Cris Jacobs Celebrates New Album with Hometown Show

Cris Jacobs (Photo provided)

Cris Jacobs (Photo provided)

For the hometown album release show of the poignant, blues-tinged “Dust to Gold,” Cris Jacobs wanted to give his Baltimore fan base a different kind of show, one that would truly allow the songs to shine and the audience to take in the music in an intimate setting.

In great contrast to the bar-room and standing-room-only shows Jacobs fans are used to, the guitarist and vocalist and his band will take the stage  at the 550-seat, acoustically pristine Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills on Saturday, Nov. 5 to celebrate the Oct. 21 release of Jacobs’ second full-length album.

“I’ve seen some really great shows there over the years. … I’m very excited,” Jacobs said. “The acoustics are great in the room. I’m excited to change it up for a night and not play in a rowdy bar. People can really take in the songs and digest  it. For this particular show, I wanted something [with] a little more intimate feeling.”

Since taking over the JCC performance hall four years ago, Randi Benesch, senior managing director of arts and culture at the JCC of Greater Baltimore, has been trying to find the right fit for a Cris Jacobs show.

“The Gordon Center is a unique venue in Baltimore. There’s not a lot of medium-sized venues like this with great acoustics,” Benesch said. “This is a chance to really sit down and listen and hear his songwriting.”

Amy Helm (Photo provided)

Amy Helm (Photo provided)

Amy Helm & The Handsome Strangers — the daughter of The Band’s Levon Helm and her band — will open the show. Baltimore singer and guitarist Brooks Long, who brings an old school “rock ‘n’ soul” sound, plays an acoustic set in the venue’s lobby from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. to kick things off.

As on “Dust to Gold,” the show features Jacobs’ heavy-hitting band of John Ginty on keys, Todd Herrington on bass, Dusty Simmons on drums and Jonathan Sloane on guitar, all established musicians in their own right. Jacobs, whose band saw a rotating cast of musicians in recent years, said he looks forward to continuing to build chemistry with the same group of musicians.

“The rhythm section is super funky, but they’re also very sensitive, song-oriented players,” he said. “So it’s got a really nice soulful, Americana vibe you could say.”

On “Dust to Gold,” Jacobs moves through upbeat, head-bopping blues on “Jack the Whistle and the Hammer” and “Shine Your Weary Light” to the soulful ballad “Cold Carolina” and shows off his lap steel skills on “Bone Digger” and “Turn into Gold.”

“It’s me. It’s got all the elements. It’s got some rock ‘n’ roll, some soul, some rootsy/country/bluesy vibe, some funkiness, some psychedelic, some sweet [songs], some harder edges,” Jacobs said. “It’s me, man: your local schizophrenic musician. It’s continuing the evolution. I never really have settled on one particular genre on purpose. I love it all.”

While Jacobs is right to recognize his diversity of influences, the end result hardly comes off as schizophrenic. Rather, “Dust to Gold” is  Jacobs’ most refined effort to date, with him truly owning his space a singer-songwriter steeped in the blues and soul.

The album also chronicles a major milestone in the Jacobs’ world — the birth of his daughter on Sept. 28.

“I went into the session and pretty much found out right as we began the album that we were pregnant, so I wrote this tune, a little lullaby, to the  unborn baby,” he said. Jacobs’ wife, Kat, sings backup on the song, “Little Dreamer.”

Longtime supporters of  Jacobs have been giving the album the highest of praises since its release.

“I think it really marks further evolution of his singing, songwriting and musical abilities, and he has a great band playing with him,” said Ben Greenwald, a former chair of the board of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore who chairs the board of Believe in Music and sits on the boards of the Pearlstone Center and University of Maryland Hillel. Greenwald has been following Jacobs’ career for 15 years, since the early days of Jacobs’ previous band The Bridge, who broke up in 2011 but still play together a few times a year.

“It’s been great to see him sort of break out on his own and get the notoriety and play with all these musicians across the country who want to play with him and have recognized his abilities,” Greenwald said.

Among the musicians Jacobs has opened for in recent years are Steve Winwood, the Steve Miller Band and country and roots singer Sturgill Simpson. Jacobs is also half of the songwriting duo behind Neville Jacobs, a project that features New Orleans’ Ivan Neville, the son of Aaron Neville and leader of funk band Dumpstaphunk. Jacobs said the group is aiming to release its long-awaited debut in 2017.

“There’s some really good momentum in that camp right now,” he said. “It’s all lining up.”

At the Gordon Center, Jacobs hopes to get Helm on stage for a few tunes, especially since they have shows together in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., on the previous two nights to work up some momentum. The two struck up a musical friendship earlier this year at the festival Jam Cruise, where Jacobs played “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel To Be Free” with Helm, who hadn’t performed the song since her  father died in 2012. Inspired by Nina Simone’s 1967 version, Levon Helm recorded the song in 2009 on his “Electric Dirt” album.

Helm, who is currently preparing material for a new album and touring through mid-November, was introduced to Jacobs by Neville, who invited the two of them to join Dumpstaphunk for a cover of The Band’s “Don’t Do It” during Jam Cruise.

“Hearing Cris sing, I knew immediately that this was someone who is a powerful musician and someone I was very excited to collaborate with,” Helm said via email.

It was Jacobs who invited her to sing with him the song  popularized by Simone, which he’d been performing during his own shows.

“It was very moving, uplifting and joyful to sing that song with Cris and was one of the highlights of my Jam Cruise experience!” Helm said.

Benesch called Jacobs and Helm two of her favorite  musicians.

“Their voices are so honest and soulful, just really real,” she said, “and I thought that could be a perfect night in the Gordon.”

The Cris Jacobs Band with Amy Helm & The Handsome Strangers play at the Gordon Center, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills, on Saturday, Nov. 5. Pre-show entertainment starts at 7 p.m., and the show, which is co-presented by the Charm City Bluegrass Festival, starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $26 in advance and $31 at the door and be can be purchased at

Persistence of Vision Hometown hero Jason Michael Berman overcomes with ‘The Birth of a Nation’

Jason Michael Berman (Photo provided)

Malcolm Gladwell dedicates a rather lengthy portion of his New York Times bestselling 2013 book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” — detailing how great adversity often leads to even greater success — to the irrepressibly contrarian notion that certain learning differences, such as dyslexia, may actually make for a more robust spirit in a person living with said aberration.

“An extraordinarily high percentage of entrepreneurs are dyslexic,” Gladwell definitively writes, zeroing in on the juggernaut career of one of Hollywood’s longtime top moguls, Brian Grazer, who is dyslexic, meaning his brain struggles to interpret what it is he’s reading in a cogent way.

And as Gladwell suggests, being a special breed of entrepreneur, Grazer as producer is not alone in succeeding so wildly despite — if not, as it’s posited in Gladwell’s book — perhaps because of his unique learning difference.

“Due to this learning difference, my passion for film came very early on,” said Baltimore’s own native son and producer on the rise Jason Michael Berman about the direct connection he too sees clearly.

Having grown up in Pikesville, where he attended Beth El Congregation (which dedicated the Berman-Rubin Sanctuary in his family’s name this past September), the 34-year-old Berman launched quickly as a bright, flaming comet from one coast to the other, exploding on the scene in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of Southern California’s nationally top-ranked cinema and television program in 2006, trained at one of the most prestigious talent agencies in the world (William Morris) and after a series of selfsame Sammy Glick-esque endeavors, rose to becoming one of the “Top Ten Producers to Watch” according to no less than the industry trade publication Variety in 2011.

