Original Article Published On The Jewish News Syndicate

A small but intransigent film team is working to reveal that “national memorials to murderers lie feet away from the graves of their victims. The glorification of so-called war ‘heroes’ with Jewish blood on their hands is in full swing across the Baltic States.”

Eugene Levin’s connection to Latvia keeps getting deeper and more personal. A native of the Eastern European nation, he is making a documentary about a little-known chapter in history where Latvia “closed its eyes,” and allowed Jews to be murdered by Germans and fellow countrymen.

A Boston-area ultrasound technician, Levin came to the United States in 1989. He learned a great deal about the Latvian Holocaust experience from his grandfather, who died in 2013 at the age of 93. “He was the only survivor of 19 in his family,” reports Levin. “He lost everything. He owned seven houses, which we tried to get back. He was ignored and footballed. He got nothing.”

Levin goes back to Latvia once a year “to visit the mass graves of the Jews.”

On a 2012 trip, he noticed what he describes as “a monument 15 feet away from the mass graves of the Jews, written on granite with gold letters, with the inscription, “You gave your life in the fight for Communist oppression of Latvia.’ He then found out that one of the names on the name plaque was Vilis Tunkelis, the person who was in charge of the execution of the Akniste Jews.  The memorial might have been considered a fitting tribute had Levin not delved further to uncover a more complex story of Latvian involvement in the murder of the Jews and of Latvian/German collaboration.

He recounts the history of the Russians and Germans in Latvia, and of the local Latvians during World War II, noting that the Russians occupied Latvia in 1940.

A montage for “Baltic Truth” documentary. Photo by Jeff Hoffman.
A montage for “Baltic Truth” documentary. Photo by Jeff Hoffman.

“The Russians took all the property of the Jews, and then one year later, the local Latvians killed all the Jews. By 1942, most of the Jews were wiped out. And the Latvian state received all of the Jewish property and justified it.”

Levin then describes the relationship between the Russians, Latvians and Germans. “The Latvians here were fighting on the German side against the Soviet Occupation and against the Russians. The Germans are treated like heroes. There is even a SS Waffen Parade every March 16 in Riga—this goes back 25 years!” Levin is most disturbed that the Latvians have “closed their eyes on the history of these people.”

He now wants to share this story with a wider audience, believing that his grandfather is “a small example of a bigger picture.” He has teamed up with veteran Hollywood filmmaker, producer and cinematographer Jeffrey Hoffman. The two met quite serendipitously when Hoffman was working on”4 Million Bullets: The Untold Fight for Survival,” a documentary about Israel’s War of Independence

Hoffman says, “I noticed a Porsche Cayenne with an Israeli flag sitting outside of a doctors’ office. It was ballsy. I had to meet this guy!” And so he left a note on the windshield.

Levin wound up calling, and the two met. “Eugene tells me the story of his grandfather in the Baltics,” recalls Hoffman. “It was fascinating.”

From left: Jeff Hoffman, director and cameraman; Vadim Repeckis, sound; and Andres Hramcovs interview a survivor of “Operation Winterzauber” in Rosica, Belarus. Credit: Courtesy.

‘Not apologizing for their crimes’

The two quickly teamed up and began working on the documentary film, “Baltic Truth.” Initial tasks included working with a scriptwriter in Riga; starting to raise money; and in the past six months, filming in Boston, Toronto, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus. They have thus far interviewed historians, authors, politicians, professors and survivors.

“There are not many survivors,” laments Levin.

His team includes Hoffman, writer Andrejs Hramcovs and two people in Latvia: writer Andreys Hramcovs and Vadims Repeckis behind the camera/photography, editing, sound and graphics.

“One of our first interviews was with [author and journalist] Ruta Vanagaite,” reports Levin with great excitement. “We sat with her for four hours. She used to be a bestselling writer in Lithuania.” (Vanagaite is known for “Our People: Journey With an Enemy,” co-authored with Israeli Nazi-hunter and Holocaust historian Efraim Zuroff. The book examines the role of Lithuanians in Holocaust crimes.)

“When she found out that one of her family members was involved” in the aforementioned atrocities and wound up reporting that Lithuanians were an integral part of the Nazi killing machine, “she became a persona non grata,” says Levin.

Interviewing Rabbi Menachem Barkahan of the Riga Great Synagogue Memorial in Riga, Latvia. Photo by Jeff Hoffman.

