This classical sculpture in Lafayette Park, opposite the White House, in honor of Germany's Baron von Steuben, the general who transformed a rag-tag group of volunteers into a victorious American Army that won independence under George Washington, tells the story of the driving force in his life, even though it got him into trouble in Europe.
As a side note to history: the presidential Adams family wasn't too happy about their son's close friendship with the Baron from Prussia, either, but in the end, life went on and this erotic sculpture was erected. With thanks to Mark Segal and all the historians who recorded matters that were considered taboo even during the time of the Enlightenment.
Response to: Baron von Steuben, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Franklin to Washington by Mark Segal, Gay History Project, October 1, 2013
One of my interns, not the brightest nor the most talented writer I ever met, worked for a Hollywood agency last summer, plowing through countless scripts to pass on “the best” to the bosses upstairs. He told me how many of his fellow readers got fired without any reason, with new readers getting hired each week. He survived before he quit in disgust.
A student of my Film and TV scriptwriting class in Chicago got his air guitar handbook rejected by a large publisher, then found an agent who managed to sell the short manuscript to the same publisher who had rejected the piece earlier. The thin little paperback sold as a “throwaway” book, apparently with great success.
Both incidents seem to say more about our “throwaway” society than about the quality of book or film scripts. Of course, the question remains, what can new writers do to take those first hurdles — apart from “grabbing the reader” — without losing their soul?
Originally published, May 3, 2011.
Five hundred years ago, unlicked by any knowledge of Pinter’s pauses, I saw my first Pinter play and felt sorry for the actors who clearly had forgotten some of their lines, desperately trying to retrieve them from their memory–an excruciating experience.
It wasn’t until later that I realized how, subconsciously, I had made a judgment, based on a simple internalized CHECKLIST of what actors have to do, totally unaware that Pinter’s script demanded those pauses.
Since that time I try to listen with ears, less clogged by wax and rules, and I try to ask, rather than make snap judgments. As a theatre critic, I spend significantly more time and energy researching and writing reviews than before, often with the script right next to me, and with interview transcripts that may reveal whole new aspects I may have overlooked.
Writing theatre reviews under those circumstances also comes with another price: unlike some of my colleagues who churn out witty and often devastating judgments within hours of opening night, my articles may have lost those deadly stings, those lethal hits which sell like ringside seats at caged wrestling matches in London, Las Vegas, or Los Angeles.
And yet I write, listening to the silence, the unspoken word–not only in Pinter’s plays–leaving old checklists where they belong: in the bottom drawer, next to earnest instructions on how to operate a phonograph and crumpled maps to Shangri-La.
For my theatre reviews, click here.
Originally published on March 24, 2013.
Below an article about one of my workshops on cultural differences we need to know when traveling abroad.
By Cynthia J. McGroarty, INQUIRER CORRESPONDENTPOSTED: July 21, 1994
SPRINGFIELD — Henrik Eger had been living in Iran for a short time when he learned the accepted routine for getting rid of an unwanted guest.
"You'd invite him to lunch," Eger said.
It was like a game, his Iranian friends assured him. The individual who no longer wanted company simply had to extend the invitation, and the visitor would take the hint and graciously leave.
So when accosted in a marketplace one day by a friendly fellow he could not shake, Eger decided to try out the advice. He invited the man to lunch.
And the man accepted.
"I paid for lunch," Eger said, "and of course I had to pay for the taxi as well."
Occasionally travel tips backfire, said Eger, an assistant professor of English at Delaware County Community College who gave a workshop on international communication at Borders Book Shop in Springfield Tuesday. But it never hurts to be culturally literate when traveling abroad.
Most Americans who embark on overseas trips are not forewarned that their behavior, even their body language and facial expressions, can be offensive to people in their host country, Eger told the group of about 40. For instance, the openness and familiarity toward strangers that is common to many Americans is a no-no in many places - Japan, for one.
In Japan, a respectable physical distance must be kept when standing near someone, Eger said. And lots of smiling and small talk are taboo.
"Americans find it very difficult to sit in silence," Eger said, but to the Japanese, silence is nurturing. That's why, when exchanging business cards in Japan, an American should examine the card thoughtfully, without speaking, for at least two minutes, and never write on the back of it.
Scribbling on a Japanese business card is the equivalent of "tattooing the person's flesh," Eger said.
