“Hold this.” He whispered, shoving a clump of black curtain into my hand.
“When Frumma Sarah finishes singing, open the curtain from here very quickly so we can wheel her backstage,” the man in black ordered. “This will be your job at every performance.”
And just like that, I had my first job in community theater. While my son was doing his thing onstage being a shtetl boy, I had my part backstage helping Fume Sarah get offstage. And I did my job proudly, all the while pantomiming Frumma Sarah’s motions and words, with another stagehand who I had not met until that final tech dress rehearsal, every night I was not in the audience watching my son with pride.
I was a suburban mom. This other stagehand was a young woman at most in her 20’s. We had never met before that night, but though “The Dream,” we had an instant connection. And at that moment, I realized: I am not a soccer mom. I am a stage mom!
That was last year, the year my son came home buzzing about how he wanted to audition for Fiddler on The Roof with a local community theater group. He heard about it from a poster hung up at his new school. I drove him to every rehearsal and instead of dropping off and running home or going for coffee, I hung around.
This year, I was asked to serve on the board, and perform on stage, as a member of a long-standing mainly volunteer community theater group in the Detroit Metro Area.
As a transplant, getting involved in community theater has proven the best way for me to plug into a community. Now that the curtain has closed on our most recent production, here is a few things community theater has taught this newbie:
You cannot produce any old show you want – Planning to produce a show in community begins nearly a year before opening curtain. Music Theater International has strict licensing guidelines and a catalog of shows available for community theater production that is regularly updated. Nothing running on Broadway, or that is a Broadway national tour, can be produced. And licensing rights for some musicals, especially the Disney genre, are extremely costly. Being that our company is geared to be a family, multi-generational theater company also restricts our choices. Hair and R.E.N.T. are definitely no-nos.
Everyone counts: To the untrained eye, a theatergoer might think that the female lead with the canary-like voice or the dancer with the highest kicks or the tenor with the sweetest crooning is the most important facet of a musical theater production. But the ones you see on the stage, we are just mere puppets. It is everyone else: the sound engineer who follows the script line by line during every performance, whose fingers fly across the soundboard making sure your mike is hot only when it needs to be, the stage manager and their fearless tech crew who wheel stage sets around 180 degrees or pull the grand curtain open and shut within seconds, they are the backbone of any good production. As is the props master, whom months before opening curtain thought of every detail, and where it needs to be when not on stage, who matters. As is the costumer who hunts around at thrift stores and begs borrows and steals if she has to just the right costume from other community theater groups, who is up late at night sewing and resewing hemlines and taking in trousers, that’s who matters in a show. Not to mention (and OF COURSE they need mention!) the multi-piece orchestra that plays at your feet from the pit, whose musicians will even throw in their own laughter if a joke onstage falls flat. I don’t understand why they can’t join us on stage for a bow each night.
You gain an insane appreciation for people who actually want to do musical theater for a living – As much as I loved being in a performance, towards closing night I was wiped. How do people do this and keep it fresh, some for 3,000 performances in a row? Maybe it is because most of our company is slightly older than professional Broadway stars. But Broadway stars, for eight performances a week, have to give it all to their audience, even when they may not have it all that night. Even if they are under the weather. Or had a fight with their boyfriend. One night, while driving to rehearsal, I heard Seth Rudetsky on the XM Broadway Channel interview an actor who passed a KIDNEY STONE on stage while he played Horton in Seussical the Musical. After all, the show must go on, and the paying audience does not care if you are passing a kidney stone. When you need to be on stage, you must be on stage. Even if you have to pass a kidney stone. Or even pee. Yes, perhaps of all the things I learned about being on stage is that performers do not get to use the bathroom any old zany time they want to. For thousands of performances. Yet, they have to keep themselves hydrated? How is that all supposed to even out?
Hair and Makeup – This again speaks to the immense appreciation I have gained for professional actors, because this business is way too high maintenance for me, an otherwise hermit-like writer, when it comes to tending to hair and makeup prep that is worthy of the stage. To get myself ready for performances, I spent hours watching Youtube videos on how to create the perfect Gibson Girl updo from the Edwardian era. I found videos on proper contouring and learned how to apply blush not to my cheekbones but underneath. The first time I tried to apply my makeup, I looked more like a Geisha girl than someone who lived in River City, Iowa, but thanks to our volunteer makeup artist, a woman in her 40s who is also a national champion figure skater (!!), I got it looking just right.
Community Theater is not high school theater – You know where my favorite place in the theater is? Not on stage, under those hot bright lights, but deep backstage. Where the darkness is lit only by a string of lights. Where the smell of sawed wood and paint lingers in the air. Where you can find random things like an old stove or a stripped down Chevy Convertible from shows past. Graffiti that says things like “Best Cast Ever Guys and Dolls ’86” Because if only for a second, I can pretend I am backstage in my own high school. But this is not high school theater, even if this may have been the high school of others for many decades. It wasn’t mine. And as a transplant, few, if any of the audience members knew me, let alone knew me from high school. I also got that lonely transplanted feeling after performances, watching my fellow cast mates surrounded by adoring family and friends, awkwardly balancing bunches of flower and candy in their arms while they posed for a picture. When you are a transplant, this post-performance shower of adoration can feel a bit thin.
But this post is not about being a transplant. It is about showbiz! So let’s move on:
Breath Support, Personal amplifier – Just as a choreographer tells a dancer how to move their body, a great vocal director will tell you how to move your lips, teeth, tongue in such a way that you would believe that you never knew how to move your lips, teeth, tongue and even the roof of your mouth (did you know you can move the ROOF of your mouth?) before he taught you. Every note has choreography and a dynamic, and a good musical director will get this out of you if he has to beat it out of you to make sure you are sounding like a well-supported ensemble, a chorus capable of producing that building wall of sound. You might think that singing in the shower or singing in your car is singing, until you have taken actual formal instruction from a musical director. There really is a difference.
