shtetl. This incitement to imagination looks something like the conversation, in Sholem Aleichem’s 1902 story set in Kasrilevka, “Seventy-Five Thousand,” between Yankev-Yosl and his wife, Ziporah, when the former has (erroneously) decided he has won a jackpot of 75,000 rubles:

“How much have we won?” she says, gazing right into my eyes, as if saying: “Aha! You’re lying, but you’re not gonna get away with it!”

“Gimme a for instance — how much do you figure we’ve won?”

“I have no idea,” she says. “Maybe a few hundred rubles?”

“Why not,” I say, “a few thousand rubles?”

“What do you mean by a few thousand?” she says. “Five? Six? Maybe as much as seven?”

“You can’t,” I say, “imagine more?”

(Translation by J. Neugroschel in “No Star Too Beautiful: A Treasury of Jewish Stories,” W. W. Norton & Company, 2004).

Sholem Aleichem wants his readers to imagine more, even if the ticket to get there proves to be one number off. His fiction, borrowed in part from Jewish literary sources and in part from Russian writers like Gogol, was, in its own way, revolutionary.

On May 15, 1916, when Sholem Aleichem was buried in the Mount Neboh Cemetery in Cypress Hills, Queens, his headstone was inscribed with his original epitaph, which ends with the following lines:

“And just as the public was

Laughing, chortling, and making merry

He suffered — this only God knows —

In secret, so that no one should see.

(Un davke demolt ven der oylem hot

gelakht, geklatsht, un fleg zikh freyen,

hot er gekrenkt — dos veys nor got —

besod, az keyner zol nit zeyen.)

The epitaph echoes Gogol’s famous “laughter through tears” passage from “Dead Souls,” which Sholem Aleichem used to keep, in a Yiddish translation, on his desk:

And for a long time still I am destined by a wondrous power to walk hand in hand with my strange heroes, to view the whole of hugely rushing life, to view it through laughter visible to the world and tears invisible and unknown to it! (translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Everyman’s Library, 2004).

As a writer, Gogol struggled with his simultaneous terror of a changing world and desire to entertain his readers through comedy. According to Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997: what did I tell you about 2009?), Gogol’s world vision was as single-minded as Tolstoy’s was. Sholem Aleichem was not nearly so single-minded. Rather than worrying about the dangers of foreign influence on the Russian Empire, he worried about the dangers in Russia for Jews, its perennial foreigners. But he did share Gogol’s struggle between tradition and creativity. The fine line separating Yiddish literature as a means of inciting social change, and social change as a force destroying Yiddish, gave Sholem Aleichem the fear of loss that he would take with him, quite literally, to the grave.

Sholem Aleichem enclosed his epitaph in his Last Will and Testament, written a few months before his death. In the first of 10 points outlined in his will, the Yiddish writer specified that:

Wherever I die, I wish to be buried not among aristocrats, big shots, or wealthy people, but precisely among ordinary folk, workers, the real Jewish people, so that the gravestone which will be placed on my grave will beautify the simple graves around me, and the simple graves will beautify my grave, just as the simple, honest folk during my life beautified their folk-writer. (Translation by Zuckerman and Herbst in “Three Great Classic Writers of Modern Jewish Literature, V. II,” Joseph Simon Pangloss Press, 1994.)

With this final wish, Sholem Aleichem promises to remain near those readers whose spirit he sought to evoke through the shtetls of his fiction, and, of course, in a more subtle way, he also remains with the memory of Nikolai Gogol.


Amelia Glaser is assistant professor of Russian and comparative literature at UC San Diego. She is currently completing a book about rural commerce in Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish literature. She also translates poetry and prose from Russian and Yiddish; her translations include an anthology of Yiddish poetry, “Proletpen: America’s Rebel Yiddish Poets” (U. Wisconsin Press, 2005).


Disraeli: The curious case of England’s Jewish prime minister

Adam Kirsch, “Benjamin Disraeli” (Nextbook: Schocken, 2008 ) $21.00.

Benjamin Disraeli was born Jewish, baptized as a boy but (mostly) considered himself to be Jewish.

He famously proclaimed to Queen Victoria — who began by hating him and ended adoring him — that he was the “blank page” separating the Old and New Testaments. He was an unconventional Tory, a reactionary with the glimmer of a radical peeking through. This proud defender of the majesty of his ancient people remains to this day the only Jewish prime minister England has ever known.

Into this career, tangled with old political fights and unclear motives, comes Adam Kirsch. Kirsch is an accomplished poet and critic with a deservedly formidable reputation. In addition to writing for various literary periodicals, he was a regular book columnist for the now defunct-New York Sun, whose serious book coverage was rare among newspapers. From his early days at The New Republic, this son of a local lawyer, historian and much-loved man of letters Jonathan Kirsch, has shown an erudition and judgment far beyond his years. Just as well, for few subjects require discernment as rigorous as the complex, vertiginous character aptly known as “Dizzy.”

French writer Andre Maurois began his biography of Benjamin Disraeli: “In the year 1290, on All Saints’ Day, King Edward I expelled the Jews from England.” English historian Robert Blake began his celebrated biography as follows: “Benjamin Disraeli’s career was an extraordinary one; but there is no need to make it seem more extraordinary than it really was.”

Peculiar, is it not? Why begin a biography more than 500 years before the birth of its subject, or begin by proclaiming its subject less remarkable than he is sometimes portrayed? But taken together these biographical choices tell us something about this fascinating character and about how Kirsch set about portraying Disraeli in a distinctive and persuasive way.

These opening sentences form the vectors that shape Disraeli — his Jewishness and his maddening mixture of achievement and artifice. Nobody was ever quite sure about the Lord of Beaconsfield; he was mightily gifted, but what, exactly, did he believe in, other than himself?

Benjamin Disraeli was born to a Jewish family in 1804. Despite his early baptism (at the age of 12), his contemporaries continued to see him as Jewish. Disraeli alternately evaded and relished his heritage. When his most undiplomatic enemy, Daniel O’Connell, attacked him in the House of Commons — referring to Disraeli’s Jewish lineage — Disraeli answered “Yes, I am a Jew. And when the ancestors of the right honorable gentlemen were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”

History designates some people to travel in tandem. Disraeli, with his mocking wit, will always be paired with the earnest, brilliant and periodically bizarre William Gladstone. Gladstone, among the most successful prime ministers in British history, detested Disraeli; Disraeli, it is said, when asked to define the difference between a misfortune and a calamity, said that if Gladstone fell into the Thames River, it would be a misfortune. If someone fished him out, it would be a calamity.

In addition to Gladstone’s liberalism and Disraeli’s Toryism, what distinguished them was that Gladstone was an insider. Here is where Kirsch’s biography particularly shines. Recently, Yirmiyahu Yovel demonstrated in an important biography of Spinoza how much of the philosopher’s thought could be understood through the prism of exile and alienation. Kirsch does something of the same for Disraeli.

This biography is part of the exemplary Schocken/Nextbook series, under the editorship of Jonathan Rosen. Kirsch uses this natural Jewish emphasis to show us that Disraeli was constantly tacking against the wind of his outsiderness. Part of the insincerity intuited by others was that more than most politicians, Disraeli could not answer with untempered instinct; everything had to be calculated, because he would never be accepted as ‘fully English.’ To be a prime minister and yet not thought part of the real polity of the country is an extraordinary situation indeed.

Kirsch takes us through the controversies of Disraeli’s career — the corn laws, the Reform bill, the Chartist movement, the Eastern question — all of them recounted briskly and with a clarity that enables us to understand these buried controversies. Page by page, we are reminded how precarious it was for Disraeli to have one foot in each testament.

Kirsch ends the book with a helpful bibliography. At the conclusion, he reminds us of the wonderful biography of Blake, saying it “remains the best starting point for any reader who wants to get to know him.” Now we can say — read Blake, by all means, but begin with Kirsch.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books appears frequently in The Journal.

Writer discovers California ‘Gold’ in banking ancestor Isaias Hellman

“Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” by Frances Dinkelspiel (St. Martin’s Press, $29.95)

Searching for ways to deal with the current economic crisis, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson could take a cue from Isaias Hellman, banker, capitalist and California visionary. More than once during financial panics in the 19th century, when bank runs were a too-frequent and devastating occurrence, Hellman resorted to a dramatic ploy to restore calm and confidence. He stacked massive towers of gold coins on the counter of his Farmers and Merchants Bank in Los Angeles.

Half a million dollars in plain view “was a tonic,” his great-great-granddaughter Frances Dinkelspiel writes in “Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” (St. Martin’s Press). It was a sight that stopped withdrawals cold and even attracted deposits. Everyone, customers and competitors, seemed to trust Hellman’s faith that better times were ahead.

A grand gesture, his towers of gold represented not only Hellman’s keen sense of the public psyche when hard times arose but his own confidence in the opportunities and resources of California. Hellman was an essential part, according to Dinkelspiel, of the generation that built the economic engines and defined the social institutions of California. In that role and company, Hellman was arguably the single most powerful and influential Jew in the United States from the last quarter of the 19th century until his death in 1920.

A fifth-generation Californian and Bay Area journalist, Dinkelspiel grew up with little knowledge of her illustrious ancestor. She discovered in the Hellman papers at the California Historical Society “every reporter’s dream: an unknown story about a critical chapter in the country’s history.”

Sifting through extensive correspondence, ledgers, newspaper clippings and diaries, she realized that Hellman was a titan of his time, “California’s premier financier” when the state shed its isolation and became an economic force.

She soon was on a seven-year quest to re-insert Hellman into California history and expand the record of Jewish immigrant success beyond Levi Strauss (who was just one of several pioneer co-religionists helped by Hellman to build unimaginable fortunes).

Hellman arrived in Los Angeles from Bavaria in 1859, a few months shy of his 17th birthday. Still more Mexican than American and with a population of less than 5,000, Los Angeles was home to maybe 150 Jews, almost all merchants who belonged to a handful of extended families. Accompanied by his younger brother, Herman, and with less than $100 between them, Hellman went to work as a clerk in a cousin’s store.

Within a few years, Hellman was buying his own store, developing commercial property in the center of Los Angeles and going into business with men “who considered themselves the problem solvers” of the region. Men such as John G. Downey, an Irish immigrant and former governor of California, were eager to capitalize on the sterling reputation and business acumen of the 29-year-old when Hellman invited them to become shareholders in the Farmers and Merchants Bank.

Farmers and Merchants proved to be the city’s first successful financial institution. It also became Hellman’s springboard to a West Coast banking empire that by 1915 had resources totaling more than $100 million. The crown jewel in that empire was the Wells Fargo Nevada Bank.

In 1890, Hellman was tapped to save the Nevada Bank, a San Francisco firm that counted the Southern Pacific Railroad among its biggest customers. When capitalist E.H. Harriman decided to spin off the banking business of Wells Fargo, he approached Hellman to take charge of merging two of the state’s oldest establishments and creating one of the West’s largest financial institutions.

While Hellman had family ties to New York and European capitalists (his brother-in-law was Meyer Lehman of the Lehman Brothers commodity house), the roots of Hellman’s success were in his local connections. He persistently partnered with friends and neighbors, Jews and non-Jews, first in Los Angeles and later in San Francisco. As his success grew, he promoted California investment opportunities to Lehman Brothers and other prominent Jewish firms in the East and increased the wealth on both coasts.

As an investor, adviser and leader, Hellman extended his success and influence over several other major industries in California. He partnered with Collis and Henry E. Huntington to develop railroads and trolley lines in Los Angeles and San Francisco. He loaned Charles Canfield and Edward Doheny $500 to purchase the land where they sunk the first free-flowing oil well in Los Angeles.

