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New Holocaust Musical Gives Hope Amid Despair of Global War on Israel

The cast of “Amid Falling Walls.” Photo: provided.

Watching actor Jacob Ben-Shmuel refer to a boy whose parents were killed by Nazis in the stunning new musical Amid Falling Walls, I could not help but think of 12-year-old Ariel Zohar from Kibbutz Nahal Oz. His parents, Yaniv and Yasmin, as well as his sisters, Techelet and Keshet, were murdered by Hamas when he went out for a jog on the morning of October 7.

Two days later, the team at The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbeine (NYTF) began rehearsals for its musical, which takes the audience to ghettos in Warsaw, Vilna, Lodz, Cracow, as well as labor camps and forests from 1939 to 1945. The show is now playing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, and the company had decided to do Amid Falling Walls a year earlier.

“Every moment in rehearsal was infused with our concern,” Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of the NYTF, said in an interview. He also said that his daughter is in Israel, and that many cast members have relatives there.

Yael Eden Chanukov, who was born in Haifa and grew up in San Diego, plays Esther, and had the most emotive facial expressions of any cast member.

“I felt myself connecting so much to the material,” Chanukov said. “Before, I would have said the only thing that separates me from these Holocaust survivors is time. My family are all Holocaust survivors. Seeing these horrific things that I never thought I would see in my lifetime informed a lot of the work and weirdly made it healing and therapeutic to do every night, especially with how the show ends. I’m helpless to do anything in the sense that I’m not in Israel, but this feels like a small way to do something.”

Steve Skybell, who starred at Tevye in the Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof that ran off-Broadway and at NYTF, here is Mordkhe, and he grounds the show with a palpable intensity.

Rachel Zatcoff, who plays Mina, nailed two epic high notes. While nearly all of the 28 songs were stellar, one standout was “Mues,” or “Money,” a jazzy upbeat tune with plenty of wow factor and sass, due to the delivery of Daniella Rabbani, who plays Khane. Some of her relatives are Holocaust survivors, and others are from Iran.

“I feel like if I wasn’t doing this show I might collapse in grief,” Rabbani said. “I have the opportunity to step into the shoes of my ancestors who never lost their dignity, never lost their creativity, and never lost their connection to the divine, to music, to each other, and to rage. It gives me peace, perspective, and chizuk [strength] to perform. One of the songs I sing, ‘Moshe Halt Zikh’ is about not losing hope, because at the time people were committing suicide. The message is not to give up.”

Two actors who light up the stage are Abby Goldfarb and Eli Mayer, who respectively play Sore and Moyshe. Both have movie-star looks and ooze with charisma.

“A show like this is important no matter what’s going on or what century we’re in,” Goldfarb said. “The plan was to do this a year ago. Selfishly, this is a distraction from everything online. But it’s amazing that during the Holocaust these people were able to create music and performances. I think it says a lot about the capacity of the human spirit.”

The show includes testimony from noteworthy figures, including Holocaust survivor Wladislaw Szpilman, famously played by Adrian Brody in The Pianist. I cried at three different moments, and many in the row I sat in did as well.

The show is a rush of oxygen in a time when it has been difficult to breathe. While we cannot unsee the horrors we have seen, or unhear the haunting screams we have heard, we can be presented with the power of our people and a history that tells us those who seek to cause our demise end up sealing their own fate.

Not long after the performance I saw, a kosher restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side was vandalized, with its main window shattered.

Slated to run until December 10, this production is a gem of a show, and you should not miss it. Presented in Yiddish, with subtitles in English and Russian, the experience is user friendly. Several audience members told me the show gave them a sense of hope.

While I don’t know if there is any intention to try to push the show to a bigger life, the musical performances are certainly good enough. It might require scenes with more exposition by Skybell, as well as a love story between the characters played by Goldfarb and Mayer. Many of the songs are obscure, but some are well known, like “Ani Maamin” and “Piskhu Li.”

The show is directed by Matthew “Moti” Didner, with choreography by Tamar Rogoff.

The author is a writer based in New York.

