On Stage but Out of the Spotlight Puppeteers debut at Creative Alliance, honor an icon

Anna Fitzgerald and her cast of five perform “Reverse Cascade.” (Photo Adam Lobelson)

Anna Fitzgerald and her cast of five perform “Reverse Cascade.” (Photo Adam Lobelson)

Anna Fitzgerald, 31, likes to tell stories, but she doesn’t need paper and pen; she uses two pieces of cloth, a ball and several cast members who are good with their hands.

Fitzgerald is a puppeteer and director of “Reverse Cascade,” an upcoming show at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson on Feb. 18. The Baltimore native has been interested in theater arts since high school.

“I like to say [puppeteering] is using objects to tell a story,” said Fitzgerald. “Sometimes [the] object looks like the object, and sometimes the object is created to look like a creature.”

The performance, named after a common juggling trick, is based on the true story of Judy Finelli, a world-class juggler and performer whose career was shaken when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“Judy was instrumental in the new circus movement, where things like Cirque du Soleil came from,” said Fitzgerald, who studied with Finelli at the Clown Conservatory in San Francisco. “All of a sudden, she started dropping [juggling] clubs and couldn’t figure out [why].”

Finelli wasn’t diagnosed until her 30s and eventually lost the use of her arms and legs. Fitzgerald decided to tell Finelli’s story through puppetry. She began the project while pursuing her graduate degree in puppet arts at the University of Connecticut.

“The fact that there is no dialogue really adds to the piece,” said Moira Horowitz, one of Fitzgerald’s five cast members. “It allows people to take away from it what they [will], and it makes it a more personal experience.”

Fitzgerald added that the piece will be performed internationally for the first time in Izmir, Turkey, home to the International Puppet Days Festival. With no dependence upon dialogue, Fitzgerald can cross language barriers while telling Finelli’s story.

Horowitz, 31, grew up in Pennsylvania and attended Goucher College. She met Fitzgerald through an online request for people interested in puppetry. Although she was already involved in theater arts, puppetry was new to her, and she wanted to experiment.

“I like the idea of bringing life into objects that are not what they appear to be,” said Horowitz.

Sarah Nolen, 29, another member of Fitzgerald’s cast, echoed Horowitz’s sentiment about bringing objects to life. For her, the appeal of puppetry is about performing without being in the spotlight.

“[Puppeteers] are a very humble bunch,” said Nolen. “We all share a sense of empathy and community with each other because we know the show isn’t about us.”

Horowitz joked that the puppetry community can be very “manipulative and controlling.”

Nolen, who is from Texas, became interested in puppetry at an early age and filmed her first puppet shows because performing in person intimidated her. She leans toward filmmaking and puppetry because they allow her to tell a story without being the center of attention.

“It’s very interesting to think about [how] people view puppetry,” said Nolen. “Because it’s always a surprise that it is not just for kids anymore.”

Horowitz added, “[Puppetry is] an art form that has been done for thousands of years. I think most people don’t realize that it is just another form of theater.

 

‘Reverse Cascade’
at Creative Alliance at the Patterson
3134 Eastern Ave. Baltimore

Feb. 18 at 8 p.m.
$15, $12 for members and $3 at the door

For more information, call 410-276-1651 or visit creativealliance.org/events/2015/reverse-cascade

 

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

A ‘Finished Project’ Leading violinist to play Towson professor’s concerto

Left: Gil Shaham (photo by Luke Ratray) Jonathan Leshnoff (photo by Erica Hamilton)

Left: Gil Shaham (photo by Luke Ratray)
Right: Jonathan Leshnoff (photo by Erica Hamilton)

Jonathan Leshnoff is a man of many hats. He’s a musician, teacher and composer. But on Feb. 14, he’s going to be an audience member watching one of the world’s best violinists play his concerto.

Grammy Award-winning violinist Gil Shaham, called “the leading American violinist of his generation” by Time magazine, will perform Leshnoff’s “Chamber Concerto for Violin and Orchestra,” along with other works, with the Knights, an orchestral collective, as part of the Shriver Hall Concert Series “Born in Baltimore.” The special project is in celebration of its 50th anniversary season, featuring three new commissioned works from composers with strong ties to the city.

“Everyone knows Gil Shaham,” said Leshnoff, 42, from New Jersey and based in Baltimore. “To work with him is such a pleasure; he’s a fantastic guy and wonderful player.

Leshnoff initially met Shaham in Baltimore several years ago; he saw him standing backstage listening to one of Leshnoff’s pieces.

“He said [the piece] was really cool, so I followed up and said, ‘Great! I’ll write you a piece,’” said Leshnoff. Later, Shaham performed their Yiddish suite in New York and Washington, D.C.

“I have many wonderful memories from my performances at [Shriver] and always enjoy sharing music with the fantastic audience,” said Shaham in a written statement. “It is an honor to be part of the 50th anniversary season and to celebrate the great Shriver Hall legacy.”

