Author Archives: Lindsey Bridwell

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University Posts Rosenberg Letters Online

Public Domain

A new website on convicted Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg provides access to a collection of more than 500 letters between the couple while they were imprisoned.

The website, hgar-srv3.bu.edu/web/rosenberg-archive, was launched last week by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Center at Boston University.

Maintaining their innocence until the end, the Rosenbergs were executed on conspiracy charges for passing along secret information to the Soviet Union.

The controversial Cold War-era trial of the Jewish couple, and their executions in 1953, sparked worldwide protests and continues to capture the attention of students and scholars of law, history and politics as well as artists, musicians, filmmakers and the general public.

The extensive collection of letters, acquired from the Rosenbergs’ sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, includes more than three dozen letters between the Rosenbergs and their lawyer, Emanuel Bloch, that have never been available to researchers or the public as well as more contemporary publications from the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case.

Additional material includes pamphlets, newspaper clippings, sheet music of songs about the Rosenbergs and the Rosenbergs’ wills. The letters between the couple are high resolution digitized images.

In the last letter Ethel wrote to her children, on June 19, 1953, she says she is innocent and goes to her death unafraid because she knows she is doing it for a greater cause.

“Eventually, too, you must come to believe that life is worth the living,” Ethel wrote.

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Israel: Is it Good for the Jews?

101714_mishmash-book2By Richard Cohen
Simon and Schuster, 273 pages

Is Israel good for the Jews?

No, not if you prefer discrimination, exclusion, expulsion, persecution, pogroms and murder in the millions.

Of course Israel is good for the Jews, as Richard Cohen makes more than abundantly clear in this book, recounting our woeful, disaster-filled history since exile and making as vivid a case for a Jewish homeland as any fervent Zionist.

So why this book? An early title — “Can Israel Survive?” — was inappropriate; beyond decrying the “occupation,” Cohen mercifully devotes little space to the demeaning American habit of telling Israelis what’s in their best interest.

Before writing this book, Cohen decided to “brush up a bit.” One book and website led to another, and “slowly, inexorably, I fell in love. What marvelous people these Jews were! What magic and what genius and drama and what tragedy!”

He closes with angst about continuing occupation and about Jews’ future in America because of indifference and intermarriage. He says: “Israel’s promise is great, but its future is not bright,” because of the hatred around it and the lack of critical mass worsened by economic emigration.

But yet he concludes: “The long view is what matters — back as well as forward. Israel must endure. It is the irrevocable deal” made with its immigrants, especially Shoah survivors who had lost everything. “All the rest is commentary.”

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Living in a Dystopian Future

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Design director Naomi Davidoff’s costume sketches.

An ambitious show calls for ambitious materials: LED lights, wigs, foam armor, bicycle tubes, belly-dancing outfits and telescoping wooden columns.

There were no creative limitations in creating a futuristic sci-fi world, where electricity is currency and an oppressive pharaoh keeps the people deeply divided into two classes — the upper-class “luxies” and the lower-class “dimmers.”

It’s the space-age setting for “Electric Pharaoh,” the sixth original production from the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, or the BROS, as members and devotees affectionately call the organization. The show premieres tonight and runs through Oct. 26 in Baltimore.

It follows the story of a boy named Chenzira, who is searching for thesecrets of the pyramids and learning how to harness his own ability to generate electricity. “What he will find could change his life and rescue humanity from a futuristic dark age,” the BROS website says.

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‘Electric Pharoah’ creator Chuck Green shows off an LED-lit pharoah helmet, which will be controlled wirelessly.

On a recent Monday night in Baltimore, volunteers — everyone involved in the production is a volunteer — were building pieces of the set and working on costumes in an old warehouse in north Baltimore called the Bell Foundry, which serves as BROS headquarters. Chuck Green, who came up with the concept of the show and helped write the script, was wiring panels of LED lights to a pharaoh helmet.

Volunteer coordinator Miriam Cummons was putting the finishing touches on some wigs with fellow volunteer Heather Graham. Some were cutting and painting foam armor, which would also be wired with LED lights, while others were building parts of the set. Design director Naomi Davidoff showed off some of her costume sketches and finished costumes, some of which had LED lights sewn into the seams.

“It’s going to be kind of crazy, and all of this is wirelessly controlled,” said Davidoff. “I have no idea how it all works.”