Community Theater truly is a community– My son discovered something that I learned this year. Yes, the cast and crew become like family. After all, in the intensive weeks leading up to opening curtain, you will see them more than your actual family. They are there for you – totally there – to celebrate your birthday, to say a community prayer of healing if you have a loved one in the hospital, to root for you if you are waiting on that job offer after months of unemployment. They are there for you to change you out of one costume and into another in under 90 seconds. Or loan you a favorite antique hatpin to keep your hat from flopping over your face, because, really, who owns hat pins in this century? They are there for you to hold your hand and wipe away a tear when it all becomes too overwhelming. And, if your cast is lucky enough to contain some medical professionals, they will do what they have to do to keep you healthy for those crucial last rehearsals leading up to opening night. Believe me. A month after closing curtain, and I am going through deep withdrawal missing my theater family. I cannot wait to do it all again next year!
It really is eerie.
Last week, though it was a “prank” by pro-Russian supporters in the Ukraine, Jews were handed out leaflets that they must register their names and property holdings with the government.
Last week, just as this week, a synagogue in the Ukraine was firebombed. Not just vandalized. Firebombed.
This is why “Never Forget” must not just be uttered or whispered in a prayer but be a call to action.
I am sure that Henry Upfall would agree. Here is his story.
In the weeks leading up to his 101st birthday on April 14, Henry Upfall was hoping to start a men’s poker night at Meer Apartments in West Bloomfield, where he lives. Just returning from spending the winter at his condominium in Florida, he missed his regular poker game at the clubhouse, and the ladies at Meer won’t deal the men into their game.
According to his devoted daughter, Dina Pinsky of Bloomfield Hills, Upfall believes in living in the present by making new friends and maintaining close family ties. Pinsky adorns his apartment with plenty of family photos of Upfall’s late wife, Dora, their children, six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
His daughter said living in the present — loving life, surrounding themselves with family, friends and many social gatherings — was the way her parents coped with the very dark past of surviving the Holocaust.
At 101, Upfall is Metro Detroit‘s oldest living Holocaust survivor. Like many children and grandchildren of Holocaust
Like many second and third generation survivors, Pinsky is in a race against time to preserve her loved one’s stories for the coming generations.
“As a kid, my brother Yale and I remember lots of laughter and joking around,” Pinsky said. “We heard stories of Europe in bits and pieces. We knew there were subjects that were off-limits; we just didn’t go there because it caused my parents too much pain.”
Stephen Goldman, executive director at the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC) in Farmington Hills, said that in the immediate years after the Holocaust, many parents were afraid to tell and children were afraid to ask about the horrors of the Holocaust. As time passed, more survivors began to tell their stories. They must be told and recorded to preserve their memory, he said. “As survivors age, it becomes more urgent for us to preserve their stories,” Goldman said.
“If we don’t capture their memories now, they will be lost to the ages.”
Upfall’s story, retold here, was pieced together from a recent interview at his apartment and a 2006 video testimony he gave at the HMC. There, Upfall’s account, along with 500 additional area survivors, are recorded with attention to the most accurate detail.
Henry Upfall was born Gedalye Augustowski on April 14, 1913. As a child, he grew up in a comfortable and “cosmopolitan” household in Warsaw with his mother, sister and maternal grandparents. His parents divorced and his father left to settle in Detroit in the 1920s.
He was an athletic teenager and an avid boxer. For a time, he traveled from town to town competing in boxing tournaments, where he eventually suffered an injury to his right eye causing permanent blindness in it. When retelling even a few sentences of his story, that eye swells shut under the weight of its tears.
“We had good lives,” Upfall said. “We were well dressed. My sister never left the apartment without a fine hat on her head.”
In 1938, Upfall met his future wife, Dora Rajf, through one of her six brothers. After a year of courting, the two set a wedding date for Sept. 6, 1939. Through the help of their families, they purchased a small building where they would work as a barber and a beautician and live in the apartment upstairs.
Coming Of War
Then, in September of 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland.
Upfall, like all other able-bodied young Polish men, was ordered at age 26 to the border at Bialystok in an attempt to thwart the Nazi invasion. Two months later, Upfall returned to Warsaw and reunited with Dora.
In just those short months away, Upfall recalls the shock of seeing a change in Dora’s physical state and the destruction in the city.
“I didn’t recognize her,” Upfall said. “In only two months, her face was so drawn, so black from the soot of the bombings.”
On Nov. 6, 1939, Upfall and Dora broke the 7 p.m. curfew imposed on all Warsaw Jews to sneak away to the rabbi’s study at Nozyk Synagogue. There, with no guests or witnesses, a rabbi married them in a secret ceremony. An engagement photo and a ketubah bearing the date and their names, survives to this day, lovingly preserved in a frame in Upfall’s apartment.
“There were just the rabbi, Dora and I,” Upfall tearfully recalled. The two fled that evening from Warsaw and headed back to Bialystok, walking the whole way at night, hiding by day in the woods and in barns. Upfall still has painful regrets about leaving his sister, grandparents and mother. That next year, in the fall of 1940, the Nazis ordered all Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto.
“He just had no idea how bad things were going to get,” Pinsky said.
After making it back to Bialystok, he and Dora were arrested and sent to Posolek, a Russian labor camp near the town of Vologda in White Russia to work harvesting trees in the forest. Conditions were harsh. There was little food and only straw to sleep on in the barracks.
Upfall, raised in an Orthodox home, recalls feigning illness and fever with some other men in the camp so they would not have to work on Yom Kippur. Though they were under the watchful eye of Russian guards, somehow Henry and Dora escaped through a passage in the forest. After traveling, they were reunited with Dora’s parents in Vitebsk in Belarus.
