Vivian DeGain Better at 50 Blog

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Detroit Life Worth Living: Trip to Israel

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Vivian DeGain photo by Doug DeGain

The Detroit Jewish News  Nov. 5, 2015

Vibrancy Amid Israel’s Heightened Violence

I’m home from a 13-day journey through Israel. My suitcase is empty and all is Kol Be Seder (all in order), but it will take weeks to unpack the memories, experiences and relationships jammed into that time.

Our Temple Beth El (TBE) group of 25 made Aliya (going up to sacred ground,) led by Rabbi Mark and Rachel Ann Miller, and TBE travel specialist Phyllis Loewenstein. We landed in Tel Aviv Oct. 14, a date that Israeli and international headlines reported terrorism near Jerusalem, some dubbing it “the third intifada?” Sadly, the week recorded lone stabbings, shootings and incitement in East Jerusalem, Hebron and Beer Sheva.

Though we never saw any violence and Israel is a safe place to travel — the headlines were frightening to those making a first trip to Israel and heartbreaking to all.

The Talmud teaches that killing one person is like killing countless. We mourned, yet were sheltered from any conflict in our route. We saw nothing but beauty, but violence personally struck two Israelis we encountered in our circle.

And while I recited Kaddish, an haredi Orthodox woman who patrols the women’s section scolding and enforcing her “modesty judgements,” was loudly harassing a visitor behind me with a camera. The scolding was mean and I raised my voice in prayer. The haredi woman silenced herself and went away. I was polite – but The Kotel does not only belong to the Orthodox – it belongs to all Jews.

Our guide modified our itinerary to avoid tense areas, and we hired an armed guard in Jerusalem. Our bus driver, Yehuda Sison, a seventh generation Israeli who lives with his family on Moshav Sdei Hemed, was devastated to learn that a young solider, a boy from his moshav and known since birth, was killed in Beer Sheva in bus station attack. Yuhuda, with sabra (native) determination, drove for the remainder with a beautiful smile.

And at Shabbat morning services at Kol Haneshema in Jerusalem, Israeli Rabbi Arik Ascherman, co-founder of Rabbis for Human Rights, came to the bima to recite the Gomel blessing “for having survived a near-death ordeal.”

A masked extremist had attacked Ascherman with a knife, slashed at Ascherman’s head, throat and arms when he assisted Palestinians harvest olives near the settlement of Itamar Oct. 23 near Nablus, Samaria. Newspapers said the attacker is presumed to be a Jewish settler.

None of this prevented me from walking through the city of Jerusalem alone and unafraid. This was my third trip to Israel in 10 years, so I was familiar with sites scheduled for our tour. I chose to venture off and spend time in the Jewish Quarter and The Kotel.

With a map and elementary Hebrew, I walked from Ben Yehuda Street and hotel near King David cautiously but confidently by myself. There was increased police and military presence, but families, young children, couples, and students were out and about doing ordinary things. I felt comfortable approaching them to talk. They were very welcoming.

Good news in Israel is the bursting of life and innovation. We visited Stratasys in Tel Aviv, a high-tech company specializing in 3-D printing. We also visited a start-up company which facilitates “medics on bikes,” faster first-response through traffic and terrain: United Hatzalah ( which provides life-saving until ambulances arrive.

As a feminist, a Reform Jew, and a woman who often wears a t-shirt that says “Straight Not Narrow,” I was particularly thrilled to visit Progressive Judaism congregations in Israel. Both Kehilat Ha Lev in Tel Aviv and Congregation Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem welcome and support gay people. There may be few other places where LGBT people can celebrate Shabbat and their lives, since Orthodox extremists control “religious” life.

For my three days at The Kotel, I prayed and watched women from all over the world pray, mourn, cry, dance, sing, and feel home at the holiest Jewish site. On the women’s side, I saw Nigerian women weeping and mourning the loss of children. I saw 100 spirited American women from the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project singing Debbie Friedman songs out loud!

And while I recited Kaddish, an haredi Orthodox woman who patrols the women’s section scolding and enforcing her “modesty judgements,” was loudly harassing a visitor behind me with a camera. The scolding was mean and I raised my voice in prayer. The haredi woman silenced herself and went away. I was polite – but The Kotel does not only belong to the Orthodox – it belongs to all Jews.

