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Pig’s head at Lithuanian synagogue door enrages community

August 24, 2010 Leave a comment

KAUNUS, Lithuania (WJC)–Jewish organizations in Lithuania have strongly condemned an apparent neo-Nazi attack in which a pig’s head was left Saturday at the entrance of a synagogue in the city of Kaunas.

“The Lithuanian Jewish Community and the Religious Community of Lithuanian Jews judge this as Nazi provocation aimed at insulting the ethnic and religious feelings of Lithuanian Jews,” the heads of the two organizations, Simonas Alperavicius and Chief Rabbi Chaim Burstein, said in a joint statement.

Simonas Gurevicius, executive director of the Lithuanian Jewish community, told the news agency AFP that the incident should be treated as an attack on all believers, not only Jews. “We hope that Lithuanian society will not be impassive, as this act of a few anti-Semitic vandals does not reflect the attitude of Lithuanian society.”

Kaunas police have launched a formal investigation but there are no suspects so far, according to the ‘Baltic News Service’. 

Lithuania was once home to a 220,000-strong Jewish community, and Vilnius was a cultural hub and world center for the study of the Torah, also known as the ‘Jerusalem of the North’. At the end of the 19th century, there were over 100 synagogues in Vilnius. During the Holocaust, 95 percent of Lithuania’s Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators.  

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Preceding provided by World Jewish Congress

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Educational and patriotic thoughts about American music

July 22, 2010 Leave a comment

By David Amos

David Amos

SAN DIEGO–Earlier this month we celebrated our Independence Day. My thoughts brought me to the importance of American music, and the shameful neglect we have allowed music education to be. Part of this was stimulated by an article in the editorial section of the San Diego Union-Tribune by John M. Eger, on July 8.

But first, let me share with you a sensitive, meaningful poem by an anonymous music teacher, circa, well….anytime:

WHY I TEACH MUSIC:

Not because I expect you to major in music.

Not because I expect you to play or sing all your life.

Not so you can relax or have fun.

But…

So you will be human,

So you will recognize beauty,

So you will be closer to an infinite beyond this world, So you will have something to cling to, So you will have more love, compassion, more gentleness,

 More good….in short, more life!

Of what value will it be to make a prosperous living

Unless you know how to live?

On American and modern music: We have been conditioned to believe that if it is called “modern music”, or if the name of the composer is unknown to us, it is probably ugly and not worth our attention. Yes, there is a natural tendency to dislike the unknown, but in music, sadly, we do not even give it a chance to redeem itself. Even the late Karl Haas (from the enormously popular radio program “Adventures in Good Music”) told me that he sometimes received fan letters which warned him that if he as much as mentions the fact that he was about to play music from the Twentieth Century, the radio would be turned off immediately. This is tragic; it is cultural suicide.

I remember sadly an evening of music played by the San Diego Symphony, maybe fifteen years ago. In the first half was music by Robert Schumann, and after intermission, the conductor programmed the fabulous Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók. The latter is to me one of the greatest compositions ever. Period. You can imagine my disappointment, pain, and frustration to see more than half of the audience trampling its way to Symphony Hall’s exits, just to avoid listening to Bartók in the second half! In retrospect, the program order should have been reversed.

The fact is, that there is a vast amount of modern music, a lot of it composed by Americans, which is accessible, enjoyable, even at a first hearing, and very melodious. In other words, it is what I call “listener friendly”.

After being so involved with the subject of American orchestral music (I gave a lecture on the subject to the music faculty of Hebrew University in Jerusalem), I have had many a talk with musicians, critics, and music lovers. One salient fact stands out: The American public has an inferiority complex about its own music. We tend to believe that if it originated in Europe, it is probably better, and if it is from the U.S., it will be lacking in depth and lasting value. Only history will eventually resolve this, but I have noticed in my various travels and conversations that most natives from other countries support and proudly believe in their own heritage, whether it be historic or contemporary. Audiences and musicians alike enthusiastically program and attend concerts of their own composers in Canada, Poland, Denmark, England, Mexico, and the former Soviet republics. I am sure that it is the same in many other places; but don’t get me started on Israel!

