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Richard Newman as Dr. Sigmund Freud, left, and Damon Calderwood as C.S. Lewis. (photo by Damon Calderwood and Chris Robson)
When the air-raid siren goes off, it is hard not to heed it, and seek cover. So engaged does one become in Freud’s Last Session, which is on until Sunday at Galbraith House in New Westminster.
The house is an impressive sight. Built circa 1892, the 30ish audience members are already transported into the past by the time they walk through the front doors. As they take their seats in the living room, literally within breathing distance of the action, the set brings them into the late 1930s – Freud’s wooden desk to the left (that, notably, is covered with divinity statuettes from various cultures), a console radio flanked by two leather chairs in the centre, and the psychiatrist’s couch on the right.
Presented by City Stage New West, the Couch Trip Collective production features veteran actors Richard Newman as Dr. Sigmund Freud and Damon Calderwood as British author C.S. Lewis. In such an intimate space, with such competent actors delivering the dialogue, it is almost a voyeuristic experience. Director Chris Robson keeps the pacing tight, and the sound effects – from the radio, to a ringing phone, to a barking dog, to the aforementioned air-raid siren and rumbling plane engines – add to the immediacy.
Freud has asked Lewis to his home, and the fictional meeting is taking place on Sept. 3, 1939, the day that Britain declares war on Germany. Snippets of Neville Chamberlain’s address and of King George VI’s are played on the radio, as Freud periodically interrupts his discussion with Lewis for updates on the news.
Lewis is nervous at first because he thinks Freud has summoned him out of anger for how Freud is portrayed in Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress. But Freud is more interested in why an intelligent man like Lewis went from being an atheist to embracing Christianity. Their brief conversation gets heated on more than one occasion. Freud is particularly impassioned at times, not only from the strength of his beliefs, but from the exhaustion and frustration of being in constant pain – at 83, he is dying of oral cancer, and the play quite realistically depicts his agony, and the goriness of the disease.
The debate starts with God’s existence, and bounces back to it more than once, but covers a wide range of topics, including the impending war (and Freud’s narrow escape to England from Austria), morality, shame, desire, humor, what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, Jesus, the afterlife, ancient belief systems, suicide, relationships, sex and music. The play avoids becoming bogged down in heavy, philosophical dialogue by only touching upon each topic. An interruption happens – a phone call, a coughing attack, or what have you – after which the discussion generally turns to something else. Another perhaps surprising aspect of Freud’s Last Session is that the script, written by Mark St. Germain, contains many well-timed witty remarks that break up the seriousness of the subject matter, as well as the situation – both the advent of the Second World War and Freud’s intention to kill himself before the cancer does. The result is a play that may not change minds, but it will spark contemplation and discussion, which is more than enough.
Freud’s Last Session is at Galbraith House, 131 Eighth St., New Westminster, until Feb. 9. For tickets, visit brownpapertickets.com/event/549655.
Andrew McNee as Oscar Madison and Robery Maloney as Felix Ungar. (photo by David Cooper)
In his program notes, artistic managing director Bill Millerd recalls the Arts Club Theatre Company’s 1967 production of The Odd Couple. In those days, the Arts Club made its home on Seymour, where Vancity Theatre and the Vancouver International Film Festival are now. This nostalgia was an apt introduction to Neil’s Simon’s 1965 classic play, a multiple-award-winning comedy about two divorced men forced by circumstance to become roommates.
While some might find the premise dated – few today would raise an eyebrow at the notion of two men living together, and the sexual and gender politics that today exist are drastically different than they were in 1965 – Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison can still charm an audience. After all, at its heart, The Odd Couple is a heartwarming, amusing story about friendship.
The play opens with Oscar, a divorced, irresponsible, childish but lovable slob, hosting his Friday-night poker game for the boys. By the time we meet Felix, we know that he’s precise and punctual, but the true extent of his perfectionist, neat-freak ways don’t become evident until later.
Felix shows up at Oscar’s, distraught and suicidal after being kicked out by his (no doubt long-suffering) wife. The comedy starts to unfold as Felix’s friends try to hide their concern from him, out of fear they might cause Felix to leave or, heaven forbid, make another suicide attempt. After Oscar invites Felix to live with him – and to pay half the rent – their opposing personalities fully flower and high-energy comic chaos ensues.
Andrew McNee’s talent shines particularly bright as Oscar, a role that is dynamic and physically demanding, so potentially exhausting is Oscar’s frustration with Felix’s perfectionism, and so overwhelming his anguish at the thought of losing his best friend. Robert Moloney does a sympathetic, even endearing, job with Felix, who is bewildered after the collapse of his marriage but is also exasperated by his inability to change his own most annoying habits. Both Felix and Oscar are played with compassion, and it’s easy to root for them – a function of McNee’s and Moloney’s acting chops, but also a testament to Simon’s enduring script.
