Have You Heard?

061314_everyman

“Tribes” centers around a young deaf Jewish man and his highly dysfunctional hearing family. Photo by Stan Barouh

With so much talk of inclusion, it’s easy to conclude it’s just a buzzword, the issue of the moment. Inclusion can be hard to define, and what feels inclusive to one person may not feel that way to another.

Yet, some institutions are taking meaningful steps toward including individuals with disabilities in their programming. Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre, for instance, has put the issue of inclusion front and center in its production of Nina Raine’s 2010 hit play, “Tribes.” The show, which won the 2012 Drama Desk Award for outstanding play, opened on May 22 and closes on June 22.

“Tribes” tells the coming-of-age story of Billy, a young Jewish British man who is deaf and lives with his highly dysfunctional hearing family. Billy is played by deaf actor, John McGinty. For the show’s Baltimore premiere, Everyman also premiered a brand-new handheld technical device that deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members can use to make the play more accessible.

Everyman Theatre is one of the first theaters in the country to adopt the new technology. The devices, which are complimentary, will be available throughout the run of “Tribes” as well as for all Everyman productions in the future.

When he saw “Tribes” in New York, Everyman’s founding artistic director and the play’s director, Vincent M. Lancisi, said it “hit him right between the eyes.”

“I knew Everyman had to do it, and I knew I had to direct it,” he said. “Everyman is sort of known for its family dramas. We kind of put the ‘dys’ in dysfunctional, and this play is definitely about a dysfunctional family!

“When we started working on the play, we knew we wanted to make it inclusive for deaf people. The more we learned about what it is like to be deaf, the more we realized that theater isn’t a particularly accessible art form for the deaf,” he continued. “So we hired Tim McCarty, the president of Quest Theatre [an inclusive, visually based theater company in Lanham, Md.] as our director of access and Will Conley, former chair of the theater department at Gallaudet University, as our director of artistic sign language. We also began to search for technologies that would make the play accessible. Lo and behold, we found a company that was developing one.”

In addition to providing the handheld devices, Everyman has also installed adjustable seat mounts to hold the devices comfortably in front of the seats.

Lancisi said that filtered screens on the devises ensure that those sitting nearby will not be distracted by light from its screen. An operator in the theater’s sound booth makes sure that the dialogue appears on the screens at the same time that actors are speaking their lines.

Yael Zelinger, of the Center for Jewish Education’s Jewish Advocates for Deaf Education, said the new
device is a great innovation for the deaf community.

“Anything that opens up accessibility and raises awareness in the hearing community about the deaf community is good,” she said.

Sheryl Cooper, an American Sign Language interpreter and coordinator of the deaf studies major at Towson University, agreed. Cooper, who was instrumental in promoting the show to members of Baltimore’s deaf community, believes the show will be a “boon” for all families, but especially for those with deaf family members.
Lancisi said that patrons are “loving it.”

The only drawback? It’s expensive. Lancisi hopes Everyman supporters will consider making a donation to offset the costs.

For tickets, information or to make a donation, visit everymantheatre.org.

sellin@jewishtimes.com

Dancing with Autism

052314_autism

After she adopted her son Neal, Elaine Hall created the Miracle Project, a program that uses musical theater to engage autistic children and teens.
(Provided)

During Passover of 1996, Elaine Hall traveled from Los Angeles to Russia to adopt her then 2-year-old son, Neal. A year later, Neal would be diagnosed with autism, and Hall would begin an odyssey that would change not only her life and Neal’s life, but also the lives of the many others they would touch.

Hall will be one of the keynote speakers at a special needs symposium at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts on Sunday, June 1. Marcella Franczkowski, assistant state superintendent for Maryland’s Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services, will also be featured.

“When Neal came to me, he was spinning around in circles, he didn’t answer to his name, didn’t make eye contact, and he was very, very sick,” said Hall, an actress and acting coach who has worked in the film and television industries. “He had liver toxicity. I spent the first year just getting him healthy.”

Approximately a year after his adoption, Neal was diagnosed with autism, and Hall began trying to learn all she could about the disability.

“The Internet was just starting, and there wasn’t as much information out there as there is now,” she said. “We started all kinds of traditional therapies, but nothing was working.”

Hall later brought her son to Maryland to see the late Dr. Stanley Greenspan, a child psychiatrist and founder of the floortime approach of working with autistic children. (Floortime encourages parents to engage children at their level by getting on the floor to play).

“Dr. Greenspan put me on a path of relationship-based intervention. Instead of trying to get Neal to enter our world, he encouraged me to rally all my theater friends and have them join Neal’s world,” she said. “So if Neal was spinning around, we’d spin around with him and make it ‘Ring Around the Rosie.’ If he was staring at his hand, we would stare at our hands. Slowly, he emerged.”

Inspired by what she had witnessed, and deeply committed to spending time with her son, Hall quit her job and decided instead to share the techniques she had developed with other autistic children and their families. With a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation in Los Angeles, Hall founded The Miracle Project Judaica in 2004, which provides a warm, inclusive Jewish environment where children and teens with autism and other special needs, as well as their typically developing siblings and peers, are encouraged to express themselves through music, dance, acting, stories and writing. Through The Miracle Project, participants develop and perform their own musical theater production.

In 2005, Hall was approached by a group of documentary filmmakers interested in making a film based on the project. While maintaining the Jewish Miracle Project, Hall also developed a secular version of the program that was featured in “Autism: The Musical!” first screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2007. The documentary, directed by Tricia Regan, went on to win two Emmy Awards for HBO.