It was clear early on that Jason Michael Berman would be a director or producer. “He had more ideas than I could fathom,” said Jemicy School teacher Lisa Needle. (Photo provided)

It was clear early on that Jason Michael Berman would be a director or producer. “He had more ideas than I could fathom,” said Jemicy School teacher Lisa Needle. (Photo provided)

Living in Los Angeles these days, Berman has produced a prodigious procession of projects, most notably 2016’s cause célèbre Oscar contender “The Birth of a Nation.”

“What I gained from being dyslexic was that I was an overachiever,” Berman said, in line with Gladwell’s and Grazer’s own assertions that struggling with typical schoolwork leads some dyslexics toward a brambly path they must blaze on their own in discovering a singular way through that will, in the end, teach them to be more  capable of overcoming such hurdles in the extra-scholastic realm of the industrial rat race or, in this case, the unforgiving hurly-burly of Tinsel Town.

Berman’s indefatigable propensity toward cinema at a preciously young age was a  radiant projection of his “wanting to be in film because it was easier for me to express how I felt through making movies than writing.”

Whereas reading and writing might have been challenging for Berman in his early years, making and watching movies was second nature just as early on, as though he was born with a video camera in hand and viewfinders sprouting from his scopophiliac eyes.

“I’m sure he’ll love it that I’m saying this, but because he’s so persistent and has so many ideas, Jason can be …” Berman’s dance and drama instructor at Owings Mills’ specialized Jemicy School Lisa Needle said, calculating the best descriptive before spurting out through a fusillade of laughter, “exasperating.”

Jason Michael Berman, producer Benjamin Renzo, co-producer Ryan Ahrens, executive producer On set in Savannah, GA.

Jason Michael Berman, producer
Benjamin Renzo, co-producer
Ryan Ahrens, executive producer
On set in Savannah, GA. (Photo provided)

It’s actually the second time she used the word — both times in a fit of laughter at the thought — during the interview in describing what might otherwise euphemistically be called the adamantine tenacity of her former student and longtime friend.

Needle, who’s been at Jemicy for 25 years and is now the lower middle school’s art department chair, said this is “one of those weaknesses that is really a strength,” chuckling that when Berman reached out for her to speak with the JT, if she hadn’t gotten back to him, he would have kept contacting her until she finally connected.

It’s not really a joke, but merely a character trait of Berman’s that he himself sees as integral to his impressive career built on the foundation of an  almost inhuman perseverance that all but disallows him from taking “no” as an answer.

“I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to teach him,” Needle said, her laughter having subsided into the audible sound of eyes watering with pride. “Jason has changed my worldview and the way I  look at children, what they’re capable of.”

Needle went on to describe a series of telling anecdotes chronicling Berman’s blossoming at Jemicy: his constructing an elaborate crane system with his late science teacher Joe Chidester in order to film a student play (which, Needle was sure to point out, happened to star Berman’s sister); his writing a letter to Sony in aid of requesting video equipment donations that, to the surprise of many including Needle, turned out to be fruitful and helped to establish the film program Berman started; and, most revealing to Needle, the time when, while merely a second-grader, Berman essentially took over a student play involving a kind of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” journey through history a la a flying time machine.

It was, in fact, the first instance in which Needle referred to Berman, lightheartedly as  it may have been, as at times  “exasperating.”

“Every single day, this little boy I had only known for about a year came in with new ideas for the time machine and the play,” Needle said.

Left to right: Producers, Kevin Turen, Jason Michael Berman, Nate Parker, Preston L. Holmes. (Photo by Aaron L. Gilbert)

Left to right: Producers, Kevin Turen, Jason Michael Berman, Nate Parker, Preston L. Holmes. (Photo by Aaron L. Gilbert)

As jubilant as Needle was by Berman’s innovative mind and exhilarating enthusiasm, she did finally have to pull the pint-sized filmmaker-to-be aside to remind him that one day he would be a director, but on this day, she was the one in charge.

Needle recounted how at the time, Jemicy didn’t necessarily hand out grades but would instead turn in “narratives” of a sort to parents, with Needle including in hers to Berman’s mother the fact that it was clear one day the shining prodigy would be a director or producer because “he has more ideas than I could possibly fathom.”

More than 15 films later, Berman stands at the forefront of what has been a most singular experience for an independent film in this country with his latest, the period piece slave revolt drama based on the life of near mythical hero (or villain, depending on the stories you read about him) Nat Turner, “The Birth of a Nation.”

Considering the provocative nature of the film and the roller-coaster ride the course of its release has taken from its record-breaking Sundance premiere sale to Fox Searchlight to today in which the film’s former stellar reviews have taken a turn due in large part to a cloud of controversy surrounding the director and co-writer’s past, there’s no question, as Berman himself contends, his role as one of five producers on the project continues to put his ever-developing chitinous mettle to the test.

The cast and crew from “The Birth of a Nation" (Photo provided)

The cast and crew from “The Birth of a Nation” (Photo provided)

“It was definitely an arduous process and pushed my limits as a producer,” Berman said. “But we put a great team together and were inspired by [director/lead actor] Nate [Parker] as a terrific leader of 400 people. We ultimately created a powerful movie we’re all very proud of.”

Needle shares in Berman’s and his crew’s pride, which she marvels at as “this incredible thing he has accomplished, this dyslexic kid who made a work that blows me away.”

Berman would meanwhile agree with Needle’s assessment that, “I do believe without a doubt, had he not gone to Jemicy, he wouldn’t have had these opportunities. Nobody else would have said, ‘Yeah, you can be a movie producer’ when he was in second grade.”

For an online exclusive on Berman’s take on the reception to ‘The Birth of a Nation’, visit

Local Artist, Rabbi Displays Mosaics at Gallery

Rabbi Gila Ruskin of Temple Adas Shalom has been making mosaics for about 10 years, many of which are eminently displayed in various Jewish institutions in Baltimore.

It started out with her creating little crafts to give as gifts. However, after making a tray for someone’s wedding and incorporating their family heirlooms into it, an artist sitting next to her at the wedding said, “You know, that’s art. You should be making art, not just gifts for people.”

“I had never really thought of myself that way, but it really opened things up for me,” said Ruskin. “I started making mosaics based on Jewish and biblical themes and song lyrics and prayers. Sometimes I just make something to teach a concept. It completely changed the way that I was doing mosaics.”

Fast-forward and Ruskin now proudly displays a collection of work solely her own in the Hoffberger Gallery of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Most of her work uses what she calls “found objects — things you find in the thrift shop, things you find lying on the ground or things that people give you.”

“For example,” she said, “a friend of mine’s mother passed away and I ended up with some of her costume jewelry, which I began using in my pieces. It  became a way for that person to live on through the art. I started to encourage people to bring me things, anything. Now wherever I go, even at services, people will hand me bags with plates that they dropped or old jewelry or something for me to use in my work.”

“I started collecting lots of little things. I put my materials in jars, so I have a jar of fruit, a jar of moons, a jar of sea life, etc. The shelves at my house are covered with these jars filled with stuff by colors, by  category — it’s a wacky artist’s toolshed.”

All of Ruskin’s works are heavily layered before the mosaic is applied. She builds up her canvas with screening material such as wire mesh, then adds mortar to help build it up. This is how she achieves the three-dimensionality of the pieces.

