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Principal gave his ‘heart of stone’ to a school

June 5, 2010 7 comments

Ron Stone

 

Heart of Stone,  Documentary;  Director Beth Toni Kruvant; produced by Good Footage, 2009, 84 minutes, $22.00 for home use plus $10.00 shipping. Additional charges for groups and schools

By Gail Feinstein Forman

Gail Feinstein Forman

SAN DIEGO–It was through a great personal coincidence that I became familiar with the documentary, Heart of Stone, a video now making its way through Independent and Jewish film festivals and reviewed quite favorably both in the local and national media.

The narrative centers on the groundbreaking, dedicated work of Ron Stone, Principal of Weequaic High School in Newark, New Jersey from 2003-2007, and his efforts to raise this ghettoized, violent high school – he wears a bullet-proof vest to make his daily rounds-back to its days when it was one of the premier high schools in the country.

Many of Stone’s techniques were controversial, but he successfully enlisted the cooperation and financial support of largely Jewish Weequaic High School Alumni, and under Stone’s watch, a new world of educational opportunities for his high school students began to take shape.

A few weeks ago, my husband forwarded an advertisement for this documentary that had come to him at Mesa College Library for possible purchase for their collection. Because he knew that I had family that graduated Weequaic High, he thought I’d be interested to learn of the video.

Unbeknownst to my husband, immediately before I had read his Email with the advertisement, I had just been meticulously browsing through my mother’s Weequaic High School Yearbook, Class of 1941, something I had never done before.

Taking this coincidence as a “Beshert” that I yet did not understand, I immediately bought the video because of the family connection. In addition to my mother attending the school, her sister, her brother and my two cousins also were alumni, and I had spent almost every weekend of my childhood visiting these relatives in the Weequaic neighborhood.

During the 1930’s through the 1950’s, the Weequaic section of Newark was a heavily Jewish enclave, though it also encompassed a rather diverse ethnic mix, notably Italians and African Americans. At that time, there was little racial tension, and the neighborhood was considered a great place to grow up with top-notch schools, including Weequaic High School.

In that period of time, graduates of Weequaic High School had a reputation for excellence and went on to garner more PhD’s than any other high school in the country.

This was the neighborhood that Philip Roth, Weequaic graduate 1950 grew up in and immortalized in many of his novels. Roth even makes a cameo appearance in the film.

Roth was filmed at a ceremony that designated the house that he grew up in, 385 Leslie Street, an historical Newark landmark. Roth accepted the award graciously and then jokingly refers to the ceremony as “his Stockholm,” in place of his still missing yet hoped for, Nobel Prize

Unfortunately, during the 1960’s, Newark became a smoldering hotbed of racial strife, culminating in the Newark riots of 1967, when the downtown shops, many Jewish owned, were trashed and burned in angry protests.

Jews then moved out to the suburbs and the Weeequaic neighborhood lost its homey veneer.

Weequaic High School also became a victim of this downward turn. Rival gangs, the infamous Crips and Bloods, controlled the immediate streets surrounding the school, resulting in the needless deaths of many teens that attended the school.

Ron Stone was himself a product of the Newark streets. He brought himself out of poverty first, by becoming a sports champion at school and later with education.

He knew the streets, and he knew what had to be done to give the kids what he called “Options.” Stone didn’t just interact with students at school; he went to their homes to try to spur them on.

In one scene, Stone is trying to convince Rayvon, one of his students and gang leaders, to accept a four-year scholarship to Seton Hall University. Because it is so out of Rayvon’s world, it terrifies him, and Stone needed to convince him it was the right thing to do.

The story of Ron Stone as principal is much more than an example of “Tough Love.” In fact, touch love was used when necessary, but also, he just used love, tough or not. He rallied the students to conflict resolution meetings. He respected their ideas and their lives.

And of tremendous importance, in this underfunded ghetto school, Stone rallied the alumni to help him change the school back from disaster to high achievement.

The alumni heard the call and they delivered. Hal Braff, the father of Zach Braff, the film actor, was a Weequaic alumnus and played a pivotal role in establishing the Weequaic High School Alumni Association.