“Electric Pharaoh” costumes will feature 15 sets of LED lights that will be wirelessly controlled and, for parts of the show, synched with the music and video projections that are mapped to different parts of the stage.

“There are programmers involved, people that are really highly technically involved — typically, those people are kind of hard to find,” said Mason Ross, the show’s director. “Not to mention to have so many wireless elements talking to each other and triggering each other. To be honest, you don’t even see that that often in professional theater.”

The BROS, the brainchild of four Goucher College graduates and a common friend, who founder Aran Keating said were “mythologizing their own lives in the most ridiculous ways,” started in 2009 with heavy metal musical “Gründlehämmer.” It has since morphed into a force to be reckoned with, boasting sold-out original productions, appearances at Artscape and other street festivals and self-branded annual parties.

Miriam Cummons adds finishing touches to a headpiece.

Miriam Cummons adds finishing touches to a headpiece.
(Photos by Marc Shapiro)

“After ‘Gründlehämmer’ we kind of sat down and realized that we sold out three nights of this show and it probably wasn’t a fluke that we’d come together and rallied this community of people, and really built this community of people around the show,” Dylan Koehler, one of the founders, said. “We’re all here to make something really awesome that’s greater than the sum of its parts.”

For a do-it-yourself theater, the BROS is rich with resources and enthusiasm. Ross, who has been involved in Baltimore’s DIY theater community for about 10 years, said directing the show is “a lot of making sure that all of the tentacles of this many-armed beast know what’s going on.” Between the cast, band, lighting, sound, sets, props, costumes, multimedia and other departments, there are more than 100 volunteers working on the show.

“Every show is another way to just be even more ridiculous and awesome, and they do take the camaraderie and the spirit of the company seriously,” Cummons said. “It makes the community really inclusive because they’re always looking for new kind of talent. They’re looking for people who breathe fire or use a loom. It’s any crazy combination of stuff.”

And the talented came out, in large numbers. Both Ross and Erica Patoka, the vocal director, assistant music director and one of the band’s keyboardists, said they had no trouble filling out the cast and band with top-notch performers. It was the first time the BROS held band auditions, which brought in a pool of professional musicians ready to tackle the show’s multi-genre score.

“It’s like the marriage of the best of 1990s electronica from Europe to here, merged with like a smidgen of industrial music, merged with the best of true rock from the 1960s to now,” Patoka said. “If you can’t imagine it, you should see the show.”

Jon Caplan, one of the band’s two guitarists, hadn’t played a BROS production in a few years. He thought with auditions being held, he’d get
a chance to play in some kind of Baltimore all-star band, and he has not been disappointed.

“It’s, like, amazing,” he said, recalling painstakingly long rehearsals for some earlier shows. “I think we could all make the claim to be professional musicians in our personal lives, so we all came in prepared.”

Patoka, who speaks proudly about flunking out of Peabody Conservatory twice — once for piano and once for flute, co-wrote much of the music for “Electric Pharaoh.” And although it was a labor-intensive process, Patoka never regrets spending her evenings outside of work with the BROS.

“The people at my job think I’m nuts. I’m a nurse practitioner by day, or as my mother would say, ‘almost a doctor,’ so that’s my day job — very busy, very crazy, saving lives, whatever,” she said, “and then I get here, and it’s that Jekyll/Hyde existence, I think, that keeps us alive.”

So the BROS have a top-notch band, video projections and LED-lit costumes, but does the depth of story match the intensity of the production? Ross seems to think so.

“I think the job of science fiction is to ask what other moral complications and questions we would have to ask ourselves, given certain advances in technology and society,” he said. “I think that the script does that.”

After the show’s Baltimore run, the BROS hits the road to take the production to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

“Everyone’s going to have a party mom, which is going to be like a team captain, to do headcounts and stuff,” said Cummons, who is charged with figuring out how to house and transport about 100 people for the tours. “Everyone is smart, ready to have a good time in safe way.”

“Electric Pharaoh” runs through Oct. 26 at Lithuanian Hall, 851 Hollins St., Baltimore. Tickets range from $20 to $40 and can be purchased at bros.tixato.com/buy.

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

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An ‘Oy Vey’ Journey of Self-Discovery

101714_filmEstella Fish is Puerto Rican, and she clasps a rosary while fretting about her directionless youngest daughter, Alexis. Yet, she sounds like a typical Jewish mother concerned about an underachieving adult child.