Following are Ruskin’s comments about her mosaics and inspiration, particularly pieces that she made with or for specific people and organizations in mind.


book-of-lifeBook of Life
“Two years ago, I did my first project with a group of people. Everyone that came to Rosh Hashanah that year [at Adas Shalom] participated in making the Book of Life. People would come and drop some glue and some little stones and those represented their deeds in the Book of Life. I like this one because I remember the scene of everyone in the congregation putting down the glue and dropping pieces, it started completely empty, and by the time the holiday was finished, it was completely filled.”


rainbowAlternative Rainbow
“I gave this mosaic to CHANA. We all talk about the rainbow and how it  includes everyone, but there are people who feel that they aren’t included in the rainbow, so these are all alternative colors. It’s not the typical rainbow; this is magenta and gold and chartreuse and teal, all of the off colors. Throughout the piece, there are faces of people — you have to look carefully — who feel that they don’t fit in with the rest of the rainbow.”

“[The mosaic includes] a blessing you say if you see someone who looks  different. That prayer really spoke to me, so everything about this is alternative. Instead of a dove that you normally see with a rainbow,  it is this big, clunky bird. The sun is also black, and it is mirrored. If it is eye level, you can see yourself in the piece. I really wanted a mirrored look for this reason so I specially ordered the blue mirrored tiles.”


how-abundantHow Abundant Are Your Works
“One of my congregants was in Israel working on a dig and brought me some shards which made up this particular mountain in the mosaic. For this other section, I was in Sonoma and picked these up off the ground. This is based on a verse in psalms, ‘how abundant are your works,’ so I tried to include as many species as possible in it — there’s a frog, there’s a dinosaur, there’s even Road Runner from the cartoons.”

day-god-madeDay God Has Made
“I made this piece when my daughter got married. It is partially based on tnai’m, a tradition where mothers-in-law break a plate at the engagement of their children. Each of the parents brought a piece of china from their own family, we broke the four plates together, and they gave them to me, and I made this. They wanted this verse, ‘this is the day that God has made,’ also from psalms.”

simchat-torahSimchat Torah
“This Simchat Torah piece is kinetic. I just wanted to show joy and happiness through color. I tried to re-create a pink sky that I saw in Wisconsin, which was just beautiful.”

“Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh is the mosaic that I just completed. I wanted to create something just in white, so I took the verse from Isaiah where it says ‘holy, holy, holy’ and talks about the angels all flying around. There are a lot of angels all through the piece. I really just tried to capture the feeling of everything being pure and holy.” JT

“Judaic Mosaics” by Rabbi Gila Ruskin runs through Oct. 24 at the Hoffberger Gallery at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7401 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore.

‘Licensed to Ill’ Turns 30 Performers, scholars rap about hip-hop’s Jewish-American masterpiece

Y-Love (Y-Love: credit???; Beastie Boys cover: Screenshot)


The notion that one of the seminal shibboleths of the hip-hop realm was produced by three white Jewish punk rockers from the upper echelon of New York’s sybaritic elite may appear at first glance, euphemistically, disharmonious.

How curiouser and curiouser it must seem to many that the album that first launched hip-hop — a fulminating artistic expression of under-represented and (in many cases) poverty-stricken black youths in Queens and the Bronx — into mainstream pop culture was  indisputably the Beastie Boys’ “Licensed to Ill,” the first rap album to top the Billboard chart back when it burst onto the scene as the group’s debut album 30 years ago this Nov. 15.

These 30 years later, it’s nearly  impossible to avoid the influence and direct sounds of the inaugural work of these three Jewish boys, with the album’s perennial and downright ubiquitous hits “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!),” “Girls,” “No Sleep till Brooklyn” and “Brass Monkey” making it of little wonder “Licensed to Ill” went Platinum (selling 1 million copies) less than a year after its release and Diamond (selling 10 million copies) in 2015.

In celebration of this auspicious  occasion for both the hip-hop milieu overall and the group specifically, sadly now lacking one of its three core members after the premature passing of Adam “MCA” Yauch in 2012, both novitiates and longtime listeners alike can purchase a new reissue of the vinyl pressing starting Friday, Oct. 14.

In 2003, Rolling Stone named the album No. 217 on a list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” 10 years later calling it the best debut album of all time.

Among its seemingly unending litany of accolades, “Licensed to Ill”  remains the only album by a Jewish rap group to have received “5 mics”  (a perfect score) by hip-hop’s oldest periodical and gold standard The Source.

beastielicensed“I probably was an immediate fan of the Beastie Boys,” wrote Baltimore-born rapper, writer, activist and speaker  Y-Love (who is currently touring) via email. Real name Yitz Jordan, Y-Love converted to Judaism in 2000 and has since incorporated Yiddish and Hebrew lyrics into his productions.

He also happens to black, which made little difference to his affinity for “Licensed to Ill” as an inquisitive young man who “felt [he] could identify with [the Beasties] more than most other rappers, even as a kid, which may sound incongruous to hear regarding the first white major rap group.”

Although Y-Love would move to Brooklyn in 1999, his “first  encounters with Judaism would all be with the Baltimore Jewish community — from seeing a ‘Happy Passover’ commercial as a child, which piqued my curiosity about all things Jewish at age 7, attending my first Shabbat services at Johns Hopkins University at age 14, attending shuls in Park Heights in high school” and eventually “rhyming initially in yeshiva in Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem (as a way to learn better with my cavruta/study partner, an MC from Long  Island).”

Throughout this period of spiritual awakening for the burgeoning cross-cultural rapper on the international rise, Y-Love saw the video for the Beasties’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” — which has since become, for good or ill, beyond wildly successful in the commercial sense and transcended to being  anthemic for at least two generations of listeners — when he was still in elementary school “probably during the brief period when my family had cable as a kid.”

I don’t know if we can truly envision what hip-hop would be like in 2016 were it not for Jews.” — Y-Love


“I remember thinking that the people I was watching on the screen were probably the coolest people I could imagine in my young mind. … When I would go to summer camp, ‘Girls’ was pretty much a theme song — anyone who didn’t know it by the beginning of camp would have it memorized by the end by sheer osmosis.”

As “ironic” as it might be (in Y-Love’s words), one of the rapper’s first public performances was belting out his own rendition of “Girls” at his camp’s talent show along with his bunkmates.

There’s less an ironic bent here in considering the fact that, when explored more thoroughly, Jews have had an undeniably crucial role in the development of hip-hop from its earliest boom-box blasting days.

“I don’t know if we can truly envision what hip-hop would be like in 2016 were it not for Jews,” Y-Love said.

“Jews have been involved in hip-hop since the very beginning, both on stage and behind the scenes. Would Run DMC and Aerosmith have ever collaborated had [pioneering Jewish producer and co-founder of integral label Def Jam, which put out “Licensed to Ill”] Rick Rubin not brought it up? When would black hip-hop artists have debuted on MTV?”

Fervent in his understanding that “Jews of all colors have contributed at all points of all points of hip-hop history,”  Y-Love notes that “on a larger scale, Jews have been arm-in-arm with communities of color fighting for social justice for generations; given that hip-hop is such a voice of struggle and for social change for communities of color and other communities, it makes sense that such strong solidarity would also express itself mutually.”

Adam Bradley, one of the foremost scholars on hip-hop and associate professor of English at Boulder’s University of Colorado, agrees with Y-Love that the Beasties and “Licensed to Ill” in particular “inhabit this place in hip-hop that is a pivotal moment” that helped to promulgate the very real  intersection between African-Americans and Jews as “people under pressure facing challenge and oppression.”