For a while, they lived in relative peace. Henry worked as a barber and the couple had a child, Yale, born in 1941. Shortly after Yale was born, Upfall’s family again uprooted as Soviet forces evacuated civilians to Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. Here Soviet authorities demanded that civilians acquire Russian passports. Refusing to get a passport because he knew it meant he would be forced into the army, Upfall was imprisoned. Dora begged for his release under the condition that he would take a passport.
Sure enough, within days of accepting a Russian passport, Upfall was drafted into the army and put onto a train headed for the frontline of the war.
“I remember sitting next to another Jewish guy named Moskowitz,” Upfall said. “In Yiddish, he joked with me, ‘They are sending us to the slaughterhouse.’ So, when the train stopped at a station, I said I was getting off to get a hot drink. At the station, there was stopped another train going west. I got on it and deserted the Russian army. I never saw Moskowitz again.”
Somehow, he made his way to Jambul, Kazakhstan, where he was reunited with his family. They remained there until the end of the war.
When the war ended, Upfall, his wife and son went back to Poland, first to Kracow, then Warsaw, where they were spirited out of Poland by Betar, the Revisionist Zionist youth movement, and taken to Vienna, Austria. Dina was born in Vienna in 1947. From there they went to a displaced persons camp, Munchenberg, in Germany.
In 1949, the family immigrated to the United States, joining his father in Detroit. After receiving his license, he operated a barber shop. He became a U.S. citizen and changed his name to Henry in 1954. Upfall said it is important to tell stories like his for the future because “people who are free do not understand how we endured what we went through during the Holocaust.”
“The Jewish nation is strong,” Upfall said. “We have to stick together no matter what. As long as we have places like America and Israel, a Jew will never have to ask again ‘vu ahin zol ikh geyn’ (Where can I go?)”
As I write this, my oldest child, an adult in the legal sense now at 18, is safely away at her summer job as a counselor at an overnight camp.
She will not be behind the wheel of a car, or maybe will hardly even be in a car, for the next 8 weeks. And the weeks of the summer, according to the American Automobile Association, are the deadliest for teenagers.
This is the tale of me, a mom, who went against the grain and put her foot down because she did not want her daughter or her friends to become another summer statistic.
Late to the game in the car-crazed culture of the Metro Detroit Area, my daughter got her license nearly a good two years after most teens get theirs.
I was completely fine with that. Even though sometimes I could feel my very bottom turning to mush at the amount of time I spent behind the wheel picking up and driving her to and from sports and band rehearsals.
So, come prom time, my daugher assured me that when it came to transportation to and from the prom, she and her friends – all sweet, all good and smart, and all drivers – “had this” in terms of the driving.
“Had this?” What did “Had this” mean? Was there a known limo vendor the school works with to get kids to the prom destination – which was a Downtown Detroit nightclub? Had the school chartered some luxury busses to whisk them to and from the night of their lives? Was it included in the price of the ticket?
No. Turns out, they planned to drive themselves to prom.
Now, maybe it was the fact that I grew up in New York City, where everything is different, but no one drove themselves to prom. There was just too much risk of someone getting into an alcohol-related accident.
Plus, who among us in working-class Staten Island had their license, plus their own car, by Senior Year, let alone sophomore year? I didn’t.
It was just too easy to take the bus or the train or bum a ride from the one or two friends who had a car. (Thanks for the many rides, old friends, and you know who you are!)
And when it came to prom, it was a sure thing you were going in a limo.
Because the prom wasn’t really about being at the prom, it was about that limo. Should it be black? White? Stretch? And how many couples can we squeeze in to make it as cheap as possible?
Because the prom part of prom was not the main event. It was leaving the cheesy banquet hall of the Sheraton in Jersey, piling into the limo, which you had saved up for for about a year with your after school job or selling candy bars, and heading into New York City. To the nightclubs. And the carriage ride in Central Park.
Pity to the teens who do not grow up in the Metro area who don’t get a NYC prom.
But back to the present, in Metro Detroit.
Like many of you who have been following my blog know, I am a transplant to Metro Detroit by only two years. So, in the social circles of the high school parents, I am a complete outsider. Nope, I didn’t grow up here or go to high school here, and I didn’t move here when my kids were babies. So contact with parents for me has been all but minimal.
So when my daughter, working so hard to fit in and not make waves and play it cool, told me that she could not ask her loosely formed group of about 22 kids all planning to leave for prom from the same house to spend ANOTHER PENNY on prom, I didn’t push it. After all, I was not familiar with many of these kids’ parents, and didn’t want to impose my views of getting a limo.
I tried to play it cool. These were good kids. Smart kids. Kids who were going to attend some of the country’s best colleges in the fall.
I was actually starting to come around to this plan when I asked the son of a friend of mine, who had already gone to his prom, how his big night was.
“Oh, it was interesting.”
Interesting? How so?
“A friend of the family offered to do us a favor and drove us to prom,” he calmly told me. “He seemed a bit out of it when he picked us up, but no one said anything. He was on his cell phone the whole drive. We got in an accident on the way to prom. We made it there alright, but we had an adult drive us and HE got in an accident.”
So there you go. Is that ironic or what? So they had an adult drive them and even then they got in an accident. So who’s to say they wouldn’t be safer driving themselves.
It would be dark when they were coming home.
And they’d be wired and tired from a night of dancing.
And excited and way distracted.
And they’d be driving at night on unfamiliar streets and highways.
And not to mention those statistics.
So, I put my foot down. From my trusty high school directory, I looked up phone numbers and emails and expressed my plea to keep our kids safe and fork out the cash to find a driver. It didn’t have to be a fancy limo. It could be car service or an airport towncar.
I got mixed surprised responses. Each parent said they would be okay with the kids driving themselves, yet no parent said they wanted their kid to be responsible for driving.
Some parents balked at the extra expense.
Some parents got eye rolls from their children at the thought of hiring a driver.
Let ’em roll, I say. Roll the eyes at me all you want. I’ve been eyerolled. I can take it.