Hellman was the largest shareholder in the Los Angeles Water Co., a private firm that developed the city’s water system in the 19th century, and personally sold a $14.5 million bond issue for the Spring Valley Water Co. that supplied San Francisco. Having early in his career invested in vineyards, in 1901 Hellman took control of the California wine industry, standardizing the product and elevating the reputation of the industry around the world. In addition, he developed land all over Los Angeles County, owned property in San Francisco and built a vacation retreat at Lake Tahoe that eventually became a state park.

Hellman’s influence on Los Angeles is still evident today. In an instance where capitalism and philanthropy met, Jewish Hellman, Protestant Ozro Childs and Catholic Downey donated 110 acres to the Methodist founders of USC. The land was in the center of the partners’ subdivision at the southwest edge of the city. They also extended the trolley line they owned from downtown to the new campus.

Their generosity gave potential land buyers a destination and a convenient way to get there. The city had a university, and the partners saw their land triple in value.

Hellman helped create another L.A. institution when he advised Harrison Gray Otis to buy out his partner in the Los Angeles Times and then provided the $18,000 loan required to put the paper in Otis’ hands. Otis’ descendants, the Chandler family, sold the massive media company that evolved for $8 billion in 2000.

Hellman’s leadership went beyond the world of finance and business. When Los Angeles’ first synagogue was built in 1872, he was president of Congregation B’nai B’rith, now known as Wilshire Boulevard Temple. He served as a regent of the University of California for more than 30 years and endowed a scholarship fund still supporting students. He took a leading role in the recovery of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Beneficiaries of his philanthropy ranged from Catholic orphans to World War I Jewish European refugees.

While unquestionably Hellman achieved the immigrant’s dream of success and acceptance in America, there were times when he was the target of anti-Jewish sentiments and anti-Semitic behavior. He and his companies also were subject to the wrath of unionists and socialists, progressive reformers and even betrayal by family members. His wealth, influence and fame brought both friends and enemies.

In its plain sense, the biography of Hellman is a story of nearly unfettered opportunity to apply one’s skills and realize one’s ambition. The openness of the American frontier stood in stark contrast to the restrictions on livelihood and residency most Jewish Europeans left behind. At a deeper level, Hellman’s story is a reminder that it took skill, ambition and connections to transform that frontier into part of the United States and create a state that today has a gross domestic product larger than all but eight countries in the world.

Jews were notably among the diverse contributors of those necessary ingredients, as they have continued to be, for example, the Stern, Haas and Goldman families in San Francisco and the Factor, Taper, Casden and Lowy families in Los Angeles.

To her credit, Dinkelspiel presents a well-developed and even-handed portrayal of Hellman and his extended family. The biography maintains a solid historical context in which to understand the perspectives, philosophy and values of a gilded-age capitalist. His German-American-Jewish sense of responsibility to family, community, customers, investors, competitors and the future comes through clearly. Through the vehicle of one man and his networks of family, friends and associates, the foundational place in California history of Jewish immigrants generally is illuminated, as well.

Well-researched and highly readable, “Towers of Gold” makes an important contribution to both the history of the Golden State and the history of Jews in America. It is a very strong case for the veracity of the volume’s subtitle — “How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” — demonstrating the key role of Hellman in the urban and economic development of California.

It also adds a fresh perspective on the Jewish immigrants from Central Europe who in the mid-19th century joined in the continental expansion of the United States and set down roots in emerging communities. As historian Kevin Starr has noted, frontier California was influenced by “Jewish values and sensibility” in ways unprecedented anywhere else in the nation.

Hellman’s life and accomplishments illustrated that influence, and this biography brings attention to its still-unfolding consequences.

Karen S. Wilson is a doctoral candidate in history at UCLA and curator for the upcoming Autry National Center exhibition on the history of Jews in Los Angeles.

Them vs. Us

Was it Mort Sahl who said, “Just because I’m a paranoid, doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get me”?

In this week’s parsha, the narrative begins with the drama of Yaakov and his tender flock — two wives, two quasi-wives, 11 sons, a daughter — preparing to meet with an oncoming army, imposingly headed by his anything-but-fraternal “twin” brother, Esav. Yaakov fears the worst, and even as he prays to Hashem for protection and sends gifts to appease Esav, he prepares for war. The brothers meet ultimately, and Esav “ran to greet him, and hugged him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Genesis 33:4).

Rashi, the paramount medieval commentator, notes the two midrashic traditions that discuss what actually happened during “The Kiss.” Because the Torah text is unusually punctuated, with six extraneous dots marking the word va-yishakehu (“and he kissed him”), the rabbis analyzed what happened.

One midrashic opinion is that the kiss was insincere — that Esav actually tried to bite Yaakov’s throat out after deceptively inducing his brother to relax his defenses. The other opinion is that after 20 years driven by relentless hate, Esav laid eyes on his brother, and it all came to him at once: He is my brother, for God’s sake, my brother. And he kissed him with all his love.

For many, that midrashic discussion historically has served as the narrative’s denouement and the ultimate launching pad for distrusting non-Jews, all of them. According to the opinion that Esav tried to bite the neck, not to kiss it, that animus reflects an immutable law of nature, comparable to gravity, only with metaphor attached: “It is a known law that Esav hates Yaakov.”

Metaphorically interpreted: All non-Jews are out to get us.

I was taught that law as a child being schooled in Brooklyn. They all are out to get us.

As for the second interpretation, which bears equal weight in the original midrashic discussion — that Esav kissed his brother lovingly — well, it never was taught to us as kids. We did not even have to know it for the test. I only discovered it years later, when on my initiative I looked at the original source discussion.

Certainly, ours is a history of being targeted by “them” for no reason other than our being “us.” The Christian, en route to liberate the Holy Land from the infidel Muslim Saracens, stopped along watering holes throughout Europe to massacre whole Jewish bystander communities.

Three centuries later, as a bubonic plague took hold throughout Europe, insane justification somehow was found to murder one-third of our people. Three centuries later, Bogdan Chmielnitzki and the Cossack massacres. Three centuries later, Hitler, the Nazis and their European confederates. Not to mention the Inquisition in Spain, the expulsions from lands as gentle as France and England, the persecutions of Mashad, the mellahs of Morocco and the ghettos of Italy and the June 1941 Iraqi Shavuot pogrom after the fall of the Golden Square.

So many times we got caught in the crossfire of other people, insane and crazy with one or another agenda of hate, who stopped by along the way to target us, too. As recently as Mumbai, where goons and thugs fighting over the Pakistan-India Kashmir dispute chose to perpetrate horrific evils against targeted Jewish bystanders while on a murder spree, we have been caught or targeted in their crossfire.

It is easy to see how persuasive the “known law of nature” seems to be: They all are out to get us. Just look at history. All of them are out to get us.

Only, that is not all of our history. From Righteous Gentiles who genuinely risked and sometimes gave their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust to centuries and millennia of next door neighbors who lent us milk or sugar or watered our plants and picked up our mail (yes, an anachronism) when we went on vacation, to non-Jewish employers who hired us and non-Jewish teachers who helped us learn to read and to count, a second law also exists: No, they are not all out to get us.

And despite this country’s shameful moments — Peter Stuyvesant’s governance, Ulysses Grant’s General Order No. 11, the Leo Frank lynching, the 1928 Massena Blood Libel, the years of Father Coughlin and Henry Ford and the 1991 Crown Heights Riots — we have flourished and built Torah institutions, gained huge support for Israel, including financial and military backing and the right to hold dual citizenship with her, and have been able to play a role in every aspect of this land’s culture and enterprise and civilization. We assuredly owe it to our kids to teach them that, no, all of them are not out to get us.

And because the playing field at this time and place in our history is essentially level, it is incumbent on us to conduct our affairs honestly and ethically and to expect and demand the same from those business enterprises that operate in our community or — even if they are out in the sticks of the Corn Belt — that operate to serve our community.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, a Modern Orthodox shul in Irvine. His Web site is

Day at the beach – Omaha Beach

June 6, 1944, may have been the most important day of the 20th century. The Allied invasion of France breached Hitler's Atlantic Wall and decisively turned the war against the Nazi regime.

The invasion itself was a combination of great leadership, detailed planning and a brilliant campaign of deception to convince the Germans that the attack would come at Calais instead of the Normandy beaches. But the final ingredient was the courage of the invasion forces, of which 75 percent were American soldiers. To the Americans fell the nightmare beach to attack: Omaha. It was the most heavily defended and dangerous beach, and it cost by far the most lives.

Had D-Day failed, what would have happened? Would the war effort in the West have become exhausted? Would the concentration camps have been liberated by 1945? Fortunately, these questions will never have to be answered.

Last month, my wife, my daughter and I went to Omaha Beach. We have been in France since September, and this is a trip that I had longed to take. Each semester I spend a full class session on D-Day, because I think it reveals so much — not only about world history but also about the American character.

The Omaha Beach memorial has three important pieces: a creatively designed museum with audiovisual displays, the American cemetery and a path that winds down to the beach itself. The whole D-Day story unfolded at beaches to the north and south, as well, because the attacks took place for miles up and down the coast at other beaches named Juno, Utah, Gold, Sword.

British and Canadian troops joined Americans on those beaches. Attacks on German installations inland were already under way in coordination with the invasion by the French resistance, alerted by coded radio messages from the Allied command.

The museum traces all the intricacies of the invasion planning and execution. The intense secrecy of the invasion plan was dictated by the need to divert the strongest German forces away from the landing site.

Massive deception fooled the German high command right up until the attack and even in the first few days after. The planning was not perfect; in a training exercise for the full invasion force on the English coast, German submarines sneaked in and attacked, costing the lives of more than 700 Allied soldiers.

Even with these snafus, the depth of the planning and training process comes through. This was a well-led project. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's recorded talk to the troops before the invasion is simple and moving, as are accounts of his visit to paratroopers on the way to Normandy.

The decision to attack (moved from June 5) during a break in the stormy weather on June 6 was critical and was, after all, based on something as tricky as a weather forecast. Bad weather would have doomed the invasion.

From the museum you go down to the beach on a winding path. There you can see some remnants of abandoned equipment left as a visual display.

But the real shock is to see how open the beach is, with no real cover or protection for the incoming soldiers. Looming behind you are the hills where the Germans had their guns, with months to set up their lines of fire.

Despite horrific losses in the first wave, the soldiers just kept on coming and somehow made it up the hills and cliffs to silence the German positions. Bold parachute drops behind enemy lines helped turn the tide, but ultimately young American soldiers led by junior officers (taking over for higher-ranking officers who had been killed) had to get their men off the beaches and up the hills.

The cemetery is extremely simple and quiet, as it should be. In neat rows are crosses and Jewish stars with very simple descriptions, all of Americans buried far from home on the soil they had died to liberate. Some are dated June 6, but others are as late as July, a reminder that it took well more than a month to break out of the region and begin in August the push toward Berlin.

Still to come after D-Day were the awful battles of the French hedgerows and the German counterattack in the Battle of the Bulge. Paris was only liberated in late August.

The French have carefully maintained a network of museums and displays all up and down the Normandy coast. Memories of the American GIs who fought and died to liberate Europe and who marched through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris are still strong.

I thought of all those still with us or who have passed on who served in uniform in that war — including my father, my father-in-law, my uncles (two of whom fought in France and helped liberate concentration camps) — and of my mother, my aunts and the many women who served overseas but mostly on the home front.

Much has happened in the U.S.A. and in the world since that day in June 1944. Our relations with Europe have gone up and down, although our alliance remains strong.

Things may never be quite as crystal clear as they were then, when the fate of the world hung in the balance. I listened again this week to the sober address that President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered to announce the invasion — in the form of a prayer:

“Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.”

No one knew what the outcome would be.

