Director Kathleen Kellaigh runs through a scene with the cast of Paper Candles.
Photos by Ron Kaplan
If you go
Paper Candles will be performed at Union Congregational Church on Saturday, Dec. 13, at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 14, at 3 p.m.; and at Bnai Keshet on Sunday, Dec. 21, at 2 p.m. There will be a brief panel discussion and Janice Cohn will answer audience questions after the performance at Bnai Keshet.
Admission is free, but donations of $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and high school students, and $5 for children 14 and under are suggested. For ticket information and reservations, call 973-744-7763 or visit www.papercandles.com.
December 4, 2008
The current economic downturn might be a blessing in disguise, according to psychotherapist and author/playwright Janice L. Cohn.
“It does seem that with less money, people are more focused on the meaning of the holidays,” she said in a telephone interview with NJ Jewish News.
On the 15th anniversary of an anti-Semitic incident that thrust a Montana town into the international spotlight, Cohn’s play Paper Candles: How Courage and Goodness Triumphed in an American Town brings together three houses of worship in Montclair to share the story of unity and courage in the face of intolerance.
Paper Candles is Cohn’s musical dramatic version of her 2000 children’s book, The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate, based on the true story of events in Billings when a group of bigots committed acts of hate against the town’s tiny Jewish population during the 1993 Christmas and Hanukka season.
In a manner eerily similar to Kristallnacht more than 50 years before, the Schnitzer family — one of about 50 Jewish families in Billings at the time — endured the terror of their own “night of broken glass” when skinhead vandals threw a rock through the bedroom window of five-year-old Isaac, destroying a menora that had been placed there.
Local residents, inspired by the 1943 rescue of the Danish Jews by their Christian fellow citizens in Nazi-occupied Denmark, taped paper menorot to their doors and windows as a sign of unity that became a model for communities nationwide.
Tom Jeszeck, left, plays Billings Police Chief Wayne Inman, while Steve Bunin portrays Isaac Schnitzer.
Cohn transformed her book after receiving requests from several schools for a theatrical presentation. The play makes its Montclair premiere this month, performed by members and students from the Union Congregational Church, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bnai Keshet, the Glenfield Middle School, and the Action Theatre Conservatory of Clifton.
Cohn said her book was also inspired by racist remarks by former Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Abdul Muhammad prior to a conference on tolerance planned for Kean College in Union in 1993.
“I thought the conference was needed at that time more than ever, and I was very upset to read the transcript,” she said. “I had never been faced with that kind of virulent anti-Semitism. I was reeling from this and dealing with the issue that I had not [faced] before.”
Some days later, she came across a small article about Wayne Inman, the chief of police in Billings, and his role in rallying the local community.
Cohn placed a call to Inman “He was astonished because so many had seen the article and how it affected them, not just in this country, but all over the world. The switchboard hadn’t been able to handle the overload,” said Cohn, adding that she saw the mere act of getting through as a sign she was meant to write her book.
Cohn flew to Billings, where she met with Isaac Schnitzer’s mother and many of the others involved in taking a stand against hate. She also visited schools, where she was struck by the fact that although few of the students had ever met a Jew, they still thought it important to speak up for them.
Cohn wanted to spread the message that the Billings community “would never accept this. An act of hatred against one was an act of hatred against all. It took extraordinary courage to do that for no other reason than that it was the right thing to do.
“This is something they won’t forget and they’ll pass it along to their children, and their children,” Cohn said.
The play’s the thing
At a rehearsal on a Sunday evening, Roxanne Kent, the lyricist for Paper Candles and a member of the Union Congregational Church, spoke about the extra pleasure of bringing the play to her town.
“It’s most special because of doing it with Bnai Keshet and with St. John’s. This is what the play is all about,” said Kent.
Kent met Cohn when the author came to her church to speak about The Christmas Menorahs. “This has always been a passion of mine, to try to help children learn to be ‘upstanders.’ We hadn’t coined the word yet, but that was it. And we decided how much more meaningful it would be if children not only read the book, but if they actually participated in a play and knew they were playing real people and speaking real words.” Much of the script came straight out of newspaper accounts and interviews.
Kent said that even a diverse town like Montclair suffers from “an undercurrent of racial or religious teasing that’s common to children. Children have a natural sympathy, but they have to be taught empathy. That’s why I think the play is as important here as it is in other places.”
“I hate, hate, hate the word ‘tolerance.’ It drives me crazy,” Kent said. “When you tolerate something, you accept it, but you don’t embrace it, and I think you have to have kids not only accepting but...reaching out to embrace others. And you have to have a forum for that, which is why we’re so passionate about this play.”
Kathleen Kellaigh, executive director of the Action Theatre Conservatory, agreed that Paper Candles served as a teaching tool. “We hold the compass that points to change,” she said, noting that school-age kids are often subjected to bullying and Paper Candles was a model of what can happen if the community refuses to stand by while others suffer.
Steven Bunin, 14, of Fair Lawn plays Isaac Schnitzer. He said he did not know the story prior to joining the cast. “It’s pretty cool how the whole town came together.”
Bunin said he “would go nuts” if he had been in that situation. “I would be much more scared than Isaac was at the time.”
Rachel Keller, an 11-year-old from Montclair, plays Isaac’s best friend, Teresa. She admired her character’s role. “I think she’s really brave, a lot braver than I would be.”
But it’s not only kids who hadn’t heard the story before. Tom Jeszeck, who helped coordinate the play’s Bnai Keshet contingent, had been unaware of the extraordinary events. “I went on the website (www.papercandles.com); it’s very compelling, just a terrific story.”