Though expectations around manhood have changed, it is still charming and satisfying to witness the camaraderie and delightful energy of a group of man friends who love – and respect – each other. Though the genre still relies on our culture’s discomfort with men expressing their emotions and fears, McNee and Moloney coax the vulnerability and honesty out of their characters, which is what makes this production so heartwarming. And, frankly, the rest of the cast – Josh Drebit, Joel Wirkkunen, Alec Willows and Cavan Cunningham – are equally terrific, as are Sasa Brown and Kate Dion-Richard, who play the Pigeon sisters with high comedy and great tenderness. This production features strong direction by John Murphy, spot-on costumes by Barbara Clayden and a clever set (including creatively amusing scene changes) by David Roberts.
The Odd Couple is at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage until Feb. 23. For tickets, visit artsclub.com.
A still from the movie Voices from El Sayed.
When one is a Bedouin living in southern Israel, ironies seem to multiply with regularity. Two relatively recent Israeli-made films bring this incongruous life into sharp focus.
In the first, Voices from El Sayed: A Snail in the Desert (2009, documentary), director Oded Leshem examines a minority within a minority – a special needs Bedouin group. In the second, Sharqiya (2012, drama), director Ami Livne focuses on an Israeli Bedouin who, although he has spent his young adult life protecting other Israelis – first as a soldier and then as a security guard – faces eviction from his land because the Israeli authorities do not acknowledge it as his.
Leshem focuses on both the social and technological challenges facing the deaf members of the El Sayed Bedouin. In an understated but convincing manner, Leshem makes this point: for people who are deaf, this Bedouin tribe is both heaven and hell.
Leshem presents a lot of information in his 75-minute film. For starters, he unearths this nugget: the El Sayed have the highest concentration of deaf people of any community in the world. Estimates are that this desert community located northeast of the Negev city of Be’ersheva has 3,000 tribal members and, of this number, 125-150 are deaf. Intra-marriage is high – 65 percent of El Sayed’s couples are somehow related – so deafness is, therefore, more often transmitted from generation to generation. Almost every family has a deaf family member.
In this village, deafness is acknowledged as a fact of life. Not only is it considered normal, but everyone in the film – hearing and deaf – knows and uses sign language. At first glance, deaf community members appear totally accepted and functioning comfortably within the group. There is always someone with whom to converse – but in which language does one communicate?
According to Leshem’s film, language is one of the major social challenges facing Israel’s minorities. The film notes that the older deaf members of El Sayed converse in their own form of signing: El Sayed Bedouin Sign Language (EBSL). A number of the younger members, however, have studied in schools outside the community. These schools fall under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Ministry of Education, so these Bedouin study Israeli Sign Language (ISL). In addition, these same young students learn to read and write in Hebrew, rather than in Arabic, their mother tongue.
There is no school for the deaf on tribal land: children are bused to a school in Be’ersheva. But not every deaf child attends or has attended this facility. As the audience learns, some young adults studied in the centre of the country. However, on the positive side, the film explains that Be’ersheva has a special early childhood class for the hearing challenged, which is taught by traditional Bedouin teachers.
The deaf young adult tribal members who speak in the film want to marry deaf partners. But in this strongly paternalistic society, their parents still have a lot of say in marital matches. Some of the hearing parents want their marriage-age children to break what they see as a chain of deafness, so they are interested in having their deaf offspring pair off with hearing mates.
Not only are there parents who want to alter the course of future generations, but there are those trying to improve the life of their offspring in the present. The movie depicts one set of hearing parents who decide that one of their children will be the first El Sayed member to undergo a cochlear implant.
The good news is that the Israeli health-care system will cover the cost of the surgery and the implant itself. But, as viewers soon grasp, this family faces many other obstacles. The first several months following surgery entail regular and frequent trips back to Be’ersheva’s Soroka Hospital. During these hospital visits, the parents learn how to encourage their toddler to listen in everyday situations. Both the mother and father accompany the child to the hospital. There, they work with a Hebrew-speaking professional staff. The father speaks and reads Hebrew fluently, but the mother does not. No Arabic translator is provided. This point is critical as, at home, the mother has the huge task of ensuring that all the other children participate in the training.
No less significant is the hospital staff’s lack of awareness of the overall situation in El Sayed. While Leshem’s camera reveals that high-tension wires stand in close proximity to the village, the film’s narrative discloses that El Sayed is not hooked up to the national grid. There is no electricity, except for the generators that power the village. Just as the hospital staff comes to terms with the family’s difficulty in keeping all the implant parts properly charged, so the audience grasps just how challenging this procedure is for this family.
El Sayed lacks what most Westerners would consider basic utilities or services. For the dispersed Bedouins living in areas of southern Israel, which successive governments have classified as “unrecognized,” not having electricity or running water is a common situation. Nowhere is that brought home more clearly than in Livne’s drama Sharqiya.
The story of Sharqiya centres around two brothers and the wife of one trying to live on family land. The land appears fairly inhospitable. Family members live quite minimally in one-room tin huts, serviced by a temperamental generator. In the barren surroundings, one brother herds a small number of goats, while Kamel Najer, the other brother and main character, works as a security guard in Be’ersheva’s central bus station.