Another parent said they were greatly relieved that another parent had the guts to take the initiative to find a professional driver.
All 22 people in the prom party and their parents, were invited to a pre-prom party at the home of one of the kids. Luxury cars parked in the driveway. Original art hung on the walls. I did so appreciate the catered hors D’oeuvres and wheatgrass apple ginger shots and mini smoothies served with wedges of lime. But I could not see how these same families could not spend “another penny” on hiring drivers for peace of mind, according to my daughter.
As the pre-party went on, the parents who were in on our car, settled up.
Then another parent approached me. Her son was not a senior but an underclassman from another school, the guest of a senior. She only found out that there indeed WERE no limos, and her son would be driven to prom by a kid unknown to her. She was a wreck.
“There’s room in my daughter’s car for one more couple…” I just put it out there. She said she would gladly pay – as well as the date of the other girl’s mom. They nearly kissed my hand in gratitude.
In the end, all the kids, driven or not driven by a professional driver, all got to and from prom safe and sound. They all looked fabulous and had a wonderful time. There was no drinking going on at the actual prom. Yet still, there was plenty of texting and chatting as the night wore on of how much drinking was going on at all the “after prom” parties. It’s a good thing most of these parties were sleepovers.
So, in the end, and keep this in mind for next year if you’ve got a rising senior – when your independence-seeking have-it-all-together-teen says “they are handling” transportation for prom, don’t let them handle it.
Step up. Be an intrusive parent. Butt in. Make calls. Hire a driver. And savor that peace of mind.
Last night I had a dream.
Now, I know that sounds cliché, especially on a morning such as this where the world is waking up to the horrible event in Charleston, S.C.
It has been a long time since I have posted on anything outside my feature stories. But sometimes you have a dream so vivid which juxtaposes the events of reality so much I just had to write it down so I would not forget.
I was going to investigate some old house in Detroit that was said to have been part of the underground railroad.
It was a huge old tutor styled home with a wall around it, a circular driveway with ivy-covered landscape.
I knocked on the door and a very tall slender black woman in her 50s opened it to greet me. She had a dark purple dress on with flowers on it, very old-fashioned, as a dress taken from the 1940’s. Her hair was in corn rows and then coiled into a neat bun. She wore wired spectacles. She welcomed me in with a warm smile.
I told her I wanted to learn about this house’s history with the Underground Railroad.
She said she would give me a tour of the house, but first, invited me in for Shabbat lunch.
Told you this was a strange dream.
The house was a series of elaborately decorated rooms, all in the Victorian style. Think flowered wallpaper and intricately carved crown molding along the ceiling.
Each room was filled with people, black and white, seated around huge dining tables eating cholent (a thick stew served on Saturday afternoons) served in large silver tureens and studying Hebrew.
It was not clear if all those there were all Jewish, but they were all studying, singing, laughing and eating in complete harmony.
After a while, I approached the woman to tour the house again.
She led me up a broad staircase, and then a narrow one up to the attic.
We climbed up another ladder, and there, in a loft, were bunk beds where slaves would hide for a few nights or days on their journey to freedom to Canada. It was quite hot and the air stuffy in the attic and I imagined those who hid in that attic and how uncomfortable they must have been, hiding for their lives on their way to freedom.
I woke up this morning only to learn that a white man shot and killed nine worshippers at the Emanuel A.M.E. church, a church described by the Washington Post as a “site of struggle, resistance and change” for the past two hundred years.
The murderer sat there for an hour among his victims before he opened fire. What was going through his head in that hour? How could he not have a change of heart as he sat and listened to people studying the Bible?
The Future is Bright for Detroit’s Conservative Jews. Motor City Youth Group is “Chapter of the Year”
When I taught Hebrew school and looked at the sweet yet glazed-over faces of my students, I would gently yet firmly reassure them: “KIds, please. I get it. Hebrew school may not be your thing. But don’t ever let your feelings about Hebrew school cloud your love for being Jewish. There is a better Jewish life after Hebrew school and it is youth group.”
Personally, I owe my life to United Synagogue Youth’s high school and middle school programming. Whether it was learning how to do The Time Warp or Rock Lobster at a dance, or finally mastering the WHOLE Birkat Hamazon (Grace after meals) while singing it with hundreds of my closest friends, It taught me how to life Jewishly joyfully. Kudos to the Motor City Chapter of USY for winning for the second year in a row Chapter of the Year for the organization’s Central region.
This ran in the May 21, 2015 issue of the Detroit Jewish News. Please subscribe.
Motor City USY wins honor for second year running
| Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
Recently recognized by the Central Region of United Synagogue Youth for membership growth and inter-generational religious programming such as “McKabbalat Shabbat,” members of Detroit’s chapter of United Synagogue Youth recently arrived home from their regional spring convention in Cleveland bleary-eyed yet happy to have clinched the “Chapter of the Year” award for the second year running.
Motor City USY, affectionately known as “MCUSY,” is witnessing a resurgence in membership growth and dynamic programming designed to engage and energize the youngest members of Metro Detroit’s Conservative Jewish movement.
The chapter has attracted about 65 official members in grades 6-12, and a little over 100 individuals have attended at least one USY or Kadima program in the past year, according to adviser David Lerner. Highlights of the year included a Purim limousine scavenger hunt, monthly volunteering at bingo games with adults with developmental disabilities in cooperation with JARC, and an “Iron Chef ” kosher cooking contest for students in the middle school grades.
The Conservative movement in Detroit has invested much in its youth engagement and informal education in the last several years with its Ramah Fellowship and by hiring a full-time USY adviser. For the past two years, this post was filled by David Lerner. Lerner is stepping down from his post, and this summer will begin his rabbinical studies at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
“I have been so inspired working with the teens and witnessing their passion and ability to form a community around Jewish life and values,” Lerner, 32, said.
“I have merely served as the facilitator and supporter to all their passion and great ideas. They have worked hard through their frustrations to create so many positive outcomes over the past two years.”
