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‘An American Tail’ musical adaptation hopes its Jewish immigration story will resonate in 2023



(JTA) — Itamar Moses was 10 years old when he watched “An American Tail” at his Jewish day school in California. He was struck by the 1986 film, an animated musical about a family of Russian-Jewish mice who immigrate to America. Even though he was surrounded by Jewish classmates and teachers, he had never seen a cartoon with Jewish protagonists.

“Watching this mainstream hit American animated movie where the central character and the central family were specifically Jewish — it was unusual,” Moses told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I think there was something that felt inclusive to us about that.”

Now a Tony Award-winning playwright, Moses has adapted the children’s classic for the stage. “An American Tail the Musical” will premiere at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis on April 25 and run through June 18. Along with writing by Moses, who won his Tony for a Broadway adaptation of the Israeli film “The Band’s Visit,” the new production features familiar songs such as “Somewhere Out There” and new music and lyrics by Michael Mahler and Alan Schmuckler (“Diary of a Wimpy Kid the Musical”). The team hopes to tour the show if it has success in Minneapolis.

The original film created by Don Bluth and Steven Spielberg follows the journey of a young, tenacious mouse named Fievel Mousekewitz. Fievel’s family lives below the human Moskowitz family in Shostka, a city in the Russian Empire, in 1885. Spielberg, who had yet to make “Schindler’s List” or widely address his Jewish family history, named the character after his maternal grandfather — Phillip or “Fievel” Posner — an immigrant from Russia.

The movie begins with the Mousekewitzes and the Moskowitzes celebrating Hanukkah when Cossacks tear through Shostka in an antisemitic pogrom, together with their animal counterparts — a battery of evil cats. The Mouskewitzes flee Europe and board a ship to America, where Papa Mouskewitz (voiced by Nehemiah Persoff) promises “there are no cats” and “the streets are paved with cheese.” But a thunderstorm at sea washes Fievel overboard, leaving his devastated parents and sister to arrive in New York City without him. Although they believe he did not survive, Fievel floats to shore in a bottle and sets out to find his family. 

Of course, he quickly learns there are cats in America — along with corruption and exploitation. Fievel is sold to a sweatshop by Warren T. Rat, a cat disguised as a rat. A crooked mouse politician called Honest John (a caricature of the real Tammany Hall boss John Kelly) wanders Irish wakes, scribbling dead mice’s names in his list of “ghost votes.” But Fievel finds camaraderie with other immigrant mice rallying for freedom from the cats’ attacks and Warren T. Rat’s extortion. He befriends Italian mouse Tony and Irish mouse Bridget, who join the quest to reunite his family.

The film’s metaphors will be presented similarly in the stage version, which is also set in the 1880s, although Moses has expanded its lens on the immigrant groups that populated New York at the time. The musical will incorporate more “mice” communities, such as Chinese, Caribbean and Scandinavian mice, along with African Americans and former slaves.

A scene from rehearsal. (Kaitlin Randolph)

“An American Tail” was part of a shift in mainstream media toward Jewish representation, said Jennifer Caplan, an assistant professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati who has studied this cultural change.

“It came out in 1986, and then ‘Seinfeld’ premiered in 1989,” Caplan told the JTA. “People point to 1989 as this moment when representations of Jews changed. There was this feeling in the late ‘80s that people were looking for new, different, possibly even more explicit representations of Jews.”

Yet despite the movie’s resonance with children like Moses, some film critics complained that it wasn’t Jewish enough. Critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave the film “two thumbs down” on a 1986 episode of their program “At The Movies,” calling it “way too depressing” for children and arguing that it “chickened out” of an explicitly Jewish story. Ebert noted that while most adults would understand the Mousekewitzes were Jewish, the word “Jewish” never appears in the film, potentially leaving young audiences in the dark. 

“This seems to be a Jewish parable that doesn’t want to declare itself,” he said at the time.

Unlike in Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus,” where Jews are mice and Nazis are cats, the cat-and-mouse metaphor of “An American Tail” is expansive. The cats represent a universal force of oppression — Cossacks in Russia or capitalists in America — while the mice encompass all persecuted immigrants, regardless of their religion, ethnicity or national origin.

Caplan admitted that some might not have seen it as a Jewish story at the time.

“In 1986, we’re right at the birth of the multicultural push in American schools,” said Caplan. “You’ve got kids who are learning about the melting pot. I think if you are not looking for the coded Jewishness and you’re not familiar with it, then this just seems like a movie about immigrants.”

But Moses, who said the movie held a “mystical place” in his imagination, did not view the story’s broad allegory as a shortcoming. Instead, he saw an opportunity to pull its continuous thread for a message he hopes will feel relevant today: that while immigrants discover inequality and abuse in America, the forces of injustice are changeable, and that people can overcome life’s harsh realities through “grit and hard work and coming together.”

“That message is always timely, but definitely coming out of the last few years and the conversations that America is having about immigration,” said Moses. “I wanted to tell this story that’s really a fable, so you can get at these ideas indirectly as opposed to in a dry, didactic way.”

Jodi Eichler-Levine, a Jewish studies professor at Lehigh University, argued the tale’s success lies in being a “story of Jewish immigration that appeals to non-Jews as well” and called the movie a “fairytale about America.” It premiered 100 years after the Statue of Liberty’s dedication in 1886, amid centennial celebrations of the country’s immigration history. In the film, the statue comes alive, winking at Fievel and his sister once they find each other and look west at the vast expanse of the United States. 

Itamar Moses won acclaim for adapting “The Band’s Visit” for Broadway. (Courtesy of Moses)

Whether viewers still buy into the optimistic crescendo of “An American Tail” remains to be seen. Do Americans still believe, as Moses hopes, that immigrants and oppressed peoples can unite to overthrow the tyrants of unfettered capitalism? A Gallup poll from February showed that Americans’ satisfaction with the country’s level of immigration has dropped to 28%, the lowest point in a decade. 

Moses is betting that children’s theater has a way of refreshing themes adults have exhausted with political discourse. Children want to grapple with the ideas at the core of the show, he said, such as “the needs of the individual and the needs of the collective, the need to go out on your own but still remain connected to your family and your background.”

“The most successful material for kids tends to engage with real things that they’re thinking about and worrying about,” he said. 

Today, another wave of families has fled Fievel’s hometown: though Shostka was part of the Russian Empire in the 19th century, it is now in the Sumy region of northeastern Ukraine. The Sumy Oblast was among the first regions stormed by Russian forces in February 2022 and continues to suffer daily shelling. Eichler-Levine expects that global refugee crises will only continue to broaden the appeal of a migration story.

“The ideas [in An American Tail] are sadly relevant for most of the planet right now, given that climate change and devastation from war are leading to another tremendous wave of global migration,” said Eichler-Levine.

The post ‘An American Tail’ musical adaptation hopes its Jewish immigration story will resonate in 2023 appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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