Curiously, when I was invited to guest conduct in Lithuania in 1992, when working out the repertory to be performed at the concerts, I was politely asked to “please not bring any Copland, Gershwin, or Bernstein”. At first, I was surprised and a bit annoyed, already thinking of several hidden implications from that request. But after directly asking the director of the Lithuanian Philharmonic as to “why”, the answer was surprising: “We don’t want you to bring us music from these composers, because we program them too frequently, and they are very popular here. We want you to bring to us some different American music”. So, I brought them Paul Creston, Alan Hovhaness, Norman Dello-Joio, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Ernest Bloch. After the fact, the musicians told me how much they enjoyed playing the music of these composers, and the audiences seemed responsive and enthusiastic, in both Vilnius and Kaunas.

As an aside, I was told by a cellist of the Vilnius orchestra, “We are glad that you brought us the music of Bloch. During the Soviet regime, we were not allowed to perform his music, just because he was Jewish”. He also proudly showed me a printed program for later in the month, where he was performing Bloch’s Schelomo, the Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra.

Getting back to our American heritage, it is best to quote the words and spirit of one of our greatest composers, Charles Ives. He not only preached, but practiced the concept of “Wake up, America! The culture and traditions of Europe are fine, but stand up, support, and enjoy your own wonderful music”.

I fully endorse that. Let us strive to discover and enjoy totally unknown and lesser known treasures of our past and present. Be careful, you may enjoy what you hear.

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Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra and a guest conductor of professional orchestras around the world

Book Review: With so many recipes, where’s one for taiglech?

July 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Jewish Home Cooking by Arthur Schwartz,Ten Speed Press, $35

Jewish Holiday Cooking by Jayne Cohen, John Wiley and Sons, $32.50

By Marc Yaffe

Marc Yaffe

BETHESDA, Maryland–The two Jewish cookbooks that are being reviewed here were both runners-up for the 2009 James Beard Awards in their individual categories.  Clearly I am guilty of a certain hubris for selecting volumes that have already been declared among the best of the best, but I defend myself on the basis that my reviewing criteria are probably not among those applied by the selectors of the James Beard Foundation.

It is almost 40 years since I read –and saved for future reference– an article in the Arts Section of the Sunday New York Times by the noted music critic and essayist, Nat Hentoff.  In his article Mr. Hentoff wrote of his interview of Al Cohn, a noted jazz saxophonist of the day.  He quoted Mr. Cohn as saying:  “It’s what you listen to when you’re growing up that you always come back to.”  Hentoff then added:  “. . . Cohn’s Law is essentially valid in that we do not forget what brought us the most pleasure when we were younger and what most won our respect.”  It is no great stretch to apply Cohn’s Law to the foods that gave us most pleasure as children, and even today evoke the same pleasurable memories of our youth.

So when I pick up a Jewish cookbook the first thing I do is search out the recipes that my Grandmother, who emigrated from Kovna, a small village near Vilna, made regularly, especially those that graced our Passover table.  One of the first recipes I look for in the Index is Brisket.    Of course, my Grandmother used Nyafat for frying the onions and braising the brisket, and, to be sure, she salted and soaked the meat.  I can’t criticize Mr. Schwartz for employing Canola Oil, but I cannot excuse him for baking his brisket after having braised it, and not adding a small amount of water to kick-start the gravy-making process.  About midway through the cooking my Grandmother would add some par-boiled potatoes and cut up carrots.  What a joy:  Tender, juicy meat with gravy infused potatoes and carrots. 

What it all boils down to (pardon the pun) is Mr. Schwartz’s heritage:  Galitzianer or Litvak?  Clearly, when he refers to the recipes he inherited from his Mother he is a Litvak.  And while his Mother is to be excused for not coming from the same stetl as my Grandmother, her recipes, as interpreted by her son, do evoke many mouth-watering recollections.  But where is her recipe for Taiglech?  To my mind, a very serious omission.

