From Westminster to LA: a ‘Flock’ on the Move


Brian Levin (Provided)

It didn’t take long for Brian Levin to get his creative juices flowing through his passion for writing and producing and his penchant for entertaining audiences.

When Levin, now 36, was a kid, he would put on comedy sketches with his cousins and friends in his Westminster, Md., neighborhood.

For his family and friends, those performances were just a way to pass the time, but for Levin, it laid the foundation to follow his dreams into show business.

“Gradually, I kept coming back to creating programs in that form,” Levin said. “I was always interested in writing and how I could run with the creativity in anything I put together.”

Levin, now a Los Angeles resident, recently made the jump to the big screen. This past September, he made his feature film debut as a writer and producer with the worldwide theatrical release of “Flock of Dudes.”

The film, available on iTunes and Starz Digital, is a comedy about a 30-something party guy who decides to “break up” with his buddies so he can mature into adulthood. From the initial idea to the release of the film, Levin said, it was a strenuous but rewarding process that took more than nine years to complete.

“Being able to execute this film and have it come out the way I wanted was a very gratifying experience, because I delivered the movie I intended,” Levin said. “That’s not always the case for someone’s first feature film.”

Levin, who became a bar mitzvah at Beth El Congregation, has come a long way from when he attended Beth Shalom Congregation of Carroll County.

A Carroll County native, Levin attended Liberty High School in Eldersburg for ninth and 10th grades and graduated from McDonogh School in 1998 after transferring prior to his junior year. It was at Towson University where Levin said he honed his screenwriting skills, taking several classes on the subject and eventually graduating with a communications degree in 2002.

After earning his master’s degree in visual media from American University in 2004, Levin hit the ground running, writing and producing for household TV networks such as Comedy Central and Spike, among others. Along the way, he has built working relationships with fellow writers and producers.

When he moved to New York in 2005, Levin joined Bob Castrone, also a Towson University graduate, and Jason Zumwalt to start “The Post Show,” a series of online comedy videos and shorts. Little did they know at the time, Castrone said, that “The Post Show” would evolve into a collaboration on “Flock of Dudes.”

“We’ve all been really fortunate to be able to work together and develop such a strong rapport,” said Castrone, who made his feature film directorial debut with “Flock of Dudes.” “It’s been very rewarding to see how much we’ve grown from producing sketches to [producing] a feature in such a short time.”

Levin has also branched out beyond the glitz and glamour of New York and Los Angeles.

On a visit to Austin, Texas, right before “Flock of Dudes” went into production, Levin was personally tapped by Aaron Kaufman to add some comedic elements to “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World.” Kaufman, who served as a producer for the film, meshed so well with Levin that he was eventually tapped to work on “Flock of Dudes.”

“He helped write about 1,000 jokes in two days,” said Kaufman, who also has produced high-budgeted movies such as “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” and “Machete Kills.” “Robert liked them so much that he gave [Levin] a cameo in the movie. … [Levin is] tenacious, and he’s really good at pulling a team together. A lot of writers come from out of town to Los Angeles hoping to make it big, and Brian has been able to do that in a really interesting way.”

Levin considers himself a throwback to an earlier time, citing iconic Baltimorean film directors John Waters and Barry Levinson as two of his biggest influences.

Eventually, Levin would like to return to Maryland to film a project centering on Baltimore in a similar mold to Levinson’s “Diner” or Waters’ “Cry Baby.” Though he did not provide any specifics regarding the plot, Levin did admit that the script was already completed.

While Levin says he makes the cross-country trek to visit family and friends as often as possible, he has also taken advantage of those trips to scout locations for his next venture.

At any given time, Levin said, he is working on anywhere from 15 to 20 projects to keep as many options open as possible.

“There are a couple of scripts that I have written and feel very excited about,” Levin said. “Right now, I’m just waiting on the strategy to see what the next move is for my next project.”

Jewish Film Series Turns 25


“Deli Man” (

The Columbia Jewish Congregation will be calling “Action!” on another season of four engaging and thought-provoking films starting Saturday, Jan. 14.

2017 marks the 25th Columbia Jewish Congregation’s Film Series.

Each film, handpicked by the CJC’s dedicated selection committee, deals explicitly with the Jewish experience. The screenings take place once a month, with the final showing on Saturday, April 22.

For the price of a single ticket ($10 at the door) or a sliding scale for cost-conscious ticket packages ($19 for two films, $27 for three films and $32 for four films), patrons can enjoy the evening’s screening as well as refreshments (cookies, a fruit plate, coffee and tea) and a “talkback” following the movie for those who wish to discuss the film.

“I started the film series based on my comment to the rabbi at Columbia Jewish Congregation at the time — Martin Siegel — that it would be fun,” said former CJC congregant Sylvia Bloch.

“He said, ‘Yeah, why don’t you start it?’”

Originally from New Jersey, current Columbia retiree Bloch has enjoyed a varied career ranging from teaching to working as the on-site editor for a physics laboratory.

Bloch had long been a member of CJC before moving on recently to another area synagogue. She still remains on the eight-person selection committee for films, however, and graciously passed along her initial duties as coordinator of the series in the 19th year of its run.