Traveling around the country as he does as a much sought-after expert on such subjects, Bradley recently presented at a Freedom Seder that celebrated multiculturalism. It was here, Bradley said, that he really  understood that “the power of the art of the language is so central to both of these populations, and so rap seems a natural place to locate that confluence between the black and Jewish community.”

On a highly technical level, Bradley expounded upon the connection between these two cultures as represented by the intersection of rap via the art form’s “wordplay, rhetorical flourishes, chanting and love of storytelling” which he points out are all “common legacies for these groups of people.”

From this larger global perspective, as Bradley put it, “these three kids in ’86 put this album out” and yet, perhaps more “ironically” still, “wore [their Jewish] tradition very lightly, not really paying attention to it.”

Even today, Bradley reflected, many listeners see the Beasties as a “white rap group” more than they might as a “Jewish rap group.”

West Coast Jewish-Latin hip-hop artist Josh Norek concurs that the Beasties “were not perceived by the masses as a Jewish rap group [even though] all members were  assimilated Jewish Americans.”

Norek, also a co-host of  nationally-syndicated NPR show “The Latin Alternative,” said that all the members of his now more or less defunct Hip Hop Hoodios (the latter word a play on the Spanish word for “Jews,”  judíos with rap argot “hood”) were aware of the Beasties’ lack of explicit Jewish signaling in their work and media persona.

Having been a part of the only group that had a punk hip-hop Chanukah song that went into heavy rotation on MTV Latino, it’s no wonder that Norek confesses he “never related at all to white rappers” per se, such as Eminem.

Norek feels whether directly or not, there’s a kind of subconscious nod to the Jewish sensibility for humor and playfulness in the work of the Beasties, meanwhile, especially on such albums as “Licensed to Ill” where the trio were “being openly wise asses.”

This is something Norek and his own hip-hop crew could and did completely relate to and something he feels he sees less of in more standard “white rapper” fare, which he referred to as often being “more dark and extreme.”

Though Norek may not have been particularly spellbound by “Licensed to Ill” on first listen as an 11-year-old who saw the record as embodying more of a “fratrock mentality,” he does feel that one of the reasons it remains the Beasties’ bestselling album 30 years later is, in fact, “because it was a rock album too.”

Hence why he feels the  obvious question of “cultural misappropriation” here with three rich, white Jewish boys seemingly co-opting a black musical expression “from the streets” a la what has been levied in the past at, say, Elvis Presley (rock ‘n’ roll) and the Rolling Stones (the blues), is a moot one.

Norek, in fact, sees the monumental success of the Beasties at this time (and, indeed, throughout their enduring career) in “Licensed to Ill” having “a rock sensibility for a larger white audience” for whom the more arcane, underground hip-hop/rap realm may have been in those early years less accessible or palatable.

“The Beastie Boys were that group who could play [alternative rock festival] Lollapalooza but also were down with [spiritually and aesthetically crucial rap group] Tribe Called Quest,” Norek said.

Y-Love agrees that as someone whose “first musical affinities were all for rock music, starting with hard rock and moving to metal and punk rock,” he “may have gravitated toward the guitar and hardcore vocal styles of the Beasties without even knowing. And as a teenager into punk rock and radical politics, learning that BEASTIE was an acronym for Boys  Entering Anarchistic States Through Internal Excellence only solidified their position in my mind.”

“Most hardcore fans respect them because they were true to themselves and didn’t try to put up a front,” Bradley said, adding that part of the Beasties’ “broadening of that community” came from their inclusion in lyrics new references that hadn’t made it into hip-hop before such as actor Abe Vigoda and comedian-filmmaker Jerry Lewis.

“Hip-hop is about that vernacular process,” Bradley said. “Taking something inherited and making it your own, hence the idea of ‘sampling’ in the music, taking something someone else already did and making it your own through innovation.”

In a way, then, the Beasties’ and “Licensed to Ill’s” Cuisinart sampling of various (and at times ostensibly contrapuntal) aesthetics and cultures is perhaps one of their most indirect Jewish signifiers in consideration of the connection here to the same mentality of reinterpreting, melding and playfully poking fun at same in the Jewish-dominated realm of Vaudeville — in many ways the precursor to pop culture and entertainment in this country — back in the early 20th century.

Despite clarion examples of and claims about rap’s being at times homophobic, misogynistic and, indeed, anti-Semitic,  Y-Love feels that the genre is today “only becoming more inclusive, both in terms of listener demographics and in terms of content.”

“When you have the sense that rap can travel — which has to do with race and sound — it’s all tied up in its being a music for everyone and everything,” Bradley said. “The Beastie Boys, along with Rick Rubin, were really instrumental in that process.”

Chicken Soup for the Gold

A happy group of Cook-Off participants (Provided)

A happy group of Cook-Off participants (Provided)

The Jewish Museum of Maryland served up something piping hot and tasty on Sunday, Oct. 9.

In association with its immersive “Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America” exhibit exploring the intersection of medicine and Jewish tradition/culture that began in March and runs until January, the museum held the first-ever Great Chicken Soup Cook-Off in a dashing attempt at finding the very best chicken soup recipe in the state of Maryland.

Although there were a few no-shows at the final moments before samples of the various soups in competition were  ladled out to public tasters popping in to enjoy the festivities, museum executive director Marvin Pinkert reported that there were 14 contestants originally signed up to take part.

There were three categories for entries, including the six contestants who signed up to compete for the best “traditional” soup, six contestants who signed up for the best  “alternative” chicken soup recipe and two who signed up to compete for the best chicken soup recipe in a special category called “free-from,” in which chefs — all amateur, it should be pointed out — were to leave out one key ingredient from the garden variety chicken soup concoction in a bid for a kind of vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free machination.

Wearing a black tie festooned with a cartoon chicken at its base, Pinkert told the JT that it was five years ago — around the time he took on his role — that the museum presented a similar competition called GefilteFest. At that event, professional chefs (three, to be exact), were tasked with creating a uniquely branded gefilte fish, with the winner producing a gefilte fish “fried hot dog,” as Pinkert described it, using  red horseradish as a ketchup substitute.

chickensoup3_10-14-16Since that time, the museum has expanded its operating hours from 16 to 35 hours a week, and Pinkert hopes such competitions as the GefilteFest and Great Chicken Soup Cook-Off will continue into the future.

“It’s a way to bring people into the museum who wouldn’t normally come in,” Pinkert said, adding that not all of the contestants involved in the cook-off are Jewish and yet there’s a definite connection, he feels, between chicken soup as a kind of “Jewish penicillin” and the longstanding heritage of the culture itself.

There’s in fact an element of the “Beyond Chicken Soup” exhibit that specifically highlights the medicinal qualities of such soup that did at one time boast the colloquial moniker “Jewish penicillin.”

“I think it’s a great chance to share in both tradition and  innovation, celebrating food that is part of the Jewish tradition in both a culinary and medicinal way,” Pinkert said.

Adam Yosim, originally from North Carolina and in Baltimore for two years as an Emmy-nominated reporter for Fox 45, gave what he called a “Jewish twist” to Tom Kha Gai in boiling up a batch of his Tom Kha Chai for the “alternative” category of soup entries.

It may seem strange, melding traditional Thai coconut curry soup with “broth that you’d find in your grandma’s soup,” but it resulted in something Yosim referred to as “a melting pot of yumminess.”