Levin notes that she used archives in her research, which was public information. “THIS is the Baltics today,” he says.

The team has visited the Ponary forest in Vilnius, where more than 100,000 people—mostly Jews, Poles and Russians—were executed by German SD and SS, and their Lithuanian collaborators, in what has been called the “Ponary massacre.”

“The Baltic States were independent during the war. Germany and Russia had a deal. They fought each other, (then) wiped out the Jews in the middle. The worst were the locals,” says Hoffman.

The murders took place between July 1941 and August 1944 near the railway station at Ponary. Some 70,000 Jews were murdered there, along with as many as 20,000 Poles and 8,000 Russian POWs.

“In Lithuania, 230,000 Jews were killed in the first six months of the war by locals,” says Levin. “There are over 200 sites in Lithuania alone that are considered mass graves.”

Leven and Hoffman believe they have uncovered an important story that needs to be widely told. They feel that the story of the Lithuanians and Latvians—and their willingness to acknowledge what happened during the war—differs greatly from the story of the Germans.

“The Germans admit it, say they are sorry, and are trying to fix it. The Lithuanians and Latvians are so proud of their national history. They are rewriting it. They are not apologizing for their crimes,” says Levin.

He and Hoffman are working on a trailer for the film and are in the process of applying for additional funding through the Claims Conference Film Grants. They very reason they are making it, they explain, is that “today, national memorials to the murderers lie feet away from the graves of their victims. Today, glorification of so-called war ‘heroes’ with Jewish blood on their hands is in full swing across the Baltic States, where history is being rewritten and distorted.”

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

New York’s ‘Bowl Hashanah’ melds the concert and synagogue experience into a new community

NEW YORK – For far too many Jews, Rosh Hashanah elicits less than fond memories of endless prayer services led by a cantor, a sermon by an often uninspiring rabbi and a cavernous synagogue. Thanks to some innovative rabbis and musicians, a decidedly unorthodox way of marking the Jewish New Year has taken hold in the New York area. Welcome to Bowl Hashanah.

The spiritual celebration, which is taking place on the first day of Rosh Hashanah at New York’s famed Brooklyn Bowl music venue and bowling alley, is entering its seventh year of providing a musical experience that features some of the better-known traditional prayers alongside accessible explanations and meditations. The holiday experience will also include Torah reading, shofar blowing, tashlich and a communal vegetarian meal.

The true magic is in the music, with carefully selected and coordinated musical sets throughout the morning and during lunch. The mainstays of the event are the organization Because Jewish and Relix Magazine, long associated with the Grateful Dead and the jam band scene.

The event is being led by Rabbi Daniel Brenner and musical director and trumpeter Jordan McLean of the musical group Antibalas.

“I’ve always loved my suburban synagogue, and still attend services there,” said Mike Greenhaus, editor of Relix Magazine, as he recounted Bowl Hashanah’s evolution. In 2012, he and his then-girlfriend (now wife) were looking for something a little closer to home in New York City. As they were exploring options, they came across Rabbi Dan Ain, who was leading services for the first time at 92YTribeca, a now-closed Manhattan performance space and community center.

“He was leading with Jeremiah Lockwood, who I was already a fan of through his band the Sway Machinery, and his work with the members of Antibalas,” Greenhaus recounted. “We went to his Erev Rosh Hashanah service and were immediately stuck by both their mix of authentic, traditional holiday prayer and modern, equally authentic music, and how the entire service felt tied to our daily lives as 20/30-something New Yorkers working in media and music. It felt, for, the first time, that we had found our spiritual congregation.”

After a few years at 92Y, the Rosh Hashanah experience moved in 2015 to what Greenhaus described as “the perfect venue” – Brooklyn Bowl.

“I know that I wasn’t the only one could really feel that they were having a proudly religious experience alongside the close-knit music community that has been part of my New York family for decades,” Greenhaus said. “Interestingly, everyone also seemed to assume the nooks and crannies they felt comfortable with at a concert. People who like to ride the rail were seated up front. People who like to hover in the back by the bar were huddled in the same place. People who usually watch in the bowling lanes congregated in that space.

“Brooklyn Bowl always felt more like a club house – a gathering place, much like a church or synagogue – than a traditional venue,” he added.

