Elisha Wiesel at the conclusion of a five-hour reading of his father's seminal "Night" at the Museum for Jewish Heritage Jan. 29. Photo: John Halpern
On Sunday, Jan. 29, I made a move from Brooklyn to Manhattan with a truck, a crew of three, and lots of heavy boxes. Several hours later, at the Museum for Jewish Heritage for a live, five-hour reading of “Night,” Elie Wiesel's book based on his experiences in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, I was reminded of how a brigade line, or a human chain, can make the job easier. I thought of the weight of the subject as one after the other, with no commentary, a varied group of readers “held” the words of the late writer, professor, political activist, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor.
The 66 readers who participated in the reading were wide-ranging, from Holocaust survivors to community leaders to Broadway and TV stars, to thought leaders and journalists. The readers were of many faiths and backgrounds, and each read two to three minutes of Wiesel's work.
Former Governor Eliot Spitzer, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, actress Jessica Hecht, critic Edward Rothstein, and Muhammed Drammeh, a student, were among the individuals that I was present for. Some of the other readers included Rabbi Yits Greenberg, Itzhak Perlman, Andre Aciman, Ellen Burstyn and Bill T. Jones.
I asked the director of the museum, Michael Glickman, who was installed in September 2016, to talk about the organizing structure for the reading.
“We were looking to have the greatest possible impact,” said Glickman. “What struck us about creating a structure that would enable that many people to partake and read, was, how do we do it in a way that is not disruptive. The stream of readers from start to finish so eloquently were able to capture Elie's words without distraction or fuss. There were no moments of speeches or remarks — it was designed to be an experience to take hold of while being physically in the space.”
The selection and sequence of readers was intentionally random and diverse, “and, quintessentially New York,” said Glickman. “We wanted it to look and feel and sound like NYC.”
The readers, even those who were not actors, read with the feeling of storytellers. Considering that there was no rehearsal, said Glickman, “everyone did a spectacular job, no one was not fully prepared to deliver their section.”
I mentioned to Glickman that what stood out to me as an audience member was that in every section during the hours I was present, there was invariably a motif of soup. “The absolute removal of the basic components of life for those in the camps … soup, water, hot coffee … was a fundamental policy and fundamental effort of the Nazis,” said Glickman. Those in concentration camps “had in some cases just enough to survive and in other cases not enough, and it was an important way to understand the torment and the detriment of the experience that the Jews of Europe were going through.”
While the reading had been planned before the election of Donald Trump, Glickman said that in the current political climate it “morphed into something bigger, it felt more important after the election.”
“Moments like this are important,” said Glickman. “I'm hopeful that the impact on the community at large by presenting this reading, by gathering this illustrious group of readers to our stage, will help shine a light out there for people to understand that ... the lessons of yesterday are not to be overlooked.”