Lerner hopes the organization will choose a new adviser who has an established relationship with the organization and can continue its upward direction.
In the last two years, Lerner said he focused on growing and strengthening programming and outreach at the high school level. In coming years, he said the focus should be on growing the organization’s Kadima group for grades 6-8 and Junior Kadima for grades 3-5.
Local area Conservative rabbis also place a high value on the way USY blends social and religious aspects to get teens enthused about Judaism.
Rabbi Aaron Bergman at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills attributes the chapter’s recent success to collaboration across all of Detroit’s Conservative synagogues and professional staff who are connected and invested in the teens.
Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield — where Lerner also worked as director of youth and young adult programming — echoed this sentiment of working together to create meaningful experiences of Jewish learning and fostering friendships for teens.
“As Conservative Jews, we are committed to developing passionate, educated young adults devoted to finding spirituality within Jewish ritual, meaning within Jewish life, and a commitment to repairing our broken world,” Starr said.
“Most of all, the teens who are part of MCUSY are exceptional leaders and, in them, I see a bright future for the Jewish people.”
Adult b’nai mitzvah classes represent
a different coming of age.
Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
A group of students sits immersed in Torah study on a recent Wednesday at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. Their teacher, Rabbi Rachel Shere, guides the lesson based on carefully selected texts that delve into the theme of coming of age. In preparation for their b’nai mitzvah, the students listen intently and offer their insights about what it means to become a full-fledged member of a community.
No one squirms, asks to go to the bathroom or raises their hand to take a break for a drink of water. Some sip coffee. Others have a tinge of gray in their hair or beards.
Decades older than their teen counter-parts, there is a sizeable population of Jews in the Detroit Metropolitan Area as well as around the nation who are choosing to have a bar or bat mitzvah later in life. While learning Hebrew and the complexities of chanting Torah may be a bit more challeng-ing, older b’nai mitzvah students can bring a wealth of perspective and life experiences and a deeper appreciation for Jewish study than their younger counterparts.
Nationwide, there has been some discus-sion in Jewish circles as to whether or not the traditional age of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah — 12 for girls and 13 for boys — is outdated. Many teens and families see the ceremony as the final day of involvement with Jewish education, rather than as an entry point of a fully participating adult in Jewish communal life.
Additionally, the status of becoming a Jewish adult and taking on the mitzvot of Judaism is recognized with or without a ceremony and all its extra fanfare. The first “belated” b’nai mitzvah ceremo-nies were held at Brandeis University in the 1970s, according to MyJewishLearning.com. Recently, Reboot, a New York City-based organization doing outreach to unaffiliated Jewish millennials, launched an initiative called reBar that asks this age group to re-examine their Jewish identities and their own Jewish coming-of-age ceremony — if they had one at all. If it did not have much meaning the first time around, would they give it another try, along Jewish learning and living, now that they are at an age when they may be thinking about starting families?
Though reBar is active in several U.S. cities, the initiative does not have any activity in Detroit yet. Whether they never had a bar or bat mitzvah, as in the case of women of older generations, Jewish converts or those looking to recharge their Jewish identities, Jewish adults in Detroit are dedicating themselves to study, finding community and being recognized on the bimah in a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.
For those seeking adult b’nai mitzvah instruction in Detroit, Adat Shalom and Temple Israel of West Bloomfield have established two-year courses. The clergy take turns teaching weekly courses in a group setting. Subjects include basic Judaism, laws, customs and holidays, and Jewish ethics as well as Hebrew literacy and reading the Hebrew of the selected Torah portion and learning Torah trope in the final six months. Temple Emanu-El of Oak Park is planning an adult b’nai mitzvah program in late 2015 or early 2016.
Adat Shalom’s current class is preparing for a ceremony May 24 in time for Shavuot. The next group of students will start classes in January 2016; new students are welcome. Hazzan Dan Gross teaches with his fellow clergy at Adat Shalom. He said having an adult b’nai mitzvah ceremony timed to Shavuot is symbolic for a group of adults publicly demonstrating their commitment to their Jewish identity and their role in synagogue life as well as their efforts to learn an ancient tradition and carry it into the future. Adults come from a wide range of religious backgrounds. Gross said he is very appreciative of the effort students put into learning Hebrew and chanting Torah.
“Everyone comes to class with different lev-els of reading Hebrew,” he said. “As teachers, we have to be cognizant that everyone is at a different pace and sensitive to the fact that, as an adult, it may be harder to memorize the musical motifs of the trope. But what makes learning with adults enjoyable is that they truly form a chavruta, a community of learn-ers who support one another.” Continued Commitment A few of the course’s graduates have gone on to become regular leaders of daily services or regular Torah readers.
Allison Lee, 54, of Walled Lake, a graduate of the 2013 Adat Shalom class, takes pride in her newly acquired skill of chanting the Ten Commandments. Growing up, Lee had a minimal Jewish education and rarely attend-ed synagogue with her family. Several years into marriage, her husband, son of a Lutheran minister, strongly urged that she delve into the teachings and traditions of Judaism. The desire to raise their daughter, Lydia, as a Jew also accelerated the rate at which she learned.
“Through the years, it was my husband who encouraged me to explore my religion, and little by little we would take on traditions, like lighting Shabbat candles, having holiday meals and keeping a kosher home.”
Lee and Lydia became fast study partners. Both mother and daughter celebrated their bat mitzvot within the last two years. “I feel such pride when I chant Torah,” Lee said. “I think, ‘Wow, I get to read the voice of God.’”
She offers this advice to adults on the fence about having an adult bar or bat mitzvah ceremony:
“If you have the slightest modicum of curiosity, go for it. You will be swept away by the amount of knowledge and a feeling of identity and community you will gain.”
