Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Restoring Osyka's Jewish Cemetery

Upon returning to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Sandy Lassen, head of the Chevra Kadisha (burial society), checked on the Jewish cemeteries and found that, debris aside, they were in good shape.

Over the last year, she has made a point of taking care of a long-neglected Jewish cemetery over an hour away, where no Jewish community remained to deal with a tangle of downed trees and damaged stones that were left in Katrina’s wake.

The Osyka cemetery is located a stone’s throw south of the Mississippi border, just east of U.S. 51. The town itself is in Mississippi, but the cemetery and its neighboring historic Jewish cemetery are less than half a mile into Louisiana.

Bobbe Jacobs of California, who visits the area annually for civil war reenactments, contacted Rabbi Mendel Rivkin at Chabad of Louisiana about the cemetery after seeing its condition. He contacted Lassen, who around the same time heard from Jennifer Samuels about the cemetery.

Samuels and Lassen visited Osyka in June. “It was a mess,” Lassen said. “You couldn’t climb in there.”

She went to the New Orleans rabbinic council to tell them what she saw. “This is just terrible,” she said. “Our role as Jews is to take care of each other.”

She tried several avenues to get funding for a cleanup, but was unsuccessful. Finally, Richard Cahn, president of Dixie Mill in New Orleans, fronted enough money to get the cemetery cleared.

Michael Cahn, who was born in Osyka in 1917, was the founder of Dixie Mill.

Lassen’s small team met with the caretaker of the German cemetery next to the Jewish cemetery. He knew someone locally who could take down the trees for a reasonable rate, so 20 trees that were over 20 feet tall were removed, and the project cost just over $5000.

Jews came to the Osyka area in the 1850s, as the town was the end of a rail line. Most of the Jews were from Alsace, with others from Bavaria and Italy. They were accepted by the mostly-Protestant population in Osyka and nearby Kirksville.

Some of the Jews were cotton merchants, while others set up stores or were horse traders. They established a congregation that met in the home of Sam Wolf. Kirksville does not exist today except for the German cemetery, established in the 1860s, and the neighboring Jewish cemetery which had 27 markers a decade ago. Names included Cahn, Hart, Heuman, Wolf, Cerf, Levine, Levy, Moyse, and Dreyfuss.

The Jewish population was around 60 in 1878, but by the turn of the century the community was in decline. The synagogue and the German school many Jews attended closed by 1900. The railroad was extended away from the area and a yellow fever epidemic further lowered the population. Many Jews moved on to New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Today Osyka has about 500 residents.

Now that the cemetery is navigable, Lassen wants to see it restored. She feels the area youth groups are a natural for taking it on as a project.

A brick wall surrounds the cemetery, but in many places the wall has fallen apart. She thinks some of the bricks should be used to make a path. Many of the stones are broken or missing. Great-grandchildren of the Harts that are buried there visited from Houston recently and were unable to find their family stone that had been there on a previous visit a decade earlier.

The problem? “I have no money to start with,” Lassen said, and she says she was lucky to get Cahn’s support. The clearing of Osyka’s cemetery should lead to something like “Save Our Cemeteries,” she said, adding that New Orleans is a natural to take the lead because of community ties to Osyka.

The gravestones in Osyka all originated in New Orleans and were shipped up by train, she added.

She also would like to see a tour of Jewish cemeteries, since there are several historic cemeteries within driving range of New Orleans.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Anti-Jewish Graffiti in Vestavia

Condemnations have been widespread for whoever painted an incorrectly-drawn swastika, along with obscenities and slurs outside the home of Richard and Kelly Kahn in Vestavia, a Birmingham suburb.

The graffiti was discovered on Dec. 14 and reported to police. An investigation is ongoing.

Vestavia Mayor Alberto Zaragoza said “Everyone needs to be able to live their lives and live their beliefs without harassment. We do not condone this at all in our community.”

It is believed that the graffiti was aimed at the Kahns’ daughter, Erin, a senior at Vestavia High School, who apparently has had to deal with religious harassment at the school, and earlier at Pizitz Middle School.

Charles Gardner, a member of the Father James Coyle Remembrance Committee at Birmingham’s Cathedral of St. Paul, said, “I hope that this is a stupid act by kids without the realization of the implications of pain and loss and history. I hope for their own sake they are caught and exposed to some spiritual and historical consequences of what they did.”

After winter break, Joyce Spielberger, director of community relations for the Birmingham Jewish Federation, will be joined by an Anti-Defamation League representative in meeting with the school’s principal. The Federation posted a photo of the swastika on its Facebook page and started a “Say No to Hate” campaign.

