Archive for the ‘Jewish Culture’ Category

Rescuer Curriculum Gives Students New Perspective on the Holocaust

June 29, 2012 1 comment

When it comes to history we can never get complacent or assume there’s nothing more we need to know about a subject.  When that subject is the Holocaust and the setting is a high school the importance of educating students about this chapter of human history should compel teachers to do all they can to make what happened real and relevant to their own lives. By whatever means possible students should be thrust into what-if scenarios that encourage them to think critically about what they would have done if they found themselves in the very circumstances that gave rise to the horror.  Because, as history has shown, genocide happened before and after the Holocaust.  It could happen again.  Trying to understand what it means to be stripped of all human rights and marked for death is one step to ensuring atrocities don’t recur.  Exercises that put yourself in the position of the persecuted or the onlooker take it from the abstract to the concrete. If you had been in Nazi Europe to witness the unfolding terror that threatened co-workers, neighbors, friends or strangers, what would you have done?  That’s what teachers and students at Omaha Westside High School considered as part of a Holocaust curriculum new at the time I reported on it in 2002.  This blog contains many more Holocaust-related stories I’ve written over the years, including profiles of survivors and rescuers.



Rescuer Curriculum Gives Students New Perspective on the Holocaust

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press


This past spring, about 45 Westside High School seniors in two Advanced Placement European History classes participated in a new Holocaust studies unit. The program got its first trial run anywhere at the District 66 school.

The curriculum program was developed by the local Hidden Heroes of the Holocaust Foundation. Using the materials, Westside instructors Bill Hayes and Gina Gangel first had students immerse themselves in the events that gave rise to Hitler, Nazism and the persecution of Jews.

Then, in a new twist to the school’s traditional approach to the Holocaust, the instructors followed the lead of the foundation’s adjunct curriculum and broke their classes into small groups to research documented rescue efforts from the Shoah. This was in preparation for each group devising and discussing a hypothetical rescue plan of their own. Students based their plans on accounts in books and on the Internet.

The idea behind placing students in the context of witnesses was to offer a deeper understanding of the peril faced by Jews. As Jews and other minorities desperately sought safe harbor there were moral choices involved for onlookers, risks incurred by those who interceded as rescuers and obstacles to doing good in a culture of hate or indifference.

A visitor to Hayes’ classroom in April found his students demonstrating a keen interest in the Holocaust materials and a facile grasp of the situation and its moral implications. The students were smart, attentive and engaged as they grappled with some of the more troubling questions raised by events far removed from their own experience. In the end, students confronted both the nobler and baser aspects of humankind and came away with conclusions to some questions and a sense that answers may never be found to some others.

An early session featured small group discussions in which students explored the ramifications of being a rescuer and the nuts-and-bolts of actual rescue operations, and a later session found students presenting their plans for the assembled class. Through it all, Hayes acted as monitor, catalyst, advisor, provocateur — providing context at various points and challenging some assumptions at other junctures.

The students’ plans ranged widely in scope, methodology and feasibility: one, closely modeled after successful operations in Hungary, featured the use of safe passes and safe houses and back room negotiations with government-military officials in an effort to keep refugees unharmed; another proposed a multi-national military strike force to lead raids on trains and camps to free Jews; a third plan imagined a group of sympathizers warning Jews of the Nazis’ intentions and providing the means for their escape; a fourth scheme depended on a vast international monetary network to undermine German interests and to fund Jewish resistance and escape efforts. As far-fetched as some plans were, they revealed students had done their homework and understood some of the difficulties posed by any rescue effort and some of the measures actually employed in rescuing Jews.

Hayes reminded the class of the harsh realities at work during the Holocaust, including the fact that governments washed their collective hands of the Jews’ predicament and took no extraordinary means to aid them. He also drew a parallel to the moral imperatives at work then to the dilemmas posed by the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He asked: “Is it realistic to think we can do something to help people who are suffering? Are we being realistic, historically? Could we adapt rescue efforts of the past to modern times? Will it work? Is there a risk? Is it worth the risk?” To which a boy responded, “There’s always an inherent risk in any plan.” Then, an earnest girl spoke up and said, “I think we should never limit our possibilities to try to save people. There’s always room for compromise.”

Westside senior Carrie Jenkins, a well-spoken, fresh-faced young woman with eyes full of curiosity, felt the process of projecting one’s self into the treacherous waters tread by Holocaust rescuers and their charges, helped shed light on some of the problems and hazards faced by these heroes.

“It makes you realize the absolute risks that were involved. When you’re trying to devise a plan you realize it’s not easy to find money, to find other resources and to figure out how you’re going to get refugees out, where they’re going to go and who’s going to help them. It’s extremely challenging,” she said. “It’s given me a new insight into how difficult it must have been for those few who did accept the challenge.”

Chris Gerdes, a studious-looking young man, said, “It took a lot of guts and a lot of heart for any of these rescuers to attempt what they did. They realized the risks and they realized what was on the line — even their lives — when they tried to help Jews. The rescuers usually had a strong religious background or a strong belief in humanity and, so, in the end they thought it was all worth it.”

Given the threats rescuers faced, Jenkins said, “I think it’s amazing there were so many people willing to risk their lives and their families’ lives.”



Westside High School



But, as students discovered in their research, relatively few individuals, and even fewer governments and organizations, actually did anything to try and halt the Final Solution, much less aid individual Jews and other persecuted individuals.

“When you take it as a percentage of the population, not many helped,” said sober Ian Peterson. “It just makes you wonder. There were probably people who were afraid of resisting and others who didn’t think there was anything to resist and others who didn’t really care. If you were selfish in the least bit you wouldn’t do anything because if you started to act as a Jewish sympathizer you’d get brandished in society and the Gestapo would come to your house. It was just incredible pressure. It would be like in this country if you went around burning the flag. It’d be really hard.”

The price of being a nonconformist and outcast is something that resonates strongly with teenagers, whose lives revolve around fitting-in. Simply put, said Pat Gaule, being a subject of the Nazi regime meant “you had peer pressure.” Jenkins added that anyone daring to express pro-Jewish or anti-Nazi sentiments meant “you got basically black-marked” or worse. The tall, thoughtful Gaule said the small numbers of rescuers and resistance fighters can be explained, if not excused, by human nature.

“I think there’s initially a natural want to deny that anything bad is going on or an assumption that it’s not as bad as some say it is. When I was doing research on the rescuers I found it took them witnessing a Nazi raid on a Jewish ghetto or a roundup of Jews onto trains en route to the concentration camps — or something equally horrific or violent — to make them want to get involved. I think, naturally, there’s that hesitation to not do anything and sometimes it just took something to push them over the edge.”

Doug Sherrets, the bright-eyed editor of the school paper, feels the impulse for self-preservation prevailed.

“Well, you’re going to take care of yourself, first, and I think that shows up most with Switzerland and all the ill-gotten money from Germany it squirreled away in bank accounts,” he said. “They saw this huge powerhouse in Nazi Germany that seemed like it was going to take over a large part of Europe and be there for a very long time. The Swiss said, Fine, we’re going to do whatever it takes for you not to invade us. They looked after themselves and not at where the money being diverted to Swiss bank accounts was coming from, which was right off the backs and teeth and hard work of the Jewish people.”

When a student suggested rank-and-file Europeans may not have known what ultimate dark fate lay behind the oppression and deportation of their Jewish neighbors, a visibly upset Jenkins used an analogy to point out the absurdity of that rationalization.

“Okay, say if every black person in Omaha suddenly disappeared…wouldn’t you think something was going on? I mean, if all of the Jewish or black people in your town are gone, wouldn’t you think the worst? How could you not know?”

Before her antagonist could reply, instructor Bill Hayes poked his head in the group to suggest students review a section of the book Hitler’s Willing Executioners for some added perspective on just how prevalent looking-the-other-way was among the countless millions who witnessed the atrocities unfolding around them and yet did nothing about it.

For Jenkins, who is part German, it was a harsh discovery to find that few Germans interceded on behalf of their victimized countrymen and in fact most implicitly or complicity condoned the horror. “I have a German background and learning about this is just very hard,” she said. In response, a sympathetic classmate told her, “It doesn’t mean your people are bad. This kind of thing happens all over the world.”

A new perspective on the Holocaust, a close identification with rescuers and victims and a jumping-off point for historical-political-moral discussions is just what designers of the curriculum had in mind.

Curriculum author Christina Micek said she wants students using the materials “to get a personal connection to history” and has therefore created lesson plans allowing for discussion and inquiry. She said when dealing with the Holocaust, students should be encouraged to ask questions, search out answers and apply the lessons of the past to their own lives.

“I really want students to feel they’re historians…I want them to take a personal interest in the subject and to analyze the events and to be able to identify some of the moral issues of the Holocaust and to discuss them in an educated manner.”





Westside’s Hayes feels Micek’s goals were largely met.

“I thought it was real useful. I think for the final project the kids had to think a lot and read a lot and study a lot in order to get where they did with their rescue plans. Every kid had a chance to look at several different examples of rescuers. Traditionally, in our two-week unit on the Holocaust we’ve looked at what the Nazis did and at the Jews who were killed and that was the extent of it.

“We never looked at it from the rescuers’ standpoint and we never dealt with the idea that the average person could really do something. And I think that’s the real value in this unit. I think it gives a message to kids that you don’t have to just stand by — there is something you can do. There may be some risk, but there is something you can do.” He said it is likely the rescuer curriculum will remain a part of Westside’s history units.

Micek, a 3rd grade teacher at Springlake Academy in Omaha and a Holocaust Studies graduate student with the Spertus Institute, wrote the curriculum program with the input of Swiss historian Theo Tschuy, author of the definitive book about Lutz and his heroic work in Hungary, Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz, Rescuer of 62,000 Hungarian Jews (2000, Eerdmans Publishing Co.).

The program includes a teacher’s guide, grade appropriate lesson plans, reading assignments, discussion activities and classroom resources, including extensive links to selected Holocaust web sites. The foundation eventually wants to make the Lutz curriculum available, at no cost, to schools in Nebraska and across the nation. The program is designed for three levels — the sixth grade, the eighth grade and high school. The foundation hopes to pilot the 6th and 8th grade curriculum programs next school year. In addition to the current curriculum package, plans call for making an interactive CD-ROM, as well as Tschuy’s book, available to schools. Hidden Heroes has contracted Redstone Communications in Omaha to develop the materials.

The materials field tested at Westside are the first in a proposed series of school-age programs from the Foundation, whose mission is building awareness about an often overlooked chapter of the Holocaust — the rescuers, that small, disparate, courageous band of deliverers whose actions saved thousands from genocide.

The mostly Christian rescuers came from every station in life. They hid refugees and exiles wherever they could, often moving their charges from place to place as sanctuaries became unsafe. As a means of protecting those in their safekeeping, custodians provided new, non-Jewish identities. While not everyone in hiding survived, many did and behind each story of survival is a story of rescue. And while not every rescuer acted selflessly, the heroes that did — and there are more than commonly thought — offer proof that even lone individuals can make a difference against overwhelming odds. The Foundation’s mission is telling these heroic stories for the lessons they impart.

“Educating young people is our number one concern,” said Foundation board member Ellen Wright. “Our youths’ heroes today are athletes and entertainers, which is an interesting commentary on our times. What we want to do is add to that plate of heroes by taking a look at rescuers” whose good works can serve as models for how ordinary people can stand up to injustice and intolerance.

“If we can get even a few children interested enough that they will feel committed to ensuring the Holocaust doesn’t happen again, then we have taught a new generation,” said fellow board member Deenie Meyerson. Hidden Heroes’ next curriculum projects are to focus on: the late Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who while stationed in France during WWII signed thousands of visas that spared the lives of recipients; and the extensive humanitarian network in Belgium that successfully hid more than 4,000 children.

According to Tom Carman, head of the department of social studies in the Westside Community Schools, the rescue curriculum is an attractive addition to the district’s standard Holocaust studies.

“The material allows us to look beyond Oscar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, whose rescue efforts some people view as an aberration, in showing there were a number of people, granted not enough, who did some positive things at that time. Lutz and others said, This is wrong, and did something about it, unlike most people who took a much safer route and either feigned ignorance or looked the other way. It gives examples of people who acted correctly and that teaches there are options out there.”

Carman said the lesson plans prepared by Micek, who collaborated with Westside educators in refining the materials for the district, are “done very well” and are “really complete.” District 66 superintendent Ken Bird said it’s rare for a non-profit to offer “a value-added” educational program that “so nicely augments our curriculum as this one does.”

While students agree they can never fully apprehend what it means to be a rescuer, they say being assigned the task of imagining themselves in their shoes and working-out solutions to life or death dilemmas afforded them a new perspective on what these roles meant. Where, in the past, students said they examined the Holocaust from a dry, abstract distance, this new exercise put them right in the mix of things and, so, made it more intimate and direct and lent it more flesh-and-blood immediacy.

“It’s always been from a textbook perspective,” said Carrie Jenkins, “where you’re reading historians’ views and everybody has different statistics and reasons and explanations. With this class, we started there by gathering data, but then we moved past that into trying to create something out of that. It’s definitely a different perspective.”

Gaule said, “In a textbook, it’s going to say this percentage of people died and this percentage of people were saved, but in this way we get to quantify the morality. Like, it may seem that a few thousand people saved here and there was not very much, but in reality, as we found out, it took a tremendous amount of work and determination and moral values to stand-up for Jews who were being subjected to tyranny.”