The commissioned piece was inspired by Leshnoff’s spiritual heritage and is a part of a 10-piece collection that is driven by spiritual concepts, he said. The first movement of the concerto is slow and pensive, and the second movement is fast, lively and spirited.

“This piece focuses on the spiritual concept that is associated with the [Hebrew] letter Hay; that concept is malchus,” said Leshnoff. “The spiritual concept is the ‘finished project.’ The malchus is the final house without anyone living in it, full of potential, but people have to do something with it.”

Leshnoff added the first movement “is extremely bare, extremely open and spacious [when] looking at the notes on the page.”

“What is dependent on making the music happen is the heart that Gil and the orchestra will put in,” said Leshnoff. “Suddenly, that ‘house’ will come to life, and that’s the deeper spiritual movement I’m trying to portray.”

Shaham said he’s excited to perform it and described Leshnoff’s compositions as “deeply spiritual and uplifting.”

“Jonathan has such a great musical mind … and I cannot wait for the performance with the Knights, a group I have long admired,” said Shaham in a written statement. “I feel lucky to join their tour and am grateful that they agreed to play on my upcoming album. It is always a thrill to participate in music making at that highest level.”

The Shriver Concert is just one of Leshnoff’s premieres this year. A clarinet concerto, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, and an oratorio called “Zohar,” commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, both premiere in April. The oratorio, co-commissioned by the ASO and Carnegie Hall, will be performed in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage later that month.

In addition to being a composer, Leshnoff works at Towson University teaching orchestration, contemporary music and music theory. When asked about his advice for young musicians, his wisdom was concise.

“Follow your inner voice,” said Leshnoff. “Because that’s what got you into this, and that’s what will pull you through, and that’s where you will end up.”

Shriver Hall Concert Series
105 Shriver Hall
3400 N. Charles St., Baltimore

Feb. 14, 5:30 p.m.

Tickets $42 (Students $21)
For more information, call 410-516-7164 or visit shriverconcerts.org/Shaham

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

Peacemaker Comes to the Gordon Center Achinoam Nini brings multicultural sounds to Owings Mills on Feb. 6

noa

Achinoam “Noa” Nini (Photo by Roberto Marziali)

She’s performed for three popes, collaborated with Stevie Wonder, Sting, Pat Metheny and Quincy Jones and is a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. But Achinoam Nini, known as Noa, doesn’t let it get to her head or forget why she does what she does.

“All I need to do is remember why I am doing all this: to serve the God of music, not myself,” she said via email. “To bring joy and meaning to people’s lives, hearts and minds. To make the world a better place.”

The Yemenite/Israeli/American singer brings her eclectic jazz sounds to the Gordon Center for Performing Arts on Saturday, Feb. 6.

To understand all the cultural influences she incorporates into her music, one needs to look at Noa’s journey. She was born in Israel but moved to New York City with her family at age 2. She returned to Israel in her late teens, served in the army, studied at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music and began her career.

“It gave me the chance to be exposed to an enormous amount of culture, from my Yemenite grandmother who raised us and her songs, to Hebrew songs my parents loved, the wild abundance in N.Y., ranging from opera to Broadway, jazz and progressive, to my own process of leaving home and learning to live on my own at a young age,” she said.

And then, of course, there are the intangible aspects of the music.

“I dig deep into the roots of childhood, tradition, poetry and literature and a variety of other inspiring places. I also spend a lot of time observing the world around me and trying to reveal new perspectives and unveil hidden secrets of the human soul,” she said. “I try to capsulize ideas and emotions, contracting as I write and expanding as I perform.”

In addition to being an entertainer, wife and mother of three, Noa, 46, dedicates a lot of her time and music to being a peace activist. While she had performed for the cause of peace throughout her career, one performance and the horrible aftermath gave her reason to truly dedicate herself to the cause. She sang at a peace rally in Tel Aviv on Nov. 4, 1995 to support Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Rabin would be assassinated while leaving that rally.

“I was devastated. That very night, I decided that if this great man could pay with his life for peace, for humanity, for values, for the future of our children, I too would pay a price,” Noa says in a soon-to-be released TED Talk. “I would act, I would speak out, I would carry this torch forward stubbornly, fearlessly.”

While that meant death threats and canceled concerts, it also landed her gigs at the White House and the World Economic Forum as well as knighthood in Italy among a long list of honors.

Noa supports a long list of progressive, pro-peace causes, including many that bring Arabs and Jews together.

“I believe with all of my heart that only the people and their ability to communicate, to learn about each other, to listen to each other, to understand each other’s humanity, to mitigate fear and share hopes and dreams, to recognize each other’s humanity, can bring change,” she said.

Of course Noa’s messages would need a powerful musical vessel, which is where longtime collaborator, musical partner and guitarist Gil Dor comes in.