The issue is especially sensitive because of a historical notion about Vestavia. After World War II, when Jews and others started moving “over the mountain” to new suburbs, there was apparently an “understanding” that Jews moved to Mountain Brook and not to Vestavia. When that is mentioned, though, Herc Levine — who has been active in Vestavia’s civic life for decades — defends the community, saying he has never had any problems there. While there has never been a particularly large Jewish presence in Vestavia, it has been growing in recent years.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Knesseth Israel Plans Polar Bear Plunge

It may not be as famous as the Flora-Bama Polar Bear Dip on New Year’s Day, but Birmingham’s Knesseth Israel is hosting its first-ever Polar Plunge as a fundraiser for the congregation and its tornado relief efforts.

The Jan. 29 event will be held at Oak Mountain Lake at 8 a.m.

Knesseth Israel became a headquarters for Jewish disaster relief groups that came into the area following the devastating April 27 tornadoes. Currently, groups of about 20 volunteers per week are being hosted by KI as they volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in Pleasant Grove and Pratt City, and the groups will be in the area continuously through March.

Registration is $35 per person by Jan. 15, $40 afterward. Teams of five can sign up for $100 by Jan. 15. Participants are urged to go into the lake at least knee-deep. Men and women must be dressed appropriately, with bottoms extending to the knee and tops at least elbow length. Men and women will have separate plunge areas.

There will be a pancake breakfast as part of the registration, or $10 for those not plunging. Registration also includes admission to Oak Mountain, a Polar Plunge towel and entry into the raffle. Only food prepared by the committee is allowed into the event area, as it is a kosher event.

Sponsorships are available, starting at $75.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Mobile Jewish Film Festival Lineup Announced

The Mobile Jewish Film festival is celebrating its 11th year with an expanded lineup of contemporary Jewish films. The festival, sponsored by the Mobile Area Jewish Federation and the University of South Alabama will show six films at four different venues during its regular festival from Jan. 8 to 29.

In addition, the festival will present a student film at three area high schools.

The festival kickoff on Jan. 8 at Springhill Avenue Temple is “Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray,” about Jewish soldiers during the Civil War. Anthony Smith will be guest speaker at the 7 p.m. screening. He is great-great-nephew of Adolph Proskauer, who is prominently featured in the film and was a member of Springhill Avenue Temple.

Films on Jan. 10 to 12 will be screened at 7 p.m. at Laidlaw Performing Arts Center at USA.

The Jan. 10 film is “La Rafle (The Roundup)”, about Jewish trust in the Vichy government. The film has been named best feature film in at least 14 Jewish film festivals around the country.

“Unmasked Judeophobia — The Threat to Civilization” will be screened Jan. 11. Mobile is one of the first cities to show this compelling film, with filmmaker Gloria Greenfield as guest speaker.

The Jan. 12 film is “For My Father”, nominated for 7 Israeli Academy Awards. It is about a Palestinian on a suicide bombing whose explosive vest needs repairs, while waiting he connects with several Israelis, including a young girl.

On Jan. 15 at 7 p.m., the festival moves to Ahavas Chesed for “The Yankles,” a comedy/drama about an upstart Orthodox Yeshiva baseball team whose coach is an ex-major league center fielder who is desperate to fulfill his community service requirements for multiple DUIs. The movie is preceded by a hot dog dinner at 6 p.m. at the synagogue.

The final film will be on Jan. 29 at Bernheim Hall, Ben May Library, at 2 p.m. “Ahead of Time” is a documentary on the remarkable life of Ruth Gruber, who at 99 years old still has that same sharp intellect and moxie that propelled her to become the world’s youngest Ph.D. at age 20.

The student film, “Inside Hana’s Suitcase,” will be shown to more than 2,000 students. Guest speaker Fumiko Ishioka is also leading a Holocaust educator workshop on Jan. 5.
Festival tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for students and seniors, online at mobilejewishfederation.org or at the box office before each performance subject to availability.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Birmingham Car Dealership Mentioned in Hezbollah Money Laundering Complaint

The U.S. government claims Lebanese banks were involved in an elaborate money laundering scheme to benefit Hezbollah, and named 30 U.S. used car dealerships as participants in the plot, including one in Birmingham.

The government is looking for almost half a billion dollars in penalties, and claims the assets of the car dealerships are forfeitable under money laundering laws.

The plot involved $300 million that was wired from Lebanon and spent on buying used cars from the dealerships. The cars were then sent to Africa and sold there, with the proceeds being sent back to Lebanon, mingled with “the proceeds of narcotics and other crimes.”

Whether the dealerships knew of the Hezbollah connection is unclear.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in New York, noted that Hezbollah members “facilitate the smuggling of cash, including proceeds from the sale of used cars exported from the United States and narcotics proceeds.”

Based in Lebanon, Hezbollah is deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S. government and is responsible for many of the deadliest terror attacks against the U.S. It established a “state within a state” in Lebanon, from which it fomented actions against Israel. A 2006 war was fought between Israel and Hezbollah.

