Shalom to the Enshrined

Jeff Idelson, Hall of Fame director, holds a bat used by the great Jewish Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Jeff Idelson, Hall of Fame director, holds a bat used by the great Jewish Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame)

For Jeff Idelson, the director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., induction weekend is all about teamwork.

“When you get to signature events [and] you’re in a small community, all the pieces have to come together effectively for it to be a grand slam,” Idelson said recently from his office in the Central New York village of 1,852.

The team includes Mayor Jeff Katz, like Idelson a passionate baseball fan, and they oversaw last weekend’s festivities as the unofficial welcoming committee for the game’s elite and the tens of thousands of fans who came to pay them homage.

Former players Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and ex-managers Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox were inducted Sunday.

Calling Cooperstown home is heavenly for the two officials.

“To be the mayor of a place like Cooperstown is a special thing,” Katz said, sitting in Idelson’s office filled with shelves of bobble-heads representing baseball and pop-culture figures as well as Idelson’s Little League bat — a Mike Schmidt model — on the side.

The men have been friends ever since Katz, his wife and their three sons moved to Cooperstown more than a decade ago. The families gather for Passover seders, and Aaron Idelson and Joey Katz were classmates who graduated from Cooperstown High School in June.

The two Jeffs work together occasionally — but always when induction weekend rolls around.

“The village has always been there to work with hand-in-hand, whether it’s parking issues [or] dealing with crowds,” said Idelson, 50. “That’s enhanced now because we have a mayor who really loves baseball.” He adds quickly that previous mayors “have all been great” too.

On induction weekend, the eyes of the American sports world turn annually to the one-square-mile, one-stoplight village that has been revered as baseball’s birthplace ever since the myth arose of Abner Doubleday inventing the game there in 1839.

Besides the large induction class of 2014, this midsummer’s gathering was notable for falling near the museum’s 75th anniversary and the centennial of the Major League debut of slugging icon Babe Ruth, a member of the Hall of Fame’s inaugural class.

The weekend also followed on the heels of another spectacle: President Obama becoming the first chief executive to tour the Hall of Fame, when he visited Cooperstown on May 22 to deliver a speech promoting tourism.

Idelson guided Obama and Hall of Famer Andre Dawson through some exhibits. Obama even grasped the baseball used by William Howard Taft when, in 1910, he became the first president to throw a ceremonial first pitch at a game.

The days prior to Obama’s visit felt “like I was cramming for a final,” Idelson said.

“I was so nervous he’d ask a question I wouldn’t have an answer to.”

Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz (left) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo enjoy a May visit to the Hall of Fame. (Courtesy of Jeff Katz)

Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz (left) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo enjoy a May visit to the Hall of Fame. (Courtesy of Jeff Katz)

Katz, 52, is kept busy responding to queries too.

His home on Chestnut Street is a 10-minute stroll from work, but it often takes an hour to get there when residents stop him to chat. That’s been a common occurrence, especially since paid parking was instituted in 2013 on village streets during the summer tourist season.

The measure wasn’t universally popular.

“People would say, ‘Go back to Chicago,’ “ Katz said.

That was where Katz had lived and earned a hefty income as an options trader, enabling his family to relocate to Cooperstown, where Katz had wanted to purchase a second home. He’s served in unpaid positions as a Cooperstown Board of Trustees member, deputy mayor and, since 2012, mayor.

Katz is also president of the Society for American Baseball Research’s local chapter, and being in Cooperstown allows him easy access to the Hall of Fame’s library. That’s where he researches the book he’s writing about the oddity of 1981, when the players’ strike from June to August split the season in two and created first-half and second-half champions.

In a previous book, Katz examined the 13-year existence of the Kansas City A’s, when the franchise, in many experts’ view, was exploited by the New York Yankees before being sold and decamping for Oakland.

Growing up in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn, Katz was a diehard New York Mets fan. Idelson, a native of the Boston suburb of Newton, worked in public relations for his hometown Red Sox before taking a similar position with the Yankees.

Now in his 20th year of working for the Hall of Fame and his sixth as its president, Idelson takes the diplomatic stance that “you don’t love an individual [player] or an individual team — you love the game.”

The numbers arriving for last weekend’s festivities — Idelson said it was “one of our largest” crowds ever — prompted Katz and the board to close Main Street to vehicles. That was last done in 2007, when the induction of Orioles infielder Cal Ripken drew a record crowd of 82,000.

“Every mayor, every board, has understood the importance of the Hall of Fame in the village,” Katz said. “We certainly do everything we can to accommodate the Hall’s needs.”

Speaking of Idelson, he added, “And because we’ve been friends for almost 11 years now, there is a comfort level. I think there is an extra level of cooperation because of the nature of our friendship.”

Instant Minyan



Searching for a minyan? Look no further than your smartphone.

On July 8, Web development company RustyBrick released its newest mobile application for Android and iPhone users: Minyan Now. The New York-based company, best known for creating a popular phone siddur, uses modern technology to enhance traditional Jewish practices. The company’s latest product is designed to help Jewish men form and find minyans anywhere.

