April 19th, 2017

Editorial: We remember victims of the Holocaust

The annual Twin Cities Yom HaShoah Commemoration will be held 7 p.m. this Sunday, April 23 at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park. I urge all of our readers to attend this somber and moving event, which is sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

This year’s remembrance of the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis and their henchmen takes place in an emotionally fraught time. We have seen an increase in anti-Semitic acts in this country and around the world. Anti-Semitic and xenophobic political movements are growing in Europe, and an ugly racist and bigoted faction — the so-called alt-right — has been emboldened in this country by the reckless rhetoric of the man who is now the U.S. president.

Across Europe, political parties, including some with ties to Nazi collaborationist regimes, are garnering increasing percentages of the vote: Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, the Sweden Democrats, the Freedom Party of Austria, etc.

In France, there is widespread concern that Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front party, could win the presidential election. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen was expelled from the party two years ago, amid controversy over his racist and anti-Semitic comments. The first round of presidential voting begins April 23.

Last week, Le Pen argued that France had no responsibility for the 1942 round-up by French policemen of Parisian Jews in the Vel d’Hiv, the bicycle velodrome and stadium. The Vel d’Hiv Roundup (the basis of the popular novel and film, Sarah’s Key) accounted for more than a quarter of the 42,000 French Jews sent on trains to Auschwitz. Only 811 returned to France after the war.

In contrast to the positions of recent French government leaders, Le Pen argued that the Vichy regime, which “was not France,” bore responsibility for the Vel d’Hiv Roundup.

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April 19th, 2017

One-man ‘Wiesenthal’ to play at Illusion Theater

by MAX SPARBER

Actor-playwright Tom Dugan, who wrote and stars in a one-man show about Simon Wiesenthal called, appropriately, Wiesenthal, credits his decision to create the show to one quote by the famed Nazi hunter. Wiesenthal was asked if he blames Germans for the Holocaust, and Wiesenthal replied that he doesn’t believe in collective guilt.

Dugan’s father was a veteran of World War II who carried shrapnel in his body; and, when he was boy, Dugan asked him if he hated Germans for that. “No, I don’t judge people as a group,” his father answered, “but by how they behave.” Dugan was struck by how similar his father’s answers were to Wiesenthal’s, and knew that a play about the man would allow him to ask big questions about war, guilt and justice.

Actor Tom Dugan, left, with Holocaust survivor Leo Weiss and a letter from Simon Wiesenthal. (Photo: Courtesy Tom Dugan)

Dugan created the play in 2009, and has been touring with it ever since, including a critically lauded Off-Broadway run, in 2014. Wiesenthal used to speak to groups of high school students in his office, and the play uses this as a conceit, treating the audience as though they were one of these groups.

As a result, Dugan is able to revisit some of Wiesenthal’s most famous cases, including Adolf Eichmann and Karl Silberbauer, the officer who arrested Anne Frank.

Dugan says that audiences will be struck by how funny the play is; Simon Wiesenthal had been an entertainer before the war, and used those skills when addressing the public, to make his subject palatable.

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April 19th, 2017

RAJMN: The work does pay off

Ilana Volodarsky of RAJMN discusses creating a program for Russian-American Jews

By MAX SPARBER

It used to be possible to drive around the Twin Cities and see huge banners dedicated to the plight of the Jewish community in the Soviet Union: Save Soviet Jews read one banner than hung from a Minneapolis synagogue for years. In 1987, thanks to political reforms in the Soviet Communist Party, it became possible for a mass emigration of Soviet Jews. About a million Jews left their home countries, with between 30,000 and 50,000 Jews coming to the United States per year for the next decade.

When I spoke to Roman Polonsky of the Jewish Agency for Israel several months ago, he described traveling among America’s Russian-Jewish community, he found many of them were disconnected from the larger Jewish community where they had settled.

A second-generation of Russian-American Jews celebrates Hanuka at a recent RAJMN event (Photo: Courtesy of RAJMN)

In the former Soviet Union, many of them had very little exposure to Judaism. It was a national identity to them, Polonsky explained; it was something stamped onto their passports, but not something they had day-to-day experience with.

In the United States, many of these immigrants found it difficult to maintain relationships with the Jewish community, which had developed programs to bring them to the Unites States but had organized very little long-term programming for them. And so they drifted away from the Jewish community, and from each other.

