Author Archives: symirr

A Boy Named David

by Symi Rom-Rymer

David, the recently released feature film directed by Joel Fendelman and written by Fendelman and Patrick Daly, sets out to tell one story, but ends up telling two. The first is about the accidental meeting of two boys, Daud and Yoav, one Muslim, and one Jewish, from the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn who manage to break out of their religious bubbles and form an unlikely friendship. The second is the story of the accidental meeting of the same two boys, one the son of immigrant parents and the other of American parents.

In the first story, religion plays a complex role: at once uniting and dividing the protagonists. Initially, it is the reason Daud and Yoav meet. Eleven year-old Yoav forgets his prayer book on a park bench after studying with his friends.  Watching from afar, Daud, a somber and often lonely child, is curious about the boy who seems as intent on his religious studies as he is on his. Noticing the forgotten book, Daud tries to return it. Unfortunately, Yoav is too far away to hear him. Daud follows him to his yeshiva only to find the door locked. When he returns the following day, he is mistaken for a lost pupil and shepherded into a class.

Now calling himself David, he suddenly finds friendships in the yeshiva classroom that had previously eluded him. Soon, his life is full of basketball and splashing in the waves at Coney Island. As euphoric as he is with his new friendship, Daud is still insecure, driving a wedge into the boys’ otherwise genuine friendship. Daud is fearful to admit the truth about his religion. He remembers his father’s admonition that “Jews don’t like Arabs” and does not believe that his new friends would accept him if they knew who he really was.

That fear is present throughout the film. Indeed, one could come away from the film thinking of Muslims as dour and Jews as joyful. The main Muslim characters seem to have little happiness with their lives, grappling as they are with seemingly insurmountable obstacles: traditional parents, feelings of exile and heavy spiritual responsibilities (Daud’s father is the Imam for their community). Daud’s interactions with his parents are serious and reserved. By contrast, the Jewish characters seem to be the picture of confidence. Yoav jokes easily with his family and friends and laughingly drags Daud on various adventures around New York City.

What saves the film from falling into simplistic clichés is that there is a larger context for these behaviors. The boys are not only of different religious backgrounds, but also have vastly different connections to the United States.  Daud’s immigrant fammily and the serious atmosphere of his home life underscores the struggles newcomers to America often face. How will religious and other traditions be passed on from one generation to the next in a country that prides itself on its plurality? Will family ties be broken if one member leaves home to go to college? What is the best way to keep a family together in the face of an unfamiliar culture?

Yoav and his parents, on the other hand, appear to face few, if any, of these existential concerns.  Instead, they exude instead a more light-hearted demeanor that suggests a sense of security and well-being in the United States.

According to the filmmakers, they set out to tell the story of what happens when two boys from Muslim and Jewish backgrounds become friends in the absence of political and historical baggage—building from the premise that the power of basketball is stronger than that of religious stereotypes. Yet as they show it, while a love of sports and a case of mistaken identity may mask the boys’ overt differences, they cannot escape their backgrounds. Daud’s struggles with internal doubt over who he is casts a pall over his growing friendship with Yoav, who cannot understand his friend’s personal turmoil.

The filmmakers may have missed the target of their original conceit, but they have succeeded in presenting a heartfelt coming-of-age story about a young boy searching for what it means to live in the United States as the child of immigrants and as a Muslim. Hopefully one day, he will figure it out.

Hate Speech in the Netherlands

by Symi Rom-Rymer

Last week, popular far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders was acquitted of all charges of inciting hatred against Muslims.  The allegations made against him were based on his provocative statements that likened the Koran to Mein Kampf and called Islam a fascist religion.  The judges, after just 20 minutes of deliberation, threw out the case.  According to the BBC, “although the [judges] found [Wilders’] warning of a ‘tsunami’ of immigrants to be on the border of what is permissible, they said he had stayed within the bounds of the law.  [The] judges called some of Mr. Wilders’ comments ‘crude and denigrating,’ but not illegal.”  Buoyed by his success, Wilders gave a victory speech following the verdict in which he did nothing to tamp down the controversy surrounding him.  Instead, he declared that his win was a slap in the face to the Islamiziation of Europe.

Wilders is infamous in the Netherlands for fanning the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment.  He has written inflammatory pieces in the Dutch media about Muslims and other non-Western immigrants and in 2008, made a film, Fitna, that depicted Islam as inherently violent.  His involvement in anti-Muslim speech does not stop at the Dutch borders.  Last year, he brought his act to the United States.  During the debate over Park51, the proposed mosque near Ground Zero, he joined Newt Gingrich at a rally to oppose the building of the mosque.