At first, said Hall, theaters didn’t want to show the film because of its title. “They thought it was making fun of autism and people with autism. We said, ‘Just watch it.’ Once they did, they saw how beautiful and sensitive it was,” she said, noting that it was short-listed for an Academy Award. “I want people not to be afraid of autism.”

When her son reached bar mitzvah age, Hall was determined that he should take part in the Jewish milestone. She created a multisensory b’nai mitzvah curriculum for Neal and other Jewish youngsters with special needs.

“Neal was the first bar mitzvah to use the curriculum,” Hall said. “He danced his haftorah.”

The program continues to be offered at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services in Los Angeles.

Hall continued to build awareness and hope in her 2010 book “Now I See the Moon: A Mother, a Son, a Miracle.” The book was the official selection for World Autism Awareness Day in 2011 and was suggested reading for Jewish Disability Awareness Month in 2013.

Now 20, Neal works at a grocery store and an organic farm that is part of the Shalom Institute. Though still non-verbal, he communicates by using an electronic device. He is also a talented athlete.

At the symposium on June 1, Hall will deliver a talk about finding spirituality in parenting children with special needs.

“I’ll talk about redefining normal, becoming an activist and listening to the child who doesn’t speak,” she said. “God made all of us, and to shut out one person is to shut us all out. We will all have disabilities someday. We really have to be Abraham’s tent.”

Jen Erez, special needs coordinator of the Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance, said in addition to the two keynote speakers, the symposium will also include a resource fair and two workshop sessions. Workshop topics include managing relationships, planning for the future and understanding the social challenges of children and adolescents on the autism spectrum.

Erez said the program is appropriate for both parents and professionals.

To register, visit asoft4161.accri soft.com/baltimorejcc/index.php?src= forms&id=Special+Needs+Symposium.

Mixing it Up

Eric Rosen (provided)

Eric Rosen
(provided)

It was during a family Seder many years ago that theatrical director, producer and playwright Eric Rosen’s free-spirited Jewish father chose to break the news of his secret marriage to Rosen’s Southern Baptist mother. One can only imagine what Elijah must have observed when he visited the Rosen home that night. But whatever the prophet may have seen or heard, the unlikely union produced Rosen, the 43-year-old artistic director of the Kansas City (Mo.) Repertory Theatre and director of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” the Tony Award-winning comedy by Christopher Durang that opened to rave reviews at Center Stage on April 25.

Although Rosen’s mother underwent an Orthodox conversion, after his parents divorced, she drifted back toward her family’s faith. He and his brother grew up in New York and North Carolina and spent time with relatives from both religious traditions. The result, he said, was a feeling of not quite fitting into either world. “I don’t think my father’s family really accepted me and my brother as Jews until we had our bar mitzvahs,” said Rosen.

“It made me ask questions about culture and identity, and I don’t know if I would have been asking those questions if I had grown up in a more homogenous environment,” said Rosen. It also created in Rosen a fascination about Jewish history and the diaspora as well as the Yiddish theater. Rosen believes it was partly his upbringing and the feeling of being “the other” that gave him the “keen sense of observation” that has made him so successful in his work.

“I think a lot of my artistic life is based on the sense of justice and ethics my [Jewish] grandparents taught me,” he explained. “When I came out [as a gay man] I felt I had to do something to move the culture ahead. So in 1995, I started About Face Theatre in Chicago, one of the largest and most successful lesbian and gay theater companies in the country.”

Rosen left About Face in 2008 to take his current position at the Kansas City Rep. Since becoming artistic director there, Rosen has directed “Clay,” “Winesburg, Ohio,” “A Christmas Story, The Musical!,” “Venice,” a musical he co-wrote with Matt Sax, “Cabaret,” “August: Osage County,” “The Whipping Man,” “Death of A Salesman,” and “Romeo and Juliet.” His other writings include “Dream Boy,” “Wedding Play,” “Dancer from the Dance,” “Whitman” and “Undone.” Despite his prolific work in Kansas City and in addition to directing “Vanya” in Baltimore, Rosen has still found time to direct world premieres of “M. Proust” by Mary Zimmerman, “Theater District” and “Take Me Out.”

Currently, Rosen is anxiously awaiting the release of the album from his hit musical, “Venice.”

Barbara Walsh, Susan Rome and Bruce  Randolph Nelson star in Center Stage’s production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” by Christopher  Durang, directed by Eric Rosen. (Richard Anderson)

Barbara Walsh, Susan Rome and Bruce
Randolph Nelson star in Center Stage’s production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” by Christopher Durang, directed by Eric Rosen.
(Richard Anderson)

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” tells the story of Vanya (Bruce Randolph Nelson) and his adopted sister, Sonia (Barbara Walsh), who live together in the comfortable family home where they grew up. Having spent “the best years of their lives” caring for their aging parents, they are filled with bitterness and regret about what they might have done with themselves. When their movie-star sister, Masha (Susan Rome) shows up at the house with her hot young actor boyfriend (Zachary Andrews), hilarity ensues, as each of the siblings struggle with their own inner demons and their relationships with one another. Based on the plays of Anton Chekhov, and named for his characters, Durang’s script is chock full of allusions to the Russian playwright’s classic works.

When Rosen saw “Vanya” on Broadway, he knew right away that he wanted to bring the show to Kansas City. “It had everything wonderful about Durang married to everything wonderful about Chekhov. I don’t do a lot of picking up last season’s plays but this was an exception for me. And ours couldn’t be more different than the Broadway production,” he said. “The original was so ‘starry.’ It had Sigourney Weaver playing Masha and David Hyde Pierce from “Frasier” playing Vanya, stars everyone knew and we couldn’t repeat it. I needed to have real pros that people wouldn’t necessarily know.”