Westerner viewers might wonder why it is so important to keep this undeveloped plot of land, especially when Israeli authorities offer compensation for leaving it. Coming from a Western society, it is also hard to get one’s head around the notion of inheriting land without documentation. But this is exactly what the Najer brothers claim: their family has lived on the land for generations.
In the film, viewers watch the authorities stand by, waiting to destroy the Najers’ homestead, as Kamel packs up cherished memorabilia from his army service. We witness this young Israeli Bedouin – who has felt enough sense of belonging to hold on to his army pictures and banners – have his living space made not just unfit, but non-existent. Livne makes it clear that if Israeli society does not appreciate the irony of this situation, it will not understand that such treatment puts the fragile foundation of Israel’s democratic structure at risk of collapse.
When the human and humane element is missing – as depicted by the Israel Land Authority’s tractor leveling the family’s meagre housing and corral – the cracks in society’s foundation deepen. The frustration and the disappointment do not fade out: in the closing shot, they are inscribed on Kamel’s face.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology.
More on the Bedouin
The following links are to position papers or websites of some of those involved in Israeli Bedouin affairs.
From the Israeli government: mmi.gov.il/static/HanhalaPirsumim/Beduin_information.pdf
From a few nongovernmental organizations:
Pioneer Women group, Vancouver, B.C., 1960. (JWB fonds, JMABC L12600)
If you know someone in this photo, please help the JI fill the gaps of its predecessor’s (the Jewish Western Bulletin’s) collection at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C. by contacting [email protected].
Attendees at the 50th anniversary event in London. (photo from David Schwartz)
Behind the treelike doors of Temple Sholom’s aron kodesh are six beautiful Torahs, each with its own history. The Torah in the centre of the top row is known as our Czech Torah. It is one of 1,564 scrolls rescued from Prague at the end of the Second World War and brought to London, England, in 1964 by a group of dedicated volunteers: the Czech Memorial Scroll Trust (MST). We honor our Czech Torah each year by dedicating our afternoon Yom Kippur service to it.
The Torah, on loan to the congregation from the MST, is officially known as Czech Memorial Scroll #1036, and it was brought to Vancouver in 1971 by Temple Sholom trustee David Huberman, who traveled to London on our behalf to chaperone the Torah to its new home.
Earlier this month, my wife Debby and I escorted Scroll #1036 back to London for something of a “family reunion,” celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Torahs’ arrival in London. In the years since 1964, most of the scrolls brought to London have found new homes around the world and, this month, for the first time, 53 of them were reunited.
It was a great pleasure to see the Torahs arriving, and a little humorous to see how different congregations found creative ways to safely transport these precious artifacts. One scroll from an American congregation arrived in a golf bag, while another was given free shipping and chaperone service from FedEx. Many congregations who were unable to attend in person sent large posters of their Torahs to include in the commemorative service.
Ours was the only one to come from Canada, and it was shipped in a hard-shell, foam-filled Torah case loaned to us by the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia. Air Canada was also very supportive of our journey, supplying us with two complimentary seats for the large case. We were seated right behind it so we could keep an eye on it the whole way. Coincidentally, Air Canada’s Vancouver crew handled other unique cargo the same day – the Stanley Cup.
The tragedy of these extraordinary scrolls is that they are often the only surviving relics of some 153 Czech Jewish communities whose members were deported and exterminated in the Nazi death camps during the Second World War. Our Torah is one of 18 from the small town of Sedlcany, located 60 kilometres south of Prague in Central Bohemia. It was written in 1890.
In the years after the war, a rumor spread that the Nazis had planned to create a “museum to an extinct race.” According to the MST, this has little foundation in fact. They do know that a pious group of Jews from Prague’s Jewish community worked to bring artifacts and Jewish possessions of all kinds from Bohemia and Moravia to what had become the Central Jewish Museum in Prague. There, they preserved what little remained of Jewish communities, previously at the mercy of plunderers. The MST believes that this Jewish initiative was directly responsible for the subsequent conservation of the scrolls. All the curators at the museum were eventually taken to Terezin and Auschwitz. Only two of the curators survived, and the Czech Jewish community after the war was too depleted to be able to care for them. The pious group’s legacy was the catalogue of the vast collection in the museum, eventually to become the Jewish Museum of Prague, and the saved 1,564 scrolls.
For 20 years following the war, the scrolls remained in a disused synagogue in a Prague suburb until the communist government, in need of hard currency, decided they should be sold. A British art dealer learned of this opportunity in 1963 and worked with the rabbi of Westminster Synagogue, a Hebrew scholar and a generous donor, to bring the 1,564 scrolls to London. Many were in pitiful condition – torn or damaged by fire and water – a grim testimony to the fate of the people who had once prayed with them.
The Memorial Scroll Trust has given these precious scrolls a second life by restoring them and loaning them to more than 1,400 communities around the world, thereby spreading their message to new generations in diverse communities and institutions such as Temple Sholom.
The Feb. 9 Czech Memorial Scrolls Commemorative Service at Westminster Synagogue was sublime. It began with a procession of the 53 scrolls that had been brought for the occasion, mostly from around the United Kingdom and the United States. To the strains of Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony, each Torah was lovingly brought to the bimah, held by a member of its current community and its original hometown announced.