“A friend once called us a two-headed monster. I usually come up with the ideas, I write lyrics and music, normally a cappella, then Gil and I work out all the details together, harmonizing, adding parts, arranging and producing,” she said. “We do it all together, with a lot of resonance and sometimes telepathy. We also argue a lot, but it is always done with respect and love. We are lucky to have found each other!”

Noa performs at Gordon Center Saturday, Feb. 6 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $36 or $72 for VIP and available at jcc.org/event/noa-achinoam-nini.

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Sticking It to Israel Taking Maryland’s quintessential sport to the Holy Land

Jules Jacobs (center) poses for a photo with Israeli players at a lacrosse clinic in Netanya. (SportPic)

Jules Jacobs (center) poses for a photo with Israeli players at a lacrosse clinic in Netanya. (SportPic)

Could soccer-crazy Israelis fall in love with lacrosse?

After spending winter break touring the country on a service trip with the Israel national team, Jules Jacobs is convinced that the sport with indigenous roots in the Native American Iroquois people is primed to take off in the Holy Land.

“The kids are embracing it. The communities are embracing it. It’s great for everyone, and it’s really becoming something that I think Israel is really going to adopt fast,” said Jacobs, 17, a junior at Wootton High School in Rockville and the only Marylander on the trip.

Jacobs, son of former Washington Jewish Week editor-in-chief and current Jewish Women International executive Meredith Jacobs, said the Israeli kids would “light up” when the lacrosse players showed up. Clinics were held in Netanya, Ashkelon and Haifa.

The Israeli national team is headquartered in Ashkelon. The southern coastal city is a sister city of lacrosse-hotbed Baltimore. Charm City is an  official partner of Team Israel lacrosse.

Scott Neiss founded the Israel Lacrosse Association — the official governing body of lacrosse in  Israel — in 2010. The executive director and Oceanside, N.Y., native got the idea for Israel Lacrosse while on a Birthright Israel trip and founded Israel Lacrosse soon after. The Israel Lacrosse Association is a  member of the Federation of International Lacrosse and the European Lacrosse Federation.

Jacobs was struck by the passion Israeli children have for the sport of lacrosse despite facing at times adverse conditions in the volatile Middle East. One child they were teaching recounted a time when he was practicing and Iron Dome shot down a rocket over the field.

“He hid under some benches and the Iron Dome just blew up this rocket that was going on above him and debris fell — and he just went and continued playing lacrosse,” Jacobs said. “This is life for them, and they don’t have the luxury  of having nice fields or having these places that  they can really feel safe. So, lacrosse is an outlet  for them to really express themselves and to  develop as people.”

At the conclusion of the service trip, Jacobs, who plays long-stick midi and close defense, participated in tryouts for the men’s national U-19 Israel lacrosse team that will play this summer at the World Championships in Coquitlam, British  Columbia, Canada.

Non-Israeli Jews are eligible to play on the Israeli national team because lacrosse is such a new sport there. But Jacobs is confident that lacrosse will continue making inroads into Israeli society and that one day the roster will be fully Israeli.

“We’re going to see a rallying around lacrosse in the future because it’s something that Israelis are so good at, and it’s something that will become  ingrained into the culture,” said Jacobs. “Give it 20 years — lacrosse is going to be everywhere. Every kid is going to be holding a stick. Every kid’s going to be out there practicing on the wall. I really think it’s just a matter of time.”

jmarks@midatlanticmedia.com

‘Calm and Simple’ Morocco’s seaside Essaouira blends old, new

A lone walker crosses a field near the ramparts. (Photo by Ben G. Frank)

A lone walker crosses a field near the ramparts. (Photo by Ben G. Frank)

If when you think of Morocco, you conjure up Bob Hope and Bing Crosby crossing the desert on the hump of a camel, a few words of advice: You don’t have to ride that way in this large country whose land area is about 173,000 square miles and is characterized by a rugged mountainous interior and swaths of desert.

There’s another part of Morocco: Its coastal area, which is certainly well worth a visit. Indeed, Morocco is one of only three nations (with Spain and France) to have both Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines.

And it’s the seashore where I headed on my other road to Morocco.

Ah, Essaouira, Morocco’s most relaxed seaside resort town.

“A northeast wind, a cloudless sky, a glowing sun,” that’s what a British consul wrote about Essaouira a hundred years ago. His description of this Moroccan city, formerly called Mogador, a Berber word meaning “safe anchorage,” is still valid.

This white-walled port city on the Atlantic coast has captured the hearts of tourists. Midway between Safi and Agadir, it once was occupied by the Phoenicians and then Carthaginians.

The city of Essaouira has an interesting Jewish past. Still here in Essaouira are the tombs of famous rabbis. There were Jewish families that dominated Moroccan trade.

Known for travelers wandering along its picturesque walls, Essaouria is thought to be derived from the Arabic word for “ramparts” but translates as “little image.” The walls give the city its charm, as well as the blue and white medina, a “sweet retreat.”

