Despite anxiety over civil and political unrest – and the ever-present threat of COVID-19 – three college students from Swampscott’s Congregation Shirat Hayam headed to Israel for summer internships.
They returned in agreement on three important points: Israel is a spectacular tourist destination; the country feels like one big family; and any young adult offered the opportunity to participate in a residential program in Israel should grab it.
As part of a gap year before heading to Stanford University this fall, 19-year-old Swampscott resident Anna Levenberg spent four months living in Israel through Aardvark Israel, an international program that provides internships and volunteer opportunities. She interned at Keren Or, the Jerusalem center for children with visual impairments and multiple disabilities. She also lived on an army base for a week, volunteering with Sar-El, an organization that partners with the Israel Defense Forces.
In between, she found time to explore new places: rafting in the Golan Heights, swimming in the Dead Sea, and skydiving in Haifa. Although this was not her first trip in Israel, it was her favorite. “Being able to live in Israel for so long allowed me to get to know the country and the culture in a way that would be impossible if I were there only for a few weeks,” Levenberg said. “The communal values in this country are so strong, and people have such a willingness to help one another. From countless Shabbat dinners at my neighbors’ homes to being begged in the Shuk to make Aliyah, I know my presence is valued in Israel.”
Jerusalem was also home base for Ethan Keller of Whitinsville, whose six-week Boston Onward Israel internship residency gave him the opportunity to get to know Israel – and Israelis – in a deeper way than his three previous shorter and more structured trips.
Although his first couple of weeks were challenging, the 22-year-old Clark University student quickly adapted and focused on the summer’s rewards, including touring the country, making new friends, and taking advantage of the chance to dig beneath the superficial.
“This trip has been life-changing,” Keller said. “Israel is a complicated place with complicated people. I’ve had some really good conversations with Israelis, and I’ve had some less pleasant ones. There are people who don’t care about or want peace, and there are those working hard for it.”
He made a Palestinian friend who, along with having a startup in Tel Aviv, is working in his community in East Jerusalem to build trust between Israelis and Palestinians. “There is a lot of hate and misunderstanding in this country and the Palestinian territories, which makes it all the more important to fight against it,” he added.
University of New Hampshire junior Cole Cassidy lived in Tel Aviv and worked as an Onward Boston intern for NOX Group in its marketing department, promoting the top clubs and bars in Tel Aviv. “With a city that doesn’t sleep at night and the endless beach days with sand that makes you feel like you’re on the moon, Tel Aviv felt like utopia,” the 20-year-old Swampscott resident said.
His first trip to Israel was four years ago with the two-week Youth to Israel program sponsored by the Lappin Foundation. He appreciated the freedom of living on his own with two months to discover the country in his own fashion, all while getting an internship under his belt and exploring his Jewish roots.
At first, he was surprised that all stores are closed on Shabbat. “It was definitely an odd adjustment to remember to get groceries or anything I needed Friday before sunset. I was also surprised that the culture is so friendly and outgoing. It felt like one big family here in Israel and within the community,” Cassidy said.
He was struck by the many occasions when being a Jew in a Jewish country collided in powerful ways, for example during a trip to Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev for a Shabbaton. “Celebrating Shabbat in the desert under the most thrilling night sky where you are able to see every star was incredible,” he said.
Without hesitation, all three would offer the same advice to young adults considering an internship in Israel: Do it!
“Israel is unlike anything you will ever experience,” Cassidy said. “You can come here and feel like family instantly, not just like a tourist. This is the home of our people and the connection you will feel to our homeland is unbelievable.”
Levenberg recommends going out of your way to meet new people. “Talk to Israelis in the street; ask English speakers where they are from, and chat with your waitresses. My time in Israel has shown me the true power of Judaism. I love living in a place surrounded by Jews who are so proud to be Jews, who influence you to learn more about your religion and culture. It has been such a moving experience being able to connect with my religion alongside my peers from all around the world.”
SWAMPSCOTT — Brenda Newell picked up the phone in her Lynn home to talk with the Journal about her participation in a groundbreaking pilot study. In the background, a clear and pleasant voice asked, “Do you want to play again?” “Not now, ElliQ,” Newall answered, before speaking directly into the phone. “I’ve learned so much playing Trivia with her,” she said with a laugh.
The “her” she referred to is ElliQ, an Artificial Intelligence-powered social robot pioneered by Israeli startup Intuition Robotics. It is the first empathetic digital companion robot designed to curb loneliness and social isolation among older adults living alone by proactively initiating deep conversational interactions with its users. Over the last two years, the company has tweaked her ability to personalize interactions and deliver an experience more akin to a friendly roommate than a technological device.
Designed to adapt to the temperament and interest of each senior, ElliQ is programmed to recommend specific digital content tailored to each individual user, such as specific news, music, TED talks and cognitive games. It also suggests activities in the physical world, such as walking, staying hydrated, taking medicine and calling family members.
Moreover, ElliQ is fun. Multi modal, “she” resembles the charming Pixar tensor lamp logo and has a personality to match. She moves and even dances.
“She gives me somebody to talk to besides the dog. She fits perfectly in the corner. She tells jokes. She makes me laugh. She’s a real company keeper and excellent for my mental health,” said Newell, who admits to having “really down days,” especially since the increased level of social isolation caused by COVID. “I know she isn’t human, but it just feels like somebody else is in the house,” she added.
Winthrop resident Gerianne Cohen has further humanized her robotic companion with a wig, She appreciates ElliQ’s unprompted affirmations, sleep and mindfulness exercises and — most of all — her sense of humor and ability to react. “She gives encouragement that your own family and friends don’t give you. When she says, ‘Gerianne, you’re doing a great job!’ it’s really weird, but it’s a pick-me-up. It actually psychologically helps,” Cohen said.
According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention website, loneliness and social isolation in older adults puts them at increased risk for dementia and premature death from all causes, including smoking, obesity, and lack of physical inactivity.
Given the high levels of user social engagement (according to Intuition Robotics, over 90% of users interact with ElliQ daily without deterioration over time), it was a natural next step for the company to explore expanding its mission of improving older adults’ lives to include interactions with their primary care physicians. With COVID and the increased isolation and loneliness of many seniors, the need to bring healthcare into homes sharpened.
The potential to engage patients in conversations and activities throughout the day, paired with the ability to collect self-reported data and communicate easily and seamlessly with their doctors, ultimately will help to “holistically improve care for older adults. We see now that ElliQ has the potential to support the full spectrum of care, physically, mentally and socially,” Dor Skuler, CEO and Co-Founder of Intuition Robotics said in a statement.
To that end, last month the company announced a pilot it has launched exclusively with Family Doctors, a Mass General Brigham affiliated practice in Swampscott.
