A film screening and concert this month by award-winning scholar and musician Yale Strom will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the rescue of a collection of nearly 1,600 Czech Torah scrolls that survived the Holocaust.
The Czech Memorial Scrolls were brought from Prague to London in 1964, where the Memorial Scrolls Trust was established to care for them. Over time, the group has entrusted the parchment scrolls to Jewish communities around the world, including at Dartmouth.
A free showing of Strom’s 1996 film Carpati: 50 Miles, 50 Years, followed by a Q&A, is set for 7 p.m. on Jan. 30 in Loew Auditorium. Strom and his klezmer band Hot Pstromi will perform at 8 p.m. on Jan. 31 at the United Church of Christ at Dartmouth.
“We’re really excited to partner with the Upper Valley Jewish Community to honor this amazing history,” the Czech Memorial Scrolls, and Dartmouth’s part in the international effort to safeguard them, says Samantha Lazar, curator of academic programming at the Hop.
And because the pandemic scuttled earlier plans for a Hot Pstromi show at Dartmouth, “we thought, what an amazing opportunity to make that engagement happen,” Lazar said.
Klezmer is instrumental Jewish folk music that has its roots in Central and Eastern Europe.
Thomas Cochran, co-chair of the UVJC Scroll Committee, says the community is grateful for Dartmouth and the Hop’s support in bringing Strom, a “captivating” performer, to campus for the anniversary.
The scrolls represent more than 350 Jewish communities in the Czech lands that never reestablished themselves after World War II, says Cochran. “When I talk to an audience about the scroll and I start (looking) backwards, I get very emotional, because of where it’s come from.”
So, when it came time to mark the anniversary, he thought, “This is supposed to be a celebration. Let’s look the other way. Let’s look to the future and do something joyful to celebrate the resiliency of Judaism.”
The film, carrying on the tradition
Strom, a violinist, is a world-renowned ethnographer-artist of klezmer and Roma music and history. His film Carpati tells the story of Holocaust survivor Zev Godinger, who returns after 50 years to his hometown of Vinogradov, formerly in Czechoslovakia. The town, now part of Ukraine, once had a thriving Jewish community, but few of its members survived the war. Upon his return, Godinger brings with him a gift for his childhood synagogue—a Torah from a Jewish community in the U.S., and his love of Jewish folk music, which was also shared by Romani friends he made after the war.
Those friendships began the interesting, intertwined story of how, when there were no more Jews to play that music, Roma musicians “carried on that tradition, to a certain degree,” says Strom, a lecturer in music at San Diego State University.
The screening will be preceded by a conversation at 6 p.m. with Strom, Cochran, and his fellow Scroll Committee co-chair David Hoffer about the history of the region and the legacy of the Czech Torah scrolls.
The concert, ‘our daily song’
Hot Pstromi’s show will feature tracks from their latest album, The Wolf and the Lamb, which was recorded in a 16th-century synagogue in Holesov, Czech Republic.
The album features improvisation and styles ranging from jazz to Romani.
“I really wanted to make sure that every tune was distinct,” says Strom, who wrote the title track based on a poem written in a dialect of Yiddish from eastern Austria that is no longer spoken.
It also includes a Yiddish version of Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy.
“I loved the tune and also just the sentiment of love, which we certainly, on Jan. 3, 2024, need a lot more of in the world.”
Strom says he hopes the concert will help people forget, even if just for a little while, about some of the “worldwide catastrophes” currently taking place.
The concert is an apt choice for the commemoration, says Rabbi Seth Linfield, the Michael Steinberg ’61 Rabbi and executive director of Hillel at Dartmouth.
The Torah “is the foundation of ethics and morals and laws, but it’s not a dry document,” says Linfield. “It’s our daily song, and Yale Strom is bringing it together with the music.”
‘The unbroken chain’ of Jewish life and tradition
The most sacred of Jewish texts, Torah scrolls contain the Five Books of Moses, handwritten in Hebrew by a sofer, or specially trained scribe. The oldest, most complete known scroll dates to the 11th or 12th century.
To be considered kosher, each letter must be legible. The Czech Memorial Scroll at the Roth Center, thought to be more than 250 years old, was restored to kosher status in 2018. It is used in services each spring on the Shabbat morning nearest to Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and families sometimes request it for their child’s bar or bat mitzvah.
Linfield says Hillel’s co-stewardship of the scroll gives students a sense of being part of “the unbroken chain” of Jewish life and tradition.
“You do get the sense that you are stewards for a whole set of interlocking, intertwined relationships between humanity and the divine, between humans and humans, between Jews and Jews, between people of all faiths,” Linfield says. “And that you’ve been entrusted with this continuing stewardship of a light for humanity.”