In facing tough times, Americans have historical resources to fall back upon. Those soldiers who fought their way onto French soil had already lived through the worst of the Great Depression. With great leadership, careful planning and a worthy goal to aim for, Americans have a way of getting there.

It is worth remembering.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the 2008 Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the Institut Français de Geopolitique at the University of Paris VIII.

Part of the memorial at Omaha Beach

Rahm Emanuel is a fighting policy wonk with a Jewish soul

Political insight, killer in a fight, Yiddishkayt — it’s an inseparable package when it comes to Rahm Emanuel, say those who know President-elect Barack Obama’s pick to be the next White House chief of staff.

Since his days as a fundraiser and then a “political adviser” — read: enforcer — for President Bill Clinton, Emanuel has earned notoriety as a no-holds-barred politico. Accept the good with the bad because it’s of a piece, said Steve Rabinowitz, who worked with Emanuel in the Clinton White House.

“He can be a ‘mamzer,’ but he’s our mamzer,” said Rabinowitz, using the Yiddish term for “bastard,” speaking both as a Democrat and a Jew. “Sometimes that’s what you need.”

The apocrypha is legendary, if somewhat hard to pin down: Jabbing a knife into a table screaming “Dead!” as colleagues shout out the names of political enemies, sending a dead fish to a rival, screaming at friends and enemies alike for no good reason.

Even his allies acknowledge that Emanuel, 48, can be on edge at times.

“He’s not running for Miss Congeniality, ever,” said U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who has known Emanuel since they worked at Illinois Public Action, a public interest group, in the early 1980s. “He is relentless; he doesn’t give up, but in a strategic way. He’s good at figuring out other people’s self-interest and negotiating in a way that comes out in his favor.”

Emanuel, an Illinois congressman who boasts strong ties to his local Jewish community and the Jewish state, also can be seen as embodying Obama’s stated commitment to Israeli security and diplomacy: During the first Iraq War, Emanuel flew to Israel as a volunteer to help maintain military vehicles. Two years later, he was an aide to Clinton, helping to push along the newly launched Oslo process.

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Ari, Rahm recalled, “beat the crap out of him” — not because of the bike, not to protect his brother, “but because of what he said about black kids.”

Rahm defended his brother in terms he might have applied to himself: “Where others see fierceness, I see loyalty. Where others see intensity, I see passion.”

In general, Emanuel is fiercely loyal to his family, and they were a consideration in his hesitation to take work he’s always dreamed of having — he waited two days to say yes. Obama, in his statement announcing the pick, recognized the pain it would cause Emanuel’s wife, Amy, and “their children, Zach, Ilana and Leah.”

Emanuel, born to an Israeli doctor who married a local woman after he moved to Chicago in the mid-1950s, speaks Hebrew and fondly recalls summering each year in Israel as a child — including just after the 1967 Six-Day War. He attends Anshe Sholom, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Chicago, and sends his children to Jewish day school.

His rabbi, Asher Lopatin, recalls Emanuel approaching him just before Rosh Hashanah this year, telling him that an effort to put together a bailout package for the hard-hit stock market before the holiday had failed and asking whether it was permissible to take conference calls on the holiday in order to salvage the bill.

“I asked, ‘Is it as serious as people say it is?'” the rabbi recalled. “He said, ‘Without this bill there could be a meltdown of the financial system.'”

Lopatin considered the effect such a failure would have on children and the poor.

“I felt it was a case of pikuach nefesh, the commandment that places the saving of life above all other commandments,” Lopatin said, and gave Emanuel the OK.

The somberness of the request couldn’t quell Emanuel’s acerbic wit. Lopatin recalled Emanuel’s teasing, wondering whether the status of the rabbi’s 401(k) investments wasn’t also behind the heksher.

“He kibitzed with me about that,” the rabbi said.

Emanuel repeated the story, to raucous laughter, in caucus meetings on the Hill — an example of how he will skid in the same sentence from Judaism to a liberal commitment to social reforms to hard-nosed politics, Schakowsky said.

“There’s barely a caucus meeting where he doesn’t make some reference to being Jewish, often in a humorous way,” she said.

But his Jewishness does more than inform his sense of humor, Emanuel’s rabbi said.

“He has a very deep commitment and feel for Yiddishkayt,” Lopatin said, “and it’s a Yiddishkayt that’s about tikkun olam, having a positive effect on the world.”

Turning a page in the history books


Ehud Olmert era comes to ignominious end

(JTA) – A day after Ehud Olmert formally submitted his resignation as prime minister, Israeli President Shimon Peres officially tapped his Kadima Party successor, Tzipi Livni, to form a new government.

Livni now has 42 days to put together a coalition government. Though Olmert still heads the interim government until Livni is sworn in, Sunday’s resignation effectively spelled the end of the Olmert era.

Before meeting with Peres on Sunday evening, Olmert informed his Cabinet of his intention to resign.

“I must say that this was not an easy or simple decision,” Olmert said. “I think that I have acted properly and responsibly, as I promised the Israeli public from the beginning.”

Olmert congratulated Livni and said he would help her form a coalition government, and the two shook hands.

It was an ignominious end to a premiership marked by multiple corruption scandals, a failed war in Lebanon and unfinished business on the Palestinian, Syrian and Iranian fronts.

At first an accidental prime minister following Ariel Sharon’s crippling stroke in early 2006, Olmert won his first election as Kadima leader a couple of months later under the banner of maintaining the path of unilateral disengagement Sharon had begun. Olmert would do in the West Bank what Sharon had done in Gaza: unilaterally extricate Israel from its adversaries, even if those adversaries were unready or unwilling to make peace.

But the shortcomings of Israel’s unilateral approach became evident early on in his premiership. The 2006 summer war with Hezbollah exposed the deficiencies of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000 under Ehud Barak, and the increasing rockets attacks from Gaza and Hamas’ takeover of the strip in June 2007 exposed the limitations of Sharon’s pullout.

The violence shattered Olmert’s plans for unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank.

Olmert adjusted his approach, but his responses to Israel’s challenges were seen as inadequate. The prime minister’s approval ratings plummeted as each crisis seemed to be shadowed by one corruption scandal or another.

After Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid in July 2006, the Olmert government launched a war to recover the two soldiers taken captive in the raid and neutralize the threat to Israel from Hezbollah. But the war failed to recover the soldiers or deliver a mortal blow to the Shi’ite terrorist group in Lebanon.

Rather, Hezbollah rallied as a political force in Lebanon after the war and became a veto-wielding presence in the Lebanon Cabinet. Hezbollah also rebuilt its forces and missile arsenal to three times its prewar size, according to Israeli estimates.

In Gaza, Olmert watched as Hamas routed the more moderate Fatah faction from power and took over the strip in June 2006. Hamas kept up daily barrages of Kassam rockets into southern Israel, and the Israeli army was unable to impose quiet.

Unwilling to risk the same approach in Gaza that had failed in 2006 in Lebanon, Olmert held off on ordering a major invasion of the strip.

The need to isolate Hezbollah, Hamas and especially their backer, Iran, drove Olmert to push harder for peace. It led to the re-launching last year of peace talks with the Palestinians at Annapolis, Md., and to this year’s renewed talks with Syria under Turkish auspices, but Olmert ended his abbreviated term with those major policy initiatives unfinished.

Now it will be up to Livni, who led the Olmert administration’s talks with the Palestinians, to see the process through—assuming she succeeds in assembling a governing coalition.

Israel’s next prime minister also will inherit an unsolved Iranian problem. Iran’s suspected march toward nuclear weapons has been Israel’s central foreign preoccupation during Olmert’s term, but Olmert did not manage to rally sufficient international pressure on the Islamic Republic to bring its uranium enrichment activities to a halt.

Throughout his 2 1/2-year term, Olmert was dogged by corruption allegations that cast a shadow over nearly everything he did.

Even his decision to re-launch the indirect peace talks with Syria and sign a cease-fire deal with Hamas in Gaza in June—finally bringing quiet to southern Israel, with the exception of the occasional violation—were viewed with suspicion by some who derided the moves as ploys to ensure his political survival.

The major corruption scandal that erupted in May, in which American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky said he gave Olmert $150,000 in cash over the course of the decade and a half before Olmert became prime minister, crippled Olmert’s ability to govern.

Calls for his resignation accelerated several weeks later with the revelation by police that Olmert was suspected of double-billing overseas trips to various Jewish charities.

Though he always denied any wrongdoing, Olmert acknowledged at the end of July that it had become impossible for him to continue as prime minister, and he announced that he would resign as soon as his party, Kadima, chose a new leader in September.

After Olmert handed his resignation letter to Peres on Sunday, the president offered a few solemn words.

“This is not an easy decision, and I am convinced that this is a difficult evening for him,” Peres said. “I wish to take this opportunity to thank the prime minister for his service to the people and the state over the course of many years of public activities—as the mayor of Jerusalem, as a minister in the government and as the prime minister of Israel.”

Ron Kampeas in Washington and Marcy Oster in Israel contributed to this report.

‘A Secret’ lets French director explore his Jewish past

More than 60 years have passed, yet French filmmakers are still wrestling with their country’s less than heroic role under Nazi occupation during World War II.

The latest entry is “A Secret” and it posits that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons, not only among the perpetrators and collaborators, but also among the Jewish survivors.

The complex movie, in which the past, shot in color, is more vivid that the black-and-white present, follows the fate of a French Jewish family in the pre-war 1930s, the German occupation and the decades after liberation.

As told through the eyes of Francois, successively a 7-year old boy, a teenager and a middle-aged man, the narrative introduces his father, Maxime (Algerian Jewish pop idol Patrick Bruel); glamorous mother, Tania (Cecile de France); and their extended Jewish family.

Francois is a solitary, introspective child, exposed to the barely concealed contempt of his muscular, bodybuilding father, who fantasizes the company of an older brother, more assertive and athletic than himself.

Then, when Francois is 15, a relative reveals the dark family secret of the film’s title. How, shortly before the war, Maxime married his first wife, Hannah, and on his wedding day fell in love with the beautiful blonde Tania, a guest at the nuptials.

How Maxime and Hannah had a sturdy son, Simon, how Maxime fled to unoccupied Vichy France, to be followed by Hannah, Simon, and two other relatives, with forged “Aryan” papers.

At the border, French police inspected the papers, alert to arrest any Jews and turn them over to the Germans. At that point, a jealous and despondent Hannah made the fateful decision that would alter the family history forever.

Amid the constantly shifting scenes of past and present, there are moments of ordinary bourgeois family life, alternating with Jewish humiliation and fear under the occupation. Some Jews wear the yellow Star of David, others take it off and work on the other side.

“A Secret,” which has been a considerable box-office success in France, despite harsh criticism by some leading newspapers, owes its creation to two French Jews whose own stories reflect much of the film’s plotline.

One is Philippe Grimbert, a psychoanalyst, who wrote “Un Secret” as a semi-autobiographical novel, which, to his surprise, became a best seller in Europe.

The other is Claude Miller, a veteran director, who worked for 10 years with the iconic Francois Truffaut.

Miller was born in 1942 in the French countryside, where his family was in hiding, and remembered a bookish, solitary childhood, much like that of Francois in the movie.

Grimbert, who has a small role in the movie, and Miller both recall muscular fathers who resented their own Jewishness, with Miller’s father telling him after the war to “just forget being Jewish.”

This experience is reflected in the film, when Maxime insists that young Francois be baptized.

“A Secret” marks the first time that Miller, who is not a favorite of French critics, has dealt on film with his own Jewish background.

However, other French directors have frequently shaken their countrymen’s self-imposed forgetfulness about their forefathers’ role in World War II and the myth that all were heroic resistance fighters.

Some of these films have become classics, starting in 1955 with “Night and Fog” by Alain Resnais, a documentary on concentration camps, followed in 1969 by Marcel Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity,” which explored the motivations of both resistors and collaborators.

