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A tale of two concerts

Nothing messes with the angst meter of an American Jew like a trip to Old Europe and Israel, says JUF President Steven B. Nasatir.

Nothing messes with the angst meter of an American Jew like a trip to Old Europe and Israel.

In Israel, where I have traveled every summer for nearly 50 years, I have seen constant growth despite huge internal and external challenges. In its 70 years of existence, the modern state of Israel is by any standard a spectacular success story.

As a proud American Jew, I feel the same about the United States. Perfect? No way! Democracies that champion individual liberty are messy creations. Israel and America both have their share of glaring failures and have much work yet to do to live up to their best hopes and dreams. But they both have enviable records of constant self-correction.

The intersection between Israeli and American values and progress struck me again this summer, in Prague of all places, where my wife, youngest son, and I spent this year's Fourth of July. 

In most years, I celebrate American Independence Day in Highland Park, where my wife and I attend the parade, fly our flag, and gather with family for dinner, ice cream, apple pie, and fireworks.

Prague has become very hip in recent years. From a Jewish perspective, the Czech Republic also is noteworthy for its steadfast friendship to Israel. Of course, almost all countries in Europe have a tortured history in their relationship with and treatment of Jews and what is now called the Czech Republic is no exception. Special markings on clothes; confinement to ghettos; work restrictions; pogroms; expulsion; blood libel; etc. were commonplace throughout Europe over the last thousand years.

In Prague, the city's very topography trips the Jewish historic angst meter.  The oldest grave in the medieval Jewish cemetery is that of Rabbi Avigdor Kara, who survived the "Bloody Easter" pogrom in Prague during Passover, 1389.

Why such violence? We need look no further than the Old Town square, where stands the remarkable Tyn Church, which houses the grave of a 12-year-old Jewish boy, Simon Abeles, who was murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1694.

Originally buried in the Jewish cemetery, the boy's body was exhumed by church officials who claimed the father murdered his son because he wanted to convert to Christianity. They paraded the body through the streets of Prague and buried him with great fanfare as testimony to what Jews do to children who want to become Christian 

Fast forward to September 30, 1938, when Hitler, Mussolini, French Premier Daladier, and British Prime Minister Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement, which handed over the Sudetenland to Hitler and sealed the fate of Czechoslovakia and included the roundup of Jews. The war and the Holocaust followed, and then the Iron Curtain fell.

Years of persecution and war and being cut off from religion and individual freedom are experiences we in America, thank God, never have experienced. In our feeding frenzy over politics and policies, Americans-we Jews included-seem to forget how fortunate we are. Some American Jews, perhaps many of whom are too young to remember, take for granted the miracle of living at a time of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.

To gain a bit of perspective, I once again visited the Nazi "model" concentration camp at Terezin. Some 30,000 people died there, but Terezin was not a death camp. It was where many artists, musicians, and writers were sent. In June 1944, the Nazis brought the International Committee of the Red Cross there to be serenaded by prisoners and entertained by children who showed the good food they received and examples of their artwork. Following the infamous visit, the Terezin prisoners were shipped to Auschwitz in cattle cars to be murdered. 

And now to the tale of two concerts.

One of the incredible stories of Terezin concerns a gifted pianist-conductor, Rafael Schachter. After his daily work detail amidst the sick, hungry, and dying, this talented man scraped together a chorus to learn, without sheet music, "Verdi's Requiem," or "Mass for the Dead." Their last performance was during the infamous Red Cross visit. 

Years later, Schachter's handwritten score was found by Maestro Murry Sidlin, who helped establish the Defiant Requiem Foundation, which performs a commemorative concert -- "Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin" -- throughout the world. Last year our Chicago Jewish Federation sponsored "Defiant Requiem" at Orchestra Hall for an audience of 2,200, including Holocaust survivors. We raised $4.6 million to provide additional support to the survivors remaining in Chicago.

On my visit to Prague, the words of the chorus, "Deliver me…nothing shall remain unavenged," resonated and echoed in my mind, sung by the prisoners as a statement of faith in the face of torment and an expression of resistance and resilience.

With the sweet taste of Israel and the bitter taste of Terezin in our mouths, my wife and I decided to do something celebratory for the Fourth of July, despite being thousands of miles from home. We did what any aging Baby Boomer would do and bought tickets to a Rolling Stones concert.   Our bemused son and 70,000 Czechs and others joined us. 

I've seen the Stones many times over the past 50 years, so yes, I know they are not American. But their musical DNA includes rhythm and blues and American rock 'n' roll, and we knew there would be fireworks at the end of the concert.

Before buying tickets, we experienced more angst: Would it feel right to go to Terezin in the morning and to a concert at night?

How Israelis commemorate their independence provided the answer. Israelis remember their sacrifices and mourn their losses on Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) and immediately afterwards begin the raucous festivities of Yom Ha'atzmaut (Independence Day). The contrast between the extremes holds additional meaning.

The boys -- Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ronnie -- were ageless and terrific and the fireworks provided a fitting end to the show and to the day. The Stones, who are quintessential ambassadors of the universal-and to me, uplifting-message of peace, love, and rock 'n' roll, made this American Jew leap from his seat and want to shout "God Bless America" and " Am Yisrael Chai " ("The Jewish People Live!").

If only Franz Kafka, the quintessential Czech Jew, were alive to see the beauty, and the absurdity, of it all. 

Dr. Steven B. Nasatir is the president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

"Would it feel right to go to Terezin in the morning and to a concert at night?"

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