Singer-Songwriter Finds His Voice Jesse Macht gained inspiration from tribulation

Jesse Macht (Photos provided)

Jesse Macht (Photos provided)

For singer-songwriters, tragedy can become fertile ground for creative inspiration. In Jesse Macht’s case, a brush with mortality and the end of long-term relationship was all he needed to jumpstart his career.

After discovering that he had a heart condition that gave him an extra electric impulse that caused his heart to beat at 260 beats per minute, he had to have his heart electro-shocked to essentially short out the extra impulse.

“That experience sort of tripped me up, and I said, ‘OK, if this is what you’re going to do, you have to dive in,’” he said.

Weeks later, his longtime girlfriend broke up with him.

“Two intense punches,” Macht, 31, said. “That was a broken literal heart and a broken figurative heart all in a matter of a month.”

The band he was playing with had recently broken up, and although he was feeling a bit lost in his career, he went back to the drawing board to write songs, wrote with others and attended songwriting workshops to get back on track.

Armed with new material and a producer he met at a showcase, he made the album “Suitcase Heart,” released this past fall, a poignant, emotional album with a big sound. He plays an invitation-only house concert in Baltimore on Saturday, Jan. 24.

011615_rocker2“His voice is beautiful to start with, but his music is really capturing,” said Susan Macht, a distant cousin, who is hosting the house concert. “He doesn’t just play music, he talks; he tells you why he wrote this song.”

For Macht, who grew up in Los Angeles, entertaining runs in the family. His father, Stephen Macht, has been acting since the late 1960s and has been on “General Hospital” and numerous other TV shows and in movies. Jesse’s brother, Gabriel, who is 11 years older than Jesse, stars on the USA series “Suits.” So from a young age, Macht knew his family was in the show biz.

While he has done some acting and still goes to acting auditions, Macht gravitated toward music.

“The guitar gave me an opportunity to express myself at any moment,” he said.

Macht can somewhat trace his singing back to synagogue. He attended a day school from pre-K through eighth grade, and he wasn’t much of a fan of having to attend services three times a week.

“I would harmonize with all the prayers, and that was my way of having fun, I think,” he said. “I was sort of learning that innate way of harmonizing with the ear.”

He played piano growing up and, later, guitar. Although his parents didn’t listen to any pop music, Macht would later discover some of his biggest influences including Billy Joel, Tom Petty and more recent songwriters such as Ryan Adams and Dawes.

011615_rocker3“I really try to be as genuine as possible, trying my patience, my confidence, my creativity,” he said. “I’m looking for things in my life that really do make me feel emotional, do make me feel human. I try to give in to that sensitivity, step on the wound and see what comes out.”

His show at his cousin’s house comes in the middle of an East Coast run that includes shows in New York, Philadelphia, Columbia and York, Pa.

Later this year, Macht will release a Valentine’s Day song with a music video and another single, both of which will be paired with a holiday song he released this past year, “This Light,” on a forthcoming EP.

From there, he is looking to book a European tour since he has some fans there who have only seen him in live streamed performances.

“I’m trying to organize house concerts and venues,” he said. “Whatever comes next.”

Slow … Quick, Quick, Slow

Baltimore native John Dawson, owner and head instructor of dance StudioDNA in Pikesville, teaches a smooth fox trot and a spicy salsa, but some of his students feel they gain more than improved rhythm and sure footing. More confidence, a sense of accomplishment and feelings of grace and pure joy are also what keeps these students practicing and coming back for more.

“Aside from the health benefits,” said Donna Siegel, 62, an executive at the Social Security Administration, “I feel free when I dance. I feel pretty when I dance. I feel graceful, it just feels good.”

Thirteen years ago, Siegel and her husband wanted to dance at their son’s bar mitzvah and started taking lessons. Her husband’s interest fell off after several years, but he encouraged Siegel to continue on her own. Now she can’t imagine a life without dance and, with lessons three times a week in addition to gym visits, massage and acupuncture, she’s also managed to stave off surgery for her spinal stenosis.

Siegel dances fox trot, waltz, salsa, merengue, cha-cha, rumba and tango, but swing is her favorite. She recently danced in a competition with Dawson and won for her age group and dance level. But there are days, she said, that she’s very challenged, such as when she recently worked on a difficult tuck turn. But, she added, “other times when we get in the zone, it’s beautiful. You’re almost outside yourself, listening to the music and moving. … You’re just dancing, it’s pure joy.”

Dawson said clients come to dance for many reasons. It may be in anticipation of a wedding or other event or simply to spend time as a couple. Or clients may be working through an illness or even the loss of a spouse or child.