Some of those “pros” were Nelson, who is actually quite well known to Baltimore audiences, and Rome, who is known for both acting, directing, as the former director of performing arts at the Baltimore Lab School and as an artist-in-residence for the JCC’s Maccabi Artsfest.

Though it may come as a surprise to some readers and audiences, Nelson said that Chekhov meant works such as “The Cherry Orchard,” “The Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya” and “The Three Sisters,” all of which center on the desolate lives of their angst-ridden characters, to be comedies. In contrast, Durang’s “Vanya” is an unmistakable laugh riot. And while those in the know will find the script’s references to Chekhov especially amusing, Nelson believes the family dynamics portrayed in “Vanya” will be relatable for all audiences.

Neither Nelson, nor Susan Rome, who plays Masha, the movie star in the show, saw Durang’s play prior to being cast. Both went about preparing for the role in their own ways. Nelson said he tends to be more of an “outside in actor” whereas most actors start by figuring out a character’s inner workings prior to his voice and physical traits. “So I’m going to figure out how the character walks and what his hair looks like. There’s a lot of shrinking and slowing down in playing Vanya. I gravitate to wild mayhem, so it’s a challenge to play a character like this.”

Rome, who studied Chekhov extensively in college, said she immersed herself in Chekhov, reading a book of his letters to his wife, actress Olga Knipper. “He was fervent, and he wrote about acting and love. They [the letters] so matched with the plays,” said Rome. “I’ve always thought Chekhov was funny, in the way life is funny, the ironies, the extremes …” Playing the role of Masha has been fun for Rome. “Being that huge in an entrance. That’s so not who I am. She’s obnoxious but there’s this vulnerability under the surface. I want people to love hating her.”

Rosen said he is thrilled with the cast he has put together for the Baltimore production. Some of the show’s characters, Spike (Zachary Andrews,) Nina (Emily Peterson) and Sonia (Barbara Walsh) are played by the same actors who starred in the Kansas City production. “I love anything Center Stage does, and I am a huge fan of Kwame [Kwei-Armah, artistic director of Center Stage]. It’s been a great, joyful experience — like a two-month love fest!”

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through May 25.

For tickets and additional information, visit centerstage.org.

Elf Magic Lets Loose

To a clueless onlooker, it might look like the members of Elf Magic are engaged in live-action, spontaneous beat poetry.

“I’m a Cup O’ Noodles!” “I’m a fork!” “I’m a spoon!” “I’m a knife!” “Knife stays.”

“I’m a knife!” “I’m O.J. Simpson!” “I’m a glove!” “Glove stays.”

The warm-up, called “I’m a Tree,” which began the exercise, was one of several the improv comedy troupe performed to practice improvisational theater and loosen up for rehearsal.

“It’s more about getting the verbal diarrhea,” said Elf Magic member Keith Becraft.

What followed was a puppet la ronde, with one group member speaking through a puppet and another having a conversation with that puppet. Puppet characters included a drug-peddling snowman, a jilted lover reminiscing about reenacting scenes from Prince’s “Purple Rain” movie and a troupe member, Jen Ginsberg, playing a Jewish grandmother proud that Ginsberg is finally going to be in the Baltimore Jewish Times, although not in the engagements section.

This was all in preparation for the night’s Harold, a long-form improvisation with three recurring unrelated scenes, each scene repeating three times. The Harold is Elf Magic’s specialty.

“It’s a way to have some sort of consistency when everything is made up on the spot,” said Becraft.

Elf Magic performs at 11 p.m. on Saturday, May 10, at the inaugural Charm City Comedy Festival, which was co-founded by Elf Magic coach and creator Megan Wills and Becraft.


Created with flickr slideshow.

The troupe, which has been together for about a year, is Wills’ “dream team” of improvisational performers, most of whom were handpicked from the classes she teaches at Baltimore Improv Group.

“They are really all bluntly honest people and performers,” said Wills, who coaches through her own company, Improvocateur Coaching. “And that’s what makes them funny.”

For half of the members, that brutal honesty comes with what Wills called “the unique point-of-view of the Jewish culture.”

Elf Magic member Jason Steinberg, who grew up in Pikesville, said his upbringing has informed his comedic career from Jewish humor to the different people he met growing up.

“My sense of humor was pretty much born by my dad and grandfather, members of the tribe they be,” said Steinberg. “It’s real people who are coming through when we get Jew-y.”

For Alison Schlenger, improv classes were a way of loosening up.

“I think I realized I was taking myself way too seriously,” she said. It seems to have worked, as Schlenger spent the rehearsal doing yoga poses, cracking jokes between scenes and fit perfectly into the role of a male truck driver. On the Jewish aspect, Schlenger said “it’s what you know” in her best Jewish grandfather voice.

“I think there was something magical that happened at our first show,” she said.

While most of the group members are fairly new to improv, Wills picked them because of the natural talent she sensed.

The troupe’s newest member, Addie Maxwell, who has been with Elf Magic for one month and started improv classes in the fall, still doesn’t quite understand why Wills likes her so much.

“I’m really happy she thinks I’m great,” Maxwell quipped.

The talent Wills sought translated into a vibrant group in which members naturally play off each other.

“We’re all very comfortable with each other and can play different characters,” said Ginsberg, who got into improv to get over her stage fright.

Elf Magic will perform alongside improv and standup comedy acts from Washington, Philadelphia and Boston, with headliners The Amie and Kristen Show and ShawnMikael(s).