Essaouira remains exotic. It is quiet and calming without the rush of the major cities, and it’s somewhat off the beaten track. Its market is not old and overcrowded with visitors, and its passageways are wider than in other markets.

I relaxed while walking the seashore and seeing the fishermen mending their nets.

I sat in one of the cafes on the Place Mouley Hassan and watched the world go by. I later dined on delicious grilled fish caught fresh that morning for lunch or dinner. I had walked with my guide to stalls and watched as he carefully examined each fish, choosing the best one to be grilled for our meal.

Here, the sky is blue or is it azure; the contrast is amazing, appealingly against the white buildings and sand-colored fortifications. Seagulls are continuously wheeling overhead, their cries occasionally silenced by the muezzin’s call.

Essaouira remains a difficult place to leave because it has more open spaces and wider streets than most cities in Morocco. A travel writer wrote in 1900 that it is the best planned and cleanest town in the empire, “and in consequence, it stands high as a health resort.” Still true today.

In 1760, Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah, founded the city and named the fortified port Essaouira to be a rival to Agadir.

Interestingly, the Encyclopedia Britannica says “a colony of Moroccan Jews was installed to extend commerce.” Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah chose 10 of the important families and conferred upon them the title of “Merchant of the King.” They received luxury housing and were entrusted with missions to the European courts. For a century and a half, they dominated Moroccan trade. The privileged personalities became the nucleus of a dynamic community which lasted until just after World War II and gave the town a distinctly Jewish character, says the Encyclopedia Judaica, noting that everyone rested on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.

But back in 1808, it was decided to confine the Jews within a mellah, a Jewish quarter. From then on, the only exceptions were families of the above-mentioned “Merchants of the King,” and some businessmen of European origin. The mellah became overcrowded with new arrivals, and during the 19th century, the Jewish population grew from 4,000 to 14,000.

Under the 1912 French protectorate, the city lost some of its economic importance and only a small community of 5,000 Jews remained. Many left in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1970, most of its former Jewish citizens lived in Europe, America and Israel; only a few hundred Jews continued to live in Essaouira.

The medina (old city) here is smaller, hassle-free and is considered the cleanest in the country. It is a good place to shop.

Joseph Sebag operates a fine book store known as Galerie AIDA, 2 Rue de la Skala. I bought Paul Bowles’ book, “The Sheltering Sky,” from him.

Located in the city is a large international community, but very few Jews actually live here.

Still here in Essaouira are the tombs of famous rabbis.

Synagogue Rabbi Haim Pinto at 9 Impasse Tafilalet, Essaouira, has been preserved as a historic site of Rabbi Pinto (1748-1845) who was born into a distinguished rabbinic family in Essaouira, then called Mogador. He became the leading rabbi in the city. On the anniversary of his death (26 Elul, 5605 in the Hebrew calendar, just before Rosh Hashanah), large numbers of Moroccan Jews come from all over the world to pray at his tomb in the large, older Jewish cemetery here. Rabbi Pinto is remembered as a man whose prayers were received in heaven in such a way that miracles resulted.

Physically, the city has expanded to meet the demands of a growing tourist industry. Twenty years ago, there were perhaps six hotels in the city; today, the figure is about 200.

As I strolled around this city which has an interesting Jewish past, I realized that unlike Jews in neighboring Algeria, Jews have never completely departed from Morocco. On the contrary, there is still much nostalgia for the days when Moroccan Jews lived in what some call a “Golden Age” —when Jewish and Muslim children played side by side, when, in some cases, in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was an easy life, slow, calm and simple.

Ben G. Frank, a travel writer and lecturer on Jewish communities around the world, is the author of the recently published “Klara’s Journey,” “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” and other Jewish travel guides.

Curly’s Mojo Local artist’s work now included in coloring books for adults craze

Coloring2

Howard Greenberg and Joe Shansky teamed up their creative efforts to create Curly’s Mojo Amazing Stuff, a line of adult’s and children’s coloring books featuring Greenberg’s artwork and Shansky’s writing and design. (Photo provided)

Howard Greenberg (aka Curly) and Joe Shansky (aka Mo), both 70, met when they were about 13 years old as they battered a ball for hours against a concrete wall, playing paddleball (similar to handball) in a Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood playground. They became fast friends and remained paddleball partners for nearly a decade, playing every summer at Sheep’s Head Bay beach. They’ve remained close friends ever since.

Now Greenberg and Shansky are partners again, this time as creators of Curly’s Mojo, a line of coloring books for adults and children featuring the hypnotic pen-and-ink abstract doodle designs and realist images by Greenberg, an artist and photographer, with stories and book design by Shansky, a writer and graphic designer.

The idea came when Shansky, after writing about the adult coloring book craze for a regional magazine, remembered the “55 years’ worth of doodles taking up space in [Greenberg’s] closet,” he recalled. He approached his longtime friend and said, “Howie, let’s do something with them; there’s a phenomenon just starting.”

