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A new Jewish play imagines a New York were everyone gets along

(New York Jewish Week) — Lou Bettinger, a stubborn but discerning businessman, has run a dingy luggage shop on the Lower East Side for 60 years when the new play “Bettinger’s Luggage” begins.

“I know everything about luggage,” Lou (Richard MacDonald) says, as he give an interview promoting his family’s store on a fictitious news program. “Luggage is my middle name.”

Set on Delancey Street in 1974, “Bettinger’s Luggage” follows Jewish patriarch Lou Bettinger and his hapless son, George (Connor Chase Stewart), who eschews taking over the family business in favor of pursuing his dreams of stand-up comedy. The father and son spar about the future while their neighbors flirt and fall in love, reminisce about their lives before they came to the U.S., and come together to heal when tragedy strikes.

With its liberal use of Yiddishisms, combined with fast-paced, pithy dialogue stuffed full of 1970s pop culture references, “Bettinger’s Luggage,” now running at Midtown’s AMT Theater taps into a powerful nostalgia of a bygone New York.

But unlike the real-life 1970s, which saw a New York City besieged by “white flight,” economic woes and violence, “Bettinger’s Luggage” envisions a New York without racial or ethnic strife. “I needed to write something that showed that people really can get along,” playwright Albert Tapper said of his semi-fictional Lower East Side, which places the Jewish-owned luggage store next to a Greek restaurant and a hardware store owned by an Irish immigrant.

A veteran producer, composer and playwright, Tapper’s version of the Lower East Side has characters unite in a shared New York identity without compromising what makes them unique. Lisa (Katherine Schaber) shares pastries from her family’s Italian bakery with the Bettingers while Lou attempts to teach her Yiddish. Meanwhile Lou, fearing that his son, George, won’t succeed in comedy confides in Lisa that he doesn’t want his son to be “a balagula, a schlemiel” — Yiddish for a person of low standing and a fool.

“Oh, a stunad,” she replies, using the Italian word for an idiot or stupid person, eliciting laughter from the audience.

“The idea of my writing this was to be able to have a neighborhood filled with people of all different nationalities and ethnicities and [show] how well they get along,” Tapper, who is in his 80s, said. Even when Lou calls his luggage shop worker Angel (Sean Church-Gonzalez) a “dumb shaygetz,” or non-Jewish man, he does so in jest — and fights off a racist patron who threatens the store.

Tapper’s inspiration for the play, directed by Steven Ditmyer, is based on his late real-life friend George Bettinger, a comedian and the son of a luggage store owner. The genial image of a bygone Lower East Side business community got the wheels turning in Tapper’s head, and he ran away with his own vision of a family-owned luggage store.

Many of the neighborhood denizens in the play, however, were inspired by Tapper’s own family and his upbringing in Worcester, Massachusetts. Tapper would “merge George’s father with my father” throughout the writing process, he said, creating a world that is both familiar to Jewish New Yorkers and unique to Tapper’s milieu.

The comedic nature of the play strikes a comforting chord for Jewish New Yorkers and differs from other Jewish theatrical fare of the past year. Unlike recent Broadway hits “Parade” and “Leopoldstadt” — which are both focused on historical stories of violence and antisemitism — “Bettinger’s Luggage” uses a father and son’s day-to-day life to begin a conversation about discrimination and cross-cultural communication.

“I’ve written seven or eight shows — none of them have dealt with antisemitism,” Tapper told the New York Jewish Week.

At the same time, however, Tapper admits that antisemitism — where it comes from, how to combat it, or why it has increased so much in the United States — keeps him up at night. “It’s just my life’s quest, and I know that sounds dramatic,” Tapper said. “But my life’s quest is to find out why people hate the Jews.”

That driving question has led Tapper, who splits his time between Midtown Manhattan and Boca Raton, Florida, back to his alma mater of Boston University, where he co-wrote the musical “National Pastime” with Tony Sportiello when he was 20. After finding success as a playwright and producer of film and television, including the documentary “Broadway: The Golden Age,” he’s endowed scholarships for lower-income students. His goal is to increase the diversity of the student population at B.U., which the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies estimates is about 25 percent Jewish.

Tapper is also working with Clark University’s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, where he has endowed a graduate scholarship, and with Brandeis University. “I told [university president Ronald D. Leibowitz], who’s a personal friend of mine, that I would like to contribute money to the school if they would put a course on antisemitism in their curriculum,” he said. He hopes that the scholarly research will be able to pinpoint why “people have hated the Jews for 3,000 years.”

Tapper is giving back to the theater community as well. When he and Sportiello, his frequent artistic collaborator since the 2008 musical “Sessions,” struggled to find an appropriate space to workshop “Bettinger’s Luggage,” they reasoned that raising the funds to buy a new theater space would both ensure their success and allow them to pay it forward for other artists. Sportiello now serves as the artistic director of Midtown’s AMT Theater, and Tapper as the venue’s main producer. “There’s not that many of them,” Tapper said of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theaters. “And the demand for theaters is enormous. So I said, ‘Well, let’s build our own theater.’”