Greenhaus stressed that the expansion of the event couldn’t have succeeded without the involvement of the Brooklyn Bowl’s owner Peter Shapiro, a legend- like figure in the Grateful Dead world who has been instrumental in the career of the post-Dead configuration Dead & Company.

Shapiro, who grew up at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, was raised with deep connections to the Jewish community. His father, Daniel, was president of New York’s Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and a founder of the Jewish Community Relations Council. His grandfather, Ezra, was a leader in Zionist organizations for more than 50 years: he served as world chairman of the United Jewish Appeal and was one of 19 American Jews summoned by David Ben-Gurion in 1945 to organize American support for the Hagana. He eventually made aliyah.

Shapiro has long noticed that “these venues, and in particular the Brooklyn Bowl, are places of worship… very spiritual places.” He recalls his experience at Wetlands, the Manhattan nightclub he purchased in 1996. “In 48 hours at Wetlands, you would see different- looking people, all looking for the same thing, but going about it in a different way.”

Shapiro felt the Brooklyn Bowl would be the perfect venue for Bowl Hashanah.

“It had the space and layout – the stage is like a bimah,” Shapiro said. “The specs of the Brooklyn Bowl are of at the highest level of audio – the wood has been acoustically treated – and it has been good for people like Robert Plant and Adele.”

The venue is also used for such Jewish-themed events as the Friday Night Jam speaking series, which discusses the connection between music and spirituality across styles and religious backgrounds.

Ain, who relocated to San Francisco in 2018, and now serves as rabbi of a Congregation Beth Sholom, a Conservative synagogue in the Richmond District, recounts the history of the Bowl Hashanah prayer experience. He praises his longtime collaborator at Bowl Hashanah, Jeremiah Lockwood, the front man for The Sway Machinery.

“I was looking for a different type of prayer leader for my downtown services, one who could speak to a new generation while at the same time, recall an older experience that many of us who grew up in the latter part of the 20th century never truly got to experience or appreciate,” Ain said. “I prayed for such a person – who could combine the new and the old – and who had the chops to do both. That’s when Jeremiah and I met. And we’ve worked together every year since.”

Rabbi Daniel Brenner, who will lead this year’s High Holiday services with Antibalas cofounder Jordan McLean, reports that he will “frame the experience, tell stories about the history of the music, and let the music be a vehicle for us spiritually—to let the music evoke emotions.”

Brenner views Bowl HaShanah “not as much a service as a celebration of the holiday,” though, he adds, “that is not to say I won’t open up the door to connection with the Divine and the cosmic.”

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Original Article Published On The Jewish News Syndicate

The Jewish state becomes the first nation in the world to qualify for the Olympics in baseball, joining host nation Japan.

With Team Israel’s 11-1 win over South Africa in the Olympic qualifiers in Parma, Italy, on Sunday, the startup nation became the baseball nation.

The Israel Baseball team will be the first team sport to represent Israel at the Olympic Games since 1976, when the Israel National Soccer team competed in the Montreal Summer Olympics. Israel will be one of six teams to play in the baseball competition at the Olympics.

“This is the ultimate dream come true,” said Peter Kurz, Israel Association of Baseball President and general manager of Team Israel. “It was almost too impossible to imagine, but with the astounding performances of a dedicated team that always believed in itself. Even when we were beaten on Saturday night by Czech Republic, it didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits because we knew we were capable of achieving this goal.”

Within minutes of their historic victory, the Israel Association of Baseball posted “Heading to the Olympics” in all caps on their Facebook page, and almost instantly received 236 likes and comments. The “Follow Team Israel” Facebook group, started in 2012 by a group of olim (new immigrants) to provide information on Israelis and Jewish athletes in the 2012 London Olympics, and which continues to raise awareness and enthusiasm for Israeli and Jewish athletes, similarly received 532 likes in response to its post: “Do you believe in miracles? They did it!”

Israel’s success last week, where it came in fourth place in the European Championships held in Germany (the top five teams advanced to the qualifiers) and in the Europe/Africa qualifiers, held this past Wednesday through Sunday in Parma and Bologna, Italy, earned them a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Israel becomes the first nation in the world to qualify for the Olympics in baseball. Israel joins host nation Japan. Four more countries will ultimately qualify for the Olympics as baseball makes its return after being voted off the Olympic program after the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Two additional teams will qualify at the global Premier12 in November. One team from the Americas and one more from another qualifying tournament taking place later in the year will make it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Israel began showing the world in 2017 that it needs to be taken seriously as a baseball nation. Israel won all three of its World Baseball Classic qualifiers in Brooklyn, N.Y., advanced to Pool A in South Korea in March 2017 and advanced again later that month to the second round in Tokyo. The team is currently qualified for the 2021 World Baseball Classic.

