Talkback on “Slaying the Dragon”

By Hannah Lee

Teshuvah (repentance) is a prominent Jewish value, but what happens when a high Ku Klux Klan high official renounces his life?  The world premiere of the opera, Slaying the Dragon, was heralded by a Q&A session with a panel consisting of: Ellen Frankel, the librettist and managing director of Center City Opera Theater; Kathryn Watterson, author of Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman on which the opera is based; and Bob Wolfson, Associate National Director of Regional Operations for the Anti-Defamation League and formerly the local ADL officer in charge of Lincoln, Nebraska where the events took place.  The panel discussion took place on Sunday, June 3 at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

In her 1995 book, Watterson, a professor in the English Department of the University of Pennsylvania, chronicled the stranger-than-fiction narrative of Larry Trapp, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan’s Lincoln chapter who had a change of heart, renounced his life of hatred and violence, and embraced Judaism.

A double amputee and blind from the complications of diabetes, Trapp — a black-sheep, distant relation of the von Trapp family singers of The Sound of Music fame —  was inspired by the love and kindness offered by Michael and Julie Weisser.

A remarkable couple, Michael Weisser was then cantor and spiritual leader of the Reform Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, one of two synagogues in Lincoln, and Julie was herself a convert to Judaism.  Together they were raising five children, and they all welcomed Trapp into their home — with the teen sisters giving up their own room — and nursed him while he was dying from his illness.  When Trapp died at age 42, he was buried in the Jewish cemetery there.

There are still people in the Jewish community in Lincoln who doubt Trapp’s sincerity in his transformation.  Wolfson recounted the “surreal feeling” he had when Trapp, who’d previously threatened his family, rolled up to the ADL office in his wheelchair and asked to give Wolfson a hug.  This was the guy that he had to warn his children against, and the reason they had to monitor the in-coming mail to the house.

Wolfson thinks it was because the Angel of Death was at his back that Trapp personally apologized to every person he’d hurt in his campaign of hate.  However, it took courage to leave the KKK, because it was a public betrayal — by a Grand Dragon, no less!  The opera deviates from reality in that Trapp is portrayed as vulnerable, being mocked by his fellow Klansmen for his physical disabilities.  In actuality, he was a strong leader and was admired by his Klan, despite his inability to physically carry out the acts of evil and spite that he advocated.

Michael Weisser, now a rabbi in Flushing, New York, was a strong believer in redemption — he’d had his own tragedy to overcome.  Neither he nor his wife were punitive people; their preferred motto was: “Educate, not punish.”  When two college boys were on trial in Lincoln for defacing his synagogue, Weisser offered to lead educational classes for them both in lieu of jail time.  Watterson pointed out that society has surely gained more by the time these misguided youth spent at Weisser’s side than in prison.

Watterson noted that white supremacists are under-developed emotionally.  So much energy is expended on projecting hate that there is no room for personal growth.  Wolfson said that people often prefer to think of these people as “nuts.”  ”Some are, but not all are so.”  Larry Trapp was not intellectually impaired, he said, but it is harder to contemplate rational people who hate obsessively.

Could what had happened in Lincoln happen here?  Hatred can happen anywhere.  Wolfson said that Weisser was a radical, whose Reform temple had lost members.  The conservative Jewish community looked askance at him, whom he would describes as “to the left, politically, of Mao Zedong,” the late Communist dictator of China.

The Jews of Lincoln were Zionist and middle-of-the-road politically and they couldn’t understand Weisser who believed in the prophet-to-the-nation philosophy of Reform Judaism, stressing tikkun olam (repairing the world) and protesting injustice.  However, Weisser built up his congregation and brought life to the synagogue.

Watterson said that she focused on Trapp’s life as a white supremacist, because it was so similar to that of Timothy McVeigh, the man who detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people and injuring more than 800 people, the deadliest act of terrorism within the United States prior to the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Frankel, the librettist, said that the composer, Michael Ching, urged her to make Larry Trapp and Michael and Julie Weisser–  re-named Grand Dragon Jerry Krieg and Rabbi Nathan and Vera Goodman in the opera — less black-and-white evil and goodness incarnate.  He wanted her to bring the characters closer together and find the commonality in them.

Are we in a post-racial world?  Wolfson noted that the world has moved to the right in recent times, citing hate crimes in France, Greece, and the United States.  Economic hardship and instability bring out the worst in human nature.  However, liberal-minded people tend not to regard this evidence of persistent racism as a motivation to keep the fight against bigotry at the top of their social action agenda, preferring to think that the issue has been resolved.

It’s most important, Watterson urged, “to get to know each other, beyond our comfort zone, and acknowledge each other’s humanity.”  She noted the spill-over of hate words into general society (e.g., “femini-Nazis”) and the public shaming and blaming tolerated in our communities.  We should foster more creativity, said she, not demonize “people of color.”