Unlike Mr. Schwartz’s work, Jayne Cohen’s 575-page collection of recipes draws from every corner of the diaspora.   If you are ever inclined to introduce new items into your traditional holiday menu, this is the source book for you.  While it must be quite evident how much I relish my Grandmother’s pot roast, I confess to a strong curiosity to try Ms. Cohen’s Aromatic Marinated Brisket with Chestnuts.  Her Syrian Stuffed Zucchini in Tomato-Apricot Sauce, a dish for Sukkot, is suitable for any occasion.  As is her recipe for Iranian Grilled Chicken Thighs.

What Ms. Cohen offers is choices, a multitude of choices.  Are you thinking about making latkes?  She gives you not one recipe, but eleven.  There are ten recipes for matzo brei, and a like quantity for kugel.  And so on.  For most of her dishes she does have basic recipes, introducing variations subsequently.  Ms. Cohen’s work is a rich compendium of holiday fare, which, if you are inventive, can lead you to producing your own variations.

But as abundant is her collection of recipes, she, too, has omitted one for taiglech!

Kidding aside, it must be said that there is an important difference between these two volumes.  The first, Mr. Schwartz’s tome, is truly a cookbook.  It has a point of view and it tells its own story; about the foods that his family holds dear, and that he is drawn to as we are drawn to the music we heard as children.  Ms. Cohen’s work is simply a compendium of recipes.  That they are tied together by the thread of their Jewish origins there is little doubt.  I do believe, however, that her work would have been considerably more meaningful had she sought to trace the evolution of all those recipes as they made their way into the diaspora.

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Yaffe, based in Bethesda, Maryland, travels the world in search of culinary creations to compare with his bubbe’s.

Immigration: Our family’s three-continent trek

July 13, 2010 Leave a comment

By Franklin Gaylis 

SAN DIEGO — Several thousand years of Jewish history has been extremely well documented. What about our personal family’s history over the past few hundred years?

This is the question I asked myself when our children were born in the USA after my wife Jean, and I emigrated  in 1982 from South Africa. Suddenly the importance of knowing our family’s history became  a priority in my life. A visit to the Kotel in Jerusalem made me think more about our family’s history in the diaspora, over the past 2000 years. That is when the following questions evolved:

Where did the family live prior to their emigration to South Africa? How did they get to South Africa? Who came first and why? What would I tell our children about their family’s past?

I knew so little, however, I quickly learned that most of my family, even the seniors whom I questioned, knew little more than I did.

All that was known were a few names of the shtetls in Lithuania and Latvia where our family had once lived. My grandmother’s sister, Aunti Cilla, attempted in vain when I was a young medical student to tell me the family’s history in Lithuania. The memories of how she had saved her sisters from the eventual annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry suddenly resurfaced in my mind.  This amazing woman who lived to 102 years of age saved many members of our family and in doing so paved the path to South Africa. She also selflessly returned to the family’s shtetl Kruk, in Lithuania to save her sisters, including my grandmother.  How I wished that someone had listened to her stories and acknowledged her courageous actions during her lifetime. Was it possible there were any family members remaining, I asked? Fortunately, we hadn’t lost any family in the Holocaust, or so we thought.

My quest for information prompted extensive research on the Jews of Lithuania and together with family we planned a  trip to the old country. Jean and I together with four cousins (Lorraine, Richard, Uncle Dave and Jill) visited the family shtetls in Lithuania and Latvia hoping to find any relic from our family’s past: a home of one of our great grandparents, a tombstone or anything that could possibly connect us to our past. Lithuanian and Latvian Jews had migrated to these areas 700 years prior and we knew absolutely nothing about our family’s history in these countries,  other than the names of a few shtetls.