For Ian Peterson, the curriculum “sort of completes the perspective I’ve gained. Now, we’ve seen it from a lot of different angles and it sort of comes together as a more complete whole. It makes a little more sense.” Doug Sherrets said, “It’s always good to observe history from a bunch of different angles. Personally, I really hadn’t heard a lot about the rescuers prior to taking this unit. Outside of Schindler’s List, I really didn’t know much at all.

“It’s been said that you should always learn from the past and from the Holocaust we should learn not to make those mistakes again. It should make governments think more about getting involved. I now understand if more governments would have got involved there would have been a greater chance of stopping the damage from being so great.”

In the end, students concluded that putting one’s self on the line for another expresses the best in humanity.

“I think that represents like the highest point of human willingness to give everything you have,” said Peterson. “I mean, that’s like the ultimate good you could do in your life.” That sentiment prompted Carrie Jenkins to posit, “Compared to that, what value does anything else have?” Peterson added, “I know. It makes charity seem pointless when there are people that did so much and risked so much.”

Bedrock Values at the Core of Four-Generation All Makes Office Furniture Company



Working in a family business can be a blessing or a curse.  Families that make it work are to be commended.  Ones that make it work over four generations are rare indeed.  This is a story about such a family and their office furniture business based in Omaha, Neb.  Harry Ferer taught the business to his son-in-law, the late Lazier Kavich, who taught the business to his son, Larry Kavich, who in turn showed the ropes to his children, Jeff and Amee, who run it today.  The piece originally appeared in the Jewish Press about six years ago.



Bedrock Values at the Core of Four-Generation All Makes Office Furniture Company

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Jewish Press


As Omaha family businesses go, All Makes Office Furniture Company is one of the oldest and largest still operating. The fourth generation family members running things today stick to the same core principals, values and philosophies that have guided the business since dapper Russian immigrant Harry Ferer founded it in 1918.

A go-getter, Ferer became a star agent for the Royal Typewriter Co. and the Ediphone, an early dictation machine patented by inventor Thomas Alva Edison, whom Ferer knew. Ferer built his own company through hustle and guile, traits his successors have shown in growing the family business. Son-in-law Lazier Kavich entered the fold in 1938 and helped move All Makes forward by adding new lines, earning a reputation for fairness along the way. Lazier taught the business to his son, Larry Kavich, whose energy, people skills and “do the right thing” motto drew in new business. Larry, in turn, taught his children the ropes and now they run things. Larry’s son, Jeff Kavich, is president/CEO of All Makes Omaha and Jeff’s sister, Amee Zetzman, is president/CEO of Lincoln, Neb. and Urbandale, Iowa. The legacy continues. Only time will tell if Jeff’s or Amy’s kids one day carry the torch.

All Makes evolved over these 88 years into a full-service center that outfits offices of every size, located virtually anywhere, with products that range from the latest in work station systems to used desks, chairs and files. The company does more than just sell stuff. It also designs and installs office spaces for all kinds of settings, offering expertise that makes today’s technology-rich environments user-friendly.

Any firm as long-lasting as this one adapts to meet the needs of customers in changing business climates. Through world wars, economic downturns and industry trends, All Makes stays the course, each generation adding fresh ideas to the mix.

Much has changed since Harry Ferer opened his downtown typewriter sales, rental and repair shop. When Lazier Kavich came aboard, the business added office furniture to complement the automated machines it carried. In 1950 All Makes moved to its present location at 2558 Farnam Street. By the 1960s the company added the first of its branch showrooms and stores. Once Larry Kavich joined in the mid-’60s, high end contract furniture became the staple. He expanded the business physically and enhanced its position as a multi-product, multi-service center. He continues as chairman today, wintering in Arizona.

Under Jeff’s and Amee’s watch from the late 1990s on, All Makes has added to its facilities, including new showrooms and warehouses, made a series of renovations, grown the company’s design division and expanded into international markets.

Yes, much has changed. Then again, people are still people and business is still business. Office furniture may be wired today, but getting repeat customers still comes down to treating folks right, qualities sorely missing from so many service providers today. Jeff and Amee keep alive All Makes’ service-first credo, drawing on lessons from two masters in the art of the deal — their grandfather and father.

“Certainly the products have changed and the industry has changed,” Jeff said, “but as far as learning the passion — and taking that home every night with you and always thinking about how to make things better and how to do the right thing — I got that every day from both my grandpa and my dad. It came so naturally, it would have been impossible, I think, for me to feel or act or do any differently.”

As kids, Jeff and Amee were always around the business, working there summers. He learned all facets — from stock and sales to delivery and installation. She applied her gift for number-crunching to the company books.

“Summers, when my friends were spending every day at the pool, I was here in the back room sweeping floors, fixing typewriters, working in the warehouse. I installed furniture, I delivered furniture, I drove the truck. I’ve done everything except billing,” he said. “I look back now and say it was fun and wouldn’t change a thing, Back then, when my buddies were going to the pool, I probably wished I was, too.”

But he knew where his destiny lay.

“I knew from an early age I was carving a path for me into the business and everything I was learning then would only come to benefit me later,” he said. “I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I went to the University of Kansas for a couple years and decided it was time to come home and go to work. You know, my career started in 1990 — 16 years ago, but I can say I’ve been here 30 years because I worked here summers from grade school through college. When I’d come home from college my father and I would talk about the business. Even in high school, if something big was happening here, we discussed things over the weekend. Growing up, dinner table conversations happened all the time. So, as long as I can remember I’ve kind of known and talked the language of All Makes.”

For the young Amee, the business wasn’t so much a career path to follow as a place she felt obligated to pitch in. Her math and computer skills were put to use.

“When I was in the 7th grade they’d bring me in a little desk to sit in the middle of my grandfather and Nancy Mudra, who’s been here over 30 years, and I learned how to compute commissions. When I was more high school age they gave me one of the first portable computers — a huge thing with a screen that popped down…They said, ‘There’s a new program called Lotus and we need you to figure out how we can get the commissions from this giant ledger book into the computer,’ and that was my project. Every time, they saved projects for me. Like one summer all I did was purge the bookkeeping files and make new folders.”

As a boy Jeff accompanied his dad on business trips. Trussed-up in a coat-and-tie, the little boy said little but absorbed much as Daddy made deals.

“I was there watching him do what he does best and that’s an education you won’t learn at Wharton School of Finance,” he said.

When Lazier, who passed in 1996, wasn’t playing cards or handicapping the ponies, he was striking bargains that brought in new business or that added to his overstuffed back office, which has been preserved intact as a kind of memorial. The walls and shelves are still filled with kitsch collectibles. He loved acquiring things in bulk in order to give them away, like the drawer of surplus watches he kept. True to his salvage roots, he built All Makes’ used office furniture segment, now called All Makes on Two, which still accounts for a robust volume of sales today. Sections of two floors, plus the basement, practically sag from all the used items on display.

At one time, three generations of Kaviches drew wages together. “It was something special that I’ll never forget and I know it’s so rare and something few people get to experience,” Jeff said. Lazier, the old-school wheeler-dealer who started in the junk business, was the elder statesman. He read the mail, saw a few old customers and played cards with his cronies in his office. “This is what he loved,” Jeff said. Larry was the dynamic leader closing deals in the showroom, on the phone or on the road. Jeff and Amee were the fresh-from-college upstarts soaking it all in.

The lessons learned from these old-school salesmen made a deep impression on the next generation. Much of what Lazier and Larry did still shapes the business.

“He loved a good deal,” Amy said of Lazier. “He did not like to leave money on the table. That was his mentality and that’s why we have all the used furniture. He taught my brother that end of the business. There are still people we do business with that will fly in here from somewhere in the South to come pick out all their used furniture. Then they’ll send trailers back for it. Because that’s how they and my grandpa did business. So, it still goes on.”

She utilizes some of the managerial tricks and rituals he taught her years ago.

“The entire pile of mail in the morning went to him. He used to say, ‘You can learn what’s going on in every part of the organization by reading the invoices.’ That’s how he kept in touch with what was going on — through the mail. And so now I read the mail every day and it does help me know what’s going on.”

More a benevolent figurehead by the time Amy and Jeff assumed titles and positions at All Makes, Lazier still came to the office every weekday, modeling the Golden Rule in his good works and in his high ethics. Years ago he befriended a blind black evangelist known for traversing the city on foot selling brooms. A tradition began that saw Lazier invite the Rev. into the store for a repast before driving him home at night. The preacher man still stops by on his circuit and Jeff and Amee, like Larry and Lazier before them, make sure he’s well taken care of.

“He was the most giving, caring person you could ever imagine,” Jeff said of Lazier. “Everything was as it is. He said it like it was. Just total honesty and integrity.”



Jeff, Amee and Larry Kavich



Amee said her father, Larry, “took a lot of qualities from my grandfather. He’s very wanting to always do the right thing. Very honest, very charitable. But he also doesn’t like to be taken advantage of. He’s very passionate about everything he does. He’s proud of what we do. It’s been nice for him to be able to take a step back, but he is still absolutely involved in big deals going on. He misses being here full-time. As he explains to us, ‘This is all I’ve done. It’s hard to leave.’”

The siblings feel an obligation to maintain the family tradition in All Makes.

“It’s so important for me to make sure we do provide the best product at the best possible price, along with the best service, because our reputation means so much to us. We just always want to play cards up on the table and do the right thing for all of our great customers,” Jeff said.

“It is an awesome responsibility because our name is associated with this,” Amee said. “We had a situation where we needed the money up front on something and the customer asked, ‘Well, what if you don’t do what you say you’re going to do?’ And I said, ‘You know, we’ve been here 88 years doing what we say we’re going to do.’ And, so, we take it very personally…”

Satisfaction for her comes from knowing a customer’s been satisfied, no matter the size of the transaction. “It’s getting positive feedback from clients, not even on the big deals,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll get a phone call to say, ‘I bought a desk and your guys took great care of me.’ It’s just a feeling of pride that someone in the organization has represented us well.”

For Jeff, it’s” a sense of accomplishment when you meet somebody for the first time, you get to know them and get to know what their business needs are, and then our team puts together the right solution. I guess at the end it’s having a happy customer. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end to a transaction that’s definitive. When we walk away and they say, ‘We have our office furniture — you guys did a fantastic job’ — that’s the carrot. That’s what’s rewarding.”

Groomed as he was to take over as president from his father, Jeff said, “I always knew it was coming,” but added “it never really sunk in until it was on my business card. You always had Larry to fall back on before on making some decisions. But when now it’s my deal, I’m very cautious about what I’m going to do before I do it.” Easing the transition, he said, was the way he worked side by side with his father.

“I learned everything I know from him and I’m grateful to him for that. Even before I became president he would say, ‘You make the decision and if it’s wrong, you’ll learn from it, and if it’s right, way to go.’ In the 16 years I’ve never been sat down and screamed at. He’s let me learn by the mistakes and kind of relish in the good.”

Unlike her brother, Amee didn’t always see herself in the All Makes mold.

“When I left for college (University of Colorado) I was not coming back to Omaha and the store, whereas Jeff knew he was going to come back and be part of the business. So, it was definitely a different scenario.”

Straight from college she moved to Los Angeles in 1989 to work in public accounting. Her niche was small family businesses just like All Makes. “It was really good preparation,” she said. By 1994 she was married with kids. “My husband and I made a quality of life decision that Southern California was not where we wanted to be. And I sort of came to the realization this (All Makes and Omaha) isn’t such a bad thing to come back to.” Factoring into the decision was the chance for their kids to “have grandparents to hang out with. It’s part of Jeff’s and my own life stories. We got to have a life with our grandpa.”

The first order of business was making sure she and Jeff could share power. “I called my brother and we started talking about it. I asked him, ‘What do you think? Do you think we could make this work?’” He told her yes and in 1994 she joined the  team. They’ve found a way to make it work for 12 years now.

“We both have our strengths and we know our strengths,” she said. “We try to stay out of each other’s various departments, but still have input. I think because we have separate responsibilities it makes it easier to get along. In certain situations I know he’s going to make the final decision and in certain situations he knows I’m going to make the final decision. And there’s some situations when we make decisions together. It just works out.”





Jeff said, “Well, I think there’s some good balance there. Amy’s got an accounting background and understands a lot better than I do the books and all that sort of thing. So, with her kind of keeping an eye on the pot and making sure everything is in line and in check, that allows me to be in front of the people from more of a sales standpoint. I’m involved with a lot of new business development.”

Just like his grandfather and father before him, Jeff kibitzes with customers to earn their trust and their business. When he isn’t pressing the flesh on the showroom floor, he’s trading jokes on the golf course. Amy trains her eye on the big picture, ever mindful of what her grandpa and dad would do. “There are definitely moments when we say, ‘Oh, Lazier’s rolling over in his grave on this one. What would Lazier have done?’ It’s part of the lore,” she said. Or she repeats one of her father’s credos — “Fast pay makes fast friends.” She added, “He doesn’t like owing anyone.”

The family “works hard to make it work right,” Amy said. “We had a consultant come in and help us separate everything so we had some type of framework to try to work within. Before, we didn’t have titles…everyone just did what needed to be done, which is still the case, but now we have a more clear definition of what our responsibilities are. I think so many times family businesses don’t have a plan and everyone thinks they’re in charge of everything” and it becomes a real mess.

