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Leonard’s Holocaust dance

Canadian Irene Lilienheim Angelico wrote a letter to the iconic Jewish singer Leonard Cohen – who like her and most South African Jews – was of Lithuanian descent. She sent it to the Canadian Jewish News around Yom Hashoah Here is an shortened version of it.

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IRENE LILIENHEIM ANGELICO

Dear Leonard Cohen,

“Dance Me to the End of Love”, you once explained, “is a love song inspired by the Holocaust”. The Nazis often forced string quartets to perform as they sent prisoners to their death. “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,” you said, is about “the beauty there… at the end of existence.”

I began this letter before you died. It is about your ancestral home, Vilnius, or Vilna, as the Jews called it, where your family was close to coming to the end of its existence.

My husband Abbey and I were invited by the human rights festival, Inconvenient Films, to show our documentary Dark Lullabies, about the effects of the Holocaust on the next generation of Germans and Jews. You had been so warm in your response to the film, I wanted to return your generosity by telling you about the extraordinary event that happened in Vilnius.

 As you know, Vilnius was part of Poland before the Second World War. It was called “Jerusalem of the North” because of its vibrant cultural and intellectual Jewish life. But then the Germans and their collaborators created the Vilna Ghetto.

It was there that my parents were imprisoned after fleeing Warsaw. It was there that my mother audaciously removed her yellow star, risking death, to leave the ghetto and bring back a doctor to set my father’s broken leg. It was there my father’s twin sister Eda, her husband and their sweet little seven-year-old Misia, were selected for death. My father never forgave himself for not being able to save them.

The trip to Vilnius was also a pilgrimage to my parents’ past.  Today Lithuania has a population of just over three million, mostly Roman Catholics and a tiny remnant of the Jewish community.

Although Lithuanians collaborated in killing over 90 per cent of their own Jewish population, they never acknowledged any responsibility. For 75 years and three generations they said nothing, learned nothing and changed not at all.

Then, last August, the Jewish community organised a march to commemorate the massacre in Moletai, just outside of Vilnius. There, in the summer of 1941, the Lithuanian police rounded up all the Jews of the village, locked them in a synagogue without food or water, then forced them to march to their deaths. They shot over 3 400 Jews into a pit – an atrocity followed by 75 years of silence.

The Jewish community organised the march to mark the anniversary. They expected 200, maybe 300 people to come, including the victims’ relatives from other countries. But then something unprecedented occurred. It began with an article the beloved Lithuanian writer and film director Marius Ivaškevičius wrote about the event. 

“I’m not Jewish, I’m Lithuanian… I don’t know, perhaps I am naïve, but for some reason I believe our generation can end this nightmare… That time in Molėtai. Four o’clock. August 29. We will go visit those who have been waiting for us three-quarters of a century.

“I believe that as they were doing, they nonetheless knew the day would come when Lithuania would turn back to them. And then they would return to her. Because Lithuania was their home. Their only home, they had no other.”

Three thousand Lithuanians came out to march with the Jewish community. They came to recognise those murdered as their own – their own loss, and their own pain.

There were many young Lithuanians – priests, monks, and high-ranking officials including the president, ambassadors, ministers, the army chief and the 83-year-old first president of post-Soviet Lithuania. There were people from Poland, Russia, Latvia and Belarus who came to march with the loved ones of the massacred Jews.

Some non-Jews wore yellow Stars of David. Afterwards, everyone waited patiently to light a candle and place a stone on the memorial.

It took three generations for Lithuanians to begin to come to terms with their country’s role in the Holocaust. There were two emotional screenings of Dark Lullabies in Vilnius and the festival organisers ended up adding a third. The audiences that attended were almost all young people, who evidently felt they could not move forward without facing their past.

After one screening, a beautiful girl in her mid-twenties stood up and said: “We always thought this happened to the Jews. Now we realise that this happened to our own citizens, to us.”

So, their process of questioning and healing begins.

The list of people who trace their ancestry to this small town, those who the Nazis and Lithuanians wanted to annihilate, includes many ordinary folk and many of the greatest Jewish minds of our time.

[That list] includes you, the great Canadian poet-novelist-singer-songwriter-gentleman. How many other great and future leaders, thinkers, artists, parents, teachers and children did they kill?

In his commentary, Ivaškevičius wrote about your song and about the stunning loss of talent and intellect that was and almost was destroyed.

“Leonard Cohen is also from here. You must surely have heard his love ballad, ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’, and perhaps you have even danced to this song. If not, give it a listen. It turns out it’s about our Jews… in detention waiting to be brought out and shot:

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin

Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in

Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove

Dance me to the end of love.”