The idea for Minyan Now was inspired by RustyBrick CEO Barry Schwartz and founder and CFO Ronnie Schwartz after they personally struggled to find the quorums necessary for public prayer after their mother’s death. According to Jewish law, recitation of the traditional mourner’s prayer known as Kaddish requires a minyan.

“Barry and I are twins, and our mother passed away a year-and-a-half ago,” said Ronnie Schwartz. “It was difficult to find minyans in different areas, especially on the go. As a result, we wanted to help people find minyans easily. It is not always easy to get 10 Jewish males in the same place at once. Now, Jewish boys over the age of 13 can find a minyan anywhere, anytime in seconds.”

The brothers dedicated the app to their deceased mother.

So how does it work?

Minyan Now utilizes the smartphone’s built-in GPS system to find users’ locations. Users can create or join a minyan, gather 10 people and get their prayer on.

“Users can create a minyan at the push of a button. All they need to do is set up a time and place and fill in how many people they are bringing,” said Ronnie Schwartz. “After the minyan is created, the mobile application alerts other Minyan Now and RustyBrick Siddur users close by. Once 10 men respond yes, everyone receives a second notification that the minyan is ready to go.”

After just a week and a half, Baltimore resident and RemSource CEO Azi Rosenblum is already impressed with the new application. A huge fan of RustyBrick’s siddur application, Rosenblum praises Minyan Now’s success at creating minyans for people on the go.

“I think RustyBrick’s cutting edge creation will pull more Jews together,” said Rosenblum. “Imagine finding a minyan in the middle of an amusement park, train station or ballgame. Everyone is constantly on the road, including me. They are helping Jews get done what we’ve been doing for thousands of years in an easy, accessible way.”

The Schwartz twins emphasize that their apps use 21st-century tools to aid conventional Jewish practices.

“Our goal is not to infringe on the traditions of Judaism,” said Ronnie Schwartz. “We’re Orthodox and don’t want to change the rules. We want to help others through technology and make all of our lives easier.”

Allie Freedman is a local freelance writer.

No Meat, No Problem!

080114_ninedaysFrom chicken soup to cholent, Jews love their meat.

With a vast array of kosher meat restaurants in the Baltimore area, Jewish meat eaters are spoiled for choice when it comes to dining out. Yet, from July 28 until Aug. 4, observant Jews are forbidden to eat meat during the nine days between Rosh Chodesh and Tisha B’Av.

But meat-eating Jews need not fear, many kosher meat restaurants have unveiled special fish and vegetarian menus for the nine days.

Newly opened African-inspired kosher steakhouse Serengeti and contemporary family-style kosher grill Accents have re-kashered their kitchens and created new dishes for the nine-day period. The sister restaurants, owned by Larry and Lara Franks, offer an exclusive fish menu featuring sesame-studded salmon, bronzed tilapia, oven-baked sole, pan-seared red snapper, Asian rainbow trout and more. In addition, Accents provides a full sushi bar to bring even more variety to the meat-free diet.

“You will be excited by what you eat. Both Serengeti and Accents have designed special fish menus for diners to enjoy over the nine days,” said Phil Rosenfeld, Serengeti’s front-of-house manager. “We have a beautiful menu that includes several fish, pasta and sandwich dishes. From seared ahi tuna to house-made vegan quinoa to vegetarian lentils, you will not feel deprived.”

Others who don’t have much adapting to do aren’t worried about losing business. Easta LaVista owner Elad Barmatz is confident his restaurant will thrive thanks to his primarily vegetarian cuisine. Easta LaVista, which brings Middle Eastern flavors to Baltimore, simply swaps fish for shawarma during the nine days.

“My restaurant is already 90 percent vegetarian,” said Barmatz. “Many restaurants close during this period, but Middle Eastern cuisine is known for classic vegetarian dishes like shakshuka, falafel and hummus.”

Offering Moroccan fish and salmon steak, the restaurant indulges diners with a buffet-style selection of salads and sides to accompany their main course.

“We give our diners plenty of variety in our food,” said Barmatz. “You decide what your plate looks like.”

While many restaurants tweak their menus, others decide to remain closed during the meatless nine days, as Barmatz mentioned. Kosher Bite, Royal Kosher Restaurant and David Chu’s will all go dark during this period.

David Chu’s manager Amy Fan believes that it is not worth keeping the restaurant open when her diners cannot consume meat.

“Of course, we are closed,” says Fan. “I can’ t imagine any of our customers paying for vegetables. Meat is our specialty.”

Despite many restaurants closing their doors, Baltimore Jews will not go hungry during the nine days.

“Whether you order fish, falafel or eggs, we are ready for you,” said Barmatz. “You won’t even know the meat is missing.”

Allie Freedman is a local freelance writer.

‘Wish I Was Here’

Mandy Patinkin and  Zach Braff play a father  and son trying to repair their relationship in Braff’s new film “Wish I Was Here.”

Mandy Patinkin and Zach Braff play a  father and son trying to repair their relationship in Braff’s new film “Wish I Was Here.”
(Merie Weismiller Wallace, SMPSP/Focus Features)

Zach Braff, a decade after his hit film “Garden State,” has offered up his next humor-infused self-searching roller-coaster ride, another personal expression written with his brother, Adam.

