Ruth Wisse will discuss her new memoir, “Free As A Jew,” in person at JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series on November 7

Ruth Wisse

By Shelley A. Sackett

Ruth Roskies Wisse is no shrinking violet. Born in Czernowitz, Romania, in 1936, she and her family escaped to Montreal in 1940, where her parents’ home became a salon and safe haven for Jewish writers, actors and artists who had also fled the Nazis. After graduating with a BA from McGill University in 1957 (where she befriended Leonard Cohen), she earned a MA in Yiddish studies at Columbia University, the only place in North America that offered such a program at that time. She returned to Montreal to raise her family and finish her Ph.D.. In 1968, she began teaching Yiddish literature and helped found a program that would become the Department of Jewish Studies at McGill.

No less a trailblazer academically, Wisse became a joint professor in the Departments of Yiddish and Comparative Literature at Harvard University in 1993, where she taught until she retired in 2014. Her gender, religion, subject matter (Yiddish) and conservative political and social views set her apart from the get go. Her razor-sharp intellect and prolific authorship made her views impossible to ignore.

In 2000:, she received the National Jewish Book Award in Scholarship for “The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture” and in 2007, she received the National Humanities Medal, which cited her for “scholarship and teaching that have illuminated Jewish literary traditions. Her insightful writings have enriched our understanding of Yiddish literature and Jewish culture in the modern world.”

Along the way, she developed relationships with Nobel Prize winning authors, Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer, and a bevy of Harvard University students, faculty and administrators.

A staunch neoconservative and supporter of Israel, Wisse is a prolific author. She has collaborated on Yiddish collections, penned numerous political essays (many of which appear regularly in Commentary, The New Republic and The Jerusalem Report), and authored several books, including the controversial “If I Am Not for Myself…The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews,” a Zionist critique of the American Jewish climate.

No less controversial is her new book, “Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation,” a no-holds-barred memoir. Wisse will discuss her book with Andrea Levin, Executive Director and President of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA), as part of the JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series on Sunday, November 7 at 3 pm at Temple Emanu-El, Marblehead. The in person event includes a reception and book signing.

According to Wisse , she began writing about parts of her life as a way of understanding the world around her. “Free As A Jew” takes her to the point of her retirement from Harvard in 2014. “One of the ways in which I’ve been fortunate is in the interesting people I’ve come to know. I’ve tried to write this as cultural history, and about myself as a minor participant in that history,” she said by email.

She chose the title carefully and deliberately. “I call it a personal memoir of national self-liberation because I concentrate on the public, intellectual, cultural, and political events I witnessed: most extraordinarily, the reestablishment of a sovereign Jewish country. The defeat—at least formally—of German Fascism and Soviet Communism were great victories. Not for a moment can we afford to take those civilizational achievements for granted,” Wisse said. “But they are being taken for granted.”

The direction of current political and cultural life concerns her, particularly the uptick in anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric and what she calls “contemporary loss of confidence.”

“It is no secret that the ideological and military war against the Jewish people has in many ways revved up rather than quieted down in recent decades. When people are under assault, many grow frightened, or apologetic, wanting to stay out of trouble. Some respond by trying to appease their attackers, or by becoming more like them. Jews have many things in common with other minorities, but no other minority is under the same sustained attack. This is confusing. Many lose confidence in their Judaism and blame their fellow Jews for the attacks against them,” she said.

Wisse stresses that her memoir is intended as neither homily nor “how to” book, but rather as another tool in one’s toolbox. “In explaining how I came to think about certain things, like the modern challenges to women, the nature of community, liberalism and conservatism, how literature works and why it matters, education and Jewish education, and so on, my story may be useful to others. No two lives are alike, but we all tend to have certain problems and opportunities in common,” she said.

The Exodus story of the Jews leaving slavery Egypt for freedom in Canaan particularly resonates with Wisse and also influenced her book’s title. “Jews learn that escape from bondage is only the first step of the process. We are a rabble — miserable, needy, and anxious — until we accept our pretty stringent set of laws. To be free as a Jew means to assume the responsibilities of freedom and to realize how liberating that really is,” she said.

For more information and to buy tickets, visit jccns.org.

Lyric Stage’s ‘Be Here Now’ Asks: “At What Price Happiness?”

