Sarbanes, The Jazz Musician

Nico Sarbanes was the only student musician commissioned to write a piece for the Baltimore Jazz Alliance’s composer showcase. (Photo provided)

Nico Sarbanes was the only student musician commissioned to write a piece for the Baltimore Jazz Alliance’s composer showcase. (Photo provided)

Nico Sarbanes’ parents planted musical seeds early in his life, perhaps paving the way for him to become a jazz trumpeter.

“Jazz was the first music I heard when I was growing up,” he said. “My parents were playing Sinatra and Tony Bennett for me when I was a kid.”

Sarbanes, the son of Dina and Congressman John Sarbanes, recently had his work showcased at the Baltimore Jazz Alliance’s composer showcase, one of four competition winners and the only student-musician featured. Three original pieces were submitted anonymously to a panel of judges that included renowned Baltimore musicians, who evaluated the pieces based on harmony, structure, creativity and originality.

“They decided [Nico’s songs] had a strong melodic content, and he’s well versed in harmonies,” said Mark Osteen, president of the Baltimore Jazz Alliance.

The four winners of the contest were commissioned to write new pieces to be performed by the BJA Quintet, thanks to a grant from the Baltimore Community Foundation’s William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund. Six other entrants also had their pieces performed. Another grant from Loyola University’s Center for the Humanities paid for the event, which was held on Sept. 29, as well as for the musicians and publicity.

Sarbanes, 20, a junior studying jazz trumpet at McGill University in Montreal, took a 16-hour train ride back to Baltimore to hear his piece performed. Because of the commute, he wasn’t able to rehearse with the BJA Quintet as the other composers were.

“I was actually hearing it performed for the first time, along with everyone in the audience,” he said. “It was a cool experience.”

His father, Congressman John Sarbanes, and his grandfather, former Senator Paul Sarbanes, attended the performance.

“He’s put a lot of work into this, both in terms of his performance …  but also now in composing, which is nice because he’s bringing his own creative input to this pursuit of music,” Congressman Sarbanes said. “It’s satisfying, I know, for him to see that that’s getting some recognition.”

Musical talent goes way back in the family. Nico’s great-grandfather, Leon Schwartz, was a renowned Klezmer violin player.

“That music gene definitely found its way to my three kids,” Congressman Sarbanes said, noting that his daughter, Stephanie, was an accomplished cellist in high school, and his younger son, Leo, currently plays the oboe in the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra and was in Maryland’s All-State Band.

Nico’s mother, Dina Sarbanes, said he would sing everywhere as a kid, recalling a time when he broke into an opera song in the middle of Strapazza in Pikesville. After playing in summer music programs and in various musical capacities in school, Nico had has his sights set on music schools.

“He said those words that every Jewish mother wants to hear, “I’m going go to college and become a jazz musician,” Dina Sarbanes joked.

The family has been highly supportive, Nico said.

“I know what a risk it is for a parent to invest money in their kid going to music school because it’s a fickle career path,” he said.

Although he sees a lot of parallels between jazz and Klezmer, and Eastern European Ashkenazi music, he focuses more on hard bop. The jazz subgenre incorporates blues, gospel and R&B into its sound. Artists such as Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, the Adderley brothers and other artists on Blue Note Records piqued his interested in hard bop, which attracted him because of its intellectual approach with soulful sounds.

“The biggest thing for me when I’m composing is that there has to be some sort of emotional connection,” Nico said. “I feel like there’s too many musicians now in jazz who place too much emphasis on the intellectual part of their writing. … You can balance them.”

The piece he composed for the BJA showcase was called “Clifford The Big Brown Dog,” a tribute to jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown.

While Nico may not be following in the public service footsteps of his father and grandfather, Dina Sarbanes hopes he finds a way to improve the community in other ways.

“You can make a difference in the community through music. You can promote arts education, bring music to underprivileged kids,” she said. “I hope he will continue the tradition of giving back and serving the public; it just may be in a different way.”

For now, Nico is enjoying the lack of creative limitations in jazz.

“I like the freedom jazz allows you,” he said. “When you’re not concerning yourself with mistakes so much, it’s a lot easier to express yourself.”

Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter –

Out Of The Shadows


Kathy Leichter says making “Here One Day,” a film about her mother’s
suicide, helped her heal. (Provided)

Here one day, gone the next. That’s what it feels like when a loved one dies — especially when that person takes his or her own life.

That’s the focus of “Here One Day,” a highly personal 2012 documentary by award-winning Jewish filmmaker Kathy Leichter.

The film is about her mother, Nina Leichter, who jumped to her death from a New York City apartment window in 1995 at the age of 63. She suffered from bipolar illness, and the film focuses on its impact and the impact of Nina’s suicide on her family. It will be screened at Baltimore’s Church of the Redeemer on Thursday, Oct. 10 at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. The screenings, open to people of all faiths, are presented in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Week.

“If you had told me I would make a film about my mother’s suicide, I probably would have slapped you in the face,” said Leichter, 46. “Telling this story was so far from my mind, in part because of the stigma [of suicide], but also because it was so painful. Talking about it meant
accepting it.”