“But at least for an hour’s worth of time,” said Dawson, “you can get involved in music and movement and forget everything around you.”

Dawson first worked as a mental health administrator at Sheppard Pratt hospital but was laid off after a few years, which, he says, was really a godsend. He answered a dance instruction ad and began formalized training; fortunately, he had a base of many hours spent onstage dancing and singing through high school and college.

He opened StudioDNA in 1994, and now, at an almost perpetually-in-motion 45 years old, he teaches students from ages 7 to 87 and has the reputation of being able to coax and coddle a saucy cha-cha move out of a stiff student. But he also doesn’t shrink from pointing out —sometimes very bluntly — a step that isn’t working, a directive he may deliver with gesticulating arms and a perfect Brooklyn Jewish mother accent.

“Sometimes we’re laughing so hard during the lessons,” said Siegel, “that we’re having trouble dancing and we’re standing there laughing ‘til we cry, and we have to serious up a little bit.

“Other times, when we get in the zone, it’s beautiful. You’re almost outside yourself, listening to the music and moving. You’re just dancing … it’s pure joy.”

Often, people start dance lessons because of the “glitz and the lights,” said Dawson, referencing the TV show “Dancing with the Stars,” “and then you get down to the fact that it’s a lot of dedication, it’s a lot of work. But it’s a lot of fun as well, even if I have to smack someone on the tuchas once in a while [to get them] back on track.”

StudioDNA, which has a second location in Canton, is dedicated to providing safe and comfortable spaces where people can go to move and learn, not feel judged, and be able to laugh at themselves, Dawson said.

Liza Massouda and Patty Simmons also teach with Dawson, and Simmons has been working with her client, Steve Levin, since May.

Levin, a youthful and physically fit 70-year-old, was the primary caretaker to his father, Jake, for more than 20 years. He met Simmons at the Envoy nursing home where their fathers were resident roommates. Over a few years, their friendship grew, and Simmons occasionally suggested he take lessons. But Levin always balked at the idea. Then Levin’s father passed away in March 2014.

“Patty called me maybe a month or six weeks after that and asked me if
I would be interested in trying ballroom dancing,” recalled Levin, who has danced zydeco. “I think somehow she knew it would be a good thing for me, maybe before I knew it.”

He added, “I had the time and was inclined to give it a try, to help with my grief. You can get lost in dancing, you can transcend the moment.”

Seven months into his ballroom lessons, Levin danced a waltz in a showcase at StudioDNA, an event at which students and instructors perform routines for invited family and friends. Levin appreciates the connection he feels with his instructor and other dancers and the sense of levity that pervades the studio, even when improvement is the goal.

“I remember one time after I made a dance move, Patty said, ‘Steve, maybe you should take that look of horror off of your face.’ It was funny, but she was right,” he said, laughing. “I’ve learned to relax my face when I dance, it was a good tip.”

Dawson prides himself in the ability to meet people where they are in terms of how they learn. He may simply demonstrate a step for someone to mimic but can break it down to the mathematical and mechanical elements as well. Dawson also offers group lessons that Marge and Roy Deutschman, both 67, have taken for six years with their friends, Berly and Avi Hershkovitz.

“For us, it’s a date night,” said Roy Deutschman. “It keeps us young, fresh and vibrant and all those things old people need to be. It’s exercise and socialization, and we have a lot of fun with John — we kibbitz, dance and yell at each other.”

Marge Deutschman added, “I feel like a princess, I feel like Ginger Rogers. Anybody can dance with John; he just makes you feel so good. And after every session I thank him for making me feel that way.”

Roy Deutschman said he’s amazed that if needed, John can just grab him and “take the role of the woman” in order to address a step that needs correction. Marge Deutschman said dancing regularly helps her get through some of life’s trying times, and it’s helped with her attitude too.

“It gives me a lot of security to know that I’ve mastered dance,” she said. “I feel confident in the things I do. I just retired, and that took a lot of confidence.”

Siegel admitted it didn’t come naturally for her to let someone else lead, even on the dance floor.

“It’s been a lesson for me to let somebody else be in charge,” she said. “Sometimes I do just need to shut up and let somebody tell me a different way to learn something. And that’s kind of a life lesson. Dance is kind of a microcosm of everything.”

A Stage Legend’s Final Bow

The name Vivienne Shub has been synonymous with Baltimore theater for nearly three-quarters of a century. When she passed away at the age of 95 on Sept. 18, Shub left behind her son, Daniel Shub, her daughters, Judith Shub-Condliffe and Amy Shub Rothstein, her younger sister, Naomi Greenberg, as well as grandchildren, cousins, nieces and nephews. But Shub’s passing was also a huge loss to friends, colleagues and audiences in Baltimore and beyond.