She also refers to herself as a “gadfly” in the area, qualifying herself as “not the only one” with a playful chuckle. As such, in addition to facilitating a great deal of the publicity for this year’s film series, Bloch helps to choose which films will be screened.

“We usually start deciding toward the end of May or  beginning of June,” Bloch said. “Each committee member suggests films, and we usually end up with about 16 to decide on.”

From there, Bloch went on to describe, one person on  the committee is tasked with researching integral aspects of screening the films nominated — exhibition cost, length, availability, etc. — before the group continues to discuss further by email.

The top picks are also chosen over a continued email correspondence before the group comes to decide upon the order in which the films will be shown.

In aid of trying to present an eclectic pool of entries for the series each year, genre is also an important determining  factor in the selection.

“It’s the first thing we look for,” said Bloch, adding the four genres they tend to screen are “humor, which is very difficult [to decide on], drama, documentary and something light, like a musical.”

Bloch said the committee may sometimes choose two films within the same genre if the films are different enough from one another.

The price of showing the film is also a significant consideration; in order to legally sell tickets to the films, the congregation must purchase the rights to do so. This expense can range anywhere from $125 (for older films) to $7,000 for more recent films in higher demand.

It’s for this reason that the film series will occasionally show older films whose rights might be less cost-prohibitive.

On Saturday, March 18, for example, the series will present the 2012 Israeli film “The Farewell Party.”

The 95-minute Hebrew language feature (subtitled in English) “is a unique, compassionate and funny story of a group of friends at a Jerusalem retirement home who decide to help their terminally ill friend,” as detailed by the CJC flier for the series.

“When rumors of their assistance begin to spread, more and more people ask for their help and the friends are faced with a life-and-death dilemma,” the CJC concludes in its  description of the film.

Others include the 2015 film from the U.S., “Rosenwald”; the 2016 Israeli film “The Kind Words”; and the 2014 U.S. film “Deli Man.”

“I find it really pleasant that people come up to me asking when the flier will be sent out,” Bloch said about the series that typically brings in around 175 to 200 viewers. “It’s an anticipated event.”

Maccabeats, Naturally 7 Come Together for MLK Performance


Maccabeats (Photo provided)

Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and for the third year running the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts is putting on a celebration.

This year, the much-loved Maccabeats, a Jewish a cappella group, will be performing with another well-known a cappella group, Naturally 7, for the first time. Last year, the two groups came together to record James Taylor’s “Shed a Little Light” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., releasing it for MLK Day 2016.

Among the nearly half million views of the video was Randi Benesch, managing director of arts and culture for the JCC of Greater Baltimore. She asked the two groups if they’d come and perform together — something they had yet to do — and both groups agreed.

“I love that video and was so inspired,” she said. “It’s probably the event I’m most looking forward to this season.”
Benesch said she believed the performance will be the biggest MLK Day event in Baltimore County. There are two shows on Sunday at 1:30 and 5:30 p.m. Both are almost sold out, Benesch said, as of late last week.

The Maccabeats are known for singing about Jewish holidays and have been touring since 2011. Naturally 7, whose members are all African-American, formed in New York in 1999. Both groups are looking forward to performing with the other, especially since neither usually performs with other groups.

“I think it’s going to be exhilarating performing music that we love with people that we love for people that we love,” said Julian Horowitz, the music director for the Maccabeats.


Naturally 7 (Photo provided)

Roger Thomas, the leader of Naturally 7, agreed. He went on to say that, in this time, a coming together of disparate groups is a perfect celebration of what King stood for.

“With the many racial tensions in the nation, particularly right now, I think that this is super significant,” he said. “I’m very pleased that we’ve done [the video] and made that statement.”

That, said Benesch, gets to the heart of what she hopes the concert will inspire in those who attend.

“That’s the part I most look forward to,” she said. “This is a celebration, and art can really bring us together. Music, especially, can unite a community.”

Along with the concert, student choirs from Owings Mills High School and Milford Mill Academy will be performing beforehand in the lobby, which will be decorated with art from students of Krieger Schechter Day School.

The last time the Maccabeats came to Baltimore, for Chanukah in 2015, they sold out the performance.

With all the performances they do, Horowitz said, it can sometimes be hard to work up new excitement for the next one. Not so for the MLK performance.

“This one actually is really special, and I think it’s going to be a day to remember,” he said.

Benesch too thinks this event is going to be a big hit — for everyone.

“No matter what age you are, what religion you are, what race you are, you will love this event,” she said.

Each year since they started, the JCC’s MLK Day events continue to grow, and Benesch is pleased she can reach a wide, varied audience with this show.

“Our community is diverse, our membership is diverse,” she said. “I always look for
opportunities to bring our diverse community together through the arts.”

For more information and to buy tickets, visit

The event is sponsored by JCC Association’s Making Music Happen Centennial Grant Initiative, which is funded by a grant from Marvin J. Pertzik and the Mary Livingston Griggs and Mary Griggs Burke Foundation.