This story was duplicated here. A large number of Russian Jews settled in Minneapolis and St. Paul in the 1980s and ’90s, largely in a few locations: In St. Paul, most of them lived in a single housing unit, Sibley Manor; in Minneapolis, they largely congregated in St. Louis Park. But as the years passed and they pursued their own lives, and they moved away from each other.

Ilana Volodarsky moved here from Ukraine as a girl in 1989, and she witnessed the community drift apart. Years later, wanting to create a program for Russian Jews in the Twin Cities, she went through the files that existed for the community at Jews organizations and found them badly out of date; even her own address was an old one.

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April 19th, 2017

Passenger on a journey of change

Leaving South Dakota: A Memoir of a Jewish Feminist Academic, by Beryl Radin, Mascot Books, 200 pages, $18.95

Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER

Many of us who grew up in small cities with few Jews will understand the effect on Beryl Radin’s life.

In Leaving South Dakota, Radin, a semi-retired public policy professor at Georgetown University, says she’s always had difficulty answering the question “Where are you from?”

If she replies South Dakota, “it usually evokes a blank stare that stops the conversation.” One woman decided she’d made that up, saying, “An outspoken Jewish woman with strong political views couldn’t be from South Dakota.”

Her home of Aberdeen had 20,000 residents and fewer than Jewish 20 families.

Until the 1960s, that resembled many small Midwestern cities, where first or second generation Jews owned businesses, as did at least half Aberdeen’s Jews. Until college, Radin didn’t realize that not everyone got calls from owners about new products.

Although her Belarus-born parents “established relationships that indicated their commitment to become part of the larger community,” joining various organizations, “on some level I knew that I wasn’t really a part of the world of South Dakota. I knew I was different.”

Reminders included Christ-killer taunts from Catholic students. Her desire to move away fit with the postwar trend of Jewish children departing for college and big cities, leaving large areas of America where now, no one knows any Jews.

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April 5th, 2017

MSPIFF: Curating your own Jewish film festival

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) offers 16 films of Jewish interest

by MAX SPARBER

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) has been around since 1981, hard as it is to believe. Year after year, it has brought a dazzling collection of films from around the world to the Twin Cities — this year alone the festival will present more than 350 films.

Menashe (Shtick Film)

And somehow, despite the rise of digital streaming services, the festival feels more vital than ever. I subscribe to a number of streaming film services, and it is easy to fall into a trap of merely watching the same dozen or so studio films that the services wish to promote to you. It can be surprisingly hard to dig deeper, and I expect that is deliberate. It should be inconsequentially easy, as an example, to type, say, “films from Israel” or “films by female directors” into a search engine and get a list of possible viewing choices. Instead, most services don’t offer this.

The MSPIFF website lets you do so, however, selecting films by place of origin, or by theme, or language, or genre. And, honestly, with this many films, you need to be able to do that. It is impossible to see all the films offered, and so viewers must construct their own personalized miniature festival within the larger festival.

We’ll do some of that work for you here. This year, the Festival offers 16 films that they categorize as “Jewish interest,” and so, if you wish to construct your own Jewish Film Festival, you may do so. What follows is a list of these films, with our recommendations. Check out the film’s website for showtimes and venues at mspfilm.org.

RECOMMENDED

Beyond the Mountain and the Hills

Israeli director Eran Kolirin offers a film that Variety described as “his most profound,” telling of a retiree from the Israeli military who becomes an unethical dietary supplement salesman, and who one night blindly fires a gun into the darkness, setting off a chain of events that fractures his family. Kolirin’s direction of the film is deliberate and eccentric, making use of theatrical staging and characters breaking the fourth wall, ultimately all in service of exploring the complicity of the average Israeli in their government’s actions. (Trailer)

Menashe

Former documentary filmmaker Joshua Weinstein took an unusual tack in creating this serio-comic story of a single father struggling to maintain custody of his son: It was filmed using semi-secretive documentary techniques in New York’s Hasidic community, which Weinstein is not a part of, and is filmed entirely in Yiddish, which Weinstein does not speak. Nonetheless, Weinstein built the film around Hasidic comedian Menashe Lustig and was cast with actual Hasids, who provided their own Yiddish and acted as a constant reference for the filmmakers, making this a surprisingly detailed and poignant look at a hidden world. (Featurette about the film)
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