Building A Cultural Bridge In Washington Heights

Jewish and Dominican teens forming bonds over the Sosúa story.

01/24/2012
Staff Writer
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Four years ago, Victoria Neznansky was faced with a difficult task. She was the newly hired chief program officer at the YM & YWHA in Washington Heights, which serves a predominantly Dominican community. And it was her responsibility to find a way to attract families from the area’s Jewish population, which had been dwindling for decades — all without alienating the dominant population.

“They live together but they rarely interact,” Neznansky said of the Dominican and Jewish communities in Washington Heights, Inwood, and much of Upper Manhattan, which the center also serves. “That was an invitation to think about something with youth,” she said.

Around the same time, Neznansky stumbled upon an exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage about the Jews of Sosúa, a coastal town in the Dominican Republic that served as a safe haven for Jews escaping Nazi Europe. Immediately, she saw a way to bridge the two communities — through a piece of history that Jews and Dominicans shared. 

If she added an artistic component, she thought, perhaps she could attract even more interest. But what happened next was beyond her wildest dreams. A colleague helped arrange an interview with Elizabeth Swados, a veteran New York composer, director and Tony Award-nominee, to see if she’d be willing create a dance-theater piece for teenagers. Swados agreed, and the piece, now titled “Sosúa: Dare to Dance Together,” will be performed at two different locations this weekend.

“I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about Sosúa’s history,” said Swados. “But I was surprised and intrigued by it.” Even more, she was smitten with the idea behind the project: bringing Jewish and Dominican teens together. 

Since the 1980s, Swados, who is Jewish, has helped create numerous shows for teenagers and at-risk youth. One of those shows, “The Hating Pot,” created in the wake of the Crown Heights riots of 1991, was animated by a similar spirit of cross-cultural understanding.

“None of them had ever really been in the same room with a black person or a Jewish person,” Swados said of “The Hating Pot” project. Swados added that she drew upon ideas from that earlier experience for the Sosúa piece.

“Sosúa: Dare to Dance Together” has since grown into a community-wide project, now in its third year, with a fresh crop of students each cycle. Roughly 20 students spend one afternoon a week together learning about each other’s history and rehearsing the production. 

“I had no idea about the Jews who came into the Dominican Republic,” said Evaluna Acosta, a 15-year-old Dominican New Yorker who was chosen as one of this year’s participants. Commenting on the relationships she formed through the project, she said, “We’ve bonded and become like family.”

Each year, the group of mostly middle and high-school age students — half Dominican, half Jewish — perform five shows, with the first of this year’s performances being staged in shortened form at the United Nations on Friday, as part of the UN’s Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony. On Sunday, the group performs its first full-length show at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

“Anyone who sees it now contacts us about putting it on themselves,” Neznansky said. 

Venues in Israel and the Dominican Republic have asked about staging the program, and in March, the students will travel to the recently completed National Museum of American Jewish History, in Philadelphia, to put on the show. The filmmaker Peter Miller, whose documentaries, such as “Jews and Baseball” and “Sacco and Vanzetti,” have aired on PBS, has begun co-directing a documentary about the project with Renee Silverman, one of the participant’s mothers.

“It’s moved way beyond the Washington Heights community,” Neznansky said. 

But despite the continued growth, the project will finish its initial three-year grant from UJA-Federation of New York this year; the grant covers about half the project’s cost. “We’re desperately looking for funding to sustain the program,” Neznansky said.

The story of Sosúa’s Jewish community is not entirely noble. Each year, the students must research the complicated history on their own, and invariably they come back to rehearsal wrestling with a morally difficult issue. They discuss how Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator, became the only leader from more than 30 countries at the Evian Conference, in 1938, to agree to harbor Jews escaping Nazi Germany.

But they also learn about Trujillo’s ulterior motives, which were, in large part, to deflect attention from his own crimes. Just the year before, in 1937, Trujillo received international condemnation for his massacre of roughly 20,000 black Haitians in a five-day span.  By the time his 31-year dictatorship ended with his assassination in 1961, an estimated 50,000 civilians had been killed.

Moreover, racism was always a subtext of the Sosúa rescue mission. He said himself that his offering of Sosúa to mostly German Jewish refuges — about 670 of them ultimately took part — was part of his plan to “whiten” the population.

“When I heard that he brought in [so many] Jews, it changed my view of him a little, because what he did was a good act,” Acosta said of Trujillo, a historical figure who to many Dominicans is as reviled as Hitler. “But when you think about it again, it was for his own gain.”

Each year’s participants are also encouraged to write about their  own reflections on Sosúa, as well as their personal experiences of discrimination. One student this year, Julian Golombek, a 13-year-old Jewish teen from the Upper West Side, wrote about being shorter than average.

“I’ve been picked on a lot because of that,” he said.

In addition, he wrote about his family’s own experience in the Holocaust. Several of his great-grandparents were killed in the death camps, and some of those personal reflections are incorporated into the show.

This is the first year that Swados is not involved in week-to-week preparations. A busy schedule, which includes turning her recent book “My Depression” into a musical, and a full teaching load at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she’s on faculty, has taken up much of her time. But she helped hire her replacement, the director George Drance, a Catholic priest and longtime collaborator with Swados. In addition, Stephanie Wells was brought on as the show’s musical director.

Despite the changes, the structure of the show is mostly the same.  Swados wrote the larger narrative and the whole score, which incorporates klezmer and Dominican genres. The piece is divided by two sections: the first tells a darker tale of the Jews’ escape from Europe, while the second focuses on the Dominicans’ reception of the Jewish immigrants. For the most part, the actors swap ethnicities, with Jewish performers playing Dominican parts, and vice versa.

But as with Golombek, all the students get some of their own personal stories incorporated into the show. That invariably alters the performance each year, Neznansky said, but it’s critical. “That’s how the story becomes theirs,” she said. n

Free tickets to the United Nations Holocaust Memorial Ceremony, which takes place at the General Assembly Hall, on Friday, Jan. 27, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and includes segments of the “Sosua: Dare to Dance Together” performance, can be reserved at http://www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance/2012/calendar2012.html.

The Sunday, Jan. 29, performance at the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial is part of The Prakhin International Literary Foundation award ceremony, which includes talks by Holocaust historians like Timothy D. Snyder, of Yale; Nechama Tec, of the University of Connecticut; and Ludwik Kowalski, of Montclair State University. Tickets are free but require reservations. RSVP by phone at (201) 741-0833, or by e-mail at ludmilaprakhina@prakhin.org.
 

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