Jewish Filmmakers Go for the Gold Praise for this year’s Golden Globe nominees … and some snubs


Natalie Portman in “A Tale of Love and Darkness” (Ran Mendelson)

2016 was a bountiful year when it came to cinematic output by those a part of or exploring themes integral to the Jewish community.

With the Golden Globe Award ceremony — which many still believe to be an early glimpse into Academy Award possibilities — taking place Sunday, it’s time to spotlight which films were nominated and which ones were left in the darkness.

Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, the Hebrew-language period piece “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” is an example of films noticeably left off of the heralded roster this year.

“Portman crafts a tale of loss, memory, life and death, juxtaposed with the astringent triumph of an oppressed people over the forces that would  destroy them,” Christopher Llewellyn Reed, chair/professor in the film and moving image program at Stevenson University, wrote in his review for popular website “Hammer & Nail.” The local film critic is a regular speaker at cinema events through various area Jewish organizations such as the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival.

Although she and her film received no nominations for “Love and Darkness,” Jerusalem- born Portman was nominated in the category of best actress, drama for her role as Jacqueline Kennedy in Pablo Larrain’s biopic of the former first lady, “Jackie.”

“It seems that every other critic liked it, and I would like to sing her praises, but I found the film — which was lovely to look at — unbearable to watch,” Reed said in an interview with the JT. “I love [Natalie Portman], and I’m a big fan. I loved her in ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness.’ But I found [‘Jackie’] really hard to sit through because it was all ‘performance.’

“Yes, I think [Larrain] was trying to make a statement about how these people in wealthy society have to put on a persona,” Reed went on to say. “But they’re also real people, and I don’t believe there was ever a time in the film when that was shown.”

An actress nominated by the Golden Globes that Reed said he can “sing the praises of from here to kingdom come” is French femme fatale Isabelle Huppert for her role in Paul Verhoeven’s taut erotic thriller “Elle.”

“She can do no wrong,” Reed said about the Jewish actress who has been a mainstay in films produced by some of Europe’s most masterful directors since her early teens.

“[‘Elle’] was exploitive like so many of [Verhoeven’s] films,” Reed said about the filmmaker, whose body of work includes such contentious “exploitation” films as “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls,” as well as modern sci-fi classics “RoboCop” (1987) and “Total Recall” (1990).

“But I will say that in ‘Elle,’ [Verhoeven] examines that  exploitation in a more complex way than he has in the past,” Reed said. “[Huppert] plays both prey and predator. I’m more of a fan of hers here than I am of the film, which I’m still making up my mind about. I wonder how much of what I liked [about ‘Elle’] was her performance.”

Though he had a few problems, as he put it, with the slightly “improbable” third act, Reed greatly enjoyed Todd Phillips’ “War Dogs,” featuring Jonah Hill who was nominated for best actor, comedy.

“I feel [Hill is] an actor who brings quality to everything he does,” Reed said about the Jewish actor/writer who emerged from the realm of Judd Apatow’s regular ensemble over the last few years.

Another film that was notably left off of the Golden Globe nom list this year is Nate Parker’s antebellum slave drama “The Birth of a Nation,” which Reed called “a worthy first feature,” despite the fact that “I didn’t like everything about it.”

In Reed’s opinion, the film, produced by Jewish Baltimore native and Jemicy graduate Jason Berman, suffers from two important factors working against it for Golden Globe nominations.

He believes that the massive amount of accolades that “Nation” received when it first premiered at Sundance this past year, winning both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards as well as selling for a record-breaking amount to distributor Fox Searchlight, made for a picture that was just waiting to be knocked down a peg or two by the critical consortium.

This turned out to be especially true when the film’s  director/co-writer and lead actor Parker was wrangled into a very different kind of spotlight as past allegations of sexual misconduct emerged later in 2016, casting a dark cloud of controversy over the film.

“When a movie is snubbed even from the ‘snub list,’ you have an idea where it’s at,” Berman, who was an artist-in-residence at Reed’s Stevenson University in 2015, said. “People don’t even want to have a conversation about it.”

It’s difficult for Berman to believe that a film so recognized during its first few months of screenings has so abruptly dropped off the critical radar for reasons aside from its extra-cinematic controversy.

“The entertainment media was not nice to our movie,” Berman said. “Our movie was definitely shied away from. We’ll see what happens with the Oscars.”

Reed offers Mel Gibson (excoriated for anti-Semitic remarks made during an inebriated police stop in 2006) and his return to the big screen as featured actor in 2016’s “Blood Father” as well  as Golden Globe nominated director of “Hacksaw Ridge” (nominated for best picture, drama) as proof that “with time, people are willing to forgive.”

Berman’s “Nation” has in fact received six nominations for the upcoming NAACP Image Awards, much to its producer’s gratitude.

“They were able to separate the film and the 400 people working on it versus the past history of its filmmaker,” Berman said. “Everyone involved in the film was very happy that happened. It was a positive thing.”

Oh, Brothers! Musicians hit the right chord with city music gear store

Brothers Music co-owners Ian (left) and Brian Goldstein (Chrissy Abbott)

Brothers Music co-owners Ian (left) and Brian Goldstein (Chrissy Abbott)

As a longtime musician residing in the Baltimore area, 35-year-old Ian Goldstein always had one rather critical problem: the shocking lack of stores that sell musical gear.