The complaint noted that in 2006, narcotics trafficking has been “condoned through the issuance of fatwas by radical Islamic clerics” and has become a major source of revenue for Hezbollah.

World Auto Sales on Green Springs Avenue in Birmingham is mentioned in the complaint. Of the dealerships mentioned, World Auto has the second highest dollar total of wire transfers, with 490 transactions totaling $24,064,172.

According to the company website, World Auto Sales was founded in 1990 by Ahmad and Bassam Hammoud “to accommodate the growing need for quality wholesale and export vehicles to the World.”

The civil complaint comes two days after a criminal indictment. On Tuesday, Ayman Joumaa of Lebanon was indicted in abstentia in Virginia on drug and money laundering charges. He is said to be the ringleader of an international drug smuggling ring with ties to Hezbollah.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Beth Israel Raffling BCS Championship Tickets

Ready for a sixth straight national championship for the Southeastern Conference? Want to be there?

Beth Israel in Metairie is holding a raffle for two loge-level tickets to the Bowl Championship Series national championship game in New Orleans on Jan. 9, where LSU and Alabama are on a collision course for a rematch. This will undoubtedly make tickets extremely difficult to obtain.

Currently, loge-level seats are going for over $2000 each; just getting into the Superdome is $1400 according to reselling sites.

Second prize in the raffle is two tickets to the traditional BCS bowl game, the Sugar Bowl, featuring Michigan and Virginia Tech, on Jan. 3.

Beth Israel was the only New Orleans-area synagogue to completely lose its facility to the flood following Hurricane Katrina. The Orthodox congregation has been meeting at Gates of Prayer, a Reform congregation, and is currently building its new facility next door to Gates of Prayer. The congregation is also working on a $3.5 million campaign for the new facility.

Raffle tickets are $25 each, or five for $100. The drawing will be held on Dec. 25 at the congregation's Chanukah party. To purchase tickets, go to the Beth Israel website or contact the Beth Israel office, (504) 454-5080.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Zeitgeist Sidebar: Controversial Gaza Children's Exhibit Displayed


Along with the festival mentioned in the previous article, Zeitgeist will be showing “A Child’s View From Gaza,” an exhibit of art by Palestinan children, ages 8 to 14, part of a Middle East Children’s Alliance project, “Let the Children Play and Heal,” through Dec. 30.

MECA calls the exhibit “part of the historical record of the horror inflicted on the Palestinian people during Operation Cast Lead as experienced by Gaza’s children.”
The exhibit was scheduled to debut on Sept. 24 at the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland, but it was cancelled after protests from Jewish groups.

According to j: the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, the exhibit included images of Israeli bombs and tanks striking a mosque; a bomb labeled with the U.S. and Israeli flags landing in a bloody square with a dismembered body nearby; an Israeli soldier with a Star of David on his chest, threatening a mother and child with an assault rifle; and people on fire and bloody corpses in the street.

Rabbi James Brandt, CEO of the East Bay Federation, who has an art background, said “I find it challenging to believe that these children were not specifically directed and coaxed. [Israeli] soldiers do not wear Jewish stars, and the ambulances in Gaza do not say ‘Ambulance’ in English.”

On Sept. 24, the exhibit opened “at” the museum — in a courtyard out front. It was displayed at a different venue in Oakland through the end of November.

Both MECA and Zeitgeist tout the exhibit as having been “censored” by “pro-Israel forces.”

Broussard, upon hearing of the “censorship” of the exhibit, immediately made plans to bring it to New Orleans. Noting he doesn’t have pro-Israel individuals or foundations supporting Zeitgeist, “I have nothing to lose.”

He decided many years ago not to pursue grants for the center, precisely to give himself artistic freedom. The main thing is providing alternative voices a venue. “If there were a children’s exhibit for Israel that has been censored, I’d show it as well.”

Zeitgeist's Middle East Film Festival Continues Israel Boycott

This month, the fifth annual Middle East Film Festival gets underway at Zeitgeist in New Orleans. For the third year, it adheres to BDS — the movement that urges boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

The BDS movement has been growing in recent years as an attempt to isolate Israel, and is especially prevalent in academia and cultural venues, particularly in Britain and Scandinavia. It is similar to the divestment issue that has gone back and forth inside the Presbyterian Church USA.

Rene Broussard, who founded Zeitgeist 25 years ago, said he chose to join the BDS after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, which Israel launched in late December 2008 in an attempt to stop rocket fire from Gaza into Southern Israel.

After the invasion “and the illegal use of white phosphorous on a civilian population and the refusal of the Israeli government, after destroying the infrastructure to allow in building supplies,” he decided to act.