The adult bar/bat mitzvah preparations at Temple Israel involve weekly two-hour classes with concentrations on Jewish study, celebrating Jewish holidays as a class and improving Hebrew literacy. The second year focuses on the Torah service, learning its prayers and preparing a Torah service, according to Rabbi Arianna Gordon. Approximately 21 students are involved in each learning cycle.
The current group of students will have a service to celebrate their emergence into Jewish adult-hood in October 2016.
“We have learners at all levels, including some who have recently converted to Judaism, and then some Hebrew school dropouts who are circling back to Judaism later in life,” Gordon said. “A lot of the classes involve personal reflective writing on their relation-ship with God and what about this journey to Jewish adulthood is important to them.”
Gordon said the most important aspect she wants her adult students to gain is a creation of their own smaller Jewish community within the larger scope of Temple Israel.
Jim Rawlinson, 75, of West Bloomfield was very excited to get a new tallit from his life partner, Paula Weberman, when he celebrated his bar mitzvah in 2014. Jim, raised as a Protestant in Vicksburgh, Mich., said he never met a Jewish person until his sophomore year of college. Though he regularly attended church as an adult, he disagreed with much of its teachings.
With little exposure to Jews or Judaism, reading Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi had an enormous impact on him as a high school student.
“It made me so curious to find out who were these people the Nazis wanted to eliminate,” Rawlinson said. “Later on, in my 20s, the Six-Day War broke out and it made me very upset that so many Arab nations wanted to attack the Jews.”
He spent his professional life as a photographer and learned more about Jewish life-cycle events after he moved to Metro Detroit and documented Jewish weddings and b’nai mitzvah celebrations.
“I noticed at these occasions, there was a stronger pull to family and community, a greater warmth than I had ever encountered in the non-Jewish community,” he said.
In 2009, Rawlinson began to attend services at Temple Israel when he decided this would become his spiritual “home.” As he explored the possibility of converting, he took introductory classes in Judaism and Hebrew. “At a certain point, I realized I wanted to explore Judaism from the inside instead of being an outsider.”
He enrolled in the class, where he felt accepted by his classmates. Alone at night, he studied Hebrew and his Torah reading for hours every night. And come this year’s High Holiday season, he will chant Torah on Yom Kippur morning.
“Becoming a bar mitzvah at this stage of my life has been fabulous,” he said. “I consider Temple Israel my home and could not ever imagine living in a community where I would have to travel a long way to get to a temple.”
Women Role Models
Doreen Millman, 81, of West Bloomfield was one of the first women to become a bat mitzvah at Temple Israel in the 1980s. Born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., when girls received a minimal Jewish education and only boys were called to the Torah, she credits the memory of conversations with her grandfather as an inspiration for picking up her Jewish studies later in life and becoming a bat mitzvah.
“He was born in a shtetl, yet he was a very forward-thinking person who believed girls as well as boys should have a Jewish education,” Millman said. “I thought I was crazy for doing it — I was up to my elbows raising my children — but I had a lot of encouragement to take on this challenge.” Milman said she enjoyed studying Jewish history and learning how to read Torah. Since her bat mitzvah, she has read Torah at Temple Israel on other occasions, including on Yom Kippur.
“I feel much more comfortable in services now,” said Millman, who attends a weekly Torah study group at Temple Israel. “When I go to services on a Shabbat morning, I can comfortably fol-low along with the Torah reading.” Other women also expressed pride in ownership of their Jewish learning and becoming a bat mitzvah to serve as a role model, and a study resource, for their own daughters.
Shari Stein of West Bloomfield grew up at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, also at a time when girls were not called to the Torah. It was only well into adulthood, and a few years shy of her own daughters beginning their bat mitzvah studies, that she decided to become a bat mitzvah in 2006 at age 41. She said she did it not only to deepen her connection to her own spirituality, but also to serve as a feminist role model of “breaking barriers” for her children. “[A bat mitzvah] can be much more meaningful as an adult,” said Stein, who admits her years of Jewish education at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills equipped her with the skills to quickly learn and chant from the Torah and glean insights into the sacred texts.
Stein said that 10 years later, the significance of being publicly welcomed into the Jewish community has much meaning and carries through in her spiritual and professional life. A partner at a Birmingham design firm, she has given her talents to many charitable projects, including Yad Ezra.
“Judaism is a constant process of learning and growth, a practice of tikkun olam and of asking yourself what, as a Jew, can I do for my community?” ■
Originally posted on Stacy Gittleman's blog:
“She’s been training for this for years, and this course is as difficult as they come.”
“Wow, look how she swerves and still can maintain that SPEED and control!!”
“Oh, she is really fighting to stay on the course as she goes around that curve, it’s so difficult but she makes it look so easy.”
Have I just returned from Sochi, competing in the giant slalom?
I’ve just returned from grocery shopping. In suburban Detroit. And there is a pothole that could accommodate a baby elephant on the road between my house and the dairy aisle.
To say that Michigan’s roads have a pothole problem is an understatement. We don’t really have roads here anymore. Neglect of Michigan’s roads have been decades in the making and it’s more like Michigan has miles of potholes with some bits of road holding them together.
Now, I know many of you living…
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It was a bit of a challenge to pin down this world-famous Israeli entertainer, most known in America for his performances on Broadway as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Lessons to publicists out there: Always set up a time between your client and the reporter. Do not just give them your client’s phone number and tell the reporter to “just keep trying.” Also, make sure your client has a working cell phone with voice mail. I am just saying this as kindly as I can.
In the end, it all worked out and I got my story. Here it is, as printed in last week’s Detroit Jewish News.
The Israeli entertainer does it all — and brings it to Metro Detroit.
Stacy Gittleman Contributing Writer
According to world-renowned Israeli entertainer Dudu Fisher, no other Broadway musical — not even Fiddler on the Roof — speaks as well of the psyche of the Israeli people, with its themes of going to battle and losing loved ones in war, than Les Miserables.
On many different levels, Fisher says it translates very well to Hebrew.