The obvious solution? Goldstein, along with his brother Brian, decided to establish a music store of his own.

Brothers Music officially opened June 13, 2015 at 2112 N. Charles St., just outside of Charles Village and the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus.

“I had the idea because I knew there was no other music store in Baltimore,” Goldstein claimed. The only other store he’s aware of in the general region is Ted’s Musicians Shop, which specializes in classical instruments and principally provides for students of the Peabody Institute.

“Apparently, they do have a guitar for sale,” Goldstein chuckled, “but it’s been sitting there for about 20-plus years.”

Although “there’s little repair shops here or there that might also have a guitar for sale,” Goldstein contends that his is the only store where patrons can fully satisfy their basic musical instrument needs, when it comes to guitars, basses and synthesizers.

Brothers also rents turntables for the DJ/electronic musician, and they provide both used and new instruments as well as an arsenal of needful accessories.

Originally from Columbia, Goldstein received his master’s degree in legal and ethical studies from the University of Baltimore in 2014. For the past six years, he’s worked as a government affairs specialist for the National Association of County and City Health Officials in Washington, D.C.

This vocational trajectory followed Goldstein’s nearly decade-long performing as lead singer and  guitarist of local rock band Evolve.

According to Goldstein, the group was fairly prominent in the Towson and Annapolis areas in the mid-2000s and enjoyed regular airplay on radio station 105.7, which has changed call signs and formats numerous times over the past two decades.

“I kind of retired from playing in bands,” Goldstein said. “But I’m OK with sitting behind a desk all day if I own a music store: I’m still cool, I’m still cool!”

While living in Washington from 2008 to 2011, the erstwhile rocker would come up to Baltimore every weekend “because it had the best parties, the best concerts and the best music scene” in his opinion.

“To go out to D.C. at night was costing me a fortune, too, so I was never going out there anyway, I wasn’t meeting people, and people weren’t that interesting because all the artists were in Baltimore,” Goldstein added.

He realized that if he moved to Baltimore, his rent and expenses would be far lower than what he was paying in Washington, and he has lived here ever since.

Goldstein took the volatile  nationwide reaction to the death of Freddie Gray that some have called the “Baltimore Uprising” of April 2015 as “a call to action” that inspired him to find a way to help the community he’d grown to love so passionately.

“It’s the only outlet I know as far as adding my own contribution,” Goldstein said about doing his part to bolster the struggling midtown economy.

Goldstein firmly believes that opening up independent businesses such as Brothers will continue to revitalize the city and turn Baltimore into more of a central destination spot.

As someone who makes his “bread and butter” through an unrelated full-time job (with brother Brian working full-time as a Baltimore City elementary school teacher), the store has been a way to invest in the community on an almost wholly  altruistic level.

The money Goldstein and his brother receive from sales predominantly goes to their one employee (with the brothers working mainly on weekends just to help out when they’re available).

In addition to the regular food and coat drives run through the store, Goldstein also sees Brothers as a productive “safe space” for community youths seeking reprieve from the often rough street life outside.

Goldstein will sometimes work with and mentor young Baltimoreans who come to spend time in the store. He promised one regular habitué that if the boy were to come in and practice electric guitar on a regular basis for four months straight, Goldstein would buy the guitar for him.

“He’s a quiet kid who doesn’t belong on the streets,” Goldstein said. “These are kids who live in public housing, who grow up in dangerous neighborhoods. I’m happy to take those kids in. If you want to learn how to play guitar and you don’t have access to one, I’ll find one for you.

“Other kids come in and are like, ‘Can I play the drums for five minutes?’ ‘Of course you can!’ It’s telling kids it’s OK to come in and shop or just hang out. I’m not going to kick you out.”

Goldstein admits that there are the occasional “punks” who come in and don’t stay long: “We’ve had a couple of those, but they know they’re not going to get away with anything while we’re there.”

There’s a direct connection for Goldstein’s philanthropic mindset with his Jewish  heritage, he revealed.

“I celebrate Judaism as a race and a culture more than as a religion,” Goldstein said. “I think that Jews have always had an interest in inner cities … and not just as landlords. I understand people are born into those difficult situations and can’t always get out of them.”

Goldstein went on to say that whether he’s teaching kids who come in to play instruments or occasionally taking them to baseball games and dinners, his primary mission is to prove to them that “if you play the game, follow the rules, put your head down and go to school and graduate, you can do exactly what I’m doing. I try to instill that in every kid I come across.

“I think this does have a correlation to Judaism as far as having empathy for others.”

An die Musik to Host Singer-Songwriter Series


Paul Margolis and John Shock will perform Jan. 7, kicking off a singer-songwriter series at An die Musik.

An die Musik, known for its local concerts featuring jazz and classical musicians, is adding another type of musician to its 2017 lineup — the singer-songwriter.

On the first Saturday of every month in 2017 the music venue will feature a local singer-songwriter act in a series called Folkal Point. The series kicks off Jan. 7 with Paul Margolis and John Shock. Tickets for all the concerts will be $10 to $15 each, depending on the act.