Greenberg said he began doodling as a teen “when I watched TV and then during school a lot. … I could pay attention better, I don’t know why.” He added, with a big laugh during a recent phone interview, “I’m doodling right now as I’m talking to you. I like to keep busy.” The doodles are actually intricate drawings, and he’s collected them over the years.

“They’re very intense; they’re very detailed,” Shansky said of his pal’s artwork, “They’re impressive drawings. He’s really got an obsessive-compulsive kind of process going on.”

Greenberg, a Baltimore resident since 1968 and a member of Beth Israel Congregation, prefers to draw with a ballpoint ink pen on paper, because there’s no erasing and you must incorporate “mistakes” into your drawings. This, Greenberg said, is good practice because it echoes real life — he likens it to learning how to roll with the punches and go with the flow. He’s an accomplished artist and has exhibited his work regionally.

Shansky remembered the “55 years’ worth of doodles taking up space in [Greenberg’s] closet” and approached his longtime friend: “Howie, let’s do something with them, there’s a phenomenon just starting.”
— Joe Shansky

Their first book, “Coloring Book and Stress Reliever for Adults of All Temperaments,” and a second, titled “When the Circus Came to Curlyville, a coloring storybook for children of all ages,” are available at the American Visionary Art Museum gift shop, Barrington Books in Rhode Island, where Shanksy lives, and online at Amazon.com and CurlysMojo.com. They’re hoping to get them into other venues such as hospital gift shops.

Becky Kuhn, a librarian at the Baltimore County Public Library Towson branch, sees the evidence of what coloring can provide for adults.

“I think it’ relaxing for people, it gives them [focused quiet] time,” Kuhn said. “They just like to relax and feel like doing what they want” during Creative Coloring for Adults, the hour-long session offered at the library. “Staying in lines is not the issue. [It’s about] being with other people; it’s relaxing, there’s no pressure at all.”

It was in October that Kuhn suggested offering the informal gathering that happens twice a month at Towson, and soon after, five other branches picked up on the popularity of the activity, including the Pikesville branch, where they receive a lot of calls asking about it.

“We play soft music” during the hour, Kuhn said. “We have pictures that we’ve printed out [from copyright-free sites] that they can choose to color, and we provide pencils and crayons,” but people are free to bring their own supplies as well.

She added that some of the branches host a family-oriented coloring event, but Towson’s is for adults only. Attendees have included university students, professors and adults of all ages, from 30s up to seniors. Class size varies from week to week and ranges from about 12 to 20 participants. The gathering is free of charge, and there is no registration required.

Both Greenberg, who retired in 2007 after 39 years of teaching art in public schools, at camps, with youth groups and with Vietnam veterans, and Shansky, who retired from a long career in commercial graphic design creating branding and logos for large companies and teaching as well, said working on the books has given them a renewed focus and energy. They find the process of collaborating and creation “a real ego boost,” especially because “people are really taking to the effort,” Shanksy said.

Greenberg and Shansky already have more books in the works, one called “Confessions, Recipes and Regrets of a Coloring Addict,” a weight-loss book of sorts with real recipes featuring foods Greenberg didn’t eat because he kept busy doodling while watching TV to avoid snacking; another is a sequel to the circus book called “Under the Big Top,” and they plan to create an illustrated animal alphabet book. They may even attempt a Hebrew Aleph Bet version, Greenberg said. Shansky added that they hope to use some of the abstract designs to create a line of material goods such as pillows, ties and scarves.

“I’m really pleased to be able to do this with him,” said Shansky of his pal Greenberg. “We’re both really enjoying doing this venture. If it’s a financial success it would be gravy and whipped cream on the cake. But we’re doing it for the fun of it and for people who feel likewise.”

mgerr@midatlanticmedia.com

Gospel Prince Comes to the Gordon Joshua Nelson draws on his black and Jewish heritages to create a hybrid style

Joshua Nelson and his Kosher Gospel Singers will perform with the Bethel AME Church Choir at the Gordon Center on Sunday. Provided

Joshua Nelson and his Kosher Gospel Singers will perform with the Bethel AME Church Choir at the Gordon Center on Sunday. Provided

Joshua Nelson is going to take the people to church at the Gordon Center on Sunday, but the Jews in the audience will feel right at home.

The Prince of Kosher Gospel, as he is known, fuses American gospel music with lyrics rooted in Judaism to create what he calls “kosher gospel.”

“Overcoming was not a destination. It was a journey,” Nelson said, “and kosher gospel music explains the journey and the commonality of Judaism and African culture and how they have so much in common.”

Nelson, an African-American Jew, draws on his heritages to break down the musical barriers and creates an electrifying upbeat music.

Sunday is his second annual tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. at the Gordon Center. He will be joined by his band, the Kosher Gospel Singers and Baltimore’s Bethel AME Church Choir.

