Tag Archives: Boston University

Holocaust Through Film Series Calls for Collective Engagement and Reflection

By: Katherine Gianni

For the past three months Boston University students, staff, and community members alike have gathered in CAS room 224 for the Holocaust Through Film Series- an engaging selection of both classic and contemporary movies focused on the Holocaust. The series itself was planned and executed by Assistant Professor of French Jennifer Cazenave and Professor of Italian and director of Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies Nancy Harrowitz.  Last week, EWCJS sat down with Professor Cazenave to discuss the film selection process, the reactions from her students, and the importance of Holocaust education.

  1. How did the Holocaust Through Film series come about?

Professor Harrowitz and I research and teach in similar fields. She works a lot on Italian literature and film dealing with the Holocaust and I work on French cinema dealing with the Holocaust. We thought it would be nice for the two of us to collaborate and put a series together. Then the question was, what kind of series? Initially one of the titles we had for the series was something like, “Hollywood and Holocaust,” asking how Hollywood represents the Holocaust, and how do certain films resist Hollywood conventions. Another starting point for the series was that Prof. Harrowitz teaches a course on Holocaust and Cinema. Instead of students watching these films on their own, she thought why not have an actual film series.

  1. What was the process of choosing the films like?

We went back and forth with a lot of films. We added ‘1938: When We Found Out We Were No Longer Italian’ at the end because Dean Kirchwey was able to bring the director to campus. Once we dropped the Hollywood title, there was a sense that we needed some classics. Claude Lanzman’s Shoah is a classic documentary. Our Children is also a classic because it was made in 1948, only three years after the war ended, and because it’s in Yiddish, which is really crucial because the disappearance of the Yiddish language is also a kind of extermination. People were exterminated, but also an entire culture disappeared with them. It was important for us to include a film in Yiddish. It’s such a unique film. I also think the theme of children, and of children surviving and making sense of trauma, was important to show. Prof. Harrowitz and I also thought it would be important for the younger generation to think about how can we continue to represent the Holocaust? There are now so many Holocaust films now. You know, for me, for my generation, it was Schindler’s List. I remember being 14 and seeing Schindler’s List, so every generation has a film or has had a film…but maybe that’s less so today. We have films, but I feel like there’s not that one, where if we interviewed BU undergrads they’d be like, “Oh, it’s this particular film.”

  1. How did your students respond to the series?

I think they loved it. I think The Matchmaker was their favorite, I think because of the story it tells and the characters, and the way in which it tries to present the Holocaust in ways people have not seen because again if you go on Netflix you will find I don’t know how many Holocaust films, but there is also a general genre of what a Holocaust film looks like, but then you have these kinds of films that try to do it completely differently. The ones that stand out will be the ones that try to find a new form.

  1. Did you have a favorite film out of the six that were shown?

People always, always ask me. It’s always hard for me to have a favorite. What I really liked about 1945 is that it’s minimalist, it’s beautiful, but you get so much emotion, especially seeing the villagers’ perspective and then seeing these two men. I just loved the simplicity and the way the filmmaker builds on this idea that we don’t know what’s in the casket that they bring with them to the train station and that they’re carrying throughout the film. In cinema, you have this idea of the offscreen…so you have your frame and then anything that’s outside of it is the offscreen. So Shoah, for example, plays with the offscreen because you don’t have archival images. So you have this sense that there’s something looming. It’s not like what you don’t see doesn’t exist. On the contrary! French film theory says that the frame actually conceals as much as it shows. Great films are films that play with the offscreen. And that’s what I loved about 1945.

Six films were shown during this spring's Holocaust Through Film Series, ranging from classic to contemporary.
Six films were shown during this spring’s Holocaust Through Film Series, ranging from classic to contemporary.

  1. Why do you think Holocaust education through film is important?

I think film is a great medium for history in general and it’s constantly evolving. At USC in LA they have a Shoah Foundation that Spielberg started following the success of Schindler’s List. He pledged to collect 50,000 testimonies of survivors. So it became the biggest repository of oral histories. But now the big question is how do we maintain the memory of the Holocaust, as survivors are dying. And so what USC has been doing is to make holograms, which basically means that someone is filmed over the course of three days. They have to wear the same clothes, sit in the exact same way, and are filmed. And then you can actually interact with the survivors…they’ve been placing these interactive holograms in museums around the country to test them. There’s a thick binder with all of the questions so I tested one at the Holocaust museum in DC. It’s more interesting to see young children react to this because they think it’s Skype or Facetime.

However, there is something about film, whether it’s a movie or an interview that creates a personal connection. Books do that as well, but there is a way in which you may be marked by images or you might get more attached to characters if you see them. For me there is really something about the memory of the Holocaust being dependent upon film and there’s something that film can salvage. I also like the collective experience because when you read a book you may come to class and discuss it, but it was something else to have our students and people from the community come for Shoah and then being able to present the film and answer all of these technical questions. There was something about it. I think the collective aspect, which we’re losing more and more, was really important. There’s something for me about the experience and being more moved by that. Books can also be extremely moving, but I think the topic lends itself very well to being experienced through film.