The idea took shape when Henry Wong, An die Musik owner, realized that there weren’t many places for local singersongwriters to play regularly.

“A lot of these musicians are being forgotten in our culture,” he said.

He approached Paul Margolis, who plays at the venue a few times a year, about putting on a series like this. As luck would have it, Paul’s wife, Deena Margolis, had a background in putting together small folk shows and offered up her time. Once that was settled, everything just fell into place — Margolis had the whole of 2017 booked in two weeks.

Several years ago, Margolis was finding it really difficult to find a place where she could go, sit down and enjoy an acoustic concert. So she decided to set up her own. She reached out and contacted musicians in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas and started putting on shows in her own home. She eventually stopped when the series grew too popular and more friends of friends of friends she couldn’t necessarily vouch for wanted to
come to her home.

Now, Margolis has put those home concert series skills and contacts to good use.

folkseries2“I’m hoping that people know that this is a really warm and welcoming place to come and listen to music — really listen to music,” she said.

Most of the musicians are local to the Baltimore area, although a few are from Washington, D.C., and Virginia, and they range in age, style and genre, including folk, indie, country and bluegrass. Among the featured artists are Baltimore favorite Caleb Stine, husband-wife duo The Honey Dewdrops, local acoustic duo Birdhouse, Baltimore up-and-comer Letitia VanSant, and bilingual D.C. folk rock group Elena & Los Fulanos.

“I can tell you I got incredible musicians,” Margolis said. “Whether [people] like them or not, they’ll recognize the talent.”

Both Margolis and Wong felt An die Musik is perfect for this kind of series because it is simple
and intimate. Seating just 75, the space is small and “quirky and bohemian,” as Margolis puts it.

“We consider An die Musik as a place for the community where the music is,” Wong said. “We don’t do anything else. You pay for the music, it’s what you’re here for.”

Because An die Musik concentrates on just being a great music venue, it doesn’t provide food. Instead, it partners with a number of local restaurants so that, with a voucher (that must be picked up at An die Musik), concert-goers can get discounts on meals before or a ther shows. Margolis says those who want to attend can even arrange valet parking if they contact her prior to a show. Thee goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to come and have a good time, she said.

The plan is for the series to become a yearly program, and Margolis has already started booking for 2018. And Wong is excited to be able to feature musicians who represent a kind of quintessentially American genre of music.

“People can go to the symphony or the opera, but this is a different type of music,” he said. “It’s a very American kind of music.”

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

The Charmery Chills Out with Doughnuts

The Charmery's David Alima (left) and Center Cut Doughnuts' Josh Kowitz. (photo provided)

The Charmery’s David Alima (left) and Center Cut Doughnuts’ Josh Kowitz. (Provided)

Hampden ice cream store The Charmery has a delicious treat in store for those looking for another way to celebrate Chanukah this year.

On Friday, Dec. 30, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., the store will once again collaborate with pop-up Center Cut Doughnuts to offer, while supplies last, a unique twist on the seasonal sufganiyot.

“This is a really festive time of year, so we’re just throwing another festive thing in the mix here,” said David Alima, who has owned The Charmery with his wife Laura for the past three-and-a-half years. “This should be a lot of fun.”

Customers can enjoy the limited edition treats based on the seasonal, sweet fried dough delicacy that honors the Chanukah miracle of menorah oil lasting for eight magical nights in three equally magical ways.

Firstly, there’s sufganiyot by the dozen (available for pre-order, as well). Patrons can also purchase a special sufganiyot sandwich, which includes Charmery raspberry ice cream stuffed in the middle. And, lastly, the truly adventurous can try a sufganiyot shake.

“We’ve never done a doughnut shake before!” Alima said triumphantly, adding that the process involves a scoop of vanilla ice cream, Trickling Springs milk and an entire sufganiyot thrown in for good measure.

“It’s flavored by the doughnut’s jelly,” Alima said, “and then you’ve got the little bits of doughnut itself at the bottom.”

Charmery has multiple times in the past granted space to Center Cut’s pop-up, which has appeared regularly at the Hampden Farmer’s Market for the past two years, and is run by 34-year-old Reisterstown resident, Josh Kowitz.

Kowitz will be opening up his own Center Cut storefront around the corner from The Charmery in mid-January at 3528 Chestnut Avenue, the space previously occupied by B. Doughnut.

“I’ll say that David and Laura have been a huge help in getting my thing off the ground,” Kowitz said. “Without them, I probably wouldn’t be opening up my own brick and mortar, because they’ve allowed me the space to have a pop-up alongside them. It’s definitely their manifestation.”

All I Want for Christmas Is … Chinese Food and a Movie



Chinese food and a movie on Christmas: It’s become a cherished Jewish tradition across the nation, and Baltimore is certainly no exception.

Sonny Lee, owner of Sonny Lee’s Hunan Taste, estimates that being strategically located in Reisterstown, he has amassed a following of customers over the past 15 years that is “90 to 95 percent Jewish. Their habit is always to celebrate Christmas in a Chinese restaurant.”

“Usually the busiest day is Christmas,” Lee said. “Much busier than New Year’s Eve.”