In 1974, Louis Malle’s “Lacombe, Lucien” drew a portrait of a young French collaborator, and in 1987 his “Au Revoir les Enfants” recalled the roundup of Jewish children hidden in a Catholic boarding school.

The story is not yet finished, as witnessed by the remarkable success of “Suite Francaise,” a newly discovered novel about Parisians fleeing the Nazi conquest, by Irene Nemirovsky, who perished in Auschwitz.

“A Secret” opens Sept. 12 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, and on Sept. 19 at Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino.

The trailer — French with English subtitles

A self-proclaimed Zionist, Joe Biden is a friend of Israel

I returned from the Democratic National Convention in Denver with the announcement of Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, the memorable acceptance speech by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and the announcement of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential nominee.

It was the most momentous week of this or, perhaps, any election cycle.

Yet with all the excitement, I must admit that it has left me disappointed with our level of political discourse — particularly in the Jewish community. When the Biden vice presidential nomination was announced on Aug. 23, Republican voices in the Jewish community called his selection by Obama “risky” and talked about his inconsistent support for Israel and his “wrong” views on Iran.

These people must be talking about a different Biden than the one I know.

I have known and worked closely with Biden for more than 36 years, and the caricature that is being painted of him by some who value partisanship over truth is truly astounding. Perhaps even more distressing than the attacks on a good friend of the Jewish community is the use of the U.S.-Israel relationship as a partisan wedge issue.

Biden publicly labels himself a Zionist. He has stated that “I do not accept the notion of linkage between Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict,” according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “[Biden] has a sterling voting record on pro-Israel issues and as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has helped shepherd through key pro-Israel legislation.”

He has worked cooperatively with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir. His knowledge of the wider Middle East, as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict, is unsurpassed by any other member of Congress.

Republicans have not let these facts get in the way. They use votes not related to Israel in an effort to besmirch Biden in the Jewish community. Supporters of Biden can readily go to the voting record files and show that he has a significantly higher percentage of pro-Israel votes than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

We, too, could take some obscure issues to try to argue that the GOP nominee is insufficiently pro-Israel. The fact of the matter is that McCain is pro-Israel. Obama is pro-Israel. Biden is pro-Israel. These attempts to use the U.S.-Israel relationship for partisan purposes distorts the truth and weakens the bipartisan consensus behind support for Israel in this country.

Moreover, it is not just Israel upon which we should judge Biden. Perhaps no politician in America, Jew or non-Jew, has a better rapport with Jewish leadership and Jewish audiences. He is a strong supporter of the separation of church and state, and he has opposed Republican attempts to return prayer to the public schools. Biden also has opposed teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in the public schools and is pro-choice.

Biden’s profile in the Jewish community is starkly different from that of McCain’s nominee for vice president. Palin has no foreign policy experience and has never visited Israel. She is against a woman’s right to choose, even in cases of rape and incest. She favors teaching intelligent design in the public schools and believes climate change is not caused by human activity.

I have long believed that the game of trying to show that friends of Israel are really enemies is destructive to our community’s interest. But it really hits home when a close friend like Biden is vilified after all these years of friendship with our community. In these times, it seems that some people would charge Yitzhak Rabin with being anti-Israel if he ran for office as a Democrat.

It would be far healthier for American democracy, as well as for our community, if we would reject the use of Israel as a partisan issue and look at the policy areas where candidates from the two major parties truly do differ.

Michael Adler is the immediate past chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council and was the national finance chair of Sen. Joe Biden’s last presidential campaign.

Courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency

VIDEO: The Tribe (The Barbie Doll and the History of the Jewish People)

What can the most successful doll on the planet show us about being Jewish today? Narrated by Peter Coyote, the film mixes old school narration with a new school visual style. The Tribe weaves together archival footage, graphics, animation, Barbie dioramas, and slam poetry to take audiences on an electric ride through the complex history of both the Barbie doll and the Jewish people- from Biblical times to present day. By tracing Barbie’s history, the film sheds light on the questions: What does it mean to be an American Jew today? What does it mean to be a member of any tribe in the 21st Century?

Key dates in recent Chinese Jewish history

BEIJING (JTA) — The following are key dates in Chinese Jewish history:

  • 1920 Ohel Rachel Synagogue is established in Shanghai (still standing).
  • 1928-49 The first Lubavitch rabbi in China, Meir Ashkenazi, leads Shanghai’s Congregation Ohel Moshe. Built in 1927, Ohel Moshe is now the site of the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum.
  • 1938-45 20,000 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria escape to Shanghai.
  • 1939-40 Approximately 1,000 Polish Jews escape to Shanghai, including about 400 teachers and students of the Mir Yeshiva.
  • 1941-45 Japanese occupying powers intern recent Jewish immigrants from Allied countries in Hongkou ghetto for “stateless refugees.”
  • 1949 Communists win civil war; by now most of 24,000 Shanghai Jews and other Jewish populations across the country leave China.
  • 1978 Deng Xiaoping announces China’s “open door policy” with the West.
  • 1980 First community seder in Beijing is led by founders of the liberal Kehillat Beijing minyan.
  • 1992 Israel and China establish diplomatic relations.
  • 1995 Kehillat Beijing begins regular Friday night services in permanent home, Beijing’s Capital Club.
  • Oct 25, 1996 The first community bar mitzvah is held in Beijing for Ari Lee, the son of community founders Elyse Silverberg and Michael Lee.
  • 1998 The “Jewish Shanghai” guided tour begins; it is currently being run by Israeli journalist Dvir Bar-Gal (” title=”Dini’s”>Dini’s
  • May 2008 Israel donates 90 tons of medical supplies, more than $1 million, for Sichuan earthquake relief.
  • Ehud Olmert: A political time line

    NEW YORK (JTA)—The following is a time line of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s political career:

    Sept. 30, 1945 Born to Bella and Mordechai Olmert in Binyamina, near Haifa.

    November 1963-1971 Begins military service in the Golani Brigade, but hand and feet injuries that predate his service force him out of the combat unit. He completes his service as a reporter for the IDF magazine, Bamahane.

    1965 As student representative of the Herut Party, the predecessor to Likud, Olmert makes a name for himself by demanding the resignation of party chief Menachem Begin.

    December 1973 Elected to the Knesset as a Likud Party member.

    December 1976 After Olmert discloses to the Knesset that Housing Minister Avraham Ofer is likely to be the subject of a police investigation, Ofer kills himself.

    December 1988 Appointed minister without portfolio in charge of minority affairs by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

    April 1989 Comes under criticism for receiving a $50,000 loan from a fictitious company owned by the head of the Bank of North America, Yehoshua Halperin. Olmert is tried and acquitted.

    June 1990 Appointed health minister under Yitzhak Shamir.

    November 1993 Elected mayor of Jerusalem, defeating longtime incumbent Teddy Kollek.

    September 1996 Indicted with other Likud party members for illicit fund raising from corporate donors and for knowingly signing a false statement. Olmert is acquitted of the charges.

    February 2003 Appointed deputy prime minister and minister of industry, trade and labor by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

    December 2003 Throws his support behind Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza, retreating from his former assertions that high Arab birth rates are not a threat to Jewish democracy.

    November 2005 Leaves Likud and follows Sharon to his newly formed centrist party, Kadima.

    January 2006 – Becomes acting prime minister after Sharon suffers a debilitating stroke.

    March 2006 Wins general elections and becomes prime minister.

    July 2006 Wages a 34-day war against Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist group.

    September 2006 Questioned by the State Comptroller’s office over suspicions of bribery after purchasing a property in Jerusalem for far less than market value.

    January 2007 Questioned by investigators about whether, as finance minister, he used his influence to favor a friend in the sale of a large portion of the newly privatized Bank Leumi.

    April 2007 Found ultimately responsible for the failures of the Lebanon war in the interim report by the Winograd Commission appointed to investigate the war’s failures; commission stops short of calling for his resignation. In the same month, the commissioner for standards in public life speaks out against Olmert’s activities during his term as industry minister, accusing him of a conflict of interest when a friend, Uri Messner, applied for government financial benefits.

    October 2007 Diagnosed with non-terminal prostate cancer.

    January 2008 Leadership during Lebanon War determined by the Winograd Commission’s final report to be conducted in good faith, despite serious failings and faulty decisions.

    May 2008 Investigated by police for illegal fund raising, possible bribery and double billing overseas trips in the years before becoming prime minister. Olmert denies any wrongdoing but promises to resign if indicted.

    July 2008 Accedes to calls for his ouster and announces he will resign the office of prime minister after Kadima primaries in September, allowing the party’s new leader to form a new government.

    Analysis: Olmert’s journey from right-wing idealogue to unsuccessful pragmatist

    WASHINGTON (JTA)—The day after Ehud Olmert buried his own political career, he announced plans to commemorate Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the ideological proponent of Greater Israel whose vision Olmert has done much to bury.

    It was an odd closing of a circle: Olmert’s signature achievement may be how he guided his nation away from Jabotinsky’s vision of an Israel spanning the “river to the sea,” the Jordan to the Mediterranean.

    His signature failure may be how the allegations of personal corruption that ended his career exemplified the Jewish state’s departure from the lean, ethical Zionism espoused by Jabotinsky.

    Left unanswered is how Olmert’s departure affects the prospects for peace with Syria and the Palestinians, his signature projects, or his efforts to isolate Iran.

    Olmert’s career at first typefied those of many other scions of the families who believed Jabotinsky’s grand vision one day would be vindicated, waiting patiently for the implosion of a Labor Party bloated with patronage.

    In the 1950s Olmert’s father, Mordechai, had been a Knesset member for Herut, Likud’s predecessor, during the party’s lonely decades as a struggling opposition party. Ehud Olmert won election to the Knesset at the tender age of 28, in 1973, when the Likud won enough seats to form a viable opposition. Four years later it won the government outright.

    Olmert during his first years in government was a strident advocate of Jewish settlement expansion. As a member of the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee from 1981, he helped push through budgeting for new settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and was an uncompromising spokesman for the government’s policy at the time of not countenancing any outreach to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

    The first sign of change came after the 1988 elections, when Olmert became a minister without portfolio in charge of minority affairs. In interviews immediately after the elections, he said his first priority would be to crush the nascent Islamist movement winning municipal elections across Israel’s Arab sector.

    Within months, however, Olmert was delivering that rarest of political pronouncements: an apology. The Islamists, he said, were principally interested in bettering the lives of their constituents and he was ready to work with them.

    It was around then that the other strand of Olmert’s career also emerged, as he found himself the subject of criminal allegations.

    As Likud campaign manager in the 1988 elections, he was accused of authorizing the wiretapping of Labor Party headquarters. Though the accuser was the private detective who had carried out the wiretapping, Olmert managed to emerge unscathed.

    Olmert began entertaining party leadership ambitions, sowing an intra-party enmity with Benjamin Netanyahu, another Likud scion. Olmert always seemed the less likely candidate: He lacked the smoothness of his rivals, and preferred the crude thrust in his political rhetoric, venturing into territory others would avoid.

    In his successful run for Jerusalem mayor in 1993, Olmert mocked legendary mayor Teddy Kollek’s advanced years. Three years later he told reporters that between Netanyahu and Shimon Peres, Netanyahu was the “more Jewish” candidate for prime minister—a loaded reference to longstanding slanders that Peres’ mother was an Arab.

    Yet Olmert when he wanted could be charming, especially when it came to the Americans. He formed fast friendships with American Jewish organizational leaders, members of Congress and others—particularly Rudolph Giuliani, another blunt-talking mayor.