Curtain Closes On Holocaust Through Film Series With US Premiere Screening

By: Katherine Gianni

Pietro Suber does not shy away from difficult conversations. Instead, the award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker has built his career on sharing challenging subjects and stories. Tuesday, April 29, was no exception, as Mr. Suber joined members of the BU community for the U.S. premiere of his latest film, ‘1938: When We Found Out We Were No Longer Italian.’

“The film came out last year with many accolades and positive reviews, and it’s a really special opportunity for us to be able to see it in the presence of the director,” said Professor of Italian and director of Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies Nancy Harrowitz in her welcoming remarks. Mr. Suber was joined by Italian film expert Claretta Tonetti and distinguished journalist Alexander Stille for a panel discussion following the screening.

The documentary served as the culmination of the Spring 2019 Holocaust Through Film series that Professor Horowitz organized with Jennifer Cazenave, assistant professor of French and author of a forthcoming book on the outtakes of Claude Lanzman’s Shoa. The film explores stories of survival from Italian Jews who lived through height of fascism under Benito Mussolini and the subsequent rise of the Italian racial laws of 1938. Once enacted, these laws imposed racial discrimination in Italy towards Italian Jews.

Promotional poster for '1938: When We Found Out We Were No Longer Italian.'
Promotional poster for ‘1938: When We Found Out We Were No Longer Italian.’

The venue was packed with hundred plus guests who watched attentively as various survivors appeared on screen, speaking candidly of their experiences. Emma Alatri, an Italian Jew, described the pain and embarrassment she endured as a young student when she found out she was no longer allowed to attend her public school. Italian Jews were barred from many educational institutions, one of many measures imposed by the regime’s anti-Semitic turn.

Racial exclusion involved the denial of employment opportunities, restrictions on travel, the stripping of financial assets, and slashing of civil rights. Mr. Suber divided the documentary into several subsections, each of which focused on a different aspect of the law and its effects on the lives of Jewish Italians.

The film was also attuned to issues of the present, namely the legacy of the laws and the Manifesto of Race, the rise of CasaPound Italia, a  neo-fascist political party, and the “divided memory” of the past between Jewish and non-Jewish Italians.

In one scene a Jewish survivor questions the past actions of her non-Jewish friends. “Did our neighbors betray us because they believed the ideology? Or was it opportunism on their part?” she asked solemnly.

To this day, in Italy, there are many statues, squares, and streets meant to memorialize and celebrate those who pushed an anti-Semitic agenda. During the post-screening talkback, Ms. Tonetti explained that the current Mayor of Rome, Virginia Elena Raggi, has been vocal about removing memorials to people associated with anti-Semitism. Mr. Suber agreed, that there has been a greater call to action for removal in recent years.

One audience member asked whether Mr. Suber had considered creating a fictionalized version  to share the  history of Jewish Italians under the Fascist regime. Responding in Italian, Mr. Suber emphasized  the power and importance of stories as told by their actual  protagonists. “Pietro said, he thought about that in terms of the narrative structure, but he has dedicated himself to documentaries,” Ms. Tonetti translated. “He feels it is his duty and that his professional research should be by directly contacting these people and sharing their personal stories.”

We thank Professors Harrowitz and Cazenave for bringing the Holocaust Through Film Series to Boston University and hope we will see more in the future!

Holocaust Remembrance Day Recognized Across BU Community

By: Katherine Gianni

Grey skies and passing showers did nothing to deter those recognizing Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Thursday morning in Marsh Plaza.

Hosted by the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies and Boston University Hillel, students and community members alike were invited to light a candle, say a prayer, or remember a loved one who may have perished in the Holocaust. A ceremonial Reading of the Names began as Marsh Chapel’s bell tower chimed 9:00 a.m.

Miriam Angrist, a senior lecturer in Hebrew and Head of the Hebrew Language Program was one of the first people up at the podium.

“I’m reading the names of those who’ve perished to show that I will not allow them to be forgotten,” she said, her words echoing across the expanse of the plaza. One by one she recited the names from a booklet as thick as a dictionary. Hillel student president Connor Dedrick said that each participant will read for 10 minutes, getting through approximately 100 to 150 names.

“At the end of the day we leave a bookmark where the last reader finished up,” he explained. “In one year it’s impossible to get through all the names we have in this book. It normally takes six to seven years to read every single name.”

Rows of shoes were displayed in front of the podium to symbolize the millions of Holocaust victims. Hillel Holocaust Education Chair Tallulah Bark-Huss explained that shoes are often used in Holocaust museums and memorials around the world to commemorate those who lost their lives.