Grinning puckishly in his characteristic scholarly glasses, dandyish bowtie and “executive chef” button-up shirt with  simple, immaculate white apron, the  65-year-old born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong approximates that at least 400 customers come in to eat or order takeout over Christmas and Christmas Eve.

The question becomes an obvious one: Why not cater to kosher Jews?

There was that cherubic smile again: “Those people live in Pikesville,” he giggled. “And rabbi [mashgiach] is too expensive!”

Sonny Lee (Mathew Klickstein)

Sonny Lee, owner of Sonny Lee’s Hunan Taste (Mathew Klickstein)

A master culinary artist who specializes in delightfully crunchy Sonny Crispy Shrimp, sweet and succulent orange chicken and his mouthwatering Peking duck that bring in customers from as far as Philadelphia, Lee’s rationale for avoiding a kosher kitchen goes beyond the  financial.

“Too much trouble! And I’d have to hand over my kitchen!” he said.

“It’s very challenging,” laughed Amy Fan, who has managed the two-decade old kosher glatt Chinese restaurant David Chu’s China Bistro since 2006.

“We have to fight for fresh broccoli,” Fan erupted, when first asked about the difficulties of running a fully dedicated Star K-approved restaurant.

If the mashgiach — who Fan confirmed does not work cheap — discerns that even one head of broccoli in a case is unclean, the entire order must be discarded.It makes cooking up dishes with broccoli, a staple of many favorite Chinese entrees, both costly and sometimes impossible.

Vegetables with leaves, such as broccoli, are more prone to being tainted by bugs, Fan said, and therefore David Chu’s must on occasion find non-leafy substitutes such as snow peas and string beans.

“It doesn’t happen a lot,” Fan said. “But it’s part of the business.”

Other kosher rules David Chu’s must strictly follow include allowing no dairy (since this is a meat restaurant) and closing early on Shabbat so the mashgiach can leave for services (which means having to work harder and faster on Shabbat and similar observant holidays).

Additionally, no one is permitted to bring in outside food; this includes employees on break periods/lunches at the restaurant.

“The staff has worked here very long, so they know the rules,” Fan said, noting that “No.1 rule, though, is you can’t turn on the fire yourself.”

Yes, even the most basic element of the kitchen — turning on the heat — can only be left in the hands of the mashgiach.

Lee’s right, then: It is both costly and a lot of trouble handing over one’s kitchen to a mashgiach. So why do it?

“People need me!” Fan said. “The [Jewish] population here. They say, ‘I have a big party, Amy. I need a big party!’”

To Fan, local Jews need that hearty General Tso’s chicken and warm and moist beef lo mein that is ready and waiting when all the other restaurants are closed on Christmas in particular.

“Yeah, of course lots come on Christmas and Christmas Eve,” Fan said, approximating as many as 1,000 customers during the holiday, which the restaurant is expecting to double this year, as Chanukah and Christmas fall on the same day.

“So heavy volume, in kitchen: Everyone going to die!” chuckled the Taiwan-born, 60-year-old Steve Chu, owner of Pikesville’s Jumbo Seafood Restaurant, about the intensely busy days ahead for his staff on Christmas Eve and Christmas.

Jumbo Seafood has been around since March 1993, and in that time, according to Chu, he has seen enough of a crush over the holidays to boast: “On Christmas Eve: 98 percent Jews. On Christmas: 99 percent.”

It’s likely Chu and his staff will cook for as many as 1,300 customers this weekend.

“Wow!” Chu exclaimed. “Most crazy days of year!”

Chu has been opening up and running Chinese restaurants around the country in such locations as Virginia Beach, Dallas, and Duncan, Okla., so he’s become an expert on the “what’s” and “how’s” of customer motivations.

But the looming “why” question remains elusive to him.

“I don’t know if it’s a Jewish tradition or what,” Chu said, “but most American restaurants are closed. When they come every year as kids, they come back from school over holidays when they’re older, and then they come back when they’re adults with their own kids.”

Kelly Yang has managed the 3-decade-old Mr. Chan Asian Bistro in Pikesville for the past five years and agrees that the reason the vast majority of the 450 customers she expects to serve over Christmas and Christmas Eve are Jewish is largely a generational one.

She further mused that Chinese, like the Jews, have their own calendars and holidays, with many of the former closing down their restaurants early on the Chinese New Year normally around February in lieu of Christmas.

Lee too sees an affinity between the Jewish and Chinese people, one based on the unfortunate reality of discrimination. He recalled the anti-Semitism in this country that was especially prominent back in the ’40s and ’50s.

“Jews were welcomed in Chinese restaurants on Christmas,” he said, smiling again that this “habit” was then passed down from generation to generation, as observed by his fellow Far East food purveyors.

The value both Jews and Chinese people put on family is another similarity, Lee said, which is perhaps the clearest reason why the two come together so well during the holiday.

“Some feel we are their lost tribes!” Lee laughed. “They say, ‘Sonny, we have a lot of lost tribes. Maybe you are one!’ I think so too!”