Another tip for travelers to Japan, he said, is to never blow your nose in public. Such a gauche act can cause great embarrassment.
Born in Germany, Eger was left fatherless when his war-correspondent father was killed near the end of World War II. He was expelled from school at 13 for failing to master English, but took night classes and finally passed the exit exam for high school. He developed a taste for travel after he spent some time in England.
After he earned a bachelor's and master's degree, he traveled in the United States, met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and ended up translating some of the mail Dr. King received from abroad after he won the Nobel Prize. He later earned another bachelor's degree, two more master's degrees and a doctorate, and soon found himself teaching and traveling around the globe. In 1978, he taught at a university in Iran, where he learned "just how different another culture could be," Eger said.
For instance, many Iranian homes are short on furniture, but well-outfitted with beautiful carpets, which are not to be stepped on. "It would be like walking on a Rembrandt," he said.
Invited to a camel farm for a party one evening, Eger dared not insult his guest by refusing the opium pipe, so he indulged - "There goes the presidency," he joked - but he coughed so much that the drug had little effect.
Eger gave some additional traveling tips: When in India, shake the head
from side to side rather than up and down to indicate an affirmative answer; in Greece, shove to the front of the line at the bank or bus stop rather than standing politely; in France, take the hands out of the pockets when conversing.
In Africa, hitchhike by slapping the outer thigh, not by sticking out the thumb. The latter, Eger said, is considered obscene. The "OK" sign common in the United States is also obscene in some places.
He also had advice for travelers to his native country: Do not ask for a glass of water because no one drinks tap water. Germans drink bottled water and will respond by asking which brand you would prefer, he said.
A century ago, few women who grew up in small towns left their communities, let alone went overseas and convinced influential people on two continents to create something that never existed before. Erna J. Fast was such a woman, a Mennonite who studied to become a minister, who was denied by the church hierarchy to take on that role after World War II but who turned that pain around and became a gentle driving force as one of the founders of the Wuppertal-Bethel Exchange Program, America’s oldest continually running exchange program between two colleges.
From little Mennonite girl on the prairie to a master’s degree in New York City
Fast was born on Dec. 13, 1912, in Mountain Lake, Minn., a rural town of only 1.4 square miles founded by Russian Mennonites. She graduated from Mountain Lake High School in 1931, then taught in Minnesota public schools before receiving an A.B. at Bethel College, North Newton, Kan., in 1943. While many Americans took up arms during World War II, this young pacifist decided to become a minister, earning a master’s degree in religious education from New York Biblical Seminary in 1946.
Erna Fast does relief work in postwar Germany. Photo supplied.
After World War II, a spirit of renewal swept America, and Fast wanted to become a minister. But she ran into a stained-glass ceiling, as in those days the Mennonite church did not elect women ministers. Although Fast possessed the right qualifications, she was denied the opportunity to serve as a minster, an experience that pained her greatly.
Mennonite men closed a door, but God opened a window.
Although the Mennonite community denied her the opportunity to work as a minister, they soon realized she was extraordinary, and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)—involved in reaching out to young people in postwar Germany—sent Fast to Europe. Her mission: to help provide students—including those who fled across the Iron Curtain—with food, books and clothing.
Her two years in bombed-out Germany exposed her to the devastation and deprivation under which German students struggled. As part of the Protestant Student Union in Germany, she worked with the teacher’s colleges. She recalled the students’ “willingness to endure hardship and privations for the sake of their search for truth, their eagerness to understand, their willingness to share, plus a precious sense of humor and love for fun in spite of the drabness of much of life in those days.”
After serving on the Mennonite relief team for more than two years, she returned to America, where Time published her letter (Dec. 26, 1949) about the “turmoil in which Germany finds itself today.” She was determined to continue ministering to students in a country that was not only materially devastated by six years of war but had been spiritually deprived for 12 years under the Nazi regime.
The next year, she returned to Bethel College, where she reported on her work in Germany and sought to raise funds for equipment, supplies and scholarships for impoverished German students. Fifty years later, she was still impressed “by the enthusiasm and vitality of the [Bethel] students in their eagerness to find ways to support the work of MCC.” She noted that the American students organized a work day to earn money and even skipped meals to participate in a fund raiser. Eventually, she and the students hoped “to support a project by which a personal and direct relationship might be formed” between the young Mennonites at Bethel and students in Germany. Mennonite men may have closed a door, but God was beginning to open a window.
