Saturday, November 21, 2009

Does This Come in My Size?

These t-shirts are the brainchild of Charles Star and Carrie McLaren, a Brooklyn couple who had some time on their hands and love for the Jews. I totally want one.

Do You Want to Friend Heino?

"My name is Henio Zytomirski. I am seven-years-old. I live on 3 Szewska Street in Lublin [Poland]." This excerpt is from the profile of Heino Zytomirski, a young addition to Facebook. Why is this newsworthy? Because Heino is dead. He was killed in the Holocaust before the age of 10. His profile and status updates are written by Piotr Buzek, a 22 year-old staff member of the Brama Grodzka Cultural Center in Lublin. The Center says that it is harnessing new technology to teach the internet generation about the history of Jews in Poland and to keep their memory alive.

To be perfectly honest, I feel queasy about this approach. First of all, much of what the Center does focuses on Lublin’s Jewish past. Which is important and necessary. But in doing so, it looks backwards and not ahead. There is increasing evidence that Jewish communities in Poland not only exist, but are growing. Just look at the articles published by JTA over the past few days. So why isn’t the Center celebrating and advertising those triumphs? It could easily choose a young 20-something contemporary, living, Polish Jew to talk about his life, experiences, hopes to friends around the world.

Secondly, how can Heino’s story, as horrific as it is, help us today? If more non-Jews are aware of Jewish life in Poland pre-Holocaust and about their subsequent extinction through Heino and his Facebook page, then, again, I applaud the Center’s efforts. But it does no good to focus solely on the Holocaust and not address contemporary issues and conflicts. It is not enough to focus on the past with 20/20 hindsight and proclaim what we should have or would have done. It is too easy to demonstrate support for a long-deceased boy from the comfort and safety of our own homes via computer. Efforts like these are gimmicks, superficial stabs at righting old wrongs that we can never right, however we might wish it otherwise. No matter how many friends Heino makes, they will never be able to save him from death.

Issues of anti-Semitism and intolerance and racism continue to exist in Poland, just as they exist everywhere. There are contemporary victims of other types of oppression and violence around the world whose fates are not sealed and for whom our actions can make a difference. These are the people that we should be creating Facebook pages for. The Center should harness the power and energy of social media and its users to offer a means to organize and fight against injustice that can actually make a difference. If nothing else, we owe to it Heino.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Four Seasons Lodge

Four Seasons Lodge is a lyrical yet powerful mediation on love, aging, and the importance of friendship. The film, shot in 2006, follows a group of 50 couples, all Holocaust survivors, on their last annual trip to the Four Seasons Lodge, one of the few remaining resorts in the Catskills. Shot in a Robert Altman-esque style, we are given fleeting glimpses into the lives of these individuals, while much remains a mystery. Unlike most documentaries about Holocaust survivors, the focus of this film is not the survivors’ wartime experiences. In fact, we learn very little about their lives during that time aside from some brief shots of arm tattoos, a few allusions to Auschwitz, and a smattering of faded black and white photographs. Instead, the real centerpiece is the enduring friendship that have sustained these men and women in their postwar lives. This retreat in the Catskills provides not only a break from city life, but also a refuge where they could feel comfortable being themselves, no matter their demons, while surrounded by others who shared their experiences.

The movie is powerful in its simplicity. It has no real narrative arc and the filmmakers don’t push the survivors to tell their stories. Rather the camera allows us a peek the inner workings of this family that they’ve created for themselves out of the ashes of Holocaust. Warts and all.

It's now playing at Quad Cinemas.

For a more in depth review of the film, click here.

Watch the trailer here:

Monday, November 16, 2009

Swiss banks Aren't the Only Ones Holding Out

Le Monde published an interesting article today regarding the payment of 25 million Shekels ($6.7 million dollars) by three Israeli banks to The Company for Restitution of Holocaust Victims Assets (an organization set up to oversee reparations to Holocaust survivors and their descendants). Apparently, goods belonging to Holocaust survivors (including land, furniture, etc...) have been held by 5 Israeli banks for the past sixty years. Only recently have 3 of these 5 banks agreed to find the survivors (and their families) and give them their financial due.

What the article doesn't address however, is how or why Israeli banks have these goods and how they acquired them. From the survivors themselves? From Swiss banks? From relatives? Interestingly, I haven't found any other articles about this issue in Israeli or Jewish papers.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Gaza Examined

I highly recommend the New Yorker article in this week's issue examining the events that led up to the recent Israeli/Palestinian conflict in Gaza.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

J Street Redux

There has been so much written about last week's 1st annual J Street conference that I feel pretty superfluous. This posting could essentially just be a bunch of links to other articles. But I will ignore that feeling and post a few original thoughts of my own.

1) The opening night of the conference, I had a conversation with a guy who works at the U.A.E. embassy and who grew up in Dubai. He told me that he had just arrived in DC a few weeks ago and spent part of his first pay check on the conference fee. When I pointed out to him that this was quite a gesture, he said that growing up in Dubai he never learned about the Holocaust or heard Jews spoken about in a positive way. It wasn't until he was at college in Australia did he learn about the Holocaust and was overwhelmed by how much he didn't know about Jews and Jewish history. Since then, he has been a strong supporter of real peace in the region and was excited by what J Street is trying to do. He didn't, however, tell his colleagues at the embassy that he was attending the conference.

2) I also met a junior member of the Swiss Embassy who was there officially. I didn't realize how engaged the Swiss government is in the Middle East and how it tries to provide a neutral ground for many of the parties involved. The ambassador told me that the Embassy likes to keep up to date on the various movements within the American Jewish community and so he was there to get a sense of what J Street was all about from the inside. They didn't spring for the gala dinner though...

3) One of the best breakout sessions I went to was a theater performance sponsored by TheaterJ. It was a one woman show performed by Noa Baum, an Israeli who now lives in the DC area. She took her years-long friendship with a Palestinian woman and wove their conversations into an incredibly moving mediation on friendship, war, and family. Through her show, Noa was able to vividly bring to life the real people behind the 'Israeli' or 'Palestinian' label and demonstrate how often they have much more in common than they imagine.

I'll post a longer piece soon on one of the major debates of the conference: what it means to be 'pro-Israel.' Stay tuned.

Fun Times with Google

Little fun fact via the NYTimes: The co-founder of Google, Sergey Brin, is a) Jewish and b) was brought over to the US from the Soviet Union with the help of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). I also love the little dig at philanthropies later on in the article, "He has already learned enough about philanthropy to add immediately: 'Our foundation is not soliciting proposals. Please make sure to include that.'

I guess I'd better scrap that grant proposal I was working on.