“When I first heard [the song] Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, I was thinking of all my friends killed in battle,” Fisher, 64, says. “After the Israeli premiere, [producer] Cameron Mackintosh said he sensed a response from the audience that he never felt from audiences in other countries. I had to explain to him that 99 percent of the people sitting in the theater were serving in the army or have someone close serving. I told him not one of us does not know people wounded or killed during the time of Israel’s existence.”
Fisher, who tours the world sharing his love and talents for Hebrew, Yiddish and cantorial music, as well as operatic, reggae, pop and country, will perform 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 19, at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.
After service in the Israel Defense Forces, Fisher studied at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music and, at age 22, he became the cantor of the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv. For three decades, his cantorial services have been sought throughout the world, from South Africa and Brazil to the United States. To date, the tenor, who speaks three languages and sings in 10, has recorded upwards of 40 albums, plus a number of children’s DVDs, teaching Jewish customs and traditions.
On a 1986 trip to London, he caught a performance of the then-new musical Les Miserables and was enamored. When news spread that a Hebrew-language Israeli production of the show was in the works, Fisher, with no theater experience, landed the leading role of Jean Valjean.
He performed for three years in Israel, plus lengthy stints on Broadway and London’s West End.
Fisher’s Hebrew performances launched him to international fame, and his 2008 PBS special Dudu Fisher: In . Concert from Israel was enormously pop ular. But performing on Broadway as an Orthodox Jew came with its challenges.
He was able to negotiate a contract for Les Miz which made him the first observant Jew on Broadway and the West End to be excused from performing Friday nights, Saturday matinees and all Jewish holi days, but his observance impeded him from landing additional roles. He wanted to audition for Phantom of the Opera and still dreams of playing Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha.
“[Observant Jews in show business] should be mentally prepared to be met with many setbacks,” he says. However, setbacks often lead to inspiration. When Fisher sings at Shaarey Zedek, he will perform songs from his 1999 autobio graphical off-Broadway musical, Never on Friday — an anecdotal work exploring the complications of his experience on Broadway as an observant Jew. The tenor also will perform pieces from his 2008 show, Jerusalem, based on a collection of songs and stories that tell the history of the ancient and holy city.
Fisher has a passion for sharing the music of what he calls “his most beloved city” with audience members Jewish and non-Jewish alike. His own father and other family members survived the Holocaust when a Christian couple hid them in a bunker in Poland.
Fisher, who wants to let his listeners know that Jerusalem is holy to all reli gions, tries to reach audiences outside the Jewish community, too — and fans in Branson, Mo. (known as the Las Vegas of the Bible Belt), welcome his annual visit.
“It is important for the State of Israel to have non-Jewish people hear the true story of Israel’s history and current issues,” he says. “Not only what they see on the news.” Dudu Fisher performs 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 19, atCongregation Shaarey Zedekin Southfield.
Free to CSZ members;$36-$236. (248) 357-5544.
An all-volunteer Salsa Dance group is heating up the salsa dance scene in Detroit. I am not exactly all left feet (you can actually see my left foot in one of the photos below taken by the very talented Jerry Zolynsky), but gave it a try one freezing February night. Here is what I found out for my cover story from the March 26 issue of the Detroit Jewish News.
Feel The Beat
Jewish dancers join the crowd for weekly salsa dance parties
by Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
Photos by Jerry Zolynsky
The temperatures outside the American Legion hall in Farmington, where YA Salsa holds its monthly socials, plummeted into the single digits on a Sunday evening this past winter. But with the dance floor heating up with more than 200 dancers, no one inside seemed to mind that a door had been propped open to let in the chill. On the last Sunday of each month, salsa enthusiasts gather for a dance social organized by YA Salsa, an allvolunteer organization dedicated to the growth of this dance style in Detroit. Within its circles is a dedicated group of Jews who love Latin dancing. They have found a great sense of camaraderie and exercise in the years they have danced and are always welcoming beginners to try it. To widen the appeal to the Jewish community, YA Salsa will host free workshops led by international salsadancing stars to JCC members March 27-28 at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield before its next social in Farmington. For more information go to www.yasalsa.org. Evening Of Fun YA Salsa socials start with beginner and intermediate lessons.
In the center of a circle of rotating beginner couples, “Mambo” Marci Iwrey, 52, of Novi capably leads the beginners though basic steps and how to work with a partner, when to hold hands and when to let go. A dancer all her life, she fell in love with the rhythms of Latin music around 15 years ago. Private and group lessons in studios around town eventually led her to salsa dance floors and workshops around the world. Now a longtime professional and volunteer teacher of salsa dancing, she defies anyone who hears this infectious music to sit still.
“We are all here to dance,” she instructs. “Don’t be shy to introduce yourself to someone else and say you are a beginner as the evening goes on.” On the other side of the room, more advanced dancers, who seem to be more attached to the partners with whom they arrived, review dips and more complex dance combinations.
“The volunteers work very hard to put on these socials,” said Iwrey, who, when not dancing, works at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield as b’nai mitzvah coordinator. “We are all bonded here for the love of what we do, to bring the joy of dance no matter your race, religion or age.”
After an hour of instruction, the floor opens up for three hours of dancing. Some beginners hang around the sides watching the eclectic gathering of dancers while others brave it out and look for a dance partner.
Sherry Kraft, 34, of Southfield has a background in swing and ballroom dancing. She enjoys the social and less-formal aspects of salsa dancing compared to ballroom and started taking lessons in 2006. “When I started out, I had no idea there was such a large salsa community here in Detroit,” says Kraft, a photographer-turned ultrasound technologist from Southfield who says she enjoys meeting people of all backgrounds who have come together to dance and socialize.