“Last year was such a beautiful cross-cultural spiritual celebration — high energy, people dancing in the aisles,” said Randi Benesch, the Gordon Center’s managing director.

“Joshua Nelson just brings so much spirit and energy and passion, and it just filled the auditorium. People were literally hand-in-hand dancing through the aisles. It’s never happened at the Gordon Center, and I just decided we néed to make this an annual tradition.”

Nelson, whose family goes back to Senegal and West Africa, grew up going to an Ethiopian synagogue. The Newark, N.J., native started going to a Reform congregation, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, at the age of 12. He would teach Hebrew school there for 15 years, and it was during those years he’d come up with the sound of kosher gospel.

“The kosher gospel developed from the children,” Nelson said. “I began writing songs from the prayers but with a different sound. … The music we were using there, it didn’t resonate with them, so I created more music and made it fun and made the classes more interactive.”

Nelson discovered gospel at the age of 8 when he found an album by Mahalia Jackson, “The Queen of Gospel,” in his grandparents’ record collection. He would make a name for himself playing gospel in his teens and early 20s, but his experience living in Israel for two years had a big impact on his identity, and his music.

He went to Israel at age 17, celebrated his 18th birthday and lived on a kibbutz for two years. While living in the Jewish state, he noticed how much Israelis appreciated cultures outside of their own.

“When you’re in a country where they’re all Jews, people love to hear the gospel music, and they don’t mind to hear Jesus and Mohammed, and when you’re in a Jewish country eating Jewish food, you’re looking for anything that isn’t Jewish,” he said. “As a Jew, I learned to respect my blackness, and I learned to respect African-American-Jewish traditions and black tradition. I learned a lot from that Israeli point of view.”

Nelson draws parallels between nigunim, Jewish religious songs with vocalized sounds instead of words, and moans and groans of African slave songs that were the precursors to gospel.

“Nigunim are songs without words … moans and groans and chants and la la la’s — they’re melodies without lyrics, and that’s exactly what the singers did when they came over from Africa,” Nelson said. “You’re dealing with the pain through the natural spiritual currents in moaning and groaning. … And it wasn’t just African. Kosher gospel music is to bring that out on the surface.”

At the Gordon Center, Nelson said concertgoers are going to hear all the sounds, cultures and history he brings into his music.

“They’re going to get that eternal flame on the 17th, just a burst energy,” he said. “But not just coming from me, it’s coming from them.”

mshapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Genies, Jews and Web Magic BT alumnus breaking into film industry

Members of the cast and crew from “Josh Has a Genie” pose for a photo before running a scene. Top row (from left): Dylan Margolis, Diane Smith, Zak Ferentz and Mike Brash. Bottom row (from left): Evan Margolis, Kelsey Lake, Josh Margolis and Adam Cohen. (Provided)

Members of the cast and crew from “Josh Has a Genie” pose for a photo
before running a scene. Top row (from left): Dylan Margolis, Diane Smith, Zak Ferentz and Mike Brash. Bottom row (from left): Evan Margolis, Kelsey Lake,
Josh Margolis and Adam Cohen. (Provided)

Fans of Disney’s “Aladdin” know the limits of a genie’s power when granting wishes: no killing, no bringing people back from the dead and no forcing anyone to fall in love with anyone else. But what happens when the love is between genie and master?

That’s the situation Josh, a depressed 20-something, faces when a spunky genie, Kelsey, enters his life in “Josh Has a Genie.” The Web series, directed by Baltimore native Evan Margolis, was released on YouTube in May and is picking up traction at film festivals.

“Working in the television and film industry, it’s difficult to get your foot in the door,” said Margolis, 25. “We’re very lucky to have the Internet as a way to put out material. It’s a great way for young, independent artists to get their work out there.”

But Margolis, a Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School alumnus, decided to bring some friendly faces along for the ride; the cast and crew comprises more than 10 other alumni of the school.

“Evan is a dear friend, and one of my great early acting memories was [with him as a] freshman in high school,” said Matthew Jeffers, who plays Kelsey’s boss — yes, genies have bosses too — William J. Robins.

Jeffers recalled one of his first major roles in high school in “Lend Me a Tenor,” when he went to Margolis worried that he wouldn’t be able to memorize all of his lines.

“Evan just really calmly said, ‘We got this’ and shrugged it off. That’s something I’ll always remember,” said Jeffers.

He added his performance in that play was one of his best.

Margolis said he feels lucky to have Jeffers on board, and the decision ended up being a good one. Jeffers was nominated for best supporting actor at the Brooklyn Web Festival. Kelsey Lake, who plays Kelsey the genie, was runner-up for best leading actress at the Atlanta Independent Film Festival.

Lake described her character as a “spunky, excited genie” whose first assignment, which she pestered her boss for, wasn’t what she expected.

“Kelsey envisioned a hunky, beautiful dude,” said Lake. “Josh is not that. She learns a lot about what is important, and they get to be pretty close even though they don’t get along at first.”