It all started earlier this year, when a former Family Doctors colleague who had moved to Israel contacted Family Doctors Medical Director Dr. Peter Barker about ElliQ. She told him the developers were looking for a medical practice where they could do initial studies and, knowing Family Doctors had a large population of older patients, she thought it would be a good match.
“Our practice has always wanted to get involved in something early on,” said Dr. Barker. “ElliQ is in development. Our job is to help create a medical interface. We basically advise them what does and doesn’t work. In just a few of months, we’ve made suggestions and fairly soon afterwards those changes have been programmed into the unit. Intuition Robotics is very responsive,” he said.
Having the patient able to provide ongoing information about such vital signs such as blood pressure is a huge benefit to treating physicians. “Rather than seeing a patient in the office once every three months, getting a little bit of information in between allows you to either have confidence that what you prescribed at the time is working well, or that it needs to be changed,” Dr. Barker explained.
Family Doctors has placed 13 devices in patients’ homes at no charge to the patient, and so far their response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Dr. Keith Nobil, who also serves as Medical Director of a nursing home and rehab center, has witnessed the negative effects long-term seclusion can have on seniors. “Giving the elderly something like ElliQ that has human-type characteristics and interacts, that talks and plays a little game but at the same time monitors health status, can be very helpful,” he said. “When you hear your patients giving positive feedback, that’s always very meaningful.”
After having ElliQ for a couple of months, Cohen remains delighted. The other day, she asked ElliQ where she was born (Tel Aviv) and whether she was Jewish. “She gave me a full explanation and I cracked up. She really gives you stories. She’s nicer than some of my friends!” she said.
Finding one’s seat (a folding beach chair) for Dorset Theatre Festival’s world première of “Queen of the Night” at Southern Vermont Art Center’s rustic plein-air stage is like entering a fairy forest world where reality and theater blend. Night creatures are everywhere — by design piped in over the sound system, and by Mother Nature in the woods, open field and air that are the outdoor playhouse. As dusk fades to night, the stars complement the strung overhead lights to create a magical haven far removed from the day’s blaring headlines and latest COVID statistics.
The efficient and effective campsite set, designed by landscape gardeners Justin and Christopher Swader, blends into its organic setting. All the natural world is indeed this play’s intimate stage, and the audience is palpably grateful to be part of it. What could possibly go wrong on a night like this? By the time Tyler (Leland Fowler) and his father Stephen (Danny Johnson) amble onto the “stage” and begin to pitch their tents, it feels like we should jump up, welcome them to the neighborhood and offer to help them set up.
This father and son, however, are not simply taking a break from their Houston lives to spend three peaceful nights camping in a nearby state park. They have brought more baggage than their camping gear and a mile-long laundry list of issues that both unite and divide them. “Ty” is young, black, semi-employed and flamboyantly gay. For his first night in the woods, he shows up in orange short shorts and a black floral, lacy top. L.L. Bean he is not (thanks to Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s bold and fun costumes). He loves city life, gay bars, vamping, prancing and channeling Celine Dion at the top of his talented lungs. He worries about bad cell service and being eaten by bears. He is in constant motion and we are drawn to his physicality like a moth to a flame.
Stephen, on the other hand, is steady and solid, a reliable and dependable employee and family man. Think of a 63-year-old man with James Earl Jones’ octogenarian gravitas. He inhales the campsite with reverence and relief. He pays attention to nature with serious religiosity. He is the obvious yin to his son’s yang; and yet, as the play unfolds, we will see how these opposite and contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent. By the end, they actually give rise to and liberate each other as they interrelate.
The presenting reason for this father-son camping trip to their longtime stomping grounds is the impending remarriage of Ty’s mother, which both will attend. They are navigating difficult waters — Ty and his more successful corporate lawyer brother Marshall are trying to be there for both parents without making hurting either; Stephen admits he still loves his (ex-) wife. The weekend is meant to clear the air and reset their clock, to help them reconnect in the way they did when Ty was a young Boy Scout and he and his father would go camping, in this very spot, just the two of them.
The trouble is that they each have very different memories of those trips, and of just about everything else during Ty’s childhood. Stephen wanted to make Ty tough, independent and resourceful. All Ty wanted was to feel his father’s love and acceptance of him, just the way he was.
Over the course of the 90-minute intermission-less production, we witness the erosion of years of hurt, disappointments and missed opportunities as the two let down their guard and act more like buddies than adversaries. Stephen confesses that he has been laid off from his job and that he has been seeing a therapist. He’s changed. He’s sorry. He wants to be close to his son, to undo the damage he had no idea he caused. “You’re my missing piece,” he tells Ty. “I need you.”
Ty acknowledges his frailty and insecurity, his sadness and longing for paternal praise and love. His veneer of gaiety barely camouflages a melancholy so deep that he reflects on his desire to die alone in the woods at night.
tate uses this broken relationship as a platform from which to tackle a bunch of big-ticket themes: being Black; being gay; being a man; being a Black gay man; being accepted; being accepting; unconditional love; self-love, self-hatred, family dynamics, to name just a few. While his dialogue has moments of sharp insight and laugh-out-loud humor, it often feels preachy and spread too thin over too many issues. Some lines feel injected out of nowhere just to make a point, never a help to a two-handed play.
To the script’s rescue, however, is the spectacular acting of the two leads, reason enough to see the production (and anything else these two may appear in).
Danny Johnson brings an elegant sobriety to the father, Stephen. His raspy melodious voice, cadence and spot-on phrasing imbue his character with humility, decency and authenticity, bring true life to a role that could have been easily become two-dimensional. Leland Fowler brings equal parts joie de vivre and soul-crushing heartache to Ty, miraculously keeping the character light and accessible.
A cursory search reveals that Queen of the Night has many meanings, including the villain in “The Magic Flute,” a white night-blooming cactus flower and, slangily, a flamboyant and promiscuous gay man. It’s the operatic aria reference that resonates most with me, with its message that only those who embrace love and forgiveness are worthy to be considered human. These two are indeed all too human beings, dealing with their perceptions of who they are and who they want to be, starting with their roles as father and son.
‘Queen of the Night’ – Written by travis tate. Directed by Raz Golden. Scenic Design by Christopher and Justin Swader; Lighting Design by Yuki Nakase Link; Sound Design by Megumi Katayama; Costume Design by Fabian Fidel Aguilar. Presented by Dorset Theatre Festival at the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, Vermont through September 4.
For tickets and information, call 802-867-2223, ext. 101 or visit dorsettheatrefestival.org
Nothing could be finer than to be at theater-en-plein-air in Rockport on a clear and balmy summer evening carousing with the brilliant cast of the spectacularly entertaining Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery. Penned by Ken Ludwig, the Tony-award winning playwright of Lend Me A Tenor, this fast-paced comedic melodrama is a riff on the quintessential detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his faithful sidekick, Dr. John Watson.