It is deeply disheartening that in the Netherlands, where it is illegal to deny the Holocaust and where there are strict laws on hate speech, language clearly used to denigrate the Muslim minority population was deemed permissible. During the Second Intifada in Israel, a French journalist commented that his country’s government only recognizes anti-Semitism if it’s goose-stepping down the Champs Elyseé in jackboots.  It appears that the Dutch courts are similarly limited in their perceptions of hate speech.

Given its history and the laws in other EU countries, it is understandable why Holocaust denial, and by extension attacks on Dutch Jews, is considered a crime in the Netherlands.  However, protection from vile and ignorant language in the public sphere should not only apply to those in the Jewish community.  Other minority groups, too, should be able expect legal protection from hate speech.  While the Holocaust is an extreme example, it is worth remembering that the deep-seated hatred and rage that helped fuel it was not created in a vacuum.  It was in part the product of centuries of accepted discrimination and hate speech left unchecked.  Based on the right-wing response to the ruling, there is now a sense that a taboo has been lifted and the boundaries of acceptable rhetoric have widened.  The hate-filled rhetoric aimed at Muslims and other non-Western minorities is spewed by those who now, more than ever, feel a freedom to feed the existing atmosphere of anger and suspicion in the Netherlands.  As John Tyler, political editor at Radio Netherlands told the BBC, “This is a precedent-setting case that now allows people to feel like they can say more than they felt they could say before.”

According to the State Department website, in December 2009, Dutch politician and former EU commissioner Frits Bolkstein suggested that Dutch Jews should emigrate because of rising incidences of anti-Semitism, a statement that he later denied amid criticism.  If Wilders and his supporters continue their rhetoric against Muslims and other non-Western immigrants living in the Netherlands, perhaps other Dutch politicians will suggest that Muslims, too, should leave the country.  If they do, will anybody care?

Shuttering Yale’s Center on Anti-Semitism

By Symi Rom-Rymer

Yale University announced yesterday that it is closing its Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA). According to Thomas Mattia, an official from the university’s Public Affairs office, the center is being closed down because it “was found in its routine faculty review to not have met its academic expectations.”

Faster than you can say ‘anti-Semite,’ Yale’s decision has launched a contentious debate.  Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called it “particularly unfortunate and dismaying” and a victory for anti-Jewish groups.  David Harris of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) said it would “create a very regrettable void” in anti-Semitism scholarship.

The trouble seems to stem from a 2010 YIISA conference entitled ‘Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity’ which focused on anti-Semitism in the Muslim world.  According to the Jerusalem Post and other Jewish media, unidentified sources said that Yale closed down YIISSA because of pressure from outside groups who wanted to shut down discussions around Muslim anti-Semitism, not because of any academic failures.  Not everyone who made the link between the shuttering of the center were anonymous, however.  Walter Reich, a professor at George Washington University and former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, wrote a fiery op-ed in the Washington Post decrying Yale’s decision, placing the blame on pressure from Muslim students, activists and others because of the discussion of Muslim anti-Semitism.  “Why did Yale kill the institute?” Reich asks.  “The answer is simple,” he says.  “The conference provoked a firestorm,” and as a result, “Yale administrators and faculty quickly turned on the institute. It was accused of being too critical of the Arab and Iranian anti-Semitism and of being racist and right-wing.”

The left-wing blogosphere has responded by calling the conference “flawed by an ultra-Zionist agenda that compromises its academic integrity.”  While not going so far as to call the conference an exercise in hate-mongering—as a PLO representative to the United States did—many bloggers wrote that by focusing primarily on anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, alongside other controversial topics like Jewish self-hatred, the conference became more focused on a certain political, rather than academic, agenda. Yet, like their conservative counterparts, many liberals have also argued against the closing of the center, advocating instead for a change of tone.

The bigger question is: Do we really need another institute that looks at contemporary anti-Semitism?  In the US alone, every major city has a museum dedicated to study of the Holocaust, which often sponsor lectures from professors and others on contemporary anti-Semitism.  Major American Jewish organizations from the ADL to the AJC to the Simon Wiesenthal Center focus significant time and energy on the topic.  Prominent American universities have Jewish studies departments, which tackle current anti-Semitism in academic fora.  A quick Google search will show that there is no shortage of conferences at any of these institutions with titles like “Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives” or “Antisemitism in Contemporary Europe.”  And that’s just the United States.  We haven’t even gotten to Israel.