It was not until nine years after her mother’s tragic death, when pregnant with her younger son, Theo, that Leichter began to confront the feelings she had long suppressed.

“I had my first son, Otto, in 2001, and for some reason I had always assumed my second child would be a daughter. But when my sonogram showed that my baby was a boy, it unleashed a huge wave of grief. I think [unconsciously] I assumed that having a daughter would give me a chance to re-create my relationship with my mother, to heal and bring her back,” said Leichter. “I didn’t do that by having a daughter, but I did it through making the film.”

At first, said Leichter, “the film was going to be a more abstract, conceptual reflection on ‘mother loss’ and how it influenced me as a mother. It wasn’t about suicide.”

But as she dove deeper into the project, Leichter began to hone in on the story of her own family. The turn of events was remarkable since, until she began to make “Here One Day,” Leichter had been unable to reveal to others the cause of her mother’s death.

“I had to be interviewed by a friend who was a psychoanalyst,” she recalled.

For years, Leichter had been unwilling to look at photos of her mother, and it was not until 16 years after her mother’s death, and seven years into the film project, that Leichter finally had the courage to listen to a collection of audiotapes left by her mother.

“I was frightened to hear her voice. Once I did, it felt good,” she said.

100413_here_one_day1The making of “Here One Day” also gave Leichter the opportunity to talk openly with her younger brother and father about her mother and the pain her suicide had inflicted upon the remaining family members.

“Unconsciously, I used the film to approach my grief,” Leichter said.

“At first, my brother didn’t want to be filmed,” said Leichter. “But after a while he realized he was a big part of the story, and he didn’t want me to tell it without him. So I sat with him for two-and-a-half hours, and I learned a lot I didn’t know before.”

Ellen Lebedow, a clinical social worker at the Jewish Social Service Agency in Rockville who leads support groups for adults who have lost loved ones to suicide, stressed the importance of providing a separate group for those individuals.

“People who have lost someone [to suicide] are frequently dealing with painful issues such as shock, anger and guilt, all issues that in some cases make grieving after a suicide somewhat different than other types of bereavement,” she said.

Yet, mental-health and suicide-prevention advocates also stress the importance of confronting mental illness and suicide directly and without shame.

“That’s where Kathy’s film comes in,” said Lebedow. “We need to bring out the issues of mental illness and suicide. These are real issues in the Jewish community and every community. We need to talk about them and to be there for one another.”

By screening her film in venues across the country, and appearing for post-film discussions (as she will do on Oct. 10), Leichter hopes to create safe spaces to talk about mental illness and suicide.

“I did a screening at Wesleyan University recently and I met someone who told me she had never met anyone else who had a parent with bipolar illness,” said Leichter. “She thought she was the only one. The film is very open and raw. Because of our honesty, it allows other people to talk about their experiences. Making this film has really been a gift.”

Screenings of “Here One Day” with follow-up discussion with filmmaker Kathy Leichter will take place on Thursday, Oct. 10 at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. at the Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St. For more information about the film, visit

‘Soul Doctor’


It is a Yiddish exclamation of surprise, incredulity. Usually, it’s negative, like “Oy, gevalt!” But Eric Anderson, the non-Jewish actor who transformed himself into the hippie rabbinic icon, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, said he learned the term can have a whole other meaning.

“[Shlomo] used it like ‘Wow,’ ‘Gevalt! This is amazing,’ ‘Gevalt! I cannot believe it,” said Anderson. “Instead of it meaning ‘Oh my gosh,’ Shlomo used it to say, ‘You are the greatest, you are the sweetest.’”

And just like that one Yiddish word, the message of the recently debuted Broadway performance of “Soul Doctor” is one of peace and love and holiness in the challenges of the post-Holocaust era. And the character of Rabbi Carlebach, who ultimately played alongside such musical greats as Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, is meant to show an enduring spirit, a man who could touch the lives of millions, as he sat personally torn between his life as a religious Jew and his mission of spreading the sparks of Judaism to the masses — no matter their affiliation.

Rabbi Carlebach passed away in October 1994.

“Soul Doctor,” which opened Aug. 15 at Manhattan’s Circle in the Square Theatre, was written and is directed by Daniel S. Wise. It takes the audience from Rabbi Carlebach’s childhood in Vienna through the height of his music career — the hippie 1970s. It predates his short-lived marriage and the birth of his two daughters, Neshama and Dari. Instead, it focuses on a lesser-known relationship he had with jazz singer Nina Simone in 1957, when she was working as a pianist and lounge singer in Atlantic City.

“I don’t think most people realized that Shlomo had a sweet friendship with Nina Simone; this is something we learned about from Neshama in whom he confided in his later years,” said Anderson. “Bringing Nina Simone and her music into the show adds some beautiful flavor and gives us some real diversity, which I think a lot of people are not necessarily expecting when they walk into ‘Soul Doctor.’”

To get into character, Anderson researched Rabbi Carlebach — on the Internet, through listening to CDs and watching videos of Rabbi Carlebach. But he said his best research was “the smaller, intricate things about him I learned through the people who would speak to me.”