David Schwartz is a lawyer and the president of Temple Sholom Synagogue.
Peter Gary (photo from Peter Gary)
April is a month of miracles for Peter Gary. An April baby, he was born in Poland in 1924, where he first developed his love – and talent – for playing music and composition. Starting piano by age 5, he was accepted into the Franz Liszt Royal Academy at age 11, being chosen to attend classes with Bela Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly and Leo Weiner. In 1941, however, Gary and his mother were arrested by the Nazis. His mother was murdered soon after, trying to protect him. After surviving the Warsaw Ghetto, Gary, who was in his late teens, was sent to Majdanek, then Dachau and, finally, Bergen-Belsen. He was liberated from there in April 1945, just as he turned 21 years old.
Following more music studies in Paris and a career in medicine in California, where he eventually settled, Gary retired in Victoria, B.C. For many years, he chose not to speak about his Holocaust experiences. Instead, in the mid-1970s, he returned to his love of music to compose something that would help express the immensity of the losses he experienced and the loss of six million fellow Jews. A Twentieth Century Passion will at long last be performed – on April 2 at the University of Victoria. It took 40 years to bring this 500-plus-page piece of music to the stage. And it almost didn’t happen at all.
“Gary’s musical composition takes the form of an oratorio. A Twentieth Century Passion not only draws on the works of famous German composers such as Bach, Handel and Mendelssohn, but also represents a musical intervention to that tradition. Instead of portraying the gospel narrative of the Passion, this oratorio focuses on the emotions and suffering of European Jews during the Shoah.”
UVic has put together a booklet on Gary’s composition and describes its immense scope. “Gary’s musical composition takes the form of an oratorio. A Twentieth Century Passion not only draws on the works of famous German composers such as Bach, Handel and Mendelssohn, but also represents a musical intervention to that tradition. Instead of portraying the gospel narrative of the Passion, this oratorio focuses on the emotions and suffering of European Jews during the Shoah. The libretto includes a composite of stories and perspectives – of men and women, young and old – beginning from the end of the First World War up until the end of the Nuremberg trials. In particular, A Twentieth Century Passion remembers and honors the lives of the murdered children.”
April is a significant month for Gary in other ways, as well. He and his wife, Judy Estrin, will celebrate their seventh wedding anniversary the day before A Twentieth Century Passion is performed for the first time – just two weeks before the composer’s 90th birthday.
The couple met on JDate and decided to marry after a brief online courtship, Estrin told the Independent. “We finally met in December 2006. As Peter’s mother was murdered on Christmas Eve, that has always been a difficult time for him. We opted to ‘say our vows’ to each other at approximately the time that corresponded to her murder on Christmas Eve, including exchanging rings. For us, that is the day we were married.” However, “on April 1, 2007, in the rain, hail, sleet and snow, we had an outdoor wedding, under a chuppah in our yard, followed by a civil ceremony on June 1, 2007.”
Gary credits Estrin for having the tenacity to get his oratorio to the stage, and it wasn’t an easy task.
“I tried to get orchestras interested in the piece when we first were married, to no avail,” she said. “We agreed that we had to let go of the vision of having a performance of A Twentieth Century Passion in his lifetime – which was my promise to him when we married. So, we let go, with the provision that if the universe wanted him to experience his piece in his lifetime, the universe would make it happen.”
How the concert possibility came about
It was during a visit with two UVic students that Gary unearthed his score, long since put away. The students, Jason Michaud and Andrea van Noord, were part of UVic’s month-long I-Witness Holocaust Field School Project, a program co-founded in 2011 by Helga Thorson, associate professor in the department of Germanic and Slavic studies. The project, which “focuses on the ways in which the Holocaust is memorialized in Central Europe,” sees students spending the first week together in Victoria and then “three weeks on the road in Central Europe, where we visit the sites of former concentration camps, museums, monuments, cemeteries and other memorialization projects,” Thorson explained to the Independent. “Along the way, the students meet young Europeans who are also studying the Holocaust and engage in cross-cultural dialogues about the relationship between the present and the past.”
It was during a visit with two UVic students that Gary unearthed his score, long since put away. The students, Jason Michaud and Andrea van Noord, were part of UVic’s month-long I-Witness Holocaust Field School Project, a program co-founded in 2011 by Helga Thorson, associate professor in the department of Germanic and Slavic studies.
She added, “During the 2011 field school, [Michaud and van Noord] came up to me separately and said pretty much the same thing – without realizing that the other one had approached me, as well. They both mentioned that they wanted to work on some form of Holocaust remembrance and education when they returned to Victoria. After the field school program, the three of us sat down together and decided to found an archival project in which we would collect local stories of the Shoah in Victoria and on Vancouver Island. It was in this context that we visited Peter Gary.
“During this visit … we explained our ideas for the archival project. We told him that our project was different from other projects that had taken place…. It was not our intention to repeat the work that others had already done. Our project, called Building an Archive: Local Stories and Experiences of the Holocaust, was interested in collecting the stories of individuals whose lives were affected by the Shoah, either as told by themselves directly or as told by their children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren….