In his op-ed, Reich argues that if Yale stands by its decision, another university should welcome the center onto its own campus, but another conference or lecture hosted at yet another university with experts or activists speaking on contemporary anti-Semitism is not going to put an end to this type of hatred.  In its mission statement YISSA’s director Charles Small called for a center that would “explore [anti-Semitism] in a comprehensive, interdisciplinary framework from an array of approaches and perspectives as well as regional contexts.”   As important as that kind of forum is, it already exists many times over. It would be a better use of resources to have a center that focuses not on less visible topics rather than the well-worn themes of hatred and anger.  It could look at questions like, what is being done around the world to counter forms of anti-Semitism?  Who are the leaders and activists engaged in that work and what lessons do they have to teach us?  Where are Jewish communities growing and flourishing?  What does that mean for world Jewry?  How do these lessons apply to others?  And so on.   To create a center at a big-name university aimed at fostering those kinds of debates would truly be something different.  Who will be the first to rise to the challenge?

Is NPR Anti-Israel?

by Symi Rom-Rymer

It’s practically impossible for a news organization, especially one like NPR, that is considered left-of-center, to cover the Middle East conflict and not to be accused, by someone, of being anti-Israel. A quick Google search shows that people across the spectrum have taken issue with NPR and its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  In 2000, CAMERA (The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), a conservative pro-Israel media watchdog group, called the station’s coverage of Israel hostile, adding that it presented Israel as “morally reprehensible.” In May of this year, it criticized the Diane Rehm Show, saying that Rehm “stacked the deck against Israel” in a segment. Of course, it’s not only pro-Israel advocates who take issue with NPR’s Middle East reporting. In 2001, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), a liberal media watchdog group, quoted Arab-American media critic Ali Abuminah saying that NPR’s coverage of Israeli attacks on Palestinians was, “cursory, inconsistent and wholly inadequate.”

NPR is no stranger to controversy. In the past year alone, it has been excoriated for firing Juan Williams and for remarks made by the now-former NPR executive Ron Schiller about the Tea Party. Congress, pushed by conservative Republican representatives, recently debated a bill that would eliminate government funding for its programming. All this contention has not escaped the notice of NPR hosts and reporters. In March, on the NPR show “On the Media,” host Brooke Gladstone and Ira Glass, of “This American Life,” looked at the charges of liberal bias leveled against NPR by conservative lawmakers and commentators. They broke down certain segments and discussed, with input from self-defined conservative listeners, instances of suspected liberal favoritism.

In addition, Gladstone interviewed three different media analysts who had conducted studies on bias in the news. According Steve Rendal from FAIR, NPR did in fact have a bias: a conservative one. Tim Groseclose, a professor in the Economics and Political Science Department at UCLA, and Jeff Milyo, an economics professor at the University of Missouri, carried out their own study which showed that NPR did, in fact, have a liberal bias, but so did 18 out of the 20 media outlets it evaluated, including The Wall Street Journal.  Finally, Gladstone interviewed Tom Rosenstiel, of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, part of the Pew Research Center. He found that NPR’s coverage was as neutral as or more conservative than other major American news outlets. The results, in other words, were inconclusive.

Although we might think of ideal journalism as a purely objective reporting of the facts, that is simply not the reality. Each individual reporter has his or her own biases, and so does each news organization. It’s impossible not to. These biases come not only from how we see the world as adults but from our experiences growing up. Our ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, our families, our friends, our education–formal and informal–all inform how we see the world.

How each media outlet chooses to handle that subjective reality, however, is a different matter. Seven years ago, NPR, perhaps in response to criticism it received from Jewish and Arab groups, asked John Felton, foreign editor at NPR and former foreign affairs reporter for Congressional Quarterly, to compile annual quarterly reports assessing NPR’s Middle East coverage. Each report breaks down the coverage into various catagories, including Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, and Voices. One of the most interesting findings in his reports is that while the critics on both sides seems to think that NPR’s coverage is too extreme on one side or the other, Felton feels that NPR does not push the envelope enough. In several reports he mentions that the commentators and analysts invited on various shows represent the milder opinions on the conflict and that a lack of radical views offers a limited picture of the mindset of many in the region.