“Wish I Was Here” — an anomaly as a Hollywood feature because it began as a crowd-funded project through the website Kickstarter — is about a 30-something Jewish man, Aidan Bloom (Braff), who finds himself at a major crossroads in life as a parent, spouse and child. Aidan desperately wants to make it as an actor and is married to Sarah, played by Kate Hudson, a supportive spouse, but whose energy is drained by ongoing harassment she receives at her corporate job.

Josh Gad (of “Frozen” and “Book of Mormon” fame) plays Aidan’s younger genius-but-outsider brother Noah, who lives in a trailer, plays videos all day and lives as a recluse. Mandy Patinkin plays Gabe, the dying, somewhat bitter patriarch of the Bloom family, constantly voicing his disapproval with the life choices of his sons. Pierce Gagnon plays Aidan and Sarah’s young precocious son, and Joey King delivers a strong performance as the conflicted teen daughter experimenting with Orthodoxy.

At a special Focus Features press screening with the JT, Braff said he wanted “to write something that was personal and honest, even if to a fault.” It might get too sentimental, maudlin, or silly he admitted, but he wanted to create something that answered the questions, “What are me and my friends talking about, what’s upsetting us, what’s keeping us up at night? What makes us laugh, now that we’re in our 30s? … I just wanted to tell something that was honest and from the heart.”

Gad said that the film deals with complex family relationships that many people can relate to, including putting up walls, understanding hierarchy in family, the death of a parent or coming to terms with long-term misunderstandings — all done with a touch of humor.

“Zach really wanted to be very specific. And he could only be as specific as his upbringing taught him to be,” said Gad. “So he’s speaking to a personal exploration of his own [Jewish] upbringing. I grew up in a Jewish household as well, so I was familiar with themes and cultural touchstones that the movie calls upon.”

Gad said Jewish content hasn’t been explored much in Hollywood films and thought it was something that makes “Wish I Was Here” stand out as a film.

“That’s part of what made it so important to crowd fund this project — it’s not a traditional studio movie,” he added. “This is a movie that has a lot of themes that wouldn’t otherwise find an outlet unless you had a Kickstarter behind it.”

The film is full of Jewish references. Aidan drops his kids off at day school and yells after them, “Now, go be Jewish!” as they scramble out of the car; Kugel is the family dog, there is a Segway-riding (and wall-crashing) rabbi, kids are referred to as little indoctrinated matzah balls and at one point someone is referred to as “shiva waiting to happen.”

Gad said the process of making the film with Braff was very collaborative, and a highlight of it was working with “one of my idols, Mandy Patinkin.”

Patinkin’s involvement in the film was a bit of a chance occurrence. He and his son happened to pass Braff on Seventh Avenue in the Lower West Side of Manhattan, and Braff briefly introduced himself. A few months later, Braff sent him the script, which Patinkin said made him weep. The Jewish theme of the film, however, had nothing to do with the 61-year-old “Homeland” actor’s interest — who is no stranger to Jewish-themed entertainment.

“I don’t see it as a Jewish film at all. It’s a universal story about a family connecting, parents and children, grandchildren,” said Patinkin. “This movie can easily be Russian, Greek, Polish, Jewish, Italian, African-American, Haitian, anything under the sun. It’s about being present and not missing the day, the moment. It’s about waking up.”

Patinkin’s character, Gabe, coming to the end of his life through terminal illness, struggles to communicate his love to his sons, and much of the film centers on that father-son relationship.

But it’s Sarah that might be the only one capable of convincing them to reconcile before it’s too late. Hudson, arguably giving her best performance since her portrayal of Penny Lane in “Almost Famous,” shares an emotional heart-to-heart with Patinkin as his character withers away in a hospital bed, which is a highlight of the film.

“That’s a really central moment in the script, and those are the moments on set when you’re thinking, ‘When are we shooting that scene?’ It’s when your sweat glands start to act up,” said Hudson. “The biggest thing I responded to after reading the script — because of that scene — was that at the end of the day, after everything that your parents told you and everything they’ve given you, all you want is to know that they’re proud and how much they love you.”

Braff said “living with no regrets,” along with the concept that this life is the only one you’ll have, are major messages he wants viewers to take away from the film.

“At its very core, it’s about spirituality and family,” said Braff, “and ultimately finding a spirituality that makes sense for you in 2014 when you’re not someone who organized religion works for.”

“Wish I Was Here” opens July 25 at the Charles Theatre in Baltimore and will be in limited release beginning July 18 at Landmark’s E. Street Cinema in D.C. and Bethesda Row Cinema in downtown Bethesda. The film is rated R for language and some sexual content.

Easy to Digest

Customers line up outside the Cofizz store on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, where everything on the menu is 5 shekels. (Cofizz)

Customers line up outside the Cofizz store on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, where everything on the menu is 5 shekels.

Omelet sandwich: 5 shekels. Iced coffee: 5 shekels. Tuna sandwich: 5 shekels. Fresh-squeezed orange juice: 5 shekels. Cheese bureka: 5 shekels.

There’s plenty more on the Cofizz menu, but you get the idea.

Dani Mizrahi and Amir Amshalm, two Israeli men in their early 30s, asked themselves: Why not launch a take-out food joint in busy neighborhoods around Jerusalem where everything — and that means everything — goes for 5 shekels, or about $1.50. They’d seen the concept take off in Tel Aviv, where those running a chain called Cofix keep busy feeding the local populace with all kinds of equally inexpensive fare.

“It worked there, so we thought, why not here?” said Mizrahi. “But here in Jerusalem being kosher is a very important thing.” Appropriately, then, Cofizz adheres to the high Israeli kosher standards of Mahadrin and, in several locations, Badatz.

Visitors to Jerusalem can keep their eyes peeled for the telltale bright red Cofizz signs sprouting up around town this year. In January, the partners rolled out their first Cofizz at 14 Ben Yehuda St. and now have added two more on Jaffa Street, just steps from the light rail.

The emergence of Cofizz’s cheap eats is music to the ears of Jerusalemites, who this year are looking at average rents for three-bedroom apartments — the typical choice for families — of 4,633 shekels ($1,351) outside the city center and 7,332 shekels ($2,135) inside. Average salaries for Jerusalem residents, meanwhile, hover just above the 6,000-shekel ($1,750) per-month level.

“We are in this business not only to make money,” Mizrahi said. “We also want to help people make it.”

By July, Mizrahi and Amshalm are planning on opening locations in the Machane Yehuda market (otherwise known as the “shuk”), and other sites are planned for Haifa, Rehovot and Kfar Saba. “We are projecting a total of nine [stores] by mid-summer,” said Mizrahi. “But 50 is really our [long-term] number.”

Mizrahi, who said he doesn’t “like to see people paying 100 shekels for coffee and a sandwich,” said that “everyone comes to us, lawyers and office workers, everybody.”

Based on a recent visit to the Ben Yehuda Street location, Cofizz customers applaud the idea of 5-shekel dining, but they enjoy more than just the price.

“It’s cheap,” said Jane Bizan, who lives and works nearby. “But it’s not just the prices. The fresh orange juice is really good and so is the Bulgarian cheese sandwich.” Standing in line behind Bizan was another Jerusalemite, Eran Karnicli, who after thinking it over for a second or two said, “For your money, you do get good value, and the service is very good too.”

Also on the menu — which notes the 5-shekel price in red after each item, despite the lack other prices — is a variety sandwiches, such as the internationally beloved focaccia in a choice of four different flavors. There are no less than 10 different types of coffee, including espresso, frappuccino, and Americano. But of all the coffees, it’s the cappuccino that’s the runaway favorite at the Ben Yehuda site of Cofizz, according to a server there named Lilach. And the most popular lunch fare? The veggie focaccia, she reports, handily beating out the tuna sandwich.

At these prices, how can Mizrahi and Amshalm even hope to turn a profit?

“Oh, we do make money,” Mizrahi said with a laugh. “We serve 3,000 people a day and on Ben Yehuda, 4,000, so we buy everything in bulk.”

The store is also extremely accessible, opening at 6 a.m., serving until 11:00 most nights and back in business on Saturday night after Shabbat ends — when there are already scores of customers in line.

“I can get a sandwich and an iced coffee for 10 shekels,” Navah Bargeva, one of the self-proclaimed Cofizz regulars, said with a smile. “That’s so much better than anywhere else.”

Four Questions for Jeffrey Rosen

Jeffrey Rosen is proud that the BSL is now considered an elite league. (Provided)

Jeffrey Rosen is proud that the BSL is now considered an elite league.

Mark down the date: Friday, June 20, 2014. It was the day that the world realized that Israel had become a force in the world of professional basketball. Former Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv head coach David Blatt, who led the yellow and blue to both the 2014 Euroleague and Israeli Basketball Super League championships, was hired as the new bench boss of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

What an amazing season, as Maccabi TA won the Euroleague title May 18 in an exciting 96-86 overtime win over Real Madrid in Milan. But they still had to face defending BSL defending champion Maccabi Haifa in a two-game playoff. That also ended in another overtime victory, 84-82, on June 11.

Meanwhile, for Jeffrey Rosen, the owner of defending champions Maccabi Haifa, it was a tough loss to take. But he knows the most important thing for fans worldwide to remember is that the BSL has come into its own as one of Europe’s most elite basketball leagues.

Rosen has made the team from northern Israel into a global brand as the 2012-13 BSL champions. A resident of Aventura, Fla., Rosen has brought Maccabi Haifa to the United States, where last year they completed a successful preseason NBA tour against the Phoenix Suns, the Detroit Pistons and the Memphis Grizzlies.

Haifa management also helps produce the English-language “Inside Israeli Basketball” show, which has been broadcast on American cable networks and is available on the Internet worldwide.

Rosen is the owner and chairman of Triangle Financial Services, LLC, a Florida-based sports marketing, media and management firm. His passion for professional basketball in Israel has not gone unnoticed.

More potential ownership groups are looking to invest in the BSL, and the most recent entry was the group who purchased Hapoel Migdal Jerusalem in 2013. The group is headed by 32-year-old Internet businessman Ori Allon, and it includes New York Knicks superstar Amar’e Stoudemire and Eyal Chomski, who owns one of Israel’s biggest and most successful advertising agencies. Then for good measure they added U.S.-based Arn Tellem, who is widely recognized as one of the most influential and respected sports agents in the world.

Because of Rosen’s promotion of Israel basketball and the longtime success of rival Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, it suddenly seems like owning a team in the BSL is a wise sports investment.

Rosen, though, is not only involved in basketball. He was an original investor in the Israel Baseball League and has emerged as a leader in a group seeking to restore professional baseball to Israel after the failed attempt of 2007.

Just before a much-needed vacation after the BSL championship series, Rosen spoke to the JT about a number of sports-related issues.

JT: Another outstanding year but a tough ending. Can you reflect on how far Maccabi Haifa has come under your ownership?
Rosen: Despite falling just short of back-to-back championships, I’m extremely proud of the team’s accomplishments and the progress our organization has made over the past seven years. We went from a second-division team in the first season in 2007 and were promoted to the Premiere League in just one season. Our Maccabi Haifa team has earned five finals appearances (three Israeli League finals and two State Cup finals) in the past six seasons, including winning the team’s first championship, in 2012-13, in the franchise’s 60-year history. Maccabi Haifa has become a global brand, playing six NBA teams in the past four seasons. We also have our “Inside Israeli Basketball” TV show, which has been on the air in the United States for five seasons and has earned two New York Emmy Award nominations.

The Israeli Basketball Super League has attracted new owners and top players. Are you pleased with the growth of the league both in interest as well as the talent level?
The Israeli Basketball Super League’s talent and ownership is definitely on the rise since I became an owner back in 2007. Many of the teams are opening first-class venues, including our team, which opened a beautifully renovated Romema Arena in Haifa in 2012-13. Hapoel Jerusalem has attracted new ownership, including present New York Knicks star Amar’e Stoudemire. As the owner of Maccabi Haifa, I welcome and am open to additional owners for our Maccabi Haifa team.

Is it your hope to have Maccabi Haifa play in both the BSL and
the Euroleague?
Our goal is to continue to be a force in the Israeli Basketball Super League. The Euroleague is something we can see happening in the future, but our focus is on the BSL and continuing to build Haifa as a global brand in international basketball with our annual games against NBA competition. We will soon announce the names of the NBA teams we will face in the United States and the dates, so our American fans can come out and see us.

I know of your love of baseball. How is your quest to bring professional baseball to Israel coming?
Baseball is a passion of mine, and we continue to support the local Israel Association of Baseball each year. We hope to build high-class baseball facilities in Israel in the near future.

Winning Shot

070414_basketballLOS ANGELES — In 1981, David Blatt moved to Israel in pursuit of a path of lifelong worship — to play professional basketball.

Now, more than 30 years later, Blatt is leaving Israel to make a different, and totally unprecedented, form of aliyah — to leave the ranks of Israeli basketball to coach in the NBA.

On June 20, the Cleveland Cavaliers announced the hiring of Blatt as their head coach.

“I’m leaving my home but not my family,” Blatt had said at a June 12 news conference, as he explored his NBA options. “I’m not necessarily leaving for a better place. I’m leaving to follow my dream.”

He becomes the first coach in the history of European basketball to move directly to an NBA head coaching position. Blatt’s journey from the Boston suburbs to Israel and now back to the United States marks a triumph not only for Blatt but also for the small but storied world of Israeli basketball, and particularly for the Maccabi Tel Aviv team, famous for its underdog victories.

The most recent of those, which seems to have catapulted Blatt into the upper echelons of professional basketball, took place in the Euroleague Final Four in mid-May when Blatt led an undermanned Maccabi Tel Aviv squad to consecutive victories and the championship, a feat that impressed even NBA executives.

“Maccabi was outgunned at every position except coach,” one NBA general manager told ESPN. “David took down two Goliaths in a weekend. He belongs in the NBA.”

It has been a long journey for Blatt, who grew up in Framingham, Mass., as an avid Celtics fan. Blatt attended Hebrew school at Temple Beth Am and later recalled putting money in jars to plant trees in Israel. But he never connected his passion for basketball with his Jewish background.

Instead, he established himself as a top basketball talent and also had the good fortune to play for top coaches — first at Framingham South High School for Phil Moresi, now in the Massachusetts High School Basketball Hall of Fame, and then at Princeton University for Pete Carril, famed as the inventor of the “Princeton offense.”

During Blatt’s sophomore year at Princeton, a coach for an Israeli kibbutz team recruited him to play in Israel for the summer. Blatt loved kibbutz life and found that he was hooked. By the time he competed for the U.S. team in the 1981 Maccabi Games, winning a gold medal, he knew he was coming back.

“From the time I came here in 1979, I knew that I wanted to play in Israel professionally for some years,” he told Haaretz. “I realized that I wasn’t making the NBA, and I wanted to continue to play basketball professionally, in terms of money, but more than anything — to keep playing.”

He played nine of the next 12 years in Israel before retiring in 1993 to become a coach.

His coaching career eventually took him to Maccabi Tel Aviv — a team for which he had never played — where he served as an assistant under legendary coach Pini Gershon. When Gershon took a break from coaching in 2001, Blatt stepped into the head job for two successful seasons. Blatt went back to the job of assistant coach when Gershon returned.

Blatt then bounced around Europe, coaching several teams as well as the Russian national team, which he led to an Olympic bronze medal in 2012. In 2010, Blatt returned to Maccabi as head coach.

Among Israeli basketball teams, Maccabi Tel Aviv has long been dominant, winning the Israeli Championship 51 times and the European Championship six times since the team’s inception in 1932. That history, along with the city’s famed weather, culture and English-speaking population, has made it one of the most desirable international locales for top players, including Jordan
Farmar, a Jewish standout currently with the Los Angeles Lakers who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv during the 2011 NBA lockout.

Maccabi Tel Aviv, in turn, has used that desirability to its advantage, offering low salaries to match a payroll that is relatively small by European standards.

“It’s known to be what is called among players a low-ball organization — they’ll lure you and low-ball you into signing with them because of tradition and history,” said David Pick, a senior basketball correspondent for and Israeli sports channel “They’re expecting players to take pay cuts to play for Maccabi, and for the most part it works.”

However, despite that edge in attracting talent, this year’s Maccabi Tel Aviv team was widely considered weak and unlikely to advance far in the playoffs. Three of their five projected starters at the beginning of the season had been injured, and the team entered the Euroleague’s Final Four as a severe underdog. When Maccabi took the championship in a pair of nail-biters, the victory was hailed in Israeli newspapers as a “miracle.”

Shortly after the victory, Blatt announced that he was interested in pursuing options in the NBA. When he flew back to the United States last week for his father’s funeral, he reportedly met with new Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr for 45 minutes during an airport layover in Los Angeles, and Golden State subsequently offered him a position as one of Kerr’s assistants. He also interviewed with Cleveland, first by phone, and then in person on June 18. They offered him the job the next day.

It is an open question, of course, whether Blatt’s success in Israel will carry over to the NBA, although the increasing success of European players in making the jump suggests that talent can transfer. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the San Antonio Spurs just won an NBA title by dominating the LeBron James-led Miami Heat with an international roster and style of play.

A number of Blatt’s former players and coaches think he can do it. Ex-coaches Carril and Moresi have both expressed their belief that Blatt can make the transition, and former Maccabi and NBA player Anthony Parker, subsequently a scout for the Orlando Magic, has repeatedly stated that Blatt is one of the best coaches in the world.

Blatt will be leaving behind a country that not only has become his home, but also has embraced him as a superstar.

“David Blatt doesn’t want to walk out in the street because he wouldn’t be able to,” Pick said. “David leaves the coaches’ facility at 1, 1:30 in the morning just to avoid the mob.”

But, as Blatt has proven before, he’s willing to travel a long way from home to pursue his dreams.

Evil, Even in Argentina

A 1956 photo taken by a police photographer in Buenos Aires for Josef Mengele's Argentine identification document.  (Wikimedia Commons)

A 1956 photo taken by a police photographer in Buenos Aires for Josef Mengele’s Argentine identification document. (Wikimedia Commons)

Seven decades after the Holocaust, Josef Mengele is still a difficult name to stomach, as the repercussions of his medical experiments echo throughout history. So when I first heard about “The German Doctor” (“Wakolda” in German), a historical drama set in early 1960s Argentina and focused on part of Mengele’s life on the run from the Mossad, I wondered: Would the film portray the Angel of Death in a sympathetic light or would it show the man as history remembers him?

Lucia Puenzo’s film, based on her fifth novel, follows an Argentine family (mother Eva, father Enzo and youngest child Lilith) that the fugitive Mengele — known as Helmut Gregor — takes an interest in, as Lilith’s blonde hair and blue eyes intrigue him. She is a “perfect specimen” in his eyes. They cautiously welcome him into the bed and breakfast — doubling as a family home — that belonged to Eva’s mother, and “Helmut” enmeshes himself in their lives. Enzo is working to develop a doll with a beating heart, Eva is pregnant again, and Lilith is short for her age — so the doctor gets into their good graces with financing for mass production, medication and growth-hormone injections, respectively. Meanwhile, Nora Eldoc, a photographer at a local German-language school and an undercover Mossad agent, is on Mengele’s trail.

“The German Doctor,” which was released in 2013 but didn’t hit American theaters until this April, plays out like a post-war thriller mixed with a family drama. Much like the modern remakes and re-imaginings of suspense thrillers, the film explores a rarely seen facet of Mengele’s life on the run, albeit fictionalized. But what the film doesn’t do, unlike the aforementioned remakes, is sympathize with the doctor. Mengele is the stoic scientist, focused on his experiments and not caring about the human element. He doesn’t care about the pain Lilith experiences because of the hormones nor that he is endangering the lives of Eva’s newborn twins with his Darwinian experiment.

In the end, the story of the family is left open-ended, as they discover the truth about Mengele’s experiments. Mengele escapes and continues to elude capture for 30 years, and Nora is found dead the next day, even though Mossad agents arrived as Mengele made a hasty exit via a pontoon plane prepared by friendly neighboring German expats.

Cinematically, what works about the film is the Argentine setting. The scenes are shot with a naturalistic feel, which helps to draw the audience in, and the vistas are beautiful. Snowy mountains can be seen in the distance throughout the film, and the lake nestled in the forest near the bed and breakfast serves as a sign of isolation for the family and an eventual escape for Mengele.

Historical associations, however, bog down “The German Doctor.” If it were a random German expat who took an interest in the Argentine family but didn’t experiment on its members, that expat’s actions and scientific curiosities might have been forgiven. But because that expat is cast as Mengele, his actions are unforgivable — the experiments rise to the level of small-scale atrocities, and this taints the film.

The religious background of Lilith and her family, which isn’t revealed in the film, is irrelevant. The fact that they’re human matters more, and while that doesn’t fully counteract Mengele’s actions and his history, it makes the film’s plot a little more bearable.

Boisterous Yet Heartfelt

Jack Lacy, Jenny Slate and Gaby Hoffman star in "Obvious Child." (A24 Films)

Jack Lacy, Jenny Slate and Gaby Hoffman star in “Obvious Child.” (A24 Films)

Going back at least as far as Moses, Jews have taken public positions at personal risk. Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre’s inspiration comes from more recent role models: Larry Fine, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.

The star and writer-director of the bracingly honest indie comedy “Obvious Child” embrace their Jewish comic influences and their Jewish upbringings. But they don’t view the frankness of Slate’s character — New York stand-up comedian Donna Stern, who (for better and worse) draws her act from her personal life, including an unexpected pregnancy — as uniquely Jewish.

“When I think about why the humor is so open, it’s just Donna’s nature from birth,” Slate said during a recent interview. “Maybe she’s been encouraged by her dad [a poet] to be outward, but it doesn’t have anything to do with religion. Also, you know, we live in a world where a certain cultural Judaism includes the goys now.”

The young women share a laugh, and Slate describes a phenomenon she encountered when she moved to Los Angeles a couple years ago and met other transplants.

“The seders and the Rosh Hashanah parties become less typically religious and more cultural, and social becomes familial,” Slate explained. “Whatever the modern Jewish sort of social environment is, that cultural environment, you don’t have to be Jewish to be a part of it.”

Robespierre and two other writers caught Slate’s stand-up act some five years ago and cast her in their short film, “Obvious Child.” Robespierre expanded the story to feature length and was able to raise the small budget thanks to Slate’s visibility on “Saturday Night Live” (one season) and recent recurring television roles in “House of Lies,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Bob’s Burgers.”

A boisterous yet heartfelt hunk of 20-something angst, populated by self-aware, hyper-verbal characters still seeking their place in the world, “Obvious Child” opens today.

Although it involves revealing a major plot turn, it should be noted that the film pivots on Donna’s decision to have an abortion. A conversation with her mother (played by Polly Draper) provides a key scene, not least because “Obvious Child” is that rare movie in which parents and adult children communicate with and understand each other.

But that neat touch likely will be overlooked amid Donna’s brutally candid and self-critical quips and the film’s willingness to deal directly with abortion.

“It’s not an agenda movie in any way,” Robespierre asserted. “It’s a romantic comedy with a modern look at a modern woman’s experience. One woman, who we love.”

Robespierre grew up in New York City. Both her parents are Jewish, but she didn’t have a bat mitzvah because, she said, “I had dyslexia when I was little so my mother thought I needed to tackle English before Hebrew.”

It may seem like a joke, but it’s not. Slate, who is originally from Milton, Mass., supplies the humor with her childhood memories of Passover.

“We had really, really big seders,” she recalled. “My grandfather would read them, and it was the best, and I would get super, super scared waiting for Elijah. When people would sing ‘Eliahu’ I would have a straight-up meltdown under the table, crying so hard.”

That sounds more traumatic than amusing, admittedly. But Slate has a tough side, perhaps developed from growing up watching the Three Stooges with her father.

“I remember thinking they’re so violent and loud and just so ludicrous, and I related to that more than anything else,” Slate said. “I always relate to the things that are just the most human. And the highest energy. That’s what I go for, I think.”

Our conversation, not unlike “Obvious Child,” merged irreverence with serious subjects. Needless to say, Robespierre and Slate want their movie to provoke laughs as well as discussion.

“We are excited for any conversations that it ignites,” Robespierre said, “whether it’s about the right to choose and women’s reproductive rights or whether it’s about our Jewishness, our heritage. But so far we haven’t been cornered on either of those, so we’ve been living in a comfortable world.”

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

Culinary Delights

The HardLox Jewish Food and Heritage Festival in Asheville, N.C., is a popular fundraiser that features everything from hot dogs to noodle kugel. (Courtesy Marty Gillen)

The HardLox Jewish Food and Heritage Festival in Asheville, N.C., is a popular fundraiser that features everything from hot dogs to noodle kugel.
(Courtesy Marty Gillen)

Asheville, N.C., and Little Rock, Ark. Not exactly the Jewish capitals of America, but they are both home to major Jewish food festivals.

From street vendors to strolling klezmer musicians, food festivals bring people together with traditional favorites, uniting history and culture. According to Marty Gillen, chairman of Asheville’s HardLox Jewish Food and Heritage Festival, the festival is the most important Jewish event of the year.