Detroit Life: Trip to Israel Commentary

J News Op Ed Nov. 5, 2015

Detroit Life Worth Knowing: Temple Beth El Trial of Henry Ford

Published Aug. 27, 2015

The Detroit Jewish News

The Daily Tribune, The Macomb Daily, The Oakland Press

The Trial of Henry Ford: making a documentary

Filmmaker Carol King speaks at Temple Beth El as the selected Annual Mary Einstein Shapero Memorial Lecture

By Vivian DeGain

Rochester Hills, MI Writer

It’s a little-known story but an intriguing real-life drama.

Documentary filmmaker Carol King of King Rose Productions found the “The Trial of Henry Ford” to be so fascinating, that it needed to be made into a movie.

Producer Carol King will speak and take us behind the scenes into one of America’s and Detroit’s powerhouse libel trials: Sapiro v. Ford, 1927, when she appears at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills on Wednesday, Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. as the selected Mary Einstein Shapero Memorial Lecturer. The presentation is free and open to the public, but please RSVP to 248-865-0628 or to allow for ample seating and refreshments following the lecture.

“This is David and Goliath story that makes history come alive,” said Archivist Jan Durecki, the event’s organizer. As the historical record keeper at the Rabbi Leo M. Franklin Archives housed at Temple Beth El, Durecki said both organizations have joined forces with the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan to present Ms. King. “Sponsored by Judge Walter Shapero in memory of his late wife Mary Einstein Shapero,” she said, “it’s been my privilege to work with him to consider and select several captivating speakers since the lecture series began in 2007.”

Ms. King and her collaborator-husband Michael Rose will both discuss the making of the movie, still in production. King explains the story is about one of the most important libel lawsuits — but largely forgotten — in American history: Sapiro v. Ford.

“It pitted the richest and most famous man in American, Henry Ford, against a scrappy young lawyer, Aaron Sapiro, who was making a name for himself in the early 1920s organizing farmers into cooperative associations. Ford used his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, to mount a smear campaign against Sapiro. After battles and skirmishes between the men in the press, Ford refused to retract his allegations. Sapiro sued him in Federal Court for libel in 1927. The trial was held in Detroit in the “Million Dollar Courtroom.” With his legal team unable to break Sapiro on the stand, and to avoid further public humiliation, Ford settled the suit which culminated with his public apology, the retraction of his anti-Semitic stance, and his closure of the Dearborn Independent,” King explained.

“The Trial of Henry Ford” chronicles the issues and themes of American race relations, ethnicity and class. While the movie is still in progress, a trailer is at

Durecki said, “The young Sapiro’s unflinching determination to stand up to bigotry and hate reminds us that one individual can make a huge difference.”

While the team at Michael Rose Productions is committed to bringing this story to the public, Ms. King added the film is not an indictment of the current Ford Motor Company, the descendants of Henry Ford or employees of the company. History shows that The Ford Motor Company has gone to great lengths to show its support for Jewish causes, sponsored the television airing of “Shindler’s List” and made generous donations to other Jewish causes.

Additionally, corporate culture has changed since its founder’s time: Mark Fields, the current CEO of Ford is Jewish. A recognition of the company’s tremendous transformation will come when Steven Spielberg and the USC Shoah Foundation honor William Clay Ford, Jr., Executive Chairman of Ford Motor Company, at the Foundation’s Ambassadors for Humanity Gala in Detroit on Sept. 10.”


Detroit native and filmmaker Carol King now lives in California. King, a longtime proponent of women’s rights, was active in government, public policy and politics for 25 years, as a staff person, advocate, candidate, and consultant. She was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2008 in recognition of her contributions to the Women’s Movement. As Executive Producer King with her husband, Michael Rose, in their production company specializing in factual programming for television, she’s overseen development, production, post-production and distribution of countless programs delivered to numerous networks around the world. Her desire is to use media to tell stories that move us to work for a more equal and just society for everyone. She became an admirer of Aaron Sapiro when she first heard about his willingness to confront hate and bigotry, and that he is not a household name is an omission that needs to be rectified.