In the “On the Media” piece, one of Gladstone’s conservative listeners commented that he didn’t so much oppose certain stories themselves, but rather took issue with the tone that was used, especially by some of the journalists. It wasn’t something concrete that he could point to, but rather a general feeling. As Felton points out in his reports, NPR, like many news outlets, occasionally makes mistakes in its coverage. Sometimes it misquotes a casualty figure or poorly translates an interviewee or misrepresents a situation. But on the whole, these actual errors are few. CAMERA, Abuminah, and others are, like Gladstone’s listener, likely reacting to an emotional feeling they get when comparing the broadcasts to their very particular point of view rather than to an objective shortcoming. For them, NPR may never get it right. But at least they’re trying.


Lars von Trier Acts Up…Again

By Symi Rom-Rymer

This past week at the Cannes International Film Festival, Danish film director and provocateur Lars von Trier announced in a press conference for his most recent film, Melancolia, that he understood Hitler and that Israel was a “pain in the ass.”  These comments and several others, made in response to a question by a journalist about his self-described ‘Nazi aesthetic,’ predictably caused an instantaneous uproar at the festival.  Cannes organizers responded by banning von Trier from the festival. Jason Solomons, chairman of the Film Critics’ Circle in London told Reuters that he believes the political furor in the wake of von Trier’s remarks will prevent the festival from considering his current entry for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top award.

The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors & Their Descendants (AGJHSTD), an umbrella organization of survivors groups, immediately issued a statement applauding the festival’s decision.  “This is a welcome action which declares to the world that the suffering of victims is not a fit subject for mockery or casual self-promotion.…The organizers of the Cannes Film Festival have eloquently taken a determined moral stand against cavalier expressions of hate and insensitivity to those brutalized by the Nazis—Jew and non-Jew.”

Von Trier seems to enjoy courting controversy.  In 2005, he said that “President Bush dreams of being spanked by Condeleezza Rice.” Indeed, just before he launched into his Hitler-themed ramblings at Cannes, he mentioned that he was planning to make a four hour porn film starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, the female leads from Melancolia, with lots of “uncomfortable sex.”  Danish photographer Martin Hoien, who was covering von Trier for a Danish newsmagazine, told The New York Times that among Danes, the filmmaker has a reputation as a provocateur. He observed that “It’s not a surprise that he said what he said. Mr. von Trier is uncomfortable doing press [conferences] and seems to act out because of it.”

It is tempting to jump on the anti-von Trier bandwagon and add to the expressions of outrage.  After all, he is an adult and must therefore have some understanding of (and take responsibility for) the impact that his words would have on his audience.  But examining the situation more closely, it really isn’t worth all the indignation. The AGJHSTD said that the Holocaust is not “fit for mockery” and they are right.  But von Trier was not mocking the Holocaust.  He did not denigrate its victims or their suffering.  His use of politically loaded words: ‘Nazi’ and ‘Hitler’ was dumb, but using outrageous language is not equivalent to mocking others pain.  His remarks that he ‘understood’ and even ‘sympathized with Hitler’ have been blown out of proportion. Articles about the incident have led with sensationalist headlines, “’I’m A Nazi…I Understand Hitler” or “Lars Von Trier Declares Himself A Nazi, Hitler Sympathizer.”  Out of context, his comments are, indeed, deeply troubling.  One might even assume, based on headlines alone, that von Trier is a closet neo-Nazi.  Taken within the larger context of his body of work, however, his remarks have a different meaning.  Von Trier has made a career out of making films with dark plots and destructive protagonists, such as Antichrist and Dogville. That he might  be fascinated with a dark and disturbed historical figure such as Hitler would not be surprising given the themes that he repeatedly returns to in his films.

Over the past week, there has been a great deal of space online and in print devoted to this latest Cannes controversy.  Much of the reaction from the press or from Jewish groups, however, is little more than political theater.  If von Trier wants to call himself ‘a Nazi’ or say that he understands Hitler to attract attention to his film, then let him.  He is not using his media pulpit to call for another Holocaust or express solidarity with today’s neo-Nazis or truly saying anything that could harm anyone other than himself and the actors—by dint of association—who acted in his film.  Until he does, we might all save some valuable energy and react as the Danish photographer Hoien did when he heard von Trier’s comments: roll our eyes and walk away.