    For a political survivor, Olmert at times betrayed a surprisingly thin skin, calling newspapers and asking them to remove reporters he did not favor. When a local Jerusalem newspaper in 1994 uncovered his ties to a group that advocated in the 1970s for the aliyah of American Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky—an association Olmert did not need as he climbed the political ladder—Olmert strode over to the newspaper’s editor at a party and tossed a glass of water in her face.

    His two terms as Jerusalem mayor were undistinguished. His most ambitious project, an expensive light-rail system, remains mired in the planning and construction stages five years after Olmert’s reign. Poverty in the city grew during Olmert’s 10-year tenure, infrastructure suffered and, unlike Kollek—who made a point of hearing out Arab complaints—Olmert essentially shut down the municipality’s Arab affairs department.

    It was around the time that Olmert served as mayor that he cultivated many of the relationships with U.S. Jewish leaders that would culminate in this year’s multiple police investigations. Wealthy Jewish businessmen were attracted by Olmert’s pledges to preserve Jerusalem’s Jewish character. Allegedly that’s when the envelopes stuffed with cash—ostensibly for political campaigns—began changing hands.

    Such behavior did little to dispel accusations by his rivals that he was using the mayor’s office to set up another run for prime minister. In 2003, Olmert rejoined the Knesset, again running the Likud’s successful campaign. His loyalty to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his political skills won him the post of deputy prime minister, even though he remained one of the party’s less popular figures.

    Less popular in Israel, that is: Olmert remained well liked among American Jews, where he spearheaded the campaign to explain Sharon’s late-life conversion to land-for-peace policies. Olmert also formed a close friendship with President Bush.

    If at first it seemed that Olmert, the veteran politician, was leaning where the political winds blew, his interlocutors soon realized his conversion on the peace process was genuine. His wife and children, all well-known doves, had had an effect on his thinking. More substantially, the shock of the violence of the second intifada in the early 2000s, which Olmert witnessed firsthand as Jerusalem mayor, convinced him that it was time to tease apart two states, Israel and Palestine.

    “It was a genuine conversion,” said M.J. Rosenberg, the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, the dovish group that formed a close relationship with Olmert after his change of heart. “Olmert’s unique value was that he approached peace as a pragmatist—none of this starry-eyed Peres stuff. It was, ‘we Israelis want to have normal lives. We want to have nice houses and take our families to football games and make money. To do this we have to lay this conflict behind us.’ There was no mush.”

    Palestinians, too, appreciated Olmert as a straight-shooting partner who treated them as equals. Olmert lacked the imperiousness of Ehud Barak or the paternalism of Peres.

    It was Olmert’s practical vision that finally won him widespread popularity, and the premiership in January 2006, after Sharon went into a coma from a stroke. Olmert won general elections two months later.

    Within months, however, the honeymoon unraveled.

    Hezbollah launched an attack that July, and the Olmert government’s belligerent response seemed hapless. Israel’s air-based war did little to prevent substantial Israeli casualties and earned international opprobrium for the destruction it caused in Lebanon. Hezbollah also suffered heavy losses, but rallied as a political force in Lebanon and is now a veto-wielding presence in the country’s Cabinet.

    Hezbollah also has rebuilt its forces and missile arsenal—to three times its prewar size, according to Israeli estimates.

    At the same time, Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, sold hard by Olmert at the time, also was coming apart. Hamas terrorists had driven moderates from Gaza and were behind daily barrages of rockets into southern Israel.

    The need to isolate Hezbollah, Hamas and especially their backer, Iran, drove Olmert to push harder for peace. It led to the re-launch last year of peace talks with Palestinians at Annapolis, Md., and to this year’s renewed talks with Syria under Turkish auspices.

    In his resignation speech Wednesday, Olmert clearly hoped the peace talks would be his legacy.

    “I continue to believe with all my heart that achieving peace, stopping terrorism, strengthening security and creating different relations with our neighbors are the most vital goals for the future of the State of Israel,” he said. “We are closer than ever to concrete understandings that are likely to the basis for agreements in the two strands of dialogue, the Palestinian and the Syrian. The moment we achieve peace we will stand baffled and wonder how we did not achieve this earlier.”

    When it came to the corruption charges, he sounded defiant – a legacy perhaps pf his childhood weaning on the works of Jabotinsky, who famously counseled followers to “never surrender.”

    “I have been forced to battle ceaseless attacks,” he said. “Everyone knows that things have been blown out of proportion.”

    Arts in L.A. Calendar June — August


    Thu., June 12
    “The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company.” The ragtag band of tech-geeks who created such enormously successful hits as “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” and “Ratatouille” are dissected and discussed in David A. Price’s book about the high-minded company and its rags-to-riches success in filmmaking. At his appearance, Price will share behind-the-scenes stories about the animation studio dreamed up during a power lunch. 7:30 p.m. Free. Barnes and Noble, 1201 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica. (310) 260-9110.

    Sat., June 14
    Beastly Ball at the Los Angeles Zoo. Monkeys and hippos and tigers, oh my! The Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA) is, for the 38th year in a row, throwing its annual animal-filled shebang in support of the educational and conservation of endangered animal programs subsidized and run by the Los Angeles Zoo. No small get-together, GLAZA’s event is expected to be one of the hottest parties of the year, including special tours of the zoo, high-end catering, various forms of live musical entertainment and a silent auction with phenomenal items. Ever wonder what really happens in the jungle at night? Here is your chance to find out! 6 p.m. $1,000. Los Angeles Zoo, 5333 Zoo Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 644-4708.

    Sat., June 14
    Toy Theatre Festival at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Devoted to giving all genres of stimulating art a place to shine, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is hosting a festival recognizing the talents of numerous international toy puppeteers. A delightful treat for both adults and children, Toy Theatre is a production that encompasses two-dimensional rod puppets in mini-theatres that date back to the early 19th century. Adaptations of such classics as “Alice in Wonderland” are only a few of the many enthralling performances that will be taking place over the course of this two-day event. 10 a.m-6 p.m. Through June 15. Free. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-8500.

    Mon., June 16
    Silverdocs: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival. With documentaries becoming some of the most talked-about films on the silver screen today, the Silverdocs festival is one of the hottest film fests in town. This year’s opening-night film, “All Together Now,” follows the powerful panoply of creative talent that makes up the Cirque du Soleil production of “Love” at the Mirage in Las Vegas. The closing-night film, “Theater of War,” also takes a look at the behind-the-scenes creation of a different theatrical production — The Public Theater’s 2006 performance of Bertolt Brecht’s anti-war play “Mother Courage and Her Children” starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. Sandwiched between these two films are many other screen-worthy documentaries. Through June 23. $10 (general admission). For a full listing of films, visit

    Tue., June 17
    “The Body Has a Mind of Its Own.” Mother-and-son science writing duo, Sandra and Matt Blakeslee, will explore how the brain connects with your body parts, movements, space, actions and emotions of others during the ALOUD Science Series on Seeing and Being. Find out how the brain directly links to your body’s health and susceptibility to disease. Engage in conversation with science writer and author Margaret Wertheim on how your mind knows where your body ends and the outside world begins. Tue. 7 p.m. Free. Mark Taper Auditorium at Los Angeles Central Library, 630 W. Fifth St., Los Angeles. (310) 657-5511.

    Wed., June 25
    “Zocalo at the Skirball: The Oracle in the Gut.” New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer will discuss surprising and fascinating research that makes E. coli more than just a deadly bacteria in fast food. The Skirball hosts the popular Los Angeles cultural forum, Zocalo, in this discussion of how the Escherichia coli microbe has had a significant role in the history of biology and continues to advance the search for life-saving medicine, clean fuel and a greater understanding of our own genetic makeup. The lecture, subtitled “E. Coli and the Meaning of Life,” is part of a quarterly Zocalo at the Skirball series of engaging expert-led talks on some of today’s most pressing subjects. 7:30 p.m. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P. strongly recommended. (213) 403-0416.

    Fri., June 27
    “American Tales.” Mark Twain and Herman Melville, two of the most notable writers in American history, will be brought to life in a musical performance, “American Tales,” directed by Thor Steingraber. Los Angeles’ Classical Theater Ensemble, the Antaeus Company, is kicking off this year’s eight-week ClassicFest with “The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton,” an adaptation of Twain’s comic look at the telephone — one of the world’s most valuable inventions. Meeting by chance through crossed telephone lines, Alonzo from Maine and Rosannah from California develop an instant love connection. Playing off broken and mended connections, “American Tales” brings in Melville’s tragic story, “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Catch the play’s world premiere along with workshops and readings of classic plays featured throughout the festival. 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat. Through August 17. $25. Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 762-2773.

    Sat., June 28
    “Cover Version.” This innovative exhibition is the result of a challenge New York-based artist Timothy Hull posed to 20 other artists from around the country: design the cover of your favorite book. Turning the aphorism “Don’t judge a book by its cover” on its ear, this clever analysis demonstrates quite the opposite — that a book’s cover is actually indicative of its emotional and intellectual resonance and becomes something of a cultural icon. In the same vein as musicians reinterpreting canonical songs by “covering” them, these artists reify and re-imagine the cultural import of such classics as “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf, “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville and “The Book of Mormon,” among others. 6 -9 p.m. (opening reception), 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (Tue.-Sat.). Through Aug. 10. Free. Taylor De Cordoba, 2660 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 559-9156.

    Sat., June 28
    Heidi Duckler Collage Dance Theatre: “A Guide to an Exhibitionist.” Triple-billed as a gallery opening, live performance and party, Duckler’s latest site-specific work explores nudity, still-life and the colors framing the space in a performance that ponders the relationship between artist, audience and the physical space in which these three elements intimately collide. 7 p.m. (performances every 30 minutes until 9 p.m.) $25 (includes wine and cheese reception). Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 784-8669.

    The indestructible spirit of Holocaust survivors

    These photographs by Bill Aron are part of a project titled “Holocaust Survivors: The Indestructible Spirit.”

    The project, sponsored by Chapman University, unites interviews and images of local Holocaust survivors, with each illuminating the other, telling their stories from the war and also showing them today as they have not only survived, but prospered.

    The biographies here were condensed and excerpted by The Journal from interviews by students of professor Marilyn J. Harran, director of Chapman’s Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education. The interviews were conducted as part of Harran’s Holocaust history courses at Chapman, and are © 2007-2008, Chapman University.

    “I was welcomed not only into their homes, but also into their hearts. They gave me a gift of openness and trust, which made possible one hundred truly memorable encounters. It was the essence of these encounters, a deep sense of connection, an exquisite intimacy, if you will, that I felt, and that I tried to put into the images. The extent that my photographs are successful is due to their openness and trust. . . .

    The prophet Zechariah proclaims that the people of Israel will prevail “not by might, nor by power, but by spirit alone … will you survive.” Clearly, it was not by might, nor by power that they prevailed, but by the strength of their enduring spirit.

    — Bill Aron, photographer

    Jack Pariser was born in 1929 in Poland, south of Krakow. His father sold lumber and his mother sold fabric. When the Nazis began terrorizing Jews in 1939, Jack’s grandfather was beaten unconscious for refusing to walk on the Torah; he died soon after. In early August 1942, Jack’s mother learned that the Germans were planning to murder the town’s Jews the next day, and the family fled, hiding for months in the forest. They were rescued by a Christian man who had worked for Jack’s father and were hidden in a bunker under a woodshed floor. When they eventually moved to another hiding place, they were betrayed and arrested by Polish police. They escaped from jail by cutting through the wall with a penknife. They were again protected by non-Jews until the war ended in 1945.

    The family moved to the United States in 1949, and Jack went on to become chief scientist at Hughes Aircraft, where he retired from in 1987.