Anderson met multiple times with Neshama and also traveled to Israel, where he spent two hours lunching with Dari, her husband, Ari Leichtberg, and their two children at their home in Zichron Yaakov, near Haifa. Dari Carlebach said she “liked Anderson immediately” and described him as having “a very sweet presence and really soulful eyes. … There is something really special about him.”

Dari Carlebach said she found meeting with Anderson a positive experience also because she was able to talk about her father openly, and there was someone, who knew nothing about him — had no preconceived notions — to take it all in.

After meeting with Dari Carlebach, Anderson spent a Shabbat at Moshav Mevo Modi’in, Rabbi Carlebach’s moshav in central Israel, at which his followers still live today. Anderson, who people describe as quiet and humble, said he was “very careful at first. I didn’t know what to expect.”

“I had an idea that everyone would be beautiful and embracing just because of who Shlomo was and the fact that these are people who were his friends and his family,” said Anderson. “I had never experienced a Shabbos before, with all of the traditions. I was gently led through it. … It was amazing.”

Anderson slept and ate by Dina and Rabbi Ben-Zion Solomon. Dina Solomon said that Anderson expressed to her that the Shabbat — and portraying a character like Shlomo, in general — “opened his heart in a lot of ways.”

She said she had no idea who Anderson was, or even what “Soul Doctor” was all about, until Anderson’s arrival. At the moshav, she said warmly, guests come and go; everyone wants to spend Shabbat at the moshav because of its over-long davening, a service as much as it is a performance of Rabbi Carlebach’s tunes.

“I was coming back from Tel Aviv and someone called me and said someone wants to come to the moshav for Shabbos,” Solomon recalled. “It was a Thursday, and I just said, ‘OK, he can stay with us.’”

But while Solomon said she took a liking to Anderson, she has heard mixed reviews about the production and from the storyline understands that the show doesn’t accurately portray who Rabbi Carlebach was.

“I think anyone who is religious or was close to Shlomo feels pretty negative about it. It portrays him as having an affair with Nina Simone. I know he respected her and loved her music, but they didn’t have an affair. It drags his name through the mud, and his name has already been dragged through the mud enough with those kinds of issues,” Solomon said.

Rabbi Carlebach faced allegations, which became public in a 1998 Lilith magazine article, that he routinely made sexually suggestive late-night phone calls to female acquaintances and that he physically molested numerous women over the course of decades. Such accusations naturally provoked fierce controversy about how to remember a man many consider a saint. His followers have rejected those allegations (and they are not brought up in Wise’s play).

For her part, Dari Carlebach said that one could never capture the depth and breadth of her father’s complicated story.

Rabbi Carlebach, born in Berlin in 1925 to a prominent rabbinic family, fled to New York with his parents and siblings in 1939. His father became the rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jacob on West 79th Street, which Rabbi Carlebach and twin brother Rabbi Eli Chaim Carlebach took over in 1967. The synagogue still stands in New York and is known as “The Carlebach Shul.”

Rabbi Carlebach was a scholar in his own right, studying at some of the most renowned American yeshivot, including Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J. He later connected with the Lubavitch movement, whose rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, encouraged him to go into outreach. This mandate was the start of what became his calling, serving as the rabbi of the hippie movement. Many young Jews returned to a Torah lifestyle as a result of their relationship with Rabbi Carlebach.

“No one in the world could ever be my father,” said Dari Carlebach. “But I think he [Anderson] emanated my father’s soulfulness. … My father was so deep and wise and so universal in many ways, but he emanated this very in-the-present quality and kind of innocent wonder.”

Dari Carlebach also said that Anderson was able to fittingly capture her father’s struggle, being caught between two worlds — the religious, yeshivish world and that of the hippie world. She said her father had a huge desire “to love and heal the world” and he did it with “such heart and grace and empathy.” All insinuations, inaccuracies or even missed plot lines for lack of time (the show is but two-and-a-half hours), said Dari Carlebach, are less important than the universal message, which she hopes that “Soul Doctor” gets across.

“I think a lot of the play is the portrayal of the struggle my father had in being connected to so many worlds, but every world needed him to be all or nothing — my zayde’s shul and his family in the Chassidic world, the hippie world. I think part of his struggle was everyone’s feeling or thinking they knew what was best for him, and his struggle was trying to do what he was supposed to do and all the while feeling too lonely and judged and so torn,” said Dari Carlebach. “I hope people walk away from this play with the understanding of how so often we think we know someone or what they need or who they are — and they are so much deeper, so much more complicated. Each person’s mission is personal. People should walk away knowing how to open their hearts … and with the important message of understanding and acceptance among Jews and among the whole world.”

It’s Showtime In Baltimore

Is it our imagination or is Charm City’s arts scene super Jewish this fall? Whether it is theater, film, dance, music or visual arts, Jewish themes, venues and performers are stealing the spotlight. The following is a guide to some of the hottest picks of this eclectic and artful season.


Virtuous Virtuoso

Piano prodigy to open Gordon Center’s 19th Season

Ethan Bortnick has traveled the world. He will be at the Gordon Center next month.