Plenty of emerging artists create their own theater ensembles, but affording and securing a physical performance space is a different ball game. Tapper recognizes this and is proud that the theater is now rented out to other artists through the end of 2024. Now, said Tapper, “We can do our shows, and we can rent it out to others who are doing other works. We have the combination and it serves us well.”

Like the Bettingers and the other characters who populate their Lower East Side storefront, Tapper knows that people thrive best in community — whether a community of artists, of Jews, or both. When that sense of community is breached, we may feel that we face our struggles alone.

Another reason that Tapper felt compelled to write “Bettinger’s Luggage” in this moment is because of the loss of the real George Bettinger, who died by suicide five years ago. “I spent a great deal of time with him when he lived in New York, and he would tell me his life story with sadness and humor,” Tapper said. “I felt it was everybody’s story, so I put pen to paper.”

“Bettinger’s Luggage” is at AMT Theater, 354 West 45th St., through Oct. 25. Details and tickets here

The post A new Jewish play imagines a New York were everyone gets along appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Penn president resigns amid criticism of her testimony on campus antisemitism

(JTA) — The president of the University of Pennsylvania announced her resignation on Saturday after facing growing backlash for declining to say outright that calling for the genocide of Jews violated the school’s code of conduct.

“I write to share that President Liz Magill has voluntarily tendered her resignation as President of the University of Pennsylvania,” Scott Bok, the chair of the school’s board of trustees, said in a statement. Bok subsequently said he would also be resigning.

Magill’s resignation is the most significant fallout so far from a congressional hearing on Tuesday in which she and the presidents of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were all asked whether calls for genocide of Jews would constitute harassment or bullying. All three responded that the answer depended on “context.”

Video of the exchange went viral and was highlighted by Jewish and pro-Israel activists as an illustration of how universities have failed to take campus antisemitism seriously in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s ensuing war against the terror group in Gaza.

“I hope this signals a new start for @Penn & a wake-up call for all college presidents,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “Campus administrators must protect their Jewish students with the same passion they bring to protecting all students. They can’t hide behind language coached by their attorneys & look the other way when it comes to antisemitism.”

In the wake of the hearing, Magill in particular faced mounting criticism from Penn’s stakeholders. The board of the school’s Wharton School called for new leadership for the school and a donor threatened to pull a $100 million donation unless Magill stepped down. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, who is a non-voting member of the board of the private university, said Magill “failed” to create a safe atmosphere for students and urged the board to review her leadership.

In her own brief statement Saturday, Magill did not mention the reason for her stepping down, and said, “It has been my privilege to serve as President of this remarkable institution.” Bok said in his statement that Magill was “not the slightest bit antisemitic” but had faltered in the hearing because she had given “a legalistic answer to a moral question, and that made for a dreadful 30-second sound bite.”

Both Magill and Harvard President Claudine Gay walked back their comments to Congress in statements the day after the hearing, and Gay issued a subsequent apology in an interview with the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, saying, “When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret.”

MIT’s board, meanwhile, is backing its president, Sally Kornbluth, who is Jewish. “I write now to let you know that I and the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation entirely support President Kornbluth,” MIT Corporation chair Mark Gorenberg wrote in an open letter on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Rep. Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican who asked the questions about genocide, celebrated Magill’s resignation and called for Gay and Kornbluth to follow suit.

“One down. Two to go,” Stefanik wrote on X. “This is only the very beginning of addressing the pervasive rot of antisemitism that has destroyed the most “prestigious” higher education institutions in America.”

At least one other elite university has taken the opportunity to signal that its approach to antisemitism is different. “In the context of the national discourse, Stanford unequivocally condemns calls for the genocide of Jews or other peoples,” Stanford University wrote in a social media post on Friday. “That statement would clearly violate Stanford’s Fundamental Standard, the code of conduct for all students at the university.”

The post Penn president resigns amid criticism of her testimony on campus antisemitism appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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University of Pennsylvania President Resigns Amid Massive Backlash Over Tepid Response to Campus Antisemitism

University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill testifies during a House Education and Workforce Committee hearing on holding campus leaders accountable and confronting antisemitism, at the US Capitol, in Washington, DC, on Dec. 5, 2023. Photo: Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill resigned from her position on Saturday, ending a 17-month tenure marked by controversy over what critics described as an insufficient response to surging antisemitism on campus.

“It has been my privilege to serve as president of this remarkable institution,” Magill said in a statement. “It has been an honor to work with our faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community members to advance Penn’s vital missions.”