Yosim confessed that he had originally intended on entering a “traditional” soup, but when it was relayed to him that there were already too many contestants entering that portion of the competition, he thought he’d see if he was up to the challenge of doing something a little off-kilter.

The gambit clearly worked, as Yosim would end up taking home the trophy for best soup in the “alternative” category.

chickensoup6“I love to cook,” Yosim said, noting that though he has competed in additional foodie competitions in the past — one in Kentucky, for example, in which he took home a “big chicken trophy” — the contest at the museum was for him all about fun, something he had been made aware of rather last minute by his fiancée who works for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

“Feel free to jazz up your soup with some accoutrements,” Yosim said in handing over a sample of the opalescent brew teeming with delicious-looking chunks of veggies and chicken.

Such “accoutrements” were an essential part of Marcie Cissel’s “traditional” chicken soup, which she jokingly  referred to as “minimalist.”

“You’ll need some salt and pepper,” she said, handing over her sample and chuckling that, “The recipe is shorter than the directions to make it!”

On the flip-side of such “minimalism” was Amy Fossett’s Maryland Style Chicken Soup, which was entered in the “alternative” category and which, she said, was a typical crab soup without the crab (replaced, of course, with chicken). Fossett took home the People’s Choice trophy at event’s end, a prize based on those attending who were not official judges.

Soup tastings started around 1 p.m., with docent-led tours of the Lloyd Street Synagogue and B’nai Israel taking place along with an interactive set of culinary activities at a table nearby the main proceedings and hosted by Edible Eden Baltimore Foodscapes.

Voting for best chicken soup closed at approximately 2:45 p.m., with the awards ceremony taking place shortly after.

In speaking about what it meant to be brought in as one of the judges, WTMD DJ Sam Gallant mused, “Aren’t we all experts of chicken soup?”

He said that as a longtime fan of the museum, when he first heard of the competition, he contacted the staff and asked how he could both personally and professionally become involved. He would later become not only a judge, but an award ceremony emcee.

“There’s something about chicken soup that makes me really happy,” Gallant said.

“I don’t think I was expecting to necessarily learn anything about it or be blown away by some crazy soup recipe,” he continued.

“It was more about the classics, what might remind me of bubbie’s recipe. And that’s what I was looking for: something that would make me think of my grandfather’s apartment. A certain carrot or onion that snaps me back there.”

Overall winner Betsey Kahn told the JT she had been making her Good Old Fashioned Chicken Soup “for years and years” and hadn’t expected to win.

“When my name was called, I thought, ‘That’s my name!’”

Kahn said the win felt “fabulous” and she was beaming throughout the final award ceremony. The feeling of delight was certainly contagious.

“Depending on how this goes,” Pinkert said, “we may do something like this every fall. I’m pushing for kugel next year.”

For a list of the winners and recipes, visit

Some New Twists on the Old Traditions

(David Stuck)

(David Stuck)

All family Jewish holiday dishes have a story: recipes from your mother, grandmother or aunt. The tastes and flavors of our past are what brings us into the  future. I always celebrate the traditional with a few out-of-the-box new recipes for the holidays.

Today, you can find influences of Persian, Asian and Cuban foods on holiday tables. Although meat and/or turkey are usually my entrees, it’s those side dishes that I use to surprise guests. Healthy roasted sweet potatoes can be combined with roasted apples. Add some freshly chopped rosemary, fennel, olive oil and salt and pepper.

Apples are a must, and I recommend the smallest you can get. Here’s how I serve the tiny apples. Cut off the tops and scoop out the apples. Dice the apple “meat” and season with margarine, cinnamon and sugar. Put chopped, seasoned filling back in each apple and bake until soft. After baking, generously drizzle honey over them.  Each person can have their own. Extra slices of apples can surround each plate to scrape up excess honey.

Your honey cake finale can be transformed by using chai tea in place of coffee — a unique and welcomed flavor.

A few days before your dinner, purchase a bunch of grapes, fresh kale and curly parsley to garnish serving platters. Roast the grapes by gently coating them in a plastic bag with a little olive oil and sugar.  Place on an oil-sprayed baking sheet. Bake in a 375-degree oven until they caramelize. Use as a garnish for entrees, side dishes or dessert, cold or warm.

Fish symbolizes the prosperity and knowledge that we hope will come our way in the new year. For gefilte fish, which is usually plated ahead, I like to garnish with something special. Mayonnaise can be enhanced with a variety of flavors. Try adding chipotle chili sauce or simply some lemon juice and fresh dill. “Smear” the sauce across each plate before adding your fish.

As for your chicken soup, you can add a plethora of vegetables to give it some color and zip.  Besides carrots, celery and onion, add turnips, kohlrabi, rutabaga and celeriac. I dice them very small and parboil just to soften, adding at the  beginning of soup cooking (very low simmer, of course). Now comes the best surprise. Use a spiralizer and make “carrot noodles” instead of pasta noodles as a healthier addition to chicken soup.  I parboil them and add the last 60 minutes of simmering soup.

Recently, I watched Bobby Flay make stuffed cabbage on TV.  So I adapted his ideas into my classic stuffed cabbage recipe.  I used savoy cabbage instead of regular and made much smaller rolls.  I added finely chopped pistachio nuts and raw yellow saffron rice to the meat (ground turkey or beef) mixture. In place of regular raisins, I added smaller currants to the tomato sauce. I called it Persian cabbage rolls and got thumbs up for it.

When I have eight or more guests, I always use place cards.  But this year, in order to stimulate some conversation, I will place an appropriate question inside each card for the guest to answer or discuss: ”Why apples and honey? Why round challah?” Write them according to the ages and knowledge of guests.

When the doorbell rings, get out of the kitchen and greet each guest with a big warm welcome! Wishing a good year to you all. May you share plenty of food and family together.

Ilene Spector is a local freelance writer.


2 chickens, cut into eighths, or equivalent of boneless pieces
2 onions, cut into large chunks
2 lemons
12-16 sprigs fresh oregano
8 cloves fresh garlic, thin slices
Fine sea salt, to taste (I leave it out and it is still good)
Dash of freshly ground pepper
½ cup olive oil
1 cup white wine
1½ cups Kalamata olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
½ cup Kalamata olives, whole, for garnish

> Preheat oven to 450  degrees.  Place chicken in single layers, skin side up, into two 9-by-13-inch baking pans. Add the onion chunks.  Slice the lemons in half lengthwise.  Squeeze the lemon halves over the chicken.  Cut each lemon half into 4 pieces; add to the chicken.  Set aside 4 sprigs of oregano and strip the oregano leaves from the rest.  Scatter the leaves and the stripped sprigs over the chicken. Add the garlic and season with salt and pepper.  Drizzle with the olive oil and wine. Toss the mixture together.  Sprinkle the chopped olives over the chicken.

Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the chicken is fully cooked. Transfer to platter and garnish with whole olives and reserved oregano sprigs. 8 servings.