“They are dynamic duos,” said Wills.

The festival also features sketch comedy and improv workshops, and Schlenger will be leading yoga sessions before workshops.

The festival is being run through the Charm City Comedy Project, for which Wills is the marketing and festival director and Becraft is the executive director. It’s being held at Zissimo’s in Hampden as well as the 2640 Space in Charles Village from May 8 to May 11.

Part of the idea for the festival came from Becraft, who noticed that it’s hard for independent comedy acts to get booked in other cities.

“Nobody was really bringing in troupes from out of town,” he said. “The impression I get is we give a warm room.” He noted that Washington troupes face a lot of competition and more critical audiences.

For Wills, it’s all about the 73 acts the festival will feature.

“We started this festival with the aim of continuing our mission to promote visibility and accessibility to improv in Baltimore,” she said.

Jewish camp trend-spotting

With a Manhattan locale and air-conditioned dorms, the 92nd Street Y's  Passport NYC camp is not exactly rustic. (Passport NYC)

With a Manhattan locale and air-conditioned dorms, the 92nd Street Y’s
Passport NYC camp is not exactly rustic.
(Passport NYC)

Nostalgia about summer traditions notwithstanding, Jewish camps have changed dramatically from a generation ago.

Camp’s value for Jewish education and identity-building is now a major focus of communal attention. Major Jewish foundations, federations and organizations are investing heavily in the sector.

Many camps have become more intentional about incorporating Jewish learning, Shabbat and Israel into their programming. They’ve also evolved to meet families’ changing expectations and demands: offering a wider range of choices of all kinds (from food to activity to session length); providing more frequent updates and communications to parents; accommodating numerous medical requirements and allergies; and placing greater emphasis on safety and security.

At the same time, the Jewish camping field is becoming more professionalized. The job of camp director has been shifting from a seasonal gig to year-round career, and counselors are receiving more intensive training.

With all this change in the Jewish camp world, here are 10 specific trends we have noticed:

Shorter sessions: Once upon a time, summer camp meant the entire summer, with the majority of campers attending for seven, eight or even 10 weeks. Now it is the rare child or teen who spends the full summer at camp (or at one camp), and most programs offer multiple sessions, ranging in length from just six days to seven weeks. “Our three-week session has always sold out more quickly than the four-week, and our new two-week session has been a quick hit as well,” said Vivian Stadlin, co-director of Eden Village Camp in Putnam Valley, N.Y.

Specialized programs: Whether a child’s passion is sports, the environment, outdoor adventure or science and technology, there’s a Jewish camp for that. An incubator under the auspices of the Foundation for Jewish Camp spurred the creation of five specialty camps in 2010 (including Eden Village, which is focused on the environment) and another four that will open this summer. The idea is to attract kids who might not otherwise consider a Jewish camp and to show them they can combine their passion with Judaism. Increasingly, established general-interest Jewish camps are adding specialty tracks and electives. For example, the New Jersey Y camps offer a science program and various sports programs, while Ramah in the Poconos has run basketball clinics and a tennis academy.

Healthier food: Serving healthy, locally sourced food is a part of the mission of some specialty camps like the new health-and-wellness-focused Camp Zeke and was a component of Ramah Outdoor Adventure from its beginnings in 2010. In addition, many established Jewish camps have been redoing their menus to make them more nutritious and environmentally friendly: adding salad bars, replacing “bug juice” with water, offering more vegetarian fare and even planting their own organic vegetable gardens.

More affordable options: The Foundation for Jewish Camp recently introduced a new program called BunkConnect that enables first-time campers from middle- and lower-income families to search for a variety of discounted Jewish summer camp options. While BunkConnect is currently only available in the Northeast, New England and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States, the foundation hopes to expand it in future years. In addition, most Jewish overnight camps offer financial aid and the One Happy Camper Program, initiated in 2006, offers grants for all first-time campers regardless of need. So far 50,000 children have received One Happy Camper grants.

Broadening definition of camp:  While rural settings and rustic accommodations are still the norm, two specialty camps — the Union for Reform Judaism’s Six Points Sports Academy and Six Points Science & Technology — are located on boarding school campuses, and another, the 92nd Street Y’s Passport NYC, is in the middle of Manhattan. Passport NYC, in which participants do internships and live in air-conditioned dorms, and Six Points Science blur the boundary between “camp” and “summer program,” while programs like USY on Wheels and Adamah Adventures, which operate under the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s umbrella, blur the boundary between “camp” and “teen travel.”

Day camps brought into the tent: While the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah has long operated both day and overnight camps, Jewish day camps generally haven’t interacted much with overnight camps, nor have they received the same level of attention from Jewish communal leaders or philanthropists as their sleep-away counterparts. That is changing as this year, for the first time, leaders of Jewish day camps are being included in the bi-annual Leaders Assembly of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The foundation is finalizing plans with UJA-Federation of New York to establish an incubator developing six specialty day camps in the region. In addition, the Union for Reform Judaism is opening its first day camp this summer. Meanwhile, the philanthropic group Areivim is funding Hebrew-immersion day camps throughout the United States.

Inclusion of children with disabilities: An estimated 13 percent of children have some sort of disability, but only 2 percent of Jewish campers do, according to research conducted last year by the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The Jewish camping world is looking to make the camping experience accessible to more children with disabilities, including them at regular camps wherever possible, rather than segregating them at separate facilities. The foundation is currently working to raise $31 million for a multi-pronged effort to serve more such children by offering relevant staff training, revamping physical facilities to make them accessible, and creating vocational education and life-skills training programs at multiple camps.

