In his debut novel, acclaimed writer Jai Chakrabati features a love story spanning three continents over several decades. But, says Chakrabati, it’s more than that. It’s also an historical novel inspired by none other than Janusz Korczak. A Play for the End of the World features the performance of Rabindranath Tagore’s play, The Post Office. Korczak chose that play to offer the orphans hope and dignity in the hell that was the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. This event, only weeks before the liquidation of the Ghetto, was beautifully portrayed in the 1990 Wajda film Korczak. Thirty years later, the same play would give hope to villagers in India fighting for their land. Art doesn’t just exist solely to save us,” says Chakrabati. “It has all of these hidden rooms, and I wanted to live in those rooms through India and Poland.” Even more, the author visits the idea of love as an act of resistance.
Chakrabati first learned about Korczak when he and his partner were living in Israel and visited Yad Vashem, where he saw an exhibit, “Art in the Ghettoes.” His interest sparked, he visited both Warsaw and Tagore’s Bengali village of Shantiniketan.
“I was compelled by the fact that art became both a refuge and a kind of protest. In Warsaw, the play served to bring the children and the community together, and I believe its themes—Dak Ghar centers on a dying child who’s been quarantined in his home—would have been deeply resonant for the orphans,” says Chakrabati in a recent author interview.
These themes are indeed compelling. I have ordered a copy of this book and look forward to reading it and sharing my thoughts here.
Philanthropists Ray and Vivian Scott Chew see their good work as a higher calling. They founded the Power 2 Inspire Foundation. These are dark times, but there is a ray of light, of hope. The Chews created Be the Light, a “call to action to unite the country in a climate of social, political and environmental unrest.” Why? “As our leaders and communities look for ways to highlight our common bonds instead of our personal differences, we have all been given the charge of looking for ways to “be the light.”
The Be the Light Project is producing an eight-song album, “celebrating the Jewish and Christian faiths coming together as one.” For the first track, released during the time of Pesach and Easter, Cantor Azi Schwartz and Israel Houghton, backed by an interfaith Gospel choir produced a masterful cover of the Simon & Garfunkel classic, Bridge over Troubled Water.
It is worth noting that, back in December 2019, Cantor Azi Schwartz and Valerie Simpson sang the same song, again with a lively Gospel choir. Collaborating here, too, were Ray and Vivian Scott Chew.
Four hundred mournful light. On January 19, the chilly, onyx waters of the reflecting pool reflected 400 lights, each one standing for 1,000 lights of souls lost in the United States to COVID-19. Just one day earlier, we remembered the life of Martin Luther King Jr. “It’s impossible to consider that terrain without also thinking of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963,” said Micki McElya, a professor of history in an N.P.R. piece. The evening before they were inaugurated, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, along with their spouses, were sworn in, listened as Yolanda Adams sang “Hallelujah.” It was not even four months ago that the Mall was covered with American flags, 200,000 of them.
“My abiding hope. my abiding prayer, is that we emerge from this ordeal with a new wisdom, to cherish simple moments… and to open our hearts just a little bit more to one another,” said Harris at a memorial at the site, as Lori Marie Key, an emergency-room nurse sang “Amazing Grace.”
“To heal, we must remember,” said President-Elect Joe Biden. “It’s hard to remember, but that’s how we heal.”
Our collective mourning also serves as a reminder, a very painful one, that we must continue to be vigilant, practice hygiene, avoid close contact, and wear a mask. Though so bitterly divided, we must be united in taking these measures for the 400,000 souls we have lost – and for all our fellow Americans still blessed to be alive.
We may wish for “auld acquaintance be forgot,” but not so fast, say the creators of For the Sake of Old Times. (This powerful film will air on NPR stations nationwide.) A group of Black singers got together in a church that once refused to seat African Americans, in Birmingham, Alabama, a city that in 2020 removed its Confederate monument. As the chorus sings about moving from the old year to the new, clippings of archival footage remind us of the tragic events that seared our conscious and the efforts of people everywhere, of all colors, coming together. They came and continue to come, to say the names of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, not only to remember and not forget, but also to work together. For 2021, let us all make peace. Let us keep making this “good trouble,” to make the world a better place for all of us.
We Can Put Politics Aside; 2021 Is a Chance to Create Light
The Founders Singis a highly creative group that engages in social commentary through song parodies. To ring in the new year, though, these musicians are taking a break from politics. “Hello 2021. Remember where we came from,” goes one refrain. “Now let’s turn our love lights on ‘Cause here comes a brand-new sun.”
“I have signed a pact with life: we will not get in each other’s way,” Janusz Korczak wrote in his Ghetto Diary. Even in the darkest days of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Old Doctor saw life – in the children he nurtured, the geraniums he cared for, and even a German soldier standing guard outside his window. A new year, 2021, gives us hope we will emerge from our own dark, narrow space.
Many of us hope that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will fulfill their vision and pledge to “build back better,” for all Americans and all the nations among which we share a single planet. Life, however, is beyond politics. It is that life with which Korczak made an agreement: for each one of us to make the choice to wage peace.
Indeed, New Year’s Day this time around falls on a Friday. That means children around the world continue fighting for the future.