“The shoes themselves were donated by various BU students,” she said. “In many instances, Jews were told to take off their shoes before being killed. A famous memorial is in Budapest called the Shoes on the Danube Bank, so I was inspired, in part, by that. I felt like we should utilize all of the space we have here at Marsh Plaza.”

As the observance continued, one student approached the array of sandals, boots, and sneakers to add a pair of his own.

Two tables sat behind the podium, both showcasing an array of photographs, candles, and even identification cards from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Each card tells the story of a real person who lived through the Holocaust. BU senior Carmelle Dagmi, who organized the event two years ago, offered the cards to passersby.

“I really hope that when people come by today that they participate and help to keep the memory alive,” she said. “I feel like I have a personal responsibility to hear the names and remember the stories.”

Mr. Dedrick read his share of names following Professor Angrist. She stood alongside the display in quiet reflection.

“This means the world to me because not only do I recognize Remembrance today, I live it on a daily basis,” she said. “We are a community that gets together on special occasions, both sad and happy. I hope that people really just take a moment to reflect.”

 
At 5:00 p.m., event organizers, students, faculty and staff will convene for a short ceremony which will include speakers, poetry, and candle a lighting. All are welcome to join. For more information visit https://www.bu.edu/hillel/calendar/.

Words on the Occasion of the 2019 Marsh Plaza Candle Lighting

By: Michael Zank

 

I saw a wonderful show yesterday at the Paramount in Downtown Boston. It was called peh LOH tah, a futbol framed freedom suite by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and the Living Project. It featured a combination of dance, spoken word, song, and visual projection, using soccer, a sport that connects so many people across the globe, as a source of inspiration to speak about the condition of people of color, about the vulnerability of migrants, about economic justice, and “Black joy.” One of the memorable lines I remember went like this: People can imagine the end of the world before they can imagine the end of capitalism.

 Why am I telling you this?

Because to me, Holocaust remembrance is about the imagination. Without imagination, we cannot see, we cannot connect. Without imagination, we cannot recall the past, and we cannot project ourselves into a future that is significantly different from the past or the present. There can be no change without imagination.

My father in law, who is a 98-year-old emeritus professor of mathematics, was born in Warsaw and grew up in Sosnoviec, Poland, not far from Krakow and hence also not far from Oswiecim, better known as Auschwitz. In 1943 he was rounded up and delivered to what in Jewish camp jargon was referred to as “the yeshive,”an SS camp called Gross Rosen, from where the SS would distribute young healthy Jews as slave laborers to a myriad of labor camps dotting the border region between Poland and the Czech Republic. My father in law ended up at the woodworking factory Hubert Land at Bunzlau. Working on heavy machines he could forget for hours at a time that he was no longer a human being. In early 1945, along with about 440 others, he was marched across German-occupied territory and ended up in Bergen Belsen, which was liberated by the British on April 15, 1945. That was the day my father in law’s humanity was restored. (On the Boleslawiec/Bunzlau camp see HERE , HERE, and HERE.)

Over the years, Abe told many stories, mostly about people of courage to whom he owed his life. A young woman who secretly left him a container of hot soup, fearful of being recognized as his benefactress. A German soldier who threw him a loaf of bread, pretending it was a gesture of contempt rather than an act of kindness. The SS officer inspecting the factory and hearing Abe out as he explained, in imperfect German, why the machines had ceased to work. People with infinite courage, as he used to say, who saw him in his “striped pajamas” but recognized him as human.

Abe always emphasized that most human beings suffer from a lack of imagination.

Holocaust Memorial Day stimulates our imagination. We are meant to put ourselves in the place of the victims. We are reminded of their names, their lives, their civilization, built over the course of a millennium and destroyed in a mere twelve years.

Today, despite an increase in anti-Semitic incidents, Jews are strong, accepted, and even privileged. America has been an unprecedentedly welcoming home for Jews. We also have a Jewish state. Israel’s economy and her military are among the strongest in the Middle East. Israeli democracy is as vibrant as can be.

The question I am asking myself today is this: Do we have enough imagination to see ourselves not just as a people of survivors but as the privileged agents that we actually are? Are we invested in speaking on behalf of others who have no voice or who are silenced by bullies? Are we attentive to our own white privilege and are we finding ways of empowering others? If we are able-bodied, can we see people with disabilities as fully human? As employers, do we treat our employees with respect?

The Holocaust was an extreme case of dehumanization. But dehumanization happens everywhere and all the time, and we must resist it where we see or participate in it, whether it is in the world of work, or in our all-too-segregated communities, or somewhere else. The original Yiddish version of Elie Wiesel’s world-famous memoire Night, bore the title And the World Was Silent. (Un di Velt hot geshvign.) Will we be silent, or will we speak? To speak on behalf of others requires imagination. I requires that we care.

As we remember the six million dead, the million and a half Jewish children murdered, exterminated in ways that are unspeakable and unimaginable, let us commit to speaking out on behalf of the many who are dehumanized, tortured, neglected, and forgotten today. Humanity is not a fact we can take for granted. It is a task we must make our own, over and over again, little by little, and person by person.