Chanukah Sweaters are Now a Thing — And I Love Them

Launched in 2012, Geltfiend was an innovator in the Hanukkah sweater scene. (Jay Diebel/Carin Agiman/Geltfiend)

Launched in 2012, Geltfiend was an innovator in the Hanukkah sweater scene. (Jay Diebel/Carin Agiman/Geltfiend)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Ever since I moved here from Israel, every late November felt like the beginning of a month-long assault. Every store, business and doctor’s office blared Christmas songs, streets were decorated with ostentatious light shows and seemingly everything became green and red — which, as an art school grad, I found personally offensive to my design sensibilities.

Then there were the Christmas sweaters. I admit I have a love of tacky knitwear — but I couldn’t get behind these garish monstrosities that flaunted a holiday that I didn’t celebrate but couldn’t escape from.

So I was thrilled when, three years ago, I saw a friend at a holiday party wearing a cozy sweater with a familiar pattern on it — dreidels with Hebrew letters, perfectly if garishly designed. I ran across the room and accosted her. “Where did you get that sweater?!”

That was the beginning of my love affair with Chanukah knitwear. I now have about half-dozen Chanukah wearables. My favorite is a cardigan called “The Spinster,” the same one I saw at that party, with big, nostalgic corozo buttons. Yes, I have way more sweaters than I probably need, but I treasure them. They feel like my armor in the war that Christmas seems to be waging against me every time the holiday season comes around.

Since then, the Chanukah knitwear market has grown significantly. While there are fewer Chanukah sweaters than the Christmas variety — for obvious reasons —  nowadays you can find everything from cute cardigans at Target done up with hanukkiot and boxed gifts to more controversial pieces, like the borderline misogynistic one sold (and later pulled) at Nordstrom last year. There’s an abundance of cheap, cheerful Chanukah options on Etsy — heck, even Whoopi Goldberg jumped on the Chanukah sweater bandwagon this season with a cutesy, bejeweled octopus design.

The Chanukah sweater, like American-style Chanukah itself, is a custom that expanded in a “what about us?” reaction to Christmas celebrations. “Ugly Christmas sweater parties” have been a thing since the early 2000s, although it wasn’t until a decade later that Time magazine noted the trend in an article declaring that “the tops are bigger than ever, but in a very hipstery, oh-so-ironic way.”

That first Chanukah sweater I spotted was the brainchild of Carin Agiman, a graphic designer in California. In 2012, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund Geltfiend, a sweater line featuring high-quality Chanukah knitwear with smart designs.

From left: Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt star in Jonathan Levine's "The Night Before" (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

From left: Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt star in Jonathan Levine’s “The Night Before” (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

“I had spent the previous Chanukah looking for Chanukah sweaters to wear to ugly Christmas sweaters parties because I couldn’t quite stomach the idea of wearing a Christmas sweater,” Agiman told me. “I didn’t want to be that person who just waited for someone else to make the thing that I really wanted, so I took the money from my tax refund and had samples made at this factory in L.A.”

Agiman then put together a photo shoot with the sweaters called Santa’s first Chanukah, assembled a video and launched her Kickstarter campaign. She got full funding, over $20,000.

She worked with a California-based manufacturers, making sure every little detail was perfect. “You’re dealing with these huge machines, if you want the pattern to land in the right place, that takes a lot of work,” she said. Many of the sweaters were inspired by mid-century designs, and everything from the fit to the names, like “Spinmaster,” were meticulously crafted.

Agiman saw her ideal client as “Someone who cares about the quality of the things they buy and they wear,” she said. “They want something that’s clever and not so obvious, someone who is really into being Jewish and the cultural aspect of it, not necessarily religious.”

But her customers ended up being more eclectic she expected — she got quite a few orders from Orthodox Jews, and from non-Jews too. Even Matisyahu reportedly has a sweater, she said.

Agiman kept the business going for four years — three years as a side gig, and then, in 2015, as a full-time job. But despite the positive response to her designs, she couldn’t make Geltfiend a viable business.

By the end, Agiman said, “I think we sold over 5,000 sweaters, over $400,000 worth of sweaters,” yet “we barely broke even.”

“I felt proud of it,” she added. “I gave it all that I had. It felt like a good note to end things on. I’d rather do something that I love and then let it go.”

Making sweaters is a complicated business. Unlike t-shirts, which you can design and manufacture in a matter of days, knitwear is usually manufactured overseas and in big quantities. There are mandatory minimums. It’s hard to get a business off the ground. But one Jewish sweater maven managed to get it done.

A year before Agiman launched her line, Evan Mendelsohn, a lawyer, and his friend Nick Morton, an endodontist, founded a sweater company called Tipsy Elves.

“We’d always enjoyed dressing up and wearing fun holiday clothes and we realized there was no one making fun apparel,” Mendehlsohn said. So, they decided to launch their own holiday clothes company. That year, they sold 5,000 sweaters, he said.

The next year, Mendehlson quit his job. You may have guessed by the name — Tipsy Elves doesn’t just peddle Chanukah wares. It sells Christmas sweaters — lots and lots of ridiculous Christmas sweaters. But they make Chanukah sweaters, too. This season, they have about six of them. Including one that you might recognize as the one Seth Rogen wore in the film “The Night Before.”