The film shows meetings of the mostly Jewish alumni association talking about their own years at Weequaic High School, the lasting relationships they made, and at times, dealing with anti-Semitism “on the street.” Their conversations lent insight into daily life in the Weequaic neighborhood, one woman commenting that it was so safe she could go outside and get a paper while still in her pajamas.

But the mission at hand for the alumni association was to help foster Weequaic High students towards a successful graduation, often mentioning the responsibility they had of “Tikun Olam,” repairing the world.

The alumni provided scholarships, ran fund-raising events, sent groups of students on tour to Paris and US cities for enrichment.

And it worked.

Nearly every member of the beginning high school class that attended when Ron Stone became principal in 2003 graduated in 2007.

At the graduation ceremony, gang leaders who never imagined they’d live to see the day they would or even could graduate, waved their hands, danced up to the podium and wept openly with joy.

It was Ron Stone’s finest hour-one that, you’d think would go on forever.

But after the main film ends triumphantly in 2007, a black screen appears with written text that was added in 2008. It’s a quiet moment and a shocker to read—one that will pierce even the toughest viewer’s armor.

We learn that Ron Stone died suddenly of a heart attack nine months after the famous graduation. One can’t help thinking that he gave his heart for all these kids, thus the title, Heart of Stone.

 His life and work remain his legacy.

This inspirational documentary has garnered many awards such as Best Feature Film at the Philadelphia Film Festival, The Kaiser Permanente Thrive Award, and Best Documentary Film at the New Jersey Film Festival, and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Learn more by visiting the film’s website.

 
Forman is a freelance writer based in San Diego

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Ravages of Korean War told in new Chang Rae Lee novel

May 17, 2010 Leave a comment

 The Surrendered by Chang Rae Lee, Riverhead Books ( a division of Putnam), New York 2010, 469 pages, ISBN 978-1-59448-976-1, $26.95.

By Gail Feinstein Forman

Gail Feinstein Forman

SAN DIEGO–The Surrendered is award-winning author Chang Rae Lee’s newest novel. It’s a sensitively rendered epic reminiscent of Greek tragedies. Characters are at once swept away by life or passionately engulfed by it, rarely choosing their own fates.

The narrative is told in a series of flashbacks that go back through 1930’s China, the 1950s Korean War and end in Solferino, Italy and New York in 1986.

We first meet June Han, the first of the three key protagonists in 1950 Korea, where orphaned by the Korean War, she experienced first-hand the atrocities rained down both sides on ordinary citizens. Her parents had been missionaries who infused June with a sense of righteousness and dignity. She later witnessed the deaths and humiliation of her parents and siblings and luckily found her way to a Korean orphanage where she remained until her late teens.

June approached life with an ornery nature, stubborn and resolute in her desires, traits that anchored her as she moved through extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Through many twists and turns, she later finds herself in New York City as a proprietor of a small antique shop.

While at the orphanage, June developed an intimate relationship with Sylvia Tanner, the wife of the reverend who ran the orphanage. Like June, Sylvie, as she was called, came from a family of missionaries who had experienced the best and worst of wartime experiences,

It was through her interactions with Sylvie that June  develops the adolescent pangs of love and a blossoming of deep desires. Never wanting to sever her relationship with Sylvie, June fantasized that the Tanners would adopt her and bring her back to the States.

Sylvie worked along with her husband at the orphanage and with her great generosity, garnered the love of all the children easily.

Though Sylvie’s appearance was stately and competent, her unmet desires and yearning for connection exposed her vulnerability, which became her fatal flaw- echoing the familiar refrain of the Greek philosopher Sextus Empirtus that “the mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.”

The third protagonist, intrinsically linked with the other two main characters, was Hector Brenner, an injured Korean War veteran who became a handyman at the orphanage.

Throughout his life, Hector devalued himself, and had no ambition to go beyond the momentary fulfillment of physical desires. Instead, he reported a penchant for “self-erasure”, becoming part of the surrounding environs, an invisible clog in a wheel.