With love,

Irene Lilienheim Angelico

 

 

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Black Eyed Peas lead singer says being in Israel is like mishpocha

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(JTA) Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am feels at home in Israel, so much so that he used a Yiddish word to describe the feeling he gets in the country.

While on a visit to Israel to perform with his group, will.i.am, born William James Adams Jr, said on 29 November that he wouldn’t boycott the country, and that being in Israel was like being among family – or mishpocha.

“I always wanted to come to Israel. Growing up in Los Angeles, a lot of my friends are Israelis,” said will.i.am, who isn’t Jewish. “My grandma came here. When she visited, she would say, ‘I’m going to the holy land.’ She came with her church. It was always a place of aspiration and wonder, and when I first came, I brought my grandma. I always love coming here. It’s like mishpocha.”

The rapper made his remarks at a technology forum in the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem. This isn’t the first time the Black Eyed Peas have performed in Israel, where they put on concerts in 2006 and 2007.

Speaking at the conference, will.i.am explained how one of his childhood friends inspired him to throw some other Hebrew words into one of the band’s most popular songs, I Gotta Feeling. In that song, will.i.am famously shouts out “Mazeltov!” and another band member responds with “L’chaim!”

“I wanted to make Benjamin‘s dad proud,” the rapper said of his childhood friend. “So I said, ‘Mazeltov,’ ‘L’chaim’, and he was like, ‘Will, I always knew you are mishpocha’. So to me, when I say mishpocha, I mean that dearly. This place is magical to me, for my grandma wanted to come here, and I can’t let politics get in the way of where my heart is going.”

Will.i.am also worked the word “mishpocha” into a music video for a song the Black Eyed Peas made with Israeli pop duo Static and Ben El in 2020.

“What’s up, mishpocha?” he asks at the beginning of the music video.

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#TefillinAgainstTerror campaign turns on the light

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In times of darkness, it’s easy to fall into a pit of despair instead of fighting for the light. The murder of South African Eli Kay was one such tragic moment, and the world seems a little darker since this bright soul was taken so senselessly this week.

One can feel almost paralysed by the sadness and injustice of the world, but it’s exactly at these times that one must take action to show our humanity. This was what motivated Michael Kransdorff and Rabbis Ari Shishler and Eitan Ash to start a campaign in defiance of terror and in honour of Kay.

They are asking Jews around the world to wear tefillin and share a photo on social media with the hashtag #TefillinAgainstTerror. The campaign will include lighting Chanukah candles and other mitzvot for men and women.

“Like most in the community, I was shocked to hear the news on Sunday about Eli’s murder,” says Kransdorff. “I didn’t know him personally, but felt so connected to his story, his commitment to serve Israel, his love of the land, and passion for Jewish history and people. I was also extremely frustrated that the South African government was refusing to condemn this vicious act of terrorism.”

He spoke to Shishler and other Zionist activists “about something positive we could try to do in response. Of course, this is a personal tragedy for his family and friends. But it’s also an attack on the right of the Jewish people to pray at the Kotel. Eli was killed with his tefillin in hand on his way to morning prayers. His murder requires a response, to say we won’t allow terror to intimidate us. We will continue to pray as Jews. So we decided to launch the Tefillin Against Terror campaign.”

Kransdorff hasn’t put on tefillin in years, “but I have committed to doing it for 25 days for the 25 years of Eli life. Today, [24 November] is really day one of the campaign. The response has been amazing. It’s catching on all over the world and building momentum. It’s on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. People are sending pictures on WhatsApp of themselves as well.”

Kransdorff is chairperson of the Jewish National Fund, and “we’re supporting this campaign, but it’s a grassroots campaign – it’s not about organisations. We want as many people as possible to take part. Tefillin is the first leg of the campaign. It’s Chanukah on Sunday night, and this is also when shiva ends. We are hoping to dedicate Chanukah candles to Eli. In fact, there are lots of parallels with the Chanukah story. The Greeks tried to deny our rights as Jews to pray in the temple, and we responded with lighting the chanukiah. Hamas and our enemies today have the same intention, and we will respond to their darkness by creating light.

“I know the community is shocked and traumatised about Eli’s death and the lack of condemnation from the South African government,” says Kransdorff. “Now is the time for a united response in Eli’s memory, and to say, ‘Am Yisrael Chai!’ We think the #TefillinAgainstTerror campaign and Chanukah lighting does that in a powerful way.”

Follow the campaign and share a photo of yourself at @TefillinAgainstTerror on Facebook and Instagram, or @TefillinforEli on Twitter, using the hashtag #TefillinAgainstTerror.