Magill’s resignation followed growing calls from university leaders, donors, and students, as well as US lawmakers, for her to step down after refusing to say during a congressional hearing held on Tuesday that calling for the genocide of Jews would not constitute a violation of school rules.

“It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman,” Magill said, responding to US Rep. Elise Stefanik (D-NY), who posed the question. “If the speech becomes conduct, it can be harassment, yes.”

“Conduct meaning committing the act of genocide?” Stefanik asked, visibly disturbed by Magill’s answer. “The speech is not harassment? This is unacceptable Ms. Magill.”

The following day, Magill apologized.

“In that moment, I was focused on our university’s longstanding policies aligned with the US Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable,” she said in a video posted on X/Twitter. “I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate.”

Appointed in July 2022, Magill, an alumnus of Yale University and the University of Virginia Law School, began her position at the school vowing to “shape Penn’s next great chapter.” By the time of Saturday’s announcement, however, two Jewish students had sued the school, alleging that it violated their civil rights by “selectively” enforcing rules that would punish those who harass and intimidate Jewish students, hiring radical anti-Zionist professors, and fostering a hostile learning environment.

Meanwhile, the US government began investigating accusations of antisemitism at the university, and a major donor threatened to rescind a $100 million gift if she remained in place.

Jewish students have said that antisemitism at Penn is an “institutional problem” that has been worsening for many years.

The problem became acute and first noticed by much of the public in September, when the school hosted an anti-Zionist festival that featured several speakers who called for violence against Israel and were accused of promoting antisemitic conspiracies. For weeks, the school would not condemn the event, and Magill recently apologized for not doing so — after it took place.

After Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7, anti-Zionist protests at the university at times descended into demagoguery and intimidation of Jewish students, as speakers berated pro-Israel counter-protesters.

For roughly seven hours on Oct. 17, the protesters walked back and forth across Penn’s grounds chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — a slogan widely interpreted as a call for the destruction of Israel, which is located between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The demonstrators also chanted “Israel, Israel, you can’t hide, we caught you in genocide.”

However, according to court documents viewed by The Algemeiner concerning the recent lawsuit by two Jewish students, such incidents were hardly new.

In March, for example, the anti-Zionist group Penn Against the Occupation (POA) hosted Mohammed El-Kurd during its “Israeli Apartheid Week.” Currently a columnist for the left-wing magazine The Nation, the 25-year-old el-Kurd has trafficked in antisemitic tropes, demonized Zionism, and falsely accused Israelis of eating the organs of Palestinians. Over the past two years he has widely toured across American university campuses, heightening concerns about rising antisemitism and harassment against pro-Israel students.

On Oct. 7, as scenes of Hamas terrorists abducting children and desecrating dead bodies in Israel circulated worldwide, POA members held an “Emergency Solidarity Rally” where one of its members congratulated Hamas on a “job well done.” According to the complaint, the student said, “When they woke up in the morning, and they found the field hands in the house, with a knife, ready to cut their f—king throats. I was late to the news but when I heard it, I smiled. I don’t want to hear that bulls—t, 250, 250, innocent Israelis are dead. F—k ’em. Again, I swear, I salute Hamas.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Yemen’s Houthis Warn They Will Target All Ships Headed to Israel

FILE PHOTO: Houthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023. Photo: Houthi Military Media/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Yemen’s Houthi movement said on Saturday they would target all ships heading to Israel, regardless of their nationality, and warned all international shipping companies against dealing with Israeli ports.

The Iran-aligned group is escalating the risks of a regional conflict amid a brutal war between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist Hamas.

The Houthis have attacked and seized several Israeli-linked ships in the Red Sea and its Bab al-Mandab strait, a sea lane through which much of the world’s oil is shipped, and fired ballistic missiles and armed drones at Israel.

Houthi officials say their actions are a show of support for the Palestinians.

Israel said attacks on ships was an “Iranian act of terrorism” with consequences for international maritime security.

A Houthi military spokesperson said all ships sailing to Israeli ports are banned from the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea.

“If Gaza does not receive the food and medicine it needs, all ships in the Red Sea bound for Israeli ports, regardless of their nationality, will become a target for our armed forces,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

The threat has an immediate effect, the statement added.

The Houthis are one of several groups in the Iran-aligned “Axis of Resistance” which have been hitting Israeli and U.S. targets since Oct. 7 when Hamas militants attacked Israel.

In one of the latest incidents, three commercial vessels came under attack in international waters last week, prompting a U.S. Navy destroyer to intervene.

The Houthis, which rule much of Yemen and its Red Sea coast, also seized last month a British-owned cargo ship that had links with an Israeli company.

The United States and Britain have condemned the attacks on shipping, blaming Iran for its role in supporting the Houthis. Tehran says its allies make their decisions independently.

Saudi Arabia has asked the United States to show restraint in responding to the attacks.

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