Let us commit to speaking out. Let us not remain silent. Let us stand up to the purveyors of hate. Resist those who tell us this country is full. Let us resist those who claim there is moral equivalence between white supremacists and those who oppose white supremacy. Let us resist anti-Semitism in every form and fashion, but let us also resist those who want us to fall in line as they target others for their religion, their place of origin, or their sexual orientation. Our Law commands us to love, not to despise or exclude, the stranger, for s/he is like you. As we remember the Holocaust, we also remember that we were not the only ones singled out for destruction.

Let us attend to our history, not ignore or forget. Those who forget are doomed to repeat. But let us also study, learn, and listen to the histories of others as if they were our own.

Today, at Marsh Plaza, near a monument to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., let us mourn our dead, and recommit to the protection of civil and human rights for all.

 

Yosef Abramowitz’s Burden, Privilege, and Responsibility of Rebellion

By: Katherine Gianni

Before Yosef Abramowitz was a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, an Israeli presidential hopeful, CEO of a major impact investment platform, or named one of CNN’s top six green pioneers worldwide, he was a student in Elie Wiesel’s classroom.  

“I had the good fortune of being Elie Wiesel’s student in 1986, the year he won the Nobel Peace Prize,” Mr. Abramowitz recalled. “The name of the course was the Burden, Privilege and Responsibility of Rebellion. That really worked for me. He had such a strong moral grounding about the necessity to challenge.”

Mr. Abramowitz isn’t afraid to own up to his rebellious side, at least when it comes to creating what he refers to as, “the good kind of trouble.” On Tuesday, April 16, the Jewish educator, human rights activist, and environmentalist returned to his alma mater to speak and share stories with students on topics ranging from his days of chaining himself to Boston University President John Silber’s fence in an act of protest, to how to win today’s climate change battle.

“There was a confluence when I was a student here of two big issues,” Mr. Abramowitz explained. “One was the fight of the freedom of Jews in the former Soviet Union. The other moral issue of the time, and perhaps the greatest moral issue of my generation, was apartheid in South Africa.”

Mr. Abramowitz and his fellow activists’ demands were clear: divestment of all university shares in companies that were profiting from the apartheid. The students organized rallies, made calls to other campuses urging for involvement, partook in hunger strikes, and even took over Mugar Library to spread their message.

“People in the university didn’t appreciate what we were doing,” Mr. Abramowitz explained. “They were like, “Well, what are you students really going to accomplish? What is this really going to do in the world?” Then what happened was Members of Congress started proposing sanctions legislation in response to this, like lots of Members of Congress.”

The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 imposed sanctions on South Africa while outlining five preconditions for lifting said sanctions and ending apartheid. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill saying he favored “constructive engagement.” But then, Mr. Abramowitz explained, something tipped the scale.

“The only time Reagan’s veto was overturned was in his first term in office at the height of his popularity–it was on the sanctions against South Africa,” he said, smiling. “And that’s what students can do. I can’t say that when we were chaining ourselves to President Silber’s fence we were thinking about overturning Reagan’s veto, but just social movements–creating the wave and catching the wave, is really, really important.”

Mr. Abramowitz continues to ride the wave of activism today as CEO of Energiya Global Capital, a Jerusalem-based impact investment platform that provides returns to investors while furthering Israel’s environmentalism and advancing affordable green power to underserved populations as a fundamental human right. The organization was founded shortly after Mr. Abramowitz, his wife, Susan Silverman (CAS ‘85) and their five children moved over 5,000 miles across the globe from Newton, Massachusetts, to Kibbutz Ketura, Israel, in 2006.

Mr. Abramowitz and his wife, Susan Silverman. Photo courtesy of BU Today.
Mr. Abramowitz pictured with his wife, Susan Silverman. Photo courtesy of BU Today.

“My family and I arrived to the Kibbutz right at sunset. We opened the air conditioned doors and boom we’re hit with this heat that was so disorienting,” Mr. Abramowitz explained. “The sun was just dipping and felt like superman laser beams going “woosh!” burning us to a crisp. At that point I had the thought, “Oh I’m sure the whole place works on solar power.””

Quickly, Mr. Abramowitz discovered that despite Israel being dubbed a “world leader” in solar technology, no one in the region was utilizing its power.

“The response I got was, “oh yeah, Israel’s a world leader in solar technology but no one’s crazy enough to take on the government,”” he explained. “Then I thought…the burden, privilege, and responsibility of rebellion…”

Mr. Abramowitz was crazy enough for the job. He teamed up with his business partners, Ed Hofland and David Rosenblatt, and together the three founded Arava Power Company. In 2011, the organization unveiled Israel’s first solar energy field at Ketura. Energiya Global Capital came next, with a goal of providing clean, sustainable solar energy for 50 million people by 2020.

