Dr. Ruth

Original Post Published On The Jerusalem Post

Welcome to City Winery’s Annual Downtown highly interpretive Seder. The Seder will take place Thursday, March 25 at 7 p.m. EST, two days ahead of Passover, and is free and live from City Winery.

NEW YORK – Imagine a Seder where Dr. Ruth offers a sexual take on the afikomen, comedian Judy Gold offers her unique interpretation of “Dayenu,” the four cups of wine are blessed by four different Manhattan mayoral candidates, and musical performers include David Broza, Idan Raichel, Marc Cohn, Macy Gray, Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, Max Weinberg of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and Speech of Arrested Development.

Welcome to City Winery’s Annual Downtown highly interpretive Seder. The Seder will take place Thursday, March 25 at 7 p.m. EST, two days ahead of Passover, and is free and live from City Winery, Pier 57 in New York City (RSVP at citywinery.com).

The annual tradition, which has taken place for 27 years, is hosted by Michael Dorf, the entrepreneur, independent music promoter and philanthropist who founded such music venues as Manhattan’s Knitting Factory, the City Winery restaurant/winery/music venue franchise, and Tribeca Hebrew, an after-school program in Lower Manhattan. Dorf is also the chairman of Lab/Shul which, according to the website, is “an everybody-friendly, artist-driven, God-optional, experimental community for sacred Jewish gatherings based in NYC and reaching the world.”

The Jewishly committed Dorf grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the Seder was “very personally satisfying and fulfilling with so much meaning.” Dorf fondly recalls his father making the children listen to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech each year.

“We always made the seder as relevant as possible.”
When Dorf founded the Knitting Factory, he remembered this experience. “The scene was Jewish avant-garde and African-American jazz musicians. Weaving the theme of the liberation struggle into something was very important.” Thus, the yearly Seder was born.

“I took liberally the beginning of the Haggadah which says, ‘Tell the story of the leaving of Egypt in the language you understand,” reports Dorf. “For me, the language I understood was not Aramaic or Hebrew – it was the language of the arts.” Dorf began considering ways to “bring poets, musicians and political thinkers together to tell the story in a language they understood.”

PAST SEDERS have included interpretative dances that literally took place on matzah (Dorf recounts playfully, “It made a mess of the stage!), and saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist John Zorn playing the “bad child” to Philip Glass’s “simple child.” Last year, more than 4,000 people tuned into City Winery’s online event, and the YouTube video has grown to over 33,000 views.

In the years prior to the pandemic, 300 people typically assembled for the in-person Seder and meal in New York, with dozens more attending Seders at various City Winery locations across the United States. Dorf is quick to stress, “I don’t believe mine is a substitute for doing the Seder with family or in small groups.” For that reason, the City Winery Seder takes place before Passover. He is pleased when people bring elements of the City Winery Seder home.

“It is a stimulating, fun, entertaining evening which gets people going, making symbolic connections to the Seder plate.” There are always many additional requests from those unable to attend the Seder for copies of the Haggadah that Dorf and his team produce anew each year.
For Dorf, producing and hosting the Seder each year continues to be relevant.

“Every year, there is a very important reason to re-look at the ancient text. The reason has never been more important with hatred, antisemitism and racism on the rise. In addition, it is only two months since the insurrection [at the Capitol in Washington, DC] and divisiveness like this has never before been seen in our country. This is an important time to be breaking bread with our African-American brothers.”

Dorf and his team had considered a number of options for this year’s Seder, including hosting up to 100 people at City Winery in New York. But as regulations for indoor and outdoor dining kept changing and most musicians were not physically in New York, Dorf decided to feature most musical guests by video. Ten or 12 family members and friends will join Dorf on location in New York. He is pleased to physically host the Seder at the City Winery New York, which is scheduled to reopen for dinner and drinks on March 17.

“I care very much about my adopted hometown. In many ways, New York is a metaphor for the rest of the country and for what we need to do to rebuild safely.”

Perhaps Dorf and his guests will end their Seder with a special prayer that should take place in-person “Next Year in New York!”

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NEW HAVEN — Dr. Ruth Westheimer shared her experience as part of the Holocaust’s Kindertransport at “Orphans of the Holocaust,” the opening event of the Yom Hashoah-HolocaustRemembrance Day commemoration at Yale University’s Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life. Westheimer is co-teaching a course on “The Family and the Jewish Tradition” at Yale this semester with the university’s Jewish chaplain, Rabbi James Ponet.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer was born in 1928 in Frankfurt, an only child in a lower middle class Orthodox family. When her father was taken by the Nazis, her mother and grandmother thought it would be safest for her to be evacuated from Germany.

“They closed the Samson Raphael Hirsch Orthodox school, and I was told I had to join a group of children going to Switzerland or my father couldn’t return.” Wertheimer boarded the kindertransport to Heiden, Switzerland on Jan. 5, 1939. She waved to her mother for what would be the last time.

In Switzerland, Westheimer, then only ten years old, lived in a children’s home overlooking Lake Constance. “We could see Germany,” she recalls. She was enrolled in vocational training, where she learned to care for Swiss children (bathing them, doing their laundry and cleaning their toilets). Westheimer wasn’t permitted to attend school, though she had dreamed of studying medicine. She communicated with her parents and hoped she would see them again. The letters stopped suddenly in September of 1941; she later learned that her parents had been taken to the Lodz Ghetto, where her father was a cemetery gardener, and most likely killed in Auschwitz.

At the conclusion of the war, Westheimer was 17 years old. She decided to go to Palestine, where she lived on a kibbutz picking olives and tomatoes. She also served in the Haganah, a precursor to the Israel Defense Forces, where she became a sharpshooter. She was badly injured on her twentieth birthday, while doing guard duty; an Arab shell exploded at her feet. Luckily, she recovered and was able to walk.

Westheimer moved to France in 1950. Eventually, she resettled in New York, and received a doctorate in education from Teachers College of Columbia University. Affectionately known as “Dr. Ruth,” Westheimer is best known for her radio program, “Sexually Speaking,” which began in Sept. 1980. Westheimer spoke movingly of her parents and grandparents and of the importance of early childhood socialization. She spoke of how the orphans “created a community to have a family again,” and of how “many boys and girls went in to the helping professions.”

Sharing the stage with Westheimer at the Holocaust commemoration was a local Kindertransport survivor, Irm (Irmgard) Wessel. A social worker, Wessel is a long-time resident of New Haven and a member of Congregation B’nai Jacob in Woodbridge. During the war, she was sent to England from her home in Kassel, Germany. Unlike Westheimer, Wessel was eventually reunited with her parents in America.

Describing her family as “German first and Jewish second,” Wessel said her businessman father, the vice president of a steel factory, held positions of importance in the synagogue and in the Jewish community. His position of importance, and his role as a mediator between the Jews and the Nazis would prove useful in getting Irm on the Kindertransport to England.

The audience listened intently as Wessel shared the details of her story, including the actual date of Krystallnacht. While most histories report Krystallnacht to have taken place in Germany on Nov. 9 and 10, Wessel notes, “The Nazis practiced in Kassel on Nov. 7, 1938.”

Kessel also spoke about being forced to add the name “Sarah” to her name (all girls were forced to add “Sarah” and males, “Israel”), seeing her father cry for the first time, the train ride to England, and life in her English foster home.

Upon arriving in New York at age 14, Kessel was forced to throw her stamp collection overboard as she was told she could not enter the U.S. with “anything of value.” Following her reunification with her parents and resettling in Iowa and later Illinois (partially assisted by the American Friends/Quakers), Wessel eventually settled in Connecticut where she is a member of the therapeutic community, and an activist.

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