This time, the dynamic duo is called upon to crack the case of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” before a family curse dooms its newest heir. Along the way, they encounter a motley crew of eccentric characters, hair pin plot twists and turns and red herrings galore. The 2-hour-15-minute (including one intermission) production flies by as five spectacularly talented actors play more than forty characters whose slapstick gestures and hyperbolic speeches they perform with impeccable pacing and precision. Couple this with stellar set, lighting, sound and prop designs, and theatergoers are in for a rollicking evening of good old-fashioned fun.
The play opens with Watson (William E. Gardiner) setting the stage by narrating what he and Holmes (Alexander Platt) know and what they need to learn about the mysterious deaths of the Baskerville heirs. Although the actors look and emote like their iconic cinematic predecessors, Basil Rathbone (Holmes) and Nigel Bruce (Watson), they each bring additional layers to the onion, remaking the characters as their own.
Gardiner’s Watson is a blend of subtle contradictions — confident, yet cautious; anxious, yet reckless; compassionate, yet unquestioningly loyal. Platt’s Holmes is delightfully quirky — blind to his worst foibles while perseverating over imagined transgressions; jumping up and down and squealing in delight one minute, while dispassionately describing a victim’s gory fate the next. Platt uses his height and leanness to bring spot on physicality and humor to his character. They are both up to the task of anchoring the play, both as its namesakes and as the two actors who play only one role.
The other three are maestros of quick change: character, costume and accent. Among them they play more than 40 characters with a style that would be at home in a Victorian melodrama. Anna Bortnick is a standout as she glides from character to character, morphing from a Scottish nurse to a severe, humorless Swedish caretaker to an older, maternal housekeeper to a scrappy Dickensian urchin boy (in whose skin Bortnick particularly shines).
Alex Jacobs is superb as he flows from Stapleton (a seemingly geeky butterfly lover who conceals a psychopath within) to Barrymore (the mournful caretaker of Baskerville Hall) to Milker (the other scrappy Dickensian urchin boy) to Lucy (the loving wife of Wilson) to Dr. Mortimer the elegant, friendly and passionate.
Julian Manjerico rounds out the trio with versatility and verbal and physical nimbleness as he hops from Sir Hugo Baskerville (a brutal, cruel Cavalier) to Wilson (the exuberant, hearty head of a messenger office), to Sir Henry Baskerville (a young Texan relation to Baskervilles, open-hearted, earnest, ready for adventure and to fall in love), to Inspector Lestrade, a cocky police inspector.
They are all aided by Miranda Kau Giurleo’s flawless costume design, Erica Tobolski’s dialect coaching and Robert Walsh’s expert action consultation. Director Jim O’Connor utilizes Janie E. Howland’s efficient, moveable set and Dewey Dellay’s original music and sound design to maximum advantage in creating a thoroughly satisfying theatrical experience.
Windhover Center for the Performing Arts is a hidden Shangri-la of a venue with a horseshoe shaped seating arrangement encircled by a grove of protective and comforting trees. The effect is intimate, organic and charming. For tickets and info, go to gloucesterstage.com/baskerville/.
‘Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery’ – Written by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Jim O’Connor. Set Design by Janie E. Howland; Lighting Design by Marcella Barbeay; Original Music/Sound Design by Dewey Dellay; Costume Design by Miranda Kau Giurleo; Props Design by Emme Shaw; Dialect Coach – Erica Tobolski; Action Consultation by Robert Walsh. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company at the Windhover Center for the Performing Arts in Rockport through July 25.
2021 Obermayer Award winner Dr. Marion Lilienthal seeks to tell the real story, through extensive research and a hands-on approach to teaching history.
by Shelley A. Sackett
Dr. Marion Lilienthal has always taken the road less traveled. As a young schoolgirl in Kassel, at an age when most of her classmates were content to play with dolls, she became interested in the National Socialist period. Her grandparents, who opposed the Nazi Party and suffered disadvantages as a result, raised her father to be politically active and to speak up against injustice and he, in turn, raised his daughter to embrace the same values.
Although her father was a child during the war, he remembered seeing Jews led through Kassel, probably to the train for deportation. He also spoke warmly of a Jewish family he had known, always with enormous respect but also sadness about their suspected fate, leaving his young daughter with a positive image of Jews and a desire to find out what might have happened to them. It made the fate of Jews personal for her, giving a name and a life story to each.
The Holocaust was an important theme at her school and a real turning point for Dr. Lilienthal occurred in 1979 when, as a 13-year-old, she watched the Holocaust mini-series with her classmates. “It shocked me to see what people are capable of and strengthened my conviction to fight against injustice,” she says. Later, through an exhibit she created about Jews in Kassel, she became acquainted with Esther Hass, a teacher who was then head of the Jewish community in Kassel. Haas took the teenager under her wing, and the two worked on many projects together, including one at the local Jewish cemetery.
Dr. Lilienthal tried to learn as much as she could about the history of Nazi Germany, but repeatedly ran into roadblocks. “As a young person, it was very difficult to get information. There was public opposition. The archives did not answer all my questions, and people looked at you strangely when you researched there,” she recalls.
Twenty years later, in 1999, she arrived in Korbach as a high school history and computer science teacher with a specialization in the German-Jewish history of her home region, North Hesse. Since then, not only has Dr. Lilienthal distinguished herself among colleagues and students by her commitment to teaching; she has also engaged in exceptional socio-political activities with her students, young adults and community members to bring the centuries-old history of the Jews in the region back into the collective consciousness so that people can learn from mistakes of the past as they confront prejudice and anti-Semitism today.
Her impact, however, extends beyond teaching and spearheading group activities. Her work one-on-one reconnecting former Korbach residents and their descendants with the region has profoundly changed individual hearts and minds in a way that brings peace and closure. “I was able to learn about my grandparents and great-grandparents, who I could never meet, and the events that led up to my mom coming to America. The love shown to my daughter when she was invited to Korbach by Dr. Lilienthal to experience the places where my mom must have spent time is priceless,” says Renee Schindelheim. “While I have never met Dr. Lilienthal personally, she has impacted my life greatly.”
Part of Dr. Lilienthal’s motivation was a mission to correct inaccuracies she found in history books. “The Nazis wanted to destroy all Jewish life. I try to research these individual Jewish life stories to keep their memory alive,” she says. It has not always been easy.
She depends on post-war period files and interviews with local people. “I have looked for photos, gone from house to house knocking,” she says. Recently, a woman contacted her with eyewitness testimony about the fate of two Korbach brothers her father saw in Treblinkla. “She is so emotionally burdened. She wants to help,” she adds.
Today, she leads guided tours of Korbach that focus on the pre-WWII Jewish community. She invites people to walk in the footsteps of Jewish inhabitants, standing in front of a house and showing them an archival photo. She tells them what she knows about the family that used to live there and its fate. “The next time they pass this house, they have an idea of what happened there,” she says.