Although Kelsey’s boss, whom she calls Mr. Robins, is an experienced genie, Jeffers describes his character as “deeply human.” He said Mr. Robins wears a clown face and has a flamboyant, bombastic attitude, but “behind closed doors he has a very dark past that he still deals with and carries the weight from.”

Jeffers said the last episode was his favorite, albeit not for the reasons some might think.

“We filmed it mid-January and I wore a paper thin outfit while walking down an alley in downtown Baltimore,” said Jeffers. “It was absolutely frigid.”

Jeffers explained that he enjoyed running around with friends in an effort to stay warm.

Lake also said the last episode was her favorite because of a scene that required cramming three people and a camera in a small closet. While the last episode arguably leaves the most questions for viewers, Margolis explained it was intentionally vague.

He said the team is weighing all of its options before proceeding with Season 2.

“We’re trying to make sure our decisions are career-oriented,” said Margolis. “We’d love to make a Season 2, but we need to feel strongly about it financially.”

Margolis explained many decisions were made around the team’s budget and what was realistic for them to achieve. But being low-budget didn’t stop them from walking away with some valuable experience.

“It’s awesome to have a group of friends you can do projects like this with and you know everyone is here as a learning experience,” said Lake.

The series ended up being a learning experience in more ways than one. Joining the crew as the production designer was BT theater director Dianne Smith, who taught many of the cast members when they were in middle and high school.

“I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve worked with them even after high school,” said Smith. “To watch them grow as performers gives me the greatest satisfaction.”

The theater veteran of more than three decades even learned a thing or two herself. Smith said this was the first time she had worked on a movie set. Although she was on the set every day of production, Smith said it wasn’t until she saw the final product that she realized how far her students had come since high school.

“I never would have watched a Web series before Evan asked me to do this,” said Smith. “I went to YouTube and watched a few. I would put this one up against any one of those.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

‘Pearls on a String’ Islamic works reflect a world of diversity at the Walters

The Walters Art Museum associate curator for Islamic and South Asian art, Amy Landau, is drawn in by a good story and knows that visitors are too.

So for “Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts,” Landau designed three distinct segments for the exhibition, each one focused on the work, achievements and public acts of an individual — a writer/historian, an artist and a patron — to create an access point for visitors and help make the 16th- and 17th-century Mughal, Safavid and Ottoman empires come to life. Set against the backdrop of  “a world quickly changing through global movement of people, ideas and technology,” the exhibition documents and suggests, through artistic discipline, what is possible to achieve in a diverse society rich in religious and cultural traditions.

More than 120 works make up the exhibition and include paintings, calligraphy, textiles, ceramics and jeweled luxury objects created throughout the 16th to18th centuries in historic India (which included today’s Pakistan), Iran and Turkey.

“Pearls on a string is a metaphor found in Persian, Turkish and Arabic that refers to particulars within collections,” Landau said, citing words strung together that make a poem or people joined together that create a community as examples.

“Through different media, [the three featured individuals] actualize their ambitions, which had a dramatic impact on the visual arts,” said Landau, whose interest in the Jews of Iran in the 17th century led her to a master’s degree in Hebrew and Jewish studies from New York University and a Ph.D. in Islamic art from Oxford University. “Yes, they were visionaries, they were geniuses, but they could not have achieved their goals without a community of people.”

The first section of the exhibition is focused on the work of writer Abu’l Fazl (1551–1602) who is described as “sensitive and awkward, sometimes argumentative” with an “extraordinary education and a passionate sense of right and wrong.” One of his major life accomplishments was a biography of Emperor Akbar in 16th-century Mughal India (today India and Pakistan), called the “Akbarnama,” detailing the events and people of Akbar’s court.

The biography includes intimate details of an emperor who was known for establishing “universal peace among the religious communities of Mughal India,” which included Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Jains and Zoroastrians.

Illuminated pages from the biography cover the walls, rich with intricate details and vibrant colors. Teams of calligraphers, papermakers and painters were involved in the creation of each page — using opaque watercolor, inks and gold on paper or cloth — and replicas of the tools and materials used are on also on display, such as reed pens, stone burnishers and pigments derived from plants and minerals.

The work of painter Muhammad Zaman (circa 1650–1700) and his followers comprise the next section. Zaman, based in Isfahan, then capital of Persia, introduced the revolutionary painting technique farangi-sazi (Persian for European style). Farangi-sazi blends Persian artistic traditions with European iconography, and Zaman did this by using techniques not yet adopted by his in-country peers such as perspective and chiaroscuro — the use of contrasting light and shadow. Comparing the styles side by side (possible to do so in the exhibition), it is evident why his innovative approach was considered so groundbreaking.

Zaman’s works and those that emulated his style fill the space and seem to be representative of the evolution of this part of world at the time. The artists used different styles, materials and themes, and even the subjects’ clothing is reflective of the diverse population, which included Persian and Central Asian Muslims, Georgians, Armenians, Circassians, Jews and Zoroastrians. Later, during the 17th century, there was an influx of Europeans as well, as many artists, travelers and merchants gravitated toward the city.