It may have something to do with the fact that Estella’s husband is Jewish, although he’s easygoing and soft-spoken rather than schticky. The truth, though, is she embodies the universal instincts of mothers everywhere and reminds viewers of their own mom.

New York writer-director Nicole Gomez Fisher modeled Estella on her own mother for the altogether winning indie comedy “Sleeping With the Fishes.” For her first screenplay, Fisher followed the age-old advice to write what you know.

“The characters are all loosely based on my family,” she confided. “The actual story itself is a mix of fiction and truth. It is based on my upbringing of being a Puerto Rican Jew, my mother being Puerto Rican and when she met my father made the choice to convert to Judaism. So we were raised Jewish, and, for the most part, we went to Sunday school and Hebrew school.”

“Sleeping With the Fishes” presents a colorblind New York in which young people pay no attention to ethnicity, race and religion. Fisher’s childhood was a lot more complicated, however.

“It was a weird upbringing in the sense that my sister and I tended not to be accepted by kids in Hebrew school,” she recalled. “They would say things like, ‘You know you’re technically not a Jew,’ or ‘You don’t celebrate this [holiday],’ or ‘You’re not kosher.’ They put labels on us and made us feel very excluded.”

“Sleeping With the Fishes” premiered last year at the Brooklyn Film Festival. It’s airing numerous times in October and November on various HBO networks, and it comes out Oct. 21 on DVD.

As the film begins, Alexis (appealingly played by Gina Rodriguez) is living in Los Angeles and working humiliating jobs in a futile attempt to make ends meet. She’s summoned back to New York — her more responsible sister Kayla (an acerbic Ana Ortiz) advances the airfare — for the funeral of a random relative. Moving back in with her parents, Alexis naturally chafes against their concerned (and loving) interest.

The plot kicks into another gear when Alexis and Kayla are hired to produce a bat mitzvah party on one week’s notice with a tiny budget. Propelled by the sisters’ spiky banter and further enlivened by the droll introduction of a potential romantic partner, “Sleeping With the Fishes” is a warm-hearted and deeply pleasurable saga of a resourceful 20-something’s navigation past various bumps in the road.

“I didn’t want this to be a Jewish and/or a Latino film,” said Fisher, who spent four years in Los Angeles doing standup comedy. “For me, it was really more about the mother-daughter relationship than anything else because I tried so hard not to identify myself as one or the other — but just as Nicole — because it was so cloudy growing up and trying to figure out where I fit in.”

A turning point was the film’s West Coast premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in the summer of 2013.

“I was very nervous,” Fisher said, “not only because it was the first Jewish forum, but the demographic of the audience was easily 50-plus-plus-plus-plus-plus. I’ve never seen more walkers and scooters in my life. And it was 500 people, too. I’d gone from the Brooklyn Film Festival, where it was 200 mostly family and friends so I felt a little safe, into a whole different world for me, and it was probably in our top three best responses ever.”

Fisher laughs at herself and elaborates on the happy misperception she had of her own work.

“When I wrote this film, I could have sworn that my demographic was going to be young, possibly more Latino than Jewish,” Fisher said. “I have to tell you, with all the screenings we’ve had, definitely I was wrong. It appeals to a much older crowd. A lot of people seem to enjoy the quality of the humor because it’s not like I’m just dashing off stereotypes. I’m speaking from a voice of my own personal experience.”

The response to “Sleeping With the Fishes” is especially gratifying to Fisher given her concern with depicting her family onscreen.

“The process of writing something so close to home, and with characters that are literally your family, was stifling for me,” she admitted. “I was so afraid of insulting or offending or hurting feelings on any level or portraying my mother to be super evil.”

Fisher laughs when her interviewer suggests she didn’t attend the Joan Rivers school of comedy, in which anything — especially family — is fair game and feelings don’t matter.

“I would love to get to that point in my comedy,” she said. “For a first script, I was overly cautious. I felt the need to protect my family, not even knowing it would get to this point with HBO. So now I’m really, really nervous.”

Not so nervous, though, to refrain from telling a childhood anecdote that provokes a chuckle at her mother’s expense.

“We did try doing seders,” Fisher said. “It just didn’t work out. My mom would always cook Puerto Rican food.”

Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based film critic and journalist.