Archive for Rabbi Don Singer

Personae in “The Crooked Mirror”

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Family History, Poland, reconciliation with tags , , , , , , on December 15, 2013 by Louise Steinman

Obt4UP_TlNdKFJ6MjJT5Nq3OGiBWQmOsZjei0rILFBM
As promised, here are some of the “characters” who people my memoir, The Crooked Mirror. First, here is my beloved Zen rabbi, Don Singer, at the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau sponsored by the Zen Peacemakers. Photo: Peter Cunningham.

Cheryl in Kolomay
Cheryl H., my companion and muse, a poet and gifted dreamer, in Ukraine in front of what we thought was the Grand Hotel– which had been in her family. We later did find the right building. Cheryl often asked difficult questions, like “Do They Miss Us?”

Poland Radomsko 2006 143
Tomasz (Tomek) Cebulski, my intrepid Polish guide over the years of writing the book. We’ve driven through pea-soup fog together, visited LeninWorld in Lithuania, attended seders in Warsaw and Lublin, and searched for (and found) my great-grandmother’s grave in Radomsko, Poland.

IMG_3698
Maciej Ziembinski, one of the “saviors of Atlantis,” an intrepid journalist in Radomsko, Poland. Maciej had the Radomsk Yizkor translated into Polish, and published it as a serial in his independent newspaper.

Radomsk yizkor book cover
The Radomsk Yizkor (Memorial Book of the Community of Radomsk), which plays a big role in The Crooked Mirror

Berek and family
Berek Ofman, a retired tailor and son of a dynasty of kosher butchers in Radomsko. Berek survived with his friend (and later his wife) Regina and her parents and one of her cousins in a bunker built into a house in Radomsko. This photo taken after the war, showing Berek and Regina and their two children Leo and Tova.

P1020174
Janka and Marian Bereska, Berek’s rescuers.

where he ran Marian
Marian Bereska, standing next to Tomek and his grandson Szymon, showing the site of the house with the bunker in Radomsko, winter 2010.

Cinders and Silver

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Life and What about It with tags , , , on October 16, 2013 by Louise Steinman

img063

“Cinders drifted over the heads of family and friends—- fire season in Southern California. The rabbi sang so ecstatically from the Song of Songs, some of the wedding guests wondered if he was on acid.” Those are the first lines of my new book, The Crooked Mirror, which I liberated from a manila envelope last week and held in my hands for the first time. It is new with possibility.

Those lines are a description of the day Lloyd and I got married at the Will Geer Theatricum in Topanga Canyon, exactly 25 years ago today, when Rabbi Singer blessed us with his ecstatic song; when all four of our parents were alive and smiling with pleasure. It was so frightfully hot that my mother remarked “there’s a baby parked under every bush.” My Russian cousin Maya was there, and her husband Grisha— both gone too soon. My niece Sarah had just been born; my nephew Matt turned 14 on that day. Tali and Yoni Pressman were our “ring bears,” emerging from Caliban’s cave, which remained on the stage from a performance of “The Tempest.” One of the chupah holders was David Redford, an elegant and talented young man, a casualty of the AIDS epidemic.

We were so happy that day, emerging from the woods together to meet our beaming rabbi. Lloyd so handsome in his brown fedora and white shirt, me shimmering in a silk dress the colors of fall leaves. And after the guests left, while the klezmers played on, Lloyd danced the kind of dance Greek men do, sunk low on their haunches and waving a handkerchief. My father peered through the hedges, saw his new son-in-law, his daughter’s second husband, dancing alone in the garden. This he reported to me proudly.

After the wedding, Lloyd and I drove up to Ojai, for a wedding night with scents of eucalyptus and oranges. And now I’m writing this from Ojai, a few quiet days to prepare author talks for a book tour.

Our marriage is now twenty-five years old, silver they call it. And we still find ourselves dancing around the kitchen together to the Stones, to Mose Allison, Radiohead, laughing and jostling hips. The Crooked Mirror is about to move out into the world on its own in a few weeks.… so let it be full of possibility, as is our marriage and each day of what remains of all our lives.
SAM_8884

Book of Dreams

Posted in Art and Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2011 by Louise Steinman

“A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read,” says the Talmud. In the little shtetlach of Eastern Europe—in towns like Zhitomir and Radomsk where my father and mother’s families came from—travelling booksellers once plied their routes. Among the most popular items they offered for sale were dream books. In the pages of those books you could learn the meaning of any dream: the baby born with the head of a carp; the midwife dancing in the beet field; the miller’s daughter with the extra eye, your long-lost brother with shoes aflame.
In my performance “Sinai/Sinai” (created with poet John Marron) in the early 80’s, I made my own appearance as a Dreampeddlar. To the melancholy chords of a harmonium score, my peddlar entered the stage dressed in a long overcoat weighted down with his over-sized book of dreams.

An artist friend, Richard Posner, made that marvelous Dream Book, a three-ring binder with a white stork embroidered on the front and a camel from a flour sack on the back cover. Richard was a bricoleur; he used whatever was at hand to make luminous works of art. Glass was his primary medium, and his stained glass windows were in the collection of the Exploratorium in San Francisco; the Metropolitan Museum and the Victoria and Albert. An installation he created in Berlin, “Der Wider-Haken-Krauter-Garten” (The Live Not on Evil Garden) used broken glass and healing plants to create what Richard called “a work of transformation” from “waste material into living things.”