Patty, Bari and Luann at work at the fulfillment center
(Photos by Mark S. Howard)

By Shelley A. Sackett

Deborah Zoe Laufer’s deceptively profound Be Here Now opens with an almost slapstick scene. Three women (Patty and Luanne Cooper and Bari) sit on yoga mats as the blissed-out disembodied voice coaches them to look inside themselves and “let go.” Patty (Shani Farrell) and Luanne (Katherine C. Shaver), dressed appropriately in latex, comply, closing their eyes and sinking into their mats. Bari (Samantha Richert) clearly marches to a different drummer. She is fully dressed (as in a midi dress and huge coat-sweater) and keeps her eyes defiantly open, widening them at each suggestion she close them. Her face portrays the furthest state from bliss possible. This woman is irredeemably and unapologetically miserable.

Turns out she has every reason to be.

She has lost her job at a university in New York City teaching — drum roll — nihilism because she is ABD (all but dissertation). She is 17 days away from her ultimate deadline; she has been working on it eight years. And she has been having bone-crunching headaches.

Exiled to her economically depressed small hometown its small-town people, she works at a fulfillment center (which is anything but) with Luann and her Aunt Patty Cooper, both Christian “believers.” Thirtyish Luann believes her choice to have faith and BE-LIEVE is behind her happiness (the anti-depressants don’t hurt either). “You can choose to be happy. Or you can choose to be sad. I prefer to be happy,” she explains to Bari.

“Whatever you choose, sooner or later it will end in grief,” Bari glumly replies. The spunky, honest, funny and compassionate camaraderie among these three provides both comic relief and fodder for deeper consideration — Does it really matter how one finds happiness? Is it really anybody’s business but your own?

Patty (also no stranger to mood enhancing drugs) decides to set Bari up with her cousin Mike (everyone in Coopersville has the surname Cooper except Bari), who has his own baggage and, literally, garbage. Bari outright refuses, immediately experiences the first of many forthcoming seizures, and ,with this seizure and its repercussions, playwright Laufer has penned the lynchpin on which the rest of the play’s message depends.

As Bari comes to, the sound shifts to the Zen meditation we heard at the beginning. For the first time in her life, Bari feels happy. She suddenly feels like everything matters, especially meeting Mike for a blind date. Suddenly she has “urges” that she must immediately satisfy. She loves this new euphoric Bari and will fight tooth and nail to hang onto it, whatever the price.

Turns out that price may be her life, but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.

Under the spell of post-seizure after glow, she meets Mike (Barlow Adamson) and promptly has another seizure, this one more of a doozy. When revives, she hears yoga music and a sea of Oms. The sees auras. She is a poster child for ecstasy. She is terrified the feeling won’t last and goads him into coming home with her and having sex.

Girl gets boy that night, girl loses boy next day when she kicks him out so she can write, girl begs forgiveness from boy by presumptuously showing up at his sparse cabin unannounced.

There is a lot more to Mike than his eccentricities of collecting garbage (“found objects”), living without cell phone or a car, and cohabitating with a crow might indicate. His tragic backstory carries a motherlode of pain, guilt and despair. Yet, he is determined to rebuild his life (literally) by creating MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant-worthy shelters from these found objects.

He is trying to keep his life small. No one has ever been to his cabin until her. “I can’t take on anything more,” he says as Bari relentlessly presses him for more.

He is convinced Bari’s headaches are caused by a brain tumor, her post-seizure euphoria a medically common side effect. He agrees to let her stay as long as she forks over her cell phone and understands he will dial 911 if she has another seizure.

Bari rhapsodizes about how she feels with her “new brain.” She doesn’t want to give it up and doesn’t want to know if it is a tumor that will kill her. She knows now that happiness exists; does it matter if its source is religion, Zoloft, meditation, sheer will of choice or a deadly tumor? For the first time, she feels alive. And she loves it.

Of course, she has another seizure. Of course, Mike calls 911 and accompanies her to the hospital. She has a kiwi-sized tumor and will indeed die — and soon — unless it is removed. Yet she is afraid she won’t like Mike, that he won’t like her, that she will become anhedonic without it. Does it really matter how we achieve happiness, even if it kills us?

What comes next would be a spoiler to reveal and this is a play that really should be seen, so I’ll stop here.