Past speakers for the annual Mary Einstein Shapero Memorial Lecture

2007- William Lebovich – Shared Sacred Spaces – Synagogues that became African American houses of worship

2008- Marc Leepson – Saving Monticello – The story of Uriah Phillips Levy, the United States’ first Jewish-American Naval war hero, and his role in saving Thomas Jefferson’s beloved home

2009 – Harold Holzer – Abraham Lincoln and the Jews

2010 – Melvin Urofsky – Louis Brandeis –  the enduring legacy of Brandeis on the American judicial system

2011 – Alex Kershaw – The Envoy – a discussion of Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from certain death during World War II

2012 – Marni Davis – Jews and Booze –  Jews and the Prohibition era

2013 – Hiatus

2014 – Howard Spiegler – Rewriting History: The Recovery of Nazi-Looted Art


JET’s 25th Anniversary finale lifts the lid on family secrets:

‘Other Desert Cities’ best of season

FIVE ***** of FIVE


The Oakland Press May 8, 2014

The Jewish Ensemble Theatre wraps up its 25th anniversary season performances with an intelligent and emotional drama that unfolds from family central: The household living room.

This momentous play, “Other Desert Cities” is written by Jon Robin Baitz, opened off Broadway in January 2011, and on Broadway in November 2011. This succulent work was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Drama 2012. 

Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” was apparently titled after a road sign bearing the same words on Interstate-10 in California, perhaps while the writer was on a road trip. It also leads us on a trip of memory from New York to California, as the lead character has done in the story.

But the title also evokes images of desert journeys of the soul, Biblical wanderings in the wilderness to cleanse one’s spirit, scour the consciousness, sweat the details, an Exodus to prepare for revelation as one returns home to family and childhood identity — as an adult.

It begs the question, which is oasis and which, mirage?

Baitz’s drama posits the value of a writer to tell all — at any expense. Necessary or selfish? For whom and at what cost?


Photo courtesy of The Jewish Ensemble Theatre: ‘Other Desert Cities’ written by Jon Robin Baitz featured Leah Smith stars as Brooke, a writer wrestling with her own definitions of risk and success when it comes to speaking truth about family.

Are family secrets to remain buried or does keeping deadly secrets kill the living?

In this case, writer Brooke Wyeth returns home to Palm Springs after a six-year absence to celebrate Christmas with her Jewish parents, former Ambassador and actor Lyman Wyeth, and mother and writer Polly Wyeth. This family reunion includes her brother Trip, a television producer, and Aunt Silda, Polly’s sister and once-writing collaborator, now a recovering alcoholic. Unlike Lyman and Polly who knew Ron and Nancy Reagan personally — Silda and Brooke are liberals.

This family reunion is not as easy as it looks.

Brooke herself is recovering from depression and writer’s block, and she is about to publish a memoir which reveals a significant and tragic event in their family history – the death of her other brother by suicide and violence.

There’s a little bit of writer Judith Guest’s “Ordinary People” in “Other Desert Cities,” especially on the surface of the character of Polly – a mother who appears Waspish, aloof, critical.

Both mothers have lost a young adult-child after all, who are we to judge the pain and unimaginable loss?

The difference here, is that Baitz’s Polly has more going on below the surface – eventually she shows us how she has loved and rescued her children, a strength inherited.

The JET cast includes excellent performances by Leah Smith as Brooke, Naz Edwards as her mother Polly, and Sandra Birch as Silda. Hugh Maguire as her father, and Bryan Lark as her brother, also offer the apt cadence and intonation.

Directed by David Wolber, the artistic director of Performance Network in Ann Arbor, ‘Other Desert Cities’ is a combined JET production with Performance Network. (Note the announced performances ARE CANCELLED in the Ann Arbor venue.)

Though not a comedy, it would be a mistake to consider “Other Desert Cities” only a dark and somber chambre.

“Other Desert Cities” is also funny, honest, surprising and very liberating.

Bravo to the cast and crew.

We are still applauding.

The Jewish Ensemble Theatre presents ‘Other Desert Cities’ through May 18 at the Aaron DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center, 6600 West Maple Road in West Bloomfield. Tickets are $41-$48, discounts for seniors and students. Performances 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Call 248-788-2900 or visit