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.