    Eva Brettler (nee Katz) was born in Romania in 1936. She was visiting her grandparents in Hungary in 1944 when the German soldiers took her grandmother and aunt as she hid. When she emerged, she sought out the town rabbi, who reconnected her to her parents. When her father was made to do forced labor, her mother tried to protect young Eva, at one point taking on a false identity as a non-Jew, for which she was later denounced and mother and child were arrested. In September 1944, the two were sent on a forced march to Germany with thousands of Jews; Eva’s mother was killed on the walk, and the young girl tried to understand why her mother didn’t come for her. Eventually, with the help of a fellow prisoner, she arrived at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she was encouraged and protected by women prisoners. With the advance of the Russian army, the Germans moved the prisoners to Bergen-Belsen by cattle car, and Eva survived — and helped others — by luck and ingenuity, squeezing through wire fence to steal scraps of potato peelings from a kitchen refuse area. After liberation, she reunited with her father and they returned to Hungary. In 1956, after the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, Eva fled her country, arriving in the United States in 1957, where she met and married fellow survivor Marten Brettler. In 1983, she earned a degree in psychology from UCLA and became a social worker.

    Sally Roisman (nee Zielinski) was born in Sosnowiec, Poland, in 1930 to a devoutly religious family. When war broke out, the family had nowhere to flee to, so they survived by bartering jewelry for food. Young Sally was often sent to do the job. In 1942, her father was sent to Auschwitz, and the rest of the family was moved to the ghetto. Eventually her sisters, then Sally, were sent to Graeben, a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen. Sally, just 13, survived with the help of her sisters. In January 1945, as the Soviets approached, the Germans sent 250 prisoners on a death march to Germany; Sally was among the 150 to arrive at Bergen-Belsen, where she almost died of typhus. In April 1945, when the British liberated the camp, the sisters learned that their brother had also survived at a nearby camp and two other brothers were at Buchenwald. Their parents, three brothers and two sisters were murdered at Auschwitz.

    The remaining six siblings eventually moved to Australia. On a vacation to New York, Sally met her future husband, Steve Roisman. The couple settled in Los Angeles, near Sally’s sister and brother. Today, Sally is an artist, making award-winning paintings of Jewish life before the Holocaust.

    Curt Lowens was born in 1925 in East Prussia (now Poland), to a home filled with music and laughter. His father, once a respected lawyer, lost all his clients with the rise of Hitler. The family moved to Berlin in 1936, hoping to find safety in the large Jewish community there, but eventually decided to immigrate to the United States. The day before they were to depart on the SS Veendam from Rotterdam, the Germans invaded Holland, preventing the departure. In June 1943, the family was sent to Westerbork, a transit camp, and then to Auschwitz. However, they were released and immediately went underground. Curt received a false identity and became an active and valiant member of the resistance, under the name “Ben Joosten.”

    After the war, in 1947, Curt, his father and stepmother immigrated to the United States; he became an actor, and met Katherine Guilford at the famous Berhoff Studio. He is a respected character actor, working onstage on Broadway and in film and television.

    Concerts celebrate Ash Grove’s golden legacy

    Ed Pearl, 70, silver-haired and feisty, will forever be associated with the Ash Grove, the folk club he opened 50 years ago with a $5,000 investment, despite the fact that the venue’s been closed for a quarter century.

    “My life,” Pearl said, “has been a series of fortuitous accidents. And,” he ruefully adds, “not-so fortuitous.”

    The Ash Grove’s golden anniversary is being celebrated this weekend at UCLA with two all-star evening concerts at Royce Hall and two and a half days (Friday through Sunday) full of concerts and workshops exploring the club’s legacy in bluegrass, blues, theater, women’s culture, poetry, leftist politics, gospel music and activism.

    To call the Ash Grove, which sat at 8162 Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood from 1958 to 1972, a mere folk club would be to oversimplify. Culture, politics, art, activism and music all converged in this West Coast outpost for all folk-related artists: Odette, Guy Carawan, Phil Ochs, the Limeliters, Bud & Travis, the Stoneman Family, Tom Paxton, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and John Fahey, among them. It was a haven for authentic blues, where the durable duo Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry first met; where Magic Sam played his last gig; where Albert King, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, the Rev. Gary Davis, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf all played. Flat-pick master Doc Watson first encountered bluegrass progenitor Bill Monroe there. Taj Mahal, the Chambers Brothers, the Kentucky Colonels, Ry Cooder, Canned Heat, Spirit, Linda Ronstadt and Kaleidoscope all gestated at the Ash Grove.

    It was also a space for Lawrence Lipton’s poetry and jazz shows; comic monologist Hugh Romney (before he became Wavy Gravy); where Dalton Turbo read; where Holly Near first sang; where Michael McKean and David L. Lander performed with the Credibility Gap; where the San Francisco Mime Troupe and El Teatro Campesino stopped in Los Angeles. It was an embarkation point for busses bound for the southern Freedom Rides. Civil rights, voting rights for 18-year-olds, women’s rights, anti-Vietnam activism, migrant worker’s concerns were all part of the Ash Grove.

    Pearl’s activism was no accident. He grew up in Boyle Heights, between Boyle and Lincoln, near County General Hospital. The area had blacks, Armenians, Croatians, Italians, Mexicans and, of course, Jews.

    “I’ve always been multicultural,” Pearl said.

    The neighborhood’s famous Breed Street Shul — off of what is now Cesar Chavez Boulevard — was one of the largest synagogues west of the Mississippi in its time. When asked if he was raised observantly, Pearl shrugs, “My cousins went to the Breed Temple. My bar mitzvah was at the smaller Menorah Center, north of Wabash Avenue.”

    His father’s family left Ukraine after the failed revolution of 1905 and fled the subsequent Russian persecution to Cairo. Pearl’s father was trained as a mechanic and became a tool and dye maker for Lockheed. His mother, of Russian-Jewish stock, was carried to America as an infant and raised in St. Louis.

    Socialist and communist thinkers were seldom far from Pearl’s boyhood; this alarmed his assimilationist mother. His first brush with activism came in junior high. Gerald L.K. Smith, the infamous anti-Semite, was scheduled to speak at a nearby high school. Pearl organized a large walkout at his own school. The action worked; Smith was cancelled.

    The demonstrators all faced expulsion, though, and gained reentry to school only after public apologies. Pearl was the lone holdout.

    “Dan Margolis, the radical lawyer, intervened,” Pearl said. “He rescued me. I wouldn’t apologize; it drove my mother crazy. I had to sleep out in the garage. He talked with the school and they let me back in, and I eventually apologized.”

    “That’s my brand of Judaism, ” he added, with a twinkle in his eye.

    Pearl entered UCLA at 16. He joined a committee that tried to present blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger on campus. The administration fought it and Pearl — with some coaching from fraternity and sorority debaters — became spokesman for the group. While the effort was ultimately futile, Pearl held his own as a speaker.

    “Only later did I find out why I was chosen: I was the only one who wasn’t in the Communist or Socialist Parties,” he said.

    Pearl wound up booking Seeger into Santa Monica High School. In the ’60s, he also booked the Santa Monica Civic for attractions too big for the Ash Grove: Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Ravi Shankar. The club was the one mandatory folk venue west of Chicago.

    “I met Dylan in New York in 1961,” Pearl recalled. “He knew all about the Ash Grove, and he said he dreamed of coming out here more than anything. So, I had him booked, and he called me up and said, ‘Ed, I’ve got a chance to make a record for John Hammond at Columbia Records. What should I do …?'”

    UCLA ethnomusicology student Barry Hansen, later to become Dr. Demento, worked the sound and the lights at the club. Blues scholar/journalist/broadcaster Mary Katherine Aldin worked in the office. Guitarist Bernie Pearl — Ed’s brother — headed the club’s music school with David Cohen. Blues harmonica titan George “Harmonica” Smith taught Taj, Rod Piazza, James Harman and Louie Lista at the Ash Grove. Mick Jagger personally thanked Pearl after a night at the club.

    Attorney Barry Fischer, a UCLA law student in the late ’50s, found the Ash Grove a rare showcase for the international folk music he was playing. With his Ellis Island Klezmer Orchestra, Fisher would spearhead the local Yiddishkayt concerts and festivals.

    “In the repressive atmosphere of the ’50s,” Fischer said, “what is now called world music was seen as slightly subversive. I studied ethnomusicology and was playing Balkan, Slavic, Russian, Eastern European music, and there weren’t many outlets for that. I worked with Mike Janusz, an extraordinarily gifted linguist. He spoke many languages and organized great vocal ensembles. One of this weekend’s workshops will be a tribute to him.”

    Legal scrapes were also part of the Ash Grove’s legacy, and Fischer’s legal acumen was utilized by Pearl.

    How Tinseltown shaped the world’s view of the Holocaust

    Hollywood movies and television have shaped the way most of the world perceives the Final Solution, narrator Gene Hackman observes at the beginning of “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust.”

    It is a statement that may not sit too well with generations of historians and authors, but the evidence validates the conclusion.

    When the NBC mini-series “Holocaust” aired in 1978, one of every two Americans watched. The effect was even stronger in Germany, where the film, with an assist from the Wiesenthal Center, persuaded the German government to cancel the time limit on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.

    Elie Wiesel might heatedly object that the TV series, and indeed all dramatic representations, “trivialized” the extermination of the Six Million, and that only those who actually survived the concentration camps had a right to speak.

    He was answered, indirectly, by the sardonic German joke of the time that the television “Holocaust” had more of an impact on the German mind than had the original.

    As a documentary, “Imaginary Witness” does a remarkable job of presenting the history and moral ambiguities in Hollywood’s treatment of the Holocaust, from the early Nazi days to “The Pianist,” and the chapter is far from closed.

    The studios, headed mostly by Jewish immigrants conflicted about their identity, generally treated the new Nazi rulers of Germany with kid gloves. In this, they were driven as much by the bottom line (in the 1920s, Germany accounted for 10 percent of Hollywood’s foreign profits) as by the Hays Code. This self-censorship code protected audiences not only from excessive cleavage but also mandated that movies could not demean the people or rulers of a foreign country.

    One exception to the general timidity was MGM’s “The Mortal Storm” (1940), about the persecution of a Jewish family. Though the word “Jew” was never uttered, with “non-Aryan” serving as a substitute, Goebbels banned all future MGM films from both Germany and occupied Europe.

    ‘Jewish’ excerpt, Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’

    “Jew” was first spoken on the screen later, in 1940, in “The Great Dictator,” which could be made only because Charlie Chaplin financed and produced the brilliant satire by himself.

    Hollywood’s appeasement didn’t save it from retribution. The U.S. Senate’s Nye Committee investigated the “Jewish conspiracy” to slander Germany, and Joseph Kennedy, father of JFK, warned the nervous Jewish moguls that they would be held responsible if America were drawn into war.

    All that changed on Dec. 7, 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Hollywood was harnessed to the war effort, with Warner Bros. leading the way with the Looney Tunes cartoon “The Ducktators.”

    The first real inkling the American public had of the Holocaust was through newsreel footage of the liberation of the death camps, but the Cold War courtship of Germany and the heavy hand of the McCarthy era discouraged any follow-ups.

    While “Crossfire” and “Gentleman’s Agreement” broke new ground in probing anti-Semitism in America, neither film alluded to the Holocaust.

    Finally, in 1959, a sanitized version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” began to deal directly with the fate of European Jewry, followed in the same year by the Playhouse 90 TV production of “Judgment in Nuremberg” (in which this reviewer launched and closed out his acting career).

    By the 1980s and early ’90s, movies reached a new level of realism and depth with “Sophie’s Choice” and ABC’s 30-hour “War and Remembrance,” crowned by “Schindler’s List.”

    Director Daniel Anker of “Imaginary Witness,” the son of German Jewish refugees, augments clips from 20 films by introducing some astute analysts, foremost among them Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum and author Neal Gabler, and leading filmmakers, to discuss the moral complexities of dealing with Holocaust themes.