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South Dakota Passes Bill Adopting IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

Gov. Kristi Noem (R) speaking to legislators during the State of the State address on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024 at South Dakota State Captiol in Pierre. Photo: Samantha Laurey and Argus Leader via REUTERS CONNECT

South Dakota’s state Senate passed on Thursday a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to refer to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism when investigating anti-Jewish hate crimes.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) already adopted the definition, which has been embraced by lawmakers across the political spectrum, via executive order in 2021. This latest measure, HB 1076, aims to further integrate the IHRA’s guidance into law and includes the organization’s examples of antisemitism. It now awaits a vote by the state House of Representatives.

“As antisemitism continues to rise across America, having a clear and standardized definition enables a more unified stance against this hatred,” the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), said in a statement. “We appreciate Governor Kristi Noem for making this legislation a policy goal of hers, strengthening the use of the IHRA Working Definition in South Dakota through legislation, following the December 2021 adoption via executive proclamation.”

CAM called on lawmakers in the lower house to follow the Senate’s lead and implored “other states to join the fight against antisemitism by adopting the IHRA definition, ensuring the safety and well-being of their Jewish residents.”

First adopted in 2005 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism states that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and includes a list of illustrative examples ranging from Holocaust denial to the rejection of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. The definition is used by hundreds of governing institutions, including the US State Department, European Union, and the United Nations.

Widely regard as the world’s leading definition of antisemitism, it was adopted by 97 governmental and nonprofit organizations in 2023, according to a report Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) Antisemitism Research Center issued in January.

Earlier this month, Georgia became the latest US state to pass legislation applying IHRA’s guidance to state law. 33 US States have as well, including Virginia, Texas, New York, and Florida.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Columbia University Sued for Allowing Antisemitic Violence and Discrimination

Anti-Israel students protest at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Reuters/Jeenah Moon

Columbia University allowed for antisemitism to explode on campus endangering the welfare of Jewish students and faculty, StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice and Students Against Antisemitism (SAA) alleges in a lawsuit announced on Wednesday.

Filed in the US District Court of Southern New York, the complaint recounts dozens of reported antisemitic incidents that occurred after Oct. 7 which the university allegedly failed to respond to adequately because of anti-Jewish, as well as anti-Zionist, bias.

“Columbia refuses to enforce its policies or protect Jewish and Israeli members of the campus community,” Yael Lerman, director of SWU Center for Legal Justice said on Wednesday in a press release. “Columbia has created a pervasively hostile campus environment in which antisemitic activists act with impunity, knowing that there will be no real repercussions for their violations of campus policies.”

“We decline to comment on pending litigation,” Columbia University spokesperson and vice president for communications told The Algemeiner on Friday.

The plaintiffs in the case accuse Columbia University of violating their contract, to which it is bound upon receiving payment for their tuition, and contravening Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. They are seeking damages as well as injunctive relief.

“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews, “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” students chanted on campus grounds after the tragedy, violating the school’s code of conduct and never facing consequences, the complaint says. Faculty engaged in similar behavior. On Oct. 8, professor Joseph Massad published in Electronic Intifada an essay cheering Hamas’ atrocities, which included slaughtering children and raping women, as “awesome” and describing men who paraglided into a music festival to kill young people as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.”

300 faculty signed a letter proclaiming “unwavering solidarity” with Massad, and in the following days, Students for Justice in Palestine defended Hamas’ actions as “rooted in international law.” In response, Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, opting not to address their rhetoric directly, issued a statement mentioning “violence that is affecting so many people” but not, the complaint noted, explicitly condemning Hamas, terrorism, and antisemitism. Nine days later, Shafik rejected an invitation to participate in a viewing of footage of the Oct. 7 attacks captured by CCTV cameras.

The complaint goes on to allege that after bullying Jewish students and rubbing their noses in the carnage Hamas wrought on their people, pro-Hamas students were still unsatisfied and resulted to violence. They beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library. Another attacked a Jewish students with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger, after being asked to return missing persons posters she had stolen.