Shub was born to Rose Slovin, a seamstress and homemaker, and dentist Samuel Slovin on Oct. 18, 1918 in Baltimore. Both of her parents were Eastern European immigrants. Shub’s sister, a cellist and Everyman Theatre’s dramaturge, was born when Shub was 4 years old. Although Naomi Greenberg lived in Holland for 30 years, Greenberg says she and her sister shared an unbreakable bond that lasted to the very end of Shub’s life.

“Vivienne showed a love for acting very early,” Greenberg recalled. “She loved to imitate our grandmother’s Yiddish accent.”

Greenberg and Shub’s father was also a story teller and poet and encouraged his daughters to pursue their artistic talents.

Shub studied music at the Peabody Conservatory and performed in the plays at Forest Park High School. She also won roles in community theater productions such as those at Baltimore’s Vagabond Theatre. After high school, Shub enrolled in full-time acting classes at the Ramsey Street Theatre Conservatory in Baltimore.

Since there was no professional theater scene in Baltimore in those days, as a young woman, Shub decided to try her luck in New York City. But she soon concluded she was not well suited to New York’s fast-paced and cutthroat theater scene. Shub returned to Baltimore and enrolled in a secretarial school, gaining the skills that enabled her to support herself. She continued acting in her free time.

In 1941, Shub married Louis Shub, a concert pianist, and the couple raised three children together. Daniel, the couple’s second child, said that his parents’ marriage gave him a “distorted view of what marriage was like. They had a great relationship. They were both gentle and encouraging to one another and were very compatible, creatively and politically.”

His parents met at a political meeting, likely a meeting about the need for desegregation in Baltimore, the son said.

Almost immediately following their wedding, Louis was required to leave his new bride and report for military service. He was stationed in North Africa and Italy. While he was gone, said their son, his parents wrote to each other every day.

Photos provided.

As parents, he added, Vivienne and Louis were exceedingly approachable and always ready to lend an ear or to provide support.

In 1963, Shub helped to found Center Stage, Baltimore’s first regional professional repertory theater. She acted in Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” the first play produced by the fledgling company, and continued to perform with Center Stage for the next 20 years. In the mid- 1990s, Shub became a company member of Everyman Theatre. She performed with Everyman well into her 80s, said Greenberg, appearing in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Buried Child,” “Uncle Vanya,” “Hedda Gabler” and “The Trip to Bountiful.”

For her 90th birthday in 2008, Shub performed “Viva la Vivienne,” a one-woman show written by her sister as a tribute to Shub’s life and career. Greenberg also wrote “The Cone Sister,” a one-woman show about the lives of art collector Etta Cone and her sister, Claribel. Shub performed the play at Everyman in 2006.

Shub’s acting was not limited to the stage.

“She also did a lot of commercial work,” said Harriet Lynn, Shub’s cousin and an actress and producer/artistic director at the Heritage Theatre Artists’ Consortium.

Shub appeared in the films “Runaway Bride” and John Water’s “Cry Baby,” television shows “Homicide: Life on the Street,” public television programs and even training films, said Lynn. She also had an illustrious teaching career in the theater department at Towson University, where she was granted an honorary diploma in 2012.

Lynn said that one of Shub’s greatest contributions to Baltimore’s theater community was the leadership she provided to the Baltimore Theatre Alliance, which she founded in 1996.

“What she did with BTA was huge,” said Lynn. “Only Vivienne could have done this. She coalesced over 50 theater companies and this large group of individuals of actors [and] designers.”

Shub spent the last years of her life at Towson’s Edenwald retirement home. In her final days, Greenberg was amazed that her sister could still recite lines of dialogue from plays she had acted in decades earlier. She was amused that her sister enjoyed speaking Yiddish and reminisced about their Yiddish-speaking grandparents.

Shub received a send-off during a memorial program at Everyman Theatre on Oct. 20. On Nov. 13, the Jewish community will celebrate Shub’s life at a special event at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. The event will feature remarks from her family, friends and colleagues, clips of the actress at work and an exhibition paying tribute to Shub’s remarkable life and 72-year career.

For additional information, visit

­Profile in Conscience

(Photo by Jérôme Prébois)

(Photo by Jérôme Prébois)

It is not necessary for every new movie about World War II — and there are a surprising number each year — to reference the Holocaust. Even so, many moviegoers consider the calamities inextricably linked, as do most filmmakers.