The actors give uniformly beautiful performances. Barlow Adamson stands out, bringing both gravitas and grace to the smart, wounded, quirky visionary Mike. Adamson is a big guy, yet manages to  transform himself into a fragile bird with a broken wing.

Samantha Richert takes Bari though her highs and lows at breakneck speed. But is the interplay between Shani Farrel (Patty) and Katherine C. Shaver (Luanne) that are a delightful reprieve from the sometimes relentless Sturm und Drang. Farrel is as practical as Shaver is mercurial and the way they play off each other is a pleasure to behold. Think the cast of “Steel Magnolias” or “9 to 5” and you get the idea.

Finally, Courtney O’Connor’s directing, Janie E. Howland’s clever set, Karen Perlow’s subtle lighting and especially Dewey Dellay’s composition and sound design elevate the production in notable yet nonintrusive ways.

For tickets or more information, go to lyricstage.com/

Lyric Stage’s ‘Be Here Now’ Asks: “At What Price Happiness?”

‘Be Here Now — Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland. Costume Design by Rachel Padula Shufelt. Lighting by Karen Perlow. Composition and Sound by Dewey Dellay. Starring Barlow Adamson, Shani Farrell, Samantha Richert and Katherine C. Shaver. Presented by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston at 140 Clarendon St. through October 17.

Beloved Boston Radio host Jordan Rich kicks off JBM Speaker Series

By Shelley A. Sackett

Jordan Rich

Although the venues may have shifted over the decades from news to music-drive-time-FM-host to podcaster and talk show host, Jordan Rich’s impressive career weathered a half century in the mercurial field of Boston radio. In his new memoir, “On Air: My 50 Year Love Affair with Radio,” the longtime host of WBZ AM 1030 Radio’s ‘The Jordan Rich Show’ chronicles his remarkable run in his home town.

“It was my dream as a kid in junior high to impact and entertain on air, and I continue to live it out every day. Audiences here in Boston are like no other,” Rich said by email. “The greatest reward of my 50-year career has to be having the luck and opportunity to ply my craft in this market for so many years.”

On Tuesday, Oct. 5 at 7 pm, Metro Boston fans of Rich and the JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series are also in luck for this double treat: the popular series will kick off its 27th year with an in person opening night event at the JCCNS featuring Rich.

His book is chockfull of stories about the personalities local audiences know and love, and the changing landscape of Boston radio from the 1970s to the present. It also includes intimate details of Rich’s struggles with depression and how his honesty with his radio audience helped him to heal. “When the voice in the night, the trusted, calming, funny voice reveals his human side, beautiful things can happen — and did for me,” Rich explained.

One story not in his book is the way he has coached and advised dozens of people, mentoring broadcasting students on their way into the business just as he was mentored in his young days. One mentee, writer, editor and educator Matt Robinson, is delighted he’ll be interviewing Rich at the October 5 event. “In addition to being a friend, he is an inspiration and ardent supporter,” Robinson said.

The remaining 11 events will take place between October 14 and November 16 in COVID-mindful formats. “We’re hoping that, in whatever way you feel comfortable, you will plan to ‘join’ us for this year’s series, which features a combination of in person, virtual and hybrid events,” JBM committee Chair Diane Knopf said.

Four novelists will share behind the scenes details about their latest works of fiction. Authors Ronald H. Balson (“Defending Britta Stein) and Pam Jenoff (“The Woman with the Blue Star”) will speak about their WWII historic novels, both inspired by true events (Oct. 14, 7 pm on Zoom). Internationally best-selling Israeli author David Grossman will talk about “More Than I Love My Life,” the story of three generations of women on an unlikely journey to a Croatian island with a secret that needs to be told (Oct. 21, 12:30 pm on Zoom). Rounding out the category is Joshua Henkin’s “Morningside Heights: A Novel,” the sweeping and compassionate story of a marriage that survives immeasurable hardship (Nov. 9, 7 pm in person at JCCNS).

Although memoir is a popular genre among this year’s lineup, the four authors differ dramatically in the experiences they share.

Jenna Blum’s “Woodrow on the Bench: Life Lessons from a Wise Old Dog” is a valentine to Woodrow, the treasured black lab who had been by her side for 15 years (Nov. 1, 7 pm in person at JCCNS).