Ethan Bortnick has traveled the world. He will be at the Gordon Center next month.

Ethan Bortnick has traveled the world. He will be at the Gordon Center next month.

Ethan Bortnick is short in stature, but tall on talent. The 12-year-old musician will wow audiences at the Gordon Center For Performing Arts, when he opens the venue’s fall 2013 season — its 19th — on Oct. 12. Although his father and manager, Gene Bortnick, said the family doesn’t think of Ethan as a prodigy, he
admits that he and his wife, Hannah Bortnick, both Ukrainian immigrants, are “beyond overwhelmed” by what their son can do. MORE>>


CrackerJack Theater

Fall theater season offers something for everyone

Bruce Randolph Nelson will star in two Jewish-themed plays this fall. Shown here, he takes the stage  as Groucho Marx in Centerstage’s  revival of “Animal Crackers.” (Photos by Richard Anderson)

Bruce Randolph Nelson will star in two Jewish-themed plays this fall. Shown here, he takes the stage as Groucho Marx in Centerstage’s revival of “Animal Crackers.” (Photos by Richard Anderson)

It will be a busy and intensely Jewish fall for veteran actor Bruce Randolph Nelson. The City Paper’s choice for best actor of 2012, Nelson is playing Jewish comedian Groucho Marx in Centerstage’s revival of “Animal Crackers” and Jewish artist Mark Rothko in Everyman Theatre’s production of “Red,” all within a three-month period. In fact, said Nelson, the last week of “Animal Crackers,” which is a wacky musical comedy, will be the first week of rehearsals for “Red,” which is a serious drama.

But Nelson, 47, a longtime member of Everyman’s resident company, isn’t complaining about the demands of his schedule or the remarkably dissimilar roles he will play in such short order. In fact, he couldn’t be happier. MORE>>



New exhibitions offer visual intrigue, big ideas

American Visionary Art Museum founder and director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger calls the museums’ new exhibition, “Human, Soul & Machine: The Coming Singularity,” opening on Oct. 5, one of the most important and most prescient ones AVAM has ever developed.

Although the multiple issues raised by technology’s ever-growing impact on our society are the subjects of many creative projects, Hoffberger pointed out that recent events — such as the gathering of journalists’ phone records, secret drone strikes and the recent chemical attack allegedly carried out by the Syrian government against its own citizens — have only made the exhibition more timely and the questions it raises more critical. MORE>>


Lights On At Eutaw Place

Toby Lightman shines

Toby Lightman

Toby Lightman

Even if you haven’t heard Toby Lightman’s name, you’ve probably heard her music. Since her first album, “Little Things,” debuted in 2004, the 35-year-old singer-songwriter’s music has been virtually everywhere. Lightman will be in Baltimore on Nov. 2, when she performs at Eutaw Place, a venue that has featured up-and-coming singer-songwriters since spring 2012.

Although Lightman, who grew up in a Jewish family in Cherry Hill, N.J., performs live regularly and has made four albums since “Little Things,” her music is heard most widely on television shows including “Brothers and Sisters,” “Eli Stone,” “Bones” and “The Vampire Diaries” and in movies such as “P.S. I Love You,” “17 Again” and “Mean Girls 2.”MORE>>


[slideshow id=”Total Impact”]

IMPACT, a unique and site-specific public art program developed to extend contemporary art to communities in the greater Baltimore area, opened last week at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills Jewish Community Center. A public reception was held from 5 to 7 p.m. on Aug. 29.
A local artist collective, Global Humanity Now, has beenselected for this summer’s IMPACT project. GHN is comprised of artists Remina Greenfield, Janina Anderson, Janet Hong and Gabriel Quick. Their artwork installation, “Return,” was designed specifically for the JCC’s courtyard and is comprised of a woven fabric that will extend over the courtyard of the building, creating a pseudo canopy.

According to a release, “Return” is a metaphorical network, illustrating the dynamic relationship between individuals and the community they comprise. The title “Return” is derived from Holocaust survivor Leo Strauss’ essay “Progress or Return” (1952).

Return in Hebrew is teshuvah (often also translated as repentance), and the timing of the exhibit coincides with the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The 10 days between the two holidays are known as Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the 10 Days of Repentance.

Photos by David Stuck


[slideshow id=”Whodunnit”]

Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre just closed a performance of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” a Tony Award-winning, solve-it-yourself musical comedy. The four performances took place on Aug. 18, 20, 22 and 25.

“The Mystery” is based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens and introduces eight suspects, each with his or her own conniving motive. The mystery concludes with the audience voting for the character they believe committed the crime. The actors were prepared to perform one of eight different endings each night, depending on the audience’s vote.

Joining in the fun were many BT alumni and parents, including Max Spitz (class of ‘12), father David Spitz, Dr. Kevin Ferentz, wife Lisa Ferentz and sons Zack (‘08) and Noah (‘12). Current BT students likewise got into the fun.
Shown here: scenes from the play.

