By Cindy Mindell
-WESTPORT – They were words that spawned an award-winning documentary film, drawing worldwide attention to the tiny Jewish community of Krakow: “Bring us some life.”
The speaker was Mrs. Jakobovits, an elderly leader of the community, and she had been repeating her request to American Jews who had visited the city for several years.
But this time, in 1985, someone listened. In addition to promising the usual money, clothing, and Jewish books, a different response came: “We’ll see if we can find you a bar mitzvah.”
That’s how Eric Strom, now 38, recalls the genesis of his bar mitzvah in Poland, the first such simcha celebrated in Krakow since before World War II. His journey from his hometown of Stamford to the Polish bimah was captured by film-maker Oren Rudavsky in “Spark among the Ashes,” which marks its 25th anniversary this year. The film will be screened at Congregation B’nai Torah in Trumbull on Dec. 12. Strom and his mother, Margery (Strom) Verlezza, will introduce the film and answer audience questions afterwards.
“I called my house as I was leaving work and Eric says, ‘Mom, how would you like to go to Poland?'” Verlezza recalls. “I said, ‘Start doing your homework, and stop calling in to radio contests.’ He said, ‘I’m not kidding. The rabbi called and asked if we want to go to Poland.'”
The rabbi was Emily Faust Korzenik, spiritual leader of the Fellowship for Jewish Learning in Stamford. Shortly after the mission to Poland, she had officiated at a wedding and had been approached by the man who promised a bar mitzvah to Mrs. Jakobovits. “Rabbi Emily told him, ‘I’ve got just the kid,'” Verlezza says.
The family had already planned Eric’s bar mitzvah in Stamford over Labor Day weekend, but agreed to do a second one in Krakow, accompanied by Korzenik. Local media became interested in the story, and The New York Times ran a front-page article about the trip.
Film-maker Oren Rudavsky read the story and called the Stroms a few days before the Stamford ceremony, asking if he could join them. “It got crazy – Oren moved in, there’s all this publicity and police at the corner of our street, Channel 4 is in our house, a reporter from People Magazine is in my kitchen,” Verlezza says. “They would ask, ‘What are you doing now, Mrs. Strom?’ I’d say, ‘I’m getting my nails done. Want to come along?'”
Just after Eric’s Stamford bar mitzvah, the Stroms got a call from a Rabbi Elbaum from Brooklyn, threatening to stop the Krakow ceremony. He told the family that they weren’t Orthodox enough, Verlezza says, and didn’t think it appropriate for a woman to be on the bimah.
“For the Orthodox, Poland is holy ground,” Rudavsky says. But not for the Reform. “As we know, Jews don’t always or often agree about certain subjects, certainly religious subjects, so Rabbi Elbaum’s reaction was an eye-opener for a lot of people, including me.”
The Stroms made the trip, with Rudavsky and a slew of reporters in tow. For Eric, meeting Mrs. Jakobovits was a highlight of the experience.
“To see the expression on her face when she realized that the bar mitzvah was really going to happen was amazing,” he says. The bar mitzvah was held in the more liberal synagogue of Krakow, attended by most of the 200 local Jews and hordes of reporters from around the world. Korzenik stayed off the bimah for most of the ceremony, but as Eric began to chant the haftarah, she joined him. Elbaum did as well, and the two rabbis had a brief tug-of-war over a tallit. “Rabbi Emily told me to keep going,” Eric recalls.
“Spark among the Ashes” opened at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York in 1986, and went on to the Sundance Film Festival and PBS. Elbaum invited the Stroms to his house in Brooklyn for a Passover seder that year. The film was re-released on DVD in 2005, with new material and recent interviews with the Stroms and the two rabbis.
“What happened on the bimah really led me to appreciate, certainly in my latter years, that people have different ideas about what they believe is right, different religious values,” Eric says. “Rabbi Elbaum truly believed that it was not right for Rabbi Emily to do what she did. Maybe how he did it wasn’t how I would have done it, but he had a strong conviction about what he was doing, like we did. You can see examples of this every single day all over the world in politics and religion. It led me to respect others and I can appreciate the thought behind what he was doing. It was a lesson for me at a very early age.”
The film was the first of several that Rudavsky made in Poland and eastern Europe.
“The bar mitzvah itself was quite a moving event,” he says. “Since it was on the Sabbath, everyone was sneaking cameras under their shirts and taking photos surreptitiously, which were in People Magazine and The New York Times. The most moving thing for me was post-bar mitzvah, when I interviewed Polish Jews, including young Jews. That really connected me with my mother’s generation and allowed me to create a tribute to them. She had died young, before I got to visit Poland, and I didn’t have access to her memories of Poland before the war. So meeting with these Jews gave me a window into a world that had disappeared.”
Margery Verlezza is now chair of adult education at Congregation B’nai Torah and program manager of Merkaz Community High School for Judaic Studies in Bridgeport.
“We’re losing Holocaust survivors left and right, just as the little community of Krakow Jews is dwindling,” she says. “To be able to bring the film to a new audience is very gratifying.”
“Spark among the Ashes” will be screened at Congregation B’nai Torah, 5700 Main St., Trumbull on Sunday, Dec. 12 at 3:30 p.m., followed by a Q&A with Eric Strom and Margery Verlezza. For information call (203) 268-6940.