Herbert Levine, Frankel’s husband, asked from the audience about how the KKK was able to get away with its open acts of violence?  Where were the police, the FBI?  Wolfson said that in the case of the Asian immigrant community, the Laotian leadership told the police to let them handle acts of violence against their community in their own way.  Thus, after their community center was targeted by “Operation Gooks,” defaced and destroyed by Trapp’s minions, it was re-built by the Asian community anew, but this time behind barbed-wire fencing and patrolled by armed guards.

How strong is the KKK nowadays?  Watterson said they’re very organized — “the movement inspires action.”  One aborted example: Trapp himself had planned on assassinating Jesse Jackson, the black civil rights activist and Baptist minister, figuring that, in his weheelchair, he could get close to his targeted victim.

Of the white supremacists groups, White Aryan Nation is more powerful, but there are local KKK groups in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  Wolfson pointed out that the Internet allows these groups to organize more efficiently, not announcing a public rally until “12 minutes before” — with the leaders texting one another — to avoid police intervention.  The ADL (and the FBI) used to infiltrate these groups, but they can now avoid unwanted scrutiny more easily.  Wolfson noted that the biggest problem is the lone wolf, one who operates outside of group sanctions.  Frankel added that the Philly chapter of ADL has a full-time staffer who monitors the communication of hate groups and who maintains an ongoing dialogue with the FBI.

Evening performances of Slaying the Dragon will take place on June 14 and 16, with a 2 pm final show on June 17  at the Helen Corning Warden Theater at the Academy of Vocal Arts, on 1920 Spruce Street.   Limited  seating is available.  For tickets, visit www.OperaTheater.org.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2241/talkback-on-slaying-the-dragon

Book Chat: Meir Shalev’s Family Memoir

By Hannah Lee

Childhood memories strongly color our image of a place.  My husband, Eyal, fondly remembers feeding the cats under his Saba Israel’s house in Tel Aviv.  Meir Shalev’s family memoir, My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir tells us about his birth and childhood into a pioneering family in Nahalal, a moshav in the Jezreel Valley, in northern Israel.  Founded in 1921, it was the first moshav ovdim, a workers’ cooperative settlement.  When Shalev’s larger-than-life, cantankerous Grandma Tonia was interviewed for national television and asked what is the difference between a moshav and a kibbutz, she unhesitatingly replied, “We went to a moshav because we wanted freedom and privacy.  A lot of people left the kibbutzim and went to moshavim.  Nobody left the moshav for a kibbutz.”

Originally titled in Hebrew, Ha’Davar Haya Kakha (“This is How It Was”), Shalev’s memoir is a fascinating collection of stories his family tells about each other, complete with the appropriate accents and accentuations.  Foremost in the stories is his Grandma Tonia, who left the Ukraine at age 18 to become the wife of her widowed brother-in-law, Aharon Ben-Barak, and mother to his two young sons.  The family’s stories are a personal window into Palestine’s re-settlement by Jews and Israel’s early years of statehood.  Nahalal in 1923 boasted of “huts and cowsheds, and people received a little sugar and oil on credit from what was known as ‘the warehouse.’  In summer there was nowhere to hide from the blazing sun and in winter there was mud up to the knees.”

Grandpa Aharon had the soul of a writer and poet, but Grandma Tonia proved her strength and resilience in taming the land and wrangling from it a farm.  The most vivid stories are told of her fight with the pervasive mud, dust, dung, and dirt.  With a trusty rag always on duty on her left shoulder, she bullied her family and the very air around her into compliance.  The American vacuum cleaner (pronounced svieeperrr with a Russian rrr) of the book’s title is the unsolicited gift from her “double-traitor”– a non-Zionist and a non-Socialist–  brother-in-law, Yeshayahu, who’d made his fortune in Los Angeles, the land of capitalism, individualism, hedonism, and frivolity.  A land where the image of a woman, “her lips bright with red lipstick, a red polka-dot dress snug on her hips, an ample bosom, meaty buttocks” was used as advertisement. The final indictment of the American character was that “Her nails were painted with red nail polish.  It was clear to one and all: she has her hands manicured!”  No self-respecting Israeli pioneer–  and founding member of a nation– would be so frivolous.   As for her new svieeperr,  Grandma Tonia was appalled to learn that it collected dust, so it was rendered dirty, and required cleaning of its all its internal parts.  Complying with her request, her brother Yitzhak dissembled the machine, but a breeze blew the small collection of dirt all over her house.  Thus, her baleful decision was to quarantine the traitorous appliance in a forbidden, locked bathroom, never to be used again.