The way Jeff sees it, “you can’t avoid the pitfalls” of a family business, “it’s how you handle the pitfalls. It’s maintaining respect for each other. It comes down to respect. We’re very, very lucky on that regard. I mean, I’m not going to say we don’t have our moments, but at the end of the day we really do have a good working relationship and we’re good friends through it. We’re very blessed.”

All Makes has won area recognition as a model family business and small business and industry-wide awards as a top dealer.

Among other things this next generation in business has taken from their elders is a commitment to downtown. “Yes, we are downtown to stay,” said Amee, who added all the development activity there, including a run-down apartment building converted to condos in back of All Makes, has only strengthened the family’s stake. She said All Makes acquisition of properties around its store realized a “Lazierism” that went — “always buy property near your business when it becomes available.” Lazier also taught her to “never be embarrassed by what you’re going to offer. And that’s how all these properties were acquired,” she said.

She and her brother have also remained committed to the loyal work force, whose average length of tenure is 12 years, Lazier and Larry built. “We have great people here. We like to think it’s a great place to work,” she said.

As a salesman at heart, Jeff’s keenly attuned to two Kavichisms passed on from his grandfather to his father to him that speak of never being too satisfied. When a big deal’s inked, he’s reminded of Lazier and Larry saying: “That’s great, now what are you going to sell ?” In other words, Jeff said, “get onto the next thing.” The other has to do with not repeating mistakes. As Lazier said, “Man who stumbles on rock wants to be forgiven. Man who stumbles on rock twice should break his neck.’”

Leo Greenbaum is Collector of Collectors of Jewish Artifacts at YIVO Institute

June 9, 2012 4 comments



In the course of my work I meet folks I would ordinarily never meet if I were in some other profession, and one of those is the subject of this profile: Leo Geeenbaum.  Even though we both share Omaha as a hometown, we are years apart in age and come from two very different backgrounds.  I was born and raised here Catholic.  The Jewish Greenbaum was born in Israel and lived there until his teens.  I attended parochial school.  He received traditional Jewish training and attended public school.  We do share, however, the same alama mater for our undergraduate studies, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, though we were separated there by more than a decade.   He long ago left Omaha for the east coast and for several years now he’s worked as an archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City, where he’s found an apt home for his scholarly interests and familial-cultural legacy.  The story of the institute itself – it got its start in Europe – and how its founders, workers, and supporters took extraordinary measures to preserve its collections in the face of Nazi persecution is dramatic and heroic, is shared here.  You’ll also learn some things about Greenbaum’s personal connection to the Holocaust.



Leo Greenbaum shows visitors a century-old manuscript , ©




Leo Greenbaum is Collector of Collectors of Jewish Artifacts at YIVO Institute 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press


In early November the Jewish Press caught up with former Omaha resident Leo Greenbaum, accessioning archivist at the famed YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. Greenbaum was in town to visit friends and family. While here he stayed at the home of author Oliver Pollock, with whom he’s collaborated on articles about the Yiddish Theater and Workmen’s Circle in Omaha. Greenbaum’s mother, Mina, resides at the Blumkin Home. His father Joshua died last year.

Begun in 1925 in Vilna, Poland, YIVO is both a major repository and disseminator of Jewish culture through institute publications, exhibitions, classes, activities and programs. Individuals accessing the collections come from all over the world and all walks of life. The holdings are utilized by historians, authors, journalists, artists, filmmakers, scholars, educators, students and every day folks.

Filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver said that in “researching at YIVO” to inform her and Matthew Goodman’s new documentary on the bagel’s immigrant history in America, she met Greenbaum, whom she described as a “lovely guy, very bright and helpful.”

Inquiries about topics and materials are fielded every day and cover the gamut of Jewish life, as YIVO is well known for the wide scope of its vast archives and library. The collections encompass commerce, politics, religion, the arts, labor, education, family life…you name it. Nothing less than the totality of Jewish endeavor can be found there. Marketing materials refer to YIVO as “the world’s leading organization for the study of Eastern European Jewry and their descendants” around the globe. On shelves, in files and in store rooms lay books, official records, diaries, letters, posters, photos, films, recordings, art works, et cetera. Some are quite rare. Reading rooms and audio/video booths are available for perusing printed materials, listening to recordings or watching films. Walk-ins are welcome but a call ahead of time is advised. Select materials can only be accessed by appointment.

As chief collector for an archive that boasts some 25 million documents spanning the breadth of Jewish experience, Greenbaum is responsible for not only preserving and cataloging the history of a people, but adding to it. Always adding to it. He said the position is a good fit for someone like himself, who is ever curious about history and ever in search of treasures which help illuminate that history.

“It has become my specialty,” he said.

His being there is apt given the tumult that the institute and his own family experienced in the Holocaust. Some of the holdings in his charge today were rescued by brave YIVO staff members, volunteers and sympathizers at the height of the Shoah. Most YIVO artifacts, like most of its workers and supporters, were lost in the war and in the genocide, just as were the members of Greenbaum’s extended maternal and paternal family. His parents only made it out alive by luck and guile. Viewed in this light, his work at YIVO is a testament to all the people and history destroyed. Their legacy is in his hands. The extant articles represent an inheritance for him to safeguard for future generations.

“It’s our job, I suppose,” he said.





He acknowledges his work has perhaps even deeper meaning for him than for others. “I have sort of personal motivation for YIVO in this respect because I lost my family on both sides in the Holocaust. My father had a large family and they were all wiped out except for himself and one of his brothers. My mother’s family was entirely wiped out. So that’s a personal thing, you know.”

YIVO’s preservation of Yiddish culture resonates with the Greenbaums’ own Yiddish heritage, from the institute’s collection on the Yiddish Theater, which his mother was involved in, to its renowned summer classes that teach the Yiddish language, which his family spoke. “My mother was active in the Yiddish Theater in the Soviet Ukraine,” he said. “She performed with a semi-professional group. Also, my parents spoke Yiddish and I learned it from them. So I have a personal interest. Not all the staff members at YIVO have this background. In fact, some of our archives staff don’t have a Jewish background at all.”

Greenbaum came with his parents to the United States, by way of Israel, as a teen in 1961. The Omaha Central High School and University of Nebraska at Omaha grad was from an early age fascinated by current affairs and the currents of time. Until age 10 he lived in Poland, a bittersweet land for Jews, and the birthplace of YIVO. From ages 10 to 13 he and his family lived in Israel, the sanctuary for so many displaced Jews in search of an ancestral homeland and a new life. It’s no wonder then he pursued post-grad studies, at now defunct Dropsie University, in a field dedicated to archiving fragments of history that inform the past and the present.

YIVO’s Jewish scholarship mission was part of a larger heritage movement led by Jewish intellectuals, scholars and educators in Europe and elsewhere. The idea was to give the masses ownership of their own history. The academy model for YIVO was designed by Max Weinreich, a Yiddish linguist who became its first director. At the start, the fledgling institute was based in Weinreich’s apartment, but it soon grew to a set of rented rooms before constructing a permanent headquarters building in Vilna. Emblematic of Europe’s troubled history, Vilna was variously part of Poland and Lithuania during YIVO’s 20-year lifespan there.

Vilna was chosen as the base for YIVO, Greenbaum said, as its Jewish residents were not as assimilated as those in Warsaw or, for that matter, Berlin, where Jews looked down on Yiddish culture. Besides, he said, “the Vilna Jewish community was a highly developed cultural community. It had several Jewish libraries in it, some of them with quite old and valuable collections.”

Even early in its life, YIVO enjoyed prominent supporters. The original board of directors included Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Impressive names on a letterhead didn’t do much for YIVO’s perpetually short resources though. It largely depended on donations of time and money and materials from those sharing its ideals. Then, as now, YIVO could not afford to pay for acquisitions. Beyond Weinreich and the cadre of professionals he gathered to establish the aims of YIVO and to catalog, exhibit and publish its findings, the institute depended on an extensive network of volunteer zamlers or collectors, working in groups or circles throughout Eastern Europe, to do research and to collect artifacts.

In keeping with its egalitarian, grass roots philosophy, YIVO supplemented its small staff with this army of volunteers who scoured attics, basements, flea markets, antique shops, book stores, public records and all manner of sources and sites for historical finds. YIVO also trained university students in the methodologies of conducting Jewish studies. “The volunteers played a huge role,” Greenbaum said. “They were going around copying communal registers, interviewing folks.” Even today volunteers play a vital role in handling and cataloging YIVO’s huge collections.

He said until YIVO’s formation, Jewish studies tended to be limited to the elite and the old guard, focusing on the distant past, not modern times, and on religious, high-brow subjects rather than secular, working-class ones. Where things like communal registers, periodicals and contemporary Yiddish works of fiction, iwere ignored before, he said, YIVO made these prime areas of study. And where the entrenched old school paid scant attention to the new social sciences, YIVO embraced sociological studies, sending researchers out into the field to interview the proletariat for their impressions and memories and stories.

Special YIVO committees were formed in America, London, South America, Africa and Palestine. A steady stream of artifacts flowed in. The early 1930s were good to YIVO. Yet tempering this sense of pride and surge of interest in a shared Jewish consciousness was anti-Semitic tension. The threat of pogroms was always present for Jews in Europe. Adding to the unease was a post-World War I economic depression and the rise of political parties and social movements that targeted Jews as scapegoats and worked against Jewish coalitions.




Researchers in the YIVO reading room, Vilna, Poland, 1930. ©





By the late ‘30s the climate was poisonous. The Nazi-Communist pact made life miserable for Jews throughout Europe and the Soviet Union. Jewish institutions in places like Kiev and Minsk, where similar initiatives to YIVO had blossomed, were closed. When Poland was invaded by the Germans and Russians in 1940, YIVO’s “trouble started,” Greenbaum said. At first, Vilna was under Soviet occupation. Soviet officials incorporated YIVO into the Lithuanian Soviet Academy of Sciences. They replaced Weinreich with a hand-picked puppet. During the occupation Weinreich was on vacation with his family and ended up surviving the war and relocating to America, where he reestablished YIVO in New York City.

“They (Soviets) were looking for what they considered politically reliable people,” Greenbaum said. “They put somebody who was a fairly low level researcher at YIVO in charge. They changed the personnel. They brought into YIVO material from the Soviet institutions they’d closed. They dumped everything there.”

When the Nazis took over, YIVO was shut down as part of sweeping restrictions that stripped Jews of all enterprises, possessions and rights and isolated them into a ghetto. A special Nazi unit plundered YIVO and other Jewish cultural institutions of treasures for a planned Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt-am-Main. The remaining YIVO materials were removed and put aboard wagons to be shipped by train to sites where the precious cargo would be “turned to pulp,” Greenbaum said. To carry out this desecration, the Nazis selected a group of Jewish workers from the ghetto. However the Nazis did not realize the strong sentiments among the prisoners for the heritage bound up in these items. In acts of defiance and resistance right under their captors’ noses, the prisoners, who came to be known as the Paper Brigade, risked their lives to save and secret out YIVO materials for safekeeping in the ghetto and in the homes of sympathetic non-Jews. “Some of the stuff was literally buried underground,” Greenbaum said.

Eventually, the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated and most of its inhabitants, including most YIVO staff, killed. Some in the resistance movement survived, escaping to the outlying forests, to continue their fight against the Nazis. In the fluid chaos of war, Vilna kept changing hands. Near the end, the city came back under the Red Army’s control. In the immediate post-war years, a salvage effort was undertaken by the U.S. Army on behalf of YIVO to locate as much of the confiscated treasure as possible. The few stashes unearthed and few train wagon loads discovered, some in Czechoslovakia and some in Germany, where the artifacts awaited disposal, recovered a portion of YIVO’s holdings. Other wagon loads were never found. “At least one wagon was still in Vilna after the war ended,” Greenbaum said, “and the people working at the train station did not know what it was. They thought it was junk paper and it was pulped. So that material was lost. I don’t think it was done intentionally. It was a mistake. Another wagon disappeared in Czechoslovakia and we don’t know what happened to the materials to this day,”

He said estimates put the amount of original YIVO materials that survived the war at 30 to 40 percent. Even long after the war, caches of scholarship from various Jewish sources continued to surface in the Soviet Union, Lithuania and Poland. part of the plundered YIVO collection was found in Paris, including copies of communal registers. After the Soviet Union fell YIVO negotiated with the new Lithuanian government to copy and catalog a large collection of records, some 100,000 pages worth. In the post-war years YIVO also acquired a host of materials, ranging from Nazi reports on the Jewish question to Nuremberg Trial documents.


Max Weinreich




Within YIVO’s own struggles are the stories of heroes who risked their lives to save artifacts. His parents did not save historical artifacts as such, but their survival meant life for Greenbaum and the birth of his interest in Jewish studies, which led him to YIVO and the work he does preserving history. It’s all intertwined.

The life undone his parents faced mirrored that of millions of refugees. Before the war his mother, Mina, acted part-time in the Yiddish Theater and worked part-time in a factory in Kremenchug, Ukriane. His father, Joshua, was from a family of bakers in Zawiercie, Poland. They did not know each other prior to the trouble. Each faced danger alone during the Holocaust, only meeting after the war.

“My mother jumped on the last train out of her hometown in the Ukraine,” Greenbaum said. “She saw people running and her instinct told her to jump the train. She ended up in Tashkent in Central Asia. My father ended up in Russia during the war. He was immediately arrested and put in a Siberian labor camp. It was a very tough camp. He barely survived it. When Russia was invaded by the Nazis he was released as a Polish citizen. He wanted to join the Polish Army but was denied. He worked in factories” the rest of the war and trained as a tailor after it.

The pair met in a refugee camp in Tashkent, Russua. The couple fulfilled Joshua’s wish to return to Poland, settling in the territories, where their only child, Leo, was born in Wroclaw (Breslau). His parents applied to go to America, where Leo’s uncle Jacob emigrated, working the ovens at Adler’s Bakery in Omaha, but a visa was refused. Poland’s Communist regime enforced strict emigration policies. Finally, in the late ‘50s, the restrictions eased enough to allow the family’s move to Israel.

The family settled in Beit Shenesh, then a small, undeveloped immigrant town thick with Moroccan and other North African refugees. History was all about. “Near our yard you could pick up these fragments, like jar handles and things, from Biblical times,” Greenbaum said. “There was an archeological dig done by an Englishman

in the 1920s. He found interesting things and he left all the shards” on the site.

Times were hard in Israel and so Greenbaum’s father left for America in 1960, joining his brother in Omaha. Here, Joshua Greenbaum found work as a tailor at Charles Asmann Clothing Company. A year later he sent for Mina and Leo to join him. Leo had a rough go of it his first full year of school at Central.

“I didn’t know very good English,” he said. “I think I was the only immigrant in the whole school. The teachers were not that sympathetic to me. They would not give me slack on the language thing. I was kind of isolated. But I got my grades and passed all the classes.”


YIVO staff and associates unpacking crates in New York, ©




Between school and television, he said, “I picked up the language. By the time I was a sophomore I was fluent in English. I was able to keep up with the other students.” As a history major at UNO he would have enjoyed Jewish studies, but none were offered then. A sleight young man, he was deferred from military service during the Vietnam War because he was under the minimum weight, which suited him fine. “I was very skinny and I was not very military-minded anyway,” he said.

His interest in Russian and Eastern European studies led him to Dropsie College in north Philadelphia. Once a leading Jewish studies institution, the nonsectarian Dropsie transformed into the Annenberg Research Institute and was later absorbed into the University of Pennsylvania. To pursue his interest in modern Jewish history he commuted to New York, where he was offered a job with the Bund Archives, the repository for the Jewish Labor Bund, a secular socialist party in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He moved to New York in 1978 to work at the archives and in 1989 he was hired by YIVO. Eventually, the Bund Archives merged with Yivo.

Seventeen years into his YIVO career, Greenbaum said he is “now one of the veterans” on staff. He’s seen the institute’s impact continue to grow. Many books, films and exhibitions, for example, have drawn on YIVO’s archives. YIVO’s produced works of its own, notably Image Before My Eyes, an exhibition, a book and a documentary about Jewish life in Poland.

Since YIVOs reincarnation in New York, it’s focused more and more on Jews in America, compiling thousands of case history files of Jewish immigrant applicants, autobiographies of Eastern European Jewish immigrants and home movies made by Jewish Americans touring Europe before and after WWII. As YIVO continues accumulating new finds, he said, “we’re running out of space. Every archive has the same dilemma — where to store stuff and how to preserve it.” Part of the challenge, he said, is that at YIVO “we collect pretty much everything. We have a pretty wide scope. I’m pretty liberal with what I keep.”

YIVO gets donated items from some unlikely sources. For example, it works with the New York State Insurance Department Liquidation Bureau to access the records of retiring Jewish mutual benefit societies, of which there are fewer and fewer. Serving insurance, charitable, social, even political functions for members, these societies offer a revealing window into various aspects of Jewish American life.

Greenbaum fields calls all the time from people who stumble upon old items and call to ask if he wants to see them. He almost always does. “You never know what you’ll find,” he said. Landlords who would otherwise junk stuff that tenants leave behind call. The same with employees from the public or private sector. “They notice something old and interesting and they call us and say, ‘Come over before I throw it out,’ and I come over and pick it up. At least once a passerby on the Lower East Side saw somebody throwing out these huge records on the street and called us, saying, ‘Better come before it’s trashed.’ We came over, along with people from the Museum of Broadcasting, and found these broadcast disks for recording old radio shows like Fibber Magee and Molly. They’re very fragile.”

He said a good proportion of the research done at YIVO today is by lay people digging into their family roots. “It’s third generation nostalgia,” he said. “The first generation is immigrants. The second generation wants to be Americanized. The third generation becomes nostalgic for grandpa’s culture.” He’s not so keen on genealogy himself, preferring instead to explore the arts or politics. He’s a devotee of ballet and opera. He reads a lot. But as he’s learned, you can’t dismiss any area of investigation. After all, you never know what you’ll find.

YIVO is located at 15 West 16th Street in New York. It is closed on Jewish holidays and most federal holidays. For details, call 212-246-6080 or visit


Omaha Tri-Faith Pioneers Seeing the Fruits of Their Interfaith Collaborative Take Shape

May 26, 2012 9 comments

You wouldn’t necessarily think of Omaha, Neb. as a place for an interfaith collaborative involving the three Abrahamic faith groups but that’s exactly what it is thanks to the Tri-Faith Initiative, a non-profit moving ever closer to its plan for a church, a synagogue, and a mosque on a single campus.  Like most Midwest cities Omaha’s a decidedly Christian stronghold with quite small Jewish and Muslim populations.  It’s also a place where diversity hasn’t always been celebrated or embraced.  Yet the Tri-Faith is an impossible to ignore reality here that’s making waves near and far.  My story below, which is to appear in a future edition of The Reader (, tries to get at how it is this partnership has been able to reach this point and find itself poised to realize something that perhaps has never been done before, anywhere.  I’m proud it’s happening where I live.  My blog contains a profile I did of Tri-Faith executive director Nancy Kirk, who like all the principals in this endeavor is a highly accomplished person of diverse interests.  What unites them all is a sincere desire to do the right thing by moving past dialogue to action where interfaith relations are concerned.  You’ll also find on this blog a story I did a few years ago on something called Project Interfaith and its director, Beth Katz, and a very long piece on the interfaith relationship forged by two famous figures, Rev. Edward Flangan, the founder of Boys Town, and his close friend and supporter, Henry Monsky.  A smattering of other religious themed stories I’ve done are also on the blog.



Dr. Syed Mohiuddin and Rabbi Aryeh Azriel



Omaha Tri-Faith Pioneers Seeing the Fruits of Their Interfaith Collaborative Take Shape

©by Leo Adam Biga

To appear in a future edition of The Reader (


Omaha’s not always embraced diversity but the local Tri-Faith Initiative may be a history-making model of interfaith cooperation. It’s proceeding with an audacious plan to locate a church, a synagogue, a mosque and an ecumenical center on a combined 35-acre campus.

Organizers say they’ve not found an equivalent gathering of the three Abrahamic faith groups – Christianity, Judaism, Islam – in a single dedicated setting. Not surprisingly, the project’s drawing much attention from media and scholarly attention. Observers are struck by how this partnership between the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, Temple Israel and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture has gone from concept to dawning reality in only six years.

The initiative echoes local community engagement efforts from the past – Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties – and present – Ak-Sar-Ben, Omaha Community Foundation, Building Bright Futures, Empowerment Network – that coalesce various partners to tackle social-cultural needs.

The Reader met with four “pioneers” behind the Tri-Faith experiment for their take on how the initiative has managed sustaining itself. They say one reason why this alliance has gotten so far so fast is that mere dialogue was never the end goal. Rather, it was a means to realize a brick-and-mortar sanctuary for promoting ongoing interfaith relationships.

“There are many wonderful dialogues going on across the country and around the world, and I’ve been involved in some of those, where people come together for great meetings to talk about interfaith issues,” says Nebraska Episcopal Diocese Canon for Tri-Faith Ministries Timothy Anderson, who will lead the unnamed Episcopal church slated for the campus. “But then you go back to your hotel, pack your bag, get on a plane and fly home. The uniqueness of this is that we are home. The next day we wake up and my neighbor to the right is still Jewish and my neighbor to the left is still Muslim and I have to learn each day how to live in my faith to love my neighbor as myself.”



Outside the pitched battleground of the Middle East, Jews and Muslims have every reason to be friends.

“I think Muslims are in a way in America the Jews of the past,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel. “I think there is a tendency from time to time to select a new scapegoat. Jews are extremely aware of the ‘game’ that was played with their lives. We paid a price for being a scapegoat for many, many years.

“There is a level of understanding on the part of the Jew when the game is being played with other minority groups. Until the Obama presidency there were many opportunities for Americans to denigrate or to view Muslims as The Other, the stranger, the one that is not welcome, similar in a way to how Jews were treated.”

Azriel says progress between peoples of different faiths or cultures can only occur “when you’re able to step away from where you are and go to uncomfortable places.” Getting past surface niceties to deep interpersonal connections, he says, is what’s made the Jewish-Muslim relationship work in Omaha. Years before the Tri-Faith, he notes, Temple reached out to invite the Muslim community to celebrate Thanksgiving at the synagogue. Muslims have reciprocated by inviting the Jewish community to their celebrations.

“It’s mainly about relationships. If you don’t visit each other’s home, if you’re not in relationship with people, the dialogue becomes completely nebulous and artificial after awhile,” says Azriel.

It’s why, for him, meaningful interfaith exchanges must go beyond talk and tolerance to practice collaborative good works, such as creating a neighborhood where three faith groups co-exist in harmony.

He acknowledges some Temple members resist the partnership. The other groups report similar reluctance or skepticism. It’s meant less than 100 percent buy-in. But that’s where Azriel says leadership can make a difference.

“I really think a clergy that doesn’t challenge his congregation, doesn’t comfort those that are challenged, but also doesn’t disturb those that are comfortable should not lead a congregation. Sometimes you need to be stubborn and continue with the dreaming. So we continue walking on the bridge, even though at times it doesn’t look completely solid and safe. So what? There is a price to pay for daring and a price to pay for stagnation.

“You don’t just wait for something to happen but you mobilize all the resources together to accomplish this. That’s what’s so unique about this combination. All of us know dreams can only be achieved after hard work.”

Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, Islamic Institute president and co-founder and chair of the Department of Medicine at Creighton University, says the relationships hinge on mutual respect and trust. “That’s where it starts.”

In late 2011 the partners backed their words with financial stakes by announcing the purchase of adjoining parcels of land at the site of the former Ironwood Country Club, on the southeast corner of 132nd and Pacific, now part of the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development. The Tri-Faith vision took another major step to fruition when Temple, which completed its $25 million building campaign, broke ground April 15 on its new synagogue. It’s expected to open in August 2013. The other two partners are in the planning and fund-raising stages of their own buildings. A $2.5 million anonymous matching gift kick-started the Islamic Institute’s fund drive.

A fourth structure, the Tri-Faith Center, will be a shared, nondenominational facility for educational-cultural events and activities. It’s also in the planning stage.

The level of support shown for this faith-based collaborative defies the tensions and conflicts that keep different religious traditions apart.

Temple Israel groundbreaking

Rendering of the new Temple Israel synagogue



The feel good story of the project’s formation is already becoming lore.

As the oldest and largest synagogue in town, Temple long ago outgrew its present facility. Whereas the reform Jewish congregation traces its history back to 1872 and serves 750-plus families, the Islamic Institute formed only in 2006 and counts but a fraction of Temple’s members. Still, the Institute needs a permanent home of its own to accommodate a growing Muslim population. Each cast its gaze out west, where most members live.

Temple already had the experience of a Christian neighbor in First United Methodist Church to the north and of a shared parking lot with the Omaha Community Playhouse to the east. The Jewish and Islamic communities already enjoyed a rapport strengthened when, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Azriel led Temple members in a cordon around the local mosque as a show of solidarity. He and his Tri-Faith bretheren describe it as “a pivotal moment” that “forged” the relationship.

Temple’s search for a new home took a collaborative turn when member and Tri-Faith board chair Bob Freeman broached the possibility of building with a faith partner. Not only would there be cost savings from a joint site selection and shared amenities, but opportunities to do interfaith programming.

Azriel says the congregation has “a history of being on the cutting edge of justice work,” which is a theme in his own career. He initiated a Black/Jewish dialogue series at Temple and his justice work has earned him various honors. He insists he’s hardly alone in tackling social issues. “The leadership of this congregation has been deeply involved in the daily life of this town. So many of our people are on the cutting edge of philanthropy, sit on nonprofit boards and are basically the bloodline of what this city is all about.”

It wasn’t long before Azriel and Mohiuddin spoke about partnering. After consulting with their boards they decided to pursue an interfaith project with a Christian participant. After the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha rejected the idea the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska was approached. It just happened to be considering a new church in West O on land held in reserve. Then-bishop Joe Burnett asked Anderson to explore joining the two other faith groups in a joint venture. Anderson met Freeman over a game of golf to discuss the possibilities.

Rev. Canon Tim Anderson



Ironwood proved a symbolic spot for the Tri-Faith. It was founded as Jewish-only Highland Country Club in 1924 in response to Jews being barred from other clubs. Owing to Omaha’s declining Jewish population and a desire to be inclusive, Highland eventually opened to all who could afford it. Tri-Faith partners now refer to Hell Creek, which runs through the property, as Heaven’s Bridge.

All of it plays well in the press. But as the founders take great pains explaining, none of it would have happened without the deliberate efforts of people committed to putting aside differences to make tangible an interfaith community built from the ground up.

Azriel says, “Here is something we are doing intentionally. This is not haphazard. this is not by coincidence. We decided those three communities have to be together and then you bring them to a neighborhood to create it. So there’s a deep intentionality that emerges as a result of the comfort level of the relationships. You can’t get there by coincidence.”

At the end of the day, says Freeman, it’s not platitudes or mission statements or white papers that drive the Tri-Faith.

“As is often the case in collaborative projects it’s the people that make it work and we’ve had a group of amazing people committed to working on this. They’ve sustained that enthusiasm and commitment over five-six years. When I look at the people who have been around the table every one of them is very successful in their own walk of life. These are people who when they take something on they don’t fail, they lead it to a successful conclusion.”

Freeman, who’s worked on several Omaha collaboratives, says the Tri-Faith has been “an unequivocally positive experience.” An attorney by trade, he’s quick to point out that “we’ve had interactions that have been less than perfect but that’s life.”

“But life is about overcoming challenges and obstacles and recognizing different perspectives and being accommodating and continuing to move forward when you’re doing the right thing,” he says, “and we’ve had an uncommon aggregation of really strong, successful, goal-oriented people who’ve just willed this thing forward and been really good at problem solving.”

The Tri-Faith posed many potentially intractable, deal-breaker issues but Freeman says great care was taken to mitigate and mediate these.

“We did some things early on that probably helped contribute to success. We immediately talked about some of the harder issues and had a consensus on how we would address them, so we were able to take them off the table.”

Azriel concedes that when there’s an international flashpoint in Jewish-Muslim relations, fears, insecurities and resentments surface.

“Of course this comes up always as part of the discussion, issues of trust, of loyalty, of what-if scenarios. So you have definitely some of the Israeli-Arab conflict penetrating the conversation and people asking questions or suggesting that maybe its not the right way.

“You talk a lot, you try to respond, you try to bring the person who is asking to a level of comfort but the most important part is to invite them to a meeting with Muslims and Episcopalians.”

It’s in breaking bread and participating in celebrations with each other, he and his colleagues say, that people of divergent backgrounds and beliefs find their common humanity. That’s why the Tri-Faith sponsors events that bring people of different faiths together.

The Tri-Faith made its first big public splash in 2009 with the communal Dinner in Abraham’s Tent. An annual picnic is held. More events have followed, including workshops, panels, a children’s camp and high school programs.

“We were able to establish positive momentum and credibility through programs and projects we pulled off very successfully,” Freeman says.



Events outside its control become teachable moments. For example, the organization used the 2008 Gaza conflict to present a unified voice. Mohiuddin says, “We were able to come together and wrote a joint editorial in the World-Herald which expressed the concerns we had     without blaming anybody. I thought it was a remarkable accomplishment.”

“I think that was a crucial point in our relationships, that we could move through that and stay together and be of one voice against violence on any side,” says Anderson.

Freeman says the Tri-Faith was able to draft a statement because the partners had set a precedent for addressing the elephants in the room.

“If you’re going to put three houses of worship together in a neighborhood setting there’s some things about that that can be threatening to one another and we immediately got into that. We talked about how we’re not trying to influence each other in our intramural religious efforts.”

In other words, no prosleltyzing. A memorandum of understanding laid it all out.

“An understanding was reached not to go after each other’s congregations to recruit members,” Freeman says. “We recognized the need to be separate, the need to be autonomous. There has to be autonomy. If any of the three want to do something internally in their congregation, in their building, on their land they have to be able to do that and neither of the other two should have any say at all in what that is. Certainly there can be a sensitivity to the impact that might have on your neighbors but nobody should tell anybody else how to govern or operate within their congregational religious life.

“One of the byproducts of that was we don’t want anybody’s faith to be watered down. We’re not trying to make Judaism more Christian, we’re not trying to make Islam more Jewish. So the separateness has to make us independent and even stronger in our own faiths and we’ve seen how that can effectively work.”

Mohiuddin’s experience bears out Freeman’s words. “The most important thing we’re doing is expressing the beliefs we have and as a result we understand our own faith better than we did before because we have to explain it to people and that actually makes your faith stronger, it doesn’t weaken it,” Mohiuddin says.



“I think we’ve become better Christians, Jews, Muslims by entering into this and trying to live out what our faith really says it’s about, and it’s not about politics, it’s not about power,” says Anderson.

Freeman points to other things the Tri-Faith’s done to solidify itself.

“We incorporated and formed a 501c organization early on (2006) so we would have an identity. We were then able to do some fundraising and get some money in, which enabled us to hire professional help along the way and get good consulting input, so it wasn’t entirely a   volunteer-sustained effort. I think a lot of us felt expanding beyond just a bunch volunteers who met for coffee lent it credibility.”

Two key professionals brought in were Nancy Kirk and Vic Gutman, Omahans with long experience in arts administration, communications and public event planning. Kirk came on as executive director in 2008 and Gutman as media relations director soon after.

Freeman believes the city deserves credit, too, as “a nurturing, incubator environment for multi-group, creative, collaborative initiatives and projects.” He adds, “I think there’s a willingness to try and work together in recognition that something can be greater than the sum of its parts. There are amazing public-private partnerships that develop here. These models exist all over town and result in people working together and trusting each other.”

“The high level of trust people were willing to have in the Tri-Faith Initiative early on,” he says, “is a byproduct of a community spirit that fosters these kinds of things.”

Mohiuddin, who came from his native India to complete his medical studies at Creighton University decades ago, says, “Omaha has been my home for over 40 years and I’ve gotten to know the city, its culture, its style, and it’s just very welcoming.”

Azriel, a native of Israel by way of Baltimore, says the Tri-Faith is comprised of partners “not only predisposed to welcoming The Other but whose religious faith told them this is the way. It will be very hard to create this same scenario in people who are faithless. I think the right moment came and the right people assembled around the table, and then life has never been the same.”

Mohiuddin says, “If you look at any of the wonderful things that happen in the world, you need a core, usually a spark, which acts as a nucleus around which everything turns. It just happens to be in Omaha, it just happens to be us.”

Like his fellow pioneers Mohiuddin says the Tri-Faith could have easily disbanded by now “if we had allowed ourselves to get discouraged by the dissenting voices, if we did not have the courage of our own convictions.” Indeed, he attributes its survival to “the conviction of the founding members to stay with it,” adding, “We had such a strong belief that what we were doing was necessary and that this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”

On a more practical level, says Freeman, the partners are motivated to see the project through because it means a new house of worship for each faith group, plus an interfaith center. It’s the prospect of bringing these “homes” to completion, strengthening all three faith communities in the process, that supersedes everything else.

The Tri-Faith pioneers welcome the attention the initiative is generating and hope their work provides a framework for more interfaith collaboratives. But Mohiuddin speaks for his colleagues when he says, “I can’t be distracted” from the work at hand.

The partners have come too far now to be sidetracked and lose sight of the prize. Not when the campus Mohiuddin calls “our dream land” is so close at hand.

Faith without action is dead and the Tri-Faith is nothing if not an action-oriented movement. One with a life all its own and a promised land  to be filled.

Abe Sass, A Mensch for All Seasons

May 2, 2012 3 comments

The following profile I did on Abe Sass reminds me that extraordinary individuals are all around us.  He’s married to a dynamo named Rivkah Sass, one of the most honored public librarians in the nation and because of her much feted work in that field she is obstensibly the star of this couple.  But as I found out and as I hopefully succeed in sharing with readers like you Abe has a story worth knowing and celebrating too.  He’s packed a lot of living into his life and because he’s pursued such a wide range of interests and experiences he’s brushed up against all sorts of historic people and places and events that I trust you will find as compelling as I did.

Abe Sass



Abe Sass, A Mensch for All Seasons

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press


When your wife is a force of nature named Rivkah Sass, a recent national librarian of the year honoree and a much-in-demand public speaker, it could be easy to get overshadowed. The Omaha Public Library director’s dynamic personality can take over a room. Abe Sass doesn’t mind. In fact, he loves the attention Rivkah gets. You see, he’s not only her husband, but her biggest fan.

“Rivkah has an incredibly difficult job and I really believe she’s already changed the world in Omaha. She is committed,” he said.

There’s no real chance of him being lost in her limelight though. He’s every bit as accomplished as she and cuts a larger-than-life figure in his own right. A veteran psychiatric social worker, Sass has worked in several hospitals, he’s consulted school districts and he’s maintained his own private practice. No longer a full-time therapist, he volunteers his services to clients these days.

Sensitive and empathic as he may be, he’s no shrinking violet. He’s a charismatic presence at library activities and events with his warm smile, quick wit, hearty laugh and earthy demeanor. His six-foot-plus height and full beard help him stand out from the crowd, as does his animated demeanor, which flashes from dramatic whisper to basso profundo boom, all spiced with expletives and dollops of Yiddish.

This son of militant, immigrant garment workers in New York grew up a progressive thinker and activist. He was a rank-and-file soldier in the civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s. He was at the historic march on Washington, D.C. in 1963 when Martin Luther King. Jr. articulated his dream for universal brotherhood. He was a member of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. He took part in his share of demonstrations on behalf of equality and justice.

He’s never lost his social conscience or political fervor, either. He’s remained engaged wherever he roosts, from the tenements of lower Manhattan to the halls of academia to the psychiatric wards at hospitals in California, Washington and Oregon. In Omaha he’s a familiar figure wherever ideas are exchanged, whether a community forum or a book reading or an art opening.

He often conducts therapy sessions in the mid-town home he and Rivkah inhabit. The couple’s place is an expression of their passions. They’re both lovers of literature, art and discussion. They place high value on friends and family. They do puppetry. They tell stories. They champion the underdog. They support causes. They entertain guests. Fittingly, their home is adorned with books, paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, puppets, photographs of loved ones, mementos, keepsakes and campaign buttons emblazoned with liberal slogans, such as “Fight Racism” and “Swords and Plowshares.”

“Everything we do and have done is on our walls,” said Sass, gesturing to the overflow of objects about him in his living room.

He noted a small figurine of a black girl holding a book in one hand and a globe in the other, “which really fits who Rivkah is and who I am,” he said. The figurine is perched at the edge of a table atop which are also an old camera, a pair of cut-outs from artist Wanda Ewing’s black pin-up series and a button that reads “Black Power.” Sometimes there’s a button with a black hand, a brown hand and a white hand coming together that says “Let Us All Be Good Neighbors.” Taken together, he said, the display “is almost like a snapshot of a world that is and a world we could have. In many ways that represents to me where we need to go and, unfortunately, where we haven’t always been.”

Sass traces his humanist bent to his growing up poor in the Chelsea slums of New York City. He never knew his father, an artist, a presser, and Communist Party member who a year after Abe was born in 1938, went to Europe to try and rescue family only to be “swallowed up in the Holocaust.” His mother, Sylvia, endured “a miserable working life,” but sought much more for herself and her only child.



“She gave us a cultural life,” Sass said, “and so on Fridays she and I would go to the Cooper Union Forum to hear lecturers speak and on Saturdays we would go to all the museums in the city, particularly the free ones. In her own gentle, quiet but militant way she was saying, We all need to have certain basic things, rights and freedoms. She’s the one who taught me if there are people on a picket line they’re there for a reason, because they need better working conditions, better salaries, better benefits, and ‘we don’t cross picket lines.’

“All of her contemporaries were militant Jewish garment workers and wherever there was a rally there we were. I was just a kid, but everything they did made crystalline sense to me. It’s through her I met Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson. We would go to places where they were singing. We had a dear friend who was a wonderful militant woman. My mom and I would go with her to like a fraternal gathering place, where they would have speakers, singers. Seeger would come. Robeson would come. It was really cool. One of the major moments for me is when Robeson shook my hand and I felt, wow.”

He said he gained an awareness beyond his years “when we marched in the May Day Parade for working people and we’d get hit by rotten eggs and cabbages and comments like, ‘Go back to Russia’ or Dirty Commie.’” If all the protests he’s been a part of — from fair housing to sane nuclear policy to immigration reform– have taught him anything, he said, it’s that “there are people in this world that just don’t get it. I’m not a pessimist but I believe many people just don’t see there’s a big picture, and I believe one of the things we suffer from — all of us — is we only focus on ‘me.’ It’s dangerous…Unless we really see and feel connections we wind up with a perspective that’s very constricted and myopic.”

Action, not apathy. “We have to reach out and do something for people who need an assist up. It’s like that powerful saying, When they came for him, I didn’t say anything, when they came for her I didn’t say anything, and then when they came for me, nobody said anything. It’s still the same. It hasn’t changed,” he said.



The “cruddy” area he came from offered some valuable lessons on human relations and social conditions. Being the only Jewish kid on his block gave him a sense for what minority really mean.

“We lived in a terrible apartment building on West 18th Street,” now the trendy art neighborhood of New York, he said. “It was a little, dinky three-room apartment. I lived there through my 20s. It was tense and tight and loud and crazy. When you’re Jewish and you grow up in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood you’re an oddball by definition. I was more of an oddball because my aura was a softer aura and the softness not only came from enjoying the sanctuary of the orthodox synagogue I grew up in, but also” from being a reader and an art lover among street kids.

“The kids I was desperately trying to fit into I really had a hard time with, because they were busy kicking other people’s asses and that really was not something I felt comfortable with. And when it came to like stick ball and football and all that shit, nuh-uh, it was like, ‘Oh, get out of here, Abe.’ I was totally useless.”

To survive, he had to find his own schtick.

“Everybody had their thing on the block. You gotta have something to get a rep, OK? My rep was on Sunday nights, when we’d gather on a stoop and I would tell stories to these same kids…just make ‘em up out of my head…and I had them, because I could weave a tale, and I loved it. I shined in that moment.”

At PS 11 Elementary School and at Charles Evans Hughes High School he mixed with Jews, Irish, Italians, African-Americans, Greeks, Asians and practically every other nationality-ethnicity. “It was a potpourri of people,” he said. “You talk about a spectrum, it was all there.”

He fondly recalls the summer camps for “underprivileged children” he attended, and later was a counselor at. They further exposed him to a multi-cultural stew.

“My best friends were always Puerto Rican kids, black kids, Asian kids. I used to drive my poor mother crazy because every summer I’d come home from camp talking like I’m a kid from Harlem. She would say, ‘What kind of talking is this?’”

Counselors at camp, he said, “were usually (university) psychology or social work students. They were there because they had a desire to be there to help kids. Every summer I looked forward to it. When I became a counselor it was a joy for me to help a kid who was going through shit clear out and get away from it and say, Bye-bye shit, I don’t need you anymore. I knew I wanted to do this.”

He credits a camp director with giving him sound career advice. At the time, Sass was weighing what to do after high school. Though he felt called to be a teacher-counselor, he felt stymied by his lack of funds.

“He said, ‘Abe, you’ve got it. If you want it, go for it. The money will show itself. Don’t hold back ‘cause you don’t have the money.’ I totally trusted him and he was right. He was absolutely right. I was lucky enough to go to City College, which didn’t have tuition, and then Columbia University gave me a full tuition scholarship.”

Going from the lower Manhattan ghetto to elite Columbia was quite a leap.

“I was a lucky guy. I was just so happy. I was in fat cat city. That was the best training I could of had and it has helped me right through till now. There just happened to be a confluence of forces that brought these dynamite people to Columbia during those years.”



Columbia University, circa 1960



Above all, he said, he learned “you’ve got to start where your client is. I mean, it sounds glib, but it’s very important to really hear what this person in pain has to say before you lay any agenda out, before you take your freakin’ notes, before you say, ‘Well, where were you born?’ and all that kind of social history bull shit.”

For him, the core of where the therapeutic focus needs to be was brought home by a case study of a subject with “a mouthful of rotten teeth.” Sass posited, “What would it be like walking around day after day with a pain in your head? Is that going to throw you off balance? Yeah. So, we were like back to Abraham Maslow. Basics, man. I have met a lot of people who have spun their wheels with a lot of therapists and they still haven’t dealt with the basics, and it’s sad.”

University life also fed his activist and culturist sensibilities. The Cold War was at its peak. Vietnam was just getting hot. The civil rights movement already underway.

“In college I hung out with The Beats and we were all counterculture,” he said. “We didn’t see the way it was going as the way it needed to go. We felt there was a world out there of creativity, art, exciting ideas and some of that meant taking a stand and a lot of that meant looking at the fact there are a lot of people who are not free, who have less opportunities than we do. So I started into that and my mother, of course, was very proud of that.”

He participated in sit-ins, some to show support for the activists down south “getting their heads plunked.” He was tempted to be a freedom fighter himself in Jim Crow country, and once “I was all but on my way,” before something came up.

He and a friend did go to the nation’s capital for the famous MLK-led ‘63 mass March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

“We both felt this would be an important thing to do,” he said. “Several of our friends were going…We drove there. It was wild because all these cars were on the road and people were waving at each other. I mean, we all knew where we were going. It was an amazing experience.

“We first gathered at the Washington Monument, where there were singers and all kinds of speakers, and then we walked to the Lincoln Memorial. It was a hot day and…every once in awhile somebody would pass out, but we were all so tight the person would be lifted up with hands and gently moved to the outer perimeter, where medics and assundry volunteers were set-up. It was like pre-mosh pit.”

The impact of the huge, unified crowd, estimated at 250,000, and of the speakers, capped by King’s rousing “I Have a Dream” oration, was “very, very powerful.”

Abe and Rivkah



Last month Abe accompanied Rivkah to D.C. for the American Library Association Conference. He retraced the march he made as part of that great procession 44 years earlier. By the end, he had a Mr. Sass Goes to Washington experience.

“I wound up one late afternoon walking the exact same path. It was hot. I went straight to the Washington Monument. It was very spiritual. Half-way between it and the Lincoln Memorial there’s ‘a Kodak moment’ spot where there’s a little display with a photo of the wading pool that day in ‘63 with all those people.

“I continued on to the Lincoln Memorial. I went up where his Gettysburg Address is engraved on one wall and I don’t know what possessed me, but I started saying it out loud. I know it pretty much by heart. And this group of tourists came over and we’re all looking at it together as I’m reading it out loud and they’re like, right there with me, and I just kept on going.”

He’d had some practice with the speech. Back at PS 11 he was selected to portray Lincoln for a school assembly. On his nostalgia trip back to D.C. all those years later, he didn’t stop with “Four Score and Seven Years Ago…”

“When I was done, I turned and I walked to the wall where his second inaugural address is engraved, and this same group of people followed, and I read that out loud. They were right there with me again. The greatest thing was I called our daughter and I told her where I was and I told her how much I loved her.”

Sass said when his daughter Ilana was a young girl she’d have friends over the house and invariably get down from a shelf the book, The Negro Since Emancipation. The back cover has an image of demonstrators in the ‘63 march and there’s the young Sass towering above the throng. His daughter would proudly proclaim to her pals, “That’s my dad.” “It was very special,” Sass said.

The melting pot experiences Sass had the first half of his life gave him an enriched perspective he carries with him to this day.

“I love my roots, I really do. I treasure them. I feel really good about having been introduced to so many wonderful ways of thinking. The weird thing is, even though there were many aspects of it that were very, very uncomfortable, I’m so glad it happened that way. Because thinking about who I am now I really feel like I viscerally can feel, for example, what people in parts of Omaha feel when they’re talking about the kind of shitty conditions they’re living in and have been living in for years and there’s no f___ing excuse for it. There really isn’t.”

Not long after moving with Rivkah to Omaha about four years ago, he attended a north Omaha town hall meeting at which Mayor Mike Fahey and his cabinet responded to issues confronting the inner city. Sass said an older woman pointedly asked how it is the cracked streets and backed-up sewers area residents like her knew as kids are still in disrepair decades later, and, how come residents out west don’t have these problems. No real answers were forthcoming. The gap between black Omaha and white suburbia apparent in the void.

“It’s hard to even try to say what I was feeling as I sat there,” Sass said. “Here we are in 2007 and there’s all this stuff about segregation…The struggle goes on, and you can’t be blind to it. You really can’t be blind to it.”

The poor, old working-class woman kvetching about inequality reminded him of his mother, each asymbol of the proletariat struggling to get by.

“She would go the shop and sit behind a sewing machine all day long busting her chops,” he said of his mom. “And she worked and worked and worked, and when she was 62-years-old she was wasted. It’s very, very sad.”

He was reminded, too, of when he went to California in the mid-’60s, fresh from Columbia, and found an unfriendly climate. En route, he stopped for gas at a roadside filling station, where, he said, “this guy and I got to talking.” When Sass mentioned he was heading for Napa, he recalled “the man saying, ‘Oh, you’re going to love it, there are no niggers in Napa.’ Holy shit, I just about fell down. Could not believe it. That’s one of the things that propelled me to join CORE.”

Once there he was dismayed to discover a form of red-lining being practiced whereby “realtors in the area were knocking on doors and saying, ‘There’s a black family moving in down the street from you — you might want to sell your house now because its value is going to diminish.’ That was going on when I got there,” he said, “so I got involved in the opposite campaign.”

He threw himself into resisting city plans for razing an established residential neighborhood built during the war for shipyards workers and their families and building high-priced condos in its place.

“A lot of the people who lived there were going to get displaced,” he said. “We (CORE) got involved in a big campaign to stop that. We had rallies, marches.

“Also, we started a freedom school in a storefront and kids would come in and we’d help them with whatever their issue was. Helping people connect with their community is very powerful.”

Wherever he saw discrimination he tried meeting it head-on.

“Not too long after I got to Napa I went for lunch with my friend Frank, a black psychiatrist. We were in this local-yokel place. We ordered and we waited. People came in after us and were served while we’re still sitting there. We asked what’s going on and the wait staff said, ‘We’re out of what you ordered.’ So we said, How about such and such? And they said, ‘We’re out of anything you’ll order.’ We really got pissed off and like two days later a shit load of us showed up, black as black can be, man. I was one of the few white guys in the group.

“We were sitting there and we weren’t moving until we got served. We said, ‘If you don’t have it today, we’re coming back tomorrow.’ They just shit in their pants. And the name of the game was they changed their policy. But not because they’re kind-hearted. It’s the pocket book. It’s money.”

He noted another incident that happened when he lived in an apartment complex. Black friends of his from CORE came over and went for a swim in the pool. When they jumped in, the whites jumped out. The next day, Sass said, he found his car’s tires slashed. He had to insist the police treat the matter as a hate crime.

“It’s sad and it’s funny and crazy and pathetic and angry…all that stuff,” he said.

He knows how hard it is for people to change attitudes and behaviors. He’s spent the better part of his life helping people try to do just that. “When somebody is going through a terrible emotional crisis my job is to help them create a revolution within themselves because what they’ve been doing is not working for them. If the revolution is successful they move on and it’s like a different world.”

Abe and Rivkah have endured their own crises, including the loss of a son.

In order to grow and to conquer our fears, he said, we must take chances. “So frequently what we do — all of us — is let ourselves be preoccupied with the fear of what will happen. It holds us all back….A piece of what I do is to help people see that right now is what we have,” he said. “I think my gift somehow is to guide people through hard times. It’s an art. I think you’re either born with this gift or not of allowing someone into your skin and your getting into their skin, safely, without being made to feel violated.”

When he was In California he worked with his share of people whose substance and lifestyle excesses caused them to “freak out.” He’s done his own experimenting and, he said, “it’s given me a better understanding of what people go through.”

Since coming to Omaha he’s worked with individuals, couples and families on a pro bono basis. He and Rivkah volunteered as puppeteers, storytellers and Sunday school teachers in the Pacific Northwest. He’s performed at synagogues. He, Rivkah and a mutual friend formed the Rosebud Puppet Theater. He does much the same today at local day cares. The puppet characters are drawn from Jewish folklore and include Schlemiel and Lyzer the Miser.

As it takes a mensch to know one, he’s hooked up with some of Omaha’s most righteous folks, including Holocaust survivor Rachel Rosenberg, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, community watchdog Ben Gray and early childhood education pioneer Evie Zysman.

“There are people here that are very committed to justice and to fairness and equality. I just wish there were more of them and they had more clout and money,” he said.



Abe with Rachel Rosenberg



He and Zysman, a former social worker, both hold degrees from Columbia’s School of Social Work. He adores her. “Hey, if I can be like Evie Zysman when I get to be her age, I’m home free. She’s a pistol, an absolute pistol. Formidable, incisive, cutting, sharp.” These kindred spirits don’t go in for the superficial chatter of the cocktail circuit. They prefer “Intense and meaningful dialogue,” he said.

He and Rivkah also count among their friends such local artists as author Timothy Schaffert, painter Wanda Ewing and sculptor Littleton Alston.

Like always, his friends are a rainbow coalition. Whatever one’s race or religion, he said, differences melt away “when you do things together. You become kind of like each other,” he said. Welcome to the wonderful world of Abe Sass.

Dena Krupinski Makes Her Hollywood Dreams a Reality as a Turner Classic Movies Producer

April 30, 2012 9 comments

Whether you’re a regular or occasional visitor to this blog you have by now probably noticed that I like to write about Nebraskans in Film.  That is a function of my being a Nebraskan, a film buff who just happens to be a journalist.  Naturally, I seek every opportunity I can find to write about fellow natives of this place who have and are doing great things in the world of cinema.  It’s not only filmmakers and actors I profile either.  You’ll find pieces about many different aspects of the industry as well as about people who don’t make films but instead showcase them for our entertainment and education.  Take the subject of this profile, Dena Krupinski, for example.  When I wrote this article seven or eight years ago she was a producer at Turner Classic Movies in Atlanta, where she was one of the key figures behind those Private Screenings Q&A’s that host Robert Osborne does with legends.  It was a dream job for her because she’s been in love with the movies for as long as she can remember and that gig put her in close contact with some of the biggest names in Hollywood history.  She’s since moved on to teach at a university but her cinema obsession remains intact.  I too have had the distinct pleasure of interviewing and in some cases meeting Hollywood royalty, past and present, including Robert Wise, Patricia Neal, Debbie Rynolds, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Danny Glover.  I am hoping for an interview with Jane Fonda in the near future because she’s coming to Omaha for a July program at Film Streams that will have Alexander Payne interview her live on stage.  Of course, Payne is someone I’ve interviewed dozens of times over the years and because of that relationship I’ve had the chance to interview Laura Dern, Matthew Broderick, Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh, Virginia Madsen, producers Michael London, Albert Berger, and Jim Burke, screenwriter Jim Taylor, and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael.





Dena Krupinski Makes Her Hollywood Dreams a Reality as a Turner Classic Movies Producer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Orignally appeared in the Jewish Press


For most of us, childhood dreams remain just that — the unfulfilled musings of our starry-eyed youth. But for Omaha native Dena Krupinsky, an associate director with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in Atlanta, her long-harbored fantasy of working with Hollywood greats has become reality. Since joining TCM in 1994, the year the national cable network launched, Krupinsky has produced dozens of special programs featuring stars and other notables from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Even a cursory glance at her producing credits reveals a Who’s-Who of movie royalty she has worked with — from Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, James Garner and Rod Steiger to June Allyson, Leslie Caron and Liza Minnelli.

Whether in a digital editing suite or in a sound recording booth or in a television studio, she gets on intimate terms with some of the very luminaries she’s idolized. She might be producing a Private Screenings session in which James Garner recalls his career or she might be pruning a feature with Liza Minnelli discussing her father and his films or she might be recording a voice-over track in which Carol Burnett pays homage to Lucille Ball. “Do I wake up in the morning excited to go to work? Yeah,” Krupinsky said. “I feel like I’m doing exactly what I knew I’d be doing. It is a dream come true.” She has, in the course of putting together various programs, met dozens of Hollywood legends as well as many more obscure but no less significant film industry professionals. “I do feel lucky meeting these people. They were part of that Old Hollywood, which was an exclusive, elite world. And now that I’m part of it, I’m so excited. When I watch the Oscars I’ll see these people up there and go, ‘Yeah, know him, met him. Nice guy.’” That goes for screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a 2001 honorary Oscar recipient whom Krupinsky met while taping a program in which Lehman discussed how scenes from his script for North By Northwest were brought to inspired life by director Alfred Hitchcock.

Somehow, even as a little girl, Krupinsky knew she was destined to work in film or television. Growing up in the Rockbrook Park neighborhood, she was the oddball kid on her block who much preferred watching TV hour upon hour to playing outside with her friends. So enamored was she with whatever the magic box displayed that she would kvetch with her mother for extra viewing privileges. Although her parents, Jean Ann and Jerry Krupinsky, could not then see how such a steady diet of old movies, sitcoms, dramas, game shows, variety shows, soap operas and commercials could possibly benefit their daughter, it undoubtedtly has — embuing in her a deep affinity for popular entertainment that, if not a prerequisite for working at TCM, certainly helps. “It does. It definitely does,” said the perky Krupinsky during a June visit to Omaha for her 20th high school class reunion. She is a 1981 graduate of Westside High School and a former student at Temple Israel Synagogue. “I just always loved television and movies and I’ve just always known I wanted to be in them.”

During her recent visit from her home in Decatur, GA., a community near Atlanta, where she works, Krupinsky, who is single, wore a bright red dress that matched the burning intensity she has for her job. That job entails producing segments for the network’s (Channel 55 on Cox) Private Screenings, Star of the Month, Director of the Month and Spotlight features as well as producing special projects related to individual films, figures or themes, such as a new half-hour documentary, Memories of Oz, which has been well-reviewed in the national press for its informative and fun take on the making of The Wizard of Oz. She has worked with everyone from impish Mickey Rooney to serious method actor Rod Steiger and tackled themes from Religion in the Movies to the Art of the Con. Her work has been recognized in the industry with Telly awards for Private Screenings segments on Tony Curtis and Leslie Caron. a 1999 Gracie Allen Award for a Carol Burnett On Lucille Ball special and the 21st Annual American Women in Radio and Television Award for a series of interstitials (promotional links) on women in film.

Many of the stars that Krupinsky, a graduate of the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism, has worked with have since passed away, most recently Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. A Private Screenings installment she did with Lemmon and Matthau remains one of her favorites, if for no other reason than she was enchanted with the man who originated the role of Oscar Madison on stage and on screen. “That was something that I loved to do. Walter Matthau was the greatest, funniest guy I ever met. I loved him. At one point, I was walking with him to show him where the Green Room is and he grabbed my hand. He was so sweet. He called me Charlotte the whole time. I’d be like, ‘No, it’s Dena.’ And he’d go, ‘No, no, I had a girlfriend named Charlotte, and you’re just like her.’ When he died I remembered this line he said that I loved during our taping session: ‘Dear, oh dear, I have a queer feeling they’ll be a strange face in heaven in the morning.’ And I thought of him and that line. Bless his heart.” Krupinsky invited her parents to attend the Lemmon-Matthau taping. She said she often tries sharing her Insider’s position with less experienced co-workers by letting them listen in on phone interviews. “I always like to have people listen because it’s too great a learning experience not to have your co-workers there.”

On one occasion, Krupinsky gathered a phalanx of Liza Minnelli fans in her office for a scheduled phone interview with the star only to have the diva surprise everyone by inviting the producer up to her place instead. “She said, ‘I’d love it if you could come to my house — I really don’t like to do phone interviews.’ And I was like, ‘Well, Liza, I’m in Atlanta and you’re in New York.’ She goes, ‘I’ll fly you up.’ So, I checked with my bosses and they said, ‘Go for it.’ I went to her house in New York and hanging on the walls were these big Andy Warhol prints — one of her, one of her mother and one of her father. Staring at those prints reminded me I was with a member of Hollywood royalty, and that her mother really was Judy Garland and her father really was Vincente Minnelli. She was as easy as an old friend, but I was in awe the whole time. It was great.”



photo of Dena Krupinsky

Dena Krupinski



Not at all jaded even after hobnobbing with scores of celebrities, the star struck Krupinsky said she still gets butterflies every time she meets one. “I’m always a little nervous, but the minute they start talking you kind of forget you’re scared.”

She said the stars are real troopers who go out of their way to make her and her colleagues feel comfortable being around them. “So far, they’ve all been so easy to work with and I think it’s because they want to tell their stories. They’re proud.  They don’t do it for the money. They do it because they want to do it.” She said stars are put through their paces on a typical Private Screenings production day, which entails a three to three-and-a-half hour taping session, promotional intros and press interviews. “It’s an exhausting process, but never have we had problems. I’ve never had anyone complaining that it’s taking too long or demanding star treatment. They’re totally professional. When we bring them on to the set, they’re not worried or anxious. They just say, ‘I got it. I know what to do.’ And they love it. I feel like they have as much fun with us as we do with them. I mean, they even sit with the crew and eat lunch.”

With stars flying in to Atlanta for the tapings, opportunities abound for Krupinsky to hang with the screen legends. “We usually take them out to dinner the night before. Tony Curtis, whom we’ve worked with a lot, came with his wife Jill. We took them to dinner and shopping. Tony is a lot of fun. This is a guy who doesn’t want to rest. He wants to go out at night. He has fun with his celebrity. He gladly signs autographs.” Following a Private Screenings session with Best Actor Oscar winner Rod Steiger, Krupinsky was asked to escort the actor to a Florida film festival in his honor and she witnessed first-hand the respect and adulation audiences feel for this “very intense and very passionate” man.

One of the toughest parts of her job, she said, is trying to whittle down the star interviews from several hours to the one hour or less allotted for airing. For several months now she has been working on the edit for an August 2 scheduled James Garner Private Screenings segment. “James Garner’s has been one of the hardest to cut because he told so many good stories. I cut and cut on paper first and when I went to edit I thought for sure I‘d be fine but it was still too long. Cutting stories is the hardest part. Editing is a long process.” In preparing to tape a Private Screenings or to produce a special project like the Memories of Oz documentary, Krupinsky immerses herself in the project, gathering and reviewing reams of materials on the subject, including published interviews, biographies, tapes of movies and archival photos, with the help of staff researchers. “I become totally absorbed in my subject. For three months I can tell you everything about Tony Curtis or James Garner because I study them and I learn about these guys. I’ll know everything — dates, times, movies  — you name it. But then once a project’s done that information goes away as I move on to the next one. The thing I love about my job is that I’m learning all the time. I feel like I’m still in school. It’s like having advanced film classes with experts talking about how they approach screenwriting or directing or acting.”

Krupinsky followed a logical route to TCM, working in local television promotion before graduating to the network level. Once out of college — and with her sights dead set on a career in TV — she took an entry-level job, as a secretary, at CBS affiliate WAGA-TV in Atlanta, where she was soon promoted to associate producer status — developing image campaigns and teasers for the station’s news and entertainment divisions. Even with the new position, she said, it was hard to get by on her small salary. “I was broke. I ate a lot at Taco Bell.” After a brief stint with a station in Knoxville, TN, she landed a spot as a writer-producer with Turner Network Television Latin America, which equaled a step-up on her career path but which also presented a dead-end since she did not speak a word of Spanish or Portugese. Then, in 1994, she heard about the formation of TCM and promptly applied for and won her current post. When she began at TCM, media mogul Ted Turner was still taking a hands-on approach with the fledgling network unlike today, when various mergers have taken Ted’s folksy presence out of the picture and replaced it with corporate suits. “Ted would always come by. One day, we had a meeting with him and he was wearing a cartoon tie and he was just hilarious,” she recalled. Other times, he’d walk by the office and say, ‘Hey guys, what are you doing?’ Everyone who worked for Ted has this feeling for him because he did a great job. Thank God I was there for that regime.”



Before joining the ranks of film buffs and cinephiles at TCM, Krupinsky acknowledges she was a bit out-of-step with her workmates because even though she loved movies, she lacked a deep knowledge of their history and lore. As an example, she points to Warner Brothers tough guy John Garfield, someone she was assigned to do a feature piece on and knew next to nothing about. “Before I did John Garfield I didn’t know who he was to be honest. I told my mom who I was profiling and she said, ‘Oh, John Garfield, he’s great. You’ll fall in love with him.’ I said, I will?’ And sure, enough, I did. You almost fall in love with all these people.”

The Garfield project led Krupinsky to the late actor’s daughter Julie Garfield, an actress, who provided personal insights into the man, and to former director Vincent Sherman, who directed Garfield in the 1943 drama Saturday’s Children and who worked with many other Warners greats in the 1930s and ‘40s. Krupinsky played matchmaker of sorts when she arranged for the two to meet. “I brought Julie and Vincent together for lunch and it was great to sit back and let him tell her stories about her dad that she didn’t know. I was kind of proud myself because I brought these two together.” Krupinsky feels privileged getting the inside scoop from veterans like Sherman, who at 95, is one of the last surviving directors from Hollywood’s classic studio era. Sherman knew everyone on the Warners lot and hearing him talk about the old days and the old stars is like getting the Holy Scripture from the prophet himself. “I had lunch with him and he was telling me stories about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, God, I’m sitting here with a man who worked with these legends.’ I mean, it is very cool. Vincent’s become a friend of our network’s.

A large part of her producing chores involves developing scripts, which generally include narration read by a star or stars who have some relationship with or enthusiasm for the subject. For example, to promote a month-long salute to the late producer-director Stanley Kramer, Krupinsky hit upon the idea of having comic Jonathan Winters, who appeared in Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, wax nostalgic about the filmmaker, with whom he was quite close. She interviewed Winters by phone and developed a script from his comments that adhered very closely to his own words. The resulting Winters’ salute was a surprisingly sober, reflective and personal reminiscence. When it comes time for the star to record the narration, as in the case of Winters, leeway is given for the star to go off-script and improvise. “They’ll paraphrase and add their own little things,” Krupinsky said, “and so it almost sounds like it’s off-the-cuff, and a lot of times it is.”

Among new and proposed projects, Krupinsky is now brainstorming ideas to promote TCM’s scheduled Coming of Age theme in October. She would like to get a Matt Dillon or Diane Lane or Reese Witherspoon to host the Coming of Age festival. Another idea she has is to get Dustin Hoffman alone or as part of a reunion of the cast of The Graduate. Other projects she would like to see happen range from a special on the Marx Brothers (she recently interviewed Carl Reiner on that comedy team) to Private Screenings segments with Shirley MacLaine, Elizabeth Taylor, James Coburn and Jerry Lewis. She is also busy thinking of some project that would be a good fit for Steve Martin to host/narrate.

Pitching projects is part of what Krupinsky or any producer does. She feels fortunate having superiors who value her input. “The cool part about my job is that as producers we have a lot to say. It’s not like, ‘Hey, Dena, your next assignment is…’ It’s more like, ‘Hey, Dena, here’s the programming we’re thinking of doing and we want you to come up with ideas.’ I can come back and say, ‘Let’s try this,’ and they’ll say yes or no, but a lot of times they say yes. That’s why I love my job. Like the Lemmon-Matthau Private Screenings. That was mine. I wanted to do something on comedy teams and I thought of Lemmon-Matthau and I did it. And the cool thing is you get to do this stuff with people you’ve always admired and wanted to meet.”

For now, Krupinsky is content at TCM, but she can see herself moving on, perhaps to produce feature-length documentaries. “I think about it all the time and I do feel like I am making a slow progression towards it. I’m doing great stuff now but I always feel like there’s something else I could be doing out there. I don’t want to ever get away from this work. Even if I moved on I still want something to do with Older Hollywood. Right now, though, I’m happy where I am.”

The Wonderful World of Entertainment Talent Broker Manya Nogg

April 30, 2012 5 comments


Behind virtually every television commercial, corporate training video, TV show, music video, movie, stage show, and lifestyle print ad is someone like Omaha-based Manya Nogg, whose job is to locate or identify talent and a lot of other things for producers and creative directors.  Without her, the show or project does not go on, or only does so after a big headache because she serves to expedite things that take valuable time in a field where time is money.  She’s been doing this talent broker thing for decades, and it’s just one manifestation of a lifelong enchantment with show biz, entertainment, and the arts that has seen fill all sorts or roles, as writer, director, producer, editor, casting director, makeup artist, production assistant, and on and on.  She’s worked in film, TV, theater.  She writes articles and reviews.  She teaches.  No spring chicken either, she’s still quite active juggling a multi-faceted career.  That was true when I profiled her a half-dozen years ago or so, and it’s still true today.






The Wonderful World of Entertainment Talent Broker Manya Nogg

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press


Who am I this time?

It’s a question brassy, breezy Manya Nogg might well ask given the chameleon-like life she leads and endless ways she reinvents herself. There’s Manya the wife and mother, the entrepreneur, the writer, the teacher, the motivational speaker, roles that overlapped her work as a makeup artist, television crew member, ad agency hack, city film commissioner and race horse owner.

In her current guise as founder-manager of the talent brokerage house Actors Etc. and of the dramatic presenting group Theater-to-Go, both of which she operates with her son, Randy, she wears many hats in trying to please clients and audiences alike. A day-in-the-life of Manya Nogg is sure to find her working the phone and perhaps rounding up human or animal talent, scouring salvage or thrift stores for one-of-a-kind props, searching far and wide for just-the-right locations, organizing-designing events and maybe even filling-in for an actor unable to go on.

She’s a whirling-dervish, hell-on-wheels, one-woman band with enough chutzpah, guile and wit to hold her own with anyone. Whether hanging with Teamsters on a set or meeting with button-down execs in a conference room, she can joke, quip and swear with the best of them and outlast them pulling all-nighters.

All of which brings us back to, Who is Manya Nogg anyway? “Anchor me down, honey? It’s like trying to catch the wind,” she tells a visitor to her Omaha home. “You can call me a broad, you can call me fat, but if you call me old, I will find out where you live.” A clue to what makes her tick is the joy her variegated work brings. “Being able to take an idea and bring it to fruition…to fulfill your own artistic vision…to have an idea and see where you can go with it, that creative part of taking something from nothing has always been very exciting to me. I love that.”

Actors Etc. is nearing its 30th anniversary as a media production supplier furnishing producers of commercials, TV movies, feature films and industrials with everything from actors and crafts people to props to caterers to location scouting services. Theater-to-Go presents live performances of original Who-Done-It mystery party games and TV-movie parodies at receptions, conventions, meetings and seminars.

Her search for new identities began during the post-World War II boom, when no sooner did she graduate from Central High School than the former Manya Friedel boarded the train to California as another starry-eyed Midwest girl pursuing silver screen dreams. “I graduated on Friday and left for Hollywood on Sunday,” is how she describes the start of her adventure. She was only 17. And the shy girl known then as “Doc” was following through on her long-held ambition “to be an actress.”

Aside from a one-time desire to be a nurse, Nogg’s what-do-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up visions were always golden-hued, like her wish to be a professional ice skater. “I don’t march to the same drummer as a lot of people,” she says.

Her movie aspirations were fired by the hours she spent watching movies, especially at the neighborhood Lothrup Theater, where her parents deposited her once a week while they played cards with the theater’s owners across the street. There, in the darkened cinema, basking in the glimmer of bigger-than-life images emblazoned before her, a young girl’s show business dreams took flight under the spell of stars like Bette Davis in Now, Voyager and character actresses like Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons and Judith Anderson in Rebecca.

But Nogg, who grew up an only child of practical parents that owned both a garage and the Omaha Broom Company, was not putting her eggs all in one basket. In school, she learned a more down-to-earth facet of show biz that became her backup for breaking into the movies. “Central High School had a marvelous theatrical makeup department and I just fell in love with it,” she says. “I started taking stage makeup and it became so much part of me I ended up becoming the student makeup mistress. I did this for three years. As a matter of fact, the teacher got married during the school year and was gone a week, and I taught the class.”


Manya Nogg




Still, she had little more than pluck when she made the trip west. Amazingly, her parents let her go without much of a fuss. “In retrospect, it kind of blows my mind they let me do what I did,” she says. “It took a lot of guts.” Easing their fears was the fact Nogg would be rooming with a friend who’d earlier ventured out there. Soon after arriving, reality set in. First, a Hollywood strike was on, meaning jobs were scarcer than usual in a ruthless town filled with wannabes. Next, she was unschooled and unprepared for the ins-and-outs of getting noticed. She had no agent, no head shots, no nothing except her naked ambition.

Embarking from the one-room apartment she shared in “a not so good part of downtown L.A.,” she made the rounds at the studios and the central casting office and “found out right away” she “couldn’t get in for an interview or audition” as an acting hopeful. Worse, she discovered women were shut out of makeup artist jobs and instead confined to hair stylist jobs, but in order to qualify she needed “a hair degree” from a cosmetology school, which she didn’t have.

Then, her beating-the-pavement paid off when she wandered into the offices of something called Stage Eight Productions, which turned out to be her gateway into the embryonic but soon-to-be burgeoning TV industry.

“Its head, Patrick Michael Cunning, was literally one of the pioneers of television in this country. He had one of the first production companies. He was one of the first directors. Edgar Bergen was a partner,” says Nogg, who didn’t know any of this when she arrived. “They were over on Sunset (Boulevard) and I walked in and Cunning was looking for a production assistant. The fact I knew makeup appealed to him and so I went to work for Stage Eight, and it was the Harvard of experiences. They wrote and produced everything themselves.”

Under Cunning’s guidance, Nogg did makeup, film editing, writing and assistant directing for some of TV’s earliest live dramatic programs, including its signature series of Tom Sawyer shorts, which were first done live and then redone on film. The films’ players worked as an ensemble troupe. “I was blessed that he let me write for them. What I would do is…be at every rehearsal and take down everything in short-hand, and go home and distill a script they would all be a little familiar with. They worked so well together they did not need tons of rehearsal. They could take my skeleton script and improvise. Then, eventually, I got to direct the Tom Sawyer Kids.” She counts Cunning among the “mentors” she’s been “lucky enough to have” who were “so professional and taught me so much about the business.” The only drawback was the less-than-living wage paid.

Cunning allowed her to get the acting bug out of her system and to find her true creative calling behind the scenes. “He knew I wanted to be an actress and he let me do some acting. I was doing a dramatic scene once that called for me to go from frightened to hysterical,” she recalls. “Well, I ended up being hysterical, not from anything in the scene, but because I realized I didn’t want to be the very thing I went out there to do. I was introverted and shy enough, and nobody knew this, that I wasn’t comfortable sharing me or putting myself out there. That’s when I went behind the camera, and I loved it. I love being behind the camera.”

Although Stage Eight proved a good “training ground,” Nogg became “frustrated in California” with the low pay and her inability to “make a dent in the film industry” and she sought a new start in Chicago, where she worked at Paramount Pictures-owned WBKB-TV, “one of the first genuine television stations in the country. By then, they were doing really hot stuff. They were on the air pretty much all day long. Kukla, Fran and Ollie started there. Marlin Perkins’ Zoo Time, the forerunner of Wild Kingdom, started there. I was technically a publicity assistant but my duties spilled over into working as a film editor, makeup artist, assistant director and writer. I did live interviews from Arlington Park.”

Life then threw her a curve when her father died. After a period of mourning in Omaha, she went back to Chicago, but soon returned here to be with her mother. With all that experience gained in Hollywood and Chicago, the indefatigable, unsinkable “Manya Brown” had no trouble starting over and selling herself again. In quick succession, she nabbed jobs at Universal Advertising and KBON Radio and snagged a husband in businessman Alvin Nogg, son of the late Nathan Nogg, whose Nogg Paper Company is still going strong today. She raised the couple’s two children, Randy and Sharon, and took part in managing some of her husband’s many other business interests, including the company that became Lancer Label and the family’s stable of racing and show horses. From the 1960s through the early ‘70s, she whet her creative appetite by doing makeup, props and costumes at the Omaha Community Playhouse and by working as a Docent at the Joslyn Art Museum, whose women’s association she was active in. The Noggs numerous civic activities extended to the downtown Kiwanis chapter, which her husband headed, and to the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben, where the couple’s daughter, Sharon, was a princess.





All this time, Nogg kept her hand in the media world as a freelance makeup artist and jack-of-all-trades in support of local commercial/industrial shoots. Her wealth of experience and keen networking skills gave her contacts in theater, TV/film production and the service industries that few others could match. When a TV client called with what seemed a tall order — “He said, ‘I want a guy to be able to walk around with a sandwich board on, but I want it to be a vault that will open up and that kids can reach into and grab candy’” — Nogg replied, “I’ve got just the guy for you.” That guy was Tom Casker, the then-set designer for the Omaha Community Playhouse. She called and a conversation ensued with Casker’s wife, Diane Casker, who was also working in local film production.

“By the time we got done talking, we had formed a new company. Between she and Tom and myself, we had done everything.”

Nogg and Diane Casker formed Illusions Unlimited, the predecessor of Actors Etc. “She was a wonderful gal, and we did magic together,” Nogg says of her late partner. She recalls that as women officing from home they encountered flak from the then-male-dominated ad agency ranks until they unloaded with some what-does-where-we-office-have-to-with-our work? straight talk.

The intent with Illusions was to offer location services for out-of-town and local production companies. To announce themselves with more pizzazz than the usual card or brochure, the partners stole an idea from TV’s Mission Impossible by recording a dramatic pitch on an audio playback machine, complete with a mock self-destructing tape, and delivering it to prospective clients. Nogg explains, “Our recording went, ‘Dear agency director…this is your mission, and should you choose to accept it,” and it said who we were and how we could be contacted. Then, at the end, and I don’t know how he did it, Tom inserted a powder package and when the tape ended, smoke poofed out. We could only afford one tape recorder, so we dropped it off one company at a time. We called a day or two later to ask if we could come visit. And, of course, we had hooked them with that.” Nogg says she and Casker only had to pull the stunt a few times before bagging a big client.

Landing the services contract for a National Alcohol Prevention Association film led to an expansion of Illusions that Nogg did not anticipate. “They wanted talent as well and most clients wanted that same service, and so it became an equal part of what we did,” she says. Flash forward 30 years and the bulk of what Actors Etc. does now is talent coordination for film-video projects, which means doing everything from supplying producers with actors, extras, crew and crafts people to actually casting the shoot to sub-contracting production houses to film it.

“Our slogan is script to screen,” she says. “If you call me today and say, ‘Manya, I want you to coordinate a commercial or industrial film for me,’ we have a roster of actors to act it, writers to write it, location people to find locations, crafts people to do costumes, makeup or hair, production assistants, assistant directors…We even subcontract with companies that do the actual filming. Everyone that works with us is an independent contractor. We’re a talent coordinating company or broker that picks the best people for you at the best price for your job.”

No two calls are the same. “When the phone rings,” she says, “we don’t know what they’re going to ask. We always have a short time frame, too. It’s like they always need it five minutes ago. When people ask me what I do, I joke that I’m a procurer. I’ll get you anything you need…if it’s legal. We don’t get bored, that’s for sure.”

Her credo is, “You’ll do the impossible, or try, if you want ‘em to come back.” Take the time New York ad agency Hungry Man prepped a Doritos commercial here. “They called needing to see as many of the heaviest-set people as we could find and put on tape by the end of the day,” she says. Nogg and company wrangled an ample sampling for the firm to review via video-conferencing. Then there was the time Disney needed a setting for an early Native American scene in an Ebcott Center film. Nogg picked a remote spot at De Soto Bend National Wildlife Refuge, “leaving us to figure how would we get an earth lodge and horse out to the middle of this island. We had to find boats to ferry them out. It was a challenge.”

Or when a client sought a dog and cat that could wear eyeglasses, prompting Nogg to ask, “You’re talking real ones, right?’ After explaining the animals’ limitations, she convinced the producer “to use puppets.” Another animal request she felt pushed the limits was the call for a chihuahua to do a series of poses in a La Mesa spot. “I never thought we were going to pull this off, but we made it work with only a mildly trained dog. In the spot, you see the dog sitting near a window watching its master come home. Then, you see it at the restaurant wrapped up in a blanket like a baby. And then sitting at the table. It’s darling.”

Finally, there was “the guy who wanted to blow up an airplane” for a commercial,  “and we were actually working on it, too, when he backed out.”

Delivering on those “if it’s ungettable, we’ll get it” push-the-envelope jobs is what Nogg lives for. “I’m excited we have clients that want to go the extra mile and come up with something different. You don’t mind because you know they respect what you’re trying to do. It’s a fun challenge to try to see it through to fruition. It invigorates you…when it’s not giving you an ulcer.”

As if needing something else to do, she served as Omaha’s first film commissioner in the ‘80s. Then, in the ‘90s, she saw the possibilities for adapting a script she’d pitched the producers of The Equalizer to the mystery party game circuit, and thus Theater-to-Go was born. She’s since added How-To teaching at Metropolitan Community College, motivational speaking and on-line book reviewing to her activities. Then there’s her stint as a private investigator, but that’s another story.

Living out loud has become her persona, but she wasn’t always thid way. “I was very quiet until I was 40. Then I heard that beer commercial –‘You only go around once in life, so go for the gusto’ — and, so, I became Auntie Mame, and I’ve never come back. But, you know what? That’s how I’ve managed to do what I’ve done.”


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