“If someone could unlock the value, if someone can actually prove that it’s not out of reach, it’s actually doable, if something could change the paradigm, why not us?” he asked. “Why not us?”

A question and answer session followed Mr. Abramowitz’s remarks. A BU senior inquired about his approach to successful activism.

“What were some things that kept you going or helped you succeed during your activism battles and efforts?” she asked.

“Know what your values are,” Mr. Abramowitz answered. “If you believe in them, do something about it. I was privileged to be gifted these very powerful values at a time when they lead to action and world change. I think that’s been lost in this generation because social media make it too easy to like or dislike and you feel like, “Okay, I’ve already weighed in.” You cannot forget about the action.”

To learn more about Mr. Abramowitz, his work, and his hopes for the next generation visit http://www.bu.edu/today/2014/civil-disobedience-a-love-story/.

Some Thoughts on Our Recent Rabin Memorial Lecture

Boston, April 2019

I want to thank Mr. Jonathan Krivine (CAS ’72) of New York for his abiding support of the series. Jonathan is passionate about Israeli-Palestinian peace making. It runs in his family. It is a commitment characteristic of a certain generation. The Israeli poet A. B. Yehoshua writes about this commitment, one he has long represented himself. In a recent article in the Guardian, Yehoshua is quoted as follows.

“I remember the [1948] war of independence. We were a small community, attacked by seven Arab states. And really they wanted to wipe us from Earth. But I never heard people speaking about the Arabs in a racist way. Even though justice was on our side. Now the Arabs are very – very – weak, so you can permit yourself to speak like this about the Arabs. Then there was respect. You spoke about peace because you were afraid. Now,” – and he begins to channel the voice of the Israeli everyman – “‘I don’t need peace, what do I need peace for? Because of Syria, which is totally in chaos? And Iraq, which is in ruins? And all the Arabs are killing each other! What do I need peace for?’” And so “the racist and nationalist” discourse rises, a reaction to the weakness of the Arab nations that have arrived, says the writer, at “one of the terrible moments in their history”.

[Source: Jonathan Freedland for the Guardian]

When I read these lines I was reminded of something Peter Beinart, our 2019 Rabin Lecturer, and Rachel Fish, one of our panelists, agreed on. Both underscored the need to hear Palestinian voices. To include Palestinians in our conversations. To rebuild mutual respect.

I was pleasantly surprised by this agreement. I have often wondered why, on the op-ed pages of our liberal newspapers, we so rarely read the opinions of Palestinians. Much of the liberal conversation about the Israel-Palestine amounts to nothing but an internal conversation between post-Zionist and neo-Zionist Jews about the future of Israel. Clearly, this is not enough.

I am glad we have the Rabin Lecture Series at BU. I hope we will include more and different voices, including Palestinian ones, in the future. There is no other way, if we are serious about the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin who gave his life to the preservation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Passover celebrates our Exodus from Egypt, our passage from slavery to freedom. But let us remember the midrash that tells of the  conversation in heaven, when the angels joined in the triumphant chorus of the Israelites witnessing the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. “How can you jubilate when my creatures are dying?” This is how the rabbis imagine the Holy One to have responded. We have much to learn.

Michael Zank

Director, The Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies

Where Did all the Dancers Go? Scholar Uncovers the World of Jewish Boy Dancers in Iran

By: Katherine Gianni

Dr. Houman Sarshar’s passion for promoting the art, culture, and history of Iran is well in evidence. It leaps off the pages of the books and articles he’s written, the volumes he’s co-edited, and it is embedded in the Kimia Foundation, an independent humanities organization that Dr. Sarshar founded and continues to oversee.

On Tuesday, April 2, Dr. Sarshar shared his zeal for the subject with the Boston University community in a lecture on The Jewish Boy Dancers of Iran. His presentation came as part of the Leon and Alice F. Newton Family Lecture in Jewish Studies, an event co-sponsored by The Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies and the Boston University Center for the Humanities.

Over the years, thanks to this series, we’ve been able to invite preeminent scholars in all areas of Jewish studies to BU,” said Associate Professor of Hebrew, German, and Comparative Literature Abigail Gillman in her welcoming remarks.

The lecture was established almost 30 years ago by the children of Leon and Alice F. Newton as a way to honor both their father, an alum of what was then called the BU School of Management, and their mother. Past speakers have included scholar Susannah Heschel, theologian Arthur Green, and philosopher Hilary Putnam, among others.

“Dr. Houman Sarshar did his undergraduate work in French and English literature at UCLA and his PhD in comparative literature at Columbia University. He’s a scholar, perhaps my favorite kind of scholar,” Associate Dean of the Faculty/Humanities Karl Kirchwey said, a grin spreading across his face. “One without a university affiliation.”

The event poster featured a Qajar photograph which captured one of the boy dancers.
The event poster featured a Qajar photograph which captured one of the boy dancers.