During our week visiting the shtetls with the help of local and national guides, we were fortunate to find surviving family in Ludza (Latvia), which had been my great grandfather’s home. It was  currently inhabited by Mrs Lotzov ( my grandfather was Frank Lotzof). A family tree from the Riga archives detailed seven generations starting in the early 1800s. I learned that I had been named Franklin after my grandfather Frank Lotzof, however, it was clear from the family tree that his name originally was  Afroim and this Yiddish name must have been changed to Frank in South Africa ( My Hebrew name is Ephraim). In Ludza we found a desecrated shul, a shtiebl, with an Aron Kodesh, a Bimah, hundreds of rotting machzorim, a shofar, and breast plate from a Torah as well as many other religious artifacts.

In the Ludza forest we saw the memorial to the 833 Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and local accomplices in August 1941. A prominent memorial to six Lotzof cousins, murdered and buried in the Jewish Cemetery answered this question: about whether we had lost family in the Shoah.

In Kruk we learned that one of the five sisters, Sossa, had never left for South Africa and had been killed with her five daughters. I was greatly saddened to learn of these members of our family who have never had the Kaddish prayer recited for them. They had never been remembered. We were fortunate that Aunty Cilla and my grandfather Frank Lotzof returned  to bring out many of the family prior to the Second World War. I felt some comfort that we were finally piecing together some of the family’s recent history.

Our parents, the next generation were born in South Africa. They lived good lives, were successful professionals (doctors, lawyers, businessmen….) in contrast with their parents who had acquired little formal education. My grandmother Mina who spoke only German, was chaperoned to South Hampton in England at the age of 16 or 17 years. Then she was sent to South Africa by boat never to see or speak to her parents again. What prompted them to send a young daughter on her own to a distant land never to see her again? I could only imagine how difficult life must have been for Jews in the Baltics. They obviously envisaged a better life for her in South Africa.

Several years later during  a trip back to South Africa with my parents, I was again impressed how little knowledge we had of our family’s past: Anti-Semitism was rife in Heilbron where my mother Rhoda Gaylis  (nee Lotzof) was born. Afrikaners who  were supporters of the Nazis in the war, created similar fascist groups like the  Ossewa Brandwag and Greyshirts. They had every intent in doing the same as the Nazis to the Jews of South Africa when Hitler prevailed in Europe. The fact that none of the family were aware of details of our past was perplexing  to me. When interviewing my mother who was a gifted pianist and musician, she recalled an Afrikaner family who were fond of her as she played songs for the Christians in their church. At the age of six they told her, “Rhoda, when Hitler comes we will hide you in that little chest” When she replied with “ What about my mammie and pappie?” they said “Only you Rhoda.”

How fortunate we are as a family that Frank and Cilla and their parents had the foresight to do what they did. Similarly,  my parents encouraged my wife and I to emigrate to the USA in our early 20s to provide a safer future for our children. What will be the future of our children? Will  there be a fourth continent that we move to in just over 100 years? At present we are fortunate to have almost 70 family members living here in San Diego. We meet regularly once a year for Shabbat at the La Jolla Cove. The valiant efforts of some family members to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our family indicates an ongoing  core commitment to Judaic values and principles. The same values and principles continue to maintain the family bonds here in San Diego.

This experience researching our family’s past has given me a greater appreciation for:

  • the secular and religious freedoms we have in the USA
  • the importance of family
  •  the need as Jews to be ever vigilant
  •  the central role Israel plays in our lives.

I believe the freedom and  prosperity  that we Jews have enjoyed over the past 60 years is directly related to the establishment of the state of Israel.

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Gaylis is a physician based in San Diego.  He will tell about his travels and genealogical research in a presentation called “From Shtetl to Shtetl” at 7 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 19, in the Astor Judaica Library at the Lawrence Family JCC.

New York senator calls for better preservation of Jewish cemeteries in Europe

June 4, 2010 Leave a comment

(WJC)–Kirsten Gillibrand, the US senator for New York, has asked the Obama administration to investigate reports of neglect and vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in Europe. Gillibrand, a Democrat, listed three examples, provided by Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg: Plans in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius to expand a sports complex over an ancient Jewish burial place; reportedly unauthorized digging at a cemetery in Krakow, Poland; and ancient catacombs in Rabat, Malta left in disarray, with some remains removed.