From scraps of brown paper to a ticket to America
During a year at Bethel, she helped organize the exchange of supplies—including “writing materials, books, Bibles, dormitory supplies and even food” for needy students and their professors in a war-torn Germany who were actually writing their “lectures on scraps of brown paper left from [these] packages.” During her second year, some of the Bethel students proposed inviting a student from one of the teacher’s colleges in Germany to study in Kansas. To help establish this program, the administrators at Bethel called upon Fast’s experience, knowledge and connections abroad to help decide which German college should receive the invitation to send a student to study in America.
Fast initially consulted with the influential German theologian and writer Horst Bannach, with her former colleague Peter Kreyssig and with Jacob T. Friesen, a representative from the MCC office in Frankfurt am Main. The four of them discussed various factors before selecting Wuppertal: both colleges enrolled a similar number of students; Wuppertal’s professors offered “exceptionally fine leadership,” including Johannes Harder, a Mennonite who taught sociology, and Wuppertal had opened its doors to refugee students from East Germany.
However, according to Fast, the reputation of Wuppertal’s director Oskar Hammelsbeck, “played a major role in the choice.” Not only was he known for his excellent work in the field of pedagogy, he showed great moral courage “as a participant of the “Bekennende Kirche” (the Confessional Church) in its struggle [against] the Nazi regime during the war,” where he had been “deeply involved in the formulation of the Barmen Confession”—a document that openly opposed the “German Christian Church’s” allegiance to Hitler and Third Reich ideology.
Moreover, when Fast recalled the “fine young people preparing to teach others” that were struggling after World War II, she described the students at Wuppertal as representing “the finest and best of them.” The only decision left: determining which student would get the first ticket for the passage to America.
Early years of the exchange program and Fast’s continuing legacy
Finally, in 1951, Bethel invited the first Wuppertal student—Fritz Potreck—to study in Kansas for one year. In 1952, Rudolf Wiemann represented Wuppertal. When Potreck and Wiemann returned to Germany, they shared their enthusiasm for Bethel and the education they received and worked with the Wuppertal faculty to convince the North Rhine-Westphalia Ministry of Education to sponsor an annual exchange program with a student from Bethel.
After only two years of a one-way exchange, 1953 saw the first students who traded countries and schools in the now evolving Wuppertal-Bethel Exchange program: from Wuppertal, Annegret Gehlhoff (Völker), who escaped the Communist East “disguised as a ‘subnormal’ boy,” and Bethel’s Otto Driedger, now professor emeritus at the University of Regina’s School of Human Justice in Saskatchewan.
A legacy of peace born from a time of pain and war
Only six years after the end of World War II, Fritz Potreck initially met Fast at the Frankfurt office of the U.S. High Commissioner in Germany, a transitional government set up by the Allies to supervise the newly established Federal Republic of Germany. Given the horrible experiences of the war and its devastation all over Europe, Potreck saw this opportunity to study in the United States as “a contribution to peace and better understanding between nations after World War II.”
Did Fast plan to leave a legacy of bridge-building behind? Her letters and notes reveal there “was no nicely organized, well-coordinated effort to start a project with a future. Rather there was a tenuousness, a groping for something that would show the deep caring that [the students at] Bethel College felt as they learned more and more about the terrible aftermath of World War II.”
The rest of the story is your story
Since 1951, more than 100 students from both sides of the Atlantic have participated in this educational bridge-building. When asked to reflect on their experiences, almost everyone reported the profound impact the Wuppertal-Bethel exchange program had on their lives.
The participants in this intercontinental exchange have worked in many professions, especially as teachers, social workers and professors. When Wiemann returned to Germany in 1953 and became an English teacher, I was one of his first students. In class, he often talked about his experiences at Bethel, even teaching us the popular midwestern song “Home on the Range.” Little did I know that 10 years later, in 1964, I would join the ranks of students representing Wuppertal at Bethel. This year of study abroad profoundly affected my life, an experience I now use to encourage my own students to study different cultures and respect and value difference. In vocations that touch many lives, the participants in the program initiated by Fast and the Mennonite community continue to build a spirit of peace and understanding between two nations.
In 2001, Fast wrote to all the participants: “You have made it work far beyond first expectations and the hopes of those who worked so hard to provide the first financial support for this program.” However, unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which ends with the gloomy “the rest is silence,” she concluded her letter to the program’s alumni on an encouraging note: “The rest of the story is your story.”