Photos by David Stuck

Nothing To Be Ashamed Of

Allan Sherman met with many  important people, including  President John F. Kennedy. (Photos provided)

Allan Sherman met with many
important people, including
President John F. Kennedy. (Photos provided)

Fifty years ago, a bittersweet novelty song about a boy at summer camp hit the airwaves and caught fire across the globe. Just two weeks after its release, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” had sold 300,000 copies. But its writer and singer, Allan Sherman, was no one-hit wonder. In the previous year he had become stratospherically famous.

Sherman’s 1962 Jewish-inflected albums of song parodies, “My Son, the Folk Singer” and “My Son, the Celebrity,” were back-to-back comedy hits. In a world that had not yet met the Beatles, mania for Sherman’s comedy was unprecedented. In 1963, he was turning his talent for finely tuned wordplay to the new obsessions of the American middle class, which happened to be the new obsessions of Jews: suburbia, lawns, television commercials and technology. In “Hello Muddah,” he defined summer camp anxiety for at least a generation.

Sherman was a self-destructive talent, with a huge appetite for food, alcohol, cigarettes, sex and gambling. Yet he maintained a philosophy that childlike innocence was the best way to approach the world. By the time he died in 1973, days before his 49th birthday, both his talent and bank account were tapped out.

Mark Cohen tries to make sense of this funny, talented and troubled man and his meteoric rise and sad fall in “Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman.” With his deceptively simple parodies of well-known songs, Sherman was at the head of a new generation of American Jewish entertainers, born in this country and American in every way. Their task was to figure out what it meant to be a Jew in a
society that was quickly dropping its barriers to them.

“Sherman helped to invent the American Jewish personality that we see everywhere today,” Cohen said by phone from New York, consciously Jewish, yet not self-conscious about being Jewish. “It’s a normal, regular part of everything about us. It’s not some special, hidden, weird part that we have to be embarrassed or ashamed about, or make excuses for.”

But Sherman never would have succeeded beyond what “Variety” called “the Miami-Catskills axis” if there hadn’t been a mass market for Jewish-inflected humor. “My Son, the Folk Singer” debuted at the exact moment that America was developing an acceptance of and an appetite for ethnic culture. In its first two months, the album sold more than a million copies.

“[‘My Son, the Folk Singer’] revealed that when no one was looking, the line between Jews and everyone else had blurred,” Cohen wrote.

“Sherman’s tremendous success with the general public at large also anticipated the general acceptance of explicitly Jewish comedy, whether it was Mel Brooks or Woody Allen or today’s ‘Old Jews Telling  Jokes’ show,” said Cohen, whose books include “Missing a Beat: The Rants and Regrets of Seymour Krim” and “Last Century of a Sephardic Community.”

081613_nothing_to_be_ashamed_ofSherman’s medium was the finely balanced parody of a popular song. “They work so well because they’re at such great odds with the original, but keep the theme of the original and turn it inside out,” Cohen said.

Take “The Ballad of Harry Lewis.” In it, Sherman tells the story of a garment worker who perishes in fire, heroically remaining at his machine, cutting velvet for his employer, Irving Roth. Sherman set his lyrics to “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“He keeps, in mock fashion, the whole theme of heroism and martyrdom and death, but he turns the whole thing into a story of this poor shnook Harry Lewis, who stood by his machine while the fire was raging.”

The song contains what may be Sherman’s finest pun:

Oh Harry Lewis perished
In the service of his lord.
He was trampling through the warehouse
Where the drapes of Roth are stored.

“It was a personal challenge to Sherman,” Cohen wrote, “to discover a song parody hiding within the original … so that the original lyrics are transformed into straight lines for his punch line.”

Sherman’s explosion into popular culture was so big that he appeared fully formed. But “Overweight Sensation” describes the influences, both malign and salutary, that went into making Sherman.

“It was clear that his parents were crazy,” Cohen said.

Sherman’s mother, Rose, had multiple marriages and seemed particularly drawn to con men. His father, Percy Copelon, left his wife and son when Allan was 8. To determine custody, they asked the boy to decide which of the two he would prefer to live with. As Cohen wrote, it was a trauma from which Sherman never recovered.

He found refuge with his grandparents, who had immigrated to the United States as adults and never quite left Eastern Europe behind. “They had all the immigrant paraphernalia — the accent, the very, very strong  Jewish identity, completely un-Americanized despite decades in this country,” Cohen said.

In contrast to his parents — who immigrated as children and wanted to put as much distance between them and Judaism — Sherman’s grandparents were at home in their Jewish skin.

Unlike all of them, Sherman — and the 1920s generation to which he belonged — was American to his bones. So what kind of Jew would he, and by extension his generation, be?

“Sherman rejected his parents’ approach and was inspired by his grandparents’ approach, but he couldn’t just pretend to be a European immigrant,” Cohen said. “So he did something very important, and I think we’re still living in the Allan Sherman moment.”

This is the moment of the hyphenated Jew, in which each part of the identity struggles with and enriches the other — and the wider culture. Sherman’s Jewish personality was free of sentimentality and saccharine, Cohen said, and thoroughly contemporary.

“Sherman’s Jews are living in contemporary 1962 America. Whether they’re speaking dialect English and working in the garment center [‘Harry Lewis’] or going down to Miami on a business trip in ‘The Streets of Miami.’ Or they speak contemporary New York Jewish English in like ‘Sarah Jackman, How’s by You?’”

