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Limmud preview: Jonathan Sarna and similarities between a Yellow Fever plague in the 1870s and today’s pandemic

Jonathan Sarna

(Ed. note: Limmud will be offered online this year, beginning March 7. As is our custom, we will be presenting previews of various Limmud speakers, beginning with this piece. Check this website for more previews in the weeks to come.)

An 1873 epidemic claimed the lives of 2,000 residents in Memphis, Tennessee, “a number which constituted at the time the most yellow fever victims in an inland city” according to Wikipedia.
Jonathan Sarna calls that epidemic a very Jewish story.

Dr. Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History in the department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, will deliver a virtual lecture entitled Yellow Fever, Covid and the Jews: Lessons from Two Great Plagues, at the 11th annual Limmud Winnipeg on March 7.

This will be the first ever Limmud festival to take place on Zoom, notes Florencia Katz, Winnipeg Limmud Inc. Coordinator.
“This year presents some particular opportunities to expose international Jewish teachers and thinkers to the Winnipeg audience and engage participants from across the continent in Winnipeg’s Limmud,” she said in an email to The Jewish Post & News.

There was a significant Jewish population in Memphis in the 1870s, Prof Sarna observed.
“But, even more so, it so happened that the best record maintained was by a Memphis Jew and a rabbi in Memphis which played a very significant role in abating the plague,” he said during a telephone interview on January 28.
Yellow fever is a disease caused by a virus that is spread through mosquito bites. Symptoms take 3–6 days to develop and include fever, chills, headache, backache, and muscle aches, notes information found online. About 15 percent of people who get yellow fever develop serious illness that can lead to bleeding, shock, organ failure, and sometimes death.
“One of the things I want people to see is how many parallels there are,” said Prof Sarna, who is also director of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis, as well as the Chief Historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“The City Fathers in Memphis wanted to cover up the plague and then insisted on playing it down and it’s bad for business to talk about plague. Religious leaders, therefore, had a roadside role in the community because they were the ones who took it seriously, who visited the sick and buried the dead and so forth.”
He maintains there are other aspects of the plague that contain lessons for our day.
“I’m also going to pivot and talk about some of the early lessons that we’ve seen in COVID and some of its implications,” Prof Sarna, whose 2004 book, “American Judaism: A History”, received the National Jewish Book Award and appeared as Publishers Weekly’s Best Religion Book.
“For example, in many communities people have fallen back on the Jewish community for help. In well organized Jewish communities, they maintained ties and opened up Zoom and made sure that Jews were able to make Passover, and that they checked in on you.
“That’s likely to have an impact down the road. There’s value in being part of a Jewish community. Similarly, there’s a lot of talk within the Jewish community about a future where people are connected through Zoom or related media and what that really means.”

He pointed out that Zoom existed before COVID.
“But, most people had not used it and were not adapted to using it,” he said.
“Now, pretty much everybody has got adapted to using it, certainly everybody at Limmud. I want to talk about that; and, what it will mean that Zoom will remain a norm. It will actually strengthen the Jewish community, especially Jewish education in significant ways. It overcomes various structural problems that existed. But, I think there is a sense that there will be a future where we’ll be getting together both in person and also virtually.
“I want people to come away with a sense that just as the plague in Memphis and other past plagues transformed communities, it is quite likely that COVID will have a big impact on Jewish life. My hope is that people will begin thinking about that.”
For further information on Limmud, visit the website: or contact the Limmud Coordinator at or 204-557-6260

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Winnipeg Jewish Theatre to open season with world premiere of “Pals”

Richard Greenblatt and Diane Flacks in rehearsal for "Pals"