In the Darkness, Children Have a Vision
Even in the darkness of 2020, a group of children isolated from their friends and peers got together virtually to sing “Make the World Better.” Charlotte Bowder, a talented teen from Maine, wrote the song. They are grateful all the everyday heroes “who give their courage and kindness, so we don’t feel so alone all the time.” But until they can see each other again, they will still be working. And though September 2020 did not bring the hoped-for reunion, September 2021 should. “We’ll be out of it soon, if we stay in it together.”
After suffering anxiety and uncertainty, children everywhere are reassured that a beloved figure will be there for them. There won’t be lines at the store, no soft lap to sit on. But one thing won’t go away: that sense of love, the greatest gift of all. This in a year they have suffered so much loss. One company, StoryFile, allows children to “interview” their hero with its app and ask him any of 180 questions. The Intelligence may be Artificial, but the Santa’s love is real. Just go to AskSanta.com.
On November 20, the Good Doctor told USA Today, “…Santa, of all the good qualities, has a lot of innate immunity. So, Santa is not going to be spreading any infections to anybody.” Doctors across the U.S. agreed, adding that Santa is taking all precautions. Though children won’t be able to line up for him, they will be able to track his progress via NORAD, as they have done in years past.
Dr. Maria Van Kerkove of the World Health Organization, said that despite his older age, Santa is immune to this virus. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Santa has been cleared from his country’s air space. Santa is alive and well in Finland; he wants children to be safe and celebrate the most wonderful aspect of Christmas, spending time together with family. And virtually, the man who mastered going down chimneys has to learn to navigate something more challenging: Zoom.
It was a loss beyond numbers, a loss beyond words. 100,000 Americans had lost their lives to a virus that was barely publicly known five months earlier. The New York Times that day devoted the entire first page to the names of those who died all too early. And the list continued on pages 12, 13, and 14. At the end, dear reader, you learned that all these names made up less than one percent of the total. Yet, even with deaths topping 1,100 a day, we hoped things would in a month or two start getting better.
Then, it doubled. At that time, September 21, the newspaper spoke of “a nation’s anguish as deaths near 200,000.” Deaths from the pandemic worldwide topped 1,000,000. when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had yet to be buried, there was terrible political posturing. Compassion for one another seemed elusive; among too many people wearing a mask or going to a crowded party were civil rights, the lives of fellow Americans be damned.
On Monday, December 14, the number of deaths reached another milestone: 3,000,000. “This disease is real, it is serious, and it is deadly.” “In her memory, please wear a mask in public and take COVID-19 seriously. It is real; it hastened her death.” “In lieu of flowers or donations, we just ask to take the COVID-19 virus seriously and please spend time with your loved ones.” These were obituaries. Their grieving authors were trying to make sense of something that often defied making sense, in the hope that others would not have to endure their horrific tragedy.
December 7 will be the “day that will live in infamy.” And we must never forget September 11. Yet, the number of daily deaths this month from the COVID-19 pandemic exceeds the numbers we lost at Pearl Harbor and 9/11. The columnist Nicholas Kristof further said, “This is the test of our lifetimes.” Furthermore, “The virus death toll exceeds 292,000, compared with 291,557 American World War II battle deaths.” Added Kristoff, “This is the test of our lifetimes. Let’s stop failing it.”
And the next day, the New York Times spoke of “those we have lost.” The headline is hopeful. The arrival of new life-saving vaccines this quickly has never before been accomplished. Yet, taking simple precautions in America has been so difficult. It did not have to be.
For us, the news of the vaccines is cause, if not for celebration, for hope. For 300,000 Americans, however, it is of little comfort.
L’eyla l’yeyla, and so we rise. When we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, we say the phrase once. But on the High Holy Days, we say it twice. We rise higher.
It is said that only the holiest of souls die on the High Holy Days. And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a very holy soul.
Or, said Dana Milbank of the Washington Post: “You don’t have to be a Jew, or a believer, to see the symbolism—the loss of this great woman at the very moment that, in the Jewish tradition, God begins the renewal of the world—to know that there is powerful, spiritual meaning here that should call us all to reflection on the meaning of Ginsburg’s life.”
In the Jewish mystical tradition, it is said that at all times there are 36 extra righteous people in the world. Without these Tzadikim Nistarim, humanity would cease to exist. Janusz Korczak may have been one of these righteous souls. And almost surely was Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
No. No. No.
“No, not RBG,” said Ibram Kenhi, author of How to Be an Antiracist. “What a colossal loss. What a lioness. She taught us all how to fight, how to fight cancer, how to fight for justice, how to fight for our lives.”
Like John Lewis, Justice Ginsburg fought the good fight. She got into good trouble. “The increasingly full use of the talent of all of this Nation’s people holds large promise for the future, but we could not have come to this point—and I surely would not be in this room today—without the determined efforts of men and women who kept dreams of equal citizenship alive in days when few would listen.”
“Yet what greater defeat could we suffer than to come to resemble the forces we oppose in their disrespect for human dignity?”
She blessed us, our nation with her courage. Now, all good people of conscience, people of compassion stand on the shoulders of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. We have a lot to do.