Sherman also took aim at suburbia (“Here’s to the Crabgrass”) and what Cohen calls “the love/hate affair between the suburbs and the cities. That’s still going on today.”

Parodies and puns have a reputation as the lowest form of humor, but Cohen suggests that may be because they’re so often used as wordplay for its own sake. Through the 1950s, Sherman, who was then a TV game-show producer, entertained at parties with parodies of current Broadway musicals.

To “On the Street Where You Live,” from the 1956 stage show, “My Fair Lady,” Sherman sang about the Jewish move to the suburbs:

We’ve got Scarsdale men,
We’ve got Great Neck men,
And just lately we’ve been sneaking into Darien.
Strange new noses there,
Friends of Moses there,
Near the goys on the streets where they live.

The show’s composers, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, were Jews. And that was Sherman’s larger point.

“He wanted to address this disjunction between being Jewish and having no Jewish content,” Cohen said. “And that’s why he was, quote-unquote, outing in the 1950s all the Jewish songwriters and composers  of the Broadway stage by doing Jewish parodies of their songs and saying, ‘This is what the songs would be like if Jews wrote all the songs — which they do.’”

And now it’s time for camp:

Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh,
Here I am at Camp Grenada.
Camp is very entertaining,
and they say we’ll have some fun
if it stops raining.

It’s downhill from there: alligators in the lake, a rash of ptomaine poisoning, a bullying head coach who “wants no sissies” and other horrors, which Sherman sings in his rough tenor to the sprightly melody of Italian composer Amilcare Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.” The single garnered Sherman the Grammy Award for comedy in 1964.

Describing the song as “part “The Perils of Pauline” and part the Battle of Iwo Jima,” Cohen wrote that Sherman wove enough ambiguity into the song “that allows it to work for their children and their parents.”

“It introduces a cringe-worthy kind of pathetic yearning of a child and saves it at the last minute with humor,” he said. “Those lines like, ‘I promise I will not make noise, or mess the house with other boys” — anyone who has children knows that when things go bad, kids get like that. And it’s heartbreaking to hear that line and then we’re rescued at the last minute by ‘I’ve been here one whole day.’”

There was nothing overtly Jewish about the camper or his camp. But “Hello Muddah” reflected an experience widely shared by Jews, Cohen said.

“The Jews moved to the suburbs, in per capita numbers not absolute numbers, in greater numbers than the American community at large. They sent their children to summer camp in much greater percentages than the general community at large. They were trends in American life that were the most widely experienced by the Jewish community.”

Sherman was the man of his moment.

“Being Jewish gave him a perch from which to observe American life,” Cohen said. “And it gave him a darned good view of it.”

David Holzel writes for JT’s sister publication, Washington Jewish Week.

Best Music Festival

Brad Selko (left) started Hot August Blues and Roots Festival 21 years ago in his backyard. Rich Barnstein (right) helps promote the festival, which now brings around 5,000 people to Oregon Ridge Park each year. (Justin Tsucalas)

Brad Selko (left) started Hot August Blues and Roots Festival 21 years ago in his backyard. Rich Barnstein (right) helps promote the festival, which now brings around 5,000 people to Oregon Ridge Park each year. (Justin Tsucalas)

The Hot August Blues and Roots Festival has come a long way since the first show 21 years ago at Brad Selko’s farm in Monkton.

“A friend of mine came up to me and said, ‘Do you want to have a picnic in your backyard with Charlie Musselwhite?’” Selko said. “I said, ‘Are you crazy?’”

A couple months later, almost 400 people showed up to see the legendary blues player. Each year, the number of bands and attendees would grow in size, and the festival moved to various venues until finding a home at Oregon Ridge Park in 2002; it attracts upward of 5,000 each summer.

“Every year the show gets a little bigger, and we improve upon it,” said Selko, who founded the festival and books the music lineup.

While the festival isn’t strictly blues anymore, the Aug. 17 concert boasts a diverse lineup that includes blues-rockers Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, New Orleans funk band Galactic, Brooklyn Afrobeat outfit Antibalas, eclectic bluegrass band Greensky Bluegrass, rootsy singer-songwriter JD McPherson, Chicago bluesman Eddy Clearwater, electro-rock duo Boombox and a long list of diverse local bands.

“It’s the premier Baltimore outdoor music festival, and the artists that Hot August Blues brings to town are incredible musicians,” said Stephen Yasko, general manager at WTMD, a Towson-based independent radio station. “It serves the part of WTMD that connects the artists with the audiences.”

Hot August Blues was recently named “Best Music Festival” by Baltimore magazine. As part of its continuing evolution, the festival added a third stage this year and will also feature a variety of performance artists, drum circles for kids and adults and a harmonica workshop for kids.

“We have more diversification than we probably ever have had in 21 years,” Selko said.

Rich Barnstein, who helps the festival with social media and promotion, said Hot August Blues has been successful because Selko is progressive and listens to what fans want.