Year-round programming: Growing numbers of camps are offering educational programming during the school year through partnerships with institutions like synagogues and day schools. Such partnerships often involve  sharing staff members, under the auspices of new programs like Ramah Service Corps and the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Nadiv initiative. In addition, camps within easy commuting distance of major metropolitan areas and ones in temperate regions or with winterized facilities are increasingly hosting a range of family/community programs in the off seasons: Eden Village, just 50 miles north of Manhattan, runs a home-school program and weekend family/community programs throughout the year, while nearby Surprise Lake Camp, in Cold Spring, N.Y. even runs High Holiday services and Passover Seders. Camp Ramah Darom in Georgia runs a week-long Passover retreat.

Family camp: Family camps have been around for decades, but now virtually every Jewish overnight camp offers at least one family-camp session, usually a three-day weekend, each year. A number of camps “got into the business just trying to use the facility more, but it wound up being a great recruiting tool,” said Foundation for Jewish Camp CEO Jeremy Fingerman. Several camps also host sessions specifically for families of children with disabilities. While traditionally marketed to camp-age kids and their parents, Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, national director of the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah network, said several Ramah camps are considering adding sessions for Ramah alumni with younger children. “It’s a relatively inexpensive family vacation,” he noted.

Pew-fueled camp enthusiasm: In response to last year’s much-discussed Pew Research Center survey of American Jews, a wide range of Jewish communal leaders have offered their prescriptions for engaging more youth. While these leaders may differ on many issues, almost all have cited Jewish summer camp as something that “works” and is a worthy investment. Jewish camps are already popular with funders, but all the pro-camp buzz will likely generate even more dollars for the field.

Still Funny (After All These Years)

Comedian/actor Paul Reiser has fond memories of Baltimore and his role in “Diner.” (Provided)

Comedian/actor Paul Reiser has fond memories of Baltimore and his role in “Diner.”
(Provided)

Baltimore will always hold a special place in comedian, actor and author Paul Reiser’s heart. It was here after all, where “Diner,” Reiser’s first movie — and the first of filmmaker Barry Levinson’s trilogy tribute to his hometown — was filmed and took place. In “Diner,” released in 1982, Reiser played Modell, a hilariously neurotic young man who spends most of his time hanging out with his friends at a local diner. Modell and the other male characters in “Diner” were based upon Levinson’s own buddies and his experiences growing up in Jewish Baltimore.

On May 8, Reiser will headline Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s fourth annual Night of the Stars benefit, which honors Dot and Henry Rosenberg and benefits the E.B. Hirsh Early Childhood Center as well as BHC’s religious school and youth programs.

“That was my first job, like ever,” Reiser said of “Diner” during a recent interview. “It was the first time I ever saw a camera. The whole crew of us were pretty green, so there was this shared excitement. I didn’t know it would be such a big deal. For a first break, it was magical, really.”

Reiser said that although “Diner,” which also launched the careers of Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg and Ellen Barkin, wasn’t considered a commercial success at the time, it was seen and appreciated by many people in the film industry.

“When I came to L.A. a year or two later, everyone knew me,” he said.

Reiser, 57, was born in New York City to Sam and Helen Reiser. His father was a wholesale health food distributor. He grew up in the Stuyvesant Town neighborhood of lower Manhattan and attended the East Side Hebrew Institute, Stuyvesant High School and SUNY Binghamton, where he was active in the theater department. Reiser began his career as a comedian during the summers of his college years, performing in nightclubs in New York City. After graduating in 1977, Reiser continued working as a stand-up comedian and was eventually discovered by Levinson.

“I had been taking acting classes for about a year, and I said, ‘Give me a scene and I’ll show you my stuff.’ But Barry said, ‘No, we’re just going to talk,’” recalled Reiser. “He had a very clear image of what he wanted.”

After “Diner,” Reiser appeared in such films as “Beverly Hills Cop” (I and II), “Aliens,” “The Marrying Man” and “Bye Bye Love.” He co-starred in the television series “My Two Dads” but is best known for co-starring, writing and producing NBC’s hit comedy “Mad About You” from 1992 to 1999. The sitcom focused on young, urban married couple Paul and Jamie Buchman and their wacky friends and families. It was well-loved for its honest depiction of married life, and Reiser said it was largely autobiographical. “Mad About You” made Reiser and Helen Hunt stars and won Reiser multiple nominations for Emmy, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Satellite awards.

In addition to his acting credits, Reiser is also the author of “Couplehood” (1995), “Babyhood” (1998) and “Familyhood” (2011). Reiser, who is married to a woman he met in the early 1980s — “Sometimes you know it’s right,” he said — has two sons, 13 and 18.

“Every day is a beauty,” said Reiser, adding that the idea to write the first book came from taking his comedy act and committing it to paper.

He likes the last book the most.

“There was a big 15-year gap between the second and third book,” he said. “I had two kids and was in my 50s. It was more introspective. By that time, I had things to talk about that were too complicated to do on stage. It was a little deeper.”

Ranked 77th on a Comedy Central list of the 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time, Reiser has returned to his roots as a stand-up comedian in the past few years.

“I started as a stand-up but didn’t do it for 20 years. I wanted to get back to it. For a year, I just went to local clubs and worked on my material,” he shared. “I said, ‘Whoever wants to see me, I’ll go.’ People are coming to see me because they know me from ‘Mad About You,’ so it feels as if I am getting together with old friends.”

When he performs at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Reiser said it will be like performing for family, or in his words, “like a huge Seder.”