By BERNIE BELLAN The opening show of Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s 2023-24 season promises to be a clever and poignant take on relationships between men and women, when “Pals” makes its world premiere on November 9 in the Berney Theatre, running until November 19.
“Pals” is the third two-person show created by the team of Diane Flacks and Richard Greenblatt. Interestingly, when I spoke with Flacks and Greenblatt while they took a break from rehearsing the play in Toronto, they told me that their previous two two-person plays also had one word titles – with four letters in both: “Sibs” and “Care.”
“Pals” is the story of two friends, told over a 25-year time period. Their friendship survives many tribulations, including both characters entering and exiting many other relationships. The play uncovers the underlying tensions that permeate all friendships.
“Pals” opens with the two characters meeting for the first time. I asked Diane and Richard whether the notion of their having sex ever enters into the plot, but Richard was quick to exclaim, “We don’t have sex.”
Diane also noted that, in the case of her character, she is married to another woman. (Diane is a lesbian in real life.)
The fact that the characters maintain a friendship though becomes a source of friction within their respective relationships. It raises the question: Can you have an intimate, albeit platonic, relationship, with a member of the opposite sex all the while you’re in a physical relationship with someone else?
I asked whether the characters in “Pals” are Jewish (which both Diane and Richard are), and the answer was “yes.”
Both Diane and Richard have had past associations with the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. Richard’s goes back a very long time – when he directed the critically acclaimed “League of Nathans” in 1995.
Diane Flacks appeared in a one-night performance of a show in 2021 called “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother,” which was a part of that year’s Tarbut festival. There were no in-person events that year, due to Covid, but “Jewish Mother” was available on Zoom and had a huge audience.
In addition to writing for the stage, Diane Flacks has written for TV, including Working the Engels, Baroness Von Sketch Show, Young Drunk Punk, PR, and The Broad Side.
Richard Greenblatt has performed in theatres across Canada and abroad, as well as in feature films, television and radio. He co-wrote 2 Pianos 4 Hands, which played on five continents and in over 150 cities since it opened in 1996.
Pals is directed by the internationally acclaimed director Jillian Keiley. More information, tickets and 5-show subscriptions can be found at: You can also reach WJT by phone at (204) 477-7478.

To watch a preview video from Pals, click here:

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Simkin Centre introduces Friday afternoon Shabbat services – open to all

By BERNIE BELLAN (Posted Oct. 31) The Simkin Centre held its first ever Friday afternoon Erev Shabbat service this past Friday (Oct. 27), led by Rabbi Matthew Leibl.

There were more than 30 residents in attendance, along with various other outside guests. The service was approximately 45 minutes long and was filled with stories and songs associated with Friday evening Shabbats – some from Rabbi Leibl’s own childhood and some from more recent years.

The Friday afternoon Erev Shabbat services are now to become a regular features at the Simkin Centre and are open to anyone to attend.

To watch a short clip of Rabbi Leibl introducing his first Friday afternoon service click

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The complete text of MP Marty Morantz’s speech at the community vigil for Israel on October 10

Marty Morantz at the community vigil for Israel October 10

Tonight we are all Israelis!
Conservatives stand with Israel.
Pierre Poilievre stands with Israel.
On Saturday we woke up to unspeakable images.
We must stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel as it defends itself from these criminal and barbarous acts.
On Shabbat, Hamas brutally invaded Israel, invaded homes, killing hundreds, taking hostage hundreds.
More Jews were killed in Saturday’s attack than in any single day since the Holocaust.
Some 1500 human beings killed in a single day would be like 6000 Canadians being murdered in a single attack.
They were children, babies, men, women.
They were young people just out listening to music at a dance party.
This was an unprecedented brutal attack.
As we speak Hamas is threatening to execute innocent hostages.
This outrage cannot, must not stand.
Don’t let anyone tell you Hamas is the legitimate voice of the Palestinian people. It is not a government.
They are a genocidal murderous and evil death cult and they must be defeated.
But friends, we have seen evil before.
Jews have been persecuted for millennia, but we have survived.
Conservatives unequivocally condemn the invasion of Israel by Hamas terrorists and the sadistic violence that Hamas has carried out against innocent civilians.
Now is the time for moral clarity. There is no moral equivalency between democratic Israel and the butchers of Hamas.
There is no response, no matter how strong, that would be disproportionate to the crimes Hamas has committed.
Israel has the right to defend itself against these attacks and respond against the attackers – as any other country would.
Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, said, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
In 1948 that dream became a reality – a homeland in Israel, the promised land.
Working together Israelis turned a desert into an oasis.
An island of democracy surrounded by a sea of autocracy.
A Jewish state where Jews could live in peace free from fear and persecution.
Let there be no doubt. Israel is the ancient and indigenous homeland of the Jewish people.
We will not let the butchers of Hamas take that dream, long realized, away from us.
Many politicians will stand with Israel when it is easy.
But listen to what they say when it is hard.
They will talk about “both sides.”
I’m here to tell you that there is only one side.
The side of morality.
The side of democracy.
The side of Israel.
We see too often politicians at the United Nations unfairly singling out Israel for criticism.
I will always stand against the unfair singling out of the Middle East’s only democracy.
Already there are calls for Israel to deescalate.
I ask you.
Would any country deescalate after having its people slaughtered in cold blood?
I wish the people of Israel and its brave soldiers Godspeed on their mission to defend the promised land from pure evil.
As Prime Minister Stephen Harper said:
Through fire and water Canada will stand with you.
Am Yisrael Chai!

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