“It was during this visit when Peter got up, ran to the other room, and came back with a copy of his oratorio…. Van Noord took the oratorio and brought it around to various musicians and conductors. She was the one who brought it to the attention of Timothy Vernon, the founding artistic director of Pacific Opera Victoria, who has agreed to conduct the piece during the April 2, 2014, première.”
Thorson said the university is “amazed at the diverse material we have collected for our archival project to date: from Peter Gary’s musical composition, to copies of art that was created in Bergen-Belsen, to an interview with three generations of one family, to many other stories in myriad creative formats. The entire collection is remarkable in a community as small as Victoria. Peter Gary’s musical score and libretto comprise a special part of the university archives because, as an oratorio, this musical composition represents an ambitious project dedicated to Holocaust remembrance and memorialization.”
About the university’s interest in her husband’s work, Estrin said, “It wasn’t me who made this dream come true. There are so many miracles that have manifested along the way. Helga Thorson, her students Jason and Andrea from the first I-Witness Field School, Timothy Vernon agreeing to conduct without having ever seen the piece, so many people, so many miracles.”
The plans don’t stop with the April 2 concert, she added. “Now, we have to have all the funds in place to pay for the concert itself and to fund a scholarship that the University of Victoria has established for the field school, in Peter’s name. Once we get to some surplus funds, then we can think about establishing a process to bring the music to the world, free of charge, to anyone who wants to produce it. Then, we’d like to develop a curriculum for middle and high school students. Hopefully, we will also have enough excess funds to complete the documentary that is in process to document how this all came about. If an angel appears, the last wish in my vision is to be able to have Timothy Vernon conduct the piece and produce a CD. A big dream at the moment!”
She admitted, “There have been moments when it was totally overwhelming for Peter, which is why, after three fundraising events and a number of interviews, he is ‘off the hook.’ He is excited about it finally happening, although I suspect he has his moments of total disbelief, as it came close in the past but did not happen. We both hope that the piece makes people think and talk – about hate, about racism, and about antisemitism…. My hope is that after this world première performance, A Twentieth Century Passion will become the piece played around the world to memorialize and remember the Six Million, at least once a year, ideally played on Yom Hashoah.”
A fundraising event
One of the fundraisers was held in November at the home of Vancouver community members Dr. Michael and Linda Frimer, friends of Gary and Estrin, who came over from Victoria to participate. The Independent also attended the event, which featured music performed by cellist Eric Wilson and pianist Corey Hamm. Estrin spoke about her admiration for her husband and the life he’s poured into the music, and her delight at finally seeing the composition come alive this April.
Michael Frimer introduced Gary, noting, “He’s been our close, close friend for many years and an inspiration for our whole family. I’d say, the biggest inspiration for me, except for the 50 push-ups a day, is the fact that, from where he came, which is such a dark, dark place, he has such an amazing ability to look on the positive and the good, and to find the good where you would not expect it….
“This oratorio is really, I think, of potential historic significance…. This has been sitting for over 40 years now, and Peter’s been talking about it for so long. To have it finally come to fruition is amazing…. You think of Handel’s Messiah, which is a great piece of work written about this one Jewish rabbi, and it’s played every single year throughout the world, which is a wonderful thing, but I am hoping and I can see and envision this becoming something that is played on a regular basis in perpetuity in the capitals of the world to remember the lessons of this event that happened and the lessons that we have to take forward in the future.”
Peter Gary speaks about his work
Gary addressed those present, as well, and read selections from the oratorio’s libretto. “This is not about me,” he said. “The moment I put the last note down and put the double line, which means it’s finished, it has nothing to do with me anymore, it’s ‘it.’ And the next time, when Timothy Vernon, a very well-known Canadian conductor, raises his two arms, it’s his. It’s whatever his creativity, his insights [dictate]. Yes, we will have meetings and I will answer the questions, how do you envision this, but after that, it’s done. It has to exist and run on its own.”
Gary then read from notes he had written on his hopes for future generations. “How do you explain the inexplicable, the horrors that humanity brought and brings downs on its members? We are bombarded by the media in full graphic detail, in real time, the most horrific cruelty and suffering from time immemorial into our 21st century. The Shoah … was introduced to our history as a uniquely barbaric act. Unlike in wars before, it targeted strictly innocent children, women, men, the old, sick, for systematic torture and murder by the millions, not for what they did but who they were.
“Ever since the discovery at the end of World War Two of this permanent stain on human culture, without blinking an eye, we are still involved, as I’m speaking, and stoking the fires of death and destruction on each other. Is there a wonder why the public becomes bored as these acts are blaring at them from the pictures of newspapers, their television sets, computers and all other gadgetry of communication. Just to mention a few from the 20th century to the present: mass murder of the Armenians, Balkans, Congo, Sudan, Syria, Libya, many, many others.
“Back to the Shoah. We have been presented with vivid details from history books to films, novels, poetry, survivor personal testimonies, and some musical compositions, but only dealing with specific areas, like the piece on Terezin, which was the Nazi show camp. I have aimed, with A Twentieth Century Passion, to unify all those components. From history to the prisoners’ daily lives, their feelings, anxieties, fears, angers, of those abuse[d] … and, of course, always the unanswerable whys.”