For additional information and to purchase tickets to Night of the Stars, visit bhcong.org or call 443-524-0284.

selling@jewishtimes.com

Rockin’ and Rollin’

Rogers Waters played in Israel in 2006 before joining the BDS movement. Other artists, like Madonna, have chosen to ignore the pressure from the movement and perform in Israel anyway.

Rogers Waters played in Israel in 2006 before joining the BDS movement. Other artists, like Madonna, have chosen to ignore the pressure from the movement and perform in Israel anyway.

While Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters has in recent years acted as a de facto frontman for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, urging fellow artists against performing in Israel, Shuki Weiss Promotion and Production Ltd., for nearly 35 years, has brought the biggest names in entertainment to the Jewish state for historic live shows.

Musical guests attracted to Israel by the company have included Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, Madonna, David Bowie and Eric Clapton. The trend continues this summer with Neil Young, Soundgarden and the Pixies, all signed by Weiss to perform in Tel Aviv. The Rolling Stones have also been booked by Weiss.

“I’m not getting the message from the artists that they are feeling the pressure [from the BDS movement]. While that might have been true in the past, that’s not the case today,” said Oren Arnon, the head promoter for Weiss’ company.

Weiss has also signed the international circus troupe Cirque du Soleil, which is bringing its “Quidam” performance to Tel Aviv this summer.

Promoting and producing live performances in Israel, in the dangerous and unstable neighborhood that is the Middle East, comes with significant financial risk, said Arnon. When the security situation becomes heated and artists decide to cancel their shows, “we lose millions [of dollars],” he said.

That was the case during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when the popular British electronic music band Depeche Mode canceled its Israel show over concerns for safety. (The band did make up for it by performing in Israel several years later.)

Over the past several years, some artists have canceled their planned Israel shows not due to security fears, but as a result of the pressure levied by members of the BDS movement. Yet Arnon said of what he calls the “many” artists who haven’t backed out, “We’ve had many positive experiences with conscientious and intelligent artists who choose to come and see for themselves rather than cave to the propaganda.”

The Rolling Stones would be the biggest name to perform in Israel this summer. BDS groups have already taken to social media, calling on the Stones to boycott the Jewish state.

Whether or not she directly felt the BDS pressure, last year popular R&B singer Alicia Keys ignored the campaigns targeting her Israel performance and gave a concert in Tel Aviv that Arnon said was simply “incredible.”

Arnon admitted that BDS “in many ways can be seen as nonviolent and legitimate,” but added that art “is supposed to address issues that bother and disturb [people].”

“What BDS is saying is ‘just shut up — don’t use your art for good or for bad,’ which is something we [at Shuki Weiss Promotion and Production] have a hard time agreeing with,” Arnon said.

Arnon said Weiss’ company was behind the 2006 Israel concert by Roger Waters, a massive show was moved from its original venue to the Neve Shalom “Oasis of Peace” village, where Arabs and Jews live together. The vision was to play at a location symbolizing hope and peace between the two peoples. It was only after the show was announced that Waters was introduced to the BDS movement, according to Arnon. But Waters chose to play in Israel anyway and after performing there decided to become one of the BDS movement’s biggest supporters based on his firsthand experience of the country.

“Whether you or I agree [with Waters’ decision to support BDS] doesn’t matter,” Arnon said. “I don’t think I am trying to put words in anyone’s mouth. I don’t think it’s legitimate to prevent people from educating themselves, and it’s also not legitimate to shove one specific set of beliefs down an audience’s throat. Everyone is entitled to obtain his or her own opinion, how they see fit.”

While Waters came away with one particular conclusion, many other artists who come to Israel see the country in a positive light, said Arnon. He cites various coexistence projects musicians are exposed to when they visit Israel, including work done by an organization called Heartbeat, which brings Jerusalem-area Jewish and Arab youths together to play music in order to “let go of the fear they might have of each other.”

“We’ve taken artists to see [Heartbeat’s work] together and given artists the opportunity to come and express their thoughts,” Arnon said. “Israel is a democracy and artists can go on stage and say what they want to say. That’s what the arts have been about the last few centuries.”

Arnon feels it would be best for both the Jewish and Arab public in Israel if artists would choose discussion over boycotts. While he said singers are entitled to boycott, he has a problem with those who say, “Don’t go there and play for your fans, and don’t engage with them.”

“Bottom line, come here and tour and see the facts,” Arnon said, conveying his message to potential artists considering performances in Israel. “Our success is having an artist tour, understand the difficulties, and understand that bad things happen here similar to anywhere else in the world. We encourage them to come instead of not showing up.”

Dream Come True

Nof Atamna-Ismaeel’s victory on “Master Chef” was the most-watched reality show ever in Israel. (Courtesy of Channel 2)

Nof Atamna-Ismaeel’s victory on “Master Chef” was the most-watched reality show ever in Israel.
(Courtesy of Channel 2)

Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, an Arab woman with a Ph.D. in marine microbiology, has won Israel’s highest honor for an amateur chef — “Master Chef.” She still finds it hard to believe it’s really true.

“The moment they announced it, I just started crying, and I couldn’t contain my joy,” she said. “Now it’s beginning to sink in, and it means I’ll be able to fulfill my dream.”

That dream, says Atamna-Ismaeel, is to open an Arab-Jewish cooking school in her area of northern Israel. Some 20 percent of Israel’s population are Arabs who have full citizenship and rights. Twelve Arab citizens of Israel are members of the 120-seat parliament.

“Near my village there are a lot of Arab towns and Jewish towns —it’s a mixed area, but it’s very sad,” she said. “Although we live very close to each other, there are very limited connections and few friendships between Jews and Arabs.”