Bosnian Jews and the Siege of Sarajevo

By Symi Rom-Rymer

People have wrestled with the question of what drives human beings to commit genocide since the end of the Holocaust.  Less often considered is the flip side: Why do some societies subsumed by violence not lead to genocide?  A paper recently presented at the annual Association for the Study of Nationalities conference, held at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, examines two cases of recent genocides in which two different religious minority groups not only abstained from the mass killings, but actively tried to help those who were under threat.  The instance most pertinent to this forum is the case of the Sarajevo Jewish community, who in the midst of the Bosnian War (1992-1996), rescued, fed, and even educated those who were attempting to escape the military onslaught.

The Jewish presence in Bosnia dates back to the 16th century.  Chased out of Spain and Portugal, Jews found a welcoming haven in the regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.  For nearly 500 years, Jews flourished in Bosnia, settling primarily in Sarajevo, the capital city.  Under Josip Tito, the prime minister and later president of Yugoslavia from 1943-1980, the Jewish community in Bosnia subsumed their Jewish identity and heritage into a larger Yugoslav identity, like many Jews did elsewhere in Communist Eastern Europe.   Francine Friedman, the author of the paper, explains that the multiethnic mix of Bosnia before the war resulted in widespread intermarriage between all the major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Many Jews were assimilated into the larger culture and considered themselves to be Yugoslav first and Jewish second.

The Bosnian war of the early 1990s, however, smashed that secular-religious construct.  Since the war hinged not only on a nationalist, but also religious, identification, Friedman argues that it was impossible for Jews to continue to maintain their pan-ethnic Yugoslav identity.  On the other hand, they could not consider themselves Serbs, Croats, or Bosnians since each of those ethnicities was closely aligned with specific religious beliefs, even though many individuals in each of those groups were secular.  There was very little choice then but for Jews to reengage with their Jewish identity.  In fact, one of the unexpected by-products of the Bosnian war was the discovery of just how many Jews lived in Sarajevo.  As Sonja Elazar, the wartime president of Bohoreta, the Sarajevo Jewish community women’s association, described to Friedman, “We had more and more members [coming to us] all the time….I was so surprised when I even saw some people [at the Jewish community building] from my company, people who had worked with me on the same floor,” but had not previously publicly identified themselves as Jewish.

The Bosnian war is one of the few European ethnic conflicts of the 20th century that did not target the Jewish community. Even the propaganda that preceded the ethno-religious conflict did not reference Jews or the Jewish community.  As the animosity among the Serbs, Croats, and the Bosnian intensified, Jews were left in a unique position. Independent from each of the warring factions—they were even offered an opportunity to leave Sarajevo at the beginning of the siege of the city—the Jewish community had access to food, medical supplies and other goods during the war that were unavailable to the rest of the population.  Although some did leave (primarily women, children, and the elderly), most stayed and offered assistance to Jews and non-Jews alike.  They set up pharmacies and soup kitchens at different points in Sarajevo. Through these actions, the Jewish community of Sarajevo kept, in a small and ephemeral way, the multiethnic experiment that was Yugoslavia alive. Ivan Čerešnješ, president of the Jewish Community in Sarajevo and later president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina (1988-1996), poignantly summed up the Jewish response when he said, “I am proud to affirm that we Jews are faithful to our country, Bosnia and Herzegovina….In these horrible times, when our brothers and sisters, relatives and friends are exterminating each other we have been working especially hard to keep our doors open to everyone to provide sanctuary, help, and friendship.”

So why did the Jewish community actively take steps to help those who were at risk?  Friedman hypothesizes that the secular nature of the Jewish community, with its belief in a multi-confessional Yugoslavia and a strong leadership that advocated policies of non-political engagement during the war, were key factors in this particular conflict. In all of the discussions about genocide and its causes, it is easy to overlook examples that offer a sliver of hope amidst the darkness of war. We may not yet understand why some are able to resist the lure of violence but studies such as this one is an important step towards discovering that elusive answer.

Celebrating Bin Laden’s Death

By Symi Rom-Rymer

When President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden in the late hours of May 1st, the country breathed collective sigh of relief.  Spontaneous celebrations broke out in front of The White House, at Ground Zero and in Times Square.  College students mugging for the camera chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A!”  There were even some reports of kegs.  Eugene Robinson, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote the next day,  “The flag-waving, horn-honking crowd that converged at the White House Sunday night was brimming with unrestrained joy, unmitigated patriotism and a sense of unlimited possibility—which meant Osama bin Laden had suffered not only death but defeat as well.”