Unlike Agiman and me — who are Chanukah purists — Mendehlsohn has a much more lighthearted approach to the holiday sweater dilemma.

“My dad is Jewish and my mom is Catholic, so I was raised doing a little bit of both,” he said.

As for Agiman — who’s still shipping leftover Geltfiend stock via Amazon — she’s kept the Chanukah spirit alive: “The food is my favorite, the sufganiyot, the latkes, the gelt!” she said. “I think I’m just really really in love with that.”

Chanukah Concerts Kick Off with Klezmer

 Charm City Klezmer performs at Creative Alliance on Dec. 29. (File Photo)

Charm City Klezmer performs at Creative Alliance on Dec. 29. (File Photo)

While Chanukah’s traditions can sometimes get lost in the chaos of the holiday season, local organizations and congregations are making sure to keep tradition front and center, starting with the music.

A number of the various area concerts will feature klezmer bands, known for playing traditional Yiddish and Jewish music derived from Eastern European folk music.

In fact, the word “klezmer” is a Yiddish compound word derived from two Hebrew words that literally mean “musical instrument.”

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky is bringing a klezmer band from New York City to town to play at Cheder Chabad on the evening of Dec. 24.

“The band [members] are Russian themselves,” he said, “and it’s cool because they are still playing traditional instruments [such as] accordion and flute. These are traditional klezmer musical instruments. The community is very excited because we have never had anything like this.”

According to Belinsky, the band will be playing songs that people might know from their grandparents, played with instruments that would have been found in a shtetl or small town.

“It will be lively during a time when everything else is closed up anyway,” he said of Christmas Eve, which shares the date with Eruv Chanukah this year. “It is the most boring night for Jews the entire year, and we want to liven that up.”

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>>While Chabad is bringing a traditional group of klezmer musicians from out of town, the Creative Alliance is partnering with Charm City Klezmer, “the best klezmer dance band in the area,” according to Josh Kohn, Creative Alliance’s performance director.

Led by husband-and-wife team Judith Geller and Michael Raitzyk, Charm City Klezmer boasts a “tradition of not-so-traditional klezmer music with roots in Jewish East European culture,” according to the event teaser.

“This is an annual event we do, partnering with Charm City Klezmer,” said Kohn. “They have been doing the event for as long as we have been in existence at our current location.”

Attendees can expect an upbeat and interactive concert on Dec. 29. Geller will teach traditional Yiddish dances to the audience, and as she teaches the basic moves, the band will play a song that the dance goes with.

“Originally, [klezmer] was dance music, not concert music,” explained Raitzyk. “It was played for simchas and weddings. This concert is a giant dance party; no one sits down. We teach Yiddish dances, Israeli dances.”

Raitzyk, a multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar, which is not traditional to klezmer, sees the event as a cultural celebration.

“It creates instant community,” he said. “All are welcome when we dance together as brothers and sisters in celebration. It renews our hope and spirit and keeps the culture alive.”

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>>An Die Musik is also hosting an annual Chanukah concert on Dec. 28 featuring the Seth Kibel Quartet, “a genre-bending klezmer band,” according to the venue’s website. Kibel was named Best World Music Instrumentalist by the Washington Area Music Association from 2003 through 2011.

Henry Wong, An Die Musik founder and owner, said that Kibel, a Baltimore native, has been performing at this annual concert for the last six years.

“People should come if they like classical music, anything like ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” said Wong. “The music brings a lot of memory and tradition. It is wonderful music and is great for Jews and non-Jews alike.”

“I hope people will come to connect,” he continued. “You have to respect the heritage being passed on. We don’t want this culture to cease to exist. People have to understand that it is a different type of holiday situation, and this music perfectly represents it. People will leave feeling happy and looking forward to the New Year. It is good to end on a high note.”

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>>For those who are seeking a less traditional holiday celebration, the Gordon Center is bringing the husband and wife team of Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff to perform with their two bands, Jewish bluegrass outfit Nefesh Mountain and the family-friendly Mama Doni Band on Dec. 24 and 25, respectively.

“The first night of Chanukah is a bluegrass concert open to families. It is more of an adult concert, truly a fusion of bluegrass and old-time music with Jewish tradition,” said Zasloff. “Bluegrass has been a love of ours for a long time, and Nefesh Mountain is the realization of our love for both Jewish culture and bluegrass music. There are all kinds of acoustic folk music. We really love that and have adopted our Jewish beliefs to fit the world of bluegrass.”

“If you already love bluegrass, you’ll love the show,” added Lindberg. “If you don’t have any experience with it, after the show you will love bluegrass. It is really exciting to be playing this huge concert with Nefesh Mountain. We are really the authority for and the pioneers for what is really true Jewish bluegrass music.”

The Mama Doni Band’s concert will be kid friendly.

“It will have dancing and exciting songs; it’s very high energy,” said Zasloff. “There are Chanukah classics as well as our own takes on some songs. People will be up and about engaging the little ones. Chanukah is such a beautiful time to be grateful for family and friendships. Music is the best way to celebrate that sometimes.”

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For more information on additional events in the local area, visit

For information on events local synagogues are hosting, visit