Atamna-Ismaeel, the first Arab Israeli woman to win, beat out thousands of Israelis who came to audition for one of 14 spots on TV’s “Master Chef,” which just finished its fourth season. The finale, broadcast earlier this month, was the most-watched reality show in Israel’s history.

She formed a close friendship with an unlikely candidate — an ultra-Orthodox British rabbi named Josh Steele, who was eliminated halfway through the competition.

“Nof is a beautiful, lovely person,” Steele said. “She doesn’t care about the fame. She wanted to the opportunity to fulfill a dream and make a difference in the world.”

Steele’s life, too, has been changed by “Master Chef.” He spoke openly on the show about how his young cousin entered him for an audition, hoping he would stay in Israel and become a new immigrant. He spoke about his search for an Orthodox Jewish bride and has recently become engaged.

He said he has not tasted Atamna-Ismaeel’s food yet because of the restrictions of keeping kosher, but she has promised to come to his house to cook for him.

“She is the first Israeli Palestinian I’ve had a close relationship with,” Steele said. “She calls me every Friday to wish me a good Sabbath. We can talk for hours.”

Atamna-Ismaeel says that her friendship with Steele shows the power of food to bring people together.

“We come from different worlds. He is a rabbi and I’m a scientist,” she said. “Most of the time I’m in the lab or at home in an Arab town. Without “Master Chef” we wouldn’t have met. We have the same passion for modern food, and we had so much to talk about.”

Atamna-Ismaeel’s path to fame began in her grandmother’s kitchen when she was just 4.

“I used to sit on the counter and watch my grandmother cooking and beg her to let me help her,” she said. “She knows how to bring us all together. Even now, she calls me and tells me that she made something, and we all drop what we’re doing to go see her and eat her food.”

In one episode, the participants’ families were invited to visit and watch them cook. Atamna-Ismaeel cried as her grandmother, dressed in traditional Arab dress, walked onto the studio set.

“I am so happy that I was able to make her proud of me,” she said. “She gave me my understanding of all the basics in Arab cuisine.”

Atamna-Ismaeel specializes in modern Arab cuisine — taking traditional Arab cuisine and giving it a modern twist. She called her winning dish “Sultan’s Stream” — a visually arresting striped red mullet with almond cream.

She uses a lot of traditional Arab foods such as fava beans (ful in Arabic), tahini and eggplant to create dishes that are visually enticing as well as delicious. Besides winning “Master Chef,” she won the audience choice award for “favorite chef.” While being interviewed, she was cooking dinner for three lucky families who won a drawing.

“I’m making them lamb osso bucco with sweet potatoes and root vegetables,” she said. “I’m making ful with tahini sauce and meatballs, and a risotto from ‘freekeh,’ a type of wheat. Oh, and the date cookies I made on the show.”

The hardest challenge for her on “Master Chef” was when the competitors were asked to make a dish using only canned food.

“Arab cuisine is very seasonal, and we never use cans,” she said. “I know a lot of people eat canned food, but anyone who is a serious cook doesn’t like to use cans. On the show I decided to use only vegetables and not touch the canned meat. I wouldn’t want to eat it, and neither would the judges.”

The judges, four of Israel’s most famous chefs, offered comments and criticism on each dish.

“I’ve learned so much from them,” she said. “I feel like I became a better chef from episode to episode.”

Ataman-Ismaeel also enjoys cooking for her family. Her husband, a nurse, came to the final episode with her 6-year-old son. Her twins, a boy and a girl aged 2, stayed home.

“When I won, my son hugged me harder than he ever has in his life,” she said. “I was so happy that I could make him so proud.”

She hopes her cooking school will start to break down barriers that still exist between Arabs and Jews.

“I’m just Nof and I can’t solve the Arab-Israeli conflict,” she said. “But all change starts with small acts. If I can bring a few hundred Arabs and Jews to my school and break down some stereotypes, I will be glad. Through food, you can bring people together in a good atmosphere, and they can begin to understand each other.”

B’more Bluegrass

Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival co-founders Philip Chorney (left) and Jordan August (right) pose with multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien at last year’s festival. (provided)

Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival co-founders Philip Chorney (left) and Jordan August (right) pose with multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien at last year’s festival.
(Austin Green Weinstein)

With a new location and an almost entirely new lineup of artists, the founders of the Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival are ready to make this year’s event even bigger than last year’s sold-out show.

The second annual festival, on April 26, will move from last year’s location, Union Craft Brewing near Hampden, to the area surrounding the Conservatory and botanical gardens in Druid Hill Park, a change City Councilman Nick Mosby helped to facilitate. The change in location will allow for more people to attend, said co-founders Phil Chorney and Jordan August. Last year, all 1,600 tickets sold out a month before the event.

“I am humbled by the response the community has shown to folk, roots and bluegrass music,” said Chorney, a Reisterstown native. “This festival was founded on the idea that songwriting and timeless melodies can bring people together to celebrate our culture, heritage and great city.”

Like last year, the festival will feature a mix of local and national talent. Highlights include Grammy Award-winning dobro player Jerry Douglas, who will close the event, along with Punch Brothers banjo player Noam Pikelny & Friends, young mandolin player Sierra Hull, bluegrass guitarist Audie Blaylock and Redline, father-and-son banjo-dulcimer duo Ken and Brad Kolodner and guitar duo Chris Eldridge (of Punch Brothers) and Julian Lage.