    Both Sidney Lumet (“The Pawnbroker”) and Steven Spielberg (“Schindler’s List”) acknowledge their fear of seeming to exploit the immense tragedy.

    Berenbaum notes that in many such films, the viewer is guided to identify neither with the Jewish victim nor the Nazi perpetrator, but rather with the good gentile who helps the Jews.

    Despite Hollywood’s shortcomings, Berenbaum concludes, “in a relative world, these films have set for the world a standard of absolute evil.”

    “Imaginary Witness” opens April 4 at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino and Grande 4-Plex in downtown Los Angeles. For more information, visit and

    Hate in Translation

    This week I received close to 1,000 copies of the same e-mail — a very disturbing notice that the Web site Facebook features many user-generated pages devoted to memorializing and supporting Arab terrorists.

    One e-mail would have sufficed to alert me to this, but now, as I write this paragraph, seven more have just arrived. Terrorists make use of the West’s most cutting-edge technologies to mount a multipronged attack on Western lives and values, and what is all that most of us can do in response? Forward e-mails.

    I have a different tack someone can take in the battle: Translate Matthais Kuntzel’s new book into Arabic.

    Kuntzel, a respected German academic, wrote, “Jihad and Jew Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11” (Telos Press, 2007). He barely found a German publisher, was fortunate to find a brave English-language press and won’t get an Arabic version unless somebody reading these words writes a very important check.

    If you might be that someone, or know someone who could be, get it done.

    Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in The New York Times, called Kuntzel’s book “bracing, even startling … bold and consequential.”

    It is also, even for people who have followed the rise of Islamo-facism, revelatory.

    We know that throughout the Arab world the press and popular media are given to vicious anti-Semitism. Syrian TV did a multi-part dramatization of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Bookstores throughout the Arab world still offer translations of Henry Ford’s screed, “The International Jew.” The propaganda of Hamas and Hezbollah make fantastic claims about world Jewish power that would strike any rational person as batty and incidental, if the effects of the hatred they inspire were not so readily apparent.

    The common wisdom is that all this Jew-hatred arises from the Arab world’s reaction to Israel.

    But what Kuntzel’s historical research establishes is that the anti-Semitism is not, as academia would have it, a post-1948 reaction to those imperialist Zionists, but rather a pre-World War II infestation of Christian anti-Semitism.

    There is anti-Jewish sentiment throughout the Quran and in Muslim culture, to be sure, but it rarely if ever approached the virulence either of Christian anti-Semitism or of current Jihadist sentiment. Jews were second-class citizens during their stay in Muslim lands — defeated, tolerated, but far from feared.

    Then came the Nazis. The Nazis knew the Middle East would be an extension of the European battleground. They wanted to turn the Muslim world against the Jews. They found willing collaborators in two individuals: the Egyptian Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem. Banna’s movement began as a reaction to modernism.

    “Islamism was born in the ’20s, not the ’60s,” Kuntzel told me over breakfast in Westwood, while on a speaking tour here. “It was the reaction to modernism in Iran, Turkey and Egypt. There is always a connection between the fight against modernism and the fight against Jews.”

    The Nazis cemented the connection. They provided much of the funding for the Brotherhood, which in turn established printing presses and distributed Arabic translations of “Mein Kampf” and the “Protocols” throughout the Middle East.

    The mufti, who moved to Berlin during the war, was an even more eager Jew-hater; who fought Heinrich Himmler’s decision in 1943 to trade 5,000 Jewish children for 20,000 German prisoners. Eventually the mufti prevailed, and the children were sent to be gassed.

    Meanwhile, Alfred Hess, brother of Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, established a branch of the Nazi party in Alexandria, Egypt, and began distributing copies of “The Jewish Question in Germany” to the educated elites there.

    Kuntzel’s book draws a direct line from the hatred these men promoted and the rhetoric of today’s jihadis.

    “Osama bin Laden made so many anti-Semitic statements,” he said. New York for him was the center of finance, from where Jews pulled the levers of world power. “It is a genocidal anti-Semitism.”

    Kuntzel can boast, if that’s the word, of true believer yichus. His father was a member of the Nazi party.

    “Every child in my family had to play a musical instrument,” he recalled. “We would have our recitals in my grandmother’s living room. When Hitler came on the radio, we all stopped and gave the Nazi salute.”

    Kuntzel let the image sink in: “It’s important to get to the roots and see how this could happen.”

    Not everyone has been happy with Kuntzel’s research. Though he lectures at Stanford, Yale and other universities, his appearance at the University of Leeds in England was cancelled due to protest by Muslim students. He believes the fear of radical Muslims has prevented him from finding a major German publisher, much less an Arabic one.

    But I believe the latter is crucial. Why? Because the Arab and Muslim world, especially its elites, need to understand what they are choosing when they go down the road of unmoored hate. They need to know with whom they are aligning themselves.

    The moderates and reformers among them desperately need the intellectual proof texts to show how their religion and culture was infected by some jackbooted white Christian losers, whose own historic arc no sane person would want to emulate.

    If our gas money is going to Arab governments who sanction anti-Semitic vitriol, can’t we spend a little to counteract the lies with truth?

    Or do we just keep clicking the “forward” button on our e-mail?

    To purchase Jihad and Jew Hatred click here.

    To contact the author, Matthais Kuntzel, about funding an Arabictranslation, send an e-mail to Rob Eshman at

    Books: Wartime memoir a lesson in finding family treasures

    “Every Day Lasts A Year: A Jewish Family’s Correspondence From Poland,” edited by Christopher R. Browing, Richard S. Hollander and Nechama Tec (Cambridge University Press, $28).

    Over the past several years, a new genre of original Jewish documentation has emerged in closets and attics of Holocaust survivors. The documentation has all the authority of the diaries and notes that were written in situ, within the ghettos, within hiding, even within concentration camps and elsewhere during the Holocaust.

    It is imperative that we understand the situation in which this new source of documentation has emerged, because we can do something important to facilitate new discoveries.

    Children cleaning out their parents’ homes or apartments, on the occasion of their moving to warmer climates, into assisted living, downsizing or shortly after their deaths have come across a hidden pile of letters in a shoe box or a jewelry box or on a top shelf. Written in a language they do not understand, the collection is probably most often discarded as somehow unimportant, part of the clutter of a long life in which much was collected and too little discarded. But from time to time children have an inkling that something important is before them, something precious to their parents, but something too difficult to read and to share.

    I remember one such moment in my own life. My sister and I were sitting shiva for our 92-year-old mother, and no one was in the house visiting, so we started to go through some things; we began to think as to how we would dismantle a lifetime. By chance, we started with a top shelf and discovered my parents’ correspondence when they were first married and my father was off in World War II. My mother had saved the letters she received from her new husband, and he in turn had saved the letters he had received from his bride. After the war, their letters were joined and saved; and thus we had a treasure trove of material giving us insights into our parents, their relationship, the war and the home front. The material is of great importance to their children, their grandchildren and, someday, will be of importance to their great-grandchildren, most too young to read, let alone to understand. But my parents were not survivors; their intimate correspondence was not the stuff of history.

    Twice in the past couple of years, this newly revealed documentation has consisted of letters written during the war by Jews living in ghettos and even in slave labor camps and has resulted in important books and exhibitions.

    “Sala’s Story,” a collection of letters written by friends and family to Sala Garncarz while she was in prison camps, where she could receive mail and where she dared to hide them and preserve them, was made into an exhibition and a marvelous book. This correspondence depicts the life of Garncarz’s parents and sister in the Sosnowiec ghetto and provides original letters by Alina Gartner, one of four women hung at Auschwitz in January 1945 for smuggling dynamite to the Sonderkommando — the men who worked in the vicinity of the gas chambers at Birkenau. Believing that she was about to die, at the age of 67, Sala told her daughter about these letters, and Ann Kirschner had them translated and wrote an extensive commentary that makes disparate letters into a coherent picture of life in the ghettos — daily life, the type of details that parents share with children and sisters share with sisters. The result is an extraordinary portrait. One feels invited into the privacy of a family, into the anguish of their daily existence.

    A second collection of letters has just now emerged. Richard Hollander has published the letters sent by his grandmother and aunts to his father, Joseph, who after a harrowing escape from Europe was in legal limbo in the United States. Richard discovered these letters shortly after both his parents were killed in a car crash. They were bound carefully together in a leather case and stored in an attic where suitcases were kept. He not only discovered the letters but encountered his father’s story. Joseph was not admitted to the United States as a refugee and was considered an enemy alien. His case was a cause celebre of American policy and the gates of refuge that were closed to those Jews fleeing Hitler’s conquest. Unaware of his most compromised circumstances and believing that he was the successful and confident worldly man in the United States that he had been in Poland, Joseph’s sisters and mother pleaded with him to save them as their situation was deteriorating day by day. He, in turn, could not burden them with his problems, which were minor in comparison. The letters are a poignant portrait of daily life in Cracow, of unique authority and power, which describe conditions almost week by week and the initiative taken by Jews seeking to ameliorate their situation.

    David Marwell has commented that “just because Jews were powerless does not mean that they were passive.”

    And the Hollanders were hardly passive. They understood the extraordinary danger of their situation and pleaded with their brother to get them out before it was too late. They did not understand what was about to happen, but they did understand that their situation was desperate and bound to get worse.

    Hollander’s work is preceded by two marvelous essays by two of the most distinguished Holocaust scholars of this generation.

    Christopher Browning, the brilliant historian who is the natural heir to Raul Hilberg as a student of the perpetrators and their documents, has used his formidable interpretive skills to understand the conditions of their victims. The result not only contextualizes the letters, but is an original essay on life within the ghetto. He understands so well that there were at least two perspectives, two histories that need be understood and juxtaposed: the history of the killers and what they did to their victims, how they shaped the situation in which the Jews had to live, try to survive, endure and/or die; and the situation of the Jews who tried to make do and continue life in a situation not of their creation and committed to their destruction. In the intersection between these two histories, the most complete history of the Holocaust is to be found. Browning brings his skill for understanding documents and his flair for understanding the human situation that gave rise to these documents to both the introduction and the annotation of the letters.

    Also included is a second, but certainly not secondary, introduction, “Through the Eyes of the Oppressed,” by Nechma Tec, an outstanding scholar of resistance whose work will soon be seen in the forthcoming film on the Bielski brothers. Tec, a survivor and a student of women’s experience during the Holocaust, enables the reader to grasp the situation that gave rise to these precious letters.

    Israel @ 60: The day that Israel came to town

    This is the first in a series of weekly columns celebrating Israel’s 60th anniversary, leading up to Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, in May.

    In the summer of 1948, the Jewish State of Israel had just been created, and to celebrate, some 18,000 ecstatic Angelenos jam-packed the Hollywood Bowl to welcome Israel’s first diplomat to California.

    Reuven Dafni and his wife Rinna were newlyweds at the time and had arrived in Los Angeles only a couple of days earlier to establish the first Israeli consulate for the Western states, the second in the United States after New York.

    “We were treated like a prince and princess; we were lionized wherever we went,” recalls that new consul-general’s wife — now Rinna Samuel — looking back 60 years.

    Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron addressed the revved-up crowd, as did Dafni and Jewish community leaders. Rabbi Max Nussbaum of Temple Israel of Hollywood, the city’s leading Zionist spokesman, made the fundraising appeal, remembers his wife Ruth.Reuven DafniReuven Dafni, a World War II hero, was the right man in the right place for a celebrity-oriented city whose entertainment industry was the financial mainstay of the organized Jewish community.

    “He was good-looking, well-spoken, and there was a romantic aura about him,” Ruth Nussbaum, now 96, remembers vividly.