1 very large head Savoy cabbage
2 pounds ground beef or turkey
2 small to medium onions, chopped small
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, shredded on coarse grater
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
1 cup uncooked yellow or saffron rice
½ to ¾ cup finely chopped pistachio nuts

2-4 tablespoons tomato paste
6-8 cups of your favorite simple tomato sauce, tomato juice or V8 (I like the V8)
¼ cup honey
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¼ cup small currants, optional

> Cut the core out of the cabbage, but leave it whole. Place it, with the empty core area facing up, in a large bowl. Boil a small pot of water and pour the water over the cabbage, and let it sit for 10 minutes. Or, I freeze the cabbage overnight and then defrost it in the microwave before using. Heat the oil in a very large pot. Cook the onions until they are soft, add the carrot and celery, and sautÈ them for a couple extra minutes — until they are also soft. Season the mixture with salt and pepper, transfer it to a bowl and let it cool a bit. Mix in the meat, rice and pistachio nuts, and season again with salt and pepper. Drain the head of cabbage. Pull off large leaves, and cut out the large vein; if the leaf is very large, you can make two rolls from each; if it is smaller, you can cut the vein out partially and pull the sides to overlap before you roll it into one roll. Pat the leaves dry with towels. Roll about ¼ cup of filling in each small leaf (I like them small) and arrange/carefully layer in a very large, wide pot. Combine sauce ingredients to create a sweet and sour sauce. Taste and add more honey or brown sugar for sweetness. Pour in enough sauce to cover the rolls. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat, letting them simmer, covered on the stove on very low for about 45 minutes. If sauce has thinned a bit, you can heat up any additional sauce you didn’t use and pour it over as you serve the rolls. 8-10 servings depending on size of rolls. Freezes well.


3 large eggs
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
½ fresh grated lemon rinds
⅓ cup vegetable oil
1 cup honey
1 cup warm strong chai tea
3¼ cups all-purpose flour, sifted
2½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1¼ cup flat almonds for garnish

> Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan. Place the eggs, lemon juice, lemon rind, oil, honey and coffee in a bowl of an electric mixer. Mix on low speed until well blended. In a separate bowl combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cream of tartar, sugar and cinnamon with a fork until mixed. Gradually add the flour mixture to the eggs mixture, mixing for about 5 minutes or until well blended. Pour the batter into the tube pan. Bake in the oven for 50 minutes to 1 hour or until a toothpick  inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.


Emmys 2016: The Show’s Most Jewish Moments

Director Jill Soloway and actor Jeffrey Tambor, who both won Emmy Awards for the series “Transparent,” backstage at the 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. (Steve Granitz/WireImage/GettyImages)

Director Jill Soloway and actor Jeffrey Tambor, who both won Emmy Awards for the series “Transparent,” backstage at the 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. (Steve Granitz/WireImage/GettyImages)

Put enough Jewish talent and Hollywood brass in a room and you’re bound to create some memorable Jewish sound bites — and the 2016 Emmy Awards on Sunday night were no exception to this rule. From a shout-out to New York Jews to a tribute to late Jewish stars, here are the Jewiest moments from TV’s biggest night.

Jeffrey Tambor used  Hebrew to tell the house band to shut up
In accepting his speech for best actor in a comedy series (for his role as a transgender woman in Jill Soloway’s “Transparent”), Tambor spoke about some of the social issues the groundbreaking show tackles. When the band began to play (signaling that his time was up) Tambor said “sheket bevakasha” — meaning “quiet please!” in Hebrew — so that he could say that transgender actors should be given more jobs in Hollywood.

‘Veep’ producer dedicates win to ‘chubby’ Upper West Side Jews
It might not be so surprising that David Mandel, an executive producer of “Veep,” dedicated the satirical show’s win for best comedy series to “chubby Jews from the Upper West Side or wherever you are.” Mandel was formerly a producer of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and was a writer during some of the late seasons of “Seinfeld.”

‘Game of Thrones’ creators cleaned up
The “Game of Thrones” books may be written by George R.R. Martin, but the massively successful HBO series based on the fantasy novels is spearheaded by a pair of Jews: David Benioff and Daniel “D.B.” Weiss. The pair helped make history on Sunday, as the lauded series overtook “Frasier” for the most wins in Emmys history (38). Benioff mentioned his wife Amanda Peet — who wrote a children’s book last year about a Jewish girl who feels left out on Christmas — twice in an acceptance speech.

Some legends were honored
Gene Wilder (“Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” “Young Frankenstein,” “The Frisco Kid”), Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek”), Abe Vigoda (known for his roles in “Barney Miller” and “The Godfather”) and Fyvush Finkel (a star of the Yiddish theater world and winner of a 1994 Emmy for his role in “Picket Fences”) were all mentioned in the show’s poignant “In Memoriam” segment.

A Jewish-Danish director has her day
Susanne Bier is best known for her Danish feature films, which have garnered Academy Award nominations (“In a Better World”) and spawned American remakes (“Brothers”). But on Sunday she won an Emmy for best directing for a limited series for her work on “The Night Manager,” an AMC miniseries. Bier has an interesting Jewish backstory — her father fled Germany for Denmark in 1933, where he met her mother. When Nazis began rounding up Jews there, her parents fled to Sweden in a boat. She has said her Jewish upbringing instilled in her a strong sense of family.

Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel is executive  director at the Aleph Institute-North  East Region.

Baltimore Jazz Alliance Bops into First-Ever Festival

Baltimore native Clarence Ward III will be performing. (Dubscience Photography courtesy of Baltimore Jazz Alliance)

Baltimore native Clarence Ward III will be performing. (Dubscience Photography courtesy of Baltimore Jazz Alliance)

Those who fear there’s been a dismal downbeat in the Baltimore jazz scene have something to swing about.

The Baltimore Jazz Alliance is tuning up for its family-friendly and free jazz festival, which takes the stage on Oct. 1 at Druid Hill Park. The BJA Jazz Festival is ostensibly the first local musical showcase focusing solely on what many believe to be the only American-born art form, pioneered by such luminaries as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Benny Goodman.

“Even the events that have some jazz mixed in tend to relegate it to a sideline,” said Ian Rashkin, a software developer for Johns Hopkins University who has operated as president of the BJA for the past year.

Rashkin discovered his passion for jazz by way of performing in punk rock bands as a young Northern Californian prior to his arriving in Maryland 11 years ago with his Baltimorean wife. Rashkin was disheartened by what he saw as jazz being merely “something extra” at music events he attended in his new hometown and felt, along with BJA founder Barry Glassman and longtime habitué Bob Jacobson who initially spawned the concept of the festival, that it was time to give the genre  its own full day in the local limelight.

Rashkin has also found that “there are a lot of people who are interested in jazz but simply aren’t aware of its presence in our town. Our festival is a way of presenting it to them in one big dose.”

BJA’s mission is one of “letting people know about the jazz that’s happening in the area and encouraging more of it to happen in Baltimore,” Rashkin said. “We try to support artists by having, for example,  concerts and producing CDs of local artists, along with a calendar of jazz events, our writing of articles about these artists and local venues in order to let people know more about the music in their community.”

What makes me interested in it is this feeling I get playing jazz  surrounded by all these people. Their happy faces give me this  feeling and energy that’s just right.” — Brandi Scott, Dunbar Jazz Ensemble


It was eight years ago that Rashkin joined the BJA, three of the last of which he spent as a board member before recently tackling the role of president. His dedication to the group stems from his personal interest in finding opportunities for live jazz, something that led Glassman — another area transplant — to start the organization in the first place, 12 years ago this month.

“As a new guy to Baltimore, I was surprised that the few places that put on jazz shows were always empty,” Glassman said. “I kept wondering why there weren’t more people coming out to enjoy this surprisingly good music.”

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Glassman has been retired from the finance industry for nine of those 12 years and said he has been a fan of jazz for nearly all of his 72 years on this planet. Before settling in Baltimore, Glassman spent 10 years in lower Manhattan, where there was a solid and bustling jazz scene that he found lacking in Charm City.