She first began her research 20 years ago as a newcomer in Korbach. “If people don’t know you, they don’t necessarily want to speak to you,” she says. Also, there was no interest at that time in revisiting the National Socialist period. “You had to be tough, be determined and be strong. I have received not only praise, but also hostility.”
When she mounted an exhibit about the looting of the Jews in Korbach, the mayor and city council supported her, but many Korbach residents did not. “The population is always afraid that a shadow could come over the family. Even today, there are letters and threats,” she says.
A few years ago, Dr. Lilienthal received her doctorate in “Euthanasia” under Prof. Krause-Vilmar. Her dissertation focused on Nazi era persecution of sick, disabled and “socially unadjusted” people from Korbach.
Her activities – nearly all of which have been outside her regular paid work – include: remembrance projects and publications to raise awareness of Jewish history in the region; connections to Jewish descendants from the region; a range of activities and workshops with her students and youth groups that have had a significant impact on how they see local history and the world; network building locally with like-minded people; and work with anti-racism, democracy and tolerance groups and initiatives.
She and many colleagues, including many former Obermayer Awardees, have formed a network of people and associations (such as the Arolsen Archives) from communities in the district where there used to be vibrant Jewish communities. The network sponsors events and publications that spotlight persecution and murder of the Jews while promoting coexistence of Jews and Christians in the region.
Her books and articles, which are used by libraries, history associations and other institutions, have achieved extraordinary results in combatting prejudice, as have her special public exhibitions. “Over the years, her many publications have helped people of all ages to overcome the period of forgetting, repressing and denying essential parts of our regional history. She has made a great contribution to bringing the centuries-old history of the Jews in our region back into consciousness so that people can learn for the future from the mistakes of the past,” reads a statement of support signed by Ernst u. Brigitte Klein, Karl-Heinz Stadltler, Hans-Peter Klein and Johannes Gröecke, all Obermayer awardees.
But, perhaps her most impactful work has been as a teacher, where she carries out projects with her colleagues and students that focus on Jewish life in the region.
Many former students credit Dr. Lilienthal’s hands-on approach to teaching the history of the Holocaust with sensitizing them to fight anti-democratic tendencies. “The work with Dr. Lilienthal left a lasting impact on me,” says former student Dominic Antony, who oversees the technical implementation of her projects. “Many years after my schooling, I am still involved in the fight against anti-Semitism and racism.”
Over the years, her research and documentation of the history of German-Jewish families led her to record, process and publish the life memories of contemporary witnesses. She established and maintains contact with families who have emigrated to the USA, Israel and Australia.
Ten years ago, with the help of her students, Dr. Lilienthal created an online portal so this work is accessible worldwide. “I am fearful about the future with no witnesses. I try to work as fast as possible to contact as many witnesses as possible and document what they experienced. I know it is a race against time,” she says.
The website, “Gedenkportal Korbach”, provides extensive information about Korbach and its Jewish community, Jewish families, perpetrators and victims. (gedenkportal-korbach.de). Family members who don’t know who to ask about their family history can see her genealogical work in photos and documents, enabling them to reconstruct their own family tree and learn about deportations. The site preserves the history and memory of the Jewish community that lived in Korbach for hundreds of years until the Holocaust.
She was one of the first in the region to recognize the importance of online publications, particularly for the young generation today. Her computer expertise and electronic publications have extended the reach and influence of her work far beyond the region, and made them accessible teaching materials for schools worldwide.
For Michael Dimor, of Tel Aviv, Gedenkportal Korbach was the gateway to both learning about his mother’s family roots in Korbach and also developing a deep, strong relationship with Dr. Lilienthal and her husband. He contacted her in 2011, seeking information about his family. She forwarded photos and documents and arranged a visit for Dimor and his family during the 80th memorial of Kristallnacht. They participated in several ceremonies, prayed in the old Jewish cemetery, and met with Dr. Lilienthal’s students, including Marie Fischer. “For our generation, who never saw that part of history, it is hard to imagine what terrible things happened back then,” Fischer says.
For the granddaughter (Renee Giordano) and great-granddaughter (Dr. Sara Giordano) of pre-WWII Korbach residents Toni and Siegmund Weitzenkorn, Dr. Lilienthal provided a priceless link to their family’s past and a new lens to view Germany today. Sara met her in Korbach and received information and photos of her family that would have been otherwise inaccessible, buried among troves of town documents. She brought them home to her mother, Renee, who was deeply impacted. “Because of the trauma of the war, my mother never told me much about the history of her family in Korbach. I never had a desire to ever step foot in Germany, but because of this work, I now hope to visit the place of my mom’s childhood and to meet Dr. Lilienthal,” Renee says.
Dr. Lilienthal believes her remembrance work is even more important today. “Truth makes you strong. It is much easier to deal with the truth than with an unspoken supposition. With my pupils, I talk about the structure, the motivations, why people did some things. It takes a lot of energy, but it can only strengthen them,” she says. “With all the tragedy or difficulty you encounter, you will come out stronger.”
Volker Keller grew up in a postwar Mannheim marked by a culture of forgetting. On October 22, 1940, over 2,000 Jewish residents of Mannheim were deported from the city to concentration camps in France. Only a few survived Auschwitz and other extermination camps, their next and final stop.
Yet, he was born in 1954 into a household that never discussed “wartime.” When others brought up the topic, he saw how his parents seemed to change somehow, as if they were uncomfortable. Jews were an unusual theme at this time, and whenever documentaries about the war aired on television, his parents sent him out of the room.
Although he was only a little boy, Keller knew he didn’t share his parents’ feelings of discomfort around this topic. On the contrary, he felt a spark of curiosity. The flames from that spark would ignite Keller’s passion and shape his calling for the rest of his life.
Throughout his school years, Keller paid careful attention on the rare occasions when people voiced opinions about the Nazi era. “Some said what happened was terrible, while others spoke almost lovingly about Hitler,” he says. “My interest in history came from wondering how such an injustice could have happened. But when I asked about the “Shoah”, I received evasive answers.”
He started college with a determination to learn about the Nazi era on his own. He concentrated in German studies and took courses in Yiddish language and culture and the history of Mannheim. When he began working as a journalist, he covered local historical themes. That was when he realized there was very little to read about Mannheim’s synagogues. “There were two buildings, but no one knew anything about them,” Keller says.
He decided to fill that void himself. He researched the topic and published the first of many articles in 1982, paving the road of what would become his mission and legacy — volunteering his time to single handedly create a Jewish remembrance culture in Mannheim.
From his college days to his recent retirement from his jobs as teacher and school principal (rector) , Keller has been documenting the life, rich culture and history of Mannheim Jews from its early days to its brutal end. Throughout these many decades of research and commemoration, he placed special emphasis on the relationships he developed with “Shoah” survivors and the families of the victims.