    Dafni, born in Croatia, had parachuted into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia as leader of a four-person team, which included Hannah Senesh, to rescue downed Allied airmen and what Jews they could.

    After the war, one of his assignments was to visit Los Angeles and other American cities for clandestine parlor meetings, where large amounts of cash in brown paper bags changed hands to buy arms for the looming struggle in Palestine.

    Rinna, the daughter of Meir Grossman, a prominent Zionist leader and journalist, had been educated in Palestine, England and the United States. She had quit her job as a researcher and correspondent at Time magazine to work as a volunteer for the Jewish Agency office in New York.

    “One day I was in the office and overheard a handsome man, who had just arrived from Palestine, talking on the phone trying to get tickets for the smash Broadway musical ‘Oklahoma,'” she recalls. “It was none of my business, but I, as a knowledgeable New Yorker, broke in to tell him that the show was sold out for years and there wasn’t a chance he could get tickets.”

    The man, who was of course Dafni, turned to her and said, “I’ll get two tickets and I’ll take you to the show.”

    And so he did, and they were married exactly one month before Israel declared its independence.

    “On the day we were married, Reuven got a call from the United Jewish Appeal [UJA] that he had to leave immediately for a speaking tour across the United States,” the then brand-new bride told The Journal recently in a phone call from her home in Rehovot, near Tel Aviv.

    When the Dafnis arrived in Los Angeles, the feeling in the Jewish community “was absolutely explosive, and here were Reuven and I, two young people, who symbolized everything the new state had accomplished. People were suddenly so proud of being Jewish,” Rinna recounts.

    When the Dafnis had their first baby in 1949 at the former Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, it was celebrated as a community event, and the hospital’s staff declined to take any money for the delivery.

    Among the first friends the Dafnis made was Betty Sheinbaum, then married to Milton Sperling, a prominent movie producer. She was the daughter of Harry Warner, head of the Warner Bros. studio, who was active in bringing Jewish refugees from Europe to the United States in the 1930s and ’40s.

    The notion of an independent Jewish State in the Middle East was not automatically endorsed at that time, however.

    “My father didn’t think that Palestine would be a good place for the refugees, and he petitioned President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt, who was a friend, to give Alaska to the Jews,” Sheinbaum recalls.

    Some American Jews were lukewarm, if not hostile, to the Zionist agenda, especially among the leadership of the Reform movement. Max Nussbaum discovered the bias when the board of Temple Israel of Hollywood interviewed him to become the spiritual leader of the Reform congregation.

    The Nussbaums had narrowly escaped Germany and war-torn Europe in 1940, and had spent their first two years in America leading a tiny congregation in Muskogee, Okla.

    Temple Israel, whose regular rabbi had joined the army as a chaplain, invited Nussbaum to come for an interview. The refugee rabbi informed the board that he was an ardent Zionist and intended to be an advocate for Zionism from the pulpit.

    This did not sit well with some influential directors, and the board went into executive session to weigh the matter.

    It is unknown what went on behind closed doors, but in the end the temple decided to hire Nussbaum (see period photo of the Nussbaums, right), despite his ideological tendencies.

    However, by the time the Dafnis arrived in Los Angeles, with Israel fighting for its survival, the sheer emotion and elation of the history-making events had swept away reservations about the new Jewish State among all but a small minority of diehard anti-Zionists.Ruth and Max NussbaumThere were also some Jews who hardly noticed the excitement: Among them was Edward Sanders, later to become president of the Jewish Federation and President Jimmy Carter’s senior advisor on the Middle East, a 26-year-old law student at USC in 1948. He had spent three years in the U.S. Army, and his wife Rose was expecting their first child.

    “I was completely focused on my studies and supporting my family, so what went on in Israel didn’t mean that much to me,” Sanders says.

    To the cosmopolitan Rinna, the initial impression of Los Angeles was a bit of a culture shock.

    Briefs: Israel apologizes to the Beatles, Europe commemorates the Holocaust

    Beatles, Shea Stadium, 1965
    Israel Apologizes to the Beatles

    Israel is trying to atone for a decision to bar a tour by the Beatles 43 years ago. Israel’s ambassador to London, Ron Prosor, has written a letter to relatives of the late Beatles singer John Lennon and guitarist George Harrison apologizing for a 1965 government ban on the British pop group and inviting its surviving members — Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr — to play in the Jewish state.

    “We should like to take this opportunity to correct the historic error which to our great regret occurred in 1965, when you were invited to Israel,” Yediot Achronot quoted the letter as saying. “We should like to see you sing in Israel.”

    The Beatles were to have sung in Tel Aviv during their 1960s heyday, but political leaders nixed the appearances out of fear the Fab Four would “corrupt” Zionist youth.

    Europe Commemorates the Holocaust

    Former Auschwitz prisoners gathering at the Nazi death camp was among numerous Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations in Europe. Sunday’s event in the Polish town of Oswiecim, on the third annual commemoration day created by the United Nations General Assembly, took place on the 63rd anniversary of the camp’s liberation by Soviet troops.

    “Let remembrance of this serve as a shield that will protect us and generations to come against resentment, hate, aggression, racism and anti-Semitism,” said Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, a representative of Polish President Lech Kaczynski.

    Sunday, Jewish communities in Ukraine lit candles and observed a minute of silence to honor the 6 million Jewish Holocaust victims, including 1.5 million Jews killed in Ukraine. It culminated four days of performances and exhibits in Kiev co-hosted by The Jewish Foundation of Ukraine and the All-Ukrainian Association of Jews – Former Concentration Camps and Ghetto Prisoners.

    On Friday, the U.N. office in Vienna held a remembrance ceremony at the Rotunda of the Vienna International Center featuring the Vienna Jewish Choir performing for delegates from around the world. Also that day the Czech Senate, president and prime minister marked the Holocaust with ceremonies.

    Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress, will address the European Parliament in Brussels Monday as it commemorates the Holocaust. Also Monday, more than 1,600 people, including genocide survivors, are expected to attend a service at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall to mark the day in England.

    Methodists Consider Divestment

    A top Methodist body heard arguments for and against divesting from Israel. The United Methodist General Board of Church and Society heard from four speakers Friday discussing whether to present a divestment from Israel plan at the church’s general conference in April, according to the New York Sun.

    The Rev. Douglas Mills, an executive on the church’s General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, made the case against divestment, the Sun reported, partly from concerns that a church-wide decision to divest would damage relations with Jewish groups.

    Among those making the case for divestment was Susanne Hoder, a member of the New England Conference’s Divestment Task Force. Two of the 11-million member church’s regional groupings, in New England and Virginia, have recommended divestment from companies that they allege are complicit in Israel’s West Bank “occupation.” The weekend meeting, in Fort Worth, Texas, also considered divestment from other nations, including Sudan.

    Christian Group to Give $3 Million for FSU Kids

    A Jewish-Christian group is contributing $3 million to help needy Jewish children in the former Soviet Union. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, headed by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, will give the $3 million to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). In exchange, Eckstein, who collects money from evangelical Christians, will have a say in how the money is spent and in formulating JDC’s strategy and programming.

    The JDC estimates there are up to 50,000 needy Jewish children in the region. Eckstein gave $9 million the JDC in 2007, $6 million of which went to helping elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union and $3 million that went to help children. Eckstein recently cemented a similar strategic partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel, giving the agency $15 million per year for the next three years in exchange for a seat on its highest governing committee, its executive. The Fellowship will also continue to fund JDC programming for the elderly in the former Soviet Union.

    Israeli Doubles Pair Makes History

    Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich became the first Israeli doubles tennis team to win a Grand Slam tennis title. The pair, seeded eighth, defeated the seventh-seeded French duo of Arnaud Clement and Michael Llorda in the Australian Open final Saturday in Melbourne. Ram has won two mixed doubles Grand Slam titles, but never with an Israeli partner.

    “It’s a great day for us, for our family, for Israel, for everybody,” Ram said, who noted that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had already called the pair to congratulate them. “He left a message for us to call him back; he couldn’t reach us.”

    Hundreds of flag-waving Israelis were in the crowd, including Israel’s ambassador to Australia, Yuval Rotem, who traveled with his staff from Canberra for the match. The Israelis, who did not drop a set in the tournament, earned $393,211 for their victory.

    Shahar Peer earlier in the tournament had become the first Israeli female to reach a Grand Slam final, but lost in three sets with her partner, Victoria Azarenka of Belarus. The three Israelis are planning to play in Arab countries next month. Peer is poised to become the first Israeli to play in Qatar, while Ram and Erlich are considering a Dubai tournament along with another Israeli, Tzipi Obziler.

    Facebook Founder to Visit Israel

    Israel invited Facebook’s founder to attend its 60th Independence Day celebrations. Mark Zuckerberg met the Israeli delegation at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week and accepted an official invitation to visit for the festivities in May, Ma’ariv reported Sunday. A former Harvard student, Zuckerberg shot to international fame by creating the Facebook networking site.

    Ma’ariv quoted Zuckerberg, 23, as saying that Facebook would be an ideal platform for linking all the participants in a technology conference that Israeli President Shimon Peres is organizing in honor of the national birthday.

    ‘Meadow Soprano’ explores her Jewish spirit in Israel

    Meadow Soprano, Jewish?

    “Everyone assumes I’m Italian,” says Jamie Lynn Sigler, 26, with a sigh, pausing over her hummus lunch at the open-air market in Jaffa, one of the stops on her Birthright Israel tour. “Even kids on the trip keep asking, ‘Are you Jewish?'”

    Sigler, who played the daughter of Mafia kingpin Tony Soprano on the acclaimed HBO show “The Sopranos,” grew up in a Jewish home in Jericho, N.Y., going to Hebrew school and having a bat mitzvah.

    Her father’s family immigrated to America from Greece and Poland. Her mother, who is Puerto Rican, converted to Judaism.

    But it was only during her recent visit to Israel that she said she felt a true spiritual and emotional connection to her roots.

    “It’s one of the most beautiful, inspiring places I’ve ever been to,” Sigler said. “I now have a greater understanding and motivation about preserving my Jewishness.”

    Among the highlights she noted were riding camels in the desert, dining on roast lamb in a Bedouin tent and exploring the back alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City.

    Sigler said she was especially moved during her visits to the Western Wall, where she was surprised by her tears, and to Yad Vashem, where the Holocaust and its history suddenly felt deeply personal.

    “I started to think, ‘What if I was there, what if I had been ripped away from my family?'” she said.

    Sigler said Israel had been a fairly abstract concept before the trip, with her images limited to the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict portrayed in the media.

    On the Birthright trip, which brings Diaspora young people between 18 and 26 to Israel for free 10-day tours, her group was accompanied part of the time by a small group of Israeli soldiers.

    Through them, Sigler said she heard about a much different life than the one she and her friends lead in America. She was taken by their sacrifices and the pride they have in their country and history.

    “It’s so different but so inspiring to be part of that, I would want to move here and join the army, [too],” said Sigler, her face dominated by a pair of large designer sunglasses.

    She bonded quickly with the other birthright participants; Sigler and her new friends kidded about returning to Israel together and renting apartments in the same building.

    She compared these fast and seamless friendships to her experience with the cast and crew of “The Sopranos.”

    “It’s a similar dynamic — people loving what they are doing,” she said.

    Sigler acknowledged it’s been difficult realizing that the show, considered to be among the seminal works of television drama, is finally over after six seasons. She has plans to move to Los Angeles and continue her acting career.

    So would Tony have allowed Meadow to come to Israel?

    “Probably not,” she says.

    Her friend, noting that Tony’s mob rivals were out to kill him by the end of the series, interjects: “What are you talking about? It’s probably safer for Meadow in Israel than near her father.”

    Sigler laughs, saying that’s probably true.