Contemporary audiences have the benefit of hindsight, and as Jews we are particularly attuned to the Third Reich’s crimes against civilians, so we never forget the genocidal campaign happening concurrently with the military operation— even if it’s not the movie’s focus, or isn’t mentioned.

The Holocaust is alluded to only once in “Diplomacy,” Volker Schlondorff’s  marvelously directed and beautifully acted film about the late-summer night in 1944 when Paris’s fate hung by a thread of conversation. Yet, that passing reference is arguably the crux upon which the high-stakes drama turns.

Adapted by Cyril Gely from his play and starring the great veteran French actors Niels Arestrup as German Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz and André Dussollier as Swedish consul Raoul Nordling, “Diplomacy” (opening Nov. 14 at the Charles) is at its core an impassioned debate about the prospects for human civilization.

Gen. Choltitz, you see, has been recently dispatched to Paris with an order from Hitler to destroy the city when the Allies arrive. Choltitz has approved the wiring of explosives that will not only demolish the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, et al but will cause the Seine to flood, killing thousands of residents.

A loyal, seasoned officer, Choltitz has every intention of carrying out his instructions. It doesn’t matter that no military advantage will ensue from turning one of the world’s great cities to rubble; an order is an order. The logic behind the order is likewise of little interest to him, with revenge (for the bombing of German cities) constituting sufficient grounds.

Enter Consul Nordling, through a hidden entrance to the general’s hotel headquarters that Choltitz was unaware of, with a nocturnal plea to defy Hitler’s wishes. The impassioned Nordling delivers an array of arguments, all effortlessly rebuffed by Choltitz, but the diplomat does manage to reveal the man behind the uniform.

Not for the first time in movies (although it is a comparatively recent development), the German officer isn’t depicted as a one-dimensional, sadistic true believer. He is an educated man with a wider worldview, albeit one only arrived at through the devastating realization that the Third Reich had irrevocably crossed serious lines under the influence of Fuehrer worship.

At one point in their verbal fencing match, Choltitz informs Nordling that early in the war he had unhesitatingly carried out an order to eliminate the Jews in a town on the Eastern Front. It didn’t even occur to him to question Hitler’s directive.

To Nordling — though he doesn’t say it — and to us, no conceivable justification exists for the targeted murders of a minority. Choltitz, we gather, has reconsidered his behavior during that mass murder as the war ground on and Hitler lost his tenuous grasp on reality.

The question is whether Choltitz will, yet again, obey an immoral and indefensible order from his once-infallible Fuehrer. His decision depends on whether he has enough character to acknowledge that he willingly participated in (at least) one heinous act.

Can a supposedly neutral diplomat outwit a general with his finger on the button? Can a Nazi officer rejoin the civilized peoples of the world? Even if you don’t find the latter a compelling conversation starter, and you are well aware that Paris survived the war intact, “Diplomacy” is an expertly made and deeply rewarding profile in conscience.

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

‘Why We Love Israel’

Steven Winston Photography

Steven Winston Photography

Comedian Benji Lovitt’s job is to make Jewish people around the world laugh.

Making aliyah in 2006, the 40-year-old Dallas native now finds humor in his homeland. Touring the United States until Nov. 15, he will be entertaining crowds at Jewish community centers, synagogues and Jewish federations. He will be performing at the Suburban Orthodox Torah Congregation in Baltimore on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m.

“My show reminds us why we love Israel in the first place,” said Lovitt. “If you’ve been to Israel, you will really relate to it. And if you haven’t, you’ll probably want to go by the end of the show. We’ll laugh at Israel, but we’ll also laugh at ourselves as Americans.”

After going on a Young Judea Year Course, Lovitt knew he wanted to return to Israel. Once he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, he spent five years working in the hi-tech sector before switching to the Jewish professional world. Working for the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta, Hadassah’s Young Judaea and various Israel programs, Lovitt knew he wanted to make the permanent move.

“I was living in New York at the time and wasn’t happy,” said Lovitt. “I was crazy about Israel. I grew up in Young Judaea, worked for them and had visited a million times. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life saying ‘what if?’ I knew if I didn’t give it a shot, I’d look back later in life and regret it.”

He did his first stand-up routine in 1997 but did not become a serious comedian until he moved to Israel. Catering to the English-speaking crowd, his show is tailored around his experiences as an Israeli immigrant.

“A comedian wants to talk about what he’s most passionate about. My identity is that of an oleh,” an immigrant, he explained. “I couldn’t talk about these things in the States. It’s so much fun putting into words what all of us immigrants are thinking and laughing about all the time.”