He too, is indelibly stamped with the mark of the ancient Greeks. He came from Ilion, New York, home of Remington Arms. And like his namesake Hector in the Iliad, he eluded fatal injuries even in the most precarious circumstances and was destined for one great noble act.

At the orphanage, Hector and Sylvie embarked on a wild, frenetic affair, one that Hector believed would continue, but Sylvie knew could not.

As the days of the Korean War wane and the Reverend and Sylvie Tanner plan their return to the Sates, a tragic orphange fire changes the fates of all the main characters. Both Hector and June depart for New York, their destinies intertwined throughout the rest of the book, though for many years, they had no contact and led separate lives.

They meet again in 1986, as June prepared to close her antique shop. She had hired a private investigator to locate her wayward son and the investigator had placed him in Solferino, Italy, the last time June had heard from him.

For reasons at first unknown by Hector, June enlists Hector to accompany her on this trip. She is putting things in order as she is in the final stages of stomach cancer, and unknown to Hector, he will be visiting his son, the boy conceived by June on their first and final day that they arrived in New York many years before.

Hector reluctantly agrees to the trip, and both are propelled toward their individual redemption, similar to the Iliad, where completing a long journey brings them home again.

Lee, who is currently the director of Princeton’s creative writing program, writes with a lyrical quality that infuses even the most mundane elements of daily life with near sacredness. His scenes of the atrocities of war, though difficult to read, are depicted with pinpoint accuracy.

 His characters, as they unwittingly carry the weight of each other, evolve slowly with great meticulousness.

In a recent interview, he describes a piece of good writing as “a spark of emotional truth.”

There is no sugarcoating of either the characters or the events they experience, but he brings a subtlety and wisdom to what he portrays.

In 1999, The New Yorker listed Lee as one of the twenty best novelists under forty in America. His previous three books, Native Speaker, A Gesture Life, and Aloft all won prestigious literary awards.

This is not an easy read, but a compelling one that offers a masterfully, insightful view of characters driven by the force of history.

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Gail Feinstein Forman is a freelance writer based in San Diego

San Diego Jewish Film Festival preview: ‘The Jazz Baroness’

February 1, 2010 Leave a comment

By Gail Feinstein Forman

LA JOLLA,  California–The Jazz Baroness presents a memorable portrait of a black sheep of the Jewish Rothschild family, Pannonica de Koenigswater Rothschild. Brought up in the world of British wealth and privilege and married to a handsome baron, she was used to high society life.

But it was her sojourn into the 1940’s-1950’s world of black American jazz where she gained her notoriety. She became benefactor to such jazz greats as Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk, both who took up residence in her home. “Nica,” as she was known, paid their bills, took the rap when they were busted for marijuana, and chauffeured them to jazz gigs making sure they were not slighted because they were black.

Pannonica’s grandniece, filmmaker Hannah Rothschild, came across Pannonica’s name while searching her family history. Intrigued by what little she could learn from the Rothschild’s themselves, Hannah went on a ten-year search to find out as much as possible about this iconoclast from the rich and famous who followed her passion for jazz and the men who created it.

Pannonica and her husband had lived in New York off and on from the late 1930’s when her husband was in the French diplomatic service.  This allowed Pannonica the opportunity to frequent the many jazz clubs throughout the city. Her brother, an amateur musician, first introduced her to jazz and she embraced it with a passion.

Through her research, Hannah uncovered a taped interview of Pannonica discussing her interest in jazz. In the interview, Pannonica describes how she fell under the influence of Thelonius Monk, the jazz great with whom she had a long-term love affair.

In the tape, Nica recounts that when she was on her way back from New York to Mexico where her husband was a diplomatic mission, she stopped at a friend’s house along the way to the airport. The friend asked her if she had ever heard “Round Midnight,” the classic jazz composition by Theolonius Monk.

Nica said “Well, I’d never even heard of Thelonius then. I must have played it twenty times in a row and then more. I missed my plane and never went home.”

It was two years before she actually got the chance to hear Monk in person. She heard he was playing in Paris, so Nica took a plane to Paris to be there for his first performance. They met each other backstage and hit it off right away. Nica said, “We hung out for a week. We had a ball!” Infatuated by Monk, she rented the hall he was playing so as not to miss a performance.