“We must preserve these historic cemeteries and ensure they are neither neglected nor forgotten,” Gillibrand said in a statement announcing that she was writing a letter about the matter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose Senate seat she inherited. “Moving or destroying these cemeteries would be an affront to family members of those buried there and would erase Jewish remnants from that time.”

Officials at the US Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, an independent government agency that deals with Jewish properties in Europe among other issues, said they were aware of the cases and were pursuing them. Building at the Vilnius burial ground has been frozen for the time being after representations on behalf of the commission.

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Preceding provided by World JewishCongress.

US lawmakers press Eastern European countries over Holocaust restitution

May 28, 2010 Leave a comment

(WJC)–Leading US lawmakers have called on Eastern European nations to advance Holocaust-era property reclamation processes. The call comes a year after the Prague Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, which declared that “every effort be made to rectify the consequences of wrongful property seizures, such as confiscations, forced sales and sales under duress of property, which were part of the persecution of (victims of the Holocaust), the vast majority of whom died heirless.”

The Helsinki Commission, the congressional branch of a multinational grouping of parliamentary human rights groups, heard testimony Tuesday from Stuart Eizenstat, the special adviser to the U.S. secretary of state on Holocaust issues. “Implementation remains very uneven,” Eizenstat said of the post-communist nations. Western European nations had for the most part resolved such issues by the time the Iron Curtain collapsed.

“Corruption, processing delays, difficulty in obtaining basic documentation and inconsistent information about the application process have marred property restitution in too many countries,” he said. “In some instances, basic legislation is still lacking. No country has been exemplary in this field, and many have been quite the opposite.”

Eizenstat singled out Poland, Romania and Lithuania as nations “where we are awaiting long overdue improvements.” Commission members pressed the faltering nations to accelerate the claims process. “Every major political party in Poland has supported draft legislation on property compensation, and I hope that the prime minister will be able to carry through on his stated commitment to see a general property law adopted,” said commission chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “In Lithuania, the 1995 property law is needlessly restrictive. I hope the government will fulfill its promises to revisit that law and ensure that communal properties, including schools and places of worship, are returned to their proper owners. Making amends for such crimes and atrocities cannot and should not drag out for yet another generation.”

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), Cardin’s co-chairman, called on the nations to retreat from applying standard inheritance laws on such exceptional cases. “There is something terribly perverse about applying the normal rules of inheritance to the extraordinary and tragic circumstances created by the Holocaust,” he said. “It is just wrong that a government can prevent a man from retrieving his own uncle’s artwork because a law says that uncle has no direct heirs. When whole families were murdered in the Holocaust, I would think such an exception should be made a part of the law.”

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Preceding provided by World Jewish Congress.

ADL lauds walkout on Ahmadinejad’s nuclear speech at U.N. conference

May 3, 2010 Leave a comment
 
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Press Release)–The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on Monday praised the countries whose delegates walked out on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at a United Nations conference after he accused the U.S., Israel and an unspecified European country of threatening Iran with nuclear weapons.
The Iranian president was delivering remarks to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review conference.

Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director issued the following statement:
 
While there may be legal and diplomatic obligations to grant Ahmadinejad the UN podium, there is also a moral obligation to condemn his words, his actions and what he stands for. Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust, denies there are homosexuals in Iran, and denies the existence of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. To this list of lies he added another – that the U.S. and Israel pose a nuclear threat to Iran, when in fact the opposite is true.
 
“We appreciate the gesture made by those states that walked out, for it sends a strong personal message to Ahmadinejad that his rants do not deserve the respect of an audience. We also appreciate UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s preemptive and public declaration that ‘the onus is on Iran’ to resolve this crisis.
 
“Ahmadinejad’s presence at the NPT conference is a perfect opportunity for the international community to send him the message that he needs to hear: If Iran doesn’t shut down its nuclear weapons program, there will be severe consequences.”
 
Representatives from the United States, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Morocco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom left the room as Ahmadinejad opened his remarks. Canada reportedly boycotted the speech from the outset.

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Preceding provided by the Anti-Defamation League