The Blue and White team, including some former Major League Baseball players who recently became Israeli citizens in order to play for Team Israel, faced three of the teams in the qualifiers it had lost to in Germany just last week, including Spain, Italy and the Netherlands (the European champions). Israel got off to an impressive 3-0 start in the qualifiers, which included an exciting 8-2 blowout Friday night against Italy. Their only loss came against the Czech Republic on Saturday night, where they lost 7-4.

In Sunday’s decisive game against South Africa, which allowed Israel to punch its card to the Olympics, Joey Wagman, who hadn’t given up a run or walk in his previous 15 innings pitched throughout the European Championships or Qualifiers, held the South Africans to six scoreless innings, allowing one run in the seventh.

Israel got on the board in the bizarre top of the second inning, which featured a sacrifice fly, three walks and two batters hit by pitches. Catcher Nick Rickles scored on a sacrifice fly by OF (outfielder) Simon Rosenbaum. With shortstop Ty Kelly on third, DH (designated hitter) Benjamin Wanger on second and third baseman Zach Penprase on first after being hit by a pitch, second baseman Mitch Glasser walked for another RBI. A single from OF (outfielder) Blake Gailen allowed Wanger and Penprase to score.

Israel was up 4-0.

In the top of the third, a double from Wanger brought Rickles home, and a sacrifice fly from Rosenbaum added another run by Kelly for a 6-0 lead.

South Africa scored one run in the bottom of the seventh inning. Israel answered back with four more runs in the top of the eighth—three coming from a home run by Team Israel’s best-known player, Danny Valencia, whose career includes stints with nine Major League teams. When Valencia’s homer brought the lead to 10 runs, the 10-run mercy rule was invoked, and Israel was permitted to break out the champagne one inning early once South Africa was unable to score in the bottom of the eighth inning.

Tel Aviv native, and current New York resident and music director at City Winery in New York City Shlomo Lipetz, now 40, came in to close the game. Lipetz, who has been affiliated with Israel baseball for more than 30 years, allowed no runs, and was on the mount when Israel won the right to move on to Tokyo.

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Original Article Published On The Jewish News Syndicate

With the loss against Spain in the last game of the European Championships only days ago still fresh, Israel came out determined to start strong against the team that left Israel in third place in Europe.

Joey Wagman pitched a complete game shut-out to help take down Spain in Team Israel’s first game of the World Baseball and Softball Confederation Olympics Qualifiers 3-0 in Bologna, Italy. Danny Valencia dominated the offense, batting in all three runs, including a first-inning two RBI home run.

With the loss against Spain in the last game of the European Championships only days ago still fresh, Israel came out determined to start strong against the team that left Israel in third place in Europe. And they did. In the top of the first inning, after outfielder Blake Gailen was walked, DH Valencia stepped up and crushed a homer deep into left field, immediately putting Israel ahead by two runs.

Wagman followed up on Israel’s strong offensive start by retiring Spain in order in the bottom of the first. He maintained the pressure on the Spaniards throughout the game, not giving them a foothold and allowing only three hits in the game.

In the top of the fifth inning, Zach Penprase singled to deep center field and advanced to second on a single from Mitch Glasser. Gailen singled to center field, loading the bases. A sacrifice fly to right field from Valencia added another RBI as Penprase scored Israel’s third run.

“I just pitched my game,” said Wagman in a post-game interview. “(Nick) Rickles called a great game behind home plate. We were on the same page all night. It’s a lot easier for me when I can trust him and trust the defense.”

Wagman also won the award for the pitcher with the best earned run average in the European Championships last week, after pitching 10.2 innings with an impressive zero ERA.

“Everything was great tonight,” said Valencia. “It was important to start well, and we did.” I helped the team with the RBIs, but the credit goes to Wagman, who was amazing on the mound.”

“This was a fantastic start,” says Peter Kurz, Team Israel general manager and president of the Israel Association of Baseball. “We have every intention of competing for every run over every inning of the rest of the games against Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Italy and South Africa. Our goal is no less than winning this tournament and representing the State of Israel in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.”

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