“You have to have a fresh lineup,” Barnstein said. “He’s always changing that.”

A lot of attendees said they would like a video screen so they can see performers even when seated far away, so the festival added that this year. Other attendees wanted to see some non-craft beer options, so Selko got National Bohemian for this year’s festival.

“The bottom line is to try to find a way to make Hot August Blues better and better,” Barnstein said.

Selko said other than some 1950s and 1960s jazz, he mostly likes to listen to new music.

“He’s a real music fan,” said Steve Kearns, a volunteer coordinator. “He listens to a lot of music, and when he goes on vacation, he drives to see [people] perform.”

By branching out beyond pure blues, the festival has attracted a larger audience with a wider age range.

“It’s just getting better and better all the time,” said Bobby Dollar, who has been working security for 14 years.

For local artists, playing the festival is a grand opportunity. Performing for thousands of eclectic music lovers just outside of Baltimore gives them a chance to make some serious waves.

Cara Kelly, who will be opening up the main stage with Cara Kelly and the Tell Tale, is “totally excited.”

“You get to play in front of a hometown crowd, and at the same time, [we’re] sharing the stage with some people, some musicians, I really admire,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity.”

Kelly’s huge, soulful vocals and her band’s bluesy rock feel make them a good fit for the festival. Some bands, such as electro-rock trio DELTAnine, draw on similar influences but take the music in a new direction.

“We’re definitely bringing something else to the table,” said Ben Kolakowski, the band’s guitarist. “There’s the younger generation, they’re definitely more into this electronic kind of thing … but at the same time, maybe they grew up listening to classic rock and blues from listening to their parents’ music.”

Kolakowski, who draws on blues and rock influences in his guitar playing, said his band fits somewhere in bet-ween the electronic and rock worlds, since they have live drums and guitar as well as a DJ. He is particularly excited to play the festival, having grown up in the Cockeysville/Timonium area.

“That’s my stomping ground,” he said.

Selko’s love of eclectic music not only brings a diverse lineup to the festival each year, but also allows attendees to experience long shows from each band with minimal overlaps between the stages. National acts performing at the festival have set times ranging from one hour to two hours, and some local acts are even getting hour-long sets.

While the lineup may have exp-anded beyond the pure blues and roots music, there’s a touch of these pioneering genres in all of the festival’s performers.

“All this music came out of the roots music,” Selko said. “There’s something everybody’s going to like there.”

Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter —

The Circus Life

071213_the_circus_lifeKaely Michels-Gualtieri’s mother, Dia Michels, jokes that her daughter somersaulted out of the womb.

Now 23, Michels-Gualtieri soars 35 feet in the air from hanging ropes, self-designed trapezes and other assorted apparatus as an aerial performer in Cirque Italia. This family-friendly, modern European-style circus, which has been described as “Bellagio meets Broadway,” sets up its tent up at Owings Mills Mall July 12-21. An aerial artist, Michels-Gualtieri floats, spins, swings, flips and flies above a 35,000-gallon pool with fountains showering the “stage” and Michels-Gualtieri for Cirque Italia’s Aquatic Spectacular. Many of her breath-catching tricks and her apparatus — trapezes, carabineers, ropes and rigging — are self-designed, a nod to her days as a high-school physics and science geek.

Michels-Gualtieri, who grew up on Capitol Hill in southeast Washington, D.C., knows from family stories that she started gymnastic classes soon after she learned to walk.

“By the time I was about 6 or 7, I was on a competitive gymnastics team and competed all the way until I graduated from high school,” she said last week, relaxing at her childhood home, with her mother nearby — a great advantage to having a tour stop in the D.C. region.

A graduate of the Field School in the District, throughout her elementary and teen years, Michels-Gualtieri — with her parents’ help —  juggled rigorous academics at her private school, gymnastics lessons, team practices and competitions — as a high school senior she placed third in the Virginia championships— and Hebrew school. Her family, including a younger brother and sister, have been members of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Va., where the then-rising young gymnast celebrated her bat mitzvah a decade ago.

After a high-school internship at the Circus School of San Francisco, Michels-Gualtieri, who was accepted to Wellesley College and McGill University in Montreal, took a gap year and moved to Torino, a small town in Italy to join up with a circus school.

“I love learning languages, and during a summer family trip all over Europe, we visited several circus schools. At the one in Torino no one spoke a word of English, and I didn’t know Italian, but … I said, ‘This is where I want to be.’”

She then moved on to the Academie Fratellini, a renowned professional circus school in Paris, where she trained with the world’s best trapeze coaches, readily drawing on her gymnastics training.

Every day, Michels-Gualtieri wakes up in her tiny caravan room, eats a hearty breakfast and then walks over to the circus tent. There, she said, “The first thing I do is make sure that all of my rigging is there and that everything is rigged correctly, because that’s the stuff that makes sure I don’t die when I’m performing.”

After she tapes herself up, making sure to pay attention to past injuries, she applies tape to the backs of her legs to protect from rope and other contact burns. After a trip to the makeup tent, it’s time to warm up. Michels-Gualtieri has a solo spot in both halves of the show: She performs on the swinging and the static trapeze; her set includes a number based on the blue-painted creatures of the film “Avatar.”