The frat-party atmosphere, however, made others queasy.  The sense of unease seems to come not so much from the question of whether it was right to kill Bin Laden, or even whether to rejoice at his death, but rather how to express that feeling.  Several readers wrote in to Robinson’s weekly live chat on the Washington Post, expressing their ambivalence over the hyped-up atmosphere that seemed more in line, as one reader commented, with a sports game than with someone’s death.  Robinson defended his position, saying, “I’m cheering. The man was a mass murderer—not a henchman, but the leader who ordered the 9/11 attacks, among other atrocities. I don’t usually celebrate death, but I’m making an exception.”

Conversely, President Obama—who arguably has the most reason to cheer—announced the news at a sober press conference in his typical calm, professorial style.  The words that he said were explosive but there was no cheering, no fist pump and no ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner.

This ambivalence is not limited to the secular world.  The Jewish religious response has been equally varied.  Some, like Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center representing the Jewish Renewal movement in Philadelphia, have turned to the story of Passover as a guide for how to respond.  In a recent New York Jewish Week article, he commented that although Jews narrowly escaped death at the hands of their Egyptian pursuers, God cautioned angels not to rejoice at the drowning in the Red Sea of the Egyptians who pursued the Jews escaping their bondage. They too were God’s creations, after all.  According to the same article, others like Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz teaches his yeshiva students  that “most sources permit celebration of the death of a person who is ‘objectively evil’ as distinct from someone with whom an individual may have a dispute.”

Jews know what it means to have suffered at the hands of bloodthirsty tyrants, determined to exterminate them.  The almost karmic timing of the killing of Bin Laden and Yom Ha’Shoah—the slaughter of innocents temporarily avenged by the death of a more contemporary mass murderer—has not gone unnoticed.  Yet we should also recognize that even the death of an “objectively evil” person does not wipe clean the suffering he inflicted.  Last week, I wrote about Sonia Reich, a woman who continues to be haunted by her childhood during the Holocaust, over sixty years ago.  Those who lost family on September 11th or in the subsequent wars will be similarly haunted by their losses, even after the death of those responsible.  Instead of celebrating our success with Bronx cheers, perhaps a more fitting response is a somber appreciation for what was done on our behalf. We may have won this battle but it has come at great human expense. And the war is not yet over.

The First and Final Nightmare

By Symi Rom-Rymer

When 69 year-old Sonia Reich ran out of her Skokie home late one February evening in 2001, no one knew why.  Insisting that a man was trying to “put a bullet in my head,” she refused to go home. This anecdote opens the haunting book, “The First and Final Nightmare of Sonia Reich” by Chicago Tribune Jazz critic Howard Reich.

Holocaust memoirs have conventionally ended in 1945 with survivors emerging from the years of darkness and terror, hardened but resolute. Reich’s hybrid memoir/biography, however, is part of a growing trend of books by children of Holocaust survivors who explore what happens next.  The end of the war seemed to give his mother a sense freedom and even allow her to achieve modest prosperity.  She arrived in the United States in 1947 at 16 years old and built a comfortable American middle class life for herself: a husband, two children, and a house in Skokie, a predominantly Jewish, middle-class suburb of Chicago.

But behind the veneer of normality, a different life was playing out.  It was the life of a woman still on the run from those who threatened her as a child.  Reich tells how his mother would triple lock the doors to their house and unconvinced of their strength, would check them over and over again.  She would keep a vigilant watch at the living room window at night, afraid of who might come to threaten her family.

Growing up, Reich knew little of his mother’s Holocaust experience except that she was on the run for three years.  Like many children of survivors, his childhood was deeply informed by his mother’s experiences without really knowing her stories.  Family get-togethers would often devolve into shouting matches and contests over whose Holocaust experience was the worst, but Reich simply assumed that was normal. He never drew the connection between their experiences during the war and their current psychological states.   But his father’s death put an end to his ignorance.

In the years following her husband’s death, Sonia’s world slowly contracted. She no longer ventured out for the small excursions she used to enjoy: going to the local Jewish deli for matzoh ball soup or going shopping. She instead started to spend most of the time seeking refuge behind the walls of her house, until the fateful day the anonymous man in her head chased her out of her house, insisting he would kill her.

It turns out, however, that the man was not so anonymous, nor was he truly a figment of Sonia’s imagination, conjured up by a delusional mind.  He did exist, albeit 59 years ago, in the form of a Nazi soldier who threatened to kill 10 year-old Sonia by putting a bullet through her head in her hometown of Dubno, Poland. Reich eventually realizes his mother is suffering from late-onset Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the psychological condition now most commonly associated with recently returning war veterans.   As Reich digs deeper into the illness and its causes, he comes to understand that it afflicts not only soldiers but civilians exposed to the traumas of war as well.   Moreover, the extent of his mother’s PTSD is so great that not only is she suffering from the usual symptoms (sleeplessness and hypervigilance among others) but that she also, as Reich writes, “had so deeply absorbed her childhood traumas into the fabric of her being that there simply was no way she could ever escape them…they were replaying themselves in an endless loop in her traumatized psyche.”