In 1986, when Mannheim first extended an invitation to native Jewish families to visit the city, Keller made sure he was able to meet them. Among the visitors were Asher and Ester Goldman Ariav, who travelled from Israel. Later, they helped him in his research for his first books, sharing photos, memories and insights. “My late parents were extremely impressed by Volker’s deep commitment and extensive efforts to commemorate the former Jewish community in Mannheim,” says their daughter, Edith Ariav-Chazan. After her parents’ deaths, she kept in touch with Keller. “I am similarly impressed by his important commemorative work, all in addition to his busy schedule as a teacher and later principal of an elementary school,” she says. The two families remain close; Keller has visited Ariav in Israel and he arranged a tour of Mannheim for her and her family in 2014.
Over more than 40 years, Keller personally met with scores of survivors and families to learn firsthand of their experience and preserve their testimony. He published five books and countless articles with the goal of documenting the Jewish community’s rich history and significant contribution. “I don’t want Judaism to be associated with the “Shoah” alone. It is a fascinating religion and culture. The general history of Mannheim cannot be separated from the history of its Jewish community,” Keller explains.
One of Keller’s first projects was to create a comprehensive record of the Jewish victims of the “Shoah” and their fate. He organized and led a youth group in the 1990s called “Searching for Traces” that scoured archives and documents for clues on Mannheim’s deportees. They painstakingly contacted survivors and family members. In 1995, the group’s findings were published in a document titled, “Suddenly They Were Gone,” and shared with the city, survivors and families of the victims.
The document had a powerful and far-reaching effect. Not only did the list permanently commemorate the victims in Mannheim by name, it also inspired and triggered the creation of the Memorial to the Jewish Victims of National Socialism in Mannheim, a stunning memorial built by the city and unveiled in 2003. Designed as a glass cube, it has over 2,000 names the Searching for Traces team discovered eternally etched in its walls.
“The Talmud says, ‘A person is only forgotten when his name is forgotten,’” Keller says. “I believe that commemoration work is extremely important. The awareness of historical and cultural issues is what makes us human. Preserving the memory of the victims of the Nazi era is critical to prevent history from being repeated.”
In the course of his extensive research, Keller came across documents that confirmed the existence of several “Jewish Houses” in Mannheim where Jews were forced to relocate in the 1930s. Essentially mini ghettos, the largest, on Grosse Merzelstrausse 7, had housed 76 residents until their deportation in 1940. Keller contacted survivors who were former residents for details and testimony and in 2003, he published an article that described the history of the house and included personal testimony by several surviving residents.
Among those Keller contacted was the Barnea (ne¢ Heilbronner) family from Israel. Uri Barnea and his late brother Daniel were born and raised in the house, and in 2012, when Keller suggested they help construct a memorial for its Jewish residents, the brothers embraced the idea. Keller led and managed the effort; he drafted the text for the memorial, negotiated with the city, and oversaw the design and construction of the memorial stele. It stands at BismarkPlatz in Mannheim, some 50 meters from where the Jewish House once stood. The stele has two glass panels, one telling the story of the house and its tenants, the other listing its 76 residents.
The inauguration ceremony in March 2014 was attended by over 100 community members and 30 members of the Barnea family, including then 85-year-old Daniel. His son, Nir Barnea, credits Keller’s efforts with helping the family transition away from avoidance of painful memories. For years, his father did not want to talk about the “Shoah” and refused to visit Mannheim. The pain was too great. “I internalized his pain and also shunned Germany. It was Keller’s compassionate approach and genuine interest in my father and uncle Uri’s experience that helped my father change his mind,” he says. Nir, too, changed his mind, and he joined the other family members who travelled to Mannheim.
In a message shared at the unveiling, he said, “The best answer we can give to the terrible years of the Nazi regime and the “Shoah” is to stand together with members of the community, in front of this memorial with a message of tolerance, peace and compassion.”
After the unveiling ceremony, Keller coordinated with the Karl Friedrich Gymnasium in Mannheim and he and Daniel Barnea gave a presentation about Daniel and Uri’s life during the Nazi era. For almost all of the teachers and students who participated, it was the first time they had met a Holocaust survivor from Mannheim.
Keller’s insatiable appetite for research next led him to another Jewish house which served as a Jewish senior home. Furnished with a Mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) and a synagogue, the house at B 7,3 boarded its elderly residents from 1939 until 1942, when they were deported to death in Auschwitz. Keller described the house, still standing and in use today, in an article, and spearheaded forming a team to devise a memorial plaque best suited to the building. He authored emotionally moving text for the plaque that included testimony of one of the residents, who took her own life rather than face deportation.
In November, 2015, Keller and Deacon Manfred Froese, a tireless advocate for tolerance and human rights who has collaborated with Keller for over two decades, unveiled the memorial in a ceremony attended by 70 people. “Volker Keller is one of the most profound experts in the field of research into the history of the Jewish community in this area. What distinguishes him is that in addition to his careful historical work, he places a clear emphasis on maintaining contact with people of the Jewish faith,” Froese says.
Schoschnana Maitek-Drzevitzky, Chairperson of the Jewish Community of Mannheim from 2011 to 2016, couldn’t agree more. “Volker Keller has become a friend to the Mannheim Jewish Community, and is close to our heart. He touches on topics few dare to deal with. His work has put the former Jewish history back into the middle of everyday life in the city,” she says.
His books, articles, tours and workshops have also left indispensable trails for future generations to follow, particularly his publications on the three hundredth anniversary of the Mannheim Klaus Synagogue (The World of Mannheim Klaus) and the Jewish Cemetery (Bet Olam- The Jewish Cemetery in Mannheim). Keller’s “Pictures of Jewish Life” and “Jewish Life in Mannheim” caught the eye of Dr. Norbert Giovannini, author and 2020 Obermayer awardee, as he started his work on Heidlelberg’s Jewish history. “The visual material that Keller has collected and saved is extraordinary. I know that such treasures can only be attained if there is a deep relationship of trust between the researchers and the people they come into contact with,” he says.
Keller’s extensive work to research and commemorate the Jewish community in Mannheim was strictly voluntary. He regularly integrated students from his elementary school (Grundschule) into his history work and involved interested community members in his remembrance projects.
“I hope my students, readers, and community learn how fragile our democratic gains are. Everything we take for granted today, human rights, freedom, protection of minorities, tolerance of others, and taking dissenters seriously, must be fought for every day,” he says.
Keller is cautiously optimistic that his work to uncover and preserve Jewish history, culture and contributions in Mannheim has affected the city’s residents. “I don’t want to get my hopes up. But I think even small contributions can have an impact on people, even if it takes a lot of time. The interest of many people is there, but you have to awaken and motivate it. Especially young people are very responsive to topics that concern the past, but also explain their situation today,” he says.