More request to the university went unanswered and administrators told Jewish students they could not guarantee their safety while Students for Justice in Palestine held demonstrations. The school’s powerlessness to prevent anti-Jewish violence was cited as the reason why Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a recognized school club, was denied permission to hold an event on self-defense. Events with “buzzwords” such as “Israel” and “Palestine” were forbidden, administrators allegedly said, but SJP continued to host events whole no one explained the inconsistency.

Virulent antisemitism at Columbia University on the heels of Oct. 7 was not a one-off occurance, the complaint alleges, retracing in over 100 pages 20 years of alleged anti-Jewish hatred at the school.

“Students at Columbia are enduring unprecedented levels of antisemitic and anti-Israel hate while coping with the trauma of Hamas’ October 7th massacre,” SWU CEO Roz Rothstein said in Wednesday’s press release. “We will ensure that Columbia University is held accountable for their gross failure to protect their Jewish and Israeli students.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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University of California-Los Angeles Student Government Passes BDS Resolution

Graphic posted by University of California, Los Angeles Students for Justice in Palestine on February 21, 2024 to celebrate the student government’s passing an resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Photo: Screenshot/Instagram

The University of California-Los Angeles student government on Tuesday passed a resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, as well as false accusation that Israel is committing a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.

“The Israeli government has carried out a genocidal bombing campaign and ground invasion against Palestinians in Gaza — intentionally targeting hospitals universities, schools, shelters, churches, mosques, homes, neighborhoods, refugee camps, ambulances, medical personnel, [United Nations] workers, journalists and more,” the resolution, passed 10-3 by the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC), says, not mentioning that UN personnel in Gaza assisted Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7.

It continued, “Let it be resolved that the Undergraduate Student Association of UCLA formally call upon the UC Regents to withdraw investments in securities, endowments mutual funds, and other monetary instruments….providing material assistance to the commission or maintenance of flagrant violations of international law.

The days leading up to the vote were fraught, The Daily Bruin, the university’s official student newspaper reported on Wednesday.

“Non-UCLA students” sent USAC council members emails imploring them to vote for or against the resolution and USAC Cultural Affairs Commissioner and sponsor of the resolution, Alicia Verdugo, was accused of antisemitism and deserving of impeachment. The UCLA Graduate Student Association and University of California-Davis’ student government had just endorsed BDS the previous week, prompting fervent anticipation for the outcome of Tuesday’s USAC session.

Before voting took place, members of the council ordered a secret ballot, withholding from their constituents a record of where they stood on an issue of monumental importance to the campus culture. According to The Daily Bruin, they expressed “concerns” about “privacy” and “security.” Some members intimated how they would vote, however. During a question and answer period, one student who co-sponsored the resolution, accused a Jewish student of being “classist” and using “coded” language because she argued that the council had advanced the resolution without fully appreciating the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the history of antisemitism.

“As a Guatemalan, …my country went through genocide,” he snapped at the young woman, The Daily Bruin’s reporting documented. “My family died in the Guatemalan Mayan genocide. I understand. I very well know what genocide looks like.”

Other council members  voiced their support by co-sponsoring the resolution, which was co-authored by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group that has held unauthorized demonstrations and terrorized Jewish students across the country.

Responding to USAC’s decision, Jewish students told the paper that they find the campaign for BDS and the attempts of pro-Palestinian students to defend Hamas’ atrocities myopic and offensive.

“How can anyone dare to contextualize since Oct. 7 without acknowledging that the Jewish people are victims of such a cataclysmic attack?” Mikayla Weinhouse said. “BDS intentionally aims to divide a community. Its supporters paint a complex and century-old conflict in the Middle East as a simplistic narrative that inspires hate rather than advocates for a solution.”

University of California-Los Angeles denounced the resolution for transgressing school policy and the spirit of academic freedom.

“The University of California and UCLA, which, like all nine other UC campuses, has consistently opposed calls for a boycott against and divestment from Israel,” the school said in a statement. “We stand firm in our conviction that a boycott of this sort poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty and to the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on this campus.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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