Richard died this past spring, victim of a homicide in Tucson, Arizona. When his body was first discovered by the Tucson police, it was reported as “the body of an anonymous 62 year-old man.” Later, Richard’s name was restored and his many accomplishments—numerous public art commissions, four-time Fulbright scholar– were mentioned in the press.

A few weeks ago, several of his friends gathered for a memorial in the Malibu home to commemorate his life. Richard was a difficult man with many problems, including mental health issues all exacerbated by poverty and lack of health care. He could be exasperating. He was neurotic and needy. “Sometimes Richard drove me nuts or maybe it was him reminding me that I was nuts,” wrote one friend. He was also loyal and brilliant.

My dear teacher Rabbi Singer—also Richard’s friend and teacher — wrote to me after he heard the news: “I have his nine wine bottles Menorah on the deck outside. It is just a row of nine wine bottles fused together by some plastic compound. I could never throw it away. It works. It expresses the desperate, makeshift genius of the impoverished to turn on the lights.”

This gathering of friends took a tour of Richard’s artwork from our various collections. Petra Korink, Richard’s wife from Berlin, brought several of his GWOTBOTS (Global War on Terror Robots), constructed from toys gleaned from Berlin flea markets. Richard, an intrepid wordspinner, gave them names like “Blind Leading Blind in Mad Cow Circles.” Our host, Dr. Ralph Potkin pointed out one of Richard’s glass Kitschina, what RP called “a May-December marriage of German ‘kitsch’ with Hopi Indian Kachina dolls.”) Susan Rubin talked about Rich’s Coping Saws, cast and found glass tools which Richard constructed from the detritus of a decade of stained glass and windows broken in the 1994 Northridge, Ca. earthquake. We posed for portraits in his “Bird-Brained Bicycle Helmets”

and we contemplated ethereal glass marbles with fragments of Richard’s ashes. Rabbi Don read the Kaddish and Petra read Wyslawa Szymborska’s poem, “The Heavens,” which begins:

I should have begun with this: the heavens.
A window without a frame, without curtains, without glass.
An opening with nothing beyond
but a vast opening.

I’d rooted through my basement for the occasion, and unearthed that Dream Book that Richard made me decades ago. I sat on a leather chair in Ralph’s house, my back to the Pacific and facing Richard’s friends. I reached into the transparent pockets the artist created in the book, where the storyteller could stash whistles and a mirror, a clothespin, a Jew’s harp or a pocket watch on a gold chain.

[still from my film, “The Strange Tale of Shabbatai Sevi”]

I opened the pages to reveal the dream images within: an erupting volcano; an astronaut tumbling through space; a city under siege; a white horse rearing up under his rider; a veiled woman with a birdcage balanced on her head; a shining green Star of David.

Traces

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Poland with tags , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2011 by Louise Steinman

It’s a big shift from the solitude of the page to a roomful of faces. I gave a talk at Pepperdine University in Malibu yesterday to celebrate the opening of an exhibition of photographs (titled TRACES OF MEMORY: A CONTEMPORARY LOOK AT THE JEWISH PAST IN POLAND) by the late photojournalist Christopher Schwartz, the permanent exhibition at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow. The photo exhibit is in the Payson Library, and sponsored by the Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies at Pepperdine.

I first encountered Chris Schwartz’ photographs at the Galicia Museum in Krakow in 2004. Chris, a genial host, told me how he’d originally come to Poland in the early eighties to photograph the Solidarity movement. He was struck by the lack of documentation of former Jewish sites in Poland, how “an 800 year-old culture had been destroyed in six years.” In 1990, he set himself the challenge of “photographing absence.”

I remember looking at Chris’ impressive photographs in the museum’s main gallery. One photo in particular captured my attention and I’ve pondered its implications over the years I’ve been writing THE CROOKED MIRROR.

It’s a very simple image taken outside a small Polish village called Stary Dzikow: a large field with a stand of tall pines in the center of spiraling plowed furrows. To understand what you’re looking at you have to read the caption: “This clump of trees is the site of the Jewish cemetery here. It is unmarked. There is no boundary fence, nor are there any tombstones. But the local peasants remember that it is a Jewish cemetery and have left it as it is.” Think about that. The presence of the past is kept alive by the observance of absence in the plowed field.

[photo credit: Chris Schwartz, Galicia Museum]

I looked up the word traces, which goes back to the Latin tractus, to draw or drag. “any mark or slight indication of something past or present.”

There is nothing tangible at the center of the field in Stary Dzikow, in Christopher Schwartz’ photo… but the older Polish inhabitants remember what had been there. By literally tracing their furrows around that empty center, they honor Jewish memory in their own way.

On my many trips to Poland over the past decade, I’ve discovered many poignant examples of ways in which Poles observe and honor the absence of their murdered Jewish neighbors– in villages, small towns, big cities. Today was the first time I’ve shared some of those stories with an audience, faces looking back at me, responding. It was energizing. And beyond the room, the Pacific shimmered. My dear rabbi Don Singer was in the audience. It was a phone call from Don eleven years ago inviting me to attend the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau that launched this project. Who knew? I never intended to write a book about Poland.

After the talk and the energetic Q&A, I had time to watch the last rays of the sun over the Pacific, sitting with Rabbi Singer and Ken LaZebnik (who organized the show at Pepperdine), to talk about our lives, to exchange hopes and worries about the protests in Egypt, to simply savor the moment of putting the work out into the world, the last traces of the day.

%d bloggers like this: