Musical inspired by battle against anti-Semitism

Local Life May 9, 2012 1 Comment

by Len Lear

On a quiet evening in Billings, Montana, on Dec. 2, 1993, a stranger stole across the lawn at the home of Tammie and Brian Schnitzer. He stopped at a window decorated with Star of David decals and a menorah, symbol of the Jewish festival of Chanukah, then hurled a brick sending ragged shards of glass into the bedroom of their 5-year-old son, Isaac.

Tammie Schnitzer, a victim of anti-Semitism at her former home in Billings, Montana, has traveled throughout the U.S. inspiring audiences with her story about the importance of fighting intolerance. She appeared at Plymouth Meeting Friends School last weekend. Seen here, Tammie looks out the shattered window of her son’s bedroom. (Photo courtesy of The Billings Gazette)

Schnitzer, a fourth generation Montanan, had been chronicling a series of hate-motivated threats and attacks against the small Jewish community in Billings. A recent convert to Judaism and new congregant of Congregation Beth Aaron, Schnitzer was troubled to see how ingrained the threat of hatred had become in her new house of worship.

She wanted to do something about it, but suddenly found her own home and family a direct target of anti-Semitic hatred. It was at that moment that Tammie Schnitzer became an activist and began working to inspire the complacent citizens of Billings to take a stand against hatred and bigotry.

Tammie contacted her local media, which began to report on the acts of violent anti-Semitism. According to a recent interview with Tammie, “Suddenly, people couldn’t turn their backs to this and say this was one isolated incident. The end result was that 10,000 menorahs were lifted and placed in people’s homes. All I cared about was what I was teaching my children. And I needed that opportunity to show Isaac and Rachel, my children, that you don’t hide from this; you don’t run from bullies; you don’t run from terrorists; you hold your ground, and most importantly, you don’t accept anything less than the right to walk the streets and proudly proclaim who you are.

“And so when 10,000 menorahs were placed in the windows of Billings, it allowed me to walk down the street with my son, who was in kindergarten, and look at every one of those menorahs and have him stand proud and tall. And I remember him saying, ‘They must all be Jewish.’ And I said, ‘No; they are all different religions. But they’re here to let you know that there are 10,000 arms wrapping themselves around you, saying it’s safe. It’s safe to say here, ‘You’re Isaac Schnitzer, a Jew,’ and you walk on.”

Eliana Colzani (from left), Sahar Ali and Cara Tressider delivered grown-up performances last weekend in “The Power of One” that brought Tammie Schnitzer, whose story of persecution inspired the musical, to tears.

Frumi Cohen, a music and theater teacher and resident playwright at Plymouth Meeting Friends School (PMFS), was so inspired after reading about Tammie’s actions that she wrote a musical based on the Billings story, “The Power of One,” which she directed with her PMFS 6th graders last Friday and Saturday in the Steinbright Auditorium at 2150 Butler Pike on the PMFS campus.

But that’s not what made these performances special. In March, one of Cohen’s young actresses, Maya Rabinowitz, who plays the character of Tammie Schnitzer in “The Power of One,” wanted to know more about the real event to better understand the character she was portraying. As she researched the story and the rash of hate crimes that were perpetrated on not only the Jewish population in Billings, but on African Americans and other minority groups, she realized that she wanted to talk personally to the woman who refused to accept the hatred that confronted her family, just because they were Jewish.

The search began. Maya’s mom, Carol, helped her daughter by making calls trying to track down Ms. Schnitzer. Finally, after many phone calls and emails, Carol was successful in obtaining a phone number for Ms. Schnitzer. She called. “Tammie couldn’t have been more hospitable on the phone,” said Carol, “when I asked if my daughter could talk to her regarding a musical she was in based on the Billings story. Tammie readily agreed to talk to Maya, and a phone appointment was set up.

“Tammie was so impressed with Maya’s mature manner and her passion and compassion about this crime that she decided to make the eight-hour drive up to Plymouth Meeting Friends School from South Carolina (where Tammie currently resides) not only to see the show, but to talk personally with the K-6 students at the school and participate in an after-show talk back with cast, parents, students and faculty.”

Schnitzer serves on numerous national and local boards and committees to advocate human rights, and has traveled throughout the country inspiring audiences with her story, delivering the message about the importance of fighting the battle against intolerance.

Tammie appeared at PMFS last Friday, where she talked to Cohen and cast members following the performance of “The Power of One,” and on Saturday she was present at an informal reception following that performance. The Friday performance was electric. It was sold out, and chairs had to be added. The 3rd graders took part in the musical for the first time in PMFS history, coming in from the back of the theater, adding their voices to the last song, entitled “The Power of One.”

According to Frumi Cohen, “Tammie was in tears, as were many audience members. I was moved and will never forget Tammie’s comments after the performance: She said that she came to see a 6th grade musical, but ‘I saw my life up there.’  She found it hard to believe that the cast was only in 6th grade. “Also she said that after seeing our school’s version of ‘The Power of One’ that she now was sure ‘the world was going to be OK.’ That statement moved me beyond the reality of the musical to feeling like my words and music and, most importantly, my work with kids is making a difference.”

According to Tammie, whenever one becomes aware of innocent victims being brutalized by bullies and bigots, “it is our responsibility to help them out. There are consequences to every action, and (there are) consequences to inaction, too. Riding that fence of indifference, you are supporting the perpetrator, and now someone else is at risk. I can’t sleep at night if I have information of that sort. And moving forward may be as simple as sitting down with your children and reading the daily newspaper with them and saying, ‘How would this feel if this were you?’ And, ‘What do we do to make this situation better?’”

To see a documentary about “The Power of One,” entitled “Anatomy of the 6th Grade Musical,” visit http://www.pmfs1780.org/RelId/633831/ISvars/default/The_Making_of_the_6th_Grade_Musical!.htm. For more information, email frumic@comcast.net

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  • Frumic

    Great article, Len. Many thanks!