The last section, dedicated to the life of Sultan Mahmud I (1696–1754), a patron of the arts and known for bringing peace to the Ottoman Empire, had a propensity toward “cleverly engineered objects,” Landau said. “He was fixated with bejeweled objects and those that could fit within one another.”

Case in point is Mahmud’s jaw-dropping jeweled gun, encrusted with hundreds of diamonds, emeralds and rubies and hiding a dagger and set of writing instruments that fit neatly into the gun’s design. (A video near the case demonstrates the removal and replacement of all the pieces.)

The collection is representative of Mahmud’s vast knowledge of and appreciation for art and architecture and his love of luxury goods — remarkable even by royal standards — as well as his influence in the creation and purchase of such goods.

The cases are filled with ornate cup and saucer sets, teapots, exquisite pocket watches, gold-encased and enamel-encased snuff boxes, silver and jewel pen boxes and many more beautifully designed firearms and writing instruments.

With more than 100 pieces and many with intricate detail that begs closer study, “Pearls on a String” visitors may be best served by choosing a few pieces in each section to examine closely and make multiple visits (admission is free).

Landau, who considers her role at the Walters “a dream position” since she arrived just over six years ago to catalogue its Islamic manuscripts collection, said she sees the role of a cultural institution as one that can help promote empathy and compassion in humanity by showcasing art that is representative of different worlds and views.

“Compassion could be just the willingness to hear someone else’s view point, just the ability to engage in what other people are saying,” Landau said. “I would like the visitor to take away that the Islamic world is not monolithic. There is a diversity of viewpoints. My hope is that people draw lessons from history. … These three [stories] are about human beings living in the Islamic world who were engaged with other intellectual, philosophical aesthetic traditions, and if people want to draw on those histories, that’s fantastic.”

 

‘Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets
at the Great Islamic Courts’

Through Jan. 31

Walters Art Museum
600 N. Charles St.

For more information: thewalters.org; 410-547-9000

 

mgerr@midatlanticmedia.com

Soul Searching Child prodigy catalyzes unsettling Israeli drama

(Kino Lorber Inc.)

(Kino Lorber Inc.)

Under the influence of consumerism, militarism and the pace of the modern world, the People of the Book have  little use for poetry.

That’s one reading — and the most obvious and simplistic — of “The Kindergarten Teacher,” Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s unsettling saga of an adult’s missteps when presented with a preternaturally talented child. The film’s primary focus, however, is the vulnerability of children and the competing impulses to nurture, shape, protect and exploit them.

Shot in pastels and silhouettes and employing a minimum of carefully placed music, “The Kindergarten Teacher” paints a deceptively placid surface. The titular character, Nira (the excellent Sarit Larry), is a wife, teacher and would-be poet who  appears to be utterly reserved and self-contained.

When she discovers that one of her 5-year-old charges, Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), casually utters exceptional poems, Nira takes on the mission of shepherding his presumably sensitive soul around the landmines of a society  indifferent (or worse) to his gifts and art form.

A mesmerizing and worthy follow-up to Lapid’s remarkable but little-seen 2011 debut, “Policeman,” “The Kindergarten Teacher” is now available on DVD following its brief U.S.  theatrical run.

We gradually come to suspect that Yoav is not as introspective, innocent or interested in art with a capital A as his would-be mentor imagines. Consequently, we start to question Nira’s ability to understand and supervise children.

Sarit Larry and Avi Shnaidman star in this disturbing,  yet rewarding film. (Kino Lorber Inc. )

Sarit Larry and Avi Shnaidman star in this disturbing, yet rewarding film. (Kino Lorber Inc. )

That’s the moment when we feel the chill of foreboding and realize (with the title guiding us) that the film isn’t about the crucial immediate future of a pint-sized prodigy but rather a woman who has discovered a misguided sense of purpose. Bored witless after years on the job  surrounded by pre-adolescents — and a similar tenure with her unchallenging husband — Nira is calmly in the throes of a midlife crisis.

Like a good poem, “The Kindergarten Teacher” invites interpretation and discussion. For example, the film’s disparaging references to the  elevation of pop culture over high culture could conceivably be read  as reflecting Nira’s perception and frustration rather than as the filmmaker’s comment on Israeli society.

Perhaps, although Nira’s husband’s remark that only stupid and poor people pursue military careers these days takes on another shade of meaning if you recall that Yonathan  Netanyahu, the prime minister’s brother and the only Israeli casualty of the Entebbe hostage rescue in 1976, was a poet as well as a beloved officer.

Consequently, although “The Kindergarten Teacher” could take place anywhere — that’s partly what makes it such a disturbing and  rewarding film — one needn’t be a prodigy to recognize it as a meditation on the state of Israel’s soul.