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The extensive impact of the Ethiopian crisis

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Foreigners are being urged to leave Ethiopia immediately while commercial flights are still operating. Israel, Britain, and the United States have advised against all travel to the country, except for Addis Ababa Bole International Airport (where advice remains against all but essential travel).

This comes as thousands of opposition fighters are just more than 300km from the capital Addis Ababa, which they’ve vowed to overthrow. Meanwhile, the United Nations (UN) has warned that the risk of the country “descending into widening civil war is only too real”. The government has detained at least 16 UN staff and dependants without any explanation.

Last week, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, who won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago, declared a state of emergency. Since then, police have been going door to door in the capital arresting, without a court order, anyone suspected of collaborating with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The government considers its members secessionist terrorists.

For a year, Addis Ababa and Tigray fighters have been at war, mostly in the north of Ethiopia where the group is dominant. In recent months, the conflict escalated rapidly after fighters began to retake most of the Tigray province and expand into neighbouring regions. The civil war now threatens to engulf the capital.

The TPLF claims to be pushing toward Addis Ababa to force the government to lift restrictions on aid flowing to their region. The UN accuses Ahmed Ali of operating a de facto blockade which he denies. But it has been four months since the last big shipment of medicines and health supplies were allowed into the north of the country.

More than seven million people are estimated to need humanitarian assistance with about 400 000 people in Tigray alone living in famine-like conditions. Thousands have been killed, and more than two million have fled their homes since last November.

The UN reports “extreme brutality” being meted out by both sides on civilians. It says there are reasonable grounds to believe that violations of international human rights and humanitarian and refugee law are being carried out by all sides. Their intransigence has scuttled hopes of a ceasefire that international mediators including the African Union and United States were pressing for.

The war has also sparked an internal conflict in Israel. Since fighting broke out a year ago, more than 2 000 Ethiopian Jews have been airlifted to Israel in state-run operations. “We must continue to act to bring them over to Israel quickly,” vowed Israeli President Isaac Herzog recently.

But after the new immigrants were settled in various absorption centres, suspicion about the information they had given to Israeli authorities started surfacing. A probe by the Immigration and Population Authority raised “serious doubts” as to whether 61 of them were, in fact, Jewish. In spite of their affidavits, an investigation also found that “most of the petitioners didn’t come from a combat area as claimed, and weren’t in life-threatening danger”.

It turned out that the list of names compiled for rescue came from a man who emigrated to Israel from Ethiopia 25 years ago. According to media reports, among the 61 were his sons, his ex-wife, who is Christian, her husband, and their children, and a number of people he worked with in the past.

It has dampened efforts by Pnina Tamano-Shata, the Israeli aliyah and integration minister, to bring more Ethiopians to Israel. She is urging Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to speed up the immigration process. There are thought to be between 7 000 to 12 000 Ethiopian community members still waiting to make aliyah, many of whom live in the Tigray region, the heart of the conflict.

It’s here where Israeli intelligence officials are warning Israelis and Jews to be vigilant. According to Israeli media, the country’s national intelligence, the Mossad, recently thwarted multiple attacks by Iran against Israeli tourists and businessmen in at least three African countries. The targets were visiting Tanzania, Senegal, and Ghana.

Five suspects, all with African passports, have reportedly been arrested. The concern is that in countries where security is compromised, particularly in Africa, Iran is seeking to avenge the death of its top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was assassinated last November. Tehran blames the Mossad.

The ongoing shadow war between Iran and Israel goes back decades, but Iranian efforts recently spiked. This is likely to continue until the country’s leadership feels it has achieved some kind of revenge and deterrence against Israeli attacks on it.

The Ethiopian crisis could provide fodder for increased attacks against Jews and Israelis in that country. Aware of this, the Israeli foreign ministry has started evacuating the families of Israeli diplomats from Ethiopia and is urging Israeli citizens residing in the country to exercise vigilance and be regularly updated on the progress of fighting in general and in the capital in particular.

Addressing the UN Security Council on 8 November, Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, said that in spite of much speculation about how the Ethiopian crisis would unfold in coming weeks, “in a country of more than 110 million people, more than 90 different ethnic groups, and 80 languages, no one can predict what continued fighting and insecurity will bring”.

The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for three decades before Ahmed Ali took power in 2018 and sought to reduce the group’s influence. Tigrayans are deeply resented by many of Ethiopia’s non-Tigrayans and Ahmed Ali has vowed to “bury this enemy with our blood and bones”. The prime minister has called the fight against former government soldiers and volunteers from the country’s Tigray region an “existential war”.

The conflict has already taken thousands of lives and spawned one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. There are fears it will spill beyond the country’s borders as the heavyweight of the volatile region teeters on the brink of chaos.

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