White phosphorous was used as a smokescreen in Gaza and did cause burns. The United Nations’ Goldstone report stated that while its use is not illegal, Israel’s use of it was “reckless.”

Broussard said critics misunderstand what BDS actually is. He said the festival does not boycott Israel as a whole, “we just don’t want to be part of the ‘Rebrand Israel’ campaign.”

When he made the decision to follow BDS, there was controversy in the artistic world over the Toronto film festival’s decision in 2009 to highlight Tel Aviv as a “City to city” focus.

A group of activists, including Jane Fonda, Eve Ensler and Danny Glover, signed a declaration that labeled Israel an “apartheid regime,” called the Tel Aviv filmmakers’ works “Israeli propaganda” and stated they would boycott the festival.

“I did not want to be part of that propaganda” by Israel, Broussard said. However, that does not mean he will not show Israeli films — “just not ones that have been branded by the Rebrand Israel campaign.”

“It’s really a boycott of the Israeli government,” he said, adding that anyone who looks at the festival’s schedule would see that no government in the Middle East is portrayed sympathetically in this year’s offerings.

He also noted that in the 2010 festival, the audience choice award went to “Jerusalem Moments 2009,” a set of six documentary shorts showing different aspects of living in Jerusalem, by three Israeli and three Palestinian directors. That project is in done in partnership with the Jerusalem Cinemateque and premiered at the Jerusalem International Film Festival.

And in 2009, the first year of the boycott, the audience award went to “City of Borders,” a documentary about Shushan 4, the only gay bar in Jerusalem, and its mixed clientele.

This year he wanted to screen Israeli film “A Matter of Size,” about three large Israeli men who explore the world of sumo wrestling. It is scheduled for several Jewish film festivals in the region this year. But he decided against it because it was coming out on DVD just before the festival, and why rent it for the festival when anyone who wants to see it can just get it on Netflix?

“We’re actually open to having a balanced approach,” Broussard said,” but the problem is we’re an alternative art center, and we provide alternative views to what is mainstream,” and Israel is definitely mainstream.

When he started the boycott, he received over 1000 emails. He said the ones critical of him were almost all identical, as if from a template, while the ones that were supportive were individually written.

Noting that Zeitgeist was where the Southern Jewish documentary “Shalom Y’all” premiered in 2003, he said “I’ve lost some of my Jewish indie cred.”

In 2009, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans criticized the boycott as stemming from “lack of knowledge or a wrong perception of Israel,” and because of Israel’s diversity, “a cultural boycott against Israel negatively affects those who the boycott is attempting to assist” and “contradicts the very essence of art premised on freedom, originality, and independence. The New Orleans Middle East Film Festival is silencing.”

The Middle East festival grew out of Patois, a human rights film festival that was founded by local Palestine solidarity activists and held at Zeitgeist. In 2009, that group convinced Broussard to take part in the cultural boycott of Israel.

About 700 to 800 attend the festival each year. This year, as before, there are numerous films critical of Israel’s treatment of Gaza, such as “Occupation Has No Future,” “Gaza-Strophe, Palestine,” and “Challenging Power,” about a co-op in Olympia, Washington, home of Rachel Corrie, which is the first grocery store in the United States to boycott Israeli products.

But this year’s Broussard is most excited by “Microphone,” seen as a film that basically predicted the Egyptian revolution earlier this year, and even debuted the day before Tahrir Square demonstrations began. Filmmaker Ahmad Abdallah was scheduled to attend the festival, but as Egypt continues working through turmoil, he is staying there to film it.

He also is excited about the opening film, “This is Not a Film,” by Iranian Jafar Panahi. Convicted of propaganda against the Iranian regime, he was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from filmmaking. He made a documentary about one day in his life, and the films that he can not make. The result was smuggled out of the country on a USB drive hidden in a cake and debuted at Cannes.

Broussard said he has always favored a two-state solution. “Oslo came very close to something that made sense.” He is not in favor of a Jewish state, but neither does he approve of Islamic or Christian states. “I don’t think religion should be part of government. I don’t believe in an Arab state either.”

His main goal is to challenge authority. “If we’re not antagonizing everyone, we’re not doing our job right,” he said, noting Zeitgeist’s mission to provide “something for and against everyone.” 

Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, he took the oft-asked “why do they hate us” and provided an answer with 30 documentaries in 30 nights, each detailing “U.S. acts of terror.”

He noted, “it was very easy to find 30 nights of documentaries. Latin America alone…”
“We’re mostly anti-government,” he said, “and Israel is no exception.”

The first weekend of the festival, which opens Dec. 9, is the monthly O.C.H. Art Market at Zeitgeist, and this month the theater is actually doing a tribute to “the Jewish history of the street we’re on,” Dryades Street, now called Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.