In addition to his comedy, Lovitt is also an accomplished writer and blogger. His work and perspective has been featured in The Jerusalem Post, Ynet, the Jewish Daily Forward and Israel21c, among others. Recently, his Times of Israel blog has experienced a lot of traffic, especially around Yom Ha’atzmaut with his “66 Things I Love About Israel.”

“I write about life around me. As an outsider (being an immigrant, that is), there is never a shortage of interesting things to discuss and comment on,” said Lovitt.

So who should see his upcoming show? “Jews, of course!” he exclaimed.

“Well, my Yom Kippur jokes don’t go over so well in Alabama,” said Lovitt. “[My target audience is people who have been to and love Israel, but also those who are thinking of visiting but just never had an opportunity. The more time you’ve spent here, the harder you’ll laugh.”

By creating a comedy routine out of his experiences, he is able to connect with Zionists around the world, he said.

“In a country where East meets West, old meets new, and explicit rap lyrics meet radio stations where American FCC regulations do not apply, there is no shortage of hilarious moments, interactions and opportunities,” said Lovitt. “It is said that throughout our history, the Jews have laughed to keep from crying. Sometimes, you just have to laugh here at the absurdities of life”

For more information on Lovitt’s show, visit

The Ultimate Fan

A Baltimore sports fan since the 1960s, Stan Charles has created a media success with PressBox. (Provided)

A Baltimore sports fan since the 1960s, Stan Charles has created a media success with PressBox. (Provided)

Long before there were fan-related sports websites such as Bleacher Report, SB Nation, Rant Sports and Fansided, there was PressBox. For more than 31 years Baltimore sports fans have known and loved Stan “The Fan” Charles, a true Charm City icon. Charles was a local radio personality who also penned a weekly sports column for City Paper, but it was his decision in 2007 to create the PressBox brand that has spawned a mini sports-media empire in Baltimore.

Since 2007, Charm City sports fans have been reading PressBox’s signature monthly print magazine; they follow the daily happenings on its website,, and they watch its weekly television show that airs every Sunday morning on WMAR-TV at 10:30.

The success of PressBox is based on a simple premise: Give local readers every possible storyline about their high schools and colleges. Baltimore is a big city that has a passion for high school sports, and Baltimore is home to more than a dozen sports-playing colleges and universities. PressBox makes sure fans have a place to read about their favorite teams.

Of course, no Baltimore-area sports publication would be complete without extensive coverage of the Orioles and Ravens. Charles and his dedicated staff produce sports content that is fresh, current and compelling 24/7.

While many publications such as the Baltimore Sun have downsized and charge a fee for their online content, Charles and his team has ramped up coverage, making sure that PressBox deliverers more fresh content than any other area website. And it’s free.

JT: Where did you grow up? In Baltimore?  
Stan Charles: Actually, I was born in Washington, D.C., in 1952, and in 1958, my father passed away. My mother wanted to be near her family, and that meant moving to Baltimore. Mom was one of a family of 10, so I had plenty of loving aunts, uncles and cousins to help me learn everything about Baltimore. We lived near Pimlico Race Course and the Rodgers Avenue Synagogue, where I had my bar mitzvah. My passion for sports and for Baltimore grew from that amazingly loving community, around the Rodgers Avenue Synagogue.

PressBox debuted in 2007 and puts a huge emphasis on local and high school sports. (Provided)

PressBox debuted in 2007 and puts a huge emphasis on local and high school sports. (Provided)

Growing up in the old neighborhood, attending Arlington Elementary, Pimlico Junior High and Northwestern gave me a wonderful foundation, and it taught me a great life lesson on how important family and a supportive Jewish community are. Also, how relationships you develop as a kid can — if you are lucky — last you a lifetime. Throughout my career, the Jewish community of Baltimore has supported me, and it continues to do so, well over 30 years after I began my work in sports.

When did you become a sports fan?
As with most kids growing up in Baltimore in the 1960s, I listened to all the Orioles and Colts games on my transistor radio. It was the golden age of Baltimore sports with Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, and Gino Marchetti among the many great Colts players. Then you had the Orioles with Frank and Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell, along with the outstanding pitching of Jim Palmer, Mike Flannigan and Dave McNally. There are really too many outstanding players on both teams to name, but we loved following both teams every game. Most of the time it was listening on the radio or watching on TV. But things were always the best on those special days when my brother, cousins and uncle would go to Memorial Stadium. Those are the memories that will stay with me forever, and that is what makes sports so special.

When did you know you wanted to be involved in sports as a profession?
I remembered listening to Benny the Fan, who used to have a radio sports show in the 1960s. He knew his stuff and was very entertaining, and it was Benny and another Baltimore radio personality, Charley Eckman, who really got me interested in sports broadcasting. I got my start on radio in 1981 at WFBR, and I knew that was what I wanted to do. There is something about the interaction with the fans, the players and the people in power that seems to always make for a great story. At the same time I was honing my craft learning everything I could as a broadcaster. I also wrote a weekly column for City Paper called “A Fan’s Notes,” So my career as a sports broadcaster and as a columnist began to take shape and flourish.

What is next for PressBox?
We continue to grow and expand the brand as best we can. We are now an affiliate of Monumental Networks, and we launched our new website this year. We not only cover Baltimore, but we have also taken on covering sports in the nation’s capital. We have a Washington-based staff for the new website. My partner, John Coulson, and I both feel very strongly that the way we cover events and the people involved in sports in Baltimore will translate well in Washington. At a time when newspapers are reducing staff or going to an online pay service, we want to keep our sports content fresh, up to date, local and free. It has been a recipe that has served us well for the past seven years, so we will stay true to our brand, as we grow in this ever-changing media world.

Jim Williams is a local freelance writer.

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.

Renovations Coming to Merriweather

Merriweather Post Pavilion has hosted Led Zeppelin, The Black Keys, Jimi Hendrix and Jack Johnson, as well as a variety of music festivals since its opening in 1967. (Photos Provided)

Merriweather Post Pavilion has hosted Led Zeppelin, The Black Keys, Jimi Hendrix and Jack Johnson, as well as a variety of music festivals since its opening in 1967.
(Photo Provided)

Two words come up in conversation consistently when discussing concert amphitheater Merriweather Post Pavilion: unique and iconic.

Nestled in the woods of Columbia, Merriweather is considered the Holy Grail of Maryland concert venues by fans, artists and agents alike. It’s large enough to host acts such as Jack White, Jack Johnson, The Flaming Lips and Bob Dylan, but small enough to still feel somewhat intimate, with most concerts capping at about 18,000 attendees. With its sloping lawn, rustic atmosphere and world-class sound, it was ranked the fourth-best amphitheater in the country by Rolling Stone magazine last year.

Seth Hurwitz, chairman of I.M.P., which operates Merriweather and the 9:30 Club and produces concerts at several other Baltimore-Washington, D.C.-area venues, can list a number of factors that set the venue apart from others, but at the end of the day, what makes it unique is still intangible.

“It’s probably a good thing that there’s no formula or way to describe it,” Hurwitz said.

In June, Hurwitz, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and musician Jack Johnson unveiled a $19 million renovation plan for the venue, which will take place during the next five off-seasons. The renovations include new seating, a raised main roof, new restrooms and concessions, new artist dressing rooms, a new stage and environmental improvements.

“I knew the next important step was to make sure there was some reinvestment into the venue to keep the character of the venue, but bring 21st-century amenities into the venue,” said Ulman, who was part of an effort to save Merriweather after its previous owners threatened to close it in 2003.

The challenge is updating the building in a way that maintains its character and history. Merriweather stands out from the venues built during the “gold rush of amphitheaters,” Hurwitz said, which tend to be uniform in look and were “designed to maximize the number of people and how much beer you can sell in a short time” without any attention to aesthetics.

“Merriweather was different and needs to stay different, so you don’t want to do anything that looks like anyone else,” Hurwitz said of the upcoming renovations. “There were a lot of cookie-cutter concrete-and-steel places built, and we are the antithesis of that, and we need to remain so.”

Merriweather Post Pavilion was built in 1967, and was named after philanthropist, socialite and Post Foods heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. In the venue’s early days, it hosted legends Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead and a concert that featured both Led Zeppelin and The Who. It was designed by architect Frank Gehry, who is known for his unorthodox projects.

These days, the venue hosts a number of unique festivals: Sweetlife, which featured Lana Del Ray, Foster the People and more this summer; the Virgin Mobile FreeFest, which did not occur in 2014; the Mad Decent Block Party, an electronic music festival; and the Capital Jazz Festival, which brings top jazz acts to the venue each summer.

Merriweather remains a destination for touring artists, said WME agent Seth Seigle, whose agency has booked Gary Clark Jr., Trombone Shorty, Eric Church, John Legend and a plethora of multi-genre artists at the venue in recent years.

“Merriweather has become a place we want to see on our tours, and it’s something many artists aspire to,” Seigle said. “I think our work says it all because you have options, and we like competition and the idea of differentiation, but historically, our clients go back there.”

Many of those aspiring artists start out at I.M.P. venue the 9:30 Club in Washington and later go on to play Merriweather. To commemorate artists who took such a path, the 9:32 Club, a bar at Merriweather, now features an exhibit with side-by-side displays of show posters from artists who played the 9:30 Club and then Merriweather. It even features a needlepoint creation by an I.M.P. employee.

“That’s just an example of something you wouldn’t see at the steel-and-concrete places. They wouldn’t have the history,” said Audrey Schaefer, I.M.P. spokeswoman. “It’s really about connecting in the beginning, and that feeling of a honeymoon continues.”

Merriweather has also expanded its food offerings through a kitchen expansion, added a music pinball arcade and tripled bathroom facilities in recent years. But it is other changes that have kept at least one musician coming back to perform.

Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, who works to make his tours and shows environmentally friendly, has encouraged and applauded such measures Merriweather has made over the years as the installation of solar panels that power the house lights, composting and building new structures according to LEED (leadership in energy and environmental design) standards.

Merriweather’s greening efforts will be further enhanced by the renovations, which include capturing all storm water runoff for irrigation use, expanding solar capacity 12-fold, replacing all lighting with LED lights and rebuilding restrooms and concessions to meet high-efficiency standards.

The Howard County Council is providing a loan of $9.5 million for the renovations, and the Howard Hughes Corporation, which owns Merriweather, will provide the other $9.5 million. When the renovations are finished, Howard Hughes will pass off ownership of the venue to the nonprofit Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission.

The developer is in the planning and design phases, trying to figure out the best way to get the renovations done in the projected time, said Greg Fitchitt, vice president of development at the Howard Hughes Corporation.

Fitchitt said the company has Merriweather’s “iconic brand” in mind as it nears the beginning of construction.

“It’s got a great, funky, rustic, agricultural feel to it,” he said. “Preserving that is really important to us.”

The Merriweather renovations are at the center of greater development in downtown Columbia. Howard Hughes plans to eventually build 13 million square feet of new development, but is currently in planning discussions with the county over about 4.9 million square feet that would include residential, office, retail, civic and cultural space as well as a 250-room hotel.

“We want Merriweather to be more woven into the fabric of the Columbia Town Center and waterfront,” said Ulman, who is running for lieutenant governor on Anthony Brown’s ticket. “There’s a lot of exciting things happening at Town Center, and Merriweather really is at the heart of the entire master planning around creating a special place where folks will want to live, want to work and shop and go there for entertainment.”


“Mumbojumbo” by Astral Eyes (Photo by Dan Meyers)

“Mumbojumbo” by Astral Eyes
(Photo by Dan Meyers)

Ever wonder where great ideas — truly inspired ideas that transport and transform the people who have them and their worlds — come from? Great ideas and the unusual visionaries who dream them up are the subject of a new exhibition that opened Oct. 4 at the American Visionary Art Museum.

Described by AVAM’s founder and director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger as a show about life’s “Aha!” and “Eureka!” moments, “The Visionary Experience, Saint Francis to Finster,” includes the work of self-taught artists, inventors, architects, scientists, saints and spiritual leaders of different races, ethnicities, socioeconomic levels and faith traditions who all share the experience of being struck by “some lightning bolt of greater understanding, insight, grace and muse” that inspired their uncommon and majestic creations.

The exhibition, curated by Hoffberger with filmmaker and publisher Jodi Wille, also explores why some human beings are blessed with supernatural capacities for insight and understanding, unusual powers of intuition and the ability to access a degree of spiritual connectedness that for most people remains out of reach.

A tour of “The Visionary Experience” begins before one crosses the threshold of the museum. The building itself, adorned with a 1,920-square-foot mirror-and-glass mosaic, is a work of art designed and installed with the help of at-risk and incarcerated youth trained by community artists. The project began in 2000, and its third phase, supervised by artist Mari Gardner, was completed just in time for the exhibition opening.

Hoffberger said the museum campus, which also includes two sculpture plazas, a wildflower garden, the Leroy E. Hoffberger Speaker’s Corner, the LOVE Sculpture Barn, and an outdoor movie theater, was conceived as a place that should always be open to the public.

“If you come at 3 a.m., you can still hug an egg,” she said, referring to Andrew Logan’s “Cosmic Galaxy Egg” installed outside. As part of the new exhibition, visitors who arrive after closing time can also see visionary artist and classic car collector Steve Heller’s “Stargate,” made entirely of automobile parts.

“Feminine Risin” by Ingo Swann (Photo by Dan Meyers)

“Feminine Rising” by Ingo Swann
(Photo by Dan Meyers)

Upon entering the museum, visitors will see local artist, author, radio host, political activist and one of America’s foremost symbolic muralists, Robert Richard Hieronimus’ painting, “Historic Views of Baltimore, 1752-1858,” a 24-by-4-foot, three-paneled panoramic view of the Baltimore Harbor. The work explores what inspired the founding fathers to conceive of their new country.