Painted nails become another leit-motif in Shalev’s memoir, when he shows up to Nahalal for the inauguration of the old arms cache used by the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization operated in Palestine during the British Mandate, with his toe nails painted a shiny red.  His young nieces had polished his nails while he was asleep, it was too hot for any footwear other than sandals, and he had no time to remove the coloration.  His nieces challenged him, “You’re afraid!  You’re afraid of what they’ll say about you in the village.”  They were right.  ”Anyone familiar with members of the old-time collective agricultural movement, anyone who has been upbraided by them, knows that in small villages eyes take everything in and comments are made with regularity and rumors take off and land like cranes in a sown field.  All the more so in places where pedigree is famed and illustrious, like Nahalal’s.”  Shalev gave his speech, is slapped on the back, and crushed by bold handshakes, but he does not escape scrutiny.  ”Not noticed?  It’s all anyone’s been talking about.  But take consolation in the fact that no one was surprised… What do you want from the guy?  He got it from Tonia.  She was crazy in just the same way.  That’s the way it is in their family.”  However, Grandma Tonia was not crazy, not frivolous, not prone to painting her nails.  She was “distinctive.  She was what we call ‘a character.’  She was not an easy person, and that’s putting it mildly.”

Shalev’s father , Yitzhak, was already a noted poet, writer, and teacher, but his reputation was sealed in the moshav as one who could plant only ten cucumbers in two hours, from his initial days courting his wife, Batya.  A Jerusalemite, his politics were to the right of that of the moshavniks, but the people of Nahalal accepted him as a poet and a teacher of Bible, who taught his son Meir a real love for Tanach.  Batya, in turn, proudly instructed their son, to declare of himself, “I am the son of farmers from Nahalal!”

During summer visits to his family’s farm, the teen Meir learned to pull his weight on the farm:  milking (by hand and by machine); the feeding of newborn calves; cleaning the cowshed; harvesting and gathering; milking semen from male turkeys and inseminating the females… and “also the skill that turns any old farmer’s son into a person of merit– driving a wagon with a plowshare in reverse, and more than that, backing up a wagon that has a plowshaft.”

My mother-in-law, Dr. Aviva Barzel, a retired professor of Hebrew literature, remarks that Shalev’s memoir was written with a sense of humor and a wink of the eye, detailing the family’s idiosyncrasies with a lot of love.  Drawing upon both his literary and pioneering heritages, Shalev has written a worthy homage to the land of his fathers — mothers and Grandmas! —  and it’s a fitting read for the 64th celebration of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2116/book-chat-meir-shalevs-family-memoir

Book Chat

As a Chinese-American, I am neither white nor black and I am privileged to observe the nuances of race relations in this country as a bystander (except when my own racial heritage is a source of grievance).  I wonder if an academic awareness of an issue allows one to appreciate the inherent complexities?

I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and I was riveted but very perturbed by its central issue of race relations.  Set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman interviews and edits the painful narratives of black maids about their relationships with their white employers.  I wanted to identify a black perspective.  A friend cautioned me that I cannot generalize to all blacks, as African immigrants and people with Caribbean roots do not share the same experience as those descended from slaves brought to America.  No, indeed, but I was sure that a black person would respond differently to the book.

I spoke with a black staffer at my local library, someone whom I’ve known for the 21 years that my family has lived in this community.  She did not enjoy the book as did the white readers who have praised The Help, launching it onto the bestseller lists.  She could forecast how the plot would go, and she skipped over parts.  Her niece was bored by it and never did finish the book.  I asked her if it would have been a better book if it had been written by a black author, but she demurred at that.

Could the difference lie in perspective?  Events resonate more when they become personal, as Jews are instructed to imagine that they themselves are leaving Egypt during the Passover seder.  Issues become more painful.  It took me a few years before I could follow a friend’s recommendation for Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, because the central character, a child, dies from an epileptic seizure and my child has the same disorder.

I’ve read that people like horror films because they find it cathartic, a vicarious experience that leaves them relieved to be safe and ordinary.  I wonder if readers of The Help become more understanding?  Are some readers smug that they are not racist and do not harbor any prejudicial intent?  Or do they have a renewed sensitivity to insults to human dignity?  Do they speak out in protest?  My Rabbi has noted that we do not feel pain to the same degree when a tragedy, a violation,  happens to someone else.  However, the challenge is in the striving to maintain sensitivity and that is a hallmark of a compassionate person.

I attended a book discussion along with my friend who grew up in the South.  She found the novel realistic, and told me later that the others (all white women) did not appreciate the fact that though the overt theme of the book was racism, the same kind of prejudice and peer control exist in other times, other places, including our own.  I attempted to point out that the new theory on bully-behavior management, is not to address the bully directly, but to educate the silent majority, that they can take control of a situation by speaking up.  The queen bee, Hilly, from the novel could not have continued in her role, if the others did not let her do so.  However, most people were too afraid, ignorant, or blind to the racial divide in a society in which they had a comfortable perch.  I wonder if readers would become more conscious and sensitive to injustice around them?  I made a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is now a classic.  Did readers of the time immediately take to its message?

The film version, starring Emma Stone as the ingenue reporter, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, Viola Davis as her source, a black housekeeper named Aibileen Clark, and Bryce Dallas Howard as their nemesis, the controlling Hilly Holbrook, will open in the local cinemas on August 10th.