“We have no Jewish deli in Asheville at this time,”  Gillen said. “We say that HardLox is the only day of the year that you can get real Jewish food in Asheville.”

A fundraiser for Congregation Beth HaTephila, the Reform temple in Asheville, HardLox is staffed by 250 volunteers. Visitors can nosh on corned beef on rye, potato knishes, kosher hot dogs, bagels, lox and cream cheese, chopped-liver sandwiches, whitefish salad and cheese blintzes. The Beth HaTephila sisterhood prepares 50 gallons of matzo ball soup and 30 large pans of noodle kugel.

“It is our opportunity to share our food, our music and our heritage with the greater Asheville community,”  said Gillen. “The music helps maintain the Jewish atmosphere all day at the festival.”

Little Rock’s Jewish Food and Cultural Festival, held in late April this year, brings together Jews from throughout Arkansas not only to celebrate their shared heritage, but also to share their culture and traditions with a non-Jewish audience.

“Since our own Jewish community numbers only around 2,000, most of the attendees at our festival are non-Jews, many of whom are experiencing Jewish food for the first time or for the only time that year, as Jewish staples like bagels and lox or kugel are not readily available in stores, and there is no Jewish delicatessen here,”  said Marianne Tettlebaum, director of the Jewish Federation of Arkansas, which holds the festival.

The festival’s average annual attendance is 10,000.

“Our festival is a statewide effort,”  Tettlebaum said. “Volunteers in Jewish communities throughout the state bake, cook and staff the booths.”

Tettlebaum called Jewish food “a tangible and enjoyable example of shared religious and cultural traditions.”

“I would describe Jewish food as any food that has religious significance or has been meaningful to a particular group of Jews on a broad scale for a certain period of time,” she said.

Little Rock, Ark.’s festival is a statewide effort, from baked goods to religious and cultural traditions. (Jewish Federation of Arkansas)

Little Rock, Ark.’s festival is a statewide effort, from baked goods to religious and cultural traditions.
(Jewish Federation of Arkansas)

The Arkansas festival also features cultural and religious booths that showcase various aspects of Jewish life, from Arkansas to ancient Israel. Booths include “Ask the Rabbi”; “Shalom Israel,” where volunteers from Israel or those knowledgeable about Israeli culture provide information about the Jewish state; a large model of the Western Wall, where visitors can leave messages that make it to the Western Wall in Jerusalem; Ati’Day, which features activities for kids; and a booth with Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis offering hands-on Jewish activities, such as learning how to write in Hebrew.

Overseas, Australia’s Sydney Jewish Food Festival sold out in its first year, 2012. France, Germany, Argentina and Hungary are considering launching Jewish food festivals. The thriving Jewish food scene in England, meanwhile, is feted during the annual “Gefiltefest”  food festival in London.

The fifth annual Gefiltefest took place on June 15. Dan Sher, the festival’s events and communications officer, said that while eating is universal, in the Jewish community “our food really matters.”

“Eating is not just a casual enjoyment but an expression of our culture, history, philosophy and, for some, spirituality,” Sher said. “Within the Jewish community, numerous social and spiritual rituals revolve around food.”

For instance, Sher said that gathering outside bakeries on a Saturday night in London’s Golders Green neighborhood, which has a large Jewish population, is for many locals “as important as the Shabbat Kiddush in shul.”

More traditionally, Sher said, “On Purim we eat with triumph pastries said to resemble the ears or hat of the wicked Haman. With even more charged emotions, at Pesach we retell our ancestors’ Egyptian exodus as though it were ours, with accompaniments of tears for our slavery (saltwater), the mortar of the pyramids we were forced to build (haroseth) and the unleavened bread that we hastily took with us (matzah).”

“For the Jewish community, dishes reveal our roots, our diaspora wanderings and also our modern practicalities and passions,”  said Sher. “Through the dishes we cook or cling to — with fondness or inexplicable loyalty — we can relate to the cross-continental journeys of our ancestors or evoke our childhood and families.”

When the first Gefiltefest was held in October 2010, there were no similar Jewish food festivals, but now communities around the world “are beginning to host events based on the Gefiltefest model,”  according to Sher. The festival is under Orthodox kosher supervision.

“We attract some of the biggest names in kosher food, and we are now the U.K.’s biggest kosher food festival,”  he said.

This year’s festival includes exhibitors of kosher cuisine from Syria, Italy, Israel, Tunisia, and the Czech Republic. In cooking workshops,
attendees are able to pickle their own herring, preserve lemons, make baba ganoush and bake challot.

The event also features a popular Ashkenazi versus Sephardi cook-off and the announcement of the annual Gefiltefest-Jewish Chronicle [England] Food Awards, for which the British public votes on the best kosher restaurants, bagels and cheesecake in the months leading up to the festival.

Gefiltefest 2014 also marks the launch of “The Gefiltefest Cookbook,”  which features recipes from more than 50 other internationally renowned chefs.

“Perhaps belatedly, the value of our [Jewish] culinary heritage is now appreciated across the globe,”  Sher said. “People have started to appreciate that food is an important way of uniting people to celebrate our history and culture.”