“Jerry Douglas, he’s something else,” said August, whose band Trace Friends Mucho will take the stage as part of the festival. “He is the best at what he does — 13 Grammy [awards], the most recorded musician of all time, he’s been on over 14,000 different [recordings], he’s a session player in Nashville — he is the best of best in the bluegrass world.”

The event will also feature an open bluegrass jam, reminiscent of how the festival came to be in the first place.

Years ago, August and Chorney, who lived three blocks from one another in Hampden, used to get together in the evenings after work and play bluegrass. In time, more friends joined, and the pair realized there was a market for folksy music in Charm City.

“We realized there was a niche for bluegrass in at least our community here, so we came up with the idea of doing a show,” said August. “Then one concert turned into a one-day event.”

Baltimore’s bluegrass roots trace back decades to the 1940s and 1950s, August said, when Nashville and Baltimore were the only hotbeds for the string-heavy style of music.

“Baltimore is an old city where we were the hub for Western Maryland, kind of the Appalachians, before a lot of the other cities popped up,” said August, noting that the audience for folk and bluegrass is still strong in the Mid-Atlantic, as evident by the success of DelFest (over Memorial Day weekend) in Cumberland.

With no shortage of bluegrass festivals just a road trip away later in the spring and summer, August hopes Charm City is beginning to re-establish itself as a bluegrass breeding ground. The late April date is scheduled as a kickoff to the festival season.

“My slogan that I always say is, ‘Get your bluegrass shoes out, get them dusted off and warmed up with us and then go blow them out at DelFest,’” August said.

Tickets are now on sale for $65. Gates open at 10 a.m. and close at 10 p.m., when the entertainment heads downtown with a show at The 8×10 featuring The Everyone Orchestra.

Opening the Floodgates

040414_noahAn earnest amalgam of free-association Bible story, dire disaster movie and family melodrama, “Noah” is a more thoughtful and provocative film than one has any right to expect.

Sure, it’s ludicrous and ponderous at times and embellished with gratuitous special effects, but it also succeeds in prodding the viewer to reflect on his
or her behavior toward others and relationship to God.

Darren Aronofsky, a Brooklyn Jew by birth and upbringing, has concocted a sporadically inspired film with enough fodder for a month of sermons. It’s a compelling saga up until the great flood, when key plot elements collide with enough force and absurdity to sink an ark.

Metaphorically speaking, that is. After all, the species (plural) must go on.

In terms of contemporary resonance and relevance, the film’s depiction of religious absolutism pushed to the point of tyrannical self-righteousness — in the name of God, of course — neatly undercuts the inclination by zealots of any faith to claim “Noah” as gospel.

I remember Noah as a mild-mannered super carpenter and reluctant zoologist in my Hebrew school classes of yore, but you don’t cast Russell Crowe to play a guy grappling with internal and existential dilemmas. His Noah is a decisive survivalist who doesn’t hesitate to kill to protect his family or to fulfill God’s plan.

Noah can only infer and deduce that plan from the occasional wondrous sign or disturbing dream, aided by his sage, Merlin-esque grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel resist the temptation, and the arrogance, of having God speak directly to Noah.

We have no doubt, though, that Noah is the last true believer in the Creator, as the Lord is referred to throughout the picture. Indeed, he has a real talent for channeling God’s merciless fury. In this regard Noah is reminiscent of Moses, who was up to the task of meting out vengeance — or justice, in the vernacular of the film — when the time came.

That association aside, Aronofsky’s most Jewish picture remains his mystical black-and-white debut, “Pi,” in which Handel has a cameo as a Kabbalah scholar. It is much more difficult to discern a Jewish sensibility in “Noah” than it was (to summon another biblical adaptation) to detect Mel Gibson’s deep-seated anti-Semitism in “The Passion of the Christ.”

The most jarring element in “Noah” from a Jewish perspective is the presence of angels, called Watchers and manifested as angry, hulking, walking, talking rock piles. Punished by God for trying to intervene on behalf of Adam and Eve, the Watchers decide to help Noah — and, by extension, serve their Creator — build the ark and then repel the hordes who desperately attempt to board when the hard rain starts a-fallin’.

At a crucial moment, the Watchers are redeemed for their sacrifice and return to the heavens like Roman candles. Polls report that a majority of Americans believe in angels, so for some viewers this sequence will mark the emotional high point of the movie.

Amid the concessions to visual effects-driven miracles, “Noah” manages to convey the nasty, brutish world of the Bible. At the same time, it demolishes Noah’s cloak of absolute good to demonstrate that no person is devoid of flaws and fallibility.

The film does not, alas, evoke the strength and power of the Bible’s matriarchs, for its female characters — Noah’s wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and a young girl (Emma Watson) saved and raised by the family who grows up to be Shem’s love interest — are given little to do in the second half except cry, shriek and sob.

The biggest obstacle to a visual rendering of Noah’s mythic saga, though, is that we know how the reboot of civilization turned out. We’re living it. So the optimistic rainbow at the end of “Noah” has all the credibility and gravitas of a Hallmark commercial.

Whether we see the modern world as the inevitable manifestation of human nature in all its glories and depravities, or as a technologically supercharged Sodom, “Noah” makes us ponder the fate of the world as a function of our interdependence as well as our individual morality.

Should we fear God’s anger and another flood, or (as the movie hints) is a self-inflicted die-off from environmental destruction just as likely? Either way, “Noah” represents a powerful admonition to humankind.

What’s intriguing about a repeat apocalypse is that it would be a communication from a God who’s been silent for centuries. The power of “Noah,” one could say, is to remind us that every cloud has a silver lining.

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