The book’s greatest strength is the powerful and personal way Reich brings to light this little-discussed form of PTSD.  As difficult as it was for many the post-war era to come to terms with the Holocaust, it is similarly difficult to accept that there was often no happy ending for its survivors.  This not a simple case of denial by loved ones, or indeed by the survivors themselves.  According to Reich, even the medical community does not fully understand or recognize the causes of late onset PTSD.  By opening up a painful part of his life to readers, however, he offers an invaluable opportunity to better understand the life-long toll that such a trauma can have.

Editor’s Note: Read a review of Howard Reich’s book, written by Moment editor and publisher Nadine Epstein, here. And learn about the film Prisoner of Her Past, based on Reich’s book, here.

Reflecting on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

by Symi Rom-Rymer

One hundred years ago today, 146 immigrant women, primarily Jewish and Italian, died while trying to escape a fire that raged through the upper floors of the sweatshop where they worked. In closed-off rooms full of highly flammable scrape of fabric and swirls of cigarette smoke, anything could have set off the blaze; its cause has never been determined.

As we commemorate those who lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire this week, the tragic aspects often stand out the most: the avoidable deaths, the destitute families left behind and the seemingly heartless factory owners. It is especially chilling to remember that the factory owners themselves were Jewish and had helped to bring over many of the women who were killed in the fire.  They apparently cared enough about their fellow Jews to help them come to America, but not enough to secure their safety once they arrived.

But there were also more positive consequences, which are discussed less frequently. Many key aspects of our social safety net, however imperfect it may be, from building safety regulations to collective bargaining rights to social security, can trace their origins to the ashes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. One of the most prominent examples of those who drew lasting lessons from the devastation was Frances Perkins, who later became the first female Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While visiting a friend in Greenwich Village only a few streets away from the factory on the 25th of March, she and her friend heard the fire trucks and the screams of those trapped in the building.  As they stood on the pavement in front of the factory that day, they could do nothing but watch the women jump to their death.  It was a pivotal moment in Perkins’ life and a catalyst for the reforms that she would help to bring about under the FDR administration.  As labor secretary 22 years later, she helped to create social security, unemployment insurance, and legislation on bargaining rights, all institutions that many of us today take for granted.  As  Hilda Solis, the current US secretary of labor, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed reflecting on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and its consequences, “Perkins clearly had the Triangle victims in mind as she weaved the nation’s social safety net.”

But much of the work that went into ameliorating the situation for immigrant garment workers, and others, after the fire came from within the Jewish community, not from national legislators. Even prior to 1911, Jewish activists had pushed for changes to sweatshop working conditions.  Many women played an important role in the reforms, among them the 23-year-old Claire Lemlich, who helped to launch the “Uprising of the 20,000” in 1909 that brought about a massive strike in New York’s garment district.

Following the fire, the Jewish labor unions agitated for greater protection for those whom the larger American society had largely ignored: its immigrant laborers and, specifically, its Jewish immigrant laborers.   Because these unions did not let the fire or its causes recede from the public’s mind, they also played a important role in universalizing the experience of immigrants in America and forever changed how non-Jewish Americans saw their Jewish neighbors.  As Richard Greenwald, author of The Triangle Fire, The Protocols of Peace, and Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York, explained in a recent article in the Forward, “The Triangle fire turned what was considered “a Jewish problem” into a national symbol of reform, and helped move Jews from the margins of society into the mainstream…It seemed to instantly become a national symbol of the dangers of unregulated workplaces and unprotected workers. It was no longer just a Jewish or an immigrant issue. It was an American problem now.”

So where are we today?  Judging from the heated debate in Wisconsin over collective bargaining and the traumatic stories from Hispanic and Asian immigrants forced to work in sweatshops in terrible conditions, the legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire is far from secure.  A century may feel like a long time, but many of the same struggles remain.  Here, on the cusp of the next 100 years, let’s hope that we can continue to absorb and remember the lessons of the past as we move forward towards the future.