America First! Those words rang loud during the interwar period (1918-1939). They clang yet again from the White House. Emphasizing isolationism and nationalism, the slogan calls out against immigration. Just before World War II and during the war, this policy took a tragic turn for Europe’s Jews in Nazi-occupied areas. At that time, the U.S. was not alone. Fortunately, one community took action. Shanghai opened its doors, when everyone else closed them. The other major place that took in Jewish refugees is the Dominican Republic.
Previously in this space, we discussed Dr. Feng Shan Ho, “The Angel of Vienna,” Consul General of China in Vienna (1938-1940). Started saving Jews May 9, 1938, when the Saint Louis was turned away. Nearly all the ship’s 937 passengers perished in Nazi death camps.
The event is remembered today as “The Miracle of Shanghai.” A fair amount of the Hongkou District remains. There is the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, located at the site of the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, one of only two Jewish houses of worship remaining in Shanghai. Furthermore, a memorial to the Jewish refugees was constructed in 2014, which includes a wall inscribed with the names of more than 13,000 of these persons.
On February 18, 1943, the Imperial Japanese Army forced the Jews to relocate in the so-called International Settlement, better known as the Shanghai Ghetto. The occupying Japanese modeled their effort after the Holocaust Ghettos in Polish and other European cities. As many as 30 residents lived in each of the small, squalid apartments. However, the local Shanghai residents treated the Jewish refugees with kindness. The Shanghai Ghetto was liberated on September 3, 1945, after Japan surrendered to the United States.
Jews who read the Torah, the five books of Moses, regularly are familiar with its many exhortations to treat the stranger with kindness. After all, they were once strangers in the land of Egypt. “We live in an age now, where there people that need to escape their countries because of the horrors that are going on.” says Doris Fogel in the film. “It breaks my heart to see people trying to come to our country, which is plentiful, being turned away. This never happened to us when we went to Shanghai. Shanghai opened her arms to us.”
Although all the surviving Jews in Shanghai left the city at the end of World War II, emigrating to Austria, the United States, Australia, and other countries, they and their grateful survivors—along with the Israeli government—will always remember Feng Shan Ho and the Chinese city that offered them refuge.
Strobin, D. & Wacs I. (2011). An Uncommon Journey: From Vienna to Shanghai to America—A Brother and Sister Escape to Freedom During World War II. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books. Willens, L. (2010). Stateless in Shanghai. Hong Kong: China Economic Review Publishing.
Tobias, S. (1999). Strange Haveh: A Jewish Childhood in Wartime Shanghai. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Decimate. The origins of this word go back to the Roman legions, where every tenth man was selected to be killed. According to an article and photo essay in the Friday, September 4, issue of the New York Times, some 30 million Americans in late July did not have enough to eat. That is nearly one-tenth the total U.S. population of 330 million. At times, that number increased to nearly one in eight!
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, New York Times journalists and photographers have been documenting the misery millions of Americans have been suffering, seemingly endless lines of people in cars and on foot.
“Look for the helpers,” Mister Rogers used to say. Alexis Frost Cazimero was always one of those helpers. With COVID-19, however, she now finds herself needing help. Alexis’s job used to provide her family with the security of a middle-class life. Now Alexis’s full-time job is to drive from agency to agency, in search just enough for her family to eat. “Just because I have a car doesn’t mean that I have enough money to buy food,” she says.
A talented photographer, Brenda Ann Kenneally, set out in May, embarking on a 92-day journey from Troy, New York, to San Diego, California. Accompanying her were two photojournalists, Amy Kellner and Rory Walsh. The project appeared first online on September 2, with a preview in Friday’s print edition. The entire Sunday New York Times Magazine was devoted to this monumental work.
Most notable are the children, who feature in most photos. They convey great pain while they seem to also offer hope. What those kids are eating, how they’re living, it is a real indicator of the future. “You can see red or blue states, or left or right, but I don’t think anyone doesn’t come together in agreement that we all want to take care of our kids,” says Brenda.
At several locations, either the child or a parent has a disability, adding to the challenge a family faces.
Sadly, the photos bespeak of a systemic illness of American society, one that goes beyond COVID-19. “What we have in this country largely is a distribution problem of wealth and resources,” says Brenda. “We have enough resources to assist our fellows in ways to create lives of greater possibility, certainly sustainability, and some kind of security. But the wealth is controlled by a very small percentage of individuals, and systems are put in place to perpetuate that. There’s no better example than food.”
The stories tell of sacrifice by parents and a sense gratitude among the children. “Oh, Mommy, we’re going to have food tonight,” Villa’s children would cry. “We’re not going to go to sleep with no food in our tummy.” Remarkably, among many of the families covered, these parents help one another in a de facto barter economy to provide for their families, as well as to help those even less fortunate, the homeless.
For Brenda, one photo in particular stuck with her. In the foreground, a girl savors a simple homemade soup. In the background, the father who adopted her – now unemployed – works in the kitchen. “I left there feeling that I wanted her voice to be heard. I believe I felt that way because I didn’t see the pathway for that to happen,” she says. “Yet I hoped that her voice could be heard so that she is the new face of our future.”