Tracy Walder tells the larger-than-life story of her journey from sorority sister at USC to CIA Middle East undercover operative and FBI counterintelligence specialist in the gripping, action-packed memoir, “The Unexpected Spy” (Oct. 26, 7 pm on Zoom).

Widely published columnist and Harvard University professor emerita Ruth R. Wisse chronicles her life’s journey from her childhood escape from the Nazis to her trail-blazing fight to gain academic equality for Jewish literature and Jewish women in “Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation.” Temple Emanu-El, Marblehead will host the in person event on Nov. 7, 3 pm.

Nhi Aronheim’s inspirational survival story starts with her escape from Vietnam through the Cambodian jungles. Eventually, she lands in the US and converts to Judaism after marrying a Jewish man. “Soles of A Survivor” reveals her deeper appreciation for the humanity, diversity and unconditional love she has experienced as a Vietnamese Jew (Nov 16, 7 pm on Zoom).

Completing this year’s literary menu are three nonfiction selections. In “The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos,” Judy Batalion details the spectacular accomplishments of three brave Jewish resistance fighters (community read in partnership with Abbot Public Library, Swampscott Public Library and SSU Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies with a book discussion led by Izzi Abrams in person at the JCCNS on Nov. 3, 7 pm; discussion with the author Nov. 14, 8 pm on Zoom). Mahjong fans will have the chance to listen to Annelise Heinz’s virtual presentation of “Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture” while enjoying a Chinese dinner, wine and — of course — playing mahjong (Oct. 20, 6 pm in person at JCCNS).

Finally, for those who have been dying to know how the Israelis manage to succeed in the start up venture arena, veteran venture capitalist Uri Adoni shares the secrets to Israel’s incredible track record and the principles and practices that can make any startup, anywhere in the world, “unstoppable” in “The Unstoppable Startup: Mastering Israel’s Secret Rules of Chutzpah” (Nov 14, 11 am on Zoom).

For more information and to buy tickets, visit jccns.org.

Make SpeakEasy Stage’s Impeccable ‘The Sound Inside’ Your First Stop for In-Person Theater

Jennifer Rohn and Nathan Malin in ‘The Sound Inside’ All photos by Nile Scott Studios

By Shelley A. Sackett

If your Covid Comfort Zone now includes attending indoor events, gallop on over to SpeakEasy Stage’s production of Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside, a trifecta of what makes for exalted theater: flawless script, acting and directing. This two-hander doesn’t just hit a home run over the green wall; it launches it into outer space.

That said, it still takes a leap of faith to believe that it is safe to be packed together as tightly as a fully booked economy cabin as long as everyone is fully vaccinated and masked. It took me several minutes before my anxiety leveled off and I could be entirely present for the play.

And what an extraordinary play it is.

In a nutshell, Rapp has written a 90-minute intermission-less drama about two writers: Bella Baird (Jennifer Rohn), a 53-year-old Yale professor of creative writing who has just been diagnosed with stage 2 cancer, and Christopher Dunn (Nathan Mailin), her student who marches to a different drummer than his peers.

Through their intellectually intimate and intricate conversations, we glimpse the moving targets of their lives’ stories and the fictional lives each has woven as cover and cover up. We also glimpse their pain, isolation, loneliness and pessimism. They are as different as night and day, as similar as two peas in a pod.

There emerges an undercurrent of dormant dread and tension underlying their relationship., but also the hint of potential relief and comfort. Their hyper-articulate, erudite dialogue takes them on a roller coaster ride, sometimes igniting storage bins of disillusion and defeat. Other times, their conversations are the magical balm that soothes their aching souls. Rapp keeps us guessing whether grief or solace lurks around every encounter, as thoroughly engaging and enjoyable as good page turner.

Jennifer Rohan in ‘The Sound Inside’

Under Devorah Kengmana’s brilliant lighting design, the play opens in darkness. A spotlighted Bella emerges and begins to address the audience. As if workshopping a novel, she describes her experiences, thoughts, and disappointments. She is scathing and dispassionate, especially when critiquing herself, the author of two novellas and “an under-appreciated novel written in my late thirties that, despite some flattering reviews and a mention or two on a handful of year-end lists, is struggling to stay alive.” She is also not above petty jealousy. Although she adores James Salter’s “Light Years,” rereading it every year, she refuses to teach it because “it is a rare work of fiction that continues to reveal new things with each reading…It’s so good it enrages me.”