Shalom Y’all

By Symi Rom-Rymer

“Stand up and introduce yourselves,” invited the speaker on the Bima.  “I want to know where y’all are from.”   Unaccustomed to such warmth from strangers, Northerner that I am, I tentatively stood and was immediately rewarded with a welcoming smile.  Fifteen minutes into Shabbat services at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE), it was clear I’d left New York City far behind.  Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I am hardly the first Jew to find such a friendly greeting in Charleston, South Carolina.

Charleston is often called ‘The Holy City’ with good reason.  Church steeples dot the skyline and Sunday mornings are alive with church bells.  But its nickname also dates back to the Colonial era when it was one of the few cities that allowed most immigrants to worship freely, whatever their religious affiliation.  Jews, like many others, flourished in the tolerant atmosphere.   It may be hard to imagine that another American city could be as important to American Jewry as New York but until the Civil War, Charleston was the epicenter of Jewish life in North America.   Like New York, the city’s first Jews were Sephardi, coming primarily from Portugal with  German Jews following soon afterward.  By 1800, Charleston boasted the largest Jewish population of anywhere in the United States.  Only 40 years later, it became the birthplace of American Reform Judaism.

Following the Civil War, however, the fortunes of Charleston’s Jewish community, like those of Charleston itself, declined sharply and it lost the prestige it previously held.  Jews that came to the United States in subsequent waves of Jewish immigration flocked to other cities and by 1902, Charleston had lost its unofficial status as the Jewish capital of the United States.

Charleston may no longer be the Jewish powerhouse it once was, but it is still home to a vibrant community with three synagogues.   KKBE, the oldest Reform synagogue in the United States, is currently home to 500 families and recently hired its first female Rabbi, Stephanie Alexander.  Following services, I had the opportunity to speak with Rabbi Alexander and she offered me a taste of what contemporary Jewish life is like in Charleston.

How does it feel to be the first female rabbi of KKBE?
People are either impressed or taken aback that I’m a women and that I’m young.  I had one family say to me that I was breaking every stereotype.  There was so much chatter about my coming to Charleston, and people would come up to me and say, ‘we hear such wonderful things about you.’  I would answer, ‘that’s funny, I’ve heard that I’m young and a woman!’  But I recognize it is an honor to be the first woman and I see it as such.

How integrated do you feel Jews are in Charleston?
They’re very well integrated.  Everyone in Charleston is related to each other.  You might bring up an issue or ask a question and because of who someone knows or who someone is related to, there is a vast network at your disposal.  For example, I was contacted earlier this week by a family whose unborn baby was diagnosed with a heart condition.  The father is a Reform Jew and wanted to be blessed by me.  When the baby was 4 days old, the president of the synagogue brought to my attention that he was friends with the head of the pediatric department of the local hospital.  He then personally watched over the family while they were in the hospital.  People want to be mobilized to help; it’s a wonderful, beautiful thing.

Is KKBE’s congregation is continuing to grow?
Yes.  We’re attracting people across the board: young families, retirees, and others in between.  People, especially retirees who are looking for a warmer climate and a vibrant Jewish community, see that combination of factors in Charleston and at KKBE and want to move here.   This is also the first place I’ve ever been where on any given Friday night or Saturday morning during the tourist season the numbers swell.  Right now, we also have a number of people pursuing conversion.  We had to close our most recent class at 50 people.  I was very lucky to follow a rabbi who helped bring the congregation to new places and I definitely see exciting places where we can go.

Have you encountered any anti-Semitism in Charleston?
No.  Although there is a lack of sensitivity or, I suppose one might say, willful ignorance of Jewish holidays in the schools that has definitely been a challenge.  But, we haven’t had to deal with anti-Israeli sentiment which was more prevalent at my previous synagogue in Iowa.

What, if anything, makes Southern Judaism distinct?
Well, I don’t know of any other synagogue where the main course for Shabbat dinner is fried chicken!

The synagogue itself has great historical significance.  How does that affect your relationship with it and with the congregation?
I love being the sanctuary on Shabbat morning with the light that pours into through the stained glass windows.  The space feels eternal.  It could be 1850 then.  When I sing the Sh’ma, I sing the first part out loud and the response softly.  I do that because when I lower my voice with my eyes closed, I feel I can hear the voices of other people who have been there and the generations to come.  There are certain moments when it just happens and I can feel the presence of how my people have come through that space.  When I hear the organ, I have the sense of grander that this is so much bigger than me and so much bigger than this place in time and I’m so honored to be a part of it.