In his independent study of boy dancer entertainment in Iran, Dr. Sarshar has complied enough research to fill the pages of an entire encyclopedia. Through in-person interviews, thorough analysis of Qajar photography, and countless hours of fact-checking, he has laid the groundwork to learn more about the prevalence of such boy dancers in the past and their eventual disappearance from Iranian culture.

Prior to beginning his presentation, Dr. Sarshar issued a warning to the audience of students and community members gathered in the Florence and Chafetz Hillel House.

“The culture of dancing boy entertainment in Afghanistan has shed much necessary light on the despicable dynamics of enslavement, human trafficking, and sex slavery that today forms the backbone of this heart-wrenching hidden world,” he said. “While many of the features of the dancing boy entertainment of today’s Afghanistan are without doubt remnants of the same long tradition in neighboring Iran in particular, and the entire Persian world in general, there is at the very least one material distinction between what happens in twenty-first century Kabul and what occurred in pre-constitutional Iran. And that difference is time.”

Dr. Sarshar expressed that he was not referring to time in its chronological sense, but rather, “in the fullest sense of zeitgeist as the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.” By examining these dancers, he relayed that he did not wish to coat the realities of the boys’ humiliating position with a sense of nostalgia, but rather, use the images, texts, and testimonies as a means to broaden our understanding of the culture.

In telling the stories of the boy dancers, some of whom began their careers as early as six-years-old, Dr. Sarshar explained the ties between the profession and male homosexuality in Iran. While the dancers dressed in predominantly female clothing, he noted there was no mistaking the allure of their male gender identity. As various photographs and poems flashed across the screen, Dr. Sarshar argued that, despite legal strictures, Iranians widely engaged in homosexual relationships.

“Even occasional bans issued on male homosexual behavior throughout Iranian history had little impact on the love and desire of men over the years,” he said. “If anything, the fact that such bans had to be issued with any degree of frequency suggests that amorous and erotic relationships between men did not just occur in palaces, but throughout the general population.”

Dr. Sarshar concluded that the cultural norms surrounding homoeroticism, specifically when it came to dancing boy entertainment, shifted as Westerners categorized the practice as perverse, rather than something to be celebrated. The resulting shame led to the gradual disappearance of boy dancers. But, Dr. Sarshar, emphasized, there is still so much one can learn from this complicated history.  

“The history of boy dancer entertainment in Iran is a rich one, not only in its scope and breadth, but more importantly in its unique capacity to provide a telescope with which to explore many dynamic nuances within Iranian society, culture, and even art history over the past 500 years,” Dr. Sarshar said. “My research therefore celebrates boy dancers and the culture of boy dancer entertainment precisely for the unprecedented analytic opportunities that the history of this tradition provides.”

To learn more about the Leon and Alice F. Newton Family Lecture in Jewish Studies visit https://www.bu.edu/jewishstudies/calendar/annual-lecture-series/.

The 2019 Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Lecture | US Jews and Israel: Are we headed for divorce?

Dear Friends of the Elie Wiesel Center:

The 2019 Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Lecture at Boston University, which will be held Thursday, April 11, is dedicated to an issue that is on the mind of many, namely, the culture of discourse, here in the US, on the issue of Israel and Palestine.

This culture of discourse, not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as such, will be the focus of our event. Peter Beinart, our main speaker, believes–rightly, I think–that the current rise in the temperature of the debate here in the US, a debate that is perhaps not so much about Left and Right than it is about a difference between the generations, has more to do with developments in the American political and cultural landscape than with what is going on in Israel and across the Middle East. Today, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a foreign policy issue, provides a kind of lithmus test on who we are as Jews and Americans. This is the reason why we thought it might be time to have a conversation on Jewish Americans and the increasing polarization in how we think about Israel. For better or worse, Israel has become a touchstone in the American culture wars of the moment, or, as Mr. Beinart formulates, a proxy for American Jews to define themselves as Jews and as Americans.

I don’t believe that this is a very healthy situation, but it may be inevitable for Jews to think that way. It is inevitable because Jews cannot but be emotionally touched by Israel, a sovereign Jewish nation state founded by and for Jews, the first such state since biblical times.

Yet, how healthy can it be when American Jews feel compelled, or are expected, to define themselves, or be judged, by what goes on in a country of which they are not citizens, even if it is a Jewish nation state? And how healthy can it be for Israel when, what goes on in Israel for reasons grounded in the Israeli situation, becomes an echo chamber for a significant Jewish community in America, Israel’s most powerful ally, especially if that community is increasingly divided over Israeli politics and possibly frustrated with the entire Zionist project? Israeli attempts to influence American public opinion are legitimate, but charges of disloyalty, ethno-national betrayal, and Jewish self-hatred are not. Many young American Jews resent the lack of choice implied in these kinds of charges. Like other Americans they want to be able to decide for themselves what causes to support and what alliances to seek with others at home and abroad. They want to be able to decide whether or not they support Israel and for what reasons, precisely because they care and because their American Jewish identity is at stake.