Glassman spent much of his working life “trying to put food on the table during the day and going to as many jazz shows at night as possible,” simply due to his love his jazz. As far as performing, Glassman said he “tried,” chuckling as he recounted bygone days of harboring fantasies about living off of his clarinet and saxophone skills that did at one time lead to an audition for mainstay Roberta Flack’s first project.

“Then I realized all those great ideas in my head will never make it to my fingers,” Glassman said. “So it was time to get a real job.”

Such terra firma fiscal concerns are largely responsible for Baltimore’s languishing jazz scene that Rashkin concedes has dwindled since the halcyon heyday of mid-century local giants Cab Calloway and Eubie Blake.

“There’s a lot of great jazz and talent here, but it’s not the moneymaking genre it used to be or that other live music can be,” Rashkin said. “Actually, live music in general is so difficult for moneymaking these days.”

Hence why, Rashkin reasoned, previous festivals failed to come together: A lack of financial interest and support meant big money problems for promoters, presenters and performers.

“Though we don’t want to lose money, our approach in the festival is to elevate the musicians and give people an opportunity to hear jazz,” Rashkin said, adding that his festival came together only after receiving support from public resources such as Baltimore’s Department of Recreation & Parks and Office of Promotion & the Arts, along with private grants and individual and corporate underwriting, fortified by grassroots crowdfunding.

“Our expectations are realistic,” Rashkin said. “Since we’re not trying to make money, it hasn’t been as daunting of a proposition to put on the festival.”

Baltimore native and professional jazz musician Clarence Ward III, 35, agrees that a star-crossed collusion of finances and preponderant ignorance of jazz has led to the current dearth of interest in jazz.

Ward will perform at the festival with his Clarence Ward III All Stars project, comprised of various world-touring musicians (such as himself) who he refers to as “top notch, ‘A-level’ performers who you’ll get to see for free. Anywhere else, these guys get paid crazy amounts just to play, and so it’s a real positive thing for the city that people will be able to come and see them and a variety of other bands for free.”

Ward sees the BJA and its forthcoming festival as a means of overcoming the hurdle of those who are either unaware of or even unwilling to give this multifaceted music a chance. The latter’s a particularly frustrating claque to Ward who compared jazz to chicken: “You can bake it, you can fry it, you can grill it, so there’s something there for everyone, just like all the different kinds of jazz.”

For Ward, a crucial element here is education and creating platforms for the different  varieties of jazz to be accessible to larger audiences. Many times, he’ll play a specific brand of jazz to those who might otherwise claim to dislike the genre before they realize, “Wait, this is jazz too? This, I like.”

“A lot of people just don’t know any better,” Ward said. “And we gotta change that.”

Ward credits jazz with all but saving his life as a young student at Lake Clifton High School who “ran into some trouble when some guys were looking for me” before his parents transferred him to Paul Laurence Dunbar High, where he was placed in a band class and handed a flute. His parents had told the school he could play … despite the fact this hadn’t been true since he’d been in third grade.

The flute quickly led to an alto sax and, courtesy the tutelage of “father figure” Charles Funn, Ward became adept at multiple woodwind and brass instruments, kick-starting what would become a successful full-time career as a musician who now specializes in the trumpet.

Funn continues to teach and inspire students at Dunbar today, including 16-year-old Brandi Scott who has been playing the trombone for three years and will perform at the BJA Jazz Festival with the Dunbar Jazz Ensemble.

“I didn’t have any idea how to play the trombone, but Mr. Funn appointed me to it and taught me really well,” Scott said. “I’d listened to jazz before, but I wasn’t as interested in it as I am now. I’m really looking forward to the festival; I’m telling everyone about it, and I want people to come and see us play!”

BJA supporter Bob Jacobson is elated that such local jazz figures as Ward and Funn are having an ameliorating effect over the growing contingent of area jazz enthusiasts.

Jacobson started the Jazz For Kids program in 2006 for this very reason, hoping to make the music genre more palatable for young people in the area. Along with the sale of beer, wine, jewelry and the running of arts-and-crafts and clothing booths at the festival, another alternative activity will be Jacobson’s own “Musical Petting Zoo,” which will grant children the opportunity to learn about various instruments that they can handle and play with, guided by an experienced assistant.

“Certainly it’s true a lot of young people might not be as interested in jazz,” Rashkin said, “but the Musical Petting Zoo should be a lot of fun for kids joining us with their families at the festival. We also have a lot of live-wire musicians performing, and they’re going to attract audiences for sure.”

At least one young person couldn’t agree more with Rashkin’s sentiment.

“What makes me interested in it,” Scott said, “is this feeling I get playing jazz surrounded by all these people. Their happy faces give me this feeling and energy that’s just right.”


The Baltimore Jazz Festival Alliance Festival is a free, family-friendly event taking place on Oct. 1 from noon to 8:30 p.m. at Druid Hill Park, 900 Druid Lake Park Drive, Baltimore. For more information, visit

To read an online exclusive about Jews and jazz, visit

Documentary’s Message Promises to Inspire at MMAE Event



Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation (MMAE) will celebrate Selichot Saturday, Sept. 24 with a special screening of the recently released film “Mekonen: The Journey of an African Jew.” Production representatives will introduce and discuss the mini-documentary that tells  of eponymous Ethiopian IDF soldier Mekonen Abebe’s homecoming as means of reconnecting with his African roots.

The free event, which is open to the public, will include a  musical Havdalah, an inspirational invocation by Rabbi  Yerachmiel Shapiro and the musical stylings of Cantor Shlomo Abramson, who comes directly from Israel specifically for MMAE’s unique, family-friendly evening gala. Abebe’s commander, Eden Adler, will speak after the film.

“Those who come will feel inspired by the accomplishments of one person who overcame great difficulty,” Shapiro said about the film that he believes will help viewers “realize that they have great potential to not sell themselves short from their life’s mission.”

There’s a terrific connection to the Holy Days in their same central message: remembering  that we should all try, no  matter what challenges come our way, to make a difference and that every day we can decide to be better people, to better our community.” — Nechama Abramson

“Mekonen” presents a spin-off of acclaimed 2014 documentary “Beneath the Helmet: From High School to Home Front,” which explores the experiences of five young Israelis graduating from high school and taking part in their compulsory military service.

“Helmet” is streaming now on Netflix and was produced by Jerusalem U — as was “Mekonen” — a nonprofit company that produces online courses and films, whose primary mission is to promote a better understanding of the complexities  affecting modern Israelis and Jews today. Jerusalem U is also responsible for 2011’s “Israel Inside: How a Small Nation Makes a Big Difference,” which aired on PBS.

Viewers of “Mekonen” are offered an individual storyline of one soldier featured in the film’s predecessor. After being introduced to 20-year-old Abebe, whose aliyah as a younger person was fraught with a number of singular tribulations, viewers travel with him through his at times conflicted but ultimately triumphant return to Ethiopia.

“Many people don’t know that a lot of Ethiopian Jews are coming to Israel,” Shapiro, who has been with his modern Orthodox congregation for the past seven years, said.

“They are told these nasty things about Israel, and the truth is the opposite,” he continued. “It’s very liberal, open to people of different sexual orientations, religions and races. This is just one example of such a story, that of a young man who left everything he knew and made it to this new country. You can’t say everything is perfect in Israel, but if you look at the society as a whole, there is an embracing of various cultures. And this film talks about that.”

