Tag Archives: Jewish Studies

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/.

Enjoying the First Harvest, Celebrating our Freedom, and Caring for All

By: Michael Zank

Passover is the first Jewish holiday I remember. My mother, a German Jew who had survived the war in England and returned to Germany in 1950, took me to a community Seder in the Jewish old-age home in Neustadt/Weinstraße, near our hometown of Bad Dürkheim. The event included sitting at one of the many tables that had been arranged in a large rectangle inside a non-descript hall and listening to a darkly clad rabbi read aloud from a book. We sat right across from the rabbi. The first Hebrew word I caught after a while and remember forever was the most often repeated one: mitzrayim. It also occurred in the variation of mimitzrayim. Mimitzrayim, as I eventually learned, means “out of Egypt.” After the meal, a youth group sang some songs, accompanied by bongo drums.

I am glad that Passover was my first encounter with the Jewish tradition. I have loved it since. When I was a student in Jerusalem, my friend Gavriela, a German convert to Reform Judaism, gathered a motley crew of friends around her living room table for the first Seder I helped conduct. I had studied up by then. I had attended a mock Seder, held in the bowels of the Ratisbonne monastery on Rehov Shmuel Ha-Nagid by the charming Shalom ben Chorin, then a major Jewish German voice in Christian Jewish dialogue, and I had studied the Goldschmidt Haggadah, with its historical commentary. I accrued a collection of facsimile Haggadot with wild ornamentation that indicate what children really did year after year during interminable stretches of reading before dinner. The beauty, care, joy, worry about getting things right, the tastes, the cacophony of voices, the rhythm of the evening, the repetition year after year, all this imprinted Pessach into my DNA as a belated Jew.

The author in 1984 at a Seder with friends in Heidelberg.

Pessach is now a tradition in my family, though not a simple or straightforward one. We always have Christian friends at our table and the question is always, what is this holiday about? The quick answer is: we celebrate our liberation from slavery in the Exodus from Egypt. The longer answer is that Passover, which coincides with Hag ha-Matzot, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, combines two distinct seasonal traditions, one rooted in the religion of semi-nomadic herdsmen who celebrated the firstlings of their flock, the other rooted in sedentary populations of Canaan, marking the beginning of the barley harvest and the counting of the “Omer,” a fifty-day period, until the beginning of the wheat harvest. Both the firstlings of the flock and the first harvest of the year reflect the fragility of the lives of herdsmen and subsistence farmers in the ancient southern Levant where everything depended on rain falling at the appropriate times. Anyone who has had the chance of seeing the wonders of the Judean desert blooming in early spring understands this dependence of life on the clouds opening their gates at the right time.

What is more difficult to explain to our Christian friends are some of the passages in the traditional Haggadah that reflect centuries of Jewish pain and persecution. The call for God to “pour out his wrath” over our enemies, the ritual of opening our doors in answer to the medieval Christian suspicion that the Jews conducted nefarious rituals in their homes, the sadness of exile embedded in the hopeful call at the end of the Seder to celebrate the next Passover in Jerusalem. No matter the degree to which we have changed and amended the Haggadah to be more inclusive and more universal, Passover ritually reminds us of our foreignness and alienation. It celebrates our origins as a nation singled out by divine salvation. And yet, the Haggadah accomplishes the seemingly impossible. Tonight, we welcome strangers, we invite those who are hungry to come and eat, we imagine the passage from slavery to freedom together with our guests, looking toward a better, more just and less hateful future.

Our friend Susannah Heschel placed an orange on the Seder plate to symbolize inclusion of difference. Originally, the orange symbolized the need to accept every Jew, regardless of sexual orientation. If we associate the fruit with the success story of the “Jaffa Orange,” then perhaps it can also remind us that the orange belongs to all people of Israel and Palestine, Jews and Muslims, Druze and Christians alike; that our freedom remains incomplete until everyone is free to enjoy the fruit of their labor and the produce of the land; until everyone can rest in the shade of their olive tree. May we celebrate Passover Next Year in a Jerusalem rebuilt as a shared city for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

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/.

Does Love Really Conquer All? Ask The Matchmaker

By: Katherine Gianni

Matchmaking can occur in a variety of places—on a subway ride, in a crowded bar, or now most commonly, through a few clicks on the Internet. Avi Nesher’s film The Matchmaker chronicles many love connections in the city of Haifa, Israel during the summer of 1968, decades before the invention of dating apps and the phenomenon of “swiping right.” In the movie, prospective lovers rely on the expertise of matchmaker Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), to find their next romance. However, the story is not as much a quest for love as it is for acceptance, understanding, and survival.

The film was shown last Monday in BU’s College of Arts and Sciences as the third installment of The Holocaust Through Film series. Professor of Italian and director of Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies Nancy Harrowitz and Assistant Professor of French Jennifer Cazenave worked together to organize the series this year.

Associate Professor of Hebrew, German, and Comparative Literature Abigail Gillman provided an introduction to the film and its director. “The Israeli film industry has really taken off quite recently, starting in the 2000s,” she explained to the group of students gathered in CAS 224. “Avi Nesher has played an essential role in the entry of Israeli cinema onto the global stage.”

According to Professor Gillman, Mr. Nesher’s 2018 film, The Other Story, was the most seen movie in Israel last year. The Matchmaker was released eight years prior and also saw a large success. On-screen, audiences are introduced to many characters in the city of Haifa, which is divided between “the Carmel,” or upper echelon neighborhood, and “the low-rent district.”