“I haven’t come across many other Jews” in the circus world, she noted. “And when I was in my circus academy in Paris, I had to explain to several people what Judaism was, which shocked me. I know other people who are Jewish who do circus, but in the particular places I’ve been in Europe there haven’t been any other Jewish people.”

But her mother insists that Michels-Gualtieri’s Jewish upbringing has helped her daughter along her path to succeed in the highly competitive — and dangerous — world of circus acrobats and aerialists.

“She didn’t grow up with pressure to do the mainstream thing,” Michels said, “because, of course, the Jewish heritage often still may exclude you from the mainstream. So you better figure out what you’re going to do to take care of yourself.”

Her mother noted that her and her husband’s “Jewish traditional values allowed us to support Kaely to do this.”

And Michels-Gualtieri doesn’t disagree, pointing out that she knows this is her first, not her only, career, and some day she may be headed into medicine or nursing.

“My Jewish upbringing and always being told to ask questions and go further and figure out why things are the way they are has played an important role in my becoming successful,” she said. “One of the things that sets me apart from other people is when someone says, ‘This is impossible,’ I say, ‘Why?’ That’s just a trait that I’ve noticed that not a lot of other people have.”

Cirque Italia, July 12-21, Owings Mills Mall, 10300 Mill Run Circle. For more information and tickets, visit

Lisa Traiger is an area freelance writer.

Jewish Music Forever

Larry Chernikoff has a  passion for preserving  Judaic sound recordings from the early 20th century. (David Stuck)

Larry Chernikoff has a passion for preserving
Judaic sound recordings from the early 20th century.
(David Stuck)

Baltimore native Larry Chernikoff isn’t especially interested in music. What does interest him greatly is preserving Jewish heritage. A collector of kosher dinner and silverware services from steamships, Chernikoff, 60, has now dedicated himself to the collection of Jewish music recordings.

It started last year when Chernikoff, a Ranchleigh resident, was helping his mother move from her Baltimore home to a smaller living space.

“I found all these Yiddish cantorial records that had once belonged to my father. No one wanted them,” he said.

Chernikoff called the Jewish Mus-eum of Maryland but was told that unless the records had a Maryland connection, the museum couldn’t accept them. But a museum staff member recommended he contact Florida Atlantic University (FAU) Libraries in Boca Raton, Fla., to see if the records might be appropriate for its Recorded Sound Archives. A major part of the archives’ mission is to build a collection of Judaic sound recordings from the early 20th century.

Chernikoff, who lives in Boca Raton during the winter months, made the call and was greatly pleased when the archives accepted his father’s collection.

He was so taken with the importance of the library’s Jewish music preservation project that Chernikoff, a retired federal government employee, decided to become a volunteer with the archives. When in Boca Raton, Chernikoff volunteers with the archives doing data entry twice a week.

“When you retire, you have to keep your mind busy,” he said. “My long-term goal is to help preserve this history for future generations.”

The FAU Libraries’ Recorded Sound Archives (formerly the Judaic Music Rescue Project and the Judaic Sound Archives) was founded by Nathan Tinanoff, a Baltimore native who has lived in Florida for many years.

“When I came to the library, there was already a small operation, but none of the records were organized,” explained the archives’ current director, Dr. Maxine Schackman, who began as a volunteer during Tinanoff’s tenure. “Nate was an ex-IBMer and very organized, so he catalogued everything.”

The collection grew exponentially in 2002, when the library received more than 4,000 recordings from the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. The book center was founded in 1980 by Aaron Lansky and has since become notorious partly through Lansky’s 2005 book, “Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books.”

“We had a relationship with Alan Lansky, so we called him and asked, ‘By chance do you have any recordings,’” recalled Schackman. “He said, ‘Do we have any recordings? We’ve been collecting them for 22 years and have no use for them. We haven’t had the heart to get rid of them. If you can come to Amherst and get them, they’re yours.’”

Since then, the archive has come to include cantorial and liturgical music, Yiddish-language and Israeli songs, works by well-known Jewish performers and composers and recordings that offer insight into American Jewish life.

In 2005, the Judaica Sound Archives launched its own website, and project staff and volunteers began the long process of digitizing the archives’ discs (78 rpm, 45 rpm and  331/3 rpm), tapes (cassette, eight-track and reel-to-reel) and CDs.

Currently, said Schackman, the archives has the largest online collection of Jewish music in the world. The online collection of 13,000 songs represents only 8 to 10 percent of the entire collection.

In 2006, the archives received a donation of more than 21,000 jazz recordings; in 2009, another collector donated nearly 60,000 vintage 78 rpm recordings. In order to reflect the broadening of the library’s offerings, the archives’ name was again changed — this time to Recorded Sound Archives.  But Schackman stressed the organization’s primary purpose is still the preservation of Jewish music.

“We have not purchased one single recording. We have hundreds of thousands, and they have all been donated. This history unites us all. We need to preserve these records for the future so our kids will know about their heritage,” said Schackman.

For more information about Recorded Sound Archives at FAU Libraries, visit