“Back to the Shoah. We have been presented with vivid details from history books to films, novels, poetry, survivor personal testimonies, and some musical compositions, but only dealing with specific areas, like the piece on Terezin, which was the Nazi show camp. I have aimed, with A Twentieth Century Passion, to unify all those components. From history to the prisoners’ daily lives, their feelings, anxieties, fears, angers, of those abuse[d] … and, of course, always the unanswerable whys.
“This, I felt was only possible to achieve in the musical form of the oratorio,” he continued. “The oratorio, mass, requiem, Passion, comes to us in the Christian musical literature, in great compositions from Bach to Bernstein, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, and many others. A Twentieth Century Passion was created incorporating all general and personal details in this musical form. In Latin, verba volant, scripta manent, words fly away, writing stays forever. I hope this music will bring for all times a memorial as well as a warning to humanity. I have begged over 66,000 young and old [as a survivor speaker] to stamp out hate, the most obscene word in the English language, if we want our children and grandchildren to survive on our planet.”
In an e-mail to the Independent, Linda Frimer shared her reflections on supporting their friend in bringing A Twentieth Century Passion to life. “We feel honored and privileged to have Peter in our lives,” she said. “Through the years, he has been an outstanding mentor and friend. He teaches, through his strength of character and noble heart, that one must never give in to the perpetrators of cultural genocide. By actively choosing to make his life a joy-filled creative service to humankind, he inspires others to give of themselves. The upcoming oratorio this April is the full flowering of the tree of his life, for through his composition he is ensuring that not only will those of all ages who perished in the Holocaust always be remembered, but the witnesses of the world, once hearing this, will be assured never to forget.”
The world première of Peter Gary’s A Twentieth Century Passion, conducted by Timothy Vernon, was scheduled for April 2. Unfortunately, it was cancelled.
There was a full house at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre for the community’s marking of Wallenberg Day on Jan 19. Sponsored for the first time by the newly formed Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society, the annual event was the natural outgrowth of the placement of a plaque in Queen Elizabeth Park in 1986. It was revived at the 20th anniversary in 2006 as a cooperative effort between the then honorary Swedish consul, Anders Neumuller, and the Vancouver Second Generation Group.
Each year, the event pays tribute to courageous and heroic actions inspired by the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, and the Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara. Both men, at grave risk to themselves, their families and their future, chose to follow their own personal moral code and save the lives of large numbers of Jews during the Second World War.
Mayor of Vancouver Gregor Robertson read a proclamation naming the day “Raoul Wallenberg Day in the City of Vancouver.” He said, “There are always heroes in our midst and elevating their place in society and celebrating and having discussion … is absolutely critical in a civil society.”
This year, the heroism of Englishman Sir Nicholas Winton was highlighted in the movie Nicky’s Family. This emotionally powerful film told the story of how Winton saved the lives of more than 600 Czech children just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. The film documents how his actions have inspired young people to engage in direct acts of tikkun olam.
British Consul Rupert Potter honored Winton, saying, “I have never introduced a film to quite so full a house as this, which, I think, is testament to the content and the importance of the subject and what the film represents….”
There was an especially moving moment when members of the audience who owed their lives to the heroic actions of people such as Wallenberg, Sugihara and Winton were asked to stand. This action made the impact of these men clearly visible, showing that one person can make a profound difference in the world.
Naomi Taussig, the cantor of Temple Sholom Synagogue, spoke about the miracle of how her father and uncle were saved by Winton. She said, “Where would I be but for the actions of a single man who chose to do something when he could have done nothing at all? I feel a responsibility to live proudly as a Jew, honoring my grandparents, Emil and Irma. I try to live kindly, with compassion and intention. Nicholas himself says we must live ethically, and do whatever we can – no matter how small. We must take action rather than believe we are too insignificant to make a difference.”
I, too, owe my life to the actions of a diplomat. Against the orders of his government, Sugihara gave out visas to Jews, allowing them to escape certain death and travel to Japan. My mother was a recipient of such a visa. Had she not received it, I would not be here today. Last year, I traveled to Japan and had the honor of meeting with Sugihara’s granddaughter to express my deepest gratitude for the actions of her grandfather. It was a heartfelt meeting that I will remember for the rest of my days.
We need these stories to remind us of the inherent good that lives within people. We need to educate, to pay tribute, to remember and, finally, to inspire people today, as well as future generations, to act with courage and live their values in a way that contributes to the healing of the world.
The Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society is passionate about wanting to leave a legacy encouraging others to engage in behaviors inspired by Wallenberg, Sugihara and people like Winton. We are looking for people who, at significant personal risk, have helped improve or save the lives of others by going against unjust norms or conventions. Over the coming year, the names of suggested individuals who meet the criteria (including being associated with British Columbia, even if their actions may have taken place outside of the province) will be reviewed. Next year, at the annual Wallenberg Day event, we hope to present an award for civil courage to acknowledge heroic acts in today’s world. For more information, contact the society at [email protected].