The set (by Cristina Todesco) is sparse, dark and efficient, a single table and two chairs. When Bella addresses the audience from the table and the lighting shifts, we are transported to her office. Christopher arrives without an appointment (for which she admonishes him, but doesn’t send him away). He speaks to Bella and she speaks both directly to him and to the audience in frequent pithy asides. Alternating who gets to play narrator is a device Rapp employs to great effect throughout the play.

Christopher is a Yale misfit, surly, full of contradictions, with a chip on his shoulder and a mind as focused on and in love with writing as is Bella’s. He is obsessed with Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” He is out of step with his generation (“Twitter is for people who are terrified of solitude”) and at heart an old-fashioned romanticist (“Email’s not my style. I prefer penmanship. Getting ink on your fingers. The human effort”).

In some ways, they are yin and yang; she’s all about following rules and protocol, while he simply follows his own instincts. Yet something sparks when they are together. They admire — and, surprisingly, seem to trust — each other. He loved her published works and cites long passages as he paces her office, praising her novel (after which she seems to melt, and tells him to call her Bella instead of Professor Baird). She is impressed by his ambition (he is writing a novella with himself as the protagonist) and prodigious intellect.

Under Bryn Boice’s spot on direction, the rest of the play (no spoilers here!) weaves a tapestry borne of their conversations. They become more honest and unguarded with each other, exposing an almost erotic, yet chaste, intimacy that lifts each out of his fundamental sadness. It is no surprise that Christopher’s novella bears a quote from “Crime and Punishment: “We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word is spoken.”

Jennifer Rohn brings a gorgeous nuance to Bella, imbuing her (many, many) lines with pathos, compassion and, when called for, playfulness. Her body language shifts on a dime; her vocal pacing and tone are subtle and effective.

As Christopher, Nathan Mailin brings the same qualities he did as a runaway star in ‘Admissions,’ the 2019 SpeakEasy Stage production where he debuted as a 20-year-old BU student. He has tempered and honed his style (which still has enormous range and presence) and brings depth, vulnerability and physicality to a character that could have easily become a caricature in less capable hands. Individually, each is superb; together, they are simply sublime.

Cannot be recommended highly enough.

Presented by Speakeasy Stage in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through Oct 16, 2021.

For COVID protocol, go to https://www.speakeasystage.com/visit/covid-masks-vax/

For tickets and more info, go to https://www.speakeasystage.com/shows/2021/09/the-sound-inside/

Nathan Malin and Jennifer Rohn in ‘The Sound Inside’

College students immerse themselves in Israeli culture

By Shelley A. Sackett

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.

Anna Levenberg at Mitzpe Ramon

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.”

Ethan Keller (second from left) at a Shabbat potluck dinner with trip participants 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.

Cole Cassidy atop a camel.

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.”

This Israeli robot kibitzes, plays games, and gives doctors vital information on elderly patients

by Shelley A. Sackett

Dr. Peter Barker and Dr. Keth Nobil of Family Doctors in Swampscott pose with ElliQ, the Israeli AI social robot now in medical interface development.

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.

Gerianne Cohen humanized her robotic companion with a wig.

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.

Dorset Theatre Festival’s ‘Queen of the Night’ Spins Evening Magic

Leland Fowler (at left) and Danny Johnson in ‘Queen of the Night.’

By Shelley A. Sackett

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

Gloucester Stage’s ‘Baskerville” Is A Literal Breath of Fresh Air

By Shelley A. Sackett

Texan Sir Hugo Baskerville (Julian Manjerico) consults with Sherlock Holmes (Alexander Platt) and John Watson (William E. Gardin). All photos by Jason Grow

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).

Anna Bortnick and Alex Jacobs as messenger boys.

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.

“Truth makes you strong.”

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 leads a local tour in Korbach, Germany.

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’s research emphasizes the importance of compassion in a diverse society

by Shelley A. Sackett

2021 Obermayer Award winner Volker Keller with Holocaust survivor Daniel Barnea, during Mr. Barnea’s return to Mannheim in 2014.

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.

Mannheim, Germany. November 14th, 2009. Two people walking at night by the Mahnmal Memorial. Commemorative sculpture for the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust in Mannheim “Planken” shopping street.

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.”