Jeff Abrams describes himself as an “advanced beginner.” The 37-year-old computer technician said he has been attending salsa socials for two years now. “Dancing helps me relax from the stresses of everyday life,” Abrams says as he takes a break between dancing partners. “I love connecting with people through the nonverbal medium of music.” Abrams admits it does take some time to gain experience and confidence in this type of dancing, especially when you are the man.
“The pressure can be on because you are always thinking of what steps you want to try to lead next instead of just relaxing and enjoying the music.” Still, Abrams would rather be dancing over any other kinds of exercise because of its social aspects. “When you dance, you can forget everything else that is going on in your life,” Abrams says. “When I get home, my mind is clearer.”
With an astute understanding of the power of delivering a smile, Lindsey Zousmer, a fifth-grader at West Hills Middle School, has got “magic” to do for disabled children receiving physical therapy at local hospitals.
Last month, she started a community service project called “Projects 4 Smiles” and is asking other kids her age to create small craft projects, such as bookmarks, bracelets or pins to give as gifts of encouragement.
To kick off Project 4 Smiles, Zousmer invited WHMS classmates in the fourth and fifth grades to come to school on Jan. 16 wearing funny hats and donating a dollar for supplies. Commun ity members may also donate any extra craft supplies they may have at home: decorative duct tape, buttons, extra scrapbooking supplies, glitter, beads, glue, markers, cardstock or string will do the trick. Drop off these supplies at the office at West Hills Middle School, 2601 Lone Pine Road in West Bloomfield, where a special Project 4 Smiles box has been set aside.
The idea came to Zousmer after shadowing her mother Stacy Agree Zousmer, a pediatric physical therapist, at work at Beaumont Hospitals on days she had no school. It was there that she watched children with disabilities struggle to accomplish simple tasks that most children her age can do with ease.
“My mom explained to me how some of these kids can be very successful even with the disabilities and/or the conditions they have,” Lindsey wrote in a letter to the entire West Hills Middle School community. “We want to encourage them and make them aware that they are just as capable as we are.”
Ultimately, she wants to collect enough crafted gifts and then video or photograph the expression of joy on the children’s faces to show her classmates back at school “just how happy they can make others when they give a small gift.”
The project is a product of Bloomfield Schools’ Primary Years Programme (PYP), which engages children in the district’s primary grades to be socially aware and responsible through action. Kathy Janelle, the district’s PYP coordinator, explained “education must extend beyond the intellectual to include not only socially responsible attitudes, but also thoughtful and appropriate action.”
Stacy Agree Zousmer saw how important it was for her own children to meet her patients and also to volunteer at the Friendship Circle.
Lindsey’s family extends many generations in Detroit. She is a descendant of the founders of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, who established the congregation on the principles of social consciousness. She attends religious school at Temple Israel, where she learned about the Jewish obligation to help those in need through g’milut chasadim, acts of loving kindness. In her letter, she said her mom serves as her biggest example for caring for others.
“Not only is Lindsey a natural caretaker, but she also finds common interests with these kids because they are her peers,” her mom says. “She loves to help them realize their potential and feel good about themselves. At the young age of 10, Lindsey is truly beginning to understand what it means to pay it forward.”
Ever wonder what your kid does in school all day? Last week, at a take your parent to school day, I had a chance to follow my sixth grader from class to class, something I had been threatening to do to my older son to make sure he writes down all his homework assignments and hand them in on time.
I spend the morning at West Hills Middle School, a 4-8 Grade upper elementary and middle school. With my son I used a nail, a magnet and a smooth piece of glass to identify minerals in science class, and made bracelets according to a very old tradition in a fictitious island nation to learn about the concepts of market economy in social studies.
My favorite, of course, was my son’s writing class. Like the other classes, the parents in the class could not just sit back and sip their morning coffee while they watched their kids work. No, we had to do work too. A student passed around clip boards, pencils and paper to the parents. Then, Mr. Middleton said we were about to see a photo and we were to write for five solid minutes, no thinking, no erasing, just write whatever came to one’s mind based on what the picture would trigger.
Okay, Mr. Middleton, I’ve had three cups of coffee. I’m a writer. I’ve got this! Let’s go.
And then he posted this.
And I felt my heart flip-flop.
A tutor house… the white stucco with the brown trim.. how I miss it…..
How I always thought it would be the home I would grow old in….
The home where my kids were babies. A home where the roof leaked if it rained just a bit too hard, just like when the last fragments of Hurricane Katrina blew through Western New York, or a roof that was porous enough to let a few bats through one winter when my current sixth grader was just an infant.
The leaded glass and the tiny windows in the walk-up attic….
How I still miss it, the attic with the full bathroom and a claw-foot bathtub… the third room that my baby moved into when he could no longer stand sharing a room with his older brother.
The water below reminds me of the Erie Canal
From Albany to Buffalo it went, and for miles, you can bike or walk along it.
There are not places like this I have yet to find in Michigan, at least not near my home. You don’t get to walk near water in the Detroit suburbs. Oh yeah, there are lots of lakes, all on private property You just get fleeting glimpses of them as you speed by on the drive from here to there …
And that is how far I got. Wow, look at me, almost two years after my move, there are still parts of me pining away for my old haunts.
But you really can’t go home.
Last week, my husband took our sons back to Rochester for a visit for a special occasion of some friends back there. My husband said it was great to be back to catch up with old familiar faces and places.
But some places, our home, looked very different.
The big old silver maple that graced the front of our house had to be cut down because age and time rotted it from the inside out.
My husband sent this photo to me in a text and I burst into tears:
If I had to write about this picture, all I would say is: Nothing lasts forever. Thank you, tree, for my kids’ thinking spots and photos on the first day of school. Thank you for your shade, your carpet of leaves in the fall and your shower of helicopter seeds in early summer.
Nothing stays the same.
Thank you, Mr. Middleton, for this great trip down memory lane and for getting our kids’ creativity flowing!
Here is a writing challenge: Find a photo in an old box, on the web, and just go, for five minutes. What did you come up with, let me know and share in the comments.