The meeting with Monk changed Nica’s life. First she had fallen in love with the music, and then she fell in love with the man.

She took up residence in New York and acted as patron, confidante, and manager through his erratic life, entailing severe bouts of depression and drugs.

Nica’s bohemian life scandalized the Rothschild family and she paid a high personal price. In 1951, after Charlie Parker was found dead on Nica’s sofa, her husband divorced her, and she lost custody of her three youngest children-she had five- for several years.

Though Monk was married, he and Pannoninica shared an intimacy, which may or may not have been sexual. For over twenty-five years, their lives were intertwined and inseparable. In a sense, she acted as a surrogate wife.

Black and white footage of them together has a haunting, grainy quality to it, ghost-like anomalies in the world of racial discrimination; Pannonica, the white heiress of a wealthy family dynasty and Monk, the poor black kid from a southern family of tenant farmers- standing together as a contrast to the color-conscious world of the time.

Pannonica’s sister, the Duchess of Devonshire, noted in the film that the Rothschild children were brought up in an isolated and protected environment. They were schooled by private tutors and never went to school with other children. Most of their recreation activities took place on Rothschild grounds such as their in-home museums and elaborate gardens.

Also, Pannonica learned firsthand that “priviledge has no protection,”as Pannonica’s   husband lost all the members of his extended family to the Holocaust, as did Pannonica’s mother. In addition, Pannonica’s father suffered from mental illness and committed suicide at age forty, an event that had a great impact on her life.

Perhaps, Rothschild suggests, the melancholy restraints of Monk’s music resonated to the isolation and loss and Nica felt in her own life. The jazzmen Pannonica nurtured gave her life purpose. Pannonica set up a protected environment for them, and they in turn offered love, admiration, and a sense of renewal.

She was a fixture at the jazz clubs, and various jazz musicians dedicated over twenty jazz compositions to her at the time, including Monk’s “Pannonica.”

Rothschild doesn’t falter in telling the long history of Thelonius’s frequent and harrowing bouts with severe depression and his gradual mental decline. He spent the last ten years of his life living in Pannonica’s home and was unable to perform for long stretches of time

At times, The Jazz Baroness meanders aimlessly across time and seems to lack focus. However, jazz aficionados will relish the footage of Monk and his Quartet borrowed from the documentary Straight, No Chasers, and also the glimpse of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker playing together.

Affecting interviews with Sonny Rollins, Clint Eastwood, and Thelonius’ son, Thelonius Jr., help Rothschild fill in the gaps about Monk’s life and music, the “man who helped you see the music in the music.”

The San Diego Jewish Film Festival will present The Jazz Baroness  at AMC La Jolla at 5:00 PM, Thursday, February 18

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Forman is a freelance writer based in San Diego

San Diego Jewish Film Festival preview: ‘From Philadelphia to the Front’

January 18, 2010 Leave a comment

By Gail Feinstein Forman

LA JOLLA, California– In the visually affecting movie, From Philadelphia to the Front, we meet six Jewish World War ll veterans who recall their wartime experiences and the impact it had on their lives.

Though the film is a short 35 minutes, it is dense with historical and emotional weight.

 The photographer and filmmaker, Judy Gilles, had come across WWll memorabilia of her father-in-law who had never talked about the war, and this became the impetus for this movie.

With great sensitivity, the film echoes the experiences of many WWll Jewish veterans who found themselves aggressively fighting Hitler and anti-Semitism both at home and in their ranks.

Coming from the ghettoized streets of Philadelphia in the 1930’s and 1940’s, these men, though from different family backgrounds, were street wise and used to fending off and quelling neighborhood anti-Semitic taunts with aggressive personal actions.

Hair-raising archival footage is inserted of the German Bund meeting and marching during this time period in Philadelphia that increased local, open displays of anti-Semitism.

These men all encountered similar experiences in the military, and being conditioned from these experiences at home, also fought it directly.

One Jewish veteran said he felt compelled to volunteer for the most dangerous missions just to erase the stereotyping of Jews as soldiers who could not fight.