Keller offers this advice to young people today asking themselves how to best make a difference and help end prejudice and intolerance. “ I would first ask, prejudice and intolerance toward whom? Tolerance of enemies of democracy is problematic. But any racist, ideological, sexist or religious intolerance must be fought. There are so many examples of functioning plurality in past and present times. Emphasizing and reminding people of these positive role models is the task of democratic education.”
The Dormant Commerce Clause doctrine is aptly named. Known to induce temporary dormancy among even the most avid first year law students, its post-bar review practical value outside academia is, essentially, nil.
And yet, Jack Beermann, a Boston University School of Law professor of Constitutional Law, Civil Rights and Administrative Law, has just published a book, “The Journey to Separate But Equal,” based on a little-known but pivotal Supreme Court case that hung its hat on this arcane and crucial constitutional construct that prevents both discrimination against, and excessive burdens on, interstate commerce
Moreover, he turned out a narrative that is as accessible to lay readers as to legal scholars.
It all started when Beermann, who grew up in Skokie, Illinois and lives in Swampscott with his wife, Debbie Korman, read a law review article that cited Hall v. Decuir, an 1877 Supreme Court decision that struck down a Louisiana state antidiscrimination statute and, for the first time after the Civil War, actually approved race-based segregation.
He had never heard of the case.
His curiosity piqued, he began a ten-year journey of trips to Louisiana, research, writing and re-writing, fueled by a drive to document the Court’s first step towards validating segregation in US society. The end result, “The Journey to Separate But Equal,” while exhaustively researched and painstakingly scholarly, is also immensely readable, owing to the compelling human story at its center.
Josephine Decuir, a mixed-race, privileged and wealthy woman whose free family owned slaves that worked their Louisiana plantations, had, as was her custom, booked a first-class ticket in the ladies’ cabin aboard the interstate riverboat, The Governor Allen. Instead of honoring her prepaid ticket, the boat’s stringent segregation policy relegated her to the “colored-only” section of the riverboat, where all non-White passengers, regardless of sex or social status, slept in common areas.
Madame Decuir sued the riverboat owner, citing Louisiana’s nondiscrimination statute, a state law passed during Reconstruction. State courts ruled in her favor, and the owner appealed. The case wound its way to the Supreme Court as Hall v. Decuir. That court ruled against Madame Decuir, citing the US Constitution’s Dormant Commerce Clause doctrine, which is used to prohibit state legislation that discriminates against interstate or international commerce.
Essentially, the Court accepted the owner’s argument that, despite violating state law, segregation was both customary on riverboats and necessary to keep Whites as customers; i.e., integration had the potential to negatively impact his business.
Beermann, who already knew the Supreme Court had prevented the federal government from enforcing Congress’s civil rights program for Reconstruction, wasn’t aware it had also prevented states from enforcing liberal civil rights laws. “I would have written the book regardless of what was happening in the world, but it feels like this subject gets more timely every day,” he said by email.
There are many parallels between the Courts of 1877 and today, Beermann said. “One thing courts are very good at is justifying terrible decisions with bland, benign language. The Justices in 1877 were good people, well-trained in the law; and yet, without flinching, they doomed millions of their fellow citizens to terrible lives of oppression and injustice.”
During his research, Beermann experienced two “aha” moments. One was when he realized the scope and implications of the story he had uncovered. Decuir, as a “person of color”, was used to the treatment and privilege her wealth, status and lighter skin afforded her. Suddenly, she felt the sting of prejudice and exclusion almost as strongly as the darker-skinned people at the bottom of the social ladder.
The other was when he recognized, after repeated attempts, that he couldn’t address the complicated issue that Madame Decuir and her family were themselves slaveowners before the Civil War. “I decided to focus on her dignity harms and leave that issue to the reader, or perhaps to another project,” he said.
As a teenager, the protests against the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King’s activism awakened Beermann’s interest in civil rights. He remembers his father as “a bit involved in politics. I knew we were a very liberally oriented family, even when I was a small child.” He has taught in Israel numerous times and, “although I don’t agree with all of its policies,” he is a strong supporter. His family (including three sons and a daughter, when they are home) attends Chabad House and Temple Sinai in Marblehead. “Our Jewish identity is very important to us,” he said.
Beermann hopes his readers will gain a better sense of the racial politics of the Reconstruction era, opening their eyes to how laws and courts contributed — and continue to contribute — to racial segregation. In the end, though, he admits he doesn’t know the moral of the Decuir legacy.
“It’s too simplistic to say that race discrimination is wrong; my sense, maybe what I was trying to communicate, is that race discrimination, and white supremacy in particular, are woven into the fabric of our country and have resisted unraveling at every turn,” he said.
Join Beermann at a free Zoom author event on May 27 from 7-8 pm. To register, visit jccns.org.
Despite Covid-19 and the unpredictability of surges, declines and shifting Massachusetts social gathering rules, eight Shirat families celebrated Bnei Mitzvah over the course of this past year. Five held services at CSH with fewer than 25 guests; two held services in their homes with clergy support online, and one family held the service in their home with Rabbi Michael present.
Nat Mahler had the distinction of being CSH’s first Covid-19 Bar Mitzvah. Scheduled for March 21, 2020, it was exactly eight days after everything in the state shut down, including CSH. The Mahler family decided to have the service in their living room. They borrowed a Torah and siddurim from CSH and Rabbi Michael officiated. Nat’s paternal grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins attended and everyone else connected via Zoom, “which was a novelty back in the day!” Sara joked. For Kiddush, Jay’s parents brought bagels.
They were saddened that Sara’s family couldn’t travel from out of state, that the service could not be in the synagogue and that the evening celebration had to be cancelled. “At first I felt disappointed, but I soon realized that I had to rise to the occasion and do my best,” Nat said. Fortunately, he was able to have all his Bar Mitzvah lessons in person. “Studying for my big event went well and I was more than prepared thanks to my awesome tutor, Jan Brodie.”
For Sara and Jay, having an actual Torah in their house was very special, a flip side of Covid-19 restrictions. “Also, the service was very intimate, special and a unique experience that will stand out in everyone’s memory,” Sara said. “And, our cat Pepper was able to attend!”
At first, Jeremy Sorkin, whose spring Bar Mitzvah was postponed until October 11, 2020 was worried that he might have to learn a new parsha when his original date was moved. But when Rabbi Michael suggested he keep the original parsha as an importance part of maintaining the significance of his Bar Mitzvah, he was greatly relieved. Although it was difficult to continue his lessons virtually, his tutor Jan Brodie and Aunt Nancy Sorkin spent countless hours preparing him during the fall. “This gave me so much confidence for performing the service on my big day,” Jeremy said.