This is a deeply emotional and divisive subject. A difficult conversation. But what better place than a university to try to model a difficult conversation across the political spectrum and give room to a variety of perspectives. Our goal is to move us out of the comfort zones of our respective “bubbles,” hear what moves others with whom we may disagree, and assume that people can disagree with one another without doubting one another’s good faith or humanity. This is called “dialogue.” It is also good political practice, a practice modeled for us by the ancient Athenians, as described by Hannah Arendt.

Impartiality (…) came into the world when Homer decided to sing the deeds of the Trojans no less than those of the Achaeans, and to praise the glory of Hector no less than the greatness of Achilles. This Homeric impartiality, as it is echoed by Herodotus, who set out to prevent “the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the barbarians from losing their due meed of glory,” is still the highest type of objectivity we know. Not only does it leave behind the common interest in one’s own side and one’s own people which, up to our own days, characterizes almost all national historiography, but it also discards the alternative of victory or defeat, which moderns have felt expresses the “objective” judgment of history itself, and does not permit it to interfere with what is judged to be worthy of immortalizing praise.

Somewhat later, and most magnificently expressed in Thucydides, there appears in Greek historiography still another powerful element that contributes to historical objectivity. It could come to fore ground only after long experience in polis-life, which to an incredibly large extent consisted of citizens talking with one another. In this incessant talk the Greeks discovered that the world we have in common is usually regarded from an infinite number of different standpoints, to which correspond the most diverse points of view. In a sheer inexhaustible flow of arguments, as the Sophists presented them to the citizenry of Athens, the Greek learned to exchange his own viewpoint, his own “opinion” – the way the world appeared and opened up to him (dokei moi, “it appears to me,” from which comes doxa, or “opinion”) – with those of his fellow citizens. Greeks learned to understand – not to understand one another as individual persons, but to look upon the same world from one another’s standpoint, to see the same in very different and frequently opposing aspects. The speeches in which Thucydides makes articulate the standpoints and interests of the warring parties are still a living testimony to the extraordinary degree of this objectivity.

(Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (1961), pp. 51-2.)

 The academy is founded on the ideals of objectivity and impartiality, and it behooves us recall these ideals as we think about how we can move beyond the impasse of polarization. Let the other side be heard! Or, as the rabbis taught, the School of Hillel prevailed because it was in the habit of reporting not just the opinions of their own school but also the opinions of the opposing school.

I hope you will join us for “US Jews and Israel: Are we headed for divorce.”

Sincerely,

Michael Zank

Director, EWCJS

‘What Life Wants’ Explores The Never Ending Lesson of Parenthood

By: Katherine Gianni

On Saturday, March 30, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre welcomed Israeli Stage founder and creative director Guy Ben-Aharon, Israeli actor Dror Keren, and a group of eager theatergoers for the world premiere staged reading of Mr. Keren’s gripping family drama, What Life Wants.

“What you’ll be seeing is the culmination of a two week long process,” Mr. Ben-Aharon explained to the sold-out crowd moments before the 4:00 p.m. show time. He, Mr. Keren, and a cohort of seven American actors had been rehearsing the show from March 17-31 as part of a two week residency at the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, made possible by a grant from the Jewish Cultural Endowment.

“We’ve been workshopping this script every day. In fact, the last scene was added today, just for you,” Mr. Ben-Aharon said to applause.  

What Life Wants navigates the complications of parenthood through the lens of a devoted father and husband, who grew up without a comparable father-figure. In the wake of his mother’s death, Dudi (Tom Kee), is reunited with the man who walked out on them, a man who he never refers to as dad, only coldly by his first and last name, Benjamin Nino (Patrick Shea).

The performance ran for 90 minutes with no intermission at Boston Playwrights' Theater. (Photo courtesy of Mr. Ben-Aharon.)
Saturday’s performance ran for 90 minutes with no intermission at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. (Photo courtesy of Mr. Ben-Aharon.)

Dudi and his twin siblings Miri (Deborah Martin) and Amos (Kadahj Bennett) are not primarily concerned about making up for lost time with Mr. Nino. Instead, the trio questions his motives for returning, while simultaneously reliving the details of their painful childhood.

Their ongoing conversations, quips, and conclusions about the elusive Benjamin Nino highlight the focal point of the show: you can’t always escape your past. But you can learn from it.

Hardened by unresolved feelings of abandonment, Dudi is unsurprisingly austere to his father in the beginning of the show. He chastises him for leaving the family, for his lack of morality, and for his seemingly aloof attitude.

Benjamin retaliates, in a stern parental reprimand, that Dudi’s perception of both his character and his actions are far from reality. We watch both men’s exteriors begin to soften as they share bits and pieces of the years gone by and the complex flood of emotions of wanting to be there for one another, but not quite knowing how.