Another veteran urgently stopped an anti-Semitic rant during a bus ride with his military company with actually threatening violent action against the perpetrator.

When one of the veterans asked for a pass to be able to attend a Passover Seder, the company commander said “You’re not one of those, are you?”

Time after time, these men were reminded they were members of a discriminated against minority.

Though the anti-Semitism permeated their stories, it was incidental to the main thrust of their wartime experiences.

War was what they experienced-fear, danger and death.

When first asked to talk about these experiences on film, each man responded that it was behind him, and that he never thinks about it anymore.

 Each said he had moved on and at first it appeared as if the conversation was over.

 But the filmmakers draw each man out, and capture the ways the war and the early years after, were defining moments in their lives.

Whatever their travails, there was purpose and promise in the service they rendered for their country- and their people. 

As one remarked, “Can you just imagine what would have happened if we didn’t win?”

The film also includes related archival footage and stills and newsreels of Shabbat and Passover Seders during the war.

Of particular note is footage of the first Jewish service at Dachau after liberation, on June 5, 1945.

Viewers will be swept up in the emotion of this scene and its ironic twists.

We watch as a survivor presented a smiling American Jewish wartime chaplain with flowers while the chaplain approached the platform for his speech.

The chaplain then made a welcoming a speech to a huge crowd of survivors, mostly men. They looked at him quizzically, in a daze. The chaplain spoke clearly and resolutely in English, but few spoke the language.

You soon realize, that in this setting, with the Dachau “barracks” in the background, it was, indeed, a world gone upside down.

But as the chaplain turned towards the makeshift Torah ark, and began the service in Hebrew, the survivors, without needing to understand the words, wept.

The film can be seen on February 17 at AMC LA Jolla at 4:30 PM.

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Gail Feinstein Forman is a San Diego-based freelance writer

Yarrow enchants children and adults at San Diego Jewish Book Fair

November 15, 2009 2 comments

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gailfeinsteinformanBy Gail Feinstein Forman

LA JOLLA, California –When Peter Yarrow walked onto the stage Thursday night, November 12, at the San Diego Jewish Book Fair, the electricity in the air was palpable. He owns the audience even before he starts to sing. And it is not all about the music—but Dayenu, that would be enough.

It is also about his exemplary life of Tikun Olam-his personal mission as one individual to “repair the world” through his activism on behalf of civil rights and the support for the dignity of each individual.

Yarrow lives by his words that “If you’re responsible for being Jewish, then you’re responsible for tzedakah (charity) for everyone and creating a mitzvah for the whole of humankind. If not, you’ve missed the boat of being Jewish.”

Yarrow appeared at The Jewish Book Fair to promote one of his newest endeavors, the children’s book with accompanying audiotape CD, Day Is Done.

The book, based on the song of the same name that he recorded as part of the Peter, Paul and Mary folksinging group in 1969, is a tender embrace of childhood fears and the loving reassurance parents or mentors can provide. The illustrations are rich and compelling – a perfect compliment to the warmth of family story-times.

The book also comes with an audio CD with three songs, Yarrow’s Day Is Done, the traditional, I Know Where I’m Going, and Dona, Dona, Dona, a popular Yiddish folk song.

Yarrow began the Thursday night program by inviting children in the audience to join him on the stage for a lively “Happening!”

The children introduced themselves, pantomimed to song lyrics Yarrow sang, and sung along with a children’s repertoire of popular folk songs. Yarrow also led a rousing version of Puff the Magic Dragon with a new, extended, ending.

But after the children left the stage, Yarrow, alone with his guitar, still after fifty years of performing, completely fills the stage. We meet Peter Yarrow unadorned, the man whose music has rallied people all over the world to
courageously do what must be done for equality and freedom.

Yarrow mesmerized the audience with a haunting rendition of Leaving on a Jet Plane, dedicated to his folksinging colleague Mary Travers, who recently passed away.

He turned to his next song, Don’t Laugh at Me. The song telescopes the negative effects of bullying and hatred while reaching out for acceptance
and love. It is now the anthem of his current heartfelt project, Operation Respect.