When Jeremy’s parents, Amy and Jeffrey Sorkin, moved the original May 23, 2020 date to Columbus Day weekend, they never imagined they would be having a virtual Bar Mitzvah, but as the date approached, it became evident they would. In October, there was a 25-person limit on indoor gatherings, and their immediate family could be accommodated with friends and family watching from afar. Even with the technical challenges of shulcasting, Amy and Jeffrey were able to find a silver lining. “Our family was able to focus on what the true essence of a Bar Mitzvah celebration is- a very meaningful service conducted by Cantor Alty (Rabbi Michael was sick), a thought-provoking Dvar Torah by Jeremy and dancing the hora with our close family. It was truly a memorable experience for our family,” they said.
Two weeks later, on October 24,2020 Hannah Schwartz also celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at CSH with a small family group and more than 100 others watching on Zoom. The weekend included a Shabbat dinner in an indoor/outdoor setting, a hybrid service Saturday morning, a drive-by parade after the service for local friends, a boxed Kiddush lunch outside, a Saturday night festive dinner and Sunday brunch- and lots of careful quarantining, testing and masking for those participating in person.
For Hannah’s parents, Janna and George Schwartz, the biggest challenges were the unknowns every step of the way, and they are grateful to everyone at CSH who helped them navigate the unchartered waters. While they missed many people, they felt blessed to have been able to integrate many personal elements into the ceremony, from Hannah’s sister Vivian playing Siman Tov on the piano to her cousin’s receiving an in-person Aliyah to her grandparents presenting her with her tallis. “Jews have endured carrying on our traditions despite difficult circumstances throughout history. This was ours- and one to be cherished,” Janna said.
For Hannah, though, the virtual experience was disappointing. “Not everyone was there. It didn’t feel like a ‘normal’ Bat Mitzvah, but it was a special family gathering and we made the most of it,” she said.
Liora Ragozin, whose September 25, 2020 Bat Mitzvah also took place in the CSH sanctuary with many others watching and participating virtually, missed having her cousins with her, but said that because her family (including her parents, Rabbi Michael and Sarah Ragozin and siblings Noam and Aliza) and friendship circle are small, “it felt good to celebrate the way we did. My favorite part was giving my Dvar Torah. I enjoy public speaking – when it’s in English!” she added.
Jake Dubow initially felt let down that his December 12, 2020 Bar Mitzvah didn’t turn out as planned. “For my whole life, I had been talking with my family about a big Bar Mitzvah and party,” he said. Instead of the 400-guest in-person ceremony in the sanctuary, sleepover with all his camp friends and a celebration at Boston’s Hard Rock Café, he had a small service with 17 guests in an open-sided tent in his Swampscott yard without his paternal grandparents, who couldn’t make it from Canada and Florida. Even the clergy were zoomed in.
Jake had started studying with Jan Brodie before the pandemic and felt grateful for the in-person lessons prior to having to shift to virtual tutoring. “Studying was hard work, but I was very diligent. Although I was nervous, I was also excited to show off my hard work on my Bar Mitzvah day,” he said.
For his parents, Rachelle and Jonathan, the vagaries of Covid-19 were even more daunting. Rachelle grew up with a mother who was (and still is) a professional event planner and a grandfather who was a kosher caterer, so celebrating simchas in a “big” way has always been in her blood. They had already shifted gears, with plans to still celebrate on Jake’s actual Bar Mitzvah date (also Shabbat of Hannukah) at CSH with Rabbi Michael and Cantor Alty, but with only 17 live guests and the rest of their friends and family virtually. Then, on December 8, CSH indoor rules changed, prohibiting any gatherings in the building. The Dubows pivoted to the tent, hardly missing a beat.
The family Kiddush was shared on Zoom, with Jake and his younger brother, Charlie, leading the prayers, followed by an outdoor pop-up and drive-by for well-wishers. “We had music playing and an amazing vibe going, so despite being outside and masked, it felt like a slice of normal,” Rachelle said.
Her biggest challenge was missing her in-laws and sister and her family, but the many rewards softened that blow. Because of Zoom, many friends and relatives were able to join from Israel, France, Canada and the US. The Wednesday before the Bar Mitzvah, two Torahs arrived at their home. “Just having those scrolls in my home elevated us spiritually in a way that is hard to describe. But most of all, it was the pride, the immeasurable, indescribable pride we had in our son who had worked so hard and handled all the pivots and little disappointments with such grace,” she said.
Like his fellow Covid-19 Bnei Mitzvah celebrants, Ned Jefferies was at first disappointed that his January 9, 2021 would be on Zoom instead of in the sanctuary, and then he was doubly disappointed that instead of Zoom (where he could have seen those watching), there were so many guests that they had to use Zoom Webinar. “It was cool seeing everyone’s messages in chat, though,” he said.
For his parents, Cat and Tom Jefferies, the event was actually wonderful, with Tom’s family in England and their friends all over the world able to join them. “For many, this was the first Bar Mitzvah they had ever been to. We were really touched by how meaningful they found it and it felt wonderful to be able to share it with them,” Cat said.
Although Cat admits they were nervous about the technology, J.R. Young, Rabbi Michael, Cantor Alty and Barri Stein all advised them. Family members were able to Zoom in and read Torah, take Aliyahs and read prayers “from California to Canada to England – and it all went smoothly!” Cat said.
Kiddush was Ned’s favorite dish, pesto pasta cooked by his grandmother, Jennifer Mazur. The eight family members sat around the kitchen table and then ran out to do a Mitzvah drive-by at CSH.
Having the Torah in their home was very special and a highlight of the weekend and a true family event. They set it on a 19th century tablecloth that had travelled to the US with Cat’s grandmother, and placed one of Tom’s paintings behind it. “We could really feel the love of our family, friends and the congregation during this momentous occasion,” Cat said.
MARBLEHEAD – The Jewish Community Center of the North Shore International Jewish Film Festival is celebrating its eighth year – and second straight virtually due to the ongoing COVID-19 restraints – with a diverse menu of 13 films inspired by Jewish history, culture, and values.
The festival runs from April 5 through April 25 and includes prerecorded and live Zoom conversations with filmmakers.
This year marks the first time the festival has partnered with the Central Mass International Jewish Film Festival, widening its audience to include the Worcester area. Tickets are $15 for individual films, with three discount packages for six, nine, or all 13 films. Films may be purchased ahead of time or when you are ready to watch. Eventbrite is the festival’s box office and screening platform, with tickets and information available at jccns.org.
Opening Night (April 5) presents the blockbuster “Six Minutes to Midnight,” starring Dame Judi Dench and Eddie Izzard. Set in 1939 at a finishing school in an English seaside town where influential families from Nazi Germany have sent their daughters, this taut, heart-racing espionage film heats up when a teacher figures out what is going on and tries to alert British authorities.