Deborah Ross-Grayman is an artist, writer and Sugihara survivor descendant committee member of the Wallenberg-Sugihara Civil Courage Society.
“When we heard of her intention to create an Innovation Boulevard, we knew the mayor needed to tap into Israel’s spirit of ingenuity,” said Darren Mackoff, CIJA-PR director. Mackoff and his team helped organize Watts’ six-day trade mission to the Holy Land in December, a delegation that included individuals from the health-technology business sector and representatives from Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia and Kwantlen Polytechnic University – all of them key stakeholders in Surrey’s Innovation Boulevard.
In January, just a month after her return home, Watts signed a deal with Israel Brain Technologies, the first international deal of its kind secured since she and Innovation Boulevard co-chair, SFU neuroscientist and professor Ryan D’Arcy, announced the boulevard last year. Israel Brain Technologies, created by Israeli president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres, is a neuro-technology consortium. It unites Israel’s academics, neuroscientists and industry leaders under a single umbrella of brain research and innovation.
The IBT deal will give the City of Surrey access to some of Israel’s top thinkers and the development of innovative, life-saving medical advances, said Mackoff, but it will also give IBT the opportunity to engage in exchanges and partner on specific projects with their counterparts in Western Canada. “The outcomes of these joint ventures will undoubtedly serve the people of both Israel and B.C. well in the future,” he noted. In a press release, Watts said, “Israel and Surrey have common health-care challenges and share the goal of setting a new standard in medical care and innovation. By combining our remarkable pool of talents and expertise, I know that Surrey and Israel will together create groundbreaking and life-changing advancements in health care.”
Watts’ CIJA-led educational mission included 25 business meetings at Israeli universities, hospitals and centres of innovation, political briefings, tours of Israel’s most significant historic and contemporary sites, as well as a visit to Israel’s northern border with Syria, on the Golan Heights.
“In addition to gaining a strong understanding and appreciation for Israel and the challenges the Jewish state faces in the region, it was extremely important that Mayor Watts left Israel with tangible collaborative partnerships between the city, trip delegates and their counterparts in Israel,” Mackoff said.
The blizzard-like conditions in Jerusalem on the mayor’s day of arrival meant CIJA had to do some on-the-ground improvising and move the team to Tel Aviv at the last minute.
Mackoff traveled alongside the mayor and said she was tremendously moved and inspired by this visit. “The Jewish and pro-Israel community in Western Canada has a firm friend in Mayor Watts,” he reflected. “She saw firsthand what Israel is truly about – a country that has overcome tremendous obstacles to create a thriving democracy which is leading the world in scientific advancements.”
Due to personal circumstances, the mayor was unavailable for comment.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Last August, 450 new olim made the five-hour flight from northwest Ethiopia to their new home: Israel. According to those on hand to meet the new immigrants when they landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, the passenger roster for that hot August day constituted the last remaining members of Ethiopia’s ancient Jewish community, known as the Falashmura, or Beta Israel.
“The last group of the Jewish community of Ethiopia just stepped down from their plane,” said Eliezer Zandberg, as Israel’s newest immigrants joined weeping and elated relatives in the airport. Zandberg is the chairman of Keren Hayesod, or United Israel Appeal, which helped coordinate the aliyah of the Beta Israel. “This is the excitement, this is the whole story – returning to their homeland.”
While news agencies reporting on this aliyah assumed that the final leg of Operation Dove’s Wings last August carried Ethiopia’s last Jews, many aid groups remain adamant that the aliyah is not yet over. In the past five months, relief agencies, family members, advocates and rabbis from Israel and abroad have been calling on the Israeli government to return to Ethiopia and process the family members that have been left behind in two Jewish communities, Addis Ababa and Gondar. Both communities are located in northwest Ethiopia, and have been central receiving points for Ethiopian Jews hoping to make aliyah. According to several aid organizations that have recently been in Gondar, there are as many as 7,000 Jewish descendants that should have qualified for aliyah – many of whom are direct relatives of newly accepted olim in Israel.
On Jan. 1, 2014, while the rest of the world celebrated a new year, advocates for those remaining 7,000 got down to work. In Israel, members of the advocacy group Struggle for the Aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry (SAEJ) hosted a convention on the grounds of Ben-Gurion University in Be’ersheva. Some 200 members of Israel’s Beta Israel community, new immigrants and three members of the Knesset were there to discuss what has been termed a continuing humanitarian issue. A second convention was held a two days later in Tel Aviv, hosted by the relief organization South Wing to Zion, which was founded by Ethiopian human rights activist, Dr. Avraham Negusie. The mandate of both conventions was to highlight the needs of Ethiopian Jewish family members still waiting for aliyah approval.
According to Uri Perednik, who helped found SAEJ and helped organize the convention in Be’ersheva, MKs Pnina Tamano-Shata, Hilik (Yehiel) Bar and Shimon Solomon were briefed on the status of the remaining applicants in Ethiopia, and the events that have occurred since the August airlift. After members of the Ethiopian community in Israel staged a protest in front of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office on Aug. 28, the Knesset absorption committee agreed to look into reopening the aliyah for outstanding family members, Perednik said in an interview from his home in Israel. However, he added, there has been little resolved by the government, and members of Israel’s Beta Israel community are becoming increasingly frustrated.