“It’s the most important work of my life,” Yarrow stated while on stage, referring to his ten-year old project, Operation Respect, a character development program now in 22,000 elementary schools.

Developed as an outreach attempt to stem the rising tide of bullying in schools and disrespectful public discourse, Yarrow passionately believes that music remains a catalyst for social change by creating a sense of community that is shared when singing together.

Paired with effective strategies for peaceful conflict resolution, the program’s goal is to open the eyes and hearts of children and the tools they need recognize and act upon the world with respecting the dignity of all individuals.

Though on the “book circuit” to promote the children’s book version of Day Is Done, his appearance can be seen as part of a larger whole to provide children with a vision of what a better world could look like by encouraging each individual to contribute his or her part.

Sitting alone on a stool in the center of the stage with his laptop, Yarrow eagerly shared a new development in Operation Respect. He speaks with pride about his groundbreaking innovation of Operation Respect in Israel.

He now has the song Don’t Laugh at Me produced in an audio CD of the song sung separately in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, and then simultaneously in all three languages.

Yarrow played a part it for the audience right off his laptop that night.

He plans to use the program in the Palestinian Authority and in Israeli schools. He is convinced that this program will foster understanding between the children living in these areas and will help create building blocks for peace.

Yarrow is often criticized for his Herculean efforts to rebuild the world from the bottom up with many admonishing his efforts as “Pie in the Sky” illusions- scenarios that are just not possible.

But Yarrow is undeterred. He has seen through his earlier endeavors how the work of just a few could change the course of society, and he soldiers on very much like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland:

Alice laughed. `There’s no use trying,’ she said `one can’t believe impossible things.’

`I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. `

When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. “

Yarrow’s connections to San Diego go back a few decades and demonstrate a “menchlichness” that goes beyond music in this very surprising, poignant
story.

In 1988, San Diegan Paul Nestor was living in New York and working as a window blind installer. One day, Nestor found himself installing blinds in Peter Yarrow’s New York apartment. After chatting awhile, Nestor mentioned that his mother, Harriet, was struggling with ovarian cancer. Nestor asked Yarrow if he would write a song for his mother to lift her spirits, and he gave Yarrow his phone number.

Yarrow responded that he would be happy to dedicate a song to her, but his songs dealt with social issues, not a person’s health.

So Nestor completed the installation work and left, giving up the idea of Yarrow composing a song for his mother.

Surprisingly, about a month later, Yarrow called Paul and sang him a song over the phone that he had written for Paul’s mother, Harriet, Nestor liked the song, but complained to Yarrow that it wasn’t “personal” enough,” and that ended the conversation.

A few months later, while back in San Diego visiting his mother, a small package arrived for Paul with recycled writing all over it. Apparently, Yarrow was and is an avid recycler and sent Nestor a package with scribbling all over the envelope.

But Nestor was visiting his mother and that took all his attention. He tossed the package aside, unopened, not knowing what it was.

Paul’s brother opened the package and found an audiotape from Peter Yarrow. On the tape, Yarrow explained how the song With Your Face to the Wind had come to be written and also included an acapella rendition of the new song that he had taped in his own apartment.

Luckily, Paul’s whole family, including his mother was able to hear and experience the musical gift of “menchlichnik” from afar.

Though Peter never had the intention of singing the song as part of his repertoire, when he played the song for his 86-year-old mother, she was reduced to tears and said, “This song isn’t just for Harriet. This song is for all of us. You must sing this song for other people.“

Now called Harriet’s Song, the song was recorded on the 1992 Peter, Paul, and Mary album Flowers and Stones, has inspired and lent hope to individuals facing critical health issues.

Over the years, Nestor and Yarrow formed a close friendship and when Nestor related the tragedy of San Diego’s Marla Bennett who had been killed in a terrorist attack in Israel, Yarrow made contact with the Bennett family and performed at Temple Emanu-El in their honor.

Yarrow also has close connections with many individuals in the San Diego School District where Operation Respect is clearly established as a working, dynamic program.

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Gail Feinstein Forman is a freelance writer based in San Diego