Grapevine: Lighting the way for the future

Films, television series and documentaries on various aspects of ultra-Orthodox lifestyles have done a lot to create interest, greater understanding and tolerance among secular Jews.

AIMEE GINSBURG’S book, ‘Theodore Bikel’s The City of Light.’ (photo credit: AMAZON)
AIMEE GINSBURG’S book, ‘Theodore Bikel’s The City of Light.’
(photo credit: AMAZON)
People memorialize deceased loved ones in different ways. Some put up an educational institution or a hospital in their names, others donate scholarships in memory of the deceased.
Some plant gardens because the deceased loved flowers.
Journalist Aimee Ginsburg, who was married to celebrated actor and folk singer Theodore Bikel who died in 2015, has chosen to publish a children’s book called Theodore Bikel’s The City of Light, based on a short Hanukkah story that Bikel wrote the year before he died as part of a National Public Radio program. The story is about Bikel’s happy childhood in Vienna leading up to the 1938 Anschluss and his family’s subsequent escape, leaving his beloved grandmother behind. The story is told from the viewpoint of the boy, with a foreword and afterword, and a small Yiddish glossary. The book also includes a recipe for his grandmother’s honey cake – after all, there is nothing more nostalgic than what hits the palate – and there is also a new/old Hanukkah song that Bikel recorded before he died.
The book explicitly discusses Tikkun Olam – repairing the world – learning from the past and using the light of kindness in our hearts to fight bigotry and injustice.
Long before they met each other, Bikel and Ginsburg lived at different times in Israel. He went on to make his permanent home in the United States, but travelled the world as a performer and lecturer. While still a teenager, he made his stage debut in Tevye the Milkman in Tel Aviv. He subsequently studied acting at Britain’s Royal Academy, and appeared in productions in London and New York. He was also a singer-guitarist, singing folk songs in different languages, especially in Yiddish. He also appeared in several films. He went on to become the president of Associated Actors and Artistes of America as well as president of Actors Equity. He was also the chair of Partners for Progressive Israel, and a long-time civil rights activist.
Two years before his death, Bikel went to Austria at the invitation of the Austrian president to give a concert in the Austrian Parliament to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. As part of the program, he sang the Yiddish song of the partisans, “Zog nisht Keinmol az du gayst dem letzten veg” (“Never say that you are on your final journey”) and all the dignitaries in the chamber stood in tribute.
Ginsburg, who was born in Los Angeles, also came to Israel when she was quite young, served in the IDF and studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
She later went to India where lived for 16 years, and wrote for various media outlets in India, Europe and Israel. For 12 years, she was the Indian correspondent for Yediot Aharonot.
Following her return to America, she married Bikel, and after his death established the Theodore Bikel Legacy Project under the auspices of which the book was published. She is currently touring with it, and is herself amazed by the enthusiasm with which it has been received.
She is also negotiating to have the book published in Hebrew.
■ FULL-LENGTH feature films, television series and documentaries on various aspects of ultra-Orthodox lifestyles have done more to create interest, greater understanding and tolerance among secular Jews than any number of books or articles about Orthodox movements and communities.
The trend in portraying Orthodox Jewish life on both the large and small screens is continuing. On Wednesday, December 25, which aside from being Christmas is also the fourth night of Hanukkah, the Jewish Film Festival will include a sneak preview at the Jerusalem Cinematheque of Rabbenu, Eyal Datz’s film about the Breslov Hassidim who consider themselves to be the disciples of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who was the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov who was the founder of Hassidism. Rabbi Nachman is generally known as Rabbi Nachman of Uman, which is where he is buried and where thousands of hassidim, and even non-hassidim flock annually, in the belief that there is a special mysticism surrounding his grave. Many of today’s Breslov Hassidim are newly religious, and not always considerate of the feelings of other people as they play loud music and stomp on the tops of cars in their dancing frenzies. In this behavior, they do not necessarily reflect the teaching of Rabbi Nachman.
However, it can be presumed that following his sensitive production of Hidden Face, the film about the Sanz Klausenberger Rebbe, that Datz has been equally sensitive in dealing with Breslov.
Following the screening on Wednesday, there will be a panel discussion in Hebrew dedicated to interpreting the mystery of Rabbi Nachman, whose impact on the Jewish people is increasingly felt more than two centuries after his death.
Panelists Prof. Zvi Mark of Bar-Ilan University; writer and actress Noa Yaron, Breslov hassid, writer and lecturer; Ori Gruder, series creator, writer and director; Eyal Datz, series content editor; and co-writer Suri Drucker will discuss Rabbi Nachman’s transformation into a cultural hero, and how this has led to the ongoing development and numerical growth of Breslov hassidism. This growth is considered to be one of the most fascinating phenomena in Judaism today. The new documentary series, Rabbenu, to be broadcast on KAN11 with the support of the Avi Chai-Gesher project, will bring to life the story of Rabbi Nachman and the transformation of hassidism in the Israeli consensus.
■ SINGER, ACTOR, radio and TV host, director, producer and current affairs commentator, author, editor and former politician Yehoram Gaon will celebrate his 80th birthday on December28, and is still going strong as an entertainer.
In June of this year, there was a tribute to him at Safra Square in Jerusalem, where he also sang himself to the great delight of the audience who included amongst a packed crowd Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion. At the time Gaon made it very clear that he was not yet 80, and said that a lot of unexpected things could happen within six months. He was absolutely right.
■ AS HAS been mentioned previously in this column, the late William Cooper, an indigenous Australian, following Kristallnacht, led a protest rally to the German Consulate in Melbourne to demonstrate opposition to Germany’s policy toward its Jewish citizens. It took a tremendous act of moral courage on his part and that of other Australian aborigines, who in their native land had very few rights of their own. Since then, there has been a vast improvement in attitudes toward them, even to the extent of restoring their sovereignty over their most holy place.
William Cooper’s name will now be enshrined for posterity in a William Cooper Memorial in Perth, Western Australia, where the Perth Jewish community is also constructing a Holocaust museum with the help of a $6 million grant from the federal government.
The museum and William Cooper Memorial are to be built on the site of the Jewish Community Center in Yokine.
In a joint statement, Minister of Finance Senator Mathias Cormann and Liberal MP for Stirling Vince Connelly said: “To ensure the center continues to meet the needs of the community, the government has committed to support its redevelopment project with a $6 million grant.
Joan Hillman, the president of the Jewish Community Council of Western Australia, was thrilled with the government’s generosity, saying that the grant will ensure that the Jewish Community Center will remain as the focal point of the community, and will serve to remind people of a ,most important lesson in contemporary Jewish history.
■ TO MARK not only the miracle of Hanukkah, but that of the creation of the modern Jewish State of Israel, Dr. Aliza Lavie, the chair of the Herzl Center, invites the public to join her and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, chairman of the World Zionist Organization Avraham Duvdevani and his deputy Yaakov Hagoel on Thursday, December 26, in a ceremony for the lighting of the fifth candle. Visitors will also be able to tour the center.