A young Mennonite woman becomes an ambassador to the world
Though Fast grew up in a Minnesota town of less than 2,000 inhabitants, the little Mennonite girl from the prairie became an international power broker who managed to convince the leading lights in Mennonite circles, the North Rhine-Westphalia educational ministry and the interim government in Germany to support the first postwar German-American exchange program between colleges. The woman who was once denied the role of minister served instead as a cultural and spiritual ambassador between two nations that were at war only a few years earlier.
As a young woman, the denial of her life’s ambition caused her great pain. Her education, her clearly demonstrated organizational abilities and her skill in reaching out to people of widely differing backgrounds would have enabled her to become a great minister at any Mennonite church. Instead of building a small congregation at home, however, she created a ministry of peace that reached a worldwide community, shaping countless lives in a legacy of outreach and fellowship that continues to this day.
This remarkable woman clearly helped bring the world together—one pair of students at a time.
Erna Fast died June 23, 2008.
Henrik Eger, Ph.D., originally published in The Mennonite, 2009-07-07 Issue
Posted by richardmax88 at Thursday, June 20, 2013 at 08:12 AM
Great post! I must appreciate your effort to write such a beautiful article. I think that your desire for knowledge helped you all the way from the bottom. One thing I learned from life, never give up! Thank you folks!
Posted by jolsoko at Sunday, March 16, 2014 at 01:14 PM
I was reading this article with my friend who said that you are gifted He was right, you should write!
It was my first shiva call, and it shocked me out of my wits.
Sarah, one of the residents in the Jewish retirement community where I’d been conducting seminars on world news, had passed away. A cheerful lady in her 90s, she had always brought an international aspect to our weekly discussions. I loved her. She was the kind of grandmother I always wished I’d had.
On the day of her funeral, I wore my kippah and stood with the mourners during the service at her son’s home. Afterwards, I spoke to the family members. I talked about my experiences with Sarah and about how proud she had been of her three grandsons and their achievements as musicians, writers and filmmakers.
I had met two of them before, and was impressed by their dedication to their art and their love for their grandmother, who had lived in various countries before coming to the U.S. So, after many conversations about Sarah, and after eating some traditional foods, I wanted to talk to the three sons. I asked their mother whether it would be all right if I went to join them in the basement.
“No problem,” she said, and down I went into one of the finest rec rooms I had seen, dominated by an oversized, cream-colored couch, with the lights dimmed down. The three sons — all in their 20s and early 30s — and their girlfriends, were idling on the plush family sofa. None of them got up when I walked in. They just waved, and one of the sons said, “Come and join us!”
I thought they might be watching a documentary in honor of their grandmother, or a film about Israel.
To my disgust, they were watching porn.
I’m not a Puritan, but that scene — watching porn while sitting shiva — shocked me. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Watching out-takes,” one of the sons said, and squeezed his girlfriend.
Rarely have I felt as out of place and angry as I did when I saw what young Jews from a so-called “good family” were doing within hours of their grandmother’s funeral.
I left in a hurry, trying to remember what I had read about sitting shiva:
“The mourner may not watch television or movies.”
“It is customary for the mourners to sit on low stools, or even the floor, symbolic of the emotional reality of being ‘brought low’ by the grief.”
I have no problem with mourners sitting on couches rather than low stools. I have no problem with mourners watching TV programs.
But I do have a problem with the fact that while the family grieves, these young artists are watching porn when they could be composing poems, songs or plays centered around the woman everybody loved.
I left the house wondering what kind of Jewish life and traditions will survive if educated, intelligent young Jews violate basic rules of decency and dignity.
Now, I worry that the disrespect shown by these young men and their girlfriends to the deceased and the other mourners may be symptomatic of a change in attitude among young Jews.
It’s not Islam or Christianity that is doing the damage, but the values and behaviors of members of a younger generation who seem to indulge and self-gratify at all times — even during the shiva period.
To this day, I think about Sarah, this bright, wonderful woman who always contributed to our discussions in caring ways. I feel incomplete when I think of her death, knowing that her grandsons were disrespecting her even as the wind was blowing across her freshly dug grave.
In some ways, I am still sitting shiva for her.
Henrik Eger, Ph.D., is a playwright, theater reviewer, and editor of DramaAroundTheGlobe.com
Originally published by The Jewish Daily Forward, New York, April 3, 2014