The exhibit also focuses on the phenomena of near-death and out-of-body experiences.

“Close encounters with death are often life-changing experiences, common to visionaries,” noted Hoffberger. For example, “Visionary Experience” artist Jason Padgett became a gifted mathematician, physicist and illustrator after a mugging in which he was repeatedly kicked in the head. Artist Maja D’Aoust had her first supernatural experience when she was extremely ill as a 2-year-old, and painter Norbert Kox had his life-changing spiritual awakening after a drug overdose.

The Rev. Howard Finster, a Baptist minister and jack of all trades, was born in Alabama in 1915 (or 1916.) Recognized as America’s most prolific artist, Finster is said to have experienced his first vision at the age of 3, when he saw his late sister, Abbie Rose, descend a staircase from the heavens. She said, “Howard, you’re going to be a man of visions.”

“The Visionary Experience,” said Hoffberger, is dedicated to the centennial celebration of Finster’s birth.

Although his visions began early in life, Finster did not begin painting until age 60, when he heard God speak to him. Before his death in 2001, Finster created 46,000 numbered works; was the creator of Paradise Garden, a folk art sculpture garden in Georgia; illustrated album covers for rock groups REM and Talking Heads and even appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.

Astral Eyes, born James Weigel, whose piece “Mumbojumbo” appears in the show, heard voices and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was fortunate to be homeschooled by his mother, who also heard voices and was able to provide guidance for her son as he learned to manage, and to flourish artistically, despite (or possibly because of) his psychiatric symptoms. Born in 1976, Astral Eyes has enjoyed a successful career as an artist of record album covers and as a clothing designer.

Several paintings by visionary artist and psychic Ingo Swann, a “pioneer in the field of remote viewing” and co-creator of Stanford Research Institute of Remote Viewing and the CIA Stargate Project, is also on display. Swann said his first out-of-body experience occurred during a tonsillectomy at age 3. His work has been shown in the Pan Am Building in New York City and is on permanent display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The stories of these artists raise one of the exhibition’s most interesting questions: Are some visionaries mentally ill, or are they instead just more in touch with alternate states of consciousness? The curators conclude that there are no boundaries to what the mind can access, if the thinker is receptive.

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A Happy Holiday

Making the holiday  cooking experience even more fun, Ilene Spector and her grandson made this memorable — and tasty — edible sukkah. (David Stuck)

Making the holiday cooking experience even more fun, Ilene Spector and her grandson made this memorable — and tasty — edible sukkah. (David Stuck)

Sukkot celebrates the joy of the late summer harvest and is often thought of as the Jewish Thanksgiving. However, at this holiday, where we eat is as meaningful as what we eat.

Through the sukkahs we simulate the experience of the Exodus from Egypt. Traveling to the Promised Land for 40 years through the desert, the fleeing children of Israel created temporary housing or huts. By living in these temporary sukkahs, we get a sense of our dependence on nature — and our inter-dependence of family, friends and neighbors.

One of the rituals performed each day in the sukkah is holding four species of vegetation in one’s hands and lifting them in six directions: east, west, north, south, up and down. This reflects our belief that God is everywhere, and there is no place that God is not present.

Eating in the sukkah is the essence of the holiday. Even the composition of food holds metaphors. For example, “stuffed” recipes (such as cabbage, eggplants and tomatoes) remind us of being surrounded in a cozy dwelling. Decorate your table with pomegranates and bottles of wine. I even made a small edible sukkah with my grandson. A cornucopia should overflow with fruits, vegetables, nut and candies. Your sukkah should always be ready for guests.

Get out your Crock-Pot(s) for hearty soups and cholent. Some people decorate sukkahs quite elaborately. Yes, I have seen chandeliers. But there are other more simple options, such as using children’s drawings and photos of Israel. This is a happy holiday ending with Simchat Torah, marking the end of the Torah reading and the beginning — the circle of life. Here are some recipes to add delicious tastes and smells to your sukkah.


Rolled Stuffed Eggplant

Scalloped Tomatoes

Light Sweet Potatoes With Apples


Tips & Tricks
• Spruce up wilted vegetables with a “splash” of plain vinegar.
• Royal icing: 1 egg white and 1 to 2 cups sifted 10X sugar. Beat on high to a “glue” consistency.
• Use a lot of fresh aromatic herbs, such as fresh rosemary and basil, to scent your sukkah table.

Ilene Spector is a local freelance writer.