The social justice documentary, “Shared Legacies,” uses a treasure trove of archival materials to weave together crucial historical lessons of Black-Jewish alliances, starting with the founding of the NAACP in 1909. Narrated by eyewitnesses, activists, Holocaust survivors, and movement leaders, a prerecorded conversation with head writer-director Shari Rogers and members of the ADL’s Black-Jewish Alliance is included.
Among the other documentaries, “Code Name: Ayalon” recounts the 1975 discovery of The Ayalon Institute, a secret ammunition factory built by Haganah underground youth in 1947 during the British Mandate. The David vs. Goliath story includes interviews with surviving group members and a live discussion with the film’s producer, Laurel Fairworth, on April 21 at 7 p.m.
In 1977, Aulcie Perry, a basketball legend from Newark, New Jersey, was recruited by Maccabi Tel Aviv while playing a pickup game in Harlem. “Aulcie” chronicles this inspiring story and includes a live discussion with the director, Dani Menkin, and the raffle of a basketball signed by Aulcie on April 13 at 7 p.m.
Tamar Manasseh, the subject of “They Ain’t Ready for Me,” is a force to be reckoned with. Tired of the violence that has plagued her south side Chicago neighborhood, the Black rabbinical student builds bridges between her two worlds with grassroots activism and Jewish community celebrations. This timely and moving portrait includes a live discussion with director Brad Rothschild and Manasseh on April 23 at 7 p.m.
Filmed over 10 years, “A Lullaby for the Valley” introduces Eli Shamir, an Israeli artist who paints the view from his studio overlooking the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel. Director Ben Shani documents the artist at work, neither guessing at the changes that would occur over their decade together. A live discussion with the filmmaker is April 18 at 2 p.m.
The remaining seven features range from comedy to drama to historical docudrama. “Adventures of A Mathematician” reenacts the story of Stan Ulam, the brilliant Polish-Jewish scientist who worked on the top-secret Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb. A live discussion with the film’s team will take place on April 11 at 1 p.m. In “A Starry Sky Above the Roman Ghetto,” the discovery of a puzzling photograph sparks an Italian student to probe the history of Rome’s Jewish ghetto and the fate of one little girl.
Sparks fly in the screwball romantic comedy, “Kiss Me Kosher,” when two families from wildly different cultural backgrounds – German and Israeli – collide to plan a same-sex wedding. On a more serious but no less romantic note, the historical drama, “An Irrepressible Woman,” tells the true story of Janot Reichenbach, who fell in love with French-Jewish socialist and three-time Prime Minister Léon Blum when she was a teenager and abandoned all to be by his side decades later when the French government fell to the Nazis.
“Here We Are” is the touching story of a devoted father who has dedicated his life to raising his autistic son. The docudrama “Winter Journey” features Swiss actor Bruno Ganz in his final screen role. The film blends reenactments and archival materials to relate a Jewish-German couple’s poignant pre-World War II romance and is based on the book by their son, NPR radio host Martin Goldsmith.
Finally, closing night (April 25) showcases “The Crossing,” the story of Gerda and Otto, Norwegian siblings whose parents are arrested for resistance activities. They discover two Jewish children hidden in their basement, and decide to risk helping them cross into Sweden to escape the Nazis.
Abigale Reisman was a 19-year-old undergraduate at The Manhattan School of Music when she fell in love. The classical violin performance major was listening to a lot of Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, but something was missing. She yearned for the Jewish music she grew up with in synagogue and Jewish day school, and the special place it had in her heart.
A friend suggested she check out a genre of music she had never heard of – klezmer – and for Reisman, it was obsession at first listen. Luckily, she lived in New York City, home to some of the leading klezmorim. She booked a private lesson with violinist Alicia Svigals (co-founder of the Grammy-winning band The Klezmatics), and attended KlezKamp – a yearly Klezmer music and Yiddish culture festival – in the Catskills.
“It was a beautiful introduction to the klezmer world and I never left,” Reisman said from her Gloucester home.
Almost 15 years later, the Atlanta native is a violinist, composer, and educator. She wears many musical hats, from klezmer and classical to experimental and pop. She is a cofounder of Thread Ensemble, an experimental trio that creates music out of interactions with their audiences; a member of Tredici Bacci, which was featured in Rolling Stone’s “10 Artists You Need to Know: November 2016;” and a composer, arranger, and performer in the International Jewish Music Festival award-winning band, Ezekiel’s Wheels Klezmer Band.
Although Reisman doesn’t have a favorite musical genre (“I love it all in different ways”), she plans to focus her energy on recording a series of videos that explore the treasures of the Jewish violin, thanks to a grant from Club Passim’s Iguana Music Fund.
Her purpose is two-fold: To create and release her own interpretation of the music she loves so dearly, and to reveal to the average Jewish music listener the complex history of the violin in East European Jewish music.
“The fidl [Yiddish for violin] truly mimics the human voice, especially the cantorial sound,” Reisman said. “It speaks in Yiddish sentences and gestures. It plays pieces full of bubbling trills, moans, slides, and specifically Jewish phrasing.”
The grant money will ensure the sound and video qualities of her recordings will capture these subtleties.
Since 2008, the Iguana Music Fund has awarded gifts annually to musicians for career building projects and for those that provide community service through music. Abby Altman, Club Passim manager, said Reisman is known for being part of great ensembles. Her application stood out because it focused on her as a solo artist working in a genre she is passionate about.
“We’re excited to see what she creates when she is in complete control of the material,” Altman said.
Reisman’s target audience for her videos is both the casual Jewish music listener and the next generation of serious klezmer violinists. Although most contemporary audiences think of the clarinet as klezmer’s dominant melodic instrument, for hundreds of years the violin was the epicenter of Eastern European shtetl music. Reisman wants to introduce this fidl-centric music to those whose only exposure has been to the 20th century jazz-influenced clarinet-centric version of klezmer.
She also wants to provide serious klezmer violinists with 21st century videos that contain both archival repertoires and clear views of the technical aspects of playing klezmer. Reisman recalled she didn’t know where to turn to when she started to play klezmer fidl. The only archival recordings she found were scratchy and difficult to decipher. She wants her videos to make it easier for violinists to get an immediate sense of the music they could play. “I also want to lure them into listening to the archival recordings,” she said.
Ashkenazi Jewish culture has played a large part in Reisman’s life since she was a child. “It creates a beautiful community and gives me a familiar access point to spirituality, morality, and kindness,” she said. She remembers feeling especially connected to Judaism as a young Jewish day school student. “I liked following rules and they had a lot of rules,” she said with a chuckle.
COVID-19 has been hard for her and her musician husband, Charles Clements. Although Reisman lost a lot of summer gigs (weddings, outdoor festivals, etc.), she has been able to teach and perform virtually and has helped create an online global klezmer community.
She’s also been able to slow down and think about the future of her career and the important, constructive role artists play in safeguarding our humanity. “This is why I’ve finally been able to conceive of the start of this project that has been in the back of my mind for so many years,” she said.