Yankele resides in the low-rent district with many other Holocaust survivors. Arik Burnstein (Tuval Shafir), his teenage counterpart, comes from the Carmel. The two form an unlikely bond after Arik’s father, Yankele’s childhood friend and fellow survivor, decides his son would benefit from working for the matchmaking business for the summer. At first, Arik is suspicious of Yankele, his place of business, and those who work around him. But as the story develops, so does their friendship.

Others from the Carmel remain wary of Yankele’s character. Meir (Dror Keren) concocts a scheme to destroy Yankele’s business and his reputation after a failed match. This, Professor Gillman said, hits upon a much larger theme within the movie.

Dror Keren plays a scorned lover in the film. He will be at Boston Playwrights' Theatre on Saturday, March 30 at 4pm for a world premiere staged reading of his new play What Life Wants.
Dror Keren plays a scorned lover in the film. He will be at Boston Playwrights' Theatre on Saturday, March 30 at 4pm for a world premiere staged reading of his new play What Life Wants. To reserve free tickets click here.

“There’s this idea that anyone who survived the Holocaust must have done something really horrible to survive. There was this suspicion of survivors in Israel,” she said. “They were marginalized and very much living onto themselves. That was the norm.”

While Arik is successful in protecting the matchmaker from malice, he can do little to save him from a broken heart. “Towards the end you see love kind of leading to destruction in a way,” Professor Gillman said in a question and answer session following the screening.

“How true is everything that happened?” one student asked. “Is the film based off of real events?”

“It’s based on a novel by Amir Gutfreund called When Heroes Fly,” Professor Gillman said.

“And now it’s actually a series on Netflix,” another student added. “It’s really another incredible story about survival.”

The Holocaust Through Film series continues on April 1 with a screening of “1945.” This event is free and open to the public. For more information visit http://www.bu.edu/jewishstudies/calendar/events/.

Center Spotlight: Connor Dedrick

By: Katherine Gianni

Meet Connor Dedrick (QST '21) a Princeton, NJ native who works as an undergraduate employee at The Elie Wiesel Center. We sat down with him to talk about the Jewish community at Boston University, his involvement at the Center, and his new role as President of BU Hillel.

Tell us a bit about your experience so far at BU. What is your major/minor? Are you involved in any student organizations, sports teams, community service work, etc.?

My major is business administration and I have a minor in religion. Everything has been so fantastic—I love my business courses, but I find that the religion classes that I’ve taken have been the ones that really provoke some deep thought and some personal growth. Outside of the curriculum, I work at the Elie Wiesel Center, which is a great thing. I love talking to Theresa, our Program Administrator and Professor Zank, our Director because they’re such insightful and smart people. I’m also president of Hillel. I love being able to build on our Jewish community on campus. For most other college campuses it’s hard to come by such a large and close-knit Jewish community.

You began your tenure as the president of BU Hillel in January, 2019. How did you come into that position? What does that role entail?

I went to Hillel the first Shabbat of my freshman year. I met the then president, Zoe, and just kept talking with her and then eventually when elections came around she convinced me to run for Director of Fundraising. As it turns out, no one actually ran for treasurer so she convinced me to run up. I was elected treasurer and then I thought, you know, president is next. My position entails planning a lot of the larger events—things like Latkepalooza, our Chinese buffet event, therapy dogs, the name readings. The building of overall the Hillel community is what my job is focused on.

Tell us about your involvement with The Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies. When did you first join the team? What are some of your day-to-day responsibilities?

I was really good friends with Deni Budman, another EWCJS student employee, through Hillel. When two of the former student employees had graduated she put in a good word with Theresa to help get me here. Day-to-day a lot of what I do is distributing flyers and our other promotional materials to co-sponsors and departments that may be interested in our events. I also compile mailing lists, contact lists, create some of the course materials—like the Fall 2019 flyer I was just working on.

What do you enjoy the most about working with the Elie Wiesel Center team?

I think, for me, it’s carrying on the legacy of Holocaust education through Elie Wiesel. When my mom went to BU she took a class that Elie Wiesel taught and so I think to work here is a very nice continuation of his work overall. Outside of the work aspect, I also enjoy just talking to Theresa and Professor Zank. As I said, they’re such insightful people who have really great things to say about the world, Judaism, and everything like that.

What does the Jewish community at BU mean to you? Do you feel as though you’ve grown in your faith/identity since beginning school here?

Yes. Absolutely. So where I’m from, Princeton, New Jersey, it’s a very big conservative Jewish community. For most of my life that was really the only kind of Jew that I had been introduced to. When I got to BU, and all of a sudden there are 4,000 Jews, you know, secular, reform, conservative, Orthodox. I felt like I got so lost. I had no idea what to call myself because I was still raised conservative, but there were things about Orthodox that I liked, there were things about reform that I liked. By learning through Hillel with the Rabbis I was able to grow my identity to a much more abstract level and not feel like I have to put myself into a denominational box.

How would you encourage others to get involved with the BU Jewish community?

I think the best way is to show up. Just go to things! That’s how I became so involved…I just showed up. I showed up to Shabbat and people welcomed me and I felt like that was my place. You have to put yourself in places where things can happen to you. Opportunities aren’t always just going to throw themselves before you, you have to put yourself out there, you have to go out to events that may interest you, or they may not. But if you don’t, you won’t find the community for you. I think that another thing is don’t be afraid to do things alone. I think what holds a lot of people back from going to a lot of really interesting academic lectures and things like that is because their friends aren’t going. But I think that if people overcame that they would really find a love of learning and really stoke some intense passions.