This conundrum is also exhibited on-stage through their body language. The pair is always seen standing across from one another, their feet planted firmly in a pseudo face-off. There are no hugs or handshakes ever exchanged, as if an invisible barrier keeps the two far enough apart to never truly be able to reach out.  

Dudi, however, is the only family member that interacts with Benjamin in person, in part because he was the only one his estranged father contacted directly. A twist towards the end of the performance reveals why such is the case. Dudi’s daughter, Tali (Maya Tripathy), frequently asks about her grandfather, her adolescent curiosity insistent on piecing together her family’s past. Dudi’s wife and Tali’s mother, Anat (Jackie Davis), is cautious about asking too many questions of their interactions, knowing how contentious the relationship is.

Dudi’s decision to see his father, despite his deep-rooted anger, plays to another crux of the show. Instead of leaving his relationship with Benjamin to fate, he acts on his own free will. In other words, he makes his decisions not by what life wants, but rather, what he wants out of life. Amos and Miri choose also choose the latter, although in a less confrontational way. Their choice of silence, of not engaging or interacting with Benjamin is still a declaration of free will, one that is heard loud and clear by both the audience, and their older brother.

Mr. Keren and Mr. Ben-Aharon took questions from the audience following the staged reading. Photo courtesy of Mr. Ben-Aharon.
Mr. Keren and Mr. Ben-Aharon took questions from the audience following the staged reading. (Photo courtesy of Mr. Ben-Aharon.)

A brief question and answer session with Mr. Keren and Mr. Ben-Aharon followed the reading. Many inquiries from the audience focused on Mr. Keren’s inspiration for the script and the many themes and motifs within the plotline.

“Parenthood is a never-ending lesson,” Mr. Keren said conclusively. “The main battles people face are within the walls of their homes. I’m happy I was able to dig deeper into these characters to show that.”

“Here at the Elie Wiesel Center we are very eager to foster a relationship between the humanities and the arts,” said EWCJS Director Michael Zank following his viewing of the 8:00 p.m. reading. “Israeli Stage has enriched our conversations through plays; conversations that we have in our classes and through writings coming out of Israel.”

For more information on Israeli Stage visit https://israelistage.com.

‘What Life Wants’ Prepares for World Premiere

By: Katherine Gianni

Israeli actor Dror Keren has wowed the performing arts world for more than three decades, acting in dozens of productions in venues across Tel-Aviv, including The Cameri Theatre, Habima Theatre, and Gesher Theatre. On Saturday, March 30, Mr. Keren will trade the main stage for a director’s chair to watch the world premiere reading of his new show, “What Life Wants.”

“I hope to act in the Israeli production,” Mr. Keren said before rehearsal on Tuesday afternoon in the second-floor library of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies. “But for right now I’m focused on working on the script to make it the best that it can be.”

Two performances are scheduled for Saturday, March 30, at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre on Commonwealth Avenue. Mr. Keren has spent just over a week crafting his script with a group of seven actors and Israeli Stage Founder and Artistic Director Guy Ben-Aharon. The residency will continue until the reading this Saturday, and was made possible by a grant from the Jewish Cultural Endowment, administered by the Elie Wiesel Center.

Mr. Keren explained that a large part of the creative process has been translating the original text from Hebrew to English to make it accessible for American audiences.

“I have Guy with me who is really such an expert in these kinds of rehearsals,” Mr. Keren said of his longtime friend. The two met in Israel over three years ago, but it wasn’t until the international premiere of Mr. Keren’s show, “On The Grill” in June 2018, that they began to discuss an Israeli Stage residency. For this show, Mr. Ben-Aharon has assisted in directing all aspects of the workshop.

“On The Grill” was written and directed by Mr. Keren. The show was awarded Best Original Play at the Israeli Theatre Awards in 2015.
“On The Grill” was written and directed by Mr. Keren. The show was awarded Best Original Play at the Israeli Theatre Awards in 2015.

“He knows Hebrew and English very well, so we had a few discussions on the right words or idioms that should be there for the English version that really say what I want to say,” Mr. Keren said.

And what is it exactly that Mr. Keren wants to say through his new play? He described that the show centers around what he perceives as his greatest personal challenge.

“Parenthood,” he said. “I think the main battles a person experiences in life are within the walls of his home.”

Mr. Keren said the group rehearses for five hours, if not longer, most afternoons—and the outpour of creativity doesn’t end after rehearsals wrap. “Usually I go to Guy’s place to continue working,” he said, smiling. “We have conclusions and things to go over that we noted to ourselves during the rehearsals.”

With one show already sold out, and a second performance filling up quickly, both Mr. Keren and Mr. Ben-Aharon are gearing up for a large audience.

“I hope they will be moved and I hope they identify with the characters,” Mr. Keren said. “I hope my play will reflect other people’s lives because that’s the main reason we’re here: to see yourself.”

Two staged readings of What Life Wants will take place on Saturday, March 30, at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA. The 8:00 pm show is currently sold out. For tickets to the 4:00 pm show time click here.