Having shown “Helmet” last year, Shapiro said he trusted the judgment of Abramson’s wife, Nechama, who suggested she bring “Mekonen” with her for 2016’s Selichot. As the marketing director for Jerusalem U, the Manhattan-born Nechama (who has lived with her native husband Abramson in Israel since 2005) said her company’s goal is to inspire young Jews.

“We want to instill in them Jewish pride and a love for  Israel,” she added. “We understand that the best way to do that is by telling personal stories, harnessing the power of film to show people who are just like them: young people interested in the same things they are, who have the same value systems.”

Although Shapiro doesn’t necessarily see a direct connection between “Mekonen” and the High Holy Days per se, Nechama respectfully disagrees, illuminating that, as with that of Israel’s and the Jewish community’s overall, Abebe’s is not a simple tale.

“The film shows how he woke up every morning to make his day better; it shows the people who helped him go to high school and become part of the army,” Nechama said.

“There’s a terrific connection to the Holy Days in their same central message: remembering that we should all try, no matter what challenges come our way, to make a difference and that every day we can  decide to be better people, to better our community.”

MMAE Brotherhood’s outgoing president Vito Simone, who has been a member of the congregation for seven years and still  assists with promoting events  there, noted that Abebe’s story  “connects with the experiences of our shul.”

Simone pointed out that MMAE has, for example, raised money to send winter fleeces and hats to soldiers in Israel. A number of MMAE members were themselves IDF soldiers, one member has a daughter who just finished her service, and Simone has a son who was an IDF paratrooper for three years.

He referred to his as “a very active, social shul. Very down to earth and easy for people to blend in and participate.”

MMAE’s rather “warm and haimish” informal sensibility, as Simone puts it, is one reason for their bringing in Abramson as Selichot cantor for the past five years.

Simone praised Abramson’s “unique voice, which carries a special meaning for all of our congregants. There was an  instant connection as soon as everyone met him. I don’t know how to explain it. Even though they may be half a world away, his wife and he are very connected to our shul.”

Shapiro revealed that while going through audition tapes of potential cantors, he was immediately struck by Abramson’s “spectacular” voice.

“It’s not a pure, traditional cantorial voice,” Shapiro clarified. “[Abramson] blends the traditional cantor’s voice with a ‘pop-Israeli’ sound. He plays guitar, he sings from the soul. He gets everyone singing together.”

Simone too is delighted by Abramson’s modern melding of traditional Jewish music, davening and prayers with Beatles songs and other pop favorites.

“This helps bridge the gap between older congregants and younger ones,” Simone said. “It always makes for a very welcoming service.”

Selichot and the screening of “Mekonen: The Journey of an African Jew” take place the evening of Saturday, Sept. 24, starting at 9, with services led by Cantor Shlomo Abramson starting at 10:30, at MMAE, 7000 Rockland Hills Drive, Baltimore. Light refreshments to follow.  For more information, visit

Gordon Center Season Features Collaborations, Programs for All

Cris Jacobs (provided)

Cris Jacobs (provided)

A world-class venue calls for a world-class lineup, and the 2016-17 season at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts does not disappoint.

This season’s mix of dance, music, spoken word, film and family programming from local, regional, national and  international performers means there’s something for everyone at the Owings Mills venue.

“We’re continuing to listen to our audience to hear what they want to see, [and we’re] bringing back some of our  favorites,” said Randi Benesch, senior managing director of arts and culture at the JCC. “As a true community center, we’re trying to find something for all ages and all interests.”

In live music offerings, the Gordon hosts the second year of chamber music series chamber encounters, with two shows in the Gordon Center with  audience members sitting on stage with the artists and two shows in the intimate Performa. The first concert is on Sept. 20.

Opera singer Carolyn Black-Sotir returns to the Gordon on Oct. 30 to perform “Richard Rodgers and His Sounds  of Music” with American Music Theater Artists, Concert Artists of Baltimore and the Greenspring Valley Orchestra.

Baltimore native guitarist and singer Cris Jacobs holds a CD release party for his forthcoming album, “Dust to Gold,” on Nov. 5. The Cris Jacobs Band will perform along with Amy Helm & The Handsome Strangers.

“I love the room, and I’ve  always wanted to play there. I just wanted it to be the right show, and I’m very excited,”  Jacobs said. “The acoustics are great in the room. I’m excited to change it up for a night and not play in a loud, rowdy bar. People can really take in the songs and digest [them]. For this particular show, I want something with a little more intimate feeling.”

He also expects there to be some sit-ins with Helm, as the two struck up a friendship on the Jam Cruise Festival, and the artists will be performing in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., the previous two nights.

The Gordon’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on Jan. 15 features the first collaborative performance between the Maccabeats and Naturally 7, whose music video of James Taylor’s “Shed A Little Light” went viral. Each group will perform a set and then perform the Taylor song together for the first time.

“It will be a really powerful, spiritual, cross-cultural celebration of freedom,” Benesch said.

This season also features the first “Steppin’ at the Junction,” a new collaboration between old-time band Charm City Junction and the Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble.

In the family-friendly realm of music, The Mama Doni Band performs a “Chanukah Fever” concert on Dec. 25, the first day of Chanukah.

“We’ll get everybody up and dancing, it’ll be a lot of fun,” Doni Zasloff aka Mama Doni said. “For me, [Chanukah] is just about miracles really. … Life is filled with miracles, and sometimes the smallest moments in life can really be the big miracles. Miracles really come in all shapes and sizes.”

Zasloff, who grew up in Rockville, Md., and Eric Lindberg, her husband and musical partner, perform the night before with their Jewish bluegrass band Nefesh Mountain.

“We sort of accidentally started writing Jewish prayers and songs in a bluegrass style,” Zasloff said on the formation of that project.

Other family events include magician The Amazing Max and children’s music superstar Mister G.

For moms, the Gordon Center partnered with The Ivy Bookshop for Mom’s Night Out with author Nicole Feliciano, who will be premiering her new book “Mom Boss: Balancing Entrepreneurship, Kids & Success.” Feliciano will be joined by four other moms who are authors, bloggers and entrepreneurs.

Another new event for the venue is Israel Story LIVE! on Nov. 7. The evening, which Ira Glass calls “the Israeli ‘This American Life,’” uses a blend of live storytelling and mixed media to tell stories of Israelis from all over the country.

February, dance month, features Philadanco, a Philadelphia-based company that blends African-American, ballet, jazz and modern dance.  In  addition to the group’s performance on Feb. 25, performers will be part of a weeklong residency in which they’ll teach more than 500 students in  activities at Towson University and in Baltimore County Public Schools.

The month also features the Baltimore Dance Invitational, in which 10 area companies are selected to perform one original piece.

The season also marks the 29th annual Jewish Film Festival. In addition to the 10 film screenings at the Gordon Center,  Benesch said the organization is working with other regional venues to expand the festival’s reach beyond the Owings Mills venue.

“We’re excited to get it out in the community and expose people to Jewish and Israeli films throughout the city,” she said.

Off stage, the Gordon Center and the JCC offer a wide range of visual arts and performing arts education. A new children’s choir is forming as well.

Nina Rosenzwog, co-chair of the JCC Arts and Culture Council, said she thinks the Gordon Center has the right combination of professionals and lay leaders as well as community input, which has allowed them to put together such a noteworthy season.

“We feel we’ve gotten the word out to new and different people in the community, and we’re going to continue along that path,” she said. “It’s important to me to have people in the community feel that they can make a difference and be involved, and there’s room at the table for everybody. We’re there.”