Since the convention, all three MKs have called for the aliyah to be reopened, according to a statement released by SAEJ. Tamano-Shata has offered to forward a petition to the minister of interior, Gideon Sa’ar, while Bar and Solomon have vowed to pressure the government to admit the remaining family members.
“There is no doubt in the [Ethiopian Jewry’s] Judaism because their family is here in Israel,” said Bar. He expects an appeals committee will review the outstanding cases. “The committee will begin to check these cases, examine the paperwork, understand that [there] was a serious mistake here and finish this terrible saga.”
Perednik noted that records maintained by the Jewish community in Addis Ababa indicate that 415 community members have already died waiting for their aliyah papers to be approved. Since the Jewish community in Gondar is much larger than in Addis Ababa, he said, “the number of deceased [in Gondar] may be twice as big.”
“The Israeli government encouraged these families to leave their homes and villages in order to realize their dream of returning to the Holy Land,” wrote Perednik in his Times of Israel blog, referring to Israel’s initial efforts to rescue persecuted Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s. The Beta Israel of today “are members of active Jewish communities whose religious lives revolve around their synagogues, who maintain laws of family purity with their mikvahs, and who attend classes on Judaism, and are nonetheless alienated by the establishment.”
Some aid groups charge that the poverty and unemployment in Ethiopian Jewish communities are directly related to their nebulous immigrant status. “The situation is worse than most [for] most Ethiopians” in their cities, Perednik explained. He said the government’s encouragement for them to seek aliyah meant that they were forced to sell their property and quit their jobs in order to come to the cities in which they now live.
“About 80 percent of the people in these communities have family in Israel. I know many cases here in which there could be almost an entire family [living] in Israel – the mother, the father, brothers and sisters, and one sister or one brother is left behind. Or you could have all the children here [in Israel] and the parents left behind. Many of these people in Israel, brothers and sisters, are in the army and grew up in Israel, feel Israeli and Jewish.”
At the heart of the issue concerning the families’ immigrant status is the question of their Jewish ethnicity. In 2003, the government mandated that all future Beta Israel immigrants must be able to show matrilineal ancestry. Prior to that date, Beta Israel immigrants who could show either matrilineal or patrilineal heritage were eligible.
The problem with the change in the ruling, said Hila Bram, co-founder of the London-based relief organization Meketa, is that traditional Ethiopian Jewish communities still follow the patrilineal Jewish ancestry, and have done so for thousands of years. Patrilineal heritage is believed to have been common in early biblical times, and many of the cultural traditions of ancient Ethiopian Judaism are distinct from those followed by Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish communities.
“The Jewish state has turned around and said we take you by the religion of your mother, whereas Western Judaism until the second century and Judaism in Ethiopia until now, take you [as Jewish] by your father,” Bram explained in an interview from her residence in England. “And that has really added to the confusion and to the problematic nature of all of this for Ethiopian Jews. By their society, you are the religion of your father, who is the head of the household.”
According to both Perednik and Bram, the cessation of Jewish Agency services on Aug. 28 meant the closure of all religious and educational services in Gondar, as well. Perednik said the remaining community members were devastated by the closure of the synagogue, given that it is used daily. Since the closure, the Ethiopian Jewish organizations Hatikvah and South Wing to Zion have stepped forward to raise the rental costs to keep the synagogue open. The Torah, which had been removed by the Jewish Agency, was later returned with Negusie’s assistance. The Jewish school has not been reopened. Students have been transferred to public schools, where there is no provision for Jewish education.
Since the Jan. 1 convention, effort has been stepped up by Beta Israel community members to convince the Israeli government to review the situation in Ethiopia. In December, an appeals committee visited Gondar to assess the situation, but the trip was delayed by snowfall in Israel, and Bram said that the team had only one day to assess the situation. The report is not due to be released for another month or two.
SAEJ released a statement last week calling on the government to increase the immediate powers of the appeals committee and to accept those applicants who meet the following criteria: “They are descendants of Ethiopian Jews from [either] their mother or their father; they left their villages and have been waiting for years in Addis Ababa and Gondar; [they were] listed earlier with the Ministry of Interior; they live as Jews; and they have close relations in Israel: parents, children, brothers, sisters.”
The committee also made a formal appeal that the government change the terminology it uses concerning community members in Ethiopia. “[The] committee is protesting the government[’s] use of the derogatory name Falashmura.” The ancient name was ascribed to the community by non-Jews hundreds of years ago, and implies in polite context one who is a “stranger.” The community has elected the name Beta Israel, meaning “Children of Israel,” for members of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel who were granted aliyah earlier, and Zara Israel (Descendants of Israel) for those who are descendants of the original community and are awaiting aliyah.
Jan Lee’s articles have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, thedailyrabbi.com and Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism. She also writes on sustainable business practices for TriplePundit.com. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.